Men are Remembered in Spite of their Flaws; Women are Remembered Because of Them

As a history buff and feminist, something that always annoyed me was the way women were conveniently forgotten, or, when they were too historic to forget, they were character assassinated.

Take Anne Boleyn. For those of you who didn’t study your English history, Boleyn was the second wife of Henry the 8th. Henry’s first wife Katherine failed to provide him with a son (just one daughter, Mary) and the Catholic Church refused to grant him an annulment, so Henry, with the kind of arrogance and sense of self-serving that only absolute monarchs possess, created his own church, the Church of England, and divorced Katherine to marry a court girl, Boleyn.

It’s commonly held that Boleyn seduced Henry into divorcing his wife and creating the social upheaval that he did to pull off such a stunt. Boleyn refused to sleep with Henry until Katherine was out of the picture and this, apparently, was all it took to make Henry ditch his first wife for her.

Because if I were a man as wealthy and powerful as Henry, with beautiful, well-bred women falling at their feet to bear my illegitimate children, I’d buckle at the first woman who refused to sleep with me unless I made her queen? More likely, I’d move onto the next beautiful, well-bred women. Anne had to have been an intelligent, scintillating woman to have kept Henry’s interest over several years of platonic courtship. Kudos to any woman who can do that.

Instead, Anne has been largely drawn as the greatest homewrecker of all time; a woman who flaunted her sexuality and drove a man to discard his loyal wife; a woman who did her best to alienate and marginalise her step-daughter, who would precede her own daughter as Queen; a woman who didn’t care about the social upheaval she would cause with the creation of the Church or England (still seen today in Ireland) so long as she got her man. Never mind that the Roman Catholic Church was beaurocratic and corrupt and was in desperate need of a Reformation. Never mind that Henry was an arrogant, strong-willed man who believed His Way was God’s Way. Never mind that he was so possessed with the desire to have a son that he was planning to divorce Katherine regardless of Anne’s appearance. No, it was all Anne’s fault. Why blame a man when we can blame a woman?

When Anne herself failed to give Henry the son he so desired – instead only another (useless) daughter – and refused to grant him a quiet annulment, Henry had her beheaded, and moved onto wife number three, Jane Seymour, who had the good sense to give him his precious son. She died soon after, due to childbirth complications, and he loved her forever more for her sacrifices.

Part of the reason Anne refused an annulment was the implication that their daughter, Elizabeth, would then be branded illegitimate. She faced the executioner’s axe so Elizabeth might one day be queen. That shows an incredible strength of character – and loyalty to someone else – to me.

The joke ended up being on Henry, because the two daughters from the wives he discarded, Mary and Elizabeth, ended up being some of England’s most well-known monarchs, and his precious son to Seymour, for whom he’d discarded two wives (and who’s name I always forget) died young, shortly after taking the throne.

But what has always annoyed me is that, through the whole sordid mess that was 16th century England, Anne bore the brunt of the blame for it. It was Anne’s fault for seducing Henry. It was Anne’s fault for the Restoration, and the fighting that goes on today because of it.

For sure, Anne was ruthlessly ambitious, insecure and vengeful. But she lived in a time where the only power a woman had was what she could wield through her men. Anne had to be a fascinating woman to make the King marry her, when there were so many OTHER women with more to offer – for example, daughters of foreign kings. She played the game well, but her power was only ever relative to the interest the king had in her – and once they were married, it steadily waned. Every pretty girl that crossed his path threatened her security a little more – and it was all the security she had. Can you really blame her, for being insecure and exacting what petty revenge she could when she could?

I think a lot of her less desirable personality traits were the result of the era she lived in. Can you imagine, being a strong, independent woman, living in a place and time like that? I’d be pretty bitter, too.

And Anne did some pretty positive things, too. She loved and protected her daughter, Elizabeth – and Elizabeth grew up to be a pretty enlightened ruler (for her era, at least), so Anne must have done something good. She was a big believer in educating the women of her court, and fairly progressive in her sociopolitical beliefs.

Whereas Henry didn’t do anything that wasn’t for his own benefit. Yeah, he kick-started the reformation, but he only did it to create the legal foundation to get rid of his wife. And he did love his son – although he ignored the two wives and two daughters he’d discarded to get him, but hey, gotta love a man who’s good with kids. He had the arrogance of an absolute ruler and about the best that can be said for him is that he didn’t tunnel that arrogance into declaring war on someone, instead keeping the causalities of his arrogance more subtle.

In short, Anne and Henry were both deeply flawed. But Henry has been remembered in spite of his flaws, whereas Anne has been remembered because of them. And this is how it’s been for women throughout history. And until we stop setting the standard for our female historic figures at the level of saints we will continue to sell ourselves short.

Next rant, Mary Magdalene”¦


  1. sbg says

    You know, I can honestly say I had no idea that was how Anne Bolyn was being characterized. A great history lesson as well as a grrrr.

    And I look forward to the rant about Mary Magdalene, who, if I recall correctly has been misconstrued as a prostitute forever, when she wasn’t.

  2. scarletts-legacy says

    I don’t know enough about bilbical and sociopolitical history for that period (apart from what was in the DaVinci code, of course :( ) to do a similar piece of Magdalene, although I’d love to see it.

  3. scarlett says

    I know Magdelene was deeply marginalised and misunderstood. I expect she was a very intelligent and forward-thinking woman but has been cast as a prostitue because she was too big a historical figure to be forgotten. In this regard I see similarities between her and Bolyn. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about biblical history, cetrainly not as much as I do about middle ages/modern European history, to write a similar piece about Magdelene. I’d love to discuss it with someone who is more familar with the topic, and I’m opening the floor for anyone who wants to take my idea and write about it :)

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    We’ll forgive you for teasing us. 😛

    Maybe somebody else knows enough about her? I wouldn’t mind doing some research, but it would take me a while to do it properly, since she inspires a lot of history-twisting from both sides. I’ve even heard that she was actually an apostle, but I’m not sure if that’s a true scholar’s interpretation, or just a sensationalistic interpretation.

  5. scarlett says

    Thanks for that clarification,

    I’ve actually become a lot more interested in Tudor and Bolyn history since writing this – have you read ‘The Other Bolyn Girl’ by Phillipa Gregory? It’s a real insight into that period of time for the nobility.

  6. SunlessNick says

    The joke ended up being on Henry, because the two daughters from the wives he discarded, Mary and Elizabeth, ended up being some of England’s most well-known monarchs, and his precious son to Seymour, for whom he’d discarded two wives (and who’s name I always forget) died young, shortly after taking the throne.

    And in the case of Elizabeth, an iconic ruler with a magnetic effect on Brits even now (rivalled only by Victoria and as will probably turn out, though we won’t really know for a few generations more, Elizabeth II). Interesting that the three monarchs most iconic of England are all queens; the only king who is similarly so is a composite myth.

  7. Gategrrl says

    I thought Henry, husband to Elleanor of Acquitaine, father of Richard the Lionhearted – those two monarchs have made a splash in popular media. (okay, two movies that I know of) Along with Prince John. Both of Henry’s sons were absorbed into legend and popular culture through the Robin Hood stories. Just pointing ’em out. :-)

  8. scarlett says

    Nick, which king do you refer to? My knowledge of English history is somewhat sketchy outside of Tudor England.

    Having said that, if you asked me to name monarchs properly (inc numerals and rough dates of rule) I could only give you Mary, Elizabeth I, Victoria and Elizabeth II. I don’t know if that’s because they’re among the most iconic leaders or there’s only three names to remember, one of them being the current one :p

  9. SunlessNick says

    I was thinking of King Arthur.

    And I take your point, Gategrrl; Richard the Lionhearted does stand as a counterexample (though I’d dispute Henry reaching the point of icon).

  10. Gategrrl says

    Hee. Sorry: Henry is pretty iconic to *me* because of The Lion in Winter and Beckett (and Peter O’Toole’s portrayal).

    But you’re right. Richard and John are icons, mostly because they were included in popular culture in the Robin Hood legends.

  11. MaggieCat says

    While ‘iconic’ is definitely pushing it, a certain number of Americans might be able to come up with George III and a general time frame due to the drilling in history class that he managed to royally piss off a bunch of colonists round about 1775. I’m probably overestimating it but he does tend to show up in pop culture in some random places.

    (Don’t get me started on the fact that the US tends only to remember other countries’ history when it in some way relates to the US. Seriously, I thought my 12th grade history teacher was going to hug me when I remembered Cromwell on the first day of school- it’s pathetic.)

  12. says

    Don’t get me started on the fact that the US tends only to remember other countries’ history when it in some way relates to the US.

    I think countries and cultures go through growth stages somewhat like individuals do. In infancy, we all go through a period where we have no idea other people exist – except when they won’t do what we want, a situation we respond to with threats, whining and/or violence. 😉

  13. scarlett says

    In high school, year eleven and twelve history was broken up into four semesters, and each semester we learnt a different country’s history (it actually worked out that we learned all around the same period – between 1900 and 1950) – German, American, Chinese and Australian. I actually wish we studied more Australian history in school, although admittedly, it’s not the most interesting history :p So my personal experience was learning about the histories of several countries – at onepoint, I could actually name every US president from Hoover on when I couldn’t for Australian PMs. (Which I can now, except for the late 1960’s where we had three in a few years – the only one I can remember is someone called McMahon and he’s Julian’s dad :p)

  14. Rene says

    Hmm. Perhaps history and popular culture is shown differently in your part of the country. How many movies have portrayed Ann and her daughter Elizabeth in a positive light. How many have shown Henry VIII as a tyrant? It seems to me that everyone from Shakespeare on has characterized Ann in a very positive way. The likelihood that she really had an affair is generally minimized (largely to protect the legitimacy of Elizabeth). Ann is thus remembered of the mother of the greatest monarch in English history, the inspiration for much of the reformation, and a victim of Henry’s ever changing lusts. Henry VIII on the other hand seems to be remembered only for having six wives and chopping off heads. The fact that he was the first monarch to establish England as a naval power, and thus set up Elizabeth for that famous victory at sea, seem to have been almost completely forgotten.

  15. says

    I actually blogged about this just a few days ago, after I saw The Other Boleyn Girl, though it didn’t occur to me to frame it quite this way.

    When I watched the movie, knowing a decent amount about the history, I saw a story about a king who destroyed rather a lot of other people’s lives through his self-righteous, self-centered self-obsession; his need for absolute control and his belief in his own absolute infallibility. However, when I got to the end credits, it occurred to me that certain parts of it that were a bit confusing made total sense if, instead of being a story about Henry’s obsession, it was a story about Good, Sweet Mary and how everything is ruined by Anne, That Ambitious Bitch.

    This is kind of blatant blogwhoring, but I’d be really interested to know what other people thought of the film, especially people who know more about the history and/or have read the book. I wrote about it here:



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