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 wh*re 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] wh*re” – 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”

Related Post

73 thoughts on “The Sexualization of Anne Boleyn”
  1. I LOVE this article! Thank you so much for writing it! I wish I could express my feelings far more eloquently.

  2. Thank you, Noelle! It was written straight from my heart so is not exactly “academic”, but I am so fed up of how Anne Boleyn is constantly portrayed. I’m glad you liked it.

  3. Absolutely, Claire! Robin Maxwell has talked about how, in researching Anne, she found out what an independent girl/woman she was long before she dreamed of marrying Henry. Of course, sadly, it is a common tactic to cast powerful women in history as “wh*res” — and also common for a woman who WON’T jump into bed with a man to be maligned as a wh*re. But every little argument against helps.

  4. wahooooooooo well said woman royal or not are neither wh*re or saint or feninist but human we are intelligent not weak and as men are born genticly as woman till they get x chromosne well in the beggining man came from eve soz rant over lol:)

  5. I really really enjoyed this article, and I love the quote from the woman over at The History Police. That really does sum it up perfectly. I have always held the same opinion. Henry VIII would not have married Anne merely for sex, because there were plenty of other places he could get that. He loved her mind as well as her body.
    PS. don’t mean to nitpick, but I believe Eleanor of Aquitaine was married to Louis VII of France. i’m sure it’s just a typo.
    Thank you for such a well-written and interesting article. I am always amazed at how well you write, and how good you are at transferring your arguments to paper. I always find interesting things to read here, and learn something new almost everyday. Keep them coming! 🙂

  6. Anne- like all women- was a sexual being, but that’s only one side of her. People have a lot of dimensions and Anne’s sexual magnetism was far less important than her wit, her education, her determination. Thanks for making that clear for those who believe that TOBG is truth..

  7. Excellent post, Claire. I couldn’t agree more. “The Tudors” was an entertaining (albeit trashy) historical soap opera, but its portrayal of Anne Boleyn was appallingly off the mark. I’m glad they stopped before portraying Elizabeth’s life (beyond early childhood, that is). I can’t imagine how they would have reconstructed her. BTW, avoid any books or articles written about Anne or Elizabeth by Philippa Gregory — the woman must have hated both Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth Tudor in a past life. Her biography of Elizabeth (and I’m a serious student of Elizabeth’s life) was the most appalling piece of trash I’ve ever read.

  8. Good to see the gloves are off here, Claire, and that you have had a real go at the sensationalism of some of our history. I can imagine your readers all roaring a collective Yes! at what you have written here. I agree entirely, too.
    Anyone who has worked for or had any involvement with the advertising/entertainment industry – of which a lot of publishing also, sadly, has to be included, will know that sex sells – no matter if it is a car or a celebrity, an alcopop or a movie. There is, moreover always a younger generation coming onstream for whom the whole thing is new and irresistible. Those of us who are, how shall we say, a little advanced in years (ehemmm!) can see through all the hype, of course, and it can be irritating when we see people falling for the same old trap again and again. But that’s how it is. Life goes on, and history if it can be packaged with sex will sell a lot better than it will without it. Now lets see that Starkey fella get with the lycra!

  9. Go get ’em, Claire! What a great article.
    Another historical figure. Helen of Troy and Cleopatra come to mind.

  10. You know if the situation was reversed if Anne had been the Queen and Henry was in the position of Anne, history would see it completely differently because men are “greater” than women. When it comes down to it I think it is sexist. End of story-a powerful woman is something men always have feared and always will so when they see a powerful woman or very independent woman, especially before her time they freak out and make it due to her sexuality. And in doing so they not only demean the woman, but also the man because then they make the relationship only about the sex and attraction, meaning that that is all the man wants and all the woman has to offer.

  11. Anne’s sexualization, sadly, started in her own time, and based a lot on the hysterical anti-Anne propaganda of her time, and even after her death, when her enemies gained power by spitting on her grave, and that of the five men charged as her lovers and killed with her.

    We can certainly understand Katharine of Aragon’s upset – after all, Henry was her husband in the eyes of God and the world, and father of the Crown Princess Mary, the future Queen of England. Marriage is a sacrament to the Catholic faith. Anne was definitely a threat to Katharine herself, to Mary, and to Henry’s immortal soul.

    Eustache Chapuys and Katharine’s other supporters sniffed out any negative gossip (or even manufactured some) about Anne. The Spanish faction’s – if such a term can be used – loathing of Anne was based on support of Katharine, and probably even some “racial” prejudice, because Anne was very French, in terms of her education and mannerisms. It is well known that the Spanish and the French were very antagonistic towards one another then.

    That Henry went through all that he did, destroying a long, happy and stable marriage for Anne, for whom he seemed obssessed, it must have seemed that Anne, like her “counterpart” the wh*re of Babylon, had mesmerized Henry using sex.

    Anne’s other enemies, such as the religious conservatives, helped encourage any bad feelings about her, and the worst thing that could be used against a woman was her sexuality and virtue or lack thereof. Mary Boleyn was “a very great wanton” according to a foreign ambassador in the French court, ergo, Anne’s enemies argued, she was, too. Of course, the Church representatives in England were acting out of self interest – if Anne’s Reformist views became popular, the Church officials would have to quit abusing the powers of their offices.

    Anne was successfully and viciously slandered during her time in Henry’s court, and I think it led to her death. Notice the principle charges against her were sexual in nature – Adultery and Incest. She was accused of sex with lovers who were plotting to kill Henry and would marry one of them and make that man King. At the time Anne was accused of adultery, that was not considered a capital crime for a Queen. But her enemies successfully combined a capital crime Treason – on the grounds that she was plotting the Soverign’s death – with a titillating one Adultery, and Anne was killed because of what could be termed “Sexual Treason.” Incest was probably thrown in for good measure, not only to get rid of and slander the very popular George Boleyn, but to make Anne’s sexual “crimes” all that much more unforgiveable.

    After Anne’s death (and a good number of her strongest supporters, notice) there was NO ONE who would stand up for her and defend her, and the absurdities of her “inordinate sexual appetite”, witchcraft, heresy, and the deformities (sixth finger, goiter, protruding tootch, etc.) all became part of the “facts” surrounding her.

    Elizabeth I, who could be argued to be Anne’s last laugh on her enemies, sadly, had to be prudent enough to not mention her mother publicly, because Anne’s enemies, and the factions they represented, could have posed a serious threat to Elizabeth’s own reign. However, Elizabeth’s last laugh was her ring, which secretly had pictures of herself and her mother. I wonder if maybe behind closed doors, Archbishop Cranmer and Kat Ashley told Elizabeth the truth about her mother, so Elizabeth would know that most of what was said about Anne in court circles was nonsense.

  12. I just can agree with the answer of Noelle. I really love this article,thank you so much,Claire! This article exactly says,what I am thinking ! It really fits my thoughts and reading it was very pacifiying to me. It is not fair how she’s portrayed in a lot of movies. And in Anne’s case it makes me really sad to see such movies :Anne was raped by Henry in “The other Boleyn Girl” and we often see a “silly Anne” in many other movies. Thats not history,but dirtying her memory!! Thank you ,Claire! Greetings from Germany

  13. Claire, I love it when you get on your soapbox and get right to the point! It is definitely time for a television show, movie, or fiction book to get some basic facts right: clearly, Anne was a bright and well educated woman with a lot of charisma, which made her stand out in Henry’s court without being the most beautiful woman around. It’s time to give audiences some credit for intelligence and stop rushing through a story to get to the sex scenes. As much as I liked “The Tudors” I think it could have been so much more. Anne could have been shown talking to Henry more about her religious beliefs and interests in education, George could have done more than act like a silly grown up child, and the need for a male heir, which so dominated Henry’s decisions, should have been played up more to explain some of his erratic behavior. Jane Parker is an example of what happens when the author choses to believe the worst rumors about someone. She loses her humanity when presented as a crazed jealous woman who wants revenge.

  14. Thank you for finally saying this, Claire.
    Sexualization has been a way to diminish the accomplishments of women throughout history. Women who became powerful or important were sexualized in the 16th century so that they could be discredited. The same inaccurate labels continue to be applied to them and their female counterparts from various eras even today. Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great and so many other women in history have been reduced to one-dimensional portraits based soley on their sexuality. Elizabeth I did have a brain and she used it to avoid marrying a man who would declare himself king and try to rule England when that was her job!

    No, I’m not what you would call a “feminist historian.” I did study history in college and I got so tired of the two polar opposites: women were either absent or diminished from traditional history or they were viewed soley through a feminist interpretation of “women’s history.” Women are just as integral to history as men and they deserve to be portrayed accurately.

  15. Hoorah!!!
    I get the oddest looks when I say Anne is my role model. Nice to see such a defence of one of the greatest woman the world has ever seen

  16. I am so glad that you wrote this, Claire. Anne was a very intelligent, religious woman who truly fell in love with the King. It’s very unfair that their relationship has just been portrayed as a matter of sex alone.

  17. It’s soo good to see Anne defended like this. I love Anne oleyn she has been my role model since I was like Eight and read Shakespeares’ Henry VIII, Anne’s character stood out to me and I researched her true life, well as much as i could find. I have been reading Biographies of her life ever since. I think it very unfair to portray Anne as a wh*re etc. It’s just slander, put about by men who were most likely intimidated by a woman who could think for herself, and had no problem expressing herself.

    Marriage isn’t just about sex, it’s about companionship. It is very sad that 500 years later we are still judging Anne and Henry’s marriage entirely on their sex life or lack of it.

  18. I’m rather pleased I inspired this Claire! Great article 🙂 The picture you used really exemplifies the obsession with sexualizing Anne. Of all the characters on that show, Anne is the only one in various states of undress!

  19. Why do people have to explain a woman’s achievements as nothing more than good use of sexuality? IMHO it’s degrading to women, and it sends the wrong kind of message to today’s women basically by saying the only way for a women to be sucessful is through sex. Thank’s for writing this, Claire! Perhaps one day we’ll be able to change people’s attitides towards smart, sucessful women.

    I think we can add the members of the 70’s all girl rock band, The Runaways, to the list. The movie makes it look like they used sex to achieve fame. While it’s true they weren’t afraid of displaying their sexuailty (Cherie’s corsets), they became famous because they had something called TALENT!

  20. How refreshibg to see an article such as this! Thank you Claire

    I get constantly fed up with women in history being confined by their sexuality. Why oh why do people keep refering to Anne Boleyn as a witch – there is no evidence for it!

    Thank you for mentioning Marie Antionette, she also had charges levied against her much as Anne had that were false, as they wanted rid of her by whatever means possible.

    Also Queen Boudiicca of the Iceni – it was because her two teenage daughters got raped by the Romans that she finally revolted and led the Celts into battle against them

    And Cleopatra was also an intelligent woman in her own right as well, she was deeply religious and followed the Goddess Isis, which is why she used the serpent, since it would have represented someone who was an adept and capable of transfiguring death

  21. I’m a little late chiming in here, but I’m a big fan of that soapbox of yours, Claire! All of the comments so far are so good, and are one of the reasons I love this site so much! We can have a civil, intelligent conversation about Anne here, and the thought and depth of the responses does my heart good. I think Anne would be well pleased!

  22. Nice article 🙂
    Thank God I have read “The Other Boleyn Girl” AFTER seing “The Tudors”, so that book didn’t make my opinion about Anne :))

  23. anne boylen was never a wh*re people just wanted to get rid of her she had passion of a queen she loved henry so much but he had to listen to others

  24. Lauren, Have you seen season 4 yet? Poor Catherine Howard has to show it all in so many scenes that I think I saw her rear end more than my own LOL! She even practices putting her head on the block without clothes!

  25. Anne Boleyn has been portrayed so many ways in film and in book, it is hard to speculate on what the real Anne was really and truthally like. All we can all do is go on the evidential, recorded proof that is out there and not peoples hearsay. There have been so many portrayals and so much discription surrounding Anne Boleyn to a point where it causes confusion as to who the real Anne was. I myself have read up a lot on Anne over the years since I first became interested in her and the Tudors at the age of eleven. I was immeadiately captivated and should I say somewhat intrigued by Anne from the moment I saw her amongst the whole Tudor period itself. Anne has to be my favourite out of all of King Henry VIII’s wives and one of my most favourite Tudor historical characters throughout the whole of history.

    Anne Boleyn was known for incurring the kings interest in her and beholding that interest for seven long years until it came time for them to marry which they did edventually, Anne is also known for her captivation of the king aswell as dettering him away from his wife of eighteen years Catherine of Aragon and last but not least she had been known and was known for her intelligence.

    Her enemies as we all know called her names and she was called quite some which must have had some affect upon Anne as she was walking by hearing them being shouted out and said or accidently hearing from people who just happened to be the court gossips. I think that all of these names were said just out of spite to upset aswell as ruin her reputation as a woman moreover as a person, also I think that these horrible, vicious remarks were made not just because of the above but because they wanted rid of her and most of all did not know her ! I think in all of that time she had spent at court and was at court nobody took any interest in her apart from her familly and the king of course apart from that it seems to me like nobody actually sat there and bothered to get her know her, not properly. Perhaps if certain people around court had actually bothered in getting to know her they would have seen her in a different light, maybe a different perspective then things may not have gone so far as they did, I am not saying that all of this would have prevented her execution in the slightest but it would perhaps of given her some friendly faces, some politeness from her opposition at least.

    I deffinately think that there had been some jealousy there amongst rivals, her rivals, some competitiveness, inferiorority and insecurity amongst her catholic enemies without a doubt. I would also like to point out that I do not just think it was because she was female, a woman it was because she was different, well different in comparison to the people, well lets just say most of the people who stood before and around her at the time.

    I would like to say that I am 50/50 on this subject, I would say that parts of what were said were made up and some parts true, some parts were said to incrimanate her aswell as blacken her name wearas the true and factual parts were said and just used against her to make matters worse. I would like to say that the whole of it was made up but I cannot, I hereby stand somewhere in the middle upon this matter.

  26. Hi,
    I agree that Anne is portrayed wrongly in movies, but you have to admit that “men” in general are constantly thinking about sex, and sometimes do not use their better judgment. I do not say this to be hateful to men at all, I can see how a woman could take advantage of a man perhaps because of the “hope” of sex. I, in no way, mean any disrespect to men, but I bet even they would confess this to be true.

  27. i have to agree but only partly, i think she has been oversexed a bit, but there is one thing that most sources can agree on is that she was expert in seduction nad getting what she wanted.

  28. Claire:

    Just now getting to read your article and wanted to thank you so much for the clarity and the laying out of facts that you did. Most of my thinking falls along the lines of what others have said, so I won’t repeat it, but it is so refreshing to see a side that presents Anne as a three-dimensional being and not the way most writers do, either as 1) sex kitten, 2) witch, 3) sex-kitten witch, 4) home wrecking wh*re, 5) amoral sex-kitten home wrecking wh*re. Amazing that with as much material as there is about her, YOU have come closer to the heart of the real woman when so-called historians keep missing the mark, returning over and over again to the same old story of her tantalizing Henry with sex so that this man destroys Traditional England for her sake. I’ve always thought there had to be something more beyond this, and I’m always open to shaking up the Anne Boleyn myths.

    I don’t know if anyone else remembers the scenes or not, but there were maybe a couple in The Tudors that might have managed to touch on the real Anne more than they realized. (Natalie Dormer did get a load of semi-nude scenes; not sure what the running tally would be between her and Tazmin Merchant’s Katherine Howard, but you’ll notice on “hundreds” of sites, we get Natalie’s Anne showing off a bare leg or two, or revealing a hint of something or other with Rhys-Meyers normally fully clothed. LOL Sex sells is right). But there is one scene when Anne gives a “forbidden” book to Henry, a Reformist book which recognizes the King’s authority over that of the Pope, and helps Henry with some of the catalyst he needed to make the break. (He may have been thinking it anyway on the show, but this gave him even more of a legal argument). The other is in her instructing her ladies on propriety; I keep thinking she told them to read the Scriptures or the teachings of the New Learning.

    As far as other powerful women, glad to see someone mentioned Catherine the Great; I thought of her too. And loved the line about “That just makes me want to bang my head against a brick wall.” I think I’d like to bang Ms. Gregory against a brick wall to see if it’d knock some sense into her, but oh well… 🙂 it’d probably be a waste of time!

    Once again Claire, fantastic read! It’s things like your article that make me glad I found this group.

    1. I thought the same about the Tudors. While the show focused on Henry’s sexual attraction to her, she also gave a him reformist book to show the audience that he was attracted to her because of her opinions as well. The Tudor’s Anne is also very witty and charming. She builds up Henry’s confidence and tells him things he wants to hear. So many adaptions turn her into, to be blunt, a complete harpy. It’s a mystery to me why Henry would ever leave Katherine and his beloved religion for such a woman.

  29. Wonderful article! It needed to be said and you did it beautifully. I really enjoyed reading it as I did all the comments. I think also something that gets overlooked is the time span of Anne and Henry’s relationship. It was something like seven years before they got married even. So there was definitely more of a connection between the two of them than just the sexuality of it. They weren’t even having sex for most of that time so there was obviously more to the relationship.

    Carol’s comment made me laugh about how Philippa Gregory must have hated Anne and Elizabeth in a past life. So true! It makes me boil how she trashes Anne and Elizabeth in her “historical” novels. I can’t even stomach “The Other Boleyn Girl”. Even if it is historical fiction I think it is irresponsible to get the facts so wrong and to be so lopsided in the portrayal of these real characters. It is unfair and does them a great injustice. I won’t read another book by her again.

    Another woman to be added to this list of wronged women is Mary Magdalene. Since the beginning the church painted here as a prostitute when in fact she was from a good family of importance. She had a big part in the ministry of Jesus but she is not given credit for any of that until fairly recently. The Catholic church recanted on their stance that she was a prostitute in the 1970’s I think it was, but it’s amazing still how many people today still think she was a prostitute. History has been very unfair to women and I hate to say it but religion has been a big perpetuator of that in the past.

  30. I’ve been following this site for a while and I just had to chime in on this article. I love the topic, and I think it brings up some valid arguments about women and society that still seem to be sticking points today. I’ve always admired Anne and I’ve always considered her a role model (which gets me many strange looks when I say it), but I think she’s representative of what any woman should aspire to be. Anne was an educated and intelligent woman who gave birth to a girl who became an educated and intelligent woman.

    I find it interesting that even today we have societal perceptions about women and sexuality. We label women “golddigger,” “cougar,” “trophy wife,” “starter wife,” and other demeaning phrases based on their supposed role in a relationship with a man. I imagine Anne could walk into a high school lunchroom or society dinner today and it wouldn’t be much different from walking into Henry’s court.

    I’ve worked at a local renaissance festival the past 3 years, and our theme has been King Henry/Queen Anne. The actress who plays Anne is a beautiful, lovely woman who is incredibly kind and caring. While helping her lace up and dress one morning this season we discussed how people react to her at the festival and things they say or do (since I worked in the ticketing booth and never got out to enjoy the festival.) She said that children, especially girls, are dazzled by her gowns and her hair and her crown and love coming up to her and asking her questions. But their mothers refer to her as a “wh*re,” “homewrecker,” and that phrase used to describe a female dog, and some will actually yell it at her from a distance. She mentioned that it’s interesting how people today still perceive Anne as if she wasn’t a living, breathing, feeling human being and how that’s her goal in portraying Anne – to try to make people see how Anne isn’t just a portrait on a gallery wall but once lived and loved like we all do.

  31. I think we should be very wary of re-imagining history to suit modern mores and sensiblities. I see no reason to ‘move on’ from Chapuys (etc) unless we know he is wrong. Anne Boleyn seems very likely to have been highly intelligent and, for her time, unusually articulate with carefully formed opinions on sensitive issues. But this doesn’t mean that she wasn’t also an overtly sexual person. Tto have accused her of the crimes for which she died was a dangerous step to take even for Cromwell and this must surely have been done in the expectation that the accusations, true or not, would be believed. It therefore seems likely that even if she was innocent in substance there was an awareness that even far-fetched charges such as adultery with her own brother would ‘stick’. This may have been due to no more than what we could call OTT flirtatiousness but for Cromwell and others there was probably more than enough smoke in her general demeanour to suggest a fire.

  32. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure that anyone is “re-imagining” history and I’m not sure what you mean. I certainly was not saying that we should disregard Chapuys as his letters are obviously a great primary source for us to use. What I was saying is that the nickname he gave Anne, “the concubine”, resulted from his distaste and his dislike of her because in his view she usurped the place of the true queen, Catherine of Aragon, and was therefore nothing but a concubine and not the King’s true wife.
    I am also not saying that Anne wasn’t a sexual person. I don’t think there is any evidence that she was an overtly sexual person or that her household was loose and immoral, but I definitely feel that she had what I call “magnetism” and was a sexually attractive woman.
    I don’t agree with the whole “no smoke without a fire” idea. The two instances of men behaving inappropriately with Anne led to her reprimanding them, not leading them on or flirting with them, and I see no evidence at all of any “smoke”. Cromwell knew that he could make the charges stick because he had “evidence” – the confession of Mark Smeaton and the evidence of the lady (Countess Worcester? Jane Rochford?) and the jury was made up of enemies of the Boleyn faction so was nothing but a show trial. I think the only “smoke” was the reputation that Anne’s enemies had given her.
    It is telling that Chapuys did not believe that Anne was guilty and I am sure that he would have if there had been any truth in the accusations or any “smoke”.

    What I was trying to get across is my annoyance at how Anne Boleyn is portrayed in modern fiction, TV series and movies.

  33. Great article and wonderful discussion! I think Anne had charisma, intelligence and charm and these things caused men to notice her. That, plus her sense of style and her grace and her “French-ness” made her very attractive to the met at court. Henry loved the hunt and all sorts of competition. When he saw how others flocked to her, he became interested. Yes, she did have sex appeal but what does that mean exactly? Beatuty? Well, no one ever called her a great beauty. Provocative actions? Only in the way of courtly love. Usually, sex appeal happens when a person (male or female) is confident, intelligent, loves to laugh and be among people, is sensitive and has that indefinable something. These are qualities one can cultivate with education and experience, except for the last one–and Anne had it. Like many attractive women, she was blamed when others found her exciting. It goes back to Eve, who was blamed for original sin–men always blame the incitement of their “filthy lusts” on the object of their desires. Anne is a prime example of this chauvinism. She was well-educated, progressive in her thinking, open-minded, loved to read, loved to game, loved life. It is only too sad her life was cut short. Love that soapbox!

  34. I absolutely HATED “The Other Boleyn Girl” film. It was ridiculously inaccurate in order to make a “more interesting story”. Granted, The Tudors can be far-fetched at times, but TOBG went above and beyond. I just don’t understand Phillipa Gregory… I’ve read another of her novels and she says she “bases as much as she can on history”. I have to disagree. The people that made that movie didn’t do any research into Tudor history, and especially about Anne. Such a disappointment that people I know have seen that movie and have that perception of Anne.

  35. I loathed TOBG. Read the book, have not seen the movie and just about screamed at some of it. Where did she get off implying that Anne Boleyn would sleep with her brother to keep her position? Give me a break here. Anne Boleyn was above all things intelligent. I have a friend who asked that question to me one night on the phone after reading that book and I just tore into it. Gregory has done a lot of damage with that book and I am not impressed with her other books about Elizabeth either.

  36. I kind of liked the movie “Anne of a Thousand Days” – it was made in the seventies, and not particularly accurate in the historical detail, but I did like how Anne was portrayed, and to me at least believable.

    It is hard for me to believe that a monarch who had woman lining up to bed him would be interested in Anne for just sex. I have read that his temparament was romantic, and it makes sense to me…otherwise he wouldn’t have had 6 wives!

  37. And I have to add I hated The Other Boleyn Girl….so much so, that I didn’t bother with any of her other books.

    I did like Jean Plaidy’s books on Anne Boleyn – there are a couple, but Murder Most Royal comes foremost to my mind

  38. Thank you for putting my feelings into words. I read a book and the title escapes me in the 1980s about Ann Boleyn, my first ever book that actually portrayed Ann in a non sexual light. Everything you put in this article encapsulates my passion for Ann and how wronged she has been in fiction and factual books. Like you I want to scream when people actually think that these fictional films such as you mentioned are actual historical fact.

    Long may you keep flying the flag for Ann Boleyn.

  39. I would love to know the real reason Henry fell out of love with Anne. I don’t think it’s any of the things we have learned so far. To go from being crazy about her to having her executed on trumped up charges after only 3 years of marriage , it just seems as if something is missing somewhere.

  40. I never thought that Anne Boleyn had a really bad side.I love the information here because I am a HUGE fan of HISTORY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  41. Initially, with someone as hard-headed as Henry the VIII, it would have been difficult for a woman to flaunt her intelligence in those days. She may have used her intelligence eventually. And “The Other Boleyn Girl” portrays her well as an intelligent, ambitious woman, but it seems you never read the book. I agree, she shouldn’t be portrayed as a wh*re, but initially, when she wanted to grab his attention, she would have had to use her looks, it was not the same world we live in now.

    1. I have read the book (less with enjoyment more with morbid fascination). Could it possibly get any worse ? It did. I have no problem with historical ficition what annoys me about Phillipa Gregory is that she puts forward her fictional plots as certain facts. There is a whole page on the internet pointing out the historical inaccuracies. Also although she has a degree in history I am sure I read that it is not in the Tudor or Elizabethan period. Could anyone help me with this one ?

  42. What a fantastic, lucid article! I’m just about fed up of this sort of portrayal of historical women too, and why on earth some authors/film maker/tv series makers keep pandering to it is mind-boggling… it’s a complete misreading of the situation in most if not all cases, and it does the real historical people no favours whatsoever, thirdly and perhaps most worryingly it verges on unconscious sexism, teaching people that notable women in history only got where they did because of their good looks or the promise of sex.

  43. I think it must be remembered though, that from an academic view of Anne, there is evidence to support both theories. We don’t know that she was purely a sexual being- but we don’t know that she wasn’t, either.

    As much as I would love to say that she was intelligent, and Henry loved her for this, as a history student I believe that all the evidence should be viewed and discussed before coming to a valid conclusion.

    On another note, I love this site! Great job!

    1. Thanks, Zan, I’m glad you like the site. I think that there is plenty of evidence to show that Anne was not a purely sexual being – evidence of her charitable giving, her faith, her strict morals, her patronage of the arts, her level of education, her partnership with Henry in planning building work etc. I’m sure Henry was sexually attracted to her but there had to be more than that for him to move Heaven and Earth to be with her and to make her his queen.

  44. Thanks for posting this article. I did a history degree which focussed on the Tudor Reformation and I whole heartedly agree that the treatment of Anne as a histroical figure is marginalised through the sexualisation of her memory. The frustrating part for serious historian when trying to study Anne is the myths which surround her life, we really know very little about it. Undoubtedly she was a controversial figure, the other woman in Henry’s life. This marred her reputation and reduced her to the ‘concubine.’ As a serious historian you alsways assess the source and Chapuyus is, whilst contemporary, of a distinct political faction against Anne.
    In reality we are only just beginning to see the multi-faceted, complex character of Anne. Debate such as this allows us to explore and discuss that character in a real way, which is not inherently academic.
    Thank you for your website..

  45. The authors are simply trying to portray Anne as a femme fatale, a woman who uses her feminine powers to reach her goal and eliminates anyone that comes in her way to make the story and Anne a little bit more interesting to our 21st century eyes and therefore sell more products/ books….

  46. How else could she be portrayed? Henry was married to Catherine. Anne was the other woman who was happy to destroy Catherine, the Church, whoever stood in her way. The historical facts bear this out. So to accuse people of “trashing” her for saying that she used sex to trap the King is nonsense. How else would you characterise someone who tries to steal another woman’s husband?

    1. The historical facts do not bear out that interpretation at all, only fiction and film portray Anne in that way. There is no historical evidence at all that she set out to trap Henry, that she used sex to manipulate him, that she was “happy to destroy Catherine, the Church…” and that she stole another woman’s husband.

    2. The other woman, the other woman… Yawn. Catherine passed from Arthur to Henry. Anne simply yielded to royal pressure. Who’s the ahem? In my opinion, it’s best to avoid this kind of meddling, this troublesome tangle. Doesn’t bring anyone anything useful.

  47. Although this element has been sensationalized and misrepresented, I think it would be a mistake to underplay the importance of sexuality in Anne Boleyn’s life and her cultural meaning in the centuries since her death. She refused the conventional role of mistress and ruled as queen partly by virtue of her sexuality, and fell when sexual fertility failed her. This isn’t to reduce her or detract from her other qualities- intelligence, courage, political astuteness, etc- as Timothy Leary once said, “Intelligence is the ultimate aphrodaisiac!” One of the reasons Anne is such a compelling historical figure is that she was a sexual female monarch, unashamed and self-validating in a very repressed and hypocritical age. To desexualize Anne would be as false as a Phillippa Gregory plot device.

  48. Anne was young and vibrant,she knew how to make herself attractive, and had an added air about her because she was newly back from the french court and with her came all their refinements, which would have made her more noticeable and what underlined this was she was actually very intelligent. She oviously did not blend in un-noticed as most ladies of the court at that time. On saying that Anne would not have deliberately make herself into this person just to attract the king, she was doing as all the young ladies an gentlemen did at court, have fun, after all she was single, on the marriage market and a good catch. Was it her fault that a middle aged man, who was bored with his marriage got her in his sights? that rings true through the past to present day. She wasn’t the first after all, Henry had strayed on numerous occassion. It turned out that she wasn’t going to be another notch on his headboard. So yes she did have that something special, call it sexuality,attractiveness whatever it was, we all have it to a degree, its just that we usually get the ‘boy next door; she attracted a King. If it had not have been Anne it would have been someone else. The big question is would he have divorce Katherine for anyone else, personally I think he would have eventually, times were changing. To say Anne became Queen on her sexuality alone is singleminded,it was more complex than that, Henry had never persued anything for as long as he did Anne, and no matter how ‘sexy’ she was I would have thought even the deepest crush would wane after waiting for 7 years. She didn’t steal him, Henry gave himself to her, even when he knew he was married to katherine, so yes in the end she took him. The ultimate ‘Fatal Attraction’

  49. Thanks Claire for another great article. I’ve been visiting this site for sometime now and I just came across it.

    As a trained historian it’s always bothered me how historical figures are viewed through a modern lens. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to get to the “truth” and you have to wade through centuries of others doing the same thing. Many eras have produced different versions of Anne, the difficulty is trying to get to the real person under the layers of half truths and myths.

    I think that sometimes we forget that figures like Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII were people first, with all of their personal strengths and weaknesses, as well as the expectations of their times. Anne is an interesting character because she didn’t do what most women would have done in her position, she didn’t give in to Henry’s sexual expectations. How she could be considered a “wh*re” for that has always boggled my mind. She chose to remain a virgin until marriage, which, in her time, was the conventional choice.

    It is the classic “Catch-22,” submit and be called a “wh*re” or withold and be called a “wh*re” for enticing the man with the promise of submission. It’s really a no-win. My suspicion is that Anne held onto her virginity because that was all she had. Once the king took that she risked losing him, and also lost any chance of making the kind of respectable marriage she wanted. She was trapped.

    It is often forgotten that women of the early 16th century were essentially the chattel of men. They belonged to their fathers, then their husbands, and rarely had the opportunity to choose how to live their own lives. In Anne’s case, by becoming the King’s “intended” she was controlled by no one. Her father couldn’t oversee her without risking the King’s offense, and since the King was besotted with her, he pretty much let her have her way.

    Once they married, she was once again under the control of a man and had to submit in all things. That must have been extremely difficult for a woman of intelligence who had become used to a certain amount of freedom. Once she accepted the role of “wife” she was trapped in another “Catch-22.” Be the perfect submissive wife and deny the intelligent, interesting woman Henry had fallen in love with; or continue to be the challenging woman she’d been….so much more appropriate for a girlfriend than a wife. Her only real hope was to give him what he so desperately wanted, a son. When that didn’t happen she became too vulnerable to those, like Cromwell, who feared her power.

    I find it particularly interesting that Anne Boleyn is famous for witholding her sexual favors, and for allegedly bestowing them on every man in site. The contradiction is mind boggling, and I suspect that as intelligent and witty as Anne was, she would have found it hilarious if it wasn’t so terrifying. Actually, the stories of her laughing hysterically in the Tower ring most true to me, how could she not see the irony in her situation?

    1. You raise some interesting points, especially when you sum up your portrayal of Anne as another victim of her times. 1. The Failure of Anne to give Henry the much needed son. “When that didn’t happen she became too vulnerable to those, like Cromwell, who feared her power”. 2. Anne (famous for withholding her sexual favours to Henry as a ploy to force him to divorce his wife and marry her) now finds herself falsely accused of adultery with countless men as well as performing incest with her own brother. You’re right, “the stories of her laughing hysterically in the Tower ring most true to me, how could she not see the irony in her situation?

      All in all I found your account intelligently incisive, leaving me wanting to read more of what you have to say on this subject.

  50. Yes, yes, and Henry dangled a crown with rosy promises, painted Anne into a corner… And he’s a what? An uncommon stewed pig? Please.

    1. What you say sounds more like the truth. Henry making Anne perform the dance of the seven veils in order to gain a crown. Not to mention her having to deliver an heir and a spare.

      When she didn’t deliver she was condemned as a sorcerer, a heretic an adulterous as well as the blame for Henry’s break with Rome. Yes, she was a victim.

  51. Oh… I don’t know. In Gregory’s defense, she stated in “The Boleyn Inheritance” that Anne’s “wit of fire” was particulary attractive to Henry, and she ruined him for witty, fierce women. This is just fiction, but I can see, through many of the articles about Anne, how her wit and intelligence would have been very sexy to Henry. I agree with John. The mind is the ultimate sex organ. Those who slandered Anne (and continue to unto this day) reduce the sexual power of a woman to something dirty or bad, but it is not so. Just because those small minds twist her sexuality and use it against her need not mean that Anne did not employ her sexuality in her own desire to wed Henry! And we cannot forget that sexuality is one of a woman’s biggest guns in her “war chest”.

    At least in my own experience, sexuality is a huge part of non-dynastic marriage and attraction, and as we know, Henry did not marry Anne for political reasons but for his deep desire to posess her. What for, then, if attraction was not a major part of this? Whether it is a woman’s body, her voice, her style, or her mind does not make too much of a difference in the end. She obviously struck the right cord in Henry’s soul.

    Perhaps many authors go the bodice-ripping route for sales. I often wonder, though, how much of this is a backlash against the earlier times (think The Tudor Rose) when Victorian era authors almost completely ignored the sexuality of their heroines? In my own novel (set in Egypt, not Christian Europe) I had no choice but to contend with the growing sexuality of my female lead. To ignore it would have been to ignore a major, vital part of a woman’s life and marriage, a marriage that in this case was an obvious, documented love match that produced at least two known offspring. To omit the sexual motivation, the sexual intrigue, and finally the consummation of these powerful emotions is to do a disservice to the women we attempt to reconstruct on the same level as failing to write about their giving birth or any other huge part of that woman’s life.

    Now, whether or not an author does this tastefully…. well, what offends one intrigues another. Authors should, IMHO, seek a medium ground. Real women are not all about sex; nor does a healthy or semi-healthy woman shun sex. Interestingly, Gregory’s portrayal of Margaret Beauford lacked all sexuality.

    I prefer my historical media not to avoid sexuality, because it is ridiculous and not a truthful portrayal of the human condition. I do realize that Christianity had (has?) rather, er, strict beliefs against sexual pleasure and that many of these women, possibly, would have been altered by these religious confines. But all in all, as a reader and a writer, I am glad that history is more humanized now. As long as it is tasteful!

    I am new to this site but I think it is absolutely wonderful, and I hope to continue on reading many more wonderful and fascinating articles about Anne Boleyn and the Tudor period. Thanks Claire (I hope I have that right!) for all your hard work!

  52. Thank you for writing such a wonderful article about Anne.And all the others that you have written of course.Unfortunately,nowadays,people think that they are gaining knowledge from films etc.They don’t look deeply or read history.It is not a coincidence that she remained in history and that she ruled a big part of the world for what Henry had done was all because Anne thought of it and suggested it.And more impressive is the fact that she managed after her death to loved by millions of people while she was so hated(because of jealousy perhaps both from men for the reason that they could never have such a woman by their side and from women because they could never have such a great personality or education or anything else that Anne had).The fact is while years were passing people started to become more open mind.And here we are now.Why does everybody loves Anne nowadays?Because that woman was so modern that her ambitions could be also accepted today.And the difference between Anne and other women is that she had a ”reasonable reason” to risk everything and to aim so high.Maybe directors or writers want to make us think of Anne as people used to think back then.

    1. anne boleyn was born and lived 500 yrs ago and not in the 21st century so you cannot compare her with todays woman ,she did hold out for the crown it was her ambition to be queen not mistress and she knew if she gave in to henry and slept with him ,he would just have been content with that ,with her being mistress until he got fed up with her and moved on why did she sleep with him before marriage so if she was trying to save herself for marriage,because the crown was in sight,and if she was so religious why did she come between henry and catherine ,she was the other woman and she was instumental in making henry break with the pope ,this is not the profile of a saintly woman who has no say in anything ,she knew full well what she was doing ,and she ,like it or not did dangle her sexuality in front of henry ,no matter what her fans of today might like to think .

      1. Henry was seeking a divorce in order to remarry. It is referred to as the Mid Tudor Crisis; Henry being married for 20 years with no male heir. This is where Anne comes into the picture with her no sex before marriage rhetoric.

        The English Reformation is a totally separate subject. Of course the separation from Rome allows Henry to divorce in order to remarry, but it could have been any female. Annes game was to ensure it was her instead of any other available suitor.

  53. Well, women (even in this millenium) are damned if they do, & damned if they don’t. If they hold out, instead of put out, then their a tease. If they put out, then their a wh*re. A man can sleep with 50 women in his life and he’s a stud, but if a woman sleeps with more than one man in HER lifetime, she’s a wh*re. I think men
    are frightened, unsure, and ill at ease by women who are capable of being brainy, witty, & strong, as well as being beautiful and sexy. They do not like the “fairer” sex being smarter or more capable.

  54. It is a reflection of ingrained misogyny in society that all the women in power are portrayed as madonnas or wh*res to this day. Women are as multi-faceted as men. If anything, Anne was pure, and didn’t have a great desire for the King. She may even have stated no sex until marriage just ot get rid of him, so she could marry someone of her station whom she loved. There is no reason or precedent for her to think that Henry would divorce Katherine and marry her. That was all Henry. But when the oportunity to become Queen became realistic, she got on board. P. Gregory didn’t even get the birth order of the Boleyn girls right, and she is wrong more often than right. But if smutting up history and dumbing it down for the masses has made the genre more popular, I say “go for it.” Isabellla of France is also seen as a wh*re and a she-wolf, just because she wanted sex with a heterosexual male. Catherine Howard was young, and sexually abused as a child, married to a fifty year old stinking impotent old man. If she did have sex with Culpepper, it is only fair for her to give into a healthy young sexual appetitie, once awakened, unable to be denied. Cleopatra is virtually demonized, but the men she seduced were intelligent, and could have any woman they wanted, yet they wanted her. Good in bed only gets you so far. Caroline of Brunswick was also demonized for wanting sex, but by that time the populace tended to side with the ignored wife. Katherine Swynford had to be more than good in bed. Sex is always a part of life, but these women were far more…

  55. I think you – like the novels and movies you criticise – have fallen into the trap of judging a human relationship that existed in the past by modern values. It is very unlikely that an absolute monarch, who was used to getting what he wanted when he wanted it, searched for an “equal” in his relationships, whether we like this or not.

    1. Obviously you’re entitled to your opinion but I don’t think I am using modern values, I think Anne was not the traditional Tudor woman, wife or queen and that was actually one of the problems in the relationship. I don’t think Henry searched for an “equal”, I think he was just attracted to a woman who did seem to know her own mind but then found that hard to cope with after marrying her.

  56. So well written!!!!! In the varying novels I have read it differs so much the portrayal of their relationship, but many accounts of Anne are is that she was “somewhat plain” and not as beautiful as Mary, her sister….it was her wit, her intelligence, the fearlessness she expressed in speaking her mind that enticed Henry and I have no doubt that he loved her deeply. For a time….Anne was most definitely not a traditional Tudor woman, was quite extraordinary for the time, and I agree, what he fell in love with became a hard pill to swallow later on. That, in my opinion, is the only thing that resembles “modern values”, eh? Only now, divorce is a bit easier and a Queen doesn’t have to be accused of false or misconstrued acts that lead to her losing her life to be replaced by a “newer model” 😉

  57. I also consider myself one of the history police, especially when I read (and hear) how Henry VIII changed the course of English history for the sake of one woman. What you need to ask yourself is how did Anne Boleyn change the course of history with just one kiss and a promise? If you do believe that then you are merely settling for the comforting view of history, or what I term the lazy approach to history. In truth the period in question, the English Reformation is far too complex a subject to be settled by a simple divorce. Also what needs to be taken into account is the mid Tudor crisis; Henry married for 20 years with no male heir. Which has to be the reason why Henry found himself forced into divorcing Katherine in order to marry Anne. There can be no other reason, nor ever will there be.

    To cut a long story short we are all victims of economic, political and social change, where we find ourselves making our decisions based on these forces. The same can be said for Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas Moore and last but not least Henry VIII.

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