Can We Really Know Anyone – Guest Article by Clare Cherry

Posted By on November 23, 2012

Anne Boleyn by Lucas Cornelli – We don’t even know what she looked like, never mind what she was like as a person.

There is an enormous diversity of opinion when it comes to the characters of historical people. We take extant records, written nearly five-hundred years ago, often by those with a grudge, and try to establish what someone was like from sources which are often highly biased and prejudiced. Our opinions are sometimes formed by a single adverse comment, because often there isn’t much else to go on.

Frances Grey ( nee Brandon) has been vilified throughout history due to a single piece of evidence, namely a comment made by her daughter, Jane. Jane’s comment regarding her cruel parents is not corroborated by any other source, and as Claire and Susan Higginbotham point out it could have been made by a grumpy teenager. Perhaps Frances was harsh with Jane, perhaps not, but her whole character has been reassessed on that one piece of evidence, and our opinions of her are formulated by the prejudices of subsequent depictions; depictions which have been formulated by that one piece of evidence i.e. it becomes a vicious circle.

Anne Boleyn has been vilified throughout history, but she’s certainly not the only one. Mary Boleyn is the ‘tart with a heart’. A woman lacking the wit and intelligence of her siblings, and who had a reputation as a bawd and a whore. Really? What recent biographies of Mary have been successful in doing is dispelling the myth that Mary had a reputation for her loose living. The evidence for it is scant and highly suspect, yet until recently we accepted it as fact because that’s how Mary has invariably been depicted in both fiction and non-fiction. Her character and reputation has been formulated on the vague and suspect evidence of one comment made by Francis I, which has come down to us over nearly five-hundred years of history.

Over the last thirty years George Boleyn has been vilified, and his reputation and character dragged through the mire, mainly for entertainment value in fiction. Yet extant evidence which shows him in a negative light is extremely limited and bordering on non-existent. His reputation has been based on Wyatt saying he was proud and Cavendish suggesting he was a womaniser.

As for Thomas Boleyn and Jane Boleyn/Rochford, they have been demonised throughout history. Thomas Boleyn was the father who pimped out his daughters. But what evidence is there to suggest that’s true? It’s merely an assumption which has become fact. Jane is vilified for giving evidence to support the incest charge against Anne and George. But where’s the evidence for that either? There isn’t any, but because that’s what we have subsequently been led to believe, our opinion of Jane and Thomas has been tainted and coloured. They have become the bad guys, but were they? There are so many comments on Facebook pages by people who ‘hate’ a certain historical character without having any idea why, other than what they have believe to be true or what they have seen in fiction. Often there is no extant evidence to support their views, just a general acceptance, without a valid reason for the opinion.

You can only assess someone’s character from what you know about them from primary sources, and often that amounts to very little. Then there’s the added problem of trying to dissemble between truth, exaggeration, and bias, whether political or personal.

Think of the people we know. We like some people and we dislike others, and sometimes, however irrational it is, we can be prejudiced against someone simply because they don’t share our viewpoint. Just because you dislike a person, or disagree with them, doesn’t mean they are a bad person or that they are wrong. Yet if you discuss that person with a third party then that third party’s views and opinions will be coloured by your dislike. It’s human nature, and however hard you try to be objective, you are bound to be influenced against a person by negative comments relating to them. To a large extent isn’t that what’s actually happened with the historical personalities we read about from the the Tudor period? Either we have very little information about them as to their character’s or/and the information we do have is often merely a personal opinion or is influenced by ulterior motives.

How will today’s famous be viewed in five-hundred years time? There are probably quite a few politicians sweating on the answer to that question! What about royalty? What about Charles and Diana? Was she the baddie or was he? That’s what it often boils down to. We need a villain, however ridiculous that may be, and it’s very easy to create one. All you need do is track someone down who personally disliked them and you have all the ammunition you need.
Diana is as contradictory as Anne Boleyn in that there are people who adore her and those who don’t. So if we simply read the negative comments about Diana then does that mean she was a dreadful person? Of course not, but then it depends what you want to believe doesn’t it?

It’s possible to live with someone for years and not really know them, so how can we possibly think we know someone we’ve never met, let alone someone who died many years before we were born. Surely we can’t completely condemn a persons character based on one comment, or by merely repeating negative comments, or indeed accepting without question everything written about them without considering the context in which the words were said?

As for Anne Boleyn, there are a substantial amount of extant sources which show her in a negative light, and if you want to believe the worse of Anne then that’s easy to do. But there are also a substantial amount of extant sources which show her in a positive light, so if you want to portray her as a celestial being with wings and a halo, then you can do that too. Taking the adage that there is good and bad in everyone, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Perhaps Frances Grey was a dreadful woman, but surely her character shouldn’t be destroyed on one piece of evidence. Perhaps Thomas Boleyn was a bad father, but we can’t say he was just because both of his daughters caught the King’s eye. Perhaps Jane Boleyn was a jealous, scheming shrew, but we can’t say she was just because she later got herself mixed up in the Catherine Howard affair. Julia Fox made the very valid point that Jane’s character tends to be read back to front. Perhaps Anne Boleyn was indeed a devil in a French hood. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest it as a possibility if you’re happy to completely ignore the positives.

We can’t really know any of these people. We can only evaluate all of the available evidence we have about them and try and take an objective view, without allowing what we think they were probably like colour the factual evidence. Our opinions are often based on nothing more than a throw away comment, or an assumption, which is not backed up by hard evidence.

Anne Boleyn is such a polarising figure. The evidence we have about her is incredibly contradictory. But how often have we heard that history is written by the winners. It’s so true. Look at poor old Richard III.
It’s important to remember that many of the adverse comments made about Anne came from those who wanted/needed to maintain a good relationship with Henry. Therefore, blame Anne, and not Henry for the breakdown of his marriage to Catherine and for turning the country’s religion upside down to have her. Of course that’s even easier to do when the person in question has been condemned as a traitor and a whore. Maybe Henry was a weak man who was dominated by a hellcat who everybody else loathed. Maybe, but to portray someone as unremittingly bad on a maybe, when we can never really know anyone, seems a little harsh.

Note from Claire (the other one!)

Tim told me an interesting story at lunchtime today, a news report he’d read on the BBC News website, and it made me stop and think. It concerned a South Pacific island called Sandy Island which has appeared on maps for at least 116 years. The trouble is, it actually doesn’t exist! Scientists from the University of Sydney travelled to its location and found nothing except 1,400m deep sea. Australia’s Hydrographic Service concluded that the island’s appearance on maps and nautical charts “could just be the result of human error, repeated down the years”.1

Why have I told you that story? Because it just shows how something that is not true at all can become “fact” when it’s repeated often enough. Interesting!

  1. South Pacific Sandy Island ‘proven not to exist’
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