- The Washington Times - Friday, June 11, 2010

By G.W. Bernard
Yale University Press, $30, 237 pages

Did Anne Boleyn commit adultery? This is the question at the heart of a new biography ofthe woman who won King Henry VIII’s affections, was a key figure in his break with Rome and paid for her alleged affairs - including an incestuous one with her brother - on the executioner’s block.

Over the centuries, one version of history has steadfastly upheld the young queen’s virtue, pointing to her refusal to sleep with Henry (unlike her sister Mary) until he made an honest woman of her. That version denies any adulterous affairs and celebrates her as a martyred heroine of the English Reformation.

Now, however, in a generally persuasive book, British historian G.W. Bernard argues that it was not Anne who resisted a sexual union for years, but it was Henry who held back until he could be assured that his offspring would be legitimate. Moreover, in a matter of more stunning consequences, Mr. Bernard argues that the allegations of adultery were probably true.

Mr. Bernard builds his case and his narrative chronologically, returning to Anne’s girlhood and her time spent in the Netherlands in the household of Archduchess Margaret of Austria and at the French court where she was a maid of honor, first to Queen Mary, then to Queen Claude of France. Patiently, with exhaustive detail and probing questions, Mr. Bernard charts a trajectory of the woman who would become queen in her own right at a tumultuous crossroads in European history.

In an early chapter titled “Who was Anne Boleyn?” Mr. Bernard writes, “Anne Boleyn is often presented as a ‘self-made’ woman rising from lowly origins to the top before her dramatic fall. But that is nonsense. Anne was not ‘a poor knight’s daughter’ as one Nicholas Delanoy allegedly said to a skinner of St. Omer Calais. Such talk was and is highly misleading. Anne was born into the English social and political elite. Her father was Thomas Boleyn, who as Anne was growing up was an increasingly prominent courtier-administrator at the court and in the government of Henry VIII.”

She was born in the early 1500s, most likely 1501, and she “spent the most formative years of her adolescence at the French court.” As Mr. Bernard sums up this period of her life: “In the early and mid-1520s, then, Anne Boleyn … had been talked of as a wife for James Butler, and had very likely been pursued by Henry Percy and Thomas Wyatt, but had not yet made a marriage. Once again the historian might envy the historical novelist who can present Anne unperturbed and liberated or as desperate and unhappy. No surviving sources can help us.”

Yes, that pesky “no surviving sources” caveat has given us the popular, if factually challenged television series “The Tudors” and countless other books and films that leave conflicting impressions of the doomed Anne.

Was she beautiful? According to the producers of “The Tudors,” exquisitely so. According to Mr. Bernard, it depends on your source. “The historian can … reasonably postulate that Anne was an attractive young woman, but answering the question, ‘What did Anne look like?’ is not all straightforward. … The Venetian diarist Sanuto noted that ‘Madam Anne is not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised; but he too remarked on her eyes, ‘black and beautiful.’ “

Then, of course, there are others who posited that she “had a projecting tooth under the lower lip, and on her right hand six fingers.”

But these dueling assertions matter less than whether Anne committed a treasonable offense, a queen’s adultery being such. And how without firm historical evidence can we know of Anne’s role in putting distance between the king and Catherine of Aragon and the daughter of that union, Mary? “Was Anne responsible for Henry’s sending Catherine away? [Eustace] Chapuys certainly believed so.”

The observations of Chapuys, who was the imperial ambassador to England in service to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V figure prominently in the book, as do those of George Cavendish, gentleman-usher to and biographer of Cardinal Woolsey. Much space is given over to Henry’s leisure time with Anne and their love letters. And, of course, Mr. Bernard carefully examines Henry’s break with Rome and his declaration of supremacy.

Although the case Mr. Bernard makes is strong, it is hard to say that it is conclusive. But for a reader still trying to make sense of the era and evidence, the book is a useful resource and an eloquent assessment of the times. For anyone who simply can’t get enough of the Tudors, this book is a welcome addition.

As for Anne, Mr. Bernard gets the last word: “The Anne that this book seeks to present is not an insignificant and submissive mistress. If the Anne to be found in the sources, scrutinised and questioned rigorously as they have been here, is neither the Anne of protestant legend, nor Anne as modern heroine, she nonetheless remains one of the most important figures in Tudor history.”

Carol Herman is the books editor at The Washington Times.

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