Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir

My father had an on-again-off-again relationship with the television.  When the relationship was off, I don't mean the TV was switched off.  I mean that it was banished from the house, and this was the usual state of affairs.  We did have a TV in 1970, though, because I remember quite clearly gathering in front of it every Sunday night for six weeks to watch each episode of BBC's series, "The Six Wives of Henry VIII".  I was a mere 8 years old at the time, so what did I take away from this program?  I remember liking the costumes: All that bejeweled velvet!  I liked the drama:  And what would happen to this wife?  I'm sure I liked the posh accents, and I liked the series because my father very obviously approved of it.  What I really took from this television program, though, was an unending fascination with Tudor history.  (I might have developed an unending fascination with Sonny & Cher, but Dad's withering stares and scathing remarks put a stop to that.)

I love reading history and well-researched historical fiction.  While I certainly don't limit myself to Tudor England, I find it hard to resist taking up a book on it when one crosses my path.  Years ago, I read Alison Weir's The Six Wives of Henry VIII and admired it, so I was happy to follow along as she focused her attentions on wife #2, Queen Anne Boleyn.  I was curious, was there enough material to justify a book on this one woman's downfall?  Yes, certainly.  Is that level of detail going to hold the interest of a casual reader? It's hard for me to say, but I think Anne's story is dramatic enough to appeal to most readers, whether or not they're hard-core Tudor groupies.

Weir certainly drew my attention to the pitfalls facing meticulous historians.  Everyone carps about the importance of returning to original sources, but Weir reminds us that one must proceed to question the veracity of those sources.  Just because they're contemporary is no guarantee of their reliability.  She cites -- often with disclaimers -- a "Spanish Chronicle" which reads like the National Enquirer of its day, offering very lurid details that other sources either contradict or fail to mention.  (Yet I recognised many of these little fallacies which still made their way into other histories. We do love sordid details.)  What was the political agenda of each source? Much of the derogatory material about Anne came from people who were loyal to her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife.  On the flip side, when such a person spoke approvingly of Anne's demeanor in court, in the Tower, or on the scaffold, Weir is inclined to believe him.  One such source is Eustache Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, prolific letter-writer, and devout supporter of Catherine and her daughter, Mary.  He provided a wealth of material, which Weir always examines with a chary eye.  In fact, she seems to scrutinize the credentials, habits and motives of every source, which bolsters her own credibility.

So, did this book offer any startling new revelations?  No, nothing substantial, but it was nonetheless enlightening and well worth reading.  Weir did contradict the commonly held belief that Henry VIII had initiated the scheme to condemn Anne because he had grown weary of her, and she was becoming a political liability, and she had thus far failed to provide him a male heir.  These things were in fact true, and Henry did not jump to Anne's defense when the charges were placed before him, but the plot was not of his own devising.  Weir makes a strong case that Thomas Cromwell was its architect.  Cromwell himself told Chapuys as much.  He had recently fallen out of favour with the King, and his relationship with Anne had turned malevolent, as well.  He realised that one of them -- either himself or Anne -- would perish as a result, and he retreated to his country home for a few days to plan the demise of the Queen and her coterie.

In a stunningly short time, Anne and the five men -- one of whom was her brother -- with whom she was accused of committing adultery and treason, were charged, tried, convicted and beheaded.  Weir reaches the conclusion, well supported by her research, that all were framed.  Many things point to this: official documents show that Anne was not at the location where adultery was alleged on certain dates; Henry had sent to France for a swordsman (to execute Anne, as opposed to the traditional English executioners who used the less efficient axe) before the trial had even begun; the likelihood that Anne could have committed adultery as charged is both logistically and logically slim; Henry married Jane Seymour 10 days after Anne's execution and made it clear to her beforehand that Anne's fate was sealed.

On the other hand, Cromwell was no fool.  Being in bad graces with the King, he took an enormous risk leveling such serious charges against the Queen.  Accusing her of adultery with five men would surely be a blow to the King's notably rotund ego.  Had Henry dismissed these accusations as frivolous, Cromwell would undoubtedly have paid with his life.  The charges had to stick.  Henry, for reasons that we can guess at but probably never know, accepted them as valid and allowed Cromwell to proceed with his purge.  The trials were in fact conducted in public, with 95 jurors, although "care was taken to select those who could be relied upon to gratify the King's will".  Weir points out the various ways in which the trials would be mockeries by today's standards of jurisprudence, but they were at least public and conducted by the legal standards of the day.  Unfortunately, virtually no transcripts or evidential documents survive.  We know the identities of some of the witnesses who spoke out against Anne and the men, but we have no record of their testimony.  Yes, Anne was unpopular and arrogant.  She had few friends or family to defend her, and Cromwell made sure that the one likeliest to do so -- her brother -- was on trial alongside her.  Still, there must have been enough damning material to convince Henry of her guilt, or at least of the likelihood that she would be convicted.

Ironically, people who witnessed Anne's behaviour at her trial and at her execution seemed to believe her innocent of the charges, much as they may have disliked her in the past:
The Lord Mayor of London openly declared, "I could not observe anything in the proceedings against her, but that they were resolved to make an occasion to get rid of her at any price."  ...  As the murmuring spread, Anne began to be seen as a victim done away with on a flimsy pretext, particularly in the wake of Henry marrying Jane ten days after her beheading.
I was very moved by the descriptions of Anne on the scaffold.  Weir cites several versions of her final speech -- none substantially different from the others, and all displaying a dignity and sobriety that belied her earlier carelessness and loose tongue.  She seemed to move the French swordsman, as well.  Perhaps as gestures of mercy, he wore ordinary clothing (not the mask and uniform typically worn by executioners), kept the sword out of her sight, and at the last, distracted her by drawing her attention to something in the opposite direction, allowing him to swing his 3-4' sword to sever her neck while she looked away.  Only those being executed with an axe put their necks down on a block; death by the sword required Anne to kneel upright and hold herself perfectly still.

Hilary Mantel sought to paint a more humane portrait of often-demonised Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.  She succeeded brilliantly, but he was no saint, as Anne's downfall makes plain.  And so it is with Anne herself:  She's not the insatiable adulteress that her enemies reviled, but she had significant character flaws.  They made a fascinating pair, actually -- allies at one time, later rivals, both power-mad, and in the end, both beheaded.

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