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The Boleyn Inheritance - Philippa Gregory

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

ASKED to name just one of Henry VIII’s six wives chances are the answer would be Anne Boleyn. Yet fascinating as she most certainly is, it makes a welcome change to find a novel devoted to two of Henry’s lesser known wives – Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard – The Boleyn Inheritance by popular historical novelist Philippa Gregory.

Written in a first person narrative, this fictional account of their lives at the English court evolves not only through the hearts and minds of the two young queens but also through the eyes and ears of Jane Boleyn, an odious woman whose evidence sent her husband George and sister-in-law Anne to their deaths.

It’s a riveting tale in which the author attempts – successfully – to explode long-standing myths about Henry’s fourth and fifth wives, in particular that Anne was ugly and Katherine stupid.

In fact, Gregory freely admits that she believes Henry rejected Anne as a direct result of Anne’s reaction to him when they first met at Rochester and not, as many would have us believe, because she was ugly. The details of that disastrous meeting – when a disguised Henry kissed an unsuspecting Anne full on the mouth – will make you cringe, revealing Henry as a bloated old man with decaying teeth and foul breath. It’s little wonder that Anne ‘spat the taste of him’ from her mouth.

In fact, and I hardly dare mention it for fear of being accused of treason, Henry is anything but appealing. In his late forties, the handsome youth had given way to a ‘fat old man’ with a face ‘like a great round dish of dripping’, and a suppurating leg wound smelling ‘of putrid flesh’. While from Katherine we learn that he ‘farts in his sleep, a great royal trumpet which adds to the miasma under the bedclothes.’ Ugh!

As for Katherine, it’s hard to believe that she was so very young – Gregory places her at fifteen, sixteen at the time of her execution, although other sources a little older – and she was undeniably pretty. A pawn in her uncle’s power game, her only crime was to fall in love with the young and handsome Thomas Culpepper while married to an old man on the brink of madness.

With her uncomplicated yet graphic style, Gregory brings Henry’s court vividly to life. But she does much more. In her hands, Anne earns our respect for the manner in which she conducts herself even while fearing for her life; and Katherine is easily forgiven for her vanity and frivolous behaviour – she’s just a girl after all, in a court of far older and more sophisticated people.

Of course, we can never know what really went on behind closed doors and, by her own admission, Gregory has given certain aspects of the story her own interpretation. Nevertheless, she has researched her subject well and the end result is a story that, had it not been based on fact, would belie belief.

If you like history, you’ll love this book. But for those of you who don’t, it’s history with all the juicy bits left in, so don’t let fourth form history lessons put you off. And although you know exactly how it ends, it won’t disappoint. The Boleyn Inheritance is an absorbing read and as such comes highly recommended.