This excerpt from Susan’s book discusses “Viral Anne”–the Websites and Facebook pages devoted to Boleyn and/or The Tudors. She asks that those who are mentioned remember that her book went into production over a year ago, and thus doesn’t reflect activity (such as the publication of books by Claire Ridgway and Sylwia Zupanec, and the appearance of several newer websites) that happened since then. She also reminds interviewees and other contributors to The Creation of Anne Boleyn Facebook page that many of them are quoted in other sections of the book. And finally, she hopes you all understand that it was unavoidable that many great sites have not been mentioned; if she had discussed them all, it would have been a book in itself!
…[T]he electronic community of Tudorphiles…emerged out of the tentative seedings of long-time Tudor fans, and after The Tudors caught hold, sprouted limbs and shoots all across the internet. Lara Eakins, whose tudorhistory.org was among the first, began in 1994 with “a little GIF of Elizabeth I” and a “very simple page about the Tudors.” Lara’s initial impulse, as she describes it, was just to share: “here’s something that interests me.” She was surprised when numerous emails began arriving, some asking for help with school assignments, but many from people for whom the Tudors had been a secret passion. “I thought I was the only one interested in Tudor history!” wrote some; “My friends and family are tired of me talking about it.” Now they would have a place to indulge freely without driving others away. Lara began to suspect that her site had tapped into a community of Tudor fans, each thinking he or she was the “only one.” Then, the publication of The Other Boleyn Girl turned Anne Boleyn into “one of the biggest topics of interest” among the followers of her Q and A page, and “once The Tudors started, the questions started flooding in.” Many were interested in sorting out fact from fiction in Gregory’s novel and the television show, and that delighted Lara. “It was nice to know that there is at least some fraction who will dig deeper and try to learn more about the actual history.”
Along with pre-publicity for The Tudors, Showtime created a number of websites in 2007, one of which was a wikilike Wikipedia, a compendium of knowledge built by viewers themselves. In addition to informational postings about the show and Tudor history, the moderators posted questions soliciting readers’ opinions. Discussions ranged from the historical controversies which had engaged longtime Tudor scholars—Was Anne born in 1501 or 1507? Did she sleep with her first love Henry Percy? Was her last stillbirth deformed? etc.—to playful questionnaires such as “If Henry’s wives were alive today, what job would they have?”, ”What magazines would they read?” and so on. Participants, at one point, were asked to submit the question they would most want to ask Anne, if she were contacted in a séance. Their questions reveal their personal engagement, even sympathetic identification, with Anne: “Was Henry good in bed?” “Did you really have extra toes and fingers?” “If you had to do your life again would you marry the king if you knew all we know today?””Do you think you had an impact in your daughter’s life?” “How did you find the strength to endure the trial and imprisonment without any support from your family?”,“Did the beheading hurt?”
Not everyone was a fan of Anne’s, however. Claire Ridgway, who started The Anne Boleyn Files in 2009, encountered a good deal of hatred of Anne and by extension, her site: “Being someone who runs an Anne Boleyn site has left me open to abuse, offensive emails, and even death threats because I dare to defend a woman who for some really is the ‘scandal of Christendom.’” Either encouraged or angered by The Tudors’ tendency to sanctify Katherine and Jane Seymour, “Team Boleyn” members and “Team Aragon/Team Seymour” members became mean, squabbling girls themselves. Sue Booth, one of the first moderators of the Tudors Wiki, was struck by “fierce loyalties” that arose among the members of the Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn “camps.” “It never ceased to amaze me,” she recalls, “how strongly these women felt about something that happened over 400 years ago.” Natalie Sweet, who joined the Wiki in 2008 while she was studying for a master’s degree in history, remembers these battles as proving the truth of the comment made by sportswriter Clay Travis that “the dark corners of the internet message board made talk radio seem like a mid-day stroll in a well-kept garden.” Viewers, encouraged by the obscurity of internet conversations, didn’t hold back on slinging mud at each other, and for moderators of the site, it became a “challenge maintaining the line between constructive criticism and negative character bashing.” Barb Alexander, who runs The Tudor Tudor, is puzzled by all this: “I can never figure out why there is such a ‘fangirl’ or ‘bully’ attitude toward any of these people—they have been dead for about 500 years! I like to see an educated passion for a historical figure, and if that figure is not your cup of tea, a respectful disagreement is fine. But they lived centuries ago, in a different climate than ours, and so I don’t feel it’s fair to judge them nor their actions by modern standards.” That may be true, but it’s never stopped writers from the 17th, 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries from taking sides; why should it be any different now?
Despite the wife fights, the Tudors Wiki was Natalie Sweet’s “sanity” during graduate school, and taught her that she should “never discredit the research and knowledge of another just because she did not hold a history degree…and who made me a better historian for the perspectives they provided to me.” Undoubtedly the most convincing proof of that statement is The Anne Boleyn Files. Although it began as “just a blog’ that Claire was writing for herself—a “journal of my journey into finding out more about Anne Boleyn…people started finding me and commenting on the site. I was blown away! There were other people out there who were just as fascinated by Anne! My research became all consuming, a passion that had taken hold, and by the summer of 2009 I had given up my freelance writing career and was researching Tudor history on a full-time basis, I’ve never looked back!” Today, 23,000 people visit the site each month, and in response to reader demand, it has become much more than “just a blog.” The Anne Boleyn Files provides links to other sites where one can purchase books and Tudor themed products, buy such items as replicas of Anne’s famous “B” necklace and pajamas and hoodies with her image on them, and sign up for yearly events such as the “Anne Boleyn Experience Tour.” It is also a clearing-house for every kind of Tudor resource. Claire’s own “journey,” too, has evolved. Just in the few years I’ve been following the site, I’ve seen her blossom from a respectful reporter of the theories of published authors to an investigative historical journalist whose blog—recently made available in book form–is more rigorous than that of many professional historians.
An International Community of Myth-Busters, Inspired by a Television Show
It’s not surprising that, with the exception of Tudorhistory.org, the Tudor websites and Facebook pages postdate the April 2007 premiere of The Tudors, and that some of the most popular sites were begun after the record-breaking second season finale, in June 2008, in which Anne’s execution drew 852,000 viewers—83% above the numbers for the season one finale. Google trends records a dramatic peak in surfers for “Anne Boleyn” during 2008. But even after the second-season finale, the numbers do not return to their pre-Tudors levels, and sites continue to flourish—among them Barb Alexander’s delightfully “cheeky guide to the Tudor dynasty,” The Tudor Tutor, and Natalie Grueninger’s “On The Tudor Trail,” which began as a place to document surviving locations that Anne Boleyn had once visited, and now has grown to include interviews with authors and historians, its own line of Anne inspired greeting cards, and plans to lead a tour, “In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn.”
The Tudor Facebook pages and websites constitute an international community of Tudor scholars, many of them disappointed by the lack of available materials and discussion in their home countries. Jessica Prestes, who is Brazilian, was introduced to the Tudors at the age of 11, when her history teacher took the class to watch the movie Elizabeth. But at the time she knew nothing about the story of Anne Boleyn, only that Henry VIII was Elizabeth’s father. After “The Tudors” premiered, however, Anne became her “obsession.” She’s now a graduate student in history who runs several facebook pages and sites with an international following. Sarah Bryson, in Australia, was having trouble finding people with an interest in Tudor history there; today, her Internet site and Facebook page is one of the most personally engaging, with reviews of the latest books alternating with warm conversations among members. Sylwia Sobczak Zupanec has been fascinated by Anne since she was thirteen, but with little information available in Polish, she was frustrated. Noticing the historical inaccuracies of The Tudors, she started purchasing books in English about Anne, and joined a Polish forum about the show. ‘And then I thought: why not start my own website, where I could write about Anne and the Tudor period in Polish language?” Sylvia started her website—the only website about Anne Boleyn in Polish–in 2010. It ultimately led to Sylwia creating a sister site and a Facebook page in English.
The Tudor websites and Facebook pages are far from being just ‘fan pages.’ Because most of those who run them are not professional historians (although some are graduate students in history, and many are writing books), they are freer to allow curiosity and skepticism—rather than the demands of specialization or publication—to guide their thinking. Each new book, media presentation, public controversy immediately becomes a subject of review and debate. And because the nature of the sites is collective exploration, particular issues are much more rapidly and thoroughly explored than they typically are in academic forums. Poked and prodded by members, who together constitute a phenomenally well-read critical community, these sites have become think tanks of Tudor research, questioning some of the most entrenched myths, raising serious issues about documentation, and delving into issues that only appear as footnotes in the scholarly literature. In many ways, they operate as the critical conscience of published Tudor research. A few prominent examples: Ridgway has exposed numerous scholarly soft-spots in Alison Weir’s book about Mary Boleyn, Grueninger led a rigorous investigation into the historical meaning of the color yellow (which sources have claimed Anne and Henry wore after Katherine’s death), Zupanec was the first to notice that a famous quote about Anne attributed to Francis I and endlessly recyled in much of the literature has never actually been documented in any of the books that cite it. She presented her research and spearheaded a collective exploration that, despite the efforts of many scholars in many fields, has yet been able to validate the quotation. These critical investigations are the stuff of scholarly findings of significance and potential widespread interest.