Some Very Good Reasons to Love Anne Boleyn

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The Rose of Hever

I was first fascinated by Tudor history as a teen, after a chance encounter with a book at the library. I’d heard about the King with all the wives, of course, but never really given it much thought before I started reading about it. Then I was mesmerized: this was medieval soap opera; Dynasty and Falcon Crest was nothing compared to these real life characters and their games of power and love.

I was particularly taken with Anne Boleyn: the English girl who knocked a Spanish Princess off the throne, gave birth to the greatest Queen of all time – and was beheaded for her efforts. She seemed to me the perfect villain: dangerous and seductive. Of course, several books later, I know that the picture wasn’t as one dimensional as that.

She still was something, though: a strong force of will, with intelligence and ambition, and I think it’s wonderful that’s she’s become so popular after all the books, movies and TV-series about the area. By this modern day revival she’s getting more fame than she could ever have hoped for in her own time, and by consequence: the total condemnation of the King – her killer, which does nothing to build the glorious reputation in history he was so dearly hoping for… The justice is rather poetic…

I have come to see Anne as a woman ahead of her time, unable to completely adjust to the expectations of the society she was part of. I also see her as extremely intelligent – as evident in her daughter, Elizabeth I, who must have gotten her brains from somewhere, and it surely wasn’t the King. I think Anne was able to clearly see what tools was at her disposal and use them with cunning to reach her goals. It cost her her life – obviously – but it was a daring adventure…

Here are some very good reasons to love Anne Boleyn:

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The facial reconstruction of Anne Boleyn by Emily Pooley

SHE WAS NOT BEAUTIFUL – despite being portrayed as the ultimate femme fatale, and the cause of Henry VIII’s breech with the Catholic Church, Anne was not a contemporary beauty. In Tudor times the ideal woman was tall, slender and fair, and Anne was none of that. She had allure, tough, and beautiful eyes. Mostly it was her sophistication and style that made her stand out from the crowd of women at court.

Note for the nerd: None of the existing portraits of Anne are contemporary (but for a tiny one in a medallion), but copies of copies, popular among castle owners back in the days. We can’t be sure how much they resembles her. A facial reconstruction was done based on the paintings combined, but again: we can’t be sure. What we do have is contemporary descriptions.

SHE WAS EDUCATED – first at Margaret of Austria’s court, later in France. In addition to the formal education, one can imagine that the informal knowledge she gathered abroad; attending the the hottest courts in Europe, also worked to her advantage when she returned to England. She was probably pretty cutting edge back then.

SHE WAS AMBITIOUS – there are many theories about Anne being a pawn for her uncle and father. That they practically sold her out to secure benefits for their families. I don’t believe that. I have problems seeing her as the victim of anything, other than her husband. The way to power was through marriage for a woman in those days, she merely aimed high, and used the chivalrous game of courtship – very popular at the time – to her advantage, and by applying delayed gratification as a weapon.

The Queen (Catherine of Aragon) was childless and “old”, the King needed and heir, and was also a sap with a large, insatiable ego. It was possible, it could be done – if one had the stomach for it.

Did she love the King? Maybe… He was the King, you had to love him, or be a traitor.  I also think she was taken with the possibilities he represented. But I don’t necessarily think he was a man she would have chosen if he wasn’t the King. He seems like a lot of work…

Boleyn

Replica hanging above by my work space

HER TASTE – if not in men… Not only had Anne been abroad and seen the world, and brought back some styling tips from the rest of Europe, but she refined it into her own distinctive style: the dark gowns, the French hood (as opposed to the more traditional gable hood), an extensive use of furs, and her iconic B-necklace (which I, as a Bruce working at Belladonna, is very fond of), were trademark exclusives and trendsetting a the time. Another way of setting herself apart and using the tools at her disposal to reach her dizzying goals.

HER EXECUTION –  even her death was super special. Instead of the ax, she was beheaded with a sword – in the French fashion; quicker, neater and a tad more refined. Not to mention that the trial that preceded her death was scandalous: treachery and adultery was as popular then as it is now. When she eventually fell, she fell hard – and with style, taking four (more or less) innocent men with her.

The real reasons for her beheading was probably the inability to produce a son – but also, I think, that the relationship with the King cooled as soon as they could actually have each other. Happens a lot – and not only in royal bedchambers. We all know the story: boy meets girls and vice versa, and load all their expectations, dreams and hopes onto that person who seems to be the answer to everything that is wrong in this world. And then; by the end of the day, they are forced to realize the loved one is just a person, and gets horribly disappointed. Henry is probably not the only one who feels a need to reach for the ax at that point.

The first time I visited the Tower I was seventeen, and felt like I was at a rock concert with my favorite band. The Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula, where Anne was buried after her execution,  was closed to the public, but I latched on to a group of German tourists who had a private tour, and got inside anyway. The stone floor was not very interesting, and no ghostly apparition appeared, but it still felt special to me. Like I’d reached the natural end to countless hours of reading. My very own Tudor pilgrimage.

Elisabeth I at her coronation

Elisabeth I at her coronation

HER DAUGHTER – Elisabeth I, the Queen who made spinsterhood cool. She reigned for almost fifty years, during England’s Golden Age.  She met Shakespeare, conquered new worlds, beat the Spanish armada and bleached her skin with arsenic. But she never married – and despite all the good reasons given at the time and now, I suspect that much of the reason why is to be found in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vidcula. Marriage can hardly be seen as safe when your mother had an ending like that.

HER HEADLESS GHOST – is drifting at the Tower Green. It’s not a bad accomplishment to be one of the famed ghosts at the Tower of London, in company with bears, traitors and murdered little princes.

THE WITCHCRAFT RUMORS – Though the general aim these days is to clean Anne of all smears and condemn those who condemned her, I still find the witchcraft rumors fascinating. Whispers of classic signs of witchery, like odd moles or an extra finger – her dangerous eyes, were flourishing in her own time, especially before she replaced Catherine as Queen. That the child in her last miscarriage was deformed (unconfirmed) only strengthened the whispers. The things she was tried for: adultery and incest, are also in tune with the idea of the witch as a wanton and unrestrained creature.

It was also, of course, a very easy way to explain how the (beloved) King would suddenly turn on his (beloved) Queen after years of marriage. He was certainly not to blame: he had merely been bewitched.

I honestly believe that Henry, who thought himself very special to God, would take any sign of misfortune personally. I can believe that he was scared by the miscarriages and the lack of male issue – and since he himself was special to God, it had to be her there was something wrong with. Maybe he even thought she was a witch. Must’ve been bitter though, to sit there alone, late at night, after having tossed aside your Spanish wife and broken with the Catholic Church, and think that they might have be right after all – that Anne was a very bad apple…

Not quite a love story…

But Anne lives on in all her new and intriguing incarnations, and for that I’m sure she’d be very pleased.

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”Le temps viendra”, “the time will come”, Anne Boleyn in her Book of Hours, ca. 1450

 

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