Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir: A review

Having read several fictional accounts of the Tudor era, including Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and the Tudor mystery series by C.J. Sansom, I thought it might be interesting to get an actual historian's take on the period. Alison Weir is an actual British historian who has had an almost life-long fascination with that era and has written widely about it. This book, The Lady in the Tower, concerns the last four months of the life of the second of Henry VIII's six wives and Elizabeth I's mother, Anne Boleyn.

Anne Boleyn has, of course, been an iconic figure of great interest for historians, poets, playwrights, novelists, and, indeed, for ordinary people, virtually since her death by beheading in May, 1536. She was accused and adjudged guilty of treason against her king - specifically of having committed adultery with at least five men, one of whom was her own brother and of having conspired with them to kill the king. All five men were also judged guilty and beheaded. The truth of Anne's and the men's guilt has long been in question and has been debated endlessly over the last nearly five hundred years.

Weir explores and lays out the available evidence on the subject in her copiously footnoted and referenced work. Indeed, the first part of the book seems a rather dry recitation of the known facts about the events. She makes extensive use of the contemporary accounts and sources that are still available and she seems to scrupulously try to avoid leading or misleading the reader to one opinion or another.

In the end though, Weir makes clear that Henry, who was still married to Catherine of Aragon, had wooed Anne for six years while wrestling with the Church over trying to clear the way to marry her and who had now been married to her for three years, had by 1536 grown tired of her and was ready to put her aside. This could have had much to do with the fact that he had fallen in love - or perhaps in lust - with one of Anne's handmaidens, Jane Seymour, and now wanted to marry her. It also probably had much to do with the fact that Anne had failed to produce a male heir to the throne. A few months after their marriage, their daughter, Elizabeth, was born, and since that time, Anne had had three other pregnancies (four in all in three years) but all three had ended in miscarriages. At least two of the miscarriages and possibly the third as well had been male fetuses. Henry had become convinced that he would never have a son with her and he was ready to move on to someone with whom he might.

Henry's Master Secretary at this time, the man charged with making things happen for his king, was Thomas Cromwell, of whom Mantel's Wolf Hall was a sympathetic portrayal. Weir's examination of the evidence has led her to the conclusion that Cromwell, seeing what his king wanted, conjured a way to bring it to pass and, at the same time, to remove the influence of the powerful Boleyn family. Cromwell, once a Boleyn ally, had fallen out with the queen, and, in 1536, he himself was not in favor with the king. Perhaps he saw the gambit of removing Anne Boleyn as a way of killing two birds with one stone, so to speak - he would do away with a personal enemy as well as again ingratiating himself with the king by removing the impediment to the king's desired marriage. Weir makes a strong case that the evidence against Anne may well have been trumped up by Cromwell to achieve his aim.

We can never know the truth with 100% certainty, but we do know that Anne Boleyn, an unpopular queen in her lifetime, accepted her fate and went to the scaffold bravely, always denying that she had ever been false "in her body" to her king.

In a way though, Anne had the last laugh. Public opinion which had been against her began to turn, especially when the populace saw their king marry Jane Seymour within ten days of Anne's death. But the lady in the tower's ultimate victory was achieved through her daughter. In Elizabeth I, perhaps England's greatest queen, a Boleyn sat on the throne of the country that had seen the first Boleyn executed.

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