13 January 2014 - 12:03
Why You Shouldn’t Believe Everything You’ve Heard About Anne Boleyn


Author and Historian

“Incredibly vain, ambitious, unscrupulous, coarse, fierce, and relentless.”

It’s an instantly recognizable image of Anne Boleyn. The quote comes from Paul Friedman’s 1884 biography. But fans of Philippa Gregory will find her reincarnated as the sister from hell of The Other Boleyn Girl.  In David Starkey’s 2004 Six Wives, she is a vicious, vengeful harpy who “hardened” Henry’s heart and judgment and who “rejoiced” when her enemies were “hunted down.”  She has even slithered her way into the higher literary reaches of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, where she appears as a predatory, anxious schemer with “a cold slick brain behind her hungry eyes.” Manipulative. Calculating. Ambitious. Cold-hearted.  A social climber who lured Henry into abandoning his faithful, devout wife of 15 years and would stop at nothing to become queen.
It’s as familiar as a fairy tale told repeatedly at a child’s bedside — and, as I was shocked to discover when I began archival research for The Creation of Anne Boleyn — based on about as much historical evidence. I had seen one version or another in so many biographies and novels that I expected a surplus of historical documentation of Boleyn’s selfish scheming.  I discovered instead that we know very little about Anne Boleyn’s character or motivations, good or bad.  She wasn’t royalty, so her childhood wasn’t chronicled.  Nor were her teenage years, which were spent as a lady-in-waiting at the courts of Margaret of Austria and Queen Claude of France.  We know that Henry VIII pursued her for seven years, splitting his kingdom into bloody halves while he penned ardent love letters and tried to convince an unmovable Catholic hierarchy that his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon was a sin against God.  But despite the widespread belief that Anne skillfully led him on by withholding her sexual favors, we actually don’t know what Anne felt and thought about her royal courtier, for we don’t have her side of the correspondence. In fact, all we have in Anne’s own words are a smattering of largely inconsequential letters, her (reported) speeches at her trial and execution, and the odd, ironic comments she made in the Tower of London while awaiting her execution.

The Creation of Anne Boleyn

So where did Anne the skanky schemer come from?  In essence, she is the creation of a many-centuries-long telephone game that turned politically motivated lies into inflammatory gossip and alchemized that gossip into “history.”  Ironically, that “history” then became the inspiration for fictions — novels, movies, television shows — which in turn have assumed the authority of fact for many readers.  Anne Boleyn was a real woman who was born, lived, and died.  “Anne Boleyn” is largely a creature of the imagination.

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How did the chain of representations begin? The main archetype of the prototype was one man: Eustace Chapuys, ambassador of Emperor Charles V at the court of Henry VIII from 1529 through the sixteen tumultuous years that followed.  Chapuys was not a historian (a profession that actually didn’t exist at the time.) His official job was to report court goings-on to Spain, and to skillfully adjudicate between Henry and Charles.  But his personal mission was to protect Katherine of Aragon and the Catholic cause from the turmoil brought about by The King’s Great Matter and — as Chapuys saw it — the suspiciously “Frenchified” witch who had inspired the divorce proceedings and everything awful that Henry did thereafter: Anne Boleyn.

Chapuys hated Anne with a venom that he didn’t even try to disguise, disgustedly referring to her in his official communications as “the concubine” and “that whore” — or, with polite disdain, “The Lady.” Elizabeth was “the little bastard.” Everything dishonorable in Henry’s behavior, including his shabby treatment of Mary (which actually persisted after Anne’s execution), was the fault of Anne’s “perverse and malicious nature,” “the wickedness of this accursed woman.” He was convinced — and convinced many others at court — that Anne was continually plotting to murder both Katherine and Mary (no evidence of either). And he even charged Anne with responsibility for spreading the heretical “scourge” of Lutheranism throughout England (although Anne wasn’t even a Lutheran).

Chapuys was not, of course, the sole architect of Anne-hating mythology.  Wolsey’s man Cavendish contributed his bit, and Nicholas Sander later supplied some particularly salacious details, even going as far as to claim that Anne, besides having slept with most of the French court, was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne’s own mother.  But Chapuys, unlike Sander, was a respected diplomat not an exiled polemicist.  And, although later generations would try to rehabilitate Anne’s image — often going way too far in the opposite direction and cloaking her with the mantle of Protestant Saint — Chapuys’ Anne is the one that has stuck. One might say that she is our default Anne.  We stray away from her for a time, but then she pops up again.  It’s hard to trump the appeal of an archetypal temptress.

The cultural tastiness of plotting females aside, it’s important to remember, as I emphasize in my book, how it all began.  Chapuys was hardly a credible “witness” to events.  But Katherine’s supporters did not ask for proof or logic, and Chapuys, spreading his tales around court and encouraging Katherine and Mary’s suspicions of Anne, was able to generate an atmosphere of hostility toward Anne.  Centuries later, his lengthy, gossipy letters became the prime source of all the early biographies of Henry and Anne.  For history abhors a vacuum.  Chapuys was there to dress the slender skeleton of fact with juicy but unsubstantiated adornment. And while the earliest historians and biographers were justifiably suspicious of the veracity of his reports, they also leaned on them to stitch together a coherent, compelling narrative. Passed from one generation to another, that narrative ultimately overshadowed the suspicions, as Chapuys’ venomous portrait of Anne’s character and her manipulation of Henry crept into later histories, biographies, novels, films, television, and what we might call “the popular imagination.”

By the time The Tudors introduced him to television audiences, few non-historians had even heard of Eustace Chapuys.  Ironically, there they got to know him through Anthony Brophy’s sympathetic portrait as the warm, devoted, friend of Katherine of Aragon, and later, Princess Mary.  Thanks largely to Anthony Brophy’s soft, sad eyes, Chapuys has lots of fans today.   When I posted a piece on the internet that was critical of his account of the failure of Anne and Henry’s marriage (Chapuys, not surprisingly, saw it disintegrating from the start), readers leapt to his defense: “I love Anne immensely and I know that Chapuys was not fair to her many times, but I hold a very special place in my heart for that man”; “I must admit to having a real affection for Chapuys… bless that man!” “What would we do without him [and his detailed reports]?” “He always seemed like a kind and gentle man to me.”
Yes, Chapuys was kind and gentle — to his friends.  With his enemies, however, it was another thing altogether.  And “Anne Boleyn,” the heretical husband-stealer, was at the top of his list.

Susan Bordo is the author of THE CREATION OF ANNE BOLEYN: IN SEARCH OF THE TUDORS’ MOST NOTORIOUS QUEEN, available now from Editor: I can highly recommend Susan’s book on Anne Boleyn and if you would like to know more you can see my review here.  -Karen Kilrow






  • James Peacock

    Excellent article Susan, i have read the book and i strongly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t :)

    • Susan Bordo

      Thanks so much James!!

  • Columbinia

    After her execution, Henry made Anne Boleyn a sort of non-person. No one spoke of her, the memory her time as queen was suppressed. The trial and execution of Anne and those accused with her was meant to destroy some in her circle and intimidate the rest into silence. When her daughter Elizabeth came to the throne, some of her closest friends were her Boleyn cousins, the descendants of her aunt, Mary Boleyn. But she never sought the public rehabilitation of her mother.

    The result is that much of what was written about Anne Boleyn in the 1500s came from opponents like Chapuys and English recusants, particularly those in exile. History is written by the victors, and in the case of the defeated Anne Boleyn, her contemporaneous biography was written more by her opponents than by her friends.


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