Hunting the Falcon: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and the Marriage That Shook Europe

Hunting the Falcon, (release dates Bloomsbury UK 14th September: Harper Collins USA 24th October 2023) the latest book by eminent historians, John Guy and Julia Fox, takes the unusual step of beginning with Queen Anne climbing the scaffold on the morning of 19th May 1536.  

This is an insightful study of the backstories of the man not originally destined to be king, and his love (or was it infatuation) of a woman from a wealthy mercantile class family whom he elevated to be his anointed queen. 

If, like me, you have wondered what made Henry VIII the man he was this book will answer many of those questions.  

Modern research into the influences of early childhood has shown there is merit in Aristotle’s words, “give me a child before they are 7, and I’ll show you the man”. 

Brought up in Eltham Palace together with his sisters, Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York and indomitable grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, guided the infant princeling’s first toddling steps and taught him to read. The young boy was the apple of his mother and grandmother’s eyes and had none of the strictures as those placed on his older brother, Arthur, who was destined to inherit the English throne.  The description of how the eleven year old Prince Henry was thrown into learning the art of statecraft after the death of both his brother and mother contrasts strongly with the freedom he enjoyed while in the royal nursery.

Prince Henry is revealed as a happy, intelligent child who enjoyed dancing and reading.  The particular stories that captured the imagination of this fledgling prince were those by 12th century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth whose book ‘Historia Regum Brittanniae’ was considered as an authoritative history of England at the time. Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur ‘written in the 15th century, containing various tales of the Arthurian court was another favourite, as well as other 15th century romances that focused on courtly chivalric behaviour.  When it came to the more recent history of England, it turns out that it was Henry who had Froissart’s ‘Chroniques d’Angleterre’ translated into English. Henry’s reading of the histories of Monmouth and Froissart inspired him to emulate the deeds of the heroes of Crecy and Agincourt, Edward III and Henry V resulting in the successful attempt to capture the town of Therouanne in 1515, enabled because of his allying with the then Emperor Maximilian I.  With the death of the emperor in 1519, Henry threw his hat into the electoral ring to become emperor. What he never took into consideration was that England was only ever going to be a bit player in the more complex European power play between France and the growing Hapsburg empire. 

It is not certain, but possible, that Henry would have been destined for the Church if Arthur had not died. In 1521 Henry showed the more serious side to his character and written his Defence of the Seven Sacraments in rebuttal of Martin Luther’s 95 theses against certain practices of the Catholic Church (in Latin). This had earned him the title of Defender of the Faith bestowed on him by Pope Leo X.  Despite being described as gifted and highly intelligent, Henry admitted he was not fond of writing, so it begs the question of whether he was the author of this religious rebuttal, perhaps dictating his thoughts to scribes instead of sitting and writing these himself. Not for the first time is it proposed this project was very likely supervised, or had elements contributed by Sir Thomas More and/or Cardinal Wolsey.  

As Henry had grown up various young men had been introduced to be members of his close circle. Henry Norris for one, was his closest friend right through to 1536. Other long term friends from childhood were also sacrificed in May 1536 accused of various wrongs against the king.  However, the one survivor from this time would be Charles Brandon. 

Brandon, whom some see as a romantic figure, was tasked to bring back the king’s younger sister, Mary, the now widowed queen of France, in 1515, and to ensure as much of her substantial dowry was also retrieved. Instead Brandon married Mary secretly as his third wife, thus incurring the king’s wrath for marrying a member of the royal family without permission. Later, Brandon’s behaviour towards Margaret of Austria on a royal visit to the Burgundian court, exceeded the bounds of the chivalric code and caused Henry much embarrassment, yet Brandon survived. Described by the 17th century herald and antiquarian William Dugdale as a “person comely of stature, high of courage and conformity of disposition to King Henry VIII, with whom he became a great favourite”, Dugdale ignores the evidence that Brandon was a roistering womaniser and asset stripping bigamist. He was not the sort of man anyone would wish their son to be associating with, yet he rose to become Duke of Suffolk. He made the king look good at everything he did and of course, he was married to the king’s favourite sister.

What is prominent is Henry VIII’s love of the hunt, hawking, playing tennis and generally having a good time, which seems to have been of greater importance to the young king than discussing the minutiae of administration of the kingdom.  Even his decision to marry the widowed Katharine of Aragon appears to have had little deep consideration. This marriage appears as if the king was acting on a whim, which required someone to ensure he got his own way by finding arguments that would allow the marriage to his brother’s widow to go ahead. 

The first and extremely able administrator to have the onerous position of day to day administration was Cardinal Wolsey.  His strategy was to fulfill every wish that came into the king’s mercurial mind, but it was Wolsey’s inability to bring about the annulment to Henry’s marriage to Queen Katharine that brought about his downfall.  

Administration then fell to Wolsey’s equally able successors, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, but they too would either stick to a moral principle, or fail to fulfil the king’s wishes and both ended their days on Henry’s increasingly blood stained execution block.   

What becomes increasingly apparent throughout the book is the king’s personal and European political ambitions appear to have been founded on his study of the histories of England and those books of knightly chivalry.  Combined with the lack of boundaries and pampering he had enjoyed during his infant years, ensured that in his own mind the adult Henry was never in the wrong and always the hero, just like those courtly knights he had read about in the tales of Arthur by Monmouth and Mallory.  Notions that continued to be compounded by his administrators who ensured he got his own way. 

The first example of the Henry’s darker side was the execution in 1510 of his father’s dedicated courtiers, Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson who had become very unpopular as royal tax collectors in the last years of the late king’s reign.  The first Act of Parliament defining treason was enacted in 1351 and the first amendment in 1495 by Henry VII stated that anyone serving the king was not guilty of treason or any other offence. Whether either Dudley or Empson were traitors because some of the money they collected stuck to their fingers is a moot point.  The two were extremely unpopular with the populace, which in turn reflected badly on the monarchy. The nineteen year old king’s wish to be a popular seems to have over-ridden any idea of proper unbiased investigative justice – a trend that would be repeated during his reign. 

By 1520 Anglo French differences had been settled when the two kings met at what has become known as The Field of the Cloth of Gold – an extravaganza that had no expense spared in the English attempt to outdo the French in the competition of glittering display. In the mid-1520s it was to England that France turned to for an alliance against the Hapsburgs.  

Queen Katherine was six years older than Henry and had been brought up to become a queen by her powerful mother, Queen Isabella of Castile (a queen in her own right) and her father, Ferdinand of Aragon.  A very intelligent, educated, pious woman, Katharine established her court along Spanish lines. It was the model of piety and the good behaviour of her ladies was essential providing a suitable place for the young Princess Mary to learn the art of being a royal lady, but this court of ladies was separate from that of the king’s.    

In contrast, the young Anne Boleyn had been educated first in the refined court of Margaret of Austria and then that of Queen Claude of France. Here she learned to speak fluent French and how to behave according to the strict chivalric codes which were a central theme of the Burgundian court.  With Queen Claude it was the lesson of protecting her virtue that was essential for any woman, noble or otherwise, if she were to make a good marriage. Here the sexes were allowed to mix and discussion of many subjects including the reformist works of Lefevre, d’Etaples and Budé, reciting and composing of poetry and the playing and composing of music entertained everyone. 

On returning to England, Anne (and her sister Mary) had become part of Queen Katherine’s entourage.  The sisters must have found that the lack of mingling of male and female courtiers quite boring. Now emerging into adulthood, both sisters took part in the various entertainments such as the splendidly designed masques that centred around the themes of courtly love.  In 1522 the king led his chivalric knights to free the Virtues being held hostage by the dastardly Vices in the Château Vert.  The ladies playing the various Virtues included the Boleyn sisters suitably dressed in white, and the king’s costume carried the motto, “Elle mon Coeur a navera” [She has wounded my heart]. The much debated question of the identity of the woman who had wounded the royal heart is finally settled.  By all accounts the event turns out to have been less a sophisticated play on the codes of chivalry and more a glorified juvenile food fight with sweetmeats and marchpane being hurled as missiles.

Anne was denied marriage to Henry Percy by Cardinal Wolsey.  His reason being the dukes of Northumberland were of one of the great families of England which inferred the Boleyns were mere parvenu. The thought springs to mind that if Anne had been allowed to marry Percy would she have lived a long and happy life with the man she loved? We will never know.

The king’s many expressions of devotion to the exotic intelligent woman who had captured his imagination, are laid out in his undated letters written in his own hand. These are now digitised and can be accessed through The descriptions of the lavish gifts Henry gave to his beloved highlights this was a man who used every means possible to woo the subject of his obsession, but unlike his father Henry had no idea of thrift. Eventually, in order to fulfil his desire to marry Anne, Henry breaks with the Church religious tension within the country, as well as political tension at court and abroad.

As Anne’s influence grew this allowed her to introduce the French concept of a royal court.  Queen Anne’s liberal court was the antithesis of that of Queen Katherine. Here the sexes mixed and the rules were those of the chivalric codes of yore.  There was discussion of the works by the French religious reformists she had read and discussed while she was in France, and where music and poetry flourished. 

Guy and Fox’s examination of the anthology of poetry known as the Devonshire manuscript, originally owned by Anne’s cousin, Mary Fitzroy (née Howard), gives an insight into how Anne’s inner circle amused themselves. This notebook circulated among Anne’s this group and the various members were invited to write their own poetry, copy out poems they admired or recommend specific verses, anonymously. 

A third of the recommended poems are by Thomas Wyatt, which sent me scuttling to return to his poetry.  In the 1530s Wyatt was the foremost English poet since Chaucer in the 14th century. Many of his poems would have been recited by the group who would have enlivened their performances by using actions and even props, which invited a nuanced understanding depending on how Wyatt’s innuendo, allegory and ‘double entendres’ were interpreted and understood by the audience. 

His sonnet, Whoso list to hunt” is a reworking of Sonnet  No 190 by the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch. Wyatt’s last four lines are as follows:

“And Graven in diamonds with letters plain,

There is written, her fair neck round about,

Noli me Tangere: for Caesar’s I am, 

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”

The difference between Wyatt’s Caesar to that of Petrarch is that Petrarch’s emperor lets the hind go free and his sonnet refers to Petrarch’s unrequited love for Laura.  Wyatt was the master of ambiguity, which makes it a cheeky assumption to consider his sonnet to have been written specifically about Anne Boleyn. Since composing poems on the theme of courtly love was a form of entertainment as well as a way of masking a political comment, it may well have been Wyatt was expressing the frustration he had observed in those who aspired to Anne’s hand.  Wyatt was in The Tower that fateful day in May, but did not end his days until six years later.

Quick to judge and criticise, Anne’s sharp tongue created enemies. Brandon’s wife, the king’s sister Mary, Dowager Queen of France & Duchess of Suffolk, hated Anne and had died shortly after Anne’s coronation in June 1533. Less than two months later Brandon had married his fourteen year old ward, the heiress Frances Willoughby, sparking condemnation from the new Queen, earning her Brandon’s loathing. 

The Boleyns had risen high, but their beginnings as wealthy mercers, and her sharp tongue, was attracting jealousy by those aristocrats who saw her criticisms and confrontations as opportunities for them to regain royal favour. Her spikey public exchanges with her husband soon provided openings for her enemies to point out to Henry that he was being made to look less of a king and more of a henpecked husband.  

As a woman ‘way ahead of her time’ she would not be considered too different to women of power today.  Her mistakes were to think she could challenge the king’s authority in public and on a personal level, to alienate those courtiers who had been loyal to Queen Katharine, and to mistreat Princess Mary and the king’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy.  The king’s very able administrators, first Wolsey then Cromwell, both realised the secret to a an efficient court was to ensure that what Henry wanted, Henry got. Many saw the king’s break with Rome as the last straw, but most bowed their heads and accepted Henry as the head of the English church.  Sir Thomas More stuck to his principles and for this he went to the block; so too did Bishop Fisher for his defence of Queen Katharine during the examination of The King’s Great Matter.  

  In the end it was Thomas Cromwell, a former Boleyn ally, who ensured Anne’s exit on the grounds of treasonable incest, among other well-known charges.  The two had crossed swords over what should happen to the funds raised by the dissolution of the monasteries, but it was her fundamental failure to provide the king with a male heir that had made her position a tenuous one. Both elements provided the opportunity for Cromwell and other enemies of the Boleyn family, to slowly turn the king against her.  In the end this resulted in the sacrifice of Henry Norris, the king’s oldest friend and Groom of the Stool, William Brereton, and Francis Weston. Mark Smeaton was a young musician who provided the ‘evidence’.

Cromwell ensured the process to remove Anne would make the king feel like the successful triumphant king he thought he was. Which brings us back to where the book begins with Anne climbing the scaffold in the belief that Henry would pardon her of her alleged crimes at the very last minute. We know that soon after the bloody events of that week Henry had married the biddable Jane Seymour.   

Was Henry and Anne’s relationship a genuine love match, or was it one of infatuation of an emotionally immature king and naked ambition of a woman previously denied marriage to the man she loved because of her family’s alleged lack of social status? If you think it was the latter then it leaves open the question – did Anne really love Henry?

Written during the pandemic this book highlights how it is only through team work and diligent research that makes writing such a history possible.  Because of lockdown and travel restrictions it was impossible for the authors to visit all the archives. Professor Guy and his wife, historian Julia Fox, acknowledge with grateful thanks the dedicated archivists in the national and international archives who digitised the various documents for them. Their research produced new primary sources resulting in this revealing analysis and description of the backstories of the two individuals that changed the course of English history in the 16th century.  The bibliography is extensive and provides a starting point for all those interested in learning more, or dream about writing authoritatively about Anne Boleyn.  

The authors’ immense knowledge of social and political history is woven throughout the narrative making this a page turner, ensuring this book will become the alpha and omega for years to come for all those interested in this period.  

Who needs historical fiction when non-fiction is written like this. 

Melanie V Taylor

Art historian, historian and author.

31st August 2023


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