Exploring the Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn

As evidenced by the many books, movies and television programs about her, Anne Boleyn remains an intriguing figure in our popular imagination. Shortly after her arrival at the court of King Henry VIII in 1526, Anne became the focus of the King’s amorous attentions just when he was ready to discard his first wife for not producing a male heir. Anne managed to keep the infatuated Henry at bay until he demonstrated he was willing to challenge the might of the Catholic Church to divorce Catherine of Aragon, marry Anne and make her his Queen.

At court, Anne Boleyn was described as quick-witted, stylish and graceful. It was said she had a good singing voice and danced well, though opinions differed on her attractiveness.

In 1533, Henry’s first marriage was declared null and he quickly married Anne, who was crowned Queen later that year. In response, the Catholic Church excommunicated Henry, leading to England’s break from the Catholic Church, the formation of the Church of England and the start of the English Reformation. By September 1533, Anne gave birth to a baby girl, who later became Queen Elizabeth I. Following three subsequent miscarriages, Henry’s roving eye turned to young Jane Seymour, which set Anne’s downfall in motion.  In 1536, Henry accused Anne of treason and she was arrested.  During the short two weeks she spent in the Tower, Anne faced a jury of her peers, was found guilty, and was beheaded — England’s only Queen to be executed.

Victorian author Paul Friedmann’s two volume biography of Anne Boleyn charts Anne Boleyn’s spectacular rise and fall. Written in 1884, Friedmann’s biography was meticulously researched using original documentation and remains a mainstay for historians interested in Anne Boleyn and her world. After publishing her own book on Anne Boleyn, author Josephine Wilkinson was offered a unique opportunity to edit Friedmann’s original work for re-issue. In an extensive interview here, she shares her experience working as an editor on this landmark biography and her thoughts on Anne Boleyn.

Paul Friedmann wrote his two-volume biography of Anne Boleyn in the 1884 and the book is still used as a standard of reference by historians today. After over 100 years, why do you think this book remains relevant?

I think any work that is well researched and written in such an accessible and commanding way will always be an important reference for researchers, whatever era they live in and whether or not they agree with the author’s conclusions. Paul Friedmann, of course, worked extensively with original documents — not those printed in Letters and Papers, but the actual documents themselves, which are held in various archives and libraries across Europe, so his work will always stand as a valuable source.

You are credited as an editor of the new edition of Friedmann’s book. What kinds of edits or revisions did you contribute to the latest edition of the book?

My work as an editor of this work was purely technical — I transcribed the document from PDF into Word and ensured that everything came out correctly. This meant removing the marginal notes, checking that the text had come out correctly in each language and ironing out the funny characters that can crop up when software misreads certain letters and numbers. I also redid the index to match the new pagination. I did not revise Friedmann’s work in any way, but that was not the object.

An artist’s rendition of King Henry VIII romancing Anne Boleyn at court.

My commissioning editor had looked through the annotated bibliography that I included with my Anne Boleyn book and found the Friedmann title listed. He asked me if I thought it was worth publishing it in a new volume. I agreed that it was a very good idea, especially since no new addition had been done at the time and the original work was difficult to get hold of. I have always admired Friedmann’s work and thought it deserved a wider readership.

One of the reasons Henry VIII remains so famous is his six wives, of whom Anne Boleyn is perhaps the most well-known. Why do you think Anne Boleyn endures as a historical figure? What is it about her that contemporary people find so interesting?

Anne’s primary interest is that she is the only anointed and crowned queen of England to be executed (so far!). The story of how that happened is still, to some extent, shrouded in mystery. Although scholars are now more aware of the machinations of the Tudor court, there remain several theories about why Anne fell.

Then there is Anne herself. She was clearly a woman of great character, self-aware, self-assured and determined to live according to her personal codes of honour and right. She was a very intelligent woman, intellectual and artistically talented. She appeals to people today for all these reasons, but also because she held her own against a predatory and difficult authority figure, she won her man on her own terms and she exemplifies the female struggle against the ’glass ceiling’. It was only in the last few weeks that it all became unstuck; until then, she almost had it all.

King Henry VIII in all of his magnificent glory.

I’m not sure Friedmann’s book is unique in that respect — Elizabeth Benger wrote a lovely biography of Anne which went into detail about the Tudor world, and Agnes Strickland included a biography of Anne in her Queens of England series. Friedmann’s particular strength lies in his extensive use of original sources and his careful analysis of them. He also delved more deeply into the politics of the period, showing the importance of Anne’s story in Europe as a whole. Certainly such details help readers understand Anne’s world, and this is essential for assessing Anne, her actions and her ultimate fate.

Does Friedmann’s book contain any ideas or theories that have been proven outdated by contemporary scholars? If so, did your edits revise these ideas or theories?

As I mentioned above, I made no revisions, but simply produced a Word copy of the biography. My publisher then decided what he would do with it. Friedmann work is a classic and his theories stand alongside those of modern historians, especially as there is still disagreement regarding the causes of Anne’s fall.

Is there anything about this Friedmann’s book that you’d like to bring to the reader’s attention?

If readers can get hold of the original two-volume work, they might find Friedmann’s own introduction very interesting. Unfortunately me editor did not think it necessary to print it. Volume one also contains a full and very useful chronology of events.

It always makes me smile when I read Friedmann’s words (pp.250-1):  ‘After a time their [the people’s] interest in Anne’s fate died out’ – if only he could have seen into the future! I also admire his modesty when he states (p.255): ‘My object has been to show that very little is known of the events of those times, and that the history of Henry’s first divorce and of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn has still to  be written.’ Certainly, historians have had new things to contribute, but Friedmann produced a wonderful piece of scholarship, a classic study.

Stay tuned for more details on Josephine Wilkinson’s next project via her blog and Anne Boleyn, written by Paul Friedmann and edited by Josephine Wilkinson, can be ordered from Amberley Publishing.


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