May 19, 1536: Anne Boleyn, convicted of treason, adultery, and incest, becomes the first Queen in English history to be executed. She dies with many enemies, mostly Catholic, who describe her as a scheming harpy, “goggle-eyed whore” and Lutheran heretic, who ensnared Henry with her French ways.
Yet even just a few hours after the execution, with Henry already cavorting publicly with his newly betrothed Jane Seymour, many begin to question the justice of the verdict…and Henry’s second wife rises from the grave, to begin her cultural afterlife.
“We always write from our time,” Hilary Mantel said in an interview with me. And Anne has been written and re-written….
At first, which “side” you are on depends on whether you are Protestant or Catholic:
1563 and John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of the Church: The “Goggle-Eyed Whore” Becomes A Martyr.
Anne’s daughter Elizabeth ascends to the throne in 1558, and Protestant defenders begin to emerge from the closet. In their eyes, Anne Boleyn is a “most virtuous and noble lady” who helped bring true religion to England.
1585, Nicholas Sander’s The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism: The Slut is Back, Now With Six Fingers
Pro-Catholic Sander, exiled by Elizabeth, slings some fresh mud–and some of it sticks. Sanders: Not only did Anne sleep with half the French court and her father’s chaplain, but she is actually Henry’s daughter, by her own mother. She is also grossly deformed, with a projecting tooth, large growth on her neck, and six fingers on one hand. It’s a myth—Anne had an extra nail, not an extra finger—but admit it, you thought it was true…
1623, Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (or All is True): Anne as the Incubator of Elizabeth.
All was not true in the play, and Anne hardly had a role to speak, but no one cared. The distinction between “fiction” and “history” was not yet an issue, and the main point was to glorify the Virgin Queen.
1682, John Banks’s Vertue Betray’d : Anne as Hapless Victim of Henry’s Tyranny. Banks (following the “Secret History” of Madame D’Aulnoy, famous French writer of fairy-tales) and others cast a new narrative of love and betrayal and create a new dramatic persona: the “she-heroine.” Ingredients: clever, virtuous girl, wicked king, scheming “other woman,” and tragic ending. The soap opera begins…
1700-1900: Gender Wars! Fallen Woman or Scheming Adventuress? It still matters whether you are Protestant or Catholic, but it now begins to matter, too, whether you are a professional male historian or a “woman writer.” The Strickland sisters see Anne as a cautionary tale, while Anthony Froude and others view her as a “foolish and bad woman” who corrupted Henry. The male historians have nothing but scorn for the “sentimental” “tiddle-tattle” of the women writers—conveniently overlooking the fact that their own research relies largely on the gossipy letters of Eustace Chapuys, imperial ambassador to…Spain! (And Katherine’s dear friend). While the writers battle it out, romantic painters have the last word in the popular imagination. Anne—often now depicted as blonde and rather plump—is shown swooning, weeping, and stoicly meeting an unjust end.
1912-1939: The Historical Novel Makes Anne A Hot Commercial Item.
“ I dare not!” murmurs Anne in Mary Hasting’s Bradley’s The Favor of Kings (1912)…and then goes on to have—gasp–premarital sex with the King. (The Victorians mangled the date of Elizabeth’s birth to avoid confronting this fact.) And the fictional juice begins to flow…and flow…and flow. Love. Longing. Loathing. Lust. By the time she is published in paperback (Francis Hacket’s Queen Anne Boleyn) the story has become the stuff of the back-cover salespitch: “She conquered the heart of a king—and lost her life for her love.” Um..what happened to the Reformation?
1933: Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII. Anne Who? Gorgeous Merle Oberon, as Anne, gets killed off in the first fifteen minutes, and Charles Laughton ‘s Henry teaches the world how to eat chicken. Serial wife replacement as comedy? Somehow, they pulled it off.
1949: Barnes’ Brief Gaudy Hour (novel) and Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (play): Anne and Henry Become a Post-War Couple. Anne is a feisty teenager, Henry has masculinity issues, and this marriage is in trouble. It was so much easier when the men were at war and the women knew their place!
1969: Anne of the Thousand Days (film): Anne as Sixties’ Rebel Girl . Genevieve Bujold told me “Anne is mine.” Indeed. As the first truly iconic Anne, Bujold proudly plunges off the cliff decades before “Thelma and Louise.” We were charmed by her elfin beauty, we cheered when she told Henry off in the tower (never happened, but who cares?), and yes, “Elizabeth Shall Be Queen!” You go girl!!
1970: BBC “Henry VIII And His Six Wives”: Mini-Series Gravitas. The spectacle of Henry aging before our eyes as he went through one fascinating woman after another held us riveted to the small screen—and gave Showtime something to sex-update 35 years later.
2002: Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl”: Mean Girl. Clearly in touch with the times, Gregory mangles history to produce the nastiest Anne ever, and convinces a new generation, befuddled by the postmodern blurring of fiction and fact, that she really did sleep with her brother. Sander is chortling, historians are grimacing, and Gregory is smiling all the way to the best-seller list.
2007: Showtime’s “The Tudors”: Natalie Dormer Makes (Postmodern) History. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers refused to wear a fat suit, the Showtime execs demanded that the series not be boring in a “you know…BBC way,” and Michael Hirst (creator and writer of the series) did all he could to inject the Reformation Crisis in between the sex scenes. Only Natalie Dormer, barely known at the time, stood up for Anne, refusing to play her as a blonde and insisting that Hirst make her less slutty, smarter, and stronger in the second season. For historians, the changes may have seemed slight. But teenage and twenty-something viewers were enraptured. “She was a modern day girl in the wrong time period,” they declared, constructing a new, “third-wave” feminist icon out of Dormer’s portrayal: ambitious, intelligent, flirtatious and perhaps most important to her fans, “hugely complicated and not easy to dismiss.”
2007-2013: Viral Anne. We can never get enough of Anne, it seems. She is a woman for all seasons, a Rorschach figure who tells us more about ourselves than about her own life and death. In part, this is due to the unsolvable mystery of who she “really” was. After her death, Henry did all he could to re-write her existence into absence: destroyed her portraits, her letters, removed her emblems. Ironically, this has allowed Anne to live on, a queen recreated anew by each generation—and in the internet age, to spread her reign across a multitude of links. With“The Tudors” came the websites…and the tee-shirts, mugs, and jewelry…and the facebook pages…and the blogs turned into self-published books. Quarrels erupt daily among amateur historians passionately attacking and defending themselves on Amazon.com. Elusive, contradictory, seductive. Henry may have tried to erase her, but succeeded instead in allowing her to live a hundred lives, forever.