Rivalry. October 2017.

Dear Rowley,

The Anne Boleyn license to print money continues apace with Alison Weir’s ‘factional’ novel Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession available in all good bookshops. Weir is a historian and has tackled the Six Wives previously in a work of non-fiction. Despite the subject being exhausted without the discovery of a lost caché of letters under the floorboards at Hever Castle, Tudor fanatics such as I continue to buy anything branded AB.

What to make of A King’s Obsession? The facts of Anne Boleyn’s life -as few as they are following the attempt to erase her from history after her death in 1536 – have been laid out like a game of patience that many authors have tried to solve. Weir risks some audacious leaps from fact-to-fact such as Anne’s sister Mary being raped by both King François of France and King Henry VIII. Oh no they didn’t!

History remembers Mary Boleyn as a courtesan who took to her work like a swan to a lake. It largely remembers Anne Boleyn as a bewitching contradiction. Here is a woman who championed the new religion but was branded a witch. The Lady held-off Henry VIII’s affections for years before she was in reach of the crown but was relentlessly taunted in the street as the ‘king’s whore’.

Anne Boleyn has to have a strong voice and I don’t think Alison Weir gave her sufficient intelligence to stitch-up an obsessed Henry VIII like a kipper. For a start, the dialogue in A King’s Obsession makes TV’s The Tudors sound like Wittgenstein in comparison. We have Henry VIII addressing Anne with ‘Darling, give me a chance’ and Anne saying of Cromwell ‘well, he’ll have to get over it’. I half expected her to call the prosecuting council ‘H8ers’.

When Hilary Mantel weighed-in to the Anne Boleyn canon with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, her reading of character, sublime prose and subtle plotting made her books the definitive fictional account of Anne’s rise and fall. Her story is cleverly seen thorough the eyes of Thomas Cromwell leaving other authors an open goal to elucidate Anne’s motivation. Weir’s Anne is never entirely convincing as a power player not least in her secret love for Henry Norris.

Whereas I found Mantel’s humanising of Tudor history entirely plausible, I was constantly thinking ‘really?’ at the words and thoughts Weir put into Anne’s mouth and head respectively. An Anne in love with Henry Norris is a conceit that comes in handy to draw one of Henry VIII’s closest friends into the plot to dethrone her. But I suspect Anne’s heart was far too hardened to be touched by a courtier once the crown was secured in 1533.

Alison Weir’s Anne does not display the brilliance of a player in Tudor politics. She seems to be carried along rather than leading from the front. I believe that Hilary Mantel nailed it when she portrayed Anne being as dispassionate and strategic as a chess master. Anne Boleyn overcame a relatively lowly birth, limited beauty and the might of church and state to become Queen of England. Anne was exceptional in every way.

A nation’s religion was changed for Anne Boleyn to take her place next to Henry VIII. She was the only one of his six wives to be given a coronation in her own right though at the time the king did think she had his son in her belly. Queen Anne was also named Regent in the absence of King Henry which could have changed history had Henry died in the jousting accident of January 1536.

It is a tantalising thought that, had Henry died and Anne not miscarried of a son in January 1536, the lady could have ruled England as Regent for sixteen years. Of course it was not to be. Anne’s fall took a matter of days for Cromwell to orchestrate leading to what is acknowledged today as a judicial murder. Queen Anne was removed for her failure to bear a son and heir.

I will be intrigued to see how Alison Weir handles Jane Seymour. I have always maintained just by looking at Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Jane that the meek milksop reputation was entirely fraudulent. Hilary Mantel does more than suggest that Jane Seymour knew precisely what she was doing when she turned against Queen Anne and accepted the affections of the king.

The Holbein portrait of Jane is not flattering. It shows a woman with eyes and muzzle like a pit bull terrier and determined, pursed lips. Lest we forget, when the once-hated Queen Anne was in the Tower of London, citizens were penning lewd rhymes about Henry and Jane’s unseemly courtship in the shadow of the scaffold. I would love to see Weir go in on Jane Seymour as an ambitious, morally questionable opportunist.

It turned out that Queen Anne’s reign was longer than Queen Jane’s who died in 1537 giving birth to the future King Edward VI. Jane’s triumph was but a whisper in history whereas Anne Boleyn changed the course of the nation’s religion. As a symbol not only of radical religion but also immorality Anne Boleyn was controversial to her contemporaries. She did not go quietly.

The lion’s share of information about Anne Boleyn is gleaned from reports of her trial for treason, witchcraft and adultery: ergo it looks back on her life through the prism of presumed guilt. Personally I don’t see any historian giving enough credence to Anne’s championing of the new religion. Why else but religious fervour would make her put her head into the lion’s mouth?