Book Review: The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn – now more than four hundred years since her death – is it really possible to gain a sense of the woman who woke the lion within Henry VIII, the lion that More so rightly feared – the same lion that one day ripped Anne Boleyn’s own life to shreds? Can we get behind the mask Anne Boleyn represented to the world? Seen in her own times in so many guises: a goggled eyed whore, a witch, the “scandal of Christendom,” a woman of ‘stout heart, ’ a sainted martyr, like all of us, Anne Boleyn demonstrates the true complexity of the human spirit.

Years ago, I read Eric Ives’ “Anne Boleyn.” Regarding it then as the best and most complete biography of Anne Boleyn ever written, the book remains on my bookshelf, as one of my most treasured Tudor reference books. When I heard of the release of Professor Ives’ major work, I assumed it a re-release of the original; I couldn’t imagine how Ives could improve on his pivotal, thorough study on the life of Anne Boleyn. Wrong on both counts. Ives revisits his great biography, first published in 1986, and makes it anew by using additional, fascinating material and further study, demonstrating once again what an excellent biography is all about. Although this is more than just an excellent and satisfying biography; written with an obvious passion for his subject, Ives’ study on Anne Boleyn’s life is superb.

In my mind, a good biography not only introduces the reader to its subject but seeks to go beyond simply providing a cardboard cut out; a good biography opens the door and makes the reader engage with the subject. We come away from Ive’s work left with an image and voice – the very humanness of its theme.

As a historical fiction author focusing on the Tudor period, I particularly yearn for insights to assist me develop fully rounded characters set soundly in the context of their own times. I want to know what did they liked to wear, favourite colours, particular dislikes, what made them cry or laugh. Ives, with his vast knowledge of this period of English history and his extensive research of Anne Boleyn’s life, is a historian more than able to provide these insights. Ives’ work lifts he curtain and allows us to really glimpse her – a woman of ambition and great political ability, a woman worthy to be a King’s consort and partner, a woman who believed God meant for her to be queen.

Indeed, as Professor Ives highlights in this important biography, Anne Boleyn was an intelligent, self-made woman who understood the image of majesty almost as well as her daughter, responsible for encouraging the early years of the English reformation.

Professor Ives biography not only mirrors back to us a clear manifestation of Anne Boleyn but also shows behind her Henry VIII himself, leaving me pondering many questions. Despite his great mercy of a skilled French executioner, I find myself more adrift than ever in my attempts to gain empathy for a King who could so easily destroy a woman he once so loved.

Whether we agree with Ives that Anne’s destruction happened so swiftly and that her ultimate failure in the birthing chamber to give Henry VIII a living son bore little weight in the final outcome, Professor Ives provides a deeper understanding as to why Cromwell, once part of Anne Boleyn’s faction but now fearing for his own survival, found it so necessary to do all in his power to take the queen from the chess board once and for all. Ives also helps us appreciate why Anne Boleyn so rightly feared Mary: “She is my death and I am hers.”

In the final analysis, Ives’s work reveals Anne Boleyn who is like most of us, more good than bad – but also a gifted, intelligent woman so worthy of a King’s passion, giving to history her Elizabeth. Most importantly, this biography powerfully vindicates Anne Boleyn, showing Anne and the men murdered with her wrongfully done to death – circa Regna tonat