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Why Are We Obsessed With the Legacy of Anne Boleyn?


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Channel 5 has released a new teaser trailer for Anne Boleyn, a three-part psychological thriller starring actress Jodie Turner-Smith as the infamous Tudor Queen—a casting choice that will probably be the most interesting thing about this series. The three-parter will detail the final months of Boleyn’s life from her perspective, according to Variety, “as she struggles to secure a future for her daughter and challenge the powerful patriarchy closing in around her.” Not a story we haven’t seen told before, but it raises the question: Why are we culturally so obsessed with Anne Boleyn?

While all the wives of Henry VIII have a collective fandom around them, without a doubt the two most popular and impactful to the discourse are Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, the later especially for both her execution and being the mother of Elizabeth I, one of England’s most popular and influential monarchs.

But British history is filled with compelling female players and warrior queens. Why has Anne Boleyn risen so high on the list?

Boleyn’s popularity, in my opinion, really has to do with how compelling she is as a woman—that she cannot simply be put into the box of victim or seductress, that, even if you dislike her rise to power, there is no denying that her execution was unlawful and horrific.

Let’s back up a bit.

Anne Boleyn was the younger daughter of Thomas Boleyn, later Earl of Wiltshire and Earl of Ormond, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard. Due to the fact that she was a woman and not a very high ranking royal, her exact date of birth is unknown, so it is unclear if her brother, George Boleyn, was her older or younger brother.

Both Boleyn sisters were sent to the French court, where Mary especially gained a reputation for being the mistress to the French King. When they eventually returned to England, it was Mary who first became mistress to King Henry VIII. It has been debated if Mary and Henry had children together, because he didn’t acknowledge them the way he acknowledged Henry FitzRoy, his son by another mistress, Elizabeth Blount. I personally think that he was the father of at least Mary’s daughter, because her granddaughter, Lettice Knollys, looks exactly like Elizabeth I. But that’s just a theory.

Henry VIII was feeling frustrated because he and his wife of nearly twenty years, Katherine of Aragon, were unable to have a living male heir. Katherine had, as far as we know, six pregnancies, which led to four stillborns, one son who died in infancy, and Mary I. Henry was able to have a son with his Mistress and slowly, obsessed with securing the Tudor Legacy, the idea of getting rid of Katherine through an annulment was already something in the back of his mind. It was simply dangerous because Katherine was a Princess of Spain, and Spain was the richest and most powerful European nation at the time (#colonizationcoin).

Enter Anne Boleyn, who was either 10 or 17 years younger than Henry VIII. She was beautiful, smart, kept her virtue close to her chest, and while she had many simps, the most serious one was Henry Percy. It was ended because Percy’s father was like “Her?” Thomas Wyatt also had Anne fever, but all that ended with Henry VIII.

In modern day discussions of Anne and Henry’s courtship, there is a lot of push and pull about how much “control” Anne had in the situation. It is fair to say that just from power dynamics alone, it would be impossible to say no to the King of England fully. By telling Henry that she would not sleep with him until they were married, it was a way of protecting her reputation. Henry had already slept with her own sister, and while, yes, mistresses could marry and often could make advantageous marriages, it didn’t mean their reputations came out unscathed.

Anne was being smart in a really shitty situation that made her the de facto antagonist to Katherine of Aragon and Aragon Stans for all time. This is a super binary way of thinking, but that’s stan culture.

Fast forward to June 1st 1533, where Anne was officially crowned as Queen consort of England after a seven-year courtship that remained unconsummated until the literal tail end.

It cannot be overstated that Anne was very intelligent, and politically involved. It was not all playing cat and mouse with the King. That is part of what made Anne’s downfall so tragic. The very things that made her appealing and sexy were no longer as charming when Henry and Anne were married, and … she couldn’t deliver a son.

Henry had divorced his wife, made his daughter a bastard, risked war with Spain, started the beginning of generations of religious conflict, created his own church, and gotten himself excommunicated all to have a son with Anne Boleyn.

So when he didn’t get one, with all the power he had accumulated to get to this point, it was easy to throw Anne away for wife number three in progress.

But execution? Why did it have to go there? Anne wasn’t like Katherine, who refused to give her up titles. I feel like Anne would have 1000% gone to a nunnery, quietly divorced Henry, and enjoyed raising her daughter.

Anne became a scapegoat for the fighting in the court and the executions of Thomas More and John Fisher. Plus, all the power the king now had, which came from him stripping the church. Therefore, people didn’t want her to just go off into the sunset. They wanted her to be a monster.

Rumors of incest with her brother and committing adultery with other men, and therefore treason, were crafted through torture that turned into testimony against the queen.

All things she was absolutely innocent of. Not only was Anne Boleyn killed, but she had to see her brother die as a result of the plots against her, in addition to two more innocent men.

In another painful bit of irony, Anne’s one-time love Henry Percy sat on the jury that unanimously found Anne guilty. When the verdict was announced, he collapsed and had to be carried from the courtroom. He died only eight months later.

May 19th, which is in just a few days, Anne Boleyn was executed.

Even if you think Anne was cruel in her language and “blame her” for the cruelty that Henry participated in to wed her, keep in mind that she wasn’t killed for political reasons. She was killed for not producing an heir quickly enough. She was killed because of Henry’s hubris and ego. She was killed because, for Henry, this was never about love. It was about sex and security.

That is the tragedy of Anne Boleyn that keeps bringing people back, that makes it such a good role for actresses. She was brilliant, beautiful, and capable of compassion and cruelty. She managed to nourish a love affair for seven years that fundamentally changed the future of England, but only got to enjoy being queen for three years before losing her life to another woman.

(via Variety, image: Canva Edited by Princess Weekes, Showtime, Channel 5, Universal Pictures)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.