The Lady in the Tower

The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir, Ballantine Books.

“The Lady in the Tower” is the first book devoted entirely to the fall of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, who was charged with high treason, imprisoned in the Tower of London, and executed in May 1536, four months after her miscarriage of the son who would have saved her life. Historical biographer Alison Weir explores in detail the mystery surrounding Boleyn’s arrest, striving to answer the questions: Were charges against her fabricated because — like Henry VIII’s first wife Katherine of Aragon — she had failed to deliver him a male heir, and now stood in the way of [the king] making a third marriage and siring an heir? Or was she the victim of a more complex plot fueled by court politics and deadly rivalry?

“The Lady in the Tower” is an exceptionally dark and compelling book, thanks to an inherently intriguing chain of events and Weir’s densely-woven storytelling. For those unfamiliar with Boleyn’s rise and fall, she made the unlikely transition from private gentlewoman to queen, but soon found herself in life-threatening trouble — arrested for quadruple adultery plus incest, as well as conspiring the death of her husband. As the author deftly illustrates, “the majority of the charges were impossible, and most of the rest were barely plausible, which in itself suggests that even these were not genuine offenses,” writes Weir.

Nevertheless, the four men accused alongside Boleyn — including her brother George — were charged that they had violated and had carnal knowledge of the Queen, each by himself at separate times, and that they had conspired the king’s death with her, relates Weir. After a shockingly swift and decidedly unfair trial, each was publicly beheaded, the men by axe and the Queen by sword.

The back story and buildup to the arrests is eminently readable, but the author’s description of the five executions can only be described as riveting — each of the victims presented the opportunity to deliver last words to the assembled crowd(s) before the headsman went ahead and did his duty. Relying on eyewitness testimony, Weir addresses every detail of the proceedings, noting for instance, that as the Queen’s head fell to the ground, horrified onlookers witnessed her lips moving and her eyes moving.

This isn’t to suggest that the book is reliant on shock value; it’s remarkable in terms of the depth and richness of its historical research alone. “The Lady in the Tower” is ideal for those interested in evaluating the evidence against Boleyn, or anyone who simply wants to be captivated by the fall of one of history’s most fascinating and tragic heroines.