Jonathan Cape £20

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, By Alison Weir

An elegant history of the second wife of Henry VIII finds little evidence of her alleged incest or ill intent

Alison Weir's exhaustive case study of the arrest, trial and execution of Anne Boleyn concludes that "she went to her death an innocent woman". Virtually no historian would disagree, but it is testament to Weir's artfulness and elegance as a writer that The Lady in the Tower remains fresh and suspenseful, even though the reader knows what's coming. Weir concentrates on scrutinizing every last piece of available evidence, with only explanatory emphasis on character; this is no romantic portrait of Henry VIII's great love, but a forensically detailed account of Anne's systematic destruction.

Weir argues that, by 1536, "the writing was on the wall and Anne had known it for some time". She had produced one daughter, Elizabeth, and then "miscarried of her saviour", a deformed male foetus. Like many men, Henry objected in a wife to what had charmed him in a mistress, and though they had been married just three years, he was tiring of Anne's clever flirtatiousness. The lack of an heir made the deeply pious Henry malleable to the suggestion that the marriage was displeasing to God. His affair with the demure, sly Jane Seymour was well known when king and queen kept their last Christmas court together before Anne's arrest in May. Seventeen days later, she was executed.

Why did Henry go to such lengths to rid himself of a woman to whom much of Europe considered he had never been legally married in the first place? Weir is in no doubt that Henry believed the charges of adultery and incest against Anne and that the instigator of the plot was Thomas Cromwell, erstwhile champion of Anne and the Boleyn faction. Weir's theory is that Cromwell set out to bring down the queen, but that he based the case for sexual indiscretion on rumours already current. Given the absurdity of much of the evidence produced at Anne's trial, and the lack of documentary evidence of the testament of Lady Rochford, who supposedly accused the queen of incest with her brother, Weir is perhaps too kind to Cromwell. The dates and places where Anne supposedly seduced her five lovers are hopelessly contradictory and the addition of a plot against the king's life ridiculous. What could an unpopular queen and the mother of the only currently legitimate Tudor heir have to gain by murdering Henry?

Yet, was Anne innocent? One of the pleasures of The Lady in the Tower is that it invites the reader into the historiographical process as Weir's emphasis on primary sources allows us to evaluate them alongside her. Of the men accused of treasonable intercourse with Anne, Mark Smeaton, her musician, seems perfectly plausible. Weir's dismissal of the Spanish Chronicle here as apocryphal is somewhat disingenuous, as she is prepared to follow it elsewhere, and she is at pains to prove that Smeaton was not tortured. But somehow, the details of the Smeaton affair, especially Anne concealing him in her bedroom and asking her servant to bring him to her while announcing "here is a little marmalade" seem the only ones which may be true.

Weir overestimates the shock value of royal divorce, as the "Capetian miracle" which saw every French king from 1060 to 1223 divorce at least once, was available to Henry. Equally, her suggestion that Cromwell inserted the charge of incest so as to maximize contemporary disgust is anachronistic; our age is much more shocked at incest than one which could countenance a Cardinal giving audience while in bed with his sister. Perhaps the most vivid portrait of Anne and her brother comes from them sniggering together at Henry's poetry. Henry kept a book of "divers ballads", which the sophisticated, cosmopolitan siblings laughed at as foolish, this being "objected to as a great crime". Given Henry's monstrous conceit, it is hard not to speculate that from this sprang the greatest show trial of the 16th century.

'Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens', by Lisa Hilton, is published by Weidenfeld

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