July 22, 2013. Three months earlier, The Creation of Anne Boleyn had been published, and my book’s Facebook page had been filled for weeks with postings about the upcoming birth of the royal baby. The world was entranced with the latest unfolding of the fairy tale. I was swept up, too, but also growing annoyed at what seemed to be the eclipse of that other princess—the one who wasn’t quite so skilled at behaving as Queen consorts-to-be are supposed to. When George was born I posted a photograph of Diana and her sons, with the caption “Congratulations, Grandma.” It was purely for my own satisfaction; I didn’t expect more than a few dozen “likes.”
Instead, the post went viral, and the comments extolling Diana poured in by the thousands.
And it struck me that this picture was every bit as much an icon as Holbein’s Henry VIII or Elizabeth I’s Gloriana. And I was put in mind, too, of the queen about whom I’d just written a book. Diana and Anne seem on the surface to have little in common, with Diana now venerated and Anne constantly caricatured, most currently in Wolf Hall, as a nasty, narcissistic schemer. But scratch the surface of the stereotypes and their sisterhood appears. Like Anne, Diana had had challenged the power and authority of the monarchy to decide what her rightful role as the future King’s wife should be. Diana, too, had been viewed by her enemies as a bossy, overly ambitious, non-royal interloper who refused to behave as she should and was unwilling to tolerate the infidelity that good wives were supposed to endure in silence. Instead of waving and smiling while her fairy tale fell apart, Diana spoke up, drolly remarking, in her famous Panorama interview with Martin Bashir, that her marriage was “a bit crowded” as there were “three of us in it.”
The initial price she paid for her failure to be silent was to offend a powerful network of country club and court who, for a time, seemed in control of the situation: “The mantra,” wrote one of Diana’s biographers, “was that Diana was a scheming girl who had set her cap at Charles and got him…[But] she [turned out to be] impossible to live with,” ferociously possessive, and “cruel and domineering” both to her staff and Prince Charles. Sound familiar to Anne Boleyn aficionados?
But Diana, unlike Anne, had weapons to fight back with, chief among them a modern media machine capable of promoting her personal glamour and warmth, as well as her caring, maternal activities. People particularly cheered her refusal to accept that being emotional did not go along with being royal. “I lead from the heart, not the head,” she told Bashir. But that was just fine as far as Diana was concerned, for she wanted to reign not officially but as a Queen of Hearts, giving affection and helping others. Quite an interesting reversal of the age-old notion, which has often been used to contrast Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, that rulers must choose in favor of intellect over love, male mind over female body. It all depended on what sort of throne you wished to sit upon, Diana suggested.
With her death, however, the worship of her as “Queen of Hearts” exposed that even the official throne was in need of more “heart” when the Queen, at first, stayed away from the mourning crowds and refused to fly the royal flag for Diana. “Show us there’s a heart at the house of Windsor” the headlines blasted, a painful moment for Elizabeth, and one of the themes of Stephen Frears The Queen, which shows Elizabeth II as utterly baffled by the seeming change in the rules of the game. She’s done what she thought was expected of her, only to find that she was hated for her coldness and formality.
Diana, of course—and again like Anne Boleyn—was not brought up to be a royal. She didn’t even know much royal history, and fantasized about marrying prince Charles, “the only man,” she said, “who couldn’t divorce me.” “It could be quite fun,” she said to a friend. It would be like Anne Boleyn or Guinevere.” Her apparently more educated friend replied, “I bloody hope not!” For good and for bad, Diana’s marriage did turn out to be more like Anne’s marriage than she would have wished had she known her history. Although Charles was never passionately in love with Diana as Henry was with Anne at the beginning, Charles was no less surprised than Henry to find that his wife actually expected fidelity from him—and no less outraged when she called him out on his behavior. Like Henry, he was rattled by Diana’s unwillingness to recede into the background. Like Henry, he expected that once she was out of the picture, not in death but in divorce, it would all go back to normal. Has it?
This recent biography of Charles would suggest, in its very subtitle—“The Heart of a King”– that Diana’s refusal to “stay in her place” has produced a cultural legacy more enduring than her mortal life.
And once again, I’m reminded of Anne. Nine years ago, when I was talking to prospective editors about my book, one—from a major press—said skeptically “Do you really think there’s still interest in Anne Boleyn?” Luckily for me, she was a bit out of touch. Not that Henry hadn’t tried to erase her. Determined to start life afresh with a more obedient consort, he got rid of Anne’s portraits. He apparently destroyed her letters. He even had workmen remove the entwined H’s and A’s strewn throughout the walls and ceilings of the Great Hall at Hampton Court. He missed several, however, and more significantly, failed utterly in the attempt to make Anne disappear. She is undoubtedly his most famous wife. Here are just a few highlights from her vibrant and varied cultural afterlife:
After Anne’s daughter Elizabeth ascends to the throne in 1558, Protestant defenders begin to emerge from the closet. In their eyes, Anne Boleyn is the mother of the Reformation, a “most virtuous and noble lady” who helped bring true religion to England.
Then, in 1585, pro-Catholic Nicholas Sander, exiled by Elizabeth, writes that not only did Anne sleep with half the French court and her father’s chaplain, but she is actually Henry’s daughter, by her own mother. She is also grossly deformed, with a projecting tooth, large growth on her neck, and six fingers on one hand. It’s a myth—Anne had an extra nail, not an extra finger—but most people still believe it’s true.
In 1682, John Banks (following the “Secret History” of Madame D’Aulnoy, famous French writer of fairy-tales) and others cast a new narrative of love and betrayal and create a new dramatic persona: the “she-heroine.” Ingredients: clever, virtuous girl, wicked king, scheming “other woman,” and tragic ending.
Between 1700-1900, opinion about Anne begins to get divided along gender lines. Is she a Fallen Woman or Scheming Adventuress? The Strickland sisters see Anne as a cautionary tale, while Anthony Froude and other male historians view her as a “foolish and bad woman” who corrupted Henry. But while the writers battle it out, romantic painters have the last word in the popular imagination. Anne—often now depicted as blonde and rather plump—is shown swooning, weeping, and stoically meeting an unjust end.
1912-1939: The Victorians had mangled the date of Elizabeth’s birth to avoid confronting the fact that Anne and Henry had slept together before they were married. But the birth of the historical romance makes their premarital sex mandatory. And the fictional juice begins to flow…and flow…and flow.
1969: Anne of the Thousand Days: In an interview, Genevieve Bujold told me “Anne is mine.” Indeed. As the first truly iconic Anne, Bujold proudly plunges off the cliff decades before “Thelma and Louise.” We were charmed by her elfin beauty, we cheered when she told Henry off in the tower (never happened, but who cares?), and yes, “Elizabeth Shall Be Queen!” You go girl!!
2002: Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl”: Gregory mangles history to produce the nastiest Anne ever, and convinces a new generation, befuddled by the postmodern blurring of fiction and fact, that she really did sleep with her brother. Sander is chortling, historians are grimacing, and Gregory is smiling all the way to the best-seller list.
2007: Showtime’s “The Tudors”: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers refused to wear a fat suit, but Natalie Dormer, barely known at the time, stood up for Anne, refusing to play her as a blonde and insisting that Hirst make her less slutty, smarter, and stronger in the second season. For historians, the changes may have seemed slight. But teenage and twenty-something viewers were enraptured. “She was a modern day girl in the wrong time period,” they declared, constructing a new, “third-wave” feminist icon out of Dormer’s portrayal: ambitious, intelligent, flirtatious and perhaps most important to her fans, “hugely complicated and not easy to dismiss.”
Who was the “real” Anne? As the BBC production of Wolf Hall premieres on PBS this weekend, it’s wise to keep in mind that this question is unanswerable. Anne, unlike Diana, did not have the chance to speak up for herself, and much of what we think we “know” is based on highly biased reporting. She is only available to us, as I argue in my book, as a shape-shifting cultural creation, who wears the features fantasized by her creators more than her own DNA. Still, even the nastiest portrayals constitute a kind of revenge against those who tried to silence her. For Anne, a wife whom Henry desperately wanted to erase, is in fact his most represented consort. He could try to remove all the symbols of Anne’s queenship on the walls and ceiling of the Great Hall, but he couldn’t prevent the unfolding of an afterlife that so far shows no signs of ending. Ironically, Anne—who like Diana wasn’t born to be royal—has proved to be as culturally immortal as any of those who occupied the throne by birth.
The piece printed here is based on material from a longer project in progress on Royal Bodies from the Tudors to Kate Middleton.
Susan Bordo’s books on women, men, body image, cultural history, and media are read throughout the world. The New York Times described Unbearable Weight as “a classic” on women and body image. Her next book, The Male Body, has been hailed by men as one of the most sympathetic feminist accounts of their insecurities.
Her most recent books are her best-selling The Creation of Anne Boleyn (available in US and UK editions) and the just-released co-edited collection Provocations. She has many young fans who email her about the positive effect her books have had on their lives. She teaches at the University of Kentucky, and lives in Lexington with her husband Edward, 16 year-old daughter Cassie, three dogs, a cat, and two cockatiels.
The Creation of Anne Boleyn, (I highly recommend this book to you) can be purchased at these sites:
You can find Susan’s other books here: