Anne Boleyn

Fatal Attractions, G.W. Bernard, Yale University Press.

Most modern historians believe that the charges leveled against Henry VIII’s second wife in the spring of 1536 were fabricated—either part of a complex plot designed to destroy her, or a direct result of her failure to deliver the king a male heir. The fact that Anne Boleyn was accused of quadruple adultery plus incest (with her brother George), as well as conspiring the death of her husband, is remarkable indeed. In “Fatal Attractions,” G.W. Bernard—a professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton and editor of the English Historical Review—goes against the weight of scholarly opinion, arguing that the allegations of adultery that led to her execution were probably true.

“Most historians have too quickly decided that the very notion that a queen could have committed adultery, and with five men, is so preposterous that it is hardly worth considering seriously,” writes Bernard. Making a wide-ranging forensic analysis of sixteenth-century sources, the author meticulously examines their alternative explanations before pronouncing them unconvincing. In the process, he portrays Anne as a captivating, intelligent, and highly sexual woman, against whose attractions the king was consciously on guard. Ultimately he concludes that Anne committed adultery with Henry Norris [chief gentleman of Henry’s privy chamber], probably with Mark Smeaton [a musician at court], and possibly with [courtier] Sir Francis Weston.

While Bernard’s treatment is bold and provocative, it isn’t necessarily suitable for the casual reader. The author’s methodical approach makes “Fatal Attractions” much less accessible than other recent books addressing the fall of Anne Boleyn (Alison Weir’s The Lady in the Tower, for example). Bernard puts it best when he writes that “[T]he Anne Boleyn presented in this book is not the Anne Boleyn to be found in most accounts of her life. The portrait I have offered may well be deeply unsettling, rather like coming back to a landscape you thought you knew, only to find all the trees in different places, [or] that the trees had never been where you thought they were.”