Hunting the Falcon: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the Marriage That Shook Europe by John Guy & Julia Fox - review by Sarah Gristwood

Sarah Gristwood

The French Queen from Kent

Hunting the Falcon: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the Marriage That Shook Europe


Bloomsbury 624pp £30 order from our bookshop

It would be easy to assume that Hunting the Falcon, by historians John Guy and Julia Fox, is yet another addition to the huge number of biographies of Anne Boleyn and her husband, Henry VIII. But it isn’t. It’s something more interesting than that. The clue is in the subtitle, ‘Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the Marriage That Shook Europe’. This is not another unavailing attempt to unravel Anne’s psyche or the secret of her appeal to Henry – what the authors call ‘her ineffable magic’. It is an attempt, and a successful one, to reintroduce her as a player on the European political stage.

Anne is a source of seemingly endless fascination. A brief trawl through social media turns up fan groups and Christmas ornaments, crochet dolls and tattoos, to say nothing of an iced birthday cake depicting her execution. As Guy and Fox, a husband-and-wife team, point out, there are even rubber ducks wearing Anne’s trademark French hood on sale in the gift shop at Hever Castle, her childhood home.

But attempts to pin down her personality are ultimately doomed to failure, barring any significant new discovery of documents. We have ample evidence of the effect the Boleyn phenomenon had on her country. As the authors put it, ‘Without Anne and her daughter [Elizabeth I], England would never have ended up a Protestant country.’ But we are singularly short of positively accredited personal letters, writings and even portraits. Although seventeen of Henry’s love letters to her survive in the Vatican Library, we do not have her replies. Those of her missives that do survive tend to be the ones that were written to people with whom she was in dispute. Perhaps her combative quality makes it all the easier for her to be perceived as a feminist icon today. But we simply do not have the evidence to discuss the complexities of her character. It is exactly that absence which allows her to remain something of a blank slate onto which we can impose our fantasies. Perhaps we are all, in a sense, ‘hunting the falcon’.

Guy and Fox have ransacked the French archives to far greater effect than is usual in our traditionally Anglocentric approach to history. Guy in particular has a formidable track record in terms of productive archival research – witness his bestselling and much-lauded book on Mary, Queen of Scots, My Heart is My Own. And the authors’ efforts have turned up gems. Anne Boleyn spent seven formative teenage years in France. She was sent there following the marriage of Henry VIII’s sister Mary to the ageing French king Louis XII, but remained to further her education in this most sophisticated of courts. The lessons she learned in France shaped the woman who returned to England, besides forming part of her attraction to Henry. In France, she observed the centuries-old game of courtly love, with all its perils, and, even more importantly, the movement sponsored by the French royal ladies to reform a corrupt and overly ritualistic Catholic Church. Even though France, unlike England, recognised the Salic Law, forbidding women from ascending the throne, she was witness there to a far stronger tradition of women exercising influence and even power than existed across the Channel.

Those years also made Anne a lifelong Francophile, a vital fact given the tug of war that was European politics in the 16th century. In the enduring tussle between France and the Habsburgs, whose empire in the time of Charles V stretched from Spain and the Netherlands to the New World, England could – if its rulers were clever or lucky – gain importance as the extra weight that tipped the scales. Guy and Fox’s research has also produced significant new evidence on the complex web of European negotiations surrounding Henry’s efforts to shake off one wife and marry another. The diplomatic world springs vividly to life here, not least in a rivetingly detailed analysis of Holbein’s 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors.

Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was identified above all by her Spanish ancestry; she served effectively and at times even literally as Spain’s ambassador in England. Just as her star began to fade, with the end of her years of fertility and her chances of giving Henry a male heir, England’s alliance with her imperial relations fell into jeopardy. Surprisingly, Anne Boleyn – the daughter of an English gentleman and an English noblewoman – was able to provide a counterweight. So thoroughly had she absorbed the culture of France that she could be presented almost as France’s representative in England. Her ‘addiction to all things French’, as the authors call it, framed the ways in which ‘she wanted to change England’. Anne and Henry’s prenuptial visit to Calais in October 1532 saw the French king, Francis I, seemingly give his blessing to their marriage, which would officially take place the following year, though it seems likely that the pair secretly exchanged marriage vows upon their return from Calais. A French envoy hailed Anne as the one on whom all France’s credit at the English court would depend.

Anne’s role on this European stage has long been almost ignored, save for the innuendo-laden suggestion that her naughty, Frenchified ways held Henry in thrall. But Guy and Fox foreground her placement here and both the advantages and the perils that it brought. Katherine had found, to her cost, that when an alliance with her Habsburg relatives fell out of favour, her stock also fell. So too would Anne’s when Francis’s support for England failed to materialise. Her reorganisation of her court along French patterns, with its freer association of men and women, paved the way for the accusations of adultery made against her. Her Francophilia did her no favours with the notoriously Francophobic English people. And when she, like Katherine, produced a daughter rather than a son, it provided a sword-sharp reminder that she, unlike Katherine, had no powerful family to protect her from the ultimate sanction. To use a chess analogy (something popular in the 16th century), she was merely a pawn ‘queened’, not a blood member of the European royal club.

In so far as this is a book about royal psyche, it’s that of Henry VIII, rather than Anne Boleyn, that holds centre stage. Their years together, after all, saw Henry change from the idealistic young golden king into, as the authors put it, ‘a narcissist who saw exercising control as his birthright’. Henry went from someone who apparently contemplated giving Anne a kind of joint sovereignty to someone who never really trusted or respected women again and who confronted any challenge with ‘a wall of anger’. But, the authors conclude, ‘Anne did not change Henry. He changed himself.’

In one sense, perhaps this diminishes the potency of Anne’s mythology. Although the authors describe her as ‘an extraordinarily modern woman, a supremely talented, captivating spirit comfortable in her own skin and confident in her destiny’, they are less concerned with establishing her contemporary relevance than in setting her amid the realpolitik of the 16th century.

It would be pointless to cite here all of Guy and Fox’s discoveries. Taken individually, they may not seem spectacular to non-specialist readers. Yet the pace and conviction of the story the authors tell will carry them along. In many places, where once we had speculation, we now have certainty. This book is at once an education and a joy to read.

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