Historians specialising in different periods must be bemused by the volume of attention given to Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second queen, not just by biographers such as Joanna Denny, writing for general readers, but by university historians such as Eric Ives, emeritus professor and sometime pro vice-chancellor at Birmingham University. Can a Tudor queen matter so much?
An immediate response is that Anne's life was so extraordinary that it will be of perennial interest. Henry VIII's infatuation with Anne, his search for an annulment of his marriage, his break with Rome, and then Anne's execution for treason on the grounds that she had committed adultery with five lovers, including incest with her brother, make for a compelling story.
And that is the story Denny retells. In a straightforward account, she essentially presents the interpretation developed early in the reign of Anne's daughter Elizabeth by the martyrologist John Foxe. Anne pushed Henry into the break with Rome, patronised Protestants and fell victim to faction. What makes this book somewhat limited is that while the writings of those who take a different view are listed in her bibliography, Denny does not much engage with them in her text.
Ives's book, a reissued and in places revised version of the study he published in 1986, is of a wholly different order, though his interpretation is similar. What gives his book substance is the wealth and weight of learning it reflects. Often Ives carefully and patiently takes the reader through the ambiguities and complexities of the sources available. He is good on the framework of Anne's life: her background as daughter of the courtier-diplomat Sir Thomas Boleyn, her experiences in the courts of Margaret of Austria in the Low Countries and that of Francis I and Queen Claude, in France, her relationships with Henry Percy and the poet Thomas Wyatt, and the pageantry surrounding her coronation.
Ives is, however, less strong on the politics of Henry's reign. There is an awkward tension at the heart of his approach. "Henry was always in authority... at times he did lead and he could not be taken for granted," Ives writes, only to add at once that Henry "was also significantly dependent on those around him, for reassurance and very often for ideas as well". Ives continues: "His will remained dominant; when he decided that was final. But the crucial question was 'Who (sic) had he been listening to?'" It would be impossible to write a coherent book from so logically contradictory a position, and Ives does not attempt to. What he says about Henry's dominant will is no more than a passing remark: it is Henry's capacity for manipulation that Ives wants to emphasise throughout. And Ives's claims for the part played by Anne in the fall of Thomas Wolsey, for "the importance of Anne as a spur in the divorce", in the break with Rome and in the making of religious policy rest heavily on the assumption that Henry was a weak king, erratic in purpose and the plaything of factions.
Ives organises his account as if that were obviously so, with little engagement with the arguments of those who have taken a different view and have read the sources as showing that the role that Henry played was dominant. He asserts, for example, that Anne played a leading part in the fall of Wolsey but ignores Peter Gwyn's study - the title of which, The King's Cardinal (1990), encapsulates his very different claims - and my own critique.
Ives then sees Anne Boleyn as working vigorously for religious reforms. "Anne played a major part in pushing Henry into asserting his headship of the church" and she offered patronage to reforming "evangelical" bishops. "The breach in the dyke of tradition which she encouraged and protected made the flood, first of reformed and later of more specifically Protestant Christianity, unstoppable." Yet again, there is a tension in Ives's presentation. He concedes that "confessional labels" are wholly inappropriate in the 1530s, and he recognises that Anne cannot meaningfully be called Protestant. Such an emphasis on what Ives presents as Anne's "evangelical" religion would convince only if "evangelicalism" had amounted to a coherent confessional position. Yet Anne's interest in the French Bible might reflect not so much evangelicalism or proto-protestantism as an Erasmian humanism. And Ives does not offer much analysis of Henry's religious convictions and policies, essential if Anne's influence is to be adequately assessed.
Ives's account of Anne Boleyn's fall remains open to question. He sees it as a complex factional intrigue in which her conservative opponents were joined by Thomas Cromwell, until then Anne's ally but who now found her "a major threat" as she became "leader of the opposition". It is a scenario that reduces Henry VIII to a cipher. And it rests on a perplexing view of Cromwell's motives for bringing down Anne. In 1986, Ives invoked Cromwell's irritation that the pro-French Anne was blocking a diplomatic rapprochement with the Emperor Charles V. Some felt that the notion that a royal minister would go to the lengths of inventing charges of adultery with five men against the queen just for the sake of a diplomatic alliance lacked plausibility. Now Ives foregrounds instead Anne's supposed pleading for the survival of monastic houses through the sermon of her almoner John Skip.
That is no more plausible as a motive. And in detail it misreads what Skip was campaigning against - not the dissolution of the smaller monasteries, the legislation for which had already gone through Parliament, but rather restrictions on religious ceremonies that he feared would come into force.
Ives continues to believe that Anne Boleyn was innocent of the charges. He goes through the sources that have convinced some of us that Anne might, in fact, have been guilty of the adulteries of which she was accused, especially a French poem that shows how all this came to light, and Anne's rambling and incriminating conversations while under arrest. Ives plays down their significance but offers little by way of direct argument. It was impossible for a queen to commit adultery because no queen enjoyed the necessary privacy, he claims. That fails to dispose of the possibility that the ladies of her chamber could have been the queen's accomplices: significantly, the charges against Anne were first made, if the French poem is correct, by one of the queen's ladies. Intriguingly, Ives acknowledges that "'pastime in the queen's chamber' does seem to have got somewhat out of hand" and writes of "excessive high spirits" in her household. We shall never have conclusive proof, of course, but if Anne did indeed commit adultery, it is not nearly as far-fetched an explanation of her fall as Ives would have his readers suppose.
George Bernard is reader in history, Southampton University.
Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England's Tragic Queen
Author - Joanna Denny
Publisher - Portrait
Pages - 374
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7499 5017 X