Tag Archives: Philippa Gregory

Is Elizabeth Woodville Philippa Gregory’s Apology to Anne Boleyn?

ElizabethIn “Having it All in the Fifteenth Century” I looked at the first episode of BBC/Starz’ “The White Queen” as a 21st century fantasy played out through the ever-flexible genre of the historical drama.  In the world of Elizabeth Woodville the would-be rapists turn out to be tender royal husbands, mom and dad tease each other affectionately across the dinner table, and family ambitions never descend into ruthless scheming.  A little white magic, yes—but no evil motives.  Family life is as cozily domestic as in a Jane Austen novel, as Jacquetta (Janet McTeer) delightedly plans which daughter should marry which royal prospect and Baron Rivers (Robert Pugh) looks on with tolerant amusement.  Its every girl’s dream family—supportive mom, loving dad, protective brothers.

It could even get kind of boring, were it not for the Woodville’s enemies:  Lord Warwick (James Frain), who I’m sure would be in a better mood after a decent shave (preferably by Sweeney Todd), and Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale, an attractive actress elsewhere, here she reminds me Margaret Hamilton as the wicked witch of the west in Wizard of Oz.) Even at this early stage, Beaufort is beginning to look as though she needs to be locked up in the attic, providing no little support to Kyra Kramer’s theory that Henry VIII’s personality problems were genetic.

This world of fairytale heroines and plotting relatives is the stuff of archetypal pleasure, as delicious as a bedtime story and a nice escape from the complexity of real life, where the villains are often clean-shaven and the rapists are rarely marriage material.  It’s also, as I suggested in “Having It All in the Fifteenth Century,” very much a female fantasy—unlike “The Tudors,” for example, a much better written show, but one whose creator and head-writer Michael Hirst had to be poked and prodded by Natalie Dormer to turn Anne Boleyn into someone with whom women could identify.

Elizabeth and EdwardWatching episode two, I was especially struck by how much Edward IV-as-dream-husband (at least at this point in the series) seemed to be constructed as the very opposite of Henry VIII in “The Tudors,” whose tenderness toward Anne declines steeply once he’s caught her, and plunges disastrously when the desired male heir does not appear.  Of course, “The Tudors” is not alone in this—for this is the story countless historians, novelists, and film-makers have told about Henry and Anne’s post-marriage relationship, basing their narratives largely on the not-exactly neutral reports of Eustace Chapuys.  In fact, we don’t know much more about Anne and Henry’s intimate life together than we do about Elizabeth Woodville’s and Edward’s—except that Elizabeth and Edward produced many children and had a long life together, and Anne and Henry…. well, we all know how that ended.  In between the beginnings and endings of both relationships, the cultural imagination, wending its way through different eras and different agendas, has filled in the dots according to fantasy and fable.

Edward and babyThe story of Queen Elizabeth’s birth, for example, although challenged by the most responsible historians, almost always has the Henry bitterly disappointed and beginning to simmer with anger at the birth of a girl.  Edward’s reaction, in “The White Queen” is virtually the mirror image.  Presented with his firstborn girl, the briefest flicker of disappointment crosses his face.  But he is quick to reassure Elizabeth, drenched with sweat and anxiously promising him that the next will be a boy, “You’re so lovely; I cannot do without you,” as he lovingly nuzzles the baby. The next scene, meant to be three years later, shows Elizabeth happily herding three little daughters through court and field.  And Edward’s tender love for his wife (you can tell from the sincerity of his kisses) has clearly not abated, despite the fact that her womb had yet to prove itself heir-friendly.

Jacquetta and ElizElizabeth’s life (in “The White Queen”) would be envied by Anne Boleyn (in “The Tudors”) in other ways, too.  In “The Tudors” Anne is coldly manipulated and used as a sexual lure for her father’s ambitions.  In “The White Queen” it is Jacquetta who is the ambitious one, but protectively, like a mother hen, with her daughter’s future in mind and never at the expense of Elizabeth’s honor or agency.  Baron Rivers, on his part, is just a big cuddle-bunny: “You’ll always be my Elizabeth,” he tells his daughter more than once, before he is cruelly eliminated by Warwick. Papa Boleyn, in contrast, remains cowardly and coldly detached as his own children are put to death.

scheming womenIt’s fascinating to consider the fact that the same writer who gave us the nastiest Anne Boleyn since Nicholas Sander went on to create Elizabeth Woodville—and gave her a family and husband befitting her goodness.  You might think her the direct descendant (imagination-wise) of Gregory’s virtuous Mary Boleyn—except Mary had no ambitions, which created a problem for Gregory’s famous claims to being a feminist writer.   “The Other Boleyn Girl” punishes female ambition and rewards more modest aspirations to a non-royal home and hearth.  So far, that isn’t the case in “The White Queen.”  Indeed, at times, Gregory seems to use her characters to explicitly oppose that formula—by having the arch-villain Warwick, for example, represent it.  In one arresting scene, he startles Elizabeth: “Burn her!” he orders a servant carrying Margaret of Anjou’s portrait; “I have no truck with a queen who seeks to rule her husband. There’s no need for scheming women here.”  (Elizabeth, for a second, thinks the “Burn her!” is meant to refer to her; it’s a great touch, and one of the few truly fresh moments in the episode.)

Of course, there will be scheming women.  What fairy-tale can do without them?  But for the time being, at least, Elizabeth, adoring husband by her side, rules.   Ah, Anne, would that you had been so lucky.


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Having It All in the Fifteenth Century

  attachment-3Ever since Thelma and Louise clasped hands and took fatal flight into the Grand Canyon, there’s been no shortage in pop culture of fierce women willing to risk it all for their integrity, freedom, or justice.  Has anyone noticed, however, how unlucky they are in love?  Recently, we even seemed to have generated a new genre of crime-fighting heroine—we might think of them as the daughters of Jane Tennison, Helen Mirren’s professionally steely but personally unstable chief detective in “Prime Suspect”—who quite explicitly pay for their power with disastrous relationships, mental break-downs, and infinite sadness.  The heroines of “The Killing,” “Homeland,” “Top of the Lake”—what a depressed, driven crew!  The only female detective with a cozy home-life is steel magnolia Brenda Leigh of “The Closer,” (Keira Sedgwick), who has now gone off with her beyond-belief supportive FBI hubby and whose successor is “Major Crimes”’ coolly contained Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell.) That neck doesn’t move—her stiffness is part of her charm–let alone bend to receive anyone’s kisses.

 The twenty-first century, it seems, is power-friendly to women but cruel to their love lives.  That’s an old trade-off, of course; we’ve seen it in countless female protagonists from Joan Crawford on (usually minus the “friendly” part): the price of standing up to men or a masculinistic system is an empty bed.  The difference now is that these women are no longer misogynist caricatures (for that we’ve got reality television.)  Women like them, root for them and feel an uneasy but undeniable sisterhood with them.

 For relief from this grim state of affairs, which makes for powerful television but doesn’t exactly attachment-6feed female sexual fantasies, we must turn, it seems, to yesteryear. Or rather, yestercentury—and a time, apparently, when the would-be rapists were gorgeous and a woman could turn a knife on one without, like Louise (of “Thelma and…”), having to pay with her life.  Wait; did I say not paying with your life?  It’s better than that: tell him off, turn the knife on your own throat, and he’ll find you irresistible and make you queen.

 This is “power-feminism” Philippa Gregory style, and despite a pretty unanimous critical thumbs-down, women are loving the BBC/Starz production of “The White Queen.”  From the first episode (the only one I’ve seen, as I live in the US), it’s not hard to see why.  By any of today’s standards, Lancastrian beauty Elizabeth Woodville/Grey (Rebecca Ferguson), having met with victorious Yorkist King Edward (dreamy Max Irons, Jeremy’s son) to ask him to return her (dead) husband’s lands to her, breaks all the rules: engages in seductive behavior that can only (political correctness be damned) be described as “leading him on,” humiliates him by unceremoniously throwing him off when she’s had enough, challenges his manhood by daring him to “doubt her courage” and declaring herself “match for any man,” and—most envy-inspiring of all—her hair maintains its perfect crimp throughout.  And, oh yes, then she gets made queen.

 “But it happened!” Phillipa Gregory, who prides herself on her historical rigor, might say.  Well, yes, sort of…perhaps.  That Edward wanted to make Elizabeth his mistress and Elizabeth declined, inflaming the king’s desire for her, is well known, if the exact details are shrouded in mystery. Thomas More and Shakespeare both recount the tale, although minus the knife; their Elizabeth refuses Edward (as Shakespeare put it) with a “good manner” and “words so well set.”  The knife detail comes from the Italian traveler Mancini, writing in 1483, but in his version it is Edward who brandishes the knife, and holds it to Elizabeth’s throat.  The knife only makes it into Elizabeth’s hands in Antonio Cornazzano’s “Of Admirable Women”; in that version she does not hold it to her own throat, threatening to slice herself, but uses it to hold off Edward. 

attachment-8Clearly, writers have been playing with this story for centuries, and I’m not here to complain about historical accuracy, but to explore the current re-creation.  “Don’t doubt my courage,” Elizabeth declares, already drawing a bit of blood from her translucent neck, “I’m match for any man.”  Female strength and courage that is as potent as any man’s is a theme that is trumpeted in ads for the series (“Men Go to Battle; Women Wage War”), that is underscored by Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta (descended from a river goddess as she reminds us several times, even her husband says he is sometimes scared of her) and by the audacity of both Jacquetta and Elizabeth when they meet Edward’s proud and disapproving mother Cecily.  Jacquetta (Janet McTeer) soundly puts her in her place by reminding Cecily of some nasty gossip about her affair with an archer, but little Elizabeth is no slouch either, telling the King’s mother (!!) to curtsy to her.

 Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Elizabeth, was drawn to the role because Woodville “was a woman attachment-7who had power.  She was devoted, strong [and] intelligent”; “She’s a medieval rebel.” Arguably, the same might be said about Anne Boleyn, who, as played by Natalie Dormer in “The Tudors,” also won a large female following.  But notice how differently Boleyn’s refusal of Henry VIII is imagined (by Michael Hirst, whom Natalie Dormer criticized for his male “mind-set” and who later regretted his hyper-sexualizatization of Anne) from Elizabeth Woodville’s, as imagined by two women: Gregory and screenwriter Emma Frost.  Boleyn is depicted as refusing Henry in order to lure him into marriage (a ploy concocted, in the series, by her power-hungry family—and Hirst, of course, isn’t the first to follow this scenario); Elizabeth refuses out of pride in her own integrity.  Anne (in season one, at any rate) is a sexy tool; Elizabeth is “her own woman.” Anne is a temptress (“Seduce me!” she tells Henry, albeit in a dream), while Elizabeth, who is no less flirtatious with Edward, her eyes smoldering and her kisses steamy hot before she throws Edward off her, escapes any condemnation for slutty behavior.   She’s a post-feminist girl; she has every right to get carried away by passion and then say “no.”

 attachment-12My point is not that this is a better show than “The Tudors.” In fact, although I will no doubt become addicted to “The White Queen” (I also haven’t missed an episode of “Dance Moms”), I wouldn’t rate it very highly among historical dramas.  Nor have I ever been a big fan of “power feminism”; Philippa Gregory and I have very different ideas about what constitutes “power.”  I would, however, like to see Carrie Mathison of “Homeland” (Claire Danes) be given some time under a tree with a gorgeous, untormented, exuberant lover like Max Irons’ Edward.  Until that happens, I guess women will have to pay for our fantasies with a ticket back in time, where we can enjoy preposterously bold, “talking back” historical heroines “having it all” with their equally preposterous, strong-woman-loving hunks.  


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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

Susan’s Interview with Margaret George, author of The Memoirs of Cleopatra and The Autobiography of Henry VIII

We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts.  I take that as a given.  But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far?  If so, how would you describe the boundaries of what is acceptable and not? Or don’t you think there can be a hard and fast rule?  And if not, do you think “anything goes”?  What historical standards do you hold yourself to?  

Since my goal is to resurrect the person (as much as humanly possible, so they would be pleased and say, “hey, that’s just the way it was!”) that means I am a stickler for accuracy and don’t have much truck with the idea that ‘history is what you make it’—‘well, who can say what really happened’ etc.  I ran into a lot of that with Cleopatra, where people said that as long as there was one iota of ‘doubt’ (usually meaning their own doubt, not experts’ doubts) then the gate was wide open to claiming just about anything.  (“Well, how do we know she was a Ptolemy?”)  This can reach ridiculous lengths and come to ridiculous conclusions.  Then they hide behind, “Well, it’s fiction!”

I’ve always felt those people give a bad name to the rest of us.  It’s too bad that ‘historical fiction’ as a blanket term isn’t very defined or precise. It covers such a spectrum, all the way from the absolute accuracy crowd (which tends to be kind of boring) to the most outlandish things.  Some perpetrators shall go unnamed!
However, people often say, why not write a nonfiction if you are that picky? without realizing they are different art forms.  For one thing, nonfiction allows for (even demands) multiple interpretations, whereas a drama has to select one.  Also, a drama can create dialogue and set scenes and fill in missing pieces.  In short, it’s more fun and also can reveal truth in its own way.  Nonfiction does not have a monopoly on truth.
Can you tell us something about your inspiration for The Autobiography of Henry VIII?

When I was visiting Hampton Court in 1970 and heard the story of Catherine Howard and her shrieking ghost in the Haunted Gallery, I wondered why Anne Boleyn is so famous and Catherine Howard an unknown, when their stories were so similar.  They were cousins and even looked alike, and met the same end.  It struck me that maybe Henry was like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo”, where he was responsible for the death of his love, and then tried to re-create her in someone else and have it turn out differently, only it didn’t.  So from that idea I knew I was pursuing a ‘psycho-biography’ of Henry VIII.

Incidentally, the Catherine Howard section of “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” is still my favorite and the one I enjoyed writing the most.  No one else seems to choose it, though, when asked for their favorite part.
In an interview with me, Michael Hirst complained that while people were constantly criticizing “The Tudors” for its departures from historical record, “Wolf Hall” got nothing but praise for its almost entirely imaginative universe.  Care to comment on that?

 Well, I haven’t read “Wolf Hall” yet, but I did see “The Tudors.”  I doubt that Hilary Mantel twisted and trampled on history as wantonly as Michael Hirst did, who either didn’t know the facts or just didn’t care.  He made religious and strait-laced (in real life) women into promiscuous babes (like Edward Seymour’s wife), invented more promiscuous babes whenever it suited him, and let’s just say, you would learn as much about Tudor history from “The Tudors” as you would about prehistoric man from “The Flintstones.” (Not that they aren’t entertaining—but that isn’t the question here.)  From what I understand, “Wolf Hall” is more the psychological portrait of Thomas Cromwell and what it was like to serve Henry VIII.  In that sense it is an ‘imaginative universe.’  But an honest one.

Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.” While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history.  She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer.  Care to comment?  

Philippa Gregory is trained as a professional historian but I’ve noticed that people who have credentials as ‘real’ historians seem to enjoy the freedom of fiction after the strictures of nonfiction, for example, Carrolly Erickson and Alison Weir.  Maybe they feel it’s OK to let loose?  And have some fun? So perhaps their definition of fiction has more latitude than fuddy-duddies like me allow themselves.

I noticed that in the earliest novels, authors often had a section devoted to outlining for readers what was created and what is factual in their works.  We tend not to do that any more.  Why not?  And what do you think of such a practice?

I think it’s very important and I have that in all my books.  Originally I suggested it for “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” and was told that fiction didn’t have bibliographies or afterwords, but by the time the paperback came out the publisher changed its mind.  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.

I love the titles of your work because in themselves they “announce” that they are works of fiction.  That is, we know that Henry VIII didn’t write an autobiography and Cleopatra didn’t leave any memoirs.  It seems to me that this firmly establishes that what you are doing is from a  fictional point of view.  Is this something that you deliberately want to make clear to readers?  In our “post-Oliver Stone, post-O.J. Trial” era, in which (it seems to me), viewers/readers no longer have much ability to distinguish between different kinds of narratives, do you think the fact/fiction issue has become more problematic?  

Well…I did once overhear someone saying, “This is just a lie!  Henry VIII never wrote an autobiography!”  But, aside from such readers, I think most people can figure it out.  My editor thought I should always have the name of the character in the title so it would be absolutely clear who the book was about.  That got harder and harder—after using up ‘memoirs’ and ‘autobiography’ I had to resort to just the names.  (Although I would have loved ‘The confessions of….’ but the publisher wouldn’t let me.)

And I absolutely agree—people don’t seem to distinguish between fiction and reality anymore.  For one thing, the ‘reality’ TV shows aren’t real at all, but staged, yet people believe them.  And the Oliver Stone stuff…!  Apparently most people get most of their history from TV and movies now and have no idea what happened in real life.  For example, everyone is certain (if they’ve heard of her at all) that Livia poisoned lots of people in ancient Rome, because of “I, Claudius.”  But that was Robert Graves’ fiction and historians say that never happened.  But the script and the performance were so compelling they were utterly convincing.

Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.”  This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.”  Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond reading PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.”  Care to comment?

I think they are all a bunch of ignoramuses (in spite of Natalie’s Harvard degree).  Lazy.  Un-intellectually curious.  (Now how’s that for a value judgment?)  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 (Eric Bana as Henry??) 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 isn’t a vixen—not convincing as someone who could topple a throne.  Maybe if they’d studied their history a little they could have done a better job.


Filed under Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

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

Intellectual property of Susan Bordo.  Do not quote or cite without attribution to The Creation of Anne Boleyn FB page (www.facebook.com/creationofanneboleyn)

SB = Susan Bordo

MH= Michael Hirst


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


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


The rivalry between Mary and Anne, for example?


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


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


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


Have they never been on a camping trip?


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Writer of The Tudors, Michael Hirst


Filed under Anne and Gender, Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

The Other Boleyn Girl Fact-Checker

Fiction is fiction, of course, even historical fiction, and can’t be held to the same standards as biography or history. But Phiippa Gregory has said that all her narrative “choices can be defended as a historical probability.” In fact, many of the details, and indeed the whole premise of the book, cannot be defended as anything other than pure imagination:

1. Concocted fictions:

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

Mary Boleyn has two children by Henry, one of whom is a son (Elizabeth Blount, Henry’s former mistress, had Henry’s son).

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.

2. No Evidence or Contrary Evidence:

Intense rivalry between Anne and Mary (no evidence).

Anne had sex with Henry Percy (sex–no evidence. Precontracted, perhaps—though Percy denies it.)

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

Mary was a virgin before her first marriage. (Many reports of her 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”)

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

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

Anne was exiled to France after marrying Henry Percy (Anne was sent to Austria, and then France, when she was 12, to be educated and “finished”)

Anne orders Henry never to talk to Mary again if he wants to have Anne.

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 the evidence suggests that he was in love with Anne for at least a year after the marriage, perhaps longer.

Henry VIII rapes Anne Boleyn.

Mary intercedes on Anne’s behalf and tries to get her pardoned.

Mary Boleyn walks into court and takes Elizabeth at the end.


Filed under The Other Boleyn Girl Fact-Checker