Book review: The Other Boleyn Girl

First of all, it’s important to note that the book is fiction. It doesn’t claim to be an accurate portrayal of any of the people involved. A simple recitation of the facts is not a story. To create a story the Philippa Gregory has had to weave in portraits of individuals and add events which are speculative, at best. Such works are bound to be controversial. It is a matter of certainty that many people will disagree with much of the speculation and interpretation in a work of this kind. It is especially certain in this case. While the factions that fought the Wars of the Roses a generation earlier are now gone, the factions which disputed the marriage of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon were Protestants and Catholics. These factions not only still exist, they run universities and schools. Protestant educations and Catholic educations differ. These differences remain very real today.

I disagree with much of the speculation in this book, but enjoyed the book immensely. Bringing history to life is always worthwhile.

The first slightly surprising thing about this book is that religion doesn’t really feature very much. The disputes are presented wholly as being between rival political factions: Howard vs Seymour, and England vs France or Spain. Some of the characters – Henry VIII, Jane Seymour and, especially, Katherine of Aragon – are presented as being sincerely religious. But in other cases, including that of Anne Boleyn, the significance of religion is skirted over. It is noted in passing near the beginning of the book that Anne had read Martin Luther – a banned text – and towards the end her enthusiasm for reform is mentioned. But Anne is a character throughout the book, and speaks of theology almost never.

It is tempting to assume, from this secular century, that religion was a mere cover for political posturing. But this assumption overlooks the importance of religion in the Sixteenth Century. That Henry VIII wished to secure a male heir was not some secret hidden agenda behind his claim that his marriage to Katherine was legally flawed. That she had failed to give him a male heir was thought to be specific evidence of the marriage’s flaws. Katherine was the widow of Henry’s older brother, and the verse in the Bible (Leviticus 20:21) that bars a man from sex with his brother’s wife specifically promises that any such union will be childless. That Henry’s marriage to Katherine did not produce a satisfactory (in his mind) heir was therefore thought to support the idea that the marriage was flawed.

The above is not meant as an argument that Henry’s position in this controversy was valid. The question is far more complicated than that, revolving around two principle arguments of theology and one of fact. I am merely presenting the argument that Henry was probably sincere in his view. The political agenda was not hidden and was not separate from the religious. They were the same.

It is not just Anne whose religious side is passed over. Most of the people around her seem to assume that Henry was wrong in setting Katherine aside. That’s a defensible view. Many people held it at the time and many still do. But it was never the unanimous opinion. Henry’s marriage to Katherine was contentious from the very start. Pope Julius II had granted a dispensation for the marriage to take place. But a dispensation would have been entirely unnecessary if the legality of the marriage had not been, at least, in doubt. (The status of the dispensation, of course, became one of the core theological issues at the heart of the crisis. It was this issue (as much as matters of political convenience) rather than disputes over the meaning of Leviticus, that ensured the division became one of Protestants against Catholics. Protestants could hardly accept the authority of the Pope to grant a dispensation and Catholics could hardly deny it).

While the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine remains controversial, the suggestion that the annulment of his marriage to Anne might have been well-founded is close to absurd. She was convicted of seducing the King by witchcraft. Anne, too, bore Henry just one child, also a girl. This was taken as evidence of her adultery, witchcraft and incest. With this quality of evidence – plus the testimony of a broken Mark Smeaton after days of torture – it is frankly a little insulting to a modern reader that the author takes the charges seriously. None of the charges, except conceivably incest, even could be related to still births and miscarriages.

As with the question of Katherine’s marriage, it does seem likely that many of Anne’s contemporaries did regard miscarriages as evidence of sin. But that doesn’t mean we should take it seriously today. Was Anne ambitious? Certainly. Manipulative? Probably. Devout and sincere? Probably. Did she consult with witches or have sex with her brother? It seems possible, but extremely unlikely, and the evidence does not even approach probable cause.

All in all, Philippa Gregory, seems to have allowed her penchant for Katherine of Aragon and her dislike of Anne Boleyn to take over the story in a way that makes it better fiction than history.

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