When Courtly Love Goes Wrong, It’s Deadly

HUNTING THE FALCON: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and the Marriage That Shook Europe, by John Guy and Julia Fox

Anne Boleyn glanced over her shoulder repeatedly as she waited at the Tower of London for her executioner, a specialist swordsman who had been summoned from France. Would Henry VIII, who could spare lives as casually as he snuffed them out, spare her life on the scaffold as he’d been known to do before?

Anne had been subjected to a day of extreme emotional torture. Believing she would die in the morning, she had prayed all night with her almoner, only to wait another 24 hours for the Constable of the Tower’s definitive rap on her prison door. There would be no reprieve. Henry already viewed sparing her a bloodier death — by the hacking of an ax — as a gesture of notable generosity.

Onlookers recounted that Anne’s lips and eyes were still moving after her head was sliced from its notably slender neck. “The sword,” write John Guy and Julia Fox in their thrilling new biography, “hissed” through the air.

“Nothing is said about the crowd’s reaction,” they tell us, “beyond that she died ‘boldly,’ but it is hard to believe they did not gasp.”

It is also hard to believe there is scope for yet another doorstop biography of Anne of a thousand books, but “Hunting the Falcon” is a fierce, scholarly tour de force. The authors, a husband-and-wife historian team, are a dream pairing. There is an intensity to their research — the sleuthing through water-damaged documents hiding in musty collections; the reinterpreted ciphers and signatures in Tudor missives singed by fire; the telling marginalia in manuscripts and folios; the pithy asides from courtiers in disregarded journals.

Their freshest insights are into Anne’s prelapsarian (i.e., pre-Henry) life, first as a maid of honor to Margaret of Austria, at the Hapsburg court in Mechelen, and then as a teenage demoiselle in Paris to Queen Claude of France, wife of King Francis I.

These two royal women were formative role models. Margaret, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, was, we are told, “a glamorous, utterly confident woman fully in control of her own destiny” whose motto translated to “changes in fortune make a woman stronger.” Her politically agile intellect was honed by acting for her father as regent of the Low Countries.

Claude of France was closer in age to the teenage Anne, and presided over a cultured court that buzzed with the new ideas ofreformers, artists and musicians. She was only one of an impressive female triumvirate surrounding Francis I. His mother, Louise de Savoy, a “lynx- eyed, ruthless politician in her own right,” wielded more influence than many of his advisers; and his sister, the brilliant Marguerite of Angoulême, famed for her biting wit and knowledge of theology, was a savvy sounding board.

Credit…Vanessa Saba

Compared to the dour, dutiful sewing circle serving Katherine of Aragon at the British court, the French matriarchs were pistols. “Anne found herself in a world in which women could exercise power in strikingly different ways,” write Guy and Fox.

Anne’s father, Thomas, was another polished maestro of international intrigue. Stereotyped by convention as a conniving hustler bent on building the Boleyn brand, Thomas is positioned more interestingly here as a kind of geopolitical Zelig. He was one of Henry VIII’s most seasoned diplomats, dispatched on multiple missions to negotiate with Europe’s other reigning masters of the universe, the king of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, as well as the pope, who held spiritual sway over all of them. Pa Boleyn was a hired gun, willing to charm, cajole or play hardball with whichever of these treacherously self-interested parties Henry felt it was in England’s interest to ally at any given moment.

Anne returned to England from Europe by 1522, probably in her early 20s (her birth date remains disputed), to become a maid of honor to Queen Katherine. It would prove the right time to catch the eye of the strapping 34-year-old king. By 1525, his mistress Mary Boleyn, Anne’s younger sister, was hors de combat with a pregnancy and it was becoming clear that Katherine was never going to present him with a son.

Henry had never before encountered a woman as dazzling as Anne, with her French flair and intellectual self-confidence. He could talk to her as an equal. His love letters to her are often abject entreaties for reassurance; her own replies have not survived, but implicit in his pleadings is an Anne who blows hot and cold, advances and retreats, goads and seduces, all on a reckless bet that she would give him a male heir.

“Hunting the Falcon” brilliantly shows how time, circumstance and politics combined to accelerate Anne’s triumph and tragedy. We see how the oscillating power shifts in Europe were as determinative of her fate as the more familiar plottings of the Tudor court. Katherine, for instance, had a powerful ally in her nephew, the Hapsburg emperor Charles V, who she knew would always support her with Rome against Henry’s bullying demands for a divorce.

It forced Henry to keep the always-untrustworthy power of France on his side. Thomas Boleyn’s diplomatic missions to Europe became vain forays to find pressure points to persuade the pope to change his mind. When Anne and Henry “worked together as a team for his divorce, they were as one,” the authors tell us. But “once they were married, they were no longer hunting the same quarry.”

Fifteen thirty-six was the year of Anne Boleyn’s doom. In January, Katherine of Aragon died and Henry suffered a severe jousting accident that set him on course to become the ballooning, bellicose tyrant of legend. Five days later, on the day Katherine was buried, Anne miscarried a baby son, a calamity that broke the spell of her invulnerable magic.

It provided the critical window of disfavor for Henry’s power-hungry adviser Thomas Cromwell — and all the other enemies Anne had made in her callous climb to the top — to move in and topple her with trumped-up charges of adultery.

“For the love of Anne,” write Guy and Fox, Henry “alienated his family, many of his courtiers and his subjects; for her he destroyed and even killed men whom he had once regarded as his supporters and friends.” For Anne he broke with Rome, “used Parliament to enact matters that affected people’s faith, ended centuries of tradition and risked war in Europe.”

The backwash from all that bitterness now engulfed Anne with terrifying speed, but she might still have been saved if the politics of Europe had not aligned against her too. With Katherine’s death, Henry was free to dump his increasingly vexatious military alliance with France.

Negotiations began in earnest for a rapprochement with the Emperor Charles, one of whose demands was to restore Katherine’s daughter, Mary, to the line of succession over Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth. That would have been over la Boleyn’s dead body — and it was. By May of 1536, the only remnant of Anne’s Francophile influence was her executioner’s sword.

Tina Brown’s most recent book is “The Palace Papers.”

HUNTING THE FALCON: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and the Marriage That Shook Europe | By John Guy and Julia Fox | Harper | 612 pp. | $35

HUNTING THE FALCON: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and the Marriage That Shook Europe |By John Guy and Julia Fox| 612 pp. | Harper | $35

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