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Fake history

Why (almost) everything you thought you knew about history is wrong

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October 29, 2019

She has been called a “goggle-eyed whore”, a proto-feminist and a romantic heroine — but whatever her latest historical incarnation, the memory of Anne Boleyn has always accreted extraordinary excrescences: an alleged large wart on her face, a fabled sixth finger on one hand, and a whole host of other half-truths, myths and misinformation cling tenaciously to her remembrance.

It’s not quite clear why Anne has often been misremembered as a self-made woman of humble birth. Perhaps it’s the appeal of a rags-to-riches story. Or perhaps the gravity-defying rise of low-born men like Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell has been silently projected onto Anne. From modest and mean origins to monarchy itself, Anne becomes a Tudor Cinderella (albeit with a far from fairy-tale end).

So we’re told that her paternal great-grandfather was a cloth-merchant — which is accurate, in much the same way that it is accurate to describe Sir James Dyson as a man who sells vacuum cleaners. Geoffrey Boleyn, too, had a knighthood to match.

Anne’s father, Thomas, was of sufficient gentry status to marry Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, later second Duke of Norfolk and Elizabeth Tilney, former lady-in-waiting to Queens Elizabeth Woodville and her daughter Elizabeth of York (this was not an imaginative period for naming).

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Thomas Boleyn was himself made a Knight of the Garter in 1523 — before Anne caught Henry VIII’s eye — for his own service to the king as his “squire of the body”, as an ambassador to the French court, and as a member of the king’s council. Anne had privilege.

Then there’s the idea that Anne was young and beautiful — for surely she must have been to attract a king.

We don’t know exactly when Anne was born. It wasn’t until 1538 that it became obligatory to keep the sort of parish records of baptisms, marriages and funerals that would give approximate dates of births for all, including the girls.

But even by the late 16th century, the antiquarian William Camden recorded that Anne had been born in 1507 — making her 19 when Henry noticed her, 26 when he married her, and not yet 30 when she died. Remember Catherine Howard’s youth (and overlook Katherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr) and you can start to create a narrative of Henry liking his women green. The 1507 date also fits with the origin-myth favoured by the country’s foremost Anne Boleyn tourist attraction, Hever Castle, for it means that she was born there.

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But there is independent evidence that makes an alternate date — 1501 — seem much more convincing. An autographed letter survives from Anne to her father, sent from the court of Archduchess Margaret of Austria, while at Tervuren in modern-day Belgium in 1513 or 1514. The orthography (for which she begs excuse) is unorthodox, but everyone’s was in the 16th century. The elegant secretary hand, however, is manifestly not that of even a careful six- or seven-year-old: here is the writing of a young woman, on the cusp of teenagehood.

Which means that the relationship between Anne and Henry began when she was 26 (relatively old for a woman of her status to be single in the 16th century), they married when she was 33, and she died at 36.

Nor did Henry fall wildly in love with the beautiful Anne Boleyn at first sight. Though our first record of her at the English court is in March 1522, the king’s interest in her can be dated to around 1526. And the four-year delay was only in part because his dance card was already full (when he rode out to joust in 1522 bearing the motto, elle mon cœur a navera — “she has wounded my heart” — he may have had a Boleyn girl in mind but, famously, the other one, Anne’s sister, Mary). The other reason he took a while to notice her is that Anne was not a conventionally good-looking woman.

We only really know this from the documentary evidence. Despite the familiarity of various reproductions of a portrait of Anne wearing a round pearl-trimmed hood, black and sable gown, and the now-famous ‘B’ pendant, none of them can be dated with any certainty to her lifetime. Our best guess is that they are copies of a lost original painted from the life, and their production during the reign of her daughter, some 50 or 60 years after Anne’s death, may explain why some seem to have been prettified.

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The Venetian diplomat Francesco Sanuto described Anne as “not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised”. Anne’s dark hair was unfashionable, although even Sanuto also noted Anne’s dark and sparkling eyes.

This does not mean we should believe, however, the propaganda of Nicholas Sander, a Jesuit writing under Elizabeth I, from whom we get the following report of Anne: black hair, sallow skin as if “troubled with jaundice”, six fingers on her right hand, a projecting tooth, and a large wen — a boil or cyst — under her chin. There is no evidence contemporary to Anne’s life to support anything he says except the colour of her hair and her tanned skin.

Finally, there’s the fable that Anne Boleyn was executed on charges of witchcraft, as well as incest and adultery.

In her trial indictment, Anne was certainly charged, and later found guilty, of incest (with her brother), adultery (with five men including her brother), and conspiring the king’s death. The latter charge was crucial, as it was the only one carrying the death penalty, under the 1534 Treasons Act by which it was treason to imagine the death of the king in words. But of witchcraft there is no sign.

The source for this misremembrance comes, I think, from the 19th-century translation of a letter from Eustace Chapuys, the Holy Roman Empire’s ambassador to the English court, to the Emperor Charles V, in which he reported an, at least, fourth-hand account that Henry had told “someone” that he had married Anne “seduced by witchcraft”.

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There’s no corroborating evidence that Henry ever said anything of the sort, and even Chapuys’s original letter uses the word sortilèges, which could mean sorcery — but could also carry the sense of having been “bewitched” by someone — no literal magic necessary.

The American historian Retha Warnicke further stirred the cauldron by suggesting that Anne had given birth in 1536 to a “deformed foetus” — her take on an account by Sander (again) that Anne had miscarried “a shapeless mass of flesh”. Warnicke argued that 16th-century observers would have concluded from this that Anne was a witch.

Anne miscarried at three-and-a-half months, so the foetus was hardly likely to have looked much like a full-term baby, and our source was once again writing at the remove of half a century — but, more pertinently, the appearance of a miscarried baby has never been cited in any early modern witchcraft trial I’ve ever heard of. It’s a sexy theory — and pure bunkum.

The truth is all far more mundane. Anne was a high-born woman, whose family pedigree brought her into Henry’s circle. It was her conversational wit and elegant cosmopolitanism that attracted Henry, not any great youth or beauty or magical ability. The privilege of her birth aside, she was an everywoman and we prefer the heroines of history to be something more than ordinary.

Suzannah Lipscomb’s latest book, The Voice of Nîmes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc, is available from Oxford University Press.