Reinventing a Controversial Historical Figure

Anne Boleyn: witch, bitch, temptress, feminist


We argue over her, we admire and revile her – we constantly reinvent her. Henry VIII’s second wife is one of the most controversial women in English history

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is the sequel to the Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall.

Anne Boleyn wasn’t exactly a Protestant, but she was a reformer, an evangelical; and the sixth finger, which no one saw in her lifetime, was a fragment of black propaganda directed at her daughter, Elizabeth I. In Elizabeth’s reign it was the duty of beleaguered papists to demonstrate that the queen’s mother had been physically and spiritually deformed. Hence, not just the extra finger but the “wen” on her throat, which supposedly she hid with jewellery: hence the deformed foetus to which she was said to have given birth. There is no evidence that this monster baby ever existed, yet some modern historians and novelists insist on prolonging its poor life, attracted to the most lurid version of events they can devise.

Anne Boleyn is one of the most controversial women in English history; we argue over her, we pity and admire and revile her, we reinvent her in every generation. She takes on the colour of our fantasies and is shaped by our preoccupations: witch, bitch, feminist, sexual temptress, cold opportunist. She is a real woman who has acquired an archetypal status and force, and one who patrols the nightmares of good wives; she is the guilt-free predator, the man-stealer, the woman who sets out her sexual wares and extorts a fantastic price. She is also the mistress who, by marrying her lover, creates a job vacancy. Her rise is glittering, her fall sordid. God pays her out. The dead take revenge on the living. The moral order is reasserted.

Much of what we think we know about Anne melts away on close inspection. We can’t say for certain what year she was born, and there are many things we don’t understand about how her violent death was contrived. Holbein created incisive portraits of Henry VIII and his courtiers, but there is no reliable contemporary likeness of Anne. The oval face, the golden “B” with the pendant pearls: the familiar image and its many variants are reconstructions, more or less romantic, prettified. The fact that some antique hand has written her name on a portrait does not mean that we are looking at Henry’s second queen. Her image, her reputation, her life history is nebulous, a drifting cloud, a mist with certain points of colour and definition. Her eyes, it was said, were “black and beautiful”. On her coronation day she walked the length of Westminster Abbey on a cloth of heaven-blue. Twice in her life at least she wore a yellow dress: once at her debut at court in 1521, and again near the end of her life, on the frozen winter’s day when, on learning of the death of Henry’s first queen, she danced.

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~ by eneryvibes on 1,May 25, 2012.

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