Anne Boleyn’s unconventional beauty inspired poets ‒ and she so entranced Henry VIII with her wit, allure and style that he was prepared to set aside his wife of over twenty years and risk his immortal soul. Her sister had already been the king’s mistress, but the other Boleyn girl followed a different path. For years the lovers waited; did they really remain chaste? Did Anne love Henry, or was she a calculating femme fatale?
Eventually replacing the long-suffering Catherine of Aragon, Anne enjoyed a magnificent coronation and gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth, but her triumph was short-lived. Why did she go from beloved consort to adulteress and traitor within a matter of weeks? What role did Thomas Cromwell and Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall play in Anne’s demise? Was her fall one of the biggest sex scandals of her era, or the result of a political coup?
With her usual eye for the telling detail, Amy Licence explores the nuances of this explosive and ultimately deadly relationship to answer an often neglected question: what choice did Anne really have? When she writes to Henry during their protracted courtship, is she addressing a suitor, or her divinely ordained king? This book follows Anne from cradle to grave and beyond. Anne is vividly brought to life amid the colour, drama and unforgiving politics of the Tudor court.
Reviewing such a book as Anne Boleyn: Adultery, Heresy, Desire by Amy Licence is a daunting prospect. How can one do justice to a book which may well be the definitive biography of Anne Boleyn? Well, I suppose Amy had the same issue when writing it – how to do justice to Anne Boleyn’s story while avoiding falling into the bias of having a favourite between Anne and her rival, Catherine of Aragon? Having already produced a stunning account of the life of Catherine of Aragon, this is the second in a series which will hopefully include all 6 of Henry VIII’s wives, and presents Anne Boleyn as she was; a woman like any other, with loves, hopes and fears, rather than as the foil and ruin of the married bliss of Catherine and Henry.
However she did it, Amy Licence has managed to produce a balanced, fair assessment of this much hated/loved (depending on which side of the fence you are on) queen. Telling the story from the very beginning, from the rise of Anne’s predecessors through the guilds of London, through her childhood and early years in the courts of Burgundy and France to her dominance of Henry VIII’s court. The book strips away the veil of malice and rumour surrounding her, providing a new and in-depth analysis of Anne the woman and Anne the queen. It shows her as a growing and developing individual, reacting and responding to the forces around her, rather than the historical fiction view of a scheming harridan out to displace Catherine and take the throne for herself. It demonstrates that the Tudor world and Anne’s life, was constantly fluid, developing and responding to situations as they present themselves.
Amy Licence is a wonderful writer and historian – her books are always accessible and enjoyable reads, bringing back to life some of the most fascinating characters of history. And Anne Boleyn: Adultery, Heresy, Desire is no exception. Beautifully written, it presents Anne’s story as never before seen, with a balance rarely achieved when it comes to telling Anne Boleyn’s story. Anne is presented neither as a tragic victim, nor a scheming temptress. Her story unfolds as it does for all of us, with events and actions influencing her decisions and demonstrating that her life was a long winding road; the direction neither predetermined nor inevitable. It shows how Anne’s experiences, both in England and the continent, helped to shape Anne the woman, her outlook and her destiny.
Amy Licence achieves a balance between presenting the everyday domesticity of Henry VIII’s life and court and the national and international politics of the day. I love the little snippets of domestic life interspersed in the deeper issues, such as Henry’s dog, Ball, getting lost in Waltham Forest. She demonstrates the influences of the Reformation on Anne and Henry, and on the country at large, but also highlights the reactionary nature of the Reformation against church abuses. Rather than presenting it as ‘Henry wanted a divorce so he broke with Rome’, but as one cog in a very complex wheel of reactionism and Reformation; showing it in its wider context, not only in England but across Europe, and how both Henry’s and Anne’s attitudes were changed and shaped by the wider European movement of reform.
At twelve years old, Anne Boleyn left her home at Hever, travelled to Dover and embarked for Calais. It was to be the start of the education that gave her the air of sophistication and poise that would attract Henry, a unique edge, and the cultural polish and confidence to hold her own in the courts of Burgundy,, France and, eventually, England. in fairy-tale castles that outstripped any buildings she knew from home, hung with the most exquisite Flemish tapestries, in libraries housing the best illuminated manuscripts, where leading artists worked and musicians played, Anne absorbed the latest and best of the northern European Renaissance. Her exposure to its religious and cultural thinking made her something of a ‘new’ woman, part of a generation who would question the old ways and faiths, emboldened to reject centuries of Catholic ritual, the efficacy of saints and the pope, a different world to the England in which she spent her early years.
Amy Licence has managed to write a book about Anne Boleyn, giving us the character of the woman and showing how she grew into her role as queen, but showing her as human, a woman who made not only loyal friends and achieved a position she was never born to, but also a woman who made enemies and mistakes and whose downfall was one of the most tragic, staged events in English history. With the use of primary sources, including letters, court documents and accounts, Amy not only recreates the world of Anne and Henry VIII, but also the personalities and politics of the people and countries surrounding them. Where there is disagreement or controversy , she presents all sides of the argument, using her excellent analytical skills to dissect the story, present the facts and explain her own theories, reasoning and conclusions.
Not only does Amy Licence expertly dissect the character of Anne, but also the personalities associated with her story, from her own family to Henry, Catherine and Cardinal Wolsey. She provides a deep analysis of Anne Boleyn, her character, strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. She does not shy away from the negatives in Anne’s character, such as her pettiness towards Catherine of Aragon, but manages to convey how Henry’s pursuit of her, the lengthy divorce proceedings and long years of waiting must have affected her.
Amy Licence’s unique, intimate writing style draws the reader in and provides an engaging, perceptive analysis of one of the most enigmatic women of the Renaissance period. Whether you love or hate Anne Boleyn, Anne Boleyn: Adultery, Heresy, Desire will give you new perspectives of this polarising, iconic woman and help to demonstrate the complexities of Anne’s life and career. While being sympathetic to Anne Boleyn the woman, but not afraid to criticise, Amy Licence provides a balanced analysis of Anne Boleyn’s life, influence and legacy.
Amy Licence is an historian of women’s lives in the medieval and early modern period, from Queens to commoners. Her particular interest lies in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, in gender relations, Queenship and identity, rites of passage, pilgrimage, female orthodoxy and rebellion, superstition, magic, fertility and childbirth. She is also interested in Modernism, specifically Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, Picasso and Post-Impressionism.
Amy has written for The Guardian, The TLS, The New Statesman, BBC History, The English Review, The Huffington Post, The London Magazine and other places. She has been interviewed regularly for BBC radio, including Woman’s Hour, and made her TV debut in “The Real White Queen and her Rivals” documentary, for BBC2, in 2013. She also writes historical and literary fiction and has been shortlisted twice for the Asham Award.
Her website can be found at amylicence.weebly.com.
Heroines of the Medieval World:
Heroines of the Medieval World, is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.
©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly