We are all guilty of dehumanising historical figures. Even if we strive to place them in the context of their times, it is difficult to view them now without applying modern values to them. We perpetuate tired old stereotypes of “annual” bathing, we make light of the medieval approach to medicine and disease. In an age so far removed from the religious ideals of the Middle Ages we gently jeer at their superstitions, we devalue their fear of evil.
In today’s Western cultures, we often don’t understand the concept of an arranged marriage, thus we assume that all married couples merely tolerated each other. We make much of the fact daughters of noble families were ‘sold’ into advantageous alliances, therefore we decide their parents only valued them as commodities. We assume that rape and domestic violence were tolerated without taking into account either law, religion, community or the punishments actually meted out to sex offenders. We sometimes treat the deaths of historical figures as curiosities, we analyse the manner of their executions, we weigh up their perceived crimes and wonder if they deserved their fates.
Equally, when we seek to exonerate a historical figure we sometimes gloss over their flaws. We draw conclusions based on assumptions of their characters. We don’t like to think that our historical heroes and heroines had human traits, that they were capable of impulse, of bad decisions, of jealousy or greed. We forget that they were, essentially, just like us, and, like us, they were capable of error and of human frailty. If we fail to look at historical figures as human, whether we damn them or deify them we do them a disservice.
Queen Anne Boleyn is one of those polarising historical figures. It seems that Anne is always the saint or the sinner, and rarely anything in-between. Over the last decade, thanks to various fictional portrayals, there has been a renewed interest in her story. We still see traditional portrayals of Anne Boleyn as the manipulative shrew, two of which we will discuss at length. But we have also seen many sympathetic portrayals of Anne in fiction, and more balanced accounts by historians. An unwelcome result of this empathy towards Anne Boleyn is that some of it seems to be washing over the man who murdered her.
Am I not a man like other men?
Beneath many a bad man lies a sad man, one feels, and Henry was ‘sad’ in the broader meaning of the term, too – an individual who, in spite of his desperate need for adulation, never quite ‘had what it takes’, either as a warrior, a lover or, for that matter, a ruler – John Matusiak 1
The sheer volume of contemporary sources on Henry VIII should make the study of his reign straightforward. Henry was something of an open book, and one that we can analyse several centuries on with relatively little difficulty. Yet, the fact that the sources have been examined so many times leads to the desire to find something “new” to tell. The sanitisation of Henry VIII has been gaining alarming momentum over the last decade, despite the efforts of some of his best biographers. Henry emerges as misunderstood, as a bit of a patsy, his crimes attributed to various of his evil councillors, greedy, grasping nobles or sometimes even his wives.
According to Henry’s supporters he must not be called a psychopath, for that is a modern analysis, and this is correct. Yet, ideas of concussions, brain damage and various modern diseases that might explain his behaviour are entertained by those same supporters. It should be understood that his actions were all rooted in the awesome pressure to have a male heir.
Perhaps facts should be accepted. In David Starkey’s words, “people don’t understand Henry do they? The best and the most convincing liars believe their own lies. Henry had an amazing gift for persuading himself that whatever is convenient is true.” 2 John Matusiak calls Henry VIII’s alleged medical disorders “a convenient way of effectively whitewashing the starker facts.”3
This systematic whitewashing distorts the image of Henry VIII. He harried and slandered his first wife to an early grave, (judicially) murdered two of his other wives, humiliated his fourth wife with his public remarks about her body and her chastity to mask his own impotence, and kept his last wife on her toes with the threat of arrest and murder should she become too big for her boots. When he had no reason to threaten a wife he threatened his own daughter with death. He invented treason charges variably, depending on whose lands he coveted. He commanded the brutal torture of monks and women as well as his own courtiers and peers, destroyed monasteries and abbeys and plundered their monastic treasure to fill his coffers after squandering his father’s hard-won treasury on failed military campaigns within three years of taking the throne. He horrified his contemporaries with his actions. Henry VIII was not a ‘man of his times’: he was a tyrant, a murderer and a bad ruler.
Does this tirade dehumanise Henry VIII, with a handful of his crimes listed? Well, thecrimes belong to Henry. Many other monarchs in history were not blessed with any children, and they did not resort to murdering their wives in their desperate quest for a male heir. Why, then, are boyishly charming and romantic depictions of Henry VIII condoned?
“Philippa Gregory is not a Historian”
When Philippa Gregory posted the above statement on her Facebook page (later posted to her website) it caused outrage.
As yesterday marked the death in 1536 of Anne Boleyn, executed after being found guilty of treason and adultery, I have been thinking a lot about the events that led to her death.
The trial was, as everyone now accepts, a show trial designed to get rid of a woman who stood in the way of Henry’s wish for a break from the religious controversies and desire for a new wife.
I think her trial and death was part of the darkening atmosphere of the Tudor court as Henry slid towards tyranny and madness. Our cheerful picture of the jolly fat Tudor king must be revised to see him as a serial killer, a domestic abuser, and a political tyrant…I think of Anne’s death as that of a woman who had no escape from her husband’s narcissistic desire for revenge – Philippa Gregory 4
Gregory had, at the time of writing, just completed her final book in the Cousins War series, The King’s Curse. The subject of her book is Margaret Pole, who was judicially murdered by Henry VIII at the age of 67, her head struck from her frail and elderly body with an axe. It is hardly surprising Gregory was not feeling charitable towards Henry on the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s judicial murder.
So why the upset? Gregory’s boundless enthusiasm for magic, witchcraft and artfully re-arranging the facts, combined with the popularity of her novels, has made her a target of many serious history buffs. Therefore even when she is making a personal, yet perfectly fair statement it is reflexively ill-received. Even when she is critical of a man who murdered his wife. It is absurd that a writer who has spent over a decade of her life writing about the various women that Henry VIII murdered should take a sympathetic stance towards him. Gregory pulls no punches with Henry VIII. She has never presented a flattering portrait of his crimes, and indeed, there seems to be no reason that she should.
Gregory is a divisive sort of novelist, she has an incredibly large fan base, but also a reasonable amount of online detractors. Some readers make a meek public admission that they enjoy her books only to be shouted down about Gregory’s PhD – literature, not history! – and subjected to a lecture on why Gregory is arrogant, evil and responsible for spreading lies. Certainly Gregory’s publisher doesn’t clarify her PhD is in medieval literature often enough and Gregory calls herself a historian when she doesn’t have the academic qualifications; yet there are many cross-over skills between medieval literature and medieval history, such as the ability read early modern English, foreign languages, and the understanding of medieval culture.
However, Gregory’s credentials are largely irrelevant. There are many historians who write badly researched books. There are many historians who neatly rearrange facts to suit their theories. There are also many other writers who overstate their credentials. Whatever Gregory calls herself, in the end she is writing fiction, her books are marketed and sold as nothing other than fiction, even if her publisher tends to try and give her an air of historical authority. And perhaps her characters practising magic and casting spells should alert the reader to the fictional aspect of her books.
Then again there are few historical fiction authors who (at last count) give the reader a four page bibliography containing more than fifty non-fiction books to mull over after they are finished with the novel, so for that she must be given credit. Much of the hatred for Gregory’s books manifested itself after her portrayal of Anne Boleyn as a manipulative and scheming sorceress in the 2001 novel The Other Boleyn Girl. Yet, there has been another recent, and almost identical portrayal of Anne Boleyn that has earned the author not only international adulation, but several literary awards and a damehood.
A Study in Snobbery
“I wouldn’t dream of commenting on Hilary Mantel as a novelist, frankly I’d be grateful if she stayed off my patch as a historian,” said historian David Starkey. “She is intelligent, she is bright, she is an admirable writer. I happen to find her Tudor novels unreadable, but that’s because I am a Tudor historian.” Philippa Gregory fared no better under Starkey’s critical eye. He described her novels as “good Mills and Boon”.
Starkey contributed to the BBC documentary , The Last Days of Anne Boleyn, with historians Suzannah Lipscomb, Greg Walker, G.W. Bernard, and writer Alison Weir also weighing in. Strangely both Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory were also placed as experts. Perhaps Starkey was put out about appearing alongside novelists in a documentary about a subject he is a leading expert in.
“We really should stop taking historical novelists seriously as historians,” he said. “The idea that they have authority is ludicrous. They are very good at imagining character: that’s why the novels sell. They have no authority when it comes to the handling of historical sources. Full stop.”5
I would like to give Dr. Starkey my vote of confidence, but I doubt he has read either Hilary Mantel or Philippa Gregory’s novels. He imagines that Philippa Gregory writes pap because of her genre, and takes care to remain neutral about a prize-winning novelist. Yet he has not wholly given in to the mass-marketing machine at Mantel’s publisher that presents her as a historical research expert. It is interesting that despite Gregory’s publishers best efforts to present her as the same, Gregory is largely reviled.
While Mantel churns out articles for the Guardian and journalists worldwide gush about her professorial research and admire her index card catalogue, readers settle into her novels with the security that they are reading a fictional account which is extensively researched and historically accurate. “I’m reading Wolf Hall,” a reader told me some time back “I had no idea Anne Boleyn was such a shrew.” When I asked her why she thought Mantel’s novel is factual, she told me she would find it surprising if Mantel’s novels had historical inaccuracies because she was a “good writer.” A Man-Booker prize, or two in Mantel’s case, gives the author a certain air of authority.
Little Plastic People
The question is, why is Hilary Mantel’s shrewish interpretation of Anne Boleyn perfectly acceptable when Gregory’s is not?
Mantel’s books have captured people’s imaginations with her prose, so the core characterisations in her book are overlooked. Yet Mantel’s books are fundamentally no different to The Other Boleyn Girl. Both Mantel and Gregory’s novels subscribe to fairly traditional views of the various historical figures, they both make use of centuries-old gossip and scandal and they both present a scheming and manipulative Anne Boleyn. Both of the books also push a particular agenda. The very great disparity between the two books is that one of the books actually attempts to present complex characters, and the other presents one-dimensional puppets that float ghoulishly around their central character. One author respects her female characters, and one does not.
Last year Hilary Mantel sent many people into a rage with her “plastic princess” remarks about the popular Princess Katherine Middleton. Those who dared to voice complaint then had to endure patient and condescending explanations of why they were firstly stupid, for we did not understand Mantel’s “subtlety” and secondly, that they were being sexist because Hilary Mantel was being attacked only because she is a woman.
I will challenge any reader to find me an example of where a male author could get away with commenting on the Princess’s appearance, her (alleged lack of) personality, her weight and then crow about “royal vaginas”. No one would cry that he was being attacked because he was a man. They would immediately charge him with a sexist attack. Yet the latent sexism that pervades Mantel’s writing is protected, it is whitewashed and it is more often than not delegated to her starring man, Thomas Cromwell.
Mantel was attempting to make a point about how the royal family is treated by the media and the public. Whatever her intention was, she bungled it. Philippa Gregory was rather more diplomatic on the matter than I have been. She noted on her Facebook page:
Travelling today I read the newspaper first and was surprised that Mantel should say anything so personal and so critical of a young woman who cannot reply. Even in the context of a long essay I was sorry to see a woman with a strong voice speak critically of another. There are enough misogynists in the world without women joining in. Ironically, Mantel’s final point in her long essay in which she looks at the way that royals have been scrutinised from the wives of Henry VIII to the present family, is that as a society we pay too much attention to them, and that we swing from adulation to persecution. I really doubt that Mantel expected her thoughts to be stripped of context and headlined as an attack on the Duchess – but she has, probably by accident, demonstrated her point.
The Last Days of Anne Boleyn documentary was cleverly arranged so that Mantel, not Gregory, had a leading role, which allowed Mantel to discount Gregory’s theory, going on historian Retha Warnicke’s theory, that Anne Boleyn had miscarried a deformed foetus. While many gleefully rubbed their hands together that “Hilary told her” when Mantel correctly stated Nicholas Sander perpetuated this myth forty years after Anne’s death and Gregory was incorrect, there was surprisingly very little reaction to Mantel’s closing comment. In Gregory’s closing comments she stated that Anne was “the victim of a husband who decides to kill her”, adding that divorce was not enough for Henry, it had to be death. Gregory charged Henry with being “wicked”. Yet Mantel followed up by saying “I don’t think it does any favours to Anne to cast her as a victim. She was not a victim. She was a woman who chose to step into a tough political game. She made her calculations…she played a winning hand. Ultimately she lost.”
This comment represents how Mantel views Anne Boleyn, a manipulative schemer who lost at her own game. Alarmingly, Mantel refused to condone a man who murdered his wife and five other innocent men with her. Mantel says that Anne is a figure who “elicits a deep response, born out of ignorance often enough but also out of empathy.”6 Mantel condescends to acknowledge that people feel empathy for Anne Boleyn, yet charges those who do not take a traditional view of Anne as ignorant.
Pot, Kettle, Beyond Black
“Mantel’s historical inaccuracy stems more from what she leaves out of her books rather than from what she puts in,” Clare Cherry, co-author of George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat observes. “By disingenuously leaving out certain facts and situations she is able to manipulate her version of history in order to meet the requirements of her narrative. For example, leaving out the fact that Cromwell praised George Boleyn’s ‘sense, wit and courage’ enables Mantel to portray George as a coward at his trial. There are many other examples of this, including conveniently overlooking the real reason for Anne’s fall out with Cromwell. To have Anne argue that the money from the dissolution of the monasteries should be used for charitable purposes would fly in the face of Mantel’s characterisation of Anne”.
Mantel ends Bring up the Bodies by telling us that “I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer”, yet makes various claims in interviews on her dedication to historical accuracy. “Meticulous in her research” says the Telegraph– “I try to make up as little as possible,” she tells them. Even BBC History Extra calls her style “semi-fictional”, a genre that does not exist, yet has been created to protect Mantel from the grubby shelves of historical romance.
Mantel tells Forge Today that in the historical fiction genre “You get a lot of authors who simply use the past as a backdrop to fantasy…But I think that it’s up to you to organise your novel around the facts as we know them to be, rather than twist the facts to make a better drama.” She tells the Huffington Post that “Like a historian, I interpret, select, discard, shape, simplify. Unlike a historian, I make up people’s thoughts. But I try to make up on the basis of the best evidence I can get. To me, there is no point in wilfully distorting the record. The truth (if it can be got) is stranger and more interesting than anything you could make up.” In short Mantel presents herself as a serious author who thoroughly researches her books, and does not manipulate facts to suit her narrative. She implies that her work is more factual and responsible than the historical fiction genre at large.
While Mantel has spun an almost identical portrayal of Anne Boleyn to that of Gregory’s, and far worse, of almost everyone else in the Tudor court, it is Gregory who is vilified. Many people who loathe Philippa Gregory have not actually read The Other Boleyn Girl, others make assumptions based on the dreadful Hollywood adaptation of her book, or what the current climate on social media dictates. Gregory herself will tell you, loudly and constantly, that she thinks Anne ‘may’ have committed incest with her brother in her desperation to conceive. It is a completely deplorable theory. Yet, the difference between Gregory’s allegations of incest and Mantel’s allegations is that Gregory’s Anne Boleyn is motivated by something other than lust. Gregory’s Anne Boleyn is desperate to preserve her life.
The Other Boleyn Girl text remains slightly ambiguous, the incident is not played out. The idea is formed in the protagonist Mary Boleyn’s mind. The idea is also later dismissed, in the next book in the series, by Mary’s own daughter Catherine. There is no suggestion of Anne committing adultery with any other men. The blame for her death lies solely with Henry VIII. Hilary Mantel also alludes very strongly that Anne may have been guilty of adultery, only she does not present a woman who commits a terrible sin in her desperation to escape her husband’s wrath, she presents Anne as “a woman who took her maidenhead to market and sold it for the best price”.
Sometimes you need to look beyond the book.
“Anne’s supporters hate anyone who says so, but it is possible that she did have affairs,” writes Mantel. “The allegations seem wildly implausible to us, but clearly did not seem so at the time. It is said that the details of the indictments do not stand up to scrutiny, that Anne could not have been where she was alleged to be on this date or that. But this misses the point. If Anne was not where everybody thought she was, that did not count in her favour. If she had risen from childbed to meet a lover, that showed her a monster of lust. It is the incest allegation that seems lurid overkill.”7
Ironically Mantel echoes Gregory’s widely denounced theory that it was “not unusual” for brothers and sisters who had not grown up together to be attracted to each other when they first met.”The 16th century did not invest incest with especial loathing. It was one of a range of sinful sexual choices. In the days when brothers and sisters seldom grew up together, genetic attraction no doubt occurred more frequently than it does in the nuclear family,” writes Mantel.8
The charges did, in fact, seem implausible at the time. Even the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who had taken to calling Anne Boleyn ‘The Concubine’ by 1536 denounced the charges as false9. The idea that the people of the 16th century did not invest incest with especial loathing is ridiculously incorrect and warrants no further discussion.
The Serpent and the Goddess
The way in which both novelists depicted Melusine reveals a great deal about their take on sexuality. Melusine, or Melusina, is a legend of European folklore. Gregory employed the legend of Melusine with great gusto in The White Queen, and it was predictably met with much derision from her detractors. Mantel also referred to the legend in Wolf Hall. Gregory’s witchcraft themes are nonsensical in a historical context. But what is interesting about the two different uses of the legend is the imagery each author employs.
Melusine is a feminine spirit who dwells in springs and fresh waters, depicted as either having the tail of a fish or a serpent from the waist down. The story intrigued Gregory when she discovered that Melusine was the supposed ancestor of the House of Luxembourg. Gregory depicted her as a fish, as a water goddess, and as a symbol and source of power for her protagonist Elizabeth Woodville. “My re-telling of the story of Melusina throughout the novel developed as it went on and came to signify for me the difficulty that women have living in a man’s world” writes Gregory. “Almost as if women are beings of another element.” 10 Mantel, on the other hand, chose the serpent.
In Wolf Hall Cardinal Wolsey compares Henry VIII’s love of Anne Boleyn to that of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, a marriage that famously scandalised the nobility of England.
“And why did he fasten his affection, finally, on the widow of a Lancastrian knight? Was it because, as some people thought, her cold blonde beauty raised his pulse? It was not exactly that; it was that she claimed descent from the serpent woman, Melusine, whom you may see in old parchments, winding her coils about the Tree of Knowledge and presiding over the union of the moon and the sun. Melusine faked her life as an ordinary princess, a mortal, but one day her husband saw her naked and glimpsed her serpent’s tale. As she slid from his grip she predicted that her children would found a dynasty that would reign for ever: power with no limit, guaranteed by the devil. She slid away, says the cardinal, and no one ever saw her again.” 11
Wolsey’s discussion with Cromwell draws a parallel between Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth Wydeville, another slandered queen. It questions the political power and influence both women had with their husbands. It also alludes that they had a sexual stranglehold over them. Mantel’s references to the dynasty, the devil and the serpentine representation of Melusine with it’s heavy-handed sexual imagery sets the tone for her interpretation of Anne Boleyn.
Mantel references Anne’s alleged sexual depravity, a myth perpetuated by her own husband Henry VIII. Mantel surrounds Anne with a sexually charged environment. Mantel’s Lady Rochford tells Cromwell of how Anne “used to practise with Henry in the French fashion”, with Henry later alluding that Anne’s sexual knowledge disgusted him. Mantel depicts all of Anne’s ladies and courtiers as being extremely promiscuous. The image of Anne’s allegedly hedonistic household is repeatedly reinforced so by the time the reader takes the long journey from Wolf Hall to Bring up the Bodies the idea that Anne betrayed her husband Henry VIII with numerous lovers becomes less unbelievable. If Anne indeed lived in this seething pit of lascivious vipers, then why not entertain the idea that she may have been guilty after all?
The male figures of the Tudor court dominate Mantel’s books. As a result many argue that Mantel does not portray Tudor women in a sexist manner, rather, we see everything through Cromwell’s eyes. This argument however, falls flat when we read the dialogue of the book. The book is told in third person, present tense, told by a narrator. Mantel puts the words in her character’s mouths, we cannot pass the buck to Cromwell.
The idea of “the peculiar cruelty of women” may belong to Cromwell, but is is Lady Rochford who has sidled up to him to whisper a poisonous tale against her sister-in-law, yet again. In fact Mantel has many women of Anne’s household creep over to Cromwell, and she presents the women of Anne’s household as a faithless, grasping, manipulative nest of spiders. Bring up the Bodies delivers a supporting cast of paper dolls, fluttering insubstantially around Cromwell. It is often the women that Mantel transforms into props, especially in the case of Katherine of Aragon, Jane Seymour and the Boleyn women. Yet, to be fair, she treats almost all of the men with equal derision. Norfolk is a ridiculous caricature of a villain, Thomas More a masochist, Thomas Boleyn a man cheerfully willing to sacrifice his children for his own ambition, George Boleyn a blustering, foppish fool. The Duke of Suffolk a fat and greedy oaf. There is barely a character in the Tudor court that escapes ridicule, except perhaps Cardinal Wolsey, a hapless Henry VIII and of course, her leading man Cromwell.
Still Wolsey doesn’t escape a hint of scandal. Mantel alludes to his alleged suicide – a lie Edward Hall perpetuated in the 16th century that nobody has taken seriously since. “Natural causes or poison?” writes Mantel, tabloid-like. “If poison, self-administered?”.12
Mantel reserves an especial loathing for the Boleyn family. By diminishing their characters she reduces the Boleyn family to a single, detestable entity. The result? The reader has so much trouble distinguishing one deplorable Boleyn from the other that it is ultimately decided they all got what was coming to them.
The core themes in The Other Boleyn Girl are vastly disparate. The story centres entirely on Mary, Anne, George Boleyn and Henry VIII with only cursory acknowledgements to figures like Cromwell and Wolsey. Jane Seymour gets more of a look-in than Cromwell. It is an uncomplicated version of the Tudor court, and for the most part it focuses on the three siblings. Gregory’s Anne is certainly an unlikeable, scheming, manipulative witch, but she has deeper complexities. Anne is viewed her through her own sister’s eyes, and as Gregory prefers to treat her characters as human beings, there are often deeply sympathetic glimpses of Anne. They are only glimpses, but we see a woman who is thwarted in her desire to marry her first love, a woman who allows her temper to get the better of her, and often, a woman cracking under an enormous amount of pressure as she desperately strives to live up the image of the wife that Henry VIII demands. Yes, Gregory’s Anne is scheming, manipulative and nasty but she is certainly not one-dimensional.
Anne is not Gregory’s protagonist of course, Gregory tells Anne and George Boleyn’s story through the eyes of their eldest sister, Mary Boleyn. She creates a harsh picture of Anne’s parents and her uncle Norfolk, presenting them as social climbers who use the young women in their family to advance their own careers. But there is a theme that underlies Gregory’s treatment of Anne’s relatives, and while it is unfair, it serves a purpose. Central to the story are three young people who are unable to follow their hearts.
Mary goes her own way in the end. “There are other places to live than in palaces and castles. There are other tunes to dance to other than the court’s music. We don’t always have to wait on a king and queen. I have spent all my life at court, wasted my girlhood and womanhood here. I am sorry that I shall be poor but I am damned if I will miss the life here.”
Gregory’s controversial portrait of George Boleyn has caused much division, while she portrayed George as a homosexual based on Retha Warnicke’s insubstantial theory, she also created a character that many readers were drawn to, sympathetic to his plight. “I never follow my desire, I never consult it,” George said grimly. “I have put my family first and it costs me a heartbeat, every day of my life. I do nothing which might cause Anne embarrassment. Love does not come into it for us Howards. We are courtiers first and foremost. Our life is at court. And true love has no place at court.”
As to the charges that Gregory’s Anne never reflects her intelligence or her religious beliefs, Anne says “If I have to become Jane Seymour myself, I might as well be set aside. If everything that is me—my wit and my temper and my passion for the reform of the church—has to be denied, then I have set my own self aside. If what the king wants is a biddable wife then I should never have tried for the throne in the first place. If I cannot be me, I might as well not be here at all.”
Mantel’s asserts that everyone flocked to betray Anne because she inspired so much loathing. “Anne’s ladies, we can assume, rushed to denounce her in an effort to save themselves,” Mantel writes. “Anne was not liked.”13
Gregory, on the other hand, has Madge Shelton describing the terrifying rounds of questioning to Mary Boleyn “It’s like being torn apart in the bear pit. They questioned me all morning until I could not tell you what I had seen and heard. They twisted my words around and around and made it sound as if we were a bunch of whores in the whorehouse…you don’t know what it’s like when they turn you round and around and ask you everything, over and over again.”
Gregory employs her secondary characters in a far more satisfactory manner. She also takes the time to present a wholly sympathetic portrait of an ageing but still-beautiful, intelligent and graceful Katherine of Aragon, and a cleverly infuriating portrayal of Jane Seymour. Mantel’s other Queens are not so fortunate.
A Pre-Used Bride
“The teenage Henry had married a pre-used bride” writes Mantel in an extremely distasteful and callous reference to the widowed Katherine of Aragon “Seven years older than Henry, she was shapeless and showing her age by the time Anne glided on to the scene.” 14 Mantel makes various references to Katherine’s appearance in her novels, “as wide as she was high”, “that wreck of a body, held together by lacing and stays”. Mantel is overly-preoccupied with Katherine’s age and looks. It displays a deep misunderstanding of Henry’s motivations. In reality Henry VIII was only preoccupied with Katherine’s fertility. Henry had affairs very early on in the marriage when Katherine was still a great beauty. Had their fairytale of a marriage resulted in a brood of heirs for the realm then history would have been very different. Anne Boleyn still would have refused to become the King’s mistress, and Henry would merely have gone on to find someone to oblige him. Henry would have never have entertained leaving his wife had she given him those sons he craved. Katherine of Aragon’s age, looks and weight are entirely irrelevant.
What about Mantel’s Jane Seymour? “Anne has usually been characterised as clever and Jane as stupid, a compliant doll manipulated by her brothers and the papist faction at court,” writes Mantel. “There is another interpretation possible; that Jane had observed, assessed, and seized her chance, acting with calmness and skill.”15 Mantel mainly perpetuates the former in her novels, we have yet to see where she will take Jane in the last novel in her trilogy. But to date she has been insipid, awkward, perpetually uncomfortable.
It is popular with novelists nowadays to try and present Jane as a calculating woman who worked to bring down Anne Boleyn to try and counterbalance this traditional view of Jane. In reality there is no need to take a hard line with Jane, or try and jam her into a pigeon-hole. She needn’t fit one type or another. Jane Seymour was probably reacting to events as they went along.
Was Jane just a puppet for her family’s ambition? “Jane is as much use as a blancmange. Now let her earn her keep.” sneers Edward Seymour in Bring up the Bodies, while the menfolk sit around discussing how they will train Jane to capture the king.
“There’s no doubt that Jane’s brother, Edward, was very involved in her life,” Elizabeth Norton, historian and author of Jane Seymour and The Boleyn Women, says. “He acted as chaperone between her and Henry and is likely to have been one of the men coaching her on how to behave. However, it was Jane who actually had to play the role and she played it to perfection. After all, her ‘meekness’ and ‘modesty’ managed to win Henry’s affections from Anne Boleyn, a woman that he had overturned the church and risked war for – no mean feat. Jane portrayed herself in opposition to Anne, but there are always hints that she was acting the part. She ruled her household strictly, and was also able to improve matters for Princess Mary. I think, if she had lived to 1547, we might well have found that Jane as regent was not merely a pawn to do her brother’s bidding.”
Nor is there any evidence Jane Seymour was unintelligent. “He thinks she’s stupid. He finds it restful.” Cromwell says of Henry’s attraction to Jane. In a strange pantomime Jane’s family forcibly truss her into a gabled hood, in an uncomfortable interview with Cromwell Jane seeks his advice on how to talk to Henry. As if a mature woman from a noble family of courtiers would be so backwards as to not know how to conduct a conversation.
“My view of Jane is that she died too soon for us to see the best of her” Elizabeth Norton adds. “There are hints in the sources that she was rather more than the meek and submissive wife, or passive pawn, that she is often portrayed as. She involved herself in the dissolution of the monasteries, attempting to save at least one nunnery, which shows that she had political interests. More tellingly, her attempt to intercede for the rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace, with whom it is clear she sympathised, again suggests that she was interested in politics and that she could have taken on a more political role once she was in a more secure position.”
If there is one thing Jane Seymour left behind it is the now-infamous incident where we see her play her role to absolute perfection. Henry VIII had sent Jane a purse full of sovereigns and a letter. Chapuys reported that:
“the young lady, after kissing the letter, returned it unopened to the messenger, and throwing herself on her knees before him, begged the said messenger that he would pray the King on her part to consider that she was a gentlewoman of good and honourable parents, without reproach, and that she had no greater riches in the world than her honour, which she would not injure for a thousand deaths, and that if he wished to make her some present in money she begged it might be when God enabled her to make some honorable match.”16
Jane in fact seemed to enjoy a dramatic approach to things. This doesn’t reflect Mantel’s colourless interpretation of Jane at all. Why diminish Jane Seymour when it is clear she was an intelligent and capable woman who may have made a formidable consort?
How to Murder the (Other) Boleyns
Thomas Boleyn’s alleged exploitation of his daughters has been gaining a great deal of momentum over the last decade. In recent fiction the grasping and ambitious Thomas Boleyn was sparked by Gregory’s vicious portrayal in The Other Boleyn Girl. Michael Hirst’s The Tudors picked up most of Gregory’s themes and ran with them, somewhat amusing when you take into account that Hirst complains about Gregory having “no historical sensibility at all” 17.
Women and men around the world sighed at Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ performance of King Henry VIII as he pouted and flounced his way through the life of England’s most notorious monarch. Certainly Rhys Meyers gave an excellent performance and I would have applauded were he playing any other monarch. Unfortunately Rhys Meyers’ tearful goodbyes to the ghosts of his wives and Hirst’s wishful thinking that Henry second-guessed murdering Anne Boleyn saw an alarming outpouring of sympathy. What is worse is that Hirst chose a picture-perfect man to play the role, and decided to abandon the fact that Henry VIII had grown obese in the last years of his life. Hirst grudgingly admitted to author Susan Bordo that “we simply couldn’t have gotten Jonny to do it. He would not have been able to tolerate looking grotesque.” Bordo also notes Rhys Meyers’ comments on his mysteriously trim figure: “You’re trying to sell a historical period drama to a country like America—you do not want a big, fat, 250-pound, red-haired guy with a beard. It doesn’t let people embrace the fantastic monarch he was, because they’re not attracted to the package. Heroes do not look like Henry VIII. That is just the world we live in.” 18
Hirst and Rhys Meyers wanted us to embrace the ‘hero’ Henry VIII. If only such a thing existed. Mantel, on the other hand, has presented Henry as a bit of a sap so far. She hasn’t quite absolved Henry of his crimes but then he appears to be a bystander for the most part. Of the three only Gregory has taken Henry to task. Gregory’s Mary Boleyn says “the man I had loved as the most golden prince in Christendom had turned into a monster…he had taken George, my beloved George, from me. And he had taken my other self: Anne.”
There an odd sort of connection between Gregory, Hirst and Mantel, an evolution of sorts. Gregory wrote her book 13 years ago. Perhaps Gregory has been more influential than imagined, because both Hirst and Mantel have taken Gregory’s portrayals of the Boleyn family, and with the exception of Hirst not alluding that Anne Boleyn committed adultery, they have expanded on them and made them altogether more abhorrent.
There was some rather strange complaints, from some, that Gregory’s Mary Boleyn was too saintly, too angelic. She was a virgin on her wedding night according to Gregory. Mary has also suffered from a few centuries of slander, mainly attributed to a single sentence written by Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza in 1536. Pio wrote that “the French king knew her here in France ‘per una grandissima ribalda et infame sopre tutte’ ” (“for a very great whore, and infamous above all”)19. There is absolutely no historical evidence that Mary Boleyn acquired an infamous reputation as a royal mistress or that she worked her way through the French court. Pio was biased against the Boleyns. He wrote the letter after Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage, and in the same letter he was speculating that Anne had never been pregnant at all. Pio writes that “that woman pretended to have miscarried of a son, not being really with child, and, to keep up the deceit, would allow no one to attend on her but her sister”,20 and then goes on to call Mary a whore. He is an extremely unreliable source and clearly an enthusiastic conspiracy theorist. Pio should be dismissed entirely. We are not even certain Mary was at court at this point. Thus Mary’s alleged infamy is attributed to this single sentence and her affair with King Henry VIII.
In fact, perhaps Hirst and Mantel have regressed with Mary Boleyn. While Gregory attempted to bring Mary out of the shadows and cast off the stigma of promiscuity that now dogs her memory, Hirst and Mantel were happy to stick with the centuries-old stereotype. “A jade like Mary, through so many hands you can’t find a stable lad who hasn’t had her” sneers Jane Boleyn in Bring up the Bodies. Hirst’s Mary Boleyn spends most of her brief screen time in one sexual position or another. Mary has sadly been reduced to a trope, the slutty loser of the family and the black sheep. Most historians dismiss her as a pleasant airhead. It was Gregory’s portrayal of Mary Boleyn that renewed interest in her, and if not for The Other Boleyn Girl she would have faded into obscurity altogether.
Gregory’s depiction of George Boleyn, as noted previously, was based on a theory by historian Retha M. Warnicke. Warnicke’s theory that George Boleyn was a homosexual, based on his execution speech and his lending court musician Mark Smeaton a satire on marriage, was almost universally dismissed. Anne Boleyn’s biographer Eric Ives called it a “fiction for which there is not a scintilla of evidence.”21 Obviously it’s fictional appeal was enough for Gregory. Gregory’s George Boleyn is a homosexual and a neglectful and unfaithful husband, but is also a thoughtful and devoted brother, intelligent and charismatic. She also only had George having one male lover, a man he was desperately in love with. He wasn’t running about seducing the stable boys. Why Hirst then decided to present George Boleyn as a wife beater and a rapist is a mystery. There is not only no historical evidence, there is no contemporary gossip about the marriage. Mantel then expanded on Hirst’s George Boleyn, creating this foul representation of George.
“No man as godly as George, the only fault he finds with God is that he made folk with too few orifices,” spits Jane Boleyn in Bring up the Bodies. “If George could meet a woman with a quinny under her armpit, he would call out “Glory be” and set her up in a house and visit her every day, until the novelty wore off. Nothing is forbidden to George, you see. He’d go to it with a terrier bitch if she wagged her tail at him and said bow-wow.”
How have we gone from Gregory’s depiction of a slightly uneasy marriage and suppressed sexuality to domestic violence, marriage rape and sexual depravity?
Historian Julia Fox, author of Jane Boleyn, The Infamous Lady Rochford discussed Jane and George’s marriage with us. “It was probably much the same as many other Tudor marriages, few of which were love matches and most done for practical reasons. And she would not have held such a prominent place within Anne’s circle if George had loathed her. To suggest she’s an abused wife is fanciful, and unsupported by any evidence. I spent 3 years researching Jane and found nothing to even hint at anything of the kind. It was certainly never mooted when she was alive, nor after. Nor is there any direct evidence that George was homosexual – it was not remarked on at the time, and his execution speech confessing his heinous sins followed the usual, expected, indeed required, template for scaffold speeches. Both angles simply add extra spice to the legends. And once a legend starts it gathers more and more pace!”
Where does Mantel get the idea that George was a fop, an abusive husband and a coward? This is a bigoted depiction based on unsubstantiated opinion. Hirst’s George Boleyn loathes his wife from the outset and beats her and rapes her on their wedding night. Mantel’s George smirks on almost every page he is mentioned, when he is not blustering and prancing. “He is always a sight to see: George likes his clothes braided and tasselled, stippled and striped and slashed”.
Even at his trial Mantel can not resist making a mockery of him. Mantel jeers that George “entertained the court by telling them that Henry was no good in bed”,22 in Bring up the Bodies she writes “George smiles in disdain. Relishing the moment, he smirks: he takes a breath; he reads the words aloud.” At the end of his trial he collapses and weeps, which would be perfectly understandable in his situation, yet in reality that is not what happened. Chapuys observed that:
“He answered so well that many who were present at the trial, and heard what he said, had no difficulty in waging two to one that he would be acquitted, the more so that no witnesses were called to give evidence against him or against her, as is customary in such cases, when the accused denies the charge brought against him.” 23
It could be surmised that Hirst decided Jane Boleyn testified against her husband to escape a desperately unhappy marriage, therefore he was compelled to present him as an abusive husband. Of course that is completely false. Both Hirst and Gregory’s depictions of Jane Boleyn followed the traditional view. Gregory decided not to go the vengeful woman route but to make her completely mad, decorating her tower cell with the contents of her chamber pot. But we have to give both Gregory and Hirst a pass here. Their research was done before 2006. The fact is that for several centuries no one bothered to question the myth that Jane Boleyn had testified against her husband out of spite. Retha Warnicke made a passing mention of there being no evidence that Jane had given any statements in her 1989 The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, but did not go into detail. It was not until Julia Fox released her book in 2006 that anyone really bothered to question Jane’s involvement in detail.
Mantel, writing later than both Gregory and Hirst, had the benefit of brand new research. Mantel reviewed Julia’s book, and even mentions it in her author notes, yet tells us that “to limit the multiplication of characters [her book] omits mention of a deceased lady called Bridget Wingfield” and admits that this “throws more blame on Jane, Lady Rochford, than perhaps she deserves.” Where this argument falls flat is the fact that the deceased Lady Wingfield allegedly made a deathbed confession and that she needs no lengthy introduction. When there are pages and pages dedicated to Mantel’s venomous Lady Rochford, including a bizarre incident in Wolf Hall where Jane menaces and humiliates young Henry Fitzroy, it is hard to believe that Mantel loaded all the blame onto Jane Boleyn because she didn’t have the space to mention the Wingfield rumour. Mantel, like many others, does not want to let go of that convenient villain, a woman scorned.
Julia Fox’s book is not only a ‘positive reading’ as Mantel calls it, it is a factual and thoroughly academic account of the life of one of the most obscure and maligned members of the Boleyn family. It also is has a rather devastating side to it, it points out that for five centuries we have been perpetuating a complete fabrication because we overlooked a simple fact.
“Every story needs a ‘baddie’,” Julia told us. “Jane has been slotted into that role because her involvement in Catherine Howard’s execution made her a perfect scapegoat for those seeking to clear Henry VIII from deliberately ordering Anne Boleyn’s death when she was innocent of the charges made against her. No one, in Jane’s lifetime, accused her of speaking out against either Anne or George. That first accusation came in a marginal addition in a later edition of John Foxe – and he was writing when Elizabeth, Anne and Henry’s daughter, was queen and, naturally, Elizabeth did not want either of her parents maligned. Once mooted, the libel stuck and was repeated an embellished in later centuries.”
“In fact, there is no contemporary evidence at all that she gave evidence at Anne or George’s trial; indeed Chapuys (no friend of either) remarked on the total lack of witnesses. One of the judges even said that another woman, Lady Wingfield, provided information – and he was there! Some have quoted George Wyatt who wrote that she helped bring them down through vindictiveness, but he wasn’t alive at the time and the idea that he obtained evidence from (conveniently) lost family hearsay or records is unacceptable as evidence, as is the idea that he got his ‘facts’ from one of Anne’s ladies, Anne Gainsford who was dead before he was born! Nor did Jane confess any treachery towards Anne or George at her own execution. (The various versions of alleged confessions that she is supposed to have made are eighteenth century forgeries, by which time she had been so vilified that anything could be believed of her). The only contemporary account of her final words says nothing about this, and it would surely have been sensational enough to record had anything of that nature been said.”
Mantel, armed with this knowledge, has very clearly and deliberately distorted the facts, damning both Jane and George Boleyn in the process. It is almost a given that we will see Cromwell reward Jane Boleyn for her alleged services in the next novel, albeit with an air of distaste for a woman he considers as using “the poor weapons God has bestowed – spite, guile, skill in deceit.”
“Contrary to popular belief, Jane was not rewarded,” Julia observes. “She lost everything when George fell as all property of a convicted traitor was confiscated by the crown. She did ask for her jointure rights and eventually got those, and she did claw her way back into royal service. She was not alone in that. It was usual for widows in her position to petition Henry or Cromwell for aid and, on the whole, Henry was not always ungenerous.”
Finally it is time to reassess “He, Cromwell”. Just who is Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell? Merely the usual sinister, sordid and over-mighty Cromwell who has been casually dismissed as deserving his fate for centuries. His various sleazy observations of women at court don’t reflect the real Cromwell, who went out of his way to form a good working relationship with Anne Boleyn, stuck his neck out for the Princess Mary, helped both Jane Boleyn and Mary Boleyn after they were widowed – and not in “exchange for services”. He was an intelligent and dedicated servant of the King. In the end he had to plead for his own life. It fell on deaf ears.
When Mantel asserts that Thomas Cromwell “is still in need of attention from biographers” in her author note in Bring up the Bodies, she conveniently omits John Scofield’s outstanding biography of Cromwell published in 2008, about 14 months before the publication of Wolf Hall. Perhaps Mantel didn’t have time to read it before she wrote Wolf Hall, but then Mantel is not interested in attempting to rehabilitate Thomas Cromwell. “I do not run a Priory clinic for the dead.” 24 she says, further compounding her casual disregard for her subjects.
We have arrived at the core of Mantel’s book, her leading man Cromwell, and we can see that she is not in thrall with her subject. The Thomas Cromwell of Bring up the Bodies is out to wreak revenge on the Boleyns for their part in the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey.
Yet as John Scofield asserts “not a trace can be found of a Cromwellian conspiracy against Anne.” Historians will always be divided as to the role Cromwell played in her downfall, was it really a coup? Was he simply following his King’s orders? Even Mantel agrees that it was not up to Cromwell to murder Anne, and that ultimately the responsibility is Henry’s. But the idea of a petty and vengeful Cromwell who relished his role in the downfall of the Boleyns is an absurdity.
“Astute, adult men of state are not like petulant six year-olds,” thunders Scofield “who must get their own back whenever someone calls them names. Nor do they waste valuable time on petty, personal vendettas, especially when there is nothing worth getting worked up about. And should the time ever come for a sharp, surgical strike against an opponent, they make sure that someone else’s fingerprints are on the knife.”25
“Cromwell’s alleged perfidy against Anne Boleyn…comprises fly-by-night stories from Alesius and the Spanish Chronicle, words of Chapuys taken out of context and an untrustworthy translation in the Calendar of State Papers. As a result, a wholly imaginary power struggle between Anne and Cromwell, unnoticed by Chapuys and all other contemporary witnesses, now dominates many modern accounts of Anne’s last weeks. This, unfortunately, is the chief problem with faction theories and conspiracy theories – they succeed only in diverting attention away from the central point. The threat to Anne in spring 1536 came not from Cromwell but from her intimidating husband, now in love with another woman, and from the Seymour party, eager to exploit the king’s affections and hasten Jane to the throne…Cromwell became involved in the royal marital drama only when Henry ordered him onto the case.”26
“All the players gone,’ Wriothesley says. ‘All four who carried the cardinal to Hell; and also the poor fool Mark who made a ballad of their exploits.”
Mantel’s drive for Cromwell bringing down the Boleyns is attributed to their part in the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey. Then he must find the victims. The ‘players’ in question are George Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston and William Brereton. Mantel alleges the four men took part in a masque depicting the Cardinal being dragged to hell. In reality three of the men were not even present at the private dinner the masque was staged at, and George Boleyn would hardly be likely to leave his seat to perform in a masque. Nor would his father, who commissioned the play, approve of such a folly. Chapuys describes the masque:
“Some time ago the earl of Vulchier (Wiltshire) invited to supper Monsieur de la Guiche, for whose amusement he caused a farce to be acted of the Cardinal (Wolsey) going down to Hell; for which La Guiche much blamed the Earl, and still more the Duke for his ordering the said farce to be printed.”27
Certainly the ever-reliable Chapuys would have noted if George Boleyn performed in the play. Thus Cromwell’s motivations for revenge against both the Boleyns and Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton are a farce. That the men performed in the play is a bald-faced fabrication. That Cromwell relished destroying Anne Boleyn is false.
Constancy, Kindness and Perseverance
The media is desperate to separate Mantel from the historical fiction genre. Literary fiction is a highly-respected genre. So Mantel’s hem is never allowed to drag in the mud of the alleged ‘romantic’ historical fiction genre. Many insist Mantel has ‘changed the face of historical fiction’. She has done nothing of the sort. You think Gregory makes a meal of witchcraft? Mantel was planning a tour where she would discuss “contemporary rumours” that Anne Boleyn had sold her soul to the devil.
The media gloss over the repulsively sexist stereotypes of Mantel’s women and the hollow and flimsy interpretations of the men. The tawdry scandal that Mantel says is so ‘attractive to novelists’28 is the fundamental basis of her books. It is a very dangerous thing to call Mantel’s work ‘semi-fictional’, we begin to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.
Perhaps you are assuming this will conclude with a lecture on the evils of historical fiction as a whole. That should not be the case. Historical fiction can serve another purpose besides entertainment, sometimes it can lead to a life-long love affair with history itself.
There is a truth to all of this we should not overlook. In the end historical fiction authors have absolutely no obligation to teach you history. Authors have a responsibility only to themselves and to their narrative. When it comes down to it, readers need to share some of the responsibility. Placing Mantel on a pedestal above other authors when she perpetuates the same tired myths and sexist stereotypes must cease.
A reader needn’t launch into a full-scale academic study to seek the facts behind the fiction. A quick online search will dispel most myths in a few minutes. But perhaps we don’t like the facts. Perhaps we prefer the gossip and the scandal. And perhaps when it comes to our historical heroes and heroines we prefer to create our own fiction.
These historical figures were not characters in a book, they were not dramatis personae. They were human beings. I charge the reader then, to take a walk in someone else’s shoes. Consider how it would feel to stand by and watch helplessly as your monarch murdered your two youngest children, and then have to claw your way back into court to protect the remaining members of your family. To watch your husband murdered and slandered, and have to attend on the Queen who replaced your own sister-in-law because you knew no other vocation. Imagine standing in a courtroom full of people smirking and gawking while you stand accused of having sex with your own sibling. And I charge you to stand on a scaffold with the axe waiting to strike your head from your body and pray that the family you left behind will be safe from the man that put you there.
And when you have thought about that, I want you to consider why we should adopt a cavalier attitude to these people’s lives, even several centuries on. For every time we make light of them, they die another death.