Category Archives: Anne and Gender

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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The Anne Boleyn Myth-Buster: #1, Anne’s Looks

Anne as a ravishing beauty, a la Natalie Dormer.

Our ideas about Anne Boleyn’s looks tend to fall into two equally inaccurate categories. The movies and television have taught us that she was a ravishing beauty, a la Natalie Dormer.  Yet mythology surrounding Anne describes her as six-fingered and sallow, covered with disfiguring moles, sometimes with three nipples.  In the “Corpus Christi” festival in parts of Spain, even today, she is depicted in floats as a monster riding on Satan’s back.  Which should we believe?  The answer is: neither.

Anne’s looks were generally not rated among her greatest assets.  “Reasonably good-looking” pronounced John Barlow, one of Anne’s favorite clerics.  “Not one of the handsomest women in the world” reported the Venetian diplomat, Francesco Sanuto, who praised her dark eyes but criticized her flat chest and “swarthy complexion.” Both Elizabeth Blount and Anne’s sister Mary, who had both been Henry’s mistresses, were regarded as more beautiful, as they typified the medieval ideal of the blue-eyed blonde, with skin so fair and translucent one could see blue veins through it. The ideal combined equal parts of Virgin Mary and Botticelli’s (1486) powerfully sexual Venus, both of whom, at the time, were always pictured as blondes.  So were all the heroines of the literature of courtly love, from Iseult to Guinevere. Light-haired women were also considered to be more “cheerful and submissive” (very desirable.)

An example of raven-haired Anne

Anne was dark-haired and olive-skinned in an era that worshipped the fair, blue-eyed blonde. And to make matters worse, judging from the few portraits[1] that remain that are judged to be based on actual sittings (as opposed to works of pure imagination), her dark hair would have been auburn, of reddish rather than black hue (think Genevieve Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days). This was hardly a plus when it was commonly believed that red-headed children were conceived while their mothers were menstruating, thus making them impure and liable to witchcraft. Nowadays, Anne is often portrayed as raven-haired, in part because of our own associations to hair-color, which code female sexual power as either blonde or jet-black.  Flaming red hair may also be seen as “wild” and sexual, but Anne did not have flaming red hair (if she had, her enemies surely would have made the most of its satanic associations) so we have converted her hair into the hue that spells “temptress” to us.  But most likely (we do not know with certainty), she had dark auburn—not black—hair.   (Henry himself had red hair, but of the golden variety, indicating angelic origins.)

A rather unflattering image of Anne, suspiciously poor.

Anne apparently had a few other small imperfections, which her admirers saw as negligible and her enemies were able to successfully convert into major deformities.  The most credible account comes from George Wyatt, the grandson of one of Anne’s early admirers, the poet Thomas Wyatt.  George Wyatt writes that “there was found, indeed, upon the side of her nail, upon one of her fingers, some little show of a nail, which was yet so small, by the report of those that have seen her, [that] the tip of one of her other fingers might be, and was usually by her hidden without any blemish to it.” Wyatt also reported that she had several small moles, “coincident to an otherwise clear complexion.”

Post-Cindy Crawford, Anne’s moles may seem trivial, even—as moles came to be seen a century later—“beauty spots” that drew attention to attractive features.  But in Anne’s day, moles could have been seen, by her detractors, as ominous signs. The medievals, who believed that a mother’s imagination while pregnant can rupture the skin, read birthmarks the way later generations would decipher bumps on the skull. A mole on the throat (where several report Anne’s to have been) predicted a violent death.  One on the upper lip meant good fortune for a man—but debauchery for a woman.  If it was just above the left side of her mouth, “vanity and pride, and an unlawful offspring to provide for.”   Some saw them as witch’s marks:

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

The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, by Nicholas Sanders

Notions such as these explain how Anne’s moles could morph, in the hands of Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, writing half a century after Anne’s death, into a third nipple.  Sander, who probably never saw Anne dressed, let alone naked (he was nine when she was executed) also converted the vestigial nail into a sixth finger, and sprinkled in a few other nasty features for good measure:

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

This mythology was clearly ideologically motivated. Such pronounced deformities as described by Sander would certainly have eliminated Anne as a lady-in-waiting, much less a candidate for Queen. Sander, moreover, was not well-informed about female fashion. For high necks were not in vogue while Anne was alive, and a “large wen” would not have been hidden by the delicate ropes of pearls or the decorative “B” that she wore around her neck.  Sander probably was inspired by the anonymous, and clearly hostile, account describing Anne’s coronation which attributed a “disfiguring wart” and a neck “swelling resembling goiter” to her.  (The same description says Anne wore a dress covered with tongues pierced with nails “to show the treatment which those who spoke against her might expect”—so it was clearly not exactly an objective description!)

Although the conversion of mole to third nipple, minor nail malformation to extra finger is clearly part of the detritus of anti-Anne propaganda left in the wake of her execution, it had held surprisingly tight over the centuries.  The sixth finger, in particular, just won’t let go.  By the nineteenth century, it had become a “fact” which even today, many people remember as among the first things that they learned about Anne. The third nipple, too, is reported as fact (or is described as “widely rumored” or “was said to have”—a characterization that tends to perpetuate itself) on numerous websites, many of which site the popular Book of Lists, first published in 1977, as their source.   This book, which the authors admit was written “for fun,” quickly became a source for schoolchildren “to spice up their schoolwork.

Anne was not seriously deformed, nor was she a conventional beauty (by the standards of her own times).  She was something far more interesting than either of those—a reminder that beauty, far from being cast in an unchanging, Platonic mold, is the human body moving through history, accepting or challenging the rules of its time and place. Sometimes, the prevailing rules of beauty are ripe for changing.  When Anne came back from France to the English court, English culture was on the cusp of the Renaissance, caught between rigid religious ideology and humanist values, English customs and the discovery of other cultures that knew a thing or two, courtly love and “modern” romance.  Perhaps England—or at the very least, Henry–was ready for something new.

Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett was not the only person to have been described to possess a pair of "fine eyes."

It’s striking that when her contemporaries describe Anne, they emphasize precisely those features which strayed outside the prevailing English ideal of the fair-haired, “whitely” blonde. Eyes, for example. The Trobriand Islanders called eyes “the gateways of erotic desire,” and spent more time decorating them than any other part of the body.  The use of kohl to line and accentuate was common in the Middle East.  But proper English ladies did not brazenly provoke, issuing a sexual invitation; they submitted, casting their eyes downward.  Not Anne, apparently.  Nearly every commentator mentions her eyes, not just  “black and beautiful,” (according to Sanuto, who was not a supporter) but sexually artful.  The French diplomat Lancelot de Carles, who later brought the news of her execution to France, was—being French—more lavish and precise in his description of Anne’s “most attractive” eyes,

“Which she knew well how to use with effect,

Sometimes leaving them at rest,

And at others, sending a message

To carry the secret witness of the heart.

And truth to tell, such was their power

That many surrendered to their obedience.”

The poet Thomas Wyatt, one of the first at court to develop an infatuation for Anne, probably had Anne in mind when, in one of his love poems, he describes his beloved’s eyes as “sunbeams to daze men’s sight.”

What medieval women did to become blonde: “Take a pound of finely pulverized beech-wood shavings, half a pound of box-wood shavings, four ounces of fresh liquorice, a similar amount of very yellow, dried lime peel, four ounces each of swallow wort and yellow poppy seeds, two ounces of the leaves and flowers of glaucus, a herb which grows in Syria and is akin to a poppy, half an ounce of saffron and half a pound of paste made from finely ground wheat flour. Put everything into a lye made with sieved wood ashes, bring it partly to the boil and then strain the whole mixture. Now take a large earthenware pot and bore ten or twelve holes in the bottom. Next take equal parts of vine ash and sieved wood ash, shake them into a large wooden vessel or mortar, whichever you think better, moisten them with the said lye, thoroughly pulverize the mixture, taking almost a whole day to do this. Make sure that it becomes a bit stiff. Next pound rye and wheat straw in with it until the straw has absorbed the greater part of the lye. Shake these pounded ashes into the said earthenware pot and push an ear of rye into each small hole. Put the straw and ashes in the bottom so that the pot is filled, though still leaving sufficient space for the remainder of the lye to be poured over the mixture. Towards evening set up another earthenware pot and let the lye run into it through the holes with the ears of rye. When you want to use the lotion, take the liquid which ran out, smear your hair with it and let it dry. Within three or four days the hair will look as yellow as if it were golden ducats. However, before you use it wash your head with a good lye, because if it were greasy and dirty it would not take the colour so well."

Defying the fashion for blondes, which many privileged women with less than “whitely” locks tried to achieve through various recipes for hair and skin-lightening, Anne also grew her dark hair so long that she could sit on it. French king Francis (whose wife Claude Anne had attended when she was younger) was dazzled:  “Venus etait blonde, on m’a dit: L’on voit bien, qu’elle est brunette.”  (“They say Venus was a blonde; but you can well see that she is a brunette.)

Most important, Anne seems to have had that elusive quality—“style”—which can never be quantified or permanently attached to specific body-parts, hair-color, or facial features, and which can transform a flat chest into a gracefully unencumbered torso (Henry called her small breasts “pretty duckies”) and a birthmark into a beauty-spot.  “Style” cannot be defined.  But in its presence, the rules of attraction are transformed.  Style defies convention and calls the shots on what is considered beautiful.  So does grace of movement.  “Her gracefulness rivaled Venus,” said the French courtier Brantome.  He was speaking there about Anne’s stylish French way with clothing; but she was also continually described as a wonderful dancer.

Anne Boleyn reminds us that the body is not just a piece of inert matter that can be measured and molded.  It’s an animated, moving, speaking presence in the world.  And even in our cosmetic culture, there is still something magical, elusive, and open-ended about its attractions.   Think Helen Mirren, generally acknowledged as one of the sexiest women around.  Is she beautiful? Yes, but only if we grant the word “beauty” far greater range and variety than the surgeon’s formulas.  Think Michelle Obama, whose prominent jaw would disqualify her immediately among those who insist that symmetry and a delicate chin are biologically inscribed requisites for female appeal.  And think Anne Boleyn, who by virtue of confidence, wit, grace, intelligence and style, is now remembered as a great beauty.

If you could pick an actress to play her—other than those who have done so already—who would it be?


[1] Henry, determined to wipe the slate clean when Anne was executed and he married Jane Seymour, had any original portraits that he could find destroyed.

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Anne and Elizabeth: Consulting the Stars for Elizabeth’s Birth

By: Natalie Sweet

As September 1533 approached, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn expected that a prince would soon be born. Announcements of a prince’s arrival were drawn up ahead of time, but an extra “s” had to be added to Elizabeth’s birth announcement to proclaim the birth of a princess. Henry’s confidence was based on no less than an astrologer’s prediction that Anne would, in fact, give birth to a male child. Would either Henry or Anne have had any reason to doubt such a prediction?

Then, as now, astrologers were proven wrong. Fast-forward to daughter Elizabeth’s reign, and we can see how predictions by Nostradamus failed. Although he is popularly featured on History Channel documentaries today, many of Nostradamus’s predictions concerning Elizabeth failed to come true. His predictions, however, served a purpose: as Catherine de Medici’s astrologer, it was his job to develop predictions that suggested the downfall of her Tudor rival. Obviously, none of the dire predictions came true, but an early modern astrologer was as much a propagandist as he was a predictor of the future. Oftentimes, propaganda was more useful than a correct prediction, as it inspired well-timed fear in the enemy and hope amongst allies. Of course, the more accurate one’s astrologer was at making predictions, the more useful the propaganda was, but the creation of fear was a tremendous boon on its own account.

This is not to say that monarchs did not take their astrologer’s predictions to heart. That would be a mistake, and one that is easy to make in a modern era where astrology is often viewed as trickery. Astrology was not a con, nor was it incompatible with religion in the 16th century. Indeed, it was considered to be a way to understand God’s divine plan, and was viewed to be as grounded in science as that of the study of the changing seasons. For Henry and Anne, the astrologer’s prediction of a male child was one they could look favorably on.

That the astrologer predicted a boy should not have surprised Henry, Anne, or us – beyond the fact that the royal couple hoped for this prediction, the months that Henry persisted in the belief that a boy would be born was enough to buy him time and leverage with those he dealt with. It gave his proceedings against Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne justification – any male (and the majority of females, too) in the early modern era would tell you that it was better to have a boy than it was to have a girl. They understood the urgency that accompanied the Tudor dynasty’s need for a male heir- and it was an urgency that had been granted a favorable verdict to the male party for generations before Henry VIII hit the scene. Read Chapuy’s or any other enemy’s report of Elizabeth’s arrival and the relief seems to drip from the pages – Henry has had another girl. Sure, the kid is healthy and this could indicate future healthy children will follow, but for now, it should be back to business as usual. Predictions could be made, but immediate results needed to follow.

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Anne and Elizabeth: “Playing Too Much the Queen” in the Victorian Era

By: Natalie Sweet

On the Victorian stage, playwright W.G. Hole’s Elizabeth I voiced her fear that she “play[ed] too much the queen,” and demanded of her suitor,  “do you still hold me a woman?”[1]  Indeed, her question was one that many Victorians grappled with in the late nineteenth century.  While their fondness for bestowing Elizabeth with majesty and imperial power undoubtedly arose from British eagerness to trace the history of its empire, the celebration of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen presented problems for the Victorians who celebrated Queen Victoria’s motherhood.  Victorians questioned how Elizabeth reconciled herself to virginity while the nation’s survival depended on an heir.  In contrast to this, but in a similar vein, Victorians were also preoccupied with Elizabeth’s sexuality and the masculine qualities of her suitors.  The emergence of a “masculine” British empire also created questions about Elizabeth’s role in creating that empire.  Although a woman presided over their own enterprises, Victorians acknowledged that Elizabeth ruled over a much more dangerous world than their own, and thus she needed masculine qualities to survive.  All of these factors led to a paradox in how Elizabeth was portrayed in British popular culture.  She sometimes “play[ed] too much the queen” in a masculine manner, but at other times she played too much the naughty woman, too. For at least one Victorian author, the source of this problematic contradiction was her mother, Anne Boleyn.

Victorian authors overwhelmingly indicated their belief “that a strong modern England was rendered possible mainly by the boldness, astuteness, and activity of Elizabeth at the critical turning-point of European history.”[2]  As some modern scholars have suggested, Victorians were willing to portray a stronger image of Elizabeth in the late nineteenth century in order to rehabilitate Queen Victoria’s image.  The creation of “a strong modern England” could not have been possible without strong leadership, and luckily for the British, Elizabeth seemed to posses a sufficient amount of strength.  The complication of explaining how this extraordinary strength came from within a female who also possessed remarkable skills in coquetry, however, would take some effort on the part of (admittedly prudish) Victorian writers.

For example, Victorian author Michael Creighton reasoned that Elizabeth’s character was connected to her heredity.  He noted that her more cautionary and discreet qualities must have come from her grandfather, Henry VII, who for so long exercised prudence and weariness of others in order to keep the English throne.  From Henry VIII, he believed that Elizabeth “inherited the royal imperiousness and personal charm which always secured his popularity.”[3]  Creighton did not criticize these strong inherited qualities, and indeed equated them with masculine character.  However, he stated that Elizabeth’s bad qualities, “[h]er vanity, her unscrupulousness, her relentless and over bearing temper,” came from her mother, Anne Boleyn.[4]  This “coarse, ambitious and self-seeking woman” passed on all of her undesirable feminine traits to her daughter, “in whom they were modified by finer qualities and were curbed by a sense of duty.”[5]  In other words, Elizabeth’s feminine foibles were kept in check by the masculine command she inherited from her father and grandfather.

It is interesting that Creighton equated the poor qualities of Elizabeth with women, especially when one considers that her father, Henry VIII, could be described in much the same manner. However, although Creighton asserted that “Elizabeth always remained more truly the daughter of Anne Boleyn than of Henry VIII,” thus tying her identity more closely to a female identity rather than to a masculine, kingly one, Creighton believed that Elizabeth could not have been as great of a ruler if she had not inherited the qualities of “a coarse, ambitious and self-seeking woman.”[6]  Indeed, he asserted that there were “times when anyone, save Anne Boleyn’s daughter, would have been tempted to make terms” with the powers that threatened England’s security.[7]   Creighton’s consideration of Elizabeth’s heredity appears to be unique, but it is not a surprising explanation when one considers the late nineteenth-century Victorian fascination with heredity and eugenics.[8]  Yet, his argument is also a paradox.  While Creighton argued that her feminine traits interfered with strong, masculine leadership, he also asserted that her feminine cunning and stubbornness was what helped England to survive the turbulent sixteenth century.

[1] W.G. Hole, Queen Elizabeth: An Historical Drama in Four Acts (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904), 85.

[2] Hume, vi.

[3] Creighton, 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 197.

[8] For more on this topic, see the essays in Philippa Levine, ed., Gender and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

The above is taken from a paper titled “Sex, Masculinity, and the Virgin Queen: Victorian Views of Elizabeth I,” written by Natalie Sweet in 2009.

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Reflections on Anne’s Remarks at her Trial by Susan Bordo

The following post originally appeared on “On the Tudor Trail,” a website you should definitely check out if you haven’t already!

Full references available upon request from: Bordo@uky.edu. Please do not quote or cite without author’s permission.

Reflections on Anne’s Remarks at her Trial by Susan Bordo

At her trial, Anne Boleyn insisted that she was “clear of all the offences which you have laid to my charge.” But she went on: “I do not say I have always shown [the King] the 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.” Anne’s recognition that she had not shown the King enough humility, in this context, shows remarkable insight into the gender politics of her day. 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 “p.c.” thinking of a 21st century woman who sees would-be feminists lurking in the shadows of every historical period. But actually, educated women of Anne’s time were very much aware of the various debates concerning the “querelles des femmes” (in English-speaking countries, known as “the woman question”) which was 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. It 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 in England, beginning with Juan Luis Vives’ Instruction of a Christian Woman (1523), written expressly for Princess Mary, and insisting, against Pizan’s arguments, on the necessarily subordinate role of women. Vives’ book purports to offer instruction for all women, but was clearly written with Catherine’s strict Catholicism as its model. Young girls were forbidden to read anything other than scripture or philosophers of high moral worth, advised to leave their homes as rarely as possible, to use no artifice of any sort in the “vainglorious” pursuit of physical beauty, and most especially to avoid the kind of conversation cultivated in court: “The custom to give praise to a woman for her ability to converse wittily and eloquently with men for hours on end is something that is welcomed and prescribed by ordinances of hell, in my opinion, “ Vives writes. Heterosexual conversation is so much the devil’s tool that Vives advises, “it is not to be permitted that a young woman and a man should converse alone anywhere for any length of time, not even if they are brother and sister.” Indeed, it is “best to have as little contact with men as possible.” Once married, a woman should leave the home as little as possible, speak “only when it would be harmful to be silent,” and at home “administer everything according to the will and command of her husband.”

Vives was not the last word on the subject, however. The debate about woman’s place (which was largely conducted by men) 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.” 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 same mynd that a man hath, the same reason and speche, she gothe to the same ende of blysfulnes (spirituality], where shall be noo 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.” (Jordan, 123)

The same might be said of the slant on Anne that is presented in most of the historical documents from her own time—which have, unfortunately, provided the basis for most historical accounts written later. Natalie Dormer, who played Anne on Showtime’s The Tudors, was emphatic on this point:

“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.”

Natalie goes on: “Anne was that rare phenomenon, a self-made woman. But then, this became her demise, because she was a challenging personality, and wouldn’t be quiet and shut up. 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.”[1]

Where did Anne develop her “uniqueness”? The first term in what Eric Ives calls Anne’s “European Education” began in 1513, when she was just twelve, sent to the court of the politically powerful and independent-minded Archduchess Margaret of Austria, who was serving as regent for her 13 year-old nephew Charles of Burgundy. After that, Anne spent six years at the French court, where many historians surmise that she became acquainted, and possibly friends, with Francis’ sister Marguerite de Navarre. De Navarre, who historian Patricia Cholakian describes as “the mother of the Renaissance,” was largely responsible for the reputation that the Valois court had as a center of intellectual and artistic brilliance. Pious and retiring Queen Claude had the babies, but as the “king’s respected counselor and confidante” since he took the throne in 1515, Marguerite filled the court with poets, philosophers, and the most provocative reformist intellectuals of the time. They debated all the hot humanist topics of the day, from the “Bible Question” (Did people needs priests to interpret scripture for them, or should vernacular versions be widely available?) to “The Woman Question.” (Could a woman be virtuous? If so, what kind of virtue was distinctively hers? Was her intelligence lesser than man’s? Was she even of the same species as man?) De Navarre’s own collection of some seventy stories, The Heptameron, did not appear in print until after both she and Anne were dead, but their content gives some indication of the radical ideas circulating among her “salon,” and the potential links between criticism of the church and the assertion of female equality. Many of the stories deal with the sexual abuses of men—almost always libidinous monks and friars, ravaging the countryside—and the overlooked worth of women.

Marguerite’s influence on Anne is speculation on my part, of course, in that none of it is documented. However, with only twelve ladies-in-waiting serving at Claude’s court, it’s not a stretch to imagine frequent contact between them. (In 1535, Anne sent a message to Marguerite saying that her “greatest wish, next to having a son, was to see you again.”) If so, it’s possible that Marguerite taught Anne, by example, that “woman’s place” extended beyond her husband’s bed, and that this, ironically, was part of Anne’s appeal for Henry. For traditionalists at court, the mere fact of Anne having any say in Henry’s political affairs would have been outrageously presumptuous, particularly since Anne was not of royal blood. Henry, however, has been educated alongside his two sisters and was extremely close to his mother; there’s no evidence that he regarded women as naturally inferior to men, or that he saw Anne’s early “interference”, so long as it supported his own aims, as anything other than proof of her queenly potential. In fact, in the six-year-long battle for the divorce, they seem much more like co-conspirators than manipulating female and hapless swain.

Henry would later become less open to the political participation of his wives, warning Jane, for example, not to meddle, and holding the example of her predecessor ominously over her head (so to speak.) But there’s no evidence that during the six years he pursued Anne he had any objection to her counsel. It has to be remembered that these were six years in which Henry spent far less time mooning about Anne than he did arguing, gathering forces, reviewing texts, his ego and his authority more on the line every year that passed. Initially, Henry had every expectation that the Pope would quickly reverse the dispensation he had granted for the marriage to Katherine. But for complexly tangled political reasons, the Pope was not about to give Henry the easy divorce he imagined, and Henry was drawn into battle with the papacy itself. It was long, fierce, and bloody, fracturing British loyalties, sending devoted papists like Thomas More to the scaffold, and ultimately resulting in a new Church of England with Henry as its head. Anyone who follows it closely can see that the autonomy and authority of kings ultimately became more at issue for Henry than the divorce itself.

As a dedicated reformist whose criticisms of the church were probably fueled (if not formed) by the powerful intellect of Marguerite and her circle, Anne was perfectly in synch with Henry’s growing hostility toward the papacy. She more than supported Henry’s efforts, supplying the reformist texts and arguments that gave Henry the justification he needed to enlarge his role as the spiritual leader of the nation. In fact, James Carley, the curator of the books of Henry and his wives, notes that all the anti-papal literature that Henry collected supporting his break with Rome dates from after he began to pursue Anne. Although she may not have supplied all the actual readings herself, the couple was almost certainly discussing the issues and theological arguments involved, as both were avid readers of the Bible. Most famously, Anne introduced Henry to Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man, which must have prickled Henry’s sense of manliness as well as supporting his resistance to the church—and suggesting it could be very profitable as well. Tyndale complained that the monarchs of Christendom had become mere shadows, “having nothing to do in the world but when our holy father needeth help” and encouraged them to take back “every farthing”, “all manner of treasure”, and “all the lands which they have gotten with their false prayer.” It did not require feminine brainwashing, as Chapuys and others charged, to convince Henry that such ideas were on his side. As early as 1515, the youthful Henry, pronouncing on a dispute about the relative powers of ecclesiastical and state courts, declared that the king of England has no “superior but God only” and upheld the authority of “temporal jurisdiction” over church decrees. This point of view, growing sharper every year that followed, was the cutting edge that ultimately cost Thomas More his head, not Henry’s marriage to Anne.

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 English reformation, but an active participant herself. Multiple corroborating sources from her own time remember Anne as “a patron of rising evangelicals, a protector of those who were harassed” both “a model and champion” of reformers, “in England and abroad.” (Freeman, 819) As queen, 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. She was also 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 Marguerite 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 none other than Anne’s 11 year-old daughter, Elizabeth. 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.

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. And the religious “culture wars” provided fertile soil for the anti-Anne propaganda that circulated around court and through Europe. Much of this 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) were “heretics.” From “heretic” to “witch” was a short step, and from “witch” to “insatiable carnal lust” and “consorting with the devil” (K and S, p. 188) took barely a breath. The same year that Anne was executed, an effigy of Marguerite de Navarre, on a horse drawn by devils wearing placards bearing Luther’s name, appeared during a masquerade in Notre Dame. And although Anne was not charged with witchcraft, the atmospherics that allowed her to be eliminated so ruthlessly certainly contributed to the extremity of her downfall. When Henry claimed she had bewitched him, he may have half (or even wholly) believed it.

Protestants, of course, could be no less zealous than papists in their diatribes against women who presumed to interfere in men’s business. Often they were more vehement, as they had a religious doctrine within which the Father, whether God, King, or husband, was the model of all authority. Rather, 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.” 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.” (Jansen, 1) No wonder that when Elizabeth took the throne, she was insistent that she had “the heart and stomach of a King”!

Anne Boleyn’s problem, though, as far as public relations went, was the pro-Katherine, papist faction. It was they who saw her as a vicious corrupter of otherwise sweet-tempered King Hal. It was they who wrote that her coronation dress was covered with tongues pierced with nails, and 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. Ambassador Eustache Chapuys, in particular, was a constant source of anti-Anne propaganda. Chapuys, a great champion of Katherine’s and the papal cause, despised Anne with a passion that he didn’t even try to disguise, disgustedly referring to her in his official communications as “the concubine” and “that whore”—or, with polite disdain, “The Lady.” (Accordingly, Elizabeth was “the little bastard.”) He accused Anne of plotting to murder Catherine and Mary—without a shred of proof beyond a few reported outbursts of Anne’s—and was the first to advance the argument that she was responsible for Henry’s “corruption.” (“It is this Anne,” Chapuys wrote, “who has put Henry in this perverse and wicked temper.”)

My belief is that Chapuys was enraged, not only by Anne’s religious politics or supplanting of Katherine and Mary, but of her refusal, as Natalie Dormer put it in my interview with her, “to be quiet and shut up.” Anne was a religious radical, yes, but probably would have been seen as less of a monstrosity had she been a less vocal, intellectual, “interfering” woman. As such, her actual contribution to the scourge of Lutheranism, far from being minimized as it later was to be by later 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.” (April 1, 1536)

Anne’s reputation as a woman who simply would not behave as she should, however, spread and resonated way beyond pro-papist circles. 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 and unleashed his ruthlessness in planning her downfall, as well as striking at Henry’s manly pride and vulnerability to believing the charges of adultery and treason laid against her. Anne’s confidence and insistence on holding her ground also helps account for the general failure of anyone to serve as her protector when she needed it. Jane Seymour 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. While Austria and France, where Anne was “finished,” had become accustomed to a strong female presence, the English court was still very much a boy’s club, in which men like Henry delighted in surprising a wife like Katherine by showing up in her bedroom, as he did one morning early in their marriage, 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.” Blushing bride, boisterous husband; it was just the way it was supposed to be. But Anne was not a blusher.

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 female “cause.” There’s no evidence that Anne felt similarly. But she had learned to value both her body and her ideas, seems to have realized that there was something unsettling about this to Henry, and perhaps also understood that this played a role in her downfall. “I do not say I have always shown him humility,” she said at her trial, insistent even then on speaking what she believed. Anne wasn’t a feminist. But she did step over the ever-moving line that marked the boundary of the comfort zone for men (and most women) of her era, and for all the rage that inspired, she may as well have been one.
[1] From an interview with Susan Bordo, June 2010
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“But Will He Love Me in the Morning?” A Century of Fictional Sex NOT Between Henry and Anne # 3

In the nineteen-thirties, Anne’s youthful relationship with Henry Percy becomes a prominent theme of novels, as a reminder of what Anne gave up when she married Henry: the possibility of a sweeter, less dangerous love.  Possibly because his bold, poetic nature makes for better romance than the somewhat weak-kneed Percy, Wyatt is given a more realized role in Anne’s life, too.   In Francis Hackett’s 1939 novel, Queen Anne Boleyn, Anne has sex with Wyatt before she ever does with Henry, and the scene is as sexually over-heated—although not as physically explicit–as in a modern romance novel:

What had driven her to Thomas was the warmth for which she starved.  She had refused him, inside her heart, as long as she could…But at last, and in spite of herself, she had bowed to an imperious need for union with this subtle, dangerously tender, human being…Anne had never given scope to the naïve woman inside her, the creature of feeling.  This starveling now emerged with generations and aeons of primitive felicity to capture, and Anne shuddered as the force of her feeling for Thomas took impetus from the hours they had had together, hours borrowed from another plane of existence, borrowed from eternity. In those hours she had come into something of her own buried self—almost as if she had learned to walk or learned to talk.  The proud woman in her, as well as the calculating, gave way to a creature of blinding tenderness, and this sweeping tenderness rolled through her, ran ramparts that advanced as they mounted, one surging on the other, until they broke with the dazzling submission of a wave.  It was a succession of rapture she had not been prepared for.  She was stunned by it, yet ached to return to him through it.  And as the light slowly died from these ecstasies, the fragility of her bond with him invaded her.” (118)

Steamy sex aside, Hackett’s novel was extremely well-researched, its portrait of Anne complex and subtle, and its skepticism about the received wisdom of the historians who recycled Chapuys (and each other) was refreshing and astute.[1] The first Anne novel to become a New York Times best-seller, Queen Anne Boleyn was also the first to benefit from the creation, the same year it was published, of the paperback book format, announced in the New York Times as  “the most important literary coming-out party in the memory of New York’s oldest book lover. Today your 25 cent piece leaps to a par with dollar bills. Now for less than the few cents you spend each week for your morning newspaper, you can own one of the great books for which thousands of people have paid from $2 to $4.” When the paperback of Queen Anne Boleyn came out, that same year, the first page quoted from its many excellent reviews from prestigious papers, but the back cover was clearly designed to sell copies to a broader audience than read The Christian Science Monitor, The New Statesman, or The Saturday Review of Books :  “SHE CONQUERED THE HEART OF A KING—AND LOST HER LIFE FOR HER LOVE” reads the bold print, and below it:

“In all of history there are few stories as enthralling as the astonishing rise and tragic fall of Anne Boleyn.  Born the daughter of a commoner, her proud beauty won the heart of mighty Henry the Eighth—but to sanctify their love, they face a battle that shook the foundations of the Western World. Against the might of the Church, the opposition of the nobility, and the rage of an Emperor, she rose to become Queen of England—and to die on the block at the hands of the man she loved.”

Anne was now a full-fledged heroine of the historical romance, and a major commercial item.

[1] At the end of the book, Hackett included an essay called “History in this Novel” in which he enumerates what he has invented in the novel, where his Anne departs from “the tradition”, why that tradition requires revision, and why he chose to write a novel rather than a history.

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“But Will He Respect Me in the Morning?” A Century of Fictional Sex Between Henry and Anne #2

My second excerpt is from a 1936 novel by Paul Rival, entitled “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.” It originally was published in French, and apparently was the basis for the 1971 six-part BBC television series of the same name–although I see no resemblances in style or content.  The novel is very intense and dramatic, full of existential French touches, and also clearly shows the influence of Freudian psychology.  Freudians at the time believed that a woman could only find true pleasure in sexuality by giving up her “masculine” impulses and surrendering herself completely, as Anne does in this passage.

That night, in the castle of Calais, she opened her arms to Henry.  She humbled herself and allowed him to possess her.  The gentle wash of the waves was audible through the windows, the tapestres waved in the night breeze, and a dying log fire flowed upon the hearth.

They remained more than a week at Calais.  Francis had gone and the chill air of November emphasized the silence.  They had lived so long in a dream that reality surprised and alarmed them.  Anne was at length a woman; Henry had delivered her from her own unbalanced fancies and revealed her to herself, finding her interior rhythm, giving her serene happiness, the pleasure of ceasing to think, of allowing her mind and her nerves to be lulled to sleep, of being no more than a physical vessel, utterly fulfilled and submissive.  For her there were now order, peace and repose.  The sky was tranquil and colourless, the sea more grey than the sky with faint ripples and reflections and a few drifting sails.  The nights unfolded themselves, long and blissful.

 

 

 

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“But Will He Respect Me in the Morning?” A Century of Fictional Sex Between Henry and Anne

From Susan:  I thought it might be fun, now that I’ve reached the 20th century in my chapter, to show you some of the changes, over the century, in depicting Henry and Anne’s first night together. Here’s my first selection, from one of the very first writers to actually acknowledge (although with much symbolism and a big “dot dot dot”) that Henry and Anne had sex before marriage.  This scene may seem very squeamish today.  But it was pretty bold for its time. Many Victorian plays and histories, rather than admit that Henry and Anne had premarital sex, claimed that Elizabeth was born prematurely!! This is from one of the first post-Victorian fictionalizations of Anne’s life, published in 1912 by American novelist Mary Hastings Bradley. 

From Mary Hastings Bradley, The Favor of Kings, 1912

“As she sat there alone in the room, her chin in her hand, her dark eyes heavy with anxieties, the thought that had slipped some time ago, shamefaced and sly, into the back of her mind edged more and more into the open…What if she played her last card—her precious card—herself!..

…`I dare not, ‘ she whispered to herself, and then in a strangled voice, `I dare!’

She grew aware at last that her clasped hands were clutching each other so tightly that the rings were cutting into the flesh.  She drew off the ring from the sharpest cut.  It was one of Henry’s earliest gifts to her, a plain gold band with,`Thy virtue is thy honor,’ graved within it…Her virtue—God alone knew how she had hugged that comfort to her smarting pride against the secret sneers she divined about her.  And now…

The ring slipped from her fingers and rolled out across the floor.  A bit of rush blocked it and it toppled and dropped through an open knot hole.  The augury seemed to her complete.  She laughed—and then something, like a hand upon her throat, seemed to strangle the laughter at its source and she quivered back among the cushions, her hands hiding her face like some poor shamed thing.

That year the Christmas revels were gayer than ever and King Henry was scarce an instant to be parted from his marchioness.

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How to Read the Love Letters of a Tudor King

Henry VIII's writing desk

This is condensed version of a section of a chapter from  Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and is her intellectual property.  Do not quote, reproduce, or cite without author’s permission.  

A note on this “note”: Out of context it may sound like I’m saying that Henry was not passionately in love with Anne. He was! I have a whole chapter on WHY he was. This particular section is meant to challenge two common mistakes: (1) reading the love letters out of context of the conventions of the times; (2) not realizing that “courtly love” was changing. The Anne/Henry story embodies both the “old” and the “new.”

How to Read the Love Letters of a Tudor King

In 2009, as part of an exhibit at the British Library marking the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the throne, a letter described by David Starkey as a piece of the most “explosive royal correspondence” in the history of England was displayed.  For the general public, it created quite a stir.  “Henry VIII reveals his softer side in never-before-seen gushing love letter to Anne Boleyn” read the headlines. Tudor scholars were already well aware of the existence of this letter, along with sixteen others, all undated, which were revealed roughly 50 years after they were written to be in the Vatican, presumably stolen from among Anne’s possessions in order to make the case, should it be needed, that Henry’s request for a divorce stemmed from erotic rather than theological considerations. Passionate they certainly are.  But do they reveal Henry’s “softer side,” as the headlines proclaimed?

To answer that question, we have to leave our own era and enter another.  For one thing, unlike contemporary bloggers, who say pretty much anything that they want to say without worrying about offending anybody, Tudor correspondents were constantly mindful of what was respectful, what was conventionally required, and what would make the best impression. They flattered, they made grand gestures of allegiance and everlasting commitment, and they often lied—without ever feeling that they were doing anything “wrong.” For another, Henry in particular was a master at contriving affection and devotion to suit his purposes.  A relatively benign example: newly married to Catherine of Aragon, Henry wrote to her father, King Ferdinand of Spain: “Day by day, her inestimable virtues shine forth, flourish and increase, so that even if we were still free, it is she that we would choose.” This letter, we first should bear in mind, was written to King Ferdinand, Catherine’s father, and Henry’s father-in-law.  It would have been unthinkable for Henry to say anything less praising about Catherine.  But he also trotted out exactly the same rhetorical flourish some years later, attempting to prove to Rome that his motives for divorce from Catherine were pious:

“And as touching the Queen, if it be adjudged the law of God that she is my lawful wife, there was never thing more pleasant nor more acceptable to me in my life, both for the discharge and clearing of my conscience and also for the good qualities and conditions the which I know to be in her.  For I assure you all, that beside her noble parentage of which she is descended, she is a woman of the most gentleness, of most humility and buxomness, yea and of all good qualities appertaining to nobility, she is without comparison, as I this twenty years almost have had the true experiments, so that if I were to marry again, if the marriage might be good I would surely choose her above all other women.” (Ridley, 176; emphasis mine.)

This is pretty difficult to buy, as in 1527 Henry was already writing those beseeching letters to Anne Boleyn, describing being “stricken with the dart of love” for over a year, begging her to give herself up “body and heart” to him, and sending her charming love tokens such as a freshly slaughtered buck.  It’s doubtful that he expected anyone to believe that he wanted more than anything else to stay married to Catharine.  But a certain amount of play-acting was required, for his image, possibly for Catherine’s, and to allow the church to grant the divorce with a clean conscience. He was saying what was expected of a just, loving Prince.

Was he “acting” too, in his letters to Anne?  We want to believe that they, of all his letters and proclamations, reveal the existence of an “authentic” Henry, throbbing with longing for Anne’s presence, agony over her absence, and turmoil over his feelings.  And, on the face of it, they certainly read that way:

“My mistress and friend, my heart and I surrender ourselves into your hands, beseeching you to hold us commended to your favor, and that by absence your affection to us may not be lessened:  for it were a great pity to increase our pain, of which absence produces enough and more than I could ever have thought could be felt..at least on my side; I hope the like on yours, assuring you that on my part the pain of absence is already too great for me; and when I think of the increase of that which I am forced to suffer, it would be almost intolerable, but for the firm hope I have of your unchangeable affection for me: and to remind you of this sometimes, and seeing that I cannot be personally present with you, I now send you the nearest thing I can to that, namely, my picture set in a bracelet, with the whole of the device, which you already know, if it should please you.  This is from the hand of your loyal servant and friend, H.R.”

The mere act of writing such a letter was by itself an indication of the depth of Henry’s yearning for Anne. Although intellectually accomplished, he was an impatient and restless personality; in our time, he probably would be diagnosed with ADD.  He read voraciously, but only after others had scoured the contents of books for him, and presented them in digest form. He didn’t even like to read his letters. And he absolutely hated to respond to them.   His secretaries had to cajole him to deal with his correspondence, which he put off as long as possible, and wouldn’t deal with until he had returned from hunting and had a good dinner.

But Henry had been raised on tales of King Arthur’s round table, virtuous knights, maidens in distress and chivalrous deeds, and he knew courting was required.   When he was knighted himself—becoming Duke of York at just 3 and a half years old—he had gone through all the Arthurian rituals a grown man would have gone through, and after a purifying bath, told that his duty, as a knight, was to be strong in the faith of the Holy Church, love and defend the king, and protect all widows and oppressed maidens. Nobility, generosity, mercy, justice, and the power of true love were the stuff of his boyish fantasies.

However, by 1526, when Henry began to pursue Anne, Arthurian chivalry, a deeply spiritualized ideal, was well on its way to being transformed into the political “art” of courtly behavior, aimed at creating the right impression, even if deceptive, to achieve ones ends.  It’s all there, in Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, which, although not  published until 1528, “summarized” the new rules of courtly love.  The Book of the Courtier surprised me. I was raised on bedtime stories—and later, movies—with strong, pure-of-purpose male leads (which set up some unrealistic expectations from the boys I dated) from Alexander the Great (my father’s favorite) to the self-sacrificing Arthur and absurdly handsome Lancelot of Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot.  When I thought “courtly love,” I imagined knights on horseback worshiping ladies from afar, fighting great battles to win their love, their minds full of noble thoughts and dreams of honor.  That’s how Henry the boy probably imagined chivalry, too, as court minstrels performed and sang of the heroic exploits of Jason, Hector, Charlemagne, Arthur, Lancelot, and Galahad.  But by the time Henry was born, the printing press was competing with oral traditions for the hearts and minds of would-be-courtiers, and along with print came popular books of “instructions” for courting, which, like all guidebooks, replaced romance with formula. This is the genre in which Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier belongs.  It is not so much a celebration of chivalry as it is an advice-book on how to “perform” it.

Earlier treatises, such as Andreas Capellanus’ The Art of Courtly Love, had treated love, in true Platonic fashion, as a god who seizes and obsesses the lover, putting his soul in a state of turmoil (“When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates,” “He who is not jealous cannot love,” “He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little”, “A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by thought of his beloved”).  The beloved, on his/her part (depending on whether it’s Plato or Capellanus), is more detached, cool, and inclined to play hard-to-get.  Over-heated and possessed, the lover must then learn how to manage his passion so it will not self-destruct in rash action, jealousy, or carnality. Castiglione, in contrast, is less concerned with the state of the lover’s soul than honing his skill at seducing the beloved. It is she who is to be “managed,” not the lover’s tumultuous passions. And in the service of that goal, all manner of deception and manipulation is permitted.

The book is full of clever, deceptive strategies for seduction.  Here, Castiglione wonders (through one of the characters in his fictional conversations about the virtues and conduct of the ideal courtier) how any girl could escape such an onslaught of “snares”:

What day, what hour, ever passes that the persecuted girl is not besought by the lover with money, gifts, and all things that must please her? When can she ever go to her window, but she shall always see her persistent lover pass, silent in word but with eyes that speak, with sad and languid face, with those burning sighs, often the most abundant tears?  When does she ever go forth to church or other place, but he is always before her, and meets her at every turn of the street with his melancholy passion depicted in his eyes, as if he were expecting instant death? …Then at night she can never wake but she hears music, or at least his unquiet spirit sighing about the house walls and making lamentable sounds….I could not in a thousand years rehearse all the wiles that men employ to bring women to their wishes, for the wiles are infinite; and besides those that every man finds for himself, writers have not been lacking who have ingeniously composed books and therein taken every pains to teach how women are to be duped in these matters.”  (p. 215)

Castiglione’s jaded, ironic tone makes it clear how he regards these practices:as a kind of socially sanctioned harassment (he didn’t have the word, but he sure gets close to the concept), in which it was acceptable to dissemble, badger, and lie in order to “dupe” the woman into falling in love with her suitor.  Among the tactics recommended was the fictional suspension of the social positions of lover and beloved.  Ignoring actual rank, swearing total allegiance, the lover is advised to address the beloved with deep humility, abject before her, totally submissive. But it’s all a ploy, designed to take advantage of the woman’s vanity and gullibility.  Or, if she was cleverer or more cynical, to engage her in a pleasurable fiction. With all this in mind, now consider the letter in which Henry offers to make Anne his “maitresse en titre”:

“In debating with myself the contents of your letters I have been put to a great agony; not knowing how to understand them, whether to my disadvantage as shown in some places, or to my advantage as in others.  I beseech you now with all my heart definitely to let me know your whole mind as to the love between us; for necessity compels me to plague you for a reply, having been for more than a year now struck by the dart of love, and being uncertain either of failure or of finding a place in your heart and affection, which point has certainly kept me for some time from naming you my mistress, since if you love me with an ordinary love the name is not appropriate to you, seeing that it stands for an uncommon position very remote from the ordinary; but if it pleases you to do the duty of a true, loyal mistress and friend, and to give yourself body and heart to me, who have been, and will be, your very loyal servant (if your rigour does not forbid me), I promise you that not only the name will be due to you, but also to take you as my sole mistress, casting off all others than yourself out of mind and affection, and to serve you only; begging you to make me a complete reply to this my rude letter as to how far and in what I can trust; and if it does not please you to reply in writing, to let me know of some place where I can have it by word of mouth, the which place I will seek out with all my heart.  No more for fear of wearying you.  Written by the hand of him who would willingly remain your HR”

“I beseech you,” “if it pleases you,” “begging you,” “fear of wearying you,” “your loyal servant”, “to serve you only.” Etc. etc. Deeply felt emotion, or a pleasurable fiction, designed to woo and win?

My own recommendation is that we approach these letters as embodying the contradictions of Henry’s own personality and place in historical time.  It was a time of transition, and Henry stands at the cusp of enormous cultural changes.  He is in love, yes, and with a strong, unconventional woman.  But he was never the helpless swain that he makes himself out to be in these letters.  A corollary of accepting Henry’s being helplessly in love has often been to cast Anne is an enchantress, with Henry as the besotted recipient of her spells.  In these letters, on such a reading, she keeps him bewitched by carefully and strategically manipulating his emotions.  Alison Weir:  “[S]he handled him with such calculated cleverness that there is no doubt that the crown of England meant more to her than the man through whom she would wear it…[E]verything she did, or omitted to do, in relation to Henry was calculated to increase his ardor.  In this respect she never failed.” (173-74, Six Wives)

Weir’s chief evidence for Anne’s manipulation is the fact that Anne “often failed to reply to [his letters].”  But the fact is that we don’t know when or whether or in what way Anne replied, for we don’t have her letters to Henry. Historians sometimes write as though we did.  Weir again: “If she detected a hint of irritation in his letters, she dealt with it by quickly reverting from the unattainable to the affectionate, and sending a loving reply.”  Weir is a wonderful historian. But the “loving replies” in response to “hints of irritation” that Weir refers to exist only in her own imagination. Henry’s letters are unfailingly courteous and deferential; he moans and groans over his lovesick “agony” but he never scolds her. And since we don’t have Anne’s letters, we can only infer what she said from Henry’s.

And Henry’s letters, I have suggested, are more complicated than simply an expression of his “softer side.” Henry VIII believed in Arthurian honor, which served and protected women as one of its highest goals, and for which Arthur had stood nobly and patiently by while his best knight and his wife engaged in a long affair.  But he himself could never abide by anything except his own supremacy.  He was also an instrumental thinker, for whom the ends ultimately justified all means, and he lived in a time when kingly authority—not “knighthood”—was in flower. Raised on the romance of one set of ideals, he was capable of setting aside his dislike of letter-writing to pen seventeen love-stricken letters to Anne.  But we are mistaken if we take what he says in those letters too literally.  He wanted her, yes.  But he was never her servant—not even emotionally—and even in these letters, he never forgot that.

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Susan Bordo’s Exclusive Interview with Howard Brenton, Author of “Anne Boleyn”

In the summer of 2010, just a few days after Howard Brenton’s play Anne Boleyn opened to rave reviews at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Brenton met with me in the coffee shop of the theatre to talk about the play, what inspired him to write it, his conception of Anne, Henry, and Cromwell, and the difference between polemic and art:

 

SB:            So little exists in terms of actual documentation about what Anne was like; it makes tremendous sense that she would have a very active fictional life, in novels and plays, but also in popular history. Some of the most influential narratives have been based on little more than court gossip, some of them have reflected various political agendas and religious agendas, some are purely the product of over-active imaginations. Your play, however, is really the first, among modern fictionalized narratives anyway, to emphasize Anne’s reformist activities. How did that come about?

 

Brenton:            I wanted to write a play about the Tudors for a long time, but couldn’t find a way of doing it, and then this occurred to me when the Globe wanted a play celebrating the King James Bible for the 400th anniversary. I first said I don’t think can do that, how do you dramatize that?  And then I remembered that Anne Boleyn had a testament, a Tyndale testament–and of course the King James Bible is largely based on Tyndale–so I thought that was interesting, and then the play spun itself from that. In getting the details right, Eric Ives’ Life and Death of Anne Boleyn was a big help.

 

SB:            Ives is one of the most responsible and thorough historians of Anne.

 

Brenton:            Yes, very much so. Then I began to think a lot about Henry.  In my view, what makes the Boleyn story work, in the play at least if not in reality, is my view of Henry that he wasn’t exactly weak, but he would let people run him.  He would have someone close to him, he’d elevate them, and they’d be terrific and virtually take the country over, run everything on his behalf and then when something went wrong or a different wind came his way, he would turn 180 degrees against them and they would be out.  This happened for good reason to Wolsey, it happened to More, it happened to Anne, and then it happened to Cromwell five years after she was executed.  It wasn’t that Henry was weak. But his attention span was probably not the greatest, and although he was an intellectual like any trained prince would be, he wasn’t a great intellectual. He worked hard to be the Renaissance prince when he was young, but basically he was out hunting a lot.

 

SB:            That’s a very interesting answer to what remains a real mystery, which is how could someone who had so much affection and warmth and attachment to various people could turn so ruthlessly against them. One day he has his arm around Wolsey, telling him “don’t be afraid, my friend” and then Wolsey never sees him again. He tells Anne, when she has a fit over Jane, to calm down, that “all will be well, Sweetheart”, and the next thing you know her head is in the sawdust.

 

Brenton:            Yes, that’s what happens when people don’t succeed in doing the big thing that he wants, And it’s very sudden, unlike Elizabeth, where there is a gradual easing in and out of her favorites. Also, there were checks and counterpoints between people in Elizabeth’s court.  With Henry, you were either totally in or you were dead.

 

SB:            Exactly. His capriciousness wasn’t just a function of being king, was it?  Because not all monarchs behaved that way. And of course, there are all these hypotheses as to why Henry did. A  popular one, which partly comes from David Starkey, is that he was overly pampered by his mother. He expected everyone, in a sense, to breastfeed him, metaphorically speaking, and when the milk stopped flowing, so did his attachment and protection.

 

Brenton:            Yes, he was brought up by women, but he wasn’t brought up as the king.  Arthur was, so Henry was always number two, and farmed out to be looked after by women.  I think he was always at ease with women, and of course, they would all defer to him.  The adoration was enormous around the young prince, and then when he was elevated and they tried to try give him a more kingly kind of spine, it had to be bolted together. And then, too, the regime was still really young.  With his father, there were virtual bankers taking over the country, so they had to sort of nail the Tudor dynasty down very hard, and they did that with pomp and centralization. Everyone had to come to court and then travel around with you.  And he got rid of those people who were getting too powerful, building too much, building more than he was, both metaphorically and literally, because he was a manic builder.  No one builds higher skyscrapers than the monarchy.  Don’t put up a taller building than mine or you’d find it knocked down!

 

SB: There was something that you said once in an interview that really interested me.  You said we all live in this world of cardboard, fantasy creations, but life is of course much messier and more chaotic, and that your job, as an artist, is finding the fault lines, the instability. I was wondering how this play fits in to that idea of finding the fault lines, whether in terms of history or in terms of our own, current situation.

 

Brenton:            Perhaps because it’s about the instability of regimes.  But I don’t think you can know whether something you’re working on is going to resonate for an audience.  And often later, if it does, you realize “oh, that’s why I was so obsessed with that at that time!” In my view, you can’t ever have a message-stricken play that tries to disrupt accepted ideas, and so on. You just follow an instinct, something that you’re obsessed with at the moment, and then only later do you realize why.  It’s very dangerous for writers to suddenly begin to think about their “whys”. You can go bonkers; you turn into the label that you’ve created.  We can’t be moralists or ideologues.  It’s a different kind of truth we should be after. Dostoevsky was a great novelist, but if you read his political and religious tracts, they are awful.  They’re one dimensional, ranting, very little human feeling or insight to the human condition in them.

 

SB:            Yes, it’s as though when one stays on the level of theoretical or political abstraction, you’re in a whole different world than our own, contradictory, always-changing one– but when you move to the concrete, the way art (as opposed to polemic) does, the concrete tells you what it has to be.  It tells you that this character must do this whether or not you like it or not –

 

Brenton:            Yes, whether you like it or not.

 

 

SB:            Which bring us to Anne.  How did your Anne come about?

 

Brenton:            I really admire Anne. What was extraordinary to me about her was her recklessness. The Tudor court was unbelievably dangerous and yet she got to the very center of it, and the only way out was either bear a male child or death.  There was no other way out.  There was no retreat, and that I thought was an extraordinary existential place to end up, and I thought the recklessness of it, the courage that took, was amazing.

 

 

 

SB:            Something else about your Anne that really struck me is the way in which you allow her to be both playful and spiritual at the same time.  The typical way the characters are written has Anne equal sex and Catherine equal piety. But in fact Anne, having spent her formative years at the French court, where women could be both playful and have strong religious commitments—Francis’s sister Marguerite is the best example—put it together differently than the English.

 

Brenton:              Yes.  I thought a lot about this. I do think that even in England, the mind/ body split, or the soul / body split, the fallen body, all that, which came out of Calvin, really, was only beginning to make its way into the reformist faction at this kind.  Come the turn of the century, it had taken hold, and it was warfare between the different sections of Puritans, really.  But I thought, well, maybe it hadn’t really got hold by the time of this play.  And that’s reflected in Anne’s version of Protestantism.

 

SB:            It could be speculated that both Anne and Henry get caught, so to speak, by a shift that they don’t quite know is happening.  The new ideas about the “base, physical” body change ideas about courtly love, too, so that things that Anne did that just 10 years before would have been seen as entirely innocent—the provocative talk with the men she was accused of sleeping with, and so on–now begin to be seen as signaling that something more is going on.  I’m not saying that Cromwell didn’t cook up the charges, but perhaps this cultural change is one reason why others were so ready to believe them. In a certain way, Anne and Henry are caught in the grip of historical changes that they can’t control, and that makes it possible for Cromwell to exploit certain things about her.

 

Brenton:            Yes. Cromwell was out to get her, certainly. Originally, he was in league with her and the collaboration was perfect for his purposes, with her access to the royal pillow.  Absolutely wonderful, brilliant arrangement! He was thrilled to realize the extent of her religious fervor.  But then of course, it all went wrong. I took it from the Eric Ives that she was going to tell the king that she was horrified at what was happening, the misuse of the money from the dissolution of monasteries. I found it entirely credible that Cromwell then moved against her.  It was so sudden.  It took him three weeks!  In three weeks, you’ve got all the witnesses, the trial. and she was gone.

 

 

SB:           It’s certainly disturbing, then, to see a book like the Bernard book, Fatal Attractions, which seems so retrograde, arguing that she likely actually slept with at least one of the men.

 

Brenton:            Yes. It’s trying to establish the old story. And Bernard forgets that those aristocratic women who reported to Cromwell were Anne’s enemies. Her only protection was Henry, and the possibility that she was going to give him a male heir.  That’s her only protection.  People hated her family.  So nothing that anyone said about her and her sexual behavior was to be trusted.

 

 

SB:            We know what that led to. But your play, despite what happened to Anne, does end on a curiously hopeful note.

 

 

Brenton:            Yes.  It’s as though she’s saying, “Over to you out there, here’s the mess.  How are you doing with the mess?  Bye bye!”

 

SB:            “I had fun…fun, despite it all!”

 

Bremtpm:            Oddly, that’s what she’s saying here isn’t she? She blows everyone a kiss. And there we are, having been handed the reformation, Puritanism, the whole heritage…

 

 

SB:            Are you aware, by the way, of the huge new interest in Anne, especially on the internet?  I call it “viral Anne.” I think that she appeals to contemporary girls because of her complexity, and they “get” her in a way that many of the official historians don’t.  She says to them: You can be smart.  You can be dedicated.  You can fight for a cause.  But you also can like beautiful clothes and jewelry and don’t think for a minute that just because I flirt with you that you can’t take me seriously. And don’t think I’m anyone’s victim! They want heroines who stand up for themselves, who fight for what they believe, but who also have a sexual, playful, ironic side.  And I think Anne works that way for them.  In a sense, she’s a “third-wave” heroine.

 

 

Brenton:            Dominic [Dromgoole, Artistic Director of the Globe] actually pointed this out to me.  I wasn’t aware of it you see, and he said you do know about this, he’s got daughters who had been through their Anne Boleyn experience when they were 12-13, very young. He said you do know what may happen… you may have an audience of 13-year-olds becoming hysterical in the aisles.

 

SB:            I think they would love the play because your Anne is much closer to the Anne they admire than the Anne of the old stereotypes.  Fascinating, isn’t it? Henry tried to destroy all evidence of her queenship—her letters, her portraits, her emblems.  But she got her revenge, not just through Elizabeth, but by remaining the most endlessly fascinating of all the wives. She’s still a work in progress isn’t she?  Always has been and perhaps always will be.

 

Susan Bordo is a professor of the humanities who is currently writing a book about Anne Boleyn, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn begins its second run at the Globe Theatre on July 8th.

 

 

 

 

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