The Boleyn Inheritance

By: Phillipa Gregory
Published: 2006

As I've mentioned before, I have been for some time fascinated by all things Tudor. Of course I have watched the HBO series, The Tudors, with avid delight, though the historic inaccuracies, not the least of which is that Henry VIII looked anything like Jonathan Rhys-Myers (the handsome young actor who portrays Henry on the series) by the time he married Anne Boleyn, are more than a little disturbing.

Recently, I picked up the audiobook version of Phillipa Gregory novel, The Boleyn Inheritance, a saga of Henry's wives number 4 and 5 (Anne of Cleves and Kathryn Howard).

You're probably familiar with the storyline of this novel's prequel, The Other Boleyn Girl, because it was made into a cheesy film starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman. (As with The Tudors, Henry was portrayed in this film as young and handsome.)

Fortunately, Gregory's book is more true to reality: by the time Anne Boleyn came along, Henry was an aging (he was in his mid-40s), fat (the best guess is he was about 6'4" and weighed at least 300 pounds - his waist measured somewhere in the neighborhood of 55 inches), ailing (he suffered from a stinking, leaking leg wound, and probably from diabetes, among other things) and irascible, verging on insane.

In this book, we follow three separate narratives, one by Jane Boleyn (sister-in-law to Anne, Henry's second wife whom he later has beheaded for supposed adultery, among other crimes), another by Anne of Cleves (fourth wife to Henry, following Jane Seymour, who dies following childbirth), and the third by Kathryn Howard,  Henry's fifth wife, a child bride (she was about 14 at the time of their marriage, when he was nearing 50) whom Henry also has beheaded after a mere year of marriage.

Each narrative, in the audio book, is read by a different actress, and I would be hard pressed to choose which does the best job. Jane is properly haunted, reserved, and in control. Anne changes from a young and confused bride who speaks a little halting English to a composed woman resigned to - even make the best of - her fate. And Kathryn arouses head-shaking pity as the spoiled, silly, self-absorbed teenager who has the misfortune to catch Henry's "piggy little" eye.

As events progress, we move from narrative to narrative, each woman speaking with a distinct voice, and each viewing the story from her particular vantage point: Jane has been summoned back to court to continue as a foil in the intrigues of court: having once been forced to give testimony against her husband and sister-in-law, her uncle by marriage, the Duke of Norfolk, knows he can gain access to the Queen's chambers by placing her there as a spy. Jane desperately wishes she could escape, but she is a woman of the court through and through; she will do what she must to survive.

And poor Anne of Cleves, sister of one of the most powerful German Protestant princes, has been hand-picked by Thomas Cromwell as the bride of Henry, as he hoped to cement the Protestant faith in England (Cromwell could never be sure Henry wouldn't revert to Catholicism). Though Henry found Anne unattractive (he called her the "mare of Flanders"), as Gregory has written her she is proud, sweet, brave, and yearning only for a purpose in her life, which she thinks she has found as queen of England. If sharing the royal bed with her impotent husband is not a delight, she did by all accounts take to her adopted family and nation, and was held in warm regard by the people. Perhaps this is why Henry merely forces her to acknowledge a previous engagement, thus declaring their marriage void, rather than trumping up charges of witchcraft, which would most likely have sent her to the scaffold.

Kathryn is the least likable, but most pitiable of the three women: a loose and not-very-bright child, she has already conducted at least one love affair by the time she is sent by the scheming Duke of Norfolk to catch the King's eye. A greedy little wench, she can only see the dresses and jewels and cossseting her ascent to the throne will mean - though she does complain that, because she has to endure the King's foul breath and great bulk as he attempts to make love to her, she has indeed earned all her treasures in ways no one can possibly understand. We sympathize.

This is not a new book, but then, neither is the story. Our fascination with Henry VIII, with all the Tudors, isn't likely to disappear any time soon - and this book is a wonderful addition to the canon of Things Tudor. And if you have the opportunity, try the audio book version - the actresses add their insights and interpretations to a wonderfully well-written Tudor tome.


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