The Literary Review April 2010


Peter Marshall

Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions By G W Bernard (Yale University Press 237pp 20) Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr By Linda Porter (Macmillan 370pp 20)

Tudor queens have always been the primary point of encounter between academic scholarship, popular fascination with the nation's colourful past and the exploitation of history as entertainment, cultural fantasy and wish fulfilment. Elizabeth I leads the field, but her mother, Anne Boleyn, runs her a close second - and with much racier taglines. Long before Natalie Dormer's frequently dishabille representation of her in Showtime's The Tudors, Anne has seemed an icon of female empowerment in a patriarchal age, and the focus of endless speculation, informed and novelistic, regarding her actions, motives and significance. Anne was half of the most decisive, arguably the most destructive, love affair in English history. It divided the king from his wife, the nation from its historic connection with Catholic Christendom and, ultimately, the new queen from her head. When Anne fell from Henry VIII's favour she fell spectacularly, executed in May 1536 on charges of adultery with five courtiers, including her own brother. No wonder novelists and filmmakers have been drawn to her story, but its evident political importance has ensured continuing scholarly attention, most notably in a magisterial 1986 biography by Eric Ives, reissued in a new edition in 2004.

Enter G W Bernard, a professor at Southampton University and a distinguished interpreter of the political culture of early Tudor England, here addressing himself to a popular as well as an academic audience. To call Bernard's book a revisionist biography would be something of an understatement. It sets out to turn completely on its head 'the traditional view of Anne' (by which Bernard usually means Ives, and David Starkey's account in his acclaimed book Six Wives). Bernard is an outstandingly diligent and resourceful archival historian. He has spent much time in the Staatsarchiv in Vienna, trawling through the diplomatic correspondence from Charles V's ambassador in England, when others have been content to use printed Victorian summaries and translations. He is also by instinct a historiographical street fighter, refusing to take on trust the findings of other scholars, even, or perhaps especially, when they are the stuff of broad historical consensus. His biography of Anne is a relatively short one, but full of arresting and controversial claims. Three in particular stand out, but how well do they stand up?

At least one of them seems convincing and well-founded. On the basis of a close rereading of Anne and Henry's early love letters, Bernard contests the conventional view that it was Anne's masterstroke, over an extended period of courtship, to deny the king the use of her body, at least until her position as queen-in-waiting had been secured. Rather, it was Henry who held back from full sexual relations, aware that if Anne was widely known to be his mistress (or if she became pregnant) the political strategy of the divorce case and the legitimacy of any heir would be immeasurably compromised.

Less persuasive, at least to this reviewer, is Bernard's compulsion to demonstrate (continuing an argument he conducted in earlier academic journals) that Anne was in no sense a patroness of the Reformation, or anything like a proto-Protestant, but rather a thoroughly orthodox, if anti-papal and mildly reformist, late medieval Catholic. This is maintained in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, some of which - like the heretical character of works by Simon Fish and William Tyndale that Anne gave to Henry - Bernard plays down, or entirely passes over (like her intervention in 1528 on behalf of the arrested evangelical book-runner, Robert Forman). Much is made of an apparently conservative sermon preached at court in the spring of 1536 by her almoner, John Skip. But while Skip's views are assumed to be identical to Anne's own, the attested evangelical commitment of numerous clergymen within her orbit who enjoyed her patronage is consistently dismissed as purely coincidental. Reading these chapters brings to mind the image of a particularly skilled defence barrister, appealing to a sceptical jury to acquit his client on the grounds that the case against her cannot be proved beyond all reasonable doubt. But historians have to deal in probabilities, and the balance of these is that, though it might be an exaggeration to see Anne as a prime mover of the English Reformation, she was firmly and knowingly on a trajectory leading away from traditional Catholicism.

What will really grab the attention of most readers, however, is Bernard's third dramatic claim: that far from being the target of a factional conspiracy or the victim of trumped-up and frankly unbelievable charges, Anne went to the block because she was in fact guilty of at least some of the accusations of adultery that were brought against her. This represents a fearless swipe with Ockham's razor. The alternative explanations of Anne's fall - that Thomas Cromwell orchestrated an elaborate coup against her because they had fallen out over the direction of foreign policy or the dissolution of the monasteries - Bernard dismisses as intrinsically implausible. And he has a point: it is a thoroughly murky episode that no one has ever truly succeeded in explaining satisfactorily. The trouble is that, on the face of it, Anne's guilt as charged (or even partial guilt) seems at least as improbable. She maintained her innocence even after conviction (a religiously and culturally unlikely stance, if she was in fact culpable), and the only one of her co-accused to admit guilt was the lowly musician, Mark Smeaton, who may have been tortured, or may have been a fantasist fixated with the queen. Yet Bernard manages to demonstrate that Anne's courtly ambit was a pretty louche and flirtatious one, and at the very least he can be said to have shown it to be not entirely impossible that the charges had some substance. Bernard himself is too good a historian to assert unequivocally that Anne was sleeping around, but he thinks it the most likely explanation of her fall, and of Henry's fury. Bernard rounds off his book with words of monition to Tudor England enthusiasts, to stop seeing Anne as a role model for women, or her life as having any other than a strictly historical significance: a commendable biting of the hand likely to feed any popular royal biographer.

Henry VIII's sixth wife (who 'survived', in the familiar mnemonic) has never had the pulling power of his second, beheaded one, but as Linda Porter's new biography reminds us, Katherine Parr's life was in many ways as eventful as Anne's. Katherine married four men, one of whom (Lord Latimer) was a leader of the great rebellion against Henry, the Pilgrimage of Grace, while another (Thomas Seymour) was uncle to Henry's son and a mercurial political troublemaker. She had extensive literary interests, publishing a devotional work, the first of its kind written in English by a woman, before succumbing to that nemesis of Tudor women, death after childbirth.

Porter, an author with an accomplished life of Mary Tudor under her belt, is more comfortable with the genre of popular history than Bernard, whose tone can occasionally sound schoolmasterly. Her book is not entirely free of the 'what must she have felt?' strain to be found in historical biographies, particularly of pre-modern subjects, and it makes the odd unwarranted speculation, such as her claim that the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wriothesley, bore a grudge against Katherine for an unfeeling condolence letter to his wife on the death of an infant, or that the late Elizabethan versified life of Nicholas Throckmorton in the Warwickshire Record Office is in any sense a 'memoir'. But mostly Porter provides a reliable synthesis of the best historical research on Katherine's life and times, while periodically going beyond it to offer original contributions. She takes more seriously than most commentators, for example, Katherine's pretensions to the regency of her stepson, Edward VI, after the death of Henry in 1547.

Katherine Parr emerges from her account as neither the matronly homemaker of Victorian legend nor as a feminist icon, but rather as an exemplary representative of her class, gender and era, albeit one who negotiated the shoals of marriage and politics more successfully than many. She comes across as charming and likeable, though also pragmatic and at times selfish and manipulative. It is a less flamboyantly revisionist retelling than Bernard's, though a valuable and persuasive one. And Porter has an admirable facility for memorable one-liners. She tartly remarks of Henry VIII's pointless and ruinously expensive siege and occupation of a French port in the 1540s that 'Boulogne was his Agincourt' - a suitable epitaph for the egomaniacal old wife-killer.

Peter Marshall is Professor of History at the University of Warwick. His most recent book is 'Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story' (OUP).

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