Monthly Archives: November 2011

Introduction: The Erasure of Anne Boleyn and The Creation of “Anne Boleyn”

FROM THE CREATION OF ANNE BOLEYN, forthcoming Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, DO NOT QUOTE, CITE, OR DISTRIBUTE WITHOUT PERMISSION OF AUTHOR SUSAN BORDO (Bordo@uky.edu)

For Anne, the arrest was sudden and inexplicable. At the end of April, 1536, the King, by all outward appearances, was planning at trip with her to Calais on May 4th, just after the May Day celebrations.  She had no idea that at the same time the trip was being organized, the Privy Council had been informed of planned judicial proceedings against her.  Henry was a genius at keeping his true intentions hidden.  He had it down to an art: the arm round the shoulder, the intimate conversations, the warm gestures of friendship and reassurance.  And then, abandonment—or worse. On April 30th, Anne had no idea, as she “took her pleasure…watching animals and dogs fight in Greenwich Park,” that Cromwell and Henry, that very day, were meeting to discuss the “evidence” of Anne’s multiple adulteries.  That evening, while court musician Mark Smeaton was being interrogated (and probably tortured), there was even a ball at court at which “the King treated Anne as normal.” He may have been awaiting Smeaton’s confession, which didn’t come for 24 hours, to feel fully justified in abandoning the show of dutiful husband.  Although we don’t know for sure what message was given to Henry during the May Day tournaments, it was probably just that, for he immediately got up and left.  Anne, who had been sitting at his side, would never see him again; the very next day, as her dinner was being served to her, she was arrested and conducted to the Tower.

Anne’s first reaction was disbelief:  “Master Kingston, do you know wherefore I am here?” Just a few months before, she had been pregnant, and Henry had been insisting that the Spanish Emperor acknowledge the legitimacy of their marriage. Now she was in the Tower? Even after she was condemned to die, she seems to have had difficulty absorbing what was happening to her, or why. Her emotional vacillations—from extreme anxiety to prayerful resignation to wild, black humor (speculating that her enemies would remember her as “la Royne Anne Sans Tete”) suggest that what a purported letter from her to Henry describes as the “strangeness” of what was happening to her was at times impossible for her to assimilate. She searched her memory for words or indiscretions that might lay behind the charges—conversations with Smeaton, Norris, and Weston that could be taken (and ultimately were taken) in a compromising light—and reeled back and forth between the conviction that she was doomed and the hope that the King was just testing her.

Until very near the end, she still harbored the belief that Henry might pardon her. It was not an unreasonable expectation.  Not only had no British queen up until then been executed, but the last-minute rescue of the condemned queen was a centerpiece of the romance of chivalry, which was still being avidly consumed at court via Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  In the Arthurian legend, Guinevere is condemned to death twice for treason (the second time for adultery with Lancelot) and both times is saved from the stake by Lancelot—with King Arthur’s blessings.  Arthur had, in fact, suspected the queen’s infidelity for years, but because of his love for her and for Lancelot, had kept his suspicions a secret.  When Modred and Aggravane, plotting their own coup d’etat, told the King about it, he had no choice but to condemn his queen, while privately hoping she would be rescued.

It was a romantic fantasy—but one which Henry and Anne had grown up with, and which no doubt shaped their ideas about love.  The Arthurian romance, even today, has the power to move us.  And in 1536, many of the outward trappings and habits of courtly love still existed.  Henry was himself an adroit and seductively tender courtier, who at the beginning of his courtship of Anne had written seventeen letters in which he pledged himself her “servant” and swore his constancy. The pledges may (or may not) have been made manipulatively, but his infatuation was real and the gestures were convincing. Why wouldn’t Anne, who Henry had in fact been honored like Guinevere for six years, cherish the hope that she, too, would be rescued from death?

Henry had no such plans in mind, however. In fact, even before the execution he had begun the business of attempting to erase her life and death from the recorded legacy of his reign.  On May 18th, the day before, Thomas Cromwell, aware of rumors that people were beginning to question the justice of the verdict and concerned that foreign ambassadors might write home sympathetic accounts of Anne’s last moments, ordered William Kingston, constable of the Tower of London, to “have strangers [foreigners] conveyed out of the Tower.” Kingston carried out the order, and assured Cromwell that only a “reasonable number” of witnesses would be there, to testify that justice had been done.  In fact, by the time of the execution, delayed still further due to the late arrival of the executioner from Calais, there were over a thousand spectators. For unknown reasons and despite Cromwell’s orders, the Tower gates had been left open, and Londoners and “strangers” alike streamed in.

As Anne prepared for her death, by now resigned and distraught over the delays, which she feared would weaken her resolve, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding.  Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador who had chronicled every public event, overheard conversation, and snippet of court rumor since Anne’s relationship with Henry had come to light, describes the king as showing “extravagant joy” at Anne’s arrest.  Convinced (or making a great show for posterity) that Anne was an “accursed whore” who had slept with hundreds of men, Henry had already had his marriage to Anne declared invalid and Elizabeth made a bastard.  Now, all that stood between him and his new wife was the execution itself.  Chapuys described him as “very impatient” and wishing to have the thing done with “already.”  When the guns sounded Anne’s death, Henry “immediately boarded a barge and went to Mistress Seymour.” Later that night he returned to Hampton Court, the magnificent palace that Henry had appropriated from his long-time mentor and (at the time Henry took possession, soon to be ex-) Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, and refurbished for Anne.[1]  Jane Seymour followed Henry at six the next morning. They were betrothed at nine o’clock.

Even before the call sounded Anne’s death, dozens of carpenters, stonemasons, and seamstresses had been hard and hastily at work at Hampton court, instructed to remove all signs of Anne’s queenship: her initials, her emblems, her mottoes, and the numerous carved, entwined H’s and A’s strewn throughout the walls and ceiling of the Great Hall.  Similar activities were going on at other royal residences. Henry was determined to start afresh with his new wife.  Sometimes, the alterations were easy. Anne’s leopard emblem became Jane’s panther by “new making of the heads and tails.” Various inscriptions to  “Queen Anne” could be whited out and replaced with “Queen Jane.” He got rid of her portraits.  He (apparently) destroyed her letters.  But the task of erasing Anne was an enormous one, since even before they were married, Henry had aggressively enthroned her symbolically in every nook and cranny of his official residences.  Not surprisingly, especially since Henry wanted it done with such speed, many H’s and A’s in the walls and ceilings of the Great Hall at Hampton Court were overlooked by Henry’s revisionist workmen.

Researching this book has been a lot like standing in the middle of that Great Hall at Hampton Court, squinting my eyes, trying to find unnoticed or “escaped” bits of Anne, dwarfed but still discernible within the monuments of created myths, legends, and images. In part because of Henry’s purge, very little exists in Anne’s own words or indisputably depicts what she did or said. Although seventeen of his love letters to her escaped the revision, having been stolen earlier and spirited away to the Vatican, only two letters that may be from Anne to Henry remain, and one is almost certainly inauthentic. Beyond these and some inscriptions in prayer books, most of our information about Anne’s personality and behavior is second-hand: Cavendish’s “biography” of Cardinal Wolsey, which credits Anne with Wolsey’s downfall, the gossipy, malicious reports of Eustace Chapuys and other foreign ambassadors to their home rulers, Constable Kingston’s descriptions of her behavior in the Tower, and various “eyewitness” accounts of what she said and did at her trial and her execution.  Since Henry destroyed all the portraits he could lay hands on, it’s even difficult to determine what Anne actually looked like.  Later artistic depictions, all of them copies and only a few believed to be copies of originals done from actual sitting, are wildly inconsistent with each other, from the shape of her face to the color of her hair, and her looks, as described by her contemporaries, range from deformed to “not bad-looking” to “rivaling Venus.”  Many have been contested to not actually be of Anne.

You might expect Anne to be resuscitated today at the various historical sites associated with Henry’s reign, but in fact she’s not very prominent there either. In the gift-shops, thimbles, small chocolates, and tiny soaps “commemorate” Henry’s wives democratically.  Everything is in sets of six, each wife given equal billing among the tiny trinkets, as though they were members of a harem.  The “and his six” view of the wives is everywhere in Britain.  Yet despite the “All Wives Are Equal” spin of Hampton Court and the Tower of London, and despite the absence of Anne’s own voice and image among the relics of the period, she is undoubtedly the most famous of Henry’s wives.  Ask any random person who Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard or Katherine Parr were, and you probably won’t even get an attempt to scan stored mental information. The name “Jane Seymour” will probably register as the apparently ageless actress well known for Lifetime movies and television commercials for cosmetics.  But Anne Boleyn, at the very least, is “the one who had her head chopped off.”[2]

Henry may have tried to erase her, but Anne Boleyn looms large in our cultural imagination. Everyone has some tidbit of Anne-mythology to pull out: “She slept with hundreds of men, didn’t she?” (I heard that one from a classical scholar.)  “She had six fingers—or was it three nipples?” (From a French literature expert.) “She had sex with her own brother” (From anyone who has learned their history at the foot of Philippa Gregory.) She is the focus of numerous biographies, several movies, and a glut of historical fiction—Murder Most Royal. The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. The Lady in the Tower. The Other Boleyn Girl, Mademoiselle Boleyn, A Lady Raised High,The Concubine, Brief Gaudy Hour and many others (by a 2010 count on Amazon, 19 biographies, novelizations or studies published in the preceding three years alone; thanks to Showtimes The Tudors,  you can add at least 15 more since then, without considering the constant reprints.) Anne has also become also a thriving commercial concern (Halloween costumes, sweatshirts, coffee cups, magnets, bumper stickers)  Internet sites are devoted to her, and feminist art “deconstructs” her demise.

Why is Anne Boleyn so fascinating? Maybe we don’t have to go any further than the obvious: The story of her rise and fall is as elementally satisfying—and script-wise, not very different from–a Lifetime movie: a long-suffering, post-menopausal wife, an unfaithful husband and a clandestine affair with a younger, sexier woman, a moment of glory for the mistress, then lust turned to loathing, plotting, and murder as the cycle comes full circle.  As Irene Goodman writes, “Anne’s life was not just an important historical event.  It was also the stuff of juicy tabloid stories…It has sex, adultery, pregnancy, scandal, divorce, royalty, glitterati, religious quarrels, and larger-than-life personalities.  If Anne lived today, she would have been the subject of lurid tabloid headlines:

RANDY KING DUMPS HAG FOR TROPHY WIFE

IT’S A GIRL (BABY LIZ DISSED BY QUEEN

HAND BEHEADS SKANKY QUEEN.”

But Anne hasn’t always been seen as a skanky schemer. For supporters of Catherine of Aragon, she was worse: a cold-hearted murderess. For Catholic propagandists like Nicholas Sander, she was a six-fingered, jaundiced-looking erotomaniac, who slept with butlers, chaplains, and half of the French court. For Elizabethan Lutherans, far from a slut, she was the unsung heroine of the Protestestant Reformation. For the romantics, particularly in painting, she was the hapless victim of a king’s tyranny—a view that gets taken up in the earliest film versions of Anne, Lubitch’s silent Anna Boleyn and Alexander Korda’s Private Life of Henry VIII.  In post-war movies and on television, Anne has been animated by the rebellious spirit of the sixties, (Anne of the Thousand Days), the “mean girl” and “power feminist” celebration of female aggression and competitiveness of the nineties (The Other Boleyn Girl), and the “third wave” feminism of a new generation of Anne-worshippers, inspired by Natalie Dormer’s brainy seductress of The Tudors, to see in Anne a woman too smart, sexy, and strong for her own time, unfairly vilified for her defiance of sixteenth-century norms of wifely obedience and silence. Henry may have tried to write his second wife out of history, but “Anne Boleyn” is a formidable cultural creation—or rather, a succession of cultural creations, imagined and re-imagined over the centuries.

One goal of this book is to follow the cultural career of these mutating Annes, from the poisonous putain created by Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys—a highly biased portrayal that became “history” for many later writers—to the radically revisioned Anne of the internet generation. I’m not such a postmodern, however, that I’m content to just write a history of competing narratives.  I’m fascinated by their twists and turns, but even more fascinated by the real Anne, who has not been quite as disappeared as Henry wanted.  Like Marilyn Monroe in our own time, she is an enigma that it’s hard to keep one’s hands off of; just as men dreamed of possessing her in the flesh, writers can’t resist the desire to solve the mysteries of how she came to be, to reign, to perish.  I’m no exception.  I have my own theories, and I won’t hide them.   There are so many “big” questions that remain unanswered, this book would be very unsatisfying if I did not attempt to address them.

Perhaps the biggest question concerns Henry more than Anne herself. How could he do it?  The execution of a queen was unprecedented, extreme and shocking, even to Anne’s enemies. Henry had invested six years of time, energy, intellect, money, and blood in making the marriage happen. They were married less than three years. There is no evidence of an unbridgeable estrangement between them. His earlier love letters to her, admittedly written in the bloom of fresh passion, portray a solicitous, tender suitor whom it is impossible to imagine coldly ordering a wife’s death. We have plenty of textbook explanations for the failure of the relationship–Anne’s inability to provide a male heir, her lack of popularity among the people, her bouts of jealousy, the winds of court politics blowing against her, Jane Seymour, waiting in the wings, fresh and fertile—as well as some less believable theories: the miscarriage of a deformed fetus, which convinced Henry that Anne was indeed a witch. But whichever explanations you believe, including the charges of adultery and treason, it still takes a leap of incomprehension to find any of them sufficient to explain Anne’s execution.  We are still left asking ourselves: How did this happen? How could he do it?

Another unsolved mystery is the relationship itself, which began with such powerful attraction, at least on Henry’s part, and created such havoc in the realm. It is often assumed that Anne, in encouraging Henry’s pursuit, was motivated solely by personal (or perhaps familial) ambition, while Henry was bewitched by her sexual allure. This scenario is a sociobiologist’s dream relationship—woman falls for power and protection, man for the promise of fertility–but ignores how long and at what expense the two hung in there in order to mesh their genes. We know that Henry was intent on finding a new wife to secure the male heir that Catharine, through their 17-year marriage, had failed to produce. But why Anne Boleyn?  She wasn’t the most beautiful woman at court.  She wasn’t royalty, and thus able to serve in solidifying foreign relations.  She wasn’t a popular choice (to put it mildly) among Henry’s advisors.  Yet he pursued her for six years, sending old friends to the scaffold and splitting his kingdom down the middle to achieve legitimacy for the marriage. Surely he could have found a less divisive baby-maker among the royalty of Europe?

One enduring answer to the mystery of Henry’s pursuit of Anne portrays her as a medieval Circe, with Henry as her hapless, hormone-driven man-toy.  This image, besides asking us to believe something outlandish about Henry, is too familiar a female stereotype to be taken seriously. Even the slight evidence that we have tells us that Anne’s appeal was more complicated than that of a medieval codpiece-teaser.  We know, from recorded remarks, that she had a dark, sardonic sense of humor that stayed with her right to the end.  We know that she wasn’t the great beauty, in her day, that Merle Oberon, Genevieve Bujold, Natalie Dormer and Natalie Portman are in ours, and that her fertility signals were weak: her “duckies” were quite small, and her complexion was sallow. We know that there was something piquantly “French” about her.  Just what that means—today as well as then—is somewhat elusive, but in Anne’s case, seems to have had a lot to do with her sense of fashion, her excellent dancing skills, and her “gracefulness,” which according to courtier and poet Lancelot de Carles, made her seem less like “an Englishwoman” than “a Frenchwoman born.”

Anne the stylish consort is a familiar image.  What is less generally familiar, outside of some limited scholarly circles, is Anne the free-thinking, reformist intellectual. Both courts at which she spent her teen-age years were dominated by some of the most independent, influential women in Europe, first (for two years) the sophisticated and politically powerful Archduchess Margaret, regent of the Netherlands, and then, during her seven years in France, Marguerite of Navarre, King Francis’s sister.  Marguerite held court to the most famous reformist thinkers of the day, and was a kind of shadow-queen at Francis’s court; Queen Claude had the babies, but Marguerite, who is sometimes called “the mother of the Renaissance,” ran the intellectual and artistic side of things.  Anne spent seven formative years at Francis’s court, and was clearly influenced by Marguerite’s evangelicalism–which in those days meant a deep belief in the importance of a “personal” (rather than church-mediated) relationship to God, with daily prayer and bible-study as its centerpiece.[3]

It’s also possible that Marguerite taught Anne, by example, that “woman’s place” extended beyond her husband’s bed, and that this, ironically, was part of her appeal for Henry. For traditionalists at court, the mere fact of Anne having any say in Henry’s political affairs would have been outrageously presumptuous, particularly since Anne was not of royal blood.  Henry, however, has been educated alongside his two sisters and was extremely close to his mother; there’s no evidence that he saw Anne’s “interference”, so long as it supported his own aims, as anything other than proof of her queenly potential. In fact, in the six-year-long battle for the divorce, they seem much more like co-conspirators than manipulating female and hapless swain.  Henry, whose intellect was in fact more restless than his hormones (compared, say, to the rapacious Francis), and who was already chafing at the bit of any authority other than his own, may have imagined Anne as someone with whom he could shape a kingdom together.

These are pieces of Anne’s life that are like those entwined “H”s and “A”s that Henry’s revisionist architects didn’t see.  But while Henry’s workmen were blinded by haste, we have had centuries to find the missing pieces.  Sometimes, our failure to see has been the result of political animosity, misogyny and/or religious vendetta.  Others have wanted to tell a good story—or make a good movie–and found the facts got in the way.  Still others have been too trusting of the conclusions of others. And others didn’t know where or how to look, when the trail wandered outside the boundaries of their discipline, time-period, or “areas of specialization.”  The Great Hall at Hampton Court is thus for me not just a reminder of Henry’s efforts to erase Anne, but both evidence and metaphor for how later generations have perpetuated that erasure.

This book is not, however, a “corrective” biography of Anne which traces her life from birth to death, chronicling all the central events.  For that, we already have Eric Ives’ magnum opus, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, as well as several other excellent biographies.  Anyone who wants to find a full narrative of Boleyn’s life should consult those sources.  Nor do I enter into specialized scholarly debates, found only in academic journals.  When I chime in on a controversy, or attempt to stir one up—which is often–it will be one that has “entered” a more public discourse or will be of interest to a more general reader (as well, I hope, to scholars.)  What you will find here, in the first part of the book, is some cultural detective work into what I see as the “soft spots”—the missing pieces, the too-readily accepted images, the biases, the absence of some key cultural context—in the existing literature, along with some theories of my own, based on the five years of research I’ve conducted for this book.  Although not meant to be straight “history,” I have organized it chronologically, and attempted to provide enough historical detail to create a continuous, coherent narrative. That section, called “Queen Interrupted”, concludes with Boleyn’s death and my speculation as to how Henry could have done it.

The second part, “The Creation of  ‘Anne Boleyn’” is just what the quotes around Anne’s name would suggest: a cultural history, not of her life, but of how she has been imagined and represented over the centuries since her death, from the earliest attackers and defenders, to the most recent novels, biographies, plays, film, television—and even the internet.  Readers whose image of Anne has been shaped by the recent media depictions and novels may be surprised at the variety of “Annes” who have strutted through history; I know I was.  My annoyance with popular stereotypes was one reason why I started this book; I expected to it to be a critical expose of how thoroughly maligned and mishandled she has been throughout the centuries.  This turned out to be far from true.  Anne has been less the perpetual victim of the same old sexist stereotyping than she has been a shape-shifting trickster whose very incompleteness in the historical record has stirred the imaginations of different agendas, different generations, different cultural moments, to lay claim to their “own” Boleyn.   In cutting her life so short, and then ruthlessly disposing of the body of evidence of her “real” existence, Henry made it possible for her to live a hundred different lives, forever.


[1] After Anne’s beheading, it was renovated again for Henry’s next wife Jane Seymour, and then significantly expanded for her expected child, Edward VI, who was born at the Palace.  Jane herself died two weeks later of post-partum complications, and Henry—perhaps out of the grief he felt for the one woman he considered his “true wife”—generally avoided the place until his fifth marriage, to the teenage Catherine Howard.

[2] Actually, Catherine Howard was also beheaded for adultery. As with Anne (who was in fact Catherine’s cousin), this marriage began with passionate infatuation on Henry’s part and ended with his former beloved on the scaffold.  Barely a year after the marriage, Catherine (who likely did have at least one adulterous relationship) was placed under house arrest at Hampton Court, and accused of leading “an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous, and vicious life, like a common harlot, with diverse persons.”  Catherine tried, unsuccessfully, to see Henry in person and talk him out of it. (Henry’s policy, perhaps because he feared he would be vulnerable to in-person pleas, was always to make sure that those he wanted dispensed with remained “out of mind” by keeping them “out of sight..”)  She was executed on Tower Green in 1542.

[3] She later became a passionate admirer and defender of William Tyndale’s English language bible, at the time banned in England but smuggled in for Anne, who had her ladies-in-waiting read it daily.

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Was Anne Boleyn a Red-Head?

Anne as featured in the National Portrait Gallery, along with an image-inspired doll by the artist Miss Tiggywinkle

Asked in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries about Anne Boleyn’s hair color, most people would answer “black”—or, perhaps, “very dark brown.”  With the exception of Genevieve Bujold, whose hair was distinctly chestnut hued, the best-known actresses who have played Anne—Merle Oberon, Dorothy Tutin, Natalie Portman, Natalie Dormer–have black or dark brown hair (Dormer dyed hers), and modern portraits and cartoons follow the prototype of Anne as a “raven-haired temptress.” Yet the portraits and representations that have been judged to bear the closest resemblance to the historical Anne—including the National Portrait Gallery painting–show her with auburn hair.  This isn’t incompatible with the many descriptions of her as “dark”—for in an aesthetic/religious world which divided things into “light” and “dark”, you wouldn’t have to have jet-black hair to be in the “dark” category.

            In fact, there are only two descriptions of Anne from (roughly) her own time which associate Anne with the color “black”:  one is from the Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, who was born after Anne died, and was clearly out to make Anne sound as witch-like as possible, with an extra digit, a huge wart, and other deformities that would surely, if true, have eliminated Anne from Henry’s lists of marriageable ladies. The other is Cardinal Wolsey’s private nickname—“the night crow”—a metaphor which cannot be taken as physically descriptive.  All other sources describe her simply as “dark” or “brunette.”  “Brunette” translates to “brown” for us, but may have had a much broader referent then, covering many hues of darkish hair.  It’s not clear that the medievals even had a term for dark red hair; “auburn”, for example, originally meant whitish. And “black” could refer to colors, but in their deepest, darkest hues.

Given the suspicious origins of the satanic image of black-haired Anne, I was surprised when I suggested, on my facebook page, that Anne’s hair was probably dark auburn or chestnut.  I got a ferocious response.  “NO WAY was she a redhead!”  “Anne had black hair, NOT red hair!”  People did not merely argue with me; they were offended at the very suggestion. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, similarly, was revolted at the idea of playing Henry as red-headed, which the King most certainly was.  (So, of course, was his famous daughter, and many other members of English royalty, from the Plantagenets and the Tudors through Prince Harry.)  Even after I explained that I didn’t mean fire-engine red, Opie red, or Lucille-Ball red, and despite the evidence of the NPG and other representations from Anne’s own time, people refused to accept the idea that Anne could possibly have had reddish hair.  Somehow, despite many glamorous redheads from Susan Hayward to Julia Roberts, “sexy” is not what comes most often to mind when we think “red hair.”  Orange-wigged clowns, old ladies with garish dye-jobs, and freckle-faced farm boys still crowd our images of redheads.

It provides some perspective on our own visual stereotypes of Anne to learn that raven-haired Anne—Sander aside—is largely a twentieth-century invention. Not that other eras are more historically reliable than ours.  The romantics almost always depicted her as fair—the visual counterpart to their view of Anne as victim rather than vixen.  This lasts well into the early 20th century, as in this description from Reginald Drew’s 1912 novel:  “She was radiant and dimpled, and her beautiful face, pink-hued and lily white, rippled with laughter and bubbled with vivacity.  She had sparkling eyes, wav, golden-brown hair which framed her face like a picture, and which her coif could not either confine or conceal.” (p. 14)  Ernst Lubitsch’s Anne, Henny Porten, is fair (1920).  And Jessie Armstrong’s Anne, in “My Friend Anne” (1935) could be Mary Pickford (whose style was already out-of-date in the thirties, but perhaps for that reason could represent ‘old-fashioned’ beauty.)  In the thirties, “blonde” was already becoming, with Mae West and Jean Harlow, to be the mark of the vamp.  But it hadn’t happened yet.  For the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the old associations of fair hair with innocence and purity still held. Today, it’s surprising (and annoying, for those who care about historical accuracy) when a blonde Anne (Miranda Raison, in Howard Brenton’s 2010 play “Anne Boleyn”) pops up, but it doesn’t signify much other than the loosening, in our post-modern age, of “moral” associations to hair color.

The most tenacious historical inaccuracy, actually, has not been in depictions of Anne, but of Katherine, Henry’s first wife.  She—unlike Anne—was indeed golden-haired.  But she was Spanish, and our stunted racial imagination has therefore almost invariably given her dark hair (Irene Papas in “Anne of the Thousand Days”, Maria Doyle Kennedy in “The Tudors,” Ana Torrent in “The Other Boleyn Girl.  The outstanding exception:  Annette Crosbie’s Katherine in the 1970 BBC production of “Henry VIII and His Six Wives.”)  Racial stereotyping, it seems, trumps gender ideology.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that racial profiling collaborates creatively with gender ideology.  “Our” Anne-the-seductress, still wearing the collective imprinting of Sander, is raven-haired.  But since she has morphed into a great beauty, too, we’ve rejected the historical consensus (from sympathizers as well as detractors) that her skin was “not so whitely as desired.”  Surely that better describes Katherine, the unglamorous Spanish discard!  So Anne becomes Snow White in coloring, while Spanish Katherine, who was in fact the fairer-skinned of the two, becomes the “swarthy” wife.

The bottom line:  Don’t expect to find “history” in the cultural imagination.

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Reflections on the “Final Letter”, from The Creation of Anne Boleyn

A Note on this selection:  The following is taken from a much longer chapter.  Since part of my argument about the letter is based on comparisons with Anne’s speech at her trial, that’s where I’ve chosen to begin the selection.  Please do not quote or cite without my permission. Thanks!! Susan.


           Anne’s emotional vacillations—from terror to prayerful resignation to black humor (speculating, the night before her execution, that her enemies would remember her as “la Royne Anne Sans Tete”) suggest that the strangeness of what was happening to her was at times impossible for her to assimilate. Just a few short months before, she had been pregnant.  Just a few weeks before, Henry had been insisting that the Spanish Emperor acknowledge the legitimacy of their marriage. Now she was in the Tower, condemned to death.  Her fortunes had turned around so swiftly and extremely, it must have been difficult to keep a steady grip on reality.  Yet she managed, at her trial on May 15, after nearly two weeks in the Tower and the certain recognition, after the verdicts of the men accused with her, that she would be found guilty, to summon her renowned pride and dazzling confidence for the grim occasion.

           De Carles, in his retrospective poem, describes her as entering the hall “in fearful beauty,” “not as one who had to defend her cause, but with the bearing of one coming to great honor.” Dressed in black velvet over a scarlet petticoat, her cap “sporting a black-and-white feather”, she “presented herself with the true dignity of a queen, and curtseyed to her judges, looking round upon them all, without any sign of fear…impatience, grief, or cowardice” (Crispin de Milherve, an eyewitness at the trial.)  When it was time for her to speak, after hearing the full charges for the first time—including trivial, non-criminal but “atmospherically” damaging accusations that she had made fun of the King’s poetry and taste in clothing—she made such “wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her” that “had the peers given in their verdict according to the expectations of the assembly, she had been acquitted.”  But of course, the verdict was not dependent on the impression Anne made, or how convincing her defense was.  When she protested, against Smeaton’s confession, that “that one witness was not enough to convict a person of high treason”, she was simply informed “that in her case it was sufficient.” Also “sufficient” were numerous bits of gossip that nowadays would be regarded as worse than hearsay, since they came from obviously prejudiced sources.  George Wyatt, writing about the trial later, says that he heard nothing that could be considered evidence.  Instead, as author Jane Dunn described the case, it was  “a ragbag of gossip, innuendo, and misinterpreted courtliness.”

           Anne almost certainly expected the guilty verdict that followed, which makes her calm, clear, and highly intelligent (according to numerous observers) responses to the charges all the more remarkable. It is less likely that she expected the sentence that followed: “that thou shalt be burnt here within the Tower of London on the Green, else to have thy head smitten off, as the King’s pleasure shall be further known of the same.”  On hearing the verdict, several onlookers shrieked, took ill, and had to leave the hall. But Anne, as Chapuys observed, “preserved her composure, saying that she held herself always ready to greet death, but was extremely sorry to hear that others, who were innocent and the King’s loyal subjects, should share her fate and die through her.”  And then, as summarized by several onlookers but reported in the greatest detail by Crispin de Milherve, she delivered the extraordinary speech that I discussed in the previous chapter.  In full now:

“My lords, I will not say your sentence is unjust, nor presume that my reasons can prevail against your convictions. I am willing to believe that you have sufficient reasons for what you have done; but then they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am clear of all the offences which you then laid to my charge. I have ever been a faithful wife to the King, though I do not say I have always shown him that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way. Think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life, for He who saveth from death hath taught me how to die, and He will strengthen my faith. Think not, however, that I am so bewildered in my mind as not to lay the honour of my chastity to heart now in mine extremity, when I have maintained it all my life long, much as ever queen did. I know these, my last words, will avail me nothing but for the justification of my chastity and honour. As for my brother and those others who are unjustly condemned, I would willingly suffer many deaths to deliver them, but since I see it so pleases the King, I shall willingly accompany them in death, with this assurance, that I shall lead an endless life with them in peace and joy, where I will pray to God for the King and for you, my lords.”

The clarity and confidence of Anne’s declaration here, her insight into her lack of humility, and her reference to “bewilderment” of mind, are all, I believe, support for the theory, which many scholars have challenged, that a purported “last letter” to Henry, written by Anne on May 6th is indeed, authentic.  The letter was found, after his death, among Cromwell’s possessions, apparently undelivered to the King, in a handwriting that doesn’t correspond exactly (although not radically dissimilar) to Anne’s other  letters, but that could easily have been transcribed by someone else, or in Anne’s own hand, altered by the distress of her situation. On May 5, Anne did ask Kingston to him to “bear a letter from me to Master Secretary.” Kingston then said to her: “Madam, tell it me by word of mouth and I will do it.” She thanked him, and after that we hear no more of it in Kingston’s reports, so we don’t know if the letter was written, dictated, or even ever was composed.  But the one found among Cromwell’s papers, dated May 6th, begins with a statement that is so startlingly precise in its depiction of Anne’s state of mind at the time, that it’s hard to imagine anyone else, in the decades following her death, writing it:

Your Grace’s displeasure and my imprisonment are things so strange to me, that what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send to me such a one, whom you know to me mine ancient professed enemy (Cromwell); I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if as you say, confessing a truth indeed my procure my safety I shall, with willingness and duty, perform your command.
But let not Your Grace ever imagine your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault where not so much as a thought ever proceeded. And to speak a truth, never a prince had a wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn – with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself if God and Your Grace’s pleasure had so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation, or received Queenship, but I always looked for sucher alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than Your Grace’s fancy, the least alteration was fit and sufficient, I knew, to draw that fancy to some other subject.
You have chosen me from a low estate to be your Queen and companion, far beyond my just desert or desire; if then you found me worthy of such honor, good Your Grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of my enemies withdraw your princely favour from me, neither let that stain – that unworthy stain – of a disloyal heart toward your good Grace ever cast so foul a blot on me and on the infant Princess, your daughter, Elizabeth.
Try me, Good King, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my judges; yea, let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open shames; then shall you see either mine innocency cleared, your suspicions and conscience satisfied, the ignonimy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatever God and you may determine of, Your Grace may be at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me, as an unfaithful wife, but to follow your affection already settled on that party (Anne new of Henry’s affection for Jane Seymour), Mistress Seymour, for whose sake I am now as I am; whose name I could some good while since have pointed unto: Your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicions therein.
But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander, must bring you to the joying of your desired happiness, then I desire of God that He will pardon your great sin herein, and likewise, my enemies, the instruments thereof, and that He will not call you to a strait account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me at His general judgement-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear; and in whose just judgement, I doubt not; whatsoever the world think of me; mine innocency shall be openly known and sufficiently cleared.
My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of Your Grace’s displeasur, and that it may not touch the innocent sould of those poor gentlemen, whom, as I understand, are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake.
If ever I have found favour in your site – if ever the name of Anne Boleyn have been pleasing in your ears – then let me obtain this request; and so I will leave to trouble Your Grace no further; with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have Your Grace in His good keeping and to direct you in all your actions.
From my doleful prison in the Tower, the 6th of May.
Anne Boleyn


            Most of Anne’s modern biographers believe this letter to be a forgery, in part because it is so daringly accusatory of Henry and in part because the “style” is not like Anne’s.  “It’s ‘elegance’,” writes Ives, “has always inspired suspicion.” (p.58) Well, not always. Henry Ellis and other nineteenth-century commentators believed it was authentic.  And the “syle” argument is an odd one, because we have so few existing letters of Anne’s and they are such business-like affairs, that it’s hard to see how anyone could determine a “style” from them.  If Henry had saved her responses to his love letters, we might have a better idea of what Anne was like as a writer, but they were destroyed.  As it stands, though, we do have the account of her speech at her trial, and it exhibits many of the same qualities as this letter.  In both, Anne stands her ground bravely and articulately, but more strikingly, goes beyond the conventions of the time to venture into deeper “psychological” and political territory: the insight into her lack of humility, the inference that this might have had something to do with her fall from grace, her reference to the “bewilderment” and “strangeness” of finding herself accused of adultery and treason.

           As to the letter’s bold attitude toward Henry, this was characteristic of Anne, and (as she acknowledged in her trial speech) she was aware that it overstepped the borders of what was acceptable. Her refusal to contain herself safely within those borders was what had drawn Henry to her; she could not simply turn the switch off when it began to get her in trouble.  To do that would have been to relinquish the only thing left to her at this point: her selfhood. Ives says that it would “appear to be wholly improbable” for a Tudor prisoner to warn the king that he is in imminent danger from the judgment of God. But Anne was no ordinary prisoner; she had shared Henry’s bed, advised and conspired with him in formulating divorce strategies, debated theology with him, given birth to his daughter, protested against his infidelities, dared to challenge Cromwell’s use of confiscated monastery money.  Arguably, it was her failure to do the “probable” things—the things expected of an obedient Tudor queen–that contributed to her downfall.  Now, condemned to death by her own husband, to stop “being Anne” would have been to shatter the one constancy left in the terrible “strangeness” of her situation.

            I don’t know for certain, of course, that this letter is authentic.  But I have to wonder whether skeptics have been influenced by Anne’s reputation as woman known for her “feminine” vivacity, emotionality, and sexuality.  19th century editor Henry Ellis called this letter “one of the finest compositions in the English language.” Ellis lived at a time when women writers had come into their own. But perhaps not every historian has been as ready to acknowledge that someone like Anne could possibly have written “one of the finest compositions in the English language.”

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Susan’s Interview with Robin Maxwell, author of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn and Mademoiselle Boleyn

Author Robin Maxwell

You’ve written two best-selling novels about Anne Boleyn.  Can you tell us something about your inspiration for them?

I wrote The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn because I thought she was totally misunderstood, especially about her part in the Reformation. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have happened without Anne Boleyn but it happened when it did in England because of her. And then, too, I was fascinated by the idea of exploring the relationship between Anne and her mother.  In the biographies and histories, I never could find more than a couple of sentences about it. And as I started to get older- I didn’t write this book until I was close to fifty–the more I realized that it doesn’t matter how old you are or whether your parents are dead, they continue to have a huge influence in your life. Even if Elizabeth didn’t speak her mother’s name until twenty years after she died and even if she believed the spin around her and all the bad press–that her mother was a whore and a witch, and so forth- even so she would be influenced by her.

And history provides some intriguing hints. We know that very shortly after Elizabeth took the throne, within a couple of years, she started giving honors and grants and lands and titles to the Boleyn relatives who had lived through Henry’s reign.  She started wearing a ring (some say a locket) with her mother’s miniature in it.   Perhaps, I thought, her attitude toward her mother changed at some point?  And if so, what made her change?  Did she learn something about her mother? And I thought, well, if she learned the truth about her mother and how strong her mom was, and how false the rumors and the charges were, that would impact Elizabeth’s life.

And, you know, it touched a nerve.  The books have been published in fourteen languages.

It seems as though a big reason for its success, besides the fact that it’s a wonderful read, is that it explores an emotional terrain that has deep meaning for most of us.

Right, probably the most important relationship in our lives.  And it also “answers” some questions about Elizabeth, because the way I tied it up is that when she learned about the power of men from her mother’s diary, she realized that you needed to hold on to your power when it came to men.  That was the reason—a fiction, but something I do believe—that she decided never to marry.

Mademoiselle Boleyn

And what about Mademoiselle Boleyn?  How did the idea of that come to you?

Actually, I had been doing the research for Signora da Vinci, and when I read that Leonardo was in the French court of Francois I around 1515, it occurred to me that those were the years that Anne and Mary Boleyn were there.  I went back to my Boleyn research books and found that it was true.  The sisters were very much in the “inner circle” of Francois’ court, and the King considered Leonardo his best friend.  He went to visit him every day at a chateau just a couple of hundred yards downriver from Amboise (sometimes using a secret tunnel).  I deduced that Anne must of met the Maestro while she was a teenager (and during the time Mary was Francois’ mistress).  That was the germ of the idea.  Then I realized that no historical fiction had ever shown this period of the Boleyn girls’ lives in any depth.  So much happened to Anne.  It was the place (and under the tutelage of the King’s sister, the Duchess Margaret D’Alencon) that Anne received her “progressive” religious training, as Margaret was a Lutheran (in a deeply Catholic court).  And it was here, I reckoned, that Anne – watching her sister be handed around to all of the courtiers when Francois tired of her –  realized she needed to withhold sexual favors (which she did for six years with Henry) if she wanted to keep any control of her life.

What do think fiction can do that non-fiction cannot?

It allows us to do what I call “extrapolation.” I’ll give you an example. Remember the scene when Anne is in the Tower of London after her arrest, and she’s hoping that Henry is going to come and intervene and get her out of this mess–and instead Cranmer shows up?  Every book I read took me up to that moment where Cranmer came in to the her tower room with a document that he said Henry wanted Anne to sign, claiming that Elizabeth was a bastard child.  But nobody knows what actually happened between them in the tower and it’s especially intriguing because he was a good friend of hers, who shared her religious views and who was seriously shocked when he found out about the charges against her.  All we know, though, is that he came in with that document, and walked out with it signed.  To me, filling in that chasm of unknowing was one of the greatest challenges, to take everything I’d learned about Cranmer and Anne…and turn it into the drama of that chapter. I still think it is one of the best chapters I have ever written.  Is it historically verifiable?  No.  But it gets us from  point A to point B in a way that the actual history can’t. And it was such an important moment because Anne had struggled for all of those years to ensure that Elizabeth was a legitimate princess. She sacrificed a lot and she’d taken a lot of chances. Then with a sweep of the pen, she gave Elizabeth up.  She must have done that because she knew it wouldn’t go well for her daughter if she didn’t.  Anne was facing her end, but wanted to make sure that Henry didn’t come after Elizabeth.  Tragic—and inspiring.

Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.”  While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history.  She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer.  Care to comment?

I always feel like I am stepping on eggshells when I talk about Phillipa Gregory because her books have been so wildly successful, and she’s brought many readers who otherwise wouldn’t have read historical fiction to our genre, so it can sound like sour grapes.  But the fact is that I find what she has done disturbing.  Because of The Other Boleyn Girl, an entire generation of readers, mostly young women, believe that Anne was a horrible, scheming woman who would steal her sister’s child, sleep with her brother, was involved in witchcraft, poisoned people, had a horribly deformed child.  It’s just incredible!

And you’re right, I think part of the reason why some readers are so annoyed with Ms. Gregory is that when she is questioned she defends the historicity of it.

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn

When TOBG was written, our common editor at Touchstone asked me if I would give the book a blurb because Secret Diary had been published several years before, and it was the only historical novel in quite a while to have tackled Anne Boleyn.  Our editor sent me the manuscript and I read it. It was a great read, a page turner, but I was completely appalled at the path she’d taken with Anne. Every false rumor, every nasty thing that anyone had ever said about her, Gregory turned into the truth in her book.  ­­­­  This wasn’t a blunder.  It was intentional.  Clearly she did her research, but then she decided what was going to be most dramatic and entertaining, and that was what she wrote.  I’m sure she is a scholar and knows what is truth and what’s not, but what’s going to work in the storyline that will hook the most readers is what seems to matter­­ to her. It’s really hard to fight it, though, because when you are that successful, publishers don’t care.  And you can argue that she has every right, because she’s a historical fiction author.  The upshot for me was that when I was asked to blurb the book, I said no. I refused the blurb on principle.  I had come to love the person that Anne Boleyn was.  I deeply respected her.  I felt she had stood up to a half-mad male despot and lost her life for her courage and convictions.  I thought The Other Bolyen Girl was an unnecessary smear-job.  A poke at a long-dead woman who couldn’t defend herself.  I hope people will read Secret Diary so they can see the other perspective, and let them decide for themselves what kind of person Anne was.

Along the same lines, Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.”  This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.”  Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond readed PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.”  Care to comment?

As far as I’m concerned, the proof is in the pudding.  It was a great cast but a bad movie.  There was no chemistry between any of the characters, and the story (unbeliebably) was forgettable.  How could THAT story be forgettable?

What did you think of “The Tudors”?

I was addicted to the show.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

I didn’t like “Elizabeth,” the movie that Michael Hirst did, and of course he wasn’t completely sticking to facts with The Tudors, either, but I thought his portrayal of Anne was pretty darn decent.  I mean I loved Genevieve Bujold in “Anne of a Thousand Days”, but that whole movie in retrospect, as wonderful as it was,  gave all of the credit for the Protestant Reformation to the men. I think Natalie Dormer was fantastic.  I think she is the best of the lot of actresses who’ve played Anne.   Of course, having such an extended series, not having to squeeze everything into a two hours movie, helped as well.  I actually thought it was especially good as far as Anne’s potrayal was concerned.

What’s on the horizon for you?

Well, I am working with an Australian producer on developing The Wild Irish and the Queen’s Bastard as a cable series.  I’ll co-produce, and I will be one of the main writers, as I’ve adapted a number of my novels into screenplays.  I was actually a screenwriter long before I started writing novels.  The Wild Irish (the fourth in my Elizabethan Quartet) show Elizabeth in her later years –  after she went from being her mother’s daughter (audacious, courageous) to her father’s daughter (manipulative and murderous).  She basically killed half the population of Ireland in trying to colonize the country and subjugate the people,  Where she had been a heroine in the first three books of the quartet, she became the villain in the fourth.  The heroine was Grace O’Malley, who was brought up by her father on a pirate ship and became a female “Braveheart” and the Mother of the Irish Rebellion against England. In the midst of the revolt, when Grace would have been considered a traitor, she sailed her ship up the Thames, parked in front of Greenwich Castle, marched in and demanded an audience with Elizabeth–which she got–and in front of the whole court made three huge demands on Elizabeth.  One, to release her son, who was also an Irish rebel, from the English prison in Ireland.  Two, to remove a particularly brutal captain that was ravaging Western Ireland, and three, she demanded a pension from Elizabeth. Elizabeth granted all of her demands!

In The Secret Diary, the book was prompted by a question – Why did Elizabeth change her mind about her mother?  In The Wild Irish, the question was – why did Elizabeth grant Grace O’Malley her three demands?  If you like Anne Boleyn you will love Grace O’Malley!

My next novel – it won’t be published till September 2012, is JANE:  The Woman Who Loved Tarzan.  It’s set in 1912 and it’s fiction, so I suppose it could be considered historical fiction.  But it was written (with the full authorization and support of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate) as a Tarzan classic.  It’s the first novel in the ERB Tarzan franchise to be penned by a woman, and the first of the series written from Jane’s point of view.  It crosses several genres (adventure, sci-fi/fantasy, romance, and women’s literature), but at its heart it is, like all my other books, the story of a strong, fabulous woman who stands tall under extraordinary circumstances.

Any final words for our readers?

I’m constantly aware that if it hadn’t been for Anne Boleyn and her extraordinary life I never would have had this career. So I feel like I have a very personal relationship with her. It was because of her that my husband, Max, and I were able to move out of LA, and now own 22 acres in a high desert paradise.  It’s extraordinary.  For years after we bought the property, and sometimes even now, we come in through the gates, and we cannot believe what we have, and we say “Thank you Anne”, “Thank you Henry.”  It’s bittersweet.  Sometimes I think: the tragedy of her life…it made my career.  Thank you, Anne Boleyn, thank you!

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