Wolf Hall Bring Up the BodiesEarlier today, Susan Bordo, author of The Creation of Anne Boleyn, drew attention on her Facebook wall to a review of the RSC stage adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.1 The review by Morning Star includes the comment “Lydia Leonard’s spitefully ambitious Anne Boleyn – a wife who one feels any king would be justified in beheading”,2 oh dear. But, it made me think…

Now, Mantel is writing from Thomas Cromwell’s perspective and the Boleyns do not get much sympathy (well, apart from Mary Boleyn), so we have to take that into account. Another review, this time by The Daily Mail, talks of the Boleyn family being “burdened by a feckless brother”3 when George Boleyn, in reality, was anything but feckless. But, I digress. While I would disagree with anyone who says that Anne Boleyn’s execution was justified, that it was karma and she deserved it – and I would hate to see a portrayal of Anne which made the reader/viewer/audience feel that Henry was justified in doing what he did to her – there is no denying that Anne was ambitious and that she could be spiteful at times.

As much as I admire Anne Boleyn, she had her flaws. She’s a huge part of my life, nobody coming to my house or reading my blog or Facebook page could miss the fact that I am completely fascinated with this woman. Eric Ives described Anne as the third woman in his life after his wife and daughter,4 and I know just what he means. Anne has got under my skin, as have her whole family, I spend every day researching the Boleyns and I love it, they are my passion. But, and it’s a big but, I don’t put them on pedestals. I would say that it’s their flaws as much as their admirable qualities which make me so fascinated with them. Here was a queen consort who was so human. Yes, she had admirable qualities – she was ambitious and highly intelligent, she put her neck on the line to help people (for example the reformer Nicholas Bourbon), she helped to promote religious reform and the dissemination of the Bible in English, she was charitable and was concerned with poor relief and education, she was a patron of the Arts…. – but she also had a fiery temper, she let her mouth run away with her and said exactly what she thought, and it is reported that she said spiteful things about Catherine and Mary. We cannot ignore that side of her character.

An example of Anne’s spiteful side is when, in 1534, according to Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, Anne claimed that if Henry ever left her as Regent while he was away then she would have Princess Mary killed. George, Anne’s brother, stepped in and warned her that an action like that would offend the King, but Anne said that “she cared not if she did, even if she were to be burnt or flayed alive in consequence.”5 Another example is in 1531, when, before she was queen, Anne “said to one of the Queen’s ladies that she wished all the Spaniards in the world were in the sea; and on the other replying, that, for the honor of the Queen, she should not say so, she said that she did not care anything for the Queen, and would rather see her hanged than acknowledge her as her mistress.”6 Harsh things to say about her former mistress and Henry VIII’s daughter. Her words were spiteful, unwise and not becoming of a Queen, or queen-in-waiting, but it doesn’t mean that Anne was bad through and through. She was frustrated, she was angry that these women were not doing what they were told, that they wouldn’t just go away, and while that is no excuse for Anne’s words, it does make them understandable. Eric ives writes of how “Anne was ranting, not thinking” and that “Anne’s language was violent and threatening, but this sprang not from malevolence but from self-defence”,7 and he has a point. Anne had tried her hardest to build bridges with Mary and Mary had rejected her, and rather rudely too. Yes, Anne should have kept her temper, she should have kept her thoughts to herself, but she didn’t. We’re all spiteful at one time or another, but Anne was queen and it was up to her to set a good example. Of course, we have to take into account Chapuys’ bias here and the fact that he may have exaggerated her words somewhat. Did she even say them? We don’t know.

Anne Boleyn is often blamed for the ill-treatment of Catherine and Mary, and the executions of the Carthusian monks and men like Thomas More and Bishop Fisher, but I feel that this is going too far. After Henry offered her marriage and the crown, Anne set her heart on being queen. She’d been raised to be ‘somebody’ and she appears to have had natural ambition and drive. I believe that Henry convinced her that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was not valid, that the Pope should never have issued a dispensation for it because it was against God’s laws. Henry appears to have convinced himself of that and it would have been easy for God’s anointed sovereign to have convinced Anne of that, he was her King after all.

Anne and Henry did everything in their power to make things go their way, to do what they thought was God’s plan, but Anne cannot be blamed for the executions of those men, that was up to Henry. Perhaps some people see her whispering evil plans in Henry’s ear, manipulating him to do dastardly deeds, but Henry VIII was not a man to let himself be manipulated by anyone, never mind a woman. People like the Carthusian monks, More and Fisher had to be punished because they were disobeying their King, they were rebelling and betraying him and Henry saw that as treason. It was the same with Catherine and Mary, they had to be punished for defying him. Anne encouraged the ill-treatment of Mary, and it was something she later regretted,8 but Mary’s treatment actually got worse after Anne’s death9 and it was all down to Henry. Henry was willing to acknowledge Mary as his daughter and to mend their relationship if she toed the line, it was that simple in his eyes.10
Anne can be blamed for supporting Henry, for letting these things happen, but what could she have done anyway? Henry did not like meddling from the women in his life. As Ives points out, blaming Anne for Mary’s ill-treatment “made it much easier for Charles V [Catherine of Aragon’s nephew] to keep up some civil relationship with Henry”11 so Chapuys could paint Anne as the bad guy. It was also easier for Mary to blame her step-mother for the way she was being treated, rather than her father and King.

There is a moving scene in the play Fallen in Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn.12 In it, George Boleyn is consumed with guilt and grief over the brutal executions of the Carthusian monks and the things that have happened as a consequence of the rise of the Boleyns, and he tries to talk to Anne about it. Anne too is upset, but she sees the brutalities as the unavoidable cost of her rise to queen. We cannot know how the real Anne felt, whether she felt guilt and remorse over what happened as a result of Henry’s quest to marry her or whether she saw them as unavoidable and for the greater good. We can’t get inside her head, we have no sources to tell us how she felt and so we cannot judge her. If we are to blame someone for those atrocities then we have to blame the person who was responsible for them: Henry VIII, and even then we have to understand that he saw those people as traitors who deserved to die. We live in a very different world and it is impossible for us to understand Henry VIII.

The Anne I have come to know through my research was definitely ambitious and was spiteful at times, but she wasn’t “spitefully ambitious”, that makes her sound like someone who was spiteful through and through and who used spite to realise her ambitions. I don’t see that at all. She didn’t set out to be queen at all costs, she didn’t manipulate Henry VIII into making her queen, but she did everything she could to be queen once that was on offer – there’s a difference.

I know I’ve rambled. I’m full of cold and my brain is not functioning, and I also just wanted my thoughts to flow – sorry! But Anne did not deserve to die in 1536, her death was not justified and I find it sad that any portrayal of her would make people think that. However, she also was not an angel and we can’t whitewash her. Let’s accept that she was human, that she was downright nasty sometimes, but she was also loved and respected, and she certainly did not deserve to be framed, to have her name blackened and to die such a horrible death. And the “feckless brother”, well, I could write a book arguing against that description and presenting the man I believe to be the real George Boleyn… perhaps I will!

What do you think? Spitefully ambitious? Spiteful and ambitious? Neither? Do share your thoughts.

Other articles of interest:

Notes and Sources

  1. The Creation of Anne Boleyn Facebook page
  2. Theatre: Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, Morning Star, 14 January 2014
  3. Superb! A groaning banquet of political shenanigans: Quentin Letts reviews the stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel, Daily Mail, 8 January 2014
  4. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, pxiv
  5. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, 1534-1534 p198
  6. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, 1531-1533, p3
  7. Ives, p198
  8. While she was imprisoned in the Tower, it is said that Anne asked Lady Kingston to ask Mary for forgiveness for the “wrongs she had done her”. (The History of Great Britain, John Speed, 1611)
  9. See 15 June 1536 – Henry VIII’s Council Bullies Mary
  10. ” As to the legitimation of our daughter Mary, we answered that if she will submit to our grace without wrestling against the determination of our laws, we will acknowledge her and use her as our daughter; but we would not be directed or pressed herein, nor have any other order devised for her entertainment than should proceed from the inclination of our own heart.”LP x.726
  11. Ives, p197
  12. Fallen in Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn, Joanna Carrick

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