Nearly five centuries after her death, Henry VIII’s tragic second queen Anne Boleyn has become not just a modern celebrity but the subject of a fast-growing internet cult.
The controversial life of the much-vilified woman who famously stole the monarch’s heart but was executed for treason exudes a posthumous charisma that continues to fascinate historians and writers, and inspire feminists.
In the second book of her epic Six Tudor Queens novels series, which began last year with Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, historian and author Alison Weir strips away many of the myths that have grown around Anne’s dramatic life and returns to what little source material we have on this most famous of queens to reimagine her turbulent life and times.
The result is a stunning reappraisal of the queen who changed the course of history, an unforgettable and palpably plausible portrait of a flawed but very human woman whose persuasive powers and vaulting ambition took her so high that she soon found herself not just out of her depth but on a road more perilous and more frightening than she could ever have imagined.
Even as she grows up at moated Hever Castle, the Boleyn family seat which sits amidst the lush Kentish countryside, 12-year-old Anne is aware that she must prepare herself for a future in which ‘royal favour and a wealthy husband of rank’ will be her most important goal.
She is also painfully aware of her lack of classic beauty and the deformity of her little finger on her right hand with its tiny extra nail which her sister Mary has cruelly called ‘a witch’s mark.’
But Anne has other attributes… an intelligent girl, she has been well educated by her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, and her mother, Elizabeth Howard, now Lady Boleyn, has royal blood running through her aristocratic family.
Anne’s dull life at Hever changes when she is sent to be maid-of-honour at the highly cultured court of the widowed Archduchess Margaret of Austria in the Netherlands, a place where the already ambitious Anne soaks up revolutionary feminist ideas and learns to ‘flash her dark eyes, swish her skirt’ and understand ‘the infinite possibilities of dalliance.’
After a spell at the sophisticated French court in the service of Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor, Anne returns to the English court armed with the knowledge that ‘the ultimate prize is your virtue’ and eager to show off her French manners, stylish dresses, wit, charm and ‘mastery over the opposite sex.’
And it is there that she catches the eye of the king, who falls passionately in love with her and resolves to set aside his devoted wife Katherine of Aragon who has not given him the male heir that he craves.
But there are seven long years of waiting ahead for Henry who must battle the Church and his wife for a divorce, and for Anne who frustrates the king by refusing to become his mistress in anything but the courtly sense.
The stakes are high because when the king commands, nothing is ever a game. And Anne is determined to win the crown… at any price.
In her Author’s Note, Weir reveals that unlike Katherine of Aragon, who left a wealth of letters, Anne Boleyn’s life is in some ways ‘unknowable’ as she left no personal correspondence and much of the evidence we have comes from Eustache Chapuys, the hostile Spanish ambassador to Henry VIII’s court.
However, there can be no doubt that Anne was a young woman of intellect and new ideas, having spent her formative years under the tutelage of two female rulers in Europe where traditional concepts of women were questioned and hotly debated.
And Weir gets to the heart of this enigmatic queen, using her vast historical knowledge and intuitive sensibilities for the big names of the Tudor period to bring us an Anne Boleyn more vital, more credible and more irresistibly real than we have ever before seen her.
This Anne is restless, driven, manipulative, fiercely intelligent, and intimidating even to the king she ensnares through her wiles. The girl who sought love, power and status is transformed by the achievement of her own ambitions to the point where she is prepared to recklessly challenge the man who holds all power over life and death.
This is a thrilling addition to the magnificent Six Tudor Queens series as Weir puts flesh on the bones of this remarkable queen, examines in detail the influences that motivated her life, and offers up one of historical fiction’s most compelling and exciting portraits of the enduringly fascinating and mysterious Anne Boleyn.
(Headline Review, hardback, £18.99)