Time marches on. Even ten, twenty years ago seems an inexplicably long time away, an ancient era before Whatsapp, Harry Potter, selfies and One Direction. The Tudor period is practically another world, a fantasy time of knights and castles that belongs more to a Game of Thrones episode than real life.
A lot of things originated from that time, however, not least tennis (well, real tennis), popular Grade III music pieces (how many people at any one time are slogging through Pasttime With Good Company arranged for violin and piano?) and of course, The Church of England in its original form. Something about the time must appeal on some level, more than just rosy-eyed dreaming, and one of the most enduringly popular and controversial characters is Henry VIII’s doomed second wife, Anne Boleyn.
Anne was one of three siblings from a relatively uninfluential noble family whose dark looks, while striking, in no way fitted the contemporary standard of beauty, yet she rose to become Queen, mother of one of the – still! – most influential monarchs of the country and, of course, died a pitiful and fairly horrific death at the hands of her husband. Unlike her fellow wives, Anne has an infinite mystery and mythology about her – was she a witch? Did she sleep with her brother? Did she have six fingers? Just why did Henry turn against her so totally? How did she win the heart of a king who ended up defying the spokesman of God for her? Was it true love? There are no answers to these questions and most likely, there never will be.
Anne entered Henry’s life in a rather liminal time. He was still young and handsome, not yet really ailed by the various afflictions that most historians presume destroyed his character so utterly, and he was in the perilous position of being without male issue; for a king at this period, a truly horrific prospect. Anne is generally agreed to have been intelligent and educated, with some sort of allure that drew the eye if not actual beauty. Certainly her lovely but rather more vapid sister didn’t hold Henry’s interest, so Anne must have had something to overcome her lack of blond hair. Her family were not worth all that much as a match – especially compared to the illustrious Catherine of Aragon’s – and really, there was no guarantee she’d produce a useful son.
But even in these modern days, everyone wants to be the underdog that wins, the less-attractive-but-unique soul who wins the heart of the prince (or princess) the whole world wants to marry. Like her or loathe her, Anne made a king defy nations for her love; grisly ending aside, the magnitude of that speaks volumes. And Henry wasn’t alone; poor Henry Percy never seemed to stop feeling something for her, from general consensus, either. Anne had impact; she worked hard in religious and creative fields; she was ahead of her time in ways that still echo, not least because she was beaten back for it to some measure. Anne is interesting and in a time when women weren’t really encouraged to be interesting, or unique, or mythologised, she stands out.
As, of course, does her end, although it was shared eventually by her quasicousin Kathryn Howard – although unlike Anne, Kathryn seems to be little more than a pretty girl caught up in a horrible event. She didn’t make waves like Anne; she certainly didn’t have the influence over Henry or anyone else her elder cousin did. Kathryn is a tragic, pale waif if Anne is a vivid and martyred heroine (or a wicked witch. You never quite know which of course, just adds to the curiosity). There’s something horribly attractive about a nasty ending. Why else would the horror genre exist? Anne’s end was almost disproportionately horrible, too; not just a cruel death but a condemnation to go down in history as a slut and a witch and an incest-lover. Quite a punishment for…well, something. Again with the mystery. From Henry to go from nigh-worshipping Anne to trying to destroy her and her everlasting memory so completely is quite a change of heart, and one that didn’t work – if anything it only increased her mystique. This is a woman who can’t be written off as a pretty bit of fluff who appealed to an easily bored old lech.
The modern world is small; there’s little to discover. People are naturally drawn to mysteries and indeed, to things that are different and things that create strong reactions. Anne hit all of those buttons – then and now. She was loved or loathed; held up as a hero or torn down as a whore. Probably neither extreme is true, which leaves the modern writer or academician another avenue to explore – Anne the normal woman, who presumably wanted the same things her contemporaries did; a home, a family, to try and make things a bit better, to live according to her values. The things, in fact, most people want these days, too.
Anne has something for everyone. She is a mystery. She is a romantic figure. She is a martyr, she is a villain, she is a hero. She is – arguably – an artist, a writer, a musician. She is beautiful and brilliant. Or is she? How can anyone ever know?
And of course, I can’t help but point out that I wrote that whole last paragraph in the present tense which Anne is very much not a part of – but her memory is. I think that’s the point, really.