I have long been a fan of things Tudor and the work of Alison Weir. That she can create such masterful biographies and historical pieces is one thing, but to transform all that research into a piece deemed fictional (likely because of the dialogue) and allow a larger reader base to enjoy and discuss her work adds to the awe surrounding her. In this, the second book in her newest series, Weir takes the reader into the life of Anne Boleyn, whose short life offered much to Tudor and English history. Anne appears to have lived much of her life in the shadow of others, as Weir exemplifies throughout. In the early chapters, the reader seems Anne casting her gaze towards her older sister, Mary, who held her parents’ favour and made a name for herself at court. While following in her sister’s footsteps, Anne served in two continental courts before she was called home to spend time as a lady-in waiting to Queen Katherine. While Weir purports that Anne paled in comparison to her sister’s beauty, there were a few men who sought the younger Boleyn sister’s affections, including Sir Henry Norris and the King of England, Henry VIII. Dismissing the affectionate advances of both while serving at court, Anne tried to serve her queen as effectively as possible. The latter Henry would not desist in his approaches, as history has helped us see seemed to be his modus operandi throughout his reign. While Anne stood firm, she was counselled not to rebuff the king for too long and eventually entered into an agreement with him, serving as his mistress but would not engage carnally until there was a dissolution of his marriage to Katherine. Weir spends much time weaving together the narrative of the multi-year journey, during which time Henry VIII tried to divorce the pious Katherine, finding roadblocks to success within both Canon Law and the Catholic Church. However, Anne never seems to have that passionate magnetism to Henry VIII that history presented (and television purported fuelled her desire to betray Queen Katherine), which might be one of the largest surprises to me in the entire novel. Weir portrays Anne as living in the shadow of Queen Katherine during this time, as Henry VIII could be seen to cower when it came to confronting his first wife. The eventual ruling by the Vatican led Henry VIII to create the Great Schism and birth of the Church of England (known as the Anglican or Episcopal Church). This break offers a natural divide in Anne’s life, when she transformed from a simple woman into a dynastic member of history. Some may argue that it was less Anne than Henry’s decision to part ways with Rome, but it came about because of her and for this reason, I feel Weir’s elongated narrative about the lead-up is indicative to a great importance in the Anne Boleyn story.
With the dust still settling and the ink not yet dry on the new Royal Decrees, Anne agreed to marry Henry VIII with this impediment removed and soon bore him an heir, though it was not the son that had been sought. Still, Princess Elizabeth would be the apple of her father’s eye, at least until a son was forthcoming. Like Katherine, Anne’s attempts to have a son were troublesome, as each subsequent birth was either a stillborn or miscarriage. Fraught with concern, Anne was forced to battle with the others who held some confusing sway over Henry VIII, including his counsellors and Princess Mary, his daughter from Katherine. Anne was yet again forced to remain in the shadows, with the princess acting as pious as her mother in regards to the ‘true’ Queen of England. Add to this, the strain of the ongoing attempts to turn away from Rome and Henry VIII’s temper was much shorter, which left Anne to face his wrath over minute concerns at court. After numerous failed attempts to bring forth a son, Anne’s allure lessened in the eyes of King Henry and he sought pleasure elsewhere. With rumours swirling, Anne was forced to live in the shadow of these others, the new mistresses of Henry VIII. It was only when Anne pushed back and refused to allow other women to share Henry’s affections that she found herself on the wrong side of a charge of treason. Weir supports this latter part of the narrative well, as Anne struggles to understand why she has been subjected to this charge and the apparent false accusations of her unions with the likes of the aforementioned Sir Henry Norris and her own brother, George, surface. Anne struggles to pronounce her innocence and lives in the shadow of the Tower of London, her eventual home as she awaits a verdict of beheading. Struggling throughout, Anne was forced to accept her fate, which came about through a set of purported lies and scandalous behaviour. All this because she upset a man that she likely did not love passionately. A powerful second book in the series, Weir does a masterful job at bringing Anne Boleyn to life, as well as adding depth to some of the struggles that are peppered throughout the history books. A must-read or Tudor fans who enjoy the intricacies of that time period, but would also be of interest to those who love history and all things royal.
I will admit that I have been significantly influenced in my views on Anne Boleyn by Natalie Dormer’s portrayal of her during the television programme, THE TUDORS. Her beauty, her air, and even the general conniving nature of the young lady-in-waiting lweft me with a strong sentiment of a less than lovely Anne. Reading this book has given me a new outlook on Anne and has helped me piece together a better understanding of things at court during that time. It is impossible to understand the true story of Anne Boleyn without an understanding of numerous other actors who played various roles. Weir develops these characters so well and tied them together wonderfully, allowing the reader to bask in a richer and more complete narrative. While there are surely historical inaccuracies (that I know my buddy read companion will be able to recite), the story flows so seamlessly as Anne ages and changes from a naive girl into a woman who seeks to hold her own. Weir offers up a slow, but consistent, transformation of Anne throughout the piece, which is further exemplified by chapters whose focus is a particular period in time. As I mentioned above, I feel that the only thing pushing this novel into the realm of fiction would be its use of dialogue, which could not have been substantiated with complete accuracy. Still, the reader can get the sense that they are right in the middle of these historical events and conversations, which is surely a positive aspect of Weir’s writing. The story is so rich and Anne has so much to offer, the reader will surely want to pace themselves, or at least pay special attention to the story, so as not to miss anything. Then, the eager reader (of which, I admit, I will not be one) can cross-reference things from the first novel and even into the third (when it is released) to see how Anne is portrayed as a minor figure there. The only major downside to the novel, in my humble opinion, is that the reader rides such a high when in the middle of it, that the crash thereafter and knowing that there is a waiting period stings even more. And don’t get me started on trying to get the two short stories that accompany this series to date. UK fans should rejoice that they can easily be acquired.
Kudos, Madam Weir for bringing a key Tudor character to light in this novel. I am eager to see what else you have in store for us in the coming years.