Book Review – ‘Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions’ by G.W. Bernard

George Bernard's 'Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions', first published in 2010.
George Bernard’s ‘Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions’, first published in 2010.

Bernard, George W., Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), first published 2010, Paperback, ISBN: 978-0-300-17089-4

George W. Bernard is a scholar of Reformation England, but had written several articles on Anne Boleyn before publishing this, his first book on her. Here, Bernard delves into a lot more detail, looking at things like her religion and role in the break with Rome, and her fall. Bernard controversially argues that, contrary to most opinions, ‘Anne had indeed committed adultery with [Henry] Norris, probably with [Mark] Smeaton … and was then the victim of the most appalling bad luck’ (p. 192). Bernard seems to argue against most accepted arguments about Anne, including her fall and religion, which are the most controversial chapters.

The book is generally in chronological order, going through her early childhood to her relationship with Henry and the divorce, to Anne as Queen, to the evidence for her fall, and possible reasons, taking a break to delve into her religious sympathies. The title of the book is Fatal Attractions, a fiery title, adhering to how the book is aimed at a general readership rather than a scholarly audience. The first half of the book deals with the attractions, while the second half of the book deals with the fatality. This clever division sees Anne’s life as two distinct halves, divided by the moment when Henry stopped being infatuated with her. Bernard believes that the elaborate theories other historians have come up with to explain her life could more easily be explained by the simple fact that everything was exactly as it seemed, possibly to provoke his critics like Eric Ives in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Like Ives, Bernard dedicates several chapters to Anne’s fall and wading through the evidence surrounding it, but he comes to a very different conclusion, placing himself at the opposite end of the spectrum of historians discussing Anne’s guilt, to Ives.[i] Bernard’s best chapters are the ones discussing her fall from power because he explores it from every angle, even if he dismisses most of them, where some historians, like Alison Weir, simply see it from their own point of view.[ii] Weir only puts forward the argument that Cromwell plotted Anne’s downfall, not considering the fact that Anne’s own errors could have contributed, or that it was simply that Henry believed her guilty of the charges.

Bernard is the first historian I’m aware of to argue that Anne Boleyn was in fact guilty, and so his arguments will probably be picked apart for many years to come. Lucy Wooding wrote a review which

seemed surprised at how Bernard managed to say something new in three main areas – Henry was the one who held back from consummating their relationship, Anne was essentially a Catholic, and that Anne was guilty.[iii] Personally, these issues seem to be written just to contradict the existing historiography and Ives’s arguments are actually more persuasive, but what does set Bernard’s work apart, aside from his theories, is that it is ‘energetic, contentious and refreshing’.[iv] This makes it an interesting read, at least as much as his arguments. But what Wooding fails to talk about in her review is the sources that Bernard makes use of, which are extensive, ranging from state papers, to Wriothesley’s Chronicle to George Cavendish’s The Life of Cardinal Wolsey.

A definite strength of Bernard’s work is the way he writes, because it is so different to other historians. It is clear and concise and it was actually faster to read because it was aimed at a more general audience. He was very

G.W. Bernard of the University of Southampton.
G.W. Bernard of the University of Southampton.

clever to contradict the commonly held assumptions because his work will be remembered for it. Bernard uses a huge range of both secondary and primary sources, suggesting that his hypotheses are least possible if not probable, by looking at the evidence in a new way. What is the best bit about Bernard’s work is his short appendix on the portraits of Anne Boleyn, which are not discussed in much detail in any other work on Anne, and they offer a new insight into Bernard’s thinking on his subject. For example, that each portrait, however questionable, offers us some new insight on Anne or insight on why historians think it could or could not be her (pp. 196-200). This could be something which could be extended on in a future work, and he could have made it into a full chapter in this work.

However, like all work, Bernard’s does have its weaknesses. His work is short, and does not go into detail, possibly because of his audience. He covers Anne’s entire childhood in just fifteen pages, which is detrimental to exploring the French influence in her life. The divorce takes up a mere thirty-five pages, not enough to explore the legislation that was introduced and the break with Rome. Bernard is unsuccessful in engaging with the arguments of his most vocal critic, Eric Ives, merely mentioning him a few times, and failing to delve into the arguments that Ives makes in comparison with his own. This was possibly because Ives’s arguments have merit and Bernard was not convinced he could argue against them. However, Ives’s works are mentioned in the notes, showing that Bernard has at least read the work and has begun to engage with it, as demonstrated when discussing whether Anne or Henry had the most influence on the worsening position of Henry’s daughter, Mary (p. 90). These weaknesses could easily be followed up in a future work, putting more emphasis on the period before Anne became Queen, and how it affected her tenure on the throne.

Hopefully, Bernard’s work will open up a new area to be explored – whether it is probable that Anne was guilty, rather than assuming she was not, and building on the portraits, what Anne’s image was and how she cultivated it. Bernard’s work, although short, does identify with the key areas of Anne’s life and looks at them critically to come to the conclusion that it does. Also, Bernard writes in a style that is accessible, not just to the serious historian, but also to general readers, who might then offer their own opinions on the subject, and so the discipline continues to grow.

[i] Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005)

[ii] Weir, Alison, The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (London: Random House, 2009)

[iii] Wooding, Lucy, ‘Review of “Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions” by G.W. Bernard’, English Historical Review, Vol. 126, Issue 521 (2011) pp. 925-926

[iv] Ibid, p. 926

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