Monday, 16 February 2015

Heretic, Harlot, or Heroine? Me & Anne Boleyn

Wolf Hall. If you haven't seen it, you will have heard about it. Here at The Vintage Twins HQ, our Wednesday night revolves around BBC2, 9pm, and the National Trust's Wolf Hall Bingo. "Methinks I hear a lute! Bingo!"
(c) The National Trust 2015

  The deliciously rich, historically charged, exhilarating novel series by Hilary Mantel- Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies and the third installment due out this year- revolve around the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister from 1532 until his untimely execution in 1540. I could write at least ten more posts on how exquisitely Mantel captures the wiley, ambitious, intelligent Cromwell in such a realistic and potent manner, but I don't want to talk about Cromwell. Right now, with the BBC airing their equally brilliant adaptation of Wolf Hall (hats of to you, Mark Rylance), everybody is talking about Thomas Cromwell. 
  I want to talk about the woman who started it all, and my long, turbulent relationship with her.

My relationship with Anne Boleyn started at, I would imagine, the age of seven. Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded survived; we all learnt it, we all heard it, we were all gleefully presented with a gruesome idea that a big fat king had his wife's head chopped clean off. Then there was the constant re-reading of Terry Deary's Cruel Kings and Mean Queens, lingering over the stories of her vomiting behind a sheet at a banquet due to her pregnancy, and laughing at the literal 'Greensleeves' joke that followed.

   As a child, the Tudor world was a rich story that I obsessed over learning more about. By the age of ten, we both devoured every book we could get our hands on about the flame-haired royals, getting lost in a world of stays and damask dresses. The books and the stories that I read about or saw in museums were not much better at shining some light on Anne Boleyn. She was a witch. She had six fingers, swarthy skin, and an ugly face. She killed a bishop. She might have killed her former Queen.

To me, she wasn't real; she was the villain in a story that had resulted in her death, a death that, I was sure, she deserved. I hated Anne Boleyn. I hated the thought that Catherine of Aragon had died because of her. I hated her because she made Princess Mary work as a servant. In these many, many books I read about the Tudor dynasty, Anne was spiteful, ambitious, and terrifying. She was the enemy to the good, shining light of the Tudors. 
   I hate to say it, but Jane Seymour, dull as she was, was more of a hero in my eyes. Jane Seymour.

A few years later, when I was about ten or eleven and hopelessly obsessed with anything remotely historical, I read the below book. It is now completely battered, with the pages curled, possibly from being thrown in bags or carted around on every half-term venture and summer holiday that we went on. Both me and Catherine were obsessed with this book, and I'm pretty sure that we nicked it from our older sister in the first place.

 Margaret Simpson, I owe you one. Because my discovery of Elizabeth I, and my subsequent adoration of her, led me to a change of heart about her mother, Anne Boleyn. If Anne Boleyn had lost early on to Catherine, the good Catholic girl you'd take home to your parents, then Elizabeth would never have happened. England's history would have been entirely different, and my all time heroine would not have been the great, glorious woman that she was.

Elizabeth famously never spoke about Anne, but in her possessions kept the famous 'B' necklace that Anne wears in the portrait of her that hangs in Hever Castle. Elizabeth was Tudor, yes, but she was also Boleyn- and the legacy of her mother was something that I think shaped Elizabeth to be the Queen she was.
  Anne Boleyn was no witch. She was an intelligent, witty, ambitious woman who changed the game for women at a time when they were to be meek and submissive. The villain of the piece is the tyrant who saw wives and women as disposable. Anne wasn't held back by her gender in her quest to secure power and authority. She was not the 'goggled-eyed whore', the evil, dark woman who wickedly led a golden prince astray. Right up until the end, she maintained her innocence, she fought for her life, and she remained courageous in the face of her orchestrated downfall.
 Wolf Hall is the first piece of historical fiction that portrays Anne not as a saint, not as a sorceress, but as an immensely brave and clever woman.
Anne Boleyn was a woman who all women should stop and think twice about.
As you can see below,
I certainly have.
 Bow down to the Queen B.

Please see Hilary Mantel's great article about Anne from the Guardian here:

1 comment:

  1. I am also fascinated with anything to do with Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I. Great article! Thank you for sharing!