At the beginning of the year, this site listed a number of books we were most looking forward to hitting our shelves. At the top of the list was the second installment of Alison Weir’s six novels telling the stories of Henry VIII’s curious Queens.
‘Anne Boleyn: a King’s Obsession’ will debut in book stores on May 18th. Across social media, the best-selling author and historian has been hinting that the novel will explore new and potentially controversial theories about Anne’s relationship with Henry and her attitudes toward female advancement. Given that Weir has previously stated that writing fiction gives the historian a greater degree of freedom when exploring thoughts and theories, anticipation is high as to what remains to be revealed.
However, for those more interested in a fresh take on one of history’s greatest love epics and the downfall of the original tragic heroine, there’s just as much reason for eager excitement. If the new artwork and endorsements from fellow writers released last week are anything to go by, absorbing the new book is going to be a beautiful experience from start to finish.
I’ve never been that interested in the debate around ‘when medieval England ended.’ It’s not a question that a contemporary could ever have asked and I don’t totally see the point in it.
Nonetheless I agree that saying the battle of Bosworth field was the ‘end of the medieval era’ is far too simplistic. People would not have looked out of their windows the day after and seen a radically different world.
That said, it is clear that the Tudor dynasty ushered in a new era in the way that England was governed. What fascinates me at the moment, is how much that may have been down (at least in part) to Henry VII’s personal style of Kingship.
I like Henry. It’s a shame that he gets so little attention in comparison to his showy son and chaotic Yorkist predecessors. But I genuinely believe he was a man of good character. Part of the reason for this, is that I believe he was less blood thirsty than your typical ruler – even if he was not adverse to tyrannical tendencies.
On the fact of it, my claim seems strange. This is, after all, a man who won the crown in battle and had to bear arms more than once to defend it. But when we take a minute to consider the context and other facts, I do think my comments have some credibility. For example:
He did not seek glory in foreign battles. Establishing his claim to the French throne was of little interest to him in contrast to the Henrys that had gone before him and the one that would succeed him. There is an added irony to this in that he was the grandson of a French princess and arguably had a far greater claim to that throne than he did to the one he occupied.
He was remarkably lenient with those who crossed him, Perkin Warbeck being the most obvious example. This is not to say that he wasn’t a man of his times. His eventual murder (because that’s what it was) of the vulnerable Earl of Warwick was almost unforgivable – but it seems that he did this for the sake of his dynasty rather than out of any blood lust.
He did not generally take part in battles himself. You could argue this made him a coward. But it does reinforce the argument that tales of great chivalry and conquest were of little personal interest to him.
Perhaps, after the Wars of the Roses, he thought England bored of battle. Maybe his own experience of a life on the run had exhausted his appetite for conquest. But whatever else can be said in critique of the miserly usurper, Henry Tudor, I would much rather live in a country with a high tax economy than one where my life was often in danger.
Maybe it was ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’’. ‘The Tudors’ probably packed a punch. It could just be the natural fascination we all have with tales of triumph that turn to disaster. But whatever the reason, Anne Boleyn is loved by 21st century history geeks.
I guess her courtship with Henry had all the great ingredients of a classic love story – and her downfall the perfect tragedy. She captures the imagination of the romantic, and as Alison Weir notes, in our 21st century mindset, she has reached the status of ‘celebrity’.
She deserves our interests – maybe even our fascination. But should she really command our love?
Let’s recap for a minute. This is a woman who ruthlessly forced a devout and caring woman off the throne and did her level best to ensure that she was treated as badly as possible for the remainder of her life. As Queen she did all she could to see the Lady Mary, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter humbled and harmed. If anyone got in her way, she destroyed them.
I’m not sure I’d want a girl like that for a friend.
Perhaps we’re reacting to centuries of Anne being treated unfairly. The ruthless ‘qualities’ that allowed her to prosper were much admired in men. Indeed, the equally savage Henry VIII has gone down in history as one of England’s greatest Kings. And of course, the (almost certainly) false charges levied against her have meant that previous generations regarded her as a sexually perverse harlot.
Her intelligence, her cunning and her determination now receive much greater recognition from historians. This is positive. But am I the only one that thinks there’s something freakishly ironic about how the blogsphere fawns over Anne as if she’s some kind of tragic heroine. If the character of Anne Boleyn was cast on Eastenders she would be seen as far worse than a soap bitch. She would be hounded as an undisputable villain.
Okay Boleyn fans…are you going to let me get away this this? Show me where I’m going wrong.
People have been asking me recently what I think about historical fiction. I assume what they mean by that is ‘how much does it matter whether fiction based on history actually follows the facts.’
And my answer? Not much. Personally, I much prefer fiction that sticks as closely to the available facts as possible while adding some snap, crackle and pop where it’s needed. Philippa Gregory and last year’s ‘Victoria’ series just about got it right for me. But ultimately if something is labelled fiction than that’s exactly how it should be treated. Readers and watchers should not assume they are getting the factual truth and if they do, that is not the fault of novelists or TV producers.
But there is a genre of history that worries me much more. The 1 hour documentary. I understand – and accept – that things need to be simplified for TV. I recognise that there has to be different entry points for varying levels of knowledge and interest and many of my curiosities were sparked through this very medium. However, I am getting a little fed up with the huge oversimplifications that have been transmitted through our TV screens in the last year or so which make a big impact on popular understandings of the historic debate.
Lucy Worsley’s ‘History’s Biggest Fibs’ got me a bit riled on Thursday night. While I did really enjoy much of it, the assertion that the ‘Wars of the Roses’ was a Tudor myth and that Richard III’s name was blackened by his successors, drove me crazy.
I’ve blogged previously about the Wars of the Roses, but can I please just but in a plea for sanity when it comes to the accusation that the Tudors led some kind of deliberate propaganda campaign to tarnish the previously saintly reputation of the last Plantagenet King.
Of course Tudor writers would have been mindful of the need to please the new dynasty and this would have been reflected in their writing. As Worsley notes, John Rouse’s work is a perfect example of this – he was complimentary about Richard in his life time but negative about him once Henry Tudor came to power.
However we now know that things once believed to be a Tudor invention have turned out to be true. Richard’s curved spine, so often dismissed as Tudor spin has been established as fact.
The account of Dominic Mancini – dated 1483, two years before the Tudors took over – makes it clear that people strongly suspected Richard in his own lifetime of usurping the throne and doing away with the Princes.
Of course Richard’s reputation suffered under his successors. Things rooted in truth were exaggerated and he was not treated with a sense of balance and objectivity. But the beginnings of his huge unpopularity and the link to the crimes many hold him responsible for, can clearly be found in his own reign and lifetime.
I begin 2017 with a confession – I’m well behind on my reading. Strikingly, shockingly and chronically behind. For anyone this is bad. For someone who has made it his business to keep on top of the latest offerings from popular historians, it’s an absolute disaster.
I’ve got some catching up to do. So for the first part of 2017, whenever I’m not working, writing or trying to lose a little of the Christmas weight, you’ll find me with my nose in a book (or at least my kindle). Part of the fun is that I don’t know yet exactly what my reading list will look like. There are however 5 books – not necessarily new – that I simply must read sooner rather than later. I thought I’d share those with you.
Game of Queens by Sarah Gristwood – This ambitious books claims to capture the lives of the powerful women of the 16th century. There’s been much debate in recent years as to whether modern, feminist writers are giving too much attention to women from this period, but I for one am enjoying seeing this long-term inbalance corrected. Gristwood’s ‘Blood Sisters’ which charted the collective lives of the women at the heart of the Wars of the Roses was one of the most readable history books I have ever thumbed my way through so I have high hopes for her new offering.
The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton– I was first introduced to Norton’s stimulating style through her biography of Margaret Beaufort and I’m intrigued as to how she has tackled the task of exploring ‘the seven ages of the Tudor woman, from childhood to old age.’ As I said above, the lives of powerful 16th century woman have finally started to capture the public’s imagination. This book, as I understand it, will explore the stories of some lesser known characters and provide a rich tapestry of cultural context. If so, then it’s a book I will enjoy.
Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy – Strangely, my knowledge of Elizabeth I is shockingly limited and what I do know tends to centre around a few dramatic episodes – upbringing, love life and her dealings with that pesky Queen of Scots. I’ve been keen for a while to get under the skin of the politics of her reign, particularly the latter half and when I saw a review of this book on the Guardian website I knew it would be added to the reading list. I know little of the writer so it’s something of a shot in the dark – but come on, geeks; experimenting is all part of the fun.
Magna Carta by Dan Jones – Okay, okay I know this book is nowhere near ‘new’ – but I never said that only newish books had a place on this list. Dan Jones’s offering was originally published in 2014 and despite the ‘Magna Carter’ fever that dominated 2015, I just didn’t have time to read it. However, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘the Hollow Crown’ (and found ‘the Plantagenets useful) so it was always inevitable that I would one day dust off the cover of the book in question and give it the once over. 2017 will be its lucky year.
Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir – Hot on the heels of the first book in her ‘Six Wives’ novel series last year, the Queen of history, Alison Weir has been teasing her facebook friends with the twists and turns that she took when writing her fictional account of Anne Boleyn’s life. Given Weir’s experience and expertise there is no real doubt as to the quality and historical reliability of this eagerly-awaited book, expected to hit shelves in May. But there is much anticipation as to what we might learn. The author herself has admitted that writing fiction gives her greater freedom to explore theories and suggestions that have no place in a history book but are nonetheless a valid contribution to the debate. With most of Anne’s letters lost to us, her inner thoughts can only largely be guessed at. Weir’s informed portrayal of who Anne truly was as a person will be one that many are waiting for.
Anyway, all five books shall be duly reviewed on this site. But until then…let me know what is on YOUR reading lists for 2017 geeks!
The Tudor era can boast a plethora of family feuding, crimes of passion, collections of tragedy and acts of cruelty that would stretch the imaginations of even today’s most far-fetched soap opera writers.
And of course, Tudor addicts like me, will know that the founding of the Royal dynasty begins with one savage, selfish and almost unforgivable act of cruelty. That of a pre-teen child bride being forced into marriage with a man twice her age and exposed to sexual intercourse and the dangers of child birth long before her body, let alone her mind, was ready for either.
Margaret Beaufort fascinates me. I have spent more time trying to stitch the fragments of her life together than I have any other member of history’s royalty. And that’s why, as I have trawled through some of her earlier biographies, I have been fascinated to find that many have underplayed the trauma of her early years by making a simple but significant error, calculating her birth date at 1441 rather than the correct 1443.
Why does this matter? Because it, in part, dilutes the tragedy. If born in 1441 than Margaret fell pregnant at 14 and gave birth at 15. Still far too young of course – but it would have meant both her body and mind would have enjoyed two extra years of development and by the standards of the day, this would have been far more socially acceptable.
The origins of the error are fairly simple and apparently arise from misinterpreting evidence given at the inquest of her father’s death. However, a much stronger case can be made for a 1443 birth date; in that year her father – preparing to go off on a military adventure – was negotiating the future of his unborn child should anything happen to him. Further to this a book of hours from the family has been discovered that states her birth clearly as 1443.
But there is another piece of evidence which, despite rarely cropping up in the debate, actually makes the case for a 1443 birth almost watertight.
In his funeral sermon of the venerable Lady, her long-time friend and confessor Bishop Fisher makes it clear that she gave birth ‘before she was 14 years of age.’
Surely, I hear you ask, this could just be a miscalculation? No, it can’t be.
By saying ‘not yet 14’ Fisher is not just making a passing comment on her age. In fact, were she 14 or over he probably wouldn’t have mentioned it.
Fourteen was the closest thing that this era had to an age of consent. Sex was just about permissible at 12 but few thought it appropriate before the age of 14. Sometimes, this proviso was even written in to marriage contracts.
By saying that she was ‘not yet 14 years of age’ Fisher is acknowledging – subtly and tactfully of course – the early tragedy that befell her. That a man had violated her before an age at which it was appropriate. That everything that followed – her ensuring her son’s early safety and fighting for continual advancement – shows her incredible strength of character by being able to overcome this early tragedy.
Recent students of Margaret Beaufort cannot help be amazed at how she survived and recovered from such a horrible early experience. It would seem, from Fisher’s comments, that contempories also had a sense of it. No wonder that respective for this great lady, was almost universal.