Anne Boleyn, Unknown


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.

Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn

Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).

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.

Anne of the Thousand Days - Genevieve Bujold

Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969).

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.


Charlotte Rampling as Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972).

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.

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn - The Tudors

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors (2008).

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.

Laura Cowie as Anne Bullen, King Henry VIII (1911)

Laura Cowie as Anne Bullen in King Henry VIII (1911).

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. 

Helena Bonham Carter as Anne Boleyn, in Henry VIII (2007)

Helena Bonham Carter as Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII (2007).

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.


About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

16 Responses

  1. Athene

    Actually (in my opinion, of course, because WHO KNOWS) one of the things that the deliciously execrable “The Tudors” gets right is the whole “once you are the head of the Church and King of England, there is nothing to stop you.” My read has always been that toward the end, Henry just plain hated Anne in a way that he didn’t hate Catherine, for “forcing” him to leave a Church he loved (even though he really rather liked being Pope and King), and “forcing” him to make decisions against long-time friends and allies in order to have her on her terms. Still and all, I am always on Team Anne. Thanks for the heads-up on the book. I’m going to grab it today.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      If you hate David Starkey at all, you’ll LOVE how Bordo rips into him practically every other page. That, in itself, is enough to justify the price tag several times over. I have nothing but contempt for his “scholarship” and struggled for years to understand how his blatantly sexist and outdated angle could possibly be considered THE definitive reading of Anne. Bordo just obliterates him in her research and critique–SO DELICIOUS.

      There’s also a chapter that she devotes entirely to “The Tudors” that gave me a whole new level of respect for Natalie Dormer and the shit she had to put up with in that production. Sadly, it was published before the series “Wolf Hall” aired, so we don’t get to hear Bordo’s thoughts on Claire Foy’s portrayal, but she does talk about Mantell’s characterization of Anne a bit.

    • Dawn

      There is an old novel where a young Elizabeth tells someone about this story her nurse told her–essentially the Fisherman and his Wife where the wife wanted to be King, then Pope, and then God. And the adult gets very nervous because of the obvious parallels. (Young Bess by Margaret Irwin)

      And Bordo’s book is very good.

  2. Bess Chilver

    It seems that as of April 1536, court observers noticed that Henry and Anne were closer than they had ever been…and Cromwell was finding his influence was waning over Henry and particularly over certain aspects of policy: foreign – as in closer relations with Spain versus with France) and domestic/financial – the disposal of the huge spoils from the dissolution of the monasteries. Anne was in favour of the spoils being used to fund educational and other philanthropic projects, Cromwell wanted it to go into Henry’s own purse. Henry probably wanted it in his own purse too, but he was listening carefully to Anne’s suggestions.

    It is likely that Cromwell felt his own neck at risk due to the increasing influence of Anne (despite the earlier miscarriage she had in January 1536), and took steps to save his skin and remove his emerging nemesis *and those who supported her and were also influential at court* namely 4 of Henry’s own close gentleman who dressed and bathed him and were therefore VERY trusted. They were in a position to echo anything Anne suggested and Henry, for all his intelligence, was susceptible to this kind of influence. The 5th man was Mark Smeaton – a person of little rank, no influence and no influential support. Easy to break and to use.

    The only way to remove Anne was to attack where Henry felt most vulnerable and that was his personal sense of himself as a man. The slightest hint he had been cuckolded and he would destroy the person accused. The fact he ordered a swordsman from France indicates that he did suspect Anne was innocent but by then it was too late. To pardon her would be to admit he made a mistake.

    Henry Tudor, King of England, did not make mistakes. Therefore Anne had to die and 5 men died with her. All of them were innocent.

    • Readerly (@Readerly)

      I think the amazing thing about “Bring Up the Bodies” and “Wolf Hall” is that they left me with the impression that Anne and the 5 men WERE innocent of the crimes they were accused of, and yet their behavior toward Cromwell (and Wolsey) had been so contemptuous and so cruel for so long that I found his engineering of their deaths satisfying even though unjust.

  3. Charity

    Anne is an enigma… I think she was possibly one in real life, so it’s not just the absence of decent sources that fail to let us grasp her. There’s so many gaping holes in her story — in her motivations. What happened in-between Anne telling Henry she would not disgrace Katharine of Aragon by becoming his mistress, and the woman who celebrated Katharine’s death?

    I’ve read that book, though it’s been awhile. I found the interviews with the actresses (including Dormer) very interesting and enlightening. I’m actually fonder of Dormer’s Anne having read it, because I really didn’t care for how Anne was portrayed in “The Tudors.” Knowing Dormer fought to get her less of a sexpot and more of a reformist did a great deal to enhance my respect of Dormer (of course, by the time she got her way, in season two, a lot of the anti-Anne damage had been done).

    The Starkey comments above made me laugh; he’s a great biographer in terms of plain facts but I don’t always agree with him or his dismissive attitude toward these women. He also seems to have a distinctly anti-religious bias, so he automatically discredits the religious preferences of these women and give them no real benefit of the doubt in terms of their true motivations. His lack of understanding of the mindset of the people who lived in the period does him no favors.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      The interview with Natalie Dormer changed my entire outlook on her as an actress. It was really refreshing to read about how she was caught between the job she had to do (be sexy, wear some costumes) and how badly she wanted to show Anne some respect. She was, by and far, the only good thing about that show even before I read Bordo’s interview with her, but now I’m just so much more impressed with how she had to work with the material versus her own research on Anne and understanding of her as a person.

      And Starkey. He’s awful. I wish we could all just pretend he never happened.

      • Charity

        Me, too. I can’t imagine being cast as Anne Boleyn, then having to fight merely for the right to keep your character’s hair dark, much less going head to head with the writers and producers over everything else! She seems a very intelligent actress, so it must have been difficult to put aside her own preconceptions and become the character they wanted her to be.

        I’m a bit of a Katharine of Aragon fanatic, so the high point in “The Tudors” for me is a semi-empathetic depiction of Henry’s first wife… but Dormer really is a magnificent, charismatic Anne in spite of everything. She’s the fire behind the first two seasons. The show lost a lot of its passion after the death of Katharine and the executions of More and Anne… they were three of the strongest story lines and performances.

        Starkey: agreed. I prefer Antonia Fraser overall but Starkey has more facts, so I often have to consult his book when writing historical fiction. :P

  4. Susan Pola Staples

    I’m going right out and purchase Bardo’s book. But another good one as an explanation of Henry’s behaviour is Lipscomb’s 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII. My favourite portrayals of Anne are Natalie Dormer’s and Genevieve Bujold. Both conveyed her intelligence, charm, haughtiness and sexiness.

  5. aelarsen

    I think that one of the mistakes that people make when they look at the story of Anne and Henry is that they fail to factor in the weight of politics and what marriage was in that context. Yes, everyone knows that politics were involved in the story, but somehow everyone wants to read this story with a 21st century notion that marriage is at its heart about love and romance. So part of the reason that the essence of Anne and Henry and their relationship is so hard to grasp is that we don’t want to admit that for them, marriage was at its heart a political act and not a personal one. Henry must have a queen, he must have a son, and he cannot divorce that queen when she fails to provide a son because to do so is to call into doubt almost everything he’s done politically for the past half decade. And Henry has been raised knowing that as a prince, his life is governed by factors far greater than what he as a person wants.

    A perfect case in point: when Anne is on the scaffold, moments away from dying, she does not express any rebellion against Henry’s decision to execute her. She simply accepts the judgment, because she understands that this is much more about politics than it is about her as a human being. She knows she’s lost the political fight to stay queen and prove her innocence, and she accepts that losing that fight means dying. The fact that her final words make so little sense to us today is a measure of just how far removed we are from her mental world.

    I’m not saying that Anne and Henry’s emotions are irrelevant, only that they’re less of the overall picture than 21st century people assume.

    • Sarah Lorraine

      Great post, thank you for sharing it! I feel like Anne belongs to all of us, you know? She’s part blank slate, part famous person. It’s no wonder she comes up again and again.

  6. Christy Jenkins

    I think Anne was doomed from the minute Katherine of Aragon died. If she had been exiled, there would have been disputes about the validity of any future marriage and legitimacy of any future heirs. But with Anne, dead, Henry was a true widower, and his next marriage would be unquestionably valid.