Monthly Archives: January 2012

Susan’s Interview with Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII

As many of you know, Susan has been interviewing several well-known authors for their views on Philippa Gregory, “The Tudors,” and the responsibility of fictional representations to historical fact.   Today, in celebration of reaching 1536 ‘likes’, we present Susan’s interview with Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII

We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts.  I take that as a given.  But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far?  If so, how would you describe the boundaries of what is acceptable and not?

 
Great question. Many people learn most of their history from fiction, which gives novelists and filmmakers something of a responsibility, even if they shrug it off.

Where I find historical fiction really works is when it fills in the gaps in the historical record imaginatively, sensitively and poignantly, and brings the past to life.

For example, one thing that historical fiction has to do is to imagine what historical figures thought and felt, because, especially for a period like the sixteenth century, there is often a dearth of ego-literature – there are rarely helpful diaries with our characters’ reflections in them. We have some letters, we have some recorded speech, but fiction has much to add in filling in the gaps about people’s motivations, feelings, and thoughts.

But going beyond that, I find that there are two ways in which historical fiction can sometimes go too far for me:

1) getting basic facts wrong – like having Anne Boleyn executed with an axe or making Mary Boleyn the younger sister – things that can be easily verified (though because of that, I don’t mind it nearly as much – because interested readers can check the facts for themselves – as…)

2) failing to recreate the mentality of the period, e.g. a common occurrence is making a character essentially atheistic at a period when that was very rare, or sexually liberated in a very 21st century way, or otherwise transposing modern day attitudes to a historical character. This is what bothers me most: the tendency to suggest that people in the past were exactly like us in all their thoughts and feelings, rather than focus on the mysterious difference, as well as the shared humanity.

Ultimately, the key is whether readers are able to distinguish between fact and fiction if they want to.

 
In an interview with me, Michael Hirst complained that while people were constantly criticizing “The Tudors” for its departures from historical record, “Wolf Hall” got nothing but praise for its almost entirely imaginative universe.  Care to comment on that?

 
Wolf Hall does what I suggest above – it fills in gaps in the historical record, but it impressively remains true to the sensitivities of the early 16th century (I remember, for example, Mantel commenting that novelty was a bad thing in the 16th century, which is absolutely true and contrasts with today’s sense of ‘brand new’ being good) and also stays pretty close to the known facts. The Tudors is a very different kettle of fish – it plays constantly fast and loose with established and basic facts about the period, it projects a 21st century mindset onto the past, it dresses its actors in non-historically accurate clothing (generally, making it far raunchier than the Tudor would have worn) etc: I think that’s why it has received greater criticism than Wolf Hall.

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?

 
Yes, this is interesting. Philippa Gregory, of course, has a doctorate in history[1], so is essentially trained as an historian and knows what she’s doing. But she does create alternative narratives, at times, which because of her standing have a tendency to stick. Also, I’m not sure I completely believe that everything she writes is based on ‘historical probability’: I can certainly think of exceptions in her writing. I think she does probably want to claim both roles.

 
I noticed that in the earliest novels, authors often had a section devoted to outlining for readers what was created and what is factual in their works.  We tend not to do that any more.  Why not?  And what do you think of such a practice?

 
I think it’s a really good idea, and really helps the readers distinguish fact and fiction. My father-in-law is a historical novelist, funnily enough, and in his last series of books, he put an Author’s Note at the end to explain the research on which he had based the book, and the controversial decisions that he had made in staging the events as he did. I think it’s really useful for novelists to do this; I imagine authors don’t because they don’t feel any sense of responsibility to do so, and because their own narrative has become firmly lodged in their head.

 
In our “post-Oliver Stone, post-O.J. Trial” era, in which (it seems to me), viewers/readers no longer have much ability to distinguish between different kinds of narratives, do you think the fact/fiction issue has become more problematic?


I think it’s also related to:
1) a general decrease in historical education, certainly here in the UK (even today, there’s an article about 156 schools in the country not offering history at GCSE, i.e. from 14 to 16 years old),
2) the influence of postmodernism (as Portman says below) – all things are seen as equally believable and therefore also equally valid or invalid.

 
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?

 
I remember reading this interview with Natalie Portman and was shocked by the cavalier attitude it reveals. Of course, it’s a very postmodern view, and historians do provide different interpretations on sources – there’s no ‘book of facts’ out there. Yet, there are still verifiably accurate and inaccurate understandings, facts and fictions. And The Other Boleyn Girl as a film is full of historical nonsense that any historian would have been able to point out.

It doesn’t necessarily matter that actors haven’t researched, though it helps – what matters is that the writers and directors have. I recently saw a play produced by theatre company Red Rose Chain called Fallen in Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn by Joanna Carrick, which managed to combine deep and accurate research with a dramatically moving, compelling story. It is possible – especially with the Tudors, whose stories are so incredible without fabrication.

In the end, I have mixed feelings. I strongly believe that people come to history through film and novels, and I’m very keen, as an historian, to meet people where they are at, and not create barriers to entry. If watching The Other Boleyn Girl makes them turn to a history book, or encourages them to visit Hampton Court, I’m all for it. But – I do think that the truth is often more interesting than the some of the fictions we are given.


[1] Note from SB:  Gregory’s doctorate is actually in literature.

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Jane, January, and Anne’s Downfall

A 19th century engraving titled "Anne Boleyn Receiving Proof of Henry's Passion for Jane Seymour"

Do note cite, quote, copy, or distribute without consent of author: Bordo@uky.edu.

Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning Wolf Hall ends portentously, with Cromwell and Henry about to embark, in September 1535, on a progress that would include a stop at Wolf Hall, home of John Seymour and his family.  Mantel chose the ending (and the title of her book), we can safely speculate, to mark the beginning of Anne’s final and fatal twist of bad luck, with Henry catching sight of Jane, John Seymour’s daughter.

Mantel’s is not the first or last depiction to imagine such a meeting—among the most well known, the BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII and Showtimes’ Tudors.  It’s one of those fictions that have endured across the centuries in our collective narrative of Anne’s fall.  But it’s very unlikely either that Henry saw Jane for the first time at Wolf Hall, for Jane had been one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies, and then returned to court to be part of Anne Boleyn’s entourage in 1534, well before the Wolf Hall progress, or that anything momentous passed between them on that visit.  For one thing, Anne was with Henry.  For another, we don’t even know for sure if Jane was there.

The first clear mention of a relationship between Henry and Jane occurs in Chapuys’ February 17 (1536) letter to Charles, in which he wrote that Anne’s inability to bear male children was due to her  “defective constitution,” and that “the real cause” of her miscarriage of January 29 may have been the King’s “behavior toward a damsel of the Court, named Miss Seymour, to whom he has latterly made very valuable presents.”

February 1536.  If the king had begun seriously pursuing Jane in September of 1535, it’s highly unlikely that the gossip-hungry Chapuys—always ready to report any decline in Henry’s feelings for Anne—would have waited six months to report it to Charles.  It makes for a good story:  King’s declining passion for his first wife, her escalating jealousy and shrewishness, setting the stage for a tipping-point meeting between Henry and sweet, submissive Jane, providing the spark which turned the tinder of his marriage to Anne into a roaring, destructive fire.  But in fact, there seems to have been no single factor—certainly not Jane Seymour–that brought about the disastrous events of April-May 1536, but a combustion of court atmospherics, political maneuvering, and sheer bad luck.  What turned the cherished, hotly pursued consort into the lady in the tower, awaiting her execution, did not belong primarily to the realm of emotions, but to the gathering of a “perfect storm” of political, personal, and biological events, the absence of any one of which might have resulted in things turning out very differently for Anne.

The atmospherics included a strong political/religious “wing” of anti-Anne sentiment that was a powerful obstacle in the way of Anne’s acceptance by the (still largely Catholic) English people.  In gaining that acceptance—and with it some protection from the winds of shifting politics—Anne already had several strikes against her.  She had supplanted a beloved queen.  She was rumored to be “haughty” and suspiciously “French”–and even worse than that, a vocal, intellectual, “interfering” woman. Even those who shared her religious views, like Cromwell, had no scruples about spreading nasty rumors when it suited their purposes. For Anne’s reputation as a woman who simply would not behave as she should had created an atmosphere that did not incline men to be her protectors, but rather freed them to take the gloves off when fighting with her. “Had she been gracious and modest,” writes 19th century commentator James Froude, “she might have partially overcome the prejudice against her.” (P 384).  “Gracious and modest” seem like laudable qualities.  But what they meant in the context of the times and why Anne could never play the part is laid bare by David Loades: “Anne could not pretend to be a fool or a nonentity, and the self-effacement customary in a royal consort did not suit her style at all…In many ways her sharpness of perception and readiness of wit made her more suitable for the council chamber than for the boudoir.” (69) But women did not belong in the council chamber.

By 1536, Henry was also well aware that public opinion, especially after the executions of Bishop Fisher and Thomas More (for refusing to take the oath declaring Henry Supreme Head of the Church of England) was not exactly riding in his favor.

Besides anger over Fisher and More, who were generally admired, there was a growing public sentiment over the mistreatment of Katherine and Princess Mary, who Henry kept separated from each other, and treated like discarded limbs.  The abuse of Mary was especially acute, as she was forced to wait on her younger sister Elizabeth, and allowed no audience with the King, who had formerly been an affectionate father, so long as she refused to acknowledge Anne as Queen.  This she would not do, not even after Anne had personally offered her friendship and a home at court, on that one condition.  Despite a huge amount of evidence that Henry was in a rage over his daughter’s “obstinacy” and hardly required any goading to punish and humiliate her, Chapuys blamed her mistreatment entirely on Anne, whom he believed turned the King against Mary, and did all that he could to insure that every other person who would listen to him saw it that way.

Even those who knew better, like Thomas Cromwell, realized that blaming the King for Mary’s mistreatment could create a huge public relations disaster and encouraged Chapuys in his Anne-blaming.  As early as October of 1534, Chapuys had met with Cromwell, who reassured Chapuys of Henry’s “paternal affection” for Mary and claimed that he “loved her 100 times more than his last born” and that he and Chapuys ought to do all that they could to “soften and mend all matter relating to her,” for “in time everything would be set to rights.” Although I am often skeptical of Chapuys’ second and third-hand “intelligence,” the manipulative, self-serving speech he attributes to Cromwell has, to my ears, the ring of truth.  In it, Cromwell takes credit for paving the way to smoother relations between Henry and Charles, and assures Chapuys that the only obstacle standing between a renewed friendship between England and Spain was a “satisfactory settlement of all complaints” held by Mary and Katherine.   He ended, Chapuys reports, ”by saying in passing that it was perfectly true that great union and friendship existed now between France and England, but that I could guess the cause of it. He did not say more on this subject.  Your Majesty, by your great wisdom, will be able to judge what Cromwell’s last words meant.”

Of course, the “cause” that was implied here was Anne—who now was “hinted” by Cromwell as standing between the repair of relations between England and Spain, and in a double way:  First, because she was known to be a Francophile, who had been raised to be “more French than English,” but more important, because she was the obstacle standing in the way of reaching a “satisfactory settlement of all complaints” by Katherine and Mary.  Chapuys also took Cromwell as hinting “that there was some appearance of the King changing his love.”  He wasn’t sure whether to take this seriously—for Cromwell was quite capable of dissembling when it suited his purposes—but what seems crystal clear is that Cromwell was buttering Chapuys up, in the interests of Henry’s PR and future good relations with Charles, and that Anne was already being used by him to take the heat off Henry.

Why would Cromwell, who shared Anne’s religious proclivities, want to stir up the anti-Anne pot with Chapuys and Charles? After all, he had been chief engineer of the break with Rome and, as a reformist himself, had been Anne’s strongest ally at the start of her relationship with Henry.  At one point, it was generally believed that Anne had him “in her pocket” (or, as Chapuys later put it, was “Anne’s right hand.”) What had happened?  At this point, nothing of grave significance. But the two had a serious break brewing.  For although they may have shared the same “theory” of reform (although we don’t know for sure, as what became British Protestantism was only just evolving) they disagreed sharply on what should be done with the spoils of disbanded churches and monasteries.  From the beginning of his ascent to power—and among the reasons why he was able to keep the favor of the nobility, even after Wolsey was deposed—Cromwell “actively assisted the King in diverting revenues from the suppressed monasteries, originally granted to Wolsey’s two colleges, to the purses of Henry’s cronies at court.” (43, Hutchinson)  Anne, in contrast, favored using the funds to set up educational and charitable institutions, and was shocked to learn that the money was being diverted for private use.  This difference between them would not explode until April of 1536, but it seems that in sidling up to Chapuys, Cromwell was already preparing for the possibility that it might come to a show-down resulting in his own fall from favor, and he was seeking alliance with Chapuys to prepare for the need for a strike against Anne.

Cromwell was aware that developing a friendship with Chapuys was risky, but assessing the situation at the time, he wasn’t overly concerned. In June of 1535 he told Chapuys that if Anne knew how close he and Chapuys were, she would see Cromwell’s head off his shoulders.  At the time, Cromwell shrugged it off, telling Chapuys that “I trust so much on my master that I fancy she cannot do me any harm.” (Lion’s Court, 384)  But the differences between Anne and Cromwell were escalating—not just over the use of confiscated money but also over international alliances (Anne favored France, while Cromwell was beginning to lean toward some kind of accommodation with Charles) and the mere fact that Cromwell, in 1535, was already assessing his security relative to Anne’s displeasure with him suggests that he was aware that she could, under the right circumstances, be a danger to him—and was making preparations.

Cromwell also undoubtedly became aware, in the fall of that year, that a new family was rising in the king’s favor:  The Seymours.  Edward Seymour, who had hosted a visit from Henry to Wolf Hall in September, was becoming a special favorite.  Henry had always enjoyed the company of vital, masculine, young men (“thrusting, acquisitive and ambitious” is how Wilson describes them-p. 386, In The Lion’s Court), and as his own athleticism and sense of masculine potency declined, hobbled by leg ulcers and increasing obesity, he may have begun to live vicariously through them, “unconsciously sucking new life from their physical and mental vigor.” (Wilson, p. 385)  By 1535, Seymour’s circle—John Dudley, Thomas Wriosthesley, and Ralph Sadler—had come to serve this function for Henry.  They were also courting Cromwell, who they rightly saw as having the king’s ear and who was seemingly, at this point, the architect of England’s future.  They hated the Boleyns. And Edward Seymour had a sister.  Conveniently, she was in startling contrast to Anne: “fair, not dark; younger by seven or eight years; gentle rather than abrasive; of no great wit, against a mistress of repartee; a model of female self-effacement against a self-made woman.” (Ives, 302)

The gentle, self-effacing sister, however, probably would not have amounted to anything of significance were it not for the momentous events of January 1536.  On January 7, Katherine of Aragon had died, most likely of cancer of the heart (a real illness, but an apt bodily metaphor as well.) At the time, it was an enormous relief to both Anne and Henry.  For Anne, it meant that at last she was the only Queen of England.  And both of them hoped that Katherine’s death, removing the chief reason for the Emperor’s breach with Henry, would repair relations with Charles and tip the balance in England’s favor vis a vis Francis (who now would have to court Henry, in order to be sure England did not ally him with Charles.) “The next day”, Ives reports, “the king and queen appeared in joyful yellow from top to toe, and Elizabeth was triumphantly paraded to church. After dinner Henry went down to the Great Hall, where the ladies of the court were dancing, with his sixteen month old daughter in his arms, showing her off to one and another.”  Whether or not their yellow clothing was to mark their joy, as Ives says, or a sign of respect for the dead has been much debated.  But whatever the meaning of the color of their clothing, at this point, neither had a political reason to mourn Katherine’s death—and Henry, over the years of battle with Katherine, seems to have lost any trace of affection for her.

Chapuys, however, was horrified by their reaction, grief-stricken at having lost his longtime friend, whom he had comforted and championed over the years, and quickly began spreading rumors that Katherine had been poisoned by Anne.  But good news was to come a bit later that month, when Chapuys reported, third-hand as usual, that one of the King’s “principal courtiers” said that the King had confessed to another lady and her husband that “he had been seduced and forced into this second marriage by means of sortileges and charms, and that, owing to that, he held it as null.  God (he said) had well shown his displeasure at it by denying him male children.  He, therefore, considered that he could take a third wife, which he said he wished to do.”  Even Chapuys, ever alert to promising signs that Anne would be supplanted, finds this report “incredible.”  Anne was in her final month of pregnancy; how could the King be sure that God would not bless the marriage with a male heir this time around?  Was someone whispering in Henry’s ear, planting suggestions about Anne?

It seems that this is exactly what was happening.  By April 1st, Chapuys was writing to the Emperor, informing him that the king was “paying court” to Edward’s sister Jane, and that he had “heard” (from the Marchioness of Exeter) that Jane had been “well tutored and warned by those among this King’s couriers who hate the concubine, telling her not in any wise to give in to the King’s fancy unless he makes her his Queen, upon which the damsel is quite resolved.  She has likewise been advised to tell the King frankly, and without reserve, how much his subjects abominate the marriage contracted with the concubine, and that not one considers it legitimate.”  The Marchioness also requested, at this time, that Chapuys himself aid in whatever way he can in the “meritorious work” of removing Anne and thus, not only protecting Princess Mary from Anne’s evil plotting and ridding the country of the “heretical doctrines and practices” of “Lutheranism,” but “clearing the King from the taint of a most abominable and adulterous marriage.”

In the short space between Katherine’s death and Henry’s open courting of Jane, two events that proved disastrous to Anne had occurred.  These events were far more decisive to her future than any developing attraction of Henry for Jane.  First, on January 24, Henry had a bad jousting accident, which left him unconscious for two hours, and undoubtedly stirred up his anxiety about his own diminishing physical competence and reminded him of his mortality—something he had been trying to avoid all his life through a hypochondria bordering on obsession.  Then, on January 29th, Anne miscarried.   Although it was probably too early in the pregnancy for attendants to determine the sex of the child, which was described by Chapuys as a “shapeless mass of flesh,” it was reported by both Chapuys and Wriosthesley that it had been a male.  This was a “huge psychological blow” to Henry.  We only have Chapuys to rely on for details—“I see that God will not give me male children” he reports Henry as saying, and then ominously telling Anne that he would “speak to her” once she was up—but whether the quote is accurate or not, it makes sense that the loss of a potential heir, especially after at least one other miscarriage and his own recent brush with death, would have affected Henry deeply.  Anne, on her part, was distraught.  She appealed to Henry, telling him that the miscarriage was the result of shock over his accident, which is not improbable, although Chapuys, as mentioned earlier, believed it to be cause by her “defective constitution” and jealousy over Jane, to whom the king had been sending gifts, just as he had done in the early days of his courtship of Anne.

Whether through coaching or inspiration of her own, Jane refused the king’s gifts, saying that her greatest treasure was her honor, and that she would accept sovereigns from him “once God had sent her a good match.”  She may have not been of “great wit” but she (or her brother) knew that this would increase Henry’s ardor.  The refusal of sovereigns happened, however, only after Anne’s miscarriage, suggesting this was an event that emboldened Jane and her supporters.  For if Anne had produced a living son, all the rumblings about Anne, both at court and among the people, all the conniving of the Seymours, would have crashed against a brick wall.   But it was Anne’s disastrous luck that not only did she miscarry, but that it happened after Katherine died.  Initially, that death had been a cause for celebration.  What Anne did not take into account (or perhaps did, but had no reason to consider probable at this point) was that with Katherine’s death, Henry could have his marriage to Anne annulled, or invalidated in some other way, without having to deal with Katherine’s claims to the throne.  Fatally and without precedent, it was “the some other way” that prevailed.

There are a number of theories as to what allowed the unthinkable—the state-ordered execution of a Queen—to happen.  One theory, first advanced by Retha Warnicke and adopted by a number of novels and media depictions, is that the miscarried fetus was grossly deformed, which led to suspicions of witchcraft.  If Henry truly believed that Anne was guilty of witch-craft—which of course was a possibility in those times—he would have virtually no choice but to destroy her, as with anyone in league with Satan.  But although Henry complained, at one point, that he had been bewitched by Anne, that was a notion that, as in our own time, was freely bandied about in very loose, metaphorical manner.  It could mean simply “overcome beyond rationality by her charms” (as Chapuys himself means it early in Anne and Henry’s relationship, when he complained that the “accursed lady has so enchanted and bewitched him that he will not dare to do anything against her will.”) Moreover, none of the charges later leveled against Anne involved witchcraft, and there is no evidence that the fetus was deformed.

Another theory, which Alison Weir puts forward in The Six Wives of Henry VIII but revises in The Lady in the Tower, is that Henry, fed up with Anne, newly enamored of Jane, and eager “to rid himself” of his second wife but not knowing how, eagerly embraced Cromwell’s suggestion, in April, that he had information that Anne had engaged in adultery.  “Spurred by his passion for Jane, his need of the Spanish alliance, and his desire for vengeance against Anne, who had promised so much and failed to deliver,” he “accepted the allegations at face value, merely asking Cromwell to find evidence to support them.” (309) But even if we accept the idea that Henry would cynically encourage a plot designed to lead to Anne’s execution, and despite his flirtation with Jane and disappointment over the miscarriage, Henry did not behave, before Cromwell put the allegations before him, like someone looking to end his marriage.  Whatever he was feeling about Anne, recognition of his supremacy was still entwined with her, and even after the miscarriage, he was still working for imperial recognition of his marriage to “his beloved wife” Anne.  With Katherine gone, it seemed a real possibility.  And in fact, in March, the emperor offered, in return for the legitimation of Mary, imperial support for “the continuance of this last matrimony or otherwise,” as Henry wished (Ives 312).  The deal didn’t work out, due to Henry’s refusal to acknowledge that anything about his first marriage—including Mary—was legitimate.  He was utterly committed to maintaining his own absolute right to the organization of his domestic affairs, and that meant both recognition of Anne as lawful wife and Mary as bastard.

Most scholars nowadays (with a couple of exceptions whom I’ll discuss elsewhere) believe, following Eric Ives, that Thomas Cromwell orchestrated the plot against Anne, without Henry’s instigation or encouragement.  Things had been brewing dangerously between him and Anne for some time, and by April, she probably knew that he had become friends with the Seymours and had also been sidling up to Chapuys.  On April 2, Anne had dared to make a public declaration of her opposition to his policies by approving of a sermon written by her almoner, John Skip, in which he compared Cromwell to Haman, the evil, Old Testament councilor.  The specific spur for the sermon was proposed legislation to confiscate the wealth of smaller monasteries, which was awaiting Henry’s consent and against which Anne was trying to generate public sentiment.  But by then, the enmity between Anne and Cromwell had become more global than one piece of legislation.           Still, as he told Chapuys, Cromwell felt more or less secure in Henry’s favor until a crucial meeting between the Ambassador and the King on April 18th, in which Henry, who had seemed to be in favor of the reconciliation with Rome which Cromwell had been negotiating with Chapuys, now revealed his true hand, and refused any negotiation that included recognition of his first marriage and Mary’s inclusion in the line of succession.  Cromwell was aghast at Henry’s stubbornness, as he had been working hard toward the rapprochement with the emperor, burned his bridges with France, and (because of his relationship with Chapuys) with Anne and her faction as well. Earlier in the day, it had seemed that some kind of warming between Chapuys and Anne was being orchestrated. Chapuys had been invited to visit Anne and kiss her hand—which he declined to do—then, was obliged to bow to her when she was thrust in his path during church services.  Later, at dinner, Anne loudly made remarks critical of France, which were carried back to Chapuys. But when after dinner, Henry took Chapuys to a window enclosure in his own room for a private discussion, he made it clear that he wouldn’t give.

“Far from the issue of April 1536 being ‘When will Anne go and how?’” Ives writes, “Henry was exploiting his second marriage to force Europe to accept that he had been right all along.” (315) Cromwell was furious, humiliated, and fearful that he had unexpectedly found himself on the wrong side of Henry’s plans. In a letter to Charles, Chapuys wrote about the April 18 meeting, and what he wrote suggests that what was already on high heat between Cromwell and Anne was about to boil over.  Chapuys reports that one reason why he would not “kiss or speak to the Concubine” and “refused to visit her until I had spoken to the King,” was because he had been told by Cromwell that the “she devil” (Chapuys’ appellation, not Cromwell’s) “was not in favor with the King” and that “I should do well to wait till I had spoken to the King.” Chapuys, London, 24 April 1536 (Venice Archives).

With the king still pushing for her recognition, Anne must have felt deceptively safe. On April 24, Henry writes a letter to Richard Pate, his ambassador in Rome, and to Gardiner and Wallop, his envoys in France, referring to “the likelihood and appearance that God will send us heirs male [by] our most dear and most entirely beloved wife, the Queen.” But something has already begun to seem wrong to Anne, who seeks out her chaplain, Matthew Parker on the 26th, and asks him to take care of Elizabeth, should anything happen to her. And in the days that follow, Chapuys is clearly (and gleefully) aware that plots are being hatched against Anne. He writes to Charles that there is much covert discussion, at court, as to whether or not “the King could or could not abandon the said concubine,” and that Nicholas Carew is “daily conspiring” against Anne, “trying to convince Miss Seymour and her friends to accomplish her ruin. Indeed, only four days ago the said Carew and certain gentlemen of the King’s chamber sent word to the Princess to take courage, for very shortly her rival would be dismissed.” When the bishop of London, John Stokesley, expressed skepticism, “knowing well the King’s fickleness” and fearful that should Anne be restored to favor, he would be in danger, Chapuys reassures him that the King “would certainly desert his concubine.”

In fact, after the April 18th meeting, Cromwell, claiming illness, had gone underground to begin an intense “investigation” into Anne’s conduct.  On April 23, he emerged, and had an audience with Henry. We have no record of what was said.  But many scholars believe that the illness was a ruse, that during his retreat he carefully plotted Anne’s downfall, and that what he told the king on April 23 were the deadly rumors about Anne that eventually led to her arrest and trial. The king, however—perhaps dissembling for public consumption, or perhaps unconvinced by what Cromwell has told him—was still planning to take Anne with him to Calais on May 4th, after the May Day jousts, and was still pressing Charles to acknowledge the validity of his marriage to Anne.   Then, on April 30th, Cromwell and his colleagues lay all the charges before Henry, and court musician Mark Smeaton is arrested.

Anne had no idea that Cromwell and Henry, that day, were meeting to discuss the “evidence” that Anne had engaged in multiple adulteries and acts of treason. That evening, while 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 word of Smeaton’s confession, 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.

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Why the “1000 Days’” Tower Speech Rang True in 1969—and Still Does Today

Do note cite, quote, copy, or distribute without consent of author: Bordo@uky.edu.

Genevieve Bujold’s performance, and a few key changes in the play, were to make quite a dramatic transformation in the Maxwell Anderson original.  Anderson’s play, despite it’s fireball Anne, was really Henry’s story, and, like Hackett’s biography, was intent on exorcising the ghost of Bluff King Hal, described in Hacket’s biography  as “the  sort of man who cuts off his wife’s heads, ha-ha, out of a big, jovial, exuberant good humor.  Off with her head!  Off with the next one’s head!  The more, the merrier.” (248) Charles Laughton, in Private Life, played precisely this kind of Henry, and with such gusto and ingenuity that many viewers (and reviewers) believed that they were seeing the “real” Henry. John Gamme, in Film Weekly, described Laughton as “drawing a full-blooded portrait of the gross, sensual monarch in whom lust and the satisfaction of vanity are the ruling passions.”[1]

Hacket and Anderson, however, considered this kind of portrait to be a caricature.  Their respective Henrys are not piggy old souls, but tortured monarchs.   Hackett’s was a “man of open manner and gracious fellowship” who, due to an inability to imagine himself and his personal needs as anything other than orchestrated by God, had  “managed to plunge himself and his country in the thick of an inextricable jungle.” Anderson’s Henry is an even more tragic figure than Hackett’s. He truly loves Anne, but gets caught in the net of his own obsession with an heir, masculine pride, and self-indulgence.  Ultimately, he comes to see that he has paid an enormous price, but that “nothing can ever be put back the way it was.”  In the final speech of the play, Henry muses on the magnitude of what has changed for his country (“the limb that was cut from Rome won’t graft to that trunk again”) and, with Anne’s ghost hovering in the background, begins to realize that “all other women will be shadows” and that he will seek Anne “forever down the long corridors of air, finding them empty, hearing only echoes.”  “It would have been easier,” he now recognizes, “to forget you living than to forget you dead.”

In Anderson’s play, it’s Henry, then, who has the final word, who makes the final pronouncements about history, whose torments we are left to imagine. The film, however, ends very differently.  The screenplay, adapted from the play by Brigid Boland, John Hale, and Richard Sokolove, has Henry, in our last glimpse of him, listening for the signal sounding Anne’s death, then galloping off to see Jane Seymour with nary a second thought.  In place of his sober, sad reflections at the end of the play, in the film we see little Elizabeth, a sprig of flowers in her hand, toddling down the path towards greatness (actually in the gardens of Penshurst Castle) while her mother’s voice in the background predicts her daughter’s glorious future.  The voice-over is a repeat of part of an earlier speech, one that has viewers cheering for Anne to this day.  As in the play, Henry visits Anne in the Tower, and as in the play, she lies to him about her fidelity to him.  In the movie, however, she embellishes her lie with more detail–“I was untrue to half your court.  With soldiers of your guard, with grooms, with stablehands.  Look for the rest of your life at every man that ever knew me and wonder if I didn’t find him a better man than you!”–and Henry, rattled and enraged, shouts, “You whore!”  Anne, who knows she has hit the mark of his manhood but has even sharper arrows in her quiver, goes on:

“Yes. But Elizabeth is yours. Watch her as she grows; she’s yours. She’s a Tudor! Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can – and hope that he will live! But Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth – child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher – shall be Queen! And remember this: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours! She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built! Yes – MY Elizabeth SHALL BE QUEEN! And my blood will have been well spent!”

Yes, it’s overblown.  And it’s utterly without historical foundation.  Henry never visited Anne in her room in the Tower, and Anne never delivered a speech like this; indeed, at this point, Anne knew the chances of Elizabeth ever becoming queen were extremely slim.  Two days before her execution, her marriage to Henry was declared null and void by Henry’s lawyers, and Elizabeth bastardized.  In the movie, she is given a choice that the real Anne never had: to live, if she will willingly end the marriage, freeing Henry to marry Jane Seymour and making Elizabeth illegitimate in the bargain.  Or to die, with Elizabeth still a rightful heir.  She turns Henry down flat.

It was all invention, but of a particularly potent and timely sort for 1969. This was a period of convention-smashing in film: Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, and Easy Rider.  But with the exception of Bonnie Parker and Mrs. Robinson (but strikingly not her daughter Elaine), the female characters in the New American Cinema played by the rules.  It was the men who challenged the “status quo,” and the men who paid heroically for it.[2]  Hale and Boland’s Anne, long before Thelma and Louise, is the first female heroine to ride off the cliff, in full consciousness of what she is doing, to preserve her own integrity (and in this case, the future of her daughter and of England).

It struck a chord, even with me. In 1969, I was a pretty cynical movie-goer.  The anti-sentimentalist Pauline Kael, who did movie reviews for The New Yorker,  was my idol, and I hated anything that smacked of pretention or high-mindedness.  I was not a feminist in anything but the most inchoate sense of the word.  While friends of mine were joining consciousness-raising groups and attending demonstrations, I scorned and was made anxious by what I thought of as “groupthink.”  My own personal rebellion was to drop out of school, have a lot of mindless sex, marry someone I didn’t love, and then suffer a nervous breakdown which made me unable to leave him.  But I did manage to make it to the movies—and Anne of the Thousand Days was one of them. It was my first introduction, since the boring, sexless Tudor history I’d read in high school, to the story of Henry and Anne.  I had no idea what was invented and what was historically documented, but it made no difference. I loved fiery, rebellious Anne.  I loved the way she bossed Richard Burton’s Henry around like a surly, 20th-century teenager.  I loved the fact that Genevieve Bujold’s hair was messy as she delivered that speech to Henry, loved her intensity, loved her less-than-perfectly symmetrical beauty, loved the fact that someone that small could pack such a wallop.

Anne’s speech in the Tower might have seemed melodramatic if it had been played by a young Bette Davis—or, heaven forfend, an Elizabeth Taylor!  But Bujold’s fire, issuing from her petite frame and elfin face, her hair disheveled, her dark eyes glittering with pride, desperation, hurt, and vengeance, transformed the potentially hokey into an indelible, iconic moment. Even at a recent festival of Burton’s films, held by the British Film Institute, the audience was stirred, crying out “Go, Anne, go, you tell him!”[3] “After watching this,” writes one contemporary Tudorphile,  “you come away with the feeling that if that ain’t the way it really happened then it should’ve. I love the pride she displays even after Henry slaps her. She’s right, he’s wrong and they both know it. As she goes on talking down to him you can see him shriveling little by little and he nevermore was the man he’d once been. Seems she got the last laugh in more ways than one.”

Bujold also did something with Anne’s famous—and famously ambiguous—comments in the Tower that no other actress before or since has done, and that contributed to the believability of that final speech.   Anne’s behavior in the Tower, as she awaited her sentencing and then her death, provides some of  the most intriguing clues to her personality.  Unfortunately, it was recorded by Constable Kingston, a man who seems to have been tone-deaf to her sense of irony.  When Anne delivered her best-known line—“I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck”—then put her hands around her neck and “laughed heartily” (as Kingston described it), he took her to be showing “much joy and pleasure in death.” The actresses who have played Anne have been too smart to accept that interpretation, but then have been left with the task of figuring out just what was going on.  Merle Oberon and Dorothy Tutin, who played Anne in the 1971 BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, eliminate the laughter entirely, and have Anne say the line wistfully, as if in resigned acceptance (and in the case of Oberon, with a touch of narcissism) over the reality of the coming confrontation between steel and flesh.  Natalie Dormer, who played Anne in Showtime’s The Tudors, plays the “little neck” speech as a moment when the unimaginable stress that Anne is enduring breaks through her composure, and both the absurdity and the terror of her situation erupt in a crazy joke and then, hysterical laughter—an interpretation that fits well with the evidence that Anne’s  behavior in the tower was frequently unhinged.  But Bujold chooses to emphasize Anne’s intelligence and pride rather than her emotional instability, and plays the line as a sardonic response to Kingston’s lame reasurrances that the blow would be so “subtle” there would be no pain. Her Anne recognizes cowardly, self-serving bull when it’s thrown at her, and will have none of it.

In another iconic moment, Anne had said to Kingston, upon arrival at the Tower and being told that she would be housed in the apartment she stayed in before her coronation, that it was “too good for her.”  Kingston reports that she then “kneeled down weeping, and in the same sorrow fell into a great laughing.” One can interpret the weeping as relief and the laughter as hysterical, but Anne also laughed—in the same conversation with Kingston–when he told her that “even the King’s poorest subject hath justice.” It’s hard to read that laughter as anything other than mocking Kingston’s naivete about the King’s “justice,” and Bujold, emphasizing this mockery, which stems from Anne’s uncompromising realism, makes the “it is too good for me” comment drip with sarcasm rather than relief.  For a queen, of course the apartments would hardly be “too good.” By saying the line “It is too good for me” with bitter irony rather than tearful gratitude, Bujold’s Anne is actually pointing out to the clueless, uncomfortable Kingston that she is still, after all, the Queen of England.  Her Anne was, and probably always will be, the proudest of the Annes.

…..Bujold’s own history had prepared her well to play a young woman breaking through the confinements of convention.  She had grown up in a devout French-Canadian Catholic household, and spent her first twelve school years in a convent; in an online biography, she is quoted as saying that at the time she felt “as if I were in a long, dark tunnel, trying to convince myself that if I could ever get out, there was light ahead.” But something about her religious training made its way into her attitude toward acting.  When asked in 2007 how she prepared for her roles, she answered, “You pray for grace.  If you’ve done your homework and, most of all, are open to receive, you go forward…Preparation for me is sacred.”  But going forward with her own life required rebellion as well as grace; she finally “got out’ of the tunnel by being caught reading a forbidden book.  Liberated to pursue her own designs for her life, she enrolled in Montreal’s free Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique.”  While on tour in Paris with the company, she was discovered by director Alain Resnais, who cast her with Yves Montand in the acclaimed La Guerre est Finie.

Resnais taught her an acting lesson that “still is in me, will always be with me. ‘Always go to the end of your movement,’ he told me”–don’t short-circuit the emotion, the bodily expression, the commitments of the personality you are playing, allow them to fully unfold. That’s something that Genevieve saw in Anne as well. “You can’t put something into a character,” she said, “that you haven’t got within you. Every little thing in life is fed into the character…A word, a thought.  I had read something on Anne Boleyn that Hal gave me and I could look at her with joy and energy; Anne brought a smile to my face.” I asked her what elicited that smile. “Independence. A healthy sense of justice. And she knew herself and was well with herself.  She obviously had such profound integrity in that respect.  She was willing to lose her head to go to the end of her movement.”  That’s what we see, too, in her portrayal of Anne, especially in that final speech, and it’s why “My Elizabeth shall be queen!” still has audiences cheering for her, unconcerned with the historical liberties.

Most movies of the late nine-sixties have not worn exceptionally well, particularly with today’s generation of viewers, for whom many of the lifestyle protests of the times seem dated and silly.   My students snoozed through Easy Rider.  With Anne of the Thousand Days, the passing years and changing culture have had the opposite effect; my students adored it, and especially an Anne that seems to become “truer” as the generations have become less patient with passive heroines and perhaps a bit tired by the cutesy, man-focused femininity of many current female stars.: “Everything I imagine Anne really was”; “How I always picture Anne—as a strong woman not a sniveling girl”; “The gold standard of Annes”; “When I imagine Anne, it is her that I see”; “One of the best Annes ever — all fire and grace.” “The definitive Anne Boleyn for me”; “Pitch-perfect”; “So powerful that she turned a big, touch guy like myself into a wimpering fool”; “A remarkable actress.  I will never forget the scene where she and Henry go riding from Hever…Purely from her body language, she radiates suppressed hatred towards Henry—just by sitting on a horse!  And who can forget her in the blue gown, with jewels in her hair, looking devastatingly beautiful and in total command of herself and the situation.” [4]

Before I said good-by to Genevieve in our interview, I asked her who she would pick to play Anne today.  She admitted that she hadn’t seen either Natalie Portman or Natalie Dormer; she lives a fairly reclusive life in Malibu, and rarely sees movies or watches television.  “But is there anyone who you think would do the part justice?”  She was silent for awhile, then asked me if she could be honest.  Of course, I said.  “Maybe it’s selfish, but…the way I feel….” Genevieve had been so warm and generous throughout the interview, praising all her mentors and influences in her life, she was clearly a bit uncomfortable with what she wanted to say.  So, I pressed a bit more, and she responded, with an intensity that recalled her performance and made me smile with delight.

“No-one,” she replied, “Anne is mine.”


[1] Laughton himself maintained, incredibly, that the film, whose liberties with history run rampant (and rollicking) was true to historical fact.  When the film was lambasted by some of the British press for presenting a “disrespectful” view of imperial history, Laughton insisted on its authenticity: “Most of the dialogue was copied straight from contemporary records of Henry’s actual words,” he claimed, a bald faced lie that mattered little to viewers or most critics, most of whom were swept away not by the film’s accuracy, but the entertaining life it breathed into Henry as a personality.

[2] Although nowadays, pop culture tends to call the shots on “reality,” it used to be that it took awhile for movies to catch up with events in the real world. In 1969, Women’s Liberation groups were forming all over the country.  But it would be another five years or so before films like Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Her Anymore and Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman would bow, gently, in the direction of a “new woman.”  It wouldn’t be until Thelma and Louise (1991) that the deepest gender conventions would be challenged.  In Alice and Unmarried Woman, the heroines’ (Ellen Burstyn and Jill Clayburgh) independence is tempered by the presence of two gorgeous, really nice guys (Kris Kristofferson and Alan Bates, each at the height of his appeal) who, it is implied, will remain in the women’s lives, providing support and great sex while the heroines pursue their careers.  In Thelma and Louise, in contrast, even the nicest of the male characters are impotent; despite every attempt,  they cannot alter the tragic course of events.  The women have chosen, and they—like the rebel-males of the 1968-9 films—will have to pay the price.

[3] Bujold admits that she was also “telling off” Elizabeth Taylor when she filmed that scene.  After hearing rumors about Burton’s interest in Bujold, Liz had unexpectedly shown up on the set that day.  “It was all rubbish,” Burton told his biographer Michael Nunn, but it was a “problem for Gin, because she had Elizabeth training her sights on her.”  When Taylor showed up on the set, Bujold, as Wallis relates in his autobiography, “was fighting mad,” and “flung herself into the scene with a display of acting skill I have seldom seen equaled in my career.  Then she stormed off the set.”

[4] Comments from readers of my FB page.

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Filed under Anne Through the Ages, Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

The Mystery of Anne Boleyn’s Looks

Do note cite, quote, copy, or distribute without consent of author: Bordo@uky.edu. (Shares of this piece on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are appropriate).

The Mystery of Anne Boleyn’s Looks

We don’t know when Henry first became attracted to Anne, or what the circumstances were, in large part because the available sources only begin to mention her when the King’s interest was publicly known, and by the time that happened, in 1527, people were more interested in the divorce and scandal of it all than how it began.  All later accounts of Henry and Anne’s meeting are retrospective. George Cavendish, Wolsey’s gentleman usher, writes (thirty-five years after the event) that “the King’s love began to take place” when after her return from France, Anne was made one of Katherine’s ladies in waiting, “among whome, for her excellent gesture and behaviour, she did excel all other; in so much that the Kinge began to grow enamoured with her; which was not known to any person, ne scantly to her owne person.” (12) Agnes Strickland, citing Gregorio Leti, whose 17th century “Life of Elizabeth I” includes many colorful but uncorroborated anecdotes, relates that “the first time Henry saw her after her return to England…[was] in her father’s garden at Hever, where..

…Admiring her beauty and graceful demeanor he entered into conversation with her; when he was so much charmed with her sprightly wit, that on his return to Westminster he told Wolsey, ‘that he had been discoursing with a young lady who had the wit of an angel, and was worth of a crown.’ (Strickland, 575)

Cavendish and Strickland/Leti disagree sharply on Wolsey’s reaction.  Strickland, citing Leti, describes Wolsey as so eager to get power in his own hands that he was “glad to see the king engrossed in the intoxication of a love affair” and delighted that it was Anne, whom he had first recommended to be one of Katherine’s ladies.  But Leti was a devoted Elizabethan Protestant and harsh critic of Wolsey.  Cavendish, in contrast, was Wolsey’s faithful admirer and servant, and presents Wolsey as only “acting on the King’s devised commandment” in breaking up Anne’s then-relationship with Henry Percy, so that Henry could get his hands on her. [1] Wolsey’s interference, according to Cavendish,  “greatly offended” Anne, who “promis[ed] if it ever lay in her power, she would work much displeasure to the Cardinal” (which according to Cavendish, “she did in deede” by goading Henry to turn against Wolsey.) (15) Cavendish goes on to show that he clearly belongs to the “greedy Anne/patient Katherine” school of thought: “After [Anne] knewe the kings pleasure, and the bottom of his secret stomacke, then she began to look very haughty and stoute (arrogant), lacking no manner of jewells, or rich apparel, that might be gotten for money,” while Katherine accepted all this “in good parte”, showing “no kinde or sparke of grudge or displeasure.” (16).

With historical sources leaving no clear record, the imaginations of biographers, fiction and screen-writers have followed their own fantasies—or those that they feel will appeal to audiences.  Many of them, in one way or another, have Henry being struck by the thunderbolt of love at first sight.  William Hepworth Dixon, in his 1874 pro-protestant biography of Anne, describes Henry as “taken by a word and smile.  A face so innocently arch, a wit so rapid and so bright, a mien so modest yet so gay, were new to him.  The King was tiring of such beauties as Elizabeth Blount; mere lumps of rosy flesh, without the sparkle of a living soul…He fell so swiftly and completely that the outside world imagined he was won by magic arts.” (p. 107) In Anne of the Thousand Days, Henry sees Anne dancing at court, is immediately smitten, and instructs Wolsey to “unmatch” Anne and Percy, and then send her packing back to Hever.  Henry then takes off himself (on a “hunting” trip, as he tells Wolsey) for Hever, where he tells Anne that he will have her “even if it breaks the earth in two like an apple and flings the halves into the void” (30, Anderson) In the movie of The Other Boleyn Girl, Henry picks Anne (Natalie Portman) out of the Boleyn family line-up with nary a glance at Mary (Scarlett Johansen); he takes up with Mary first only because Anne humiliates him by being a more expert rider than he.  The Tudors has Anne and Henry locking eyes on the tower of the Castle Vert,  where Henry, as the shooting script tells us, “comes face to face with his destiny—with a sharp intake of breath, like an arrow through his heart.  A very beautiful, 18-year-old young woman with jet-black hair and dark, expressive, exquisite eyes looks back at him.” Later, after the dancing begins, he “stares at Anne as if suddenly rendered incapable of speech…’Who are you?” he asks, when the steps of the……………bring them eye-to-eye.  And she whispers back.  “Anne Boleyn.”

Joan Bergin, the award-winning fashion designer who did the costuming for the show, deliberately updated and sexed-up the costumes of the women in the tower, who appear, anachronistically, in bare-armed tutus inspired by Balenciaga corsets and Degas ballerinas.  “I wanted people to look at it and say ‘Look how sexy and foxy,’ rather than ‘Oh, who would wear that?’” The instant infatuation between Henry and Anne on the turrets of the Castle Vert is as fantastical as the costuming, for Henry was almost certainly having an affair with Anne’s sister Mary at the time, and there’s no indication that he had any romantic interest in Anne until that affair was over.  Which raises the question: Why not?  If Anne was as gorgeous as the popular media have presented her, from classically lovely Merle Oberon (in Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII) to the sensuous Natalie Dormer of The Tudors, surely he would have noticed that Mary, pretty as she was said to be, had an even more stunning sister.

Anyone who has even the slightest actual knowledge of Tudor history is aware that the Anne who could turn men to jelly at first sight is a myth—or perhaps more accurately, a reflection of the limits of 20th century conceptions of attraction, fixated as they are on the surface of the body.  It’s hard for us to imagine a woman for whom a king would split the earth in two who is anything less than ravishing.  But in her own time, Anne’s looks were not rated among her greatest assets.  “Reasonably good-looking” pronounced John Barlow, one of Anne’s favorite clerics.  “Not one of the handsomest women in the world” reported the Venetian diplomat, Francesco Sanuto: “She is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the English king’s great appetite and her eyes, which are black and beautiful.” (Denny, 20)  Sanuto was not a fan, but George Wyatt, grandson of one of Anne’s early admirers, the poet, was. In 1623, he gave his nephew a manuscript that he had apparently written some twenty-five years, in which, drawing on the reports of relatives and friends who had known Anne, he writes that although Anne was a “rare and admirable beauty,” she was not without flaws: her coloring was “not so whitely” as was then esteemed, and that she had several “small moles” “upon certain parts of her body.”  Wyatt also writes that “there was found, indeed, upon the side of her nail upon one of her fingers, some little show of a nail, which was yet so small, by the report of those that have seen her, as the workmaster seemed to leave it an occasion of greater grace to her hand, which, with the tip of one of her other fingers might be, and was usually by her hidden without any least blemish to it.”

None of Anne’s “flaws,” in our multi-racial, post-Cindy Crawford age, seem particularly significant.  Some, such as Anne’s olive skin, boyish physique, and wide mouth—not to mention the well-placed moles—would put her in contention for America’s Next Top Model.  But in Anne’s own time, beauty spots were not yet a fashion accessory, and even so slight a deformity as a “little show” of extra nail, despite Wyatt’s courtly spin, could raise questions about Satan’s influence in Anne’s conception. Snow white skin, which women would try to simulate through make-up (including Anne’s famous daughter, Elizabeth I) was a requisite of English beauty, and remained so for hundreds of years, overdetermined by racial, class, and moral meanings distinguishing the leisured classes from their “coarse and brown inferiors” and thought to be the outward manifestation of a “fair and unspotted soul” (Anatomy of Fashion, 149).  And fair hair, which Anne’s predecessors (both legal and extra-marital) apparently enjoyed, reigned in the Tudor hierarchy of beauty.  Both the Virgin Mary and Venus (most famously, in Botticelli’s 1486 painting) were always pictured as blondes.  So were all the heroines of the literature of courtly love, from Iseult to Guinevere: “Gallant knights, poets and troubadours celebrated their love of blondes with much eager serenading” and “felicitous poems and romantic tales bursting with golden-haired heroines poured from the pens of passionate lovers.” (On blondes, p. 61-62) Light-haired women were also considered to be more “cheerful and submissive” (very desirable.)[2]  Within a century or so, the generous, sweet, needing-to-be-rescued blonde heroine would become an essential ingredient of every successful fairy tale.

The 16th century ideal.

“Where did ever mortal eye See two lovelier cheeks displayed?  Lily-white, without a lie, Sweetly, featly are they made.  Long and pale and gold’s her hair.  If hers and mine the whole realm were, I would give no one else a share?” (13th Century German love song”)

“Look for a woman with a good figure and with a small head; Hair that is blond but not from henna; whose eyebrows are spaced apart, long and arched in a peak; who is nice and plump in the buttocks.” Juan Ruiz, 14th century courtier

“A Lady’s hair should be fine and fair, in the similitude now of gold, now of honey, and now of the shining rays of the sun” (Firenzuola, Dialogue of the Beauty of Women, 1548)

“I desire to take first her hair, for that, methinks, is of more importance to her beauty than any other of her charms…Tresses must adorn our Lady, and in color they shall be like unto clear shining gold, for that in truth affords more delight to the eye than any other whatsoever.” (Fererigo Luigini,  Book of Fair Women, 1554.

If you happened to have been born with less than shining gold tresses, there were many recipes for curing that.  You could take the rhine of rubarb, steep it in white wine or clear lye, and wet your hair with the solution, leaving it to dry in the sun (repeat if necessary).  Sulphur and lead were also useful, and could bleach freckles too.  But the most successful procedures were more complex, involving many stages of pulverizing, soaking, boiling, pounding, applying, rinsing, and re-applying, and their success was temporary: golden tresses, tortured by lye, usually fell out over time.  Other formulas were employed to achieve the “whitely” complexion that was most admired. You could soak wheat in flour for fifteen days, then grind and blend it with water, strain through a cloth, and let it crystallize and evaporate.  You then mix it with rosewater, which “will obtain a make-up which will be as white as snow.” White ceruse (containing lead carbonate, lead oxide, and lead hydroxide) could also be smeared on the face to simulate a pale matte complexion.  (It was poisonous, but other popular recipes–such as egg whites–left the face shiny and stiff.)  To complete the fair, faultless look, shaggy eyebrows, as well as the hairline, could be be plucked to create a “clear, high forehead. ” Blue veins could be (and were) painted on the skin.  And teeth could be bleached:

“Take three drachms each of crystal, flint, white marble, glass and calcined rock salt, two drachms each of calcined cuttlefish bone and small sea-snail shells, half a portion each of pearls and fragments of gemstones, two drachms of the small white stones which are to be found in running water, a scruple of amber and twenty-two grains of musk. Mix them well together and grind them into the finest powder on a marble slab. Rub the teeth with it frequently and, if the gums have receded, paint a little rose honey on them. The flesh will grow back in a few days and the teeth will be perfectly white.” (16th century recipe for teeth-whitening)

Moles were a bigger problem, because the medievals did not have our advanced surgical procedures for removal, and birthmarks were often seen as ominous signs.  The medievals, who believed that a mother’s imagination while pregnant can rupture the skin, read birthmarks the way later generations would decipher bumps on the skull. A mole on the throat (where several report Anne’s to have been) predicted a violent death.  One on the upper lip meant good fortune for a man—but debauchery for a woman.  If it was just above the left side of her mouth, “vanity and pride, and an unlawful offspring to provide for.”

“To make the hair yellow as golde.  Take the rine or scrapings of Rubarbe, and stiepe it in white wine, or in cleere lie; and after you have washed your head with it, you shall weatte your hairs with a Spoonge or some other cloth, and let them drie by the fire, or in the sunne; after this wette them and drie them again.” (Recipe for bleaching hair, 1568)

Fifteenth Century witch-hunter Lambert Daneau, saw moles as witches’ marks.  Daneau and other “witch-prickers,” would stick pins in them to find the bedeviled ones; when the suspect registered no pain (hard to imagine) it indicated Satan’s handiwork:

“There is not a single witch upon whom the devil doth not set some note or token of his power and prerogative over them… “Sometimes it is the likeness of a hare, sometimes like a toad’s foot, sometimes a spider, a puppy, a dormouse.  It is imprinted on the most secret parts of the body; with men, under the eyelids or perhaps under the armpits, or on the lips or shoulders, the anus, or elsewhere; with women, it is generally on the breasts or private parts.  The stamp which makes these marks is simply the devil’s talon.”

Notions such as these explain how Anne’s moles could morph, in the hands of Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, writing half a century after Anne’s death, into a third nipple.  Sander, who probably never saw Anne dressed, let alone naked (he was nine when she was executed), but was exiled by her daughter Elizabeth, is responsible for most of the mythology surrounding Anne’s body, including her nortorious sixth finger.  In his book, Schismatis Anglicani (The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism), written expressly to provide a counter-history to John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (among whom Anne is numbered), Sander wallows in descriptions of Anne’s body as the gateway which lured the lusting, ensnared Henry through the doors of heresy.  But amazingly, Sander saw no contradiction in claiming that this desirable body was also marked with the outward manifestations of her league with Satan:

“Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair and an oval face of sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice.  She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers.  There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness, she wore a high dress covering her throat.  In this she was followed by the ladies of the court, who also wore high dresses, having before been in the habit of leaving their necks and the upper portion of their person uncovered.”

This mythology was clearly ideologically motivated . Such pronounced deformities as described by Sander would certainly have eliminated Anne as a lady-in-waiting, much less a candidate for Queen. Sander, moreover, was not well-informed about female fashion. For high necks were not yet in vogue while Anne was alive, and a “large wen” would not have been hidden by the delicate ropes of pearls or the decorative “B” that she wore around her neck.   The wen probably was inspired by the anonymous manuscript describing Anne’s coronation which attributed a “disfiguring wart” and a neck “swelling resembling goiter” to her.  The sixth finger seems likely to have been an exaggeration of the vestigial nail that Wyatt describes, and explains Wyatt’s mention of it, as his book was, by his own admission, “not without an intent to have opposed Saunders (Sander,)” who he calls “the Romish fable-framer.” The point of his book (entitled “Some Particulars of the Life of the Virtuous Christian and Renowned Queen Anne Boleigne”), he tells the reader, is to dispel the “black mists of malice…instructed to cover and overshadow [Anne Boleyn’s] glory with their most black and venomous untruths.” So he was hardly an impartial reporter himself. But despite his biases, Wyatt’s own sources are far more respectable than Sander’s, especially when it comes to descriptions of Anne’s physical appearance. Based on notes taken when he was young, gathered from Anne Gainsford, one of Anne’s personal attendants, as well as relatives of his own “well acquainted with the persons that most this concerneth,” his corrections of Sander’s descriptions of Anne’s imperfections sound highly plausible, as Wyatt doesn’t insist that Anne was a beauty without flaws, but acknowledged the nail, moles, and “not so whitely” complexion.

The wens, goiters, and projecting tooth have all faded from the popular imagination. But that sixth finger just won’t let go.  By the nineteenth century, it had become a “fact” which even today, many people remember as among the first things that they learned about Anne[3]. At the beginning of every public lecture I ask my audiences what they know about Anne Boleyn; invariably, several shout out “She had six fingers!” Internet sites devoted to “Fascinating Facts” still list Anne’s six fingers (sometimes multiplying it to six on each hand.) Women’s magazine features giving inspiration for women to “love their bodies” present Anne and her extra finger (and sometimes, an extra nipple) as a role model.  At least one well-known portrait, now hanging in Ludlow castle, prominently features Anne with six fingers on each hand.  One of the more imaginative histories cites her “malformed hand” as the reason she was kept out of sight, in France, until a suitable husband could be contracted. (chapman, p. 28.) When an art installation opened in London in 2011 with a full-size Anne among the creations, the wax figure had an extra finger.   Anne’s sixth finger is even mentioned in the movie “Steel Magnolias,” as the women in Truvee’s beauty shop banter, through the bathroom door, about an article in a woman’s magazine.  The bottom line, however:  Anne did not have six fingers. Since Anne’s death, the bodies buried in the chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula at the Tower of London have been exhumed and none of the skeletons have shown evidence of a sixth finger.  Of course, there are those who claim Anne’s body is actually not among them. But skeletal remains aside, if the living Anne actually had a sixth finger, would the eagle-eyed Chapuys have failed to report it?  Anne’s liabilities were a favorite topic of his gossipy letters home; yet a sixth finger is mentioned in none of them (or in any other court letters or papers prior to Sander.)

Beyond the dark hair and eyes, the olive skin, the small moles and the likelihood of a tiny extra nail on her little finger, we know very little with certainty about what Anne looked like.  Before her execution, as we’ve seen, Henry, determined to wipe the slate clean, had any original portraits of Anne that he could find destroyed.  Those that remain are almost all later copies and interpretations, and are quite inconsistent with each other.  Some have been contested as actually of Jane Seymour or some other woman rather than Anne, while other portraits not identified as Anne—the beautiful Sommersby portrait thought to be of Jane Grey, for example—have been argued to actually be Anne.  Historians and art historians have gone back and forth on the identity of the various sitters in many “Anne” portraits, with agreement on only a few.  One is a tiny miniature in a “locket ring” worn by Elizabeth I, which was found among her belongings after her death.  The existence of the ring, which bears the image of Elizabeth on one side and her mother on the other, is haunting, but being so small, tells us little about what Anne looked like.  There is also general consensus about a portrait, by an unknown artist circa 1534, on permanent exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. This portrait, often referred to as “the NPG portrait”, has provided the model for many later depictions on book covers, magnets, and postcards, where it has been variously glamorized or distorted, depending on t he artist’s inclinations.

The NPG is as reliable an indication as we have of what Anne looked like.  But even this portrait cannot be taken “literally.”  Art historian Lacey Baldwin Smith has written that “Tudor portraits bear about as much resemblance to their subjects as elephants to prunes.”  A slight exaggeration, maybe. But it is true that portraits often bore the mark of “symbolic iconizing”— the translation of a belief or argument about the person’s character into visual imagery—more than the attempt to mirror features with photographic precision.  Holbein’s famous sketch of Henry (the painting itself was destroyed in a fire) clearly served this function, with the king posed to emphasize his power, authority, and resoluteness: legs spread and firmly planted, broad shoulders—and very visible codpiece.  Since generations of later artists were content with small variations on the Holbein paradigm, we have the sense that we know what Henry  looked like.  But actually, what we have is an icon that has settled into a recognizable shape over the centuries.

There is no icon of Anne comparable to that of Holbein’s Henry, and in its place, we have created our own.  It varies a bit from generation to generation, but she always has a beauty that stands out in the crowd, by whatever standards appeal to the writers or directors that have cast her.   Merle Oberon, Alexander Korda’s Anne, and considered an “exotic beauty” at the time, later became his wife.  Genevieve Bujold was picked out by Hal Wallis without benefit of a screen-test; she was a little-known Canadian actress at the time, he saw her in her first role and immediately recognized that “this is my Anne.” Although most Annes have followed the historical record in depicting her wit h dark hair, one of the most recent Annes, Miranda Raison, who plays Anne in Howard Brenton’s play “Anne Boleyn,” is a decidedly contemporary looking blonde.[4]  But perhaps the most stunning Anne of all is “The Tudors”’ Natalie Dormer:  exquisite, sensual, curvaceous in her push-up gowns.  She gave a brilliant performance, but the only indisputable correspondence to the historical Anne is her dark hair (dyed for the role) and a few fetching facial moles.

The actresses who have played Anne have all been knock-outs. The real Anne, however, although not deformed, was not a conventional beauty (by the standards of her own times).  Yet dark-haired, olive-skinned Anne not only prevailed over the pale, English roses, but seems to have done so defiantly.  Ignoring the fashion for blondes, for example, Anne grew her dark hair so long that she could sit on it.  Before marriage, young women were permitted to wear their hair loose (after, it had to be hidden under a hood; the exception was the Queen, on those state occasions which required her to wear a crown.)   Religious ideology aside, Anne must have been quite a ravishing sight, dancing at court, her thick, chestnut mane cascading down her back.

And then there were Anne’s eyes. Eastern cultures foregrounded them for their sexual power, but which the British had kept as washed-out as possible.  The Trobriand Islanders called eyes “the gateways of erotic desire,” and spent more time decorating them than any other part of the body.  The use of kohl to line and accentuate was common in the Middle East.  But proper English ladies did not brazenly provoke, issuing a sexual invitation; they submitted, casting their eyes downward.  Not Anne, apparently.  Nearly every commentator mentions her eyes, not just  “black and beautiful,” (according to Sanuto, who was not a supporter) but sexually artful.  The French diplomat Lancelot de Carles, who later brought the news of her execution to France, was—being French—more lavish and precise in his description of Anne’s “most attractive” eyes,

“Which she knew well how to use with effect,

Sometimes leaving them at rest,

And at others, sending a message

To carry the secret witness of the heart.

And truth to tell, such was their power

That many surrendered to their obedience.”

De Carles here describes a classic form of flirtation, which Anne may have explicitly learned as an “art” during her formative years at the French court, or which may have simply come naturally.  She was not afraid to “send a message” with her gaze, then provocatively turn away, inspiring pursuit. Thus, Anne challenged the Mary-fixated religious ideology of beauty (not surprisingly, since she was highly critical of Catholic orthodoxy) to engage in the more biologically potent use of the eyes to meet and invite.  The poet Thomas Wyatt, one of the first at court to develop an infatuation for Anne, probably had Anne in mind when, in one of his love poems, he describes his beloved’s eyes as “sunbeams to daze men’s sight.”

Anne also seems to have had that elusive quality—“style”—which can never be quantified or permanently attached to specific body-parts, hair-color, or facial features, and which can transform a flat chest into a gracefully unencumbered torso (Henry called her small breasts “pretty duckies”) and a birthmark into a beauty-spot.  “Style” cannot be defined.  But in its presence, the rules of attraction are transformed.  Style defies convention and calls the shots on what is considered beautiful. There are plenty of examples from our own time.  Consider Audrey Hepburn, who emerged during a period of mammary madness to replace hour-glass-shaped Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, their bodies seemingly made for producing cute little babies, with a vision of cool, long-limbed, not-made-for-the-kitchen beauty that has remained a dominant ideal through the present day. This was also a time in which I never saw anyone who looked remotely “Jewish” playing anything other than comic or downright grotesque.  And then Streisand, like some modern-day Nefertiti, proudly offered her profile in dramatic, high-fashion poses that shouted “F… You” to Gidget—and the rhinoplasts.  Think Helen Mirren, generally acknowledged as one of the sexiest women around.  Is she beautiful? Yes, but only if we grant the word “beauty” far greater range and variety than the surgeon’s formulas.  Think Michelle Obama, whose prominent jaw would disqualify her immediately among those who insist that symmetry and a delicate chin are biologically inscribed requisites for female appeal.

People with “style” remind us that the body is not just a piece of matter that can be measured and molded. Even in our cosmetic culture, there is still something magical, elusive, and open-ended about its attractions. And beauty, far from being cast in an unchanging, Platonic mold, is the human body moving through history, accepting or challenging the rules of its time and place. Sometimes, the prevailing rules of beauty are ripe for changing. The history of the mole is a case in point.  Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a mole’s “disruption” of the skin changed from being the devil’s handiwork to nature’s accentuation of especially pretty features (such as the lips, or the eyes) Men and women alike began to put false spots (beauty patches) on areas of their faces they wished to draw attention to. (Or, they might use them to hide scars or pock-marks.) Like actual moles, these mimic moles developed a code, but the meanings were far less menacing than the medievals: a spot on the forehead showed majesty, on the nose sauciness, on the mid-cheek gaiety, and near the corner of the eye, passion.  A patch on the lips invited a kiss.  “It is a Riddle,” mused Robert Codrington in his 17th century conduct manual, “that a Blemish should appear a Grace, and that a Deformity should adde unto Beauty.” (Anatomy of Fashion, p. 150)  But that is often the way ideals of beauty change.

Anne seems to have been among those who have changed the rules…..


[1] The exact nature and number of Anne’s pre-Henry relationships are fuzzy, but virtually all historians believe that she had some sort of serious romantic entanglement with Henry Percy, heir of the fifth earl of Northumberland.

[2] Elizabeth I had several of her portraits altered—the equivalent of today’s computer technology—to make her very red hair appear more blonde.  The most famous of these, known as the Coronation Portrait, was painted near the end of Elizabeth’s life.  It shows 25 year-old Elizabeth with every element of ideal Elizabethan beauty, from the pale arched eyebrows to the flowing golden-blonde tresses, right down to the delicate blue veins painted onto her white temples.

[3] The third nipple, too, is reported as fact (or is described as “widely rumored” or “was said to have”—a characterization that tends to perpetuate itself) on numerous websites, many of which site the popular Book of Lists, first published in 1977, as their source.   This book, which the authors admit was written “for fun,” quickly became a source for schoolchildren “to spice up their schoolwork.”

[4] When I asked Howard Brenton, in an interview, why the blonde Anne—I thought that perhaps he was making some point by going against archetype–he said it was simply because a wig would have been too uncomfortable for the blonde actress to wear. Of course, Raison could have dyed her hair, as Natalie Dormer did, and I wonder if Brenton would have given up so easily if other historical facts had collided with his cast’s preferences. My suspicion is that our own lingering blonde fetishism, still asserting itself even in an era of multi-racial aesthetics, played a role.

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