Student blog: Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession

Bridget Coulter is studying for her PhD in music at the University of Sheffield and is a regular contributor to the University's official student blog, We Are Sheffield Students. This her second blog post for Off the Shelf.

Nearly 500 years after her execution, Anne Boleyn remains a controversial figure. As King Henry VIII’s most famous – and notorious – wife, her name still has the power to evoke strong emotions. Her dramatic rise to power and swift demise continue to capture the popular imagination, and the events of her life have inspired countless plays, novels, television dramas and films.

Over the centuries, Anne Boleyn has been seen in many different ways. Following her downfall, she was portrayed as a licentious Jezebel, a man-stealing harlot who broke up a royal marriage and threw the kingdom into turmoil. Despite Elizabeth I’s attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of her mother, Anne’s name became associated with immorality, treason and, later, witchcraft. In the Romantic era, she was reimagined as a tragic heroine, doomed to meet her death at the hands of a cruel and vengeful king, as in Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena and Cibot’s painting Anne Boleyn in the Tower. In recent films, television dramas and novels (such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall), Anne Boleyn has been portrayed as an astute political actor who ruthlessly orchestrated her own rise to prominence, and whose reckless ambition led to her eventual demise.

Author and historian Alison Weir’s talk for Off the Shelf festival offered insight into Anne’s life, as depicted in her recent novel Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession. Quoting extracts from the book, Weir conjured up key events: Anne’s passionate yet chaste affair with the King, her humiliating trial for treason and her final days spent in the Tower of London awaiting her execution. Much of the novel’s dialogue is based on dialogue from contemporary sources, and this helps to capture the essence of the time. Weir’s talk was accompanied by a slideshow of images depicting Anne Boleyn, including portraits, stills from films and television dramas (including The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl) and photographs of historical artefacts, such as a coin depicting her likeness (thought to be the only surviving image of Anne produced during her lifetime).

Weir noted that, despite Anne Boleyn’s major historical influence, little is known of her personality or her motivations. Consequently, she remains a mysterious figure, surrounded by rumour and speculation. Her voice is largely absent from historical records, and accounts of her life were written mainly by observers, who may well have been biased; for example, the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys – an ally of Katherine of Aragon – wrote a notable account of her downfall. Although seventeen of Henry’s love letters to Anne survive, her responses have been lost, and it is therefore hard to gain a thorough understanding of their relationship, or of Anne’s feelings towards the King.

This lack of information poses difficulties for historical novelists. Weir explored this problem in her talk, discussing how she used available evidence to draw conclusions about Anne’s life. In particular, Weir focused on her early life, arguing that her time spent in Europe (between 1513 and 1521) shaped the woman she would later become. As a young girl, Anne served at the European courts, spending time in the Netherlands and France. This gave her an advantage when she arrived at the English court in 1522; during her time in Europe she had acquired French manners, which were considered fashionable in England, and she became well-known for her wit and charm.

In recent years, Anne has sometimes been described as a proto-feminist icon, a woman who transgressed accepted standards of femininity in order to wield power and influence. Weir discussed this trope cautiously and critically, arguing that, although the concept of feminism seems somewhat anachronistic within the context of Tudor England, the idea of Anne Boleyn as an early feminist is perhaps more plausible than might initially be assumed. In the early 1500s, the ‘querelle des femmes’ (the ‘woman question’) was discussed within European literary circles, following the influence of writers such as Christine de Pizan, who questioned the subordinate position of women within society. Weir argued that, through her association with powerful European women (such as Margaret of Austria), Anne may have been exposed to these ideas, which may have influenced her in later life.

By dealing with these complex issues surrounding Anne Boleyn’s life and legacy, Weir’s fascinating talk offered an in-depth exploration of a multi-faceted historical figure. Anne’s dramatic life – sensational, romantic and tragic in equal measure – makes for an irresistible human story, so it is vital that historians, writers and dramatists tell this story as faithfully and as sensitively as possible. By weaving historical evidence together with popular mythology, Weir’s analysis was both well-researched and compelling, painting a vivid picture of a woman who is so often misrepresented and misunderstood.

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