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A Question of Upbringing?

Anne Boleyn

by Eric W. Ives
Basil Blackwell, 451 pp., $19.95

Louis XIII: The Making of a King

by Elizabeth Wirth Marvick
Yale University Press, 278 pp., $31.50

To write a royal biography in the dying years of the twentieth century looks at first blush like an almost willful exercise in nostalgia. How remote the majority of these figures of kings and queens now seem, trapped for all eternity by the starched protocol of the courts in which they passed their often inconsequential lives! Yet here are three more royal biographies to join the apparently interminable procession. One is the biography of a queen consort of England, one the partial biography of a king of France, and the third the biography of another queen consort, his long-suffering wife. None of them, however, falls into the category of popular, or romanticizing, biography. All are the work of serious scholars, and the product of many years of research. Between them, they suggest that there is life in royal biography yet.

The revival of historical biography within the academic establishment may owe something to a reaction against the results of the laborious attempts of recent years to rewrite on a more scientific basis the annals of the anonymous majority. Miracles have been worked in the reconstruction of the history of large groups of men and women, but in the process of analysis and quantification, the individual has been lost. If there is now an understandable yearning to hear more distinctly individual voices from the past, this is most easily satisfied when exceptional circumstances or exceptional status yield a rich personal dossier. No status was more exceptional than that of royalty, and the relative profusion of records (however deficient in many, and often surprising, respects) offers monarchs some clear initial advantages in the biographical stakes.

But there are other, and perhaps better, reasons why the monarchs of ancien régime Europe are attracting renewed attention. As fashions in historical writing change, and politics and the exercise of power move once again to center stage, there is a fresh, and in some ways sharper, appreciation of the central place of the court and its occupants in the articulation and organization of the monarchical societies of early modern Europe. Fear and favor, obligation and patronage were the forces that held these societies together, operating by way of a complex network of personal relationships, all of them ultimately converging on the person of the monarch. Every kind of power—legal and administrative, military and symbolic—was embodied in the monarch, but its potential had to be realized, and this was best achieved by rulers who understood how to play the system, using it to transmit their wishes through the network of personal relationships in order to command obedience in society at large. Politics, in other words, required the art of management, and management depended heavily on the personality of the manager.

Royal personality, or the lack of it, was therefore a critical element in the functioning of the body politic, and an interest in personality is consequently as important for the historian of these monarchical societies as it was for the courtier or the foreign ambassador who had to watch like a hawk for every passing indication of royal favor or displeasure. But the close observation of the ruler at work and at play can all too easily degenerate, now as then, into the trivia of court gossip. Where, in other words, does useful reporting end, and trivialization begin? Take, for instance, Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s vivid account of the young Louis XIII, to whom he presented his credentials as ambassador to Paris in 1619. Among other things about Louis, he tells us that

his words were never many, as being so extreme a stutterer, that he would sometimes hold his tongue out of his mouth a good while, before he could speak so much as one word; he had, besides, a double row of teeth, and was observed seldom or never to spit, or blow his nose, or to sweat much, though he were very laborious, and almost indefatigable in his exercises of hunting and hawking, to which he was much addicted.1

Royal addiction to hunting and hawking may well be of some political significance. So, too, may a royal stammer. But what about royal nose blowing, or, in this case, the absence of it?

The frontiers of reticence about the more intimate details of personal life are currently being pushed back, and one result has been to focus historical attention on the language and functions of the body. This has significant implications for the study of court societies in early modern Europe, where the close relationship of the monarch’s physical body and public persona was once taken for granted. Time and modesty, for instance, have veiled the contemporary importance of the servants of the privy chamber, like the Groom of the Stool, who, by ministering to the king’s most intimate needs, enjoyed unparalleled opportunities for private conversation with his master.2 The very definition of the trivial therefore becomes relative, and the trivia of one age prove to be matters of deep moment to another.

What, then, should one demand of a modern historical biography devoted to a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century European monarch? First, and most important, a sensitivity to the shifts in the scale of priorities and values over time, and a willingness to confront the subjects of biography on their own terms. But, if the biography is to speak to a modern audience, this willingness must be filtered through an awareness of modern interests and concerns. This entails what biographies have always needed—psychological insight, and a feeling for the interplay of heredity, environment, and education in the making of a personality. But it also entails understanding the personality in a setting—both the immediate domestic setting, and the wider one, represented by the social, economic, and spiritual forces at work in the community at large. The problem then becomes one of holding life and times in balance, and it is here that a revitalized political history can come into its own. For the nexus that links the ruler to his world is the nexus of power, and it is through an exploration of the manifestations of power, both charismatic and pragmatic, that in this instance the reciprocal impact of individual and society upon each other is most effectively studied.

Of the three royal biographies under review, that of Queen Anne Boleyn, by Eric Ives, is the one that most effectively meets these ideal requirements. This is a splendid piece of work which shows how much can be achieved through the intelligent reappraisal of largely familiar material by a shrewd and perceptive historian. Although the last authoritative biography of Anne Boleyn was written a century ago, she can hardly be said to have been forgotten since then, and Dr. Ives finds it necessary to apologize for a possibly superfluous book. But if, as he points out, not a great deal of new documentary information about Anne has come to light during the last hundred years, our knowledge and understanding of Tudor England have gained immeasurably in depth. By taking advantage of this increased understanding to approach her through her world, he has given us a more vivid and convincing picture of the woman herself than anyone before him.

Dr. Ives’s Anne Boleyn is not a victim so much as a “maker” of history, to use the somewhat old-fashioned terminology that he himself revives. To some, this will hardly come as news. The image of Henry VIII’s second wife as a wicked, scheming woman still lives, as I discovered for myself many years ago while wandering around a church in Spain. On learning that I was English, a nun treated me to a vigorous denunciation of Henry and Anne, and wondered how anyone could decently belong to a religion founded by such a wicked pair. Although disclaiming guilt by association, I had to admit that the story of Henry’s divorce and remarriage is not exactly edifying. But its religious and political consequences were so momentous as to justify a scrupulous search for every available clue to the psychology and motivations of the parties concerned.

Dr. Ives begins his hunt for clues in the right way, by placing Anne firmly in the milieu to which she properly belongs, that of the court. Popular traditions to the contrary, Anne Boleyn, as Dr. Ives reminds us, “was born a great lady,” and, “no less than her father, was first and last a phenomenon of the court.” Descended on his mother’s side from the Earl of Ormonde and married to a wife who was the daughter of the Earl of Surrey, Thomas Boleyn had high pretensions to sustain; and, like others in similar circumstances, he saw in a career at court the best means of sustaining them in style. Shrewd enough to realize the importance of a good education in the new age of humanism, he sent his daughter to the best educational establishment for upper-class ladies in early sixteenth-century Europe. This was the household of Margaret of Austria, who was governing the Low Countries from her court at Mechelen in Brabant on behalf of her young nephew, Charles of Burgundy, the future Charles V. From here she moved in due course to Paris, and spent seven years in the household of Queen Claude, the wife of Francis I. When she returned to the court of Henry VIII in 1521, the refinement of her continental manners and attainments put the other ladies of the court in the shade. The father’s educational investment in his daughter proves in retrospect to have been the most profitable investment he ever made.

Dr. Ives’s account of the character and impact of Anne’s continental upbringing is central to his interpretation of her personality and subsequent career. Not all readers may be persuaded by this interpretation. Anne, while no great beauty, was a seductive woman, and it is easy enough to explain Henry’s infatuation without adducing her music, or the elegance of her French. But there is a plausibility about Dr. Ives’s reading of the story which grows as its various stages unfold. Whatever the extent of Anne’s learning, she clearly had style and wit, both of which Henry appreciated, like the Renaissance prince he was. Her continental training also gave her, if Dr. Ives is right, an independence of spirit and an easy confidence that enabled her to call the tunes. For Henry, the sheer difficulty of attaining this sparkling creature enhanced the value of the prize.

It was in the spring of 1527 that Henry first pressed Anne to become his mistress. She did not succumb until late in 1532, and by then domestic and international developments were moving inexorably toward the denouement that she and her backers had been seeking—the king’s formal repudiation of Catherine of Aragon, and Anne’s coronation in her place as the rightful queen of England. The story of those years is familiar, but more familiar from Henry’s than from Anne’s vantage point. In the telling of it, Dr. Ives’s prose is unfortunately not quite equal to the demands. The narrative does not read as smoothly as it should, and the occasional attempts to lighten it by a rather idiosyncratic raciness (“As a self-made woman, Anne saw no percentage in bloodless simpering”) tend to ring false. But he builds up impressively the picture of an activist woman who made good use of the traditional court weapons of faction and patronage to engineer her ends. Her only major mistake was biological. She had calculated on bearing Henry a son, but the child—her only child—proved to be a daughter.

  1. 1

    The Life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, written by himself. Quoted from the London edition of 1826.

  2. 2

    See David Starkey, “Representation through Intimacy,” in Symbols and Sentiments, ed. Ioan Lewis (Academic Press, 1977).

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