Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn; drawing by David Levine

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.

There is, however, more to Dr. Ives’s story of Anne Boleyn than scheming rise and precipitous fall, and it is this additional dimension to the story that will make his book an essential point of reference for future historians of Reformation England. Once again, it appears to be a question of Anne’s continental upbringing, although, as so often, the details elude us. Queen Anne Boleyn, as depicted here, is a queen who fits easily into the world of northern humanism: a queen who knows how to use (as her daughter would also know how to use) the language of classicism and chivalry to project her distinctive vision of her regal status; a queen alive to learning and the arts, who patronized Holbein after his return to England in 1532. There was a strong religious component to this northern humanism, and Anne’s affinities, as described by Dr. Ives, were with the Christian humanists of France, although the origin and character of her contacts remain obscure. A devotee of the Bible in the vernacular (she kept an English version on a lectern in her suite for all to read who wished), a friend to evangelical Christians, a supporter of schemes for educational improvement and the relief of the poor, she appears in these pages as an active member of the movement for spiritual reform.

Again the contemporary evidence for according Anne a preeminent personal role in the early development of the English Reformation is rather more fragile than one could have wished—orthodox Catholics had good cause to exaggerate her deviation from the path of orthodoxy, while Protestants in the reign of her daughter had equally good reason to exaggerate her patronage of reform. Yet Dr. Ives’s portrait of Anne as active in the cause of reformation—reformation in the ambiguous sense it still possessed in the Europe of the 1530s—has a rightness about it because it is all of a piece with the rest of the portrait he has so patiently constructed, starting from those early years in Burgundy and France. It is, inevitably, a complex portrait, but that, too, is part of its strength. An Anne Boleyn active in the cause of reform is by no means incompatible with an Anne Boleyn active in the cause of Anne Boleyn. Activism is here the common element. Anne was above all a maker and a doer—no mean achievement for a woman in a world where making and doing were commonly regarded as the prerogatives of men.

The making and the doing were, in the end, to be Anne’s undoing, but her spectacular career suggests how, even against heavy odds, sheer character could make a decisive difference in that hard, convention-bound court world of early modern Europe. But, as Dr. Ives himself is the first to admit, many secrets of that character and its development continue to escape us. Are they hidden in the Boleyn genes, or was it, to use Anthony Powell’s phrase, a “question of upbringing”? How much, indeed, do we know, or can we ever know, about the upbringing of these distant royal figures? In the case of another queen consort—Anne of Austria, the subject of Ruth Kleinman’s biography—virtually nothing. As the daughter of Philip III of Spain, born in 1601, Anne of Austria was a Spanish infanta, and the education of Spanish infantas (such as it was) was not a subject of much contemporary interest. The training of princes, on the other hand, was a legitimate cause for public concern, although contemporary accounts are more likely to tell us how the prince should be trained, than how he actually was. It is this that makes the journal of Jean Héroard, the doctor to whose ministrations Henry IV of France entrusted his son and heir Louis in that same year 1601, such a remarkable document. We have nothing comparable for any other European prince, let alone princess.

For an almost unbroken span of twenty-six and a half years, or some nine thousand days of close observation, Héroard chronicled in meticulous detail the intimate personal, medical, and above all digestive, history of his royal charge. It was well known at the time, and not least to the young patient himself, that the doctor was keeping this record, a much condensed version of which was published in the nineteenth century. In recent years, as a result of the increase of interest in the history of the family, sex, and childhood development, Héroard’s journal has attracted a good deal of attention, and it was extensively used by David Hunt in his well-known Parents and Children in History,3 a study of the psychology of family life in early modern France. The most systematic student of this vast and monotonous chronicle, however, has been Elizabeth Wirth Marvick, who has now used it to produce a coherent and often vivid account of the childhood and adolescence of Louis XIII of France.

There can be nothing but admiration for the diligence and tact with which Dr. Marvick has gone about her monumental task. She has succeeded in making Héroard’s journal accessible to a late-twentieth-century readership, and those interested in the details of what, it is to be hoped, was a very peculiar childhood will read her book with a horrified fascination. Others, however, may well feel that a little of Héroard goes a very long way, especially since too many of the episodes and conversations he records fall painfully flat when reproduced in translation. The difficult art of rendering a seventeenth-century colloquial French into idiomatic but unobtrusive English has unfortunately escaped the authors of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria alike.

Dr. Marvick’s book, however, is more than a study in seventeenth-century child rearing and development. It is subtitled “The Making of a King,” and it seeks to explain, through an intense examination of the childhood record, not only the man but also the king that Louis XIII became. Here, in the more ambitious part of her task, she seems to me to run into difficulties. The book ends abruptly in 1617 with the assassination of the queen mother’s favorite, Concini, as the result of a conspiracy in which Louis was involved. But Louis was only fifteen at the time, and most of his reign still lay before him. In a sense, therefore, we are left to extrapolate the remaining twenty-six years of Louis’s kingship from the history of his first fifteen years. We are also left to extrapolate it on the basis of a reading of his personality that depicts him as a man with a fixation at the anal-erotic level, deriving from the experiences, and the training, of his childhood years.

Clearly there are certain persistent traits in Louis’s style of kingship. He was mean, suspicious, and vindictive; such warmth as his cold personality could muster was devoted to a succession of male favorites, who were naturally drawn into the vortex of court faction and intrigue; and temperamentally he was heavily dependent on others, most notably Cardinal Richelieu, whose acute psychological instincts enabled him to read perfectly the character of a royal master of whom La Rochefoucauld wrote: “He wanted to be ruled, but supported being so impatiently.” On the more positive side, however, Louis became in the course of time a formidable figure, whose laconic style of speaking—the consequence of his unfortunate stutter—became the key to his highly developed art of caustic kingship. In spite of periods of lassitude and chronic ill health, he was a vigorous and resolute man of action, who was never happier than when on campaign with his armies. He was conscientious in the performance of his royal duties, and if he found it difficult to rise above the level of administrative detail, he still managed to achieve and maintain a firm sense of his long-term goals.

Did Louis become a relatively effective monarch—more effective than his brother-in-law, Philip IV of Spain—because of, or in spite of, his childhood conditioning? And was that conditioning, in so far as Héroard was responsible for it, critical to the “making of a king”? For it is his physician, in Marvick’s account, who is the true king maker. By carefully controlling everything that went into, and out of, the king’s body, he acquired over the child an enormous manipulative power. The difficulty about this interpretation is that we, too, are at the mercy of Héroard himself, simply because his record dominates the story. We do not know, for instance, whether the ingesting and excretory activities of other contemporary princes were subject to a comparable monitoring and control. Nor do we know for certain how far Héroard deviated from common medical practice. It seems that he resorted less willingly than many of his medical colleagues to the more violent intrusive remedies, like enemas and bloodletting, but Dr. Marvick suggests that, in compensation, he made a more systematic effort than his colleagues to build internal controls through gentle but persistent persuasion. This could, as she argues, have given him an unusual degree of dominance over the child. But it is still not easy to see why this should have had such apparently devastating effects on the development of Louis’s personality, if indeed it did, or whether Louis would indeed have been any better off if his health had been entrusted to a less unorthodox physician, more willing than Héroard to resort to violent remedies.

In order to assess the relative importance of Héroard’s role in the forming of Louis’s personality we need a fuller picture than Dr. Marvick, or anyone else, can give us of the various influences to which he was subjected as a child. At present, we are so heavily dependent on a single source, and one so clearly designed to emphasize the central role of its author in the prince’s life, that it is hard to see Louis’s world other than through his doctor’s eyes. What, for instance, of the religious instruction he received, which inculcated in him the vision of a punitive God before whom he cringed in terror? What, too, of his education, however skimpy and inadequate? And what of the many others, besides his physician, with whom the young Louis came into contact, and the extraordinary court environment in which he spent his childhood years?

Here Dr. Marvick tells us something, but not as much as we need to know, and again we see it essentially through Héroard’s eyes. We could do with more information about the structure and organization of the prince’s household, and also about those who had access to the prince’s person. All the same, we do get a vivid sense of what it was like to be the son of that over–life-size figure, Henry IV. The extrovert bonhomie of the king, the open parade of sexuality, the rowdy stable-room atmosphere of his court—surely the archetypal stable society—with its pell-mell mixture of legitimate and illegitimate royal children, combined to create a world with which it was not easy for a sensitive and fastidious child to come to terms. Add to this the high expectations that surrounded Louis, the abrupt transitions between indulgence and severity in Henry’s treatment of his firstborn, and the cold remoteness of Louis’s mother, Marie de Médicis, and one can hardly be surprised if he experienced severe problems of adjustment. His contemporary, Henry Prince of Wales, seems to have been faced with some of the same kind of stresses, and to have reacted to the loose morality of the court of James I in a similar way, by developing a puritanical fastidiousness and a coldness at the center.4

Perhaps the most poignant childhood remark of Louis recorded by Héroard—a remark that speaks to us across the centuries—was: “I hope that one day I shall belong to myself.” But for the heir to a throne this is the vainest of hopes. Moreover, this particular heir to the throne was all too soon to be king. Louis’s father was assassinated in May 1610, when his son was still only nine. From this moment he was cumulatively subjected to all the pressures and expectations traditionally focused on a king of France, and his desire to belong to himself inevitably assumed an important public as well as private dimension. It culminated in 1617 in his complicity in the plot for the murder of Concini, which ironically was to prove the prelude to a new royal servitude, this time to a favorite of his own, de Luynes. Dr. Marvick suggests that in arranging for the murder of Concini, Louis was exorcizing ghosts—that he felt for Concini the same mixture of love and desire, rage and fear that he had once felt for his father. Here, as elsewhere, her view of public events seems to me too personalized. Concini’s assassination needs to be related to the political and institutional framework of seventeenth-century kingship. The pressures on monarchs to “take the reins of government” were very powerful in these monarchical societies, and if assassination was a barbarous way of achieving this end, early modern France was no stranger to barbarism.

Acutely conscious of the obligations of kingship, Louis, with his strict sense of duty, eventually succeeded in making something of his public life. His domestic life, on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster, for reasons which Dr. Marvick has helped us to understand. At the age of fourteen he was married for reasons of state to the daughter of the archenemy, the king of Spain. Not surprisingly, Anne of Austria (the appellation seems to puzzle Dr. Kleinman, but was the proper one for a princess of Spain’s ruling House of Austria) had a wretched married life. Treated with cold indifference by her husband, barren for so many years that the eventual birth of a dauphin in 1638 was regarded as a miracle, she had lived until then as an almost uncomprehending stranger in an alien court. It was belated motherhood that saved her, and made her. Once her two children were born, her life at last had a purpose; and the death of her husband in 1643 suddenly thrust unexpected power into the hands of this previously disregarded and ill-prepared woman, who now became regent for her son, Louis XIV.

The outlines of the story are well known, and Dr. Kleinman cannot do much more than fill it out and add a few fresh details. Her Anne of Austria is a much more conventional biography than either Anne Boleyn or Louis XIII, and she lacks the documentation to tell us what we most need to know—the inner story of Anne’s conduct of affairs during the difficult years of the Fronde, and of her relationship with Mazarin. But her portrait makes it clear that we have in Anne of Austria none of the independence of spirit that distinguished Anne Boleyn. Indeed, the queen regent of France appears a characteristic Spanish Habsburg in her diffidence about her own judgment and abilities. An upbringing at the court of Spain was apparently not one to nurture confidence. But how strongly certain patterns of behavior were instilled! For all her final success in transferring allegiance to the land of her husband, she surprised or irritated the French by spending an inordinate amount of time at her devotions and in doing the rounds of the Paris convents and churches in the Spanish royal manner. Her brother, meanwhile, was doing the same in Madrid.

Upbringing, it seems, will out. This was something that the queen regent, for one, had learned by painful experience. Dr. Kleinman tells us that before Anne had children, she promised herself that they would not be brought up like Louis XIII. She was as good as her word. She gave Louis XIV and his brother the kind of maternal affection of which their father had been starved, and she sought advice on how to avoid the errors that had been made in her husband’s education. Ironically, Nicholas Vauquelin, the man to whom she turned for this advice, was a survivor from the court of Henry IV and an old enemy of Héroard. He informed her what was wrong with Louis XIII’s upbringing—how, for instance, his potential was wasted because he was never taught the underlying causes of things. Vauquelin was critical, too, of Héroard’s handling of Louis XIII’s medical care. All that insistence on evacuation of impurities through the bowels was, he believed, the cause of the late king’s chronic illnesses. Anne, accustomed to taking advice, took his counsel to heart. And so it was that Louis XIV, unlike Louis XIII, was taught to blow his nose.

This Issue

June 11, 1987