The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: history vs fiction

The Malleus Maleficarum, originally published in 1487 by two German priests, was the official manual for the hunt and execution of witches during 400 years in Europe. According to it, the signs that a woman shows for her witchcraft practice had some kind of physical deformity, have a black cat as a pet, being born in February, being redhead, not being able to bear children, or have a sexually impotent husband. Based on meaningless signs, the inquirers hanged or took to the bonfire more than two hundred women during centuries.

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII of England, didn’t die on the flames or was judged by the rules of Inquisition — but almost. Being raised in the French court, Anne had access to education much more embracing than the English girls at the time. She was raised to being ambitious, determined, and cunning, but not to be a witch. However, that did not prevent Henry VIII from charging her to bewitched him when she didn’t give him a son, an episode that marked Anne’s fate when she had a miscarriage of a deformed fetus, in 1536 — continuing to be only a girl’s mother, the queen-to-be Elizabeth I.

Such accusation can be seen as a tiny thing right now but, at the time, beyond the fact that the word of a king possesses undeniable weight — even more so if the word comes from a king like him, who broke with the Catholic Church, becoming absolute sovereign -, an accusation of witchcraft was taken very seriously. Henry stated that he had been “seduced and forced into his second marriage through spells and sortileges”. It was the XVI century England, after all, and the witch hunt was already a reality. However not too strong as much would be in a few years, but certainly strong enough to end a woman’s life. And Anne was not any woman: she was believed to be responsible for the separation of the country from the Catholic Church and for the horrible persecution that many Catholics had to suffer, also for the implementation of a new faith, Protestantism. The easiest and more efficient way to stop the trajectory of a woman like that was to accuse her of witchcraft.

We don’t know for sure if Anne had the intention of influence Henry VIII to something on politics. What we do know is that her father and her uncle encouraged the flirt between them during the years when she was Queen’s Catarina de Aragão chaperone. Once Catarina was gone, Henry took the power off the Pope’s hand, becoming the one true power in the reign. But would have been Anne a true protestant, manipulating the king to modify the country’s situation, or was she just a young woman very well educated, but just a puppet of her ambitious family? This question remains until today, however, the fact is that she, being this manipulative woman or this political puppet, represented a power figure and, for that, was executed. Her enemies and all the court, who felt threatened by her, would never let her alive. As Jane Dunn, Elizabeth & Mary’s author said:

“It was in the area of sex that the activities of witches were most feared and decried. A witch was represented as the embodiment of the inverted qualities of womankind: where natural women were weaker than men and submissive, witches were harsh, with access to forbidden power; where women had kindness and charm, witches were full of vengeance and the will to harm; where women were sexually passive, witches were voracious in their appetites and depraved. Witches were privy to recipes for aphrodisiacs and could make men fall helplessly in love with the most unlikely of women — even with their own benighted selves.”

This is well shown in The Tudors: Anne was condemned not for acts of witchcraft, despite rumors circulating the palace about her evil nature, but for being a woman with power. Submissive women were what was expected at the time and Anne broke with that, being who she wanted to be and speaking freely about politics and religion. The queen, previously only delegated to the heir’s spawning post, was now also an active figure who opined about events and managed to get the almighty king of England to listen to her (to a woman!) and change things accordingly to her your wishes.

The TV show, however, does a historic disservice in showing Anne (Natalie Dormer) as a Machiavellian woman, even granting her a villainous soundtrack and conversations that probably didn’t happen in which she plots against Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers ). If Anne is a villain, then all the men featured should be too — including the good guy in the series, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk (Henry Cavill), who spread the lying rumor that Anne cheated on the king with several men, including his own brother (remembering that incestuous relationships were also considered a characteristic of witches, who supposedly acquired their power through sex with Satan and manipulated men with their charms in bed). But Charles Brandon had a relatively happy ending, dying of a common illness, while Anne was beheaded in front of everyone with the reputation of usurping a witch, traitor to the king, and prostitute.

The accusation that Anne had a sixth finger that she hid and warts on her body were also placed in the show, which seems to have endeavored to corroborate the lie of the witchcraft used to get her out of power. The Tudors, created by Michael Hirst, is a show of misogyny and favoritism to men, who are always forgiven, even if they behead their wives. However, the lesson is passed on: seeing the story of his mother, beheaded for being a powerful woman, and of her stepmothers, who had a fate as bad as Anne, Elizabeth Tudor (Laoise Murray), daughter of Anne Boleyn and future queen of England, decides that she will never marry and keeps her promise, reigning alone and never letting a man be more powerful than her.

In any case, Hirst’s choice to present Anne according to the rumors that have been spread about her and vilify the historical character is a political choice. The story of the queen beheaded by her husband is tragic enough and arouses attention without the false rumor of witchcraft. It was not necessary to instill this approach in the plot.

This myth that Anne Boleyn was a witch has spread so strongly in pop culture that we have two well-known and very accessible examples: the portrait of Anne that appears on the walls of Hogwarts in one of the films of the Harry Potter’s saga, as well as the origin of Lasher, the demon that supposedly was the fetus aborted by Anne in 1536. Although Anne’s representation is that of a witch in these two examples, neither vilify her in the way the show does — perhaps because they have the vision of a woman in creating the stories — JK Rowling and Anne Rice, respectively — and not that of a man, as in The Tudors.

Even if the witchcraft accusation is unfounded, she could be popularly called a witch (in the pejorative sense of a bad woman) for allegedly manipulating an entire court. The show leads us to feel pity, sometimes contempt, for Henry, but for Anne, the audiovisual resources are used to densify the villainy of his personality. A man would never be portrayed like that in the plot. But a witch is this: a powerful and ambitious woman, characteristics so praised in men, but forbidden in women.

Originally published in Querido Clássico, in Portuguese.

journalist and writer