The following guest post is from Nell Gavin, award-winning author of Threads: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn and Hang On. It is a part of the guest blog series, “Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers.”
If you’re a fan of Anne Boleyn, you undoubtedly fall into one of two camps: the “1507” camp, or the “1499 to 1501” camp. You know who you are, and whichever camp you belong to you are probably vehement and passionate, and equipped with arguments.
I have seen Internet fistfights degenerate into brawls on Tudor forums, multiple times, over the question of Anne’s birth year. I have received numerous frothy email messages in response to my essay, “Anne Boleyn’s Birth Year: 1501 or 1507?” We’re sort of like football fans wearing different jerseys and shouting insults at the other team. The problem is, neither team can conclusively “win” because there is no way of proving anything. There is no record of Anne Boleyn’s birth, so nobody really knows, and probably nobody ever will.
Why does it matter so much how old Anne was? It’s part of her mystery, certainly, but why do we care? After all, she has been dead for four hundred and seventy seven years. Why have so many people invested so much emotion in declaring her age at the time of her marriage to Henry VIII? She was at least eight years younger than Henry VIII, and possibly as much as twenty-one years younger, if you believe the fringe birthers who cite a birth year of 1512. Granted, there are fewer members of the “1512” camp, but they do exist.
If Anne was born in 1507, she would have been about sixteen years old when Henry VIII set his sights on her in the early 1520s. This makes Henry VIII more of a villain or a creep by today’s standards. Or a ridiculous old fool. Or he was a man who was understandably smitten by her youth. It all depends on your view of thirty-five-year-old men chasing teenagers. But if you add a few years to her, Anne was still not quite an old crone in her early to mid-twenties, even by Tudor standards, particularly since she was thin, and vivacious, and not at all matronly-looking.
Do we want Anne to be young because we favor anything that makes Henry looks like a fool or a creep, and an even more horrible husband to Katherine of Aragon than he might have been, had he dumped her for a more age-appropriate woman? Do we want Anne to be so brilliant and intelligent that she could play Henry like a harp, overthrow the queen, and earn a crown when she was still a girl? Do we want the contrast between Henry’s two women to be so wide that Queen Katherine’s ultimate defeat is sadder and more pitiable, and Anne more instinctively evil and treacherous? Or do we want Anne to be young because it makes her more innocent and victimized, and ultimately more desirable? Is that ageist of us?
The 1501 and 1507 camps are about evenly split. This may be because the information we have access to is about evenly split, leaning sometimes this way and sometimes the other, based on popular media. We tend to accept as “fact” the first information we receive, and then afterward reject everything that contradicts it – psychological studies indicate that this is how humans operate. Apparently the information that reaches us first is the information we trust the most, and we’re less apt to question it. So we may have chosen our camp based on the first movie we saw, or the first book we happened to read about Anne Boleyn. We may have been sorted just that randomly. That’s one theory
Boleyn Birthers – a group that includes most of Anne Boleyn’s fan base – pick sides in the debate, and we support our argument with logic or passion. We can even take it to a really silly level by changing the birth year on Wikipedia’s Anne Boleyn page, and then watching someone else change it back within hours. I am not proud to admit that I did this myself for quite some time, a few years back, just to see how long my opponent would last, before I finally got bored and walked away, defeated. At this writing, the last person to edit the Wikipedia birth year agrees with me. But that will change: I cross out your graffiti, “Cowboys” and write in my graffiti, “Bears.” Then, vice versa. Infinity.
Still, we don’t change the truth, whatever it may be, no matter how certain we are that we’re right.
There are so many variations to the Anne Boleyn story that we may simply choose our camps based on which of those many stories we prefer. It could be that we prefer our tragic romantic heroines to be young. Or we prefer them to be more world-wise and savvy. Or we prefer them to be innocent and victimized. Or we love a good evil, conniving shrew. Anne offers us everything we love in a good story. We can read all the information we have any way we like.
Ultimately, we can shape and control Anne Boleyn and her story, just a little, by choosing the year of her birth. And so we do, and probably will throughout all time, to suit ourselves.
I’m certain that, somewhere in the ether, Anne is laughing, delighted.