The Vibe of Month series takes the mood inherent to each month of the year – derived from holidays, events, folklore, astrology, and pop culture sources – and connects it to my personal experience for that month via film, fashion, and art. It was started as a way to explore how each season affects our memories, lived experience, and the way we consume art and entertainment.
I’m obsessed with British history. I know, how basic of me, but it’s true. I used to wish for a time machine so that I could go back to London to see what it was really like in the 1500s. Only for a minute though, what with the plague and no dental care and all.
I’m mostly joking, but apprehensions towards basic hygiene aside, I didn’t really understand how truly horrific the world was for women until I took a class on 16th century female writers by an amazing instructor (I forget her name). She didn’t just cover the text – which honestly, was fairly dry – she also gave us basic history lessons to contextualize what society was like for women at the time.
Long story short, it wasn’t great. One of the reasons there’s so little work from women from this period mainly is that only rich women were taught to read and write. But it’s also because giving birth was basically a death sentence. Maternity care was non-existent and the doctors back then knew even less about women’s reproductive systems than the Republicans currently enacting abortion bans.
I won’t scar you with information on the disgusting “birthing tools” that were used at the time (you should def Google it though), but I will pass on this nugget of info I received in a lecture that I haven’t been able to burn from my brain: doctors at the time assumed that humans should be born feet first because our instincts, as babies, is to stand and walk. And they would sometimes force the baby out from that position even though head-first is natures way.
Things are better now – only relatively considering the number of modern maternity deaths– but after that class I couldn’t help but constantly compare how little difference there is between now and then. Sure, they may not have known better, but their negligence in care and respect of women stems from a deeper source that continues today: they literally thought women were less then men.
Less capable, less smart, more susceptible to corruption. Women were not considered good enough to rule. And this finally brings me to the point. I may be obsessed with British history, but there’s really only one figure from that time that I am the most gripped by: Anne Boleyn.
Queen Anne was infamously executed on May 19, 1536. That’s why she’s my Vibe of the Month for May.
Did you know that before Anne there had never been an English queen executed, and there had never before been a queen executed for adultery? Did you know that the case against her was mostly likely a conspiracy to bring her down because she had gained too much power? And did you also know that the people who wanted her dead were a bunch of old men who didn’t like that the King did whatever she said instead of what they wanted?
Politics, at that time, was a dangerous game and Anne made it very clear who she did and did not like. That meant that a lot of powerful lords were nervous about her influence over the king and were scared that she might use that power over them. Plus, she had a big mouth. So they slandered her and had her killed on trumped up charges that were meant to shame her in front of her husband, King Henry VIII.
Not only was her reputation destroyed, she was basically wiped from our records. She was born in 1507 (we think) and when she was about 10 or 13 (historians are still arguing about her age), she was sent to the court of King Francis I to be an attendant to Queen Claude.
We don’t know her birth day, but I think she was a Gemini. Queen Anne had a lot of traits associated with the sign. She was known to love reading. She was active and intelligent. She read a lot, even books that were banned in England. She liked to gamble and dance. She was tempestuous, had a fiery temper, and was known to speak without thinking. She was witty and flirtatious. And she successfully connived to trap the King.
This year, I finally read two books, one about King Henry VIII and one about the last days of Anne Boleyn but both by Alison Weir, that I’ve had on my shelf for ages. I had always wondered about the relationship between Anne and the King, and while we still don’t know exactly when or how their affair started we are sure that to become the King’s wife….Anne didn’t put out. For six years. Six years!
She didn’t want to be just his mistress. She wanted to be his wife. He was so notorious for fooling around on Queen Katherine, she didn’t want to give up the goods, so to speak, to a guy who would most likely lose interest in her and find someone new. So Anne played like a chaste maiden and didn’t let the King touch her for fear of ruining her virtue. She even told him that her virginity would be the best gift she could give him as his wife.
This lady was shrewd! Of course she wasn’t a virgin. Duh. Not only did she grow up in one of the, well, loosest courts in Europe (French royals were wild), she played him too well for a woman who claimed to not know anything about sexual politics. The King was a womanizer and Anne had bigger aspirations.
And this is why I really love her. I know that she was ruthless, offensive, ambitious, and treated the Princess Mary like garbage. I also think that she played her hand a little to quickly once she became queen. But that fact that she had any ambition in a time when women didn’t have many (if any) options is inspiring. She went for it, and she got it, but like everyone who craves power, she fell fast and hard.
While Anne was able to convince Henry that she was chaste until he tossed aside his old wife and put a ring on it, it was somehow revealed to him (or became clear later) that Anne had been “corrupted” in France. Despite the raging boner he harboured for Anne for years before they got married, by the time she was Queen he was bored with her.
This brings me to another reason why I love her: when Queen Anne found out what her husband was up to, she dressed him down for being unfaithful to her IN PUBLIC. Can you believe it? In a time when women were literally property, Anne Boleyn was screaming at Henry VIII and exposing him in front of all his buddies at court. I stan!
But that’s where Anne also started to get into trouble. Her behaviour at this time was very much not tolerated, not only because of stuffy court decorum, but especially because she was a woman. She also spoke to her uncle “no better than you would a dog”. I know I’m supposed to be a good person, but this is hilarious to me. We all know what men are like today – imagine how insufferable and man-splainy they were in the 1500s. And Anne Boleyn had the audacity to talk down to them? Legend.
But more than that, she actually did have some good intentions. Queen Anne was a reformist – she was very much a supporter of the Protestant faith and wanted to reform the church to use the money to invest in education and furthering the Reformist cause. She was a patron of education and often paid for tuition for poor students. She expected her ladies to spend time sewing clothes for the poor.
She was also a powerful presence at court. Even the King was afraid of her. She could make him change his mind and go back on decisions. Councillors who wanted his ear were annoyed that Anne could block them from it. But Henry and Anne also fought a lot. He was mostly mad that she wasn’t giving birth to boys. She miscarried a few times, which Henry saw as a sign that God condemned their union. She was also very openly flirtatious with other men, including those that were close to the King (ahead of her time, really).
I don’t need to tell you how this ends, but it didn’t go well for Anne. Eventually her legendary behaviour made it too easy for her enemies to use her reputation against her. It also eroded the support she had from other courtiers and the King got sick of her nagging him about his new girlfriend.
Those who hated her used the momentum and made up a ridiculous story that Anne was having sex with a bunch of men, one her own brother, in order to have her removed. Because having a true heir was essential to securing the throne, a queen having sex with anyone else threatened the validity of a royal lineage and was a big no-no (fine for him though because the world is sexist). It was considered treason.
Anne’s enemies threw in some claims that she was also trying to kill the King to marry his friend or whatever, but the main thrust of it was calling Anne a slut in public. Henry VIII, being the typical medieval male, believed it all even though they didn’t really have any evidence except one coerced confession. He even went around telling people that Anne “bewitched” him. It also helped that he had already decided he liked Jane Seymour better, a lady of Anne’s who used her trick of withholding to stimulate Henry’s interest.
In the end, Anne was convicted in a kangaroo court and had her head cut off. She wasn’t very popular at the time so there wasn’t much rumbling about it. Now, however, we can see what an injustice it was. Should Anne have forced her way to the crown? Probably not, but she wouldn’t have been as interesting if she didn’t.
I can’t help but feel sorry for her. When Henry was pursuing her, he couldn’t be away from her for a minute. He’s the guy who always hounds you, who tells you how much he loves you, makes all the grand gestures so you finally think hey – maybe this will work. Sure, there are a lot of red flags like his string of mistresses and mood swings – but he’s a king, right?!
He probably told her she was different, that he had never loved anyone as much as he loved her and that he would never love anyone else ever again for the rest of his life. And she fell for it and the crown he for sure dangled in front of her to impress her.
Did you know that he even scared off other suitors when he wanted her, so she couldn’t have other options? And then after all that, within months of their marriage, after he tells her that he would send his wife to a convent for her, that he would break away from the Catholic church for her, he finds himself a new girlfriend.
What a dick.
There are stories about Anne flying into rages and panics when she caught him with other women. She knew her time was limited. I can’t imagine living like that, knowing my husband hates me and there are at least five men in my near vicinity who would willingly have me killed.
Popular stories like The Other Boleyn Girl have perpetuated all the horrible rumours about her, like sleeping with her brother, and I don’t think that’s fair. There were people at court who regularly called her the “Great Whore” or “the Concubine” for how she got the King, as if they all forgot that Henry slept around.
It’s just not fair.
But it was Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, who ascended the throne. Elizabeth was the only heir of Henry VIII’s to leave a legacy. Her reign was so successful and popular that she’s one of the most famous monarchs in English history.
Henry VIII died a pathetic old man who wasted almost all of his money on castles and hunts and banquets that eventually made him so sick he could barely move. Thomas Cromwell, one of the lead orchestrators of Anne’s downfall, had his own head cut off four years later.
So if we’re going to take sides, which in a story this petty we definitely are, I think the Notorious Queen AB had the last laugh.
Source: Henry VIII: The King and His Court and The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, both by Alison Weir