The Lady in the Tower

 David Loades on a thorough examination of the fall of Anne Boleyn

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Reviewed by: David Loades
Author: Alison Weir
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price (RRP): £20

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This book covers a period of about a month in 1536, during which Anne went from being a powerful and respected queen, to a convicted adulteress, and eventually to a headless corpse. The events are intriguing and the approach forensic. 

The research is exhaustive because every relevant secondary work, every printed source, and many a manuscript has been read and cited. However there are drawbacks to this ‘saturation’ technique. Every contemporary or near contemporary story is explored in detail, irrespective of its plausibility. Appropriate cautions are posted for the more dubious, and there are extended discussions of the motivation of some of the reporters, but these often add little to the main analysis. The agendas and the veracity of all the witnesses are examined exhaustively, and their antecedents and connections explored.

It would be hard to imagine a more thorough examination of any comparable historical issue – there is even an appendix on ghost stories – and yet the conclusion is unsatisfactory. In spite of the enormous effort expended, we do not know to what extent (if at all) Anne was guilty of the crimes with which she was charged. That she talked indiscreetly, and that Thomas Cromwell was largely responsible for her downfall are well established, but that does not take us beyond familiar ground. 

What Alison Weir does here is to explore every nook and cranny of a conundrum in order to demonstrate that the position already reached by scholars is as sound as it is ever likely to be. She is to be congratulated on her impartiality and sound judgement, because the temptation to reach a more imaginative conclusion must have been overwhelming.  

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David Loades’s most recent book is Mary Tudor: The Tragical History of the First Queen of England (National Archives, 2009)