Monday, 9 August 2010

The Allure of Anne Boleyn

There is an old adage that well-behaved women seldom make history. No-one alive in the sixteenth century could have doubted that Anne Boleyn had made history and there were a great many who would have agreed that this was because she hadn’t been particularly well-behaved. She had gone down in a maelstrom of pornographic conspiracy, accused of multiple acts of sexual perversion and attempted regicide. Popular belief in her links to the occult was widespread amongst the lower classes, particularly in the north of England, eventually giving rise to the legend that she had had six fingers and various other marks of the Devil upon her body. Despite Anne’s plea of innocence, even in the face of death, many refused to believe that the King would have moved against her unless she had been guilty of at least some of the charges of adultery for which she had ostensibly been beheaded. A contemporary lawyer spoke for many when he ruled that ‘there was never such a whore in the realm,’ and Tudor loyalists, attempting to reconcile the Anne that so many of the elite had known personally with the nymphomaniacal Anne of the indictments, concluded that she had been ‘a woman endued with as many outward good qualities in playing on instruments, singing and such other courtly graces as few women of her time, with such a certain profession of gravity as was to be marvelled at. But inward she was all another dame than she seemed to be; for in satisfying her carnal appetite she fled not so much as the company of her own natural brother besides the company of three or four others of the gallantest gentlemen that were near about the king’s proper person – drawn by her own devilish devices’. For many, she was ‘the vicious Queen,’ ‘the misfortune that has happened to England’ and ‘the ruin of many pious and worthy men’.

For others, however, the Queen had been ‘more accused than convicted,’ ‘that most holy Queen,’ ‘God’s Nymph,’ ‘virtuous,’ ‘worthy,’ ‘the most beautiful of all in true piety and character,’ and the Queen Dowager of Hungary spoke for many when she said that no woman could afford to glory in the fate of Anne Boleyn. Much to his evident chagrin, the Spanish ambassador to London, who had loathed the slaughtered queen, was forced to admit that he could find no evidence to suggest that she had actually been guilty – although he was swift to clarify that this did not necessarily mean she had not somehow deserved her death.

Every point of Anne’s life – from the date of her birth to the reasons behind her destruction – has been the subject of historical “trench warfare,” and this fascination does not show any sign of abating. Since the publication of Marie Louise Bruce’s Anne Boleyn in 1972, Henry VIII’s second queen has been the subject of ten individual biographies, with a further two more on various specific stages of her life – a account of her early relationships and a thorough study on her imprisonment and death. She has featured as a character in fifteen motion pictures and eight television shows, being played by actresses like Merle Oberon, Vanessa Redgrave, Charlotte Rampling and Helena Bonham-Carter. There have also been treatments of her in the numerous biographies written about those who knew her – including her husband, her daughter, her stepdaughter, her illegitimate stepson, her sister, her sister-in-law, her cousins, Archbishop Cranmer, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. She has been extensively analysed in the five published works on Henry’s half-dozen consorts as a collective that have appeared in print following Alison Weir’s best-selling The Six Wives of Henry VIII in 1991 and there was also a ferocious academic spat over her destruction between four academics, played out in the usually far-more sedate pages of the English Historical Review.

Many who read this blog know that over the next five years, along with my other projects, I will be researching a biography of Anne myself and I was touched that many encouraged that decision after reading my series back in May, chartering Anne's downfall day-by-day from May 1st to May 19th. But, many may justifiably ask - why the need for another treatment of Anne's life? Well, truthfully, part of it is sheer egotism. Having studied Anne for years, I believe that I have constructed a believable portrait of her and whilst I agree with a lot of what has been written about Anne by modern writers, I disagree with much as well and the areas in which I believe mistakes have been made are important ones.

Less egotistically, but with equal selfishness, writing a biography of Anne Boleyn is both hugely enjoyable and perpetually intriguing. Her ability to fascinate shows no sign of dimming, death and time not withstanding. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Anne Boleyn is a creature of infinite variety, which age has not withered nor custom rendered stale. Her story is dramatic, engaging and possesses a gradient of catastrophe which still has the power to boggle the imagination. The proliferation of novels, operas, plays, television shows and movies based on her life, however loosely, are a testament to the selling-power of that story. Agents, being agents, do not commission what will not sell.

Paradoxically, it is this aspect of her life which turns so many people off studying her - much less from taking her seriously. Whilst none of my tutors made such a mistake, many of my fellow undergrads at Oxford seemed to regard Anne Boleyn with a sort of snobbish intellectual disdain. The unmistakable impression conveyed was that she was a footnote to history, not a factor, for it is a sad truth that so many of those who fancy themselves to be historians believe that if something is interesting, it cannot also be important. And if it is a subject of popular interest, as well, then that is even worse.

Someone who shared no such qualms was Professor Simon Schama, who in his pithy and popular A History of Britain, nailed the problem of Anne and the academics when he said: ‘So much saccharin drivel has been written on the subject of Anne Boleyn, so many Hollywood movies made, so many bodice-buster romances produced, that we serious historians are supposed to avert our gaze from the tragic soap opera of her life and concentrate on the meaty stuff – like the social and political origins of the Reformation or the Tudor revolution in government. But, try as we might, we keep coming back – time and again – to the subject of Anne, because it turns out that she was, after all, historical prime cause number one.’

Thanks in no small part to the work of historians like Eric Ives, Maria Dowling and David Starkey, attitudes like Professor Schama’s are becoming increasingly widespread amongst experts in the field. One writer went so far as to pronounce in a 2009 biography of Henry VIII that, ‘No woman has ever made a greater impact on the history of England than Anne Boleyn.’ Admittedly, this particular statement at first strikes a hyperbolic note. The leap from contemporary importance to maximum political impact is a fairly large one; surely, such an accolade should go to Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, who ruled as queen in her own right for almost half a century and gave her name to an era?

Perhaps. But upon reflection, it is not such a dubious claim. In the History of the British Isles, most would agree that it has been the Norman Conquest, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and the Second World War which changed England, or Britain, forever and it was these four events which continued to define the nation for generations after they had happened. Certainly, the policies enacted in the time of Henry VIII are still affecting the lives of British citizens and their monarchy, even today. Moreover, no woman played as decisive a role in the Conquest, industrialisation or the war, as Anne Boleyn played in the Reformation. It was she, far more than Henry VIII, who truly believed in its early mission and whilst it was certainly not Anne’s intention, the Reformation did eventually shatter one thousand years of English Catholicism and started England on a series of religious, cultural and social revolutions which irrevocably altered both its position amongst other nations, its world-view and its idea of self. Without the Reformation, the iconoclasm of Edward VI, the persecutions by Queen Mary, the Spanish Armada, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, the evolution of a constitutional monarchy, Irish nationalism, the history of Northern Ireland and the very creation of the British Empire itself might never have happened – at the very least, they would all have happened in profoundly different ways. And nurturing this revolution, in the very first days of its existence, was Anne Boleyn. That Anne would have been appalled by its later progress is neither here nor there, that she was beginning to turn against it only weeks before her own death is equally irrelevant. She would have been appalled and disgusted by the religious policies of both of her husband's other children, Edward VI and Mary I, but that too quite simply doesn't matter. In the halcyon days of early Reform, it was Anne who placed into Henry’s hands, sometimes quite literally, books that were technically illegal because they articulated exactly how a religious reformation should begin; it was she who nurtured condemned heretics at her court when they should technically have been imprisoned or burning at the stake, it was she did everything to thwart the campaign against heresy which was being mounted throughout the late 1520s by the government and it was Anne and her family who ensured the promotion of men like Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Matthew Parker, all of whom would have enormous roles in shaping the nature of English Protestantism. Small wonder then that, looking back from the triumphantly Protestant times of Queen Elizabeth, Protestant writers recalling Anne’s legacy gushed ‘in praise of this noble queen as well as for her singular wit and other excellent qualities of mind as also for her favouring of learned men, zeal of religion and liberality in distributing alms in relief of the poor’.

This is, in part, the second reason for wanting to research and write my own life of Anne. She mattered – far more so than any of Henry’s other wives, particularly those who came after her, and far more so than most, if not all, of the other queen-consorts in British history. And whilst time and context help explain why she could wield such enormous and unprecedented influence, her personality was also crucial to the equation. But, if Anne’s importance has been clearly established, her personality has not. What I hope to do here is present a more logical and convincing portrait of Anne the woman to help us better understand Anne the queen and Anne the politician.

It might seem incredible that after almost a dozen biographical studies in just over three decades, Queen Anne’s character should still elude us, but mistakes have been made and, as all historians stand on the shoulders of giants no less than scientists do, these mistakes are invariably repeated. Recently, Sarah Gristwood, a biographer of Anne’s daughter wrote: ‘We realised a while ago that Anne was not the villainess of earlier legend, just as we know how unsubstantiated were the charges of adultery that prefaced her death. But it has proved curiously hard to replace that biblically colourful image with another that entirely convinces.’ Part of the problem has been a dangerous over-reliance on the fulsome correspondence of the Spanish ambassador to England during Anne’s queenship, Eustace Chapuys, who wrote with acute observation on everything in London except Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn – the former whom he idolised, the latter who he despised and refused, point-blank, even to speak to. Listening solely to the accounts of her numerous enemies, Chapuys’ usually detached tone is frequently exaggerated, often downright deranged, on the subject of Anne and it is to him, and him alone, that we owe the legendary story of her “persecution” of her stepdaughter, Mary Tudor, in which he does not hesitate to cast Anne as the archetypal Wicked Stepmother, more suited to the stories of the Brothers Grimm than the Calendar of State Papers. It is only now that historians are beginning to question the veracity of Chapuys’ letters, a partisan diplomat devoted to Anne’s rival, who spoke no English and listened only to stories that were sometimes deliberately “fed” to him by the English government or gleefully relayed to him, as gossip, by courtiers who shared his sympathies. Chapuys’ correspondence is useful, yes, but it is not always honest and almost never fair.

In one recent study of Henry VIII, the historian Derek Wilson cautioned against taking an ‘unnecessarily cynical’ attitude when assessing Anne’s motivation and character. It is a fair point and an overdue one, for, thanks to Chapuys, unnecessary cynicism has been the driving force behind most modern assessments of her and this cynicism has led to a serious lack of logic in the study of her life and nowhere are such discrepancies more glaringly obvious than when it comes to the subject of her morals.

Irish actor Anthony Brophy in the role of Ambassador Eustace Chapuys in the Showtime television series The Tudors, with Sarah Bolger as the young Mary Tudor

Anne’s position as a femme fatale is too deeply ingrained in the public mind to ever be eradicated and, in all fairness, it must be said that it is not an entirely undeserved label. Given the potent allure attached to such an image, many historians have been all too eager to believe the more moderately salacious rumours concerning Anne’s personal life and have insisted that she must have been sexually active prior to her marriage. ‘It is hard to believe,’ wrote Alison Weir in her book Henry VIII: King & Court, ‘that she had remained virtuous and almost certain therefore that her calculated refusal to succumb to the King’s advances stemmed from self-interest and ambition rather than much vaunted moral principles.’ Others have asserted that she had ‘a universally bad reputation,’ that she was ‘a woman of light morals,’ with one writer boldly asserting, ‘Anne had several lovers … [and] she acquired a reputation for unchastity.’ Yet, the very same writers have not hesitated to portray Anne as a rabidly ambitious and manipulative figure – ‘an ambitious adventuress with a penchant for vengeance,’ ‘a prideful young woman.’

However, one cannot logically have it both ways. Anne cannot have been sexually disreputable and at the same time insatiably ambitious. One has got to give. There was nothing to be gained by promiscuity in the sixteenth century, and everything to lose – as the tragedy of Anne’s cousin, Catherine Howard, would show in the following decade. Virginity was power, sexual restraint was a potent weapon, and in the game of courtly love, the chase was everything. What people seem incapable of grasping is the simple fact that the kind of potent obsession Anne provoked in so many of the men around her is the kind that only comes from the unobtainable - a girl who gave-in in any way would never have been able to wield the kind of potent allure that Anne did. Thus, we should not separate Anne’s morals and her ambition as if they are two mutually-exclusive forces – they were two sides of the same coin. By following through her relationships with the men of her life, what emerges is a portrait of a woman who men found endlessly fascinating and endlessly frustrating. And in this, the biographer feels the same way as her long-dead suitors, I can assure you!

Another problem with all this attention is one common to any noted person, any celebrity, in fact – the problem of preconceptions. Anne’s story has been told and re-told so often that certain versions of her story are held to be veritably sacrosanct, solely by virtue of repetition. Similar problems bedevil the biographies of Henry’s other queens – Jane Seymour’s kindness to her youngest stepdaughter, Elizabeth, Catherine Howard being dubbed "the rose without a thorn" and Katharine Parr serving as her husband’s nursemaid in his old age are all commonly stated as if they are facts, when there is not one jot of evidence from the period to support any such supposition.

For a very long time, in Anne’s case, it was the more melodramatic embellishments of her story that refused to go away – the six fingers on the left hand, the middle-class birth (‘merchant’ or ‘mercer’ was how some novelists chose to describe it), the mole on her neck, the beautiful but dissolute sister, the cloying dependence on her brother, the country bumpkin stepmother, the fact that the real love of her life had been “Harry” Percy of Northumberland (no evidence that he was ever nicknamed “Harry,” or she “Nan,” but that’s by-the-by), Greensleeves, the long, hanging sleeves of her gown, the bejewelled collars, thick hair, the hatred the common people felt for her, the accusations of witchcraft and the ego-soothing fling with the poet Thomas Wyatt. Modern writers may have moved the preconceptions in a slightly different direction, but if the image of Anne is slightly different, the tendency to place confidences in pre-judgements is not.

What has now become entrenched, almost like a litany in the reading public’s mind, is the story of a plain-looking commoner, possibly sexy but certainly not pretty and definitely not beautiful, who clawed her way onto the throne of England using only the strength of her personality. A free-thinking, proto-feminist – gutsy, unconventional, liberated – who dared to live as an honorary man in what was then very much a man’s world, ignoring the seething hatred the populace felt for her and the misogyny of her rivals. A figure who, at the time of her death in 1536, was pushing middle-age by Tudor standards, and whose downfall had nothing whatsoever to do with love, sex or even sentiment, but everything to do with politics, international diplomacy and religion.

In fact, Anne Boleyn was significantly younger, “better-born” and more beautiful than the recent perception of her suggests. And passion, and obsession, had everything to do with both her rise and her fall. I have argued on this blog that she was born much later than the work of historians in the 1980s suggested and that she was born closer to the end of the first decade of the sixteenth century, rather than the very beginning. I also know, as other historians have before me, that by the standards of her day Anne was by far and away the highest-born of Henry’s four English wives – her father was the heir to an earldom, her mother the daughter of a duke. Far more so, indeed, than any of Henry’s other wives, Anne Boleyn was entirely the product of sixteenth century upper-class high society, a ‘heady, sophisticated and superficial atmosphere ... an ambience in which she flourished, like a fine orchid in a hothouse.’ She was every inch the courtier, the aristocrat, the socialite. She knew no other life. Even Henry’s first wife, Katherine, whose pedigree was vastly superior to Anne’s, had at least experienced some financial deprivations during her early twenties. His third wife, Jane, knew what it was to dwell in total anonymity and his fifth, Catherine Howard, was brought up by a well-born but impoverished debtor, who occasionally had to go into hiding to escape his creditors. There is no evidence to suggest that Anne ever experienced one moment of financial or material uncertainty and her knowledge of what life was like beyond the palaces’ walls must have been fairly limited. To use modern parlance, Anne Boleyn was very much “of a class,” and she preferred people of a similar background, for all her friendly interest in her servants’ wellbeing – as poor Mark Smeaton was to be reminded when he over-stepped the boundaries of etiquette in her presence.

Finally, whilst no amount of re-writing will ever be able to present Anne Boleyn as one of the great, picture-perfect beauties of her age in the ilk of Caterina Sforza, Diane de Poitiers, Veronica Franco or Mary, Queen of Scots, she was much closer to beautiful than plain. Nowadays, with her fragile build and long dark hair, we would almost certainly consider her beautiful and concur with the King of France when he nicknamed her "the Brunette Venus," but for most of those around her it was curvaceous, sexy blondes who defined the ideal, not willowy brunettes. In any case, Anne is now routinely described as "plain" in modern histories, but as appealing as the idea of a great love affair devoid of the expected female beauty might sound, it is simply unrealistic, particularly in a life bedevilled by as much male attention as Anne’s. The image of her as being physically unremarkable comes from an oft-quoted remark by an Italian diplomat made in 1532, where he remarked that she was ‘not one of the handsomest women in the world’. This one, fairly mild description has inexplicably cancelled out the numerous other eyewitness accounts of her which described her as ‘beautiful,’ ‘pretty,’ ‘good-looking’ or the aforementioned Venus comparison.

It might very well be that the Anne who emerges from my research - and there is a still a long, long way to go - is far closer to a more traditional portrait, but whatever differences will emerge, she is no less fascinating and, I believe, no less important. I have uncovered no evidence to challenge the basic premise that she was interested in politics. I see no reason to revise history for the sake of it and, in terms of politics, with a few subtle queries of my own, I would still state with certainty that Professor Ives’ twin biographies of Anne have established beyond all reasonable doubt the full impact she had on monarchy, church and nation and that she wielded such influence on purpose, with considerable aplomb and intellect.

Having fallen “in love” with Anne Boleyn’s story at the age of eight, thanks to the Oscar-nominated performance of Geneviève Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days (below), which aired on television during a particularly rain-soaked family holiday to the Irish Republic, I have had my own preconceptions to overcome and the research I am doing and have done is constantly challenging them.

Since childhood I had read everything I could on Anne Boleyn – I was fascinated, entranced, as so many had been during her life and in the years to come. Therefore the real temptation was to twist the evidence to present Anne as I wished her to be and, most dangerously of all, to project modern beliefs and sympathies onto her journey and her century. I, of course, wanted to believe that she had lived longer or experienced some kind of passionate love affair with Henry Percy or Thomas Wyatt. It seemed somehow both grotesque and unbearably tragic that a woman like Anne Boleyn – or any woman, for that matter – should have saved her virginity for marriage with a man such as Henry VIII, a ‘devious, man-mountain capable of remorseless cruelty’. Yet that is precisely what I believe the surviving evidence points to and no amount of wishing on the part of the historian, or adherence to our modern sensibilities, is going to change that. History can never be what we want it to be, or even what it ought to be, despite what Herodotus said. It can only ever be what happened, or what we think happened – what the evidence tells us.

Above all, as any good biographer will tell you, there is a sense of duty to your subject. A biography should never be about the biographer and so I hope, when the time comes, to have done enough research and written it up with sufficient style and points of interest that it will allow Anne Boleyn - socialite, muse, schemer, queen, mother, sister, daughter, wife and victim - to take centre stage and to recount, as best I am able, the extraordinary story of her life and death.

© Gareth Russell


  1. Excellent. I can't wait to read the final product!

  2. Great article Gareth! it's always been my fervent wish that a portrait existed of Anne painted "from life"
    I believe the only images we have of Anne were painted about 100 years after she died.
    I'm guessing that Henry ordered all paintings to be destroyed.
    PS: Anne of the Thousand Days was the catalyst for my fascination with Anne too - at age 8!

  3. I'm greatly looking forward to your biography! This lady will always intrigue and tantalize us.

    This may be a bit off topic, but I think you've argued before that Anne considered herself in the right regarding the annulment controversy (with Katherine of Aragon). What do you believe was her reason for thinking this?

  4. Hi Gareth,
    What a fantastic article!!

    I have dedicated myself to researching places still standing today with a strong Anne connection because I am so fascinated by her and feel the need to be 'close' to her. It's amazing how after hundreds of years she still has the power to stir such strong emotions in people. I often sit and wonder what she would have looked like and sounded like and wish that I could glimpse her even for the briefest moment.

    I throughly enjoyed your May articles and am looking forward to your biography!


  5. The thing I always found fascinating about Anne was how far she fell and how fast. After one girl and one miscarriage Henry turned on her with such savagery.

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  7. Thank you everyone.

    Matterhorn, to answer your question, I think the most obvious reason is, of course, that it was simply easier that way. Given the length of the struggle to make Anne queen, it would have been impossible to keep going for that long unless you believed (or convinced yourself) that you were in the right. Secondly, Anne did live in a providentialist society and, as far as she was concerned, there were clear parallels between her story and that of the biblical heroine, Queen Esther. Esther had been a Jewish virgin chosen from amongst the king's own subjects to replace his arrogant and uncooperative queen, Vashti - to Anne, the parallels must have seemed fairly obvious. There was also the fact that, by most standards, what Katherine was doing was utterly extraordinary and totally improbable. She was expected to fall on her own sword, as it were, and admit that since she hadn't produced a son, she should step aside - as the first wife of Louis XII of France had done. Finally, and it's just a hunch, as time went by I'd be unsurprised if Anne wasn't able to persuade herself that Katherine had been lying about her marriage to Prince Arthur and that, having decided that, she was able to contrast that to her own conduct in turning down Henry's sexual advances - which, in Anne's mind, had always been irreprochably virtuous on her part.

    The one thing I would say is that whilst Anne was convinced that she was in the right, that's not to say that she under-estimated Katherine and there is no doubt that, unlike Henry, she respected her. Even feared her. Her comments on Saint Andrew's Day in 1531 and her unsettled and almost schizoid reaction to the news of Katherine's death in 1536 suggest that it was precisely because Anne knew Katherine to be a woman of substance that she found her so unsettling.

  8. What of the fact that, due to the King's affair with Mary Boleyn, there would have been a similar sort of impediment to the marriage of Henry and Anne as they argued was the case for Henry and Katherine? I wonder how Anne could reconcile all this in her conscience. But I agree, she did seem to behave as though she considered herself in the right.

  9. Matterhorn, I think I have actually cracked that little mystery in the course of researching Anne's life, myself. However, I don't want to say too much here, as it would give a major part of the biography away.

    As you say, however, from the historian's point of view, Anne certainly gave the impression of believing herself to be in the right and the more I read and research, the more I am convinced that she actually felt that way.

  10. I am really excited to read the book you are writing about Anne. I have long felt that Anne was unjustly vilified. I have doubts that his “rose without a thorn” would have escaped some sort of humiliation and/or execution if she had lived long enough to get on his nerves. Even Katherine Parr came dangerously close to peril when Henry decided that he was sort of still a Catholic. Like you, I also cannot believe that she was all that “plain” as history tells. He divorced Anne of Cleves for being “ugly”. I seriously doubt Henry would have broken from the church and risked civil war to be with a “plain” woman. The behavior defies all that we know of King Henry VIII.

    I am really excited to read more about her. I am really looking forward to your book.

    1. elan, the "new" anne portrait is spot on her, she is my cuz to a tee and we are grandkids of mary her sister. all the others look like pathetic caricature primitives compared, the engraving that was on ebay.

  11. Aloha, Gareth.

    Amazing article, as usual. I am sure it will be a joy to eventually read your book on this enigmatic and yet still magnetic woman. I have read many of the better biographies, after my first book about Anne Boleyn, by "E. Barrington", a pen name for Lily Adams Beck, a British writer who as it turns out, shared some of my own philosophical interests.

    For those of your followers who are interested, there is a relatively obscure book about Anne Boleyn written by W. S. Pakenham-Walsh, called _A Tudor Story: The Return of Anne Boleyn_. It is the story of a Victorian Anglican Canon and a fan of AB, who was himself astonished by the results of his own very different type of research. I happen to be interested in these sorts of things, and highly recommend it.

    Cheers to your current and future writing endeavors!

  12. Thank you for such a passionate and cogent argument. While I think that Thomas Cromwell easily had as much to do with the reforms as Anne, she was undoubtedly an intelligent and influential woman.
    Elan, Henry VIII remained a Catholic to his dying day, and prosecuted Protestants, too.
    He seceded from the Church of Rome, but never allied himself with the new reformers. That came later, in his son's reign, to be reversed by Mary and then reversed again by Elizabeth.

  13. What a fascinating blog. I hope you don't mind, but I posted the link on my Facebook page, as I am sure my readers would like to read it, too.

    Sharon K Penman

  14. No, not at all, Sharon. Thank you very much. Your novels are particular favourites of mine, so I'm very glad you enjoy the blog!

  15. Gareth, I've tried twice to post it on Facebook, and it never went through. Maybe Anne's enemies are still sabotaging her! A reader suggested I post the link in the comments section, which I just did. But I will try again tomorrow to put it on my Facebook wall for wider circulation and same for my blog. I thought a weakness in Wolf Hall was that Anne's charisma never came through, and as you point out, she had to have had enormous charisma. Reading your blog makes me very eager to read your book about Anne!

  16. Your "sexually disreputable" vs."insatiably ambitious" comment is intriguing; I never really thought about it that way. It does make sense that virginity would be a powerful lever, considering how effectively her daughter used it in her time.

  17. Gareth, I just wanted you to know that your blog is drawing rave reviews on my Facebook page.

  18. Thank you, Sharon! That's very kind! I'm so glad people like it.

  19. And I do completely agree with you about "Wolf Hall," which was a wonderful novel in many ways, but its characterisation of Anne made her seem entirely unlovable and completely lacking in charisma, which undermined the story quite a lot!

  20. I think part of the problem with the question of Anne's looks is that the best painters hadn't quite got to England yet. Was Holbein around that early on?

    And I'm not sure that Henry was a "man-mountain" that early on. Erratic from his head injury in jousting, yes, I can see that, but as I understand it, he didn't really pile on the pounds till much later. I've wondered if Edward IV would have looked like he did if Edward had lived as long as Henry. Henry was said to greatly resemble his grandfather.

  21. Great blog. I hope that your biography also takes a good look at Anne's proported letter to Henry written from the Tower of London. Most historians have discredited it as a later fabrication, although it was supposedly found in Thomas Cromwell's papers.

    To me, it always seemed to ring true to Anne's character and Cromwell might well have kept it, both to keep it from Henry, and to possibly use it against her, if necessary. If the "evidence" presented against Anne was twisted to fit the charges, so could have some of the words in this letter. Anne was presumed guilty, as all charged with some crime, before she faced the court. Few could prove innocence, commoner or queen consort.Anne's final speech, confessing her only fault was admitting she had not always shown Henry absolute respect due his position as her husband and King, also is echoed in the letter.

  22. Keep your thoughts coming - I'm looking forward to your book

  23. Hi Gareth, I'm sure you have written about Anne's portraits before but I couldn't find the page.

    Out of interest, what do you make of this portrait of Anne?
    It is one of my favourites, for you believed her to be more beautiful than was made out, and I think this shows Anne as she really was, alluring, self-assured, striking.

    Also, what do you make of the portrait of her on this page:
    Otherwise known as the Hever Castle portrait, it shows Anne to be beautiful with dark skin and eyes, and wears a gable hood.

    I do believe the Nidd Hall portrait is of Anne. She was described as wearing a gable hood to her execution, wore one in the Hever Castle portrait - though it was not painted from life - and the Nidd Hall portrait matches a 1534 medal of her, so it is just possible that she wore gable hoods more as she got older.


  24. Hi Conor,

    Well, both of the portraits you linked to are very pretty, although obviously much - much - later. They date either from the 18th or 19th century, so although they're certainly lovely to look at, I'm afraid they don't give us any real idea of what the historical Anne Boleyn looked like. The first one is, however, based on something which is in turn based upon something which most historians believe might have been painted from life of the real Anne. Still, they're lovely portraits!

    I'm very glad you brought up the Nidd Hall portrait, because it's a particular gripe of mine. I'm not entirely sure where the current vogue for believing it's an authentic portrayal of the real Anne Boleyn has come from, but I disagree with it entirely. You're right to say that Anne Boleyn wore gable hoods in her other portraits and everyday life, but so did almost every other woman of her social class. The head-gear proves less than nothing. As you know, from my own viewpoint, considering that I believe Anne was about 28 at the time of her execution, I have my own logical reasons for querying that it's a real portrait of her, but that's not the main argument against it. Roland Hui wrote a fantastic article on-line a few years ago, going through each of Anne's alleged portraits and querying them. His arguments that the Nidd Hall is in no way a realistic portrayal of Anne Boleyn were convincing. He ruthlessly and brilliantly demolishes the claims made in the portrait's favour. Now, I believe that the Nidd Hall portrait is meant to represent Anne, but that doesn't mean it's realistic. Hui points out that it's important to remember that it originally hanged in the Nidd Hall portrait gallery, opposite a matching portrait of Henry VIII, which means they had a gallery showing the rulers of England to highlight their loyalty to the monarchy. However, this means that in all likelihood from 1547 to 1553 the portrait was meant to represent Jane Seymour, when her son Edward VI sat on the throne; then from 1553 to 1558, the lady's identity was changed to that of Katherine of Aragon and, finally, in 1558 it was changed (and left) as Anne Boleyn, once her daughter inherited the throne. The initialled jewellery on the woman's chest shows it's meant to be Anne, but all the facial features actually match much more closely to 16th century prints of Jane Seymour, rather than Anne Boleyn. The Nidd Hall portrait is an inferior work of art, one of hundreds produced by the minor gentry of England in the 16th century, once the vogue for "loyalty galleries" set in. It's highly unlikely it was either originally intended to be Anne Boleyn or that a physical approximation with the dead queen was in any way a priority. What mattered was showing that whoever owned Nidd Hall was loyal to whichever regime was then in power.

    Happy Christmas!

  25. Sorry - also meant to say, of the two portraits, I agree with you. The first one is my favourite :)

  26. Thankyou, that's really interesting, I'd love to read Roland Hui's article!

    And Happy Christmas to you too and good luck with the biography, can't wait to read it from someone who is not one of the 'regulars' e.g. Weir, Starkey, Loades etc. Someone new

  27. Hi Gareth,

    Hope you don't mind me talking to you again, but I found this portrait:

    I have heard before that it just might be Katherine Howard. I know we will never know, but the description is of a highborn woman in the 1540s by Hans Holbein. I do see a resemblance perhaps. However, the portrait at her breast I am not certain of what or who it is meant to be.

    I know I am perhaps pulling at straws, but I see a resemblance to Katherine, in the headdress, colouring and hair colour - and necklace that Starkey supposedly identified in the 'Elizabeth Seymour' portrait.

    Her age is identified at the side - 17.
    Is it just possible that this was Queen Katherine, in 1541, aged 17?
    I am very intrigued!


  28. No, Conor, not at all. What a great post! I'm actually doing Queen Catherine Howard's household and downfall for my Masters dissertation this year and her portraiture is part of the examination. I'm definitely going to look into it and let you know what I think, if that's OK, because I'll be tackling Catherine's inventory. The word of caution I would urge on this is that there are a number of other women it could be - Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor are both unlikely, but Margaret Douglas, Frances Brandon, Mary Howard or Eleanor Brandon are all equally possible. The one thing I would say is that at 17 there were VERY few women who could possibly have merited a portrait this fine to be painted of them and Queen Catherine certainly is one of them. I'm definitely going to explore this further and keep you posted! I've seen this portrait before once and remembered thinking how beautiful it was, but it was during a very brief catalogue search when I was looking for portraits to do with Horenbout, not Holbein. I'm very glad to see someone else has noticed it and liked it as much. The museum is doing its own investigation at the moment, but here's hoping I'll be able to tell you something positive one way or the other during my research for the thesis! I always enjoy your posts on this blog, by the way. Thanks so much for reading.

  29. It's fine! And no thank you, the posts are great!
    I really hope I can write this bio on Katherine one day, but it'll be a lot of hard work I'm sure.
    Alison Weir told me that she thinks the portrait may be of Katherine Howard, because of the similarities to the Toledu portrait, I think it's called? The sitters have similar dresses, headdresses and colouring,
    but as she says and she's right, Katherine could not have been both 17 and 21 in the same year.
    Anyway thanks again and good luck!

  30. Gareth, I just have to tell you about this theory of mine that I want to write about.

    Like you, I am very incredulous about the NPG portrait of an unknown woman, I very much doubt it is Katherine Howard, for the several obvious reasons, and believe that that other portrait is more likely to be her in her Queenship, in her seventeenth year.

    However, I have to disagree with you that it is Elizabeth Seymour/Cromwell. This is because I see, firstly, NO similarities at all in facial expression to Jane Seymour, and I don't think this woman would have worn French fashion - namely a French hood - had she been the sister of Jane, who infamously detested French fashion for obvious reasons, and famously gave Anne Basset a stern telling-off for appearing at court dressed in French apparel.

    Furthermore, this hood looks to me like it is 1540s fashion. As Joanna Denny describes, French hoods evolved from the 1520s/1530s, when Anne Boleyn introduced them to England, sitting further and further back on the head and revealing, naughtily, more of the lady's hair. This looks like a hood from the 1540s, if you ask me.

    I therefore think this is NOT Elizabeth Seymour for several reasons, but neither do I think it is Katherine Howard. I believe this was a highborn woman in the early 1540s, possibly another branch of the Cromwell family.

  31. Possibly Lady Margaret Douglas, painted in 1536?

  32. Very possibly! Although in reference to the Jane and Elizabeth Seymour point, I think their chins look quite similar? Maybe!

  33. Hi Gareth, what do you make of this engraving, said to be Anne Boleyn, identified in 1618?

    General question, what is your view on Weir's 'The Lady in the Tower'? I have to say I found it an excellent read, diligently researched with some interesting theories. I know lots of people complain about her referencing issues etc. but they should focus more on the actual book and not be so quick to criticise, I personally find Alison Weir to be an excellent historian who outshines many others. Thanks!

  34. Hi Conor,

    I think it's part of the "Nidd Hall" tradition of painting Anne in a distinguished manner, rather than a realistic one. I have to differ to Roland Hui's article on Anne's portraiture here and if you can find it online, do! You'll love it.

    Alison Weir's "Lady in the Tower" is a fantastic read and very useful to anyone who already has a great knowledge of Tudor history. The problem with referencing is that for professional historians it's considered to be one of the defining arts of the trade, if you like. A good historian knows how to reference well, because other historians and historical enthusiasts will want to check exactly where they got their information from. It's considered part of the honesty and integrity of writing historically. Alison Weir didn't include any in her first few books and even in "Henry VIII: King & Court" and "The Lady in the Tower," she doesn't include page numbers, which have lead some people to say she's deliberately trying to obscure where she got some of her theories from and makes it difficult to check up her research. I'm not saying I agree with them, of course, but that is the reason for the criticism. And in answer to a previous question you asked, but which I neglected to answer, for which I apologise - I was an Oxford man and read Modern History at Saint Peter's College. I would definitely recommend it; particularly if you want to be challenged intellectually!

  35. Amazing post; i believe you are one of the very few who sees Anne as she truly was. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  36. Gareth, out of interest,
    What are your GCSE and A Level grades, if you don't mind me asking?

    It's because I am seriously considering applying to either Oxford or Cambridge - I'm going to open days in July but from the prospectuses and course outline I think I slightly prefer Cambridge for history. However, I only got 3 A* grades at GCSE, yet I'm doing much better in the AS year, having gained an A* grade equivalent in the first History module (90 UMS) and 100 UMS in the first module of AS Law; aiming for 4 A's, and hopefully at least 1, if not 2, A* predictions at A2.

    Please can you give some advice as I am a bit worried due to how impressive many people's GCSEs are in comparison. :/

  37. Hi Conor,

    Not a problem. My GCSEs weren't amazing, to be honest, due to my strong aversion to work. They were 5 A*s, 1 B and 4Cs. I can't comment on Cambridge, but for Oxford a lot more goes on your AS/A2 level results and, most importantly of all, your interview! Don't worry too much about the GCSEs. As I say though, I can't comment on Cambridge :)

  38. i'm glad to have run across this! i was looking for something to chastise some menfriends about their posting a pic of camila vallejo with comment 'one hot Trot!' and no link to her newsworthiness. you know, to post a few things guiding them to a more balanced appreciation of women? ;D there are suprisingly few beautiful influential women (especially, it seems, in the modern uk! i'm american- good-looks ARE power here.), and historically i am tending to think they usually come to a bad end. here's to all the beautiful young reformers- may they live to see the changes they seek!
    nb- i guess you are much farther along in your research now, but here is a thread that may help you complete your tapestry- the red-gold hair of the tudors, perhaps anne had dark auburn hair (i can't imagine anybody but a redhead could be so stubborn!) which led me here, don't miss melissa's long comment of aug 14 '10

  39. Damn Gareth I'm really excited to read your bio! You really do her justice, I enjoy your blogs whether they are tudor or not... you really have an appealing way of analyzing history.

    For me I always thought Anne's fabled sex appeal was just the initial attraction for Henry. I like the theory that Anne's way with words and debate made Henry see in her life partner. Henry's passion for religious discourse coupled with Anne's sportive passion for the protestant ideology must have stimulated many a witty discussion. Henry always kept her involved in the Great Divorce and the way he crowned her not as a consort but as a monarch of equal stature to himself...there's a beautiful dynamic there which I think is much overlooked in the way their love story is dramatized on screen.

    1. Sarah, I contend that he crowned her that way because he knew people were already set against accepting her. He was being emphatic with that coronation.

      But as to the ultimate allure of Anne Boleyn, I have often said that, if it were not for her, America, as it is now, might not have happened. Without the religious upheaval in England, which was precipitated/heightened by Henry's overwhelming desire to have Anne, the founding of America might have happened in a very different way, and who knows what sort of culture we would have, and how that would have played out in world history...

  40. As mentioned in my earlier comment, I've followed Anne for a while now. I especially loved this article and the countdown of her last days. The latter being the most moving account I've read online. I, too, loved Robyn Maxwell's 'The Diary of Anne Frank.' It sits on my side table under a lamp because I cannot bear to hide it on a shelf! I couldn't leave your site for the day without sharing my love for these Anne articles and b) saying that I absolutely cannot wait for your book on Anne. Hurry already! Haha.

  41. Late, I know, but what a great article!


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