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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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