Book Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn


AKA “Always Question Your Sources” and “How Mass Media Has Shaped Our Perceptions of Anne Boleyn.”

Do you have Anne Boleyn on the brain? Watching Wolf Hall sure has me thinking about her. Luckily, I couldn’t find my well-worn copy of Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, because then I was forced to back and reread this book: The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo (2014). I say luckily, because I had forgotten how GOOD this book was!

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo (2014)

The book is in two parts: One half reconsiders what we really know about Anne Boleyn by considering the historical sources that most historians draw upon, and the second half looks at how media representations of Anne (novels and TV/film) have created and recreated her character. Both sections are fascinating, especially because Bordo does an excellent job of knowing her sources but also writing very accessibly. This is not a ponderous tome, but on the other hand, it’s not based on a pile of fluff (Bordo is professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky). It’s a timely read, too, because Bordo does do some analysis of the novel version of Wolf Hall (and for her thoughts on the TV production, see below!).

What Do We Really Know About Anne Boleyn?

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Lady, called Anne Boleyn. c. 1532-35. British Museum.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Lady, called Anne Boleyn. c. 1532-35. British Museum.

In this section, Bordo reconsiders the main historical source for most of what we think we know about Anne Boleyn, Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, reminding us that, “Chapuys hated Anne with a passion that he didn’t even try to disguise…” and “his interests were served by painting the worst picture possible of Anne.” Nonetheless, given the paucity of sources about Anne (many of the relevant documents, like her letters, were destroyed after her execution), Chapuys’s dispatches are heavily relied upon by modern historians as they attempt to understand Anne’s rise and fall. In fact, Bordo argues that without Chapuys and the biography written by Cardinal Wolsey’s secretary, “it would probably be impossible to construct a ‘story’ [of Anne Boleyn] at all … in which events can simply be ‘reported’…”

Why is this an issue? Most historians (including Alison Weir and David Starkey) qualify their use of Chapuys, explaining his biases in their introductions. Nonetheless, Bordo points out how much both incorporate Chapuys’ information and observations seamlessly into their narratives. Among the examples offered are:

[David Starkey on Anne’s reaction to Henry’s making himself the Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England] “When [Anne] heard the news, Chapuys discovered, ‘[she] made such demonstrations of joy as if she had actually gained Paradise.'” This is written in such a way that Chapuys’s “discovery” is taken at face value.

Alison Weir accepts Chapuys’ report that Anne urged Henry to have Catherine of Aragon and his daughter Mary Tudor beheaded. Another example from Weir: “In 1536, a disillusioned Henry told Chapuys in confidence that his wife had been ‘corrupted’ in France, and that he had only realized this after their marriage.” Again, no counter-argument that perhaps Chapuys had made this up, or misrepresented it.

In both Weir and Starkey, Chapuys’s reports are presented as what did (or likely) happened, thus negating those introductory qualifications.

Anne Boleyn, late 16th-century copy of a lost original of c. 1533-1536. National Portrait Gallery.

Anne Boleyn, late 16th-century copy of a lost original of c. 1533-1536. National Portrait Gallery.

As a side note and recommendation, throughout the book Bordo praises Eric Ives for his thorough scholarship and careful consideration of sources (she calls him “the most careful of scholars”). Clearly, she finds him the most convincing of Anne Boleyn scholars, so if you’re looking for a biography of Anne to read, I would go to one of his books (particularly The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2005).

After this examination of sources, Bordo tries to summarize what we DO really know about Anne, focusing in on the most interesting questions: Why did Anne rise in the first place? Why did she fall? And how could Henry execute the woman he had loved for so long? She has a lot of interesting thoughts about each of these questions. I won’t go into all of them, but I will mention that she unpacks the myths about Anne, like her supposed sixth finger (false) and neck goiter (false). She also gets into the surviving letters written by Henry to Anne, contextualizing them and also pointing out how little we know about them.

Henry and Anne's intertwined initials at Hampton Court Palace, most of which were destroyed after Anne's execution. Photograph by Lara E. Eakins,

Henry and Anne’s intertwined initials at Hampton Court Palace, most of which were destroyed after Anne’s execution. Photograph by Lara E. Eakins,

To me, the most interesting question is, “How could Henry execute Anne?” He loved her passionately for many years. How could he change tack so quickly and so completely? He didn’t just annul the marriage or divorce her. He didn’t put her in a nunnery. He didn’t lock her up like Henry II did to Eleanor of Aquitaine. He KILLED her. And then two days later, he was engaged to Jane Seymour. What. The. Hell??!!

First of all, Bordo makes the point (a bit obliquely — one of the few times when she doesn’t do a great job at precisely stating her argument) that part of why we believe that Henry was so besotted with Anne is the language he used in his love letters to her. However, there is also the language of courtly love to consider and ideas about the best way to seduce a woman, so it’s quite possible that he was using conventional forms of language rather than writing completely from the heart. (Yes, this is Henry VIII as historical Pick Up Artist.)

Even more interestingly, Bordo looks at Henry’s character and gets into the whole “Did Henry change personalities during the course of his reign” question (which we mentioned in our Wolf Hall podcast). She points out how Henry was cosseted as a child by his mother and the other women in his family, then was stuck with his cold father once he became heir, then came to the throne and immediately started executing some of his father’s councilors. Then, fast-forward 15-20 years and he was executing lifelong friends and mentors, such as Wolsey and Thomas More. Killing people he supposedly loved was nothing new for Henry, he’d be doing it his entire reign. Bordo writes,

“Henry was always capable of decisively and irrevocably turning off the switch of affection, love, tender feeling, and shared memories; striking a fatal blow; and refusing to look back. In fact, those whom he loved the most — Wolsey, More, Anne, Cromwell — were most at risk. Because he loved them, they had the most power to disappoint him…”

King Henry VIII, c.1535. Joos van Cleve. The Royal Collection.

King Henry VIII, c.1535. Joos van Cleve. The Royal Collection.

This is a personality that is so foreign to me that I was really fascinated by her application of the psychological concept of “splitting” to Henry. Now, don’t stress — Bordo isn’t trying to take modern psychology and apply it to someone who lived in a totally different time and culture. But she does talk about people with borderline personality disorder as a way to understand Henry’s personality type. She quotes Kreisman and Strauss (I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me, 1989):

“The world of a borderline, like that of a child, is split into heroes and villains. A child emotionally, the borderline cannot tolerate human inconsistencies and ambiguities; he cannot reconcile another’s good and bad qualities into a constant coherent understanding of that person. At any particular moment, one is either ‘good’ or ‘evil’; there is no in-between, no gray area … Lovers and mates, mothers and father, siblings … and friends may be idolized one day, totally devalued and dismissed the next.”

This sounds so appropriate to my understanding of Henry (and again, see our relevant discussion in the Wolf Hall podcast about whether Henry is a dudebro and/or an emotional 2 year old).

Hans Holbein the Younger. Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, 1532-1533. Frick Collection.

Hans Holbein the Younger. Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, 1532-1533. Frick Collection.

Also of interest given the 2015 TV series Wolf Hall, Bordo does look at Cromwell’s role in Anne’s fall. She argues that although Cromwell was Anne’s firm supporter for many years, he was “a man who was ever alert to the slightest changes in the weather of power politics…” and so when he sensed things weren’t going well for her, he wasn’t about to sink with her. Furthermore, she writes, “Cromwell and Anne … had a serious break brewing. Even though they shared the same ‘theory’ of reform … they disagreed sharply on what should be done with the spoils of disbanded churches and monasteries.” Counter to Hilary Mantel’s interpretation, which seems to argue that Cromwell was responding to Henry’s desire to rid himself of Anne, “Henry did not behave like someone looking to end his marriage until Cromwell put the [adultery and treason] allegations before him.”

Anne Boleyn as Mass-Media Creation

The second half of the book looks at how fiction and TV/movies have created our modern-day character of Anne Boleyn, who is frequently very different from what we know of the real historical person. I’m not going to get into all of the individual works that she examines, except to say that it’s very interesting to trace how specific works have added and detracted from the myth and how different eras bring their own understandings to Anne’s character.

I do, however, want to talk about some of the more recent TV series and movies that feature Anne Boleyn, since they’re things we’ve talked about on our blog and in our podcasts. Bordo did some really interesting interviews with actors and filmmakers that get into depth about what they were trying to achieve, and I really enjoyed learning more about that backstory (while at the same time, having Bordo there to analyze the differences between their aims and what ended up on screen). Among these, Bordo interviews Genvieve Bujold about Anne of the Thousand Days, and it’s interesting but nothing that I want to discuss here. Instead, I want to look at her interviews/analysis of The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl (book and movie), and Wolf Hall (novel).

2007-10 The Tudors

Natalie Dormer in The Tudors.

For The Tudors, she interviewed both Michael Hirst (the screenwriter) and Natalie Dormer (the actress who played Anne Boleyn). I was SHOCKED to learn that Hirst was actually most interested in doing a series about the Reformation and the politics, and he felt that using sex was the way to sell that. (I’m not shocked that he used sex to sell it, just shocked that he thought he was actually trying to seriously look at real history). I had forgotten that Hirst also wrote the screenplay for Shekar Kapur’s Elizabeth, but that seems relevant to mention. That interview is intertwined with Natalie Dormer, focusing on Dormer’s knowledge of history (she had hoped to study it at Cambridge but life intervened) and her desire to not “play her [Anne] as this femme fatale — she was a genuine evangelical with a real religious belief in the Reformation.” Hirst apparently wasn’t terribly interested in Anne during the first season and thought that Wolsey and More were far more interesting. While he admits to taking lots of liberties with the stories, Hirst rightly points out that “The Tudors got slammed for its gaps and inventions, [while] Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall gets nothing but praise for its liberties with history.”

Dormer “often felt ‘compromised’ by the way Anne’s character was written for the first season…” and says “I lost many hours of sleep and actually shed tears during my portrayal of her, trying to inject historical truth into the script, trying to do right by this woman whom I had read so much about.” Dormer was able to redeem Anne in The Tudors by convincing Hirst to tweak the character for the second half of the second season: “I remember saying to him: ‘Throw everything you’ve got at me. Promise me you’ll do that. I can do it. The politics, the religion, the personal stuff, throw everything you’ve got at me.'” According to Bordo,

“Hirst listened to her and took her seriously, and the result was a major change in the Anne Boleyn of the second season. Still sexy, but brainy, politically engaged and astute, a loving mother, and a committed reformist. Scenes were added, showing Anne talking to Henry about Tyndale, instructing her ladies-in-waiting about the English Bible, quarreling with Cromwell over the misuse of monastery money.”

Hirst said, “I wanted to show that she was a human being, a young woman placed in a really difficult and awful situation … but that she was also feisty and interesting and had a point of view and tried to use her powers to advanced what she believed in.”

2008 The Other Boleyn Girl

Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn in the big-budget movie version of The Other Boleyn Girl.

Bordo SERIOUSLY takes Philippa Gregory to task through her takedown of The Other Boleyn Girl (primarily the novel, but also the big-budget screen adaptation). She argues that Gregory presents Anne as “the wicked witch and Mary the long-suffering, virtuous heroine.” In addition to listing all of the MANY things TOBG gets wrong about Anne, Bordo criticizes Gregory for claiming that she 1) is a feminist and 2) respects the history. Despite stating in the book’s introduction and in multiple interviews that she’s ALL about not tinkering with the known history, Gregory incorporates almost every known myth and smear about Anne Boleyn in her book and adds more of her own: She had six fingers; she gave birth to a deformed child; she steals Henry from Mary; she has sex with her brother; and more. Given the massive popularity of TOBG novel, all of these things have now shaped many, MANY people’s understanding of Anne Boleyn.

wolf hall 2015

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall.

Analyses of the novel Wolf Hall are interspersed throughout this second half of the book. Among the interesting observations are:

“Ignoring the fact that Cromwell and Anne had many of the same religious commitments for most of Anne’s reign, Mantel paints Anne through Cromwell’s eyes as a predatory calculator, brittle, anxious, and cold — a view that Cromwell is unlikely to have held during the period that Wolf Hall takes place.”

Bring Up the Bodies, the second book, which deals with Anne’s fall, “goes even further, presenting a ‘theory’ about Anne’s fall that is quite different from what most historians now believe — namely, that Cromwell played the leading hand in cooking up the ruthless plot that cost Anne her life.”

Mantel warns her readers against taking her as “claiming [historical] authority” (I keep seeing the filmmakers and reviewers tout that Mantel spent “five years!” doing research, as though that means that she got it All Right). In fact, Mantel

“excludes some key historical material that … might cause readers to question (her) Cromwell’s view of Anne as a cold ‘strategist’ … ‘a woman without remorse’ who would ‘commit any sin or crime.’ Among the most famous material that she rejects are Anne’s eloquent speeches at her trial and on the scaffold, left out, Mantel says in her author’s note, because they ‘should be read with skepticism.’ The explanation via skepticism over the authenticity of this material is odd, not only because there are multiple corroborating reports of both speeches, but because she has just told readers that she claims no historical ‘authority’ for her version of things. Certainly, she doesn’t let history get in the way of other narrative choices.”

Later, Bordo writes, “Mantel is creating a fiction, of course, and can do what she wants. But if she gives herself such free reign with [accepted historical events] … it seems disingenuous to justify the absence of Anne’s speeches (and her final letter) on the basis of skepticism about their factual nature.”

Bordo argues that in the books, Anne “follows the old stereotype … as a scheming predator,” and that “Mantel’s Anne is not just an ‘offering’ of how Cromwell might have seen her, but Mantel’s own rejoinder to the more sympathetic portraits of other writes and filmmakers.”

Bordo notes all of the praise that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have gotten and wryly makes the observation that I think similarly applies to the TV adaptation (and, okay, MANY MANY other works of historical fiction): “Perhaps critics were afraid to question its fidelity to history because, like students in a high-theory college course, they were afraid of displaying their own ignorance.”

And although this book was published before the current TV adaptation, you can read Susan Bordo’s thoughts on it in this article: Why Not Just Admit It’s Fiction? A choice quote:

“Mantel[‘s novel] gives us portraits of people and events that are often factually unsupported and sometimes downright contradicted, and so far the series is following her lead. Its portrait of Anne Boleyn, for example, is a rather tired old stereotype of Anne as a coldly ambitious, narcissistic schemer that seems to be written more from the point of view of Anne’s political enemy Eustace Chapuys than Cromwell.”

In Summary:

The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating read. If you’re at all interested in Tudor history, Anne Boleyn, or any of the works of fiction (books/TV series/movies) that feature her, or historical fiction (including movies) in general, I strongly recommend you read this book. Not only is it chock full of interesting research and observations, it’s written in a very engaging, accessible style that will help you zip right through it.

Have you read The Creation of Anne Boleyn? Even if you haven’t, what do you think of author Susan Bordo’s take on Anne and Henry and her analyses of the various books, TV series, and movies mentioned?

7 Responses

  1. blanketknows

    I love this book and found her take on Philippa Gregory and TOBG to be particularly satisfying. I’ll admit I didn’t stick with the Tudors long enough to see how Natalie Dormer portrayed Anne in season 2 and have been meaning to check it out.

  2. Kendra

    The Gregory rant was REALLY satisfying, wasn’t it? I’m watching The Tudors right now and will report back on Anne Boleyn!

    • Julie Caskey

      I really actually like the Tudors version of Anne. She is multifaceted in a way that most other portrayals aren’t. Anne can be crafty but also vulnerable. She can also be fun and flirty but serious and religious. There are also a lot of great scenes with her and the men in her life like her father and uncle who push her to into many compromising situations. Season two is definitely worth watching!

  3. Katy

    Thanks so much for this excellent review! I’m no Tudor expert, my realm is that other notorious beheaded queen, Marie Antoinette, and a handful of the later Louis’ (XIV, XV, XVI), so in watching Wolf Hall I’ve been really curious about the portrayal of Anne Boleyn versus what she was really like. It seems like the last few Anne’s we’ve had have been scheming and manipulative bitches, and I’ve been having my doubts about the truth of that. Although I guess with a lack of primary documentation we won’t ever really know for sure.

    I will definitely be getting this book!