Does anne boleyn's representation in the tudors and wolf hall betray the historical figure ?
par Morgane LETRENE
Université Rennes 2 - Master LLCER Aires Anglophones 2018
UNIVERSITE RENNES 2
Master 2 Recherche
Does Anne Boleyn's representation in The
Tudors and Wolf Hall betray the historical
Sous la direction de Mme Delphine
Henry VIII, after Hans Holbein the Younger, Petworth House, National Trust
One of the first image most people have in mind when they hear the name Tudor is infamous Henry VIII's portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger. This painting in which the monarch is depicted as a powerful, strong, and virile Head of State (and of the new Church of England) is extremely representative of our view of the Tudor dynasty.
Indeed, for most of us, the Tudors are impressive, arrogant, ruthless, and powerful, and their reign is punctuated with executions, plots and treasons. Yet, when King Henry VIII came to power in 1509, the Tudor dynasty, founded by his father on the battlefield of Bosworth after he defeated Richard III's army in 14851, was still fragile and threatened by the Plantagenet heirs.
Henry's position as King of England became even more precarious when he decided to make major political and religious changes in his kingdom and split from Rome and the Pope. These decisions made him vulnerable in Europe, especially as he was surrounded by powerful European monarchs such as the King of France, Francis I, and Charles V, the Spanish Emperor.
Holbein's painting's date is unknown, the historians only know that the artist painted it around 1536-1537, which was a very troubled period for the King as he ordered the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, in 1536, lost his third, Jane Seymour in 1537 after she gave birth to Henry's only male heir, Prince Edward and had to deal with the Pilgrimage of Grace organized by the King's Yorkist subjects to protest against his break with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries and the King's own Minister, Thomas Cromwell2
All these historical facts lead us to think that Henry used Hans Holbein's paintings to promote his dynasty's God-given right to the throne, his own power and the Church of England's3. One might say it is a warning for his «enemies»; the Pope, the Emperor and Francis I, so they do not underestimate his power. There is a portrait that is extremely interesting to link with this idea of propaganda to claim the power of the Tudors. It is a painting from around 1545, on display at Hampton Court Palace, whose artist is unknown. It depicts Henry VIII, surrounded his family; his son Edward and his mother, Jane Seymour, but also his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. It is impossible that this portrait was painted from life as Jane died just after giving birth to Edward in 1537, but what is essential about this work of art is not the portrait itself but the message it conveys.
1 «Henry VII | Biography & Facts | Britannica.Com.» Accessed June 9, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-VII-king-of-England.
2 «Pilgrimage of Grace | English History.» Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 9, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/event/Pilgrimage-of-Grace.
3 Howarth, David. Images of Rule: Art and Politics in the English Renaissance, 1485-1649. University of California Press, 1997. p. 90
The family of Henry VIII, unknown artist, circa 1545, Hampton Court Palace
It is a clear statement that the Tudor dynasty is no longer threatened by the lack of a male heir, Edward stands for the future and the continuity of the Tudors as Head of the State and of the Church of England. The presence of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn's daughters may have two meanings; it could indicate harmony and that the family is not torn apart anymore but united and, therefore, strong. Moreover, though it was out of the question when the portrait was made, Mary and Elizabeth's presence could be seen as a way to show that the King did not have just one heir but three.
What is also striking is that we may argue that Henry is the first monarch or the first we know, at least, who had the idea to use art and artistic representation as a tool to promote his power. Little did he know that this painting did not only build his legend but was also the beginning of the Tudors propaganda.
The Virgin Queen propaganda
When she became Queen in 1558, Henry's daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I (15331603), followed her father's footsteps and had several portraits of herself made to display her right to rule. Like her father, Elizabeth knew that her legitimacy and ability to reign were questioned for several reasons. First of all, after her mother's execution in 1536, she had been declared a bastard and was still considered as such in many European Catholic countries. Moreover, she was a woman and, as Helen Castor explained it very well in her documentary She-Wolves: England's Early Queens, at that time, women were considered to be unfit to rule in their own right4.
The most striking portrait of the Queen is the one known as the Armada Portrait that was made to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. We can notice on the background of the portrait that, on Elizabeth's right, several ships seem to be sinking into an unleashed sea during a storm. On her left the artist depicted an entire different scene; a calm sea on which ships are sailing under the sun. Considering that this portrait is called the Armada Portrait it is easy to deduce that the sinking fleet stand for Phillip's ships and forces while the one depicted on the left is Elizabeth's naval force after the victory against the Spanish.
The Armada Portrait, unknown artist, 1588, National Portrait Gallery
4 BBC She Wolves England's Early Queens Episode 3: Jane, Mary and Elizabeth. Accessed June 9, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=JxmRco4P0bk.
Yet, this painting is not just meant to celebrate the English victory against Spain, it has a whole other purpose; presenting Elizabeth as an absolute ruler. To express the Queen's power the artist used several objects and turned them into symbols. For example, the globe on which Elizabeth puts her hand, can be seen as a symbol of her dominion over the New World discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Indeed, the Queen rests her hand on the part of the globe which depicts America, colonized in part by the English who planted, for instance, the colony of Virginia in 1584. It can also be argued that the portrait's part which shows the English fleet sailing on a calm channel does not just embody the victory against Spain, but also the dominion of England on the ocean.
However, Elizabeth I's best propaganda was the one of her virginity and it is visible in nearly every portraits made of her. One of the elements that can be found in the portraits of the Virgin Queen are pearls used as jewelry or as ornaments on her gowns. On the Armada Portrait Elizabeth wears an impressive pearl necklace, pearls are sewn on her sleeves and her cape, and they are also present as hairpieces. Another portrait of the Queen, the Pelican Portrait painted by Nicolas Hilliard circa 1575, depicts her wearing too many pearls for us to count5.
The Pelican Portrait, Nicolas Hilliard, circa 1575, National Portrait Gallery
5 «Symbolism in Portraits of Elizabeth I.» Royal Museums Greenwich | UNESCO World Heritage Site In London, August 17, 2015. Accessed 9 June, 2019 https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/symbolism-portraits-elizabeth-i.
This overuse of pearls on the representations of Elizabeth can be explained by the symbolism associated with them. According to the Royal Museums of Greenwich website which dedicated an entire page to the symbols found on Elizabeth I's portraits, this object refers to the Greek goddess of the Moon, Cynthia or Artemis, known to be a virgin6. This symbol echoes with a poem written by Sir Walter Raleigh, a writer, courtier and explorer known to be the one who explored Virginia. In his long poem written in the 1580's and entitled The Ocean's Love to Cynthia, the poet tells about his admiration and love for the Queen. Raleigh mentions his Queen's beauty («A beauty that can easily deceive the arrest of years, and creeping age outclimb7») but also her purity when he compares her to «A vestal fire that burns but never wasteth»8.
Another object is apparently a reference to Elizabeth's virginity and, therefore, purity; the sieve. In 1583, Quentin Mestys the Younger painted the Sieve Portrait in which Elizabeth is depicted in a white and black gown, wearing once more many pearls, holding a sieve in her hand9. This portrait aims at depicting the Queen as Tuccia, the Vestal Virgin, known as the woman who proved her virginity when she carried water in a sieve. The message is crystal clear; Elizabeth is as pure as Tuccia was.
Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1583, Quentin Mestys the Younger
7 «Poem: The Ocean's Love to Cynthia by Sir Walter Ralegh.» Accessed June 9, 2019. https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/oceans-love-cynthia.
9 «Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1583.» The British Library. Accessed June 9, 2019. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/sieve-portrait-of-queen-elizabeth-i-c1583.
These portraits on which she is depicted dressed in splendid gowns and wearing lavishly embellished hairstyles, promote Elizabeth's femininity. However, the accent is put on her status of virgin using different symbols to subtly but clearly enhance her purity. This heavy and well-thought propaganda based on her virginity can be understood as a way to counteract her reputation to be Anne Boleyn's bastard daughter, the product of a sin. In other words, she presents herself as the exact opposite of how her enemies depicted her; she is not an illegitimate bastard but a goddess, Gloriana.
During the reign of the Tudor dynasty representation was a propaganda tool to impose the monarch's power and domination. It explains why the artists did not take care to depict Henry VIII or Elizabeth I as they truly were. Holbein erased Henry's morbid obesity and other health problems10 from his painting. The same way the unknown artist who painted the Armada Portrait did not depict the Queen's serious skin problems she had because of the mercury and lead products she put on her face to hid the scars she got after she caught smallpox11. The main aim was to promote a dynasty which was still very young and in danger because of the lack of male heirs and not to be accurate when it comes to the sovereign's looks. What mattered most for the artist was to paint the Monarch, not the person herself.
The Tudor Myth
It was during Elizabeth I's reign that a new way of representing the monarch appeared when William Shakespeare told about the Tudor dynasty in some of his plays such as Henry VIII or Richard III. This new way of representing the Tudors helped enhancing their rightful claim to the Throne of England by, for instance, demonizing the Plantagenet dynasty whose members were a threat for Henry VIII and his heirs.
10 Inside the Body of King Henry VIII. Accessed June 9, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=845SszVoN M&t=2408s.
11 Havelin, Kate. Queen Elizabeth I. Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.
In Richard III, William Shakespeare depicted the King as a deformed monster, a «Lump of foul deformity12» who did not hesitate to murder his own nephews, King Edward V and his brother, Richard, thus building up the dark legend of Richard III which still echoes nowadays, and justifying the Tudors legitimacy. This negative propaganda of Richard III is not just a literary one. Indeed, a portrait of Richard as King of England commissioned by the Tudors at the beginning of the sixteenth-century was painted or altered to make him look cruel, evil and deformed. The painter stressed Richard's scoliosis, painted his eyes and hair dark, and gave him an evil facial expression. In other words, the aim was to make his cruelty and monstrous reputation physically visible.
King Richard III, Unknown artist, 1597-1618, National Portrait Gallery
This bad press around the Plantagenets was also enhanced by Thomas More, a famous English lawyer, philosopher and author who was also Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor before being executed after he refused to take the oath and recognize the King as Head of the Church of England in 1535. Between around 1513 and 1518, More wrote the History of King Richard III in which he tells about the reign of the last Plantagenet King13. The version of the famous Utopia's writer does not differ from Richard's representation on the portrait; in his work he makes a physical and mental description of the late King, stressing his awfulness; «Little of stature, ill featured of limes, croke
12 Charoin, Jean-Jacques. William Shakespeare, «Richard III». FeniXX, 1998.
13 «Thomas More's History of King Richard III.» The British Library. Accessed June 9, 2019. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/thomas-mores-history-of-king-richard-iii.
backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favoured of visage ... he was malicious, wrathfull, envious, and from afore his birth, ever frowarde14». Yet, what weakens this Tudor Myth is that, according to the British Library website, even Thomas More who was Henry VIII's friend and advisor did not exclude the possibility that these terrible descriptions of Richard were made «out of hatred15» for the King.
Thomas More is not the only who questioned this Tudor propaganda against Richard III. Some historians expressed their doubts concerning his monstrosity and even created The Richard III Foundation, Inc. The aim of this foundation, founded in 1924, and whose patron is HRH the Duke of Gloucester, is clearly established by their website which states that «Their motivation was a belief that history had not dealt justly with the King's posthumous reputation and they wanted to encourage and promote a new balanced view16.» Several historians are members of this society and participates to rehabilitate Richard III's reputation such as, for example, Dr John Ashdown-Hill who was a Senior Lecturer at the History Department at Essex University. It was his work that inspired the project in Leicester which succeeded in finding the King's remains under a parking lot in 201217. Dr Ashdown-Hill wrote several books about this period of English history, including several he dedicated to Richard; The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA and The Mythology of Richard III, in which he argues that one of the objectives of the different recent projects about the Lancastrian King was to «Get behind the myths and legends to the true and authentic Richard III18.»
To say the least, his work and the one led by the foundation led to a renewed interest for Richard as several documentaries were broadcast to talk about his exhumation, the analysis of his skeleton or his DNA.
16 «Richard III Society | ABOUT US.» Accessed June 9, 2019. http://www.richardiii.net/aboutus.php#origins.
17 «The Discovery of Richard III by the University of Leicester.» Accessed June 9, 2019. https://www.le.ac.uk/richardiii/.
18 Ashdown-Hill, John. The Mythology of Richard III. Amberley Publishing Limited, 2015.
Artistic portrayals of Anne Boleyn
Though the Tudor dynasty died out when Elizabeth I passed on in 1603, the artistic depiction of her family who transformed England did not stop, on the contrary. Many artists used them, their tragic private lives, and their ruthless political decisions in their works. As we mentioned earlier, William Shakespeare himself used the troubled reign of Henry VIII and his «Great Matter» in some of his plays, including one entitled Henry VIII that was first staged twenty years after Queen Elizabeth's death. In this play, Anne is depicted as a beautiful young lady who catches the King's eye who decides to divorce his first wife, Queen Katharine, to marry her. William Shakespeare wrote the character of Anne as a kind woman who loves Katharine and never meant to hurt her feelings («So good a lady that no tongue could ever pronounce dishonor of her ; by my life, she never knew harm-doing.»)19 nor wanted to become Queen of England («By my troth and maidenhead, I would not be a queen.»)20. Less than a hundred years after Anne's execution William Shakespeare was the first artist to depict her positively when she was still considered in many European country as «The Great Whore». Yet, this flattering depiction of Anne may be linked to the fact that her own daughter, Elizabeth, supported William Shakespeare's work and even asked him to perform at her court during her reign. Therefore, one could argue that Shakespeare might have felt the need to write highly of his Queen's mother and that his depiction of Anne was far from being genuine and representative of his opinion of her.
Shakespeare was not the last artist to use Anne as a source of inspiration. Indeed, Queen Anne Boleyn became a subject of fascination in the nineteenth-century, especially when Queen Victoria (1819-1901) had her burial place, the Chapel Peter Ad Vincula in the Tower of London, renovated and Anne's remains reburied with dignity21. The Victorian period was marked by a new interest for the Tudor dynasty, but especially for Anne Boleyn. The Victorians saw the ill-fated queen as a romantic, innocent victim of her blue-beard husband and, therefore, represented her as such in many artistic works.
19 «Henry VIII: Entire Play.» Accessed June 9, 2019. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/henryviii/full.html.
21 «Anne Boleyn's Remains - The Exhumation of Anne Boleyn.» The Anne Boleyn Files, August 30, 2010. Accessed June 9, 2019 https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/anne-boleyns-remains-the-exhumation-of-anne-boleyn/.
Edouard Cibot, a french artist, made the famous Anne Boleyn in the tower painting in 1835. This work depicts the infamous queen and her lady-in-waiting crying over Anne's forthcoming execution. Though it is not clear at first, one may identify the Queen as the woman dressed in black in the background who hides her face behind her handkerchief for she dominates the kneeling female character and seems to have black hair, just like Anne Boleyn apparently did. The artist seems to have been aware of the symbolic nature of the red color which is a symbol for martyrdom (according to the historic records Anne Boleyn did wear red for her execution22, so did Mary Stuart years later when she went to the scaffold23.) The fact that Edouard Cibot decided to incorporate a long red piece of cloth in his depiction of Anne Boleyn's stay at the Tower of London is not trivial. It proves his desire to present the Queen as a martyr, about to be assassinated despite her innocence. Yet, this is not the only artistic choice Cibot made to enhance Anne's position of victim; on the left side of the painting a book is placed on a wooden table. Though we cannot see it clearly we may argue that it could be a copy of the Bible or Anne's own Book of Hours she is said to have taken with her at the Tower and that is, nowadays, on display at Anne's childhood home, Hever Castle in Kent. This detail is important when it comes to the depiction of the Queen's innocence for it highlights Anne Boleyn's faith and piety, but also the major role she played to promote the new faith in England. To put it in a nutshell, one may argue that here Anne is portrayed as an innocent martyr who had faith in the Protestant religion she fought for until her death.
Anne Boleyn in the Tower, Edouard Cibot, 1835, Musée Rolin
22 «19 May 1536 - The Execution of Anne Boleyn.» The Anne Boleyn Files, May 19, 2013. Accessed June 9, 2019 https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/19-may-1536-the-execution-of-anne-boleyn/.
23 Dicker, Chris. Mary Queen of Scots Biography: The Executed Queen Who Lost the Throne For Love. Chris Dicker, n.d.
Edouard Cibot was not the only artist of the nineteenth-century who portrayed Anne as the antithesis of the conniving and evil woman described by the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys or by Henry VIII's ministers who conducted the investigations against the Queen. In 1830, an Italian composer, Gaetano Donizetti, created a two-acts opera entitled Anna Bolena24. This opera tells about the end of Anne's marriage to the King who wishes to make his wife's lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, the next Queen of England. In Donizetti's work Anne is depicted as the victim of a love triangle who does not know, at first, that her lady-in-waiting has caught the eye of her husband and who, at the end, claims that she does not wish to get revenge on the King and Jane. What is unusual about this work of art is that the roles seem to have been exchanged. Jane Seymour, though she feels guilty to contribute to Anne's downfall, is no longer the pure and innocent third wife, but the woman responsible for Anne's fall from royal grace, while Anne is a collateral damage of Henry's love for Jane. This famous opera presents Henry's second wife as a tragic heroine who loses everything because her husband schemed to have her accused of adultery so he can get rid of her. In the end she goes mad and loses her sense of reality until she is told of Henry and Jane's wedding. Perhaps to add more pathos to the story, the opera does not depict her beheading, the composer ended Anne Bolena with Anne fainting and the execution of her alleged lovers.
The nineteenth-century may be seen as a period during which many artists from different European countries tried to restore and rehabilitate Anne Boleyn's reputation. One of the objectives also seem to have been to erase the stereotyped image of the evil and scheming home-wrecker who is responsible for many crimes Henry committed, especially breaking with Rome and taking Catherine of Aragon's place as Queen of England. Therefore, the nineteenth-century depictions of Anne Boleyn cannot be taken too seriously for they shaped the Queen's story and personality to fit the romantic image the nineteenth-century artists had of her.
Probably due to the war period, the twentieth-century did not provide many artistic depictions of Anne Boleyn. Indeed, it was not until the 1960s and Charles Jarrott's Anne of the Thousand Days, that the figure of the late Queen once again became a source of inspiration for artists. Though it is not a very famous movie, Anne of the Thousand Days is particularly known among many Tudor fans, especially thanks to Geneviève Bujold's portrayal of Anne Boleyn which is praised for the way she portrayed Anne as a more complex character than in other works of art dedicated to her. There is a scene which contributed to the film's fame, though it clearly never
24 Anna Bolena (Anna Netrebko, Elina Garanca) HD (Multisubs). Accessed June 9, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=clWT44XQA8g.
happened in real life, it allowed the audience to see Anne Boleyn differently.
It is set towards the end of the movie, Anne is at the Tower, waiting for her execution and she thinks of her relationship with the King, remembering his courtship, the birth of Elizabeth and their conflicts. Henry enters her cell and proposes her a compromise ; if she claims that Elizabeth is illegitimate and agrees to give up on her queenship, she will be allowed to spend the rest of her life in a nunnery with her daughter. Anne refuses his proposition right away and gives a speech which is now as famous as the movie in the Tudor fanbase ;
«Elizabeth is yours, watch her as she grows; she's yours. She's a Tudor! Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can - and hope that he will live ! But Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth - child of Anne the whore and Henry the blood-stained-lecher - shall be queen! (...) and remember this: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours ! She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built ! Yes - MY Elizabeth shall be queen ! And my blood will have been well spent.»25.
For nearly the first time we are introduced to a depiction of Anne which does not portray her as the pure, sweet, and innocent woman whose husband is a heartless tyrant. She displays her arrogance and anger, and even wishes for Henry's third marriage to be childless so that her daughter can rule after his death. When it comes to Henry's depiction, he is unable to come to terms with his decision to have his wife executed and gives her the opportunity to stay alive which undermines his reputation to be a monster who did not care about his wife's death.
Somehow Anne of the Thousand Days paved the way to another manner to portray Henry VIII's second wife. Indeed, artists stopped considering her as a sort of angel murdered by a tyrant and started to use the rumors Anne's contemporaries such as Eustace Chapuys spread about her personal life; that she was promiscuous with a many men, that she gave birth to a deformed baby or had a sixth finger.
25 Jarrott, Charles. Anne of A Thousand Days. Universal Pictures UK, n.d.
At the beginning of the twenty-first-century, literature started to use Anne Boleyn's tragic story to write historical novels that could be read and enjoyed by as many people as possible, thus using stereotypes, clichés, etc... The most famous one is also the most controversial and was written by Philippa Gregory in 2003. It is entitled The Other Boleyn Girl and is loosely based on Mary, Anne's sister's affair with Henry VIII and the rivalry it created between the two «Boleyn girls». Many historians, such as David Starkey, criticized Gregory's novel for they considered that she used rumors and unverified events as facts to write her book26. For instance, she gave Mary Boleyn much more importance than she had in real life or, when she wrote about Anne's last miscarriage, she mentions a deformed fetus though, in historic records, there is absolutely nothing that proves that Anne Boleyn gave birth to a physically abnormal baby27. Moreover, Philippa Gregory depicted her as a very cruel, conniving and ruthless woman who is just driven by her ambition to climb the social ladder («I'm going to make him marry me» She said flatly. «And if you so much as breathe a word to anyone, then I will kill you.»28, «There are women that men marry and there are women that men don't (...) and you are the sort of mistress a man doesn't bother to marry. Sons or no sons.»29).
In 2008, the novel was adapted in cinema starring Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn. Though Natalie seems to have tried to add some scenes in which her character is more vulnerable and caring (for instance when she begs her sister to take care of Elizabeth after her death or breaks down when she arrives on the scaffold), Gregory's novel and the script of the film made nearly impossible for the audience to care for Anne and pity her when she is about to be beheaded at the end of the film.
In the end, the observation that can be made of this quick resumé of the artistic depictions of the Tudor dynasty is that the artists stressed the dramas and tragedies that shaped the lives of Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn, while portraying their majesty and arrogance, the luxury they lived in, etc... Moreover, it seems obvious that the aim of these artistic portrayals changed throughout the centuries. Indeed, during Henry VIII and Elizabeth I's lifetime, the objective was to impress the world and their enemies. After their dynasty ended when Elizabeth died in 1603, the depictions remained as spectacular and impressive as Holbein's painting but the purpose was to entertain people and to re-tell and re-write the story of the Tudors. One may also suggests that portraying the
26 Toms, David. «David Starkey | The Dustbin of History.» Accessed June 9, 2019. https://thedustbinofhistory.wordpress.com/tag/david-starkey/.
27 «The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: 'the Most Happy'.» The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: 'the Most Happy', by E. W. Ives, Blackwell Pub., 2009, p297.
28 Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. Simon and Schuster, 2008.
Tudor dynasty in a movie or a novel is a sort of insurance that it will be an economic success as the name Tudor is commercially profitable.
Yet, Anne Boleyn and her depictions are our main interest here and, as we briefly saw earlier, her portrayal keeps changing throughout the centuries and could even be described as being Manichean for it is rare to come across a complex and multi-layered representation of Henry VIII's second wife. This observation allows us to consider the idea that the historical figure of Anne Boleyn might be very difficult, perhaps even impossible to grasp and represent in anything but biographies. This theory could allow us to consider the idea that artistic creations like movies or novels do not depict Anne Boleyn as she truly was, but, somehow, betray her and use her as the stereotypes of the innocent angel or the scheming whore, depending on the sources used or the personal opinion of the writer, scriptwriter or the actress who plays Anne's role.
Lately this issue has been raised more than once since the «Anne Boleyn cult» is making a comeback, using the new popular medium that are television series; The Tudors created by Michael Hirst in 2007 for Showtime, and Peter Kosminsky's Wolf Hall, based on Hilary Mantel's novels, which was broadcast on the BBC in 2015. Both television series tell us about Anne Boleyn's rise to power, her life as Queen of England and her downfall which led to her execution for alleged treason, adultery and incest. They are the first television series based on Henry VIII's reign and his troubled political and love life, therefore, it seems interesting to focus on the way both shows depict the character of Anne Boleyn.
To understand the creation of Anne Boleyn's character in both television series, the first step will be to focus on the basis of these fictions; the real Anne Boleyn. We will study the life of the Tudor historical figure, how she rose from being a simple Ambassador's daughter to the Queen of England, and fell to become a traitor who died on the scaffold. We will also try to analyze the various attempts made to erase her from the memories, but also the different testimonies from those who met the Tudor Queen during her lifetime.
Then, the focus will be on the creation of The Tudors and Wolf Hall to answer the following questions; who created them? Who was chosen to portray the characters? What was the viewpoint of both series? How were the series filmed and where? This analysis will help us understand the process of creation of both programs, and, therefore, of the character of Anne Boleyn.
Afterwards, we will completely focus on the character of Anne Boleyn and her characterization in the series; her physical appearance and psychological portrayal. To do so, we will see how Natalie Dormer and Claire Foy worked themselves into the character and the obstacles they had to overcome to become Anne Boleyn onscreen but also how their characters are portrayed onscreen.
Our last objective will be to shell the audience's reception of the programs and the impact they had in many areas, such as the interest for Tudor history and historical figure.
Part I: Anne Boleyn: A controversial historical figure
If Anne Boleyn's story has been depicted in so many novels, movies, or TV series, it is mainly because her life and story are punctuated with treason, schemes, passion, sex and executions. In other words, Anne Boleyn is the perfect subject for entertainment and literature as many important events and changes happened during her lifetime and her reign as Queen consort of England. Moreover it explains why she triggered the imagination of many artists. This interest for a Queen consort who died nearly five centuries ago could also be explained by the many legends, myths, rumors and contradictions which still surround Anne, thus keeping her somehow alive in twenty-first century British culture. Anne's most famous and praised biographer, Eric Ives argued in The life and death of Anne Boleyn, his biography of the Queen, that she was «Captivating to men, Anne was also sharp, assertive, subtle, calculating, vindictive, a power dresser and a power player, perhaps a figure to be more admired than liked»30. Moreover on the cover of his book one can read a review made by The Independent on Sunday which says «A stunning portrait of the most controversial woman ever to have been queen consort of England31». This description of Ives' work on Anne was perfect to attract readers, as it plays on people's interest for the history of England and its treasons, executions, plots, etc.
Yet, as Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who portrayed King Henry VIII in Showtime's The Tudors, said at the beginning of the opening credits of the first season of The Tudors;
30 «The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: 'the Most Happy'.» The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: 'the Most Happy', by E. W. Ives, Blackwell Pub., 2009,p. XV
31 Ibid., cover
«You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends. To get to the heart of the story you have to go back to the beginning32».
1.1.1 Birth and origins
Anne Boleyn's legend begins in the early 1500s. She was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat whose influence grew during the reign of Henry VIII's father, Henry VII as he became «squire of the body»33 and Elizabeth Howard, a member of the prestigious Howard family and sister of Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. Because of the lack of records and despite various attempts by historians, we do not know Anne Boleyn's exact date of birth or with certitude where she was born. In his biography of the Tudor Queen, Eric Ives considers that she must have been born circa 150134 at Blinking Hall in Norfolk35. He based his argument on a letter Anne wrote to her father in 1513 when she left England to start her education in the Netherlands with the Regent, Margaret of Austria. Yet, as Eric Ives argues in his chapter dedicated to Anne's early life, the position of maid of honor «was opened to a 12- or 13 year old.»36. However, other scholars disagree with this hypothesis. Gareth Russell, a British historian and author wrote an article in which he claims that, in his opinion, it is impossible that Anne was born so soon. According to him she was born in 1507 and he based his theory on the testimony of two of Anne Boleyn's contemporaries, Jane Dormer and William Camden37. This absence of an exact date is nothing but one of the many mysteries which surround Anne's life as we will see it.
32 Hirst Michael, Morris Trevor, Rhys-Meyers Jonathan, Neill Sam, and Blue Callum. Les Tudors. Intégrale Saison 1. Suresnes: Columbia Tristar home vidéo, 2008. S1E2
33 «The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: 'the Most Happy'.» op. cit., p. 4
34 Ibid., p. 15
35 Ibid., p. 3
36 Ibid., pp.14-15
37 Russell, Gareth. «Confessions of a Ci-Devant: The Age of Anne Boleyn.» Confessions of a Ci-Devant (blog), April 6, 2010. Accessed June 10, 2019 http://garethrussellcidevant.blogspot.com/2010/04/age-of-anne-boleyn.html.
1.1.2 Anne's education abroad
During her adolescence she was sent by her family to other European courts such as the Netherlands and France where she received a typical sixteenth-century education before coming back to England to be a lady-in-waiting of Henry VIII's first wife and Queen, Catherine of Aragon around 152238. It seems important to point out the fact that the French court ruled by King Francis I was filled with free spirits and courtiers who promoted the new Protestant faith such as the King's own sister, Marguerite de Valois.
It has been argued several times by historians such as Alison Weir or Eric Ives that Anne Boleyn may have been influenced by the French court she lived in for several years and where, according to Eric Ives, she might have been introduced to the Protestant faith:
«The later sixteenth century interpreted Anne Boleyn's long service at the French court to mean that she must have had close relations with Marguerite de Valois as well as Queen Claude. Since Marguerite became a noted - if somewhat eclectic - supporter of religious reform.39»
Nothing is set in stone, but we could assume that Anne's religious life and faith could have been greatly influenced and shaped by Marguerite herself.
Yet, this part of Anne Boleyn's life also interests historians or those who have an interest for the Tudor Queen because they believe that Marguerite de Valois also had an influence on Anne as far as the «woman question» and feminism are concerned.
38 «The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: 'the Most Happy', op. Cit., p. 37
39 «Anne Boleyn: A 16th-Century Feminist?» History Extra. Accessed May 6, 2019. Accessed June 18, 2019 https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/anne-boleyn-henry-viii-feminist-womens-history-career-wife-facts-marriage-sex-alison-weir/
«The woman question» is what Karen Offen describes in her book The Woman Question in France, 1400-1870, as a controversy. For the historian specialized in women's history, this controversy proved that there was «a serious sociopolitical problem» in medieval France as «elite, literate men» dominated and controlled women. This movement challenged the very structure of the fifteenth-century French society in terms of men and women relationships, religion, politics or economy40. Indeed, during the middle-ages, women were considered to be physically and mentally inferiors to men, an argument based on the bible which stipulates that «Eve was created with Adam's rib41» and then ate the forbidden fruit which led to «man's expulsion from paradise42». It was not until the beginning of the fifteenth-century, when Venetian born author, Christine de Pizan wrote her manuscript The Book of the Cities of Ladies in 1405, that women started to question this patriarchal organization of the society.
It has been argued several times that Anne could be considered to be a feminist. Yet, the term «feminism» did not exist in the sixteenth-century as it comes from the late nineteenth-century French word: «feminisme»43. Therefore, the question one must ask is the following: Can we really call Anne Boleyn a feminist?
In an article published on History Extra website on February 25th, 2019 and entitled Was Anne Boleyn a Feminist?, Alison Weir, a British historian and author argues that Anne was «A feminist long before her time - or, to be accurate, of her time.44». Weir claims that the education she received when she served the Regent of the Netherlands, Margaret of Austria and then Marguerite of Valois, introduced her to the «querelles des femmes45» issue but also to the work of Christine de Pizan. De Pizan was the first woman to write her book, The Book of the City of Ladies, in which she defended women. Nothing proves that Anne Boleyn did read Pizan's writings but the fact that
40 Offen, Karen. The Woman Question in France, 1400-1870. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
41 «Women in Medieval Society.» The British Library. Accessed June 10, 2019. https://www.bl.uk/the-middle-ages/articles/women-in-medieval-society.
43 «Feminism | Definition of Feminism in English by Oxford Dictionaries.» Accessed June 18, 2019. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/feminism
44 «Anne Boleyn: A 16th-Century Feminist?». Op.Cit.
Margaret of Austria had this book in her private library46 makes this theory extremely plausible. However, Margaret of Austria did not just possessed such a book, she also seemed to have promoted the work and ideas of Christine de Pizan at her court as, in 1513, several tapestries inspired by scenes from Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies were presented to Margaret of Austria in Tournai, an event Anne Boleyn could have witnessed considering that she served Margaret from 1513 to 151447.
When she left the Netherlands, Anne arrived at the French court to serve Francis I's sister, Marguerite de Valois who is known as «The mother of the French Renaissance48» or «The first modern woman49». In her article, Alison Weir explains that Marguerite was not just a member of the French royal family but also a writer. The Heptameron, a collection of seventy-two short stories written in French by Marguerite is a portrayal of the relationship between men and women, marriage, and the sixteenth-century French society50. Weir also indicates that some short stories written by Marguerite deals with «inequality between the sexes, and reflect both feminist and chauvinistic views51». In other words, after being a lady-in-waiting for Margaret of Austria who was fond of Christine de Pizan's writings about the position of women in society, Anne Boleyn spent a lot of time serving a woman who, herself, wrote short stories to defend her sex. Such encounters echo with the attitude Anne had when she returned to England to serve Henry VIII's wife and Queen but especially when she was Queen of England herself as she was a patron of the arts52 but also a strong and powerful advocate of the Reformation until her death on the scaffold.
52 «The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: 'the Most Happy'.». Op. Cit., p. 233
Though it seems fair to argue that the young Anne Boleyn stood out at Henry VIII's court because she was not just introduced to the arts and French ways of life, but also to revolutionary ideas concerning the «woman question» as she was surely influenced by Margaret of Austria and Marguerite of Valois' ideas, it does not seem right to describe Henry VIII's second wife as a feminist. Indeed, according to the Oxford dictionary website, feminism means «The advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes53». Yet, did Anne Boleyn ever speak to defend her own sex? Did she do anything to improve women's living conditions in the Tudor patriarchal society? Nothing indicates that she ever did. It seems that the most appropriate definition of Anne Boleyn's posture would be that she was a self-serving feminist who worked hard to play a part in a man's world as we will see it later in this dissertation, but did nothing for Englishwomen while she was in power. Worse still, her behavior, towards, for instance, Catherine of Aragon and her daughter, Mary Tudor, does not appear to be that of a feminist.