Sunday, August 29, 2010

Anne Boleyn (Joanna Denny Biography)

Author: Joanna Denny
Publication Date: 2004
Length: 327 pages with endnotes and an index
Cost: $26.00 for the hardcover, between $15.00 and $17.00 for the paperback, and on the Kindle for $9.99
Where Did I Hear About It: I actually found this in the library in the biography section.

The Backstory

There has never been a character who has fascinated the imagination and polarized historians more than Anne Boleyn.

Anne was born sometime between 1501 and 1507 to Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard. The family home was Hever Castle in Kent, and Thomas regularly visited the continent during his career as a diplomat. Anne had two siblings--Mary, believed to be the eldest, and George, who may have been older or younger than Anne depending upon the year of her birth (he was born around 1504). Thomas' familiarity with foreign courts and positive reputation led to an offer made by Archduchess Margaret of Austria to have Anne as a part of her household. In 1514, Anne moved on to France to attend Henry VIII's sister, Mary, as Queen of France. Anne later transferred into the service of the new Queen Claude at the accession of King Francis I. In 1521, Anne's father recalled her to England in the hopes that her marriage to her cousin, James Butler, would end a dispute in the family over the Earldom of Ormonde in Ireland.

When these marriage plans fell through, Anne became more of a fixture in the English court. She made her first recorded appearance there sometime in 1522, and she participated in a pageant, much noted because of her appearance as "Perseverance" in it. She was, supposedly, briefly betrothed to Henry Percy, the future Duke of Northumberland, but a combination of forces (may have) worked against this match, including Henry Percy's father and even Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry VIII's chief advisor.

Anne came to Henry VIII's attention sometime between 1525 and 1526. Anne refused to submit to his advances, which only inflamed his infatuation with her. The result, often termed the King's "Great Matter" dragged on for years. It included Henry's multi-front attack on his marriage to Katherine of Aragon--his attempt to draw the French clergy to his side of the matter, his attempt to persuade the Pope to annul this union, and a trial in a public court in England. The result was Henry's decision to declare himself head of the English church, to sever from Catholicism, and to declare is marriage to Katherine null and void because of her previous marriage to his long-dead older brother, Arthur.

After meeting with Francis I in Calais, Henry and Anne married quietly, somewhat secretly, but with intent to legitimize an increasingly visible pregnancy. The date is generally given as January 25, 1533. On June 1, Anne was crowned and anointed Queen in a way never seen before or since--using the same crown of Edward the Confessor that was used to crown reigning monarchs (which at that point, had all been male--this crown was lost, supposedly during the Commonwealth under Cromwell).

Anne didn't last long as wife or Queen. Her first child, Elizabeth, was certainly a disappointment, but a succession of three other failed pregnancies was enough to parallel his failed marriage to Katherine in Henry's mind. In May 1536, she was arrested, taken to the Tower of London, and accused of adultery with five men, one of whom was her brother. The men were tried first and all found guilty. The verdict a foregone conclusion, Anne was sentenced to death at her own trial. Her alleged partners in crime were executed on May 17, 1536, and she was beheaded by a swordsman from Calais two days later.

On May 14, Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared Henry VIII's marriage to Anne null and void--Elizabeth was a bastard and Henry went on, 11 days later, to marry his third wife, Jane Seymour.

What About The Book?

This book is very readable. Denny explains people, situations, and events very clearly without entangling herself in the details of the history or the sources. The biography covers the whole history of Anne's life, and it puts forth a number of new theories. Most striking is Denny's assertion that Thomas Boleyn was not the grasping, ambitious man without a care for his children that is often portrayed elsewhere. She makes a very convincing case for his having been a very prudent and loving father--a more compelling case than ever was made to the contrary. Denny reveals that Thomas was not in favor of Mary becoming Henry's mistress, and that he may have even recalled her from her service in France because of her licentious reputation there.

What's wrong with this biography? It is one of the most unapolegetically biased histories of anyone or anything I have ever read. Denny has no love for Katherine of Aragon or her daughter, Mary. She views Eustace Chapuys, the Holy Roman ambassador to England with equal scorn. Her theory is that Anne was an ideal paragon of Christian virtue and that she viewed herself, and her elevation to queenship, as her being anointed by God to promote the cause of Protestantism in England. Katherine and Mary just didn't lay down all to pave the way for Denny's heroine, and they are branded as traitors and plotting the death of King Henry.

Anne was clearly debased by her detractors after her death, and the fact that all of the sources available do not paint her in a particularly good light is a symptom of this. Denny is right to question these interpretations of Anne as spiteful, cruel, and ambitious. However, she swings the pendulum too far in trying to rehabilitate her reputation by trying to make a case (a poor case) for her having been all good instead. A lot of evidence to the contrary is famously written out of this biography--for example, Denny gives no time to Anne's arguments with Henry after their marriage, which seem to be a fairly well-known fact. She also refuses to detect any sign that Henry was tiring of Anne going into the third year of their marriage. As a result, Anne's fate appears to come a little too much out of nowhere.

Denny also sees Anne as a full-fledged Protestant--a fully developed version of what a Protestant may be today. This is short sighted. Although Anne clearly was sympathetic to the ideals of Protestantism, including the availability of the Bible in English, Denny forgets that Protestantism was a mere embryo of itself in the 1530s, between 10 and 20 years after Luther's fated nail affixed his premises to the church door. To claim that anyone was a Protestant, foregoing all of the trappings of long-standing, traditional Catholicism, in this period is in error. Denny claims that as much as half of London was Protestant by the time Anne was executed, and she uses this statistic as proof that Anne couldn't possibly have been as disliked by the people as others believe she was. There are too many reasons to enumerate why this is impossible--it just presumes too much.

One very positive thing that comes out of this is an understanding of just how few sources there are that really shed light on who Anne was. The same sources have been picked over and over again, but they must not be particularly revealing--especially if Denny managed to find enough in them to support a number of her very questionable, very two-dimensional theories.

Rating: Sadly, I have to give it a 3. The bias and presumptions that Denny makes in this biography invade the text too far to allow one to gain much by trying to wade through them.
Buy It or Borrow It: Just don't, either way. Although not focusing on her, you'll get more out of David Starkey's Six Wives on Anne than you will get out of this biography.

1 comment:

Kittie Howard said...

Thanks for a great review. I haven't read this book, but have looked at it many times, thinking I should. I love this period. But something about the book's write-off turns me off. So, happy I let it pass. Didn't know Anne was crowned with Edward the Confessor's crown. Interesting!

There's a huge blog fest going on at Karen G's Coming Down the Mountain. Click on over an jump in!!