Monthly Archives: May 2012

Natalie and Anne

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn

Excerpted from The Creation of Anne Boleyn, copyright Susan Bordo, 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Natalie Dormer, the 26 year-old actress who was chosen to play the role of Anne Boleyn, approached her assignment very differently [SB: from Jonathan Rhys Meyers, whom I had just discussed in the chapter].  A long-time British history buff who had, in fact, hoped to study history at Cambridge (she misunderstood a question on her A-level exams and failed to get the necessary grade for acceptance,) Natalie has strong opinions about the real Anne, and when she got the role, was excited over the prospect of embodying her as accurately as possible.  “I didn’t want to play her as this femme fatale—she was a genuine evangelical with a real religious belief in the Reformation.”[1]  Dormer also came to the role well aware of the stereotypes and gender biases that had dogged Anne, both in her lifetime and in later representations.

“Anne really influenced the world, behind closed doors,” she told me in our 2010 interview.  “But she’s given no explicit credit because she wasn’t protected.  Let’s not forget, too, that history was written by men.  And even now, in our post-feminist era we still have women struggle in public positions of power. When you read a history book, both the commentary and the first hand primary evidence, all the natural gender prejudices during the period will certainly be there.

Anne was that rare phenomenon, a self-made woman. But then, this became her demise. The machinations of court were an absolute minefield for women. And she was a challenging personality, who wouldn’t be quiet and shut up when she had something to say. This was a woman who wasn’t raised in the English court, but in the Hapsburg and French courts. And she was quite a fiery woman and incredibly intelligent. So she stood out—fire and intelligence and boldness—in comparison to the English roses that were flopping around court. And Henry noticed that. So all the reasons that attracted [Henry] to her, and made her queen and a mother, were all the things that then undermined her position. What she had that was so unique for a woman at that time was also her undoing.”[2]

I was extremely lucky to meet Natalie after her contract with Showtime was over, and she felt free to cease acting as a spokesperson for the show and to speak her mind.  We arranged to meet in a small, boutique hotel in Reading, the London suburb where she grew up and still lived at the time.  When she arrived (I had been there for a half hour, the only woman in the room without a hat, nervously checking my recording equipment), the staff immediately sprang into action to make things comfortable for us in the bar; she clearly is the town celebrity.  But, except for her dramatic expressiveness and striking beauty, which singled her out from everyone else at the bar, there was no aura of celebrity about her.  Despite her success and the legions of fan clubs devoted to her, she regards herself as very much at the start of her career, and seemed genuinely excited to talk to someone else who was waist-deep in the world of Anne Boleyn, a place that she had occupied with intensity and dedication over the last several years.  We were in sync from our first exchange, and for over an hour and half, nestled like long-time girlfriends in the corner of the bar, accompanied by her younger sister Samantha, shared our love of Anne and her story, lamented how it had been misrepresented both in Anne’s time and our own, discussed Tudor history, and reflected on the struggle of Anne, women actors, and young women today to escape the limitations and expectations placed on them.   It was in this interview that Natalie revealed, for the first time, just how hard she had struggled to “not betray” Anne, as she put it, in the series.[3]

The first challenge came almost immediately.  Natalie had auditioned in her natural hair color, which is blonde, fully expecting that if she got the role she would play Anne as a brunette.  She knew her history, and it never occurred to her that the executives at Showtime would have anything else in mind.  She was concerned, in fact, that her strong physical differences from Anne—including her blue eyes—would disqualify her for the part.  She reassured herself about the eyes—“they aren’t the right color, but just like Anne, I’ve been told they are my most becoming feature” (actually, there’s not a   feature on Natalie’s face that isn’t dazzling.) But she knew the hair would have to be changed. So after she received the phone call telling her she’d won the part—largely on the basis, Hirst told me, of the “physical chemistry” between her and Rhys Meyers (Natalie describes it as “a lot of heaving bosom stuff”), after becoming “hysterical with joy,” she immediately dyed her hair.[4]

When she arrived on set, Dee Corcoran, chief of the hair department, who won an Emmy for her work on the show and was “almost like an Irish mother” to Natalie, took her aside.  “Okay, we’ve got a really serious problem—you dyed your hair.  They are really unhappy. Really unhappy.”[5]  “They” were the Showtime execs.

“So they sent me back to the hairdresser and they tried to dye blonde back in.  But any hairdresser will tell you that it doesn’t work to put peroxide blonde on jet black. I looked like a badger! I was terrified that I’d lose the role. I mean, what did they have planned, now that I was multi-colored—to put me in a blonde wig?”  Dormer wasn’t sure she could accept that.  “Anne’s hair color is such an important detail! For one thing, it was the basis of a lot of nasty labels—Wolsey calling her the “night crow” and so on.  And also, in being a confident brunette she was defying the ideal, of what it meant for a female to be attractive at that time.”[6]

“So we’re all barely cast, and I went to Bob Greenblatt with my heart in my mouth, and told him how important it was that Anne be dark. ‘Bob, I have to play her dark.  It’s so important.  You have to let me play her dark!’ Some might say I was being melodramatic and self-important.  But I thought it would just be a direct betrayal of Anne. Of her refusal to step into the imprint of the acceptable norm at the time.”[7]

“Greenblatt, who is a very shrewd man, just said ‘I’ll think about it.” I assumed I’d lost the job. I felt completely and utterly depressed.  But then I got a phone call a few days later, telling me that Bob had decided I could be dark.”[8]

Natalie doesn’t try to hide her pride and pleasure from me: “It was a major coup at the time! A major coup!”[9]  It was clear that by “coup” Natalie didn’t mean that she had bested the executives with a power play, for she was well aware that they called the shots, and that her casting had hung precariously in the balance.  It was, rather, a victory for the values that she hoped would be brought to the series—authenticity, a recognition of what was unusual about Anne, and a willingness, on the part of those in charge, to listen and learn.

But there were more challenges ahead. […..]

Michael Hirst, in his zeal to make the series deliciously digestible to prime-time viewers, did not initially do justice to Natalie’s view of Anne.  Although in his interview with me, he described her as “one of the heroines of English culture…who did a great deal to support and foster the advancement of the Protestant faith” but whose “name has been blackened because she was the Other Woman, who came between Henry and his rightful queen,” the Anne of the first season of The Tudors (and part-way into the second) did not do much to disrupt that “blackened” image.[10]  Through that first season, Anne entices, provokes, and sexually manipulates her way into the queenship, allowing Henry to get to every base except home, driving him mad with pent-up lust. “Seduce me!” she orders Henry, and a moment later we see her stark naked[11]; a few episodes later, she taunts him to find a piece of ribbon that she has apparently hidden inside her vagina. In the last episode of the season, they ride into an appropriately moist and verdant forest, tear at each other’s clothing, and just about do it before Anne pulls herself away from the embrace, leaving him to howl in frustration—and reminding me, unpleasantly, of high school.  (We’re told, early in the second season, that Anne had become acquainted, while a teen-age resident at the French court, with the hand-job.  Why didn’t she make use of it? It would have spared Henry and viewers alike some agony.) At the beginning of season two, it is also suggested that while at the French court, Anne slept with half the courtiers, and possibly the French king. When he presents her, newly anointed as Marquesse of Pembroke, to Francis and his court, she performs a Salome-style dance that makes one wonder just which historical series one is watching.  At home, her bold flirting, confiding, and cuddling with Mark Smeaton makes the later charges of adultery with him quite plausible—and completely out of character with Anne, who was obsessed with being accepted as Queen and would never have condescended to treat a court musician in such an openly familiar fashion.

[……]

[This hyper-sexualization of Anne] inevitably led to recycling the image of Anne Boleyn as the seductive, scheming Other Woman. That’s the classic soapy element of the story, after all: sexpot steals husband from mousy, menopausal first wife.  Hirst says he never intended this, and attributes it less to the script than to “deep cultural projections.” He had initially seen Anne, he told me, as a victim of her father’s ambitions, and believed he was writing the script to emphasize that.  He was surprised when “critics started to trot this line out: ‘here she is, just a manipulative bitch.’    Well, actually I hadn’t written it like that.  But they couldn’t get out of the stereotypes that had been handed down to them and that’s what they thought they were seeing on the screen. It didn’t matter what they were actually seeing.  They had already decided that Anne Boleyn was this Other Woman, this manipulative bitch.”[12]

I agree with Hirst about power of the history of cultural images; but it’s odd that he would be so naive about the way that the show’s own imagery reinforced them.   Dormer believes it was indeed unconscious on Hirst’s part, that in capitalizing on the sexual chemistry between Henry and Anne, and while portraying Katherine as so virtuous and long-suffering, he slipped into a very common male mind-set. “Men still have trouble recognizing,” she told me “that a woman can be complex, can have ambition, good looks, sexuality, erudition, and common sense.  A woman can have all those facets, and yet men, in literature and in drama, seem to need to simplify women, to polarize us as either the whore or the angel.  That sensibility is prevalent, even to this day.  I have a lot of respect for Michael, as a writer and a human being, but I think that he has that tendency. I don’t think he does it consciously.  I think it’s something innate that just happens and he doesn’t realize it.”[13]

Natalie was in a bind:

“I had to reconcile the real person and the character of Anne Boleyn as created in the text. For the actor, the text is your bible. You can try to put a spin on the nuances, but in the end our job is to be the vehicle of the text.”  Yet she often felt “compromised” by the way Anne’s character was written for the first season, and got tired of “flying the flag of Showtime” in interviews, justifying the show’s hyper-sexuality and inaccuracies “when in the pit of my stomach, I agreed wholly with what the interviewer was saying to me.  I lost many hours of sleep, and actually shed tears during my portrayal of her, trying to inject historical truth into the script, trying to do right by this woman that I had read so much about. It was a constant struggle, because the original script had that tendency to polarize women into saint and whore. It wasn’t deliberate, but it was there.”[14]

At the point at which I spoke to Michael Hirst, after the last season of the show was completed, he had become much more aware of the long legacy of negative stereotypes of Anne, the tendency of fiction-writers and some historians to simply re-cycle them, and his own complicity.  But at the time of the first reviews, he was surprised when some critics “dismissed Anne as your typically manipulative, scheming bitch” and was distressed that “some of this criticism hurt Natalie very much.”[15]  But Natalie wasn’t about to let it rest with that. During a dinner with Hirst, while he was still writing the second season, she shared her frustration and begged him “to do it right in the second half. We were good friendsHe listened to me because he knew I knew my history.  And you know, he’s a brilliant man.  So he listened. And I remember saying to him: `Throw everything you’ve got at me.  Promise me you’ll do that. I can do it.  The politics, the religion, the personal stuff, throw everything you’ve got at me.  I can take it.’”[16]

She told Hirst of her wish that audiences, when the series got to Anne’s fall, would empathize with her.  Talking to me in Reading, Natalie was especially passionate about that subject.

It happened very shortly after she miscarried, remember. To miscarry is traumatic for any woman, even in this day and age.  And to be in that physical and mental state, having just miscarried, and be incarcerated in the Tower! If only she’d had that child! It’s horrific to confront how much transpired because of terrible timing, and how different it could have been.  It’s one of the most dramatic “ifs” of history. And it’s why it’s such a compelling, sympathetic story.  But I knew by the time we’d finished the first season that we hadn’t achieved it. That audiences would have no sympathy for her, because the way she’d been written, she would be regarded as the other woman, the third wheel, that femme fatale, that bitch.  Who had it coming to her.[17] 

Hirst listened to her and took her seriously, and the result was a major change in the Anne Boleyn of the second season. Still sexy, but brainy, politically engaged and astute, a loving mother, and a committed reformist. Scenes were added, showing Anne talking to Henry about Tyndale, instructing her ladies-in-waiting about the English Bible, quarrelling with Cromwell over the mis-use of monastery money. No longer was Anne simply a character “in the ether.” Rehabilitating her image became part of Hirst’s motivation in writing the script: “I wanted to show that she was a human being, a young woman placed in a really difficult and awful situation, manipulated by her father, the king, and circumstances, but that she was also feisty and interesting and had a point of view and tried to use her powers to advance what she believed in. And I wanted people to live with her, to live through her. To see her.”[18]

The execution scene was especially important to Natalie: “By the end of the season, when I’m standing on that scaffold,” she told Michael, “I hope you write it the way it should be.  And I want the effect of that scene to remain with viewers for the length of the series. I want the audience to be standing with her on that scaffold.  I want those who have judged her harshly to change their allegiance so they actually love her and empathize with her.”[19]  However the scene was scripted, this would require a lot of Natalie herself, especially since the show was not filmed in chronological sequence, and the execution scene was shot first, before the episodes that led up to it.  At dawn, standing in the courtyard of Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail, the site of many actual executions, she had “a good cry” with Jonathan Rhys Meyers.  “It was incredibly haunting and harrowing—I felt the weight of history on my shoulders.”  But because she had “lived and breathed Anne for months on end,” and had “tremendous sympathy for the historical figure,” it did not require a radical shift of mood to prepare herself for the scene.   “I was a real crucible of emotions for those few days.  By the time I walked on to the scaffold, I hope I did have that phenomenal air of dignity that Anne had.”  Anne’s resigned, contained anguish did not have to be forced, because by then, Natalie was herself in mourning for the character: “As I was saying the lines, I got the feeling I was saying good-bye to a character.  And when it was over I grieved for her.”[20]

Hirst, too, recalls the heightened emotions of shooting that scene: “That was an amazing day.  Extraordinary day. After, I went in to congratulate her.  She was weeping and saying, `She’s with me Michael.  She’s with me.’”[21]

The episode averaged 852,000 viewers, according to Nielsen, an 83% increase over the first season finale and an 11% increase over the season premiere, and for many viewers—particularly younger women—the execution scene became as iconic as Genevieve Bujold’s “Elizabeth Shall be Queen” speech.[22]  When I showed the episode to a classroom of historically sophisticated honors students, none of whom had watched the series, there were many teary eyes; among devoted Tudors fans, for whom it was the culmination of a building attachment to the character, the effect of the scene—whose last moments were both graphic and poetic, lingering on Anne post-execution, her now-lifeless face still bearing her final sad, unbelieving expression, caught mid-air, suspended in space—was emotionally wrenching:

“I have watched many actresses walk to the scaffold as Anne Boleyn and I read every book I can get my hands on fiction or nonfiction about her and I have never seen anyone do it with the grace I believe that Anne had except Natalie. The scene where she is walking through the crowd and they are actually touching her, you can see in her eyes and her mouth and the way she breathes that she is trying to hold it together and stay calm. Episode 9 and 10 of season two are stunning due to Natalie.”[23]

Many viewers, in fact, watched the show listlessly after Anne/Dormer left; the rest of the story seemed anti-climatic to them. “Natalie Dormer basically ruled The Tudors!,” wrote one, “Her performance was absolutely passionate, genuine and convincing and that’s why I was devastated when her character died and she left the show.”[24]  The feelings of the last commentator were shared by many. The following season’s finale had the show’s second smallest audience (366,000 viewers), and among those who stuck with it and continued to enjoy it (as I did), there remained a void where Natalie’s Anne Boleyn had been.  The ads for the remaining two seasons were successively more sensationalizing—the third season depicting Henry sitting on a throne of naked, writhing bodies, the last season described (on the DVD) as a “delicious, daring…eight hours of decadence.”[25]  But “those of us who were glued to this sudsy mix of sex and 16th century politics know the spark went out of the series when Dormer’s Anne Boleyn was sent to the scaffold,”[26] wrote Gerard Gilbert in UK’s The Independent.

            Today, hundreds of fan-sites are devoted to Natalie Dormer, who managed, despite being cast on the basis of “sexual chemistry,” to create an Anne Boleyn that is seen by thousands of young women as genuinely multi-dimensional.  Natalie still gets letters from them, every day, and finds them gratifying, but also a bit depressing. “The fact that it was so unusual for them to have an inspiring portrait of a spirited, strong young woman—that’s devastating to me.  But young women picked up on my efforts, and that is a massive compliment—and says a lot about the intelligence of that audience.  Young girls struggling to find their identity, their place, in this supposedly post-feminist era understood what I was doing.”[27]


[1] (Natalie Dormer, interview by author, Richmond Upon Thames, England, 31 July 2010)

[2] (Ibid.)

[3] (Ibid.)

[4] (Ibid.)

[5] (Ibid.)

[6] (Ibid.)

[7] (Ibid.)

[8] (Ibid.)

[9] (Ibid)

[10] (Michael Hirst, interview by author, telephone, Lexington, Ky., 28 April 2011)

[11] This all takes place in a dream of Henry’s, side-stepping any charges of historical inaccuracy.

[12] (Michael Hirst, interview by author, telephone, Lexington, Ky., 28 April 2011)

[13] (Natalie Dormer, interview by author, Richmond Upon Thames, England, 31 July 2010)

[14] (Ibid.)

[15] (Michael Hirst, interview by author, telephone, Lexington, Ky., 28 April 2011)

[16] (Natalie Dormer, interview by author, Richmond Upon Thames, England, 31 July 2010)

[17] (Ibid.)

[18] (Michael Hirst, interview by author, telephone, Lexington, Ky., 28 April 2011)

[19] (Natalie Dormer, interview by author, Richmond Upon Thames, England, 31 July 2010)

[20] (Ibid.)

[21] (Michael Hirst, interview by author, telephone, Lexington, Ky., 28 April 2011)

[22] (Nordyke 2008)

[23] (Zeek-Schmeidler. 2011. The Creation of Anne Boleyn on facebook, September 10. http://www.facebook.com/thecreationofanneboleyn)

[24] (Boddin, Bernadette. 2011. The Creation of Anne Boleyn on facebook, September 10. http://www.facebook.com/thecreationofanneboleyn)

[25] Taken from promotional material found on The Tudors, Season 3 DVD case

[26] (Gilbert 2011)

[27] (Natalie Dormer, interview by author, Richmond Upon Thames, England, 31 July 2010)

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At the Scaffold

Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn

Despite her proclaimed readiness to die, until very near the end Anne 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. As Anne prepared for her death, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding.  Chapuys 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, he was “very impatient” and wishing to have the thing done with “already.”  Ironically, Anne, on her part, felt the same way. Expecting to die on the 18th, she took the sacrament at 2 a.m., having prepared her soul for many hours.  By now all who were in close contact with her must have been convinced of her innocence, whatever their politics. She had insisted that Kingston be present when she took confession, so her assertion of innocence of the charges would be public record. Even her old enemy Chapuys was impressed by the fact that Anne, before and after receiving the Sacrament, affirmed to those who had charge of her “on damnation of her soul, that she had never offended with her body against the King.”  In the 16th century, to speak anything other than the truth at such a time would be to invite the utter condemnation of God. Anne had nothing to gain and her salvation to lose by lying.

She was prepared to die.  Yet, cruelly, the execution was delayed twice, once in order to clear the Tower of possible sympathetic observers, the second time because the executioner had been delayed. The first delay dismayed Anne, who thought that at the newly appointed hour she would already “be dead and past my pain.”  Kingston, who seems to have been an absurdly literal man, took her to be referring to the physical pain of the execution itself, and reassured her that “there would be no pain, it was so subtle.” Anne replied with her most famous line: “I have heard say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck.”  And then, according to Kingston, “she put her hand around [her neck], laughing heartily.”  Kingston flat-footedly interpreted this to mean that Anne had “much joy and pleasure in death.”  He apparently did not “get” Anne’s irony, or the fact that at this point, she was probably becoming a bit unhinged.  At the news of the second delay, she was distraught.  But “It was not that she desired death,” as she told Kingston (or perhaps one of the ladies, who then told him) “but she had thought herself prepared to die, and feared that the delay would weaken her resolve. “  So much for Kingston’s theory that Anne felt “joy and pleasure” at the prospect of death.

What she may have felt was something closer to what James Hillman describes as the state of mind that often precedes an attempt at suicide:  a desperate desire to shed an old self whose suffering had become unbearable, and thus be “reborn” in the act of dying.  This imagined rebirth, for Hillman, has nothing to do with belief in reincarnation, or even in heaven, but the perception, ironically, that the soul cannot survive under existing conditions. What Anne had been through was certainly enough to shatter any hold her previous life may have exerted on her.  She had been discarded by the man who had pursued her for six years, fathered her daughter, and seemingly adored her for much of their time together.  The person she was closest to in the world—her brother George—had been executed on the most hideous and shameful of charges.   The rest of her family, as far as we can tell, had either abandoned her or—as Anne believed of her mother–was awash with despair and grief over what was happening.  Still recovering from a miscarriage, her body and mind undoubtedly assaulted by hormonal changes and unstable moods, she had been sent to prison on absurd, concocted charges, and “cared for” there by women who were hostile spies.  She knew she would never see her daughter Elizabeth again, and—unlike the fictional Anne of Anne of the Thousand Days, who predicts that “Elizabeth will be queen!”—had no hope, after Cranmer’s visit, that her child would ever be anything more than she had seen Mary reduced to: a bastardized ex-princess forced to bow down to any children the new wife might produce for Henry.  She had been given reason to hope that she would be allowed to live, only to have those hopes crushed at her sentencing. In a sense, she had already been through dozens of dyings.   Nothing was left but the withered skin of her old life, which she was ready to shed.

As she mounted the scaffold, wearing a role of dark damask (black in some reports, grey in others) trimmed with white fur, with a red kirtle (petticoat) underneath—red being the liturgical color of Catholic martyrdom—political and national affiliations continued, as they had through her reign and would for centuries to come–to shape the descriptions of her appearance and behavior. To an author of the Spanish Chronicle, she exhibited “a devilish spirit.” A Portugese witness who had snuck in despite the ban on “strangers”, wrote that “never had she looked so beautiful.” An imperialist observer described her as “feeble and stupefied” (which would be understandable, and not incompatible with her looking beautiful as well.)  Wriothesley says she showed “a goodly smiling countenance.”  French de Carles commented on the beauty of her complexion, pure and clear as though cleansed by all the suffering.  For all, the spectacle of a queen, wearing the white ermine of her role, mounting the stairs to the scaffold, was unnerving.

Unlike her trial speech and her “last letter,” Anne’s remarks on the scaffold made the more conventional bows to the goodness and mercy of the King—in this highly public context, it was virtually required, if only to prevent any retribution against surviving relatives—and asked the people to pray for her.  She did not admit to guilt for the offenses with which she was charged or accuse the judges of malice, but did make reference to the “cruel law of the land by which I die.” By now, the four young ladies who had accompanied her to the scaffold (clearly not the hostile spies that had lived with her in the Tower, but others, more intimate with her, who she had been allowed to have with her in these last moments) were weeping.  Anne, having helped them take off her robe—an act that in itself must have demanded great composure and courage—“appeared dazed” as he kneeled down, modestly covering her feet with her dress, and asked the executioner to remove her coif, lest it interfere with his stroke.  The executioner realized that she was afraid of the pain of an impeded blow; she kept looking around her, her hand on her coif, anticipating the moment.   Clearly “distressed” at the task he was to perform, he told her that he would wait until she gave the signal.  “With a fervent spirit” she began to pray, and the Portuguese contingent, unable to bear it, huddled together and knelt down against the scaffold, wailing loudly.

Anne gave the signal.  But either the executioner or someone else in charge had devised a scheme to distract Anne at the last moment, so the fatal blow would come when she wasn’t expecting it; he turned toward the scaffold steps and called for the sword, and when Anne blindly turned her head in that direction, he brought the sword down from the other side and swiftly “divided her neck at a blow.”   As these things went—others had died only after multiple clumsy hackings—it was an easy death: if the naturalist Lewis Thomas has it right, it was far easier than her weeks of suffering in the Tower:  “Pain, “ he writes, is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time to get away, but when it is end game, and no way back, pain is likely to be turned off, and the mechanisms for this are wonderfully precise and quick.  If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensible part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.”   He quotes Montaigne, who nearly died in a riding accident and later described the “letting go” that he experienced at what could have easily been the very end:

“It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who have let themselves slide into sleep. I believe this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting in the agony of death, and maintain that we pity them without cause…If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care with it”

While I was in London, conducting interviews for this book and visiting sites of importance, I had an experience that reminded me of Lewis’s essay. Returning to my hotel from a day-long visit to the Tower, I was obediently following the crowd across a busy  intersection when I heard a voice call out “Watch Out!” and, struck on my lower back, was knocked to the ground. The impact was forceful and disorienting; I had no idea what had happened.  Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw the red of a London bus. “I’m about to be run over by a bus!” I thought, disbelieving but sure; it seemed impossible, on my innocent little research trip, that I should die in this arbitrary, unexpected way, but that was clearly what was about to happen.  I tried to lift myself up, and realized that although I was hurt, I wasn’t about to be crushed, for I’d been hit not by the bus I’d seen out of the corner of my eye, but by an impatient bicyclist; the bus had slowed to a stop by the time I was on the ground.

I was bleeding from a bad scrape on my arm, and sharp darts of pain in my back and side accompanied every breath, in a way that I recognized from a hair-line rib fracture I’d once received in an auto accident. I suppose I ought to have gone to the hospital just to be sure everything was okay, but I didn’t.  And eventually, everything did heal.  The only injury that remained was existential: the memory of that moment when I was sure that I was about to be extinguished, just like that, without warning.  I had felt terror, yes, but then, when the fatal blow seemed inevitable, an eerie calm overcame me.  It seemed useless to struggle—a feeling that I had never before experienced, in a life devoted to making things happen, protecting myself and those I love, and constantly moving forward.  For a moment, when I thought I was about to be struck by that bus, I relaxed into the unfamiliar sense of “letting go.” It was only for an instant, and then, when I realized that the bus had stopped and escape from the traffic was still possible, the self-protective fear returned and I scrambled to my feet, and hobbled across the street to the sidewalk where my husband was standing, looking alarmed.

Dostoevsky, too, had experienced a close brush with death—by the Czar’s firing squad, a sentence from which he was reprieved at the last moment—and fictionalizes his experience through a character in The Idiot.  His account, though very different from Montaigne’s or mine, nonetheless describes a radically altered state of consciousness, not characterized by pain but a sense of the infinity of time, stretching his final moments into an extended reflection culminating in the sense of impending re-birth into the “new self” that James Hillman describes:

“About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals (of whom there were several). The first three criminals were taken to the posts, dressed in long white tunics, with white caps drawn over their faces, so that they could not see the rifles pointed at them. Then a group of soldiers took their stand opposite to each post. My friend was the eighth on the list, and therefore he would have been among the third lot to go up. A priest went about among them with a cross: and there was about five minutes of time left for him to live.

He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions–one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good- bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer. Then having bade farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them.”

Anne’s preparations for dying, facing the inevitability of her execution, may also have been filled with internal good-byes, existential confrontation with the mystery of “being” and “nothingness”, and imaginings of becoming one with nature.  I like to think of her final hours as immensely rich, in a way that I cannot comprehend but that were sustaining to her, even beyond her more conventional—but extremely deep, for Anne—religious faith.  And then, at the end, I hope that nature or God (it makes no difference), gave her no more to figure out, no more to regret, no more to say good-bye to, no more work to do, and took care of her dying.

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Filed under May 19th, 1536 Feature

In The Tower

From The Creation of Anne Boleyn, forthcoming 2013 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, copyright Susan Bordo.

Edouard Cibot “Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London shortly after her Arrest” 1835

When Chapuys heard of Anne’s arrest on May 2, he could barely suppress his glee.  He marveled at “the sudden change from yesterday to this day” and declared that “the affair” had “come to a head much sooner and more satisfactorily than one could have thought, to the greater ignominy and shame of the lady herself.”[1] Anne and Smeaton, he reported, were charged with adultery, and Henry Norris and Lord Rochford (George Boleyn, Anne’s brother) for not having revealed what they knew of the “adulterous connexion” between spinet player Smeaton and the queen.[2]  Until the actual charges were formally made—and sometimes long after– reports of who was arrested and why were often inaccurate.  The Bishop of Faenza told Signor Protonotario Ambrogio that the Queen was arrested along with “her father, mother, brother, and an organist with whom she had been too intimate”[3]; Melancthon wrote to Justus Jonas that those arrested for adultery were “her father, brother, two bishops, and others.”[4] Hannaert wrote Charles that “the so-called Queen was found in bed with her organist, and taken to prison. It is proved that she had criminal intercourse with her brother and others, and that the daughter supposed to be hers was taken from a poor man.”[5] False gossip circulated throughout Europe concerning the arrests, with Chapuys, for once, getting it mostly right.  His intelligence was muddled with respect to the charges—for Norris was already under suspicion of adultery himself (although it’s possible that wasn’t yet revealed)—but accurate with respect to those arrested.  For Weston and Brereton were not arrested until May 4th.

Anne may have unwittingly contributed to those later arrests herself. “M. Kyngston,” she asked when brought to the tower, “do you know wher for I am here?”[6]  In a state of shock and disbelief, she searched her mind for the reasons for her arrest and shared her anxious musings with Kingston (who reported everything to Cromwell) and also to the ladies-in-waiting that Cromwell had chosen to spy on her.  In particular, Anne fretted about a possibly incriminating conversation she had with Norris, a long-time supporter of the Boleyns and the Groom of the Stool in the King’s Privy Council. Norris, who was honored to oversee Henry’s intimate bodily functions—Groom of the Stool, unbelievable as it may seem today, was a most privileged spot on the King’s council–was  closer to Henry than anyone else among his men, except for Charles Brandon. On May Day, when he left the jousts, he had asked Norris to go with him, and they had ridden together, discussing some serious matter.  That evening, Norris was in the Tower.

The serious matter may have had to do with an exchange Norris had with Anne late in April, which had made its way to Cromwell, undoubtedly in garbled form.  The actual details only came out when Anne, wondering why she had been arrested, speculated about it out loud with Kingston.  Anne had been verbally jousting with Norris about his constant presence in her apartments, and had chided him for “looking for dead men’s shoes, for if aught should come to the King but good, you would look to have me.”[7]  This particular statement must have alarmed Norris, who replied that “if he should have any such thought, he would his head were off.”[8]  There was good reason for his alarm:  In 1534, Cromwell had engineered an extension of the legal definition of treason, which was passed by parliament, and which had made it high treason to “maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing” bodily harm to the king.[9]  Under this new definition, Anne’s remark could be construed as referring to Norris’s desire for the King’s death. Anne apparently eventually “got it”, too, for after Norris made the comment about his head, she then told Norris that “she could undo him if she would.”[10]  What had (probably) begun as casual teasing ended with each ostentatiously declaring their horror at the thought that either entertained fantasies of Henry’s death.

But Anne worried that this wasn’t enough.  Later, realizing that their remarks may have been overheard, she asked Norris to go to her almoner, John Skip, and “swear for the queen that she was a good woman.”[11]  Unfortunately, this attempt at damage control only worked to make Skip suspicious.  He confided his suspicions to Sir Edward Baynton, who then went to Cromwell, who surely felt that gold from heaven had fallen into his lap. All this happened in late April.  So clearly, at the point of Anne’s arrest on May 2, Norris was suspected of more than simply withholding information about her purported affair with Smeaton.  However, the full details of the conversation may only have been revealed by Anne herself, in her rambling self-examination with Kingston, and this may be why Norris wasn’t arrested until May 4th.

Anne also told Kingston about how she had teased Francis Weston, then reprimanded him, for telling her that he, too, frequented her apartments out of love for her.  Under other circumstances, it would undoubtedly been regarded as innocent, courtly banter.  But Cromwell was on the hunt, attempting to assemble a case that would be overwhelming, if not in the evidence, than in the sheer magnitude and scope of the charges.  Both G.W. Bernard and Suzanne Lipscomb suggest, too, that Anne’s banter with Weston had “crossed the acceptable boundaries of courtly interchanges.”[12] But I suspect, too, that what was considered “courtly” and what was suspected to be something more had changed since Anne had learned the rules, and that Cromwell was able to take advantage of the different climate with regard to heterosexual behavior.

Anne was trained on traditions of courtly love within which flirtatiousness, far from being suspect, was a requirement of the court lady.  Of course, it must never go too far; the trick was to just go to the edge, and then back off (without, of course, hurting the gentleman’s feelings.).  Purity was required, but provocative banter was not just accepted, it was expected.  Especially in the French court, a relaxed atmosphere was the norm in conversations between men and women.  As the middle ages segued into the renaissance and then the reformation, however, conversations that would have been seen as entirely innocent may have begun to be viewed differently.  In an earlier chapter, I looked at the change from Capellanus’ version of courtly love, still rooted in Plato, which cautions young men to turn their backs on carnal pleasure and aim for spiritual transcendence of mere bodily love, to Castiglione, with his cynical advice for the most effective ways to overcome the resistance of their female prey.  If actual behavior followed ideology, then by the time Cromwell mounted his conspiracy against Anne, people may have been disposed to believe things, based on the exchanges with the men she was charged with, that would have been dismissed as ridiculous forty years earlier.[13]

[14]…[Anne’s moods in the Tower], according to Kingston, vacillated wildly, from resignation to hope to anxiety. She had always had a wicked sense of humor, and no irony was ever lost on her. When taken to the Tower, she had asked “Master Kingston, shall I die without justice?”[15] He replied, “The poorest subject the king hath, had justice.”[16]  Hearing this, despite her fear, Anne laughed. She was too sophisticated and savvy about the dispensing of royal power to swallow the official PR.  But she also seized on any glimmer of hope, and she had reason to believe that in the end, she might be spared.  She was the queen, after all, and no one in England had ever executed a queen.  Isabella of Angouleme and Isabella of France, both married to English kings, had been adulterous, but only their lovers were executed. Even those who had been involved in acts of treason—the most famous of all being Eleanor of Aquitaine, who almost succeeded in toppling Henry II from his throne—at most were put under house arrest.  It was almost unthinkable to Anne that Henry would have her put to death.  But so, too, was her imprisonment, which had come so suddenly, and seemingly without reason.

Until very near the end, she still harbored the belief that Henry might pardon her. It was not an unreasonable expectation. 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. Henry had himself been an adroit and seductively tender courtier, who had pledged himself Anne’s “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 honored like Guinevere for six years, cherish the hope that she, too, would be rescued from death?

From the time she was taken to the Tower, then, a razor-thin edge separated hope and doom for Anne. She had been treated very gently and with great respect by Constable Kingston, and no doubt the fact that she was housed not in a dungeon but in the lodgings she had slept in before her coronation lent an ambiance of (mistaken) comfort to her stay in the Tower.  After a visit from Cranmer on May 16th, she appears to have been offered hints—or even proposed—some sort of “deal,” in which her admission of the illegitimacy of her marriage and Elizabeth might win her life in a nunnery instead of death. Cromwell had been working to find a way to annul the marriage and bastardize Elizabeth.  Two likely “impediments” to the lawfulness of the marriage were a possible precontract with her young love Percy and the “consanguinity” of the King’s affair with Mary Boleyn.  Percy denied the precontract, so Cranmer was sent to get Anne to admit that she knew of the relationship with Mary when she married Henry.  Weir speculates—accurately, I believe—that Cranmer may have suggested to Anne that if she admitted to the impediment, the King might spare her life.  After Cramner left, Kingston reports, she was in a “cheerful” mood and talked about her hopes of being spared death.  Instead, the only “mercy” Henry had planned was her death by a skilled French swordsman, who was already on his way, even before Anne’s trial.

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.  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”[17] (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.”[18]  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.”[19]

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 ‘pour toute saluee de la mort’ [always ready to greet death], and that what she regretted most was that the above persons, who were innocent and loyal to the King, were to die for her.[20] And then, as summarized by several onlookers but reported in the greatest detail by Crispin de Milherve, she delivered the extraordinary speech that I quoted from briefly 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.”[21]

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.”[22] Kingston then said to her: “Madam, tell it me by word of mouth and I will do it.”[23] 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 (willing me to confess a truth and so obtain your favour), by 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 Bolen – with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself if God and your grace’s pleasure had so been pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation, or received queenship, but I always looked for such 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 honour, 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 accusers and 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 knew of Henry’s affection for Jane 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 judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear; and in whose just judgment, 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 displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls 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 Bulen 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.
Ann Bulen[24]

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.  “Its ‘elegance’,” writes Ives, “has always inspired suspicion.”[25] Well, not always. Henry Ellis and other nineteenth-century commentators believed it was authentic.  And the “style” 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.”[26] But Anne was no ordinary prisoner; she had shared Henry’s bed, advised and conspired with him in the 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 be “appropriate” 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.”[27] 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.”


[1] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: May 1536, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87960&strquery=”sudden change from yesterday”

[2] (Ibid.)

[3] James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: May 1536, 1-10,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=75429&strquery=”her father, mother, brother”

[4] James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: May 1536, 26-31,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=75433&strquery=Justus Jonas May

[5] (Ibid.)

[6] William Kingston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011,  245).

[7] (Ibid., 246) Modernized spelling applied

[8] (Ibid.) Modernized spelling applied

[9] (Wilson 2003, 375)

[10] Sir William Kingston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011, 246)

[11] (Lindsey 1995, 122)

[12] (Lipscomb 2009, 82)

[13] Besides his spies in the prison, Cromwell may have had some malicious female accomplices helping him out.  One could have been Jane Parker (George Boleyn’s wife), who many historians believe provided the incriminating “evidence” against her husband—that she had seen the two kissing on the mouth, and that she had told him first about her last pregnancy.  Both of these were completely appropriate behavior for a brother and a sister, but by the time they reached the point of formal indictments, tongues and other body parts had been added to raise the suspicion that the pregnancy was the result of George’s having “carnally” known Anne, “at Westminster [and] also did on divers days before and after at the same place, sometimes by his own procurement and sometimes by the Queen’s.”[13]  And although it did not rise to the level of treason, Jane is also said to have told Cromwell that the two had mocked the King for being unskilled and having “neither potency nor vigor” in bed.

Jane’s role has not been definitely confirmed, however. Her involvement is hinted at by Chapuys (not the most reliable source, admittedly), stated outright by George Wyatt, who calls George’s “wicked wife” her” accuser of her husband”, and accepted by later historians Bishop Burnett, Peter Heylin, and others, who attribute her turn against her brother and sister-in-law to jealousy of Anne’s close relationship with George.  Alison Weir, more plausibly I think, points to a possible self-protective switch of political allegiance, from the Boleyns to the Seymours.  Jane saw which way the wind was blowing, and followed its course. Howard Brenton, in his new play Anne Boleyn portrays Jane as actually a close ally of Anne’s.  She was, however, a weak person, and capitulated to Cromwell’s pressure on her. The latter two explanations–self-protection and pressure from Cromwell–rather than animosity toward Anne and George, seem most convincing to me.

Another accomplice appears to have been Lady Worcester, sister to two members of the Privy Council (half-brothers Sir Anthony Browne and Sir William Fitzwilliam), who accused Anne of relations with both Smeaton and George.  This accusation, as related in a poem by Lancelot de Carles written after Anne’s death, was produced by Lady Worchester after one of her brothers (which one is not made clear) had criticized his sister for her own “dishonorable love”, to which she replied that “it was little in her case in comparison with that of the Queen.” To my ears, this sounds very much like a desperate attempt to deflect attention from her own guilt, as a child will do when accused.  But this was the sort of stuff on which Cromwell’s case was built.   The tactic seems to have been to create as much smoke as possible, and count on people believing there must therefore be a fire.

And then, of course, there was the intimidation factor. Archbishop Cranmer, who shared Anne’s religious inclinations and had been a champion of hers since before the marriage, was in emotional turmoil on hearing of Anne’s arrest.  On May 3, he wrote to Henry, his soul clearly in struggle, wanting to defend Anne but fearing for his own safety: “I am clean amazed, for I had never better opinion of woman; but I think your Highness would not have gone so far if she had not been culpable.  I am most bound to her of all creatures living, and therefore beg that I may, with your Grace’s favor, wish and pray that she may declare herself innocent.” Still, he cautiously hedged his bets:  “Yet if she be found guilty, I repute him not a faithful subject who would not wish her punished without mercy.” The “if” evaporated after, in the middle of his letter-writing, Cranmer was called to the Star Chamber by Cromwell and his cronies.  When he returned to his desk, having “chatted” with Cromwell, Cranmer concludes his letter: “I am sorry such faults can be proved against the Queen as they report.”

[14] Omitted from this excerpt but discussed in the book: the trials and executions of the men with whom Anne was accused.

[15] Sir William Kingston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011, 246) Modernized spelling applied

[16] (Ibid.) Modernized spelling applied

[17] (Weir 2010, 223)

[18] (Ibid.) Eyewitness testimony of Crispin de Milherve

[19] (Weir 2010, 225)

[20] James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: May 1536, 16-20,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=75431&strquery=”preserved her composure”

[21] (Weir 2010, 230)

[22] Sir William Kyngston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011, 246)

[23] (Ibid.)

[24] (Norton 2011, 256-7)

[25] (Ives 2005, 58)

[26] (Ibid.)

[27] (Ellis 1824, 53)

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Susan’s Interview with Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

The popularity of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Showtime’s The Tudors has sparked a blazing controversy over the responsibilities of novelists, screenwriters, and popular historians to the “truths” of history.  Philippa Gregory, in particular, has angered and concerned historians by claiming that all of her “choices” in The Other Boleyn Girl, which contains numerous historically unfounded or discredited elements, “can be defended as a historical probability.” I wanted to collect a variety of views on these issues.  So I asked some well-known writers, from a variety of genres, to respond, in any way they wished, to some questions. Among the authors that I corresponded with was Hilary Mantel, whose sequel to Wolf Hall, entitled Bring Up the Bodies, has just been published.  She was not yet finished with the sequel when we corresponded; in fact, was at that point not planning a trilogy, but a long second volume. Her publishers convinced her, however, that her section on the fall of Anne Boleyn constituted a book on their own—hence, the decision to enlarge and publish that section as Bring up the Bodies.  I promised Hilary not to publish the interview until the sequel was published, so here, finally, it is:

                                   

SB: We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts.   But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far?  What historical standards do you hold yourself to?

HM: First let me say I don’t want to defame other authors for their choices. I don’t want to prescribe for them or defend them.  I don’t think there’s a right way of creating historical fiction, but I think some ways are more honest than others. I am probably less comfortable about ‘making up’ than most authors. I never knowingly distort facts, and even if they’re difficult to explain or for the reader to grasp, I try to find a way round that doesn’t falsify or sell short the complexities of a topic.

I must see myself as part of a chain of literary representation. My Cromwell shakes hands with the Cromwell of the Book of Martyrs, and with the trickster Cromwell of the truly awful but funny Elizabethan play about him. I am conscious of all his later, if fugitive, incarnations in fiction and drama.

I am conscious on every page of hard choices to be made, and I make sure I never believe my own story. (Bring Up the Bodies) raises the whole question with the reader, hands it over if you like: points out the power of gossip once it gets going, the difficulty of separating rumour from facts, the difficulties of bearing witness and assessing evidence. I don’t talk about these problems in a narrative overview, I make them part of the plot. I don’t think AB was brought down by facts, but by the power of rumour. That’s a slippery and insubstantial thing to describe, and almost impossible for historians to tackle. By its nature, conspiracy is off the record. The important conversations probably leave no trace. I think this is why historians try again and again to disentangle the mystery of AB’s fall, without ever sounding entirely convincing. There’s always something that is left over, something unaccounted for,  a piece of territory that vanishes when you try to map it. I think this is where fiction operates best, and can possibly contribute to our understanding of the past. I can’t explain the events better than historians can, but I might be able to evoke what it was like to live through those days.

That’s the largest claim I will make for fiction.

SB: 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?

HM: I think there’s a difference between the sort of making up I do and the sort the creators of ‘The Tudors’ went in for. They decide that fact is not always neat enough, and that fiction can improve it. They think, for example, it’s too complicated for the viewer if Henry has two sisters, so they roll them up into one. So then they have to invent an imaginary king for the composite to marry. And so we get further and further from anything resembling the record, because one falsification trips another. They decide they don’t need too many geographical noblemen — not Norfolk AND Suffolk: so they dispense with AB’s uncle, one of the unignorable figures of Henry’s reign; and that’s a really bad choice, not just historically but dramatically, because they miss all the fun of having a man who helps execute both his nieces.

Re Philippa Gregory: Retha Warnicke’s eccentric interpretation of Anne’s fall is a gift to novelists because it’s so sensational, but it’s very much a minority view. Through PG’s fiction, it’s gained traction. It’s through fiction that it’s become popular, though historians are mostly dismissive. I have to admit to some reservation about PG’s methods, not only because she relies heavily on one interpretation but because I have heard her claim that Mary Boleyn was an obscure figure until she rescued her: whereas of course you can’t read much about Henry’s reign without encountering Mary Boleyn, whose existence was a vast canon law complication.  She’s even a character in that old film ‘Anne of  the Thousand Days.’  However, PG evidently knows her readership and what they want.

SB: 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?

HM: A section telling readers what’s true and what’s false? You can certainly do that in outline, but if I myself were to do it properly, the notes would be longer than the book; almost every line would have to be parsed. Can I give an example? In the winter of 1535 a man otherwise unknown to history wrote to Thomas Cromwell to explain how he had made a snowman. It was made to look like the pope. It was ‘for the better setting forth of the king’s supremacy.’ But his local priest and his associates broke his door down, barged in and accused him of heresy. Can Cromwell help?

This made me laugh very much, and I can bet that was the effect on Cromwell too. (How do I know he had a sense of humour? Letter writers send enclosures, ‘put in to make you laugh.’) So in my book, when TC comes home from court one chilly late December twilight to his house at Stepney, he finds that snowmen have been constructed in the garden (the pope and his cardinals) and everyone under thirty (and some over thirty)  has spent the afternoon at this, for, as his son says ‘the better setting forth of the king’s supremacy,’ and they are also having a bonfire, and dancing around it is led by Christophe (fictional) and Dick Purser (factual.) So what now is the status of the snowmen?

To create an episode like this gives me great delight and  I try to think why. I am happy that the original snowman isn’t lost for ever, that it has been, as it were, rebuilt, only to melt again. I think about myself, thinking about the letter writer, whom perhaps no one has thought of for hundreds of years. And it works dramatically because gives me something silly and joyous to counterpoint the dire things happening that night: Katherine of Aragon is dying, Chapuys is ready to take to the road at dawn, Stephen Vaughan will be right behind him, etc. And it’s something so true of its time, that I could never make it up, would never dare (though everyone will think I have) and it hints at that whole world of Tudor ‘misrule’ and the annual breakdown of authority that marked the turn of the year, which always sounds so unconvincing when it’s described in folkloric texts.

SB: Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.”    This was said, too, 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, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.”  Care to comment?

HM: Having argued that there are not two neat categories, ‘fact’ and ‘fiction,’ I still think the notion that ‘it’s all interpretation’ must be qualified; some interpretations are well grounded in fact and context, others are not. I spend a lot of time seeing if I can reconcile interpretations, and I do as much research and reading as  I possibly can.  But I know I can’t proof myself against errors or misperceptions. And that’s why I don’t like to look down on authors who write quicker: I might this very day be generating some vast error, the more vast because I’ve tried to  know so much.  But I referred above to the idea of being ‘honest’  and I guess this is what I mean: at least, put the hours in. Respect the dead.

You have to think what you owe to history. But you also have to think what you owe to the novel form. Your readers expect a story. And they don’t want it to be two-dimensional, barely dramatized. So (and this is queasy ground) you have to create interiority for your characters. Your chances of guessing their thoughts are slim or none; and yet there is no reality left, against which to measure your failure.

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

HM: A problem: what readers think they know. Fiction is commonly more persuasive than history texts. After Wolf Hall was published, I was constantly being asked ‘Was Thomas More really like that? We thought he was a really nice man!’ I could only answer, ‘I am trying to describe how he might have appeared if you were standing in the shoes of Thomas Cromwell: who, incidentally, did not dislike him.’ But of course what I was really up against was A Man for All Seasons:  the older fiction having accreted authority, just by being around for two generations.  When I say to people, ‘Do you really think More was a 1960s liberal?’ they laugh. ‘Of course not.’ But (again, for the sake of honesty) you constantly have to weaken your own case, by pointing out to people that all historical fiction is really contemporary fiction; you write out of your own time. General readers are always asking you for the ‘real truth,’ and suppose that historians know more than they do: that they have ready access to a corpus of reliable, contemporary, first-hand reports, and that the perverse choice of the historical novelist is to deviate from these, in order to be sensational and sell more copies.

Re AB, I think it’s an obvious point  that she is carrying our projections; we (women readers especially) hang our story on to hers. This explains the undying appeal of the story of Henry VIII. Usually, to bring women characters to the fore in the writing of history (factual or fictional) you have to force the issue a bit. You have to position them centrally, when they weren’t really central, to pretend they were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do. But in the reign of Bluebeard, you don’t have to pretend. Women, their bodies, their animal nature, their reproductive capacities, are central to the era. Also, you have at least 2 queens, Katherine and Anne, who are very well documented compared to most women in history: the same goes for the princess Mary. Not only are they documented, but they are real players: politicians, strategists.

But. There is a big ‘but’ coming. These women operated in a masculine context. Can you understand their stories if you stay down among the women? I don’t think you can. And I don’t really understand the appeal of doing so.   But I’m very interested in how some popular novels use Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn as ‘teaching material.’ Women’s lives are thus, and thus: do this and you win: but then you get paid out. They are made into moral tales; which, indeed, they were to the contemporaries of the women concerned. It’s rather worrying that the morals drawn are much the same, across the centuries.

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Anne as a Piece on the Chessboard of Politics

By 1536, Henry was 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 should do all that they could to “soften and mend all matter relating to her,” for “in time everything would be set to rights.”[1] 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:

“True it was, “ (Cromwell said) that the King, his master, had occasionally complained of the suit which Your Majesty had instituted against him at Rome, but he [Cromwell] had fully shown that Your Majesty could not help stirring in favour of Queen Katherine, bound as she was to you by the bonds of consanguinity and royal rank; and that, considering the King, his master, if in your Majesty’s place, might have acted as you did there was no fear of his now taking in bad part your interference in the affairs of so close a relative.  He himself had so strongly and so often inculcated that reasoning upon the King, that, in his opinion, no cause now remained for disagreement between Your Majesty and his master, save perhaps the affair of these two good ladies [Katherine and Mary]; to remedy which, as he had signified to me, it was needful that we both should agree upon a satisfactory settlement of all complaints, and the knitting of that lasting friendship which might otherwise be endangered.  Cromwell ended 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.”[2]

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, but more important, because she was the obstacle standing in the way of reaching a “satisfactory settlement of all complaints” by Katherine and Mary.[3]  Chapuys also took Cromwell as hinting “that there was some appearance of the King changing his love.”[4]  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, as Chapuys later put it, was “Anne’s right hand.”[5]) What had happened?  At this point, nothing of grave significance. But Cromwell was a man who was ever alert to the slightest changes in the weather of power-politics, and Anne had just had a miscarriage in July of 1535.  It was not publicly reported, but can be inferred from comments made about her “goodly belly” in April and Henry’s postponement of a trip to France that summer “on account of her condition.”[6] Then, in July: silence.  There now had been two unsuccessful pregnancies, as far as the issue of a male heir was concerned.  Moreover, although Elizabeth was born healthy and beautiful, this child had not even gone to term—a far more ominous sign for superstitious Henry.  Was he already wondering whether God disapproved of this marriage?  And did he share his misgivings with his “most beloved” Cromwell?

Cromwell and Anne, moreover, although they inveighed against Rome and fought for the divorce together, 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 English 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.”[7] 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.”[8] 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 ambitous” is how Wilson describes them[9]) 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.”[10] By 1535, Seymour’s circle—John Dudley, Thomas Wriosthesley, 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.

The Other Women: Katherine and Jane

On January 7, 1536, Katherine of Aragon died, most likely of cancer of the heart (a real illness, but an apt bodily metaphor as well.) 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.”[11]  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 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 much to do.”[12]  Even Chapuys, ever alert to promising signs that Anne would be supplanted, finds this report “incredible.”  Anne was in her final month of what was to be her last 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 Seymour’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.”[13]  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.”[14]

In the four months between Katherine’s death and Henry’s open courting of Jane, two momentous events had occurred. 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 later described by Nicholas Sander 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.[15]  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” when 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.[16]  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 dismissed it.  In a letter of February 17, he wrote to Charles that Anne’s inability to bear male children was due to her “defective constitution,” that “the real cause” of this particular miscarriage 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.”[17]

Jane was a 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.”[18]  Plus, whether through coaching or inspiration of her own, she refused the king’s gifts, saying that her greatest treasure was her honor, and that she would accept sovereigns from him in “such a time as God would be pleased to send her some advantageous marriage.”[19]  She may have not been of “great wit” but she (or her brother) knew that this would increase Henry’s ardour.  The refusal of sovereigns happened after Anne’s miscarriage, an event which undoubtedly 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, it 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.  Disastrously and without precedent, it was “the some other way” that prevailed.


[1] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87907&strquery=”than his last born”

[2] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87907&strquery=”what Cromwell’s last words”

[3] (de Carles 1927, 234); Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87907&strquery=”satisfactory settlement of all”

[4] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87907&strquery=”changing his love”

[5] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: June 1535, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87920&strquery=”Anne’s right hand”

[6] (Fraser 1993, 219)

[7] (Hutchinson 2007, 42)

[8] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: June 1535, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87920&strquery=”I fancy she cannot do me any harm”

[9] (Wilson 2003, 386)

[10] (Ibid., 385)

[11] (Ives 2005, 295)

[12] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: January 1536, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87953&strquery=”sortileges and charms”

[13] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: April 1536, 1-20,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87958&strquery=”subjects abominate”

[14] (Ibid.)

[15] (Ives 2005, 298)

[16] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: February 1536, 21-29,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87956&strquery=”God will not give me male children”

[17] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: February 1536, 16-20,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87955&strquery=”defective constitution”

[18] (Ives 2005, 302)

[19] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: April 1536, 1-20,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87958&strquery=sovereigns 1536

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Anne Boleyn’s “Feminism”

From The Creation of Anne Boleyn, forthcoming 2013 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, copyright Susan Bordo.

A contemporary cartoon of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Mesinga (http://www.sarahmensinga.com/)

After his years with intelligent but conventional Katherine, Henry had found Anne, whose young womanhood had been shaped by confident women unafraid to speak their minds about virtually any subject to be an intellectually and erotically stimulating challenge.  But the court was still very much a boy’s club, in which Henry had delighted in surprising Katherine by showing up in her bedroom, one morning, with 12 of his hyper-active companions, dressed like Robin Hood and his Merry Men.  “The queen,” Hall reports, “the ladies and all other there were abashed, as well for the strange sight, as also for their sudden coming.”[1]  Blushing bride, boisterous husband; it was just the way it was supposed to be.  But Anne was not a blusher.  Spontaneous and intense in an era when women were supposed to silently provide a pleasing backdrop for men’s adventures, Anne had never “stayed in her place”— which was exciting in a mistress, but a PR problem in a wife.  Even if Henry’s own fascination with Anne had remained unwavering (which it probably did not; after such long, unrealized pursuit, even the most enchanting woman would have to seem a little too “real”) her involvement (read: interference) in the political and religious struggles of the day was a continual annoyance to her enemies, who saw her as the mastermind behind every evil that properly should have been laid at Henry’s feet, from the destruction of Wolsey and More to the harsh treatment of Katherine and Mary.

We know from her actions that Anne was not content to flirt with power through womanly wiles and pillow-talk.  She was a player.  Although a few historians are still insistent that Anne’s contribution to “The King’s Reformation” (as G.W. Bernard titles his book) was exaggerated by later Protestant “rehabilitators” of Anne’s image, by now most historians agree that Anne was not just the face that launched the reformation, but an active participant herself. She was an avid reader of the radical religious works of the day (many of them banned from England and smuggled in for her), both in French and in England.  Her surviving library of books includes a large selection of early French evangelical works, including Margueritte de Navarre’s first published poem (Miroir de l’ame pechersse”, 1531), which was later to be translated into English (as “Mirror of the Soul”) in 1544 by Anne’s 11 year-old daughter, Elizabeth.[2]  Anne’s library also included Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples’ French translation of the Bible, published by the same man (Martin Lempereur) responsible for publishing Tyndale’s New Testament, and numerous other French evangelical tracts. She had Tyndale English-language New Testament (which was to become the basis for the King James Bible) read to her ladies at court.  She also introduced Henry both to Tyndale’s anti-papal “The Obedience of a Christian Man” and probably also Simon Fish’s “Supplication for the Beggars.”  James Carley, the curator of the books of Henry and his wives, also sees it as highly significant that all the anti-papal literature that Henry collected supporting his break with Rome dates from after he began to pursue Anne.[3] Although she may not have supplied the actual readings herself, the couple was almost certainly discussing the issues and theological arguments involved, as both were avid readers of the Bible.

This was a time of religious anarchy, and although clear-cut divisions between various sects were not yet established—in fact, the Protestant/Catholic divide was just forming itself—Anne clearly stood on the “evangelical” side of issues.  In those days, that chiefly meant a belief that the word of God was to be found in the Bible, unmediated by the interpretations of Popes and priests.  But direct, “personal” access to the Bible required, for all but the classically trained elite, that it be available to them in their own language.  This was a cause Anne passionately supported.   She secured the appointment of several evangelical bishops and deans when Henry created the newly independent Church of England.  She attempted to intervene on behalf of reformists imprisoned for their religious beliefs.  Multiple corroborating sources from her own time remember her as “a patron of rising evangelicals, a protector of those who were harassed” both “a model and champion” of reformers, “in England and abroad.”[4]

The promotion and protection of the cause of reform was an especially dangerous business for Anne to engage in, because it was such a divisive issue (to put it mildly) and men’s careers (and sometimes heads) would hang or fall depending on which side was winning.  Anne’s took a risk in showing Tyndale and Fish to Henry, but it was one that initially paid off, as he immediately saw that they were on the side of Kings rather than Rome when it came to earthly authority.  (Henry’s reported reaction to discovering Tyndale—“This is a book for me and all kings to read”—is one of those quotes, enshrined even in The Tudors, that have become pop signatures of his recognition that he didn’t have to argue with the Pope, just ignore him. ) But even if Henry had no objection to Anne’s tutelage, others did, and their objections were a potent mix of misogyny and anti-Protestant fervor.  Much of the gossip that circulated around court and through Europe came from the tongues (and pens) of those for whom to be anti-papal was to be pro-devil.  “Lutheran” women (an incorrect appellation for Anne, who did not subscribe to Lutheran doctrine) enraged Catholic dogmatists, who were quick to accuse them of witchcraft—an old charge against “talkative,” impertinent women which was particularly handy when the women were “heretics.” From “heretic” to “witch” was a short step, and from “witch” to “insatiable carnal lust” and “consorting with the devil” took barely a breath.[5] The same year that Anne was executed, an effigy of evangelical Marguerite de Navarre, on a horse drawn by devils wearing placards bearing Luther’s name, appeared during a masquerade in Notre Dame.[6]

Protestants, of course, could be no less zealous than papists in their diatribes against women who presumed to interfere in men’s business—particularly when women who threatened to bring Catholicism back to the throne were on the horizon. Actually, the Protestants could be even more vehement, as they had a religious doctrine within which the Father, whether God, King, or husband, was the model of all authority.  Depending on which side you stood—Catholic or Protestant—determined which presumptuous women were most offensive to you.  When Mary Tudor became queen of England in 1553, her Catholicism added fuel to the fire that was already burning in Protestant reformer John Knox, who argued, in his famously titled The First Blast of Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, “that any woman who presumed ‘to sit in the seat of God, that is, to teach, to judge, or to reign above a man’” was “a monster in nature.”[7]   And then the old familiar charges came pouring out again: “Nature…doth paint them forth to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish, and experience hath declared them to be unconstant, variable, cruel, and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment.”[8] No wonder that Elizabeth felt it important that people see her as having “the heart and stomach of a King”![9]

Anne Boleyn’s problem, though, as far as public relations went, was the pro-Katherine, papist faction.  It was they who called her a “whore”, a would-be poisoner, and a vicious corrupter of otherwise sweet-tempered King Hal.  It was they who later spread rumors that she bore physical marks of the devil on her body.  It was they who were most terrified of her insidious influence on the King’s politics. Her actual contribution to the scourge of Lutheranism, far from being minimized as it later was to be in the writings of early 20th century historians, was inflated to unbelievable proportions.  In one letter to Charles, Chapuys went so far as to blame “the heretical doctrines and practices of the concubine” as “the principal cause of the spread of Lutheranism in this country.”[10]

It was preposterous, and Henry certainly didn’t believe it.   But it created a political/religious “wing” of anti-Anne sentiment that could be exploited by Cromwell when he turned against Anne, and 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.  Jane Seymour, when she entered the picture in 1536, was no less the “other woman” than Anne was (and probably more deserving of the charge of using her virginity as bait than Anne was), but her apparent docility miraculously spared her, when she became queen, from the antipathy that Anne inspired.  True, Jane was a believer in the “old ways” and a supporter of Mary’s rights, which would have endeared her to Chapuys no matter what her personality.  But although later historians would question just how docile Jane actually was, in her own time she was constantly commended for her gentleness, compassion, and submissiveness, which she advertised in her own motto: “Bound to obey and serve.” With few exceptions, the stereotype has not lost its grip on popular culture.

With Anne it was quite the opposite. 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.  And while her unwillingness to occupy her “proper place” was not in itself the cause of Cromwell’s turn against her, it certainly contributed to their stand-off, unleashed his ruthlessness, and insured his success in planning her downfall.  “Had she been gracious and modest,” writes 19th century commentator James Froude, “she might have partially overcome the prejudice against her.”[11] “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.”[12]  But women did not belong in the council chamber.

Anne herself recognized that she had over-stepped the boundaries of appropriate wifely behavior.  At her trial, insisting that she was “clear of all the offences which you have laid to my charge,” she went on to acknowledge, not only her “jealous fancies” but her failure to show the King “that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited.”[13]  Anne’s recognition that she had not shown the King enough humility, in this context, shows remarkable insight into the gender politics that undoubtedly played a role in her downfall.  She stood accused of adultery and treason.  Yet she did not simply refute those charges; she admitted to a different “crime”:  not remaining in her proper “place.”  In juxtaposing these two, Anne seems to be suggesting that not only did she recognize that she had transgressed against the norms of wifely behavior, but that this transgression was somehow related to the grim situation she now found herself in.

The idea that Anne was aware that she had fatally defied the rules governing wifely (and queenly) behavior may seem, at first, like the wishful, anachronistic thinking of a 21st century woman looking for would-be feminists in the shadows of every historical era.  But actually, educated women of her time were very much aware of the various debates concerning the “querelles des femmes,” which is first introduced by Christine De Pizan in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and which had a particular resonance in Britain, where the issue of whether or not women were suitable to rule became more than just theoretical under Henry VIII’s reign.  Pizan is most famous for her Book of the City of Ladies (1404-5), which gathers heroines from history and Pizan’s own time to refute ancient views of female inferiority, and which was published in Britain in 1521, around the same time that Anne was about to return from France. Historians of women have made a strong argument that Pizan’s book became part of an ongoing debate about “the woman question” in England, beginning with Juan Luis Vives Instruction of a Christian Woman (1523), written expressly for Mary, and insisting, against Pizan’s arguments, on the necessarily subordinate role of women.  The debate continues in 1540 and 1542 with Sir Thomas Elyot’s refutation of Vives, Defence of Good Women and Agrippa of Nettesheim’s Of the Nobilitie and Excellence of Womankynde, which historian Constance Jordan describes as “the most explicitly feminist text to be published in England in the first half of the century”.[14]  In its original Latin form, published in 1509, it was dedicated to Margaret of Austria, who was to be Anne’s first model of Queenly behavior. Anticipating later enlightenment thinkers, Agripa argued that the differences between men and women were only bodily, and that “the woman hathe that some mynd that a man hath, the same reason and speche, she gothe to the same ende of blysfulnes (spirituality], where shall be no exception of kynde.” Why then are they everywhere subordinate to men? Because they are not permitted to make the laws or write history, and therefore “cannot contribute to or criticize the intellectual bases on which they are categorized as inferior.”[15]

To describe Anne Boleyn as a feminist would be an anachronism—and not nearly as appropriate an anachronism in her case as in that of Marguerite de Navarre and others who openly championed for female equality.  Marguerite did not have the word, but she was conscious of a women’s “cause.”  There’s no evidence that Anne felt similarly.  But she had learned to value her body and her ideas, and ultimately recognized that there was something unsettling about this to Henry, understood that this played a role in her downfall.  “I do not say I have always shown him that humility,” she said at her trial, insistent even then on speaking what she believed.[16]  Anne wasn’t a feminist.  But she did step over the ever-moving line that marked the boundary of the comfort zone for men of her era, and for all the unease and backlash she inspired, she may as well have been one.


[1] (Starkey, Virtuous Prince 2008, 330)

[2] (Stjerna 2009, 152)

[3] (Carley 2004, 8)

[4] (Freeman 1995, 819)

[5] (Bordo 1987, 128-9)

[6] (Knecht 2008, 231)

[7] (Jansen 2002, 1)

[8] (Jansen 2008, 15)

[9] For more on this famous stance taken by Elizabeth I, see (Levine 1994)

[10] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: April 1536, 1-20,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87958&strquery=”spread of Lutheranism”

[11] (Froude 1891, 384)

[12] (Loades 2009, 69)

[13] (Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn 2010, 230)

[14] (Jordan 1990, 122)

[15] (Ibid., 123)

[16] (Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn 2010, 230)

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