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The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queenby Susan Bordo
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 a trip with her to Calais on May 4, 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, on charges of adultery and treason. Her husband 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 affection and reassurance. And then, without warning, abandonment — or worse. It had happened with his longtime counselor and second Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, who saw him ride off one morning with promises of a friendly conversation that never happened. More famously, it had happened with Thomas More, whose intellect Henry had once valued above any other mans and whose conscience he had pledged to honor, then punished with death. This time, however, Henrys turnabout was not only fatal but also unprecedented. For the first time in English history, a queen was about to be executed. And, if Henry had gotten his way, written out of his memory — and history.
Even before the execution, Henry had begun the business of attempting to erase Anne Boleyns life and death from the recorded legacy of his reign. On May 18, the day before Annes execution, 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 Annes last moments, ordered William Kingston, constable of the Tower of London, to "have strangerys conveyed yowt of the Towre." 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 more than a thousand spectators. For unknown reasons and despite Cromwells orders, the Tower gates had been left open, and Londoners and "strangerys" alike streamed in.
As Anne prepared for her death, distraught over the delays, which she feared would weaken her resolve to bravely face the executioner, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting his future bride Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding. He was eager to remarry as quickly as possible. But first he had to eradicate Anne. Even before the call sounded her death, dozens of carpenters, stonemasons, and seamstresses had been hard and hastily at work at Hampton Court, instructed to remove all signs of Annes queenship: her initials, her emblems, her mottoes, and the numerous carved, entwined Hs and As 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. Annes leopard emblem became Janes panther with clever adjustments to the head and tail. Various inscriptions to "Queen Anne" could be painted over 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 Hs and As were overlooked by Henrys revisionist workmen. Today, even the guides who provide information to visitors at Hampton Court are not sure how many there are.
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 Henrys purge, very little exists in Annes 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 Annes personality and behavior is secondhand: George Cavendishs "biography" of Cardinal Wolsey, which credits Anne with Wolseys downfall; the gossipy, malicious reports of Eustace Chapuys and other foreign ambassadors to their home rulers, Constable Kingstons descriptions of her behavior in the Tower, and various "eyewitness" accounts of what she said and did at her trial and execution. Since Henry destroyed all the portraits he could lay his hands on, its 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 sittings, are wildly inconsistent with one another, 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." Whether or not these portraits are actually of Anne is a source of constant debate among historians and art historians.
You might expect Anne to be resuscitated today at the various historical sites associated with Henrys reign, but, in fact, shes not very prominent there either. In the gift shops, thimbles, small chocolates, and tiny soaps "commemorate" Henrys 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 Annes own voice and image among the relics of the period, she is undoubtedly the most famous of Henrys wives. Ask any random person who Katherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, or Katherine Parr were, and you probably wont 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 ads for heart-shaped jewelry. But Anne Boleyn, at the very least, is remembered as "the one who had her head chopped off ."
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, didnt 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 has been 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 — which, thanks to Showtimes The Tudors, have multiplied over the last several years. (By a 2012 count on Amazon, more than fi ft y biographies, novelizations, or studies were published in the preceding fi ve years alone; and thats without considering electronic editions, reprints of Henrys love letters, or Tudor books within which Anne is a central, though not main, focus.) Anne has also become a thriving commercial concern (Halloween costumes, sweatshirts, coffee cups, magnets, bumper stickers). Internet sites are devoted to her, and feminist art deconstructs her demise.
My own obsession with Anne began early in 2007, with an e-mail from England sent by a young journalist looking for a feminist to coauthor a book with him. The book was to be about famous women and their pursuit of pleasure, in defiance of the rules and restrictions of their cultures. In the original plan, Anne Boleyn was to be one of many, from Cleopatra to Queen Latifah. Uncommitted but curious, I started casually reading about Anne. And found I couldnt stop. It was a total gorge. I consumed Boleyn voraciously, sometimes several books a week, one after another, as if I were chain-smoking. I rented movies and documentaries, read all the popular histories, delved into all the scholarly debates, and discovered the thriving industry in Tudor fiction. I gobbled them like candy. My lust for Boleyniana was right up there with Cherry Ames, Student Nurse (fourth grade), James Bond (college), Sylvia Plath bios (graduate school), and O. J. Simpson and JonBenét Ramsey (pop culture critic). And in the end, she became the only woman on our list whom I wanted to write about, and researching her life and how it has been represented has consumed me for the past six years.
Why is Anne Boleyn so fascinating? Maybe we dont have to go any further than the obvious: The story of her rise and fall is as elementally satisfying — and scriptwise, not very diff erent from — a Lifetime movie: a long suffering, postmenopausal 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, "Annes 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: RANDY KING DUMPS HAG FOR TROPHY WIFE."
But Anne hasnt always been seen as a skanky schemer. For supporters of Katherine of Aragon, she was worse: a coldhearted murderess. For Catholic propagandists such as Nicholas Sander, she was a sixfingered, jaundiced-looking erotomaniac who slept with butlers, chaplains, and half of the French court. For Elizabethan admirers, she was the unsung heroine of the Protestant Reformation. For the Romantics, particularly in painting, she was the hapless victim of a kings tyranny— a view that gets taken up in the earliest fi lm versions of Anne, Ernst Lubitschs silent Anna Boleyn and Alexander Kordas The Private Life of Henry VIII. In postwar 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 Dormers 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" has been too strong for him, in the many guises she has assumed over the centuries.
One goal of this book is to follow the cultural career of these mutating Annes, from the poisonous putain created by the Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys — a highly biased portrayal that became history for many later writers — to the radically revisioned Anne of the Internet generation. Im not such a postmodernist, however, that Im content to just write a history of competing narratives. Im 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 who is hard to keep ones hands off of; just as men dreamed of possessing her in the flesh, writers cant resist the desire to solve the mysteries of how she came to be, to reign, to perish. Im no exception. I have my own theories, and I wont hide them. There are so many big questions that remain unanswered that 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 extreme and shocking, even to Annes enemies. They may have believed Anne guilty of adultery and treason— and Henry may have too— but even so, it still does not explain Annes execution. Eleanor of Aquitaine had been banished for the same crimes. Why did Anne have to die? The answer, I believe, is psychological as well as political; to find it, we have to venture — with caution, for his was an era that lived largely by roles rather than by introspection — into Henrys psyche. Another unsolved mystery is the relationship itself, which began with such powerful attraction, at least on Henrys part, and created such havoc in the realm. It is often assumed that Anne, in encouraging Henrys pursuit, was motivated solely by personal (or perhaps familial) ambition, while Henry was bewitched by her sexual allure. This scenario is a sociobiologists 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 Katherine, through their seventeen-year marriage, had failed to produce. But why Anne Boleyn? She wasnt the most beautiful woman at court. She wasnt royalty and thus able to serve in solidifying foreign relations. She wasnt a popular choice (to put it mildly) among Henrys advisers. 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 Henrys pursuit of Anne portrays her as a medieval Circe, with Henry as her hapless, hormonedriven man toy. This image, besides asking us to believe something outlandish about Henry, is an all too familiar female stereotype. Even the slight evidence we have tells us that Annes 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 wasnt the great beauty, in her day, that Merle Oberon, Geneviéve Bujold, Natalie Dormer, and Natalie Portman are in ours, and that her fertility signals were weak: Her "dukkys" 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 Annes case, it 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 freethinking, reformist intellectual. Both courts at which she spent her teenage years were dominated by some of the most independent, influential women in Europe. Anne spent two years in the household of the sophisticated and politically powerful Archduchess Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, and then seven years in France, where she came into contact with Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of Francis I. Marguerite was visited by the most famous reformist thinkers of the day and was a kind of shadow queen at Franciss 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 most of her formative years at Franciss court and was clearly influenced by Marguerites evangelicalism — which in those days meant a deep belief in the importance of a "personal" (rather than a churchmediated) relationship to God, with daily prayer and Bible study as its centerpiece. Its also possible that Marguerite taught Anne, by example, that a womans place extended beyond her husbands bed and that this, ironically, was part of her appeal for Henry. For traditionalists at court, Annes having any say in Henrys political affairs would have been outrageously presumptuous, particularly since Anne was not of royal blood. Henry, however, had been educated alongside his two sisters and was extremely close to his mother; theres no evidence that he saw Annes "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 coconspirators than manipulating female and hapless swain. Henry, whose intellect was, in fact, more restless than his hormones (compared to, say, 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.
These are pieces of Annes life that are like those entwined Hs and As that Henrys revisionist architects didnt see. But while Henrys 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, or religious vendetta. Others have wanted to tell a good story and found the facts got in the way. Still others have been too trusting of the conclusions of others. And others didnt 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 Henrys efforts to erase Anne, but also a metaphor for how later generations have perpetuated that erasure.
This book is not, however, a "corrective" biography of Anne that traces her life from birth to death, chronicling all the central events. For that, we already have Eric Ivess 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 Boleyns life should consult those sources. Nor do I enter into specialized scholarly debates, found only in academic journals. 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 six years of research Ive conducted for this book. Although not meant to be straight "history," I have organized it chronologically and have attempted to provide enough historical detail to create a coherent backstory. That section, called Queen, Interrupted, concludes with Boleyns death.
The second part, Recipes for "Anne Boleyn," and the third, An Anne for All Seasons, comprise 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, films, television shows, and websites. 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 it to be a critical exposé of how thoroughly maligned and mishandled she has been throughout the centuries. But the truth is not so simple. 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, and 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.
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