Anne Boleyn and Historical Slut Shaming
That supposed historical vixen Anne Boleyn is now an innocent lamb, they say. So where does all this academic slut shaming leave us women today?
A super-quick guide to Anne Boleyn: She was one of Henry VIII’s six wives. The second wife, actually. It was all a bit scandalous, since the Roman Church hadn’t allowed Henry to annul the marriage to his first one, plus his mistress was Anne’s sister Mary. Well, there you go. That’s 16th century politics for you. She was executed on charges of adultery and conspiracy against the king, amongst other charges. But who was she, really…?
Love her or hate her, there’s no denying that Anne Boleyn is one of the biggest historical Marmite figures in the English Monarchy: with some people thinking she was the best thing since sliced bread and others saying that she deserved the chop. Centuries of furious rumour and debate have coloured her name so often it could make a gay pride flag look a little drab. Innocent pawn and victim of the machinations of men? Silver tongued seductress opening her legs for the man who could give her a crown? Reformist martyr? Hot-headed home wrecker? We will never know.
And with this, I think, we will have to be satisfied. Anne didn’t keep a diary. Most of her responses to Henry VIII’s passionate love letters have been lost. We can’t even say with any certainty when her birthday was. Arguably, the most valuable sources from her life are the letters of Eustace Chapuys. He was a fanatical supporter of Katherine of Aragon, Ambassador for the Spanish Emperor, diligent Catholic and, to put it bluntly, the man who would refer to Anne in such polite terms as ‘The Concubine’ (some translators have gone as far as saying he meant ‘The Whore’) even after Katherine’s death. Needless to say, Chapuys is probably not the best character witness for Anne. Whoever Anne Boleyn was, it’s pretty safe to say that there will never be conclusive evidence for any theory.
That’s just fine by me. It’s probably fine by Anne, who has been dead too long to care. But it doesn’t seem to stop scores of historians getting into hot water about the ‘real’ Anne Boleyn. After centuries of blind acceptance that the dodgy guilty verdict probably had some element of truth, it’s suddenly fashionable to say you’re doing a ‘feminist’ interpretation of the sources. It’s now ‘wrong’ to suggest she was a scheming whore. Male historians who say she was anything but a lamb amongst the wolves can be and are called gender prejudiced. But just because Anne Boleyn’s character has been repainted in more flattering hues today, that doesn’t make the portrait any more historically accurate.
Anne Boleyn. Now she’s a vixen…
… And now she’s a saint. Just like that. Just because she’s been portrayed in a slightly different way. Uncanny, isn’t it?
This repainting of history seems to be done just to match the social tastes of our times; it ignores a lot of existing evidence and discounts a lot of things central to Anne’s story. What’s more, these ‘feminist’ interpretations don’t seem to have a clue what feminism is all about.
Anne had reformist tendencies, but the people who claim she was a Protestant martyr disrespect her true devotion to a less-corrupt ideal of the Catholic Church. Those who claim she ‘stole’ her sister’s son ignore the way courtly childhood worked. Young nobles were frequently farmed out as ‘wards’ of other nobles for financial or political reasons (Lady Jane Grey was one such child, under the care of Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour in order to further her parents’ regal ambitions). The so-called feminist interpretations that remove all the guts and spite and pain from Anne’s character render her a docile creature incapable of independent thought or action, transforming her from whore to virgin as if there was something wrong with her character the way she was.
I think there’s a worryingly sinister concept lurking in the shadows of reinterpretation. Declaring the Anne Boleyns of history innocent and denying any sexual misconduct, premarital liaisons or flirtatious behaviour suggests that those things made them ‘bad’. To be victims, these people must be pure. And what does this amount to?
Historical slut shaming.
And historical slut shaming reflects the issues with our society today. For every Anne Boleyn portrayed to be an extreme of Madonna or Scarlet Woman, depending on how you interpret a source, there is a modern woman being judged for flirting with a man at a party. If Anne is a vixen or a martyr, depending on your belief that she did or did not sleep with any man but her husband, there is a woman judged for her behaviour and said to be ‘inviting’ rape. If we reinvent our past to reflect the ‘best’ ideals of our society, we demonise the accurate parts of our history… and our present.
I’ve loved Anne Boleyn, and all of Henry’s wives, since I was in primary school. I’ve never wanted to blame any of them. I’ve never called a single one of them a whore… but I’ve never believed they were all saints, either. I think Katherine of Aragon could have lied about the consummation of her first marriage. I think Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard could have flirted with their courtiers. I think Jane Seymour could have been more of a schemer and less pure than history has painted her. But I will never know, and so I will never assume that the qualities I want them to have were the ones they actually possessed.
I can only hope that history will treat us, and the people of the future it may condemn, as favourably.
Hey, Anne. Who are you, really? We’ll never know.