• Feb 7, 2012

From the Playbill: Historical (In)Accuracy

Historical (In)Accuracy: Why We’ll Never Know the “Real” Anne Boleyn—and Does That Matter?

By Maddie Gaw

King Henry VIII of England was not simply content with executing his notorious second wife, Anne Boleyn. To be truly rid of her, he destroyed all her portraits, purged all her records, and even tried to erase her initials and her crest from the buildings they’d been built into during the fateful marriage. The story of Anne, against Henry’s wishes, plays on—but with a shocking lack of historical evidence, given her place in English history.

Outside of Anne and Henry’s marriage, the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth I, and Anne’s death, what we think we know about Anne Boleyn comes primarily from heavily biased sources—her Catholic critics and her Protestant defenders—and loads of high-and-low brow historical fiction influenced by those sources.

The lack of hard evidence, combined with the king’s court-wide order not to speak about Anne, created a vacuum for skilled propagandists to work their magic. Under the Catholic Mary I, Anne was pegged as a scheming adulteress. When Elizabeth took power, there was a concerted push by her supporters and Protestant reformers to rehabilitate Anne’s image, in hopes that it would secure Elizabeth’s place on the throne. They granted Anne a bigger role in England’s break with Rome, depicted her as extremely pious and virtuous, and cast her as a martyr for the Reformation.

Because the pendulum had swung so far in the other direction, Catholics like priest Nicholas Sander hit back with a major hit job on Anne.  His writings insinuate that she was sexually voracious from a young age, and gives her a hideous makeover to match her inner corruption:

“She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness, she wore a high dress covering her throat."

It’s hard to imagine that King Henry would have moved mountains for someone matching that description—but we’ll never know, since Henry destroyed the evidence.

Once the Tudor reign ended with Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Anne’s importance diminished. It can be surprising to modern audiences—gripped by the Boleyn-fever of overall Tudor-mania—that William Shakespeare’s gives much more prominence to Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, relegating Anne’s role to little more than a plot device. But the “good” Anne—the innocent martyr who was unjustly punished by a tempestuous tyrant—remained the dominant interpretation through the 18th<th### sup=""> and 19th<th### sup=""> centuries.

Anne’s depictions in 20th<th### sup=""> and 21st century popular culture focus more on her personality and her romance with the king than they do on religion, but all of them draw from the two Anne’s created by centuries-old religious propaganda. The venerated Protestant Anne becomes Anne, the doomed romantic victim of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1920 silent film and Maxwell Anderson’s 1949 play . The wicked Catholic Anne becomes Anne, the cold, calculating temptress of Phillipa Gregory’s 2001 novel The Other Boleyn Girl and Hilary Mantel’s series. The soapy Showtime television series The Tudors even managed to capture both Anne’s, over the course of two seasons.

Historians to this day argue over which of these Anne’s is the true Anne Boleyn. British historian Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, in an article for about the circumstances surrounding Anne’s arrest, trial and execution, states that everyone gives “their ‘best guess’ answers on the basis of the available evidence—which is too sparse to be conclusive.” The same could be said for almost any aspect of Anne’s historical life.

So why does Anne Boleyn—a person none of us will ever know—continue to fascinate? Simply put, she is the world’s most famous cypher, particularly for women. Writer Lynn Stuart Parramore says that women “may see a glimpse of ourselves in the figure stretched on the rack of the insuperable contradictions of femininity that still torture us,” citing the multiple dichotomies Anne embodies. “She could not fit neatly,” Parramore concludes, “into the script of her time.”

Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo, whose book The Creation of Anne Boleyn tackles Anne’s mythic and evolving reputation, argues that Anne is “less a historical figure than a set of…cultural images and narratives,” and that however any of us chooses to explain Anne Boleyn “winds up revealing more about ‘us’ than about Anne herself.”

Whether your own personal Anne Boleyn matches Howard Brenton’s Anne, or another Anne who has graced page, screen or stage, rest assured that none of the Anne’s we love and hate can be proven to be the “right” one.