What is it about Anne Boleyn that continues to intrigue scholars and Hollywood producers? Is it that she changed the course of England and possibly the world? Is it that she was a Reformist? A homewrecker? Or is it that there is still a lot of her we don’t know to make a concrete analysis?
The Most Happy is an alternative historical fiction novel that asks the important question of ‘what if?’ What if Anne had a son? Would she have kept her head then? And, what new challenges would she have faced?
Anne Boleyn popularity on the big screen is nothing new; what is people’s perception of her. During her daughter Elizabeth I’s reign, the opinion of Anne Boleyn was based upon assumptions of foreign ambassadors’ reports of her, primarily the Holy Roman Emperor’s envoys, particularly Eustace Chapuys. Eustace Chapuys wasn’t the first to call her ‘the concubine’, but he followed suit after he became attached to her rival, Katharine of Aragon. Enraged by her poor health and Henry’s dismissal of her and her daughter, the former princess Mary, he slandered Anne to no end. But even he was forced to recognize her bravery after he heard from several eye-witness accounts of her speech at the tower seconds before she died.
Indeed, Anne Boleyn’s composure during that terrible ordeal moved other people, including the Holy Roman emperor’s sister, Mary Habsburg, who was disgusted to find out about Henry’s proposal and wedding to Jane Seymour shortly after her execution.
Since then, Anne Boleyn became a hot topic, and has been at the hub of controversy. Both extremes have taken control of the narrative, projecting their own fears and hopes on her; one extreme blames her for what happened to her rival and her stepdaughter, and what Henry did to England, while another strips her of all agency, deconstructing negative portrayals of her, but transforming her into a victim.
Anne had never intended to be Queen. Some of her daughters’ biographers, believe they are doing her a favor by giving her every type of agency as the first extreme that views her as a villain, by saying that she knew what she wanted from the start and was determined to get it. The truth is she did not. Henry VIII saw something in Anne that he liked and like the hunter that he was, her refusal only made him more determine to win her over. When Anne realized that she couldn’t say ‘no’, and what that would mean for her family’s future, she relented but not before she made it clear that she wouldn’t be his mistress. At the time, it seemed like the pope would grant Henry an annulment. Divorce and annulment wasn’t uncommon, kings and queens got their marriage annulled all the time -i.e. his elder sister Margaret had recently got her second one annulled on the basis of his scandalous unions with his mistress and other transgressions. So Henry had no reason to believe that he would face any obstacle until he received news that his wife’s nephew’s mercenaries had ransacked Rome and Charles V had placed the pope into protective custody.
As time went on, Anne became desperate. A woman of her stature and age would have been married by now and had children of her own. If this continued, she feared that she would die an old maid, with her name being dragged through the mud even further. This is when she started to introduce Henry to ‘forbidden books’ that presented Henry with an alternative to solve his dilemma.
When Henry VIII forced his own church and less than a year later married Anne, crowned her and welcomed his new daughter, Catholic Europe became more hostile towards Anne. To the Protestants she sponsored, she was their heroine, to the others, she was a heretic and a witch who needed to be taken out of the scene by any means necessary. The latter got their wish. While no one could have predicted at the time that she would go down in history as one of England’s greatest history makers, or that her daughter would become one of the world’s renowned female rulers, they acknowledged her bravery and deep religiosity in the last-minute.
These aspects of Anne Boleyn have not been lost on the actresses who’ve played her. Natalie Dormer who played her on Showtime’s “The Tudors”, said that before she did, she had no doubt in her mind as to who Anne Boleyn was. The glamorous, opportunist femme-fatale who changed English history and was responsible for many of England’s problems. After picking up more than one biography on the six wives, her outlook changed.
“I didn’t just want to play [Anne Boleyn] as this femme fatale – she was a genuine evangelical with a real religious belief in the Reformation. The show was an absolute joy because it was an amalgamation of my two greatest passions – drama and history. I read everything by Starkey… good old Starkey… opinionated Starkey… Antonia Fraser, all of them. But there is a lot of sex and violence in the programme, so it’s hard to explain it to the guy in the street who’s saying, ‘The Tudors? Tits, man!’” (Natalie Dormer)
Genevieve Bujold for her part became completely immersed in her role, that she enjoyed every minute of it. filmmaker Hal Wallis, who directed the film adaptation of the play “Anne of a Thousand Days” describes how rewarding it was to work alongside her, noting that like the historical figure she was playing, there was more to her than met the eye.
“The minute she appeared on the screen, I was riveted. I saw a tiny, seeming fragile woman made of steel -willful, passionate, intense. She was exactly the actress I wanted to play Anne.”
For her part, Claire Foy -who’s best known for playing the current English monarch, Elizabeth II in Netflix’s “The Crown”- said that her views on Anne Boleyn changed as well, but added that she didn’t see her as a woman of her times but ahead of them. Although noble, the sentiment is misplaced but it is a testament on how our perception of Anne overrides the reality.
As Natalie Dormer pointed out, Anne Boleyn’s religiosity and family devotion was a big component of her character, and her story. She was ambitious, but that ambition was rooted in her interest in promoting a faith that she believed the pathway to salvation. Anne was not a hardcore Protestant, her family belonged to a group of people who were interested in Reforming the church and returning it to its original roots, by following the literal word of god instead of viewing it as an allegory. While some saw the dissolution of the monasteries as a terrible injustice, Anne for her part, saw it as an opportunity to build more schools, hospitals, and other educational and charity centers that would have more success at promoting the Anglican faith, and helping those in need.
During her time as queen, she gave alms to the poor and had an English bible in her chambers which her servants had access to, and could read whenever they wanted.
The real Anne Boleyn has been lost in translation. While it may seem futile for fiction to rescue her from the shadows, it is important to remember that fiction has an important role to play in the historical record.
The market is ripe for alternative history. Imagination is a powerful tool and in the hands of history buff, it becomes even greater, and it opens doors to whole new worlds that otherwise would not have been possible. It is the literary version of a butterfly effect. Change one thing, change everything. In this case, it is about Anne Boleyn having more than one child. That factor alone leads to a different fate, not just for her, but for England and our modern world.
This novel has re-imagined sixteenth century starting with Anne Boleyn, a figure that continues to generate controversy, and whose strength, compassion, religiosity will be something that ever reader will find compelling. Nonetheless, this novel hasn’t shied away from her negative traits -or what we would perceive negative- because the past is after all a different world, and even alternative history cannot change that. What alternative history aims to do is make a story sound as plausible as possible based on what is known about that period. This is what was done for this novel, and the end result is a story that will resonate with all of us, but at the same time will be something new, and a door to an era where the stakes were high, and people’s perception of the world were entirely different from our own.
There is no doubt in my mind that Anne Boleyn will continue to generate interest and this is why the time is now for novelists to go into new territory. Imagination and hard research are what make alternative history great, and it was a joy delving deeper into this character’s story, discovering new things, and I hope my readers will find this journey equally exciting.
- Bordo, Susan. The Creation of Anne Boleyn. Houghton Miffin Harcourt. 2013.
- Henry VIII: The Mind of a Tyrant presented by David starkey, directed by David Sington, BBC, 2009.
- Lisle, Leanda. Passion. Manipulation. Murder. The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public. 2014
- Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. 2005.
- Norton, Elizabeth. The Boleyn Women: The Tudor Femmes Fatales who changed English History. 2013.
- Loades, David. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. 2010.
- Starkey, David. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. 2004.
- Norton, Elizabeth. The Anne Boleyn Papers. 2013.
- “Divorced.” Six Wives with Lucy Worsley, written by Chloe Moss, directed by Russell England, BBC, 2016.
- Licence, Amy. The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII: The Women’s Stories. 2014.
- Lofts, Norah. Anne Boleyn. Putnam Pub Group. 1986.
- The Last Days of Anne Boleyn. Presented by Dr. David Starkey, Alison Weir, Philipa Greggory. BBC. 2013.
Helen R. Davis is the internationally award-winning author of CLEOPATRA UNCONQUERED, the first in a series of novels that imagines the world if Cleopatra, the final queen of Egypt, had triumphed at the Battle of Actium and a world history that imagines events centered around the dreams of Cleopatra VII, Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony. A long-time devotee of Cleopatra, Davis has also long been intrigued by European history and by Anne Boleyn, a woman caught between Spain, France and England. Davis is also intrigued by Boleyns’ second home of France. She resides currently in Casper, Wyoming and has also authored Evita: My Argentina that explores the life of the controversial Argentine First Lady Eva Perón, as well as Athena: The Warrior Queen of Yavdolo, which is a science fiction novel. She is also a co-author to ISABELLA UNASHAMED.