As Maureen Quilligan wrote in the New York Times Book Review of The First Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn "was a real victim of the sexual scandals her brilliant daughter escaped, and a subject Ms. Erickson's sensitivity to sexual and political nuance should well serve." Indeed, Carolly Erickson could have chosen no more fascinating and appropriate a subject. Alluring and profoundly enigmatic, Anne Boleyn has eluded the grasp of historians for centuries.
Through her extraordinarily vivid re-creation of this most tragic chapter in all Tudor History, Carrolly Erickson gives us unprecedented insight into the singuarlity of Anne Boleyn's life, the dark and overwhelming forces that shaped her errant destiny, and the rare, tumultuous times in which she lived.
I have to admit that from the very start I was severely disappointed with this book. The book starts off with Anne going to France accompany Mary Tudor on her future marriage to King Louis. There is no mention whatsoever about Anne’s early years; no discussion about the proposed dates for her birth or where she was brought up or lived. In fact the first few years of her life are completely omitted.
There are some serious mistakes within the pages of this book which I admit, as an avid admirer of Anne Boleyn made it extremely difficult to read. The ten main inaccuracies that sprung out of the pages to me were as follows:
1) Anne Boleyn having six fingers, an extra nail and a massive disfigured mole on her neck. This is an utter fabrication made up by those who disliked Anne as a way to discredit her. Anne and Henry courted for about six years before they were married, there would be an extremely slim chance that during this time Henry would have never seen Anne’s hands. In an age where disfigurement was often considered as a curse or act of witchcraft I severely doubt Henry would have married a woman with a sixth finger!
2) Going oversees for the first time with Mary Tudor where in fact she was sent to Europe by her father to study and learn under the Archduchess Margaret of Austria.
3) Mary Boleyn bore Henry VIII’s illegitimate son. Mary was Henry VIII’s mistress during the time when her son was conceived, BUT not once did Henry ever recognise the boy as his own. Bessie Blount, whom was previously Henry’s mistress, gave birth to a boy in 1519 called Henry whom Henry VIII did acknowledge as his own son. He gave the boy the last name Fitzroy as acknowledgement of who his father was. Henry VIII acknowledged this illegitimate son but not Mary’s? Why? Perhaps because Henry did not believe that the boy by Mary was his, but was infact the son of Mary’s legal husband.
4) Incorrectly states that Charles Brandon’s heir and oldest child, Henry Brandon died of the sweating sickness of 1528. From my research Henry Brandon died around 1522 but from what I am not sure. As an admirer of the Duke of Suffolk I find this inaccuracy gravely annoying as there is nothing at all about it that is even based on fact!
5) Erickson also states that Katherine of Aragon was to be called “Mistress Katherine” shortly before the annulment of her marriage and then continued to be called as such after her marriage to Henry was annulled. In fact she was not to be called “Mistress Katherine” but was to be referred to as “The Dowager Princess of Wales” as it was decreed her lawful husband had been Arthur Tudor, the late Prince of Wales. It is small inaccuracies such as these that I find, as a fan and person interested in Tudor history, find extremely irritating.
6) There is famous recording of Anne’s final plea to Henry for mercy. Record has it that she took Elizabeth and carried her to a garden where Henry was standing at a window above. Apparently they had a heated conversation, but the man whom was watching did not hear the actual words said. Erickson writes that Henry completely ignored Anne… this is just not true! If you read any history book about Anne it will tell you that Henry and Anne argued… but the actual conversation is lost to history.
7) Erickson claims that the reason Henry and Anne’s marriage was declared invalid and was annulled was because Henry had slept with Anne’s sister Mary before their marriage. Again this is just not true! Yes Henry did sleep with Mary Boleyn before he married Anne, but the reason for the annulment of his marriage to Anne was never stated. The marriage was annulled, but no reason was given as to why.
8) Anne Boleyn watched her brother and fellow accused die at the block. This is extremely inaccurate. All five men accused of adultery with Queen Anne were executed on Tower Hill. Anne Boleyn was kept in the Queen’s apartments which were on the other side of the White Tower on the River Thames side. The only way she could have seen their executions if she was released from her chambers and allowed to walk across the Tower Green… which history records that she did not.
9) Mark Smeaton and Francis Brereton’s bodies were cut into quarters before burial. There was no dismembering of the bodies. Smeaton, Brereton, Norris and Weston were all buried in two graves in the local cemetery.
10) After her execution Anne Boleyn’s head was held high to the crowd. There is most defiantly NO record of this ever happening. After her head fell to the straw on the scaffold one of Anne’s ladies in waiting covered it with a white linen cloth until it, along with her body, was moved to an empty arrow chest in which she was buried in.
These are obvious mistakes and if someone like myself, just an avid reader and passionate admirer about Anne Boleyn and Tudor history can spot these out – why could Erickson not? Why did a publisher not get the book proof read to check for historical accuracy? Why were these blatant mistakes included which a simple Tudor fan like myself could pick out and pull apart? The blatant inaccuracies really overshadowed the factual information within the book. While I agree that much of the information within the book is correct and accurate, as I read I could not help but keep thinking ‘what horrendous mistake will I read next?’ I felt this really laid down a bad precedence for the rest of the book and spoiled much of the enjoyment that could have been gained from reading these pages.
Erickson also talks about growing up in the French court. She goes into great detail about the sexuality of the court, how, as she makes it seem, was nothing but sex, sex, sex! Everyone from the King down to the Dukes and Earls and other noble men and woman were having sex whenever and wherever they could get it! Like court was a den for sexual activity. Men, women, sometimes women and women were having sex and even encouraged to do so by the King. While I would agree that there was a lot of sexual courting within the French Court, I doubt that it was almost like a brothel or house of ill repute like Erickson describes it as!
I also thought that Erickson took a lot of leeway assuming the way that Anne would have thought and felt. She writes as though she knew what Anne was thinking or how she was feeling during different events in her life. When it comes down to the facts no one can be sure exactly what Anne was thinking or feeling as very few of her personal letters and records survive. We can make logical and educated guesses as to how Anne may have felt, surmise at her thoughts and ideas on matters, but to assume is taking a great leap between fact and the unknown. I think it is a very dangerous path for an author to go down to start assuming thoughts and feelings of people who died almost five hundred years ago!
I was also extremely disappointed that the downfall and then death of Anne was only covered in twenty pages. This is a huge part of Anne Boleyn’s history and a part of her life which is very well documented. There are a lot of facts and lots of information and events which happened during the last six months of Anne’s life and yet I felt as though it was glossed over and important events were barely mentioned. I feel that to cover Anne’s downfall and death in only twenty pages is quite an injustice to the dramatic and tragic events that unfolded during 1535/1536.
Despite the rather obvious inaccuracies I will give Erickson credit for her use of language. She has a very beautiful writing style which is one of creating sumptuous images which when reading seem to take a life of their own within your mind. She does not just write about what it might have been like to cross the English channel, she takes you there with her words, building intricate and breathtaking images of the boats struggling against the water, of the detail within the boats etc etc. She does have a stunningly creative writing style; it is just a shame that her writing is riddled with inaccuracies.
Overall I found this to be an extremely negative book. There is little talk or praise of Anne’s virtuous qualities, her strengths, her courage, her skills, her intelligence. Yet Erickson takes great care to mention how everyone, her father included, hated Anne Boleyn. It seems as though almost every page there is a description of how greatly she was disliked by the members of court and the common people, how she was temperamental, angry, prone to fits of rage, loud, obnoxious, attention seeking, self righteous, haughty etc. etc. etc. Yes I will agree that Anne had a negative side to her – as does everyone. Yes she was a very temperamental women with a violent temper and prone to outbursts of rage. But she was also an incredible strong, intelligent, brave and courageous woman who did care for the poor and hard done by. Who wanted money from the dissolutions of the monasteries to be distributed to the poor, the charities and the universities. This book talks nothing about that and the reader is left with a very negative and biased opinion against Anne.
I was severely disappointed with this book. There are so many inaccuracies that it is too difficult to just put them aside as small mistakes or differences of opinion. The inaccuracies are far too blatant and obvious to be overlooked. The whole book I felt was very negative towards Anne Boleyn. Be she a sinner or saint or a mixture of both I feel as though a good book will leave the final decision to the reader – this book seemed to be very biased against Anne emphasising strongly her negative qualities and over looking many of her good merits. Although I am a lover and great admirer of Anne Boleyn and would quickly suggest that anyone read anything about her life, I have to say that this book is most certainly one I would not recommend. It was a great disappointment and defiantly not worth the cost to buy or the time taken to read.