Check Out
The Bestselling Books of All Time
See the List

Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession Reader’s Guide

By Alison Weir

Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession by Alison Weir




The following short story was inspired by the historical tours I run. We sometimes use costumed interpreters to bring the history to life, which enriches the visit for our guests. The walking tour of the Tower of London that the group follows in the story is the Anne Boleyn walk that I devised for my tour guests. Fortunately, we have never had this kind of experience!

“Welcome back, everyone!” Jo counted heads as her tour group gathered in the clearing at the bottom of the greensward that sloped down from the White Tower. The sun was shining mercilessly, and she wanted to be on the move so that she could get them into the shade. Some of her tour guests were still emerging from the Medieval Palace Shop. During the lunch break, she’d seen others watching reenactors in Stuart costume giving a lively performance of Colonel Blood stealing the crown jewels, and had hoped that it wouldn’t go on too long and delay their return. She had the costumed guide–lecturer booked for two o’clock, and it was now a quarter to. Always allow more time than you need: that was her mantra.

She finished the head count. They were all here, even the professional couple who were habitually late for everything.
“Thank you for being so prompt!” She smiled. “Any moment now our guide for the Anne Boleyn walk will be here.” It was going to be the highlight of the day, the treat they were all waiting for. It seemed that everyone who came to the Tower of London wanted to hear about Anne Boleyn. It had been a piece of luck, finding a guide who came complete with an authentic Tudor costume and could expertly lead the group around the sites connected with the celebrated Queen’s imprisonment and execution. Jo was looking forward to meeting her; she had come well recommended.

“I can’t wait!” said one of the women in the group. They were all passionately interested in everything Tudor.

“It should be good,” Jo said. “You’ll get the truth from the guide–lecturers here, not the film version!”

“Anne Boleyn’s my heroine,” said a young guest, opening a locket to reveal a portrait of Anne—-the famous one from the National Portrait Gallery. Jo, a historian herself, knew Anne’s face as well as she knew her own: it was long, thin and vivacious, just like that of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.

“The guide’s here,” she said, seeing a lady in Tudor dress advancing toward them. “She’s early too. And what a gown!” It was an exact replica, in sumptuous black velvet, of the elegant attire Anne wore in her portrait. Even the French hood—-no easy thing to get right—-was perfect.

“Historic Royal Palaces are very fussy about authenticity,” Jo said. “Just look at that!” The woman even had a look of Anne. Certainly she had the right colouring: dark hair and dark eyes.

“Hello, good sirs, ladies,” the guide greeted them. Jo smiled. Groups loved it when guides got into character. This was going to be good, as she had promised. Even the French accent sounded right. Hats off to Historic Royal Palaces!

“I am Anne the Queen,” the guide continued, “and I am going to show you the places where I spent my last days.” She turned to face the White Tower. “To our left is the site of the Queen’s Lodgings, where I was imprisoned. You’ll have to use your imagination, as those foundations are all that remain, but my apartments were splendid. They were done up at great cost for my coronation. But before we walk around and see them more closely, we will walk to Traitors’ Gate, although it was called the Water Gate in my day.” Holding her hand aloft, her fur over–sleeve trailing down her skirt, she led the way through the archway that opened onto the Outer Ward.

“This is Water Lane,” she said, “and before you is Traitors’ Gate. I did not enter the Tower here, whatever the sign says!” The group laughed, rapt. They were hanging on her every word. “You have to see it, though, because later on many so–called traitors were brought into the Tower this way, including the poor men who were falsely accused with me, and my great friend, poor Archbishop Cranmer, whose only crime was his love of the true religion. But Queen Mary remembered that he had divorced her mother, Katherine of Aragon, so that King Henry could marry me, and she had him burned at the stake. There were no burnings in my time as queen. I was a great friend to the Gospel, and the King heeded me.”

She had really done her homework. It was great, Jo thought, when you got someone who was highly knowledgeable.

As the guide went on to speak about the other illustrious or notorious prisoners who had come through Traitors’ Gate, Jo saw another group approaching. This was going to be a scrum, she thought, given the narrowness of Water Lane. As the two groups seemed to merge, she found herself staring at a young woman in that group. Never had she seen such a gaunt, haunted face. Yet what really struck her was the uncanny resemblance to Anne Boleyn’s portrait: the high cheekbones, the small mouth, the black eyes, dark hair and whitish pallor. And although the girl was with a group, she did not seem to be a part of it. They were all listening to one of the Yeomen Warders, but she seemed to be fixated on Traitors’ Gate, oblivious to all else, and in her eyes there was an expression of pure misery. Yet there was nothing unusual about her in other ways: she wore jeans and a sweater, and carried a camera.

Jo kept staring at her until she realized that her own group was moving on. They walked a little way until their guide paused by a dark arch beneath the Byward Tower.

“Through here is the former Court Gate, the postern opening onto the River Thames. It was the royal entrance to the Tower in my day, and this is where I entered on the second day of May in the year of Our Lord 1536. And it was here, on the cobbles, that I sank to my knees and protested my innocence of the terrible crimes of which I was accused.” Her words evoked for the group the poignant scene on that long–ago evening and the agony of the doomed Queen.

They retraced their steps along Water Lane, walking, their guide told them, in Anne Boleyn’s footsteps. “This was where the Constable of the Tower led me to my lodgings.” Again they paused at the Medieval Palace Shop.

“On this site,” the guide said, “stood the King’s Hall, the great hall of the Tower. It was here, on the fifteenth day of May, 1536, that I was tried and condemned to be burned or beheaded at the King’s pleasure. It was only later that I realized that my husband the King must have sent for the headsman—-the famous Sword of Calais—-before my trial. This swordsman was renowned for his skill in cutting off heads.” She paused, and the hubbub all around them might have ceased, so entranced were her listeners.

“When the sentence was read out, I lifted my eyes to Heaven and protested my innocence—-but it did me no good! The King was set on marrying that wench Seymour!”

“Didn’t Thomas Cromwell play a large part in bringing down Anne Boleyn?” a guest asked.

“Cromwell!” The guide’s eyes flashed. “Oh yes! He hated me, for he feared I would ruin him. So he preempted me. He was a man without scruples.”

“Not if you read Hilary Mantel!” muttered a bearded man in the group.

The guide smiled at him as she led them up the steps to where the ground sloped toward the White Tower. She pointed at it. “It was there, in what I knew as Caesar’s Tower, that the little Princes were murdered, fifty years before I became queen. King Richard, the usurper, had them shut up there because they had a better claim to the throne than he did. And we all know what happens to inconvenient royal personages!”

“He didn’t murder them,” the same bearded man said firmly.

“Who truly knows?” The guide looked piercingly at him. “In my day most people thought that he did. On dark nights they say you can see their little faces at a window in that keep.” Everyone looked up, their eyes focused on the windows high above, as if trying to see or imagine the boys’ pale, anxious faces looking out.

“I guess you have many ghosts here at the Tower,” a lady from Kansas said.

“People see what they want to see,” the guide said. She looked at the bearded man who had spoken in defense of Richard III. “And they believe what they want to believe. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is truth and what is legend. This place is full of legends.”

They had skirted the White Tower and come to a stop by the wide steps that descended past the Bloody Tower.

“Look down,” the guide instructed, “and you will see the remains of the Coldharbor Gate. That was the only way into the Inmost Ward where the royal palace was, where I was confined. On the nineteenth day of May, 1536, I walked through that gate to my execution. I was escorted by the Constable, his Lieutenant and a guard of two hundred yeomen warders. Four of my young ladies–in–waiting attended me. I was trying to be resolute and brave, but their weeping made it more difficult.”

The group they had passed earlier came to a halt next to them. Again Jo saw the pale young woman with dark hair and eyes. There was something stark and unsettling about her. Jo was still struck by the uncanny resemblance to Anne Boleyn. The girl was staring at the broken masonry of the great gate. Her pallor was almost unearthly.

Jo realized that her own group was again moving on.

“What’s that building there with the sentries in front?” a young man asked.

“It’s the Queen’s House, the residence of the Governor of the Tower,” the guide said. “In my day it was the Lieutenant’s Lodging.”
“I read that Anne was imprisoned there,” another guest told her.

“No, it was too dilapidated for that. I was lodged in the Queen’s apartments.”

The guide turned, her long skirts sweeping behind her. For the umpteenth time Jo found herself admiring that beautiful and very authentic–looking French hood. She resolved to give the woman a good tip.

The guide waved a hand dismissively at the new glass memorial on Tower Green, in front of the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula. “For a long time people have mistakenly thought that Queen Anne died on that spot,” she said, “but it was over there that the scaffold was set up, before the old House of Ordnance, facing Caesar’s Tower.” She led them to a place just in front of the entrance to the Waterloo Barracks, where people were queuing to see the Crown Jewels.

“It was here, on the tournament ground, where there was space to accommodate a large crowd. They wanted everything aboveboard, so that justice was seen to be done. The public were allowed in. Over a thousand came to watch.”

The group was engrossed, straining to hear the guide looking from face to face, her gaze intent. When she spoke, her voice wavered. “I walked to the scaffold with my head held high.” She paused, as if for effect. It was clear she was living the experience in her head, as good reenactors should.

“I wore a gray gown, a red kirtle and a short ermine cape. I declared I had been a good wife, and praised the King’s gentleness to me. You understand that I did not want to risk my family suffering any more than they had already, which they might have done if I had questioned King Henry’s justice. I myself took off my hood and bandaged my eyes, for my maids were too distressed to help. Then I knelt in the straw and covered my feet with my skirts, for modesty. There was no block. They distracted me. . . .”

The other group had caught up with them. Jo looked for the pale girl, but there was no sign of her. Then she noticed her at the back. She was trembling visibly, and on her face was an expression of utter fear. Yet no one was taking any notice of the poor soul. Just then, a man moved in front of her, and when Jo looked again, the girl had disappeared from sight. Jo looked here and there for her, but she had gone. Where was she? Who was she? There was no time to speculate because their guide was leading them toward the Chapel Royal.

Jo sat in the pews with the group. She heard not a word that the guide was saying, unable to get that haunted face out of her head; she kept seeing those terrified eyes, that unearthly white face. She felt chilled, despite the warmth of the day. Was she just being fanciful, or had she really seen a ghost? Was Anne Boleyn condemned to walk the place where she had died, even in the guise of a tourist? Yet reason dictated that she be rational. How could a historian like herself tell anyone that she thought she had seen the ghost of Anne Boleyn? Imagine the reaction! She would never live it down. And yet . . . And yet, there had been something uncanny about the pale girl from the first. It was as if she had been surrounded by silence in a teeming world.

Jo pulled herself together at the sound of clapping. The group was showing their appreciation of what had been a great tour, and it was time to express her own thanks. She pressed a tip into the guide’s hand as they walked out of the chapel. “You were amazing!” she said.
“I noticed you were a little distracted at the end,” the woman told her, still in that lilting French accent. “I saw her too. I have seen her several times. She is a very sad lady. I do not know what she is looking for.”

Jo was astonished. “It sounds a silly question, but is she real?”

“She is real to those who see her,” the guide said, with a slight smile. “Now I must go.” She turned to the group. “Thank you all. I have enjoyed showing you around. You have been wonderful company.” To more clapping she walked back into the chapel.

“In ten minutes, everyone please be back at the meeting point,” Jo cried, then hurriedly made her way there. As the tour leader, she wanted to arrive first. As she hastened past the Medieval Palace Shop, she was still thinking about the pale girl and what the guide had said.
At the meeting point a lady in rather drab Tudor dress was looking at her watch and frowning. Seeing Jo’s badge, she hurried over and shook her hand. “Jo Maddox? I’m so sorry I was late. I don’t blame you for going ahead without me. I missed my train.”
“I’m sorry, I think there’s been a mix up,” Jo said, confused.

“No, dear. I’m Sue. You booked me for the Anne Boleyn walk.”

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. From the opening scene of A King’s Obsession, Anne Boleyn is impatient for change—-for something new and exciting to happen. She is a capricious child, highly aware of her mother’s ancestry on one hand and her father’s ambition on the other. How do you think her character is influenced by this family background? How does Thomas Boleyn’s tendency to value his children in terms of their use to the Boleyn name affect Anne’s actions throughout her life?

2. By including Anne’s education in the courts of Margaret of Austria, Queen Claude and Marguerite of Valois, Alison Weir explores a fascinating world of high culture and intellect. What key lessons does Anne learn at each court, and how is her outlook changed by these three women? Does she manage to emulate them once she has the crown? Did anything Anne learned surprise you?

3. George Boleyn is a complicated and interesting character. He has a similar craving for power as Anne but has to find different ways to gain it. How are he and Anne alike, and how do they differ? On the surface he has far greater freedom, but is he also trapped into achieving the Boleyn family’s ambitions as firmly as she is?

4. Every scene in A King’s Obsession is shown from Anne’s point of view, so the narrative is shaded by her thoughts and emotions. How does this technique develop the “Anne Boleyn” Alison Weir has chosen to portray, and does sharing Anne’s viewpoint increase your empathy for her actions?

5. The behavior of powerful men toward women, including Mary Boleyn, causes Anne grief and anger. The shocking moments of discovery that a king’s sister is not protected, nor a favorite brother innocent, have a profound effect on Anne. How does she attempt to overcome this? How does she try to exercise her own control over others, and was there a scene when you felt she finally achieves this? When she does have power, does she ever use it well?

6. “ ‘You don’t love him, do you?’ Mary challenged. ‘You just want to be queen.’ ” Henry’s feelings for Anne are described by many as an obsession—-something emphasized even in the book’s title. Alison Weir’s interpretation shows Anne herself motivated by a desire for power rather than by love. Does this match with your idea of their relationship before reading the book and, if not, did Weir convince you? What is it about becoming queen that Anne finds so seductive?

7. Henry and Anne’s relationship is dominated by Katherine of Aragon, both in presence and absence. How does Anne reconcile her early affection for the queen with her need to remove and replace her, and justify her cruelty toward Katherine and Mary? Do you feel she starts to identify more with Katherine’s situation once she has won this battle, and when is this most starkly shown?

8. Anne’s role in encouraging Henry’s stance against the Church of Rome is an intriguing part of the novel, and she isn’t afraid to express her desire for change. How much do you feel this is through a powerful personal belief in the need for Reformation, and how much expedience to reach her own goals? How do Alison Weir’s descriptions of this period of history bring its turbulence to life?

9. A King’s Obsession is the second of six novels about the queens of Henry VIII. Anne’s impression of Henry is very different from that of her rival, Katherine. How does Alison Weir show Henry through Anne’s eyes, while retaining the character she developed in The True Queen, where Katherine of Aragon sees her adored husband very differently? How would you compare the voices of the two queens in the first two books in the series?

10. “ ‘Strike now!’ she cried, her heart hammering so hard and painfully in her chest that she thought there might be no need for any headsman.” The ending of A King’s Obsession is visceral and perhaps shocking but very vivid. How did you feel reading Anne’s last moments, and how effective did you find Alison Weir’s narration of her final experience on the block?

11. Alison Weir’s background as a historian means that she has distilled a huge amount of research into this novel, creating a rich and vivid background to the characters’ lives. However, as a novelist, she has had to choose a version of Anne’s story to tell. Do you agree with the journey Alison has given her, and did you discover a new angle on Anne’s life through A King’s Obsession?

Back to Top