April 06, 2006


Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen. By Joanna Denny. Da Capo. $26.

     She was the mother of England’s greatest queen – arguably its greatest ruler of either sex.  She was outgoing and vivacious, a captivating beauty of great charm.  She was beheaded for adultery.

     This much of Anne Boleyn’s life is common knowledge, and all of it is correct.  But much more that is believed true about Elizabeth I’s mother is ill-informed or based on fabricated information, argues British novelist Joanna Denny in her first work of nonfiction.  It’s not just that the charges of adultery that led to Anne’s execution were false – that has been generally accepted for some time.  It’s that Anne was above all a victim of intensely vicious court politics at a time when the fledgling Church of England was on the shakiest possible ground after breaking from the Catholic Church – a resoundingly traumatic situation exacerbated after Henry VIII was eventually succeeded by his Catholic daughter, Mary, and then by his Protestant daughter, Elizabeth.

     Henry VIII himself is an extremely complex and difficult figure, certainly not fully appreciated on this side of the Atlantic.  Far from being an overweight buffoon addicted to marrying and beheading women – most people know he had six wives, if they know nothing else – Henry was an extremely shrewd politician devoted to consolidating the power that he inherited from his father, Henry VII, whose claim to the throne was scarcely unchallengeable.  If Henry VIII in his later years became paranoid, trusting no one, this was merely a calcification of the understandable caution of his earlier life, when trusting no one was a prerequisite for survival.  Thus, Henry’s intense desire for a son to carry on his line’s disputed right to the throne becomes understandable – even admirable by the standards of his time.

     Denny does not apologize for those standards, but her meticulous research shows just how vicious and corrupting they were.  Court intrigue was nothing new.  It is worth noting that Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, written while Elizabeth sat on the throne, is all about court machinations and backstabbing, including the eventual death of the work’s noblest character.  This sort of thing was common knowledge.

     But Anne Boleyn knew little of it, at least at first.  Henry was locked in a loveless marriage (typical of the political arrangements of the time) with a woman who could not produce the strapping heir he so desired – most likely, as Denny shows, because of Henry’s own sexual problems.  For seven years, Anne Boleyn was what we would now call the “other woman,” to whom Henry wrote lengthy and impassioned love letters, from some of which Denny quotes.  Their eventual marriage, after Henry left his wife and declared himself divorced despite the Pope’s opposition, made Anne the first royal bride under Church of England rule and gave her a chance to press for social, political and cultural reforms that, Denny argues, were dear to her.  Anne’s reformist stances, the Catholic-Protestant battles, Henry’s increasingly mercurial personality, and the ever-present jockeying for power at court had as much to do with Henry turning against Anne as the fact that she never gave him a son.

     The story is complex, its threads interwoven.  Denny has a novelist’s skill at keeping a central focus – Anne – while showing the currents swirling around her that eventually doom her.  The book gives short shrift to what happened after Anne’s execution, although her legacy is an important part of the doomed queen’s importance.  But it provides a good picture of court life in Henry VIII’s time, and elicits considerable sympathy for the beautiful young woman who lost her head after the king lost his heart to her.

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