Today, on the anniversary of the execution of Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, Queenanneboleyn.com is delighted to share our recent interview with Alison Weir. Alison’s second novel in her Six Tudor Queens series, Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, released in the United States on May 16th and yesterday in the United Kingdom. While visiting the website, do check out our review. Delightful readings from the novel are also included with the review and below.
Alison, within the plot of Anne Boleyn: The King’s Obsession, Anne’s early life in the Netherlands and France is richly crafted. Just how profoundly do you believe Margaret of Austria, Marguerite of Navarre, and Claude of France influenced Anne Boleyn’s views of womanhood and queenship?
I believe that Margaret of Austria and Marguerite of Valois, two of the most erudite and influential women of the age, had a great influence on Anne Boleyn. In Margaret, she had an exemplar of a woman ruling capably and patronising the arts and humanism. Marguerite was a great writer, whose works spurred many women to put pen to paper. Both were what we would now call feminists, and, from 1521, Marguerite was advocating religious reform. Anne served them both during her formative, most impressionable years, and it is hard to believe that she did not benefit from their example and their ideals.
In crafting Marguerite of Valois, were you tempted to gather her personality through her remarkable short stories collection, The Heptameron? Just how unusual was it for 16th-century women to compose literature? Do you agree with those who consider Marguerite of Navarre World History’s “first modern woman”?
Yes, I did use The Heptameron. It was Sarah Gristwood who directed me to the passages relating to the rape of Marguerite. Some have seen it as a literary conceit; others, myself included, believe that it really happened.
It wasn’t unusual for sixteenth-century women to write literature. In fact, my research showed that hundreds, if not thousands, of them did so, inspired by the example of prominent women like Marguerite of Valois. I would not call Marguerite the ‘first modern woman’. I think that epithet should really go to Christine de Pizan, the French author of the first books written by a woman for women, which were some of the earliest examples of ‘feminist’ literature, and an inspiration to Margaret of Austria.
In the novel, I was actually surprised that Anne Boleyn’s older brothers Thomas and Henry lived to young adulthood. Was the length of their lives as depicted in the book based on your research? Can you tell us more about them?
It is often claimed that two of Anne Boleyn’s brothers died as infants. The cross brass of ‘Thomas Bullayne’ in Penshurst Church, Kent, describes him as the son of Sir Thomas Boleyn, who was knighted in 1509; thus Thomas must have died after that date. Henry’s grave is marked by another cross brass adjacent to his father’s tomb in Hever Church. The fact that there were two similar cross brasses suggests that the boys may have died around the same time. Thomas, named after his father, was almost certainly the eldest son, born in 1499 or earlier, and Henry, perhaps named for King Henry VII, may well have been the second, born in 1500 at the latest.
It is probably fair to say that Henry Boleyn was probably still alive when his brother George was born in 1502-3, otherwise this third son might also have been named after the King. It was a tradition in the Boleyn family to give more than one child the same name, to ensure the name’s survival in an age of high infant mortality.
Thomas’s burial at Penshurst suggests that he had been placed in the household of the Duke of Buckingham. The fact that his body was not carried the short distance to the church at Hever suggests that he was buried quickly, which made me wonder if he had died during the outbreak of the sweating sickness in 1517.
It was once claimed that Sir Thomas Boleyn sent his son George to be ‘educated among the Oxonians’, but that is unlikely, because the age at entry to Oxford was then seventeen, and he would have been too young. George was at court from the age of about eleven, so it is unlikely that he went to university at all. Thus it was probably Henry who was sent to Oxford, with a view to a career in the Church, a customary way of providing for younger sons. Oxford suffered badly during the plague epidemic of 1517. Did Henry die then? Maybe he came home to Hever to escape the plague, but succumbed anyway.
Without giving away any plot details, it is obvious that the relationship between Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII takes center stage through much of the novel. Given the book’s title Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession provides readers with a “major hint”, do you believe that Anne had any choice at all in ultimately returning the king’s affections? Do you believe the subservient roles that 16th-century women were cast within limited Anne’s options? How so?
Historically, there is good evidence that Henry VIII was obsessed with Anne Boleyn. For example, Cardinal Campeggio, the Papal legate, reported in 1528: ‘This passion of the King is the most extraordinary thing. He sees nothing, he thinks of nothing but Anne. He cannot do without her for an hour, and it moves one to pity to see how the King’s life, the stability and downfall of the whole country, hang upon this.’
Yes, Anne did have a choice. Henry’s letters reveal that she disdained him at times, blew hot and cold, removed herself tactically to Hever Castle, and would not commit to being his mistress in either the physical or the courtly sense. She could have walked away, but I think she saw the crown rather than the King, and whether she returned his affections is debatable. If we had her replies to his letters, we would know so much more!
During the long years of their courtship, Anne was the mistress, with mastery over Henry; the conventions of courtly love cast him as her servant, a role he was willing to play. She was the one in control. Marriage changed that, for wives were expected to be subservient to their husbands, and Henry was a conventional husband, and also a king. Yet Anne still ruled him, to varying extents, and remained influential, and she might have continued in that vein had she borne him a male heir. But it was her volatile temper, fuelled by her insecurities, that made Henry ‘tired to satiety’ of her, and ultimately it was biology that let her down, and laid her open to the machinations of her enemies.
Anne Boleyn — Though obviously unknowing of the modern definition, was she a true 16th-century feminist icon? Why or why not?
I think she was imbued in youth with certain Renaissance ‘feminist’ ideals, which helped to make her the confident and independent-minded woman she was, but I don’t see her as an advocate of feminism. Successful as she was, until disaster overtook her, she did little to advance the conditions of other women, preferring to focus her efforts on religious reform.
Editor’s Note: For more of Alison’s about Anne Boleyn and feminism, check out her article Anne Boleyn: Feminist? in “BBC History Magazine Extra”.
Throughout Anne Boleyn: The King’s Obsession, Anne’s relationships with the men in her life, as well as the relationships of other historical figures, highlighted in the book, focus on the 16th-century concept of courtly love. This stated, without “spoilers” ruining the plot for those who soon will read the novel, several scenes also highlight the prevalence of male predatory behavior. Do you believe there was a fine line between “courtly love” and “sexual dominance”? Just how easily could “courtly love” be misconstrued?
I’m sure that a double standard prevailed, and that sometimes the behaviour of men depended on the rank or conduct of the women they pursued. There are two known instances of Henry VIII having his way with women regardless of how they felt about it. His cousin, Reginald Pole, revealed that he had `violated` Mary Boleyn and then kept her for a long time as his concubine. And in 1537, there is the strange case of William Webbe, who was accused of being a traitor after complaining to several people that, while he was out riding near Eltham Palace with ‘a pretty wench’ behind him, he encountered the King, who took such a fancy to the girl that he ‘plucked down her muffler and kissed her, and liked her so well that he took her from him, and so lived and kept her still in adultery’.
Webbe’s young woman was clearly of the lower classes, and probably seen as fair game by Henry, and Mary Boleyn’s reputation had apparently been compromised at the French court, so possibly he saw her as ‘easy’. But when women, like Anne Boleyn, were known to be virtuous and held themselves aloof, as the game of courtly love demanded, the King, who saw himself as the epitome of chivalry, played by the rules. Yet his first approach to women, as evidenced by his letters to Anne, seems generally to have been that of a man looking for sexual escapades, of which it seems he had many. And yes, we may imagine that the game of courtly love was often misconstrued, or was used as a cover for leading women astray.
Alison, as you know Anne Boleyn has risen to “cult-like” proportions, especially after the motion picture The Other Boleyn Girl and the television series The Tudors. Given her popularity, it would be tempting to show Anne only in a positive light. You commendably resist this temptation. Please speak to Anne’s occasional penchant to be unkind, particularly her cruelty towards Katherine of Aragon and the Lady Mary.
It concerns to see how Anne Boleyn has been romanticised in recent years, how many misconceptions there are about her, and how partisan some of her admirers can be. Many find reasons to reject contemporary evidence that portrays her in a less sympathetic light, such as the dispatches of the Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, who is the chief source for her cruelty to Katherine and Mary. Yet it is corroborated by her own letters, and there is no avoiding that. As a historian, I find Chapuys’ reports credible (you will see why in my answer below), but while a historian must be objective, a novelist has greater freedom. My greatest challenge in writing this novel from Anne Boleyn’s point of view was staying true to the historical evidence while retaining the reader’s sympathy for her. This was achieved by conjecturing why she behaved as she did, and that enabled me to empathise, to a degree, with her. I think that fear and insecurity made her cruel.
Without giving away any plot and the characterizations of the historical figures highlighted, would you say that how you crafted the characters of King Henry VIII, Mary Boleyn, George Boleyn, Jane Parker, Henry Norris, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer were based on your interpretation of your exhaustive historical research?
I did! And I did further research in some instances, when I needed specific detail. It is invaluable to a historical novelist to be able use your characters own words – even out of context. I also considered how Anne Boleyn would have viewed these people, which coloured my portrayal of them.
Eustace Chapuys — Were his letters our best peek at the personality of Anne Boleyn? Is his hostile bias a major concern in seeing the truth of things? How about accountings from George Wyatt? Do they teach us anything worth considering?
As recent studies have shown, Chapuys is generally a reliable witness, for all his bias, and we should remember that he did not hate Anne Boleyn to begin with, and that he admired her courage at the end, and stated that there was no valid proof of her guilt, after initially believing the charges against her. He thought she had been `condemned upon presumption [of guilt] and certain indications, without valid proof or confession`. David Starkey has pointed out that Chapuys names his sources, which makes it easier for us to evaluate their likely veracity. He was undoubtedly sincere in his fears for the safety of Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary, although he over-estimated the amount of support there would be in England for an Imperial invasion on their behalf.
So yes, Chapuys is one of the most important – and most underrated – sources for studying Anne Boleyn, as is George Wyatt, whose late-sixteenth-century eulogistic memoir of her was written to counter virulent attack of Nicholas Sander, and is another of the chief primary sources for her life. Wyatt was the grandson of the poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Anne`s Kentish neighbour and sometime admirer, and he had been fascinated by tales of Anne from his youth, when he had `gathered many notes touching this lady’. He himself wrote that he had had `the peculiar means, more than others, to come to some more particular knowledge` of her. Much of his information came from anecdotes handed down in his family, and from the reminiscences of three ladies, among them his mother, Anne Gainsford, who had been Anne`s maid-of-honour `that first attended on her both before and after she was queen`, and an unidentified `lady of noble birth, living in those times, and well-acquainted with the persons` about whom Wyatt wrote. His work, which was left unfinished, is strongly biased in her favour.
In reading the novel, I was struck by how isolated Anne Boleyn often was. Did she have any true friends? Who were they?
The Queen of England was, to some degree, isolated. She had her own apartments at court, and a defined sphere in which she operated, both of which lent to that isolation. I think most of those who served her, some of whom went on to serve Jane Seymour, had no especial loyalty to Anne the woman, only to Anne the Queen. Neither of her Boleyn aunts liked her. Some of the women she had regarded as friends turned on her in the end. She may have been close to her cousin, Madge Shelton, at least until she encouraged Madge to sleep with the King. We have occasional glimpses of her conversations with various maids-of-honour, and she praised the service and fidelity of the four young ladies (whose names are not recorded) who attended her in her last days, and were much distressed on the scaffold; but queens did not cultivate close friendships with maids-of-honour, who were usually far below them in rank, and to whom they stood in loco parentis. An exception was Anne’s chamberer and former nurse, Mrs. Orchard, who had been with her from childhood and was much distressed at her condemnation. But I think that Anne’s truest friend was her mother, whom she stated she loved more than anyone else.
Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession contains beautiful poetry, including the following famous poem thought by some historians to be crafted by Anne Boleyn while imprisoned in the tower:
Oh Death, rock me asleep,
Bring me to quiet rest,
Let pass my weary, guiltless ghost
Out of my woeful breast.
Toll on thou passing bell,
Ring out my doleful knell,
For the sound my death doth tell.
Death doth draw nigh,
There is no remedy.
Farewell, my pleasures past,
Welcome, my present pain,
I feel my torments so increase,
That life cannot remain.
Cease now, thou passing bell,
Rung is my doleful knell,
For its sound my death doth tell,
Death doth draw nigh,
Sound the knell dolefully,
For now I die.
Do you think Anne Boleyn actually penned this poem? What research leads you to this conclusion? Were the other poems included in the novel contemporary to the era?
Anne’s authorship of this poem was first attested to by Sir John Hawkins (1719-1789): in his five-volume work A History of Music, in which he stated that these verses were communicated to him by `a very judicious antiquary, lately deceased`. The poem comes from Additional MS. XV, f117 in the British Library, is contemporary, and was set to music by Robert Jordan, a former chaplain to Anne Boleyn. It is therefore possible that it was composed by Anne herself, for the lyrics reveal how its author welcomes and embraces death, as attested by Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower, and Chapuys.
The poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt, quoted in the novel, are also contemporary, likewise those by Margaret Douglas and Lord Thomas Howard, which survive in the famous Devonshire Manuscript. John Skelton did write a poem to Mistress Margery Wentworth, and one addressed to Elizabeth Howard. The verses recited at Anne Boleyn’s coronation are as described in sources of the time.
What do you think Anne Boleyn’s greatest contributions to English History were? Do you believe Anne Boleyn’s influence upon the Henrician Reformation to be under-appreciated or over-stated? How so?
It was her vision that helped to shape the Reformation. As early as 1528, she urged Henry to read two banned books, Simon Fish’s A Supplication for the Beggars and William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man, and how Christian Kings ought to Govern. In these two works, which contained revolutionary ideas, you can see the Reformation in embryonic form. I think this was her greatest contribution to English history, and when you read these books, you cannot but conclude that her influence on the Henrician Reformation was considerable.
Alison, I know browsers and members are curious. Do you have any new projects on the horizon that you would like to share???
There are four more books in the Six Tudor Queens series to come, and I have nearly finished Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen. In September, I’ll be publishing Queens of the Conquest, the first in a concurrent, four-book non-fiction series, England’s Medieval Queens, based on a huge bank of research that I have long wanted to write up.
COMING IN 2018… QUEEN JANE SEYMOUR
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alison Weir is the United Kingdom’s most popular and best selling female historian. Alison’s first published work, Britain’s Royal Families, introduced the world to the now recognized genre of “popular history”, and her sales tell the story. Readers purchased more than 2.3 million books, over 1,000,000 in the United Kingdom, and more than 1,300,000 books in the United States. Rich in detailed research, Alison’s engaging prose captured the interest and imaginations of countless people, instilling a love of history that influenced the career paths of historical fiction writers, historians, and teachers, while also greatly increasing knowledge of medieval English history among people throughout the world. For more information on Alison Weir, visit her websites at ALISON WEIR: U.K. HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR and ALISON WEIR TOURS.