Hunting the Falcon

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” So were schoolchildren once taught in order to remember the fate of Henry VIII’s six wives. Anne Boleyn, the second one (that would be “beheaded”), was by far the most interesting and intelligent, the only one of the six who engaged actively in politics, and the only one whom the monstrous Henry ever loved.

To understand Anne’s story it is necessary first to understand Henry, and John Guy and Julia Fox, husband-and-wife authors who have each published previous works of Tudor-era history, give a compelling portrait of Henry in “Hunting the Falcon,” an absorbing chronicle of the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.

As a young king, Henry was intelligent and glamorous but “over-indulged by a doting mother and over-protected by an autocratic father,” the authors write. He grew into “a narcissist who saw exercising control as his birthright, a man who never accepted blame for his own actions and always looked for scapegoats.” The Golden Boy became a sullen, terrifying brute, England’s Stalin.

Anne was neither royal nor noble. She belonged to the rapidly rising gentry class. Her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, was a greedy and ambitious public servant, employed sometimes on diplomatic missions, an able man who later proved despicable when his daughter’s fate hung in the balance.

In her youth, Anne was sent to France—a sort of finishing school. There she joined the retinue of Henry’s sister Mary, who had, for reasons of state, been affianced to the “gouty, toothless, libidinous” widower Louis XII. Anne would end up spending seven years in France, much of it at the royal court. She became an accomplished young lady and was always a Francophile, encouraging Henry to ally England with France rather than Spain.

Henry fell in love with Anne not long after her return to England in 1522. Her elder sister Mary had already been Henry’s mistress—Mary is the headliner in Philippa Gregory’s 2001 novel, “The Other Boleyn Girl”—but Anne held out for marriage and would do so for several years, a remarkable feat.

As we know from the many popular treatments of this story, a marriage between Anne Boleyn and the king would be possible only if Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon could be annulled. When the king’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, failed to achieve this end, Anne urged Henry to dismiss him. He needed little urging, but readers of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels will remember that the royal adviser’s loyalty to the fallen cardinal made him Anne’s enemy—even though, in politics and religion, they were as one. Anne favored religious reform, like Cromwell, though she was never a Protestant. She is better described as an evangelical Catholic. According to Anne’s chaplain, the authors write, “her apartments were hives of evangelical piety with her ladies reading the English Bible and sewing clothes for the poor.”

The break with Rome, engineered in part by Cromwell’s management of Parliament, finally made the marriage possible. In sure anticipation of the annulment—delivered by the new archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer—Anne had at last gone to bed with Henry. She was already pregnant when the marriage took place, in January 1533, when the still doting Henry arranged a magnificent coronation for his true and only queen. “Anne was determined,” the authors write, “that everyone who mattered should attend,” though Thomas More chose to stay away, feeling that he couldn’t grace the coronation of a queen “he believed to be living in adultery.” The child proved to be a disappointment, a daughter (the future Elizabeth I), not the son Henry craved.

Anne, the authors stress, was never popular. Some called her a whore and were hanged for their impudence. She was a political power as no previous queen had been, but the security of her position and influence depended on her giving birth to a son. Two miscarriages made her position perilous, all the more so because Henry was wearying of her public activity—she “pushed hard for her people,” Mr. Guy and Ms. Fox write, aiming to fill posts and secure preferments. The adored mistress was becoming a tiresome wife. Henry already had his eye on a replacement, a demure girl named Jane Seymour. He wanted to be rid of Anne.

Cromwell was ready to oblige. Anne had been careless, allowing men to mingle with women in her apartments in the style of the French court. Cromwell first seized Mark Smeaton, a young musician reported to have looked longingly at the queen. Cromwell sent him to the Tower to be tortured. Naturally a confession followed. There were other suspects, among them Anne’s brother, George. Materials for a trial were quickly assembled. Anne’s contemptible father, Sir Thomas, escaped the purge by, as the authors put it, “consenting to condemn her.” Anne, briefly hysterical on first being admitted to the Tower, recovered her spirit, but the trial was a grisly farce, a well-managed show trial.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)


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