The Best Books about Anne Boleyn

On May 19, 1536, an English queen was executed. She really hadn’t done anything wrong, other than failing to give her king the son he craved. So, in order to get rid of her, some trumped up charges of adultery – treason at the time – were thrown at her and she was executed by beheading. The queen was, of course, Anne Boleyn.

668,Anne Boleyn,by Unknown artist Unknown artist

People may think of many different things when they think of Anne Boleyn. I tend to think primarily “mother of Elizabeth I” and “she was framed.” Others may see her as a victim (yes, indeed), as a homewrecker (no, read more history), an advocate for Protestantism (certainly, and likely the catalyst for Anglicanism, having owned copies of Tyndale and showing them to Henry at the right moment), generous to the poor (yes), and many, many other things. She was a skilled musician, dancer, and linguist. She was a genuine Renaissance woman. I think her full impact on history may never be fully understood.

Anne was born at her family home in Blickling probably in 1507 (some scholars say 1501) and grew up at Hever Castle in Kent. When she was about 7 years old, she went to Austria at the invitation of Margaret of Austria to study with her wards. In 1514, she went to the court of Queen Claude of France, where she stayed for several years. In early 1522, she returned to England, where she became a lady in waiting to Katherine of Aragon and caught the eye of Henry VIII. The rest, as they say, is history.

There remains a fascination with Anne Boleyn, and rightly so, in my opinion. By most accounts, she dazzled. She was witty and enjoyed dancing, riding, and hunting. She enthralled a king, and then she died for it. It’s hard not to be fascinated by her. Other people would seem to agree, if we take the many books written about Anne as evidence. Below are a few of my favorites.

Nonfiction:

31088The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Canto) by Retha Warnicke. Warnicke was one of my college professors. She is a little crazy, and some of her theories about Anne are not really mainstream. But she is a fierce defender of Anne and for that, I have a soft spot for Warnicke.

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives. Ives and Warnicke had disagreements. A lot of them. I approve of academic nerdrage.

Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession by Elizabeth Norton. This is a relatively short, accessible scholarly work by one of my favorite historians.

18111981In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Morris and Natalie Greuninger. This is a really cool book which informs readers not only about Anne, but also about the places she lived and traveled. It tells about each home, manor house, church, chapel, castle, abbey, and so on that Anne ever went to. It shows each room of those places, as much as is possible to do so now. It really helps bring Anne to life in ways that simply writing about her cannot, because it shows up the places where she lived and laughed and grieved. An absolute must-have. I wish more books like this existed for other historical figures.

Fiction:

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell. It’s been years since I read this one, but I still remember it as the one that really sparked my interest in the Tudors.

10108The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers: A Novel by Margaret George. Not about Anne Boleyn, per se, but she featured prominently, of course, and Margaret George is awesome. There are few authors who can tell such a terrific story while also being accurate.

The Last Boleyn: A Novel by Karen Harper, about Mary Boleyn, the other one. Published about 20 years before the other book about Mary Boleyn that most people seem to know about, and which I’m not mentioning because it was awful, this one is nice because it gives readers the big events but entirely through the POV of Mary. None of the major characters we know – Anne, Henry, Katherine of Aragon, Cromwell, etc – appear unless it is when Mary encounters them. I liked it, too, for its more optimistic tone.

Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Margaret Campbell Barnes. One of the older books, but still super interesting. This is not one of the most accurate books you’ll ever read, but it does do a fantastic job of giving Anne a rich internal life, something that not all historical novels really do, oddly. Well worth a read despite the quibbles with the accuracy.

13540943The Queen’s Promise: A fresh and gripping take on Anne Boleyn’s story by Lyn Andrews. This one focuses on Anne before she met Henry, and the love affair she may have had with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Told primarily from Percy’s perspective, readers get a version of this familiar story from an entirely different angle than we usually do.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m a little torn at including this one. Too many people use this as an example of how things really were, but Mantel herself has said no, it is her perception of how Cromwell might have viewed things, which makes sense since it’s from his POV. But it is a terrific read and it’s my blog, so I’m adding it because I liked the book and I want it on the list.

There are sooooooooooooo many other books, both fiction and nonfiction, I could have added here, but I had to rein it in or this would just get out of control. These are just a small handful of my favorites. Are there any others you would recommend?

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Black Death

44597455Black Death (A Tudor mystery featuring Christopher Marlowe)* by MJ Trow

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley

Length: 224 pp

Publisher: Severn House

Year: 2019

Robert Green and Christopher Marlowe are not friends. But when Green believes someone is trying to kill him, he sends a desperate letter to Marlowe, behind for his help. When Green is found dead, Kit believes it is his duty to discover who murdered Green and so undertakes the investigation. At the same time, stage manager Ned Sledd is wrongly taken to Bedlam in lieu of an escaped inmate just days before the opening of one of Marlowe’s new plays. Marlowe has to find the connection between all these events and help his friend. And also, the Spymaster, Robert Cecil, is taking an inordinate interest in things. And there’s plague. What could go wrong?

This is a short, quick read and like other MJ Trow novels I’ve read, it is a fun and witty tale as well. The plot is full of twists and turns and not all is as it appears. The characters, especially Marlowe, are all multidimensional. I really love the little digs at William Shakespeare (spelled here as Shaxper) throughout and the subtle shade thrown on the authorship of his works. There are many literary gems hidden in these pages that appeal to any Anglophile.

The descriptions of Elizabethan London are also vivid and gritty. So much of that period is romanticized but here, we get the more realistic portrayal of what it might have actually been like – dirty, smelly, and depressing. Oh, and don’t forget the plague!

A fun and fast read, highly recommended for any lovers of Marlowe, Shaxper :-), or Elizabethan English history in general.

The Creation of Anne Boleyn

15814396The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen* by Susan Bordo

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 345 pp

Publisher: Mariner

Year: 2013

The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a study on the woman, in all her various incarnations, who was wife to a king, a catalyst to the English Reformation, and mother to Elizabeth I. The book covers a wide range of areas ranging from actual history to literature, film, TV, and pop culture interpretations of Anne Boleyn.

There were some enjoyable things about this book. Bordo takes a feminist approach to her writing and interpretation of Anne, which of course is something I appreciate. She is a women’s studies professor, so approaching the topic of Anne Boleyn from the perspective of gender studies rather than a pure historian’s point of view is a nice change of pace from some of the recent things I have read on the subject. I also think that, because the writing tone is engaging and entertaining, it might entice other readers who are new to the topic of Tudor studies to be inspired to learn more about the subject on their own as a result.

There were many issues throughout the book as well, though. As many others before her, I think Bordo leans too heavily on Eustace Chapuys’s letters about Anne. It is true that he did not like her and had many reasons to hope for her downfall. However, although Bordo frequently states in one way or another that Chapuys shouldn’t be trusted in regard to his opinion on Anne, not once did she mention that he only had a couple interactions with Anne directly. Most of his information about Anne came second- and third-hand from others, which she did mention in passing, but I think it is important to remember that his whole job was to report to his boss, Charles V, what was said at court. Chapuys was Charles’s ambassador, so he was likely repeating many of the things he had heard; he was doing his job when he said that “a gentleman known to me” called Anne a whore or said that she had adulterous relations or whatever else. We cannot possibly know that he was “gleeful” when Anne’s downfall came, because unless one is a time traveling mindreader, there’s simply no way to know what he was thinking. I think we really have to take much, if not most, of what Chapuys says in his letters about Anne with a grain of salt. No, he probably didn’t like her at all, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that every single word he wrote about her were his own true thoughts, either.

The book also had a tendency to attack authors with whom Bordo disagreed, which I don’t think is the most professional approach. She makes a lot of valid points about many popular authors who seem to think their historical fiction books are the same as gospel truth and are well researched, when in fact neither is true. I won’t say which authors Bordo takes such exception to, only that I completely agree. They, at least, tell a good story even if it’s totally inaccurate. Bordo, however, champions some authors who also have problems as well, if not to the same degree as the others. The difference seems to be that the ones she champions are ones who paint Anne in a very positive light rather than as the traditional Jezebel or even as a flawed and imperfect woman. Her own bias comes through the most strongly here. Also, Bordo herself does the same things she accuses others of doing, which is to make declarations of historical fact without supporting evidence, or making claims that are contrary to evidence in hand. At one point, she calls Henry a pussy-whipped husband, which is really unlikely to be true, don’t you think? There is evidence that he was ruthless and even brutal when he needed or wanted to be long before he met Anne. Similarly, her treatment of Katherine of Aragon and Mary is really bad. You don’t have to be Team Katherine to be able to acknowledge that Henry treated his first wife and daughter abominably. Fighting to keep a marriage and position to which she was born does not make Katherine stubborn or self-righteous, as Bordo suggests. It makes for good historical fiction, perhaps, but not really for nonfiction. Additionally, I really don’t think quoting people from one’s own Facebook page is adequate for a “scholarly” book. I was really annoyed by that and disappointed that this book was passed off as scholarly. It’s kind of the equivalent of “My mom thinks my story is cool,” and it doesn’t pass muster. For someone who is a doctorally prepared professor, she should do better than resorting to ad hominem attacks on authors or scholars whose positions she disagrees with, and use better supporting evidence.

At the end of the day, this is far more a pop culture commentary than a biography. It is useful in its way for a starting point into further, more academic studies by actual Tudor scholars. It was interesting as a feminist cultural study, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a source for any theses.

Blood and Ink

40821110Blood and Ink by DK Marley

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds.

Length: 414 pp

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Year: 2018

Blood and Ink by DK Marley is the tale of Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, Renaissance poet and playwright, near contemporary of Shakespeare. In Marley’s novel, our playwright is an unwanted child who is effectively sold to Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, who noticed the boy’s intelligence when he visited a local school. Placing the young Marlowe under the mentorship of poet and spy, Sir Phillip Sydney, Marlowe continues his education as well as learns how to be a spy for Walsingham. As the years progress, Marlowe convinces Elizabeth to support his plays on-stage in exchange for his services to her. However, when factions more loyal to money and personal advancement than to the Queen step in, Marlowe makes a sacrifice that alters everything he has understood about the world, his writing, and himself.

christopher_marlowe
Christopher Marlowe. I love that the portrait has “Quod me nutrit me destruit” in the upper left. That would make a cool tattoo…

This was an interesting novel and can potentially be classified as alternate history, depending on one’s perspective. It takes one of the more popular theories about Shakespeare, which is that Marlowe was actually the author of his works, and runs with it in a way that is believable. There are theories that Marlowe didn’t actually die at the inn in Deptford and that his death was, in fact, staged so that he could go either into hiding, exile, or continue his spy work for Walsingham. The author poses some of the more common and interesting questions in her note at the end of the book, including why Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights of his day, was buried in a common churchyard rather than in a glamorous cemetery; why the Queen provided her own coroner to preside over the inquest of Marlowe’s death when it wasn’t in her purview to do so; why we never heard anything at all about Shakespeare until after Marlowe’s death; the education of Shakespeare and Marlowe (Marlowe had a degree from Cambridge, Shakespeare was relatively uneducated); and why was Shakespeare’s grave dug 12 feet deep instead of only the usual 6 feet? Marley takes pains to answer these questions and more in the novel and does so quite thoroughly. She also is careful to note that she herself is a Shakespearean, at least until there is solid proof that someone else was the author. But it makes for a good story.

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William Shakespeare

Various themes were at play throughout the novel, ranging from nature vs. nurture to loyalty to ambition to betrayal. The ways in which all these themes intertwine and influence one another are fascinating and very finely wrought, particularly the ways Marlowe had to balance his work as a spy with his calling as a playwright. The mix of blood and ink throughout the narrative is a stark reminder that his dreams come at a steep price, one that may be too much to bear. Overall, I think some of the characters were a tad one-dimensional, though Marlowe himself and the major secondary characters like Walsingham or Queen Elizabeth are complex figures. Shakespeare was the next most well-fleshed character besides Marlowe, which makes sense, though his motives were only apparent near the end of the novel. The last quarter or so of the book felt unnecessarily long and dragged down the pacing somewhat. However, the attention to historical detail was excellent and made for an immersive read. I particularly enjoyed all the bits and pieces of plays and poems scattered throughout the narrative. It was fun to see words that we automatically credit to Shakespeare coming from Marlowe’s pen or lips in this story, and it definitely reminds me that it’s time to reread the plays again. It has been too long. I look forward to more from this author in the future.

A Murder by Any Name

51orh40ubylA Murder by Any Name by Suzanne M. Wolfe

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Publisher/HNS

Length: 336 pp

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Year: 2018

In this series debut, Nicholas Holt, the younger son of a fictional nobleman, is a soldier as well as a spy for William Cecil. He is home in London to report on his mission from the Continent when he is instead assigned to investigate the brutal murder of Queen Elizabeth’s youngest, most innocent lady in waiting, right in the heart of the court. The murder is disturbing, not only because it strikes at a young and innocent girl, but because the body was posed in the chapel in a gruesome imitation of prayer. When a second lady in waiting is murdered shortly after the first, the stakes get even higher for Nick, whose loyalty as a member of a recusant family might be in question if he cannot discover the identity of the  murderer. The political overtones imply that someone is striking now at Elizabeth herself, implying that her reign is illegitimate and that Catholics should be ruling England. Nick relies on the help of his friends – Spanish Jewish doctors Eli and his beautiful twin sister Rivkah, his childhood friend John, and his faithful and well trained wolfhound Hector – to hone in on a cold-blooded killer who won’t stop until forced to by the Queen’s executioner.

A Murder by Any Name was a fast-paced and entertaining read. It held my attention throughout, even though I totally figured out who the killer was quite early on. I’ve read too many mysteries to be surprised by very much, and this plot was really pretty standard. However, the historical details and character development were really well done and more than made up for any lack of surprise for me. Wolfe’s attention to detail was such that I could practically smell the stench of the Thames – or Elizabeth’s breath from her black and rotting teeth! Gnarly. The atmosphere she created was rich and full of emotion, enhanced by the physical details surrounding the characters. The brittle cold, icy water, foggy riverbanks, echoing chambers or chapels, all contributed encompassing the feelings of fear and paranoia that pervaded society at the time. So often, the Jewish communities were the scapegoats for anything that went wrong, as Eli and Rivkah had painful reason to know. Skillfully, Wolfe crafted a protagonist who was sympathetic as well as empathetic while retaining historical accuracy, a tremendous balancing act in itself. Nick Holt was a product of his time, but he was not hardened or indifferent to the suffering of those beneath him on the social scale. I thought Wolfe did a fantastic job of weaving feminism into her story while still being accurate to the social mores of the time. I thought that was excellent. Nick was a wonderful, sensitive, believable character, and I wish there were more period pieces with men like him in them as opposed to sexist men who are written like barbarians simply because the author seems to think that is how it was back in the day, or maybe because an author is himself a sexist. Instead, A Murder by Any Name is the best of what happens when you get a woman to write a well-researched historical fiction. I am looking forward to reading more books in this series, and I can happily recommend this one.

 

Regina Futurum Sit Hodie Natus Est

Today, a future queen is born. Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was born today in 1533. So sure were Henry and Anne that she would be a boy that they had already drawn up birth announcements proclaiming a Prince. They had to be hastily amended with an additional S. You can see it in the third line down, about halfway: “…deliverance and bringing forth of a Princess…” Whoops. Little did they know that Elizabeth would go on to be one of the longest-reigning British monarchs, would unite her people in ways they hadn’t been in centuries, and would usher in an age of music, art, literature, and exploration. The Elizabethan Age was rightfully called a Golden Era.

elizabethbirthannouncement
Image courtesy of Elizregina.com

Everyone knows Shakespeare, but he wasn’t the only one who put pen to paper. There was also Christopher Marlowe, who I am convinced we would be studying instead of Shakespeare if he hadn’t been killed when he was only 29; Thomas Kyd; Phillip Sydney; Edmund Spenser; and Robert Ascher, to name a very few. There were plenty of women who wrote at the time as well. Aemelia Lanyer was the first English woman who wanted to support herself as a poet and sought out the support of prominent female patrons. One of Lanyer’s patrons was Mary Sidney, the sister of Philip Sydney, herself a famous poet. Mary Sidney influenced Shakespeare, and she completed her brother’s work on poetic meditations on the Psalms after he died. Elizabeth I herself was also a very talented writer and poet.

Some of my favorite music also came from this period. I ADORE Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Taverner, and Thomas Morley. I sang a LOT of these mens’ songs in chorus when I was in school, which I’m sure influenced my interest in them, but I genuinely appreciate the music for itself. I find it soothing and will put it on if I want to work on writing something. Tallis is playing right now as I write this, in fact.

Elizabeth may have had her flaws – a volcanic temper was reputed to be one of them – but she was also a huge patron of the arts and literature. She fostered diplomacy on a scale that makes my greatly missed President Obama look like an amateur. She was, in short, a shining example of what a leader is. I can think of one so-called leader who should read up on her, but alas, it seems he can’t read.