So much has been said about Anne Boleyn, so much has come to light in recent decades, and I have read and researched a lot about her. Then why did I pick up another book about her life? Well, I suppose I was lured by the title: 500 years of lies. Oh, was there something I had missed? Anything I didn’t know yet? I had to find out. I’m always interested in learning more.
History is tricky, well, it’s not, but the tricky part is that history is often told by the victors, changing the point of perspective considerably. In Anne’s case, her story was told by the enemies who had conspired to bring her down. Naturally, they wouldn’t present a flattering account of her.
Well, it’s Anne Boleyn’s story. We all know it, don’t we? Or at least the basics of it.
Anne was Henry VIII’s second wife. She was the one who gave birth to Elizabeth who would later become Queen Elizabeth I. Anne is perhaps the only wife who has been vilified for centuries, based on the negative accounts of her contemporaries (mostly her enemies).
On second thought, Katherine Howard, wife nr. 5, had also received a little bit of a bad rep throughout the centuries, always viewed as a flimsy, silly girl when in fact she wasn’t, but that’s another biography.
Isn’t it interesting that both wives who were executed were the ones who ended up getting slandered, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard? Both were victims of a tyrant. Yet, it was Anne who was accused of having “bewitched” Henry into marrying her and tearing his country apart to create the Church of England. (I’ll stick to Anne now, I’ll leave my opinions of Katherine’s tragic story for another book review 😉 )
Hayley Nolan, the author, describes Anne Boleyn’s childhood in France, her education, and the people in her young life. It is obvious that she has done her research and we find many favorable eye witness reports of Anne Boleyn, something that mysteriously didn’t always make it to the history books.
Then we see how Anne ends up at court and starts becoming an object of Henry’s attention. The whole courtship is explained, Anne’s religious beliefs and motivation, her relationship with other members at court, for example Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, and Jane Parker (her brother George’s wife).
The author describes the years leading up to Henry’s annulment of his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. She talks in detail about Anne’s many good works for the community, and the times she had interceded on behalf of a hapless soul that was in danger of being executed for possession of an English bible (instead of Latin). We see Anne as a young girl, a mature woman, a wife, a mother, an evangelist, a politician, and a human being.
We see where it all goes wrong, and how Anne’s enemies succeed in bringing her down, getting her thrown in the Tower of London. We all know the end of the story, Anne was beheaded.
My Review and Opinion
My opinion of this book is mixed. Did I love it? Yes and no. I obviously finished it, so that’s a good sign. I liked it enough to continue reading until the end. Nonetheless, there were several things I didn’t much enjoy about this book.
First of all, Nolan, the author, seems to assume that no one knows anything about Anne Boleyn. Her tone is arrogant and condescending at times, dripping with sarcasm when she refers to historians who had depicted Anne in a less favorable light. I started reading this book, because I thought that there might be something in it that I did not know yet, but most of what Nolan described was nothing new to me.
True, there were some events and details I had not been aware of, and I did learn something new, but they were details. I already knew how Anne had been misrepresented throughout history, how she had been vilified, and how misunderstood she had been. We all know that Anne was not only Henry’s wife, but that she also took on the role of what we call a politician nowadays. She was smart and educated, and she took her role seriously.
We know that Henry was no “hapless victim” who was “bewitched by Anne’s charms”. We know how he pursued her relentlessly, and perhaps he was madly in love at first, although the author is convinced that Henry VIII was a sociopath, and sociopaths have no emotion.
Nolan makes good points to prove her theory about Henry being a sociopath, and she convinced me at times. She may be right, but I also wonder how such a clinical assessment can be made of a man who has been dead for centuries. We can make educated guesses and deductions, I suppose.
Did Henry love Anne? Nolan says no, and perhaps he never did. We cannot prove that. It is also possible that he pursued her with passionate love, and years later he murdered her with that same rage and passion. I am not here to correct the author or anyone else.
I am just thinking out loud, but in the end, how will we know? It is a fact that Henry was certainly known for his bouts of rage. He had a difficult childhood which surely left its mark. It’s obvious that he was one dangerous individual whom you shouldn’t provoke, and it was probably best to stay out of his way when the angry beast in him awoke.
He was ruthless and he didn’t only murder two of his wives, but also several men who had worked closely with him for years. Yet, the author seems to think that her readers are under the impression that Henry and Anne’s was the “greatest love story of all” and that we still believe in the false accusations that led to Anne’s death.
I found the author’s patronizing – and sometimes even irate – tone annoying. Her claim that she is the one who is finally revealing the truth is a little preposterous, because other writers have already written favorable accounts of Anne Boleyn, backed up by research. I already know most of the truth that Nolan claims to have unearthed.
We already know that Anne was murdered and that the accusations of incest with her brother George were false. We know that she was framed. We already know that Henry was no loving husband and he was certainly not a doting father. We know that there was no treason and that Thomas Cromwell was instrumental in bringing her down. All this is no earth shattering new discovery.
Why Nolan thinks that we are unaware of all that is beyond me. I don’t like being talked to as if I was ignorant, and I’m sure that most people don’t. I often had that feeling, judging by the tone of the author’s voice, especially between chapters 1 and 4.
After the prologue and the first four chapters, her tone seems to cool down a little; perhaps the reader is now finally more educated, who knows … Nevertheless, there is an occasional mention of how she discovered the truth, how she found out what really happened. The way I read it, she seems to be the only one who knows what went on at Henry’s court.
And even if she is the only one who discovered the truth about Anne Boleyn, then why remind us of that feat over and over again?
I was certainly impressed at the amount of research Nolan has done, but at the same time I was also a bit surprised at the way she represented Jane Parker. With the in-depth research the author had done about Anne’s life and person, I expected the same kind of dedication regarding her sister-in-law.
Jane Parker is another woman who has been known throughout history as the villain whose testimony nailed the final nail on Anne and George Boleyn’s coffins. Here was an opportunity to reveal the truth about Jane, but the author chose to depict her as Anne’s enemy.
To be honest, I have never read much about Jane Parker, but I have done some research which showed me enough to know that she was not the villain as history has wanted us to believe.
The title of the book is catchy, but this time it didn’t do justice to the content. What Nolan reveals is nothing that is shockingly new.
If you don’t know much about Tudor history and you are interested in learning more about Anne Boleyn, then this book will definitely satisfy you. It has a lot of information and it is backed up by a great deal of research. It is not a boring biography, the tone is conversational, which makes it easy to read.
There are, however, other books that can also give you an accurate account of Anne Boleyn, without the patronizing and sometimes angry tone. If it hadn’t been for that tone that kept on wagging its finger at me throughout the book, I would be much more inclined to recommend it.
I know that many readers will not appreciate the condescending voice, though. I certainly didn’t, and judging by some reviews on Amazon, neither did other readers. That is basically the reason why I am a little hesitant about recommending Anne Boleyn, 500 years of lies.