Category Archives: Book Excerpts

Excerpts from Susan’s book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn

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.


Filed under Anne Through the Ages, Book Excerpts

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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Filed under Anne Through the Ages, Book Excerpts

Sources for The Creation of Anne Boleyn

A quick note: British History Online was used to access a number of primary sources, such as The Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII; The Calendar of State Papers, Spain; Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice; and etc.

Adam’s Rib. Directed by George Cukor. Performed by Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday. 1949.

The Adventures of Robin Hood. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Performed by Olivia de Haviland, Basil Rathbone Errol Flynn. 1938.

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Filed under Book Excerpts

Natalie and Anne

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn

Excerpted from The Creation of Anne Boleyn, copyright Susan Bordo, 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Natalie Dormer, the 26 year-old actress who was chosen to play the role of Anne Boleyn, approached her assignment very differently [SB: from Jonathan Rhys Meyers, whom I had just discussed in the chapter].  A long-time British history buff who had, in fact, hoped to study history at Cambridge (she misunderstood a question on her A-level exams and failed to get the necessary grade for acceptance,) Natalie has strong opinions about the real Anne, and when she got the role, was excited over the prospect of embodying her as accurately as possible.  “I didn’t want to play her as this femme fatale—she was a genuine evangelical with a real religious belief in the Reformation.”[1]  Dormer also came to the role well aware of the stereotypes and gender biases that had dogged Anne, both in her lifetime and in later representations.

“Anne really influenced the world, behind closed doors,” she told me in our 2010 interview.  “But she’s given no explicit credit because she wasn’t protected.  Let’s not forget, too, that history was written by men.  And even now, in our post-feminist era we still have women struggle in public positions of power. When you read a history book, both the commentary and the first hand primary evidence, all the natural gender prejudices during the period will certainly be there.

Anne was that rare phenomenon, a self-made woman. But then, this became her demise. The machinations of court were an absolute minefield for women. And she was a challenging personality, who wouldn’t be quiet and shut up when she had something to say. This was a woman who wasn’t raised in the English court, but in the Hapsburg and French courts. And she was quite a fiery woman and incredibly intelligent. So she stood out—fire and intelligence and boldness—in comparison to the English roses that were flopping around court. And Henry noticed that. So all the reasons that attracted [Henry] to her, and made her queen and a mother, were all the things that then undermined her position. What she had that was so unique for a woman at that time was also her undoing.”[2]

I was extremely lucky to meet Natalie after her contract with Showtime was over, and she felt free to cease acting as a spokesperson for the show and to speak her mind.  We arranged to meet in a small, boutique hotel in Reading, the London suburb where she grew up and still lived at the time.  When she arrived (I had been there for a half hour, the only woman in the room without a hat, nervously checking my recording equipment), the staff immediately sprang into action to make things comfortable for us in the bar; she clearly is the town celebrity.  But, except for her dramatic expressiveness and striking beauty, which singled her out from everyone else at the bar, there was no aura of celebrity about her.  Despite her success and the legions of fan clubs devoted to her, she regards herself as very much at the start of her career, and seemed genuinely excited to talk to someone else who was waist-deep in the world of Anne Boleyn, a place that she had occupied with intensity and dedication over the last several years.  We were in sync from our first exchange, and for over an hour and half, nestled like long-time girlfriends in the corner of the bar, accompanied by her younger sister Samantha, shared our love of Anne and her story, lamented how it had been misrepresented both in Anne’s time and our own, discussed Tudor history, and reflected on the struggle of Anne, women actors, and young women today to escape the limitations and expectations placed on them.   It was in this interview that Natalie revealed, for the first time, just how hard she had struggled to “not betray” Anne, as she put it, in the series.[3]

The first challenge came almost immediately.  Natalie had auditioned in her natural hair color, which is blonde, fully expecting that if she got the role she would play Anne as a brunette.  She knew her history, and it never occurred to her that the executives at Showtime would have anything else in mind.  She was concerned, in fact, that her strong physical differences from Anne—including her blue eyes—would disqualify her for the part.  She reassured herself about the eyes—“they aren’t the right color, but just like Anne, I’ve been told they are my most becoming feature” (actually, there’s not a   feature on Natalie’s face that isn’t dazzling.) But she knew the hair would have to be changed. So after she received the phone call telling her she’d won the part—largely on the basis, Hirst told me, of the “physical chemistry” between her and Rhys Meyers (Natalie describes it as “a lot of heaving bosom stuff”), after becoming “hysterical with joy,” she immediately dyed her hair.[4]

When she arrived on set, Dee Corcoran, chief of the hair department, who won an Emmy for her work on the show and was “almost like an Irish mother” to Natalie, took her aside.  “Okay, we’ve got a really serious problem—you dyed your hair.  They are really unhappy. Really unhappy.”[5]  “They” were the Showtime execs.

“So they sent me back to the hairdresser and they tried to dye blonde back in.  But any hairdresser will tell you that it doesn’t work to put peroxide blonde on jet black. I looked like a badger! I was terrified that I’d lose the role. I mean, what did they have planned, now that I was multi-colored—to put me in a blonde wig?”  Dormer wasn’t sure she could accept that.  “Anne’s hair color is such an important detail! For one thing, it was the basis of a lot of nasty labels—Wolsey calling her the “night crow” and so on.  And also, in being a confident brunette she was defying the ideal, of what it meant for a female to be attractive at that time.”[6]

“So we’re all barely cast, and I went to Bob Greenblatt with my heart in my mouth, and told him how important it was that Anne be dark. ‘Bob, I have to play her dark.  It’s so important.  You have to let me play her dark!’ Some might say I was being melodramatic and self-important.  But I thought it would just be a direct betrayal of Anne. Of her refusal to step into the imprint of the acceptable norm at the time.”[7]

“Greenblatt, who is a very shrewd man, just said ‘I’ll think about it.” I assumed I’d lost the job. I felt completely and utterly depressed.  But then I got a phone call a few days later, telling me that Bob had decided I could be dark.”[8]

Natalie doesn’t try to hide her pride and pleasure from me: “It was a major coup at the time! A major coup!”[9]  It was clear that by “coup” Natalie didn’t mean that she had bested the executives with a power play, for she was well aware that they called the shots, and that her casting had hung precariously in the balance.  It was, rather, a victory for the values that she hoped would be brought to the series—authenticity, a recognition of what was unusual about Anne, and a willingness, on the part of those in charge, to listen and learn.

But there were more challenges ahead. […..]

Michael Hirst, in his zeal to make the series deliciously digestible to prime-time viewers, did not initially do justice to Natalie’s view of Anne.  Although in his interview with me, he described her as “one of the heroines of English culture…who did a great deal to support and foster the advancement of the Protestant faith” but whose “name has been blackened because she was the Other Woman, who came between Henry and his rightful queen,” the Anne of the first season of The Tudors (and part-way into the second) did not do much to disrupt that “blackened” image.[10]  Through that first season, Anne entices, provokes, and sexually manipulates her way into the queenship, allowing Henry to get to every base except home, driving him mad with pent-up lust. “Seduce me!” she orders Henry, and a moment later we see her stark naked[11]; a few episodes later, she taunts him to find a piece of ribbon that she has apparently hidden inside her vagina. In the last episode of the season, they ride into an appropriately moist and verdant forest, tear at each other’s clothing, and just about do it before Anne pulls herself away from the embrace, leaving him to howl in frustration—and reminding me, unpleasantly, of high school.  (We’re told, early in the second season, that Anne had become acquainted, while a teen-age resident at the French court, with the hand-job.  Why didn’t she make use of it? It would have spared Henry and viewers alike some agony.) At the beginning of season two, it is also suggested that while at the French court, Anne slept with half the courtiers, and possibly the French king. When he presents her, newly anointed as Marquesse of Pembroke, to Francis and his court, she performs a Salome-style dance that makes one wonder just which historical series one is watching.  At home, her bold flirting, confiding, and cuddling with Mark Smeaton makes the later charges of adultery with him quite plausible—and completely out of character with Anne, who was obsessed with being accepted as Queen and would never have condescended to treat a court musician in such an openly familiar fashion.


[This hyper-sexualization of Anne] inevitably led to recycling the image of Anne Boleyn as the seductive, scheming Other Woman. That’s the classic soapy element of the story, after all: sexpot steals husband from mousy, menopausal first wife.  Hirst says he never intended this, and attributes it less to the script than to “deep cultural projections.” He had initially seen Anne, he told me, as a victim of her father’s ambitions, and believed he was writing the script to emphasize that.  He was surprised when “critics started to trot this line out: ‘here she is, just a manipulative bitch.’    Well, actually I hadn’t written it like that.  But they couldn’t get out of the stereotypes that had been handed down to them and that’s what they thought they were seeing on the screen. It didn’t matter what they were actually seeing.  They had already decided that Anne Boleyn was this Other Woman, this manipulative bitch.”[12]

I agree with Hirst about power of the history of cultural images; but it’s odd that he would be so naive about the way that the show’s own imagery reinforced them.   Dormer believes it was indeed unconscious on Hirst’s part, that in capitalizing on the sexual chemistry between Henry and Anne, and while portraying Katherine as so virtuous and long-suffering, he slipped into a very common male mind-set. “Men still have trouble recognizing,” she told me “that a woman can be complex, can have ambition, good looks, sexuality, erudition, and common sense.  A woman can have all those facets, and yet men, in literature and in drama, seem to need to simplify women, to polarize us as either the whore or the angel.  That sensibility is prevalent, even to this day.  I have a lot of respect for Michael, as a writer and a human being, but I think that he has that tendency. I don’t think he does it consciously.  I think it’s something innate that just happens and he doesn’t realize it.”[13]

Natalie was in a bind:

“I had to reconcile the real person and the character of Anne Boleyn as created in the text. For the actor, the text is your bible. You can try to put a spin on the nuances, but in the end our job is to be the vehicle of the text.”  Yet she often felt “compromised” by the way Anne’s character was written for the first season, and got tired of “flying the flag of Showtime” in interviews, justifying the show’s hyper-sexuality and inaccuracies “when in the pit of my stomach, I agreed wholly with what the interviewer was saying to me.  I lost many hours of sleep, and actually shed tears during my portrayal of her, trying to inject historical truth into the script, trying to do right by this woman that I had read so much about. It was a constant struggle, because the original script had that tendency to polarize women into saint and whore. It wasn’t deliberate, but it was there.”[14]

At the point at which I spoke to Michael Hirst, after the last season of the show was completed, he had become much more aware of the long legacy of negative stereotypes of Anne, the tendency of fiction-writers and some historians to simply re-cycle them, and his own complicity.  But at the time of the first reviews, he was surprised when some critics “dismissed Anne as your typically manipulative, scheming bitch” and was distressed that “some of this criticism hurt Natalie very much.”[15]  But Natalie wasn’t about to let it rest with that. During a dinner with Hirst, while he was still writing the second season, she shared her frustration and begged him “to do it right in the second half. We were good friendsHe listened to me because he knew I knew my history.  And you know, he’s a brilliant man.  So he listened. And I remember saying to him: `Throw everything you’ve got at me.  Promise me you’ll do that. I can do it.  The politics, the religion, the personal stuff, throw everything you’ve got at me.  I can take it.’”[16]

She told Hirst of her wish that audiences, when the series got to Anne’s fall, would empathize with her.  Talking to me in Reading, Natalie was especially passionate about that subject.

It happened very shortly after she miscarried, remember. To miscarry is traumatic for any woman, even in this day and age.  And to be in that physical and mental state, having just miscarried, and be incarcerated in the Tower! If only she’d had that child! It’s horrific to confront how much transpired because of terrible timing, and how different it could have been.  It’s one of the most dramatic “ifs” of history. And it’s why it’s such a compelling, sympathetic story.  But I knew by the time we’d finished the first season that we hadn’t achieved it. That audiences would have no sympathy for her, because the way she’d been written, she would be regarded as the other woman, the third wheel, that femme fatale, that bitch.  Who had it coming to her.[17] 

Hirst listened to her and took her seriously, and the result was a major change in the Anne Boleyn of the second season. Still sexy, but brainy, politically engaged and astute, a loving mother, and a committed reformist. Scenes were added, showing Anne talking to Henry about Tyndale, instructing her ladies-in-waiting about the English Bible, quarrelling with Cromwell over the mis-use of monastery money. No longer was Anne simply a character “in the ether.” Rehabilitating her image became part of Hirst’s motivation in writing the script: “I wanted to show that she was a human being, a young woman placed in a really difficult and awful situation, manipulated by her father, the king, and circumstances, but that she was also feisty and interesting and had a point of view and tried to use her powers to advance what she believed in. And I wanted people to live with her, to live through her. To see her.”[18]

The execution scene was especially important to Natalie: “By the end of the season, when I’m standing on that scaffold,” she told Michael, “I hope you write it the way it should be.  And I want the effect of that scene to remain with viewers for the length of the series. I want the audience to be standing with her on that scaffold.  I want those who have judged her harshly to change their allegiance so they actually love her and empathize with her.”[19]  However the scene was scripted, this would require a lot of Natalie herself, especially since the show was not filmed in chronological sequence, and the execution scene was shot first, before the episodes that led up to it.  At dawn, standing in the courtyard of Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail, the site of many actual executions, she had “a good cry” with Jonathan Rhys Meyers.  “It was incredibly haunting and harrowing—I felt the weight of history on my shoulders.”  But because she had “lived and breathed Anne for months on end,” and had “tremendous sympathy for the historical figure,” it did not require a radical shift of mood to prepare herself for the scene.   “I was a real crucible of emotions for those few days.  By the time I walked on to the scaffold, I hope I did have that phenomenal air of dignity that Anne had.”  Anne’s resigned, contained anguish did not have to be forced, because by then, Natalie was herself in mourning for the character: “As I was saying the lines, I got the feeling I was saying good-bye to a character.  And when it was over I grieved for her.”[20]

Hirst, too, recalls the heightened emotions of shooting that scene: “That was an amazing day.  Extraordinary day. After, I went in to congratulate her.  She was weeping and saying, `She’s with me Michael.  She’s with me.’”[21]

The episode averaged 852,000 viewers, according to Nielsen, an 83% increase over the first season finale and an 11% increase over the season premiere, and for many viewers—particularly younger women—the execution scene became as iconic as Genevieve Bujold’s “Elizabeth Shall be Queen” speech.[22]  When I showed the episode to a classroom of historically sophisticated honors students, none of whom had watched the series, there were many teary eyes; among devoted Tudors fans, for whom it was the culmination of a building attachment to the character, the effect of the scene—whose last moments were both graphic and poetic, lingering on Anne post-execution, her now-lifeless face still bearing her final sad, unbelieving expression, caught mid-air, suspended in space—was emotionally wrenching:

“I have watched many actresses walk to the scaffold as Anne Boleyn and I read every book I can get my hands on fiction or nonfiction about her and I have never seen anyone do it with the grace I believe that Anne had except Natalie. The scene where she is walking through the crowd and they are actually touching her, you can see in her eyes and her mouth and the way she breathes that she is trying to hold it together and stay calm. Episode 9 and 10 of season two are stunning due to Natalie.”[23]

Many viewers, in fact, watched the show listlessly after Anne/Dormer left; the rest of the story seemed anti-climatic to them. “Natalie Dormer basically ruled The Tudors!,” wrote one, “Her performance was absolutely passionate, genuine and convincing and that’s why I was devastated when her character died and she left the show.”[24]  The feelings of the last commentator were shared by many. The following season’s finale had the show’s second smallest audience (366,000 viewers), and among those who stuck with it and continued to enjoy it (as I did), there remained a void where Natalie’s Anne Boleyn had been.  The ads for the remaining two seasons were successively more sensationalizing—the third season depicting Henry sitting on a throne of naked, writhing bodies, the last season described (on the DVD) as a “delicious, daring…eight hours of decadence.”[25]  But “those of us who were glued to this sudsy mix of sex and 16th century politics know the spark went out of the series when Dormer’s Anne Boleyn was sent to the scaffold,”[26] wrote Gerard Gilbert in UK’s The Independent.

            Today, hundreds of fan-sites are devoted to Natalie Dormer, who managed, despite being cast on the basis of “sexual chemistry,” to create an Anne Boleyn that is seen by thousands of young women as genuinely multi-dimensional.  Natalie still gets letters from them, every day, and finds them gratifying, but also a bit depressing. “The fact that it was so unusual for them to have an inspiring portrait of a spirited, strong young woman—that’s devastating to me.  But young women picked up on my efforts, and that is a massive compliment—and says a lot about the intelligence of that audience.  Young girls struggling to find their identity, their place, in this supposedly post-feminist era understood what I was doing.”[27]

[1] (Natalie Dormer, interview by author, Richmond Upon Thames, England, 31 July 2010)

[2] (Ibid.)

[3] (Ibid.)

[4] (Ibid.)

[5] (Ibid.)

[6] (Ibid.)

[7] (Ibid.)

[8] (Ibid.)

[9] (Ibid)

[10] (Michael Hirst, interview by author, telephone, Lexington, Ky., 28 April 2011)

[11] This all takes place in a dream of Henry’s, side-stepping any charges of historical inaccuracy.

[12] (Michael Hirst, interview by author, telephone, Lexington, Ky., 28 April 2011)

[13] (Natalie Dormer, interview by author, Richmond Upon Thames, England, 31 July 2010)

[14] (Ibid.)

[15] (Michael Hirst, interview by author, telephone, Lexington, Ky., 28 April 2011)

[16] (Natalie Dormer, interview by author, Richmond Upon Thames, England, 31 July 2010)

[17] (Ibid.)

[18] (Michael Hirst, interview by author, telephone, Lexington, Ky., 28 April 2011)

[19] (Natalie Dormer, interview by author, Richmond Upon Thames, England, 31 July 2010)

[20] (Ibid.)

[21] (Michael Hirst, interview by author, telephone, Lexington, Ky., 28 April 2011)

[22] (Nordyke 2008)

[23] (Zeek-Schmeidler. 2011. The Creation of Anne Boleyn on facebook, September 10.

[24] (Boddin, Bernadette. 2011. The Creation of Anne Boleyn on facebook, September 10.

[25] Taken from promotional material found on The Tudors, Season 3 DVD case

[26] (Gilbert 2011)

[27] (Natalie Dormer, interview by author, Richmond Upon Thames, England, 31 July 2010)


Filed under Book Excerpts

In The Tower

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

Edouard Cibot “Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London shortly after her Arrest” 1835

When Chapuys heard of Anne’s arrest on May 2, he could barely suppress his glee.  He marveled at “the sudden change from yesterday to this day” and declared that “the affair” had “come to a head much sooner and more satisfactorily than one could have thought, to the greater ignominy and shame of the lady herself.”[1] Anne and Smeaton, he reported, were charged with adultery, and Henry Norris and Lord Rochford (George Boleyn, Anne’s brother) for not having revealed what they knew of the “adulterous connexion” between spinet player Smeaton and the queen.[2]  Until the actual charges were formally made—and sometimes long after– reports of who was arrested and why were often inaccurate.  The Bishop of Faenza told Signor Protonotario Ambrogio that the Queen was arrested along with “her father, mother, brother, and an organist with whom she had been too intimate”[3]; Melancthon wrote to Justus Jonas that those arrested for adultery were “her father, brother, two bishops, and others.”[4] Hannaert wrote Charles that “the so-called Queen was found in bed with her organist, and taken to prison. It is proved that she had criminal intercourse with her brother and others, and that the daughter supposed to be hers was taken from a poor man.”[5] False gossip circulated throughout Europe concerning the arrests, with Chapuys, for once, getting it mostly right.  His intelligence was muddled with respect to the charges—for Norris was already under suspicion of adultery himself (although it’s possible that wasn’t yet revealed)—but accurate with respect to those arrested.  For Weston and Brereton were not arrested until May 4th.

Anne may have unwittingly contributed to those later arrests herself. “M. Kyngston,” she asked when brought to the tower, “do you know wher for I am here?”[6]  In a state of shock and disbelief, she searched her mind for the reasons for her arrest and shared her anxious musings with Kingston (who reported everything to Cromwell) and also to the ladies-in-waiting that Cromwell had chosen to spy on her.  In particular, Anne fretted about a possibly incriminating conversation she had with Norris, a long-time supporter of the Boleyns and the Groom of the Stool in the King’s Privy Council. Norris, who was honored to oversee Henry’s intimate bodily functions—Groom of the Stool, unbelievable as it may seem today, was a most privileged spot on the King’s council–was  closer to Henry than anyone else among his men, except for Charles Brandon. On May Day, when he left the jousts, he had asked Norris to go with him, and they had ridden together, discussing some serious matter.  That evening, Norris was in the Tower.

The serious matter may have had to do with an exchange Norris had with Anne late in April, which had made its way to Cromwell, undoubtedly in garbled form.  The actual details only came out when Anne, wondering why she had been arrested, speculated about it out loud with Kingston.  Anne had been verbally jousting with Norris about his constant presence in her apartments, and had chided him for “looking for dead men’s shoes, for if aught should come to the King but good, you would look to have me.”[7]  This particular statement must have alarmed Norris, who replied that “if he should have any such thought, he would his head were off.”[8]  There was good reason for his alarm:  In 1534, Cromwell had engineered an extension of the legal definition of treason, which was passed by parliament, and which had made it high treason to “maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing” bodily harm to the king.[9]  Under this new definition, Anne’s remark could be construed as referring to Norris’s desire for the King’s death. Anne apparently eventually “got it”, too, for after Norris made the comment about his head, she then told Norris that “she could undo him if she would.”[10]  What had (probably) begun as casual teasing ended with each ostentatiously declaring their horror at the thought that either entertained fantasies of Henry’s death.

But Anne worried that this wasn’t enough.  Later, realizing that their remarks may have been overheard, she asked Norris to go to her almoner, John Skip, and “swear for the queen that she was a good woman.”[11]  Unfortunately, this attempt at damage control only worked to make Skip suspicious.  He confided his suspicions to Sir Edward Baynton, who then went to Cromwell, who surely felt that gold from heaven had fallen into his lap. All this happened in late April.  So clearly, at the point of Anne’s arrest on May 2, Norris was suspected of more than simply withholding information about her purported affair with Smeaton.  However, the full details of the conversation may only have been revealed by Anne herself, in her rambling self-examination with Kingston, and this may be why Norris wasn’t arrested until May 4th.

Anne also told Kingston about how she had teased Francis Weston, then reprimanded him, for telling her that he, too, frequented her apartments out of love for her.  Under other circumstances, it would undoubtedly been regarded as innocent, courtly banter.  But Cromwell was on the hunt, attempting to assemble a case that would be overwhelming, if not in the evidence, than in the sheer magnitude and scope of the charges.  Both G.W. Bernard and Suzanne Lipscomb suggest, too, that Anne’s banter with Weston had “crossed the acceptable boundaries of courtly interchanges.”[12] But I suspect, too, that what was considered “courtly” and what was suspected to be something more had changed since Anne had learned the rules, and that Cromwell was able to take advantage of the different climate with regard to heterosexual behavior.

Anne was trained on traditions of courtly love within which flirtatiousness, far from being suspect, was a requirement of the court lady.  Of course, it must never go too far; the trick was to just go to the edge, and then back off (without, of course, hurting the gentleman’s feelings.).  Purity was required, but provocative banter was not just accepted, it was expected.  Especially in the French court, a relaxed atmosphere was the norm in conversations between men and women.  As the middle ages segued into the renaissance and then the reformation, however, conversations that would have been seen as entirely innocent may have begun to be viewed differently.  In an earlier chapter, I looked at the change from Capellanus’ version of courtly love, still rooted in Plato, which cautions young men to turn their backs on carnal pleasure and aim for spiritual transcendence of mere bodily love, to Castiglione, with his cynical advice for the most effective ways to overcome the resistance of their female prey.  If actual behavior followed ideology, then by the time Cromwell mounted his conspiracy against Anne, people may have been disposed to believe things, based on the exchanges with the men she was charged with, that would have been dismissed as ridiculous forty years earlier.[13]

[14]…[Anne’s moods in the Tower], according to Kingston, vacillated wildly, from resignation to hope to anxiety. She had always had a wicked sense of humor, and no irony was ever lost on her. When taken to the Tower, she had asked “Master Kingston, shall I die without justice?”[15] He replied, “The poorest subject the king hath, had justice.”[16]  Hearing this, despite her fear, Anne laughed. She was too sophisticated and savvy about the dispensing of royal power to swallow the official PR.  But she also seized on any glimmer of hope, and she had reason to believe that in the end, she might be spared.  She was the queen, after all, and no one in England had ever executed a queen.  Isabella of Angouleme and Isabella of France, both married to English kings, had been adulterous, but only their lovers were executed. Even those who had been involved in acts of treason—the most famous of all being Eleanor of Aquitaine, who almost succeeded in toppling Henry II from his throne—at most were put under house arrest.  It was almost unthinkable to Anne that Henry would have her put to death.  But so, too, was her imprisonment, which had come so suddenly, and seemingly without reason.

Until very near the end, she still harbored the belief that Henry might pardon her. It was not an unreasonable expectation. The last-minute rescue of the condemned queen was a centerpiece of the romance of chivalry, which was still being avidly consumed at court via Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  In the Arthurian legend, Guinevere is condemned to death twice for treason (the second time for adultery with Lancelot) and both times is saved from the stake by Lancelot—with King Arthur’s blessings.  Arthur had, in fact, suspected the queen’s infidelity for years, but because of his love for her and for Lancelot, had kept his suspicions a secret.  When Modred and Aggravane, plotting their own coup d’etat, told the King about it, he had no choice but to condemn his queen, while privately hoping she would be rescued.  It was a romantic fantasy—but one which Henry and Anne had grown up with, and which no doubt shaped their ideas about love. Henry had himself been an adroit and seductively tender courtier, who had pledged himself Anne’s “servant” and swore his constancy. The pledges may (or may not) have been made manipulatively, but his infatuation was real and the gestures were convincing. Why wouldn’t Anne, who Henry had in fact honored like Guinevere for six years, cherish the hope that she, too, would be rescued from death?

From the time she was taken to the Tower, then, a razor-thin edge separated hope and doom for Anne. She had been treated very gently and with great respect by Constable Kingston, and no doubt the fact that she was housed not in a dungeon but in the lodgings she had slept in before her coronation lent an ambiance of (mistaken) comfort to her stay in the Tower.  After a visit from Cranmer on May 16th, she appears to have been offered hints—or even proposed—some sort of “deal,” in which her admission of the illegitimacy of her marriage and Elizabeth might win her life in a nunnery instead of death. Cromwell had been working to find a way to annul the marriage and bastardize Elizabeth.  Two likely “impediments” to the lawfulness of the marriage were a possible precontract with her young love Percy and the “consanguinity” of the King’s affair with Mary Boleyn.  Percy denied the precontract, so Cranmer was sent to get Anne to admit that she knew of the relationship with Mary when she married Henry.  Weir speculates—accurately, I believe—that Cranmer may have suggested to Anne that if she admitted to the impediment, the King might spare her life.  After Cramner left, Kingston reports, she was in a “cheerful” mood and talked about her hopes of being spared death.  Instead, the only “mercy” Henry had planned was her death by a skilled French swordsman, who was already on his way, even before Anne’s trial.

Anne’s emotional vacillations—from terror to prayerful resignation to black humor (speculating, the night before her execution, that her enemies would remember her as “la Royne Anne Sans Tete”) suggest that the strangeness of what was happening to her was at times impossible for her to assimilate. Just a few short months before, she had been pregnant.  Just a few weeks before, Henry had been insisting that the Spanish Emperor acknowledge the legitimacy of their marriage. Now she was in the Tower, condemned to death.  Her fortunes had turned around so swiftly and extremely, it must have been difficult to keep a steady grip on reality.  Yet she managed, at her trial on May 15, after nearly two weeks in the Tower and the certain recognition, after the verdicts of the men accused with her, that she would be found guilty, to summon her renowned pride and dazzling confidence for the grim occasion.  Dressed in black velvet over a scarlet petticoat, her cap “sporting a black-and-white feather”, she “presented herself with the true dignity of a queen, and curtseyed to her judges, looking round upon them all, without any sign of fear…impatience, grief, or cowardice”[17] (Crispin de Milherve, an eyewitness at the trial.)  When it was time for her to speak, after hearing the full charges for the first time—including trivial, non-criminal but “atmospherically” damaging accusations that she had made fun of the King’s poetry and taste in clothing—she made such “wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her” that “had the peers given in their verdict according to the expectations of the assembly, she had been acquitted.”[18]  But of course, the verdict was not dependent on the impression Anne made, or how convincing her defense was.  When she protested, against Smeaton’s confession, that “that one witness was not enough to convict a person of high treason”, she was simply informed “that in her case it was sufficient.” Also “sufficient” were numerous bits of gossip that nowadays would be regarded as worse than hearsay, since they came from obviously prejudiced sources.  George Wyatt, writing about the trial later, says that he heard nothing that could be considered evidence.  Instead, as author Jane Dunn described the case, it was “a ragbag of gossip, innuendo, and misinterpreted courtliness.”[19]

Anne almost certainly expected the guilty verdict that followed, which makes her calm, clear, and highly intelligent (according to numerous observers) responses to the charges all the more remarkable.  It is less likely that she expected the sentence that followed: “that thou shalt be burnt here within the Tower of London on the Green, else to have thy head smitten off, as the King’s pleasure shall be further known of the same.”  On hearing the verdict, several onlookers shrieked, took ill, and had to leave the hall. But Anne, as Chapuys observed, “preserved her composure, saying that she held herself ‘pour toute saluee de la mort’ [always ready to greet death], and that what she regretted most was that the above persons, who were innocent and loyal to the King, were to die for her.[20] And then, as summarized by several onlookers but reported in the greatest detail by Crispin de Milherve, she delivered the extraordinary speech that I quoted from briefly in the previous chapter.  In full now:

“My lords, I will not say your sentence is unjust, nor presume that my reasons can prevail against your convictions. I am willing to believe that you have sufficient reasons for what you have done; but then they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am clear of all the offences which you then laid to my charge. I have ever been a faithful wife to the King, though I do not say I have always shown him that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way. Think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life, for He who saveth from death hath taught me how to die, and He will strengthen my faith. Think not, however, that I am so bewildered in my mind as not to lay the honour of my chastity to heart now in mine extremity, when I have maintained it all my life long, much as ever queen did. I know these, my last words, will avail me nothing but for the justification of my chastity and honour. As for my brother and those others who are unjustly condemned, I would willingly suffer many deaths to deliver them, but since I see it so pleases the King, I shall willingly accompany them in death, with this assurance, that I shall lead an endless life with them in peace and joy, where I will pray to God for the King and for you, my lords.”[21]

The clarity and confidence of Anne’s declaration here, her insight into her lack of humility, and her reference to “bewilderment” of mind, are all, I believe, support for the theory, which many scholars have challenged, that a purported “last letter” to Henry, written by Anne on May 6th is indeed, authentic.  The letter was found, after his death, among Cromwell’s possessions, apparently undelivered to the King, in a handwriting that doesn’t correspond exactly (although not radically dissimilar) to Anne’s other  letters, but that could easily have been transcribed by someone else, or in Anne’s own hand, altered by the distress of her situation. On May 5, Anne did ask Kingston to him to “bear a letter from me to Master Secretary.”[22] Kingston then said to her: “Madam, tell it me by word of mouth and I will do it.”[23] She thanked him, and after that we hear no more of it in Kingston’s reports, so we don’t know if the letter was written, dictated, or even ever was composed.  But the one found among Cromwell’s papers, dated May 6th, begins with a statement that is so startlingly precise in its depiction of Anne’s state of mind at the time, that it’s hard to imagine anyone else, in the decades following her death, writing it:

Your Grace’s displeasure and my imprisonment are things so strange to me, that what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send to me (willing me to confess a truth and so obtain your favour), by such a one, whom you know to me mine ancient professed enemy [Cromwell]; I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if as you say, confessing a truth indeed my procure my safety, I shall, with willingness and duty, perform your command.
But let not your grace ever imagine your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought ever proceeded. And to speak a truth, never a prince had a wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Bolen – with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself if God and your grace’s pleasure had so been pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation, or received queenship, but I always looked for such alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your grace’s fancy, the least alteration was fit and sufficient (I knew) to draw that fancy to some other subject.
You have chosen me from a low estate to be your queen and companion, far beyond my just desert or desire; if then you found me worthy of such honour, good your grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of my enemies withdraw your princely favour from me, neither let that stain – that unworthy stain – of a disloyal heart toward your good grace ever cast so foul a blot on me and on the infant princess, your daughter [Elizabeth].
Try me, good king, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and as my judges; yea, let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open shames; then shall you see either mine innocency cleared, your suspicions and conscience satisfied, the ignonimy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatever God and you may determine of, your grace may be at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me, as an unfaithful wife, but to follow your affection already settled on that party [Anne knew of Henry’s affection for Jane Seymour], for whose sake I am now as I am; whose name I could some good while since, have pointed unto: Your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicions therein.
But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander, must bring you to the joying of your desired happiness, then I desire of God that He will pardon your great sin herein, and, likewise, my enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strait account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me at his general judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear; and in whose just judgment, I doubt not (whatsoever the world think of me) mine innocency shall be openly known and sufficiently cleared.
My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of your grace’s displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, whom, as I understand, are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake.
If ever I have found favour in your site – if ever the name of Anne Bulen have been pleasing in your ears – then let me obtain this request; and so I will leave to trouble your grace no further: with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions.
From my doleful prison in the Tower, the 6th of May.
Ann Bulen[24]

Most of Anne’s modern biographers believe this letter to be a forgery, in part because it is so daringly accusatory of Henry and in part because the “style” is not like Anne’s.  “Its ‘elegance’,” writes Ives, “has always inspired suspicion.”[25] Well, not always. Henry Ellis and other nineteenth-century commentators believed it was authentic.  And the “style” argument is an odd one, because we have so few existing letters of Anne’s and they are such business-like affairs, that it’s hard to see how anyone could determine a “style” from them.  If Henry had saved her responses to his love letters, we might have a better idea of what Anne was like as a writer, but they were destroyed.  As it stands, though, we do have the account of her speech at her trial, and it exhibits many of the same qualities as this letter.  In both, Anne stands her ground bravely and articulately, but more strikingly, goes beyond the conventions of the time to venture into deeper “psychological” and political territory: the insight into her lack of humility, the inference that this might have had something to do with her fall from grace, her reference to the “bewilderment” and “strangeness” of finding herself accused of adultery and treason.

As to the letter’s bold attitude toward Henry, this was characteristic of Anne, and (as she acknowledged in her trial speech) she was aware that it overstepped the borders of what was acceptable.  Her refusal to contain herself safely within those borders was what had drawn Henry to her; she could not simply turn the switch off when it began to get her in trouble.  To do that would have been to relinquish the only thing left to her at this point: her selfhood. Ives says that it would “appear to be wholly improbable” for a Tudor prisoner to warn the king that he is in imminent danger from the judgment of God.”[26] But Anne was no ordinary prisoner; she had shared Henry’s bed, advised and conspired with him in the divorce strategies, debated theology with him, given birth to his daughter, protested against his infidelities, dared to challenge Cromwell’s use of confiscated monastery money.  Arguably, it was her failure to be “appropriate” that contributed to her downfall.  Now, condemned to death by her own husband, to stop “being Anne” would have been to shatter the one constancy left in the terrible “strangeness” of her situation.

I don’t know for certain, of course, that this letter is authentic.  But I have to wonder whether skeptics have been influenced by Anne’s reputation as woman known for her “feminine” vivacity, emotionality, and sexuality.  19th century editor Henry Ellis called this letter “one of the finest compositions in the English Language.”[27] Ellis lived at a time when women writers had come into their own.  But perhaps not every historian has been as ready to acknowledge that someone like Anne could possibly have written “one of the finest compositions in the English language.”

[1] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: May 1536, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online,”sudden change from yesterday”

[2] (Ibid.)

[3] James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: May 1536, 1-10,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, British History Online,”her father, mother, brother”

[4] James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: May 1536, 26-31,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, British History Online, Jonas May

[5] (Ibid.)

[6] William Kingston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011,  245).

[7] (Ibid., 246) Modernized spelling applied

[8] (Ibid.) Modernized spelling applied

[9] (Wilson 2003, 375)

[10] Sir William Kingston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011, 246)

[11] (Lindsey 1995, 122)

[12] (Lipscomb 2009, 82)

[13] Besides his spies in the prison, Cromwell may have had some malicious female accomplices helping him out.  One could have been Jane Parker (George Boleyn’s wife), who many historians believe provided the incriminating “evidence” against her husband—that she had seen the two kissing on the mouth, and that she had told him first about her last pregnancy.  Both of these were completely appropriate behavior for a brother and a sister, but by the time they reached the point of formal indictments, tongues and other body parts had been added to raise the suspicion that the pregnancy was the result of George’s having “carnally” known Anne, “at Westminster [and] also did on divers days before and after at the same place, sometimes by his own procurement and sometimes by the Queen’s.”[13]  And although it did not rise to the level of treason, Jane is also said to have told Cromwell that the two had mocked the King for being unskilled and having “neither potency nor vigor” in bed.

Jane’s role has not been definitely confirmed, however. Her involvement is hinted at by Chapuys (not the most reliable source, admittedly), stated outright by George Wyatt, who calls George’s “wicked wife” her” accuser of her husband”, and accepted by later historians Bishop Burnett, Peter Heylin, and others, who attribute her turn against her brother and sister-in-law to jealousy of Anne’s close relationship with George.  Alison Weir, more plausibly I think, points to a possible self-protective switch of political allegiance, from the Boleyns to the Seymours.  Jane saw which way the wind was blowing, and followed its course. Howard Brenton, in his new play Anne Boleyn portrays Jane as actually a close ally of Anne’s.  She was, however, a weak person, and capitulated to Cromwell’s pressure on her. The latter two explanations–self-protection and pressure from Cromwell–rather than animosity toward Anne and George, seem most convincing to me.

Another accomplice appears to have been Lady Worcester, sister to two members of the Privy Council (half-brothers Sir Anthony Browne and Sir William Fitzwilliam), who accused Anne of relations with both Smeaton and George.  This accusation, as related in a poem by Lancelot de Carles written after Anne’s death, was produced by Lady Worchester after one of her brothers (which one is not made clear) had criticized his sister for her own “dishonorable love”, to which she replied that “it was little in her case in comparison with that of the Queen.” To my ears, this sounds very much like a desperate attempt to deflect attention from her own guilt, as a child will do when accused.  But this was the sort of stuff on which Cromwell’s case was built.   The tactic seems to have been to create as much smoke as possible, and count on people believing there must therefore be a fire.

And then, of course, there was the intimidation factor. Archbishop Cranmer, who shared Anne’s religious inclinations and had been a champion of hers since before the marriage, was in emotional turmoil on hearing of Anne’s arrest.  On May 3, he wrote to Henry, his soul clearly in struggle, wanting to defend Anne but fearing for his own safety: “I am clean amazed, for I had never better opinion of woman; but I think your Highness would not have gone so far if she had not been culpable.  I am most bound to her of all creatures living, and therefore beg that I may, with your Grace’s favor, wish and pray that she may declare herself innocent.” Still, he cautiously hedged his bets:  “Yet if she be found guilty, I repute him not a faithful subject who would not wish her punished without mercy.” The “if” evaporated after, in the middle of his letter-writing, Cranmer was called to the Star Chamber by Cromwell and his cronies.  When he returned to his desk, having “chatted” with Cromwell, Cranmer concludes his letter: “I am sorry such faults can be proved against the Queen as they report.”

[14] Omitted from this excerpt but discussed in the book: the trials and executions of the men with whom Anne was accused.

[15] Sir William Kingston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011, 246) Modernized spelling applied

[16] (Ibid.) Modernized spelling applied

[17] (Weir 2010, 223)

[18] (Ibid.) Eyewitness testimony of Crispin de Milherve

[19] (Weir 2010, 225)

[20] James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: May 1536, 16-20,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, British History Online,”preserved her composure”

[21] (Weir 2010, 230)

[22] Sir William Kyngston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011, 246)

[23] (Ibid.)

[24] (Norton 2011, 256-7)

[25] (Ives 2005, 58)

[26] (Ibid.)

[27] (Ellis 1824, 53)


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Anne as a Piece on the Chessboard of Politics

By 1536, Henry was 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 should do all that they could to “soften and mend all matter relating to her,” for “in time everything would be set to rights.”[1] 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:

“True it was, “ (Cromwell said) that the King, his master, had occasionally complained of the suit which Your Majesty had instituted against him at Rome, but he [Cromwell] had fully shown that Your Majesty could not help stirring in favour of Queen Katherine, bound as she was to you by the bonds of consanguinity and royal rank; and that, considering the King, his master, if in your Majesty’s place, might have acted as you did there was no fear of his now taking in bad part your interference in the affairs of so close a relative.  He himself had so strongly and so often inculcated that reasoning upon the King, that, in his opinion, no cause now remained for disagreement between Your Majesty and his master, save perhaps the affair of these two good ladies [Katherine and Mary]; to remedy which, as he had signified to me, it was needful that we both should agree upon a satisfactory settlement of all complaints, and the knitting of that lasting friendship which might otherwise be endangered.  Cromwell ended 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.”[2]

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, but more important, because she was the obstacle standing in the way of reaching a “satisfactory settlement of all complaints” by Katherine and Mary.[3]  Chapuys also took Cromwell as hinting “that there was some appearance of the King changing his love.”[4]  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, as Chapuys later put it, was “Anne’s right hand.”[5]) What had happened?  At this point, nothing of grave significance. But Cromwell was a man who was ever alert to the slightest changes in the weather of power-politics, and Anne had just had a miscarriage in July of 1535.  It was not publicly reported, but can be inferred from comments made about her “goodly belly” in April and Henry’s postponement of a trip to France that summer “on account of her condition.”[6] Then, in July: silence.  There now had been two unsuccessful pregnancies, as far as the issue of a male heir was concerned.  Moreover, although Elizabeth was born healthy and beautiful, this child had not even gone to term—a far more ominous sign for superstitious Henry.  Was he already wondering whether God disapproved of this marriage?  And did he share his misgivings with his “most beloved” Cromwell?

Cromwell and Anne, moreover, although they inveighed against Rome and fought for the divorce together, 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 English 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.”[7] 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.”[8] 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 ambitous” is how Wilson describes them[9]) 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.”[10] By 1535, Seymour’s circle—John Dudley, Thomas Wriosthesley, 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.

The Other Women: Katherine and Jane

On January 7, 1536, Katherine of Aragon died, most likely of cancer of the heart (a real illness, but an apt bodily metaphor as well.) 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.”[11]  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 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 much to do.”[12]  Even Chapuys, ever alert to promising signs that Anne would be supplanted, finds this report “incredible.”  Anne was in her final month of what was to be her last 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 Seymour’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.”[13]  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.”[14]

In the four months between Katherine’s death and Henry’s open courting of Jane, two momentous events had occurred. 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 later described by Nicholas Sander 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.[15]  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” when 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.[16]  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 dismissed it.  In a letter of February 17, he wrote to Charles that Anne’s inability to bear male children was due to her “defective constitution,” that “the real cause” of this particular miscarriage 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.”[17]

Jane was a 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.”[18]  Plus, whether through coaching or inspiration of her own, she refused the king’s gifts, saying that her greatest treasure was her honor, and that she would accept sovereigns from him in “such a time as God would be pleased to send her some advantageous marriage.”[19]  She may have not been of “great wit” but she (or her brother) knew that this would increase Henry’s ardour.  The refusal of sovereigns happened after Anne’s miscarriage, an event which undoubtedly 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, it 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.  Disastrously and without precedent, it was “the some other way” that prevailed.

[1] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online,”than his last born”

[2] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online,”what Cromwell’s last words”

[3] (de Carles 1927, 234); Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online,”satisfactory settlement of all”

[4] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online,”changing his love”

[5] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: June 1535, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online,”Anne’s right hand”

[6] (Fraser 1993, 219)

[7] (Hutchinson 2007, 42)

[8] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: June 1535, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online,”I fancy she cannot do me any harm”

[9] (Wilson 2003, 386)

[10] (Ibid., 385)

[11] (Ives 2005, 295)

[12] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: January 1536, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online,”sortileges and charms”

[13] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: April 1536, 1-20,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online,”subjects abominate”

[14] (Ibid.)

[15] (Ives 2005, 298)

[16] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: February 1536, 21-29,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online,”God will not give me male children”

[17] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: February 1536, 16-20,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online,”defective constitution”

[18] (Ives 2005, 302)

[19] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: April 1536, 1-20,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, 1536

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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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Filed under Anne and Gender, Anne Through the Ages, Book Excerpts

The Fateful, Fatal Month of April 1536: An Overview

Excerpt from The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. DO NOT QUOTE, CITE, COPY OR DISTRIBUTE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION.

The Arrest of Anne Boleyn (an 1872 print)

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 when 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.”[1]) 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, and asked Cromwell to find evidence to support the charges.[2] 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.”[3]  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 later) believe, following Eric Ives, that the plot against Anne was orchestrated by Thomas Cromwell, 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 public declaration of her opposition to his policies by approving of a potently coded sermon written by her almoner, John Skip, in which he (implicitly) compared Cromwell to Haman, the evil, Old Testament councilor (which would make Anne Esther to Henry’s Xerxes.) 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.”[4] 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.”[5]

With the king still pushing for her recognition, Anne must have felt deceptively safe. On April 25, 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.”[6] 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.”[7] 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 “could certainly desert his concubine.”[8]

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.”[9] 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.

[1] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: December 1533, 16-25,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 2: 1531-1533, British History Online,”so enchanted and bewitched him”

[2] (Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII 1991, 309)

[3] (Ives 2005, 312)

[4] (Ibid., 315)

[5] James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: April 1536, 21-25,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, British History Online,”kiss or speak”

[6] Weir, Lady in the Tower, p. 95.

[7] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: May 1536, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online,”could not abandon the said concubine”

[8] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: May 1536, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online,”desert his concubine”

[9] (Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn 2010, 123)

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Filed under Book Excerpts, May 19th, 1536 Feature

Fact, Fiction, and Philippa Gregory

Excerpt from The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo, forthcoming Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (now available here for purchase). DO NOT QUOTE, CITE, COPY OR DISTRIBUTE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION.

In 2002, Robin Maxwell, who had written a highly-praised novel about Anne, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, was given a new manuscript to read.  Arcade editor Trish Todd wanted to know, would Robin give it a blurb?

The manuscript took Maxwell by surprise. Most novels about Anne that were written in the 1980’s and 90’s had been quite sympathetic toward her. Maxwell’s own book (1997)is constructed around the delightful fiction that daughter Elizabeth discovers Anne’s diary and learns how much her mother loved her and how “cruel and outrageously unjust” her father had been; the knowledge redeems Anne in her daughter’s eyes and sets Elizabeth up for a lifetime of caution about giving the men in her life too much power. In Jean Plaidy’s beautifully wrought The Lady in the Tower (1986), we find Anne imprisoned, thinking back on her life, wondering “how I had come to pass from such adulation to bitter rejection in three short years”; her reflections are those of a mature, regretful, clear-sighted woman, capable of recognizing her own faults, but very much aware of how her own mis-steps had been cruelly exploited by others. This new book, however, seemed to Maxwell to be a modernized recreation of the old Catholic view of Anne as a scheming viper.

“I was appalled,” Robin recalled in a phone interview with me.  “It was a great read, a page turner.  But she had taken every rumor, every nasty thing that anyone had ever said about Anne Boleyn and turned it into the truth in her book. You can argue that she had every right because she’s a historical fiction author, but I refused the blurb on principle because of its vicious, unsupportable view of Anne.”

Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl”

The book was Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl.  In it, the character of Anne is indeed more selfish, spiteful, and vindictive than she had appeared in any previous novel, a nasty, screechy shrew who poaches Henry from her generous, tenderhearted (and very blonde) sister Mary and proceeds to tyrannize her (and everyone around her), barking out orders, plotting deaths, appropriating her sister’s child, and—when she miscarries her final pregnancy with Henry—coercing her brother George to have sex with her. Neither “Sleeping Beauty” nor “Cinderella” strike a more clean-cut division between the good and the wicked woman, with Anne playing the role of the wicked witch and Mary the long-suffering, virtuous heroine. As in any other fairy tale, however, the good are ultimately rewarded and the evil are punished.  Anne, having gone to “the gates of hell” with her brother in order to get pregnant, miscarries a deformed child (an idea that Gregory picked up from Retha Warnicke’s 1989 biography), is accused of witchcraft, and goes to the scaffold (in far less dignified fashion than history records) while Mary, with Elizabeth in her arms, retires to a bucolic life with husband and children.

Gregory describes herself as a “feminist, radical historian” and Mary Boleyn as a feminist heroine—apparently because she has sex and yet isn’t portrayed as “bad.” (I thought we went past that—and then some–with Bridget Jone’s Diary, “Ally McBeal” and “Sex and the City”.) “It is no coincidence,” she says, “that our prejudiced opinions of women of the Tudor court are drawn from the devoted Victorian historians who were the first translators and publishers of the original Tudor documents, but were deeply committed to their own view of women as either saints or whores.”  Her novel, in contrast, allows Mary to be both sexual and saint-like, and despite having been “used” sexually by Henry, she is rewarded with the best ending of anyone in the book (which just happens to be a life of domestic happiness).  “Mary’s story is one of absolute independence and victory,” Gregory says, and a “triumph of common sense over the ambition of her sister Anne.” Huh? Sex is allowed, but ambition isn’t?  What kind of feminism is this? The answer to that appears to be: an opportunistic, infinitely malleable one.  Gregory, in a more recent interview, complains about how “one-eyed some historians have been” in their depictions of women of power: “They are always portrayed as power-hungry, pretty ambitious, manipulative, cold or proud.”  This sounds like a pretty fair description of her own portrayal of Anne Boleyn.

The book was well-reviewed and has been fabulously successful among a general readership.  It stormed the US market, selling more than a million copies in the U.S. alone, and has by now been published in 26 countries.  It won the Parker Pen Novel of the Year award 2002, the Romantic Times fictional biography award, was adapted for the BBC as a single television drama and was made into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn, Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Eric Bana as Henry VIII.  It has legions of devoted fans, who write gushing tributes on Gregory’s website. But other novelists and historians, both professional and amateur, range from the politely critical to the seething when The Other Boleyn Girl is mentioned.  Most, however, are offended less by the “viciousness” of its view of Anne than by its many historical inaccuracies. Hilary Mantel notes that the notion that Anne gave birth to a deformed child is an “eccentric interpretation” which has “gained traction” because of its sensational elements. Robin Maxwell criticizes Gregory for “knowing the truth” as a scholar but then going with what is “most dramatic” for her readers, even when there is “zero evidence.”  Michael Hirst, who knows what it’s like to be charged with distorting history, describes Philippa Gregory as “having no historical sensibility at all.  Her characters are all middle class people wandering into a historical situation and behaving in a very modern middle class way… Her Anne is like someone in the dorm of your university.”  One internet site will not even call Philippa Gregory by name, instead referring to her sarcastically as “our favorite historical novelist” and engaging in fantasy-conversations involving sending snipers to her public talks.

There’s no doubt that Gregory plays fast and loose with history in The Other Boleyn Girl(See “The

Movie poster from “The Other Boleyn Girl”

Other Boleyn Girl Fact Checker” for specifics) and even more so when the book was made into a movie. The screenplay, written by Gregory and Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon), contributed fresh inventions to the story.  Michael Grandage, who directed the HBO drama Frost/Nixon, credits Morgan with the ability to weave a fictional storyline “so deeply” into a factual situation “that audiences don’t know where the boundaries of truth lie.” In the case of The Other Boleyn Girl, the “interwoven” fantasies/fictions included a gratuitous (and utterly out-of-character) rape of Anne by Henry, Mary begging Henry for a last-minute pardon for Anne, and a heroic capture of Elizabeth by Mary, who strides into court after Anne’s execution, grabs her niece, and—with the whole court watching and not lifting a finger—leaves the palace with the future queen in her arms.  Oh, and another trifle—“The movies manages to virtually edit out a rather large historical fact: the Reformation”[1] As Gina Carbone puts it in her review, “Let’s just say you shouldn’t watch this and base any Jeopardy answers on it.”

The actors, apparently, did little research beyond reading the novel (Gregory commends Scarlett Johnson, who played Mary Boleyn, for having “her copy of my book in her hand practically all the time we were on set”), learning how deeply to curtsy from an etiquette coach (“It was those kinds of things’”says Johannson, “that added to the freshness and authenticity of the period”), and mastering the English accent.  Natalie Portman, who played Anne, admits to not “relating” to her character, but appears to be so postmodern in her approach to history (perhaps due to her Harvard degree) that it didn’t matter much: “You have to accept that all history is fiction. All you get from history is competing views.” Eric Bana didn’t even bother with checking out the history books.  “Look,” he told the director Justin Chadwick when offered the part, “I’m not someone who ever envisaged myself playing a king, or anything like that.  But Henry, the guy, I think I can get to the core of him and I want to play him just as a man, that’s all I know.  So I just used that.  I didn’t get too bogged down in history, because I felt like at the core of it, it was kind of irrelevant.”

Not getting “bogged down” in history mattered to some, and not to others. “No matter what criticisms The Tudors may have received for its inaccuracies,” one reviewer wrote, “the Showtime series seems like a History Channel documentary compared to this movie.” Respected historical novelist Margaret George, in an email exchange with me about the actors’ comments, was less circumspect:

“I think they are all a bunch of ignoramuses. Lazy.  Un-intellectually curious.  As for hiding behind such a dumb and dismissive statement as ‘all you got from historians was competing views, anyway’, I wonder if they carry that philosophy over into their medical treatments?  (“What the heck, they can’t decide how many cigarettes it takes to cause lung cancer, so I’ll just ignore it all!”) Frankly, they all gave dismal performances in TOBG because they were all miscast, except for Scarlett, who acted somnolent through the whole thing even though from a distance she kind of looked like Mary Boleyn. And sorry, Natalie just wasn’t convincing as someone who could topple a throne.  Maybe if they’d studied their history a little they could have done a better job.”

A poster for “JFK”, which gave birth to the term “The Oliver Stone Phenomenon”

But others didn’t care whether or not, for example, Anne actually propositioned her brother. “It makes for a juicy and shocking footnote,” shrugged Rex Reed, tellingly conflating the apparatus of scholarship with an “event” that has been pretty thoroughly shown by scholars to be Cromwell’s invention.  And now that it has become culturally referenced by the film, a whole new generation, with little background in history but an extensive media education, has become vulnerable, once again, to the argument.  “Well done and beautifully produced,” proclaims the headline of one review, “Satisfactorily explains the incest charge against Anne Boleyn.” Another on-line reviewer admits that “near the finale, the dim recollection of my studies and the few facts that I’ve gleaned from other films combined their meager forces as one of Henry’s daughters is named, and my inner monologue actually mixed Hollywood and history and noted ‘I think that baby girl grows up to be Cate Blanchett.’?”  This is what Mark Lawson has called the “Oliver Stone phenomenon’, referring to the sizeable number of Americans who believe Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” to be an accurate portrayal of an actual conspiracy to kill Kennedy.

The Other Boleyn Girl fact-checker:

Concocted fictions:

Anne deliberately “steals” Henry from Mary (Henry’s affair with Mary was over before he began to pursue Anne.)

Anne forces Mary to give up her son to be raised at court.

Anne says she wants Wolsey dead.

Anne behaves viciously to her sister on many occasions.

Anne induces a miscarriage (third pregnancy) when she thinks the fetus is dead.

Anne has sex with her brother in order to conceive a child.

No Evidence or Contrary Evidence:

Intense rivalry between Anne and Mary (no evidence).

Mary Boleyn has two children by Henry, one of whom is a son (Elizabeth Blount, Henry’s former mistress, had Henry’s son. Whether or not Mary had any children by Henry is not known.).

Anne has sex with Henry Percy (no evidence.)

Brother George has an affair with Francis Weston. (This comes from Retha Warnicke’s theory of a “homosexual ring” at Henry’s court.  It’s possible, of course, but no evidence.)

Mary was a virgin before her first marriage. (There are many reports of sexual activity in Francis’s court.)

Anne’s mother hides evidence of Anne’s miscarriage (second pregnancy) by burning the miscarried fetus. (It’s possible that Anne hid a miscarriage, but it’s speculation. No evidence at all that her mother burned a fetus.)

Anne gives birth to a “horridly malformed” baby (This is Retha Warnicke’s theory, but there is no evidence for it.  In contemporary accounts, the fetus is referred to only as “a shapeless mass”)

Added in the Hollywood movie (screenplay by Peter Morgan):

Henry was attracted to Anne first, but got turned off when she humiliated him horseback riding. (In fact, Henry had an affair with Mary before he became interested in Anne.)

In disgrace, Anne was exiled to France after marrying Henry Percy (Anne did not marry Percy, and she was sent to the Burgundian court of Margaret of Austria, and then France, when she was 12, to be educated and “finished”)

After Mary has just given birth to Henry’s son, Anne (worried that this will foil her own designs on Henry) orders Henry never to talk to Mary again if he wants to have Anne.  Henry agrees and walks out of the room, indifferent to his infant son.

Henry becomes hostile and indifferent to Anne sexually even before the marriage. (Henry pursued Anne for six years before they married—a prolonged courtship missing from the movie—and there is no evidence that he became hostile to her until very late in the marriage.

Henry VIII rapes Anne Boleyn.

Mary intercedes on Anne’s behalf and tries to get Henry to pardon her sister.

Mary Boleyn walks into court after Anne’s execution, and takes Elizabeth with her.

Of course, if my book has demonstrated anything at all, it’s that neither The Tudors nor The Other Boleyn Girl has a monopoly on the creative uses of a history that, after all, has some very large holes in the record. Nell Gavin, whose ingenious and moving Threads follows Anne through several reincarnations, is based on a metaphysical premise that many readers find dubious, Anne of the Thousand Days cooks up a fictional exhange between Henry and Anne that not only did not happen but is almost unimaginable, Norah Lofts’ The Concubine has Anne engaging not just in one but multiple, anonymous acts of adultery, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons conveniently omits Thomas More’s heretic-burnings from among his other hobbies, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has Cromwell suspicious of Anne from the very beginning of their relationship, whereas in fact they were allies for much of her reign. These depictions are not just accepted without protest, but prize-winning, beloved, admired.  So why the special outrage over Gregory?

What seems most offensive to historians are not Gregory’s distortions of fact, but her self-deceptive and self-promoting chutzpah. “Because I am a trained historian,” she wrote in 2008 (in fact, her degree is in 18th century literature), “I described the story of the Boleyn girls in the full context of the dramatic political, religious and social changes of the time.  Without realizing it, in so doing I invented a new way of writing the historical novel in which the ‘history’ part of the equation is just as important as the ‘novel’ part.  The fact plays as great a part in the story as the fiction, and when there is a choice of fact or fiction, I always choose the factual version.  The only time that I create events for my real-life characters is to join up one factual event and another, to fill in the gaps of their story.”  She describes herself as a scrupulous researcher who “applies very strict rules of accuracy” to her novels: “I read tons of primary and secondary material on a subject,” she said in a 2010 interview, “and then, using the absolute facts of a life as the bones of a story, that’s what I write.”  What does she supply as a novelist?  Only “the bits that we don’t know” and “feelings, because we don’t know how people felt.”

In the case of Anne Boleyn, “the bits that we don’t know” are far more plentiful than the bits that we do know, so Gregory has given herself plenty of room to maneuver—as a novelist.  But Gregory wants to defend her narrative choices as history, too, although waveringly.  In one interview, Gregory described the “made up bits” as speculation about what was “fairly likely.”  In a Q and A appendix to The Other Boleyn Girl, however, she went further, claiming that all her choices “can be defended as historical probability” and then still further, with bold statements such as “Anne Boleyn was clearly guilty of one murder” (and probably another, she implies) and—in another interview—“Anne’s incest is powerfully suggested by the historical record” (“the historical record” here seems to be the fact that she was found guilty.)  In the production notes for the television version of The Other Boleyn Girl she backs off a bit, admitting that having Anne proposition her brother George is “speculative history.”  But then, perhaps feeling the need to justify her “choice” further,  goes on:  “You could argue that would have been quite a sensible thing to do if she could get away with it.”  As for the alleged “murder”—the attempted poisoning of John Fisher—it is simply defended as “fact,” although there’s no evidence that Anne had anything to do with it.

It’s Gregory’s insistence on her meticulous adherence to history that most aggravates the scholars. David Loades:  “What is important is that the author should be honest, and not claim an historical basis which does not in fact exist. It would have been safer if Philippa Gregory had claimed to be writing fiction, because that is what she was doing.” Both Margaret George and Hilary Mantel, in contrast to Gregory, make the fictional status of their novels absolutely clear.  George includes a guide to what is factual and what is invented in her books; “Readers seem to really want that—they need to know whether this or that scene really happened, or where certain information came from.  I think more and more writers are asking that it be included.” Mantel, in an email exchange with me, described Wolf Hall not as “history” but “part of a chain of literary representation. My Cromwell shakes hands with the Cromwell of the Book of Martyrs, and with the trickster Cromwell of the truly awful but funny Elizabethan play about him. I am conscious of all his later, if fugitive, incarnations in fiction and drama.  I am conscious on every page of hard choices to be made, and I make sure I never believe my own story.” Gregory’s website, in contrast, repetitively intones the mantra that her work is “absolutely rooted in the historical record.”  “I’m passionate about getting things right,” she says in a 2008 interview.  (The example she gives: a “long investigation,” for the movie, “of precisely when riding sidesaddle first being known in England.”)

Gregory doesn’t like her facts or expertise being challenged, either. In a piece written around the same time, she derides an “eager young researcher” for questioning her about the accuracy of her book, “as if my research were succulent kebabs to be skewered.”  As a best-selling author of 20 years, she’s used to “being solemnly told that such-and-such a thing does not exist because it doesn’t appear on Wikipedia.  I have all the complexity of having read 20 different sources, while the eager young researcher has all the confidence of having read an abstract of only one, so—contrary to the saying—I believe that a little knowledge is a reassuring thing.”

In fact, however—as we learn in the next paragraph—the “eager young researcher” has prepared four pages of “closely typed” questions, which sounds a bit more rigorous than Wikipedia-based work.  And Gregory’s 20 sources, for someone writing history, would barely make a dent in the “complexity” she brags she’s achieved. I’m a relative newcomer to this Tudor world, and I have hundreds of books in my office, hundreds more articles in my files, and a desktop that’s so crowded with Tudorphernalia that I need the biggest iMac just to have room to write my book.

I wouldn’t be hammering away at Gregory if it were only her arrogance at issue. But the fact is that many of her readers take her at her word, and consider The Other Boleyn Girl to be a historically accurate recreation of events that actually happened.  I’ve gotten plenty of direct evidence of this from audiences at my talks when I ask the opening question: “What do you know about Anne Boleyn?”  “Six fingers” comes first (one myth Gregory isn’t responsible for.)  Then: “She slept with her brother.”  “She gave birth to a deformed child.”  Sometimes, people will argue with me over the “facts” that they’ve learned from the book.  Others have had the same experience:

“I think people assumed Gregory’s portrayal of the main characters had to be, in essence, more or less fair. I can remember at one point at university when the novel was brought up, someone criticised Mary Boleyn and said that in reality she had been a bedhopping slut, or something equally un-PC, and a girl in the room responded, ‘Well, Anne wasn’t exactly much better, was she?’ The novel’s portrayal of Anne as promiscuous, immoral and thoroughly nasty, I think, is what most people came away from TOBG assuming must have been more or less true… Philippa Gregory’s assertion that she only “filled in the gaps” when the historical record couldn’t provide the info she needed, implicitly led people to believe that everything in the book was either based on fact or was supposition that occurred only when the fact was absent. Many, if not most, of Anne Boleyn’s actions in TOBG bear little or no relation to the historical Anne’s. Her personality bears even less resemblance to the real woman. But people find it impossible or improbable that a novelist would claim historical credibility but would then make up SO much about one of the most famous women in British history. (Gareth Russell)

Even members of my facebook book page—unusually well-educated in things Tudor—frequently admit that before they began to delve deeper into the history, Philippa Gregory was their authority:

“I completely took TOBG as fact when first reading it in tenth grade! I had no real background knowledge on Anne before reading it, so I took what the book said as fact, especially after reading the author’s note. Ms. Gregory is a very good and CONVINCING author, and it took me reading some other books afterwards to “Detox” Gregory’s Anne from my mind! It really taught me not to take historical fiction at face value. I just don’t understand why she felt the need to demonize Anne so much, and to pass off said characterization of her as “Truth.” Sure Anne was far from perfect, but the way Gregory painted her…I kept on waiting for Anne to cackle and fly away on a broomstick or something!”  (Katherine Stinson)

Stinson went to other books, and eventually got “detoxed.”  And to be fair to Gregory, she often does “bring history to life” for many readers, sparking interest in the periods she writes about, and inspiring further research:

The Other Boleyn Girl was actually the reason I became interested in Anne and her family and it definitely began my path to studying her in earnest. I was about 16 and I kind of got the feeling that the book was taking some liberties with her portrayal but it was so compelling that I couldn’t put it down. Say what you want about Phillippa Gregory but that woman knows how to keep a reader interested. That was about five years ago and I owe that book because without it, I would not have discovered one of my greatest interests” (Connie Panzariello)

“Historical fiction has helped my daughter, who has, up to this point, had zero interest in history, become totally obsessed with history!  She is in middle school and history is no longer a drudgery for her.  Some people (my son) like to read boring dull textbooks and regale you with facts, others need to learn a different way.  My daughter can tell you all about the Tudor family tree.  AND she got me reading these fabulous Philippa Gregory novels.”

“One learns several things through historical fiction.  One learns to humanize the players in history. One learns to put themselves in their shoes and start asking hard questions about the people, the times, and about themselves.  Ultimately, historical fiction creates an interest in the actual events, and a need to learn more. I have done more research, just out of curiosity, after reading a novel than I would have ever thought.  Reading historical fiction has caused me to become a more informed person, and a great success at trivia games.  As a teacher, I love them as a way to spark enthusiasm in my students.  They make the facts come alive.”

The problem with “the facts coming alive” in Gregory’s books, however, is that her most ardent fans do not distinguish between well-researched trivia of the sort that can give you an advantage in board games and the lively—and perhaps “humanizing” but inaccurate—“facts” about what the characters said and did.  Neither, it appears, does Gregory, who seems to believe that knowledge about manners, dress, food, or the bad breath of the pre-toothpaste Tudors is enough to keep her novels “grounded in historical fact”.  Sometimes, Gregory’s training in literature sneaks up on her, and she suddenly becomes more seemingly aware of the dangers of verisimilitude:  I was surprised by a recent, scholarly piece by Gregory to find her decrying “putting a convincing lie on the record.”   “A convincing lie,” she writes, “is a wicked thing because it replaces the truth.  If a lie is told with conviction and accepted as the sound coin of fact then no-one will question it.  It becomes something we all think that we know.  It becomes something we rely on.  It becomes the self-evident fact.”  It’s a thoughtful comment—but very puzzling that Gregory does not see that her own work is itself guilty.

The seductions of the “convincing lie” have become even more acute in our media-dominated, digitally enhanced era in which people are being cultural trained to have difficulty distinguishing between created “realities” and the real thing.  If the created reality is vivid and convincing enough (whether it is a flawless, computer-generated complexion, or a “spin” on events) it carries authority—and that’s the way advertisers and politicians want it.  The movies, which are often extremely attentive to historical details, creating a highly realistic texture for the scaffolding surrounding the actions of the characters, make it even harder for audiences to draw the line.  Directors, who are after all focused on entertaining rather than educating, may not want audiences to draw that line.  Thomas Sutcliffe, the director of The Other Boleyn Girl, describes Peter Morton as “brilliant at side-stepping the usual shrieking reflex of anxiety about mixing fantasy and truth.”

The novelists I interviewed would agree with Morton that too much “anxiety” about the fact/fiction divide would make the work of historical fiction impossible. Margaret George laughingly told me about overhearing someone say, about her Autobiography of Henry VIII, “This is just a lie!  Henry VIII never wrote an autobiography!”  But George also expressed concern that in an age when most people get their history from TV and movies, we are losing our collective sense of “what really happened.”  As I write this, a controversy about this loss has been freshly stirred up by Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous,” which suggests that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.  Although among Shakespeare scholars, “the idea has roughly the same currency as the faked moon landing does among astronauts,” former English liteature professor Stephen Markie worries that thanks to the movie, “undergraduates will be confidently asserting that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare for the next 10 years at least, and profs will have to waste countless hours explaining the obvious.”

For thoughtful creators of fiction (whether written or cinematic) “shrieking anxiety” and “anything goes” are not the only alternatives.  There’s the responsible middle-ground of recognition that there is an unavoidable tension between the demands of history and the requirements of fiction. As Hilary Mantel put it:

You have to think what you owe to history. But you also have to think what you owe to the novel form. Your readers expect a story. And they don’t want it to be two-dimensional, barely dramatized. So (and this is queasy ground) you have to create interiority for your characters. Your chances of guessing their thoughts are slim or none; and yet there is no reality left, against which to measure your failure.  

Fiction is commonly more persuasive than history texts. After Wolf Hall was published, I was constantly being asked ‘Was Thomas More really like that? We thought he was a really nice man!’ I could only answer, ‘I am trying to describe how he might have appeared if you were standing in the shoes of Thomas Cromwell: who, incidentally, did not dislike him.’ But of course what I was really up against was A Man for All Seasons:  the older fiction having accreted authority, just by being around for two generations.  When I say to people, ‘Do you really think More was a 1960s liberal?’ they laugh. ‘Of course not.’ But (again, for the sake of honesty) you constantly have to weaken your own case, by pointing out to people that all historical fiction is really contemporary fiction; you write out of your own time.

[1] Jonathan Jones, in The Guardian.  But this is nothing new. In the acclaimed PBS series on Henry as well as Anne of the Thousand Days movie, Anne is never seen reading a book, let alone conversing with Henry—as the actual Anne often did—about the religious debates of the day.  Her role in Henry’s break from Rome is purely as the tantalizing object of his desire, his history-launching Helen, for whom he was willing to defy the pope, suffer excommunication, have old friends like More executed, and create a poisonous schism in his kingdom. One of the innovations of The Tudors is its break with this convention, largely due to the intervention of Natalie Dormer.


Filed under Book Excerpts

Introduction: The Erasure of Anne Boleyn and The Creation of “Anne Boleyn”


For Anne, the arrest was sudden and inexplicable. At the end of April, 1536, the King, by all outward appearances, was planning at trip with her to Calais on May 4th, just after the May Day celebrations.  She had no idea that at the same time the trip was being organized, the Privy Council had been informed of planned judicial proceedings against her.  Henry was a genius at keeping his true intentions hidden.  He had it down to an art: the arm round the shoulder, the intimate conversations, the warm gestures of friendship and reassurance.  And then, abandonment—or worse. On April 30th, Anne had no idea, as she “took her pleasure…watching animals and dogs fight in Greenwich Park,” that Cromwell and Henry, that very day, were meeting to discuss the “evidence” of Anne’s multiple adulteries.  That evening, while court musician Mark 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 just that, 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.

Anne’s first reaction was disbelief:  “Master Kingston, do you know wherefore I am here?” Just a few months before, she had been pregnant, and Henry had been insisting that the Spanish Emperor acknowledge the legitimacy of their marriage. Now she was in the Tower? Even after she was condemned to die, she seems to have had difficulty absorbing what was happening to her, or why. Her emotional vacillations—from extreme anxiety to prayerful resignation to wild, black humor (speculating that her enemies would remember her as “la Royne Anne Sans Tete”) suggest that what a purported letter from her to Henry describes as the “strangeness” of what was happening to her was at times impossible for her to assimilate. She searched her memory for words or indiscretions that might lay behind the charges—conversations with Smeaton, Norris, and Weston that could be taken (and ultimately were taken) in a compromising light—and reeled back and forth between the conviction that she was doomed and the hope that the King was just testing her.

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

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

Henry had no such plans in mind, however. In fact, even before the execution he had begun the business of attempting to erase her life and death from the recorded legacy of his reign.  On May 18th, the day before, Thomas Cromwell, aware of rumors that people were beginning to question the justice of the verdict and concerned that foreign ambassadors might write home sympathetic accounts of Anne’s last moments, ordered William Kingston, constable of the Tower of London, to “have strangers [foreigners] conveyed out of the Tower.” Kingston carried out the order, and assured Cromwell that only a “reasonable number” of witnesses would be there, to testify that justice had been done.  In fact, by the time of the execution, delayed still further due to the late arrival of the executioner from Calais, there were over a thousand spectators. For unknown reasons and despite Cromwell’s orders, the Tower gates had been left open, and Londoners and “strangers” alike streamed in.

As Anne prepared for her death, by now resigned and distraught over the delays, which she feared would weaken her resolve, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding.  Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador who had chronicled every public event, overheard conversation, and snippet of court rumor since Anne’s relationship with Henry had come to light, describes the king as showing “extravagant joy” at Anne’s arrest.  Convinced (or making a great show for posterity) that Anne was an “accursed whore” who had slept with hundreds of men, Henry had already had his marriage to Anne declared invalid and Elizabeth made a bastard.  Now, all that stood between him and his new wife was the execution itself.  Chapuys described him as “very impatient” and wishing to have the thing done with “already.”  When the guns sounded Anne’s death, Henry “immediately boarded a barge and went to Mistress Seymour.” Later that night he returned to Hampton Court, the magnificent palace that Henry had appropriated from his long-time mentor and (at the time Henry took possession, soon to be ex-) Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, and refurbished for Anne.[1]  Jane Seymour followed Henry at six the next morning. They were betrothed at nine o’clock.

Even before the call sounded Anne’s death, dozens of carpenters, stonemasons, and seamstresses had been hard and hastily at work at Hampton court, instructed to remove all signs of Anne’s queenship: her initials, her emblems, her mottoes, and the numerous carved, entwined H’s and A’s strewn throughout the walls and ceiling of the Great Hall.  Similar activities were going on at other royal residences. Henry was determined to start afresh with his new wife.  Sometimes, the alterations were easy. Anne’s leopard emblem became Jane’s panther by “new making of the heads and tails.” Various inscriptions to  “Queen Anne” could be whited out and replaced with “Queen Jane.” He got rid of her portraits.  He (apparently) destroyed her letters.  But the task of erasing Anne was an enormous one, since even before they were married, Henry had aggressively enthroned her symbolically in every nook and cranny of his official residences.  Not surprisingly, especially since Henry wanted it done with such speed, many H’s and A’s in the walls and ceilings of the Great Hall at Hampton Court were overlooked by Henry’s revisionist workmen.

Researching this book has been a lot like standing in the middle of that Great Hall at Hampton Court, squinting my eyes, trying to find unnoticed or “escaped” bits of Anne, dwarfed but still discernible within the monuments of created myths, legends, and images. In part because of Henry’s purge, very little exists in Anne’s own words or indisputably depicts what she did or said. Although seventeen of his love letters to her escaped the revision, having been stolen earlier and spirited away to the Vatican, only two letters that may be from Anne to Henry remain, and one is almost certainly inauthentic. Beyond these and some inscriptions in prayer books, most of our information about Anne’s personality and behavior is second-hand: Cavendish’s “biography” of Cardinal Wolsey, which credits Anne with Wolsey’s downfall, the gossipy, malicious reports of Eustace Chapuys and other foreign ambassadors to their home rulers, Constable Kingston’s descriptions of her behavior in the Tower, and various “eyewitness” accounts of what she said and did at her trial and her execution.  Since Henry destroyed all the portraits he could lay hands on, it’s even difficult to determine what Anne actually looked like.  Later artistic depictions, all of them copies and only a few believed to be copies of originals done from actual sitting, are wildly inconsistent with each other, from the shape of her face to the color of her hair, and her looks, as described by her contemporaries, range from deformed to “not bad-looking” to “rivaling Venus.”  Many have been contested to not actually be of Anne.

You might expect Anne to be resuscitated today at the various historical sites associated with Henry’s reign, but in fact she’s not very prominent there either. In the gift-shops, thimbles, small chocolates, and tiny soaps “commemorate” Henry’s wives democratically.  Everything is in sets of six, each wife given equal billing among the tiny trinkets, as though they were members of a harem.  The “and his six” view of the wives is everywhere in Britain.  Yet despite the “All Wives Are Equal” spin of Hampton Court and the Tower of London, and despite the absence of Anne’s own voice and image among the relics of the period, she is undoubtedly the most famous of Henry’s wives.  Ask any random person who Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard or Katherine Parr were, and you probably won’t even get an attempt to scan stored mental information. The name “Jane Seymour” will probably register as the apparently ageless actress well known for Lifetime movies and television commercials for cosmetics.  But Anne Boleyn, at the very least, is “the one who had her head chopped off.”[2]

Henry may have tried to erase her, but Anne Boleyn looms large in our cultural imagination. Everyone has some tidbit of Anne-mythology to pull out: “She slept with hundreds of men, didn’t she?” (I heard that one from a classical scholar.)  “She had six fingers—or was it three nipples?” (From a French literature expert.) “She had sex with her own brother” (From anyone who has learned their history at the foot of Philippa Gregory.) She is the focus of numerous biographies, several movies, and a glut of historical fiction—Murder Most Royal. The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. The Lady in the Tower. The Other Boleyn Girl, Mademoiselle Boleyn, A Lady Raised High,The Concubine, Brief Gaudy Hour and many others (by a 2010 count on Amazon, 19 biographies, novelizations or studies published in the preceding three years alone; thanks to Showtimes The Tudors,  you can add at least 15 more since then, without considering the constant reprints.) Anne has also become also a thriving commercial concern (Halloween costumes, sweatshirts, coffee cups, magnets, bumper stickers)  Internet sites are devoted to her, and feminist art “deconstructs” her demise.

Why is Anne Boleyn so fascinating? Maybe we don’t have to go any further than the obvious: The story of her rise and fall is as elementally satisfying—and script-wise, not very different from–a Lifetime movie: a long-suffering, post-menopausal wife, an unfaithful husband and a clandestine affair with a younger, sexier woman, a moment of glory for the mistress, then lust turned to loathing, plotting, and murder as the cycle comes full circle.  As Irene Goodman writes, “Anne’s life was not just an important historical event.  It was also the stuff of juicy tabloid stories…It has sex, adultery, pregnancy, scandal, divorce, royalty, glitterati, religious quarrels, and larger-than-life personalities.  If Anne lived today, she would have been the subject of lurid tabloid headlines:




But Anne hasn’t always been seen as a skanky schemer. For supporters of Catherine of Aragon, she was worse: a cold-hearted murderess. For Catholic propagandists like Nicholas Sander, she was a six-fingered, jaundiced-looking erotomaniac, who slept with butlers, chaplains, and half of the French court. For Elizabethan Lutherans, far from a slut, she was the unsung heroine of the Protestestant Reformation. For the romantics, particularly in painting, she was the hapless victim of a king’s tyranny—a view that gets taken up in the earliest film versions of Anne, Lubitch’s silent Anna Boleyn and Alexander Korda’s Private Life of Henry VIII.  In post-war movies and on television, Anne has been animated by the rebellious spirit of the sixties, (Anne of the Thousand Days), the “mean girl” and “power feminist” celebration of female aggression and competitiveness of the nineties (The Other Boleyn Girl), and the “third wave” feminism of a new generation of Anne-worshippers, inspired by Natalie Dormer’s brainy seductress of The Tudors, to see in Anne a woman too smart, sexy, and strong for her own time, unfairly vilified for her defiance of sixteenth-century norms of wifely obedience and silence. Henry may have tried to write his second wife out of history, but “Anne Boleyn” is a formidable cultural creation—or rather, a succession of cultural creations, imagined and re-imagined over the centuries.

One goal of this book is to follow the cultural career of these mutating Annes, from the poisonous putain created by Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys—a highly biased portrayal that became “history” for many later writers—to the radically revisioned Anne of the internet generation. I’m not such a postmodern, however, that I’m content to just write a history of competing narratives.  I’m fascinated by their twists and turns, but even more fascinated by the real Anne, who has not been quite as disappeared as Henry wanted.  Like Marilyn Monroe in our own time, she is an enigma that it’s hard to keep one’s hands off of; just as men dreamed of possessing her in the flesh, writers can’t resist the desire to solve the mysteries of how she came to be, to reign, to perish.  I’m no exception.  I have my own theories, and I won’t hide them.   There are so many “big” questions that remain unanswered, this book would be very unsatisfying if I did not attempt to address them.

Perhaps the biggest question concerns Henry more than Anne herself. How could he do it?  The execution of a queen was unprecedented, extreme and shocking, even to Anne’s enemies. Henry had invested six years of time, energy, intellect, money, and blood in making the marriage happen. They were married less than three years. There is no evidence of an unbridgeable estrangement between them. His earlier love letters to her, admittedly written in the bloom of fresh passion, portray a solicitous, tender suitor whom it is impossible to imagine coldly ordering a wife’s death. We have plenty of textbook explanations for the failure of the relationship–Anne’s inability to provide a male heir, her lack of popularity among the people, her bouts of jealousy, the winds of court politics blowing against her, Jane Seymour, waiting in the wings, fresh and fertile—as well as some less believable theories: the miscarriage of a deformed fetus, which convinced Henry that Anne was indeed a witch. But whichever explanations you believe, including the charges of adultery and treason, it still takes a leap of incomprehension to find any of them sufficient to explain Anne’s execution.  We are still left asking ourselves: How did this happen? How could he do it?

Another unsolved mystery is the relationship itself, which began with such powerful attraction, at least on Henry’s part, and created such havoc in the realm. It is often assumed that Anne, in encouraging Henry’s pursuit, was motivated solely by personal (or perhaps familial) ambition, while Henry was bewitched by her sexual allure. This scenario is a sociobiologist’s dream relationship—woman falls for power and protection, man for the promise of fertility–but ignores how long and at what expense the two hung in there in order to mesh their genes. We know that Henry was intent on finding a new wife to secure the male heir that Catharine, through their 17-year marriage, had failed to produce. But why Anne Boleyn?  She wasn’t the most beautiful woman at court.  She wasn’t royalty, and thus able to serve in solidifying foreign relations.  She wasn’t a popular choice (to put it mildly) among Henry’s advisors.  Yet he pursued her for six years, sending old friends to the scaffold and splitting his kingdom down the middle to achieve legitimacy for the marriage. Surely he could have found a less divisive baby-maker among the royalty of Europe?

One enduring answer to the mystery of Henry’s pursuit of Anne portrays her as a medieval Circe, with Henry as her hapless, hormone-driven man-toy.  This image, besides asking us to believe something outlandish about Henry, is too familiar a female stereotype to be taken seriously. Even the slight evidence that we have tells us that Anne’s appeal was more complicated than that of a medieval codpiece-teaser.  We know, from recorded remarks, that she had a dark, sardonic sense of humor that stayed with her right to the end.  We know that she wasn’t the great beauty, in her day, that Merle Oberon, Genevieve Bujold, Natalie Dormer and Natalie Portman are in ours, and that her fertility signals were weak: her “duckies” were quite small, and her complexion was sallow. We know that there was something piquantly “French” about her.  Just what that means—today as well as then—is somewhat elusive, but in Anne’s case, seems to have had a lot to do with her sense of fashion, her excellent dancing skills, and her “gracefulness,” which according to courtier and poet Lancelot de Carles, made her seem less like “an Englishwoman” than “a Frenchwoman born.”

Anne the stylish consort is a familiar image.  What is less generally familiar, outside of some limited scholarly circles, is Anne the free-thinking, reformist intellectual. Both courts at which she spent her teen-age years were dominated by some of the most independent, influential women in Europe, first (for two years) the sophisticated and politically powerful Archduchess Margaret, regent of the Netherlands, and then, during her seven years in France, Marguerite of Navarre, King Francis’s sister.  Marguerite held court to the most famous reformist thinkers of the day, and was a kind of shadow-queen at Francis’s court; Queen Claude had the babies, but Marguerite, who is sometimes called “the mother of the Renaissance,” ran the intellectual and artistic side of things.  Anne spent seven formative years at Francis’s court, and was clearly influenced by Marguerite’s evangelicalism–which in those days meant a deep belief in the importance of a “personal” (rather than church-mediated) relationship to God, with daily prayer and bible-study as its centerpiece.[3]

It’s also possible that Marguerite taught Anne, by example, that “woman’s place” extended beyond her husband’s bed, and that this, ironically, was part of her appeal for Henry. For traditionalists at court, the mere fact of Anne having any say in Henry’s political affairs would have been outrageously presumptuous, particularly since Anne was not of royal blood.  Henry, however, has been educated alongside his two sisters and was extremely close to his mother; there’s no evidence that he saw Anne’s “interference”, so long as it supported his own aims, as anything other than proof of her queenly potential. In fact, in the six-year-long battle for the divorce, they seem much more like co-conspirators than manipulating female and hapless swain.  Henry, whose intellect was in fact more restless than his hormones (compared, say, to the rapacious Francis), and who was already chafing at the bit of any authority other than his own, may have imagined Anne as someone with whom he could shape a kingdom together.

These are pieces of Anne’s life that are like those entwined “H”s and “A”s that Henry’s revisionist architects didn’t see.  But while Henry’s workmen were blinded by haste, we have had centuries to find the missing pieces.  Sometimes, our failure to see has been the result of political animosity, misogyny and/or religious vendetta.  Others have wanted to tell a good story—or make a good movie–and found the facts got in the way.  Still others have been too trusting of the conclusions of others. And others didn’t know where or how to look, when the trail wandered outside the boundaries of their discipline, time-period, or “areas of specialization.”  The Great Hall at Hampton Court is thus for me not just a reminder of Henry’s efforts to erase Anne, but both evidence and metaphor for how later generations have perpetuated that erasure.

This book is not, however, a “corrective” biography of Anne which traces her life from birth to death, chronicling all the central events.  For that, we already have Eric Ives’ magnum opus, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, as well as several other excellent biographies.  Anyone who wants to find a full narrative of Boleyn’s life should consult those sources.  Nor do I enter into specialized scholarly debates, found only in academic journals.  When I chime in on a controversy, or attempt to stir one up—which is often–it will be one that has “entered” a more public discourse or will be of interest to a more general reader (as well, I hope, to scholars.)  What you will find here, in the first part of the book, is some cultural detective work into what I see as the “soft spots”—the missing pieces, the too-readily accepted images, the biases, the absence of some key cultural context—in the existing literature, along with some theories of my own, based on the five years of research I’ve conducted for this book.  Although not meant to be straight “history,” I have organized it chronologically, and attempted to provide enough historical detail to create a continuous, coherent narrative. That section, called “Queen Interrupted”, concludes with Boleyn’s death and my speculation as to how Henry could have done it.

The second part, “The Creation of  ‘Anne Boleyn’” is just what the quotes around Anne’s name would suggest: a cultural history, not of her life, but of how she has been imagined and represented over the centuries since her death, from the earliest attackers and defenders, to the most recent novels, biographies, plays, film, television—and even the internet.  Readers whose image of Anne has been shaped by the recent media depictions and novels may be surprised at the variety of “Annes” who have strutted through history; I know I was.  My annoyance with popular stereotypes was one reason why I started this book; I expected to it to be a critical expose of how thoroughly maligned and mishandled she has been throughout the centuries.  This turned out to be far from true.  Anne has been less the perpetual victim of the same old sexist stereotyping than she has been a shape-shifting trickster whose very incompleteness in the historical record has stirred the imaginations of different agendas, different generations, different cultural moments, to lay claim to their “own” Boleyn.   In cutting her life so short, and then ruthlessly disposing of the body of evidence of her “real” existence, Henry made it possible for her to live a hundred different lives, forever.

[1] After Anne’s beheading, it was renovated again for Henry’s next wife Jane Seymour, and then significantly expanded for her expected child, Edward VI, who was born at the Palace.  Jane herself died two weeks later of post-partum complications, and Henry—perhaps out of the grief he felt for the one woman he considered his “true wife”—generally avoided the place until his fifth marriage, to the teenage Catherine Howard.

[2] Actually, Catherine Howard was also beheaded for adultery. As with Anne (who was in fact Catherine’s cousin), this marriage began with passionate infatuation on Henry’s part and ended with his former beloved on the scaffold.  Barely a year after the marriage, Catherine (who likely did have at least one adulterous relationship) was placed under house arrest at Hampton Court, and accused of leading “an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous, and vicious life, like a common harlot, with diverse persons.”  Catherine tried, unsuccessfully, to see Henry in person and talk him out of it. (Henry’s policy, perhaps because he feared he would be vulnerable to in-person pleas, was always to make sure that those he wanted dispensed with remained “out of mind” by keeping them “out of sight..”)  She was executed on Tower Green in 1542.

[3] She later became a passionate admirer and defender of William Tyndale’s English language bible, at the time banned in England but smuggled in for Anne, who had her ladies-in-waiting read it daily.


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