Monday, September 12, 2011

The Lady in the Tower, by Alison Weir

I am a bookworm – no denying that.  But, the other label I’ll proudly attach to myself is Historian.  I love History – many of the books I read and review are historical fiction.  This week, however, I spent my time with a work of historical non-fiction: The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir.  I really enjoy Weir’s works, both those of fiction and non-fiction.  The Lady in the Tower takes a look at the fall of Anne Boleyn and the political and religious influences and ramifications that fall had.

To start off with, I found this book poorly named.  I had assumed (and the introduction implied) that this work would examine the final months of Anne Boleyn’s life.  What it is, in fact, is a (brilliant) overview of the political and religious climate surrounding both her rise to Queen and the long-term effects of her execution on her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.  I had hoped that Weir would have limited her scope to the very specialized niche of Anne’s arrest/Tower experience (and that’s why I was willing to buy yet another work about the Tudors), but instead she fell to the allure of re-telling the entire story, as many authors do.

A historian is only as good as their ability to research, and Weir proves that she is a very good historian.  With public interest in the Tudor period being remarkably high (more on The Tudors later), there are a wealth of archival sources that are being lovingly maintained for academic research.  In her introduction, Weir states that the majority of this work was done before she consulted secondary sources (that is to say, other academics who wrote about Anne’s fall).  As such, the basis for this work is the primary documents (that is to say materials written by contemporaries in the 16th century) that survive.  Weir includes an entire appendix in the work with a brief summary of the contents and bias of each of her primary sources, which proves incredible useful for the reader trying to judge an account for them self.  Weir is such a good author that the inclusion of her impression of the secondary sources does not interrupt the flow of the primary sources, which is incredible, given that she went back after writing the majority of the work to include those extra details.  

What Weir does that many historians seem generally unable to do is to remove the emotions from her analysis of events; she takes no sides, but rather presents all possibilities with equal weight.  At the root, Weir is telling a he-said (Cromwell)/she-said (Anne) story that has the heavy hand of an autocrat (Henry) on the desired outcome.  Naturally, many of those people involved in the fall of Anne had vested interests in either keeping her on the throne, or seeing her cast down.  This was an age of religious upheaval, political machinations abroad, and court supremacy at home.  Anne and her faction, Cromwell and his changing allegiances, and the Imperial faction all wanted different things from Henry and weren’t afraid to fight for it.  Within this swirling cauldron of disparate forces pushing against Henry, Anne’s trail became a proving ground for a person’s abilities and loyalties. 

As such, Weir is working with sources that are biased and (sometimes accidentally or purposefully) incomplete.  For all the challenges that the sources present, Weir is excellent at providing multiple interpretations, and reading the material available from both sides of the aisle.  For example:
Anne’s protestation of innocence, made when she believed her execution was imminent, should surely be regarded as genuine.  It is barely conceivable that she would have risked her immortal soul, on the brink of death and divine judgment as she believed herself to be, by lying…
Nonetheless, the wording of her confession is interesting… from her insistence that “she had never offended with her body” against him, it might be inferred that she had offended in other ways, perhaps with her heart or her thoughts…
Weir does what a good historian should do (but few of us are able to) and puts aside her personal beliefs in the outcome of the trail.  It is not until the closing chapters that she admits that she feels the charges were false, though she does allow that there must have been some grain of truth at the root of the problem (though not infidelity, as the Queen was charged).

This is commonly-tread ground, and even the most basic of arm-chair historians seems to have formed opinions on the main players.  I blame The Tudors for this.  With the popularity of HBO/Showtime television shows in its ascendency, The Tudors hit the airwaves as a raunchy, soap-opera-esque nod to history.  I’d have rathered they didn’t try.  I can appreciate the show as a historian and identify where the story gets it wrong; the average viewer can’t, and instead believes what they are told by Jonathan Ryes Myers.  And the last time I checked, JRM doesn’t have the same pedigree as an Antonia Fraser, Peter Stratchey, or Alison Weir.  The seriousness of the flaws in The Tudors was revealed (inadvertently) by Weir.  In her way of showing all sides of the situation, she presents several versions of well known events and interactions between the main players.  What she also does is provide her opinion on the veracity of each version.  Of course, the writers of The Tudors chose the most titillating and extreme version for their show (which, I’ll give them they researched well because a lot of the time it reads verbatim between the source and the show’s dialogue), which Weir rarely believes to be the true version.

This is a long review, I know, but two more things bear mentioning.  My favorite parts of the study were the medical assessments, and the appendix on alleged sightings of Anne’s ghosts.  On page 28 Weir suggests that Anne’s inability to carry a child to full term after the birth of Elizabeth was caused by Anne being rhesus negative: what is boils down to is that after the first pregnancy, the body recognizes subsequent pregnancies as foreign objects and tries to expel them.  An interesting diagnosis (un-provable, of course) thanks to the modernization of medicine.  Also of medical interest is a section on beheadings (page 286).  Legend has it that after she lost her head, Anne looked at her own body and her eyes registered sorrow while her lips continued to move in silent prayer.  Weir uses research done during the French Revolution to prove that this might not have been legend: it is possible for the human head to live (and be cognizant) for up to thirteen seconds after decapitation.  Those on the ground might have feared supernatural influences, but they were, in fact, witnessing Anne registering her own be-heading.  

Finally, Weir includes an appendix on supposed ghost sightings of Anne Boleyn around England.  Even here, she finds it hard to take a side and say if a) ghosts are real, and b) if the ghost in question is even Anne.  In one instance, Weir describes a ghost’s visit and finds reports plausible, but denies that it was Anne, while stating that it must be some other lady’s ectoplasm roaming the earth.  Trying to capitalize on Anne’s fame, many places across England claim that her specter visits them.  Unfortunately, many of these visits are said to occur at the same time in different corners of England, and at locations where Anne never visited during her life time, but can claim a tenuous connection to her or her family.  The (main) problem I have with the ghost tales is the day on which they supposedly occur: May 19.  Anne was executed May 19, 1536.  In 1753 England changed its calendar to drop nine days to bring their year in-line with the rest of Europe.  Does this mean that Anne’s ghost was aware of the change, more than 200 years after her death, and so appropriately decides to appear on the day we observe her execution?  I wasn’t aware that ghosts kept calendars; it would make more sense to me if she appeared on May 10.  But, alas, what do we mere mortals know?

All in all, an excellent read.  Though the scope was a little off from what I was expecting, I would still recommend it for those looking for a specialized historical analysis.  (If you’re looking for a more general overview of Henry VIII’s wives, check out Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry VIII).  British historians tend to rip unmercifully at one another (which is why I’m not pursuing at PhD), but I have no such desire in relation to this book.  If, however, non-fiction doesn’t appeal to you, Weir is also well known for her Tudor-period fictions.  I’ve read one or two, and really enjoy them.  The lesson then, is that Weir is a great author, and deserves to be read.

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