The Sexualization of Anne Boleyn

Posted By on August 25, 2010

sexualize, sexualise
1. to make or become sexual or sexually aware
2. to give or acquire sexual associations
sexualization , sexualisation n1

This post has been inspired by my good friends at the History Police Facebook Group2 (thanks, Lauren!) and a discussion thread on that page regarding the sexualization of historical characters, characters such as Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Boleyn who are often accused of trapping their husbands by using their feminine wiles or sleeping their way to the top, or, in Anne’s case, holding out on their lovers until they reach the top.

Now, I don’t have a problem with sex (blush, blush), but I do have a problem with the way that Anne Boleyn is often portrayed in novels, movies and the media. When I started this Anne Boleyn site, I chose to find out the truth about Anne Boleyn, to find the woman behind the myth. The Anne Boleyn I found was not a whore or temptress, but an intelligent, ambitious woman, who had a major impact on those around her and on English history. It angers me that nearly 500 years on she is still being presented as the woman who tempted Henry away from his wife and beloved church, and a woman who even considered incest to keep her man and crown. Even some Anne Boleyn fans are presenting her as some kind of trophy wife, like a modern day footballer’s wife or celebrity. Others present her as a tragic heroine, a victim of a husband who sought revenge after being bewitched by her. Sometimes it seems that we haven’t moved on from the views of the likes of Chapuys, who called Anne “the Concubine”, and the Abbot of Whitby who called her a “common stewed [professional] whore” – nice!

I don’t doubt that Anne Boleyn had magnetism and that she enjoyed the courtly love tradition and flirted, but why oh why do some authors and directors have to make it so that her rise to Queen was based solely on Henry’s sexual infatuation with her and her dangling her virginity as bait? It’s almost akin to people slurring a woman company director by saying that she only got to that position because she slept with influential people or because she’s sexy. Henry VIII was not stupid. I can’t see him doing what he did – annulling his first marriage, upsetting his daughter, breaking with the church etc. – just for sex. As I wrote in my recent article “Anne Boleyn, Sex and the Church of England”, The Guardian newspaper, in its review of Howard Brenton’s “Anne Boleyn” play, spoke of how Anne “used her sexual stranglehold over Henry VIII to pursue the idea of religious reform” and that she “deployed her sexual power to become a ‘conspirator for Christ’ “3 – No, I don’t think so, I think there was a bit more to the English Reformation than that.

In a Sunday Times article on “The Other Boleyn Girl” movie, Philippa Gregory says:-

“The story is one of a woman using her sexuality to entrance and trap a man, followed by the brooding bitterness of his revenge.”4

That just makes me want to bang my head against a brick wall. Perhaps I shouldn’t let it bother me because it is, at the end of the day, historical fiction, but so many people take “The Other Boleyn Girl” at face value and believe that that’s who Anne Boleyn was, a temptress who trapped a King.

In “The Tudors”, we see Anne Boleyn holding out on Henry, teasing him and frustrating him by only letting him go so far, and in “The Other Boleyn Girl” we see Henry raping Anne out of frustration. We are led to believe that Anne Boleyn was playing a game, encouraged by her father and uncle, or that she had learned from her sister’s experience as Henry’s mistress, that the only way she could become queen was to keep Henry interested but deny him the gift of her “maidenhead”, as it is described in novels. Their whole relationship seems to be based on the promise of passion, the anticipation of that wondrous moment, and it is small wonder, therefore, that the marriage is dead within 3 years and that Henry wants rid of Anne. In these portrayals of Henry and Anne’s love story, there is no meeting of minds, no partnership, no shared ambition, just sex or the anticipation of it, how sad. I know that in Henry’s love letters to Anne, he talks about wanting to kiss Anne’s “pretty dukkys”, but the depth of his love for Anne, and not just sexual obsession, is evident from his letters when he is troubled that he may have offended her by asking her to be his one and only mistress. He loves her for who she is and for the fact that he can talk to her as an equal. Here is a woman who tells it like it is, who doesn’t just tell him what she thinks he wants to hear, a woman with whom he can debate things and plan the future. That is far more intoxicating to Henry than sex, it is Anne’s intelligence and ambition that he is drawn to. It is their shared interests and common goals that bind them together.

Anne Boleyn is not the only victim. Elizabeth Woodville is often portrayed as a woman who used her descent from the mythical Melusine and her knowledge of witchcraft to trap Edward IV and to further her family. Marie Antoinette is depicted as a woman with a voracious appetite for both sexes. Eleanor of Aquitaine was so hot-blooded that she left her frigid husband, Louis VII, for Henry II, and had previously had an affair with her uncle. And what about Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford? She is unfairly portrayed as someone who betrayed her husband and sister-in-law because of her jealousy of their close, or even incestuous, relationship, and as the woman who acted as agent provocateur to Catherine Howard and Thomas Culpeper, taking a sexual thrill out of their secret meetings and enjoying being a voyeur. Oh, and of course Elizabeth I became one of the greatest English monarchs because she was the Virgin Queen and used her sexuality, and the magnetism that she had inherited from her mother, to get what she wanted. Yes, Elizabeth used her single status and the marriage market for diplomacy, but the success of her reign did not rest solely on her sexuality and her status as the “Virgin Queen”, she actually had a brain too.

I’m sure that you will be able to add some historical characters to this list, so feel free to do so in the comments below.

Alexandra, a member of the History Police group, summed up my feelings on this issue well when she commented on Boudicca, saying, “I think Boudicca was sexy because she was powerful, not powerful because she was sexy”5 . We are doing historical characters a grave injustice when we credit their success and power to sex and their sex appeal.

Right, I think I’ll get off my soapbox now!

Notes and Sources

  1. Collins English Dictionary Complete and Unabridged, Harper Collins 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
  2. The History Police Facebook Group
  3. The Guardian Review of “Anne Boleyn”
  4. Philippa Gregory watches as her bestseller ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ gets the Hollywood treatment, The Times and Sunday Times, February 15, 2008
  5. History Police Discussion on “The sexualization of historical people”