In search of the real Anne Boleyn…
Think you know everything there is to know about Anne Boleyn? Susan Bordo is here to tell you differently. The concrete information about Anne (her appearance, her words, her goals and dreams, her personality, her religious faith) has been lost to time – largely erased by her vengeful husband Henry VIII and other numerous enemies to eliminate her from the record. So why do you think you know so much about Anne? Because Bordo shows that our ideas, the very facts, you and I think we know about Anne are predominantly the constructs of others, many of whom had an ax to grind with the former queen.
Bordo does a phenomenal job highlighting the inconsistencies in the various descriptions of Anne we have come to rely upon (Was she really dark haired? Was she extraordinarily ruthless? Did she really have six fingers? Did she really sleep with her brother?), some of which have been irresponsibly perpetuated by well-regarded historical scholars. Some accusations are fantastic: Anne had witches’ marks (moles) all over her body, she had a goiter, she had an enormous wart on her face. Others are equally fanciful if a bit more subtle and harder to disprove: she ensnared Henry by witchcraft, she was the predominant force for Protestantism in the country, she encouraged Henry to horribly mistreat his daughter Mary.
Most of Anne’s story has never been hers at all – she was never allowed to tell it. Instead, we have the records written by her sworn enemies, Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador and devoted supporter of Catherine of Aragon, for one. Bordo explains that many, both professional and amateur alike, have fallen prey to the irresistible myth of Anne as seductress, vixen, manipulator, and power-hungry witch. But do those stories represent any fact whatsoever? Or were they rather the machinations of Anne’s contemporary Catholic enemies, influential people who would stop at nothing to keep her from rising to power? Bordo argues that Anne was probably guilty of no greater sins than being a strong-willed, well-educated, Protestant, Francophile who took a great risk by stepping beyond the strictly established bounds for a woman and a wife. In fact, Bardo points out that at her trial, Anne denies the accusations of adultery and treason and instead says that (paraphrasing) she was guilty of “lacking humility” when it came to her husband, admitting only to the sin of overstepping her wifely bounds and not the other sins heaped upon her by others.
Anne’s more modern biographers have not always been so kind or concerned about fact either. Let’s face it. Sex and intrigue sell, so as Bordo points out, even modern tv shows like “The Tudors” heavily promote the image of Anne (as played by Natalie Dormer) as the raven-haired vixen who lured Henry into her bed and manipulated him for her own ends. So even modern observers have fallen prey to highly fictional portrayals of Anne’s life that have been taken as fact. Sadly, these myths have been perpetuated for so long that fantasy becomes reality.
Bordo’s book is absolutely fascinating. She points out how it is truly impossible to know much specific about Anne at all. Her portraits were burned, her letters destroyed, and her history manipulated by outsiders with their own agendas. Unless some remarkable artifact is uncovered in the future, Anne’s story will remain mysterious and her commentators past and present will hold more sway over her image than she herself did. I for one have always been interested in history’s perception of historical women, and Anne is no exception. The fact that many tried to co-opt Anne’s legacy for their own reasons shows how sad but how often it is that a historical woman has no say whatsoever in her own tale.
Bordo uses investigative research to smash our preconceived notions and hold up a mirror to history’s prejudices. She leaves us not so much with a clearer picture of Anne than a clearer picture of ourselves, as ones with a tendency to rush to judgement and a readiness to fall for the juiciest tale, whether substantiated or not. This is a real treat for those interested in “the truth” in historical research and how cultural psychology can bend and sway that “truth” over the years. Highly recommended!
Amazon link for the book is here.