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The life of Anne

Despite the rise of republicanism, the theatre of royalty can still draw a crowd. Here, from the 16th century, is a story that would have been a godsend for the tabloid press. And the tale is told with verve and colour.

This new biography of Anne Boleyn plunges us into the struggle for survival in the world of Tudor England, where life was made precarious by high child mortality and recurrent outbreaks of plague. Court intrigue added a further hazard for the high and mighty. And on the wider stage there were the great religious, political and cultural shifts of the Reformation.

The author also discusses more intimate details such as the reliability of the portraits of her. Anne was the second daughter of one of the rising families in Tudor England. Her father Thomas Boleyn leaned towards the Reformation, while her mother, a Howard, was more sympathetic to the Catholic tradition. A bright future had been hoped for her as a result of some eight years of her childhood spent being groomed at the French court. While perhaps not the greatest beauty, Anne was certainly very attractive and intelligent. She was also deeply committed to the Reformation, which was still struggling to find staunch patrons and a firm footing in England. But Anne enters the pages of history because of her marriage to King Henry VIII. She proved to be no easy catch. It took him several years to win her, unlike her sister Mary who had readily succumbed to his blandishments. Her triumph as wife and queen lasted a relatively short three years. After failing to produce the longed-for male heir, her position became precarious indeed. Anne’s eventual fall on clearly trumped-up charges of treason, incest and adultery show her as a victim of court intrigue and the king’s mercurial moods.

The most glaring shortcoming of this book is the stark difference between the friends and foes of the author. The representatives of the old order are a pretty horrid lot, seemingly incapable of a noble gesture. Thus the king’s grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort was a ‘fierce mother’ and a ‘self-righteous woman’, Thomas More a ‘most unattractive character’ and Catherine of Aragon and her daughter (later Mary I) are the most tiresome of grumblers. Modern research would suggest that the truth is rather more complex. However if you want clearly delineated ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ then this is your book. 

Anne Boleyn, Joanna Denny. Hodder Headline, 2004. isbn 0 749 95017 X, rrp $35

Austin Cooper omi lectures in history at Catholic Theological College, Melbourne.



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