Sunday, January 25, 2015

Seductress or Scholar?

Historian Leandra de Lisle discusses the real Anne Boleyn:
Who was the real Anne Boleyn? In the film Anne of a Thousand Days, she is the brave girl who loves a king. In the novel The Other Boleyn Girl she is the fallen woman, her brother’s lover. Now we are to meet the Anne Boleyn of the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Vindictive, calculating and political, this Anne sets out to marry Henry VIII and to destroy his heroic servant, Thomas Cromwell. 

The historical Anne was born the daughter of the prominent courtier, Sir Thomas Boleyn. But we don’t know exactly when, and much else about her is lost in myth. After Anne’s execution for treason, Henry VIII’s subjects didn’t keep pictures of the fallen queen, and the only contemporary image of her that survives is on a coin so damaged you cannot see the middle of her face.

The paintings of Anne we know – the most famous being that of her wearing a necklace adorned with a “B” – were painted after both Anne and Henry were dead. The woman in that particular picture may not even be Anne. In her lifetime she used “A”, for Anne, as a cipher – not “B” for Boleyn. It could equally be a picture of a Belinda or a Beryl.

The contemporary descriptions of what Anne looked like are, however, vivid. She was not beautiful. Her skin was sallow, as was that of her daughter Elizabeth, who made her face white with make-up. Anne’s nose was also rather large, but she was chic, with black eyes she used to great effect. It was said that they could “read the secrets of a man’s heart”. Educated in the courts of Burgundy and France, Anne was an expert in the art of courtly flirtation. But it is wrong to suggest that she set out to capture the king. When he fell in love with her in 1526, Henry had ended an affair with Anne’s sister Mary, who had been married off to a gentleman.

It was a pattern the king had followed with mistresses before. Anne, who had already attracted the attentions of many high-born suitors, was disinterested. She resisted Henry’s attentions in the hope that he would move on, but her behaviour appealed to his love of chivalric romances and their unobtainable heroines.

In any case, at this stage in his life, Henry needed a wife, not a mistress. The queen, Katherine of Aragon, could not give him a son and heir, and Anne was a possible replacement. While Henry did not approve of divorce and was therefore reluctant to leave Katherine, he could argue that his marriage to her was invalid. She was his brother’s widow and this, he claimed, broke an inviolable biblical injunction against marrying your brother’s wife. The Pope disagreed. 

The arguments with Rome went on for years and Anne was stuck. No courtiers would take on the king as a romantic rival. She would either marry Henry soon, or end up barren and unwed. But Anne was fiercely intelligent and resourceful, and she looked for solutions in the movements for religious reform that were sweeping Europe at the time. Contrary to myth, Anne was never a Protestant. But she fed Henry with selected readings that supported the view that kings had rightful authority over the church. Henry already associated himself with King Arthur, whom, he believed, had wielded an imperial power over the English church, as well as the state. He became convinced the papacy had usurped this power.
In 1533, Henry finally broke with Rome and had his marriage to Katherine annulled. The already-pregnant Anne was now his queen. But Katherine remained much-loved, and women in particular resented Henry’s abandonment of his first queen. Anne acquired a new reputation as a “goggle-eyed whore”. (Read more.)

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