03/20/2013 09:55 am ET Updated May 20, 2013

The Lady in the Tower : The Sizzling Rise and Sordid Fall of Anne Bolelyn

"She was more accused than convicted," remarked one of Queen Anne Boleyn's contemporaries, after Anne's conviction and execution on charges of adultery, incest and treason during her marriage to King Henry VIII. This from Alison Weir's history, The Lady In The Tower.

Anne Boleyn was not popular. She had caused Henry to abandon the Church of Rome in order to divorce his first wife, the pious, brave, and righteously stubborn, Catharine of Aragon. (The people loved her. They thought she was a saint.)

Henry, after being kept at arm's length from what lurked under Anne voluminous skirts for six years, would marry this clever minx, make her queen and -- he hoped -- ensure himself a male heir; something Catharine had not been able to do. Anne, in her efforts to be queen and not merely Henry's mistress, encouraged the already roiling Reformation, and changed history! (The people did not love her. They thought she was a whore.)

She was vivacious, sexually alluring, ambitious, strong-minded. She was also haughty and sharp-tongued. She came from a ruthlessly royalty-climbing family. (They had already bartered off one Boleyn girl to Henry. All they got out of that was a daughter with a few trinkets and bastard child. Anne was less pliable and naive.)

Anne made enemies easily. And she operated in the arena of the English court, where one careless word could lead to disaster. Anne was more than usually careless in her words.

Boleyn's spectacular rise and equally spectacular -- and (swift!) -- fall has become the stuff of legend and many chronicles. (The Tudors TV series was the latest take on Henry and his marital disasters. The delectable Natalie Dormer played Anne.) But nothing quite captures the causes and intrigues that led to Boleyn's beheading like Ms. Weir's The Lady In The Tower. It was published in 2010, but just came to my attention.

I don't think any book has laid out in such detail, how Anne's enemies -- Thomas Cromwell most of all -- needed Anne disposed of. Not simply divorced from the king, but dead. Henry, though hardly a sympathetic figure, is less the lout in Alison Weir's new research. (Weir is the author of, among other exceptional histories, "The Six Wives of Henry VIII.") If you have an interest in this sort of thing, Weir digs up fascinating documents pertaining to how Anne came to be accused of particular crimes and how indecently hasty it all was.

In the end, it is clear that Anne Boleyn was framed. At the most she might have been guilty of being too free with her famously sharp tongue, but that's about it. Her real crime was not producing a male heir.

  • There is also a revisionist take on her successor Jane Seymour, who appears to have been a cold semi-conspirator in Anne's downfall. Well, she wanted to become Henry's third wife. She did, and promptly died after delivering the son Henry had moved heaven and earth -- and the church -- to have. But the boy lived only until his teens. (I can't say I ever cared much for Mistress Seymour anyway. She might have been a virgin at the time of her marriage, but at heart she was--less pristine. Or, to paraphrase what Bette Davis said to Anne Baxter in All About Eve,-- "Jane, you can always put that crown where your heart ought to be!")

When Anne Boleyn entered her trial, "She walked forth in fearful beauty," observed one witness. Though her attractiveness had waned -- she was-middle aged by the standards of her time, and ravaged by miscarriages, fear and betrayal -- defending herself seemed to restore at least some of the physical luster that had so enslaved Henry.

She countered her accusers magnificently, but her fate had been sealed. She had failed to provide the much-needed male heir -- her only child would become England's greatest monarch, Elizabeth I. Cromwell's evidence seemed too detailed. Henry was vulnerable to being swayed. Anne was doomed. The expert swordsman from France had already being summoned. (Henry's charitable gesture -- Anne would not be burned alive or suffer the often brutal beheading of an ax.)

And unlike the gripping confrontation shown between Anne and Henry in the Tower of London, as enacted by Genevieve Bujold -- the very best onscreen Anne Boleyn -- and Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days, Queen Anne never set on eyes on Henry again after he took brusque leave of her, hours before her arrest.

(Movie/history buffs should also consider that Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots never met. The Glenda Jackson-Vanessa Redgrave face-off in the 1971 movie was juicy fun -- but fiction.)

  • Much like those other legendary, tragic queens, Mary of Scotland and Marie Antoinette, Anne hadn't always comported herself in a queenly manner during her life. She became downright shrewish with Henry, who had to remind her repeatedly that he raised her up and could put her down. She didn't pay him any mind, and went right on nagging.

But when it came time to face death, she -- like Mary and Marie -- transformed herself, and in doing so, assured her eventual canonization as a fatally attractive, intelligent woman, more sinned against than sinning.

Unlike Mary and Marie, however, Anne seems to have been innocent of the crimes that sent her to her death. Mary Queen of Scots did -- in desperation after almost twenty years, of being held as a political prisoner in England -- agree to a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I. And Marie, though innocent of all the absurd, scurrilous sexual charges made against her, did eventually conspire with her homeland, Austria, to free herself, King Louis XVI, and their children from terrifying captivity in the gloomy Tuileries palace. And, while the Austrians were at it, Marie suggested, the French Revolution might be put down. She, too, was desperate.

This book is an antidote, a correction, if you will, to the two best-sellers recently published, in which Cromwell, the King's aide is more or less compellingly portrayed. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies won well deserved awards for author Hilary Mantel but they depict Cromwell as attractive, not the schemer and murderer he was. (I still like reading about him--a ruthless politician of his era. The more things change....)

The Lady in the Tower is a must read for those -- like me -- who can never learn enough about history, conspiracy and women who were, in many ways complete victims of their times and circumstances.