By: Kelly-Anne Taylor
Beloved. Betrayed. Beheaded. The story of Anne Boleyn has seeped through generations, fuelling star-studded Hollywood adaptations and small-screen retellings.
But how much do we really know about Anne Boleyn? BBC Two’s docu-drama The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family uncovers the secrets of Tudor England’s controversial Queen. Told through a combination of dramatic enactments and interviews with historical experts, it exposes the reality of Anne’s time in court life from sex to rivalry and inevitably, tragedy.
Here, two talking heads from the series, Dr Owen Emmerson – a historian who works at Anne’s childhood home, Hever Castle – and Gareth Russell – a historian who wrote An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors – divulge 10 lesser-known facts about Anne Boleyn.
The Importance of Hever Castle
Dr Owen Emmerson reveals: “Hever Castle was Anne’s safety valve in the 1520s when Henry turned his attentions towards her. She retreated there when things were hotting up in court and as a way of keeping Henry interested in her. It made the King go mad with desire. He wrote her incredible love letters. It wasn’t normal for Henry as he hated writing. He would have usually used scribes, but with Anne he hand wrote each letter. Many show her initials enclosed in a heart. Some of them were really quite steamy – he talked about her breasts, or ‘little duckies’ as he called them. Henry proposed to Anne while she was at Hever. She sent him a beautiful little jewelled ship with a maiden on board. This was her way of saying ‘I’m going to brave the storms with you’.
What does Anne look like?
“She was the antithesis of what was considered good looking at the time – blond hair and blue eyes were de rigueur at Tudor court,” says Emmerson.
“Anne was neither – she had dark hair and dark eyes, that were described as almost black. Henry went to extraordinary lengths and finances to eradicate all images of Anne after she died. The only surviving contemporary image of Anne is a very crude and damaged medal from 1534.”
Anne’s Beheading – an act of mercy or betrayal?
“Normally, the victim would signal to the executioner that they were ready – which they would do by throwing their arms out. It was the last bit of agency that person had. Anne was not afforded that. The executioner distracted her. He called in French ‘fetch me my sword’ and his assistant moved,” Emmerson explains.
“Anne turned to the sound of what was happening. At that moment the executioner takes her head off without her saying ‘I’m ready’. It is often portrayed as an act of mercy – but I can’t help but feel that this woman, who was dragged down so appallingly, even in the last moments of her life is denied agency.”
Anne Survives a Pandemic
“In 1528, there was a dreadful pandemic, the sweating sickness. Anne and her father Thomas fell ill at Hever Castle. Henry, still courting Anne at the time, was desperately worried and sent his second-best doctor to attend to her. Henry’s letters to Anne were particularly messy during this period – he was panicking, there were mistakes and crossings out,” Emmerson reveals.
“Those little markers I think tell us a lot about his genuine affection for her. Anne came very close to dying. It’s a pivotal point because Henry saw her mortality and saw his own. Things got serious and soon after, the trials of Blackfriars took place [where Henry sought to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon].”
A Public Consummation
“Anne Boleyn and Henry’s consummation would have had public elements to it,” Emmerson says. “Right up until the actual act, there would have been people present – and there would have been people in the anti-chamber next to the bedroom. A crucial part of being married was the consummation. Often the marriage sheets would be kept as evidence of a successful consummation.”
How the nature of Anne’s death may have been a bargaining chip
Emmerson explains: “Henry was intimately involved in the minutiae of how Anne was going to die. He was morbidly fascinated by it. He stipulates that all the things that are to happen to Anne will also happen to future queens. In sentencing Anne, there was also the option of burning, which is a considerably longer and more horrific death. This is speculation, but it is thought that there may have been a bartering situation going on. Henry wanted the marriage annulled. We think that Anne agreed to this – perhaps the bargaining chip was a cleaner death – but we will never really know the answer.”
Anne’s hatred of Catherine of Aragon
“We see Anne’s darker side through her surviving songbook.” Emmerson says. “Anne’s emblem was a white falcon. In the songbook is an illustration of Anne’s white falcon pecking at a pomegranate – Catherine of Aragon’s emblem. Anne also said that she would rather see Catherine hanged than acknowledge her as Queen. It ruffled feathers because Catherine was enormously popular.”
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A Savage Re-Gifter
“Anne was a really savage ‘re-gifter.’ She was brought pelicans from the new world that she hated and peacocks that woke her up in the morning,” Gareth Russell reveals.
“She gave them to friends and they were so expensive, they had to say “’yes’. She then required them to take the birds away from the Palace so that she could sleep in. There’s a record of her saying, ‘I’ll pay for the feed, but you can’t keep them here’. She essentially gave away a really expensive alarm clock and they had to thank her for it, while she got to lie-in. ”
Anne was more intelligent than Henry
“Anne was someone who, on her worst day, was Henry’s intellectual equal. On her average day, she was more intelligent than him. She was educated in France; she had some experience at the Habsburg Court. Henry aspired to be more European. She had chic European glamour and great confidence,” Russell continues.
“To me, Henry’s ego seemed enormous, but fragile. She had a lot of things he wanted, or perhaps, more specifically wanted to control. There was a pretty intense, self-flagellating, self-loathing in his early letters – the central theme being ‘Why am I so obsessed with you? I hate myself for being so obsessed.'”
The Swordsman is Called
“The swordsman had been ordered before Anne went to trial,” Russell explains. “It doesn’t send a great message on the impartiality of the judiciary. The jury’s decision was something of a foregone conclusion, when accommodation for a swordsman from across the Channel had already been arranged.”