Anne Boleyn is the most famous of King Henry VIII’s six wives because every era creates their own version of her that best suits the times. Changing attitudes toward women over the centuries also changed Anne’s reputation. In The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, feminist scholar Susan Bordo reveals just how little we know of Anne’s actual relationship with Henry VIII then provides as fascinating cultural history of the famous queen over the centuries.
In the reign of Mary I, the stepdaughter who blamed Anne for the collapse of her parents’ marriage, the queen was a scheming temptress, leading Henry VIII away from the papacy with her feminine wiles. In the reign of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, Anne was reborn as the Protestant champion who brought much needed religious reform to England. This religious reputation persisted into the seventeenth century.
In the 19th century, much of the English public viewed Anne Boleyn as the innocent victim of Tudor tyranny similar to Lady Jane Grey. Jane Austen believed that Anne was indeed an innocent victim while Charles Dickens broke with prevailing wisdom to suggest that she might have been the author of her own demise. The historical novels of the 20th century introduced a new Anne Boleyn, the plucky, vivacious young woman who was destroyed by her ambition and her marriage to Henry VIII. In the 1969 film, Anne Of The Thousand Days, Anne openly challenges the King until the end of her life, suffering a marriage that ends disastrously because their passions only briefly overlap.
For the twenty-first century, historical novelist Philippa Gregory revived the old sixteenth century image of Anne the scheming temptress, stopping at nothing to achieve her ambitions in The Other Boleyn Girl. Meanwhile, actress Natalie Dormer portrayed an Anne who was intelligent as well as alluring in the Showtime series, The Tudors, an interpretation that has made Anne an inspiration to countless young women.
After Anne was executed in 1536, Henry VIII appears to have destroyed her letters to him as well as her portraits painted from life. As a result, much of what historians know about the relationship between Henry and Anne comes the dispatches of Eustace Chapuys, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s Ambassador to England. Chapuys was a strong supporter of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, his master’s Aunt, and inevitably described Anne in extremely negative terms. Despite the clear bias of Chapuys’ writings, Bordo reveals that they had a profound impact on future scholars and novelists alike, creating a received wisdom about Anne’s ambition, character and sexuality. Balanced and critical biographies, such as The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: ‘The Most Happy’ by Eric Ives are comparatively few.
Bordo’s work stands out from all other scholarship about Anne Boleyn because she takes the popular influence of historical fiction seriously. Historians rarely engage with fictional portrayals of historical figures beyond the most famous works such as William Shakespeare’s plays. Bordo’s research shows that so many aspects of Anne Boleyn’s life that the public believes it “knows” actually emerged from fictional accounts that became received wisdom.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Bordo’s work is her interviews with the various actresses who played Anne Boleyn over the decades including Geneviève Bujold from Anne Of The Thousand Days and Natalie Dormer from The Tudors. Both Bujold and Dormer did their own research about Anne Boleyn’s life and brought new insights to their portrayals of the famous queen. In contrast the cast of the 2008 film version of The Other Boleyn Girl appear to have been almost entirely ignorant of both the actual historical figures they portrayed and the nature of historical scholarship.
I highly recommend The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen to anyone interested in either the historical Anne Boleyn or the broader impact of popular culture and changing attitudes toward women on historical figures. I hope that additional books of this kind are written about other women in history with a significant modern pop culture presence including Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia and her daughters and Anne Boleyn’s own daughter Elizabeth I.