Book Review – ‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn’ by Eric Ives

'The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn' by Eric Ives, first published in 2004.
‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn’ by Eric Ives, first published in 2004.

Ives, Eric W., The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), first published 2004, Paperback, ISBN: 978-1-4051-3463-7

Eric Ives’s book on Anne Boleyn is probably the most famous of the large volume of works on Henry VIII’s second wife. Ives attempts to uncover the truth behind the myth of Anne’s controversial life, making excellent use of contemporary sources and pulling apart the stories surrounding her to reveal that she ‘deserves to be a feminist icon, a woman … who broke through the glass ceiling by sheer character and initiative’ (p. xv). Ives’s argument is that Anne was essentially a modern woman in an early modern world, and that she managed to thrive in a male-dominated arena.

The book’s first twelve chapters’ deal with Anne’s life in largely chronological order, from her birth and childhood spent at the French court, up to her coronation in 1533. This section includes analysis of her romances with Henry Percy and Thomas Wyatt, and her role in the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and the King’s ‘Great Matter’, controversial topics which have sparked much debate. However, Ives seems to dispel a lot of rumour and uses contemporary sources to put forward a concise argument, steering clear of conjecture. He then takes a break from chronological analysis to look at some of the most fascinating themes surrounding Anne. The chapters on ‘Influence, Power and Wealth’, ‘Image’ and ‘Personal Religion’ are some of the best in the book. This is because they go beyond the generally accepted perceptions of Anne, and look at her in a new light. Ives goes into deep analysis of these often contentious issues; quoting from sources like the Lisle Letters, Hall’s Chronicle and the Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII, including dispatches from Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, and Thomas Cromwell, the king’s first minister. These kinds of sources offer a first-hand insight, not just into the life of Anne herself, but into the world in which she lived and died. The later chapters discuss the first half of 1536, and Anne’s fall from power, in exceptional detail, analysing the evidence, the

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

pitfalls, and the information that Anne herself supposedly divulged to indict her so-called ‘accomplices’. Because Ives dedicates so many chapters to her fall, he really does wade through all the evidence to try and untangle the fact from the fiction. He really does originate the historical argument that Cromwell was to blame for engineering her fall, although many historians (like George W. Bernard) disagree with this view.

Some of Ives’s conclusions have become the basis for future works. They are very convincing as he does not leave out important evidence, which is dismissed by some historians because it does not fit their arguments. Bernard argues against a lot of Ives’s points, particularly about Anne’s religion, as he believes she died a Catholic death, ignoring her earlier evangelical sympathies.[i] However, works like Joanna Denny’s Anne Boleyn[ii] and Alison Weir’s The Lady in the Tower[iii] agree with a lot of Ives’s conclusions, concurring on issues like religion and, in the case of Weir, the reason for her fall from power. Firstly, Ives correctly sees Anne’s fall from grace as a ‘coup’ and a ‘tragedy’ (p. 319), as it took less than three weeks from the arrest of the first suspect to Anne’s death. This rapid fall suggests that the protagonists were less than sure of their own arguments and that they were worried they would not succeed. Secondly, Ives sees Anne as a victim of the early modern court in which she lived as rumours and circumstance destroyed her without any concrete evidence. As historians, we can understand the influence of rumours and stories about Anne because we also lack any concrete evidence as to her innocence or guilt, and the reasons behind her fall, so we rely on conjecture.

However, Ives’s work does have some weaknesses. Because of the depth of his analysis and the foresight he shows in examining and questioning the primary sources, the reader is often deprived of drawing their own conclusions about them. Ives seems to tell the reader what to think rather than allowing them to make up their own mind. This leads to historians and scholars always following the same tack in discussing Anne Boleyn, as there is little or no room left for interpretation. Ives is particularly convincing because he creditably tears apart the arguments of other historians. Also, there are only minimal references to Ives’s most vocal critics, Bernard and Retha Warnicke, which suggests that, either he was unwilling to tear apart their arguments, or there was something in them that he did not want to acknowledge. To make the book more balanced on the historiographical front, Ives could have discussed their arguments in more depth; for example, Warnicke’s arguments about Anne’s supposedly deformed child, and Bernard’s arguments about Anne’s religion, even if he was going to end by dismissing them as unlikely.

Historian Eric Ives 1931-2012.
Historian Eric Ives 1931-2012.

Eric Ives’s work is substantial and identifies analytically with the key themes and events in Anne’s life. His referencing is clear, and his bibliography extensive. Ives manages to look at key events from a variety of different perspectives: from supporters of Anne and also enemies. Ives intrinsically links her enemies and supporters with their religious beliefs, which is largely how they were split at the time – those for and those against the Reformation. What could be built on from Ives’s work is the idea of Anne Boleyn’s image, and her place in the early modern public sphere. The section on ‘Life at Court’ also offers room for development, as full biographies of Anne often condense her life to the divorce and her fall, missing out or abbreviating the section in the middle, as Ives does here.

In a lot of ways, it is easy to identify with Ives’s claim that ‘once [Anne] interests you, fascination grows’ (p. xiv). The debates surrounding her role in the break with Rome and the development of Protestantism in England, and the circumstances of her death, mean that Anne Boleyn will always be fascinating to study. Eric Ives cleverly manages to put aside the speculation to get to the woman behind the Queen.

[i] Bernard, G.W., Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011)

[ii] Denny, Joanna, Anne Boleyn (London, UK: Piatkus Books, 2005)

[iii] Weir, Alison, The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (London, UK: Jonathan Cape, 2009)

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