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Our Default Anne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections on the “Final Letter”, from The Creation of Anne Boleyn

A Note on this selection:  The following is taken from a much longer chapter.  Since part of my argument about the letter is based on comparisons with Anne’s speech at her trial, that’s where I’ve chosen to begin the selection.  Please do not quote or cite without my permission. Thanks!! Susan.


           Anne’s emotional vacillations—from terror to prayerful resignation to black humor (speculating, the night before her execution, that her enemies would remember her as “la Royne Anne Sans Tete”) suggest that the strangeness of what was happening to her was at times impossible for her to assimilate. Just a few short months before, she had been pregnant.  Just a few weeks before, Henry had been insisting that the Spanish Emperor acknowledge the legitimacy of their marriage. Now she was in the Tower, condemned to death.  Her fortunes had turned around so swiftly and extremely, it must have been difficult to keep a steady grip on reality.  Yet she managed, at her trial on May 15, after nearly two weeks in the Tower and the certain recognition, after the verdicts of the men accused with her, that she would be found guilty, to summon her renowned pride and dazzling confidence for the grim occasion.

           De Carles, in his retrospective poem, describes her as entering the hall “in fearful beauty,” “not as one who had to defend her cause, but with the bearing of one coming to great honor.” Dressed in black velvet over a scarlet petticoat, her cap “sporting a black-and-white feather”, she “presented herself with the true dignity of a queen, and curtseyed to her judges, looking round upon them all, without any sign of fear…impatience, grief, or cowardice” (Crispin de Milherve, an eyewitness at the trial.)  When it was time for her to speak, after hearing the full charges for the first time—including trivial, non-criminal but “atmospherically” damaging accusations that she had made fun of the King’s poetry and taste in clothing—she made such “wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her” that “had the peers given in their verdict according to the expectations of the assembly, she had been acquitted.”  But of course, the verdict was not dependent on the impression Anne made, or how convincing her defense was.  When she protested, against Smeaton’s confession, that “that one witness was not enough to convict a person of high treason”, she was simply informed “that in her case it was sufficient.” Also “sufficient” were numerous bits of gossip that nowadays would be regarded as worse than hearsay, since they came from obviously prejudiced sources.  George Wyatt, writing about the trial later, says that he heard nothing that could be considered evidence.  Instead, as author Jane Dunn described the case, it was  “a ragbag of gossip, innuendo, and misinterpreted courtliness.”

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

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

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

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


            Most of Anne’s modern biographers believe this letter to be a forgery, in part because it is so daringly accusatory of Henry and in part because the “style” is not like Anne’s.  “It’s ‘elegance’,” writes Ives, “has always inspired suspicion.” (p.58) Well, not always. Henry Ellis and other nineteenth-century commentators believed it was authentic.  And the “syle” argument is an odd one, because we have so few existing letters of Anne’s and they are such business-like affairs, that it’s hard to see how anyone could determine a “style” from them.  If Henry had saved her responses to his love letters, we might have a better idea of what Anne was like as a writer, but they were destroyed.  As it stands, though, we do have the account of her speech at her trial, and it exhibits many of the same qualities as this letter.  In both, Anne stands her ground bravely and articulately, but more strikingly, goes beyond the conventions of the time to venture into deeper “psychological” and political territory: the insight into her lack of humility, the inference that this might have had something to do with her fall from grace, her reference to the “bewilderment” and “strangeness” of finding herself accused of adultery and treason.

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

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

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