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Anne Boleyn and Wolf Hall

Posted by phillipaconnolly on March 29, 2015 at 7:00 AM



This is where my interest in history began, years ago, with Anne Boleyn and the dramatic story of her fall, reading the likes of Jean Plaidy, as a child. That interest in Anne in particular and history as a whole, has never diminished –I know that it is an interest shared by many: As a qualified historian, holding a degree in the subject from The Open University, having studied the Tudor era and WW1 and WW2, I am always intrigued by new theories on history in these windows in time. Having heard Hilary Mantel speak at my PGCE teaching training degree ceremony, and having read her books, seen both Wolf Hall and Bring up The Bodies on the final night, being able to see the whites of Ben Miles’ eyes as I sat in the front row at The Aldwych theatre in London, and now to be watching the televised series currently screening in the UK, I am astounded when I come across questions posed on social media, being so venomously spouted about a historical figure; and in particular Queen Anne Boleyn.



Viewers of the Wolf Hall series may seem to think that Anne Boleyn comes over as a bitch from hell in Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel has said that she is writing and portraying Anne’s character as she thinks Cromwell may have seen her. Some lovers of history say that Anne was ‘evil’. What strikes me is how can people be so insulting to a human being from the past, to whom so little evidence exists without bias being present in such sources? None of us knows what Anne was really like. All we can argue is what the contemporary accounts said of her and deduce our conclusions from there – so long as we refer to original sources. Anne is not above criticism; neither are figures such as Cromwell, Thomas More, or even King Henry himself. Yet, Anne seems to come off far worse than any other Tudor figure, when featured in fictional drama or novels.


No one ever suggests she was particularly religious or pious, when looking at sources; Anne was quite an advocate of reform and the new teachings of Tyndale. Her brother, George Boleyn, a staunch supporter of reform, had a good relationship with his second sister, so Anne could have been easily influenced by books, tracks and pamphlets, which he may have brought her back from court, and her father would have kept Anne up to date on religious matters in Europe, as he wanted all his children to be well educated. I believe, from study, that Anne was a very intelligent, religious and pious young woman, who in many ways put God first in her life. Her ambition was the same ambition of most Tudor women of her time; to have an advantageous marriage, to have male children and to serve her family and the wishes of her husband to be. Is it her fault that she attracted the eye of a king? No. It is not a surprise that the king would have been so attracted to such an accomplished woman as Anne, and like a pendulum; Henry would swing this way and that from the opposite kind of character to his first wife, Queen Katherine.




Period drama, loosely based on history, is an excellent way to encourage an interest in the subject and I am all for televised series and plays such as Wolf Hall and Bring up The Bodies, but let’s not forget, it is fiction. Unless we have a time-machine there is no way, we can truly see what these figures were like in real life and have an informed opinion of them. In any case, even if we were there to observe the court as Chapuys did, we would be viewing people and events based on our own life experiences and viewpoints. If you were a Catholic, then you would view Anne unfavourably as usurper; if you were a reader of Tyndale, then, no doubt, you perhaps would have supported the King being made The Head of The Church in England and would be behind Anne Boleyn becoming Queen. The sort of comments being made about Anne on social media, reminds me of a time in twenty-first century media, when the UK discovered that Prince Charles in fact, loved Camilla Parker-Bowles and not his wife, Diana, Princess of Wales. History repeats itself and the media venomously attacked Camilla for being the other woman, just as Tudor Society attacked Anne during her time, for similar reasons. Nevertheless, why does Jane Seymour or any subsequent wife get off scot-free? Catherine Howard usurped Anne of Cleves, but Catherine does not get much dissension for it.


Anne continues to evoke such feelings that she was vindictive and haughty.


Anne was a product of her time. A woman in a man’s world; a manipulative world at that and she needed to remain sharp, strong and determined. After all, she had done what no other woman had ever done before, and that was to make a king determined to remove a real queen and put her in Katherine’s place. I do not think Anne had any idea to the heights that Henry was to raise her. None of his other queens ever had titles in their own right or had sumptuous coronations, as Anne had. No woman ever enraptured Henry like Anne did; writing seventeen letters to her promising to do all for her, everything that was in his power to do. Anne Boleyn resisted for so long, not to vex or tease him, but because she wanted what was right before God; a lawful marriage, bearing legitimate heirs for the man she loved and adored and who loved her back, just as equally. Anne was probably frustrated by the long wait and the procrastination from Rome, just as much as Henry, but her desire to do what was right was the stronger pull. It was not just about position and a crown but honour, which was an important concept in Tudor England.


Anne had to be harsh and sharp-tongued at times to maintain her position. Many factions swam around her like sharks always waiting for an opportunity to see her fail. The trouble is, many people view Anne through twenty-first century eyes, taking each fictionalised drama of Anne as fact. Yes, Anne was harsh but she also gave more to charity in one year than Katherine of Aragon did throughout her whole reign and was a huge church reformer. We forget that everyone from history existed and was human and alive at some point and when we look back, we need to judge in the context of that time not ours


In my opinion, Anne Boleyn was not evil, as there is no evidence to suggest she cheated on Henry, slept with her brother, or had a malformed baby. Even Chapuys, who openly hated her, said she had had a beautiful son of no more than 3 months. The problem lies in the fact that there is so much fiction about Anne Boleyn that they confuse the fiction with fact.


Even the most learned historians have a more balanced view of Anne and find her a fascinating subject to study – it is just a shame that so little evidence on Anne survives for us to get a well-rounded view of her. I think we should be showing Queen Anne a little more tolerance as during her lifetime as everyone at court was extremely ambitious, and not only ambitious, but also greedy. Even Jane Seymour, who is always portrayed as the saintly angelical wife, did not care to give her honour for the King, and her family did not care either as long as she would be queen. Catherine Howard’s family was just as equally ambitious as the Seymour’s, yet little is often said that Thomas Boleyn and Anne’s uncle the Duke of Norfolk were against the match with the king. This was a marriage of love on Anne’s part; not pure ambition.


I am in the middle of writing a novel on Anne, based on actual events, based largely on original sources, and that the conclusions in it are my own, through reaching them objectively after reading the various theories, attending talks by prominent historians, such as Dr David Starkey, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb and Alison Weir, amongst others. This might sound like a statement of the obvious, but in some aspects my conclusions coincide with others and I wholeheartedly agree with my learned friend Alison Weir, that Anne’s downfall and demise was clearly judicial murder, orchestrated by Thomas Cromwell.



When visiting places of historical interest to Anne, I have always wandered around looking at paintings, tracing my fingers over the oak paneling and stone fireplaces wishing I could be absorbed into them and observe history as it happened. You can see it, imagine it all happening, perhaps catch a trace of those long-unheard voices, and sense their deepest sentiments even. Primary sources are fantastic, and as historians, apart from visiting sites of historical interest, analysing these sources are the closest we will get to remove the veil between these historical personalities and events in order to conclude anything, which remotely resembles any truth. Many conclusions can be reached from these sources based on the readers’ opinion and interpretation. As a teaching assistant a few years ago, I remember the history teacher I use to work with, suggest to his GCSE students that, ‘You can never be wrong in history, so long as you have a watertight argument with sources to back up your argument.’ Isn’t this what history is about? To research sources and draw your own conclusions, not come to conclusions and find sources that will match them.




Above all, my book, Timeless Falcon is a labour of love, as well as an exciting retelling of Anne’s story, as close to the truth of who I believe Anne to have been. Dr David Starkey has given me some interesting insights into Anne, Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb has delivered thought provoking talks on Henry VIII, and how 1536, changed him. However, we must learn to weigh up sources and continue to study them to get to even an ounce of truth on what Anne may have really been like.


So, I think from now on, it is better that I just observe, and never comment on such threads and allow others to make up their own minds, I just wish they would consider the sources and not take fiction literally. After all, fiction is written and filmed for entertainment purposes! It is weird that in the UK, the media and society are so very quick to bring a successful person down and slander them and it was the same throughout history and will no doubt continue to be so. All I know is that Anne has almost eclipsed Henry, in being one of the most talked about Tudors in history and I think that Anne would have liked that fact, that she has made such a remarkable imprint on our history.


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