Alternative portrait of Anne Boleyn as unfaithful nymphomaniac
PATRICK SKENE CATLINGreviews Anne Boleyn: Fatal AttractionsBy G W Bernard Yale University Press 237pp, £20
HENRY VIII and his unfortunate wives are again in vogue. In a close-up, fine-focus retelling of dysfunctional royal family history, G W Bernard, professor of modern history at the University of Southampton, argues that Anne Boleyn, King Henry’s most controversial temporary queen, was very different from her popular sanitised portrait.
If historical research is a competition, Bernard apparently feels he is a winner, although this treatise swarms with question marks. “As ever,” he writes, “our sources are meagre.” He also admits that “we can do no more than speculate”: “This is where the historian sighs enviously, thinking of how an historical novelist might paint the scene.”
Bernard’s inferences from the meagre sources are so logical that readers will probably be able to forgive him for doubts.
“If you are not a specialist historian, if perhaps this is the first book on Tudor history you have read, if your impressions of Tudor history are derived from what you have heard people say or what you have watched on television,” Bernard writes, “then your impression of Henry VIII is almost certainly that of a large, powerful man, a bearded Lothario who ruthlessly and shamelessly exploited his position to bed any young girl who captured his fancy. Such a romantic, indeed sensual, view of Henry makes for compelling television, and there is no doubt something comforting for a society still residually marked by its puritan past in watching sexual rapacity in the belief that what it is seeing reflects not the fantasy of the scriptwriter but what really happened.”
He almost persuaded me there and then to close his book and turn to less condescending and more amusing TV historians. Is the professor’s lecture-hall manner always this scornful?
After his choleric little outburst, he goes on to acknowledge that Henry was a bit of a sport who “did indeed take mistresses . . . but not as many or as promiscuously as legend would have it – though Anne understandably was far from pleased when he did and told him so”. It’s a pity Bernard doesn’t quote what she said.
The book’s most important (longest) chapter, on Boleyn’s religion, is devalued when Bernard writes: “There is no evidence that Anne pursued any active and sustained religious policy. There is nothing to suggest a continuing dialogue with churchmen: no debates, no conferences of divines . . . if Anne was the patroness of religious reform that modern scholars seek to portray, she was by no means successful.”
When Henry had Boleyn arrested in 1536 for incest with her brother and several adulteries, she went to the Tower of London “no Lutheran, no proto-Protestant, but deeply attached to the traditional liturgical ceremonies of the church”.
Bernard concludes that “it was not Anne but Henry who held back for years from full sexual relations until he could marry her and father children of unimpeachable legitimacy, that it was Henry, not Anne, who developed the ideas that led to the break with Rome and the assertion of the royal supremacy, that it was Henry, not Anne, who worked with churchmen to purify the church, and that it was neither Henry nor political factions that brought Anne down, but her own actions, or at least justified perceptions of her own actions”.
In short, Boleyn is depicted here as an unfaithful, reactionary slut with nymphomaniacal tendencies. And Henry wasn’t such a bad guy by 16th-century standards. He could have decreed that she should be burned to death, but he only had her head chopped off.
Patrick Skene Catling is an author