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Keeping Up With The Tudors: Bernard’s Theorem

Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions

By G. W. Bernard
Yale University Press, 2010

“I know a man who wants to change his woman,” rumbles Thomas Cromwell in Robert Bolt’s irresistible Tudor stage-confection “A Man for All Seasons.” Cromwell (brought to gleefully malicious life by the great Leo McKern in the movie version of the play) is intentionally keeping things nice and simple for his listener, stressing that all right-thinking councilors need do is ”minimize the inconvenience” the man in question – King Henry VIII of England – might encounter in discarding his Spanish Queen Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn.

Historians have traditionally followed a Cromwellian line, minimizing the inconveniences their story encounters as they narrate the most famous extramarital affair since David, Bathsheba, and What’s His Name. G.W. Bernard, in his excruciatingly judicious new book Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, sums up this narrative fairly:

That is the popular view that in early 1536 Henry simply fell in love with another woman and consequently decided to discard Anne. Undoubtedly it was around this time that Henry was courting a young lady, Jane Seymour, and what we make of that relationship is pertinent to any assessment of the state of Henry’s marriage to Anne. An obvious reading is that Henry was now tired of Anne, increasingly impotent (something we shall hear more of later), disappointed at what he saw as her (not his) failure to produce a male heir, but attracted by Jane, who increased his passion by playing hard to get. Determined to have Jane, Henry finally destroyed Anne, falsely accusing her of multiple adulteries, and then took Jane as his wife.

Nevertheless, he has a different narrative to suggest, a carefully considered counter-charge to received opinion. His case is built on a solid, scholarly assessment of the sources (some given here more welcome care and consideration than they’ve received elsewhere) and a coldly sober extrapolation of what individuals seeking their own best interests would or would not do in any given situation. And so his account is convincing; were he dealing with algebraic formulae, he would be lord of all he surveys. But since he’s dealing with one of the most human, passion-riven episodes in English history, his book ends up being as unintentionally amusing as an accountant at an orgy, patiently totting up sums while passionate revelers are cavorting all around him, smearing hot custard in all the usual places.

The traditional narrative of what culminated in that summer of 1536 is well known and yet so elemental in its emotions that it never suffers from another retelling. After Henry’s older brother Arthur dies unexpectedly, Henry is married to Arthur’s new widow Catherine, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The marriage is dynastic, and when no dynasty results (with the exception of the Princess Mary, it’s year after year of babies born dead or dying), the marriage becomes hateful to Henry, a usurper’s son particularly needful of dynastic legitimacy.

By the late 1520s, Henry has achieved a fever-pitch of erotic fixation for Anne Boleyn, a daughter of the petty aristocracy recently returned from abroad (and whose kinder, prettier, dumber, taller, and more fertile sister Mary had already been Henry’s mistress and borne him at least one bastard baby boy). The king argued to Rome that his marriage to his brother’s widow had been immoral, even incestuous, and when the alignment of European politics (where the most powerful single figure was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who happened to be the nephew of poor dejected Catherine) prevented Papal acquiescence, Henry took the disastrous step that changed the world: he declared that he didn’t need authorization from the Pope. He declared himself to be head of the church in England.

It brought him lots of money (the plate and property of all those English churches big and small now belonged to him), and it brought him Anne, openly as his wife and queen, despite her relatively humble past (the Boleyns came from merchant stock). The poet Sir Thomas Wyatt tried to dissuade him with hints at that humble past, and he was tongue-lashed and banished from the court awhile for his trouble, although Henry himself, in less happy years, would remind Anne that she should defer to her betters.

Things were blissful, for a short while. Blissful, but explicitly waiting on greater bliss; Anne had promised Henry what Catherine had not, quite literally, delivered: male heirs. There was a good deal of vainglory in this but also some bald calculation: after all, Anne’s own sister had given birth to a healthy baby boy by the king, and Anne would have heard stories of Bessie Blount and other mistresses, perhaps other healthy boys. And perhaps she believed she herself had some agency to effect her aim – many and varied are the little personal witchcraft- beliefs, of that time and this.

In any case, Henry got to work at his pleasure, and in 1533 there was a child, Elizabeth. She would one day become the greatest English monarch of them all, but there was no way for Henry to know that. All he knew was that she could not be his heir, and he must have wasted as little time as possible before trying again. And in due course, in 1534, something happened – historians have usually called it a miscarriage or stillbirth; Bernard finds no evidence that Anne ever took to her bed and so leans toward a phantom pregnancy of the kind Mary would later experience.

There is no doubt about what happened the following year. In early 1536, Anne miscarried of a baby boy. Henry was not an especially patient man, and this had been three years of trying and waiting. And he’d already had his first taste of the fact that he need not try forever – as Catherine went, so Anne might, must, go. As fast as Henry realized this, we can be sure Anne realized it much faster, and perhaps it weakened even her steely disposition. It certainly altered Henry’s: he began openly lusting after pretty women at court and elsewhere. He kept his Queen Anne in the state that befit her, because doing otherwise would have been an intolerable act of self-humiliation (Bernard spends unnecessary energy theorizing about this situation, rather tan simply talking about it with any of the unhappily married middle-aged men of his acquaintance). But Henry’s eye was roving.

Early in 1536, shortly after Queen Catherine’s death and Anne’s miscarriage, a front-runner appeared in this undeclared race: Jane Seymour, the prim and austerely pretty daughter of the powerful Seymour clan. She was demure where Anne was haughty; she was pious where Anne was riotous; and she was openly fond of Princess Mary, where Anne, to put it mildly, was not. But Anne was queen, and Henry’s own ordinance had made it treason to speak ill of her in any way. “I know a man who wants to change his woman” – yes indeed, but how? This is the heart of Bernard’s story: the fall of Anne Boleyn.

He traces that fall to Elizabeth Browne, the wife of Henry Somerset, the 2nd Earl of Rochester. According to one account, the Countess’s brother Anthony was chastising her for not being purely devoted to her husband (she was probably visibly pregnant, and Anthony must have doubted Somerset was the proud papa) – at which, instead of declaring her innocence, the Countess essentially said, “If you think I’m bad, you should get a load of Queen Anne!” Her brother was no doubt horrified and far too timid to tell the king. Instead, he told two councilors and they told the king, who professed to be coldly furious and promised bloody retribution if their story proved untrue.

“Proved” being the key here, the wedge that divides Bernard from the great run of Tudor historians who’ve looked at the enormous charges brought against Anne – adultery with many lovers, including her own brother, open talk of the king’s impotence, open planning for the aftermath of his death – and come to the immediate conclusion that such charges were the mere window-dressings of a husband lost in rage and errant lust. They take the fact that Henry could be a tyrant, couple it with the fact that both his will and his desire were being thwarted, throw in Anne’s spikey personality for good measure, and come up with a sham trial on invented charges.

Bernard doesn’t do any of that. He re-sifts all the contemporary evidence, and he tries to scrub away the dark gloss of legend that’s formed over what facts we know. The process of watching him take such a well-known story and shake it violently from side to side is intellectually thrilling – this is a stimulating book, certainly, in that it forces its open-minded readers to re-examine the evidence right alongside its author.

Our author doesn’t do all this evidence-sifting with a completely clear conscience, however: he has a goal in mind. Not a controlling ideology but more of a guiding ‘what if’ – what if Anne were actually guilty of the charges Henry and his ministers brought against her? Bernard is curious to see if there’s a case to be made for the prosecution. In order to do this, he makes a distinction that, I confess, had never occurred to me before:

One of the reasons why historians have tended to see the charges against Anne as false is because the legal procedures followed were in many ways a travesty. Modern sensibilities recoil at adultery being in effect a capital offence. Nor was adultery an offence punishable by death in Tudor England. It was a matter that should have been dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts … It was held against Anne that by committing adultery she had compromised the legitimacy of any children she had by the king; that was fair enough, as modern paternity suits testify, but it hardly warranted treating a queen’s adultery as treason.

This stops you like a barked shin, because on more than one level (personal, logical, legal, etc), of course a farcical legal process invalidates the crimes it prosecutes. In Anne’s case this is egregiously so: not only are there two different sets of indictments against the men reputed to be her lovers, but the indictments don’t agree – they list different dates, times, and locations when her alleged infidelities occurred. Not only did all of the courtier gentlemen accused – William Brereton, Francis Weston, Henry Norris, and Anne’s brother Rochford – hotly deny every word of the indictments, but the evidence of the most damning witness, the hired musician Mark Smeaton, was extracted under torture (and disagreed with one set of indictment dates even so). It’s as bad as a Soviet show-trial, and in any civilized legal system in the world, the whole awful mess of it would be summarily dismissed. So the bold intellectual step of saying it could all be criminally absurd and yet still true is jarring, in a very welcome way.

It doesn’t work, although Bernard tries his best. Sometimes that trying is done in an unworthy manner, as in the Nixonian maneuverings to explain those conflicting indictments: “secret and speedy journeys were by no means impossible,” he assures us, “and clerks might have made errors of transcription, for example writing Greenwich when they should have put Hampton Court.” Yes, clerks might have made such errors – provided they didn’t mind running the risk of being publicly disemboweled with a hot poker as punishment for their slip-ups (under such circumstances, you tend to double-check). But the real obstacle is Anne.

By all accounts, she was an imperious, calculating woman who knew exactly what she wanted and made careful plans to get it. Such an Anne could beguile even a king like Henry, and she could certainly inspire extravagant measures when she was cast down – so she’s no use to Bernard, who needs a meeker creature, something more closely approximating a normal wife:

What is abundantly clear is that Anne did not, as is so often thought, play a leading role in Henry’s campaign for his divorce: if we concentrate on the contemporary sources that reveal Henry’s campaign for his divorce in those years, a rather different impression of Anne’s role in all this emerges. It is Henry, not Anne, who is in command.

That “campaign” involved the writing of a book setting out the legitimacy of the king’s case for papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine – a learned document which received a great deal of scrutiny from Henry. Bernard considers it “worth noting” that Henry made no attempt to involve Anne in “the collection and elaboration of these materials.” Anne’s role, he tells us, was the conventional one of “the woman who waited.” Even a casual student of history will have no idea what to do with the possibility of a demure and mousy Anne Boleyn, but Bernard doesn’t just want them to deal with a different Anne – he has a different Henry in mind too:

If you are not a specialist historian, if perhaps this is the first book on Tudor history you have read, if your impressions of Tudor history are derived from what have heard people say or what you have watched on television, then your impression of Henry VIII is almost certainly that of a large, powerful man, a bearded Lothario who ruthlessly and shamelessly exploited his position to bed any young girl who captured his fancy. Such a romantic, indeed sensual, view of Henry makes for compelling television, and there is not doubt something comforting for a society still residually marked by its puritan past in watching sexual rapacity in the belief that what it is seeing reflects not the fantasy of the scriptwriter but what really happened. Yet the surviving sources, on which our knowledge of Henry must be based, lend rather less support to such an image of the king than might be supposed.

Jane Seymour

The Jeevesian wording of that last line notwithstanding, that is the image of Henry at middle age that the surviving sources convey. But then, in order to make his case Bernard must throughout his book contend with most of those sources, and none more so than Eustace Chapuys ambassador from Charles V and prolific writer of reports of incalculable value to historians. Chapuys was testy and officious, master of a very obscure line of prose, and, working for Queen Catherine’s nephew, no fan of Anne (he referred to her as “the concubine”). It’s largely from Chapuys’ reports that the “compelling television” version of Henry’s tempestuous second marriage emerges, so how Bernard deals with him is important. Important and often disturbing: those reports are sly and nuanced documents belonging more to the humanist epistemological tradition than to the school of pure diplomacy. It’s a distinction Anne Boleyn’s previous great biographer Eric Ives understood quite well, but it seems to elude Bernard, with the result that his readings of Chapuys are distractingly ham-handed.

Take one incident: in January of 1536, the emperor Charles instructed Chapuys to negotiate a point with Henry and not to let his animosity for Anne get in the way. Ever the good servant, Chapuys obeyed and went to court on 18 April and met “the concubine” at Mass. “As the king came at the offertory,” he reports, “there was a large gathering of people, and part of them to see what expressions the concubine and I would make: she did so courteously enough, for I was just behind the door through which she entered, she turned round to do me reverence comparable to that which I did her.”

“In short,” Bernard tells us, “at mass [sic] to which Rochford guided Chapuys, many people looked to see how Chapuys and Anne would behave towards each other, and they exchanged reverence – they nodded to each other.” And on this interpretation, he sets a great deal of weight:

What is very striking is that Chapuys was expected to publicly recognise Anne and that he did so. That the king wanted Chapuys to acknowledge Anne is highly significant. It strongly suggests that as late as 18 April Anne was totally secure in the king’s favor. If Henry was intending to discard or destroy her, whether because she had miscarried and Henry feared that she would not bear any more children, or because he had fallen in love with Jane Seymour, there would have been no conceivable advantage to him in having her recognised by Chapuys. If Anne was on the point of falling, that would have been an unnecessary and costly demand.

At one point Bernard warns us of the danger of “the conspiratorial approach to history,” discouraging us from entering “a world of speculation in which ‘must have’ and ‘surely’ do duty for evidence.” But there’s a difference between risky extrapolation and simple common perception, and it’s undermining how bland Bernard’s reading is of that incident Chapuys reported. Virtually no part of his analysis is right: it isn’t at all ‘striking’ that an ambassador would follow the explicit instructions of his lord; it isn’t significant that the king wanted Chapuys to acknowledge Anne because the king didn’t want that – Charles did. And that acknowledgement doesn’t at all ‘strongly suggest’ that Anne was still totally secure in Henry’s favor – merely that he wasn’t yet willing to reveal his plans for discarding her (and, as far as foreign observers knew, thereby entering the European marriage market). The ‘advantage’ of Chapuys recognizing Anne was sought by Charles, not by Henry – but Henry reaped one nevertheless, in keeping the spy of his potential enemy in the dark as to his plans. And Chapuys’ story itself invites a more knowing reading than Bernard gives it – he clearly thinks the exchange of ‘reverences’ was sincere, when even Chapuys’ carefully diplomatic wording conveys clearly the hatred that filled that room five hundred years ago.

It’s that penchant for algebraic precision, constantly cropping up and rendering Bernard’s account suspect. When an author can write that news of Anne’s miscarriage “undoubtedly dismayed” Henry, you can fairly expect trouble from that author when it comes to the human fellow-feeling necessary to write first-rate history. In his version of events, Henry, Anne, and all involved act as supra-rational simulacra of flesh-and-blood people; even Henry, in the midst of his betrayal, is only a trained bloodhound on the scent of the truth:

But that [Sir Thomas] Wyatt, [Sir Francis] Bryan, and [Sir Richard] Page were first imprisoned then released shows that Henry’s reactions were not indiscriminate but rather that he was making real efforts to grasp what was going on and who was involved. Misunderstandings were, of course, not impossible under such circumstances, and some of those charged with Anne may in fact have been wholly innocent but unfortunate enough to have said or done something that now looked irrefutably suspicious.

Bernard cautions us that since Wyatt, Bryan, and Page were all taken and then released while Norris, Weston, Brereton, and Rochford (and the wretched Smeaton) were taken, tried, and executed, there was more going on than an indiscriminate blood-hunt on Henry’s part. Fair enough, but a rational probing of the evidence isn’t the only possible ‘more’ – since our own records show that the evidence was contradictory, the interplay of personalities must have played a vital role, and all trace of that is lost.

And what of Anne’s numerous ladies in waiting, like the tattle-tale Countess of Rochford? If Bernard is right, if Anne for some reason lost the cold rationality that had guided her every action for her entire life and started taking on a stream of high-profile lovers, those ladies in waiting had to know about it – indeed, they had to facilitate it. Yet none of them was ever charged, much less tried or punished. The natural conclusion – that they did no abetting because there were no affairs – seems overwhelming, but Bernard is again willing to see alternatives. He grants that the Countess of Worcester and other ladies “may well have been in danger in 1536,” but: “If, however, they in effect turned King’s evidence … then it is quite understandable that they should have been spared.” But Anne Boleyn’s own sister-in-law, Jane Rochford, gave just such “King’s evidence” only a few years later in the adultery trial of Catherine Howard, and she was tried and messily executed, not given a ‘quite understandable’ pardon.

No, the effort to reclaim Henry from the long-standing stereotype of a man run mad with rage and lust fails, even after so scholarly and careful an attempt as Bernard here makes. The attempt itself – that staggering, wonderfully mischievous assertion that a sham trial can still yield a just verdict – is a perfect example of the chief joy of practicing history, and readers should be grateful there are always stubborn advocates like Bernard who are willing to say “what if” and then marshal facts to make a case. Only thus are we saved from dogma, but in this particular case, an uppity termagant was elaborately destroyed to make room for a doe-eyed maiden, and there’s no real case to be made otherwise. When it comes to a queen wearing out troupes of lovers under the very roof of a doting, clueless king, Messalina can keep her laurels. At least, that is, until somebody comes along defending her.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.