Compelling “what if” novel about the son Anne Boleyn might have had…

What if Anne Boleyn's son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn’s son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn had not miscarried of her son and savior in the winter of 1536 and instead had given Henry VIII the son and heir for whom he was so desperate? Laura Andersen has written her first novel  in the Anne Boleyn Trilogy, “The Boleyn King” based on the tantalizing premise that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had a son named William who lived to become King of England. She creates an England that will still be familiar to Tudor-era fans, one with religious divisions, pretenders to the throne, the threat of Spanish invasion and territorial ambitions in France.The heart of the novel is not Will Tudor but Minuette Wyatt, born the same hour and day as Will and raised as a ward of Dowager Queen Anne (Boleyn). The novel begins with Minuette joining the court in the household of her good friend, Princess Elizabeth. The two of them, together with Will and his best friend Dominic Courtney, are a tight-knit group; the only people they trust are each other. But the friendships are tested by war, a romantic love triangle, and a plot to overthrow Will and place his Catholic sister Mary Tudor on the throne. This was a surprising gem and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I like my historical novels to be accurate, so I did not expect to like a novel that rewrites history, but it is always so hard to read Anne Boleyn’s story without wishing it had a happier ending.  Andersen has given Anne Boleyn fans the happy ending we desire, with a cast of likeable new characters like Minuette, Will, and Dominic, who blend with well-known historical figures like Elizabeth, Robert Dudley, Mary Tudor and the Norfolk family.

This review was first published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review.

Wonderful Thrilling Debut Novel, The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Brilliant Tudor-era novel by Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau’s debut novel, The Crown leapt to the top of my reading list for purely selfish reasons.  I was writing about life in a 16th century priory in Poissy, France and stumbled upon a link between Poissy and Dartford Priory in Kent. Founded by royalty (Edward III) with nuns from Poissy in the 14th Century, Dartford Priory was a prestigious religious institution. I was curious to read an historical fiction account of life there—especially since I have not found an account of life at Poissy. I’m glad I did. The Crown is a thrilling read.

Bilyeau’s Dartford Priory is a religious establishment in turmoil, perhaps reflecting the time. Anne Boleyn is dead; Jane Seymour is Queen, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries is underway.  The novel begins in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace as its leaders are sentenced to die.

Against this backdrop, we meet Joanna Stafford, a young novice at Dartford Priory who has run off to witness to the burning of her cousin, Margaret Bulmer, to provide her with support and prayers at the time of her death.  It’s an horrific opening, one that makes the reader confront the brutality and inhumanity of Henry VIII’s reign, and setting the tone for the high stakes to come.

Her cousin Margaret is not the only relative to run afoul of Henry VIII, who executed her Uncle Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham—Margaret’s father.  With this history, Stafford is not a popular name with Henry VIII who is disinclined to leniency when Joanna’s father Richard Stafford intervenes to ease Margaret’s suffering.  Worse – Joanna’s mother was one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting and Joanna herself was with Katherine until she died.  They are sent to the Tower along with Geoffrey Scovill, a sheriff’s deputy and love interest for Joanna (yet how can this be when she is almost a nun… read and find out!).

Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester finally grants her release from the Tower on the condition that Joanna return to Dartford Priory and spy for him. He keeps Joanna’s father in the Tower to guarantee her cooperation. She must find the Athlestan Crown….the crown of the first King to unite Britain, the crown that has magic, perhaps cursed properties in the wrong hands.

Joanna returns to the Priory accompanied by two monks, where dramatic events are already in progress. From here, its murder and a bit of violence as Joanna finds the Crown.   Bilyeau crafts wonderful plots, subplots and terrific characters, weaving in fascinating details about Dartford, its tapestries, herbology, and the chaos of England at the tipping point of Reformation.

I liked Joanna Stafford, who is nicely balanced.  She is spiritual yet not too virtuous, independent yet not so much so that it stood out as remarkable for the 16th Century.  Her quest for the crown and its secret leads her out of the Priory and into the real world in the company of men, but not in a way that felt contrived.  Most of all, I loved that this was not a book about court intrigue.

The book is an excellent, fast-paced read. It felt more like a thriller than most historical fiction books, which I liked.  I will definitely read more from Nancy Bilyeau. (And yes, reading it helped with my Poissy research.)

Love to know your thoughts on this book!

The Other Boleyn Girl: Victim or Tramp? Review of Alison Weir’s “Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore”

Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings By Alison Weir

History has long maligned the other Boleyn girl—Mary—as the slightly slutty sister of Anne, infamous for attracting the amorous attentions of two Renaissance kings, but failing to hold the attention of either and failing to profit (jewels, castles, titles) from either liaison.

Was Mary Boleyn a tart, or a beautiful, well brought up young English girl who caught the eye of two powerful men who did not take “no” for an answer? Historian Alison Weir, in her latest book Mary Boleyn: The King’s Mistress  (UK: Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore), concludes the latter is the more accurate historical representation.

Until Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction novel The Other Boleyn Girl propelled Mary into the forefront of the Tudor mania, she was an historical footnote—“Henry Rex Slept Here.” It is an accepted historical fact that Henry VIII had an affair with her, and that Francois I of France “had” her first.  Weir does not dispute these liaisons, but she examines the purported facts of Mary’s life and behavior and does her usual splendid job of separating fact from fiction, and dispelling historical myths—chief among them that Mary was, well, a bit of a goer.

Little is known of either Boleyn girl’s early life in Norfolk, primarily at Blickling Hall and later at Hever Castle in Kent.   Their education may have been better than most girls of the time, preparing them for a marriages that would elevate their family’s social standing.  Their father Thomas Boleyn, was rising rapidly at Court, and his status as Ambassador to France helped secure two coveted positions for his daughters in service to Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister, on the eve of her marriage to Louis XII.  Mary was almost certainly the elder daughter, but Anne might have been the more academically “toward.”   This is consistent with history: Mary the beauty, Anne the brains.

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)

So—Mary had what may have been a fling with Francois I, but she eventually returned to England and in February 1520 married William Carey, one of Henry VIII’s Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber.  Here again, history (especially TV and film) has maligned Carey as a man of no account.  William was a cousin and favorite of Henry VIII’s and an up-and-comer at Court, a member of the Privy Chamber.  He was a prestigious match as a rising star in Henry’s court, and must have been all Mary’s father Thomas Boleyn could have wanted to bolster his ambitions for elevating the Boleyns.   This match, Weir argues, would not have been possible if Mary had a tarnished reputation.

Sometime after her marriage—no later than 1522—while living at Court with William, Mary had an affair with Henry.  There are no historical references to when it started, how long it continued and when it ended.  Again, there are no in contemporary references to an affair, which suggests the affair was discreet—if not, it is surely a weapon, Weir argues, Queen Katherine would have used against Henry when trying to divorce her using the Leviticus defense (i.e., that he’d known his brother’s wife, a forbidden degree of affinity).  The only reason we can claim historical certainty about it is because Henry, in his eagerness to marry Anne in 1528, received a dispensation from Pope Clement to marry within anyone within the forbidden degrees of affinity and in 1533—the year Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn married (1 June 1533)— an Act of Parliament made it permissible to marry the sister of a discarded mistress.

Weir believes the affair ended in late 1523 or 1524 when Mary became pregnant—but was her child Henry’s or her husband’s?  I will not give a spoiler here, but it is fascinating reading. Mary had a tough time after William Carey died, and her family almost disowned her—and then really did disown her when she married a common man, soldier William Stafford.   You have to take heart that she lived a longer, probably happier, life than her siblings.

As my earlier blog attests, I’m a huge fan of Alison Weir’s biographies for the 360-degree view she takes of a subject and the times they lived in.  I could not wait to delve into this latest work—and it did not disappoint.  But am not sure I whole-heartedly come around to see Mary as the victim of the lust of two kings.  Perhaps Francois, but Henry as well?   I think there may have been more than coercion at play with Henry VIII.  While I don’t think Mary was a tramp, I am not totally convinced she was a victim either.

What do you think?

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.