MA student reveals a whole new dimension to history of Anne Boleyn

Sam Wood
Master's student Kate McCaffrey's research has changed history

As a Master’s student in Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS), Kate McCaffrey recently received national media attention thanks to her highly intriguing research discovery that reveals a whole new dimension to the history of Anne Boleyn.

We spoke with Kate, following a week’s worth of interviews for television and broadsheets, to find out more about her research and how being a Kent student helped her on this journey.

What did you study at the University of Kent and what attracted you to the University?

‘I chose to study my MA in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent because I was drawn to its interdisciplinary nature, drawing on expertise in both the School of History and School of English. The course content allowed me to specialise in the Early Modern era but also gave me the opportunity to learn new skills, like Paleaography and Latin. I was also particularly drawn to the reputation of MEMS at Kent as a close-knit and supportive community, which (even in the midst of the pandemic) did not disappoint!

What is the basis of your recent research?

‘My recent research was the close study of a small, printed prayerbook that Anne Boleyn had once owned and written in. This vastly understudied book, currently held in the private collection at Hever Castle (Anne Boleyn’s childhood home) in Kent, was previously thought to contain only one inscription, Anne’s famous rhyming couplet ‘remember me when you do pray that hope doth led from day to day’. On closer inspection I found remnants of four further inscriptions that had later been erased.

‘I was able to study these under an ultraviolet light, provided by Canterbury Cathedral, and photo editing software, and managed to uncover partial transcriptions of each note. With this new information, I was able to piece together the later sixteenth-century provenance of this humble volume, and the hands through which it passed after Anne’s ownership.

‘This revealed a highly interconnected network of, primarily, women who kept the book safe in the years after Anne’s downfall until the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I. I also came across a new and intriguing connection between Anne and her arch-rival and Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who I discovered owned another copy of this same book.

What does this research mean in understanding the history of the period?

‘This research has important implications for our understanding of the history of this period with regards to personal relationships between leading sixteenth-century females (Anne and Catherine) but also personal relationships of lesser-known women and their book ownership and use.

‘The predominately female network of owners who kept Anne’s book safe after her execution reveals of a story of female community, solidarity and bravery. At a time when it would have been dangerous to do so, these women chose to cherish Anne’s memory and protect her signed inscription within the book, while also adding their own notes in a rare expression of female literacy. The sixteenth-century afterlife of Anne Boleyn is often clouded, as Henry VIII encouraged her erasure from history, so my research can offer unique insights into how this once-disgraced queen was remembered by those close and local to her.

How did the University of Kent support your research?

‘MEMS have been a hugely supportive community throughout my learning and research. I would never have had the opportunity to work with Hever’s Book of Hours so closely without the training in codicology and palaeography I received in the first term of my Master’s.

‘My tutor for this, and later my supervisor for my thesis, Dr David Rundle, has been a constant source of support and knowledge. I could not have completed my thesis to the level I did without his help and encouragement. Researching and writing for my dissertation during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was an incredibly stressful experience, as I am sure it was for all researchers. However, the support of MEMS as a community and its leaders at the time, Dr Emily Guerry and Dr Ryan Perry, was invaluable.

‘The creation of MEMSLib, a wonderful online database filled with resources and forums was particularly useful and has been a very successful venture. I could not have been more grateful to have been a part of MEMS during that difficult period.

What are your next plans?

‘For now, I plan to continue with my research into Anne Boleyn’s Books of Hours, as I know there is so much more to uncover. I will be working for Hever Castle in this venture…so watch this space!

‘More information about my current and future research can be found on my personal blog,’

Kate McCaffrey