Monday, September 16, 2013

Anne Boleyn

If you follow me on Goodreads you might have noticed that I have been reading a lot about Tudor history, especially everything related to Anne Boleyn. She has become a new obsession to me, for many different reasons. The first and the most obvious is that she is some sort of enigma belonging to one of the most interesting periods of English history. She was the first queen to ever be sentenced to death, she was a reformer, and the mother of the most glorious queen England has ever had: Elizabeth I. 

What also caught my interest is the way she has been described, shown and portrayed throughout the years. She has either been a saint or a whore, depending on the point of view, and the latter has always been the most popular. This polarization bothers me but does not surprise me. Until some time ago (and sometimes even today) women belonged to either one of two categories: the angel or the devil, the saint or the whore, the poor victim or the tyrant, there was nothing in between. Well, human nature is not like that, no one is just one thing or completely one thing. No one is purely evil (maybe except Voldemort) or absolutely good. Humans are a complex combination of personality traits, feelings, contradictions, thoughts, impulses, etc. We have too many layers so labels are just rubbish. Anne Boleyn is not the first woman to have been labeled thus, and she’s certainly not the last. For example, if we look at the other Tudor women, we will see the same thing: poor and saintly Katherine of Aragon, poor Mary, who was horribly treated and bastardized by her father (although she later became Bloody Mary, with no in-between whatsoever), good and obedient Jane Seymour, horrible adulteress Katherine Howard. You see what I mean.

Among all of these women, Anne has been perhaps the most slandered and the most polarized by the public, historians, writers and filmmakers.  Let us briefly look at the facts to plainly see why there is more than what we see on the surface of the story of this unforgettable Queen:
She was accused of having slept with several different men, including her own brother and of having slandered the King by making offensive comments about his virility and such. Most historians now agree that the accusations have no evidence, are based simply on hearsay from people who didn’t like her. The dates and places do not correspond. If you look at the three years she was married to King Henry, she was either pregnant, had just given birth to Elizabeth or was recovering from miscarriages. When had she so much time (and strength) to have all these love affairs?

If Anne is guilty of something is that she was very proud. One of the things she wanted most was to be truly recognized as a Queen, to be respected as one. Do you think a woman like that would have lowered herself by having an affair with Mark Smeaton (the only one to confess to having an affair with Anne), a servant? His confession was obtained after spending some time with Thomas Cromwell and he was probably tortured.
But I will leave the history facts to the experts.

I have come to admire her because she was an outstanding woman in her context. In a time where women were supposed to be docile and obedient, she was outspoken and demanding; in a time where the ideal of beauty were blonde women with blue eyes, she was a dark beauty with expressive dark eyes. She had a mind of her own, was very independent, considering her context of course, and very much ahead of her time. She was not a puppet the King could rule so easily. This was perhaps the reason why he became obsessed with her and also, the reason he got tired of her.  I don’t think she was the saintly, helpless victim the Protestant historians described, nor the monstrous whore, the "scandal of Christendom", the Catholics (and then the public opinion and tradition) described: she definitely knew how to play the game, how to get what she wanted, how to move ahead, and she did it quite successfully for a long time, but that was ultimately her own demise because the time was not ready for a woman like her. She had many flaws but she was not the great whore, the seductive temptress, the reason for Henry’s tyranny. This is the Adam and Eve story all over again. This is how the world wants Anne to be, not how she necessarily was.

There’s so much we don’t know about her, so many voids, so many grey areas. That is part of what feeds my obsession, of wanting to discover more about her, even a little piece that allows me to see her more clearly. 

I want to think (and this is my romantic and idealistic part) that Elizabeth’s success and golden age had a lot to do with the personality traits she inherited from her mother and what she knew about her. She was a strong-minded, stubborn woman who led her country to glory. Elizabeth never married; she famously said “I will have but one mistress and no master”. I think (I want to think) that she learned that from her mother’s tragedy.

These are the non-fiction / history books I have read about the Tudors:
- Tudors (History of England Vol. 2) - Peter Ackroyd
- The Wives of Henry the Eighth and the parts they played in History - Martin Andrew Sharp Hume
- The History of England Volume I - David Hume
- Life in a Tudor Palace - Christopher Gidlow
- The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen - Susan Bordo
- The Reign of Mary Tudor - J.A. Froude (currently reading)
- The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn - Eric Ives (currently reading)
- The Love Letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn with Notes

Fiction books I have read based on the Tudors:
- Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
- Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel


Lucy said...

This is a fascinating post, thanks Melissa! You're becoming quite the authority on the Tudors :)

I'm going to return to your post a few times in the next day or so and then comment properly, but for now, great post!

I think being away from England would be the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about the Tudors too :)

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Thank you Lucy! I'm really in love with Tudor history :)

Lucy said...

Hi Melissa,

I've finally got round to reading your post properly! Anne was a fascinating woman, and you've summarised so well how history has always seemed to polarise her into one category or another. Like you've said, this happened to so many women of the time, and in some cases it's only just starting to come out how they really were.

Hopefully modern historians will continue working hard to form a wider, more complex image of Tudor women, so that we can move away from the either/or and respect both the strength and weakness and the success and failings of such women.

I'm sure there's so much more about Anne that's still to come out from history.

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Thank you Lucy! Anne is just an example of how male historians treated important female historical figures throughout time. Thankfully, modern historians are starting to do their jobs properly and we can lean about who these women actually were.

Anonymous said...

Hi Melissa! What were your thoughts on Wolf Hall. I just started reading the book and Thomas Cromwell is starting to grow on me.