Professor Lacey Baldwin Smith is the author of two beautifully written, incisive biographies of Henry VIII and his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, so this new volume on Anne Boleyn was an exciting prospect. It is not, however, a straightforward biography. It is deliberately subtitled ‘A Biographical Essay’, signifying both that it is short, and that it is, largely, an evaluation of four previous biographies: those by Eric Ives, GW Bernard, Alison Weir and Retha Warnicke. In other words, it’s as much a historiographical work as a historical one.
Even with this remit, it is somewhat limited in scope: in only reviewing four works, it ignores, for example, Greg Walker’s trenchant article on Boleyn’s fall. Yet the book would, for example, make a perfect introduction for a student wanting an overview of some of the main perspectives on, and points of contention about, Anne.
Baldwin Smith’s purpose is to cast doubt on some of the ideas about Anne that have been unquestionably accepted as fact. This may make for a rather sceptical read, but allows Baldwin Smith to explore areas of controversy including Anne’s date of birth, whether she held out on Henry or vice versa (he concludes that neither theory is proved or disproved by the evidence), the nature of Anne’s faith and, of course, why she had to die.
In considering Anne’s death, Baldwin Smith is willing to expose the flaws and fallacies in his authors’ conclusions, sometimes quite savagely. He denounces Ives’s tendency to present Henry VIII by turns as either highly persuadable or of mule-like obstinacy, Warnicke’s “two-dimensional paper portrait” of Henry, and Weir’s decision to dismiss Chapuys and then rely heavily on his evidence. However, he also extols his authors where praise is due.
Baldwin Smith’s own analysis has only one serious defect, meanwhile: a tendency to assume that portraiture can reveal character, or even that it can always be reliably trusted. This is a curious blind spot for an otherwise astute historian.
Although the work doesn’t present new evidence, as a thoughtful review of existing literature it is refreshing, exposing gaping holes in the theories, challenging the manipulation of scant evidence and bringing its own revelations.
Suzannah Lipscomb is convenor of history at New College of the Humanities and the author of A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England (Ebury, 2012)