Wednesday 30 March 2011

Fatal Delusions: A review of the new biography of Anne Boleyn

"Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions" (Yale University Press, 2010)
By Professor G.W. Bernard (University of Southampton)
Reviewed by Gareth Russell

According to most of her contemporaries, Anne Boleyn was a young woman of many talents. As well as being articulate, well-read and trilingual, she was also, at least according to William Thomas, clerk of the privy council, ‘a woman endued with as many outward good qualities in playing on instruments, singing and such other courtly graces as few women of her time’. Yet Anne’s most enduring and most important talent was also her most indefinable. Anne Boleyn had a unique and, frustratingly for the historian, unquantifiable talent for provoking obsession. In life, it generated an attraction which first propelled her onto the throne and then, as the subtitle of this biography makes clear, onto the scaffold. In death, it has helped her become an icon of sustained popular fascination. And it is this talent of Anne’s, if no other, which George Bernard is prepared to acknowledge in his new book Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions. Contrary to most studies of her life, it is Bernard’s contention that although Anne Boleyn was undeniably highly attractive in terms of her appearance, there was nothing about her personality, intellect, interests or accomplishments which marked her out as being particularly exceptional, except for the fact that Henry VIII happened, inexplicably, to fall so violently and obsessively in love with her.

This, Bernard’s first foray into the biographical genre (Bernard is a professor of English History at the University of Southampton and his best-known previous work was The King's Reformation) will, of course, always be best known for the fact that it is thus far the only biography of Anne Boleyn to seriously suggest that she might have been guilty of at least some of the charges for which she and five men were executed in May 1536. Yet although five of Fatal Attractions’ twelve chapters are devoted to expounding this controversial hypothesis, there are other aspects of Boleyn’s life and career which Bernard studies and in three other key areas, he offers a potentially valid revisionist interpretation of a woman who was described by one of her other recent academic biographers as ‘the most important and influential queen consort this country has ever had.’

The strongest sections of Fatal Attractions are the ones in which Bernard draws on the works of his academic peers. His treatment of Anne’s youth, aristocratic background and education in the Low Countries and France, relies heavily on the work of Hugh Paget and Eric Ives. Coming to Boleyn’s early adulthood, Bernard convincingly dismisses, on chronological grounds, David Starkey’s recent attempt to resurrect the romantic legend that it was Henry VIII who intervened to break-off her early betrothal to Henry Percy, later sixth earl of Northumberland, because he had already developed a strong romantic interest in her himself. Interestingly, given his later assessment of her sexual morals, Bernard seems prepared to accept the arguments put forward by Retha Warnicke, Eric Ives and, much longer ago, C.S. Lewis, that the famous poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder concerning Anne most probably points to an unreciprocated infatuation on Wyatt’s part. 

Bernard is constantly querying whether Anne was the shrewdly manipulative political operator of Eustace Chapuys’s diatribes or of later, more sympathetic, histories. In examining her early political career, Bernard offers a convincing portrait of Anne’s relationship with Cardinal Wolsey in which he rejects Ives and Starkey’s version which see Anne as the key agent, first in orchestrating Wolsey’s downfall in 1529 and then in subsequently preventing any possibility of restoration throughout 1530. Bernard’s more compelling version of events admittedly owes much to the research of Wolsey’s most recent biographer, Peter Gwyn, but Bernard goes further and analyses the surviving letters and gifts exchanged between the two throughout 1528 to paint a relatively convincing portrait of the premier and queen-to-be enjoying an amicable, even friendly, relationship. He also credibly manages to rehabilitate a rather touching anecdote from contemporary diplomatic dispatches in which Anne is recorded as visited the ailing cardinal, after his dismissal, to convey her regret that his health was in such a poor state. 

As with most of his assessments of Boleyn’s political involvements, however, Bernard’s critique of her relationship with Wolsey is persuasive in its origins, but not in its conclusions. In attempting to show that Henry was the sole architect of Wolsey’s disgrace, the author incredibly dismisses as irrelevant even Wolsey’s own fears in 1530 about ‘the displeasure of my Lady Anne’. That Anne and Wolsey may have enjoyed a warm working relationship prior to the fiasco at Blackfriars and that she may, as Bernard convincingly suggests, have felt personal sympathy for the cardinal during his final illness, does not negate the fact George Cavendish, Inigo de Mendoza, Eustace Chapuys, Jean du Bellay, Thomas Cromwell, Francis Bryan and Wolsey himself all stated, quite unequivocally, that Anne was disappointed and angered by the cardinal’s failure to secure an annulment of Katherine of Aragon's marriage from Rome. Bernard, who is determined to show that Anne’s political influence over the course of the “Great Matter” was, from start to finish, minimal, thus simply disregards the very same sources which he earlier relied upon to construct a believable dynamic between Anne and the cardinal she is often credited with destroying. 

The same problem – that of a strong start and weak finish – bedevils Fatal Attractions discussion of Anne Boleyn’s religious faith. Bernard stridently rejects the position taken by David Starkey and Maria Dowling, who see Anne’s sense of Christianity as practically Lutheran. However, he also goes further in dismissing the more moderate portrait of her spirituality rendered by Eric Ives and James P. Carley, who describe Anne’s faith as reformist Catholic, with a strongly evangelical flavour. In rejecting Ives’ interpretation of Anne’s faith as being progressive, personal and political, and seeing it instead as quintessentially nothing more than traditional late medieval Catholicism jazzed up with some radically chic accessories, Bernard critiques (with mixed levels of success) the long list of episcopal, university and parish level appointments which Boleyn is supposed to have been responsible for and which, according to Ives and Dowling, allegedly show her to have been deliberately exerting a strong influence on the theological character of the emergent Church of England. Bernard also justifiably queries why so much attention has been paid to the books Anne purchased, rather than the sermons she commanded to be preached, some of which show a much more conservative theological bent than the books she so famously ordered from France and the Netherlands and which form a crucial part of the arguments put forward by Ives, Dowling and Carley in painting Anne as religiously radical. By examining what Anne herself said, a technique which he unfortunately does not seem to deem useful elsewhere in the biography, Bernard is able to persuasively argue that there was a lot more which was traditional and orthodox in Boleyn’s faith than the image of a proto-protestant offered in many alternative histories. He is one of the few academics to correctly assess her rejection of a gift of Lambertus’s Farrago rerum theologicarum from the Cambridge academic, Tristram Revell, in 1536, because it rubbished transubstantiation and Bernard’s arguments that Anne’s own conversations and letters reveal that she believed strongly in the miracle of the mass, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the existence of purgatory and the efficacy of good deeds, pilgrimage and almsgiving, are convincing. However, his casual dismissal of the Protestant hagiographies of her life, such as those famously written by her one-time chaplain, William Latymer, who knew her and whose work undoubtedly formed the inspiration for the portrait of her rendered in Foxe's Book of Martyrs, means that he produces a portrait of Anne’s spirituality which, if not exactly incorrect, is certainly incomplete. Anne’s Catholicism does not necessarily mean that she was either indifferent or irrelevant to the English Reformation and it certainly does not mean that she had no interest in the proto-protestant philosophies of the late 1520s. Indeed, her rejection of Revell’s work, which Bernard wisely cites as proof of Anne’s conservatism, shows that she was quite capable of making an informed decision on what works of theology she chose to patronise and her knowledge of Lambertus’s position on Transubstantiation indicates that she was well educated in the theological debates of her era, rather than being the spiritual dilettante suggested by Bernard.

As has been mentioned the most controversial of Bernard’s argument is that Anne Boleyn was very probably guilty of the crimes for which she was executed in the early summer of 1536. He dismisses the charges of incest against her and her brother, Lord Rochford, as being the least probable of the five, but concludes by saying: ‘it remains my hunch that Anne had indeed committed adultery with Norris, probably with Smeaton, possibly with Weston….’ But the key problem with Bernard’s argument is that he is fighting against one of the central orthodoxies of modern Tudor historiography – namely that Anne Boleyn was innocent. That does not mean, of course, that central orthodoxies should not be challenged, particularly by gifted academics. However, as the book progresses, it becomes more and more clear that in this case, Bernard is not so much leading a crusade as tilting against windmills. Whether one sees Anne's downfall as the work of a masterful political coup, orchestrated by her one-time ally, Thomas Cromwell, which is the position of Anne’s most respected modern biographer, Eric Ives; that she was destroyed after miscarrying a defective foetus in 1536, as controversially argued by Retha Warnicke in 1989, or agrees with the more prosaic and more tragic explanation put forward by Henry VIII’s biographers, J.J. Scarisbrick, and later Derek Wilson, that Anne Boleyn  was quite simply hounded to death when Henry’s obsessive love had turned into an obsessive hatred, through no fault of her own, then the general consensus today is that the queen was innocent. In defence of this argument, the aforementioned historians (along with many others) have rigorously assessed the errors in the indictments against her, in which Anne or her alleged lover were often miles away from the stated location of their trysts. Ives in particular also went through the transcripts of Anne’s conversations during her imprisonment with a much finer forensic toothcomb than Bernard, as well as lending far less credence to gossipy sources like The Spanish Chronicle.

In contrast to others’ exhaustive use of sources cited in defence of their arguments concerning Anne’s downfall, Bernard relies almost entirely on one poem written about Anne’s downfall by Lancelot de Carles, the bishop of Riez and a French diplomat stationed in London in 1536. De Carles was an eyewitness to the queen’s trial and execution, but author and subject never met. Regardless, Bernard cites the bishop’s rather lurid descriptions of Anne selecting her lovers as being reflective of the queen’s actual behaviour during her three-year marriage to Henry VIII. He then rather lamely argues that the errors in the prosecution’s case regarding the dates and locations of the queen’s crimes might have the result of scribal error; an argument which rather loses its power to convince when one considers that there were eighteen such alleged oversights in the indictments. He fails to engage with the question that if Anne was guilty of adultery with some of the men, then why was it necessary to add the others? He ignores entirely the evidence of other people involved in her trial, some of whom, like Sir John Aleyn, who is unreferenced, have left sources stating quite clearly that they believed Anne to be innocent. He does not mention the attempt by the king to reach a plea bargain with Norris on 1 May or a similar attempt by the council with the queen on 11 May, both of which are hardly the actions of a government which felt it had a convincing case. And whilst finding time to draw rather snide comparisons between Anne and the Empress Josephine and Anne and the late Princess Diana, Bernard does not carry out any meaningful comparison between Anne’s case and that of Catherine Howard five years later. When allegations concerning Catherine’s misconduct surfaced at the start of November 1541, she was investigated over the course of three months, during which time she was interrogated no less than seven times and extensive searches of the possessions and residences of her family and intimates were carried out on five separate occasions at the council’s behest. In contrast, Anne was arrested, condemned, not once interrogated and executed within eighteen days. Most revealingly of all, given a queen’s lack of privacy, an accomplice would be needed from amongst her own household to facilitate her adultery. In Catherine’s case, Lady Rochford was executed alongside her; in Anne’s, not one of her ladies-in-waiting were even asked to testify against the queen, let alone accused of aiding her. Bernard claims that those who facilitated Anne's adultery were spared because they turned king's evidence and provided the prosecution with the information they needed - basically, a plea bargain. However, Lady Rochford did precisely the same thing to Catherine Howard and Thomas Culpepper in 1541 and she was still sent to the block alongside her mistress three months later. All of this suggests very strongly that what happened in 1541-1542 was a genuine government investigation into a probably guilty queen, while the events of 1536 correspondingly read as the swift deposition of an innocent one. 

Had Bernard been able to show that there was, as he contends, at the very least room for reasonable doubt concerning Anne Boleyn’s alleged adulteries then he might have revolutionized our understanding of one of the great crises of Henry VIII’s reign. As it is, his arguments trying to prove the queen’s guilt are so clumsy and unsubstantiated that they ironically result in reinforcing the idea that she was the victim of ‘an unimaginably grotesque miscarriage of justice.’

On three separate occasions in this work, Bernard gets the date of Anne’s execution incorrect – variably placing it to the twelfth, fifteenth or seventeenth of May. On page 57, he inaccurately refers to Anne’s father, who was viscount Rochford from 1525 to 1529 and earl of Ormond and Wiltshire after 1529, as “Viscount Wiltshire," and on page 40 he describes the emperor, Charles V, as Katherine of Aragon’s uncle, rather than her nephew. Most damningly of all, in his account of Anne’s imprisonment on page 191 he confuses Anne’s mother, the countess of Ormond and Wiltshire, with Anne’s estranged paternal aunt, Lady Amata Boleyn. Lady Boleyn was one of four women assigned by Cromwell to watch over the queen during her incarceration and to report on anything she did or said. It is these reports, written down by the William Kingston, constable of the Tower, which have formed the cornerstone of any analysis of Anne’s downfall. For Bernard to confuse Lady Boleyn with the countess of Ormond, when earlier in the same collection of papers Kingston specifically mentions the queen’s distress at being separated from her mother, indicates that the author quite simply has not read these sources with the necessary care or understood the crucial significance of the household arrangements during Anne’s imprisonment.

George Bernard concludes his biography by reflecting that the current fascination with Anne Boleyn has turned her into something similar to a modern celebrity, a development which he finds both distasteful and perplexing. Despite the glib subtitle he (or his editor) chose for this biography, it is not clear that G.W. Bernard can understand that there was ever anything particularly attractive about Anne Boleyn. The Anne who emerges from Bernard’s narrative is a vapid, self-centred idiot, either too stupid or too reckless to have exerted any kind of political or religious influence. There is nothing special or remarkable about her beyond her physical beauty, certainly nothing to justify the fascination with her during her lifetime, much less in the five centuries since. And yet, it is this very fascination which poses the ultimate question of Bernard’s Boleyn: if she really was as unremarkable as he suggests, then what was all the fuss about?

Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions is not the first time that Anne Boleyn has been the subject of a misleading biography that tells us more about the author than the subject, nor in all probability will it be the last. Its failings are caused by Bernard’s attempts to make the facts fit his theory, rather than vice-versa, and to prove that his controversial theory concerning Anne’s downfall is worthy of the same academic consideration as those it is challenging. In order to achieve this, Bernard is forced to resort to an incomplete or disingenuous analysis of the available sources, something which is particularly obvious in chapter ten and chapter twelve. However, much of what Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions says about the less dramatic parts of its subject’s life is worthwhile for those interested in considering afresh the milieu in which Anne Boleyn existed and it might be a shame if this biography’s ultimate conclusions were deemed sufficiently improbable to negate all of its research. 


  1. Claire Ridgway at The Anne Boleyn Files has also highlighted another recent discussion of "Fatal Attractions," by Dr. Susan Walter Schmids, in which she critiques the massive problems with Bernard's chief source (de Carles's poem) and the fact that of the 13 copies still in existence of it, none pre-date 1545 and only the two printed copies are identical.


  2. Great article, Gareth, and I hope you didn't mind me linking to it. I just can't understand why G W Bernard puts so much store in this poem, it's weird.

  3. He thought Charles V was Catherine of Aragon's uncle? Oh, brother.....Why do they publish such people?

    I can't wait for you to write your own biography of Anne, Gareth.

  4. Very interesting, and I really like the title of this review! How odd that neither the author or the editors of the book caught those weird factual errors.

  5. I wish you had some share buttons on at the bottom of your posts because I would love to tweet this again. Excellent. I enjoyed reading it twice.

  6. Correct me if I'm wrong Gareth but I thought Warnicke actually argued that Wyatt's poetry didn't refer to Anne at all...

  7. Just wondering if there is any evidence to confirm that a) Henry destroyed all (most) of the pictures of Anne after her death and b)Elizabeth desroyed the records of Anne's trial?

  8. Hi, Steve.

    There's actually no evidence, whatsoever, of either. It's one of those things that's just assumed to be true. While we do know that a lot of Anne's heraldry and insignia were destroyed in the weeks after her death and that it's therefore logical to assume that the same happened with her portraiture, we don't have the records to definitively prove it.

    As to Elizabeth destroying the records of her mother's trial, that's a modern suggestion and it's far more probable that they were either never kept, destroyed during Henry's reign or simply vanished over the centuries since. Elizabeth was not a woman to dig up the past and it's highly out of character for her to have hunted down documents like that then to have them destroyed. There is no evidence at all of her having done so.


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