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Episode 076: Alison Weir on Anne Boleyn

Episode 76 of the Renaissance English History Podcast is an interview with historian Alison Weir on her new historical fiction book on Anne Boleyn. Listen here:

I was thrilled to have a chance to speak again with Alison Weir, the author of too many books to list here (some of my favorites are below). You can listen to our first interview, before the first book on Katherine of Aragon as well.

Here are some notes to more resources, the new book on Anne, and the transcript of our interview.

*Also remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!*

Resources and Show Notes:

Tudor Times Article: http://tudortimes.co.uk/guest-articles/anne-boleyn-in-france

The Woman Question

Early Feminist Theory and the “Querelle des Femmes”, 1400-1789
Available to read online for free from Jstor (registration required)

Also, be sure to listen to the Sarah Gristwood interview from last November. Her book, Game of Queens, was mentioned in the interview.

Some Favorite Alison Weir Books
(these are all my Amazon affiliate links – the price is the same for you, but the podcast gets a portion of the proceeds. Hooray!)

The new Anne book from the Six Tudor Queens series
Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession: A Novel (Six Tudor Queens)

The first in the Six Tudor Queen Series
Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen: A Novel (Six Tudor Queens)

Other Favorites
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas
Henry VIII: The King and His Court
Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World
The Wars of the Roses


Heather Teysko: Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History podcast, a member of the Agora podcast network. I’m your host Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe and getting in touch with our own humanity. This is episode 76 and I’m so pleased to have been able to talk with Alison Weir for the second time about her upcoming book on Anne Boleyn called “Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession”, out in the US on May 16th and the UK on May 18th. You can get links to buy the books and learn more at englandcast.com or you can also sign up for my newsletter which gets you extra minicasts, exclusive content like free online courses from time to time and other fun stuff. Let me introduce Alison Weir to you if you have been living under a rock and don’t know her.

Alison Weir is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels “Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen”, “The Marriage Game”, “A Dangerous Inheritance”, “Captive Queen”, “The Lady Elizabeth” and “Innocent Trader”, and numerous historical biographies including the “The Lost Tudor Princess”, “Elizabeth of York”, “Mary Boleyn”, “The Lady in the Tower”, “Mistress of the Monarchy”, “Henry VIII”, “Eleanor of Aquitaine”, “The Life of Elizabeth I” and “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, which was the first Tudor history book that I ever read on winter break in 1996. That’s my personal share. Alison lives in Surrey, England with her husband.

We jumped right in with me asking her about why she started this series of historical novels and how her opinion of Anne has changed through writing this novel.

Alison Weir: The idea for the series came to me, literally one of those eureka moments, I was sitting in my agent’s office in October 2014. We’re discussing ideas for future fiction and suddenly this idea came to me. Six books, six novels on the wives of Henry VII. I thought, “Well, no one would take six novels.”, but the reason I’d suggested it was because I published a composite biography many years ago and it’s out of date now.

For some years now I’ve been comprehensively, in my spare time, re-researching and rewriting it and a lot of new things have emerged from that new research, new theories. I thought these could underpin the novels, because it’s going to be a very long time before the biography ever sees the light of day. I thought this new research could inform the novel, but I thought no one would take these books because the six wives of Henry VII have been done to death basically, including by people like me. But they actually did, there was competition for the series and fortunately Headline commissioned it and it was one of the best things I ever did was sign with them.

Heather Teysko: Excellent. Tell me about the new book and about the things that you’re learning about Anne.

Alison Weir: There are quite a few new aspects to Anne Boleyn, some new theories that are emerging. The most striking thing, I think, about her is the fact that you could call her a feminist of her time. Let’s start at the beginning. Anne Boleyn is nowadays seen almost as a celebrity. I ran a question on Facebook not that long ago and said, “Why are people so fascinated by Anne Boleyn? She’s almost become the new Richard III, you’re not supposed to even criticize her.”

A lot of people have very romanticized views. I think a lot of that derives from the television series “The Tudors” for example. A lot of people came back to me and responded and said, “Because we see her as a feminist icon.” I thought, “Well, that’s completely anachronistic.” I was saying this not long after, but when I was approaching writing Anne’s novel, the novel about Anne, to the historian and author Sarah Gristwood, who’s a good friend of mine. She was researching a book called “Game of Queens”.

Heather Teysko: Right, right.

Alison Weir: It’s about the women who ruled in medieval Europe.

Heather Teysko: I’m going to plug an interview I did with her on the show as well.

Alison Weir: Oh, well you know something about the background for this then?

Heather Teysko: Yeah.

Alison Weir: Because she has a marvelous approach to history, almost lateral thinking, and her insights are unparalleled. Anyway, I said to her, I said, “Oh, this is anachronistic, this view of Anne as a feminist icon.”. She said, “Well, actually it’s not too wide of the mark.”, because, it’s true, in England we look at Anne and basically from an English perspective there was no feminist movement, but in Europe, right from the 15th century onwards we have what’s called the querelle de femmes, the women debate we call it.

It’s a debate that originated in Italy and in France with Christine de Pizan at the beginning of the 15th century, gathered momentum towards the end of 15th century and was one of the hot topics in Europe, in European cultural thought, at the time of Anne Boleyn’s youth when she was serving at the courts of Margaret of Austria and Margaret of Navarre. These ladies were both great proponents of the querelle de femmes. They both were outstanding examples of women who in their writings and in their interests advocated feminine equality.

If you look at Anne within this context, and she was at a very impressionable age when she served Margaret of Austria and must have become familiar with Christine de Pizan, and also when she was older when she served Margaret of Navarre. I think it was this that made her stand out and seem so exotic at the English court when she came there. Not just the French fashions, the French manners, the fact that she spoke French, but the fact that she’d had these very advanced ideas which hadn’t yet really hit England. They did later on in the Renaissance but not at this time.

Heather Teysko: Sure.

Alison Weir: That’s the most startling thing that came out of it. I was very struck by the [inaudible 00:06:09], book she made Henry XII read in 1528, some years before the Reformation actually happened. They have seeds of the Reformation and it’s her vision that helped to shape it, and that shows how enormously influential she was.

She’s also the first modern queen of England.

She broke the mold. She distanced herself from the medieval ideals of queenship. Katherine of Aragon is the last great medieval English queen, taking after the footsteps of her mother-in-law, Elizabeth of York, who was the perfect medieval queen. Although Katherine failed in that she failed to bear the king a son, which was the queens first duty.

There’s another thing that intrigues me about Anne Boleyn, that in her last confession she swore on the salvation of her soul she had never offended with her body against the king.

Why did she qualify that? Why did she not say … It could have been in contrast to, as opposed to plotting his death, but why did she say with her body? It led me to wonder had she offended in some other way? There are some hints in the sources, and I’m certainly not saying that the charges against her were justified, there are some hints in the sources there could’ve been something between her and one of the men accused with her, not her brother.

Heather Teysko: Right, right, right. Interesting. Given all of that, I was going to ask if your opinion of Anne has changed through writing this, and it sounds like it does. I remember last year when we spoke, we actually talked about this anachronistic view of Anne as a feminist. It’s really interesting to hear you talk about her in this context right now. Are there any other ways that your opinion of her has changed in writing the book?

Alison Weir: I think I can see how much more powerful she was and how much more influential. But of course, in the end, marriage did it for her because all those long years when she was the king’s mistress, and I’m talking about in the courtly sense when she had mastery over him as her servant and he was happy to play that role and he was still almost certainly waiting to consummate their relationship that she had so much influence, but once she married him he went into conventional mode. He was the husband, she was subject to him. He had dominion over her. You can see this problem they have that she’s fighting against this. She’s going on the same way she has always done, and now he expects her to be a submissive, fruitful wife.

Heather Teysko: Right.

Alison Weir: In the end, of course, her biology defeated her because she lost all her sons. She probably lost three of them.

Heather Teysko: Yeah.

Alison Weir: That’s her tragedy. Her tragedy in a way. I say her tragedy in a way because in some ways she was very unsuitable as a queen consort. She was quite unique actually. She doesn’t really set a pattern for future queen consortship. She’s a one-off, on her own, because Jane Seymour went back into the traditional mold and Catherine Parr, she argued with Henry on religious matters, but Anne is quite unique. I think it’s because she became queen and because she had these very strong reformist ideals and tried to push them through.

Heather Teysko: Yeah.

Alison Weir: She was very influential and we have today, we are living in a country that’s been shaped by Anne’s vision. Yes, I can see her power. For Catholics, obviously, they wouldn’t see her in the same way. I try to keep an objective view. I’m Church of England, but not strongly. I can see her in that way. On the other hand, we have the damning testimony of Eustace Chapuys. There’s been a lot of research done recently on Chapuys and he was close to events. He was in the confidence of many people who were close to events. As David Starkey points out, he cites his sources. We can evaluate them. He didn’t hate Anne to begin with so there must have been … Obviously he didn’t approve of her position, what she was doing.

Heather Teysko: Right.

Alison Weir: But I think that his concerns for Katherine of Aragon and for her [inaudible 00:10:28] to Mary, against whom Anne was quite venomous on many occasions, I think they were genuine concerns.

Heather Teysko: Right.

Alison Weir:
For anyone who wants to portray Anne in a sympathetic light, they have to get over the challenge of Chapuys’ testimony. It is born out by other things. Her cruelty to Mary is born out by a letter she herself wrote.

Heather Teysko: What letter was that? Tell me for those [crosstalk 00:10:52].

Alison Weir: It’s the letter where she says, I think it was, “Give her a good beating” or something “for the cursed bastard she is.”, to the woman looking after her.

Heather Teysko: Oh, okay. Sure.

Alison Weir: Yeah. No, that letter corroborates what Chapuys is saying, and in 1535, which was a terrible year for those who were on the opposite side of the fence, this is the year of many executions of people defying the king refusing to take the oath of supremacy which acknowledges his marriage to Queen Anne. More and Fisher went to the Scaffold, Confucian monks suffered in about three batches of martyrs and the Nun of Kent had been the first blood shed over the great matter in 1534.

It’s this year when Anne becomes … Her threats against Katherine and Mary are becoming worse. She’s urging Henry to have them executed. Of course, Henry’s in a difficult position. Naturally, it’s his own daughter, and although he’s displeased with her he never took that step. He threatened it, he blustered, but a lot of Henry was bluster actually. If you look at all the threats he posed during these years, he didn’t carry out very many of them. When he did everybody was quite shocked.

Heather Teysko: Do you actually think she really was a danger to Katherine?

Alison Weir: Yes, I do think she was because I think she was very insecure. I talked to my editor about how to portray her sympathetically and I said, “This is going to be very, very difficult because of this evidence how she was with Katherine and Mary.”. My editor said, “Well, try to see why she behaved the way she did.”, and that gave me the key.

The book is written wholly from Anne’s point of view so you have a chance to get inside your subject’s head when you do that. I think it’s all, the root of it all is insecurity and fear. When I delivered the book to my agent he said, “It’s a really sympathetic portrayal.”, so I was pleased about that because I wouldn’t probably portray her quite that way as a historian. You get inside someone’s head at your peril as a historian.

Heather Teysko: Sure. I know I’ve read people going back and forth, did she actually set out wanting to be queen or was this something that events spun out of control for her and she got placed in this horrible situation or a situation that overwhelmed her and she didn’t want to be like her sister so this was her other way out? What do you think about this idea? Did she really set out for this, wanting to be queen?

Alison Weir: I think there was probably a point at which, yes, she did. It’s the way she treated Cardinal Wolsey, and that’s in 1527, that’s quite early on. Around 1525, probably, Henry first started pursuing Anne and this affair was kept very secret according to the rules of courtly love. It was in the spring of 1537 when the French ambassador raised the question of Princess Mary’s legitimacy and set alarm bells ringing in Henry’s head.

Henry’s looking at reading Leviticus and thinking that his marriage is unlawful and he wants an annulment, and secretly he applies for one. It’s in the autumn after that that Wolsey goes to France on a mission and when he comes back Anne makes her venom absolutely clear. She’s obviously set on a certain path. Now, did she want the crown rather than the man? We don’t have her replies to Henry’s love letters. We’ve got a huge gap, and in many ways she’s unknowable because we don’t have the wealth of letters as we do with Katherine of Aragon who poured out her heart passionately, all her feelings, all her hopes and fears, into her letters. But for Anne Boleyn we don’t have that.

Heather Teysko: Right.

Alison Weir: She is unknowable and most of what we’ve got are reports from other other people, often hostile because she was very unpopular.

There’s no doubt in that. State papers absolutely littered with slanders. I don’t know, it’s very hard to decide what she felt because when she was queen she went through the conventional forms of saying that she loved her husband, but in those days it was a spouses duty to love their husband or wife. You can see it, it’s a rather different approach. We say we love our husband or our wife or our partner, we know that we actually mean it in that sense.

Heather Teysko: Right.

Alison Weir: But when they’re saying it it’s a convention, so even that isn’t really a clue.

Heather Teysko: Right.

Alison Weir: It’s not like Jane Seymour who was terrified that Henry would leave her when she was frightened of the plague and everything. She clung to him. We don’t get that with all at all. [inaudible 00:15:29] She had mastery over him. I’m not saying she didn’t have affection for him, but we just don’t know what she actually felt. This is what’s so frustrating.

Heather Teysko: Uh huh.

Alison Weir: Also, people say she held him off for seven years. I don’t think so. I think that someone who … The passion was on his side definitely and I think he made that decision not to sleep with her and it had a really bad impact on him. If you love someone it would be very hard to resist them for that time.

Heather Teysko: Sure.

Alison Weir: That’s what makes me wonder.

Heather Teysko: Yeah. Yeah, that’s interesting. You talk about the impact that it had on him. How do you think Henry was changed by Anne?

Alison Weir: It wasn’t just Anne. It think it happened before that. There’s a very popular theory at the moment that Henry was knocked-out cold in 1536 after a fall from his horse and was unconscious for two hours and changed character because of possible brain damage.

Heather Teysko: Yeah.

Alison Weir: The report that says he was knocked out cold, it actually comes from a highly unreliable source in Paris. Sources in England say he took no hurt. They all said it was amazing he wasn’t killed but he took no hurt. Nobody seemed unduly bothered in England. I think the report got garbled and we can prove the others that says that there’s other source [inaudible 00:16:52] to be inaccurate in other reports. I don’t buy that theory at all. There’s no evidence to support it and if you look at Henry changing in character you can see that happening gradually right through from the 1520s onwards.

I think it was frustration that made Henry what he was later on. It’s frustration of not having a son, at being trapped in a marriage from which he could not get out, not being able to fulfill his passion for Anne Boleyn, and at the Pope endlessly delaying, dithering over giving judgment for political reasons rather than religious ones. I think all these things combined in Henry.

By the end of this time, anyone’s defiance was [inaudible 00:17:42] because he was so frustrated with everything. He’d been a good son of the church. There was no real reason. There was a way out of annulling the marriage. The marriage was probably valid if you look at the canon law, the marriage to Katherine. Wolsey wanted to offer the Pope a way out but Henry didn’t want to do it because it would’ve meant arguing that Katherine hadn’t been a virgin when he’d been saying all along she had after his brother died. He didn’t want to do that. He would’ve lost face.

Heather Teysko: I see.

Alison Weir: But it might have been the way for the Pope to have given a judgment favorable to Henry without offending Katherine’s nephew the Holy Roman Emperor.

Heather Teysko: What do you wish that everybody would know about Anne? What’s something that if you could say one thing about Anne to someone who’s never looked at this time period before, what would you like to say about Anne?

Alison Weir: It’s a very dramatic story.

Heather Teysko: It is.

Alison Weir: Because how could you say just one thing? Because it’s almost as if there were two Annes.

Heather Teysko: Okay.

Alison Weir: There’s the Anne in the town on the Scaffold who has this dreadful end and shows incredible courage and there’s the woman who’s been the scandal of Christendom and then there’s another Anne, of course, the Anne who pushed through the Reformation and was a skilled political operator to a degree.

Heather Teysko: So she is really multifaceted.

Alison Weir: Yeah.

Heather Teysko: That would be the one thing about her.

Alison Weir: Yeah, she is multifaceted. She is.

Heather Teysko: You can’t put her in a box.

Alison Weir: This modern, the way people romanticize [inaudible 00:19:09] modern way all say she was beautiful. If you look at some of the images people draw of her or the artwork that appears on the internet, it’s such a romanticized view. Also, she’s become a celebrity and it’s so far removed from this woman who wasn’t very beautiful, as most people agreed, and who could be quite vicious but also who was very, very tough. It’s rather different. I think if she hadn’t met the end she did, supposing she’s had a son, I don’t think she’d have the following she does.

Heather Teysko: Right, that definitely adds to the drama of it all.

Alison Weir: Oh, it does.

Heather Teysko: Yeah.

Alison Weir: It’s romanticism in its broadest sense. It’s a very dark tale.

Heather Teysko: It really is. Yeah, I have to admit I haven’t always been very sympathetic to Anne. I guess she’s just been overdone so much and I just don’t, I don’t know, my eyes glaze over or something when people start talking about her, but I’m really interested to read this new research and I love the writing of Christine de Pizan and “The City of Ladies”. That’s such a fascinating book. It’s so interesting to imagine her at the court of Margaret of Austria and reading these things, and then taking that back to England. I’m excited to see her from that perspective.

Alison Weir: Well, you will get quite a bit of that. There is an author’s note at the back and there are going to be articles published on BBC History Extra. There’ll be several things coming up on these aspects of Anne which go into more detail.

Heather Teysko: Yeah.

Alison Weir: Tudor Times will be about Anne in France. It’s a bit of a mystery what happened to Anne in France. The likelihood that she knew, at least by site, Leonardo da Vinci. This European perspective, we need to see Anne in that perspective because that’s what made her.

Heather Teysko: Thank you so much to Alison Weir for taking the time out of her busy writing schedule to talk with us. I personally will never forget the day that I fell in love with this time period, on a winter afternoon in 1996. There was a blizzard outside and I was on winter break and a few weeks before I had bought “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” because I thought it looked interesting. I took it off the shelf and I remember so clearly that afternoon reading in front of the window as the snow fell, and six hours later I was hooked. It’s not an exaggeration to say that that book helped shaped the trajectory of my life. Five years later I was living in London surrounded by this history, traveling around on the weekends using my young person’s rail card seeking out history and stories. Thank you Alison Weir for being the catalyst of that.

Anyway, thanks for letting me do that personal share there. Feel free to get in touch with the podcast, with me, through englandcast.com where you can also sign up for the super cool mailing list or facebook.com/englandcast. That’s e-n-g-l-a-n-d-c-a-s-t, englandcast. Next episode I’ll be back with crime and punishment in Tudor England. Stay tuned for that. Thanks so much for listening. Talk to you soon. Bye bye.

Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!