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2 October 2023updated 04 Oct 2023 6:17pm

Anne Boleyn’s blunders

A new history shows how the clever, ambitious queen was no match for the post-truth politics of Henry VIII’s court.

By Rowan Williams

Our appetite for the Tudors seems insatiable. Year after year, a steady stream of novels, plays, films, historical soaps, popular histories and not-so-popular histories recycles the fact and the gossip of the English courts of the 16th century. Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy and its excellent television and stage adaptations have provided many with an accelerated education in early 16th-century history. Faced with a new book on Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, it is hard not to wonder whether yet another contribution to this cottage industry is really necessary. But – apart from the very high quality of the archival research represented here – this book justifies its existence by showing how the over-abundant anecdotal material that fuels popular recreations of Henry VIII’s reign can divert our attention from the background realities of European politics – the multi-dimensional dynastic game of snakes and ladders that shaped inter-state relations in the 16th century.

Most readers will know that Henry’s obsessive campaign for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon was driven by Katherine’s failure to bear a son. Most will also remember that this campaign met its most serious setback when Katherine’s nephew, the Emperor Charles V, found himself from 1527 in a position to block any positive response from the Pope to Henry’s pleadings.

But it is clear that Anne Boleyn herself was not simply a stray femme fatale. Her father was a minor Norfolk gentleman who was making a name for himself as a competent European diplomat, and by the time Henry had fallen in love with her (somewhere around 1525), Anne had spent at least a decade of her early life as a maid of honour at two important European courts. Beginning in the household of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Low Countries on behalf of the young Emperor Charles, she was transferred to the entourage of Queen Claude in France. Anne had been part of two lively, intellectually edgy, highly cultivated networks, with a formidably intelligent and independent woman at the heart of each. She was keenly aware that the possibilities of a woman exercising serious political power were more extensive than the younger daughter of a second-rank English gentry family might otherwise have guessed.

In Hunting the Falcon, the historians John Guy and Julia Fox trace the diplomatic threads of the story with skill. When Henry VIII came to the throne, England was not a great European power. Whatever fantasies Henry might have entertained about imitating Henry V and uniting the English and French crowns, realism dictated that England’s future lay in negotiating the best position within a European nest of alliances. That meant working out how to position the country in relation to the weightiest European players, France and the Holy Roman empire. The first 15 years of Henry’s long reign (1509-1547) were dominated by a bewildering carousel of alliances and betrayals, efforts to position England as a broker and convener in French-Imperial conflicts, and calculations about how to play the influence of the Papacy into these intricate rivalries. Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s impressively resourceful first minister, occupied a key position in all this, intermittently diverting Henry’s more ludicrous military ambitions towards the goal of securing a durable place at the European table for the English kingdom.

Wolsey was charged with obtaining a papal declaration invalidating Henry’s first marriage and the frustration of these plans wrecked Wolsey’s career. Henry was already used to attributing any failure to get his way to the personal malice or treachery of his associates. Into the void created by Wolsey’s fall, two figures emerged to shape the kingdom’s future. One was Wolsey’s brilliant and ruthless junior colleague, Thomas Cromwell; the other was Anne Boleyn, by this time the object of Henry’s passion. Both, as it happened, were strongly sympathetic to the cause of religious reform. Anne had been reading “advanced” religious books in French; and the Pope’s uncooperative attitude to Henry’s remarriage plans did nothing to cement her loyalty to the authority of the Roman Church. But she also represented the possibility of an Anglo-French rapprochement and an alliance against the empire.

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[See also: Myths of the miners’ strike]

Part of the story that Guy and Fox tell is about how Anne rapidly became a diplomatic liability rather than an asset. The humiliating spectacle of the divorce proceedings in the early 1530s, culminating in the hasty cobbling-together of an independent English ecclesiastical court to do what the King wanted (with the consequent rejection of the Pope’s jurisdiction), did not inspire confidence abroad. In late 1535 a French diplomatic mission to England made it clear that Anne was an embarrassment and that any hopes of an Anglo-French entente cordiale, based on resistance to the Pope and recognition of Henry’s marriage to Anne (and of Elizabeth, the daughter Anne had borne to Henry), were pure fantasy. And Cromwell, meanwhile, had recognised that English mercantile interests dictated a mending of fences with the empire rather than the futile courtship of a French leadership only interested in instrumentalising England in their continental ambitions.

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Anne had already failed to provide a male heir. Her independence, and even eccentricity, were visibly grating more and more on Henry’s nerves (typically, he muttered to his intimates about having been bewitched); and vague rumours about the flirtatious atmosphere of Anne’s circle at court did her no favours. In the spring of 1536 she seems to have prompted her chaplain, John Skip, to deliver a sermon attacking the misuse of the huge funds being released by the destruction of the monasteries – a wholly justifiable complaint, as resources that had been widely expected to support educational and charitable projects were systematically diverted into the denuded royal coffers and the pockets of ambitious aristocrats. Guy and Fox rightly point to Anne’s strong support for a parliamentary bill aimed at reinforcing civic welfare schemes and poor relief, which had been carefully emasculated by Cromwell. And when Skip spoke about the biblical Queen Esther who had intervened with her royal husband to overturn the malign policies of an evil counsellor, there was not much doubt about the allusion.

Anne had already made an enemy of Cromwell. When, not long after this recklessly provocative sermon, the King decided to move against Anne, Cromwell produced, with astonishing efficiency and rapidity, the charge sheet that sealed Anne’s fate. She was accused of repeated acts of adultery and of incest with her brother. If anyone imagines that a post-truth culture is a solely 21st-century phenomenon, or that Stalin invented show trials pivoting on completely manufactured evidence, the appalling story of the trials of Anne and the group of young men supposed to be her lovers will prove otherwise. Cromwell’s breathtaking subversions of due legal process are nakedly displayed in this episode (and of course they created the precedents that guaranteed his own death a few years later).

The Queen complained bitterly that no one stood by her. But Guy and Fox make it very clear that for all her intellectual gifts she had a startling lack of political intelligence. She had never built up a network of politically weighty allies, and seems to have relied on her individual force and charm to get her way. She was never popular among either the population at large or the ruling elite, for whom she remained an ambitious outsider – a Wallis Simpson or Meghan Markle, stylish, exotic, and menacing.

[See also: How England lost the Hundred Years War]

The one voice raised in her defence was that of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Guy and Fox, like some other historians, are a bit dismissive of Cranmer’s letter to the King in which he says that he had always had complete trust in Anne and that he is sure that only the most secure evidence could have persuaded Henry of her treasons. It is not exactly a clarion call, but it is certainly the most he could have done. Perhaps it is best read as a very heavily coded challenge: the evidence against Anne had better be more convincing than what has been produced so far.

 We know – from the recollections of a Scottish reformer, Alexander Ales – that Cranmer believed in Anne’s innocence and was in tears on the morning of her execution (a story rather surprisingly omitted by Guy and Fox). And the judgement of his ecclesiastical court posthumously annulling Henry’s marriage to Anne is curiously perfunctory and non-specific. It has been suggested the court took into consideration the deeply embarrassing fact that Henry was the lover of Anne’s older sister Mary before his affair with her, and that Cranmer was not prepared to pretend there were any other, more substantial grounds for the annulment.

Whatever may be the truth of this, Anne’s story is a poignant one. She is not an easy figure to like (Hilary Mantel, like her hero, Thomas Cromwell, was clearly not charmed by her). Her vindictiveness towards Katherine of Aragon and her daughter, the future Queen Mary, is disagreeably prominent in many recollections; and the frequent and well-attested outbursts of uncontrollable and inappropriate laughter suggest a person in a state of constant nervous tension. The erotically charged climate of her court of aristocratic male admirers, alternately wooed and brutally snubbed, makes an unsettling picture.

But we also get a sense of a courageous and intelligent woman out of her depth in the maelstrom created by the collusion of Henry’s chaotic and murderous ego and a greedy, servile elite. Guy and Fox do Anne the courtesy of taking her seriously as a political agent – even if a disastrously unsuccessful one. It is, however, straining things a bit to imply, as the authors do, that she is some sort of proto-feminist figure: if there is a feminist hero in this grim story, it is really Katherine, stubbornly refusing to accept her demotion in the name of masculine dynastic power games, and insisting on the right to her own narrative.

Hunting the Falcon is a serious and compelling study. The style wobbles a bit between workmanlike clarity and a slightly television-documentary breeziness (“This knocked Henry for six”), with some early excursions into something dangerously like psychobabble (on Henry’s following of his father’s example as a ruler – “It was by soaking up all these introjects that [Henry] learned to govern”). But this improves as the book gets fully into its stride. It is a genuinely useful addition to the abundant literature about a period when the rule of law was more violently abused than at any other period in English history; and it vividly evokes a governing class organised around a dominant psychotic personality. And neither of these things is of narrowly academic or purely historic interest.

Hunting the Falcon: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the Marriage that Shook Europe
John Guy and Julia Fox
Bloomsbury, 624pp, £30

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[See also: Requiem for a world war]

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power