Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Review: Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions by G.W. Bernard

I actually finished reading this book two weeks before I sat down to write this review. I had to take some time to digest what Professor Bernard is claiming so that I could thoughtfully write a review, without having a knee-jerk reaction to it.

Professor G.W. Bernard is a professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton and the editor of the English Historical Review. His previous book, The King's Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church, is a lengthy, very scholarly work with massive amounts of chapter notes. It's also so thick it truly is a door stop sized book.

I knew from a teaser in BBC History Magazine, that his latest book about the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn was controversial for he argues that Anne Boleyn was guilty of adultery with at least two of the men she was accused with, Henry Norris and Mark Smeaton and very controversially uses as his main source the French poem by Lancelot de Carles in which it is implied that one of Queen Anne's ladies, being confronted over her own adulteries by her brother revealed that Queen Anne was more guilty that she was. This is not the entire argument, but it is very prominent.

If you are a "fan" of Anne Boleyn and see her as one of the driving forces of the English Reformation, the woman who brought about Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey's fall, refused to become the King's mistress holding out for the legitimacy of marriage with the will be very disappointed with Professor Bernard's thesis. The Anne Boleyn he portrays in this book is willing to become the King's mistress, it is Henry who decides to withhold sex for the purpose of a legitimate heir. It is Henry who is the driving force behind the Great Matter, the downfall of Wolsey, the submission of the clergy, etc. Bernard does document that Henry VIII did attend Parliament in order to make it clear that he wanted certain reformation legislation passed.

Where Professor Bernard's arguments are strong is in his examination and discarding of most sources that are 20 or more years after Anne's death. In particular he is very hard on both the Catholic counterreformation propaganda, which is where most of the Anne was deformed in some fashion comes from, and the Protestant martyrologist, John Foxe, who paints Anne Boleyn as a Protestant saint. Bernard is probably correct that Anne Boleyn was not a driving reformist, as contemporary accounts of her as Queen show her performing many traditional religious rituals, and her wanting the revenues from the closing of the smaller monasteries to be used for charitable purposes rather than as sources of royal revenue.

However, it appears that Bernard goes too far in trying to create an Anne Boleyn who is more of a traditional submissive 16th century woman. After all, it is well documented that she had at least a New Testament in English and her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford was said to be a reformist scholar. Bernard is harsh on George Boleyn trying to use privy purse expenses to show that George Boleyn was nothing more than a traditional courtier. This is going too far as who is to say that Rochford couldn't have had the time to also pursue religious interests, after all he was also a diplomat serving at the court of France.

Now, to the controversy. Bernard argues that Anne Boleyn's fall came not from her miscarriage in January 1536 or a deformed fetus from that miscarriage (which pretty much everyone but Retha Warnicke and Philippa Gregory recognizes as false). Nor does it come from a political coup led by Thomas Cromwell who was either trying to remove the Boleyn faction from power, or trying to cement an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and the refusal of the Emperor's representative, Eustace Chapuys, to acknowledge Anne Boleyn as Queen following the death of Katherine of Aragon meant that Anne needed to go. Bernard instead argues that Anne Boleyn fell because she was guilty of adultery.

Bernard is dismissive of the traditional arguments listed above and gives extensive chapter notes to back up his argument. Where his argument becomes weak is in his decision to focus heavily on the Lancelot de Carles poem. This poem is dated June 6, 1536, but was not published until 1545. Bernard spends so much effort in the book dismissing documents that are published years after the events, yet he puts a lot of faith in this one. He argues that de Carles was in the service of the French Ambassador and had no reason to lie. If the poem wasn't published until 1545, there is every reason to lie....England and France were at war in 1545.

The crucial part of the poem involves an unnamed lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn who is pregnant in the spring of 1536. The lady's brother confronts her about her adulterous behavior leading to this pregnancy. The lady responses that she is better than the Queen for the Queen's household is full of licentious behavior including the adultery of the Queen. The brother, being a loyal courtier, immediately tells the King, who orders an inquiry.

Bernard identifies the Lady as Elizabeth Browne, Countess of Worcester. She was one of Anne's ladies of the bedchamber from the time of her coronation and was occasionally the lady who shared the Queen's bed. She was pregnant in 1536 and gave birth to a daughter in the fall of 1536. Her husband never denounced her and recognized the child as his. The child was named Anne probably in honor of the late Queen. It would not have been scandalous to do so as Anne was one of the most common names for girls in the 16th century.

His second argument is the dispatches of William Kingston, constable of the Tower of London. It is true that Anne's somewhat manic/depressive behavior reported extensively by Kingston was used against her. But, it doesn't point to guilt.

There is no evidence that survives as to who was interrogated during the investigation. We do not have Mark Smeaton's confession or the documentation of any of the other men, including those, such as Thomas Wyatt who were arrested and not charged. Yet, Bernard uses stories of Anne's behavior, such as her using an older serving woman to fetch Mark Smeaton by hiding him in a cabinet and being brought to her as a late night snack of marmalade.
He also brings up the discredited letter of Anne's written from the Tower of London, which is widely seen as a forgery.

Bernard does bring up the discrepancy in the indictments of the dates and places which other historians have used to prove Anne's innocence. Bernard argues that the indictments would not have been valid without specific dates and places and that if they were wrong it was because of a legal need for them and the speed in which the indictments were prepared that caused the error.

It would have been useful if Bernard had produced more lengthy quotations in his argument instead of a sentence here or a partial quote there. In particular if he had printed the entirety of Lancelot de Carles poem as an appendix the reader could better judge his argument.

Bernard does not bring up the atmosphere of courtly love that is fairly well known at Henry's court. He is dismissive of anyone driving the fall of Anne Boleyn except Henry VIII himself. Yet he undermines his own extensive research, by his own reliance on de Carles poem, which may be a piece of French propaganda dating from the 1544-1545 war. Read the book as a companion to Alison Weir's The Lady in the Tower where she also argues that there may have been more guilt involved - but she ultimately agrees that the evidence against Anne is weak. Eric W. Ives still remains Anne's most thorough biographer.

As a fascinating footnote Bernard includes a chapter on portraits of Anne Boleyn. While he covers a lot of previously known ground about the difficulty in identifying portraits of Anne and other figures from the court of Henry VIII, he does bring up the extensive research being done on portraits including dating the wood paneling. This has led to the discovery that a lot of portraits of Tudor courtiers date from the late 16th and early 17th century. The portrait of Anne in the National Portrait Gallery is scheduled to be examined in 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment