Letting the Sources Speak: A Review of Alison Weir’s “Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn”

On 1 May 1536 Anne Boleyn and her husband Henry VIII attended the merry May Day jousts. At some point in the afternoon Henry got up and left. It was the last time Anne saw her husband–she died 19 days later, her abrupt fall still breathtaking even from a distance of 500 years.

Alison Weir’s magnificent biography focuses on the last month of Anne’s life and the events leading up to the charges of adultery and incest for which she was beheaded. Weir’s painstaking research is evident: the book examines every angle and cites source bias, credibility, and access to defend her analysis.

Weir first looks at how rocky was the marriage between Anne and Henry? Answer – quite rocky, given Henry’s sudden desire for an alliance with the Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor; Anne’s recent miscarriage; Henry’s dalliance with Jane Seymour, among other factors. But it was not necessarily doomed—in fact, Henry and Anne had a trip to Calais planned for early May that was only cancelled one week before its scheduled date.

Second, Weir looks at the various accusations against Anne, for example that she was a witch, a whore, a harlot… and again debunks these characterizations. Anne was, however, unpopular with the people and increasingly at Court. In April 1536 she still had supporters at Court, although she had alienated many over the years—including her Uncle the powerful Duke of Norfolk and of course the gossipy Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador and, fatally, Thomas Cromwell.

Third, who orchestrated Anne’s downfall? It is usually portrayed as something Henry was complicit in, yet Weir suggests Cromwell, at odds with Anne over religion, disbursement of the booty from the dissolution of the monasteries, orchestrated the events beginning in mid-April 1536, and did it so well that the Boleyn faction at court did not know what hit them. The coup itself was not planned until mid-April, which seems such a short time to prepare the “evidence.” Once initial findings were compiled, Henry VIII—sometime in the third week of April—asked for further investigation.

New light is cast on the other victims: Smeaton, Brereton, Weston, Norris and Anne’s brother, Lord Rochford. Each of these men had done something to upset Cromwell and his cronies. The reader comes to understand that there was rhyme and reason to the men who were selected as Anne’s co-adulterers, whose lifestyles made them easy targets for Cromwell.

Could Anne have been guilty? Weir also considers the deathbed confession from Bridget Wiltshire, Lady Wingfield may have been the first evidence that led to Anne’s downfall. In other words, Cromwell may have fabricated most, but there was perhaps a kernel of truth, enough to build upon.

Weir’s books are always compelling reading, because not only does she write clearly and engagingly, but she weighs the facts in evidence and consider the bias of multiple sources, and lets the sources speak. For example Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote reams of letters about “La Ana” or “The Lady” but he hated her. Weir assesses his reports to his master in light of his bias, and compares them with others. The result is a measured, thoughtful and well-written account of Anne Boleyn’s destruction. It is a must-read for any fan of the Tudors and their times.

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn” by Alison Weir (C) 2009 Random House.

2 comments on “Letting the Sources Speak: A Review of Alison Weir’s “Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn”

  1. […] Sometime in 1515, while serving Mary Tudor at the French Court, Mary was seduced by the “young, mighty and insatiable” King Francois I—who considered “whoring a daily sport on par with hunting.”  When, where or how she came to his attention is unknown–whatever Mary’s relations with Francois, they caused absolutely no comment at the time. There exist no contemporary diplomatic or court reports, or other records that discuss Mary, let alone behavior to give rise to the “great and infamous whore” comment that has dogged her reputation for 500 years.  This void of commentary is significant proof Weir says, of a quiet, insignificant interlude between Mary and Francois.   To have been a great whore in the licentious French court, Weir suggests Mary would have to have been remarkably dissolute, and as a lady-in-waiting to Mary Tudor, who held stricter English morals of the day, would have earned her rebuke, or dismissal—neither of which happened.  Weir does a stellar job of dissecting multiple statements made about Mary Tudor’s behavior and dismisses them based on facts.  In sum, there is just one historical source for the comment that Francois I “knew” Mary as a “whore” (as opposed to a formal mistress), and this source comes to light 20 years later—about the time Cromwell was orchestrating Anne Boleyn fall (for more on this read my earlier blog post) […]

  2. Rachel says:

    Hi Geri,

    Wonderful review. I, too, was sucked into the Tudor saga via Masterpiece Theater’s airing of The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R. I dragged my parents to see Anne of the Thousand Days, and was thrilled to be chosen to play Anne Boleyn in my local community theater production of Royal Gambit in 1974.

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