Headless ladies are always good for business, so I was delighted to see a paperback edition of Professor George Bernard’s book on Anne Boleyn recently. The back cover has a quote from the laudatory review that appeared in the Catholic Herald, written by the author of this blog. I read the book at a sitting, even though until then I had been of the view that everything that needed to be said about the wives of Henry VIII, and this wife in particular, had been said. But Professor Bernard changed my mind. He peels away the myths that surround Anne, and does what any good historian is supposed to do – he examines the evidence. And the verdict that he comes up with about Anne is astonishing. She was not a Protestant, but a conventional Catholic; and she was almost certainly guilty of all charges brought against her. Stripped of the legend created by Foxe, of Book of Martyrs fame, who made her into a Reformation saint, Anne comes over as a far more sympathetic character than heretofore.
The excellent Alison Weir has also got a paperback out about the fall of Anne Boleyn, entitled The Lady in the Tower, which takes the opposite view to Professor Bernard. She sees Anne as the innocent victim of a plot engineered by Thomas Cromwell, who was determined to strike first before Anne got rid of him. This of course sounds plausible but raises questions. Could even a powerful minister overthrow a queen, and on trumped up charges too? Henry clearly believed Anne was guilty: would he have believed this if indeed the charges were as obviously fabricated as Weir suggests?
But Alison Weir’s book, which concentrates on the last three weeks of the queen’s life, is compulsively readable. Every detail commands our attention. For example, Anne was buried in an old arrow chest – it seems that in the preparations for trial and execution, someone had neglected to arrange for a proper coffin. As she prepared to die, all the spectators at her execution knelt down, with two exceptions – the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk, the latter her own uncle, both of whom hated her with a passion. Anne herself, in her scaffold speech, was all great-heartedness. As Weir points out, she knew the rules. The defeated were meant to be gracious in the way they left the scene. There was a scaffold etiquette to be observed. The two Dukes did not rise to the occasion in the way Queen Anne did.
Weir occasionally draws on the work of Agnes Strickland, the 19th-century historian whose multi-volumed Lives of the Queens of England (also available in a recent paperback edition) was once the staple of many a Victorian library. An original edition is obtainable for quite a reasonable price.
Strickland is a mine of information, the sort of writer you really need by your side if you are taking a slow boat to China. For those with less time, a good single volume approach to these ladies – but only up to the end of the Middle Ages – is provided by Lisa Hilton and her excellent Queens Consort.
This book fills you in on some people you may have heard of but know nothing about – such as Berengaria of Navarre – and some queens you never knew England even had, such as Adeliza of Louvain and Joan of Navarre.
To return to the subject of headless ladies, Anne Boleyn’s cousin, Katherine Howard, has received much less attention from historians and from writers of fiction alike. Her story is undoubtedly the more tragic, as unlike Anne she was far less in control of her destiny, far less of a political player, indeed hardly a player at all, more a pawn: an unimportant girl who only became important when she caught the King’s eye. When she lost his favour, her large gaggle of relations were indecently swift to disown her. No one seems to have felt sorry for her. Because she was so obscure a figure before her brief marriage, we do not even know when she was born, and no authenticated image of her survives, though she may be immortalised as the Queen of Sheba in the stained glass at King’s College, Cambridge.
Yet one thing does survive, and that is the transcripts of her interrogation (in the case of Anne Boleyn, all transcripts were destroyed) and they make sad reading. Katherine grew up in her step-grandmother’s household, neglected and unloved. She became sexually active at a very young age. Two of the men she loved went to the scaffold. She herself was executed at the age of 21 at the most, or possibly up five years younger. Arrested in early November 1541, she was imprisoned in Syon House until February 10 1542, when she was taken to the Tower and executed three days later. She struggled when the barge arrived to collect her, knowing full well what the Tower meant. One of the least significant of Henry VIII’s victims, she perhaps commands the greatest sympathy.