The Ugly Monster
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The Ugly Monster

Shakespeare | Politics

The Tragedy of Anne Boleyn

Photograph: Bettmann Archive

By the time Shakespeare was born, Anne Boleyn was long dead and buried in an unmarked grave. She was a taboo footnote in Tudor history, the witchy and whorish mother of Queen Elizabeth I. She was the woman who seduced Henry VIII and lead him to betray his wife, break from the pope, and walk down a path of destruction and despotism. Nowadays, she is more favourably seen as Henry VIII’s first true love, an intelligent and charming woman who was defamed and cast down because of the power she wielded. *cough cough* Lady Macbeth *cough cough*.

After writing about the political poetry of Elizabeth I, and reading The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir, I’m all the more convinced that the life of Anne Boleyn would have made a powerful and interesting story in Shakespeare’s catalogue, if only he’d been brave enough to tell it. So here is the life of Anne Boleyn, framed under the structure of a Shakespearean tragedy. There are five acts, a charming tragic hero with a fatal flaw, supposedly supernatural occurrences, and the tight gripped hands of fate.

Act 1

Like any story, the first act sets the scene. In the first act of a tragedy, we are let into the world of the story, and we meet our tragic hero at their best.

This story takes place in Western Europe in the early 16th century, in particular the Kingdom of England. The Kingdom had recently come out of a bloody civil war called The Wars of the Roses (the one that inspired A Game of Thrones). The family that now held power were the Tudors, a family with bastard roots to royalty and held the throne by right of conquest and through politically shrewd decisions. In this new court which favoured intelligence and ambition over nobility and prestige, the Boleyn family were on the rise.

Anne Boleyn’s exact date of birth isn’t known but is estimated to have been around 1500. Her father, Thomas Boleyn, had a successful career as a diplomat in the court of Henry VIII. So successful that his daughter Anne was offered a place at the court of the Duchess of Savoy in the south of France. Then in 1513, she was offered a place in the Court of Louis XII of France, serving his wife Queen Mary, and then his daughter Queen Claude after his death in 1515.

During her time at the French court, she developed a strong command of the French Language. Life in France fuelled her love for fashion, art, music, and religious philosophy. What’s most notable is that she mastered the art of courtly love.

Courtly love was a spectacle in the medieval and renaissance court. It centred around the refined romantic relationships of unmarried people. There would be flirtation, dancing, and chivalry, and behind closed doors, the occasional bit of fornication and adultery. Anne was never embroiled in any scandals in France, so either she never engaged in the more taboo aspects of courtly love, or she was very discreet about it. This mastery and delight in the art of courtly love would end up being Anne’s sharpest weapon, but also her hamartia.

Hamartia — Also known as ‘The Fatal Flaw’. A characteristic in the tragic hero that brings about their downfall (eg. Othello’s Jealousy, Romeo and Juliet’s impulsiveness, Hamlet’s ambivalence)

By the time Anne took her place in the court of King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine in 1522, she was a charming, graceful, and witty young lady with impeccable style and sparklingly seductive eyes. She knew how to play cards and dice games, gambled, held her booze well, gossiped, and cracked bawdy jokes. She became one of the most popular women at court and had many admirers, including the king. She was at the top of her game.

Act 2

In the second act, a problem is presented to us, and the story really starts moving. In the Tragedy of Anne Boleyn, this complication centres around The King’s Great Matter.

The King’s Great Matter is one of many dynastic issues that plagued the Tudor Dynasty. After over a decade of marriage, Queen Catherine still hadn’t produced a male heir. This wasn’t through lack of trying. Catherine had suffered many miscarriages and stillbirths; she even lost a son to cot-death. She had produced a healthy daughter, Princess Mary, however, the last time a woman was the heir to the throne was in the 1100s, and that sparked a civil war.

Henry began to pursue the possibility of an annulment of marriage from the pope. He claimed that his lack of a male heir was a punishment from God for marrying his brother’s widow, which was considered incest under canonical law. Catherine was originally married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, who had died after a few months of marriage. Catherine insisted that the marriage was not consummated, which allowed her to be married to Henry. His pursuit of an annulment was also around the time that he met Anne.

King Henry and Anne Boleyn Deer shooting in Windsor Forest. Image from Wikipedia.

It’s difficult to know whether Henry’s desire for an annulment was fuelled by the need for a son or by his infatuation with Anne. It’s most likely a mixture of the two. Anne was clever and ambitious. She knew that if she played her cards right, she would become queen. So, she refused to become Henry’s mistress, an often-coveted spot at court once held by Anne’s sister, and she insisted that she wished to stay chaste until marriage. That’s all that Henry needed to hear.

In the seven years between Henry seeking an annulment, breaking away from the pope, and marrying Anne, she played the game of courtly love. She would act coy and dismissive toward the king’s advances, ignoring love letters, batting off sexual advances. When he’d grow agitated with her aloofness, she’d flash those sparkling eyes and whisper sweet nothings in his ear. Henry was utterly bewitched. She had the tactic of ‘treat them mean, keep them keen’ down to a fine art. Henry showered her with gifts, her family with honours and peerages, and exiled his wife Catherine to damp and dilapidated castles, far away from power and influence, all to keep Anne happy.

Henry and Anne were married in secret in November 1532, and they had a formal wedding in January 1533. Anne was crowned queen that summer, visibly pregnant. All she needed to consolidate her power was a son.

Act 3

The third act of a tragedy is the climax. Here is where our tragic hero stands at a crossroads, hoping the path they choose leads to safety and happiness, yet the path they walk leads to destruction.

Queen Anne didn’t have a son that autumn. In early September 1533, she gave birth to Princess Elizabeth. Both Henry and Anne were disappointed, but they were sure that sons would follow.

However, it was soon obvious that Anne was ill-suited to the role of a renaissance Queen-consort. They were supposed to be docile and be focused on domestic matters, and they were expected to ignore their husband’s infidelity. Anne’s voice remained just as outspoken, arguing openly on religious matters, reading banned books, and pushing the Protestant cause. Her temper remained just as volatile, especially concerning King Henry’s adultery, and he soon began resenting her for it.

After breaking from the Pope and squandering most of his father’s carefully amassed wealth on lavish parties in his youth, Henry began a reign of terror over the clergy. Vast sums of church wealth were handed over to the crown, monasteries were destroyed, and heretics were executed. Many put all this down to Queen Anne, the outspoken protestant and the king’s “concubine”. The court viewed her as a witch and seductress who had the king disown his beloved queen and daughter. Some really unfavourable accounts even suggest that Anne tried to convince Henry to have Catherine and Mary executed. Whether this is true is hard to tell.

By the time Catherine died in early 1536, Anne had also suffered miscarriages and stillbirths, and Catherine’s death meant that it would be much easier for Henry to set Anne aside. Since Anne had many enemies and alienated all her allies, plenty were ready to help Henry get rid of her. Anne’s last hope of happiness and safety lay with her pregnancy in 1536, but it would ultimately cause her Peripeteia.

Peripeteia — The reversal of fortune. Where the situation of the tragic hero suddenly goes from good to bad (eg. Romeo’s fight with Tybalt, Othello being convinced by Iago’s lies, Macbeth’s meeting with the witches)

There is some speculation as to what caused the miscarriage. Some argue it was due to the stress of the King almost dying after falling from a horse. Others say that it was due to an incident where Anne found Jane Seymour, her lady in waiting, sat on King Henry’s lap, triggering her to fly into a rage. Regardless of the cause, Anne miscarried a boy. The Ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire commented that she had ‘miscarried her saviour’. From what transpired afterwards, he was correct.

Act 4

Act four is where everything officially starts to go very wrong, very quickly.

The distance between Henry and Anne grew and grew. Henry was already making plans to be rid of her to marry Jane Seymour, who was also refusing to go to bed with the king without a ring on her finger. The King’s Great Matter was still looming; there was still no male heir. Anne was growing increasingly suspicious and paranoid, while still upholding the façade that all was well by busying herself with her charity work, buying new clothing for her little daughter, and of course, dabbling in a bit of innocent courtly love.

There was an investigation into Anne’s conduct. Evidence was gathered to arrest her on charges of adultery and treason. It was easy to accuse Anne of adultery due to her love of flirtation and light bawdiness, though it is unlikely that she would risk being adulterous. It’s also easy to accuse her of treason, as her volatile arguments with King Henry were public knowledge. Even lightly suggesting the death of a king was treasonous. She was arrested on the 2nd of May 1536 and was taken to the Tower of London to await her trial.

On the 15th May Anne went to trial, and she is said to have endured it with dignity. She had hope that her innocence was obvious, and justice would prevail, but the cards were stacked against her. She was accused of committing adultery with five men: Court musician Mark Smeaton, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton, Sir Henry Norris, and her brother, George Boleyn.

All these accusations were based on salacious rumours spread by Anne’s enemies, who wanted the world to see her as an evil and incestuous witch that cast some wicked spell over the beloved King Henry. It’s also important to note that it was illegal to torture nobles. The only man that confessed to having sexual relations with Anne was Mark Smeaton, the one commoner accused; the one man that was tortured.

The usual punishment for adultery was exile to a convent, but since Anne was queen, adulterous behaviour could call the succession into question. Jeopardising the succession in this way was considered treason. Anne was also accused of plotting the death of the King so that she could marry Sir Henry Norris, which made the charge of treason far more solid. Anne, along with the five men also on trial, were found guilty of High Treason and sentenced to death.

A poem survives from the Tower of London which is said to have been written by Anne titled, O death! Rock me asleep. In it, she proclaims her innocence, but is at peace with her destiny and hopes that her death will end her suffering. Since she is our tragic hero, this is her anagnorisis.

Anagnorisis — The tragic hero’s recognition of fate and fortune ( e.g Romeo declares, ‘O I am fortunes fool!’, Desdemona’s name meaning ‘ill- fated star’)

Act 5

Act Five is where the story comes to its tragic end. Here is where our hero dies, some type of new normal is instated, and the moral is presented.

Anne Boleyn in the Tower by Édouard Cibot. Image from Wikipedia.

Anne Boleyn was executed by beheading on the 19th of May 1536, four days after her conviction. She was accompanied by two female attendants and was said to have been in good spirits and faced her execution with courage. She gave a speech to the spectators at Tower Green, which included several nobles. She made no criticisms against the king, probably to save her daughter Elizabeth from any persecution. She avoided confessing any guilt and asked for everyone’s prayers. She knelt as her weeping ladies in waiting tied a blindfold around her eyes, and her final words were the repetition of the prayer, ‘Jesu receive my soul; O Lord God have pity on my soul.’

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who was one of Anne’s very few sympathisers, was said to have been found weeping on the day of her execution. He is quoted saying, ‘She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen in heaven.’ You can’t tell me this line wouldn’t show up in a Shakespearean tragedy.

All in all, a very intense moment of catharsis

Catharsis — An emotional cleansing (e.g, The death of Romeo and Juliet that ends the blood feud between the two houses, the revelations after the murder of Desdemona in Othello)

In Shakespearean tragedy, some type of order is restored in the final scenes, some type of new normal.

Less than two weeks after her execution, King Henry married Jane Seymour, a conservative woman far better suited to the traditional role of queen consort. All signs of Anne were wiped from the English court, and her life served as a cautionary tale for all of her successors. Jane Seymour gave birth to a son, Prince Edward, in 1537. The troubles of The King’s Great Matter died away, closely followed by the death of Jane a week later.

There’s usually a moral at the end of a tragedy. I’ll admit that at first glance the moral would be, ‘don’t be an outspoken and ambitious woman’ which is highly misogynistic and outdated, and what still frustrates me when thinking about Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

But I think the ultimate moral we can take away from the tragedy of Anne Boleyn is, ‘be careful with power, it is highly mutable.’



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