Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Alison Weir’s name is irrevocably linked to the time of the Tudors in England. Her latest book, Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession is a major work that becomes Book 2 in a six-part series that traces the lives and deaths of the wives of Henry VIII. Her previous book in this series told the story of Katherine of Aragon. Alison Weir has just the right background to write this series as she has published already The Marriage Game, A Dangerous Inheritance, Captive Queen, The Lady Elizabeth, and Innocent Traitor and numerous historical biographies, including The Lost Tudor Princess, Elizabeth of York, Mary Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower, Mistress of the Monarchy, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and The Life of Elizabeth I.
There is much about Weir’s latest book that appeals. Of major importance is the evidence that oceans of original research have been probed in preparation for the writing of the text. Weir make judgments about Anne Boleyn’s character based on this research. It seems a rash misinterpretation of history to create a conversation between Leonardo da Vinci and Anne Boleyn until one consults the historical record and finds that da Vinci and Anne Boleyn were in fact in the same locality at the time and could have spoken to one another just as Weir suggests.
Above all else Anne Boleyn is presented as a strong woman subjected to unrelenting pressure over a very long time. Her hatred of the king is understood when placed in the context of the brutal rape of her sister. That she has ideas in the book that are way ahead of the historical record cannot be supported or rejected as factual because she left next to no record behind. One can judge that the degree of enmity she aroused by her ambition to be queen, her questioning of the accepted roles of women within the Tudor mindset, and her forthrightness can be affirmed by evidence left behind by observers who were major or minor players. It is not difficult to mount a convincing case that Norfolk, Wolsey, Cromwell, and her own father were self-serving and evil. Witness testimony paints a picture of Anne Boleyn as a very dominant, at times irrational but intelligent woman, more often than not on top of the intrigues that permeated the very fabric of the Tudor Court. Charismatic and courageous Anne Boleyn strides across the pages of history as if born to flare like a flame, light up a kingdom, and perish in full view of her people.
Although the book is about Anne Boleyn and the focus never shifts from her, it is also about King Henry VIII. Most historians write about Henry’s superior decision-making skills when he was called upon to exercise them. They affirm that the king supported both Wolsey’s and Cromwell’s administrations only when Henry was of like mind. They report that, distracted as Henry was by the King’s Great Matter, he never lost sight of the fact that he was in charge. Weir weakens the king’s position. Time and again she reveals that he procrastinated, changed his mind when subjected to pressure by others, or hedged when his queen asked about actions he had promised her he would take. For a long time it was Katherine who was directing from outside the Court the lives of both the king and Boleyn.
Weir shows us a king who was petty-minded and irrational, weak and a bully. He is seen to be a rapist who eschewed responsibility for his own actions. Manipulated by Anne Boleyn for the first years of their lives together, giving way to her tantrums, and executing Fisher and More to retain her regard, the king is shown as easily influenced. When Anne is unable to produce a male heir who survives, his pettiness is soon displayed. Hiding behind a belief that God had not sanctioned his marriage to Anne after all, his only way forward was not to return to Katherine but to kill Anne and marry another.
At her trial and execution Anne Boleyn is magnificent. Her strength as a woman and her leadership qualities outshine the king’s at every turn. She supplies proof, time after time, that the charges against her are false.
But justice was not there that day. The king hid his face while his minions murdered his wife.
Alison Weir is a writer of historical fiction. She is not a professional historian, but she is an experienced researcher and she does know a huge amount about Tudor history. I find her very convincing. I find the pictures she draws of both Henry and Anne are as historically accurate as I have read anywhere else. However, nowhere else have I read a biography that entertains and stimulates so much further thought.
I must force myself to wait for the next book in the series. This one is outstanding.
By Alison Weir
Headline UK/Hachette Australia
RRP: $29.99; 544pp