Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Article excerpt

Susan Waiters Schmid puts a new study into historiographica] context.

Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions G. W. Bernard

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Yale University Press, 2010 256 pages, 20 [pounds sterling] hardback ISBN 10:0300162456

Anne Boleyn remains an intriguing figure, even after nearly 500 years. Because interpretations of a historical person's life turn on the documents available to work with, the scanty evidence for Anne's life makes it difficult for historians to write the sort of rich and complex biography modern readers expect. There is much we simply do not know about Anne and, while novelists and filmmakers are free to fill in the gaps imaginatively, historians must control the urge to speculate. When they do speculate, they must employ sound arguments, clear and careful analysis of evidence, balanced discussion of other views and a rigorous avoidance of conclusions based on personal opinion or on present-day values.

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Indictments from Anne's trial still exist but there are no transcripts of the court proceedings or information about witnesses and not many other official documents. We have few writings by Anne. If she kept a diary or corresponded extensively with anyone the evidence has been lost to time. Many people have written about Anne for one reason or another; but few were true contemporaries and many were clearly biased, misinformed, or both. While bias does not make a report untrue, it surely adds to the challenge facing a historian. In his new book, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, George Bernard is not always equal to that challenge. Some eclectic speculations and his apparent confusion regarding a poem written by the French ambassador's secretary, a document he relies on heavily, combine to weaken his reinterpretation of Anne.

Fatal Attractions joins books by Eric Ires (The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Blackwell, 2004) and Retha M. Warnicke (The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, Cambridge University Press, 1989), and a long running-debate in the pages of the English Historical Review and the Historical Journal, as some of the crucial reading for a study of Anne Boleyn. These three historians do agree on several important points: that Anne did not raise herself from humble origins, but was the daughter of a reasonably well-to-do and successful 'courtier-administrator'; that Anne is an important figure in her own right, worthy of scholarly study and deserving of a more nuanced analysis than she has received in the past; that evidence for Anne's life is scanty and sometimes contradictory, or suspect; and, finally, each admits engaging in informed speculation when evidence is unclear or lacking.

Anne Boleyn was born between circa 1501 and circa 1507; historians do not agree on the specific date or on which of the Boleyn properties was her birthplace. She had a living brother and sister, but because their birth dates are also unknown, so, too, is their birth order. Informed speculation on all these questions has led to contradictory conclusions among the historians, and a reader must keep in mind that later conclusions about Anne's behaviour may be affected by historians' perception of her age and the expected behaviour for someone of that age in the sixteenth century.

In 1513, Anne's father secured a place for her at the court of the archduchess Margaret, regent of the Low Countries, where Anne was to learn courtly skills and French. She arrived there in summer 1513. Since historians disagree on her birth date, they also disagree to some extent on what she was doing while at Margaret's court. Knowing her birth date could tell us whether she was twelve years old and 'one of eighteen ladies and maids of honor ... [who] were both companions and servants, keeping their mistress company and running errands', as Bernard argues (p. 7); or, whether she was a seven-year-old 'who was incapable of performing the chores of a maid of honor properly . …