It’s just been announced that someone named Claire Cooper has been cast as Anne Boleyn in a three-part miniseries about Henry VIII’s six wives, and I honestly cannot summon any enthusiasm about this. Why? Because I am totally Anne’d out. I will not be surprised in the least if this new docudrama turns into The Anne Boleyn Show, and the press for this miniseries is already confirming this assumption, since none of the other actresses cast in the rolls of the other wives have been mentioned. And even though 6 Wives (ugh, that title) is allegedly about them all, it’s giving me a chance to air some issues I have with the amount of over-exposure Anne’s been getting for basically centuries.
It boils down to this: the world does not need another Anne Boleyn-centric television show or movie. We have plenty of Annes to choose from, thank you very much. We’ve got the feisty fighter Anne played by Geneviève Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), and we’ve got the alpha bitch Anne brought to us by Natalie Portman in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008). You want the mentally unhinged Anne played by Claire Foy in Wolf Hall (2014)? What about the trying-too-hard Anne played by Natalie Dormer in the The Tudors (2007-2009)? There’s the rarer Annes, too, like Jodhi May’s attempt at Anne in the other The Other Boleyn Girl (2003). Or how about the haughty Anne played by Dorothy Tutin in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) or Helena Bonham Carter’s sulky seductress in Henry VIII (2003)?
We’ve got the whole set, and I am here to tell you, I am bloody sick of Anne already. Don’t mistake me, I am a dedicated Anne Fangirl, and I have even explored some of the reasons surrounding why we continue to be so fascinated with this woman, but I think it’s time we all admit to ourselves that Anne Boleyn needs to be retired from film and TV. In light of that, I have prepared a handy list of my top five suggestions for some of the overlooked queens of Henry VIII whose lives are virtually untapped for potential screenplays.
1. Catherine of Aragon
We have already pointed out that Catherine of Aragon needs her own movie, but seriously, Hollywood people, how has she been so overlooked? Of all of Henry’s queens, Catherine of Aragon’s story is practically fairy-tale perfect. It stars an intelligent and headstrong female lead, has a tragic death that upends her life, and a long period of suffering over which she finally triumphs in the most brilliant way possible.
The fair Catherine was born in the exotic Kingdom of Castile, the baby of the House of Trastámara; her parents were Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, the power couple of the late 15th century. When she was barely 16, she was sent to cold, dreary England to marry the English crown prince, Arthur. For a young woman who grew up here, England had to have seemed startlingly primitive in comparison. That said, Catherine adapted and married Arthur. It was considered a brilliant match for both countries, uniting England and Spain and made mutual enemy France really, really worried. But this match made in diplomatic heaven was not to be … Arthur died in 1501, five months after they wed and without consummating the marriage, leaving his young widow a political prisoner in his controlling father’s grasp. Henry VII didn’t want to return Catherine to Spain because he had another son he thought he could marry her off to, but for the pesky question of consanguinity that required a Papal dispensation, and the fact that Prince Henry was still a few years away from being able to legally wed.
Complicating matters, Ferdinand tried to shirk the notoriously stingy Henry on paying out Catherine’s dowry from her marriage to Arthur. This pissed off Henry VII, who then took it out on Catherine by forcing her to live in penury for six painful years; a harrowing experience for anyone, but especially so for a foreign princess with limited resources to begin with. Ferdinand then astonished everyone and named Catherine his Ambassador to England, creating her the first female ambassador in European history (#GirlPower). This gave Catherine a huge boost in prestige that was denied her through more conventional avenues, and since Henry VII had no choice but to deal with Spain, he had no choice but to deal with Catherine. As the great Isabella of Castile’s daughter, Catherine proved herself every bit as capable as her mother, and in time, the English king begrudgingly began to respect her as a skillful diplomat.
As Catherine’s life started to improve, Henry VII fell ill and was revealed to be dying. What would happen to her now?
Prince Henry enters stage right.
See, when Prince Henry was a child, he was so isolated by his father, that often times the only person even remotely close in age to him that he was able to interact with (aside from his minders and tutors) was his sister-in-law. With Catherine being five years older, their difference in age meant that Henry saw Catherine as a caring older sister at first. However, when Arthur died, and Henry VII clamped down further on young Henry’s life now that he was crown prince, the two were separated for several years. In that time, Henry grew into a gorgeous 6’4″ god-among-men, and when they reconnected during the last years of Henry VII’s life, suddenly that five-year age gap didn’t seem like much. There was beautiful Catherine, barely 25 and still in original factory condition (i.e., a virgin, verified by the Pope who had granted the dispensation settling the issue of consanguinity), daughter of a powerful ally, and Prince Henry had seen for himself how masterfully she had done the job of Spanish Ambassador — and to Henry VIII’s credit, he was attracted to strong, smart women. When Henry VII revealed on his deathbed that he regretted treating Catherine so poorly, he instructed his heir to do the right thing by her and make her the queen she always should have been. The newly created King Henry VIII almost immediately ran to Catherine and proposed, and…
We already know Anne Boleyn screws it all up for Catherine 20 years on down the line, so let’s just focus on the happier parts of her life for a change. No more the withered old Spanish crone, clinging to Henry’s robes, begging for him to return to her, no more religion-obsessed Catholic martyr-in-progress … Let’s see her in her prime, with her golden hair flying free, before her world imploded on her and she became a tragic speed-bump in Anne Boleyn’s rise to supremacy.
2. Jane Seymour
Oh Jane, you sneaky little minx. Yeah, sure, you look innocent and pure on the outside, but we know what’s up. We know you’re a member of the ruthlessly ambitious Seymour family who has no problem hanging you out like bait on a fishing line for a king who has grown tired of his walking liability of a wife, Anne Boleyn. You’re younger, prettier, and even though no one gives you credit for your brains, you actually are quite capable of being as shrewd and calculating as your predecessor when it comes to catching the greatest matrimonial prize in Christendom. All you have to do is follow Anne’s lead … First, say no to the man who gets everything he wants. Second, keep saying no to him no matter how he wheedles and begs. Third, only say yes when he has become so maddened by you withholding yourself from him that he basically straight up murders, by proxy, his wife just to have you. Off with Anne’s head! You’re in like flynn, Jane. And as if to prove the point, you actually manage to deliver Henry a son! A living, breathing boy-child who will carry on the Tudor dynasty! You did it, girl!
Too bad about that whole puerperal fever/retained placenta/deadly bacterial infection that killed you three days after Edward was born. That said, you will go down in Henry’s life as his one “true” wife, so you’ve got that going for you, which is nice.
3. Anne of Cleves
No one gives Anne of Cleves any credit for actually pulling off the greatest win in Tudor history. Mostly she’s just known for a really fabulous Holbein portrait that was so flattering that when the real Anne arrived in England to marry Henry, he reportedly chewed the artist out for selling him a bill of goods. But Anne was a smart girl, regardless of how she looked in reality … She realized pretty damn quick that she was in dangerous territory with Henry, who had already disposed of two inconvenient wives; one by a very messy divorce and the other by a slightly less messy execution, and she knew that her new husband most definitely did not want to stay married to her.
Needless to say, Anne had a real problem on her hands. She was an unwanted foreign princess in a land far away from her family and connections and was basically without a friend in her time of need. How would she manage to save her neck? Well, turns out, if you just give the King what he wants, he’s actually pretty nice to you. Henry wanted an annulment, Anne agreed, and Henry was so stoked that, rather than pack her off back to B.F.E. Cleves, he invited her to stay in England, lavished her with property and money, and basically treated her like a, well, queen. She outlived Henry by a decade, happy and well-cared for, which is far and away a better deal than any of his other wives got.
4. Katherine Howard
Katherine Howard should have spent more time studying her cousin Anne Boleyn’s tragic lesson, because unfortunately for the 16-year-old queen, it turned out there would be a test. Henry was 32 years older than Katherine, but hey, who is going to turn down the King of England, even with that festering gouty leg? Katherine wasn’t really a bad kid, but she was just that … A kid. A kid who made a lot of stupid mistakes before she crossed paths with Hal, such as carrying on a completely non-secret affair with one of her guardian’s valets in her early teens. Like her cousin before her, she was pushed into Henry’s bed by ambitious relatives, who were aware of Kate’s extracurricular activities, but figured that a shot at being the in-laws of the King of England was worth the risk. It paid off, for Katherine was married to Henry in 1540, and by all accounts the King was utterly besotted with his child-bride. She, however, could not keep it in her farthingale. Whereas the charges of treason against Anne Boleyn had to be essentially fabricated from whole cloth, when the evidence was presented to Henry that not only had his wife Katherine not been a virgin when they married, she was also “entertaining” other men while Queen, Henry flew into a rage and had Katherine locked down in her rooms immediately. She is said to have run screaming down the halls of Hampton Court Palace, begging to see Henry, but the King’s officials — most of them in the anti-Howard faction — were well aware of Henry’s tendency to capitulate in the face of a weeping woman and successfully managed to prevent her from pleading for mercy directly before her husband.
If there’s nothing that Henry hated more, it was an assault to his masculinity, and Katherine’s indiscretions were a real blow to Old Hal’s ego. It is said that he became deeply depressed at discovering the extent of Katherine’s infidelities, but not so depressed that he couldn’t have charges brought up against her for treason and sign the execution warrant. The number of people who witnessed and/or participated in Katherine’s promiscuity before and after her marriage to Henry was startling. When all the evidence was brought forward, it was basically a foregone conclusion that Katherine would meet the same end as her cousin after barely one year of marriage to the King.
5. Catherine Parr
Catherine Parr was attractive, twice widowed, blazingly smart, and quite adept at handling Henry at the end of his life. She was independently wealthy and had no scheming relatives trying to shove her into Henry’s arms, so at least on the surface, it appeared like Catherine was just there because she actually wanted to be. Whether Catherine was calculating, or if she was just a compassionate human being, she soothed Henry’s wounded ego after it had suffered at the hands of Katherine Howard. She tended Henry’s festering leg, changing the reeking dressings daily without a hint of disgust. She bantered with Henry, debated with him on all manner of topics that he was passionate about, and basically was Hal’s gal pal at the end of his life. Which is not to say that she was perfect … See, Catherine had a taste for the bad boys, and one in particular had managed to capture her attention — Thomas Seymour.
Seymour had a reputation for being a real ladies man. He came into Catherine’s life right as Henry was dying, and what’s the richest widow in the kingdom, who had three very practical marriages not at all based on love, going to do? She fell head over heels for Thomas. He saw this golden opportunity to swoop in and control the two heirs-apparent to the throne, Lady Jane Grey and Princess Elizabeth, who were the brilliant wards of the brilliant dowager queen. The stories told of Thomas’ meddling, with Elizabeth in particular, are disturbing … He certainly pushed the envelope as to what a healthy relationship with a parental figure should be with a young girl, and accounts of him rising early in the morning to “surprise” Elizabeth in her bed with tickle fights are downright creepy. And poor Catherine at first thought this was just all in good fun, and even joined in — on one occasion she held Elizabeth down while Thomas cut her dress to ribbons, which doesn’t at all sound like healthy family behavior. I’d like to think that with any other man, Catherine would have put an end to it immediately, but with Thomas, the love of her life that she had earned by enduring three perfectly nice but totally loveless marriages, she seemed blind to the fact that he was grooming the 13-year-old Elizabeth like the creep he was.
When she finally caught the two in some kind of “embrace” (historical accounts are vague), Catherine cut both Elizabeth and Thomas off. Elizabeth was appalled at herself — the only mother figure she had ever had, the one stable influence on her life through all the ups and downs and legitimacies and illegitimacies, the one person who was basically her only true friend and champion during the uncertainties of the last years of Henry’s life, and she had been the cause of Catherine’s greatest pain. Some theorize that this is when Elizabeth made up her mind to never marry, having witnessed first hand how a husband could ruin a wife’s life in any number of ways (and make no mistake, Thomas had tried them all on Catherine). Elizabeth immediately distanced herself from Seymour, but the damage had been done; Catherine died giving birth to a daughter shortly after her rift with Thomas, and step-mother and step-daughter never were able to reconcile. A year or so later, after Seymour’s ploy to marry Elizabeth himself had failed (she refused to acknowledge him), and his plot to have Lady Jane succeed Edward VI lasted only nine days before Mary I swooped in and claimed the throne for herself, Thomas was executed by the new queen.
Elizabeth is said to have only made one passing comment about his death, “This day died a man of much wit, but very little judgement.”
Which non-Anne Boleyn wife of Henry VIII is your favorite? Tell us in the comments!