Anne Boleyn’s voice: lost to the past, or louder than ever?
The new Netflix series Blood, Sex and Royalty, part documentary and part drama, offers a modern take on the second and most scandalous of the wives of Henry VIII. But, as historian Tracy Borman explores, that doesn’t mean it is an inauthentic portrayal of Anne Boleyn, a firebrand and a rule breaker…
“And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best.” Anne Boleyn spoke these words from the scaffold on 19 May 1536. Seconds later, the Calais swordsman whom her estranged husband Henry VIII had thoughtfully arranged beheaded her with a single stroke.
Since that day, scholars, novelists, filmmakers, bloggers and the like from across the world have taken up Anne’s challenge to “meddle” in her cause and tell her story. In the process, she has been variously portrayed as a scheming back-stabber, wicked temptress, betrayed wife, and tragic heroine. The depictions have varied so wildly because, despite being the most famous and scandalous of Henry’s six wives, she left precious few traces of her own voice behind.
- Read more | The final days of Anne Boleyn: why did she die?
In part, this was deliberate: Anne was by nature an enigma. She liked to be mysterious, to keep people guessing. But there was also a deliberate destruction of Anne’s memory in the wake of her dramatic fall from grace. Henry was known for airbrushing former wives and favourites from history, and Anne was no exception. While 17 of his love letters to her survive, there are none of her replies. In the voluminous collection of state papers and personal correspondence from the 1500s, there is just a smattering of documents written by Anne Boleyn; most of her words were recorded by others, which were almost without exception from hostile contemporaries so cannot be relied upon.
Yet the evidence that can be gleaned from archives and portraits, the places she lived and the people she knew, fragmentary though it may be, still provide some revealing insights into this fascinating enigma. They have helped shape the numerous versions of Anne in film and television, with the most recent being in the new Netflix series, Blood, Sex & Royalty.
Played by Amy James-Kelly, this Anne Boleyn is a feisty, outspoken, fiercely intelligent woman who defies the male-dominated world of the Tudors and seizes control of her own destiny. She is a passionate advocate for female education at a time when most of society saw that as a waste of time; she promotes radical religious reform, even though it places her in danger; and she has one of the most feared monarchs in Europe eating out of the palm of her hand.
In short, she is the closest thing that Tudor England could have to a feminist (until, that is, her daughter Elizabeth takes the throne). Undoubtedly, Blood, Sex & Royalty gives us a startlingly modern take on Anne, and yet it could be argued that it is a more fully rounded – and authentic – portrayal than the traditional tragic heroine who is considered only in the context of her relationship with Henry (played by Max Parker in the series).
- Read more | Was Anne Boleyn a 16th-century feminist?
Born to the ambitious courtier Thomas Boleyn and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, she was likely the second of three surviving children. The Boleyn family had transformed from obscure tenant farmers into titled gentry with a presence at court thanks to a combination of political cunning and advantageous marriages. The family position, and her father’s connections, meant Anne enjoyed a far superior upbringing and education than most of her female contemporaries.
A natural scholar, she was described as exceptionally “toward” by her proud father, who secured her a place at the court of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, when she was only about 12 years old. It was a finishing school like no other, giving Anne an excellent grounding in languages and exposing her to some of the most brilliant minds of the European Renaissance, including Erasmus.
This was a world in which women wielded power, and did so brilliantly
Whilst there, she became familiar with the works of Christine de Pizan, a poet and prolific writer who condemned the commonly held idea that women were intellectually inferior to men and celebrated the achievements of successful female scholars and leaders. Then when Anne was at the French court, spending several years there after leaving the Netherlands in 1514, she found even more inspiring examples of female leadership. She forged a close friendship with the king’s sister Marguerite de Navarre, an influential figure of the French Renaissance; the king’s mother, Louise of Savoy, was also a dominant force at court. This was a world in which women wielded power, and did so brilliantly.
It was a lesson Anne never forgot. From the moment of her first appearance at the court of Henry VIII – 500 years ago now – she made it clear that she was a woman like no other. Her continental sophistication made the English ladies seem positively provincial. “For behaviour, manners, attire and tongue she excelled them all,” enthused one admiring courtier.
Anne Boleyn certainly knew how to make an impression: when the king first clapped eyes on her, she was playing the part of Perseverance in a court performance about virtues. It would prove fitting, given what happened next. By 1526, everyone knew that Anne was the king’s new love interest. He wandered the court like a lovesick puppy, declaring that he had been “struck with the dart of love.”
More like this
The object of Henry’s affections, however, was keeping him at arms’ length. Anne had learned from the example of her predecessors – including her own sister, Mary – and refused to become a mere mistress who could be easily discarded. The more she played hard to get, the more the king, who loved nothing more than the thrill of the chase, was driven to extreme measures to have her.
When the pope refused to play ball by annulling Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he took the drastic step of separating England from Roman Catholic Europe and creating a new church over which he was supreme head. All of this had been encouraged by Anne, who had introduced her royal suitor to the radical new religious ideas that were sweeping across the continent and became collectively known as the Reformation.
Anne Boleyn was finally crowned queen in June 1533, by which time she was already heavily pregnant. Joyfully anticipating the birth of the male heir that he so desperately needed, Henry planned a series of lavish celebrations. But on 7 September, they had to be cancelled when news reached him that his queen had given birth to a girl.
The birth of the future Elizabeth I was a bitter disappointment to Henry, and the beginning of the end for Anne. The fiery nature that had been so irresistibly attractive before their marriage was wearisome in a wife and one sharp-eyed ambassador noted that he “shrank from her.” He also began to indulge in affairs, and bluntly told Anne when she complained to “shut her eyes and endure.”
Anne went on to suffer a number of miscarriages, the last of them in January 1536 – on the day that her erstwhile rival, Catherine of Aragon, was buried. Apparently, the foetus was well enough developed for the midwives to tell that it was a boy. For Henry, this was the last straw. He privately instructed his ruthlessly efficient chief minister Thomas Cromwell to get him out of the marriage. Trumped up charges of treason and adultery with five men, including her own brother, were levelled at Anne, of which she was almost certainly innocent. Still, the king had already sent for the executioner in Calais before the trial even took place.
Elizabeth I dedicated much of her 45-year reign to avenging the injustice of her mother’s fate
With her flame-red hair and mercurial temper, Elizabeth may have resembled her father, but in temperament, ambition and statecraft she was her mother’s daughter. Both women broke the mould that Tudor society had created for queens – and, indeed, for women in general. Elizabeth I became a ruler of whom Anne would have been inordinately proud; the sort of queen she herself might have become if her life had not been cut so brutally short. There is a delicious irony that the child who had been the bitterest disappointment to Henry would go on to become the longest-reigning and most successful of his heirs.
Elizabeth dedicated much of her 45-year reign to avenging the injustice of her mother’s fate. Courtiers soon learned that honouring Anne’s memory was the surest means to win the favour of the queen. This sparked a rush of essays, pamphlets and portraits, all glorifying the woman who had ousted the “beast of Rome”, ushered in a new and enlightened church, patronised scholars and artists, promoted social reform, and changed England for the better. As a result, through her daughter, Anne regained her lost voice.
And yet, during the centuries that followed, the tragedy of Anne’s downfall overshadowed the achievements that Elizabeth and her courtiers celebrated. With this new series, even with its modern take, there is a chance for the real Anne Boleyn to be brought out of the shadows once more: the religious firebrand, visionary thinker and, above all, a woman who broke all the rules.
Tracy Borman is a historian and author, and was the historical adviser to the new series Blood, Sex & Royalty, streaming on Netflix. Her forthcoming book is Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I: The Mother and Daughter Who Made History (Hodder & Stoughton, 2023)
Blood, Sex & Royalty premieres on 23 November 2022 only on Netflix
Enhance the festive season with a subscription to BBC History Magazine + David Mitchell's latest masterpiece UNRULY - signed and hardback!
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99