Book Review – ‘Anne Boleyn: the Queen of Controversy’ by Lacey Baldwin Smith

'Anne Boleyn: Queen of Controversy' by Lacey Baldwin Smith (2013).
‘Anne Boleyn: Queen of Controversy’ by Lacey Baldwin Smith (2013).

Lacey Baldwin Smith, ‘Anne Boleyn: the Queen of Controversy’ (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2013) Hardback, ISBN 978-1-4456-1023-8

Title: The title is certainly appropriate – Anne Boleyn is definitely the queen of controversy. Historians have been arguing over her almost since before her death. The key arguments being over her fall, her role in the divorce, and her role in the Reformation in England.

Preface: The preface explains just what Lacey Baldwin Smith was aiming to do when he wrote this book. It was only supposed to be short, hence the lack of detail in sections, although it is difficult to cover all the controversies of Anne’s life in sufficient detail in just 40-60,000 words. Apparently the term ‘biographical essay’ was important to him, because it meant he had to worry less about the scope and style, and could just write. However, I think that has been a downfall.

Citations: I’m not really a fan of endnotes, there’s too much turning of pages for me. I’m more of a footnote fan, but each to his own. His citations are very good. Full details are given in a bibliography before the endnotes, then it is made clear that the bibliography should be referred to for full details, like publication, but contrary to writers like Alison Weir, Baldwin Smith actually lists page numbers so it is easy to follow up his sources.

Contents: I enjoyed in particular the sections on ‘The King’s Mind’ and ‘Cultural and Religious Environment’ as they introduced contextual information rather than going over the same points again and again. The section on the divorce was short and didn’t really tell the reader much, aside from what is really quite commonly known. Anne’s role also wasn’t looked at in a lot of detail. Given the detail he put into looking at Anne’s early life and influences, the period of her queenship, where those influences were most potent, really warranted more than 24 pages.

Genre/Audience: Although this book is billed as being a ‘biographical essay’, it does seem to be aimed at historians. However, to me this book seems to be more suited to those who are only just beginning to study the topic, as it doesn’t really go into a lot of depth and barely skates over some of the most important sources like the Letters and Papers. Considering how many sources he mentions, this doesn’t allow him to really develop any opinions which could influence scholars or allow more debate over Anne Boleyn.

Concepts: The idea of looking at one particular part of Anne’s life from various points of view is one that I also endorse and am using in my Masters thesis. However, Lacey Baldwin Smith doesn’t really use it to full effect as he merely discusses what others have argued, and dismisses the arguments without suggesting an alternative of his own. Some of his points feel like they have been left hanging in this section, possibly because he was trying to fit so much in to such a short piece. A particularly interesting section was the chapter on culture and religious environment, as it added some much needed context into Anne’s life. It could have been applied more to Anne, rather than being quite so general and this section could explain why later sections are shorter.

Sources: As I’ve said above, Baldwin Smith does skate over some of the more important sources like the Letters and Papers. He does speak about Chapuys’s correspondence a little, but misses out letters from William Kingston and bystanders accounts. He looks at secondary sources by Retha Warnicke, Alison Weir, G.W. Bernard and Eric Ives and succeeds in pulling apart their arguments, but fails to introduce an argument which would explain everything, which at least other historians try to do. However, he does miss out some key historians like David Starkey and David Loades, and lesser writers like Elizabeth Norton, Josephine Wilkinson and Antonia Fraser.

Lacey Baldwin Smith 1922-2013.
Lacey Baldwin Smith 1922-2013.

Illustrations: There is a set of full colour illustrations in the centre pages of the book, including places like Blickling Hall and Hever Castle where Anne lived, as well as portraits of Henry and Anne, Jane Seymour, Mary Boleyn and Thomas More, among others. There are minimal descriptions given and the images are not really discussed in the body of the text. There are also images scattered throughout the text which highlight some of the points being made. For example, on page 201 there is a copy of the mural which shows the image of Henry that people remember which is a part of the chapter on the king’s mind, the main argument of which was that he wouldn’t be an easy man to persuade or manipulate.

Other works: I have only briefly read one other of Lacey Baldwin Smith’s books and that was ‘Treason in Tudor England’. I found that one more interesting than this as it looked at something where it was easy to introduce new information and concepts because it has been less written about. I would try his works on Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, and Catherine Howard, but wouldn’t have such high expectations of them.

My Rating: 8 / 20, as I felt that it was not as well written or researched as it could have been and there was nothing new in it at all, and even very little personal opinion.

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