The perennial fascination of Anne Boleyn

19 March 2012

Anne Boleyn. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.’ – Anne Boleyn.

On the 19th May 1536, Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII stepped up onto a makeshift platform on Tower Green in the Tower of London and was swiftly beheaded by a French executioner who had been imported especially for this most dread and significant of occasions.

We don’t know what Anne, elegantly dressed as always in a dark grey damask gown teamed with a delightful ermine mantle, thought as she faced the large crowd that had assembled to watch her die. Her final words, no doubt spoken clearly with some irony and the rueful sparkle that had bewitched so many over the years, give nothing away but then they follow the prescribed pattern for what the Tudors believed made a ‘good’ and dignified public death.

Don’t you think there is a sense of cheerful relief at the end though, in that ‘And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me’? A feeling that Anne had not just accepted her doom but was pleased to embrace it.

Anne Boleyn. Photo: Hever Castle.

What would she make of the way she is regarded today, I wonder? In her own lifetime she appears to have been one of those strong, charismatic people who manage to inspire either fanatical devotion or intense loathing and very little in between. Like many such individuals, Anne seems to have embraced this and possibly even prided herself on it – after all, it’s better to be hated than to not be noticed at all. Or is it?

In the wider populace, which comprised people who would never meet her and were relying entirely on hearsay (as are we but never mind), she mostly seems to have inspired hatred. I often wonder precisely why that was – the older generations may have recalled to mind the upheaval of the civil wars of the previous century (you and I know them as the Wars of the Roses) and the issues caused by the lustful misadventures of Henry VIII’s handsome, rakish grandfather, Edward IV, who he was so similar to in looks if not temperment. His exquisitely beautiful Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, another ‘commoner’ with an allegedly dodgy past and a rapacious, ambitious family had also been disliked in much the same way as Anne was to be less than a century later.

Anne Boleyn. Photo: Hever Castle.

That princes and kings were supposed to marry demure foreign princesses with vast dowries was the accepted order of things and any transgression from this was unacceptable, it is clear. I’ve noted the same wave of envious nit picking rancour against Catherine Middleton, the new Duchess of Cambridge, complete with the same accusations of ‘social climbing relatives’, ‘nouveau riche extravagance’ and other Daily Mail like epithets that are seized upon by tiresome grouchmongers.

In Anne’s case, the envy and hatred reached a fever pitch flamed by her perceived role as a homebreaking slut, tempting Henry away from his wife. Any woman who had been ditched for a younger model was up in arms, seeing poor Katherine as one of their own and imbued with righteous loathing of her supplanter. The thing is though, that I believe that Henry was already fed up with Katherine long before Anne came on the scene and so if pretty winsome beguiling Mademoiselle Boleyne had not fluttered her dark lashes at him, it would have been someone else who ‘lured’ him away.

Anne Boleyn in the Tower, Edouard Cibot, 1835. Photo: Musée Rolin.

You see, Henry seems to me to be just the sort of person who when faced with an unpleasant decision would much rather passive aggressively get someone else to make it for them so that they can take the blame when it all goes wrong. Sound reminiscent of someone rather close to him and their behaviour with death warrants?

It’s all changed though since that grim day in May 1536. In fact it began to change almost immediately as Anne’s untimely and savage end inspired sympathy, even in people who had formerly delighted in criticising her. Victorian panegyric about the Martyred Queen and Patroness Of The Protestant Reformation who was furthermore mother to their heroine, Elizabeth I just sped matters along. Nowadays, historians take a more balanced view of both Anne Boleyn’s personality and her role in the Reformation but the overall opinion is one of tempered admiration for her strong mindedness, intelligence, charm and courage.

Last year, on the anniversary of her execution, her name was a trending topic on Twitter pretty much all day long with tweeted tributes still rolling in and dozens of people talking about why they love Anne Boleyn so much, with many, myself included, saying that she has been their heroine and idol since childhood. Would she have approved? I like to think so although she, a pragmatic and unsentimental realist may have thought we were slightly mad to care so much about her after such a long time.

Anne Boleyn, John Hoskins, 17th Century. Photo: In the Collection of Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry.

My love for Anne flourished when I was a very little girl and my grandfather used to tell me stories about Henry’s Queens and Lady Jane Grey at bedtime. He had been in the Scots Guards and used to do guard duty in the Tower of London (and Buckingham Palace but that gave rise to some very different royal tall tales!) in the 1950s. You may have seen him in his uniform actually – ever seen the old film Around the World in Eighty Days? My grandfather has a teeny tiny speaking role in it as one of the Scots Guards having a chat outside the palace gates – yes, they used real Scots Guards for the film!

Anyway, that’s where it all began – in ghostly tales about the long dead Queen. My grandmother, who was madly keen on the novels of Jean Plaidy and Norah Lofts made me a fabulous Anne Boleyn costume from a 1950s evening gown and only gently tried to persuade me out of wearing it to school every day. I went to primary school in Aberdeenshire so you can imagine how the sight of me swanning about dressed as Anne Boleyn went down, although a cursory look at Friends Reunited shows that it clearly did me no comparative harm.

Miniature possibly of Anne Boleyn, Lucas Horenbout. Photo: In the Collection of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury.

I still remember being taken to Hever Castle as a very little girl and wandering about in a state of wonder, gently touching the wood panelling and gazing out of windows, imaging Anne doing so and daydreaming about those long gone days.

My early passion for Anne Boleyn has never faded, although she has to jostle for headroom now with a whole host of other historical loves and inspirations. It’s funny but I get a tiny bit possessive when I see other people talking about their love for her but then I remind myself that Anne Boleyn was an enigma, a woman of mysterious allure whose true personality and motivation have been lost in the mists of time and realise that there is really a different Anne for each of us.

Recommended further reading:

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The Most Happy

The Lady In The Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn

You Might Also Like...