Thursday 29 July 2010

"What if?": A new review of "Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions" (2010)

"And so it remains my own hunch that Anne had indeed committed adultery with Norris, probably with Smeaton, possibly with Weston, and was then the victim of the most appalling bad luck ... I came to my sceptical view not from any prejudice against Anne, much less any prejudice against queens, and certainly not any prejudice against women."
- G.W. Bernard, "Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions," Yale University Press, 2010

Today’s post is a guest review by Owen George Emmerson, who is currently working on a dissertation about Anne Boleyn’s faith. He critiques “Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions,” the controversial new biography of Henry VIII's second wife by Professor G.W. Bernard of the University of Southampton.

Professor Bernard is the only historian writing today who argues that Anne might have been guilty of some of the charges of multiple adultery and incest for which she was executed in 1536. In this, he disagrees with Professor E.W. Ives, Professor R.M. Warnicke, Alison Weir, Lady Antonia Fraser, Dr. David Starkey, Sarah Gristwood, Robert Hutchinson, Richard Rex, Jane Dunn, Joanna Denny, Karen Lindsey, Professor J.J. Scarisbrick, Jasper Ridley, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, Dr. Greg Walker, Dr. Jenny Wormald, Maria Dowling, Derek Wilson, Linda Porter, Anne Somerset, Julia Fox, Dr. John Guy, and all the others who have tackled Anne’s story over the last twenty years.

For my own day-by-day account of the fall of Anne Boleyn, click here.

Many thanks to Owen for this fine review.


The heinous crimes of which Anne Boleyn was sentenced to death are liable for the myriad interpretations as to the character of, and the ensuing countenance toward Henry VIII’s second Queen Consort. The brevity of Anne’s arrest, arraignment and condemnation is striking and the scarce remnants of these measures have further muddied the scholarly analysis of Anne’s reign and demise. Perceptions of Anne are undoubtedly shaped through the popularisation of her legend, from Shakespeare’s compassionately naive ‘Bullen’ to Hirst’s enigmatic, sensual and headstrong suggestion. To unpick the truth behind the multi-layered and often tarnished veneer that Anne has been coated in, an acute analysis of the limited primary material available is essential in establishing a coherent picture. It is a treacherous path, one paved with ancient judgment, contemporary misrepresentation and crude propaganda. To navigate it, the historian must assume not simply the role of judge, but of the judicial process in its entirety. Anne’s ‘case’ is essentially a re-trial, having been condemned in her own lifetime; however the rigid process of examination remains firm. Through meticulous analysis of all available evidence, they must assume both prosecution and defence roles. Evidence is heard from contemporary voices long departed, and considered by the historian as a solitary jury. There is a unique element to the historian’s court which, as judge, they must examine: the previous ‘trials’ completed by other historians. Their verdict must answer not only their own judgement of the case, but must convincingly question and challenge their predecessors' attempts. With over 400 years of analysis, it is no small task, and with a ‘definitive’ analysis by Eric Ives, Bernard’s task is an ambitious one.

'Enigmatic, sensual and headstrong': British actress Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in the television series The Tudors by Michael Hirst

As ‘Judge’, Bernard’s analysis is primarily focused on Anne’s fall. Although his narrative covers much of Anne’s life, it is clear that the supposition of her guilt dominates the entire work. Had Anne been guilty as charged, could she then realistically have been a pious evangelical reformist, who Ives champions as the ‘key element’ of the early English Reformation? Would a woman intent on securing the annulment of Aragon, and who purposefully abstained from pre-marital intercourse to ensure a legitimate heir, then proceed to endanger her position with illicit affairs? It is the question ‘what if Anne was guilty?’ which dominates Bernard’s analysis, and as such sometimes compromises his meticulous scholarly fluidity. One cannot help but believe that this re-trial has been tainted by Norfolk’s verdict of his niece, and the analysis of her life has been worked backwards from it. The legal measures taken against Anne put the best of Stalin’s show-trials to shame, and Bernard concedes to the gross inefficiency of the proceedings. Although acknowledgement of the legal incompetency is made, frustratingly Bernard attempts to justify the evidently erroneous extramarital intercourse dates by stating that “...secret and speedy journeys (of Anne’s lovers) were by no means impossible,” and that “... clerks might have made errors of transcription, for example writing Greenwich when they should have put Hampton Court.” It is within these areas, where substantial primary material is lacking, that Bernard’s ‘what if’ question leads to ineffective and unconvincing supposition. Rather than sewing the evidence together, and then embroidering the voids with coherent possibility, the reader is often faced with material unconvincingly darned with further ‘what ifs’. Certainly Bernard’s theories are not impossible, but the lack of tightly woven primary fabric leaves Bernard’s work ripe for unstitching. Anne’s downfall, as with other areas of her life, seem to be open to the very ‘conspiratorial approach’ to history that Bernard warns us against pursuing. One cannot help but feel very much within “...a world of speculation in which ‘must have’ and ‘surely’ do duty for evidence.” Bernard himself is aware of this inconsistency, never fully committing himself to his thesis: “...there simply is not sufficient evidence to conclude beyond reasonable doubt that Anne, her brother, Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton were guilty.” It is due to this overbearing belief in Anne’s guilt, but lack of solid evidence, that an otherwise sound interpretation of Anne’s life is somewhat compromised.

"Anne's religion is a testimony to the complexities and individuality of faith and it is therefore impossible to place her in a category. By ignoring these intricacies in his quest to re-label Anne, the subtle clues to her faith are lost."

Anne’s religious arrangement is fundamental to Bernard’s somewhat reserved thesis, and it is here that a more acute analysis of primary material is most readily visible. It is a trail that he has navigated before, with a staunch response to Ives’ work in the form of an article “Anne Boleyn’s Religion,” published in the 1993 Historical Journal. His criticism of Anne being Ives’ evangelical reformist lays predominantly in his critique of Foxe’s account of her reformist leanings. It is within this study that Bernard’s interpretation and criticism do him credit, parallel to his ‘nemesis’ Ives. He does, however, adhere to placing Anne and other key characters in a ridged sphere of religious identification. He fails, like Ives, to see the very personal and individual understanding that individuals formed for themselves, and therefore ultimately his quest to assess how traditionally catholic Anne was by refuting her evangelical positioning is a fruitless one. His usage of the leisure patterns of George Boleyn as a counterargument for his religious dedication is seriously flawed, with the Head of the Church in England partaking frequently in some seriously lavish leisure pursuits.

Because of the persistence of historians to label Anne as either traditionally Catholic or reformist, either too much weight is given to Foxe's work, or it is discredited as pure Elizabethan propaganda. All sources are ‘biased’, and it is the historian’s duty as a judge to weigh the evidences reliability carefully. It is worrying, therefore, that such stringent caution has been placed upon the undeniably embroidered Actes and Monuments, but that the similarly embellished correspondence of Eustace Chapuys is openly heard in Bernard’s court. Likewise, his analysis of Lancelot de Carles’ poem of 1536 is taken readily at face value, and is essentially Bernard’s highest card in Anne’s condemnation. Anne’s religion is a testimony to the complexities and individuality of faith and it is therefore impossible to place her in a category. By ignoring these intricacies in his quest to re-label Anne, the subtle clues to her faith are lost. Although there is much evidence to suggest she favoured reform, there is also much to suggest the limitations of her reformist views. Can the great reformer Archbishop Cranmer’s faith be understood as ‘traditionally Catholic’ for performing mass and receiving the host during Henry’s lifetime? Can Anne be similarly categorised as a firm Catholic simply due to her adherence to the belief in transubstantiation? Anne’s faith is a pivotal point within the prisms of countless historians’ analyses of her life, and it is here that a determination to categorise oft leads to unsubstantiated and unconvincing verdicts.

Bernard’s work is an important one, and should be considered so. It analyses the primary evidence in question afresh, and Bernard carefully uses the sources to make some interesting and thoughtful points. It is because Bernard has held such stringent views of Anne’s life and contribution to history throughout his career that it is hard to consider that the evidence has been examined from the outset with a neutral mind. Her execution has made her infamous throughout history, and the removal of the thick veneer of tarnish is not unproblematic, even more so when the quest for the ‘truth’ has been started by a historian who has long suspected Anne of being guilty. Nonetheless, Bernard’s work demonstrates the importance of source analysis, especially as at times I believe he has misinterpreted or wilfully used the oh-so tempting ‘what if’ to ultimately undermine the logical interpretation. Bernard’s work has sought to challenge the revered scholarship of Ives, and it has made some ground. But Bernard’s work is peppered with often misplaced and supposedly forbidden ‘must have’s’ and ‘surely’s’. These skills are, in fact, essential in the limited evidence that Anne’s court has to offer. It is the historians interpretation that transforms he or she from the counsel, to the jury box and finally to the judges seat. My jury will be out for some time on Bernard’s verdict, perpetually one might say, however his trial will ensure that Anne’s case is once again re-heard in many historians’ courtrooms.

By Owen George Emmerson (Guest Reviewer)


  1. An excellent review of Bernard's book, Owen, well done! Yes, how interesting that Bernard is willing to rule out some primary source material, yet take the Lancelot de Carles poem at face value, when that could definitely be considered propaganda.
    Like you, I felt that the book was not really an argument for Anne's guilt but more of an argument that she could have been, might have been and that she had the opportunity.
    I really did not like the section on Anne's faith. The Protestant label did not exist then and just because Anne wasn't embracing all of Luther's teachings wholeheartedly, it does not mean that she was not reformist or that she was a closet strict Catholic, or even that her faith was fake. As a good friend of mine said, Anne did not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, she was not trying to fight the Catholic church, she was looking to reform it.
    I hope I make sense, I often don't on a Friday evening!

  2. That sounds like a good one! I've added to my list of books I want to read.

  3. Interesting and comprehensive review to say the least! I am beginning to wonder about this sliding scale of personal beliefs, however. Perhaps we cannot adopt an absolutely "ridged (rigid?) sphere of religious identification" according to our current understanding of doctrine and religious practice; but at some point there was a distinction between the Catholic and the Protestant/Evangelical/Lutheran/Reformed understanding of salvation in 16th century England and Europe. If Anne, Henry, Mary, Katherine, George, Thomas (all of the Thomases!) were taking religion seriously, as a life and death matter--and I think they were--they had to make a choice. Either the Catholic Church or Luther or Zwingli or Calvin told the truth about how to reach Heaven and eternal happiness. I think that is still necesssary to observe.


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