Lacey Baldwin Smith’s book about Anne Boleyn

Lacey Baldwin Smith (LBS) is one of the “big name” historians, and for good reasons. His research is meticulous and his analysis is often profound. His book on Henry VIII is one of the most cited and significant works on that King. Thus, when he wrote a book about Anne Boleyn I scurried over to Amazon to get that baby on my Kindle.

Here’s the blurb for the book:

“The story of Anne Boleyn goes to the root of all history; what makes an individual or event memorable to later generations? Anne is an exceptional case for her life was a double helix intertwining extraordinary human drama with profound historical crisis. A young lady of no particular importance or talents – she was neither a great beauty or a captivating charmer – married a man who turned out to be England’s most notorious monarchy, and then three years later she was publically executed for treason, accused of quadruple adultery and incest. Mistress Boleyn was the crucial catalysts for three of the most important events in modern history: the break with Rome and the English Reformation, the advent of the nation state, and the birth of a daughter whose 43 years on the throne stand as England’s most spectacular literary and political success story. Remove Anne and the Reformation as we know it today would not have taken place; remove Anne and Elizabeth I would not have existed at all. Anne Boleyn stands as a monument to the truth that there is nothing consistent in history except the unexpected.”

LBS states right off the bat that the book is more of an “essay” aimed at understanding the psychological framework of the Tudor era and and how that effected Anne Boleyn’s life, rather than a straight “history” book. So if you aren’t interested in what anthropologists call the “thick description” of context, or you are a novice who hasn’t read any of Queen Anne’s biographies before, this book is probably too much “background” for you to enjoy. However, if you are like me and yearn for context and thoughtful psychological insights into the thinking patterns of Henry’s time, then you will be glad you bought the book.

In his book, LBS is careful to neither demonize or sanctify Anne Boleyn. Rather, he tried to understand Anne Boleyn from her own perspective, based on what we know about the worldview of the period. He explains what effect the absolute belief in the Great Chain Of Being and the incontrovertible faith in the most essential Christian dogma would have had on how she and other conceptualized their place in the universe.  Actions and reactions that have appeared inexplicable or even stupid to the modern reader are carefully defined within the web of Tudor perceptions. I don’t know if you’ll like it, but personally I dig that kind of clarification all the way down to the planet’s molten core.

Neither is LBS’s book intended to stir up trouble just for the sake of debate or free press. He pokes holes in some historical theories about her, but he does it respectfully.  For example, he is uncertain that Anne was the “key element” in the change happening around her, as Eric Ives asserted, and he leans toward the idea that Anne was the catalyst for the kaboom that went on around her, rather than the main ingredient in the explosion. Frankly, I’m on Team Ives but I still found the book’s rational interpretations of the events to be noteworthy. Moreover, LBS freely acknowledges and often supports the widespread acceptance of some conjectures made by his fellow historians.

His chapter on the fall and execution of Anne Boleyn is as much  about the contrasting arguments presented by other scholars as his own thesis. He covers the four most prominent theories, as constructed by Ives, Bernard, Wernicke, and popular amateur historian Alison Weir. In sum, their theories can be described as “innocent and framed by Cromwell”, “totally had an affair”, “murdered as a witch because of an completely undocumented deformed fetus”, and “innocent, framed by Cromwell, plus extra drama”.

I particularly liked the final chapter of the book (even though the Kell/McLeod theory was ignored). LBS makes coherent and cutting arguments against all the postulations of the writers in the previous chapter, mainly because he thinks that they all do not give enough “credit” to the will and appetite of Henry VIII himself. From my perspective this is a little ironic, since it is the deterioration of Henry’s rationality and growing paranoia that is (for me) the most significant indication of McLeod syndrome.

There are a couple of things about the book that irked me, with the main issue being the knee-jerk sexism embedded in some of his descriptions and analysis. I embrace the theory that language shapes thoughts, and that means that the words you use matter because you are literally influencing the way the reader perceives reality. Any sociologist can tell you how much word choice effects cultural construction of age, ethnicity, value, and gender. Tudor England obviously filled to the brim with white people, so there are no unintentionally loaded racial word biases in the book, but Henry’s court had women in it and the gender adjective can get hairy in LBS’s work.  Not on purpose, you understand – it happens just because he didn’t try or know to pay attention to his own norms.

As one example, LBS rails against the adjective “suggestible” to describe Henry VIII, but complacently assures the reader that Henry was “tiered of a nagging and outspoken spouse” in relation to Anne Boleyn. While those thoughts are theoretically Henry’s, there were no qualifiers suggesting they weren’t also the opinion of LBS. One of the great literary truisms is that men are almost never described as “nagging”. Moreover, what is negatively construed as “outspoken” in a woman is often positively construed as “forthright” or “honest” in a man.

Another instance of this is when he claimed Henry wanted an annulment “from his fat, sterile forty-four year old wife”. This presumes that the same irrational prejudice against fat and abhorrence of fat people (especially women) existed in 1520s as it does today; it didn’t. This also presumes that a woman who gave birth at least six times was “sterile”. No, she wasn’t. She could have been accurately described as post-menopausal or post-reproductive, but not sterile. It’s equivalent to calling an impotent man neutered or a eunuch. In fact, men aren’t even allowed to be impotent any more, since that conveys a loss of power. Nowadays they have “erectile dysfunction”, which indicates their penis is temporarily on the fritz but it is unconnected with their masculinity or ‘potency’. 

Honestly, I believe that LBS constructs these sentences because of the fact he was born in 1922 and was in his mid-forties before women started pointing out they were not  a sub-species. Furthermore, he was has been feted and admired for his work for so long it wouldn’t occur to him that there is something he could/should change.

Inadvertent sexism aside,  his book was well worth the read to anyone who wants to know more about the complexities of personalities and perceptions surrounding Anne Boleyn’s life.

2 thoughts on “Lacey Baldwin Smith’s book about Anne Boleyn

  1. I’ll have to get this one from the library, it looks very interesting. Agreed that “sterile” is not the right word — I’ve noticed that a lot of male historians tend to be a bit dodgy on the details of pregnancy and fertility, which isn’t surprising but can be a bit irritating. (For example, Ives saying that Anne’s second pregnancy — in which she was showing in April and then obviously pregnant in June, with “the prince” expected around September, must have been a miscarriage and not a stillbirth because she hadn’t yet taken to her chamber. But there’s no definition of “miscarriage” that includes delivering a dead baby of 30+ weeks’ gestation).

    1. I know! As for the miscarriage/stillbirth, I think it depended one whether or not Anne had felt the “quickening”, i.e. the fetus moving, which usually occurs around 20 weeks but can be much earlier or much later depending on the pregnancy. A woman as thin as a Anne can “show” a pregnancy quite early on, especially after the first baby. I have some very naturally thin friends and they swear they start showing once the embryo has eight cells 🙂 If she lost the baby prior to quickening, then it wouldn’t have “counted” as a person/baby. Katherina of Aragon had a couple of maybe-pregnancies just disappear like that as well.

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