Oh Anne Boleyn, how you do haunt us. Apparently, if one is of a psychic bent, you might run into her spectral form floating around at Blickling Hall in Norfolk where she was born or Hever Castle where she lived as a child, or at Hampton Court or Windsor Castle where she spent time as Queen.
All this popping up and making herself known suggests an unquiet grave and, since 19th April was the anniversary of her beheading in 1536, the last few weeks were probably the best time to spot her. As one of the best known characters in English History it is no bad thing to be able to claim the occasional sighting if you want to capture the public’s interest, so I am more than a little sceptical.
One thing is sure; she certainly continues to haunt our bookshelves and our televisions. What is that prevents us from letting go of this tragic story?
It is partly that Anne is so attractive. Her pale dark eyed face gleams back at us from her portrait, mysterious, intelligent, secretive, framed by the famous necklace with its initial B and pearl drops. Actually, she doesn’t seem to have been the beauty of the court but she must have had something.
For a modern woman, the appeal of a girl who achieved her position through wit and charm is far greater than one who relied on winning the lottery of good looks. And her determination to control her man and avoid being cast aside like her sister Mary, who had been the King’s mistress before his roving eye fell on Anne, has a very modern air.
The facts about her are clear. She came to court as a sophisticated young woman with the foreign allure of adolescence. She had lived in France where, at the court of Francis I, she had been partly educated with the royal children. She had learned to dance and enjoyed something of the southern tradition of the troubadours, where the medieval idea of courtly love was still admired.
Francis I and Henry VIII were rivals as the most talented Renaissance Princes in Europe, both celebrated musicians, poets and sportsmen. The Boleyn family had been on the rise for more than a generation and Sir Thomas Boleyn owned extensive estates based around two great houses, Blickling in Norfolk and Hever in Kent. Henry VIII’s relationship with Mary Boleyn in the 1520s had further advanced their fortunes.
Anne was clever and held out for marriage, so that the King was persuaded to do the unthinkable and divorce his wife, split with the Pope in Rome and set in train the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Three of the King’s love letters to Anne survived among the Vatican papers and we have an intimate glimpse into this great love story.
To the modern mind, the idea that such a fundamental series of political changes, which have done so much to create the Britain we see around us today, could have been predicated on love is irresistible. Anne’s allure is complete.
I think there is one thing that we seem to miss. At Alnwick Castle survives a relic of an earlier love affair of Anne’s. She was first attracted to, and probably engaged to, Henry Percy, heir to the Duke of Northumberland. The Percy family still have her prayer book, a Book of Hours. Two others survive at Hever and one in the British Library.
Contemporary accounts of her last days in the Tower before her execution attest to her religious devotion, but we also know that she read widely, enjoyed the company of clever men and was interested in the new religion of the Reformation, probably far more than the pious Henry. We just don’t know how important her influence was in the coming Reformation and changes in the Church.
The school boy’s view is that the whole scheme was inspired by the greed and machinations of the evil Cromwell, but the portrait of Cromwell that the novelist, Hilary Mantel, paints for us in her books gives us a far more complex man. At the time of her disgrace, few of those at court spoke up for Anne; she had many enemies and Thomas Cromwell was probably the organiser, if not the instigator, of her fall.
Among her few supporters was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer who would go on to become one of the key geniuses of the nascent Church of England. He wrote to the King shortly before her death, stating plaintively, ‘I loved her not a little for the love which I judged her to bear towards God and His Gospel.’ It sounds like a man talking about a close associate, one reformer talking about another. No one has doubted her faith or that she had protestant leanings. Cranmer’s personal intervention just before her death suggests her importance to his cause, and his cause was to bring the new religion and its gospels to the people in plain English. He did after all give us the service that was still in use word for word until the 1970s.
If Anne was part of his circle then she was right at the heart of the new religion; but how much was she a driving force? Could a woman of personal religious conviction in a position of power have failed to exercise that power at a time when change was sweeping Europe?
We know that she discussed religion with the King; it is not hard to see that she must have influenced him. Do we owe Anne some debt for the form of the Church of England that has lasted us for 5 centuries? Have we been so busy looking into her beautiful dark eyes, lapping up her love story and admiring her fiery determination that we have failed to give her credit for her most significant lasting legacy?
Last weekend in May; a chance to get out and about while Britain is at is verdant best. And, in my view, one of the best weekends for historic house and garden visiting, even the weather forecast is good for once.
Here’s where I might go, if I were you:
Head for Clovelly Village in North Devon but don’t slip on those picturesque cobbled streets after joining the Celebration of Local Ales and Ciders.
Arundel Castle in West Sussex will apparently be under siege all weekend; a great chance to help the defenders and see what medieval warfare was like and have a fun day out for all.
East of England
No question here: the Houghton Hall Horse Trials in Norfolk over this weekend give you chance not only for an exhilarating time watching the eventing but also to catch Houghton Revisited , the unmissable exhibition of paintings returned to the house this summer from the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
If you’ve a competitive streak, pick your champion from a group of fully armoured medieval knights at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire for a noisy, fierce and thrilling 2 day tournament.
Heart of England
Vintage Eastnor is the name given to a weekend of all sorts of great traditional activities at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire – admire working steam engines, row a boat across the castle lake and listen to live music.
There’s a Medieval Faire at Harewood House in Leeds that promises battles, costumes (you can hire one there if you’ve lost your wimple), music, comedy, banqueting, crafts and pageantry plus the chance to explore the archaeological dig at Gawsthorpe Hall or the 14th century castle hidden in the grounds.
If Jane Austen appeals more than medieval maidens, then try the Regency Revival Weekend at Belsay Hall in Northumberland with dance, duelling, fencing and food as a herald to a display of the film and TV costumes from all the great film and TV versions of Austen’s books.
The Muncaster Festival at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria has a style all its own with husky dog sled rides, chainsaw carving and wood turning demonstrations as well as archery and local food.
Seeing the annual muster of the Atholl Highlanders – the last private liveried army in Europe – at Blair Castle in Perth and Kinross with a day of Highland Games to follow is something you’ll never quite forget and Scottish tradition at its best.
There’s a Really Wild Food Festival at St David’s Palace in Pembrokeshire; I bet there’ll be delicious fresh samphire there from the famous Pembrokeshire beaches but am sorry to say that my choice is made – you have to understand that my four legged friend Walpole has something to say about this – it’s the Dog Fun Day at Fonmon Castle on Monday 27th. The bags are packed, dog biscuits provided for the journey and we’re all set!
Hope your weekend is as much fun.
Offers family-friendly food with freshly made sandwiches, cakes and a range of pastries.
The Stable Café in the courtyard serves homemade food using only local produce or by local suppliers.
New Coffee Shop serving ‘take out’ coffee, patisseries and locally made ice cream.
Set above the beach, the café serves a delicious selection of refreshments and light meals made from locally sourced ingredients.
Perfect for light lunches and snacks offering a wide range of freshly made sandwiches, cakes, pastries, drinks etc. All freshly prepared and using quality local ingredients.
Take your pick from the 1940s style Canteen in the RAF Visitor Centre or enjoy an afternoon tea in the grand setting of the old Tapestry Room in Croome Court.
Fresh seasonal vegetables and delightful menus offer something new every day. Homemade scones, cakes and desserts are a real treat.
Take a well-earned break from exploring the castle and gardens at the Cholmondeley Tea Rooms.
Offers a wide range of delicious home-cooked food, with a daily blackboard menu of hot and cold dishes, puddings and snacks.
This fab tea room won the Hudson’s Heritage Award for the best tea room in 2011. Homemade food and snacks from local sources all served on perfectly pretty china. The perfect tea room experience!
Written by Sarah Greenwood
The debate about the history curriculum continues to rage among the chattering classes. ‘Fluff and stories’ is how Sir Simon Jenkins, Chairman of the National Trust described the current offering last week. Michael Gove’s great education revolution is firmly rooted in an idea of the past. He wants to bring back the teaching of an era before the perceived decline in standards. For history this means chronology, dates and kings rather than an emphasis on social movements and teaching by topic. As with everything there is merit in both systems. Well taught, one gives you scaffolding on which to hang your learning and the other gives you a general understanding of why things happened. Clearly what we need is something of both.
But what about places? In a country where everyday history is all around us, we ignore the opportunities offered by engaging with historic buildings and surroundings at our peril. The National Trust in the past decade, with Simon Jenkins in the Chair, has done much to promote a sense of place. If we want children to understand and enjoy the past or the origins of Britain and Britishness, we can do worse than getting them to experience it for themselves.
Having educated my children in 5 different education systems around the world, I feel I have some insights of my own. Of course one disadvantage of an international education is that you don’t learn much British history. So like a true middle class mother I took it upon myself to turn teacher. Home history lessons involved building a paper timeline all around the landing – a conveniently square communal space – its value was underlined when a determinedly modernist daughter wanted to know why we bothered to learn about the Romans. A quick look at the timeline showed that the 400 years of Roman Britain took up a substantial chunk across the corner over the stairs. Of course things were far more confused at the recent end of our paper trail where the hundreds of key events of the 19th and 20th centuries jostled for space against the doorframe. But I think it proved that chronology works when you want a scaffold for ideas.
But actually what they remember best of those lessons was the Spanish Armada. Because it was a heroic turning point that established Britain’s place in Europe, you ask? No, because we staged it with paper boats in the paddling pool and the effect of British fire ships on the Spanish fleet was every bit as spectacular for a small child as the real thing must have been in 1588.
They also remember pretty well what an English mediaeval village was like because they saw villages in Romania with oxen ploughing strip fields and boys herding cows across the common pasture. On holiday back in the UK, they climbed castle stairs and tried on helmets at Bodiam Castle, ogled the naked gods at Burghley, watched the sunsets at Stonehenge and shivered with the Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall. Doing it at first hand is what counts.
So I come down firmly on the side of chronology and kings but for goodness sake let’s not forget the importance of places too. Let’s use places to create experiences which will stay with children as they become adults and make sure they are rooted in our culture. Let schools (and parents) take their kids and go and see the Duke of Wellington’s boots at Apsley House or Stratfield Saye – or even Walmer Castle where he also left a pair. Climb castle towers to see if the English or the Scots or the Welsh or the French or whoever are coming. Dress up for below stairs or above. Roll down hahas or sit in trees like Charles II after the Battle of Worcester. We have so many places to use to teach history, let’s let our kids experience it more, keep the stories and get rid of the fluff once and for all.