I've been thinking a lot lately about Anne Boleyn.
It started simply enough: Husband was so excited at having Amazon Prime videos piped into the house that he wanted to start watching a new TV series together. A very great problem, however, is that I highly prefer subtitles for anything we watch and Amazon Prime is not (yet) streaming subtitles with the videos. We already knew from a previous aborted attempt to watch "The Tudors" that the DVDs of the series had surprisingly not been bundled with subtitles, so when we noticed that they were available to watch on Amazon Prime, they seemed like a reasonable choice since we couldn't get a better quality experience elsewhere.
I've always enjoyed Tudor history, and I knew that "The Tudors" was pretty boldly inaccurate on more things than not, so I started reading Alison Weir's excellent non-fiction books on the family in order to brush up on what was true and what was not. First I read "Mary Boleyn" which I'd already had at hand, then I moved on to "Lady in the Tower" which tells in great detail the final days of Anne Boleyn in the political coup and very probably frame-up job that ended up costing her life.
What's been really interesting about the whole story is how much Anne was condemned in terms of her sexuality. If Weir is to be believed -- and I do believe her, just to be clear -- the allegations against Anne were concocted by Cromwell because the two were so at odds over the course of religious reformation (she wanted the monasteries of England re-purposed for charitable purposes and he wanted them sold off to bring fortune to the crown) that one of them was going to die by pleasure of the king at the instigation of the other. It was really just a matter of who struck first. Anne had made the opening threats, saying that she could have Cromwell's head taken off his shoulders, and Cromwell had acted swiftly and desperately to discredit and destroy the queen and her closest supporters.
The charges that he concocted were charges of the two kinds of betrayal that a husband like Henry VIII would most fear: adultery and murder. For a jealous lover and a paranoid king, these two things were beyond forgiveness in a way that, say, heresy or fiscal policy might not be. And yet what is fascinating is how Cromwell's case -- which seems hastily cobbled together and riddled with errors, considering that in a majority of the indictments, Anne or her supposed lovers were provably not even in the same physical location -- a good many people were nonetheless willing to believe all allegations against her, no matter how outrageous or spurious.
Tellingly, the word repeatedly brought against Anne in the source documents that Weir sites in her analysis is "whore", usually coupled with the term "great". That's "great whore" as in "so very much of a whore you wouldn't even believe" and not as in "so very great that I highly recommend her". The superlative here is meant to be an indictment, not a compliment.
And I find this interesting, because if there is one thing that Anne very probably was not, it was a whore. We can argue, centuries later, about her religious beliefs and her attitudes and her words and her deeds and about her personality that seemingly caused so many of her once-allies to turn on her, but her sexual history -- based on Weir's analysis -- would seem to be pretty tame. What sexual experience she had prior to her marriage was probably brief and may not have even extended to PIV penetration; after her marriage, it seems very likely that she was wholly true to the king. After all, she was constantly being watched and had more enemies at court than friends, and those men convicted of adultery with her were supposedly seduced by her on dates when she was already pregnant. She would have been risking everything -- her marriage, her position, her life -- for nothing, not even a desperate attempt to bear a child to pass off as the king's, as she was already pregnant when these seductions supposedly took place.
Yet, the masses both within England and without frequently called Anne the "great whore". She was viewed as having lured the king into an inappropriate marriage, was blamed for the setting aside of Queen Katherine and her daughter Princess Mary, and was reviled as a reformationist responsible for the break between England and the Catholic church. And she had, so the narrative went, done all this not with convincing arguments or clever political maneuvering, but rather through sex.
This narrative of Anne the Temptress may not be wholly incorrect, and yet I can't help noticing how well it fits within existing Patriarchal narratives of women. Anne seemingly did hold off King Henry's sexual advances for six years, believing that if she gave into his desires she would be used and cast aside like some of his previous mistresses. Forced to choose between life as a disgraced mistress and life as a notorious queen, Anne apparently decided to gamble big and risk all. And yet, in order to plausibly deny the king his desires, Anne felt she had to play up her virtue. She was, she apparently insisted, a virgin and would not give herself to any man not her husband.
Henry seems to have become swiftly disillusioned with his wife not longer after their much hoped for wedding. He confided to another that he believed his wife had been previously "corrupted", and that she was not the sexual innocent he had claimed to be. Weir believes that Anne may have had non-penetrative sex prior to marriage and that Henry was not in a mood for technicalities, but what is more interesting to me is how Anne was forced to walk the fine line of technicalities.
In order to appeal to the king, Anne had to understand sex. She had to be witty and sensual and skilled in the power of suggestion. And yet, in order to keep the king at bay, she had to play up her virgin status. She was forced to constantly dance between the Virgin / Whore archetypes, and the fact that this burden has and continues to be contradictory and nonsensical has not helped it to crawl off and die. It is still with us. Nor was Anne the only one laboring under this impossible double-standard: when Henry began to express interest in the seemingly-saintly Jane Seymour, one ambassador noted wryly that the king "may marry her on condition she is a maid, and when he wants a divorce, there will be plenty of witnesses ready to testify that she was not." Why wouldn't there be? In a world where courtly dancing was presented as iron-clad proof of Anne's adultery and promiscuity, there would certainly be witnesses waiting in the wings to testify against the next queen.
The charges laid before Anne at her trial were unthinkably shocking, but they were all finely calculated to cast aspersion on her sexual character. She was accused of having sex whilst pregnant, though this could have undermined the crown's case that she was trying to pollute the royal succession with children not related to the king, because sex whilst pregnant was a social taboo and a sin against the church. She was accused of having sex with Mark Smeaton, whose status as a lowly commoner was continually played up in the court documents and propaganda, because sex below one's station was another social taboo and painted Anne as insatiably lustful. And she was accused of having sex with her brother, which was as shocking and disgusting to her contemporaries as it would be to most people today.
What is interesting is that these charges were apparently whole-heartedly believed by the majority of people in Anne's day, and not simply accepted as the safest, most politic response. And the reason that many people seemed to believe that Anne was likely to commit these shocking acts was simply because she was a whore, and shocking acts was what whores did. And she was a whore because she refused to have sex with the king until he married her.
Eleanor Herman has noted in her excellent "Sex With Kings" that the mistresses and wives of kings were frequently targets of political and social criticism. Some of this may have been a transference of risk, as it was safer to criticize the king's bedmate than the king himself. Some of this may have been the iconic representation of the mistress: a mistress who hailed from, for example, France would be subjected to all the criticisms against the French in times of diplomatic turmoil.
But what is interesting to me is how often this criticism focused on the gender and sexuality of the target. Queens and mistresses were not (or so it has seemed to me lately, from a non-scholarly and almost certainly confirmation-biased position) criticized for their words or their policies or their religions or their positions or their sympathies nearly so often as they were for their sexual habits and for what went on in their bedrooms.
When a woman had sex with the king without marriage, she was a whore. When a woman refused to have sex with the king unless he married her, she was a conniving whore. When a woman chose to sleep with one man and not another, she was a very great whore, at least if the latter man was a king and she failed to disclose information about her sexual past that was not his business and very likely would have angered him. When a woman danced with another man, she was an entertaining and merry queen until suddenly she was not, and was instead an adulteress. When a woman kissed her brother, she was a kind sister and an intelligent politician to maintain good relations with her family, until suddenly she was not, and was instead guilty of incest. And so it goes.
We live in a harmful Patriarchal society where women are frequently judged, insulted, and slandered not by their words or their positions or by their beliefs, but by their gender and sexuality. Many feminist bloggers, not the least being Sady from Tiger Beatdown, have convincingly illustrated that a very great amount of hate mail directed at women who choose to speak publicly is overlaid with sex and sexuality, with unsolicited observations of the woman's desirability, with threats of sexual violence, with wording that attempts to reduce the woman to nothing more than a collection of sexual organs. The intent is to de-personify women who commit the crime of being public figures, who work publicly for political and social change.
I don't know as much about history as I would like. I'm a dilettante, dabbling in non-fiction books that are written with an eye towards being entertaining as well as informative. I'm not a historian, nor am I formally training in social historical analysis. And yet, I can't shake the feeling that it's not a coincidence that Anne Boleyn was brought down by the same sexualized slanders and attacks that public women today are still having flung at them.
And that makes me kind of sad.