Despite the fact that every time I visit London, more bookstores seem to have closed shop, I of course came back with several paperbacks in my luggage, including these two biographies. I had read excerpts of both previously, but never the entire book; now I have.
Tracy Borman: Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII.'s most faithful servant.: Well written biography, both if you're already well versed in Tudor lore and if you aren't. Definitely reccommended if Mantel's novels and/or the tv show have made you curious. Not least because while Borman is sympathetic to his subject, he doesn't edit out Cromwell's less savoury deeds the way Hilary Mantel does, nor does he suffer from an urge to vilify Cromwell's opponents as a way to make said deeds look better. His Cromwell comes across all around as more human - for example, definitely loyal to Wolsey after Wolsey's fall (and long after: Borman mentions Cromwell having an argument about Wolsey, defending him, in the last year of Cromwell's life), but also exasperated and irritated with Wolsey near the end of the Cardinal's life, when Wolsey was bombarding Cromwell with messages precisely because Cromwell was the only one who'd still listen, and being increasingly terse in his replies. (This doesn't lessen the rarity and admirability of said loyalty, I hasten to add.)
Unlike Mantel, Borman both has Richard Rich perjure himself in the More trial and presents the Anne Boleyn trials (i.e hers and those of her supposed lovers) as a public relations disaster for Henry & Cromwell. (As well he might; if someone as hostile to Anne Boleyn as the Imperial Ambassador thought the charges were unconvincing and that both Anne and George Boleyn came across as couragous and plausible by contrast, the propaganda value must have been zilch.) Interestingly, in the question as as to whether making Anne's death - as opposed to another annulment - the end game was Henry's or Cromwell's idea, once Anne's third miscarriage settled for Henry he wouldn't get any more living children from her, Borman goes with Cromwell, as opposed to a lot of other historians I've read. Borman thinks Cromwell went for broke in that regard as a matter of survival, because a living Anne might, just might have managed to win Henry around again, in which case Cromwell himself after their breakup would have been doomed. (Speaking of that, Borman goes with Ives about the argument re: the money distribution from the dissolution of the monasteries as a primary reason (though not the only one) for the Anne-Cromwell fallout. Said argument is another thing Mantel leaves out altogether, probably her Anne is so relentlessly self absorbed she'd never want the money to go to organized charity instead of the royal coffers, and her Cromwell far too reform minded and noble to want the money to fill the royal coffers instead of going to the poor.)
Cromwell's own downfall makes for harrowing reading. It also filled in something for me I hadn't known before. I mean, I had known that one reason, probably the main reason, why Gregory Cromwell survived his father's fate in a far better fashion than next of kin to condemmed traitors usually did had been because his wife was Jane Seymour's sister, but what I hadn't known was that said sister, Elizabeth, did all the paperwork distancing herself and her husband from her father-in-law (with whom she'd gotten on very well before) in terms of letters to people left in charge, denouncing TC. It was the pragmatic thing to do - and Elizabeth comes across as a far more capable survivor than her two famous brothers, Edward and Thomas -, but it still makes for somewhat chilling reading.
Julia Fox: Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford.: one of those biographies which can be considered as something of a game changer given it challenges accepted wisdom about a historical subject in a pretty radical way. Mind you, as a biography it suffers from the same problem biographies of other Tudor supporting players like, say, Mary Boleyn do, to wit, there isn't much first hand material about the primary subject, only one or two letters from her, and not much contemporary material about her, either; you get the impression that Julia Fox went over everything with the finest of combs and still mostly came up with statistics, so to speak; court masques Jane participated in, pageants she took part in, the terms of her jointure (= Tudor era pre nup, so to speak). Said statistics allow for some interesting conclusions - more about that later -, but they still are a vastly different basis for a biography than the one which Borman had for Cromwell, where there were a lot of conversations between Cromwell and other contemporaries reported, letters from Cromwell galore, etc. This means a lot of the book consists by necessity of events Jane witnessed, with Jane herself as a shadowy "Jane must have thought", and "Jane could see that..." type of presence.
However, while this is frustrating (and unavoidable, given the premise), it doesn't mean Fox' book doesn't contain both new and valuable information. What made the book so new and unusual when it was published (and still pretty unusual; Borman, in a book published only last year, for example, still mentions Jane "eagerly" supplying Cromwell with the incest accusation without even in his footnotes mentioning what Fox pointed out, that there is zero contemporary evidence for this) was that in its last third it demonstrated that accounts blaming Jane as the source of the incest accusation against Anne and George Boleyn don't start until Elizabeth's reign, when historians had the problem that on the one hand, the Queen's mother had to be innocent, but on the other, the Queen's father couldn't be blamed for her death, either, so clearly Henry had to have been misled by that stalward trope, evil advisors and false witness. Due to the way Jane died (executed for concealing and abetting the adultery of another queen), her reputation made her the ideal scapegoat, and the story took off from there: Fox shows how "Jane gave Cromwell the accusation" becomes Jane forging entire letters a few accounts later becomes Jane raging with jealousy and being a madwoman a century later and so forth. Whereas, and Fox was the first to point this out, all the accounts during and after Anne's trial and death do not mention her sister-in-law as the source of the incest accusation at all; instead, they name the (conveniently dead and supposedly having made a death bed confession) Lady Wingfield and the alive and owing money to Anne Countess Worcester as the sources.
(Btw, you can immediately see why even after Fox' book, novelists by and large stuck with Jane instead of going for Ladies Wingfield and Worcester. A jealous sister-in-law and/or neglectd/abused wife makes for a good story, especially considering she ends up executed herself a few years later. Two ladies-in-waiting, one of whom isn't even alive anymore, and neither of whom comes to a dramatic end, and who would have to be introduced to an already large cast without getting any type of narrative pay off? Not very satisfying dramatically. Ah, the messiness of real life.)
Fox, as well as pointing out there is no contemporary account reporting the Jane/George marriage to have been unhappy (it may have been, for all we know, but even a gossip hound like Chapuys who reported every bit of of news about Anne and her immediate relations he could find - for example, when Anne's sister Mary showed up pregnant and married against the will of the family to a commoner, it immediately went into the next dispatch to Spain - never mentions it), makes a good case for the Jane and Anne relationship to have been harmonious and even close. Not only for the pragmatic reason (Anne was the family star on which their fortune depended), but that's where the statistics come in useful: Jane had a far better and closer to her position during Anne's coronation than her sister Mary (this was before Mary's second marriage), she was constantly around Anne (who was notoriously short tempered during her queenship and not shy of banishing people from her presence she didn't like), when Henry was getting involved with someone else again for the first time in his marriage with Anne, Jane and Anne conspired together to get rid of the lady in question (according to Chapuys who again reported the whole thing, was gleeful about Henry turning on Jane for her trouble but certainly did not have the impression Lady Rochford and her sister-in-law were anything but allies). And then there's the old "cui bono?" question - who benefitted from Anne's fall and her and George's execution? Not Jane, who went from being sister-in-law to the Queen and one of the richest women in the country to being a traitor's widow whose property was, of course, confiscated by the crown and who had to fight for her jointure with her father-in-law. (Eventually, she had to ask Cromwell for help. Fox quotes from the letter which certainly doesn't read as "I did my bit, now cough up the cash!" but as standard "please help a poor widow!" groveling, and points out Cromwell got an almost identical letter from Bereton's widow - whom he also did help. Bereton, for non-experts, was one of the five men executed as Anne Boleyn's supposed lovers, and the outsider among them because he was over 50 and not even that often at court; most likely, he was on the hit list because he was feuding with Cromwell due to having judically executed one of Cromwell's men in Wales.)
The one statement which Jane did give Cromwell and which he used against the Boleyns, as testified by Chapuys and other contemporaries, ironically also points to both the closeness of the sisters-in-law and to Jane and George having at the very least the type of marriage where one shares confidences: it has nothing to do with incest and instead was about Anne having told her Henry had problems with impotence. (Which Jane in turn told George, who was asked "did your wife tell you your sister said...?" at his trial.) Which was damaging information, definitely, but whether it was provided voluntarily and at once or after Cromwell put on the pressure, nobody knows. What we do know, otoh, is that Jane was the only Boleyn family member to contact George when he was in the Tower. (We know because she gave the governor of the Tower, Kingston, a message for George who apparantly was glad to have it; at least, so Kingston promptly reported to Cromwell, which is how we know.) Neither of his parents did. Speaking of whom, another interesting statistics tidbit is that some years later, after Thomas Boleyn's death, and after Jane managed to get her jointure renegotiated again, with the net result of having her finances considerably improved, she got Henry's people to return her marriage bed with the Rochford insignia that had been confiscated along with the rest of George's property.
Of course, the main reason why Jane had the reputation she did for centuries isn't so much what she did or didn't do re: Anne Boleyn but because she died along with Katherine Howard. Here Julia Fox of course has to deal with the question anyone asks when coming across this part of history: why would Jane, who had better reason than most to know what even suspected adultery in a Queen could result in, aid and abet Katherine Howard's trysts with Thomas Culpepper? What was Jane thinking? She has to speculate along with the rest of us (the "why?" wasn't a question asked by the interrogators), and her idea is that once Jane made the mistake of obeying a command to carry a message to Culpepper and thus became co-culpable, she wasn't able to extricate herself anymore and thus went along with the rest of it. Fox argues that even had Jane reported the initial order, it would have been her word against that of Henry's much beloved new queen, and that she made the wrong survival call. Which is arguable; as Fox herself acknowledges, Jane was by that time wealthy enough again to retire to the country, which would have been one way to remove herself from a rapidly escalating situation without denouncing the queen. Here, Fox argues character: Jane had literally grown up at court (she'd been still a child when her father, Lord Morley, first brought her there), she'd lived there for most of her life, and she might have found it impossible to let go and live anywhere else. Whatever was the case, it led to her death.
In conclusion: not so much a biography in the classic sense as it is an historical argument - but a captivating one.