I’ve been reading The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo. If you’re any kind of Anne-o-phile, you should read it if you haven’t already. It’s some of the best scholarship that’s been done on the pop culture phenomenon that was Henry’s second queen. And it’s gotten me in a reflective mood.
I keep returning to Anne Boleyn, like many of us do, because she is both relatable and unknowable. She was once a woman who existed and then ceased to exist — what happened between those two points in time is the unknowable. What happened after is so fraught with polemics that there’s no satisfying answer to the question: who was she? We don’t even know her actual birthdate, she was so unremarkable at first. And then, in the space of a few decades, she’s the most [in]famous woman of her age.
So much of the “real Anne” was erased upon her death in 1536, and the only parts that survived were loaded with propaganda on both sides of the telling. The parts that were Anne as she lived and breathed were silenced, as effectively as slicing her head from her shoulders could silence her. Thinking of another queen that went to the scaffold, Marie-Antoinette, who benefits from having lived too closely to our own time to have her authenticity and humanity completely erased in her death, we look back at Anne through the clouded centuries and wonder, “What if?” I know I do.
And I’m hardly alone. We’ve been enacting and reenacting her story since that cold May day in 1536 when she commended her soul into God’s hands and begged everyone who stood witness to pray for her husband, the King, whose hand had signed her death warrant. Thousands of books, plays, sermons, essays, and — of course — movies have been made about her, each attempting to capture some “truth” about this strange woman who was elevated so far above her station by love and then cruelly cut down by a force far more intangible. Was it her? Was it Henry? Was it Cromwell? Was it one of those forks in the historical timeline where fate has to make a sacrifice in order to turn the wheel again for the world to make any progress? We are desperate to find a satisfying conclusion to her life’s tragic story that we invent every possible permutation of Anne and parade her across the stage, thinking that this incarnation might get us a hair closer to understanding what made her, and unmade her. And like grasping at smoke, the Real Anne unsatisfyingly slips away every time.
Her character traits read like those of a heroine in a romance novel. She was proud, intelligent, gifted creatively, and passionate — in both senses of the word. Her features were somewhere between plain and beautiful; her hair chestnut brown in a world that prized golden beauties; she was flat-chested when the standards dictated she should be full-figured; her eyes every color and no color — no one could apparently get close enough to her when she finally mattered to make the call between brown, blue, or hazel. And everyone who looked upon her in life agreed, regardless of their feelings towards her as a person, that she possessed some innate sparkle that those around her lacked. A certain je ne sais quoi, as her cohorts in the French court might have put it, but which doesn’t exactly help us pin her down as a real, tangible person. She is an essence now; a trace of perfume when you walk into an empty room.
Henry, too, has been corrupted by the whims of creative license in the historical narrative. And we can’t simply divorce him from Anne, either, for as much as there is unknown about Anne, there’s so much known about Henry; yet, neither individual gets an honest shake. We don’t know if he ever had a pang of regret in executing Anne; but we hope that, if he had any shred of humanity in him, he may have at least hesitated in signing her death sentence. Historians such as Alison Weir claim he had to have known he was executing an innocent woman; others insist he didn’t care if she was innocent or guilty, she just had to go away.
The thing is that he could have exiled her, as easily as he had exiled Katherine of Aragon. He could have, as supreme head of the English Church, given himself a divorce, as he had with Katherine. But he didn’t. He turned from Sir Loyal Heart to tyrant somewhere in the space of years between 1533 and 1536, and made an example out of Anne Boleyn. Maybe it was Henry’s understanding of himself, that he was and always would be weakened by the charms of a pretty woman, and if they were clever enough, he could be manipulated into advancing them far higher than their birthright warranted. Do not use her as an example, seems to be what Anne’s execution is really saying. And look: Anne’s cousin, Katherine Howard, made the mistake of being just the sort of political pawn Henry couldn’t resist, and hey, he cut her head off too.
But I don’t know, any more than anyone else, if that is truly the case. Maybe Henry was simply a sociopath and had not a care for what he was doing. Maybe Anne was a vindictive harpy who crossed too many lines and threatened to weaken Henry’s dominion. Maybe it was all about needing a male heir and a scapegoat when one failed to appear. And maybe, one should never go looking for answers in Leviticus because it’s only going to screw everyone over in the end.