Sunday, May 12, 2013

Anne Boleyn: Stereotypes and Misconceptions

18 June Update: For More on the misconceptions of Anne Boleyn's relationship with her stepdaughter Mary Tudor, read this post.

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn on Showtime's The Tudors (2008)
The days leading up to Anne Boleyn’s arrest, trial and execution were fraught with gossip and scandal, and in that sense, they were no different from her day-to-day life. The queen’s early loves and courtships, namely with Henry Percy and Thomas Wyatt, heightened her star to some degree, but the perverse rumor, the stereotypes and misconceptions that still cling to her name, today, all began with her passionate and history-altering relationship with Henry VIII. Many of these stereotypes and misconceptions are more concrete and played roles in the queen’s dramatic 1536 downfall, and while some are more famous than others, nearly all of them are ludicrous and untrue.
                Adultery, incest, poison and assassination, seduction through sorcery, political manipulation, corrupt bargains, gross deformities, and, who could forget, ‘man-stealing’ – these are only a few of the misconceptions Anne’s contemporaries charged her with, some less absurd than others, and in due course, they will all be addressed. Based on the ‘findings’ of her trial and the passion and recklessness with which she lived, the queen’s every move in the chess game that was her life gave root to heady gossip, and from small to big and obvious to shocking, let the analysis begin.
                First, let’s look over a modern stereotype – did Anne ‘steal’ Henry VIII from her sister, Mary? Mary, the oldest Boleyn sibling, was the king’s mistress by around 1522, and it is unknown how long this mostly physical relationship lasted. Henry’s affection for Mary could not have been so strong as it was never publicly displayed the way his for Anne, was, and most likely waned either around her 1523-1524 or mid-1525 pregnancies. The only evidence we have for their relationship is a bull for a dispensation so that Henry could marry someone whose sibling he had known carnally, and the grounds, ironically on the first-degree of affinity, in which his future marriage to Anne was annulled. His hot pursuit of Anne began in around 1526, and his advances were repeatedly rejected; true, she could have merely been playing ‘hard-to-get’, but it is more likely that she wished to avoid the disgrace of her sister, called a “Great Prostitute” for her relations with two kings. She was also an eligible bachelorette in 1526, young and of a rising family, and a sullied name for dalliance with a king would greatly decrease her chances at a good match.
                Considering Mary Boleyn was, unlike her sister, a very minor figure of her day and seldom mentioned by contemporaries, this misconception that pits her against Anne in a torrid threesome with the king is more of a new, modern ‘fad’ – the product of Philippa Gregory’s popular The Other Boleyn Girl, infamous for its allusions from fact. Another myth the novel gave rise to is that Anne ‘stole’ Mary’s son by the king, Henry Carey; to banish this ludicrous legend once and for all, firstly, it is highly unlikely that Carey was fathered by the king at all, and at any rate, he was unacknowledged like Bessie Blount’s Fitzroy had been, and born while Mary was married, in 1526. Unable to care for him in order to pay her dead husband’s debts, in 1528, he became Anne’s legal ward and she funded and guided his education.
The Tudors (2008)
                Also along the lines of ‘man-stealing’ is the greatest reason in which Anne Boleyn was so maligned in her day, and is so maligned, in ours – she ‘stole’ Henry from Queen Catherine. This is the mother of all stereotypes against her; where there is strong doubt that the almost laughable adultery charges against Anne were true, she was undeniably the other woman in the divorce case of the century, and few will read between the lines and see that her situation was not so black and white. True, Henry was intent on marrying her upon being freed from Catherine, but he had been looking into annulment since years before he proposed to her in 1527, and had abstained from Catherine’s bed since 1524. In his heart, the king’s marriage to his first queen had ended long ago, while he began his pursuit of Anne, and if he had not met and fell in love with her, given the crucial changes in the political sands of the late 1520s, he would indefinitely have married a French princess. To be more specific, a friend of Anne Boleyn’s, Princess Renee.
                Anne’s conscience was visibly troubled by his ‘marriage’ to Catherine, and she was initially very unwilling. But it is more than likely that the, then, handsome king’s ardent pursuit of her eventually won her over, a chance at the crown satisfied her ambition for a ‘good match’, and a look at theology persuaded her to agree with the king, that his marriage was null and he was a free man. There can be no doubt that Anne eventually fell in love with the king, as they were two very similar characters, and there can be no doubt that Henry pursued her out of something greater than lust – he had never written love letters to any woman before, with his own hand.
                From there, the start of Anne and Henry’s public and passionate relationship, dozens and dozens of vile rumors began to proliferate. A less famous but highly shocking rumor states that Anne was actually Henry VIII’s daughter. There had once been some gossip that, as a young man, the king had dallied with her mother Elizabeth Howard; he would later deny this, but not before every Englishman in the land played on it. Then there is the rumor of witchcraft, which walks hand in hand with rumors of Anne’s horrific deformities.
In the six years before they were married, Anne was commonly called a witch by the commons, who came up with all sorts of stories of how she used sorcery to enchant the king and later, she would be charged at her trial with casting spells on Henry to not only seduce him, but make him impotent. Their evidence for her games with the devil were the alleged moles and warts that covered her body, namely a ‘wen’ on her neck which she tried to use the famous ‘B’ necklace to cover, as well as the notorious sixth finger and the gross, less famous rumor of a third breast. However, it is highly unlikely that Henry would choose a woman with such visible and horrific deformities to be the mother of the much-coveted and long-awaited male heir, whose perfection and impeccable genetics and health he would later prove to be obsessed with. Logic aside, historical record should tell all – these rumors of deformities came into existence only years – many years – after her death, quite deep into her daughter’s reign, actually, and were spread by someone who had never laid eyes on her. He was Spanish and a Catholic – obviously not a friend to Anne.
                Particularly in the summer of Anne’s first year as queen of England, when both Henry VIII’s illegitimate son and Lady Mary became deeply ill, rumors that the new queen was a poisoner heightened, and reached their zenith when Catherine fell deathly ill in December 1535 and died in January 1536. Yet at both these periods of time she was pregnant with a presumed male heir and savior who would protect her from any threat that Catherine, Mary or Fitzroy could have on her. As for Wolsey, whose 1530 death on the road to London is something often attributed to her, Anne would have happily watched an enemy’s trial and disgrace; considering he faced possible execution for his treason charges, poisoning him would have almost been merciful. Lastly, these poison charges should give rise to a question of morality – Anne was already a religious woman, and fear of the afterlife was a preeminent and driving force in Tudor society. She had a temper, a hot head and a vile tongue but it is highly unlikely that her conscience and strong Christian beliefs would allow her to commit murder.

There is a whole maternal side of Anne Boleyn that evades modern attention: she was an ‘evil stepmother’ – the end.  But for starters, was she? The queen was key to sealing the noble marriage of her illegitimate stepson, Henry Fitzroy, and sought friendship with Lady Mary, offering Catherine of Aragon’s strong-willed daughter restoration to her estranged father’s good graces if only Mary would acknowledge her as queen. Mary rudely addressed Anne as her father’s mistress, and from there, it seems their relationship only spiraled downhill. But it was under Jane Seymour that the Lady Mary was forced to sign the Oath of Succession, it was under Jane Seymour that execution even began to hang faintly in the air as a potential consequence to her obstinacy, yet the excessive cruelty her father treated her with is too often blamed on Anne. Whatever cruelty the queen showed her stepdaughter was likely out of desire to her protect her own daughter’s interests, and surely in her last heartfelt apology for their feuding while held a prisoner in the Tower, she did atone. Indeed, to her own daughter, Anne was among the most loving royal mothers in history; she was one of few who was happy to breastfeed Elizabeth on her own, and was scorned for being overly attentive to the child. In the future Elizabeth would remember and respect her mother.
                As for matters of piety, Anne Boleyn is seldom associated with saintliness. If at all one would concede to her having a hand in the reformation, they would say that it was for her own personal gain, that she convinced Henry to turn his face from Rome so that he could marry her. However, growing up in France, Anne had been friends with Princess Renee, and perhaps associated with Marguerite of Navarre, two women of highly radical and Protestant ideas who indefinitely influenced her religious views. Anne would develop a collection of French pamphlets and books of reformist ideals before even catching the king’s eye. Had it all been a game for her gain, there would have been no need to intercede with the king and save dozens of Protestants from being martyred, nor fund the educations of reformist scholars and encourage the spread of the English Bible so passionately. The English Bible symbolized the freedom of the people from papal tyranny; if they could understand what they were reading, their opinions would be more than the molding of clergy. However, one should not make the mistake of identifying Anne as a Protestant; she was a reformer open to Protestant ideas, but recorded theological debates with her brother should prove that she still believed in the bane of Protestantism – the host, and that deeds were key to salvation.
                On the subject of her brother, who Anne allegedly committed incestuous adultery with, one thing is certain: that the siblings were very close. They bonded based on common interests: the Reformation, the arts and fine living, and an obsession with France; they were witty, charming, social and intelligent. What they did in private, we can never know, but it seems that the bane of the ‘evidence’ against them in the 21st century is that he despised his wife and loved Anne, and to lay that to rest, truthfully historical record shows he and Jane Parker as enjoying a relatively happy marriage. The likelier is that Anne’s name could not be laid to rest if her brother lived and Cromwell viewed him as a rival for the king’s favor. This was the same with all of Anne’s accused lovers.
                George Boleyn, Francis Weston and Henry Norris had been the highest men in the king’s privy and the king’s best friends for decades. No matter how much political favor Cromwell had, the personal favor Henry bore these men would always stand in his way and their friendships with Anne made it easy to hit two (or six, to be exact) birds with one stone. Henry Norris was a close friend to the queen, and obviously a loyal one as he would defend Anne’s name to the death; Francis Weston was an attractive flirt, constantly in Anne’s rooms; George and her were close and again, Cromwell viewed him as a rival; but who were William Brereton and Mark Smeaton to the queen?
                The fact that Brereton and Anne had nearly no relationship stands as valid proof that the adultery charges which haunt the queen, even today, were but a fabricated plot by Henry and Cromwell. Brereton enjoyed patronage from the Boleyns but his true crime was his power in the North, and his vetoing of nearly all of the changes Cromwell wished to make there. He also enjoyed political power, being so close to the king’s bastard son, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Henry Fitzroy. As for Smeaton, he was clearly in awe of the beautiful queen, and not being gentry, an easy target for confessions to damn Queen Anne. Indeed, Anne was found guilty at her trial, but at the given dates and times of her adulterous escapades she was known to be elsewhere, at different palaces even, and the treason trial allows the accused no defense. Graphic and erotic record of her extramarital affairs was highly prejudiced, chronicled by foreign ambassadors whose countries had been negatively affected by the changes in political sands catalyzed by Anne and sought petty vengeance. No one was present at Anne Boleyn’s side 24/7; no one but her can ever know what went on behind closed doors – however, the evidence for what did has been disproved by nearly every historian. My two scents is that it was tainted and her charges, hideously untrue. Her death and execution weren’t karma working or divine justice; it was the juridical murder of an innocent woman.
                If Anne was neither a man-stealer nor adulteress, then why on earth should she be called a whore? In her day, men disliked Anne for being an ‘upstart’; it was women who hated her with a fire and it is mostly women, today, who ‘slut-shame’ her – the irony is that slut-shaming is a highly sexist act, and Anne embodied many central feminist ideas. Her only sin, she said in a powerful and moving speech at her trial, was that she did not show her husband the humility which was required of the women of her day. She played at politics with some of the highest men in not just the land, but the continent; she brought down and essentially replaced the king’s most trusted adviser, she refused to lie like a doormat while her husband cuckolded her – she was brave and she demanded respect in spite of her sex, yet here she is, 500 years later, slut-shamed and scorned by people whose only image of her is a tapestry of interwoven, prejudiced stereotypes and misconceptions. Her death was unjust, but the spite of the ignorant in the 21st century is heinous.

1 comment:

  1. Your casual dismissal of Mary's children being Henry's bears further investigation. They most definitely were.