by Phillipa Vincent-Connolly
In search of Anne Boleyn for my book Timeless Falcon, I have been fortunate enough to visit the Historic Royal Palace sites on several occasions, as well as visiting Hever Castle in Kent, Anne’s childhood home and Sudeley Castle in Gloustershire. With thanks to the HRP members’ team I have been welcomed to The Tower of London in the evening to wander around and soak up the atmosphere of this historic sight, when access to the public has not been allowed. Visiting sites related to Anne has helped me write on such a significant and fascinating character as Anne, albeit fiction. I had to visit and see for myself where so many iconic moments took place at historical sites such as Hever Castle, Hampton Court Palace and The Tower of London and it is hard not to step on a flagstone or floorboard that does not have a tale to tell. As well as making for fascinating days’ out with my two boys, this has also proved a real inspiration for my other career as a teacher and historian.
In researching Anne’s life, it became apparent to me just how important two of the HRP palaces were to her life. Hampton Court, built by the King’s disgraced first advisor, Cardinal Wolsey, was the site of numerous council meetings Henry had about his ‘Great Matter’ and private audiences between Anne and Henry VIII, as well as the intertwining of her initials with his which can still be seen in The Great Hall today. It was also here that the intrigues surrounding the King’s marriages, in which Wolsey and Cromwell were intricately involved, were spun.
Anne was very familiar with the Tower of London, particularly after she stayed there during the preparations prior to her coronation and then eventually her imprisonment in her royal apartments, prior to her execution. There are little traces of Anne, (Anne Boleyn’s gateway) initials in the ceiling at Hampton Court Palace and her falcon crest etched into the wall of the Beauchamp Tower in the Tower of London by one of her supporters and of course, her book of hours at Hever Castle. Being able to look at the same pages she did, tread the same paths, look out of the same windows and see (almost) unaltered views and above all to get a sense of the atmosphere of the Tudor court, has been invaluable to my research.
The most moving visit was of one to the altar, where if you walk up the aisle of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, you will be standing over the bones of the woman herself where you can pay your respects by leaving a rose upon the marble slab, which covers her resting place. In the pages of my story, I hope I have managed to capture the essence of some of these historic sites and given you a taster of Tudor and court life.
Another close glimpse of court life comes, when you can peek into Anne and Henry’s relationship from the ability to read his seventeen love letters he sent to Anne. Unfortunately, I was unable to go and see them first-hand at the Vatican, so I bought a German book containing life-size prints of each one, which give, very fleetly, a window into Henry’s soul and heart, as far as Anne was concerned. The problem is that none of Anne’s letters back to Henry have survived, which gives the impression that Anne was being coy, when her replies may have been just as impassioned. What we do have is a Book of Hours, Henry’s illuminated prayer book, which is in the British Library, for all to see. The extraordinary thing about this book is that Henry and Anne appear to have used it to pass promises and notes to one another. I have tried to weave the undated letters into the story as well as the couplets written by both Henry and Anne.
I have in fact, based on new arguments, changed when Anne and Henry ‘get serious’ as Dr Starkey has managed an extra-ordinary breakthrough of dating one of Henry’s letters to Anne to an exact date. A breakthrough, which Dr Starkey has unfortunately been unable to debate with Eric Ives, due to Eric’s premature death. The letter in question, is the one where Henry thanks Anne for the gift of jewel, which depicts a maiden in a storm tossed ship. The gift was a jewel made of gold with three diamonds and four rubies. Before Anne received this letter from Henry, she sent the said jewel, with a note, that she, like the lady in the ship agrees to submit herself to a safe haven in a storm; the safe haven is Henry and the gift is showing Henry, that she is agreeing to marry him. Therefore, Henry, as the winner, takes all. It is marriage or nothing and Anne has the letter she wants.
Most of the letters were in French, some in English, and as the letters were mainly written in French, it was all to do with Anne learning to get her man. At a talk of Dr David Starkey’s that I attended in 2014, he argued that he could date one of Henry’s letter’s to Anne, based on one word in the letter and that word is, ‘l’estrene’, meaning a gift, quote from the letter in French, ‘De l’estrene si bel que rien plus notant le toute je vous en mercy tres cordiallement’, translates to ‘the gift so beautiful that nothing noting the whole…’, and a gift as expensive as this, would only have ever been given in Tudor times, on New Year’s Day. Therefore, David Starkey argues, this dates the letter to the 1st January 1527. Based on this evidence and theory, it meant that Henry’s infatuation with Anne started months earlier than is normally suggested by the majority of historians and novelists, so therefore, my re-telling of Anne’s story, with my main character as observer, takes these dates into account, making January 1st 1527, a pivotal point in Anne and Henry’s relationship.
Of course, I cannot get everything correct, as most of the evidence about Anne is very sparse and it is the job of a novelist to weave the silken thread of the story and their imagination around the primary sources. As after all, the contents of todays’ waste paper basket are the primary sources of tomorrow. I have been transparent in my writing of this book and that I do not bring anything we do not already know about Anne, to the table. I have just delivered the information in a different way. I hope the reader will consider the historical events behind Anne’s story and consider the view of Anne Boleyn, and the period, through the eyes of the character of a modern day history student, rather than me writing from Anne’s point of view and portraying her as a Disney princess or at the other end of the scale, like a bitch. There has to be some balance to her character and nature otherwise Henry would have never fallen for her in the first place.
The fascination with Anne Boleyn continues unabated, nearly five hundred years after her death. Anne is always remembered for her untimely demise and the allegations made against her, which are unjust, as Anne was a factor and not a footnote to some of the most fundamental changes in England during the Tudor period. I am not the only historian to believe this of Anne, as David Starkey once said to me that Anne “is a fascinating subject to write about”. The love affair between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is shrouded in historical myth, romantic legend, half-truths and fabrication. Much of their story remains fiercely debated by historians – everything from why Henry fell for Anne, to why he destroyed her in the end.
Anne Boleyn, the witch, the whore, the martyr, the saint, the victim, the Jezebel, the Queen. So many titles are attached to Anne, a young woman from Kent, educated in France, who dared to rise above her station, as a knight’s daughter and compete in the most dangerous game in Europe. The mind of a scholar, a politician and the graces of a noblewoman, Anne did not compete to be a man in a man’s world but won her place at court though being an outspoken woman, which was unheard of in Tudor times, apart from one or two exceptions like the Duchess Elizabeth Howard of Norfolk. Anne believed in her heart that she was the best, by virtue of her elegance, intellect, and accomplishments therefore, she believed she deserved the best, namely the king of England.
She saw herself and Henry Tudor as equals. She wanted to be his chief advisor and was ambitious as most women were, in the Tudor court. Moreover, she was a patron of the Gospels, champion of the poor and a woman with a mission. It was about the promotion of God and of faith and not at its heart, self-promotion. It is the faithful and religious side, that is neglected by writers and historians and I wanted to portray this side of Anne in my writing, as I belief Anne was passionate about her faith and her God.
Anne Boleyn enraptured the king with use of her steely nerve, vivid personality, and infectious spirit. Anne devoted years of her life waiting to marry the king and she did this so that her child would be heir to the throne and because she was anxious to promote the Protestant Reformation. Anne enjoyed the trappings of court life, wearing elaborate gowns and revelling in courtly entertainments. Anne was religious, though not so vocal about it as her brother or Katherine Parr. Like Katherine Parr, Anne read many books by Protestant authors, the most famous being Obedience of a Christian Man by William Tyndale. She also patronized various Protestant churches, poets, singers, painters and the translators of the Bible in English. Anne kept a copy of Tyndale’s Bible in her chambers, an act which would have meant being burnt at the stake, under the supremacy of Thomas More. Anne was generous to the poor and had the love, despite common misconception, of the common and merchant class in society London, in an increasingly Protestant city.
Anne’s personality is weighed either by her being a saint or a sinner. In writing this book, and in detailing actual events and her conversations reported on and recorded in primary sources, it is difficult to say who Anne really was. However, much I wanted to portray her as a Disney princess, her character just would not allow for it. I tried to look kindly upon her case, but Anne was, at times, capable of genuine cruelty, as with the teenage Lady Mary Tudor, and her indifference to Katherine of Aragon’s plight. While her dislike of Queen Katherine is understandable, considering their difference in religion, something that meant the difference between life and death in Tudor times, it would have been kinder of Anne to have exerted mercy to her enemies, especially once she knew she had beaten them.
Anne was a bit of a shrew with inferior people at court, as was reflected in a conversation with Mark Smeaton and she would lash out at others if she felt threatened by them. Anne dined with merchants, having real compassion for the poor, and bestowed generous sums of money to schools, hospitals, the arts and universities. She is often maligned as a bad sister, when she was very kind to Mary. Mary Boleyn’s stint as mistress to the King was not popular among her family, but Anne kept her close, as a lady in waiting. By Tudor standards, Mary would have been outcast as the unchaste, debauched sister, but Anne restored Mary to her place, and even after Mary’s secret marriage, sent her gifts to help support her.
While Anne was not perfect by any means, she was neither witch nor whore but a politician and a hunter, determined to catch her prey, and to achieve her ambition. However, Anne’s political and religious stance is so often over shadowed, by the drama in her life and it is this aspect of her life, which is highlighted in programmes, dramas and mini-series; which is why historians never appear to take her seriously. During my portrayal of Anne in this book, I hope I have presented her in a well-balanced way, showing the many sides to her character, as Anne Boleyn is still misunderstood. My interpretation is that she loved God and believed in a personal relationship with God through grace and faith… if it was not for her great influence on the King, we would all be listening to mass in Latin and be dogged by catholic doctrine and would be paying for our places in heaven through the practice of indulgences.
As historians, studying Anne we can never be wrong, so long as we have the sources and the academic argument to back up our theories. Professor Simon Schama in his popular ‘A History of Britain’, series, nailed the problem of Anne on the head when he said: ‘So much saccharin drivel has been written on the subject of Anne Boleyn, so many Hollywood movies made, so many bodice-buster romances produced, that we serious historians are supposed to avert our gaze from the tragic soap opera of her life and concentrate on the meaty stuff – like the social and political origins of the Reformation or the Tudor revolution in government. But, try as we might, we keep coming back – time and again – to the subject of Anne, because it turns out that she was, after all, historical prime cause number one.’
Delving into historical fiction, especially when writing about people who lived centuries ago, as the historical writer, Alison Weir has said, ‘it is about the piecing together of fragments of information and trying to make sense of them. In addition, of course, as a historian, one must be objective – you can engage with the book and the research, but not – emotionally – with the subject.’
Nevertheless, people do engage with Anne emotionally and many say they ‘love’ Anne Boleyn. However, although we can be interested, even fascinated, how can we love someone – be it Anne Boleyn or anyone else – who was alive five hundred years ago? We cannot know historical personages as we know those of our own time. We can only infer so much about them from the sources of the period and memorials they left behind. Norah Lofts, a novelist of Anne Boleyn put it succinctly when she wrote, in The Brittle Glass (1942): ‘And so out of the bits and pieces I could gather, out of my own imaginings and speculations, I built up a picture and a story… After all, how much nearer, even with much documentary evidence, can we come to understanding any one of the myriad dead who have gone to their graves, carrying their real secrets, of motive and essence and personality, into the silence with them?’
My response on this very subject is, most of the people that profess to “love” Anne, I think are fascinated by her life story and her ability to stand up to a despot King. Most are not academics or historians; they just have a love of that period in history, as it is a fascinating window in a period in English history. Anne would have not known what being a “feminist” was. Too many people view Anne through 21st century glasses – that is the problem. We can admire her for her strength of character, her determination to aid the reformation cause, her charitable works and of course giving us one of England’s greatest monarchs but that is it. Everything else is conjecture unless based on historical sources.
Even historians disagree on her downfall, who was responsible for it, and that is when looking at the sources! It is frustrating for us as so few primary sources survive on Anne and therefore the only information that’s “new” on Anne is the opinion of historians, how they analyse sources and interpret them. The internet also makes information and misinformation widely available as well as giving so many the ability to contribute to the myths surrounding Anne. If writers write fantasy fiction on Anne, they should say so and why…then things are not blurred. I am sure Anne would laugh at the “idolization” around her and would find it amusing that her story still stirs up the emotions, arguments and conjecture it did during her existence. The same could be said of Elvis, Marilyn or Jimmy Dean.
If Anne had been a well-behaved women and not quite so fascinating, I’m sure she wouldn’t feature so much in our history books, as well-behaved women seldom make history. You only need to study Marie Antoinette or Diana, Princess of Wales; they did not conform to the time they lived in and made waves in the established courts into which they had become engrained. Anne’s reputation whilst she was alive in the sixteenth century made certain she made history, whether you believe rumour and conjecture from the period or not. Her peers might agree, if we had the opportunity to question them now, that Anne was forthright, before her time, headstrong and a politically intelligent woman.
Anne is the Tudor Queen who spoke plainly to her husband’s face, trying to be an advisor to her husband and to steer him in a different religious direction to what his catholic conscience had intended. Anne wanted to be Henry’s frontline advisor; she did not want to play a secondary role to Cromwell. For her defiance to Cromwell, God’s executioner, Anne’s star disintegrated into a maelstrom of conspiracy, being accused of multiple acts of sexual perversion and incest. Ultimately, after only one thousand days of marriage, Henry would order Anne’s execution on charges of adultery, incest and conspiring the king’s death.
The Roman Catholic propagandist, Nicolas Sander’s late sixteenth century slander of Anne created the popular belief that Anne was a witch, linking her to occult practises, and this notion of Anne eventually gave rise to the Anne we all learned about in school, and which Susan Bordo discusses in her book, ‘The Creation of Anne Boleyn.’ I believe, from the writings of Thomas Wyatt’s grandson, Anne had a small growth of an extra nail on one of her little fingers, as this would not have meant she had an extra finger as suggested in catholic propaganda, but a very mild deformity, which would have led to this being blown out of proportion by her enemies.
Despite Anne taking the sacrament and swearing her innocence upon it, when in Royal Apartments of The Tower, most believed she was guilty as charged. Chapuys later refused to believe that the King would have moved against his wife unless she had been guilty of some of the charges of adultery for which she was beheaded.
As a historian, based on the evidence and in my opinion, Anne’s demise and death was indeed down to Cromwell, being ‘judicial murder’, and Lady Worcester and Antony Browne were the first to accuse Anne, whilst Thomas Cromwell acted on these allegations for his own devices. I am certainly not telling you what to think or whom you should ‘blame’ for Anne Boleyn’s fall and execution. As Suzannah Lipscomb said in “The Last Days of Anne Boleyn” TV programme, “there’s just enough evidence to keep historians guessing but just enough gaps to make sure they can never finally get to the solution”, and she’s right. I cannot tell you exactly what happened, I could only offer my interpretation. Yes, my interpretation of Anne’s story is very loose, but I have been very transparent in relaying that this book is a fictional one and purely for entertainment purposes. My cameos in the book of Dr David Starkey and of Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, are for the purposes of moving the story along and getting the reader to consider what they already know about Tudor history.
How would we as history lovers relate to being able to travel back in time, meeting the personages from the past and what would we say if we had the opportunity to ask questions? I did ask Dr Starkey what he would ask Henry, if he had the ability to travel back in time and have an audience with him in his privy closet and David chuckled, thought about it for a split second, then said, “I’d ask him nothing; I’d be afraid my head would be cut off!” That made me laugh, because I was expecting some profound answer from him and I did not get one. I hope my little homage to Suzannah and David amuses them, as these scenes are there to entertain and inform; most of all, in my small way, I hope I have captured an ‘essence’ of them in the scenes, and that the historical titbits in my writing, will urge readers to delve into the real history and to study the primary sources, visit Hever, Hampton Court Palace and other sites of historical interest, bringing alive the Tudor period for them. It has been a scary experience, writing a novel of Anne Boleyn, as she still attracts so much attention and debate. Most of all, I hope that I have captured an interesting Anne, having portrayed her with kindness and generosity.
Phillipa Vincent-Connolly, an independent author and historian, graduated from The Open University with a BA and is now a qualified teacher of history and fashion. She is a single mum of two, living on the south coast in Broadstone, near Wimborne Dorset. In a previous life, Phillipa was a nail technician with her own nail salon & educator for Entity Beauty. Phillipa, well known fondly to many in the “Tudor Community” is currently writing a novel about Anne Boleyn entitled Timeless Falcon. Her debut novel, Miracle, tells the heroic story of Orianna Stewart, a talented teenager coping with unique challenges.
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