The Boleyn King works on a basic premise: what if Anne Boleyn had a son? In 1536, after having given birth to a healthy daughter, Elizabeth, as well as having miscarried a son, Anne finally gives birth to a healthy baby boy. Christened Henry IX, but going by the name William, the book cuts forward to his seventeenth year, where he chastens under the wardship of his uncle Rochford (aka George Boleyn) and looks forward to ruling on his own as an adult. His father died when he was ten years old (around the same time Henry VII actually died) and the political landscape is vastly different. The Boleyns hold power through Anne’s marriage to Henry, and then through kinship to William, similar to the Woodvilles a century before. Though not as bitterly resented as the Woodvilles, Anne’s reputation as a homewrecker has never completely gone away, the Boleyns haven’t secure power as much as they would like, rumours still swirl about William’s parentage, and the monarchy has never been particularly stable.
Enter Minuette, a ward of Anne’s a central to the story. On rereading, I would have liked to see the book focus more on Henry’s three children – Mary, Elizabeth and William and the change’s William’s existence made to history as we know it – rather than Minuette’s life and the havoc her existence would cause via a love triangle. Still, that love triangle plays a major part in William’s characterisation, namely, that he inherited the best of his parent’s personality traits (their intellect, sensuality and drive) as well as the worst (entitlement, greed and cruelty).
Anne Boleyn is very much a secondary character, and Anderson’s interpretation of an Anne who enjoyed over a decade with Henry and then another decade as Dowager Queen and William’s mother and confidante, is quite a bland character compared to what we have learned of her from history books. Perhaps having secured her position by having a son, Anne mellowed somewhat? This is certainly Anderson’s take, although at one point in the book Minuette muses that, for all the friction that existed between two such strong-willed people as Anne and Henry, she had been much happier with such a man than she would have been with a less domineering one.
I would have liked to have seen more of Mary, who is somewhat sidelined to a religious extremist character, and on the rare occasion she shows up to court, she is pious and dull. Her antics off-page are far more interesting to when she comes to court. Nonetheless, it was interesting that she never backed down from her conviction that William did not have as good a claim as she did because her father had no claim to divorce her mother and marry Anne, an action that he never rectified after Catherine’s death. (In real-life, Henry married Jane Seymour after Catherine’s death, so there was no contention about the legitimacy of the marriage, or Edward’s claim to the throne.)
(Jane Grey is still around; she gets one mention as the potential bride of Guildford Dudley. I want to see Anderson and Alison Weir write that novel!)
The Boleyn King is part of a trilogy, followed by another trilogy that chronicles the life of William’s heir. To me, it was fairly obvious who William’s heir would be, although I won’t spoil it here. The further on in the six books it gets, the more implausible it gets (book four starts off with William’s heir having married, produced an heir and divorced because they no longer felt the love with their spouse – a very modern attitude, and one I don’t think would have flown in the sixteenth century). Nonetheless, The Boleyn King is a very interesting hypothetical about how much things would have changed had Anne Boleyn had born a son… and how much they would have stayed the same.