Why should we care? – Clare Cherry

Posted By on June 7, 2017

Thank you to Clare Cherry for writing this article for us today. You might remember that Clare wrote an article for us a few weeks ago, The Destruction of the Boleyn Family, and today’s article has been inspired by a few comments that were left on that article.

Over to Clare…

I wrote an article not that long ago in defence of the Boleyn family. They were pretty much destroyed in 1536, and I feel the way they are often portrayed means they seem to be morally destroyed over and over again. I could not see that this was fair from what we know of them from primary sources.

What I found interesting were some comments upon the contents of the article to the effect that these people died nearly five-hundred years ago and that it lacked perspective to care about them, particularly bearing in mind more recent atrocities such as the Holocaust and recent terrorist attacks. The implication being that to write in defence of historical characters meant there was a lack of concern for more current victims of violence and persecution.

Other comments suggested that there were other historical characters who were also demonised and needed rehabilitation as much as if not more than the Boleyns. The implication here presumably was that this meant a defence of the Boleyns was somehow misplaced.

I’m not going to regurgitate my previous article relating to the Boleyns and their treatment in 1536 and in some current works of fiction and non-fiction (you can read it here). I really want to explore the comments and the rationale behind them.

I’ll start by saying that writing about historical characters cannot imply a lack of sympathy and horror for the suffering of people who have died, and are dying, now and within living memory. To suggest that we cannot defend people who lived nearly five-hundred years ago because since then there has been the Holocaust seems a very strange and distasteful argument. We are all capable of caring about a great many things, and concern in one direction does not imply a lack of concern in another.

So why should we care about the Boleyns, or anyone else who died outside of living memory for that matter? If we are only supposed to care about people who died in the last eighty to a hundred years, does that mean we shouldn’t feel compassion for those poor souls who died in Pompeii? What about the countless people who died on the cross, or were guillotined in the French Revolution, or who died in the Spanish Inquisition? The passage of time can’t diminish the pain and terror they suffered at the time of their deaths, so I cannot see how the passage of time should diminish our capacity to feel compassion for their needless deaths. Once the Holocaust has fallen outside of living memory are we no longer supposed to care?

The fact is that people are interested in history and the tragedies which have occurred throughout it. Without that, then there would be no historians, no Anne Boleyn Files, no memorials for our war dead and so on and so on. We care, not only out of interest, but because we are human and are able to empathise with the victims of tragedy. To forget them would not only be sad and disrespectful, but it would also be a travesty of justice and a huge mistake for our collective future. Are we not supposed to learn from our past?

So why be interested in the Boleyns and why be interested in rehabilitating them? Well, there is no reason why the Boleyns are any more deserving of rehabilitation than any other historical personality who has been unfairly demonised. Ultimately it comes down to personal interest. Some people are primarily interested in the history of World War I and/or II. Some more so in the American Civil War or/and French and Russian Revolutions. Some in Tudor history. I happen to find Tudor history, and in particular the Boleyns, fascinating, and it’s this era which I have studied the most.

That brings me on to the second comment, which suggested there were other historical characters worthy of rehabilitation. I completely agree. But I cannot see that a defence of the Boleyns can be considered misplaced simply because they are not the only family/characters who have been vilified throughout history. Anyone is entitled to rehabilitate any historical character, and we can either agree or disagree with their views, depending on what they are based on.

There is a new buzz phrase doing the rounds, which has found its way into historical fiction; ‘alternative facts’. It supposedly gives historians/fiction writers the green light to say what they want with no or very little reference to primary sources. Indeed I have recently read a comment from a playwright who has written a play on the Boleyns saying, ‘I am suspicious of primary sources’. However, what’s the alternative? To make it all up as you go along? I have always assumed that alternative facts were lies, but apparently, I was wrong. Or at least I’m wrong for those who died long enough ago not to have relatives who can sue.

So I admit that I get angry when I see the suggestion that Anne Boleyn wasn’t interested in her daughter’s upbringing, that she was only interested in Elizabeth’s marriage negotiations for selfish reasons, that she only dressed Elizabeth in sumptuous clothing because in reflected well on Anne herself, and that she had no personal involvement or interest in her daughter’s life.

I get angry when I see the old myths regurgitated time and time again with regards to Jane Boleyn’s involvement in the trials of the Boleyn siblings, and Thomas supposedly pimping his daughters to the King. It annoys me to see Anne and George portrayed as unpleasant caricatures as they are in Wolf Hall. It annoys me to see George portrayed as a rapist and wife abuser as he was in The Tudors.

I also get irritated when I see Henry VIII depicted as a rapist, or Francis Dereham come to that. It’s deplorable to see Wolsey commit suicide in The Tudors and to see Catherine Howard urinate on the scaffold. It’s shocking to see a man as talented as Cromwell depicted as someone who acted against the Boleyns and their friends out of petty malice and vengeance.

Some of the above is depicted in non-fiction; more in fiction. My article also dredged up the usual comment which we see over and over again, ‘IT’S FICTION, THE CLUE IS IN THE TITLE’! But anyone who thinks fiction is not influential in how historical characters are viewed is delusional, or naïve at best. Should we get irritated by what we see and read in fiction? Isn’t that just plain silly? Maybe, but the line between fiction and non-fiction is getting increasingly blurred especially when fiction writers suggest their work is based on fact and substantial research. Does the passage of time dehumanise them, or is the reality that we feel the passage of time entitles us to become desensitised to the fact they were human?

I felt a massive sense of injustice with the recent film, ‘The Imitation Game’, with regards to the unfair and inaccurate depictions in it. The portrayal of the man who was vilified in it caused enormous distress to his family. They rightly challenged that depiction, which has largely been condemned.

Anne and George Boleyn defended themselves admirably at their trials. They can no longer defend themselves. They died unfairly, and for those of us who hate injustice, and who hate the ‘alternative facts’ written about them, we feel the need to take over the job which they started on 15th May 1536. Anne said on the scaffold, ‘If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best.’ Well, I’m meddling and judging the best [Editor’s note from Claire Ridgway – Me too!]. When each and every one of us dies we’ll hope that those we leave behind will do the same for us.

Clare Cherry lives in Hampshire with her partner David. She works as a solicitor in Dorset, but has a passion for Tudor history and began researching the life of George Boleyn in 2006. She started corresponding with Claire Ridgway in late 2009, after meeting through The Anne Boleyn Files website, and the two Tudor enthusiasts became firm friends. They co-wrote George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat. Clare divides her time between the legal profession and researching Tudor history. Clare has written guest articles on George Boleyn for The Anne Boleyn Files, Nerdalicious.com.au, and author Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn website.

About George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat:

George Boleyn has gone down in history as being the brother of the ill-fated Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, and for being executed for treason, after being found guilty of incest and of conspiring to kill the King.

This biography allows George to step out of the shadows and brings him to life as a court poet, royal favourite, keen sportsman, talented diplomat and loyal brother. Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway chart his life from his spectacular rise in the 1520s to his dramatic fall and tragic end in 1536.

George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat is divided into three sections – Beginnings, Career and Influence, and End of an Era – and topics include:

– George Boleyn’s poetry
– Personal attributes and social pursuits
– Religion
– George’s marriage to Jane Parker
– The Reformation Parliament and the League of Schmalkalden
– George the Diplomat
– The fall of the Boleyns, arrests and trials
– The aftermath of their fall
– George Boleyn, Dean of Lichfield, and the Clonony Castle Boleyns

The biography is fully referenced and includes chapter notes, bibliography and useful appendices.

Find out more about the book at getbook.at/george-boleyn

16 thoughts on “Why should we care? – Clare Cherry”

  1. Conor Byrne says:

    I agree with this article, I really do. But I wonder if we focus too much on the negative. How about on the many positive portrayals of Anne Boleyn AND her family – and I’m thinking here of George (written about by you and Claire), of Jane (thanks to Julia Fox), of Thomas Boleyn (thanks to Lauren Mackay). There are so many admirable studies of Anne and her family. Non-fiction accounts include those by Eric Ives, Susan Bordo, and David Loades. There have also been many excellent novels about Anne and the Boleyns that portray them positively, including recent works by Sandra Vasoli, as well as older novels by the likes of Norah Lofts and Margaret Campbell Barnes. Some may find Jean Plaidy a little outdated, but I have always thought that she was very sympathetic to Anne.

    I just question why there seems to be so much emphasis on the negative. I understand that many people have misconceptions about the Boleyns thanks to the likes of The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall, but at the same time, I read so many comments on the likes of blogs, YouTube and Facebook that praise Anne as an evangelical, as a woman ahead of her time, as an intelligent and principled reformist. Why don’t we focus on these comments, on these conceptions of her? How about Joanna Denny’s biography, which portrayed Anne as a devout reformist? Many accused Denny of going way too far, but it is a striking example that there are plenty of works about Anne that are positive – sometimes OVERLY so.

    I think Anne Boleyn, for the most part, is viewed mostly sympathetically today and she has plenty of admirers. Novels like The Other Boleyn Girl are an exception to the rule. They are not representative of the majority of works published about Anne and her family. That is why The Other Boleyn Girl and Bring Up the Bodies were so sensational and so successful: they created a view of the Boleyns that was salacious, that was shocking, that was dark and that was ultimately attractive to readers of modern literature entranced by lurid storylines. I have read so many criticisms of these novels, both on blogs and in books, that I honestly feel we don’t need anymore. Susan Bordo, for example, tore apart Gregory’s book in The Creation of Anne Boleyn.

    So why should we care? Should we care? Well, of course we should, but we must also remember that there are many positive studies about the Boleyns, there are many favourable representations of them. Historians continue to study and write about them, and novelists continue to be drawn by their story. My personal view is that Anne Boleyn is written about more favourably and with more admiration than she ever was in the past, and I think it will generally be the same with George, Thomas and the others before long.

    1. Claire says:

      There are many positive studies but they are not actually well-known. Even though Eric Ives’ biography is what I refer to as the Anne Boleyn Bible, it actually isn’t “popular” and I’m forever telling people who have never heard of it about it, and it’s the same with Julia Fox’s book on Jane, people don’t seem to know it exists. TV and fiction are very powerful as they are mainstream. I don’t ever have a week when I don’t receive comments or emails which are negative about the Boleyns.

      I would say that this blog IS positive and I don’t concentrate on the negative at all. I write articles about Anne’s life and her times, and the people around her. However, I will tackle things that are current and there are various myths being discussed online at the moment.

      1. Clare says:

        I agree. There is still so much anti-Boleyn propaganda, and new myths are still being created which need to be knocked on the head. One of the main perpetrators of this, I’m sad to say, is Alison Weir. She’s so popular that many people don’t look beyond her work to that of, for instance, Julia Fox.

  2. Roland H. says:

    One of the best biographies is ‘Anne Boleyn’ by Marie Louise Bruce. Unfortunately, not many people know about it as it’s been long out of print, which is a shame.

    Bruce gives a balanced and fair assessment of Anne, recognizing her virtues and her flaws.

    1. Clare says:

      I love that too. It was that biography which led me to Edmond Bapst, which really helped with the George Boleyn research.

      1. Claire says:

        Bapst was brilliant because his work was so well referenced and he used the French sources, which many ignore today.

      2. Banditqueen says:

        Love Anne Louise Bruce, whose book helped to really introduce me to Anne Boleyn. Of course I already knew who she was, but this book really helped me to know Anne and she was very balanced in her assessment. Always a favourite to revisit and read.

    2. Claire says:

      I like that one too, I have it on my bookcase.

  3. Ellen Habbershaw says:

    I love this article. One of my favourites. It’s hard explaining to my partner why I feel so much empathy and sadness for the Boleyn’s. He just doesn’t get it. Next time he asks, I will show him this article! Thanks.

    1. Clare says:

      Thanks, Ellen.

  4. Claire says:

    I just don’t understand it when people say “you ought to be more concerned with terrorist attacks today” etc. I’m a woman (tongue in cheek here), I can multi-task and I actually manage quite well to care about Tudor history and the world we live in today. It’s like people who criticise other people for giving to certain charities, as if they are limited to only one charity, and I got criticised this week when I stood up for Muslims against a rant against them by someone who said that I ought to think about the victims of the attacks, as if I can’t think of both.
    I am fascinated by Tudor history and researching it is what I do, it doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in other things. All so weird.

    1. Clare says:

      It’s like offering two ties to your husband, him picking one, and then accusing him of not liking the other one!

  5. Christine says:

    I think the kind of people who don’t understand why we do feel passionate about the awful events of centuries ago are not history lovers like ourselves, to them the past is the past and we cannot alter it, we who post here are very interested in Anne Boleyn and the awful way she died and there are many people who just don’t feel the same, they cannot understand why we speak so passionately in her defence even though we try to be fair minded regarding her treatment of Katherine and Mary etc, the dreadful miscarriage of justice she and the men endured does not make it any less real to us because they lived nearly five centuries ago, to those who cannot see this they are just names in a dusty book, but they were real people who loved life as we do and suffered, why shouldn’t we feel sorry for them?it does not mean we don’t care for the awful things that are happening today, terrorist attacks and so forth, I also feel for Lady Jane Grey who was judicially murdered just because Edward V1 left his crown to her, I feel that was a dreadful miscarriage of justice, all she did was accept the crown and in theory she couldn’t really have refused it, it was not a toy to be passed around like pass the parcel, again it showed the politics of the intolerant age in which these victims lived.

  6. Banditqueen says:

    Wow, well said Clare. For me Wolfe Hall was twaddle and not even entertaining twaddle. Cromwell was a saintly sexual pervert (I know the two seem at odds) who was a pious and effective servant and family man while sleeping with his wife’s cousin, sister or whatever she was (sorry her relationship got lost on me) and dreaming about stroking Anne’s breasts. More was a master torturer and had no sense of humour at all and nothing else, while I wanted to smack poor Claire Foy every time she said Cramwell with an accent straight out of Allo Allo. The idea that Cromwell killed the five men because they had mocked Wolsey in a masquerade six years earlier was preposterous.

    The Tudors, although wide of the mark historically, did a better job with some characters and a poor job with others, but then it doesn’t claim to be based on rigerous research with the sources for five years. Reading Susan Bordo and her interview with Natalie Dormer you can see she was pretty upset about the sexing up of Anne in season one and insisted that a more accurate character come through in season two. Season Two was brilliant, so was Season Three. The portrait of Thomas More was probably about right…neither mad persecutor or saint but a human being of his day something in the middle. You got both More the righteous, More who was prepared to follow the laws on heresy to the letter if he had to, but also let go those who he could warn, the More who loved his daughter and family, More the friend and martyr, More the clean political administrator, More the humanist, More the whitty one, More the Kings servant and finally More the martyr. All of these rolled into one by the gentle brilliance of Jeremy Norman. We got a far sexier Thomas Cromwell than expected, but we saw all of his faults and his good points. We saw the administration, the hidden reformation, the ambitious servant, the widows helper, a comparison for Katherine and Mary, both historically correct and we saw the man who ran the kingdom. We also got a small glimpse of Cromwell at home with his family.

    In season two we saw a much more balanced Anne Boleyn, not the temptress, although having already ruined her reputation in France, the writers had to show consistency when she remarked to Francis that there were things she didn’t want the King of England to know. However, we saw her interest in the Bible and reform, we saw Henry consult her for her ideas, we saw her anguish as a mother and her tenderness towards Elizabeth, we saw her distraught and angry and desperate for a son, we also saw her anguish in the Tower, although her trial was missed out. We saw Henry off having a party with the Seymours and her suffering during her miscarriage. We saw a multi sided Anne.

    The problem was her family were yet again shown as grasping and overly ambitious and of course as rapists, killers and sexually depraved in every way. George Boleyn was shown as a diplomat but also as a baffoon. There was no consistency. And don’t get me started on Season Four and the dreadful portrayal of Katherine Howard as a spoilt, sex crazed dimwit. And why did all of the women, even those meant to be modest look as if their dresses would fall off if they moved too much?

    Yes, we know Henry was young and athletic before his accidents, but Jonathan Ryes Myers just refused to age or show any weight in a body suit. I had to laugh when an average height dark haired Henry appeared but Myers did have the personality to make his character believable. I couldn’t let them off with that one, but if you are prepared to make an effort to get Anne right and other characters, why not make an effort to get them all right? And why does everything have to pander to sex crazed audiences who cannot cope unless every other word is F or there is no violence for five seconds?

    It is very right that we are horrified by the terrible events in London and Manchester, 9/11 and 7/7 and also the holocaust and two world wars as well as the crisis in the East today, but that doesn’t mean we cannot watch a documentary about the Titanic or Pompeii and be touched or moved to compassion. I am not going to wear sack cloth and ashes over those who died 500 years ago, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about their legacy and reputation or if what happened to them was tragic or unfair or have some understanding of their suffering. Believe me, we are very much capable of moving away from tragedy and if you look at Twitter occasionally you can see people soon turn their eyes to more harmless subjects. Just because we move on doesn’t mean we don’t care either. It is very difficult if you are not immediately affected not to stop and mourn. This doesn’t mean we forget or are not outraged. The same is true with history. We can still have empathy for Anne and George Boleyn or Katherine Howard and be stirred to action when they are maligned. I can get very protective of the reputation of Richard iii and I can understand why Claire continues to give a balanced view of Anne Boleyn and gets angry or upset if she sees comments that Anne deserved everything because gosh she upset Mary or some other reason. Well I am sure we have all upset or not been kind at times so we all deserve some aweful execution do we? Not to mention the fact that Anne and George et al were actually innocent of the false charges against them. That often misunderstood word Karma is used, which actually refers to ones fate in the next life not this one, but which has no validation in reference to person A having this aweful fate if they upset person B. Twaddle. One thing I personally hate is Henry Viii deserved wife no 5 to cheat on him as he killed wife no 2 or Jane Seymour died because he killed Anne Boleyn. Tosh and piffle. Jane Seymour died after complications during child birth after Henry allowed male doctors into the birth room and because childbirth was dangerous. Besides, Jane had nothing to do with Anne’s death, it was all Henry and Cromwell, so why not strike them down? We are capable of caring about people now and honouring the memory and reputation of people in every age so we should do it. As historians we have a special duty as we have to be guardians of and preserve the truth for the next generation.

  7. Globerose says:

    “Alfred Hitchcock (1962 interview with Francois Truffaut) said he considered film the most powerful medium in human history. It’s no wonder then, that history films offer an extraordinary ability to cement memorable impressions of the past upon viewers, for good or ill.” Written by Christopher Wilson of the Smithsonian History Film Forum 2015.
    Film is powerful.
    David Blight, Yale, commented, “Historians are always saying ‘it’s complicated’ and nobody likes that when movies makers do it.”
    Of itself, a novel, work of fiction, genuinely may affect people and their imaginings of the past, but add television and film to the mix, a master actor like Paul Scoffield and Sir Mark Rylance, and a lasting impression is created that never really leaves us.
    Film is often ‘based on a true story’ and we. the watching public, are supposed to bear that in mind as we watch: but do we? I rather suspect that we fall for the sensationalised version of events, when our primary motive is entertainment .
    Clare makes a good point but what is to be done about it?

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