Category Archives: Anne and Gender

Anne and Natalie Defy the Ideal: From Susan’s Book and Interview with Natalie Dormer

The following is the intellectual property of Susan Bordo.  Please do not quote or cite without attribution to: Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming 2012.

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 grew her dark hair so long that she could sit on it.  Before marriage, young women were permitted to wear their hair loose (after, it had to be hidden under a hood; the exception was the Queen, on those state occasions which required her to wear a crown.)   Religious ideology aside, Anne, must have been quite a ravishing sight, dancing at court, her thick, chestnut mane cascading down her back. “Her gracefulness rivaled Venus,” said the French courtier Brantome. When spotted after she returned to the English court by the French king Francis (whose wife Claude Anne had attended when she was younger) he declared:  “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.) Henry was obsessed with besting Francis, and the comment must have both pleased and provoked him. He was fiercely jealous of Francis’s reputation for style and dash.  I imagine the comment making its way around court, sending hearts and tongues aflutter, gossiping over the “brunette” beauty, as controversial—and influential—as the debut of the twentieth-century “flapper’s” short hair or Twiggy’s pixie.

Natalie Dormer, who plays Anne, is naturally blonde, and she auditioned that way, fully expecting, however, that if she got the role, she would play her as a brunette.  After she received the phone call telling her she’d won the part, she immediately dyed her hair.  When she arrived on set, she was shocked to discover that they had wanted her to remain blonde:

“They were really unhappy and it was communicated to me that I’d almost jeopardized my casting. But it’s such an important detail! Because she was defying the ideal, of what it meant for a female to be attractive. So we’re all barely cast, and I went to Bob Greenblatt with my heart in my mouth, and told him how important it was that Anne be dark. You have to let me play her dark! Some might say I was being melodramatic and self-important.  But I thought it would just be a direct betrayal of Anne. Of her refusal to step into the imprint of the acceptable norm at the time. “

The 16th century ideal

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More of Susan’s Interview with Michael Hirst, Writer of The Tudors

Intellectual property of Susan Bordo.  Do not quote or cite without attribution to The Creation of Anne Boleyn FB page (

SB = Susan Bordo

MH= Michael Hirst


We’ve talked about the fact that you are not doing history. In other interviews you’ve said “art is different from life, it has to have form”.  I agree completely. But I’m wondering, though, if you think that there’s a point at which a line gets crossed.  I’m thinking here in particular of “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which many of my students believe is true.


I just think you have to judge the results. Philippa Gregory has no historical sensibility at all. Her characters are all middle class people wandering into a historical situation and behaving in a very modern middle class way as a result.


The rivalry between Mary and Anne, for example?


Yes, yes, she just invented that or she didn’t know. With good fiction, you actually do understand history and you understand two things.  One is that people are completely different from us and at the same time they are completely the same. In other words, they believe things that seem extraordinary to us. But you understand their existence and you can touch them.  You don’t have to make this huge phony effort to make Anne Boleyn seem like someone in the next dorm of your university, you know.  She was of her time. Her sensibility would not have been a contemporary sensibility. But behind that she is real, behind that she is human.


I do wonder, though, with respect to The Tudors, whether you didn’t try to appeal to viewers yourself, by making Anne, in the first season, all about sex. I think that is part of what led some people to think “oh, here we have it again, Anne the slut.” Would you do that differently now or do you still stand by those choices?


Well, it goes back slightly to the initial situation we were in.  When Showtime commissioned the series they were really taking a giant leap because they believed there was no ready market for anything like that, so we had to push the boundary there.  It wasn’t until the second season when we had a market established that I could then settle down a little more and discuss serious things.  But the sex stuff wasn’t entirely cynical, because I did want to show, unlike high-school history, that there was a lot of sex at the time.  All the courts of Europe were run by people in their teens and twenties…that’s why they were so crazy.  We have this image now that the court is always middle aged, but it wasn’t true.  You know, Henry was 18 when he became King, and I thought it was ridiculous that people were telling me he was really rather prudish and there was no sex because there was no heating in the palaces…


Have they never been on a camping trip?


So, I’m not entirely sorry but I understand your point and its quite true.  People were able to dismiss it because they saw it only as a romp.  But, it wasn’t. It was a way of gaining an audience for something that wouldn’t otherwise have been watched and once I had my audience I could develop more complicated issues…


I understand what you mean.  And I think that you succeeded in that.  But some choices did puzzle me.  One, for example, was the decision not to have Henry’s body change.  That, and the minimal aging that Jonathan Rhys-Meyers did.  I mean he limped, sure, but he still looked like a pretty hot, sexy guy by the end of the series.  How did that come about?


Well the main thing was that Johnny actually has a small head and if you put a big body suit on him he would have looked ridiculous and I never wanted to go down the line of the slightly comical Henry VIII.  The moment people start laughing at him he can’t be a monster, and I’m more interested in the dangerous guy who is killing his wives. I do think, though, that he was pretty effectively degraded because on the very last show when he appears as a young man again there has been a significant change in him and, historically speaking, the real Henry VIII didn’t become monstrously fat until the last five years of his life.  The other thing is, we simply couldn’t have got Johnny to do it.  Johnny would not have allowed us to make him grotesque.

But I’m not saying this is the real Henry VIII.  This is my Henry VIII.  In fact, I wrote the scene when he commissioned Holbein to paint him as a majestic figure because I wanted to make the point that when we see historical figures, a lot of it is propaganda and how they wanted to be seen.  That picture of Henry was essentially a piece of propaganda…


I agree about the Holbein portrait, but I think a slim, older Henry is wrong. I can see, though, why it would have been difficult to do that with Rhys-Meyers.  For me, one of the most successful Henrys, both in terms of acting and physicality, was Robert Shaw, in “A Man for All Seasons.” He had the kind of heft that can turn to obesity in old age, whereas I think it would have been hard to have an athletic and slim guy like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, even if he had allowed it, seem to develop that.


In any case, the great shocking thing for many people was to show Henry VIII as young and fit.  That was a truth that a lot of people didn’t want to recognize.


To go back to the difference between history and fiction, and how good fiction, whatever its inventions, stays true to the historical context, do you think Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” falls into that category?


Well, I think it’s wonderful.  But, what amuses me is that The Tudors was often accused of being historically inaccurate, whereas I tried my best to make it as accurate within obvious limitations as possible and I used as many real quotes and recorded conversations as possible.  But Wolf Hall is completely made up.  It’s complete fiction. But nobody says that. They all say “what a wonderful book, what insights it brings to the Tudors…” Isn’t that bizarre?


A good point.  I found it ingenious and fascinating but I was disturbed by the same old mythology in the portrait of Anne Boleyn.  Mantel is a wonderful writer, but when it comes to Anne, it’s the same old schemer, only re-cycled.


Exactly, it’s trying to redeem Cromwell at the expense of damning Anne yet again.


Writer of The Tudors, Michael Hirst


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Interview with Joanna Carrick, author of “Fallen in Love”

1.     What got you interested in writing a play focusing on the relationship between Anne and George?

Originally my interest was in writing about Anne.  I’ve always been mildly fascinated. There is a village very near here called Erwarton where Anne’s aunt and uncle lived and she visited them as a child. A school friend of mine lived in the hall and I went there a couple of times and was told stories about Anne haunting once a year.  The Church in Erwarton has a legend that Anne’s heart was buried there and I was taken there quite often as a child. There’s a Boleyn Close and a Queen’s Head Pub in the village and so I suppose from an early age Anne has been a part of the landscape for me. My interest turned to writing a play about Anne, after having written a historical play about Thomas Clarkson, a most inspiring person who devoted himself to achieving the abolition of the slave trade. This project got me really fired up about history and bringing it to life for a diverse audience. Having decided to write about Anne, I read extensively about her life and visited historical sites. At Red Rose Chain I work with recovering heroin addicts and run a women’s group for women moving away from drug addiction and street prostitution. Four years ago, five women involved in street prostitution were horrific ally murdered in Ipswich and the work we do today was initiated in response to those events. The women I work with, all non-achievers at school, have been inspired by the Anne Boleyn story and have become known recently as The History Girls, becoming very knowledgeable about the subject and developing their own theories about what happened to Anne. In our discussions, the subject of George and the accusation of incest regularly came up and the girls explored the idea in historical and modern improvisations as well as discussions. I became fascinated  by Anne and George’s relationship and why, if untrue, so many people believed the accusations. For a while I considered writing a play with four characters, Anne, George, Henry and Jane Parker but in time I realized that it was Anne and George I really wanted to portray and decided to create a two hander with the other characters off stage.

2.     What, if anything, annoys you/delights you about how Anne has been represented in other works?

I haven’t in all honesty dwelt much on other interpretations recently, as I’ve been finding out as much as I can and trying to develop my own idea of Anne for some time now. What I don’t relate to is the “horrible histories”  “let’s all enjoy a good beheading” approach. I’ve been trying to stretch out a hand over the last 475 years and emphasize the humanity we have in common.

3.     Why do you think interest in Anne has blossomed over the past few years?  Do you think Anne “speaks” to young women in some way?

I have certainly found this to be the case, working with my women’s group. Anne’s strength and modernity have made her extremely attractive to them, while her flaws of character seem to have endeared her even more. I think the intellectual parity of her relationship with Henry, coupled with her eventual total lack of equality with him makes her a feminist martyr to be celebrated and the act of celebrating her seems to me to empower young women today and especially those who have been victims of abuse and the sex industry.

4.     I love the fact that Henry is “missing” in your play.  Do you have any thoughts on his personality/character?

I don’t know where to begin! I also like the fact that he’s missing, because it enables the audience to create their own visions of him in their minds. At the end of the scene where Anne is about to marry Henry, both Anne and George turn and bow toward the door as music announces his approach and every night during the run the sense of excitement at this moment was palpable as the audience turned to see him, although of course he wasn’t really there. In rehearsals we worked on the idea of Henry a great deal. Both the characters impersonate him at different points and we needed to create a shared vision for them both. Personally I think he was utterly spoilt in the true sense of the word. A man with enormous abilities but totally corrupted by his own power and vanity.

5.     What was the most challenging thing about writing about Anne?

Once I’d got the history right, it was developing a voice for her which sounded real, which had a   sense of period about it but didn’t sound “cod” historical. I found myself imagining her sitting next to me in my car and got used to talking to her and showing her things.

6.     Has anything surprised you about audience/critic responses to your play?

I’ve been delighted by the response. The opening night was a wonderful experience. There couldn’t have been anyone more scary turn up than Alison Weir – unless Anne herself had put in an appearance – and to get such an overwhelming endorsement from her has had a really significant impact on me. It was also such an amazing experience to actually see Alison enjoying the play so much!  During the run, which played to over 2500 people the reaction just seemed to get better and better and we were inundated with letters and emails praising the show and urging us to take it on tour, which we are doing in 2012. People were very moved but also inspired by the ending. Lots of men cried!

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How Could He Do It?: New Excerpt from Susan’s Book

Note: The Following is excerpted from a draft chapter of Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming 2012.  Do not cite or quote without attribution.

How Could He Do It?

When the guns sounded Anne’s death, Henry “immediately boarded a barge and went to Mistress Seymour.” Later that night he returned to Hampton Court, the magnificent palace that Henry had appropriated from his long-time mentor and Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, and refurbished for Anne.  Jane Seymour followed Henry at six the next morning.  They were betrothed at nine o’clock.   The palace had been divested of all the emblems and other evidence of Anne’s queenship (except for those missed by the furiously scrambling revisionist carpenters and stonemasons.)  Soon it would be renovated, once again, to accommodate Prince Edward, the long prayed-for male heir.

The execution of a queen was unprecedented, extreme and shocking, even to Anne’s enemies. Henry had invested six years of time, energy, intellect, money, and blood in making the marriage happen. They were married less than three years. There is no evidence of an unbridgeable emotional estrangement between them. His earlier love letters to her, admittedly written in the bloom of fresh passion, portray a solicitous, tender suitor whom it is impossible to imagine coldly ordering a wife’s death. There are plenty of explanations for Henry’s desire for a new marriage–Anne’s failure to provide a male heir, Jane Seymour, waiting in the wings, fresh and fertile, Henry’s recognition that Anne was creating problems with his image, and perhaps the need to reaffirm his declining masculinity with a new, more pliant bride. […..] In the end, whichever account you find most convincing, it still takes a leap of incomprehension to find any of them sufficient to explain Henry’s willingness—in fact, seeming eagerness—to sign the order for Anne’s execution.  We are still left asking ourselves: How could he do it?

The answer to that question requires going deeper into Henry’s psychology, both as a man and as a King, in search of precisely that piece of his being that made the order to execute Anne possible for him. [………….] Ideas about this fall into one of two categories.  There are those that see the young Henry and the older Henry as two very different men.  Lipscomb’s and Starkey’s theories falls into this category, and so does Michael Hirst’s.  Hirst, creator of The Tudors, described in an interview with me what he views as a shattering of Henry’s psyche, brought on by the recognition that he had spent years of his life, shed the blood of friends, and broken with the church of his childhood, only to be proved mistaken in the supposition that this was what God wanted of him.  On this interpretation, Anne’s failure to produce an heir was not just a blow to the security of the Tudor line but a sign that the hope that he had built his entire life around was based on an illusion:

“He had attacked the church on the basis of a love affair, largely.  But he felt sure of what he was doing at the time, and Anne had mistaken promised him a son. After she’d given him a daughter and had the miscarriages, it began to seem to him as though he’d gone horribly wrong.  He was plunged back into reality, which is messy and not perfect. And I think that as he confronted the huge seriousness of it, he began to think in weird ways, that she was a witch and so forth.  This of course, shows how juvenile he still was.  And he did have an absolutely ruthless streak which his father, too, had possessed.  But beyond that, he did suffer a severe psychological crisis, knowing he had been so deluded. He came out of that crisis a much worse person, a complete tyrant and monster, who killed off the best part of himself in the attempt to reconcile his psychological issues.”

Hirst dramatized this transformation with a chilling last scene in the final episode of the second season of The Tudors.  This was the episode in which Anne is executed, and throughout, scenes of her suffering in the Tower were punctuated with the image of Henry, gazing contemplatively at two beautiful swans nuzzling in the pond outside the palace.  His mood and thoughts are left deliberately ambiguous; perhaps, the viewer imagines, he is thinking back over his love for Anne and the life they shared together, perhaps he is having regrets, feeling sorrow for the beauty that is about to be lost?  No.  After the execution scene, we are immediately taken to the King at his table, looking forward to his breakfast, which is being brought to him in a large gilt tureen on a silver platter.  The lid is lifted, and the servants and nobles surrounding Henry gasp and applaud in delight.  There on the platter is one of the swans, roasted and decorated with its own beautiful wings, posed as gracefully as if it were still swimming in a lake.  Henry, referencing Charles Laughton’s famous eating scene but giving Henry’s voraciousness a menace missing from Laughton’s comic depiction, tears off a wing, plunges his hand into the body of the swan, and begins eating, oblivious to the greasy drool spilling from his mouth.

But there are those who argue that although Henry’s resilience, emotional balance, and temper may have degenerated—and his waistline expanded[1]–as he got older, his personality and character were essentially the same from the beginning of his reign to the end.  Those who argue in this way generally believe, like Lacey Baldwin Smith, that Henry was always a man of many faces, a “baffling composite of shifting silhouettes” who could be good-natured, generous and charming one moment and dangerously cold as stone the next, highly emotional yet rigidly stubborn, a genuine searcher of his conscience for “God’s will” yet able to subordinate all moral scruples and guilt to solidifying his own authority or satisfying his own desires.  The combination of informal warmth and lethal self-interest meant that even the closest relationships with him were never on solid ground, always skating on thin ice.  Thomas More, of all of Henry’s contemporaries, was most perceptive about the inherent danger of making too much of the King’s outward gestures of affection. He told Fisher  that “the king has a way of making every man feel that he is enjoying his special favor.”  It may have been a compliment, but it was also a warning.  He told a young courtier—and this was in 1520, before any “crisis” had occurred in Henry’s reign—that having fun with the king was like “having fun with tamed lions—often it is harmless, but just as often there is the fear of harm.  Often he roars in rage for no known reason, and suddenly the roar becomes fatal.  The pleasure you get is not safe enough to relieve you of anxiety.  For you it is a great pleasure.  As for me, let my pleasure be less great—and safe” (Lion’s Court, p. 217).

But even More couldn’t remain safe.  He realized, as he told his son in law Roper, that even when he was favored by the King “more singularly” than any subject in the realm, “I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go.” (Ridley, 188)   In the end, Henry was just that cavalier with More’s life, although not over a castle in France. Henry had promised, years before, that he would always allow More to avoid any declarations or actions that went against his conscience.  But when Henry’s own supremacy was at issue, More’s conscience—and his head—proved to be easily dispensed with.  On the day of More’s execution, Henry went hunting in Reading.  This was the way Henry dealt with all his executions of old friends and lovers: go hunting, have a party, be merry. Move on.  It may have been a survival mechanism, whose aim was to defend him against normal human feelings of regret or grief.

Despite their many insights—I particularly value Suzanne Lipscomb’s work–the problem with theories that postulate a crisis or set of crises that turned Henry from a virtuous prince into the sort of man who could order the execution of a wife is that Henry was always capable of decisively and irrevocably turning off the switch of affection, love, tender feeling and shared memories, severing all ties, and refusing to look back.  In fact, those whom he loved the most—Wolsey, More, Anne, Cromwell–were most at risk.  Because he loved them, they had the most power to disappoint him—and for Henry, disappointment could never be “slight.”  All wounds to his authority, his manhood, his trust, were bloody gashes that he could only repair by annihilating (psychologically or literally) the one who inflicted the wound.  This, perhaps, is what distinguishes Henry’s pattern from “ordinary” royal imperiousness.  Kings execute people.  Kings have grandiose ambitions.  Kings are threatened by challenges to their authority.  Kings can become drunk on power, and often do.   But Henry may be unique among famous authoritarian kings in that his close relationships only had two switches: on and off.  As Howard Brenton, author of the play Anne Boleyn, put it in an interview with me, “With Henry, you were either totally in or you were dead.  He would have someone close to him, he’d elevate them, and they’d be terrific and virtually run everything on his behalf, and then when something went wrong, or a wind came his way, he would turn 180 degrees against them and they would be out.  It happened to Wolsey, it happened to More, it happened to Anne, it happened to Cromwell.”  It almost happened to Mary, who so enraged Henry when she refused, even after Anne was dead, to take the oath recognizing her father as Supreme Head of the Church of England, that Cranmer , at the last minute, had to talk him out of ordering her execution (Ridley, 274).  Mary was Henry’s daughter.

In 2011, this kind of personality would probably be diagnosed as indicating that Henry was a borderline or narcissistic personality type.  Phenomenologically—that is, without attempting to put a medical label on Henry, but simply looking at his patterns of behavior—he certainly exemplifies the phenomenon therapists call “splitting”:

“The world of a borderline, like that of a child, is split into heroes and villains.  A child emotionally, the borderline cannot tolerate human inconsistencies and ambiguities; he cannot reconcile another’s good and bad qualities into a constant coherent understanding of that person.  At any particular moment, one is either ‘good’ or ‘evil’; there is no in-between, no gray area.  Nuances and shadows are grasped with great difficulty, if at all.  Lovers and mates, mothers and father, siblings…and friends may be idolized one day, totally devalued and dismissed the next” (10, ‘I hate you’).

In a certain sense, of course, the medieval world view was itself a “split” universe, in which God and Satan, the saved and the fallen, were at starkly opposite poles, and “history was an extended moral homily upon the actions of men behaving rightly or wrongly.” (Mask of royalty, 75) It wasn’t until the psychological turn of the 19th century that human beings began to be seen as mixtures of good and evil, ego and id, light side and dark side.  But a dualistic ideology and a personality for whom others are either “for you” or “against you” are two very different things.  In philosophical or religious dualism it is God (or the universe) that assigns the categories of good and bad, which are relatively stable; for Henry, his own shifting needs were the measure of all things. “He is a prince of a royal disposition, and hath a princely heart, “ Wolsey told Kingston in 1529, long before Kingston became Anne’s warder in the Tower, but “rather than he will either miss or want any part of his will or appetite, he will put the loss of one half of his realm in danger.” (p. 256, Lion’s Court) But Henry’s “will” was not always easy to discern, for it was capricious.  In the screenplay of “A Man for All Seasons,” Robert Bolt brilliantly captures, in one brief action, not only the trembling uncertainty this produced in those around him, but Henry’s delight in it.  Henry’s boat has just arrived at Chelsea, More’s home, and the king (Robert Shaw), robust and athletic has jumped off the deck and into, unexpectedly, into a pool of mud.  He glares menacingly at the rowmen, who quake appropriately.  Henry then bursts into a hearty, howling laugh, and the tense atmosphere among the men is transformed into playtime, as they take their turn jumping into the mud.

There’s no evidence that Henry took such childish pleasure in manipulating the emotions of his subjects—although there are plenty of occasions when he used his ability to make people cower in order to show his magnanimity (e.g. staged last-minute pardons) or assert his authority.  Those tactics were pretty standard for kings, whose image was essential to maintaining power.  It was also judicious for royalty to develop a strong shell of mistrust, for the reality is that Henry’s life and line of descent were in constant danger.  He was not “paranoid” to be watchful for signs of betrayal.  But Henry’s turnabouts do not seem to have been always under his control.  The letters of ambassadors, even from the early years of his reign, describe sudden, explosive angers, “tears and tantrums.”   1535, the king’s fool almost lost his life over a joke about Anne Boleyn; a year later, Henry was weeping uncontrollably while hugging his illegitimate son, relieved that he was now safe from  “that accursed whore” who had slept with over a hundred men.  A hundred?  That would have meant a new man every ten days of her Queenship.  Yet it’s possible that Henry believed something near to this, for his emotional switch, for whatever reasons, had turned against her, and she was now as wholly evil in his eyes as she once was wholly virtuous.

If we want to go beyond the phenomenology of Henry’s “splitting” to causal explanation, we could find it in his childhood, which was itself split between the “cosy feminine world” of his mother and sisters and the cold indifference, then hostile domination, of his father.  “As the only boy in the royal nursery,” writes  Robert Hutchinson, Henry “was thoroughly spoilt and tenderly protected from the hard knocks and bruises of childhood misfortune.  The toddler prince was cosseted, his grumpiness and tears sweetly cooed away, and his every whim swiftly fulfilled by the doting matronly ladies who cared for him.” (15)  It’s not clear, however, that naturally energetic Henry was entirely happy with all this “doting,” which after Arthur’s death kept him “as locked away as a woman” out of fear that the precious spare heir would also be lost.  As soon as he was free to, he was non-stop jousting, wrestling, and showing off with his boy-pals. But the masculine attentions of his father came with a high price, too.  Until Arthur’s death, his father had virtually ignored Henry, leaving him to the care of the women; after Arthur died, however, he became obsessively focused on preparing him for the throne, and in the process, Henry became subject to his father’s famous rages when he didn’t do exactly as required.  He was so strict with the child that he gave the impression to Reginald Pole, Henry’s contemporary, that he had “no affection or fancy unto him.” (Erickson, 51)

You don’t need to venture into psychoanalytic territory, or engage in anachronistic psychologizing, to imagine Henry growing up with the belief that relationships were an either/or business, largely defined by gender:  You could be extravagantly loved but smothered by women (perhaps part of the reason why he was initially drawn to both Katherine and Anne, and later Katherine Parr, all of whom were strong-minded women whose strengths he came to resent.)  Or: you could excel in the competitive world of men, where you might exercise power and command fear but never achieve the unconditional adoration you crave.  Perhaps this intense desire for male love, and not only freedom from the restrictions of his childhood, helps to explain both his attraction to a father figure like Wolsey, and also why Henry was at his happiest, most generous, most exuberant, among the young men he hunted and cavorted with.   But in the end, everyone—with the exception of Charles Brandon and Katherine Parr, the two “survivors” of life with Henry—was bound to fail him, for he expected the impossible.

Whatever the origins of Henry’s personality, his problems were vastly exacerbated by the fact that he was, after all, king.  As such, he was continually flattered and pampered, his every whim indulged, his grandiosity rarely challenged, his illusions carefully maintained.  All of this encouraged his sense of omnipotence, which in turn made it all the riskier for those around him to show anything less than absolute allegiance.  In proving this, even obedience, ironically, put one at risk, for Henry wasn’t a fool; he knew those around him were afraid, and so never fully trusted anyone.  When he was young, he sought out people like More, and encouraged them to be honest with him, seeking some solid ground on which to base a relationship.  But it was a zero sum game; when More ran up against Henry’s need to be the center of the universe, More’s once-cherished independence of mind became worse than “nothing” in Henry’s “all or nothing” demands on relationships.

It’s hard to know exactly what threw the switch with Anne.  Her final miscarriage may have convinced him that God was not on the side of their relationship.  He may have believed in the charges of adultery—although his exaggerated estimates of her infidelities make me less rather than more likely to believe that; if he truly believed she had slept with five men, including her own brother, surely that would have been enough to “justify” his outrage without dragging half the men in court into her bed.  Or the humiliation of hearing that Anne gossiped about his lack of sexual performance may have been all that was needed.  We will never know, and it really doesn’t matter.  It was sufficient, whatever it was, to shut off any currents of empathy, memory, attachment that Henry felt for Anne.  This is where “Anne of the Thousand Days” has it so wrong.  The play and movie both open with Henry tormented by the decision whether or not to order Anne’s execution.  In Maxwell Anderson’s play, which is written in verse, Henry muses:

“This is hard to do

when you come to put pen to paper.

You say to yourself:

She must die.  And she must—

If thing are to go as planned.

Yes, if they are to go at all.

If I am to rule

And keep my sanity and hold my England off the rocks…

Go back to it, Henry, go back to it.

Keep your mind

On this parchment you must sign.

Dip the pen in the ink write your name…

It’s only that a woman you’ve held in your arms

And longer for when she was away,

And suffered with her—no, but she promised you an heir.

Write it down—

Write Henry Rex, and it’s done.

And then the headsman

Will cry out suddenly, “Look, look there!’

And point to the first flash of sunrise,

And she’ll look,

Not knowing what he means, and his sword will flash

In the flick of sun, through the little bones of her neck

As she looks away,

And it will be done.

It will be done.”

It’s romantic and moving, and beautifully written.  But it is not, I believe, the poetry of Henry’s reality.  In that reality, they handed him the parchment.  He dipped the pen in the ink.  He signed his name: Henry Rex.  And it was done.

[1] Something The Tudors never shows, in part due to the vanity of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

Hans Holbein, Henry VIII


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At the Scaffold

The following entry should not be sited, reproduced, or quoted without attribution to me and my book:  Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

At the Scaffold.

Despite her proclaimed readiness to die, until very near the end Anne still harbored the belief that Henry might pardon her. It was not an unreasonable expectation.  Not only had no British queen up until then been executed, but the last-minute rescue of the condemned queen was a centerpiece of the romance of chivalry, which was still being avidly consumed at court via Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  In the Arthurian legend, Guinevere is condemned to death twice for treason (the second time for adultery with Lancelot) and both times is saved from the stake by Lancelot—with King Arthur’s blessings.  Arthur had, in fact, suspected the queen’s infidelity for years, but because of his love for her and for Lancelot, had kept his suspicions a secret.  When Modred and Aggravane, plotting their own coup d’etat, told the King about it, he had no choice but to condemn his queen, while privately hoping she would be rescued.

It was a romantic fantasy—but one which Henry and Anne had grown up with, and which no doubt shaped their ideas about love.  The Arthurian romance, even today, has the power to move us.  And in 1536, many of the outward trappings and habits of courtly love still existed.  Henry was himself an adroit and seductively tender courtier, who at the beginning of his courtship of Anne had written seventeen letters in which he pledged himself her “servant” and swore his constancy. The pledges may (or may not) have been made manipulatively, but his infatuation was real and the gestures were convincing. Why wouldn’t Anne, who Henry had in fact honored like Guinevere for six years, cherish the hope that she, too, would be rescued from death?

Henry had no such plans in mind, however. As Anne prepared for her death, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding.  Chapuys describes the king as showing “extravagant joy” at Anne’s arrest.  Convinced (or making a great show for posterity) that Anne was an “accursed whore” who had slept with hundreds of men, he was “very impatient” and wishing to have the thing done with “already.”  Ironically, Anne, on her part, felt the same way. Expecting to die on the 18th, she took the sacrament at 2 a.m., having prepared her soul for many hours.  By now all who were in close contact with her must have been convinced of her innocence, whatever their politics. She had insisted that Kingston be present when she took confession, so her assertion of innocence of the charges would be public record. Even her old enemy Chapuys was impressed by the fact that Anne, before and after receiving the Sacrament, affirmed to those who had charge of her “on damnation of her soul, that she had never offended with her body against the King.”  In the 16th century, to speak anything other than the truth at such a time would be to invite the utter condemnation of God. Anne had nothing to gain and her salvation to lose by lying.

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

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

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

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

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

“It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who have let themselves slide into sleep. I believe this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting in the agony of death, and maintain that we pity them without cause…If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care with it” (Lewis, 104-5).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir William Russell Flint – Queen Guinevere rescued from the stake by Sir Lancelot, from ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, Book XX, Chapter VIII

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The Tudors’ Anne: A Magic Collaboration Between Writer and Actress

 When I spoke with Michael Hirst in March 2011, he admitted that when he wrote the first season of The Tudors, he wasn’t all that interested in Anne Boleyn.  “I didn’t even know if we’d be picked up for a second season at that point, and Anne was one of many people swimming in the ether. Wolsey and More—and of course Henry–were the more dominant figures.” His ultimate goal was to introduce television viewers to the tumultuous events behind the English Reformation.  But he knew that history-as-entertainment was “a giant leap” for most viewers, and wasn’t afraid to make use of the sexier side of the story.  He picked Natalie Dormer for the role of Anne largely because of the chemistry between her and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, slated to play Henry. His choice ultimately led him to a reconsideration of Anne, her role in history, and his hopes for the legacy of the series.

When I met with Natalie Dormer in June 2010, we talked about many things.  I was extremely lucky to meet Natalie after her contract with Showtime was over, and she felt free to cease acting as a spokesperson for the show, and to speak her mind.  For over an hour and half, we shared our love of Anne and her story, lamented how it had been misrepresented both in Anne’s time and our own, discussed Tudor history, and reflected on the struggle of Anne, women actors, and young women today to escape the limitations and expectations placed on them.  She admitted that she often felt “compromised” by the way Anne’s character was written for the first season.

“I lost so many hours of sleep, and actually shed tears during my portrayal of her, trying to inject historical truth into the script, trying to do right by this woman that I had read so much about. It was a constant struggle, because the original script had that tendency to polarize women into saint and whore. It wasn’t deliberate, but it was there. I tried to fight that wherever I could, and because Michael Hirst and I were friends, and he had respect for my knowledge of history, I did manage to accomplish a bit. It was both inspiring and depressing when I got letters from young women, saying that it was so fascinating to watch me play a two-dimensional characterization of such a strong, powerful, clever and yet beautiful woman.  The fact that it was so unusual for them to have an inspiring portrait of a spirited, strong, young woman–that’s devastating to me. But young women, it seems, picked up on my efforts, and that is a massive complement.  And says a lot about the intelligence of that audience. Young girls struggling to find their identity, find their place, in this supposedly post-feminist era understood what I was doing”.

But not everyone responded in such a gratifying way.  Hirst and I talked at length about the long legacy of negative stereotypes of Anne, and the tendency of fiction-writers and some historians to simply re-cycle them.   Some critics, Hirst reported, dismissed The Tudors’ Anne as “your typically manipulative, scheming bitch.  That surprised me because I hadn’t written it that way—I didn’t think Anne was a manipulative bitch, but a lively, complex woman–but they couldn’t get out of this system of thought we’ve talked about.  Some of this criticism hurt Natalie very much.”

In my interview with her, Natalie recalled that disappointment, and spoke passionately about her desire that audiences, when the series got to Anne’s fall, would empathize with her:

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

During a dinner with Michael Hirst, who was still writing the second season, she shared her frustration and begged him “to do it right in the second half. We were good friendsHe listened to me because he knew I knew my history.  And you know, he’s a brilliant man.  So he listened. And I remember saying to him: `Throw everything you’ve got at me.  Promise me you’ll do that. I can do it.  The politics, the religion, the personal stuff, throw everything you’ve got at me.  I can take it.’”

Hirst took her by her word, and the result was a major change in the Anne Boleyn of the second season. Still sexy, but brainy, politically engaged and astute, a loving mother, and a committed reformist. No longer was Anne simply a character “in the ether.” Rehabilitating her image became part of his motivation in writing the script: “I wanted to show that she was a human being, a young woman placed in a really difficult and awful situation, manipulated by her father, the king, and circumstances, but that she was also feisty and interesting and had a point of view and tried to use her powers to advance what she believed in. And I wanted people to live with her, to live through her. To see her.”

The execution scene was especially important to Natalie: “By the end of the season, when I’m standing on that scaffold,” she told Michael, “I hope you write it the way it should be.  And I want the effect of that scene to remain with viewers for the length of the series. I want the audience to be standing with her on that scaffold.  I want those who have judged her harshly to change their allegiance so they actually love her and empathize with her.”  The experience of actually filming the scene, for the actress, was “incredibly harrowing.  As I was saying the lines, I got the feeling I was saying good-bye to a character.  And of course, there was my tremendous sympathy for the historical figure of Anne.   I was a real crucible of emotions for those few days. And when it was over I grieved for her.”

Hirst, too, recalls the heightened emotions of shooting that scene: “That was an amazing day.  Extraordinary day. After, I went in to congratulate her.  She was weeping and saying, `She’s with me Michael.  She’s with me.’” And with thousands of fans, who still write Natalie letters, describing the impact that the scene had on them.

As you watch it now—probably not for the first time—I hope it will resonate for you, not only as the powerful, wrenching end of Anne’s life, but as the artistic culmination of a real-life relationship between another brave, challenging woman and a man who, unlike Henry, was willing to listen.

Natalie Dormer portraying Anne at her execution in The Tudors.

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Natalie Dormer on Anne and gender politics, from Susan’s interview with her

“Anne really influenced the world, behind closed doors.  But she’s given no explicit credit because she wasn’t protected. The machinations of court were an absolute minefield for women. And she was so good at that wonderful little thing that women do, making a man think that it’s his idea.

Let’s not forget, too, that history was written by men.  And even now, in our post-feminist era we still have women struggle in public positions of power. When you read a history book, both the commentary and the first hand primary evidence, all the natural gender prejudices during the period will certainly be there.

Anne was that rare  phenomenon, a self-made woman. But then, this became her demise, 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 because she wouldn’t change her personality. What she had that was so unique for its a woman at that time was also her undoing.

But she had her vindication, in her daughter, one of the greatest queens in British history. That really moves me.”

Coming soon: Natalie’s thoughts on playing Anne for the execution scene.


Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn on “The Tudors”

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“He killed off the best part of himself” – Michael Hirst on Anne Boleyn

Michael Hirst, on the “psychological crisis” that led to Anne’s execution,and how it altered Henry:

He had attacked the church on the basis of a love affair, largely.  And he felt sure of what he was doing at the time, and Anne had mistaken promised him a son. After she’d given him a daughter and had the miscarriages, it began to seem to him as though he’d gone horribly wrong.  He was plunged back into reality, which is messy and not perfect. And I think that as he confronted the huge seriousness of it, he began to be screwed up about what he’d done, and began to think in weird ways, that she was a witch and so forth.  This of course, shows how juvenile he still was.  At the same time what it revealed was this absolutely ruthless streak which his father, too, had possessed. So he somehow reconciled his psychological issues and persuaded himself:”oh well, hey ho, I’m the king, I can do what I like.” And went off merrily to another wife.  He did have a psychological tussle with himself, he did have a crisis.  And he came out of that crisis as a much worse person.  He killed off the best part of himself. Something profound happened, and as a result it led to him becoming a complete tyrant and monster.

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What 16th Century 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.”

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