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Joanna Denny – Anne Boleyn

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It’s all well and good to be positive about your subject, but you can’t let it allow you to be hateful to all opposition, especially when the opposition is long dead.

Publisher: Piatkus
Pages: 327
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-74995-051-4
First Published: 2004
Date Reviewed: 5th September 2012
Rating: 3/5

Denny presents us with a biography of Anne Boleyn, the first wife to be executed by Henry VIII. Claiming to reveal the truth and to be unique, Denny recounts Anne’s life from young lady-in-waiting to Queen facing death.

The author begins well. Although she may be wrong about her book’s uniqueness – other historians such as Eric Ives had already produced detailed biographies – her overall purpose includes the sadly true snippet that Anne was vilified in her lifetime. She also says, “tradition has presented us with a totally unconvincing one-dimensional picture”, suggesting that she will work through this ‘picture’. And she does.

Denny provides good background context. Throughout the book she makes much use of the accounts of the Spanish ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, but cautions the reader, saying that Chapuy’s English was poor and he could only rely on spies. Likewise Denny debunks popular ideas to good effect, for example she points out that if Anne was truly as unattractive as Nicholas Sander described, she, Anne, would never have captured and held Henry’s attention for over a decade. Sanders was the person who gave us the idea of Anne being a witch with six fingers – with all Henry’s superstitions and worries, Denny’s points stand to reason, especially when you consider that Henry refused to sleep with Anne of Cleves because she looked like a horse. Yes, the description there was Henry’s own.

Something that is vastly in Denny’s favour is the way she backs up her statements. Even when she is using questionable opinions she adds a reference for where she found the information or a reference that aids her in making her point. This system enables her to bypass an issue found in many non-fiction works – unlike other writers, when Denny writes something that sounds overly romantic or fictitious, such as saying “Anne thought…” or “it was an exhausting journey” there is always a reference, in these cases state papers or the accounts of Anne’s friends. Work like this is utterly refreshing and it’s nice not to have to read such assertions with a sceptical mind.

The points that Denny makes are quite often simply fascinating, and whilst her unnecessary hatred of some of the leading players is cause for complaint (to be discussed later) this scorn of hers yields some particularly interesting facts, such as Catherine of Aragon’s silence over the issue of her virginity, silence that she kept up until Henry planned to divorce her. Intriguing too is the surprise of the Pope’s that, given Henry’s conviction that his marriage to Catherine was unlawful, he [Henry] hadn’t just gone and married Anne already. Henry was certainly an anomaly in his family when it came to scruples, as his sisters didn’t have many – Denny remarks that Margaret sought and won a divorce on similar grounds to her brother and that Mary had married the bigamist Charles Brandon without batting an eyelid.

In regards to Catherine of Aragon’s sudden revelation, to the court, of her virginity, it is interesting that this was a second concept she’d hidden from Henry, as Denny remarks on an earlier event when Catherine had pretended she was pregnant. Denny’s point is that Henry must have remembered this “pregnancy” when Catherine showed the decree of virginity, but what is truly captivating is the fact that Catherine pretended to be pregnant at all. Pretence you can understand of a woman who is aware she is considered responsible for producing heirs, but pretence would lead to sex being suspended, sex that could have made her truly pregnant.

Here it would be appropriate to discuss the overall way in which Denny portrays Catherine. Unfortunately no allowances can be made because there aren’t any – Denny hates Catherine with a passion and it is clear that her [Denny] love for Anne means she sees Catherine as a she-devil. The author does later provide a couple of quotations in evidence but isn’t it ironic that one of those references is not included in the bibliography? Plowden, who is not described and could be either a primary or secondary source for all this book is concerned, called Catherine arrogant, stubborn, and bloody-minded. This description is not enough, it is like a get out of jail free card that Denny snitched from another player, and it does not stand to reason.

The second quote is a better-known source and intriguing. Given that Catherine was Spanish and aligned her interests with Spain, it is rather telling for Denny’s conviction that the source is the Spanish ambassador, Campeggio. The man said:

“I have always judged her [Catherine] to be a prudent lady, [but] her obstinacy in not accepting this sound council does not please me.”

Compelling; but the problem with Denny’s use of this source is that Campeggio speaks of a single event, Catherine’s refusal to become a nun – which would have ended the Great Matter (Henry wanting a divorce) – and her insisting that her case went to Rome. It would have ultimately been in Spain’s interests for Catherine to become a nun as the Pope was having a difficult time with Henry; Campeggio’s words could easily be the result of in-the-moment frustration. Though this is all as much speculation as Denny’s own, the difference is that Denny gives decorum and other possibilities the cold shoulder, making herself quite the wretched writer.

Like mother, like daughter: Denny hates the youthful Mary, Catherine’s heir, as much as Catherine herself. Because of her love for Anne, Denny on occasion puts on rose-tinted glasses when viewing Henry’s actions, to the effect that she overlooks some terrible behaviour by the King towards his daughter. A prime example of this is Denny’s statement that refers to Mary’s refusal to acknowledge herself as a literal bastard, illegitimate on the grounds of Henry’s discomfort in his first marriage.

“Henry had been irritated… by her unnatural hatred.”

Here Denny calls “unnatural hatred” the anger of a daughter for a father who has treated her and her mother with distain, casting her mother aside, denying their marriage, and forcing the daughter to live away from her mother. Henry’s actions caused Mary a lot of stress. There was nothing unnatural about Mary’s hatred at all, indeed her refusal to comply with Henry’s requests was the very natural response of a girl whose father repeatedly demonstrates that he despises her.

There are two possible birth dates cited for Anne, with a few years between them. Historians have given varying reasons as to which is the more likely, but Denny’s reason is a little off. She says that since Henry preferred women to girls the older birth date must stand. But Henry did like girls – he courted and married the 15-year-old Catherine Howard when he was in his 50s.

Accounts by Chapuys, one of the Spanish ambassadors, are included throughout the book. Denny says we must take his words with a pinch of salt because he didn’t speak English and had to rely on spies, that he never met Anne. This is commonly accepted – Chapuys can’t be trusted. But when it comes to opposing evidence, Denny takes Chapuys’s word over Jane Dormer’s as to Anne’s true birth date. She takes Chapuys’s words, “that thin old woman”, as good evidence, yet Chapuys was surely being derogatory, his words are hardly nice and he despised Anne. Dormer didn’t like Anne either, but at least her words are neutral.

And in relation to Anne’s birth date, Denny says that Anne wouldn’t have bemoaned lost youth and chances of marriage if she was only in her mid-twenties. Yet mid-twenties was considered old, especially when it came to marriage.

Denny takes a very romantic view of parent-child relationships. Of the letter by Anne to her father that talks of love and obedience, Denny says that this demonstrates closeness. But in those days it was usual for such things to be written, so while it’s possible, the letter is not compelling evidence.

So Denny is struck with a hatred of Spain as well as a sort of semi-romantic notion not unlike the literal romantic notion of Fraser when dealing with Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen. Whilst it is not a case of Denny being wrong, per se, her presentation of her thoughts being undeniably correct is an example of a possible lack of interest in opposing evidence due to her convictions of Anne’s goodness. Denny has all the qualities of a historian and a fine debater but lets her bad qualities take over.

Anne Boleyn is a good book to read if you want interesting additional information. It also offers some alternative interpretations, but the reader will have to wade through malicious slander to find it, and there is a lot more of it than could be covered in a review. There is plenty of content in the book that could be used as research for other work but due to the nature of it one should be sceptical of using Denny’s opinions in any academic debates.

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Andrew Blackman

September 8, 2012, 5:47 pm

It’s interesting how often that happens with biographies – the writer can get so wrapped up in his/her subject that it distorts the objectivity that a historian should have. I suppose it’s partly down to the amount of time the writer spends researching that one person, including all their personal letters and papers – they must start to feel very close to them. Also I think that they have to justify the importance of their subject to publishers, academic authorities, etc, and so perhaps have a tendency to promote the person a little bit. In any case it’s a shame when it happens, especially when, as is the case here, it’s otherwise a very good book.


September 9, 2012, 2:27 pm

Andrew: That’s a very good point, and I’d have to agree that when you study a subject so much and looking at it from a certain angle only, you’re going to become rather biased. In this case, justifying to a publisher might well have been an extra reason as as far as I could find out, Denny is of The Alison Weir school of writing, no degree or doctorate to boost her. I do find the more I read secondary sources, the more I discover how biased the majority are – I suppose given the amount of time teachers spend on telling you to be objective I’ve been surprised by how rarely it actually happens.



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