Anne Boleyn’s story has beguiled audiences for centuries. From the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century to the sexed-up Showtime series The Tudors (2007–10), there has been no shortage of representations of Anne Boleyn in books and on the screen. Our desire to see dramatisations of one of history’s most infamous queens seems inexhaustible.
Historical fiction latches onto the gaps in history and fills them with the imagination. Anne Boleyn was so controversial in her own time that it is difficult to know much about her character with any certainty. We know dates and events, but we don’t know exactly how she felt or what her motivations might have been. That provides a nice gap for the historical novelist, who can imagine how she might have felt about Henry VIII, for example. Even what she looked like is a matter of debate; she is variously described in sources as plain, sallow, captivating, glamorous and charismatic. According to the Catholic writer Nicholas Sanders, Anne had six fingers on one hand and a goitre [swelling] on her neck, but he was writing religious propaganda around 40 years after her death; hardly the most objective of observers.
The recent announcement of one new Anne Boleyn drama has already caused quite a stir. Channel 5 will reimagine Anne’s story as a psychological thriller, starring Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen and Slim) as Anne, and with historian Dan Jones serving as executive producer. Predictably, much of the conversation about the show has centred on the prospect of Turner-Smith, a black actor, playing the role of Henry VIII’s second and most infamous wife. But those who know their film history would note that this series actually marks the second time that a BAME actor has portrayed Anne Boleyn on the screen; Merle Oberon played Anne Boleyn in Alexander Korda’s 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII. Oberon was of Anglo-Indian descent but claimed to be Australian in order to mask her ethnicity. The truth was only unravelled when the Lord Mayor of Hobart discovered shortly before a reception in her honour that there was no evidence that she had been born in Tasmania, as she had claimed.
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Colour-blind casting – the practice of casting a role without reference to the ethnicity of the actor – is also not new to adaptations of Anne’s story. The musical Six, written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss and first performed in 2017, reimagines the six wives of Henry VIII as pop stars. It has been quietly employing a colour-blind casting policy since the show’s debut in 2017, ensuring that all Henry’s queens have been variously portrayed by diverse actors. Marlow and Moss quite purposefully write against the accepted Anne Boleyn mythology: instead of giving us an ambitious, scheming Anne, the Anne of Six is an agent of mindless chaos. As she sings in her solo “Don’t Lose Ur Head”, she “didn’t really mean it, but what was I meant to do?” By the end of the musical, Henry’s wives give themselves the happy endings that history has denied them; Anne is “now writing lyrics for Shakesy P.”
Channel Five’s fresh interpretation of the story of Anne’s rise and fall might strike some as surprising but, in fact, new and far more unusual ways of thinking and writing about Anne Boleyn have been a feature for centuries. In researching my new book, The Afterlife of Anne Boleyn: Representations of Anne Boleyn in Fiction and on the Screen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), I read hundreds of novels, plays and poems about Anne Boleyn. These are only a few of the surprising things I found. Hold on your kirtles: things are about to get weird…
Anne in Heaven and Hell
If you could visit Anne in the afterlife, what would she say? Writer Sarah Fielding first imagined that prospect in the mid-18th century. Fielding’s account of Anne in the afterlife, which appears in her brother Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel A Journey from this World to the Next, features a wise, slightly weary Anne, who outlines how she has always been taken advantage of by the men who surround her. Far stranger is the Anne who appears in Robert Olen Butler’s novel Hell (2009). As the title suggests, this Anne is in Hell (don’t worry – so is Henry) and sleeping with a 20th-century newsreader. Sometimes her head comes off at inopportune moments, though, and she has quite the penchant for tight jeans.
High school Anne
Far more recently, a new trend in historical fiction for young adults has given us a whole new vision of Anne: the high school girl. In these novels, Anne is the sexy and mysterious outsider who tempts Henry away from his perfect girlfriend, Catherine. Anne and Henry ends with Anne driven out of town after she gets scandalously drunk at a party; a modern and thankfully less bloody version of her trial. The Dead Queens Club recasts the story as a feminist revenge narrative, in which all Henry’s surviving wives (reimagined as his girlfriends) team up in a girl gang to take Henry down. The pressure-cooker atmosphere of a high school is a surprisingly good analogue to the gossipy, volatile world of the Tudor court.
In the wake of the novels Twilight and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Anne has also recently been transformed into a werewolf, a vampire, and other gothic monsters. In AE Moorat’s Henry VIII: Wolfman (2010), both Anne and Henry become werewolves, but while Henry tries to control his wolfish desires, Anne embraces them. In Kate Pearce’s Blood of the Rose (2011), Anne is an evil vampire who plans to use her power over Henry to help her vampire brethren take over England. In Cinsearae S’s Boleyn: Tudor Vampire, Anne becomes a vampire at her execution and devotes her afterlife to tormenting Henry and her enemies.
The spirit of Anne is said to haunt many of the historic homes in which she lives – and ghostly Annes frequently appear in fiction, sometimes haunting Henry and occasionally Jane Seymour; Natalie Dormer appears as the ghost of Anne Boleyn in The Tudors. The ghost of Anne even hangs out with other royal ghosts, such as the Princes in the Tower and Mary, Queen of Scots, as she does in RB Swan’s novel The Tower of London (2014).
Anne the witch
It has long been believed that Anne was accused of witchcraft at her trial, but this is a myth that developed in the 20th century. In 1931, anthropologist Margaret Murray argued that Anne was an adherent of Paganism and engaged in witchcraft. In her 1979 biography of Anne, the novelist Norah Lofts described Anne as an active Satanist, and claims to have spotted Anne’s familiar – a hare – leaping over the grounds at Salle Church in Norfolk.
The belief that Anne was a witch, or at least was accused of witchcraft, has bled into popular culture. A painting of Anne hangs in the halls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, and Anne is an ancestor of Sabrina Spellman’s coven in Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
Anne the time traveller
Time travel fiction offers a juicy possibility: what if you could save Anne Boleyn from her fate? Time travel novels offer Anne that possibility but, surprisingly, it is one she often rejects. In Nancy Kress’s short story ‘And Wild for to Hold’ (1991), Anne is captured and brought into the future by a group who want to prevent the religious chaos that resulted from the English Reformation. Anne, however, is outraged and insists upon returning to her own time, even if means walking to her execution.
Lillian Stuart Carl’s short story ‘A Rose With All Its Thorns’ (1999) however, gives a modern academic the chance to bring Anne’s consciousness into the future and into her own body, in order to validate her thesis that Anne was a victim of sexual harassment. She finds, to her shock, that Anne is actually a sexually aggressive woman who enjoys flirting and power. Sarah Morris’s two-volume series Le Temps Viendra (2012–3) does not bring Anne into the future, but propels her heroine (also named Anne) into the past. Morris’s Anne is an enthusiastic Anne Boleyn fan, and soon finds that life in the Tudor court is far more satisfactory than life in her own time. There’s even a time travel novel in which Anne travels to the future and becomes part of a lesbian threesome…
The long and surprising history of fiction about Anne suggests that we will always find new ways of telling Anne’s story. Her story continues to beguile us, and historical novelists will always find new ways of filling in those gaps in her story. What haven’t I seen during my research into portrayals of Anne through time? There’s perhaps an opening for more stories about Anne set outside of earth. Watch this space…
Dr Stephanie Russo is the author of The Afterlife of Anne Boleyn: Representations of Anne Boleyn in Fiction and on the Screen (2020)