Finding Anne Boleyn

Today’s post is a guest article by H.M. Castor, author of VIII. Read my review of her debut novel for teens here.

Finding Anne

Three years ago I had an emotional encounter with a Tudor object. On a visit to Compton Verney in Warwickshire, I saw an exhibition of some of the treasures – paintings and artefacts – that are usually hidden away at Chequers, the country house of the Prime Minister.

In one of the exhibition’s rooms stood a glass case, and inside it lay a ring. A ring I had thought never to see, other than in photographs, in my life.

This ring once graced the finger of Elizabeth I, and was sufficiently dear to her that it was the item taken from her body and carried to James VI of Scotland as proof of her death – clearly, she would never have considered giving it away as a gift.

Miniature enamel portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn

On the ring’s top an ‘E’ is picked out in diamonds, but the most precious items are hidden beneath: like a locket, it opens to display two portraits in minutely sculpted and enamelled relief – one of Elizabeth herself and the other of her mother, Anne Boleyn. (You can read more about the ring in Natalie’s article about it here).

Anne was, of course, the mother Elizabeth had hardly known (Anne was executed when Elizabeth was just two and a half). Elizabeth never spoke of Anne publicly, and did not have her body moved to a grander tomb (as James VI and I did for his executed mother, Mary Queen of Scots). This ring is one of the few indications – and certainly the most personal, intimate one – that Anne mattered to Elizabeth. And for me, the most heart-wrenching detail about it is something that is hard to see from photographs but is very clear in real life:

Anne is smiling.

Something that no one did in Tudor portraits. But something that her daughter would want to picture her doing – perhaps even (a long shot, but just maybe) could remember her doing. I find this almost unbearably moving.

No wonder then that, at Compton Verney that day, I bent over the ring for ages, trying (and probably failing) not to annoy other visitors who wanted a look. It was all I could do to stop myself trying to climb into the display case: the magnifying glass provided just did not get me close enough!

What lay behind my enthusiasm? My life-long obsession with Tudor history, yes – but something more specific, too. You see, Anne Boleyn was at the heart of what was then propelling me – urgently, obsessively – to write VIII, my new YA novel about Henry VIII.

The urgency and the obsession came from the fact that I was – I am – convinced that I had something new to say about Henry. Which might sound extraordinary. He is, after all, one of the most familiar figures in British history. But for me, there has always been a gaping hole in his story. Despite all I have read about him, despite all the films and documentaries I have seen, I feel that no one has ever given me a satisfactory explanation of why he did what he did. Yes, he needed a son, yes he was tired of his wife… but other kings of the time found themselves in that position and didn’t react so devastatingly.

Most puzzlingly of all: why did he pursue Anne so passionately for seven years, only to have her executed just three short years later? Even the weeks leading up to her death seem filled with confusing behaviour on his part. Explanations have been offered, of course, but none of them ring entirely true for me; none of them make me identify with Henry. I wanted to put myself right inside his mind, and see those events from his point of view.

So I set out to write VIII, which tells Henry’s story in the first person, following his psychological journey from idealistic, loving, insecure boy to paranoid tyrant – and joining up dots that I haven’t seen joined up before. Henry’s mother, for example, was the sister of the Princes in the Tower – how did that traumatic past affect her relationship with her son? Henry’s father had spent years on the run before he became king – what kind of father did that make him?

I spent many months researching, and many hours talking with psychoanalysts about Henry’s psychological journey – and what an intense, exhilarating and terrifying journey it was! But when at last I felt that I had cracked the conundrum – when I felt I knew how and why Henry acted as he did towards Anne – that was the most exciting eureka moment of my writing career so far. It remains one of the elements of VIII of which I am most proud.

Meanwhile the locket ring is, I assume, back at Chequers (does David Cameron appreciate it sufficiently? Hm? Hm? I think we should be told!). My memories of that day at Compton Verney, however, have certainly not left me. I am currently writing a novel that is, in many ways, the sequel to VIII: it is about the sister-relationship between Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth. I know that memories of (and ideas about) Anne Boleyn will loom large for both my protagonists. And as I write, Elizabeth’s locket ring lingers in my mind, as a talisman. I hope that one day I will see it again.

VIII is published in the UK on October 1st by Templar Publishing and in Australia later this autumn by Penguin.

You can see a trailer for VIII and an interview with H.M. Castor about the book here:

Twitter: @HMCastor

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  1. It’s absolutely fascinating to read about the process behind VIII – I would never have thought of talking to a psychoanalyst to get into the head of a historical figure, but what a brilliant way to do it! And I loved reading about the ring – how wonderful, and how spine chilling. It’s funny how it can be the smallest things that spark those eureka moments, isn’t it?

  2. jan abraham says:

    Very very interesting fact that Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York was the princes in the tower’s sister. I never knew that. OMG I must start a book about her. That spooky scenerio must has scarred her for life. What could she have told Henry about these events? And yet he killed Buckingham, and Margaet Pole, and her son, but released the grandson..,hmm.
    I find it interesting that you set your book for young adults, as Henry’s story is definitely rated x, and to my mind, he was really mad from physical reasons, possibly syphilis. His lack of a male heir has been proven to be a genetic disorder, possibly a chromosome issue that almost insured the weakness in male children.

  3. While I was writing a blogpost on Portchester Castle it occurred to me that Anne became pregnant there. Has anyone else commented on this point?

    She and Henry were there in October 1535, she miscarried Jan 1536, and was put to death a few months later.

    The post is here:

    • This is utterly fascinating Steve! I have never heard this mentioned before and is definitely worth some more investigating. I suppose the issue is that without evidence proving that Anne was indeed with the King at Portchester, it’s difficult to conclude that she became pregnant there. But the extract from the Lisle letters definitely suggests that she was there. I would like to look into this a little further and will let you know if I find anything else. Thank you for sharing and I will be in touch soon!

  4. I dont find it too difficult to understand why Henry VIII tired of Anne after chasing her for so long. The chase is often more exciting than the actual catch?! Also politics, not having a mail heir, bad advisors and probably his own ego – knowing he could have whom he wanted ……. just fancied someone new.

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