Anne Boleyn is a popular figure in Tudor historical fiction and it’s easy to see why with all the drama surrounding her. Anne’s story began as a love story for the ages only to end with her tragic execution. Anne was the commoner who seduced King Henry VIII, a king willing to break from the Catholic Church to have her. More than that, she ended up being the first queen arrested and executed in Britain, a dark ending for a queen who chose “The Most Happy” as her motto.
Anne was the second of King Henry’s six wives. Before her came Queen Katherine of Aragon who never provided the king with an heir, a huge failure for a king who needed to ensure the safety of his line. By the time Anne appeared at court, it was clear there would be no heir from Katherine. At first Henry only wanted Anne as his mistress, but she hailed from a cunning line and in the true fashion of her family, used Henry’s desire for her and an heir to become queen. Anne and Katherine became rivals for the throne and Katherine held tight to her position as queen even after Henry banished her from court. Since the Catholic Church refused to grant Henry a divorce so he could marry Anne, he broke away from the Catholic Church and made himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
It’s fascinating to note that on the day Katherine died, Anne suffered a miscarriage and lost a boy. A boy that could have been heir if he’d survived. We aren’t sure how many miscarriages she suffered from in total but her only surviving child was Elizabeth, who would later become Elizabeth I of England. Providing Henry with his heir would have helped secure her position, but Henry was beginning to wonder if his second marriage was as cursed as his first one and doubted if Anne could give him an heir.
There is still some debate over how involved the king’s counselor Thomas Cromwell was in Anne’s downfall. Some believe he was in a power struggle with Anne who tried to influence the king on political matters. Others think he merely did the bidding of the king and that it was the king who wanted Anne gone. Either way, rumors began to spread that Anne had performed witchcraft on the king, had incestuous relations with her brother, and committed treason against the king. Meanwhile, Jame Seymour, Anne’s lady-in-waiting and Henry’s soon-to-be third queen, had already caught Henry’s attention.
The King ordered Anne’s execution for her supposed crimes. Perhaps if she hadn’t miscarried and provided Henry with an heir, her life would have been saved. She was beheaded on May 19, 1536. It seems odd that while he fought so hard for her, he was quick to execute her. But the king had suffered a jousting accident in January of 1536. He survived what had been feared to be a fatal accident, but it left him unconscious for two hours. The injury changed the king’s personality, making him paranoid and suspicious of those around him. Some historians mark this as the event that began to turn him into an unpredictable tyrant. With Anne gone, Henry married Jane.
Anne makes for a fascinating read in historical fiction because of the varying interpretations of her downfall. Some paint Cromwell as being her greatest enemy and the sole figure behind the accusations against her. Others think the king wanted her gone so he could have Jane, while others portray him as a tyrant gone crazy. Even whether Anne actually loved the king or not is up to debate. She has been portrayed as a woman madly in love to a sly woman easy to anger who merely wanted the queen’s position and the power that came with it. The change in Henry’s personality after his jousting injury also makes for a great way to keep readers on their toes. Some paint Henry as a tyrant while others choose the path of madman or shrewd calculator. Add in all the court intrigue surrounding Anne, Cromwell, and Henry and you have a story about a woman you won’t easily forget. A woman who seduced her way onto the throne and lost her head for it.
Below are three historical fiction books I recommend about Anne Boleyn. The Other Boleyn Girl is a personal favorite of mine even if it is harsh on Anne at times. I enjoyed getting to see her character through her sister’s perspective. Philippa Gregory often portrays King Henry as a man gone mad and bitter after his jousting accident, making him unpredictable. A man his queens struggle to keep happy. Alison Weir is a good choice for those wanting to explore the power struggle between Anne and Cromwell and their rivalry.
Born into a noble English family, Anne is barely a teenager when she is sent from her family’s Hever Castle to serve at the royal court of the Netherlands. This strategic move on the part of her opportunistic father also becomes a chance for the girl to grow and discover herself. There, and later in France, Anne thrives, preferring to absorb the works of progressive writers rather than participate in courtly flirtations. She also begins to understand the inequalities and indignities suffered by her gender.
Anne isn’t completely inured to the longings of the heart, but her powerful family has ambitious plans for her future that override any wishes of her own. When the King of England himself, Henry VIII, asks Anne to be his mistress, she spurns his advances—reminding him that he is a married man who has already conducted an affair with her sister, Mary. Anne’s rejection only intensifies Henry’s pursuit, but in the absence of a male heir—and given an aging Queen Katherine—the opportunity to elevate and protect the Boleyn family, and to exact vengeance on her envious detractors, is too tempting for Anne to resist, even as it proves to be her undoing.
While history tells of how Anne Boleyn died, this compelling new novel reveals how fully she lived.
When Mary Boleyn comes to court as an innocent girl of fourteen, she catches the eye of the handsome and charming Henry VIII. Dazzled by the king, Mary falls in love with both her golden prince and her growing role as unofficial queen. However, she soon realizes just how much she is a pawn in her family’s ambitious plots as the king’s interest begins to wane, and soon she is forced to step aside for her best friend and rival: her sister, Anne. With her own destiny suddenly unknown, Mary realizes that she must defy her family and take fate into her own hands.
With more than one million copies in print and adapted for the big screen, The Other Boleyn Girl is a riveting historical drama. It brings to light a woman of extraordinary determination and desire who lived at the heart of the most exciting and glamorous court in Europe, and survived a treacherous political landscape by following her heart.
When the young Queen Elizabeth I is entrusted with Anne Boleyn’s secret diary, she discovers a great deal about the much-maligned mother she never knew. And on learning the truth about her lascivious and despotic father, Henry VIII, she vows never to relinquish control to any man. But this avowal doesn’t prevent Elizabeth from pursuing a torrid love affair with her horsemaster, Robin Dudley — described with near-shocking candor — as too are Anne’s graphic trysts with a very persistent and lustful Henry. Blending a historian’s attention to accuracy with a novelist’s artful rendering, Maxwell weaves compelling descriptions of court life and devastating portraits of actual people into her naughty, page-turning tale.
If you are more into documentaries, I recommend The Last Days of Anne Boleyn by BBC which includes authors Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir and their thoughts on Anne.
Check out these resources to learn more:
The Last Days of Anne Boleyn BBC Two. July 01, 2016. Accessed November 10, 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p015vhp1.