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’

13 thoughts on “Can We Really Know Anyone – Guest Article by Clare Cherry”

  1. Marilyn R says:

    ‘….if you’re happy to completely ignore the positives.’

    I know I go on about Katherine Howard’s (and Anne Boleyn’s) step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, at every opportunity, but Clare’s phrase and the paragraph that follows it really do hit home when applied to her. When one takes the trouble to look more deeply at what we know of the old lady, there are many positives nobody ever mentions. Indeed, she continues to be vilified, largely on the strength of Victorian writer Agnes Strickland’s weird assessment of her, and, of course on the ‘evidence’ of her contemporaries out to save their own skins. The same could be said for poor Katherine…

  2. Lisa Davis says:

    A very thoughtful and interesting article. I think Clare really does make a valid point in how we can never know anyone. And to base an opinion of someone based on a few words is not going to tell you much about that person. I find that it sometimes may tell you more about the person who made the statement than the person that they were talking about. I know I have said something about another person when I am annoyed or just tired and it would be awful to think that snippet of information became the basis for all to base their opinion on. I love the comment from the other Claire about the island! Just proves that you sometimes need to verify information before accepting it as a fact,

  3. Mariette says:

    Clare, your article has really struck a chord with me. Judgmental historians with a grudge or an agenda can do a great deal of damage to the reputation of historical figures and get away with it….the dead are not able to defend themselves.

    Claire summed it up perfectly”…it just shows how something that is not true at all can become “fact” when it’s repeated often enough”

  4. Elizabeth says:

    This spoke to me in a slightly different way. Different, but valuable. Thank you, Claire, for a thoughtful and concise summary of part of what ails the human race- the lack of control of a lot of people’s tongues, and the lack of independent thought of many of those who hear their clatter. May we all remember in our own lives to watch what we say and to regard much of what we hear with a grain of salt. Anyone can SAY anything. Anyone can PUBLISH anything. Just because you can say it or publish it does not make it true, which I believe you have said before in other places. We all need to become more discerning, more thoughtful thinkers- not so quick to decide or judge. Who knows what words of ours will adversely affect someone in years to come?
    Blessings, Claire, I love this site.

    1. Elizabeth says:

      Whoops, wrong spelling on the first Clare!! My apologies- the least I can do is get the spelling right.

  5. Anne Barnhill says:

    The truth–is there such a thing? I read where studies done with eye witnesses find very little ‘true’ evidence, which really puts the whole justice system under question. We filter all our ‘truths’ through our own prejudices and points of view. Clare, I agree with your idea that what a person says often reveals more about the speaker than the subject. THanks!

  6. Sherri says:

    This was a thought provoking post and it took me till overnight to think about this.
    Do we really know anyone who either passes through our life or is a permanent part of it. Even when you live with someone something happens and its “how could I have not known” “this isn’t like him/her at all” “I would never have thought that this person would have done this” “wasn’t I close and didn’t I know him/her” Even though we are supposedly close to people we tend to hide parts of ourselves and sometimes what our experiences are in life denote our behaviour to others.

    The images of politicians etc are carefully contrived. In every walk of life can you actually say you are the person outside that you are inside. Our behaviours and character are formed when we are quite young. Our morals and ethics are according to the times we were brought up in. Even now one little comment or snide remark could follow you through life.

    At least as women during this time period we have certain freedoms and rights which Anne, KOA, Jane etc didn’t have. Same with George or Thomas Boleyn they were a product of their times and if were successful owed all to Henry 8th.

    I wonder often did Anne love Henry ??? Did Henry love her ??? What really happened ??? Was Jane the innocent and couldn’t make a decision on her own ?? Did she have to sacfifice herself for her family’s greater good ?? Was Henry 8th as mentally and emotionally disturbed as his history now comes across in this century ???

    Even if we could go back in time and be close to Anne and/or Jane and/or Henry would we be able to actually know the truth of who they were ??? I don’t think that we could because they were very public figures and created the image that others saw. Maybe some day we will find things of Anne’s or Jane’s (maybe a diary) and be able to read first hand who they were and what they felt.

    1. Martha says:

      Because King Henry ordered that all evidence of Anne Boleyn’s existence be destroyed before and after her death so he didn’t have to face his conscious ( The out of site, out of mind theory that didn’t really work for him) no one will ever really know much more that bias contradictory about Anne’s birth, youth, education, marriage and death over her short 28 years on earth. But one this cannot be questioned. Her great spirit and strength in all manners of her life and in death.

  7. susano says:

    I was trained as a historian and was warned about “tabloid history.” Essentially it meant that any story about a historical figure that would be published in a modern day tabloid needed to be researched from every angle from primary sources before a respectable historian would publish it as fact. Unfortunately not all historians follow that rule, and there’s nothing that can be done about novelists who have fun with the reputations of historical figures. Much of the information we have on Tudor era figures is nothing but gossip. There may be a grain of truth in it, but it could also be nothing but lies. The part about historical research I enjoy most is when I catch a glimpse of the truth through the fog of uncertainty.

  8. Dawn 1st says:

    A great post that Clare,you hit the nail on the head…

    When I first started being interested in the Tudors I believed everything I read with being so young, and because of my youth had no reason to question what was written.
    But as life goes by you begin to realise that everything is not just black and white, there is an awful lot of grey area, which in many cases is filled in by a writer/historian own leanings, maybe guided by the morals and teachings of the time they live in. eg. a Victorian writer would probabley see this grey area in quite a different way than another writer, say 100 years on, though it does seem in most cases here that the ‘mud sticks’

    To me, a lot of older writings seem to miss out the full spectrum of Human nature, and just concentrate on Good or bad, as Clare said. No human being is that clear cut, from any age, therefore it is up to ‘new’ writers to begin to bring in the other human elements that have been omitted, and as a whole I think they are, at last, beginning to see these people as three dimensional, Claire certainly has, Eric Ives, Julia Fox etc.

    We all have favourite charactors in history, and its difficult not to be a little bias, but I have never been able to understand how our modern society still can breed such a contempuous hatred towards certain people that lived centuries ago, its as though they have actually been offended or hurt by them on a personal level. I can not see any logic behind it, it’s very primal, and completely baffles me…it must be awful to be eaten up with that level of hatred.

    I certainly have had a lot of my opinions altered over the years, for the good (I hope), especially since I have been enjoying this site, which is great, and learn from it all the time. You have to be open minded to move forward.

    It’s great to see the ‘vilification’ of these people being stripped off layer by layer, and the whole person being revealed as much as possible, but as I wrote under the Francis Grey post , the people who have been seen as the ‘goodies’, need to be looked at too in a fresh light, and although a lot of them sadly became victims of the society they lived in, I am sure they were not as perfect as they have been made out to be either, this could have been exaggerated too, to some degree, if only to make the villains look worse.

  9. Emma says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. Many people assume that if someone has a degree and is a professinal Historian than the theories they put forward are the gospel truth. Ignoring the fact that another Historian with the same credentials may come to completley opposite opinions based on the same primary sources. Recently I have been reading a biography of Mary Queen of Scots and have found it a real slog due to the fact the author spends the entire book excusing her subjects every flaw whilst casting anyone who was any way critical of Mary in the worst possible light. Other biographies seem to start from the view point that the person is ‘bad’ so that when they do something positive either it is not believed, dismissed as unimportant or given some sinister ulterior motive.

  10. Kara says:

    First off, thank you Claire for such a great article.

    History is a very tricky thing and sometimes without archeological evidence all we have to go on is written words. That being said, 500 years is a very long time ago and to believe what certain people have written could of been taken out of context at any point.

    In modern day history in the making, Obama, he gets it all around but do we really know this man who runs the USA? No, I sure don’t and that’s why I don’t judge him.

    The late Eric Ives, in my opinion, took the time to research and question everything he wrote on Tudor history and when I read his books, I feel no judgement just questions or facts that he wants to prove or question what was written etc.

    Quote: “don’t judge a book by the cover”

  11. booboo1st says:

    Thank you. How true that years from now all historians will have is other peoples opinions on how good or bad our contemporaries are. It is also the truth that we are all a bit bad, and no-one should be judged on just one rumor or even one truth about something we did or said. I do not think Anne was a devil or an angel, and I don’t believe she was the only person who wanted her to hold out for the biggest prize, the crown. Just as today, an idea in the political arena must have many players pushing it forward, putting words, money or power into the right hands. The whole idea of Anne being queen began to hinge on religious reform and politics that revolved around Katherine’s very powerful nephew. It all ends up being trivialized into a woman keeping her legs shut tight, and even if that is a large piece of the story it is most certainly not the enire thing.

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