Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Anne Boleyn

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession, by Alison Weir, is the second in a series of specially commissioned books each of which tells the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view (I reviewed Katherine of Aragon, here). Like the first, this instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. As the author explains at the end, “The scenes in this novel are imagined, but they are not improbable.”

The story of Anne Boleyn has been told many times and from many directions both in books and on film. Each offers a slightly different take on a woman for whom relatively little personal historical detail remains. There are portraits, poetry, letters from the king, and occasional mentions in writing by her contemporaries. These have been woven into the various accounts with which those who have an interest will be familiar. All of this is to say that I was already aware of much of the story being told over these five hundred pages. I needed some fresh angle to hold my attention.

The story opens at Anne’s childhood home of Hever Castle in Kent when she is twelve years old and learns that she is to be sent away to serve at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. Anne is delighted by this news, especially as she is gaining preferment over her older sister, Mary. Her only regret is that she will be separated from her beloved brother, George.

Anne spends the next nine years serving in royal courts around northern Europe where she perfects her French language, manners and dress, and learns to play the game of courtly love. She is influenced by the scholars who visit with her mistresses, many of whom espoused enlightened views for the time on the role of women and the church. These views did not preclude the court gentlemen from attempting to have their way where the ladies were concerned. This is presented in what felt a very modern voice.

When war between France and England is threatened Anne returns home where she is found a place at the court of Queen Katherine. Here she falls in love but is thwarted. She is also noticed by Henry who starts his pursuit of her affections.

It took around seven years for Henry to find a way to marry Anne. This period is covered in around two hundred pages during which I struggled to maintain engagement. Naturally Anne changes over this difficult period in her life. She has chosen to eschew the love of others for the potential power of a match with a king.

There are other events to consider, especially those affecting her family. Anne’s regard for George is tested and her increasingly arrogant behaviour gains her enemies. She appears to do little of note while waiting other than call down vengeance on those who will not actively support her cause.

Once Anne is pregnant the story picks up pace although her inability to bear a living son is well known. As Henry seeks his entertainments elsewhere Anne becomes a solitary figure, widely disliked and with her hard fought for power on the wane. Anne’s enemies may now treat her as she did others.

Facing death, Anne takes on a piety that had not previously been obvious. I suspect this is not unusual. I balked at the portrayal of Anne’s decapitation. The Author’s Note at the end, especially on this, was interesting to read.

The author, a respected historian, offers new angles to consider in a number of areas which I will not spoil by detailing. She is an accomplished writer and the story flows. What it lacked, as far as I was concerned, was enough new material to maintain my interest. Given the book’s length, in places I needed more.

For fans of historical fiction this is a carefully researched and nicely written addition to the story of Anne Boleyn. I put my sometimes less than positive response above down to the number of other accounts of this queen that I have both watched and read. I do still look forward to the remaining instalments in this series. I know less about their protagonists.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Katherine of Aragon

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Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon – The True Queen, by Alison Weir, is the first in a series of specially commissioned books each of which will tell the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view. This first installment is a mighty six hundred pages long. Whilst being written using easily readable and accessible language it still took some time to work through. It is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, but literary licence has been taken to add emotion. This queen may have been badly used but this was the lot for noble women at the time. I struggled to warm to her, especially later in her life.

The book opens with the arrival in Plymouth of the fifteen year old Infanta Catalina, a princess of Spain. Instructed by her future father-in-law, King Henry VII, to forget Spain, she receives a rapturous welcome from the people of England, eager to catch a glimpse of their future queen. She is introduced to a sickly Arthur, Prince of Wales and her betrothed. They marry and move to Ludlow Castle where he dies.

Events in Europe at this time conspire to put Katherine’s future in jeapordy. Marriages between the children of the nobility were political and financial in nature. Daughters were required to heed the wishes of their fathers and then husbands. Katherine had been raised to comply and, despite occasional glimpses of temper, did so willingly. A devout Catholic (her parents founded the notorious Spanish Inquisition) she regarded this compliance as ordained by God.

The facts of this period of Tudor history are well known. The author focuses on evoking the life of a lady in the English Court. Through the years of waiting Katherine writes many letters begging her relatives abroad for assistance. This was all that was in her power to do and she does it continually throughout her life. When action was taken that favoured her it was because it also favoured those who acted. I wondered at the risks she sometimes took to write the letters when it seemed obvious she was rarely more than a pawn.

Henry VII dies and Katherine marries his remaining son, becoming Queen beside Henry VIII. Their marriage was happy except for the continual deaths of their newly born children. During these years the story describes the royal couple’s clothing, accommodation, food, entertainments, and their movement between grand houses. They had a vast army of servents and followers, spending lavishly and favouring their own.

Katherine was a useful and beloved queen until she reached menopause without producing a male heir. Henry had taken mistresses over the years and had at least one son whom he recognised and promoted, much to his wife’s chagrin. When it became clear that she could no longer give him a son he conspired to set her aside. He was most put out when she would not do as he asked and enter a nunnery, his strong sense of entitlement coming to the fore.

The ascendancy of Anne Boleyn, as seen through Katherine’s eyes, is of interest but I found the description of these later years overlong. Katherine was effectively a prisoner, retreating into piety and much weeping. It was hard to retain interest when little happened to her other than suffering for her intransegence. She did not seem able to understand her situation despite having lived half a century in the midst of the corruption and favouritism of the royal court.

What the author has succeeded in doing is to make me want to read the next instalment, to see how this same history will look through Anne Boleyn’s eyes. There is also mention of Jane Seymour, the Parr and Howard families. There is much to come.

Life in the sixteenth century was obviously very different to today, particularly for women, although the machinations of the wealthy demonstrates that there are also many parallels. There is only occasional mention of those outside of the nobility or church. Perhaps, as now, they were of little interest to the powerful except as war fodder or tax generators.

In some ways this telling of a well known story felt simplified despite the detail. It lacked the nuances of, say, Wolf Hall. However, the idea of looking at the same period of history through six pairs of similarly ranked female eyes is intriguing. I hope to have the opportunity to read the remaining books from the series in due course.

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My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.