Our book today is Anne Boleyn by Norah Lofts, written in 1974 when our author was the ripe old age of 75. But before all you Norah Lofts fans go shuffling to the bookshelf, rest assured that I’m not mixing up the title of Lofts’ great 1963 Anne Boleyn novel The Concubine; I’m referring instead to the honest-to-gosh biography she wrote about Henry VIII’s divisive second wife. Lofts, who won the National Book Award, wrote a handful of nonfiction works in the spare minutes left over from writing her dozens and dozens of novels – which might not sound like much in an age where Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, and Carolly Erickson, to name just three best-sellers, often switch from one genre to another, but Lofts was something a trailblazer in the cross-market move. Like her later literary heirs, she often found herself in a position where the extensive research she’d done for her historical novels was just sitting there, ready to be otherwise employed.
In this case, she returns to the raw material from which she fashioned The Concubine, and she brings to that material exactly the same novelist’s sensibilities that made virtually all of her books so popular. The resulting biography is far more impressionistic than is currently in vogue – it would be a very sloppy researcher indeed who would ever use Lofts’ Anne Boleyn as any kind of reference material, despite all the fact-checking work that went into it. But right alongside that impressionistic novelist’s flair, informing it, is the distillation of a lifetime’s deep reading, often revealed in offhand comments that never fail to provoke a smile – as when she tells us, “‘The Devil can quote Scripture for his purpose,’ as Shakespeare, who knew everything, said.”
She takes us through all the familiar stages of the King’s Great Matter, always with an eye for the well-set scene, and always trying to inject some common sense analysis into her retellings:
Henry cited Leviticus and his troubled conscience in a secret little court, called together, by his own request, to accuse him of making an incestuous marriage. Wolsey was there, anxious only to please his King and visualizing another, more fruitful marriage for him with a young French Princess, Renee. And the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, was there – he had long ago expressed doubts about the validity of the marriage. There were lawyers there, too, some to accuse, some to defend the King of this concocted charge, for after all if he had been living in sin with Katharine, he had done so openly for eighteen years. And although to a King a marriage without a son might be tantamount to being childless, Mary’s existence, the short life of the little boy, dead before his navel healed, even the miscarriages, seemed to prove that the Levitical curse of childlessness did not apply here.
But the best aspect of this Anne Boleyn book is also its most frequent-occurring aspect: Lofts loves to tell a story, and she knows that the first step in doing that well is to establish vivid characters (you can see it even in that heartbreaking little line “dead before his navel healed”). She retails the familiar story of how Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s Archbishop of Canterbury, is “remembered as a turncoat, the man who recanted, and then, recanting upon his recantation, was condemned to be burnt as a heretic” – and how he thrust his right hand into the flames first because it had signed his recantation. She knows that Cranmer will have a sorry reputation among her readers, but she wants to assure than that in reality “he was a man, capable, like most men, not of steadfast courage, but flashes of bravery every now and then.” She points out one such flash of courage, when Cranmer wrote to Henry the day after Anne Boleyn was confined to the Tower on suspicion of capital crimes. Cranmer owed his heady elevation entirely to Henry, but he was an old friend of the Boleyn family, and the crisis had thrown him into turmoil. And being incurably bookish, this turmoil prompted a letter, which Lofts uses all her novelist’s license to bring to life:
‘I am in such perplexity that my mind is clean amazed; for I never had better opinion in women than I had in her,’ he wrote, ‘which maketh me think she should not be culpable.’One imagines the pen halting there and the perplexed mind asking itself: Too strongly worded? Likely to offend? He wrote on, hastily, ‘And again, I think that Your Highness would not have gone so far, except that she had surely been culpable.’ The well-meant, slightly schizophrenic letter went on to say that Cranmer hoped Anne would be able to prove her innocence, or that if she could not, the King would be merciful.
The King’s mercy is a subject that exercises her quite a bit in her book’s necessarily dark final chapters. Like everybody else who writes about Anne Boleyn, Lofts can’t help but begin litigating the famous case, sifting for indications of guilt or innocence on the part of all involved:
The four men who had denied the sin of adultery did not confess on the scaffold. That was significant for the Tudor Age was a time of belief. Men might differ about ritual, about who as Head of the Church, but there were few agnostics or atheists. George Boleyn, Francis Weston, Henry Norris and William Brereton all believed that when their heads were struck off, their souls would face God and His Judgment. To die with a lie upon your lips, or a sin unconfessed was to invite a punishment far more severe than any man could inflict; yet not one of them cleared his conscience by making a last-minute confession. This – strong evidence in Anne’s favour – meant far more in the sixteenth century context than it does today…
She has the wit to quote from William Davenant and the discretion to leave it at that:
But ask not bodies doom’d to die
To what abode they go:
Since knowledge is but sorrow’s spy
It is not safe to know.
Anne Boleyn caught some flak when it first appeared because Lofts talks a bit about the role witchcraft might have played in Anne’s seduction of Henry, but there’s a case to be made that her treatment of the subject is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. And whatever her intentions might have been, the passages themselves (especially the final one, in which Anne of course returns to haunt the night-darkened halls where once she ruled) make for some corking good reading. Which was, one suspects, the whole point.