Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing me with a copy of this book that I freely choose to review.
I have recently read a number of books about the Tudor era, mostly historical fiction novels and I was intrigued to see what this book might offer.
The author has researched the topic well and discusses what London was like in Anne Boleyn’s time and describes the changes that not only London, but also the rest of England, experienced during this time, and in some cases, later. Even if those changes were not directly influenced by Anne’s role, it is clear that this was a momentous time for British history and Anne’s history is inextricably linked to them. Although London was not as important internationally as other cities at the time (Paris, for instance) it was the seat of power and influence of the kingdom. Most important people would have a residence in London at the time, and the book mentions the different properties the king had in the city and surrounding area and how those were renovated or abandoned according to the needs of the period. The fact that Anne’s family didn’t have a house in London is remarkable considering the ambition Thomas Boleyn had for himself and his children. As we know, that didn’t stop him but perhaps meant that he had not as many allies in the capital as he would have wished.
I was fascinated by the accounts of the never-ending moves of the court from residence to residence (due to sanitation and problems with the water supply, no single place could accommodate the king and his entourage for lengthy periods of time, and once they left the cleaning process would start again), by the way in which properties and alliances swapped and changed hands (the Queen is Dead, God Save the Queen indeed, as most of the women who had been ladies in waiting of one of the queens would end up serving the next one or even several in a row, whatever their personal sympathies or feelings might have been. And, of course, everybody would hope to get their hands on the property and positions of those now out of favour with the king) and by details such as how expensive it could be to be called to court (as you had to adjust your dress, carriages, etc., to the requirements) but also profitable if you managed to advance your position and you played your cards right. Some of the historical figures were remarkably resilient and managed to survive changes and whims, although those closest to the king were at highest risk. We learn about the roles of the different Lords and Ladies at the King and Queen’s service, we hear about the strict rules on hygiene, we learn about illnesses and mishaps…
The book does not go into detailed descriptions of places or events, but manages to recreate the atmosphere of the era and gives a good indication of the politics and how the different factions played against each other. The author suggests that to be successful and to survive close to the king, one needed to know how to move and behave both in London and in court. Anne was very familiar with the court’s inner workings (she’d been educated in the courts of Austria and France from a very young age) but due to her time away and to her birthplace, she didn’t know London well. Cromwell knew the ins and outs of London (and was very good at managing the crowds, getting money for coronations and other events, gathering information…) but was not so adept at the ins and outs of court. Ultimately, Henry VIII’s main interest seems to have been to please himself and if somebody stopped being useful or interesting to him, there were plenty of others happy to take their place and try their luck.
Chapman tries to provide an objective and even-handed view of Anne’s historical figure, not adopting sides or taking us on any flights of fancy. She quotes the sources for comments, anecdotes and stories about the queen, always documenting how much weight we can set by them, because much of what has been written about Anne dates from years or centuries after her demise and it was penned by people who did not know her. Even the people who were documenting the events as they occurred tend to be either pro or against Anne rather than neutral observers, and there is little doubt their accounts are coloured by their loyalty and feelings. When possible, the author provides more than one source or interpretation on the events and her sources will be of interest to anybody looking to make their own minds up (although, in my opinion, the book provides a balanced account).
The early chapters flow better and this is, perhaps, because the chapters seem to be designed to work if read separately, providing enough background and references to each period of Anne’s life. A reader who goes through the whole book in a relatively short period of time is bound to notice some repetitions. For example, discussions as to when the court became aware that Anne was pregnant, or descriptions of the chambers of the king and queen appear in more than one chapter. Despite that, I enjoyed learning how the court was organised and the roles others who were not of noble blood played in keeping everything running smoothly.
The last chapter makes a point of updating us on the changes to the properties of the period that have survived to this day. I had to chuckle at the comments about the re-Tudorisation of quite a few buildings in the Victorian Era (the Tower of London, Hampton Court and Windsor in particular).
This book is a good resource for people who are interested in the history behind the figure and are looking for an even-handed summary and account of the events. It will also be of interest to those who want to learn more about the society of the time and how it worked. It offers factual information (such as it exists) and allows us to put into context some of the stories and legends that circulate about Anne to this day. It might be too basic for those who’ve read extensively on the subject but will be a great addition to those who love the period and are looking for reliable data presented in an easy to read and engaging manner.
As an aside, I had access to a hardback copy and it contains black and white pictures that go from drawings of London and supposed portraits to modern-day reminders of Anne's figure.