Who Was Anne Boleyn?

Erin Lyndal Martin
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Anne Boleyn

Susan Bordo is one of the most acute and lively chroniclers of our time. Whether she takes to task the male body (in her aptly named book The Male Body) or female body image (Unbearable Weight), Bordo is always a pithy observer of her subject matter, candidly disclosing her own biases and shortcomings. In her newest book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Bordo’s skills are sharp as ever as she compares narratives from history and popular culture, revealing the bits of truth we know to be for certain about one of history’s most elusive characters: Anne Boleyn, the Queen of England from 1553-1556, when her husband King Henry VIII had her imprisoned and beheaded.  

ERIN MARTIN: I was struck by your use of the terms “erasure” and “revision” to describe the period right after Anne’s execution.  Those terms highlight the way Anne is a narrative in addition to being a historical figure. How did you choose those terms?

SUSAN BORDO: That’s a great observation, and really gets at one of the main ideas of the book, which is that Anne Boleyn is, in many ways, less a historical figure than a set of (ever-changing) cultural images and narratives.  Of course, she actually existed, she actually gave birth to Elizabeth, she actually was beheaded.  But we know so little about her personality and character that hasn’t been filtered through the tongues and pens of enemies (and some friends). We have virtually nothing in her own words (I think I will sooner forgive Henry for beheading her than for destroying her letters!), and the myths, stereotypes, and encrusted narratives have virtually swamped the little that can be justified through the historical record.  She is, in many ways, a missing person—but one about whom we think we know so, so much.  In the end, what we think we know winds up revealing more about “us” than about Anne herself. 

What is your favorite thing about Boleyn?

I’ve always been attracted to women who seem to have been misunderstood in their own times, but come to “speak” to later generations.  Anne was surely one of those women!  But if I had to name one quality that is most appealing to me, it would have to be what seems to have been an ironic, somewhat “dark,” and highly attuned sense of how political her world was.  We only have fragments that suggest this—her sharp, skeptical reactions to Constable Kingston’s mealy-mouthed reassurances in the tower, and her amazing trial speech, in which she confessed only to not having had “perfect humility” with Henry—but these tiny bits speak volumes to me about what set her off from other women at court.  She wasn’t a great beauty (the media said to the contrary) but she seems to have been so conscious, and so unwilling to remain silent about what she felt and thought.  And from her trial speech, it appears that she knew that was one of the main reasons for her fall.

You also mention Henry being more egalitarian than his contemporaries.   In what other ways was Henry different than other men of his time?

I don’t actually use that word, for I don’t think he was egalitarian according to any modern understanding of that word.  What I do suggest is that he may have had fewer of the standard misogynist ideas about the inferior intellectual nature of women, and less knee-jerk aversion to women’s advice and guidance.  And I suggest that this may have been the result of being raised by a very strong woman (who operated almost as a single parent with him).  The fact that he was so attracted to a woman like Anne, whom many other men at court saw as an interfering harpy, suggests that at least at this stage in his life he didn’t have as limited an idea of a woman’s “place.”

Is the feminist appropriation of Anne Boleyn dangerous in any way?

I do think that idealizing anyone to the point of enshrining them, whether for feminist reasons or otherwise, is ultimately to do them a disservice.  For eventually, there’s going to be backlash against what others will see as an ideological bias—and then human complexity will yield to a battle between the “for”s and the “against”s.  Indeed, that’s largely what has happened with Anne.  Her Catholic enemies demonized her.  Then her Protestant “rehabilitators” turned her into a martyr.  Early historians, wanting to de-sanctify her, went too far in to the other direction and—relying largely on highly biased documents from Anne’s time—turned her into a scheming, ambitious temptress.  Which naturally has provoked the ire of feminists. 

Photo of Anne Boleyn via Lumanarium.org

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

glad to see something new about this topic

I look forward to reading this, hope it really has something new, as this period has been extensively mined.

typo: "Anne Boleyn, the Queen


"Anne Boleyn, the Queen of England from 1553-1956, when her husband King Henry VIII had her imprisoned and beheaded. "

unless she was queen for 403 years :)

Fixed it!

Just fudging history there. :)

"Anne Boleyn, the Queen of

"Anne Boleyn, the Queen of England from 1553-1556, when her husband King Henry VIII had her imprisoned and beheaded."
Uh -- she was dead by 1536. She was queen <b>consort</b> from 1533-1536.

Small Mistake

" Anne Boleyn, the Queen of England from 1553-1556, when her husband King Henry VIII had her imprisoned and beheaded. "


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