Category Archives: Anne Through the Ages

Posts on how Anne has been viewed through the centuries, from Chapuys, to the Victorians, to the modern era.

Our Default Anne

 UnknownIn England, Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are now on stage, and with the productions comes a revival of “lethal Anne” (The Daily Mail,) described in various reviews as a “sharp-toothed vixen” (The Guardian)”vile and manipulative” (The Telegraph) and so “spitefully ambitious” that “one feels any king would be justified in beheading” her (The Morning Star.)  She’s a bit player in Mantel’s fictional world, which stars Thomas Cromwell, but a familiar one.  From the letters of Anne’s earliest political enemies to Philippa Gregory’s sister from hell in The Other Boleyn Girl, the lethal, calculating social climber has been our default Anne Boleyn, who—like Freddy Kruger in the Halloween thrillers—just won’t die.

Does history bear this portrayal out?  Hardly.  The only “evidence” that Anne was a ruthless schemer comes from the poison pen of her political enemies—most notably, Eustace Chapuys, ambassador to Spain and a fierce defender of both Katherine and the Catholic Church.  Mantel’s fictional portrayal of Anne—“as seen through the eyes of Cromwell”—is just that: a novelistic invention, not born out by the facts.  Cromwell, by all accounts, saw Anne as a confederate in the reformist cause until long after the time period of Wolf Hall.  Yet there she is in Wolf Hall, a “calculating being” with “a cold slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes.”

images-8Just what is so enduringly appealing about malicious Anne?  The “femme fatale” is a long-standing archetype in many cul­tures, of course, and Anne is only one of many: Eve, Delilah, Salome, Jezebel, the sirens, Medea, Cleopatra, Morgan le Fay, Vampira, the Dragon Lady, and all their various incarnations and evil sisters in my­thology, novels, fin-de-siècle painting, film noir, and television soaps. Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae, fol­lows Freud and Nietzsche and argues that she is “one of the most mesmerizing of sexual personae,” who will always have a cultural presence. And there is no denying that there is something delicious about characters that act out the mean girl (or, for men, the imagined girlfriend from hell) in all of us. Like Scarlett O’Hara, lethal Anne discharges parts of the self that most of us are afraid to put into public scrutiny.

What seems most striking today is not so much that lethal Anne Boleyn still exists in popular culture, but that we no longer see her as a suspect sexist stereotype whose reality lies in the cultural unconscious rather than the facts of history.  If a bug-eyed black rapist appeared in a contemporary novel or play, at least some commentators would squirm over the reproduction of dangerous and ill-founded racist mythology.  Nowadays, it’s ho-hum over equally cartoonish sexual “personae.”

images-9(1)Actually, it’s worse than ho-hum.  To call out sexual stereotyping is derided as “politically correct,” old-fashioned, and chip-on-the-shoulder feminism.  When I remarked (to a writer who will remain un-named) how cartoonishly fatale Mantel’s Anne seemed, she chastised me for “expecting Cromwell to behave like a twentieth century feminist.” No, it’s rather that I expected as talented a writer as Mantel—and one who says she operated as the “history police” as her novels were adapted into plays—to press her imagination into the service of the historical Cromwell’s relationship with Anne rather than sprucing up the same-old mean girl and putting her in Cromwell’s mind.

Does this mean that I view “the real” Anne Boleyn as a helpless innocent with no ambitions or nasty thoughts? That description would apply to no one over the age of one. And actually, we know very little about what Anne’s character or motivations were really like, for Henry, who loved to re-write history along his choice of wife, destroyed her letters, portraits, and just about everything he could lay his hands on that testified to Anne’s existence. What remains is a patched together narrative that variously reflects the biases of staunch enemies or idealizing rehabilitators of her image. The fact is, however, that she would not have to be so constantly defended if we didn’t keep returning to the default vixen. Surely the choice between “victim” and “villainess,” while it has dominated the history of representations of Anne, is a silly one that it is time to resist.

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“Dirty Little Secret”: ‘Dandy Entertainment’ or Media Malpractice?

Jodia Arias: Dirty Little Secret

Jodia Arias: Dirty Little Secret

 One of the central themes of my book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, is how slyly gossip, stereotype, and novelistic invention can creep into the realm of “fact.” It can happen over centuries, as it did with Anne Boleyn, whose political enemies bequeathed to generations of historians, novelists, and film-makers a skanky schemer Anne who to this day has a fierce grip on pop culture.  In 2013, it can happen overnight, as it did last night with Lifetime’s “Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret.”

Contrary to some expectations, I’m not going to complain here about the all-too-familiar archetype of the provocative sexual temptress that the movie, playing fast and loose with the facts, tailored Arias to conform to.  This is Lifetime, after all, and skanky females are in vogue nowadays.  So I won’t harp on the (invented from scratch) scene in which Jodi introduces herself to Travis as he takes a leak in the men’s room.  Or her uninterruptedly slutty behavior throughout.  What had me wanting to pitch The Book of Mormon (had I owned it) at the television screen was the movie’s conversion of Travis Alexander from an unabashed and often dominant partner in a mutually escalating sexual addiction (you don’t have to take Jodi’s word for it; just listen to the orgasm-accompanied tapes, which feature—among other things—Travis telling Jodi he’d like to take her into the woods, “tie you to a tree and put it in your ass”) to an earnest innocent who tried to resist the forbidden fruit but couldn’t help but succumb when it was thrust so provocatively in his face. I mean, what man could?

The writers of the film, Richard Blaney and Gregory Small (couldn’t they have found a female collaborator?) have tried to justify this conversion (as far-fetched to anyone who has actually followed the trial as Jodi’s “conversion” to Mormonism) as done out of respect for the feelings of Alexander’s family, who had already suffered not only the loss of Travis but having to listen to him arouse Jodi with his fantasies on the “sex tapes.”  They were not going to repeat that torment! Their responsibility, Small has said, seemingly forgetting that he was writing a movie not concluding arguments at a trial, “was to speak for Travis.”  As for Jodi, “We never really doubted that she was the bad guy” says Blaney.

Well yes, if by “bad guy” you mean “murderer.”  But with a movie like this (“tucked handily,” writes “between the May verdict for the murder trial and the July retrial in the life-or-death penalty phase”) now in the popular consciousness, it’s going to be hard to find a jury who don’t see Jodi as guilty, not only of a horrible murder, but the corruption of an innocent.   “There is no doubt after viewing the film,” writes Sasha Brown-Worsham in Stir, “Travis Alexander was the victim in every sense of the word.”  And by “every” she does mean sexual.  Admitting “the film has Arias manipulating and twisting every turn so that Alexander had almost no choice but to succumb to her charms,” she concludes that “seeing it played out in this way did make me look at Arias differently.”  I strongly suspect that she is far from the only one.  Jodi is now inscribed not only in the book of famous murderesses, but also in the cultural catalogue of libidinous Eves, forcing that apple into poor Adam’s mouth. calls the film “dandy entertainment.”  I call it media malpractice.


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Tips For Avoiding the Executioner

Jodi Arias on trial

Jodi Arias on trial

This Saturday, June 22, Lifetime premieres “Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret,” and I am unashamed to admit I will be watching. I am a compulsive follower of the Jodi Arias trial and media/social media reactions to it. My daughter and husband have been openly disgusted; my all-purpose excuse (for housewives, dance moms, etc.)—“It’s my job to know about our culture”—wasn’t quite adequate to justify my riveted attention to the ravings of Nancy Grace, the bullying of Juan Martinez or the creepily detached testimony of Jodi Arias herself. Lasting much longer than anyone had anticipated, the trial was so repetitive and the commentators so relentlessly anti-Arias that after awhile I could write the script for each day’s proceedings by myself. There was no startling “If the gloves fit, you must acquit” moment; Arias, after a couple of botched attempts at lying, admitted to the murder at the beginning of the trial. The question that remained: Did she deserve to die for her crime?

Arias had no prior record of criminal activity, clearly had serious “personality issues,” and the gruesome murder, rather than a carefully planned stealth attack seemed—to me, anyway—the wacked-out, bursting into chaos of an erotic attachment that had gone over the edge of sanity. Yet trial-watchers seemed as eager for the death penalty had Arias been a cold-hearted, serial child-dismemberer. Why did people hate her so much? It seemed to have more to do with the fact that she did yoga exercises at the police station and applied make-up before interviews than with the crime itself. Over and over, Arias just wouldn’t behave the way people felt she “should.”

Major case in point: the words “I’m sorry.” When interviewed by reporters the evening before her sentencing, Arias—astoundingly—refused every opportunity to break down in tears and beg forgiveness of the Alexander family. One reporter, however, persisted longer than the others: “Why not just say you are sorry?” He seemed intent to wring precisely those words out of her. Rather mechanically and unconvincingly, Arias eventually relented and said them. But then—and this is the point that tells—she went on to explain her hesitation: “It seems like saying those words–‘I’m sorry’ [quote, unquote]–is so inadequate because it doesn’t encompass the scope of the remorse that I feel and what I wish that I could change if I had the chance to do it.”

This is, of course, absolutely true. It may, in fact, have been the truest thing said at the trial or in interviews. To imagine that such horror could be wiped away by those few perfunctory words, by now so Hallmark, so “Love Story” in their sentiment, is to be so dominated by meaningless convention—and the desire that it bend those who resist to their knees—that the true seriousness of the crime is demeaned. “Quote/unquote” Arias had attached to the words “I’m sorry”; she knew the words were pure gesture, and she resisted. It’s the requirement of a parent from a child who has disobeyed, a mantra of submission. And absolutely inadequate, as Arias rightly said. But the same snake that hissed at Arias to speak the greeting card words that would show she was “human” also chewed up the precision and intelligence of her reply into yet another show of her “coldness.”

This had in fact happened many times over the course of the trial, as Arias’s attempts to describe her relationship with Alexander and her shame over the things that they had done together in terms that had a precision of meaning—a truthfulness—for her were continually interpreted as evasions, rationalizations, and, most heinous crime of all for a female defendant, lack of emotion. Why wouldn’t she cry? Why didn’t she break down? How dare she comb her hair and put on lip-gloss before her television interviews!

Jean Harris prepares for court

Jean Harris prepares for court

It put me in mind of the terrible trouble that Jean Harris, who killed diet doctor Herman Tarnower, got into with the jury, press and public for dressing too well, appearing “haughty,” and refusing to exhibit an appropriate level of remorse, when it seemed clear that with her precise grammar and mink hat she was only trying to preserve what little pride she had left. There is abundant evidence that both Tarnower and Travis Alexander engaged in the kind of seductive, vacillating behavior that could drive a precariously poised woman over the edge. This doesn’t mean, of course, that either of them “deserved to die” (another blunt moral mantra that HLN is so fond of.) But it does help explain why both Jean and Jodi each seemed more intent on maintaining dignity, composure, and showing that were not deranged love slaves than on winning the pity of the jury. They were ashamed—Jodi, indeed, seemed more ashamed of the sex acts she and Travis performed than the hideous murder she committed—and couldn’t bear to humiliate themselves further.

Jean and Jodi also put me in mind of another woman on trial—this one almost surely innocent of the crimes with which she was charged—whose “haughty” behavior left her disastrously vulnerable to the condemnation of public opinion. Anne Boleyn, both before and after she fell out of favor with Henry VIII, had a great deal going against her. She had supplanted a beloved queen. She was suspiciously “French.” And she had an irritating habit of speaking her mind rather than obeying convention. She “could not pretend to be a fool or a nonentity,” historian David Loades put it well, “and the self-effacement customary in a royal consort did not suit her style at all…” At her own trial (for incest and treason), she seemed to recognize that this failure to submit played a large role in her downfall. Insisting that she was clear of all charges laid against her, she acknowledged that she was guilty of one thing: failing to tender the king “that humility which his goodness to me, and the honors to which he raised me, merited.” By then, of course, the damage was fatally done.

Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn on trial

Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn on trial

It would have been unthinkable for a sixteenth-century queen, especially one as proud as Anne, to plead for her life from a jury so below her station. But this is 2013, and here is my advice to any woman brought to trial, whether she is innocent or guilty of the crimes with which she is charged: Cry. Beg. Do not try to explain yourself with precision. Do not try to maintain composure. Do not appear too intelligent. Never demonstrate any pride in any aspect of your being. Break down. Intone—and, although it is virtually an impossible task to turn a cliché into a believable emotion, make sure to utter with conviction the conventional mantras that show you have been properly humbled. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Susan Bordo most recent book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, was published in April by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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Viral Anne

You know you are a pop-culture internet queen when your name is connected with the cats at "I Can Has Cheezburger?"

You know you are a pop-culture internet queen when your name is connected with the cats at “I Can Has Cheezburger?”

This excerpt from Susan’s book discusses “Viral Anne”–the Websites and Facebook pages devoted to Boleyn and/or The Tudors. She asks that those who are mentioned remember that her book went into production over a year ago, and thus doesn’t reflect activity (such as the publication of books by Claire Ridgway and Sylwia Zupanec, and the appearance of several newer websites) that happened since then. She also reminds interviewees and other contributors to The Creation of Anne Boleyn Facebook page that many of them are quoted in other sections of the book. And finally, she hopes you all understand that it was unavoidable that many great sites have not been mentioned; if she had discussed them all, it would have been a book in itself!

…[T]he electronic community of Tudorphiles…emerged out of the tentative seedings of long-time Tudor fans, and after The Tudors caught hold, sprouted limbs and shoots all across the internet.  Lara Eakins, whose was among the first, began in 1994 with “a little GIF of Elizabeth I” and a “very simple page about the Tudors.”  Lara’s initial impulse, as she describes it, was just to share: “here’s something that interests me.”  She was surprised when numerous emails began arriving, some asking for help with school assignments, but many from people for whom the Tudors had been a secret passion.  “I thought I was the only one interested in Tudor history!” wrote some; “My friends and family are tired of me talking about it.”  Now they would have a place to indulge freely without driving others away. Lara began to suspect that her site had tapped into a community of Tudor fans, each thinking he or she was the “only one.”  Then, the publication of The Other Boleyn Girl  turned Anne Boleyn into “one of the biggest topics of interest” among the followers of her Q and A page, and “once The Tudors started, the questions started flooding in.”  Many were interested in sorting out fact from fiction in Gregory’s novel and the television show, and that delighted Lara.  “It was nice to know that there is at least some fraction who will dig deeper and try to learn more about the actual history.”

Along with pre-publicity for The Tudors, Showtime created a number of websites in 2007, one of which was a wikilike Wikipedia, a compendium of knowledge built by viewers themselves.  In addition to informational postings about the show and Tudor history, the moderators posted questions soliciting readers’ opinions. Discussions ranged from the historical controversies which had engaged longtime Tudor scholars—Was Anne born in 1501 or 1507? Did she sleep with her first love Henry Percy? Was her last stillbirth deformed? etc.—to playful questionnaires such as “If Henry’s wives were alive today, what job would they have?”, ”What magazines would they read?” and so on.  Participants, at one point, were asked to submit the question they would most want to ask Anne, if she were contacted in a séance.   Their questions reveal their personal engagement, even sympathetic identification, with Anne: “Was Henry good in bed?” “Did you really have extra toes and fingers?” “If you had to do your life again would you marry the king if you knew all we know today?””Do you think you had an impact in your daughter’s life?” “How did you find the strength to endure the trial and imprisonment without any support from your family?”,“Did the beheading hurt?”

Not everyone was a fan of Anne’s, however.  Claire Ridgway, who started The Anne Boleyn Files in 2009, encountered a good deal of hatred of Anne and by extension, her site: “Being someone who runs an Anne Boleyn site has left me open to abuse, offensive emails, and even death threats because I dare to defend a woman who for some really is the ‘scandal of Christendom.’”  Either encouraged or angered by The Tudors’ tendency to sanctify Katherine and Jane Seymour, “Team Boleyn” members and “Team Aragon/Team Seymour” members became mean, squabbling girls themselves. Sue Booth, one of the first moderators  of the Tudors Wiki, was struck by “fierce loyalties” that arose among the members of the Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn “camps.” “It never ceased to amaze me,” she recalls, “how strongly these women felt about something that happened over 400 years ago.”  Natalie Sweet, who joined the Wiki in 2008 while she was studying for a master’s degree in history, remembers these battles as proving the truth of the comment made by sportswriter Clay Travis that “the dark corners of the internet message board made talk radio seem like a mid-day stroll in a well-kept garden.”  Viewers, encouraged by the obscurity of internet conversations, didn’t hold back on slinging mud at each other, and for moderators of the site, it became a “challenge maintaining the line between constructive criticism and negative character bashing.” Barb Alexander, who runs The Tudor Tudor, is puzzled by all this: “I can never figure out why there is such a ‘fangirl’ or ‘bully’ attitude toward any of these people—they have been dead for about 500 years! I like to see an educated passion for a historical figure, and if that figure is not your cup of tea, a respectful disagreement is fine.  But they lived centuries ago, in a different climate than ours, and so I don’t feel it’s fair to judge them nor their actions by modern standards.”  That may be true, but it’s never stopped writers from the 17th, 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries from taking sides; why should it be any different now?

Despite the wife fights, the Tudors Wiki was Natalie Sweet’s  “sanity” during graduate school, and taught her that she should “never discredit the research and knowledge of another just because she did not hold a history degree…and who made me a better historian for the perspectives they provided to me.” Undoubtedly the most convincing proof of that statement is The Anne Boleyn Files.  Although it began as “just a blog’ that Claire was writing for herself—a “journal of my journey into finding out more about Anne Boleyn…people started finding me and commenting on the site. I was blown away! There were other people out there who were just as fascinated by Anne! My research became all consuming, a passion that had taken hold, and by the summer of 2009 I had given up my freelance writing career and was researching Tudor history on a full-time basis, I’ve never looked back!”  Today, 23,000 people visit the site each month, and in response to reader demand, it has become much more than “just a blog.” The Anne Boleyn Files provides links to other sites where one can purchase books and Tudor themed products, buy such items as replicas of Anne’s famous “B” necklace and pajamas and hoodies with her image on them, and sign up for yearly events such as the  “Anne Boleyn Experience Tour.”  It is also a clearing-house for every kind of Tudor resource. Claire’s own “journey,” too, has evolved. Just in the few years I’ve been following the site, I’ve seen her blossom from a respectful reporter of the theories of published authors to an investigative historical journalist whose blog—recently made available in book form–is more rigorous than that of many professional historians.

An International Community of Myth-Busters, Inspired by a Television Show

It’s not surprising that, with the exception of, the Tudor websites and Facebook pages postdate the April 2007 premiere of The Tudors, and that some of the most popular sites were begun after the record-breaking second season finale, in June 2008, in which Anne’s execution drew 852,000 viewers—83% above the numbers for the season one finale.  Google trends records a dramatic peak in surfers for “Anne Boleyn” during 2008.   But even after the second-season finale, the numbers do not return to their pre-Tudors levels, and sites continue to flourish—among them Barb Alexander’s delightfully “cheeky guide to the Tudor dynasty,” The Tudor Tutor, and Natalie Grueninger’s “On The Tudor Trail,” which began as a place to document surviving locations that Anne Boleyn had once visited, and now has grown to include interviews with authors and historians, its own line of Anne inspired greeting cards, and plans to lead a tour, “In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn.”

The Tudor Facebook pages and websites constitute an international community of Tudor scholars, many of them disappointed by the lack of available materials and discussion in their home countries.  Jessica Prestes, who is Brazilian, was introduced to the Tudors at the age of 11, when her history teacher took the class to watch the movie Elizabeth.  But at the time she knew nothing about the story of Anne Boleyn, only that Henry VIII was Elizabeth’s father. After “The Tudors” premiered, however, Anne became her “obsession.”  She’s now a graduate student in history who runs several facebook pages and sites with an international following.  Sarah Bryson, in Australia, was having trouble finding people with an interest in Tudor history there; today, her Internet site and Facebook page is one of the most personally engaging, with reviews of the latest books alternating with warm conversations among members. Sylwia Sobczak Zupanec has been fascinated by Anne since she was thirteen, but with little information available in Polish, she was frustrated.  Noticing the historical inaccuracies of The Tudors, she started purchasing books in English about Anne, and joined a Polish forum about the show.  ‘And then I thought: why not start my own website, where I could write about Anne and the Tudor period in Polish language?”  Sylvia started her website—the only website about Anne Boleyn in Polish–in 2010.   It ultimately led to Sylwia creating a sister site and a Facebook page in English.

The Tudor websites and Facebook pages are far from being just ‘fan pages.’ Because most of those who run them are not professional historians (although some are graduate students in history, and many are writing books), they are freer to allow curiosity and skepticism—rather than the demands of specialization or publication—to guide their thinking.  Each new book, media presentation, public controversy immediately becomes a subject of review and debate.  And because the nature of the sites is collective exploration, particular issues are much more rapidly and thoroughly explored than they typically are in academic forums.  Poked and prodded by members, who together constitute a phenomenally well-read critical community, these sites have become think tanks of Tudor research, questioning some of the most entrenched myths, raising serious issues about documentation, and delving into issues that only appear as footnotes in the scholarly literature. In many ways, they operate as the critical conscience of published Tudor research.  A few prominent examples: Ridgway has exposed numerous scholarly soft-spots in Alison Weir’s book about Mary Boleyn, Grueninger led a rigorous investigation into the historical meaning of the color yellow (which sources have claimed Anne and Henry wore after Katherine’s death), Zupanec was the first to notice that a famous quote about Anne attributed to Francis I and endlessly recyled in much of the literature has never actually been documented in any of the books that cite it.  She presented her research and spearheaded a collective exploration that, despite the efforts of many scholars in many fields, has yet been able to validate the quotation. These critical investigations are the stuff of scholarly findings of significance and potential widespread interest.


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Anne Boleyn: A Cultural Timeline

AnneMay 19, 1536:  Anne Boleyn, convicted of treason, adultery, and incest, becomes the first Queen in English history to be executed.  She dies with many enemies, mostly Catholic, who describe her as a scheming harpy, “goggle-eyed whore” and Lutheran heretic, who ensnared Henry with her French ways.

Yet even just a few hours after the execution, with Henry already cavorting publicly with his newly betrothed Jane Seymour, many begin to question the justice of the verdict…and Henry’s second wife rises from the grave, to begin her cultural afterlife.

“We always write from our time,” Hilary Mantel said in an interview with me.  And Anne has been written and re-written….

At first, which “side” you are on depends on whether you are Protestant or Catholic:

1563 and John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of the Church: The “Goggle-Eyed Whore” Becomes A Martyr.

Anne’s daughter Elizabeth ascends to the throne in 1558, and Protestant defenders begin to emerge from the closet.  In their eyes, Anne Boleyn is a “most virtuous and noble lady” who helped bring true religion to England.

1585, Nicholas Sander’s The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism: The Slut is Back, Now With Six Fingers

            Pro-Catholic Sander, exiled by Elizabeth, slings some fresh mud–and some of it sticks.  Sanders: Not only did Anne sleep with half the French court and her father’s chaplain, but she is actually Henry’s daughter, by her own mother.  She is also grossly deformed, with a projecting tooth, large growth on her neck, and six fingers on one hand.  It’s a myth—Anne had an extra nail, not an extra finger—but admit it, you thought it was true…

1623, Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (or All is True): Anne as the Incubator of Elizabeth.

All was not true in the play, and Anne hardly had a role to speak, but no one cared.  The distinction between “fiction” and “history” was not yet an issue, and the main point was to glorify the Virgin Queen.

1682, John Banks’s Vertue Betray’d : Anne as Hapless Victim of Henry’s Tyranny. Banks (following the “Secret History” of Madame D’Aulnoy, famous French writer of fairy-tales) and others cast a new narrative of love and betrayal and create a new dramatic persona: the “she-heroine.” Ingredients: clever, virtuous girl, wicked king, scheming “other woman,” and tragic ending.  The soap opera begins…

1700-1900: Gender Wars!  Fallen Woman or Scheming Adventuress? It still matters whether you are Protestant or Catholic, but it now begins to matter, too, whether you are a professional male historian or a “woman writer.”  The Strickland sisters see Anne as a cautionary tale, while Anthony Froude and others view her as a “foolish and bad woman” who corrupted Henry.  The male historians have nothing but scorn for the “sentimental” “tiddle-tattle” of the women writers—conveniently overlooking the fact that their own research relies largely on the gossipy letters of Eustace Chapuys, imperial ambassador to…Spain! (And Katherine’s dear friend).  While the writers battle it out, romantic painters have the last word in the popular imagination. Anne—often now depicted as blonde and rather plump—is shown swooning, weeping, and stoicly meeting an unjust end.

1912-1939: The Historical Novel Makes Anne A Hot Commercial Item.

“ I dare not!” murmurs Anne in Mary Hasting’s Bradley’s The Favor of Kings (1912)…and then goes on to have—gasp–premarital sex with the King.  (The Victorians mangled the date of Elizabeth’s birth to avoid confronting this fact.)  And the fictional juice begins to flow…and flow…and flow.  Love. Longing. Loathing. Lust. By the time she is published in paperback (Francis Hacket’s Queen Anne Boleyn) the story has become the stuff of the back-cover salespitch: “She conquered the heart of a king—and lost her life for her love.” Um..what happened to the Reformation?

1933: Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII. Anne Who? Gorgeous Merle Oberon, as Anne, gets killed off in the first fifteen minutes, and Charles Laughton ‘s Henry teaches the world how to eat chicken.  Serial wife replacement as comedy?  Somehow, they pulled it off.

1949: Barnes’ Brief Gaudy Hour (novel) and Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (play): Anne and Henry Become a Post-War Couple. Anne is a feisty teenager, Henry has masculinity issues, and this marriage is in trouble.  It was so much easier when the men were at war and the women knew their place!

1969: Anne of the Thousand Days (film): Anne as Sixties’ Rebel Girl . Genevieve Bujold told me “Anne is mine.” Indeed.  As the first truly iconic Anne, Bujold proudly plunges off the cliff decades before “Thelma and Louise.”  We were charmed by her elfin beauty, we cheered when she told Henry off in the tower (never happened, but who cares?), and yes, “Elizabeth Shall Be Queen!”  You go girl!!

1970: BBC “Henry VIII And His Six Wives”: Mini-Series Gravitas.  The spectacle of Henry aging before our eyes as he went through one fascinating woman after another held us riveted to the small screen—and gave Showtime something to sex-update 35 years later.

2002: Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl”: Mean Girl.  Clearly in touch with the times, Gregory mangles history to produce the nastiest Anne ever, and convinces a new generation, befuddled by the postmodern blurring of fiction and fact, that she really did sleep with her brother.  Sander is chortling, historians are grimacing, and Gregory is smiling all the way to the best-seller list.

2007: Showtime’s “The Tudors”: Natalie Dormer Makes (Postmodern) History.  Jonathan Rhys-Meyers refused to wear a fat suit, the Showtime execs demanded that the series not be boring in a “you know…BBC way,” and Michael Hirst (creator and writer of the series) did all he could to inject the Reformation Crisis in between the sex scenes.  Only Natalie Dormer, barely known at the time, stood up for Anne, refusing to play her as a blonde and insisting that Hirst make her less slutty, smarter, and stronger in the second season.  For historians, the changes may have seemed slight.  But teenage and twenty-something viewers were enraptured.  “She was a modern day girl in the wrong time period,” they declared, constructing a new, “third-wave” feminist icon out of Dormer’s portrayal: ambitious, intelligent, flirtatious and perhaps most important to her fans, “hugely complicated and not easy to dismiss.”

2007-2013: Viral Anne. We can never get enough of Anne, it seems.  She is a woman for all seasons, a Rorschach figure who tells us more about ourselves than about her own life and death. In part, this is due to the unsolvable mystery of who she “really” was.  After her death, Henry did all he could to re-write her existence into absence: destroyed her portraits, her letters, removed her emblems.  Ironically, this has allowed Anne to live on, a queen recreated anew by each generation—and in the internet age, to spread her reign across a multitude of links.  With“The Tudors” came the websites…and the tee-shirts, mugs, and jewelry…and the facebook pages…and the blogs turned into self-published books. Quarrels erupt daily among amateur historians passionately attacking and defending themselves on Elusive, contradictory, seductive.  Henry may have tried to erase her, but succeeded instead in allowing her to live a hundred lives, forever.


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Anne Makes Her Debut in the Novel: “The Favor of Kings” to “Queen Anne Boleyn”

Taken from The Creation of Anne Boleyn, forthcoming April 2013. Purchase info available here.

“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 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. Yet now . . . [t]he 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.”

The Favor of Kings by Mary Hastings Bradley

The Favor of Kings by Mary Hastings Bradley

This is as close as Mary Hastings Bradley, in The Favor of Kings (1912), the first full-length novel about Anne, comes to describing the moment when Anne decided to let Henry have — gasp — sex with her. It was a huge advance in sexual candor, however, over the Victori­ans, who had mangled Elizabeth’s stage of development at birth and/ or Anne and Henry’s marriage date in order to avoid acknowledging that Anne and Henry had bedded together before marriage. Bradley, an English major and graduate of Smith College who went on to lead quite an adventurous life, was committed to staying as true to “actual situations . . . real incident, and dialogue” as possible and did exten­sive research among the collected foreign and domestic letters and pa­pers of Henry’s reign; the then-prominent histories of Friedmann, the Stricklands, David Hume, and others; and at historical sites.  In her foreword, she acknowledges her use of these sources and also indicates where she has “taken liberties” with history (an admission that was quite common among novelists in the first half of the century and that has, unfortunately, gone completely out of fashion today). But she stresses that her aim is not to “enter an historical controversy” but “to suggest the truth of the colors of the picture I have tried to paint, and to offer the Anne Boleyn of this story, a very human girl.”

I want to pause for a moment over those two words: “human” and “girl.” Bradley doesn’t say exactly what she meant, but I speculate that “human” is to be counterposed to “Historical Figure” and “girl” is to be contrasted with “queen” as well as “woman.” Bradley wanted Anne to be someone whom readers could identify with, not observe from afar as a player in a grand historical pageant, “The Tudor Saga” or “The Reformation Crisis.” She wasn’t interested in either redeeming or vili­fying Anne. She wanted readers to understand her. And a large part of what would make this understanding possible is the imaginative con­juring of Anne’s feelings and thoughts before she had been subjected to and transformed by “the favor of kings” — a title Bradley means sar­donically — but was still a creature of fantasies and dreams, “gay and fearless and rashly proud, as the likeness of that Anne who dared and lost so long ago and whose blood was the first of any woman’s to stain an English scaffold.” And so, for the first time, an author ventures into the “inner life” of Anne, the young girl:

“Wolsey’s] cold arrogance that treated her mercilessly as a wooden pawn to be moved hither and yon quickened her to the fiercest re­sentment her fiery little heart had ever thrilled with . . . It was just such a night as [this] one that she had last met Percy, and under all the fierce surge of her anger came stealing the pain of the nevermore. Nevermore would they meet there — it might be they would never meet again. The poignancy of such denial was strange to her, but she divined that it was but the beginning of sorrow. Memories that had suddenly become an agony enwrapped her, and an aching presenti­ment of grief to come.”

In making Anne “human,” Bradley’s narrative introduces some ele­ments that are absent from previous ideas about Anne but that have since become stock features of later fictional portrayals. One is the manipulation of Anne by her father and uncle, whose ambitions for the family are behind their desire for the match between her and the king. With all that we now know about social history, the history of the family, and the position of women in the sixteenth century, it seems incredible that Anne would have been the all-powerful, autonomous prime mover that Chapuys and the histories that take his word for it make her out to be during the six years that the king pursued her. But ideology and hostility were much stronger forces than common sense in those accounts, and sociological thinking, completely unknown to the early polemicists and still a very young discipline even at the end of the nineteenth century, did not play much of a role in the first histories and biographies of Anne and Henry. Neither did the idea that Anne, as a young woman, might have been a less formidable personality than she would become as queen. Only the Stricklands and Benger seem to recognize that Anne, in fact, was once a young girl. Perhaps the fact that they, too, were once girls makes it harder for them to see Anne, as Froude, Friedmann, and Pollard do, as having sprung fully formed from the French court — a mature, ambitious agent of her own destiny.

But then, too, so little is actually known about Anne’s life as a girl that historians, although they indulge in creative license in their imag­inings of Anne the woman, may have felt that Anne’s early life was off-limits. Novelists, who freely admitted to filling in the blanks, felt no such limitations. Sometimes the early twentieth-century portraits were little more than anachronistic transplants of the Gibson girl into the sixteenth century, as in Reginald Drew’s 1912 Anne Boleyn.

“[Young Anne] was a vision of loveliness. She was radiant and dimpled, and her beautiful face, pink-hued and lily white, rippled with laugh­ter and bubbled with vivacity. She had sparkling eyes, wavy, golden-brown hair which framed her face like a picture, and which her coif could not either confine or conceal. She rode her palfrey perfectly, flicking her whip with her daintily gloved hand; her whole being per­sonified emotion, her carriage was that of a queen, and her musical laughter sounded like rippling water to the thirsting.”

Drew wasn’t the last to turn Anne into a creature of his own fantasies while ignoring the historical evidence (slim as that evidence is, we do know a few things, and among them is that she did not have “golden­brown hair”). It’s been a continuing tendency of Anne’s imaginers, whether they are painters, novelists, or casting directors, to project the beauty standards and feminine ideals of their own day onto Anne. The Victorians were fond of depicting Anne, in scenes with Henry, as a ma­ture, curvaceous (but, of course, corseted) fair-haired beauty, properly clinging to her husband; interestingly enough, she looks most like the “real” Anne — dark-haired and slender — in the paintings that mourn her fall. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Anne starts to look — and act — like the audacious “new girls” of the twenties and thirties, full of spunk and fun, “speeding joyously along on her bicycle [substitute “horse”] . . . women’s rights perched on the handlebars and cramping modes and manners strewn on her track.” She’s slender and clever, flirtatious and emotionally spontaneous; she doesn’t know when to hold her tongue.

Bradley’s Anne is of this model, which actually suits what we know of the historical Anne much better than the Victorian versions. It’s a very sympathetic picture, although not an idealizing one. Although Anne’s girlish high spirits, in the novel, are ultimately disfigured by ambition, it is the machinations of her father and uncle that are re­sponsible for her loss of innocence. Yet, the “seeds” of her destruction are also “in” her — not in her vanity or defiance of sexual morality, as the Stricklands have it, but in her proud, independent nature. In the passage that follows, Bradley presents the young Anne to us through the (retrospective) perspective of poet Thomas Wyatt, who never gives up his thwarted love for Anne and who represents the one who sees “the truth” in the novel.

“He looked at her now [after Anne becomes queen], jeweled and gauded till her slender body was like the glittering image of some idol . . . [B]ehind her chair in smiling converse, were her father and uncle, suave images of insincerity, assiduously grimacing upon her, and at the sight Wyatt’s heart filled with yet heavier dejection. Those elegants were like vultures feeding on her youth, he thought, in bitter clarity of vision . . . He had never thought before of Anne as over-young and helpless, but now . . . for all her heavy robes of state, her jewels, her air of command, he saw the girl in her as he had never seen it when she was yet younger; the flushed face that smiled so proudly under the drift of dark hair was a child’s face, its woman soul unawakened, its eyes smiling in a dream, unopened to the abyss ahead.”

The paradigm of Anne as a vivacious, high-spirited young girl whose life was profoundly — and tragically — altered by becoming Henry’s queen has remained the narrative spine of the twentieth cen­tury novels that are sympathetic to her. But sympathy is not the same as idealization, and the Anne of the early twentieth-century has very “human” faults. Some of those faults — such as pride and ambition — are not so different from the charges laid against her by Friedmann, Froude, and Pollard. But in the early novels, they no longer mark her as a “type”: a bad woman. This is due partly to the more flexible imagi­nation of the creative writer. And it’s due partly to changes in the ideol­ogy of femininity: Sexuality was no longer consistently seen as the line that divided good girls from bad girls, and female “ambition” was more likely to be viewed with uneasy ambivalence rather than pure horror. But Freudian and developmental psychology, as well as the perspec­tives of sociologists and anthropologists, had also created new frame­works for imagining the interaction of external environment and per­sonality; and the power of the change in Anne’s circumstances, once the king had singled her out — and then even more dramatically when she became queen — began to be seen as more significant to her story.

The Anne of most early twentieth-century fiction is not a bred-in-the ­bone she-devil. Rather, she is a strong-willed young woman with per­sonal qualities that are quite attractive but, when unleashed by her el­evation, proved dangerous to her. Even as a young girl, she was “auda­cious,” “confident,” and above all, “proud,” as Bradley, through Wyatt, describes her. “By the law of her nature,” she writes elsewhere in the novel, “she might command, coax, dominate, divert, bewitch, enthrall; but implore — never!” It’s Anne’s proud nature, in Bradley, that dis­tinguishes her from her pliant sister and that motivates her sexual re­sistance to the king. Her Anne does not withhold her favors out of manipulative ambition, as later narratives would have it, but because she was “too high of pride, too maiden of spirit, to surrender to such ignoble fate” — and because she was still in love with Percy. For the first third of the novel, Anne hopes that her persistent refusal would “weary Henry” and that “he would find some newer face, some fresher fancy.” The turning point comes only when she realizes that Henry means to make her queen. Anne is surprised and confused by this prospect rather than (as in other depictions) having schemed to bring it about: “The glade seemed to whirl about her. She felt the rushing of vast wings, the elation of airy heights. To be queen — to be Queen of England!” But the thrill is not only due to the sudden, unexpected fantasy of being queen. Anne’s pride, wounded by Wolsey’s ability to rearrange her fate — and in this novel, Katherine’s unwillingness to intercede — is also vindicated, and the “recklessness” of her nature is challenged.

“A fierce, cruel wave of joy swept over. To be queen on Katherine’s throne — Oh, what an ex­quisite, what an infinitely ironic retaliation! Dared she trust herself to the mad project? Dared she undertake the humbling of one queen, the crowning of another? Aye, she dared! Her blood rushed on in faster time: with feverish recklessness it sang songs of triumph and power in her veins. There was little that wild blood would not dare!”

This Anne is no maiden whose virtue was plundered by a rapa­cious monarch. But neither is she the temptress/witch incarnate. She’s a young woman whose temperament, for all her flirtatiousness, was more unnervingly “masculine” than was usual for her time: confident, excited by her own potential to effect action in the world, capable of fierce resentments, daring ambitions, bold action — and unwilling to be anyone’s plaything or political tool. As Francis Hackett sums it up: she was the mother of Elizabeth, not “an understudy of Queen Victo­ria.”60 And she has a sexual life, too, although her erotic temperament and tastes vary wildly from novel to novel, and — especially as histori­cal fiction became a thriving commercial specialty — could be quite extravagant. Elizabeth Louisa Moresby, writing under the pen name of E. Barrington (Anne Boleyn, 1932), while insisting that her story “is as true to history as the consultation of many authorities can make it,” ap­parently consulted some very odd authorities because her Anne, while sexually frigid with everyone else and thoroughly repulsed by Henry, is smitten with Dionysian Smeaton.

“She could fancy him dancing alone in the wild woodlands at Hever — yes, in that haunted spot where the oaks fell back and left an open space for moonlight. There, looking up at the searing moon with wild hair flying back from his forehead, he would caper like a goat and beckon, and the woodland creatures would crowd in a furry ring . . . He smelt of woods and fresh turned earth dewy in the night . . . A faun come to Court who had never changed his ways for Henry or another! All this he seemed to her, perhaps wholly mistakenly, for the man lived his life like others, so they told her. But she dangerously liked his love-making — wild, careless love with drifts of bird-music and no more responsibility than a cuckoo’s.”

Barrington, despite appearances, was not hinting that the charges of adultery with Smeaton might have been true; later in the novel, it’s very clear that her Anne is innocent of adultery. Barrington, a devotee of Buddhism who also wrote fantasy novels, seems to have been mo­tivated more by an aversion to the institution of marriage, which took the spontaneity, freedom, and “natural” flow out of relationships than she was in painting Anne as a sexual libertine. Elsewhere in the novel, she has Anne reflecting on “the weariness of married companionship with nothing new to say or do together” and “the tedium of a wife who loves calmly, securely.” Smeaton is used, I believe, as a symbol of the freedom Anne gives up when she marries Henry. “We are both crea­tures of fairy blood,” he tells Anne. “We know at bottom that neither Pope, Church, nor King matter a jot, but only the wild hearts of men that carry them into strange places. When you have flung his son into his arms come away with me and let him find another to nurse his leg . . . and bear his humour — some milk-blood bit of curd he cannot break, that will dissolve in whey if he looks at it! Come away, Anne, and we will wander the world singing for our bread and lying in mead­ows by a running river to eat it.”

In striking contrast to Barrington, Paul Rival’s 1936 novel, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, has Anne discovering her true womanhood in Henry’s arms. Originally written in French and quickly translated into English by Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge, Rival’s novel was reprinted in paperback form in 1970 with the front cover reading: now a ma-jor network tv series, taking its place beside the for­syte saga. The series was the BBC six-part The Six Wives of Henry VIII, with Keith Michell as Henry and Dorothy Tutin as Anne. But the novel bears little resemblance, in style or content, to that subdued, very proper British series. Rival’s language is dizzyingly intense and dramatic, and his interpretation of Anne and Henry’s attraction for each other seems a combination of early French existentialism (which Gabriel Marcel had introduced in the twenties) and Freudian theory (very much in vogue in the thirties). For Rival’s Henry, the thought of a child with Anne is more than a desire to secure the Tudor line, it is a way of making the “ethereal” creature into an earthly — Simone de Beauvoir would say “immanent” — body.

“Henry was invaded by a powerful and perverse fascination that dwelt in the thought that this small, dancing creature would be enslaved, would endure long months of a bewildered weakness until she be­came a mother. The more elusive [Anne] seemed, the more he burned to possess her. She stirred and re-awoke in him bygone mystical dreams, which took upon themselves new significance: “I shall take her in my arms and compel her to materialize, to become mere flesh of this earth. I shall fashion a woman out of this flame; I shall mingle my being with that of this sinuous snake, this Melusine. An essential particle of my body will inhabit her unreality, will slowly come to life, to birth and to the light of day, and the child will be myself and this small elusive Anne.”

Henry’s desire for Anne is thus premised on what Sartre would later describe as the desire to capture the elusive freedom of another person by “incarnating” it as flesh. But Anne, on her part, is a more Freudian kind of girl, who realizes her own sexuality only when she gives up ev­erything that is “masculine” about her — the “huntress,” with her own plans and ambitions — and submits totally to Henry, as she finally does at Calais.

“That night, in the conventional room which had been assigned to her 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 tapestries 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.”

In Francis Hackett’s Queen Anne Boleyn (1939), it’s Wyatt who holds the key to Anne’s libido, possibly because his bold, poetic nature makes for more ecstatic romance than the somewhat weak-kneed Percy of earlier novels.

“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.”

Steamy sex aside, Hackett’s novel is 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) is refreshing and astute. The first Anne novel to become a New York Times best seller, Queen Anne Boleyn was also the first to benefit from the creation, in 1939, 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 those who read the Christian Science Monitor, the New Statesman, or the Saturday Review. SHE CONQUERED THE HEART OF A KING — AND LOST HER LIFE FOR HER LOVE reads the bold headline, and below it ran the following text:

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.


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Anne Boleyn’s “Feminism”

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

A contemporary cartoon of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Mesinga (

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,”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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Jane, January, and Anne’s Downfall

A 19th century engraving titled "Anne Boleyn Receiving Proof of Henry's Passion for Jane Seymour"

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Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning Wolf Hall ends portentously, with Cromwell and Henry about to embark, in September 1535, on a progress that would include a stop at Wolf Hall, home of John Seymour and his family.  Mantel chose the ending (and the title of her book), we can safely speculate, to mark the beginning of Anne’s final and fatal twist of bad luck, with Henry catching sight of Jane, John Seymour’s daughter.

Mantel’s is not the first or last depiction to imagine such a meeting—among the most well known, the BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII and Showtimes’ Tudors.  It’s one of those fictions that have endured across the centuries in our collective narrative of Anne’s fall.  But it’s very unlikely either that Henry saw Jane for the first time at Wolf Hall, for Jane had been one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies, and then returned to court to be part of Anne Boleyn’s entourage in 1534, well before the Wolf Hall progress, or that anything momentous passed between them on that visit.  For one thing, Anne was with Henry.  For another, we don’t even know for sure if Jane was there.

The first clear mention of a relationship between Henry and Jane occurs in Chapuys’ February 17 (1536) letter to Charles, in which he wrote that Anne’s inability to bear male children was due to her  “defective constitution,” and that “the real cause” of her miscarriage of January 29 may have been the King’s “behavior toward a damsel of the Court, named Miss Seymour, to whom he has latterly made very valuable presents.”

February 1536.  If the king had begun seriously pursuing Jane in September of 1535, it’s highly unlikely that the gossip-hungry Chapuys—always ready to report any decline in Henry’s feelings for Anne—would have waited six months to report it to Charles.  It makes for a good story:  King’s declining passion for his first wife, her escalating jealousy and shrewishness, setting the stage for a tipping-point meeting between Henry and sweet, submissive Jane, providing the spark which turned the tinder of his marriage to Anne into a roaring, destructive fire.  But in fact, there seems to have been no single factor—certainly not Jane Seymour–that brought about the disastrous events of April-May 1536, but a combustion of court atmospherics, political maneuvering, and sheer bad luck.  What turned the cherished, hotly pursued consort into the lady in the tower, awaiting her execution, did not belong primarily to the realm of emotions, but to the gathering of a “perfect storm” of political, personal, and biological events, the absence of any one of which might have resulted in things turning out very differently for Anne.

The atmospherics included a strong political/religious “wing” of anti-Anne sentiment that 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. 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. “Had she been gracious and modest,” writes 19th century commentator James Froude, “she might have partially overcome the prejudice against her.” (P 384).  “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.” (69) But women did not belong in the council chamber.

By 1536, Henry was also well aware that public opinion, especially after the executions of Bishop Fisher and Thomas More (for refusing to take the oath declaring Henry Supreme Head of the Church of England) was not exactly riding in his favor.

Besides anger over Fisher and More, who were generally admired, there was a growing public sentiment over the mistreatment of Katherine and Princess Mary, who Henry kept separated from each other, and treated like discarded limbs.  The abuse of Mary was especially acute, as she was forced to wait on her younger sister Elizabeth, and allowed no audience with the King, who had formerly been an affectionate father, so long as she refused to acknowledge Anne as Queen.  This she would not do, not even after Anne had personally offered her friendship and a home at court, on that one condition.  Despite a huge amount of evidence that Henry was in a rage over his daughter’s “obstinacy” and hardly required any goading to punish and humiliate her, Chapuys blamed her mistreatment entirely on Anne, whom he believed turned the King against Mary, and did all that he could to insure that every other person who would listen to him saw it that way.

Even those who knew better, like Thomas Cromwell, realized that blaming the King for Mary’s mistreatment could create a huge public relations disaster and encouraged Chapuys in his Anne-blaming.  As early as October of 1534, Chapuys had met with Cromwell, who reassured Chapuys of Henry’s “paternal affection” for Mary and claimed that he “loved her 100 times more than his last born” and that he and Chapuys ought to do all that they could to “soften and mend all matter relating to her,” for “in time everything would be set to rights.” Although I am often skeptical of Chapuys’ second and third-hand “intelligence,” the manipulative, self-serving speech he attributes to Cromwell has, to my ears, the ring of truth.  In it, Cromwell takes credit for paving the way to smoother relations between Henry and Charles, and assures Chapuys that the only obstacle standing between a renewed friendship between England and Spain was a “satisfactory settlement of all complaints” held by Mary and Katherine.   He ended, Chapuys reports, ”by saying in passing that it was perfectly true that great union and friendship existed now between France and England, but that I could guess the cause of it. He did not say more on this subject.  Your Majesty, by your great wisdom, will be able to judge what Cromwell’s last words meant.”

Of course, the “cause” that was implied here was Anne—who now was “hinted” by Cromwell as standing between the repair of relations between England and Spain, and in a double way:  First, because she was known to be a Francophile, who had been raised to be “more French than English,” but more important, because she was the obstacle standing in the way of reaching a “satisfactory settlement of all complaints” by Katherine and Mary.  Chapuys also took Cromwell as hinting “that there was some appearance of the King changing his love.”  He wasn’t sure whether to take this seriously—for Cromwell was quite capable of dissembling when it suited his purposes—but what seems crystal clear is that Cromwell was buttering Chapuys up, in the interests of Henry’s PR and future good relations with Charles, and that Anne was already being used by him to take the heat off Henry.

Why would Cromwell, who shared Anne’s religious proclivities, want to stir up the anti-Anne pot with Chapuys and Charles? After all, he had been chief engineer of the break with Rome and, as a reformist himself, had been Anne’s strongest ally at the start of her relationship with Henry.  At one point, it was generally believed that Anne had him “in her pocket” (or, as Chapuys later put it, was “Anne’s right hand.”) What had happened?  At this point, nothing of grave significance. But the two had a serious break brewing.  For although they may have shared the same “theory” of reform (although we don’t know for sure, as what became British Protestantism was only just evolving) they disagreed sharply on what should be done with the spoils of disbanded churches and monasteries.  From the beginning of his ascent to power—and among the reasons why he was able to keep the favor of the nobility, even after Wolsey was deposed—Cromwell “actively assisted the King in diverting revenues from the suppressed monasteries, originally granted to Wolsey’s two colleges, to the purses of Henry’s cronies at court.” (43, Hutchinson)  Anne, in contrast, favored using the funds to set up educational and charitable institutions, and was shocked to learn that the money was being diverted for private use.  This difference between them would not explode until April of 1536, but it seems that in sidling up to Chapuys, Cromwell was already preparing for the possibility that it might come to a show-down resulting in his own fall from favor, and he was seeking alliance with Chapuys to prepare for the need for a strike against Anne.

Cromwell was aware that developing a friendship with Chapuys was risky, but assessing the situation at the time, he wasn’t overly concerned. In June of 1535 he told Chapuys that if Anne knew how close he and Chapuys were, she would see Cromwell’s head off his shoulders.  At the time, Cromwell shrugged it off, telling Chapuys that “I trust so much on my master that I fancy she cannot do me any harm.” (Lion’s Court, 384)  But the differences between Anne and Cromwell were escalating—not just over the use of confiscated money but also over international alliances (Anne favored France, while Cromwell was beginning to lean toward some kind of accommodation with Charles) and the mere fact that Cromwell, in 1535, was already assessing his security relative to Anne’s displeasure with him suggests that he was aware that she could, under the right circumstances, be a danger to him—and was making preparations.

Cromwell also undoubtedly became aware, in the fall of that year, that a new family was rising in the king’s favor:  The Seymours.  Edward Seymour, who had hosted a visit from Henry to Wolf Hall in September, was becoming a special favorite.  Henry had always enjoyed the company of vital, masculine, young men (“thrusting, acquisitive and ambitious” is how Wilson describes them-p. 386, In The Lion’s Court), and as his own athleticism and sense of masculine potency declined, hobbled by leg ulcers and increasing obesity, he may have begun to live vicariously through them, “unconsciously sucking new life from their physical and mental vigor.” (Wilson, p. 385)  By 1535, Seymour’s circle—John Dudley, Thomas Wriosthesley, and Ralph Sadler—had come to serve this function for Henry.  They were also courting Cromwell, who they rightly saw as having the king’s ear and who was seemingly, at this point, the architect of England’s future.  They hated the Boleyns. And Edward Seymour had a sister.  Conveniently, she was in startling contrast to Anne: “fair, not dark; younger by seven or eight years; gentle rather than abrasive; of no great wit, against a mistress of repartee; a model of female self-effacement against a self-made woman.” (Ives, 302)

The gentle, self-effacing sister, however, probably would not have amounted to anything of significance were it not for the momentous events of January 1536.  On January 7, Katherine of Aragon had died, most likely of cancer of the heart (a real illness, but an apt bodily metaphor as well.) At the time, it was an enormous relief to both Anne and Henry.  For Anne, it meant that at last she was the only Queen of England.  And both of them hoped that Katherine’s death, removing the chief reason for the Emperor’s breach with Henry, would repair relations with Charles and tip the balance in England’s favor vis a vis Francis (who now would have to court Henry, in order to be sure England did not ally him with Charles.) “The next day”, Ives reports, “the king and queen appeared in joyful yellow from top to toe, and Elizabeth was triumphantly paraded to church. After dinner Henry went down to the Great Hall, where the ladies of the court were dancing, with his sixteen month old daughter in his arms, showing her off to one and another.”  Whether or not their yellow clothing was to mark their joy, as Ives says, or a sign of respect for the dead has been much debated.  But whatever the meaning of the color of their clothing, at this point, neither had a political reason to mourn Katherine’s death—and Henry, over the years of battle with Katherine, seems to have lost any trace of affection for her.

Chapuys, however, was horrified by their reaction, grief-stricken at having lost his longtime friend, whom he had comforted and championed over the years, and quickly began spreading rumors that Katherine had been poisoned by Anne.  But good news was to come a bit later that month, when Chapuys reported, third-hand as usual, that one of the King’s “principal courtiers” said that the King had confessed to another lady and her husband that “he had been seduced and forced into this second marriage by means of sortileges and charms, and that, owing to that, he held it as null.  God (he said) had well shown his displeasure at it by denying him male children.  He, therefore, considered that he could take a third wife, which he said he wished to do.”  Even Chapuys, ever alert to promising signs that Anne would be supplanted, finds this report “incredible.”  Anne was in her final month of pregnancy; how could the King be sure that God would not bless the marriage with a male heir this time around?  Was someone whispering in Henry’s ear, planting suggestions about Anne?

It seems that this is exactly what was happening.  By April 1st, Chapuys was writing to the Emperor, informing him that the king was “paying court” to Edward’s sister Jane, and that he had “heard” (from the Marchioness of Exeter) that Jane had been “well tutored and warned by those among this King’s couriers who hate the concubine, telling her not in any wise to give in to the King’s fancy unless he makes her his Queen, upon which the damsel is quite resolved.  She has likewise been advised to tell the King frankly, and without reserve, how much his subjects abominate the marriage contracted with the concubine, and that not one considers it legitimate.”  The Marchioness also requested, at this time, that Chapuys himself aid in whatever way he can in the “meritorious work” of removing Anne and thus, not only protecting Princess Mary from Anne’s evil plotting and ridding the country of the “heretical doctrines and practices” of “Lutheranism,” but “clearing the King from the taint of a most abominable and adulterous marriage.”

In the short space between Katherine’s death and Henry’s open courting of Jane, two events that proved disastrous to Anne had occurred.  These events were far more decisive to her future than any developing attraction of Henry for Jane.  First, on January 24, Henry had a bad jousting accident, which left him unconscious for two hours, and undoubtedly stirred up his anxiety about his own diminishing physical competence and reminded him of his mortality—something he had been trying to avoid all his life through a hypochondria bordering on obsession.  Then, on January 29th, Anne miscarried.   Although it was probably too early in the pregnancy for attendants to determine the sex of the child, which was described by Chapuys as a “shapeless mass of flesh,” it was reported by both Chapuys and Wriosthesley that it had been a male.  This was a “huge psychological blow” to Henry.  We only have Chapuys to rely on for details—“I see that God will not give me male children” he reports Henry as saying, and then ominously telling Anne that he would “speak to her” once she was up—but whether the quote is accurate or not, it makes sense that the loss of a potential heir, especially after at least one other miscarriage and his own recent brush with death, would have affected Henry deeply.  Anne, on her part, was distraught.  She appealed to Henry, telling him that the miscarriage was the result of shock over his accident, which is not improbable, although Chapuys, as mentioned earlier, believed it to be cause by her “defective constitution” and jealousy over Jane, to whom the king had been sending gifts, just as he had done in the early days of his courtship of Anne.

Whether through coaching or inspiration of her own, Jane refused the king’s gifts, saying that her greatest treasure was her honor, and that she would accept sovereigns from him “once God had sent her a good match.”  She may have not been of “great wit” but she (or her brother) knew that this would increase Henry’s ardor.  The refusal of sovereigns happened, however, only after Anne’s miscarriage, suggesting this was an event that emboldened Jane and her supporters.  For if Anne had produced a living son, all the rumblings about Anne, both at court and among the people, all the conniving of the Seymours, would have crashed against a brick wall.   But it was Anne’s disastrous luck that not only did she miscarry, but that it happened after Katherine died.  Initially, that death had been a cause for celebration.  What Anne did not take into account (or perhaps did, but had no reason to consider probable at this point) was that with Katherine’s death, Henry could have his marriage to Anne annulled, or invalidated in some other way, without having to deal with Katherine’s claims to the throne.  Fatally and without precedent, it was “the some other way” that prevailed.

There are a number of theories as to what allowed the unthinkable—the state-ordered execution of a Queen—to happen.  One theory, first advanced by Retha Warnicke and adopted by a number of novels and media depictions, is that the miscarried fetus was grossly deformed, which led to suspicions of witchcraft.  If Henry truly believed that Anne was guilty of witch-craft—which of course was a possibility in those times—he would have virtually no choice but to destroy her, as with anyone in league with Satan.  But although Henry complained, at one point, that he had been bewitched by Anne, that was a notion that, as in our own time, was freely bandied about in very loose, metaphorical manner.  It could mean simply “overcome beyond rationality by her charms” (as Chapuys himself means it early in Anne and Henry’s relationship, when he complained that the “accursed lady has so enchanted and bewitched him that he will not dare to do anything against her will.”) Moreover, none of the charges later leveled against Anne involved witchcraft, and there is no evidence that the fetus was deformed.

Another theory, which Alison Weir puts forward in The Six Wives of Henry VIII but revises in The Lady in the Tower, is that Henry, fed up with Anne, newly enamored of Jane, and eager “to rid himself” of his second wife but not knowing how, eagerly embraced Cromwell’s suggestion, in April, that he had information that Anne had engaged in adultery.  “Spurred by his passion for Jane, his need of the Spanish alliance, and his desire for vengeance against Anne, who had promised so much and failed to deliver,” he “accepted the allegations at face value, merely asking Cromwell to find evidence to support them.” (309) But even if we accept the idea that Henry would cynically encourage a plot designed to lead to Anne’s execution, and despite his flirtation with Jane and disappointment over the miscarriage, Henry did not behave, before Cromwell put the allegations before him, like someone looking to end his marriage.  Whatever he was feeling about Anne, recognition of his supremacy was still entwined with her, and even after the miscarriage, he was still working for imperial recognition of his marriage to “his beloved wife” Anne.  With Katherine gone, it seemed a real possibility.  And in fact, in March, the emperor offered, in return for the legitimation of Mary, imperial support for “the continuance of this last matrimony or otherwise,” as Henry wished (Ives 312).  The deal didn’t work out, due to Henry’s refusal to acknowledge that anything about his first marriage—including Mary—was legitimate.  He was utterly committed to maintaining his own absolute right to the organization of his domestic affairs, and that meant both recognition of Anne as lawful wife and Mary as bastard.

Most scholars nowadays (with a couple of exceptions whom I’ll discuss elsewhere) believe, following Eric Ives, that Thomas Cromwell orchestrated the plot against Anne, without Henry’s instigation or encouragement.  Things had been brewing dangerously between him and Anne for some time, and by April, she probably knew that he had become friends with the Seymours and had also been sidling up to Chapuys.  On April 2, Anne had dared to make a public declaration of her opposition to his policies by approving of a sermon written by her almoner, John Skip, in which he compared Cromwell to Haman, the evil, Old Testament councilor.  The specific spur for the sermon was proposed legislation to confiscate the wealth of smaller monasteries, which was awaiting Henry’s consent and against which Anne was trying to generate public sentiment.  But by then, the enmity between Anne and Cromwell had become more global than one piece of legislation.           Still, as he told Chapuys, Cromwell felt more or less secure in Henry’s favor until a crucial meeting between the Ambassador and the King on April 18th, in which Henry, who had seemed to be in favor of the reconciliation with Rome which Cromwell had been negotiating with Chapuys, now revealed his true hand, and refused any negotiation that included recognition of his first marriage and Mary’s inclusion in the line of succession.  Cromwell was aghast at Henry’s stubbornness, as he had been working hard toward the rapprochement with the emperor, burned his bridges with France, and (because of his relationship with Chapuys) with Anne and her faction as well. Earlier in the day, it had seemed that some kind of warming between Chapuys and Anne was being orchestrated. Chapuys had been invited to visit Anne and kiss her hand—which he declined to do—then, was obliged to bow to her when she was thrust in his path during church services.  Later, at dinner, Anne loudly made remarks critical of France, which were carried back to Chapuys. But when after dinner, Henry took Chapuys to a window enclosure in his own room for a private discussion, he made it clear that he wouldn’t give.

“Far from the issue of April 1536 being ‘When will Anne go and how?’” Ives writes, “Henry was exploiting his second marriage to force Europe to accept that he had been right all along.” (315) Cromwell was furious, humiliated, and fearful that he had unexpectedly found himself on the wrong side of Henry’s plans. In a letter to Charles, Chapuys wrote about the April 18 meeting, and what he wrote suggests that what was already on high heat between Cromwell and Anne was about to boil over.  Chapuys reports that one reason why he would not “kiss or speak to the Concubine” and “refused to visit her until I had spoken to the King,” was because he had been told by Cromwell that the “she devil” (Chapuys’ appellation, not Cromwell’s) “was not in favor with the King” and that “I should do well to wait till I had spoken to the King.” Chapuys, London, 24 April 1536 (Venice Archives).

With the king still pushing for her recognition, Anne must have felt deceptively safe. On April 24, Henry writes a letter to Richard Pate, his ambassador in Rome, and to Gardiner and Wallop, his envoys in France, referring to “the likelihood and appearance that God will send us heirs male [by] our most dear and most entirely beloved wife, the Queen.” But something has already begun to seem wrong to Anne, who seeks out her chaplain, Matthew Parker on the 26th, and asks him to take care of Elizabeth, should anything happen to her. And in the days that follow, Chapuys is clearly (and gleefully) aware that plots are being hatched against Anne. He writes to Charles that there is much covert discussion, at court, as to whether or not “the King could or could not abandon the said concubine,” and that Nicholas Carew is “daily conspiring” against Anne, “trying to convince Miss Seymour and her friends to accomplish her ruin. Indeed, only four days ago the said Carew and certain gentlemen of the King’s chamber sent word to the Princess to take courage, for very shortly her rival would be dismissed.” When the bishop of London, John Stokesley, expressed skepticism, “knowing well the King’s fickleness” and fearful that should Anne be restored to favor, he would be in danger, Chapuys reassures him that the King “would certainly desert his concubine.”

In fact, after the April 18th meeting, Cromwell, claiming illness, had gone underground to begin an intense “investigation” into Anne’s conduct.  On April 23, he emerged, and had an audience with Henry. We have no record of what was said.  But many scholars believe that the illness was a ruse, that during his retreat he carefully plotted Anne’s downfall, and that what he told the king on April 23 were the deadly rumors about Anne that eventually led to her arrest and trial. The king, however—perhaps dissembling for public consumption, or perhaps unconvinced by what Cromwell has told him—was still planning to take Anne with him to Calais on May 4th, after the May Day jousts, and was still pressing Charles to acknowledge the validity of his marriage to Anne.   Then, on April 30th, Cromwell and his colleagues lay all the charges before Henry, and court musician Mark Smeaton is arrested.

Anne had no idea that Cromwell and Henry, that day, were meeting to discuss the “evidence” that Anne had engaged in multiple adulteries and acts of treason. That evening, while Smeaton was being interrogated (and probably tortured), there was even a ball at court at which “the King treated Anne as normal.” He may have been awaiting Smeaton’s confession, which didn’t come for 24 hours, to feel fully justified in abandoning the show of dutiful husband.  Although we don’t know for sure what message was given to Henry during the May Day tournaments, it was probably word of Smeaton’s confession, for he immediately got up and left. Anne, who had been sitting at his side, would never see him again; the very next day, as her dinner was being served to her, she was arrested and conducted to the Tower.


Filed under Anne Through the Ages

Why the “1000 Days’” Tower Speech Rang True in 1969—and Still Does Today

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Genevieve Bujold’s performance, and a few key changes in the play, were to make quite a dramatic transformation in the Maxwell Anderson original.  Anderson’s play, despite it’s fireball Anne, was really Henry’s story, and, like Hackett’s biography, was intent on exorcising the ghost of Bluff King Hal, described in Hacket’s biography  as “the  sort of man who cuts off his wife’s heads, ha-ha, out of a big, jovial, exuberant good humor.  Off with her head!  Off with the next one’s head!  The more, the merrier.” (248) Charles Laughton, in Private Life, played precisely this kind of Henry, and with such gusto and ingenuity that many viewers (and reviewers) believed that they were seeing the “real” Henry. John Gamme, in Film Weekly, described Laughton as “drawing a full-blooded portrait of the gross, sensual monarch in whom lust and the satisfaction of vanity are the ruling passions.”[1]

Hacket and Anderson, however, considered this kind of portrait to be a caricature.  Their respective Henrys are not piggy old souls, but tortured monarchs.   Hackett’s was a “man of open manner and gracious fellowship” who, due to an inability to imagine himself and his personal needs as anything other than orchestrated by God, had  “managed to plunge himself and his country in the thick of an inextricable jungle.” Anderson’s Henry is an even more tragic figure than Hackett’s. He truly loves Anne, but gets caught in the net of his own obsession with an heir, masculine pride, and self-indulgence.  Ultimately, he comes to see that he has paid an enormous price, but that “nothing can ever be put back the way it was.”  In the final speech of the play, Henry muses on the magnitude of what has changed for his country (“the limb that was cut from Rome won’t graft to that trunk again”) and, with Anne’s ghost hovering in the background, begins to realize that “all other women will be shadows” and that he will seek Anne “forever down the long corridors of air, finding them empty, hearing only echoes.”  “It would have been easier,” he now recognizes, “to forget you living than to forget you dead.”

In Anderson’s play, it’s Henry, then, who has the final word, who makes the final pronouncements about history, whose torments we are left to imagine. The film, however, ends very differently.  The screenplay, adapted from the play by Brigid Boland, John Hale, and Richard Sokolove, has Henry, in our last glimpse of him, listening for the signal sounding Anne’s death, then galloping off to see Jane Seymour with nary a second thought.  In place of his sober, sad reflections at the end of the play, in the film we see little Elizabeth, a sprig of flowers in her hand, toddling down the path towards greatness (actually in the gardens of Penshurst Castle) while her mother’s voice in the background predicts her daughter’s glorious future.  The voice-over is a repeat of part of an earlier speech, one that has viewers cheering for Anne to this day.  As in the play, Henry visits Anne in the Tower, and as in the play, she lies to him about her fidelity to him.  In the movie, however, she embellishes her lie with more detail–“I was untrue to half your court.  With soldiers of your guard, with grooms, with stablehands.  Look for the rest of your life at every man that ever knew me and wonder if I didn’t find him a better man than you!”–and Henry, rattled and enraged, shouts, “You whore!”  Anne, who knows she has hit the mark of his manhood but has even sharper arrows in her quiver, goes on:

“Yes. But Elizabeth is yours. Watch her as she grows; she’s yours. She’s a Tudor! Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can – and hope that he will live! But Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth – child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher – shall be Queen! And remember this: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours! She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built! Yes – MY Elizabeth SHALL BE QUEEN! And my blood will have been well spent!”

Yes, it’s overblown.  And it’s utterly without historical foundation.  Henry never visited Anne in her room in the Tower, and Anne never delivered a speech like this; indeed, at this point, Anne knew the chances of Elizabeth ever becoming queen were extremely slim.  Two days before her execution, her marriage to Henry was declared null and void by Henry’s lawyers, and Elizabeth bastardized.  In the movie, she is given a choice that the real Anne never had: to live, if she will willingly end the marriage, freeing Henry to marry Jane Seymour and making Elizabeth illegitimate in the bargain.  Or to die, with Elizabeth still a rightful heir.  She turns Henry down flat.

It was all invention, but of a particularly potent and timely sort for 1969. This was a period of convention-smashing in film: Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, and Easy Rider.  But with the exception of Bonnie Parker and Mrs. Robinson (but strikingly not her daughter Elaine), the female characters in the New American Cinema played by the rules.  It was the men who challenged the “status quo,” and the men who paid heroically for it.[2]  Hale and Boland’s Anne, long before Thelma and Louise, is the first female heroine to ride off the cliff, in full consciousness of what she is doing, to preserve her own integrity (and in this case, the future of her daughter and of England).

It struck a chord, even with me. In 1969, I was a pretty cynical movie-goer.  The anti-sentimentalist Pauline Kael, who did movie reviews for The New Yorker,  was my idol, and I hated anything that smacked of pretention or high-mindedness.  I was not a feminist in anything but the most inchoate sense of the word.  While friends of mine were joining consciousness-raising groups and attending demonstrations, I scorned and was made anxious by what I thought of as “groupthink.”  My own personal rebellion was to drop out of school, have a lot of mindless sex, marry someone I didn’t love, and then suffer a nervous breakdown which made me unable to leave him.  But I did manage to make it to the movies—and Anne of the Thousand Days was one of them. It was my first introduction, since the boring, sexless Tudor history I’d read in high school, to the story of Henry and Anne.  I had no idea what was invented and what was historically documented, but it made no difference. I loved fiery, rebellious Anne.  I loved the way she bossed Richard Burton’s Henry around like a surly, 20th-century teenager.  I loved the fact that Genevieve Bujold’s hair was messy as she delivered that speech to Henry, loved her intensity, loved her less-than-perfectly symmetrical beauty, loved the fact that someone that small could pack such a wallop.

Anne’s speech in the Tower might have seemed melodramatic if it had been played by a young Bette Davis—or, heaven forfend, an Elizabeth Taylor!  But Bujold’s fire, issuing from her petite frame and elfin face, her hair disheveled, her dark eyes glittering with pride, desperation, hurt, and vengeance, transformed the potentially hokey into an indelible, iconic moment. Even at a recent festival of Burton’s films, held by the British Film Institute, the audience was stirred, crying out “Go, Anne, go, you tell him!”[3] “After watching this,” writes one contemporary Tudorphile,  “you come away with the feeling that if that ain’t the way it really happened then it should’ve. I love the pride she displays even after Henry slaps her. She’s right, he’s wrong and they both know it. As she goes on talking down to him you can see him shriveling little by little and he nevermore was the man he’d once been. Seems she got the last laugh in more ways than one.”

Bujold also did something with Anne’s famous—and famously ambiguous—comments in the Tower that no other actress before or since has done, and that contributed to the believability of that final speech.   Anne’s behavior in the Tower, as she awaited her sentencing and then her death, provides some of  the most intriguing clues to her personality.  Unfortunately, it was recorded by Constable Kingston, a man who seems to have been tone-deaf to her sense of irony.  When Anne delivered her best-known line—“I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck”—then put her hands around her neck and “laughed heartily” (as Kingston described it), he took her to be showing “much joy and pleasure in death.” The actresses who have played Anne have been too smart to accept that interpretation, but then have been left with the task of figuring out just what was going on.  Merle Oberon and Dorothy Tutin, who played Anne in the 1971 BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, eliminate the laughter entirely, and have Anne say the line wistfully, as if in resigned acceptance (and in the case of Oberon, with a touch of narcissism) over the reality of the coming confrontation between steel and flesh.  Natalie Dormer, who played Anne in Showtime’s The Tudors, plays the “little neck” speech as a moment when the unimaginable stress that Anne is enduring breaks through her composure, and both the absurdity and the terror of her situation erupt in a crazy joke and then, hysterical laughter—an interpretation that fits well with the evidence that Anne’s  behavior in the tower was frequently unhinged.  But Bujold chooses to emphasize Anne’s intelligence and pride rather than her emotional instability, and plays the line as a sardonic response to Kingston’s lame reasurrances that the blow would be so “subtle” there would be no pain. Her Anne recognizes cowardly, self-serving bull when it’s thrown at her, and will have none of it.

In another iconic moment, Anne had said to Kingston, upon arrival at the Tower and being told that she would be housed in the apartment she stayed in before her coronation, that it was “too good for her.”  Kingston reports that she then “kneeled down weeping, and in the same sorrow fell into a great laughing.” One can interpret the weeping as relief and the laughter as hysterical, but Anne also laughed—in the same conversation with Kingston–when he told her that “even the King’s poorest subject hath justice.” It’s hard to read that laughter as anything other than mocking Kingston’s naivete about the King’s “justice,” and Bujold, emphasizing this mockery, which stems from Anne’s uncompromising realism, makes the “it is too good for me” comment drip with sarcasm rather than relief.  For a queen, of course the apartments would hardly be “too good.” By saying the line “It is too good for me” with bitter irony rather than tearful gratitude, Bujold’s Anne is actually pointing out to the clueless, uncomfortable Kingston that she is still, after all, the Queen of England.  Her Anne was, and probably always will be, the proudest of the Annes.

…..Bujold’s own history had prepared her well to play a young woman breaking through the confinements of convention.  She had grown up in a devout French-Canadian Catholic household, and spent her first twelve school years in a convent; in an online biography, she is quoted as saying that at the time she felt “as if I were in a long, dark tunnel, trying to convince myself that if I could ever get out, there was light ahead.” But something about her religious training made its way into her attitude toward acting.  When asked in 2007 how she prepared for her roles, she answered, “You pray for grace.  If you’ve done your homework and, most of all, are open to receive, you go forward…Preparation for me is sacred.”  But going forward with her own life required rebellion as well as grace; she finally “got out’ of the tunnel by being caught reading a forbidden book.  Liberated to pursue her own designs for her life, she enrolled in Montreal’s free Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique.”  While on tour in Paris with the company, she was discovered by director Alain Resnais, who cast her with Yves Montand in the acclaimed La Guerre est Finie.

Resnais taught her an acting lesson that “still is in me, will always be with me. ‘Always go to the end of your movement,’ he told me”–don’t short-circuit the emotion, the bodily expression, the commitments of the personality you are playing, allow them to fully unfold. That’s something that Genevieve saw in Anne as well. “You can’t put something into a character,” she said, “that you haven’t got within you. Every little thing in life is fed into the character…A word, a thought.  I had read something on Anne Boleyn that Hal gave me and I could look at her with joy and energy; Anne brought a smile to my face.” I asked her what elicited that smile. “Independence. A healthy sense of justice. And she knew herself and was well with herself.  She obviously had such profound integrity in that respect.  She was willing to lose her head to go to the end of her movement.”  That’s what we see, too, in her portrayal of Anne, especially in that final speech, and it’s why “My Elizabeth shall be queen!” still has audiences cheering for her, unconcerned with the historical liberties.

Most movies of the late nine-sixties have not worn exceptionally well, particularly with today’s generation of viewers, for whom many of the lifestyle protests of the times seem dated and silly.   My students snoozed through Easy Rider.  With Anne of the Thousand Days, the passing years and changing culture have had the opposite effect; my students adored it, and especially an Anne that seems to become “truer” as the generations have become less patient with passive heroines and perhaps a bit tired by the cutesy, man-focused femininity of many current female stars.: “Everything I imagine Anne really was”; “How I always picture Anne—as a strong woman not a sniveling girl”; “The gold standard of Annes”; “When I imagine Anne, it is her that I see”; “One of the best Annes ever — all fire and grace.” “The definitive Anne Boleyn for me”; “Pitch-perfect”; “So powerful that she turned a big, touch guy like myself into a wimpering fool”; “A remarkable actress.  I will never forget the scene where she and Henry go riding from Hever…Purely from her body language, she radiates suppressed hatred towards Henry—just by sitting on a horse!  And who can forget her in the blue gown, with jewels in her hair, looking devastatingly beautiful and in total command of herself and the situation.” [4]

Before I said good-by to Genevieve in our interview, I asked her who she would pick to play Anne today.  She admitted that she hadn’t seen either Natalie Portman or Natalie Dormer; she lives a fairly reclusive life in Malibu, and rarely sees movies or watches television.  “But is there anyone who you think would do the part justice?”  She was silent for awhile, then asked me if she could be honest.  Of course, I said.  “Maybe it’s selfish, but…the way I feel….” Genevieve had been so warm and generous throughout the interview, praising all her mentors and influences in her life, she was clearly a bit uncomfortable with what she wanted to say.  So, I pressed a bit more, and she responded, with an intensity that recalled her performance and made me smile with delight.

“No-one,” she replied, “Anne is mine.”

[1] Laughton himself maintained, incredibly, that the film, whose liberties with history run rampant (and rollicking) was true to historical fact.  When the film was lambasted by some of the British press for presenting a “disrespectful” view of imperial history, Laughton insisted on its authenticity: “Most of the dialogue was copied straight from contemporary records of Henry’s actual words,” he claimed, a bald faced lie that mattered little to viewers or most critics, most of whom were swept away not by the film’s accuracy, but the entertaining life it breathed into Henry as a personality.

[2] Although nowadays, pop culture tends to call the shots on “reality,” it used to be that it took awhile for movies to catch up with events in the real world. In 1969, Women’s Liberation groups were forming all over the country.  But it would be another five years or so before films like Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Her Anymore and Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman would bow, gently, in the direction of a “new woman.”  It wouldn’t be until Thelma and Louise (1991) that the deepest gender conventions would be challenged.  In Alice and Unmarried Woman, the heroines’ (Ellen Burstyn and Jill Clayburgh) independence is tempered by the presence of two gorgeous, really nice guys (Kris Kristofferson and Alan Bates, each at the height of his appeal) who, it is implied, will remain in the women’s lives, providing support and great sex while the heroines pursue their careers.  In Thelma and Louise, in contrast, even the nicest of the male characters are impotent; despite every attempt,  they cannot alter the tragic course of events.  The women have chosen, and they—like the rebel-males of the 1968-9 films—will have to pay the price.

[3] Bujold admits that she was also “telling off” Elizabeth Taylor when she filmed that scene.  After hearing rumors about Burton’s interest in Bujold, Liz had unexpectedly shown up on the set that day.  “It was all rubbish,” Burton told his biographer Michael Nunn, but it was a “problem for Gin, because she had Elizabeth training her sights on her.”  When Taylor showed up on the set, Bujold, as Wallis relates in his autobiography, “was fighting mad,” and “flung herself into the scene with a display of acting skill I have seldom seen equaled in my career.  Then she stormed off the set.”

[4] Comments from readers of my FB page.

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The Mystery of Anne Boleyn’s Looks

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The Mystery of Anne Boleyn’s Looks

We don’t know when Henry first became attracted to Anne, or what the circumstances were, in large part because the available sources only begin to mention her when the King’s interest was publicly known, and by the time that happened, in 1527, people were more interested in the divorce and scandal of it all than how it began.  All later accounts of Henry and Anne’s meeting are retrospective. George Cavendish, Wolsey’s gentleman usher, writes (thirty-five years after the event) that “the King’s love began to take place” when after her return from France, Anne was made one of Katherine’s ladies in waiting, “among whome, for her excellent gesture and behaviour, she did excel all other; in so much that the Kinge began to grow enamoured with her; which was not known to any person, ne scantly to her owne person.” (12) Agnes Strickland, citing Gregorio Leti, whose 17th century “Life of Elizabeth I” includes many colorful but uncorroborated anecdotes, relates that “the first time Henry saw her after her return to England…[was] in her father’s garden at Hever, where..

…Admiring her beauty and graceful demeanor he entered into conversation with her; when he was so much charmed with her sprightly wit, that on his return to Westminster he told Wolsey, ‘that he had been discoursing with a young lady who had the wit of an angel, and was worth of a crown.’ (Strickland, 575)

Cavendish and Strickland/Leti disagree sharply on Wolsey’s reaction.  Strickland, citing Leti, describes Wolsey as so eager to get power in his own hands that he was “glad to see the king engrossed in the intoxication of a love affair” and delighted that it was Anne, whom he had first recommended to be one of Katherine’s ladies.  But Leti was a devoted Elizabethan Protestant and harsh critic of Wolsey.  Cavendish, in contrast, was Wolsey’s faithful admirer and servant, and presents Wolsey as only “acting on the King’s devised commandment” in breaking up Anne’s then-relationship with Henry Percy, so that Henry could get his hands on her. [1] Wolsey’s interference, according to Cavendish,  “greatly offended” Anne, who “promis[ed] if it ever lay in her power, she would work much displeasure to the Cardinal” (which according to Cavendish, “she did in deede” by goading Henry to turn against Wolsey.) (15) Cavendish goes on to show that he clearly belongs to the “greedy Anne/patient Katherine” school of thought: “After [Anne] knewe the kings pleasure, and the bottom of his secret stomacke, then she began to look very haughty and stoute (arrogant), lacking no manner of jewells, or rich apparel, that might be gotten for money,” while Katherine accepted all this “in good parte”, showing “no kinde or sparke of grudge or displeasure.” (16).

With historical sources leaving no clear record, the imaginations of biographers, fiction and screen-writers have followed their own fantasies—or those that they feel will appeal to audiences.  Many of them, in one way or another, have Henry being struck by the thunderbolt of love at first sight.  William Hepworth Dixon, in his 1874 pro-protestant biography of Anne, describes Henry as “taken by a word and smile.  A face so innocently arch, a wit so rapid and so bright, a mien so modest yet so gay, were new to him.  The King was tiring of such beauties as Elizabeth Blount; mere lumps of rosy flesh, without the sparkle of a living soul…He fell so swiftly and completely that the outside world imagined he was won by magic arts.” (p. 107) In Anne of the Thousand Days, Henry sees Anne dancing at court, is immediately smitten, and instructs Wolsey to “unmatch” Anne and Percy, and then send her packing back to Hever.  Henry then takes off himself (on a “hunting” trip, as he tells Wolsey) for Hever, where he tells Anne that he will have her “even if it breaks the earth in two like an apple and flings the halves into the void” (30, Anderson) In the movie of The Other Boleyn Girl, Henry picks Anne (Natalie Portman) out of the Boleyn family line-up with nary a glance at Mary (Scarlett Johansen); he takes up with Mary first only because Anne humiliates him by being a more expert rider than he.  The Tudors has Anne and Henry locking eyes on the tower of the Castle Vert,  where Henry, as the shooting script tells us, “comes face to face with his destiny—with a sharp intake of breath, like an arrow through his heart.  A very beautiful, 18-year-old young woman with jet-black hair and dark, expressive, exquisite eyes looks back at him.” Later, after the dancing begins, he “stares at Anne as if suddenly rendered incapable of speech…’Who are you?” he asks, when the steps of the……………bring them eye-to-eye.  And she whispers back.  “Anne Boleyn.”

Joan Bergin, the award-winning fashion designer who did the costuming for the show, deliberately updated and sexed-up the costumes of the women in the tower, who appear, anachronistically, in bare-armed tutus inspired by Balenciaga corsets and Degas ballerinas.  “I wanted people to look at it and say ‘Look how sexy and foxy,’ rather than ‘Oh, who would wear that?’” The instant infatuation between Henry and Anne on the turrets of the Castle Vert is as fantastical as the costuming, for Henry was almost certainly having an affair with Anne’s sister Mary at the time, and there’s no indication that he had any romantic interest in Anne until that affair was over.  Which raises the question: Why not?  If Anne was as gorgeous as the popular media have presented her, from classically lovely Merle Oberon (in Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII) to the sensuous Natalie Dormer of The Tudors, surely he would have noticed that Mary, pretty as she was said to be, had an even more stunning sister.

Anyone who has even the slightest actual knowledge of Tudor history is aware that the Anne who could turn men to jelly at first sight is a myth—or perhaps more accurately, a reflection of the limits of 20th century conceptions of attraction, fixated as they are on the surface of the body.  It’s hard for us to imagine a woman for whom a king would split the earth in two who is anything less than ravishing.  But in her own time, Anne’s looks were 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: “She is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the English king’s great appetite and her eyes, which are black and beautiful.” (Denny, 20)  Sanuto was not a fan, but George Wyatt, grandson of one of Anne’s early admirers, the poet, was. In 1623, he gave his nephew a manuscript that he had apparently written some twenty-five years, in which, drawing on the reports of relatives and friends who had known Anne, he writes that although Anne was a “rare and admirable beauty,” she was not without flaws: her coloring was “not so whitely” as was then esteemed, and that she had several “small moles” “upon certain parts of her body.”  Wyatt also 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, as the workmaster seemed to leave it an occasion of greater grace to her hand, which, with the tip of one of her other fingers might be, and was usually by her hidden without any least blemish to it.”

None of Anne’s “flaws,” in our multi-racial, post-Cindy Crawford age, seem particularly significant.  Some, such as Anne’s olive skin, boyish physique, and wide mouth—not to mention the well-placed moles—would put her in contention for America’s Next Top Model.  But in Anne’s own time, beauty spots were not yet a fashion accessory, and even so slight a deformity as a “little show” of extra nail, despite Wyatt’s courtly spin, could raise questions about Satan’s influence in Anne’s conception. Snow white skin, which women would try to simulate through make-up (including Anne’s famous daughter, Elizabeth I) was a requisite of English beauty, and remained so for hundreds of years, overdetermined by racial, class, and moral meanings distinguishing the leisured classes from their “coarse and brown inferiors” and thought to be the outward manifestation of a “fair and unspotted soul” (Anatomy of Fashion, 149).  And fair hair, which Anne’s predecessors (both legal and extra-marital) apparently enjoyed, reigned in the Tudor hierarchy of beauty.  Both the Virgin Mary and Venus (most famously, in Botticelli’s 1486 painting) were always pictured as blondes.  So were all the heroines of the literature of courtly love, from Iseult to Guinevere: “Gallant knights, poets and troubadours celebrated their love of blondes with much eager serenading” and “felicitous poems and romantic tales bursting with golden-haired heroines poured from the pens of passionate lovers.” (On blondes, p. 61-62) Light-haired women were also considered to be more “cheerful and submissive” (very desirable.)[2]  Within a century or so, the generous, sweet, needing-to-be-rescued blonde heroine would become an essential ingredient of every successful fairy tale.

The 16th century ideal.

“Where did ever mortal eye See two lovelier cheeks displayed?  Lily-white, without a lie, Sweetly, featly are they made.  Long and pale and gold’s her hair.  If hers and mine the whole realm were, I would give no one else a share?” (13th Century German love song”)

“Look for a woman with a good figure and with a small head; Hair that is blond but not from henna; whose eyebrows are spaced apart, long and arched in a peak; who is nice and plump in the buttocks.” Juan Ruiz, 14th century courtier

“A Lady’s hair should be fine and fair, in the similitude now of gold, now of honey, and now of the shining rays of the sun” (Firenzuola, Dialogue of the Beauty of Women, 1548)

“I desire to take first her hair, for that, methinks, is of more importance to her beauty than any other of her charms…Tresses must adorn our Lady, and in color they shall be like unto clear shining gold, for that in truth affords more delight to the eye than any other whatsoever.” (Fererigo Luigini,  Book of Fair Women, 1554.

If you happened to have been born with less than shining gold tresses, there were many recipes for curing that.  You could take the rhine of rubarb, steep it in white wine or clear lye, and wet your hair with the solution, leaving it to dry in the sun (repeat if necessary).  Sulphur and lead were also useful, and could bleach freckles too.  But the most successful procedures were more complex, involving many stages of pulverizing, soaking, boiling, pounding, applying, rinsing, and re-applying, and their success was temporary: golden tresses, tortured by lye, usually fell out over time.  Other formulas were employed to achieve the “whitely” complexion that was most admired. You could soak wheat in flour for fifteen days, then grind and blend it with water, strain through a cloth, and let it crystallize and evaporate.  You then mix it with rosewater, which “will obtain a make-up which will be as white as snow.” White ceruse (containing lead carbonate, lead oxide, and lead hydroxide) could also be smeared on the face to simulate a pale matte complexion.  (It was poisonous, but other popular recipes–such as egg whites–left the face shiny and stiff.)  To complete the fair, faultless look, shaggy eyebrows, as well as the hairline, could be be plucked to create a “clear, high forehead. ” Blue veins could be (and were) painted on the skin.  And teeth could be bleached:

“Take three drachms each of crystal, flint, white marble, glass and calcined rock salt, two drachms each of calcined cuttlefish bone and small sea-snail shells, half a portion each of pearls and fragments of gemstones, two drachms of the small white stones which are to be found in running water, a scruple of amber and twenty-two grains of musk. Mix them well together and grind them into the finest powder on a marble slab. Rub the teeth with it frequently and, if the gums have receded, paint a little rose honey on them. The flesh will grow back in a few days and the teeth will be perfectly white.” (16th century recipe for teeth-whitening)

Moles were a bigger problem, because the medievals did not have our advanced surgical procedures for removal, and birthmarks were often seen 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.”

“To make the hair yellow as golde.  Take the rine or scrapings of Rubarbe, and stiepe it in white wine, or in cleere lie; and after you have washed your head with it, you shall weatte your hairs with a Spoonge or some other cloth, and let them drie by the fire, or in the sunne; after this wette them and drie them again.” (Recipe for bleaching hair, 1568)

Fifteenth Century witch-hunter Lambert Daneau, saw moles as witches’ marks.  Daneau and other “witch-prickers,” would stick pins in them to find the bedeviled ones; when the suspect registered no pain (hard to imagine) it indicated Satan’s handiwork:

“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.”

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), but was exiled by her daughter Elizabeth, is responsible for most of the mythology surrounding Anne’s body, including her nortorious sixth finger.  In his book, Schismatis Anglicani (The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism), written expressly to provide a counter-history to John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (among whom Anne is numbered), Sander wallows in descriptions of Anne’s body as the gateway which lured the lusting, ensnared Henry through the doors of heresy.  But amazingly, Sander saw no contradiction in claiming that this desirable body was also marked with the outward manifestations of her league with Satan:

“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 yet 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.   The wen probably was inspired by the anonymous manuscript describing Anne’s coronation which attributed a “disfiguring wart” and a neck “swelling resembling goiter” to her.  The sixth finger seems likely to have been an exaggeration of the vestigial nail that Wyatt describes, and explains Wyatt’s mention of it, as his book was, by his own admission, “not without an intent to have opposed Saunders (Sander,)” who he calls “the Romish fable-framer.” The point of his book (entitled “Some Particulars of the Life of the Virtuous Christian and Renowned Queen Anne Boleigne”), he tells the reader, is to dispel the “black mists of malice…instructed to cover and overshadow [Anne Boleyn’s] glory with their most black and venomous untruths.” So he was hardly an impartial reporter himself. But despite his biases, Wyatt’s own sources are far more respectable than Sander’s, especially when it comes to descriptions of Anne’s physical appearance. Based on notes taken when he was young, gathered from Anne Gainsford, one of Anne’s personal attendants, as well as relatives of his own “well acquainted with the persons that most this concerneth,” his corrections of Sander’s descriptions of Anne’s imperfections sound highly plausible, as Wyatt doesn’t insist that Anne was a beauty without flaws, but acknowledged the nail, moles, and “not so whitely” complexion.

The wens, goiters, and projecting tooth have all faded from the popular imagination. But that sixth finger 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[3]. At the beginning of every public lecture I ask my audiences what they know about Anne Boleyn; invariably, several shout out “She had six fingers!” Internet sites devoted to “Fascinating Facts” still list Anne’s six fingers (sometimes multiplying it to six on each hand.) Women’s magazine features giving inspiration for women to “love their bodies” present Anne and her extra finger (and sometimes, an extra nipple) as a role model.  At least one well-known portrait, now hanging in Ludlow castle, prominently features Anne with six fingers on each hand.  One of the more imaginative histories cites her “malformed hand” as the reason she was kept out of sight, in France, until a suitable husband could be contracted. (chapman, p. 28.) When an art installation opened in London in 2011 with a full-size Anne among the creations, the wax figure had an extra finger.   Anne’s sixth finger is even mentioned in the movie “Steel Magnolias,” as the women in Truvee’s beauty shop banter, through the bathroom door, about an article in a woman’s magazine.  The bottom line, however:  Anne did not have six fingers. Since Anne’s death, the bodies buried in the chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula at the Tower of London have been exhumed and none of the skeletons have shown evidence of a sixth finger.  Of course, there are those who claim Anne’s body is actually not among them. But skeletal remains aside, if the living Anne actually had a sixth finger, would the eagle-eyed Chapuys have failed to report it?  Anne’s liabilities were a favorite topic of his gossipy letters home; yet a sixth finger is mentioned in none of them (or in any other court letters or papers prior to Sander.)

Beyond the dark hair and eyes, the olive skin, the small moles and the likelihood of a tiny extra nail on her little finger, we know very little with certainty about what Anne looked like.  Before her execution, as we’ve seen, Henry, determined to wipe the slate clean, had any original portraits of Anne that he could find destroyed.  Those that remain are almost all later copies and interpretations, and are quite inconsistent with each other.  Some have been contested as actually of Jane Seymour or some other woman rather than Anne, while other portraits not identified as Anne—the beautiful Sommersby portrait thought to be of Jane Grey, for example—have been argued to actually be Anne.  Historians and art historians have gone back and forth on the identity of the various sitters in many “Anne” portraits, with agreement on only a few.  One is a tiny miniature in a “locket ring” worn by Elizabeth I, which was found among her belongings after her death.  The existence of the ring, which bears the image of Elizabeth on one side and her mother on the other, is haunting, but being so small, tells us little about what Anne looked like.  There is also general consensus about a portrait, by an unknown artist circa 1534, on permanent exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. This portrait, often referred to as “the NPG portrait”, has provided the model for many later depictions on book covers, magnets, and postcards, where it has been variously glamorized or distorted, depending on t he artist’s inclinations.

The NPG is as reliable an indication as we have of what Anne looked like.  But even this portrait cannot be taken “literally.”  Art historian Lacey Baldwin Smith has written that “Tudor portraits bear about as much resemblance to their subjects as elephants to prunes.”  A slight exaggeration, maybe. But it is true that portraits often bore the mark of “symbolic iconizing”— the translation of a belief or argument about the person’s character into visual imagery—more than the attempt to mirror features with photographic precision.  Holbein’s famous sketch of Henry (the painting itself was destroyed in a fire) clearly served this function, with the king posed to emphasize his power, authority, and resoluteness: legs spread and firmly planted, broad shoulders—and very visible codpiece.  Since generations of later artists were content with small variations on the Holbein paradigm, we have the sense that we know what Henry  looked like.  But actually, what we have is an icon that has settled into a recognizable shape over the centuries.

There is no icon of Anne comparable to that of Holbein’s Henry, and in its place, we have created our own.  It varies a bit from generation to generation, but she always has a beauty that stands out in the crowd, by whatever standards appeal to the writers or directors that have cast her.   Merle Oberon, Alexander Korda’s Anne, and considered an “exotic beauty” at the time, later became his wife.  Genevieve Bujold was picked out by Hal Wallis without benefit of a screen-test; she was a little-known Canadian actress at the time, he saw her in her first role and immediately recognized that “this is my Anne.” Although most Annes have followed the historical record in depicting her wit h dark hair, one of the most recent Annes, Miranda Raison, who plays Anne in Howard Brenton’s play “Anne Boleyn,” is a decidedly contemporary looking blonde.[4]  But perhaps the most stunning Anne of all is “The Tudors”’ Natalie Dormer:  exquisite, sensual, curvaceous in her push-up gowns.  She gave a brilliant performance, but the only indisputable correspondence to the historical Anne is her dark hair (dyed for the role) and a few fetching facial moles.

The actresses who have played Anne have all been knock-outs. The real Anne, however, although not deformed, was not a conventional beauty (by the standards of her own times).  Yet dark-haired, olive-skinned Anne not only prevailed over the pale, English roses, but seems to have done so defiantly.  Ignoring the fashion for blondes, for example, 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.

And then there were Anne’s eyes. Eastern cultures foregrounded them for their sexual power, but which the British had kept as washed-out as possible.  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.”

De Carles here describes a classic form of flirtation, which Anne may have explicitly learned as an “art” during her formative years at the French court, or which may have simply come naturally.  She was not afraid to “send a message” with her gaze, then provocatively turn away, inspiring pursuit. Thus, Anne challenged the Mary-fixated religious ideology of beauty (not surprisingly, since she was highly critical of Catholic orthodoxy) to engage in the more biologically potent use of the eyes to meet and invite.  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.”

Anne also 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. There are plenty of examples from our own time.  Consider Audrey Hepburn, who emerged during a period of mammary madness to replace hour-glass-shaped Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, their bodies seemingly made for producing cute little babies, with a vision of cool, long-limbed, not-made-for-the-kitchen beauty that has remained a dominant ideal through the present day. This was also a time in which I never saw anyone who looked remotely “Jewish” playing anything other than comic or downright grotesque.  And then Streisand, like some modern-day Nefertiti, proudly offered her profile in dramatic, high-fashion poses that shouted “F… You” to Gidget—and the rhinoplasts.  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.

People with “style” remind us that the body is not just a piece of matter that can be measured and molded. Even in our cosmetic culture, there is still something magical, elusive, and open-ended about its attractions. And 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. The history of the mole is a case in point.  Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a mole’s “disruption” of the skin changed from being the devil’s handiwork to nature’s accentuation of especially pretty features (such as the lips, or the eyes) Men and women alike began to put false spots (beauty patches) on areas of their faces they wished to draw attention to. (Or, they might use them to hide scars or pock-marks.) Like actual moles, these mimic moles developed a code, but the meanings were far less menacing than the medievals: a spot on the forehead showed majesty, on the nose sauciness, on the mid-cheek gaiety, and near the corner of the eye, passion.  A patch on the lips invited a kiss.  “It is a Riddle,” mused Robert Codrington in his 17th century conduct manual, “that a Blemish should appear a Grace, and that a Deformity should adde unto Beauty.” (Anatomy of Fashion, p. 150)  But that is often the way ideals of beauty change.

Anne seems to have been among those who have changed the rules…..

[1] The exact nature and number of Anne’s pre-Henry relationships are fuzzy, but virtually all historians believe that she had some sort of serious romantic entanglement with Henry Percy, heir of the fifth earl of Northumberland.

[2] Elizabeth I had several of her portraits altered—the equivalent of today’s computer technology—to make her very red hair appear more blonde.  The most famous of these, known as the Coronation Portrait, was painted near the end of Elizabeth’s life.  It shows 25 year-old Elizabeth with every element of ideal Elizabethan beauty, from the pale arched eyebrows to the flowing golden-blonde tresses, right down to the delicate blue veins painted onto her white temples.

[3] 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.”

[4] When I asked Howard Brenton, in an interview, why the blonde Anne—I thought that perhaps he was making some point by going against archetype–he said it was simply because a wig would have been too uncomfortable for the blonde actress to wear. Of course, Raison could have dyed her hair, as Natalie Dormer did, and I wonder if Brenton would have given up so easily if other historical facts had collided with his cast’s preferences. My suspicion is that our own lingering blonde fetishism, still asserting itself even in an era of multi-racial aesthetics, played a role.


Filed under Anne Through the Ages