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Book review: Hunting the Falcon: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the marriage that shook Europe by John Guy and Julia Fox

24 November 2023

Still room for more about ill-fated Anne, says John Cooper

IS THERE much new to say about Anne Boleyn? She is already one of the most written about of the Tudors, although her voice and agency can be frustratingly elusive. The answer, in this richly detailed analysis of Anne and her marriage to Henry VIII, by a husband and wife, John Guy and Julia Fox, turns out to be, Yes.

Publishers like to emphasise discoveries. The authors identify some new archival material — no mean feat when Anne has been so intensively studied. Just as interesting, however, is their forensic re-reading of more familiar sources to set Anne’s queenship in its European context. In the service of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen, the young Anne attended lessons with three future queens. Then, she transferred to France as Queen Claude’s demoiselle, swept into a sumptuous world of royal ritual and progresses.

When she returned to England, the Frenchness of Anne was a significant factor in the politics surrounding her relationship with Henry, and perhaps also in her unpopularity among the people. For his part, the King found it irresistible.

Readers of the Church Times will be interested in what this book has to say about Anne’s religion. Anne has often been pictured as influencing religious policy, nudging Henry towards reading William Tyndale, or bringing Evangelical preachers to Court, but the precise nature of her belief has lacked definition. Fox and Guy highlight the influence of Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, whose followers criticised miracles and images while promoting charity as the route to a living faith. If this is a French strand in the English Reformation, to add to theology imported from Germany and home-grown anticlericalism, then that deserves to be better understood.

The title Hunting the Falcon refers to Anne’s personal badge. Henry VIII spent a lot of time hunting, and invested in a pillion saddle so that he and Anne could ride out together. In Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso list to hunt”, Anne has been identified as the quarry whom the lovelorn poet has to yield to the King. But Anne was a huntress, too, taking a “breathtaking gamble” in holding out for a proposal of marriage. The authors speculate that Anne learned from the success of Elizabeth Woodville, the commoner who had married Henry VIII’s grandfather (and lookalike) Edward IV.

Henry himself does not come out well: a pampered and needy extrovert, who revelled too much in the luxury that his father’s wealth had bought. By this account, Anne, and not Jane Seymour, was the love of his life. When Henry believed that he had been betrayed, his retribution was all the more terrible.

Anne Boleyn inspires a modern cult of devotion, in social media, at her childhood home of Hever Castle, and in the gift shop at Hampton Court. As argued here, she set out to enlarge the part played by a queen. But she was also cruel to those who threatened her: Catherine of Aragon, Princess Mary, even poor Henry Fitzroy. Imprisoned in the Tower at the end, she requested that the sacrament be reserved in her chamber to help her to pray for mercy.

Dr John Cooper is a Reader in History at the University of York.


Hunting the Falcon: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the marriage that shook Europe
John Guy and Julia Fox
Bloomsbury £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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