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”¦