Title: Anna Boleyn and the King's Great Secret
Author: Julia LA Kelly
Publisher: Dorrance Pub Co, 2007
Anna Boleyn and the King’s Great Secret by Julia LA Kelly seeks to infuse a ‘what if’ into recorded history. What if Anne Boleyn was not put to death as history claims? The hint of mystery piqued my interest.
The story is basically about Anne’s life, starting from her birth to her life at the French Court. The bulk of it is taken up by her great romance with King Henry VIII and their life together. Told in the first person from Anne’s perspective, the story completely turns on its head every story you’ve ever heard about the high-handedness of Henry VIII, the ruthlessness with which he treated his wives and his desperation for a son.
The second wife of King Henry VIII of England, Anne occupies a powerful place in world history, as it was on her account that Henry sought an annulment from his first wife. The refusal of that annulment led Henry to break away from the Church of Rome and declare England’s allegiance to the Church of England. Later, when Anne too was unable to bear a son, Henry had her executed and took a third wife. Later on, death, divorce and execution yielded him his fourth, fifth and sixth wives.
In this book, Anne puts forward a contrary story, one that was carefully hidden from public knowledge. She says that in 1535, when she became pregnant again, she was moved to the countryside, ostensibly to escape the plague that was rife at the time. Here there is a notable change from history as we have been taught it. We are told that Anne’s trusted attendant is executed in her place while she is exiled to the countryside where she is forced to live an isolated life, far away from the court and all but her closest friends. This development has been brought about in order to appease a number of the courtiers who, for various reasons, do not like Anne and resent her influence with the King.
Anne suggests that it was the excesses of the Church at that time that led to the split from it and not the desire of the King to marry again, as history books have led us to believe. She also explains away the rest of the King’s marriages as having been undertaken under the pressure of the courtiers.
Kelly’s Anne is, by her own admission, feisty and outspoken, a woman born centuries before her time. I would more readily have believed her claim if at least parts of the memoir had been written in direct speech. Surely there could have been some real-time instances of the spiritedness that she insisted was her true nature.
The book had the potential to be far more explosive than it is. Unfortunately, Kelly explains away all the intrigue that must have been an inescapable part of court life. If you want to get an insight into court life, then this is not the book for you.
There are some things that it is difficult to give credence to. For instance, Anne claims that she invented the divide by and equal to signs. History awards the honour of inventing the equal to sign to Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde. Here, Anne claims that it was she who shared the meaning of these signs with Recorde, generously allowing him to publish them as his own. However, she is not so patronising towards Nostradamus, who she claims stole some of the predictions made by her and published them in his own book.
Anne also claims to have known Leonardo da Vinci, Nostradamus, Recorde and a certain writer named William Shakespeare. While this is amusing at first, the excessive name dropping begins to pall on you after a while. Kelly makes good use of all the controversies surrounding the famous people that lived in that time and makes up some others.
There are other things that seem difficult to believe. In one place, Anne said that she passed her time in writing verses, “which was a very slow process with a quill.” It made me wonder whether she was still reminiscing in her own time or whether she had travelled to ours to let us know how difficult it is to write with a quill as compared to writing with a pen or typing on a keyboard.
Still there are some interesting touches. Anne styles herself as having been greatly interested in religious reform. She makes a mention of the translation of the Bible into French, considered blasphemous and unlawful at the time. She also describes the experience of her ‘monthly dread’ while travelling aboard a ship and about dealing with the makeshift arrangements, ‘a bucket covered by curtains at the other end of the ship,’ available to deal with it.
To her credit, Kelly has managed to reproduce well the stilted mouthful that was the King’s language in those days, in the correspondence between some of the characters, fortunately resorting to modern English for the major part of the memoir.
I was also impressed with the honesty with which Kelly has tried to tell her story, without upsetting the larger context of history in which the great love of Anne and the King unfolded. That effort alone makes this one worth reading.
I received a complimentary copy of Anna Boleyn and the King's Great Secret as a member of the Dorrance Publishing Book Review Team. Visit dorrancebookstore.com to learn how you can become a member of the Book Review Team.