On May 19th, 1536, a woman’s fate was sealed. Clad in a loose, dark gray gown and a gable headdress, she slowly approached her ineluctable demise. A unanimous conviction by a court of peers brought Anne Boleyn from the pedestal to the scaffold. Accused of adultery, incest, and high treason, she received one last act of mercy from the King: a swift blow from a razor-sharp blade of a French swordsman.
That was the end of the story of the legendary couple Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII. Their story was considered “the soap opera of the Tudor age”, but Anne and the King were not just soap opera. They were the living legends of the Tudor age. Their story inspired a plethora of artworks, including the phenomenal oil painting “The Courtship of Anne Boleyn” by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. Both the infatuation of King Henry VIII and the political tension of the Tudor age are encapsulated within a few strokes of paint. Since Gottlieb Leutze was a staunch supporter of the American and German revolutions, the artist’s distaste of the royal can be represented by the painting below. Contrary to the popular myth that Anne was an upstart, she was born into a respectable family. Her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, was a member of the King’s council. Having spent many formative years in France, Anne Boleyn was deemed as an exotic flower once she returned to England in 1522. Her first recorded appearance at Court was March 1st, 1522 at a masque. It was not long before King Henry VIII drowned in the fathomless depths of her dark eyes. Her courtship with the King was initially kept in the dark. Since writing letters was rumored to be the King’s bête noire – something he truly detested, his love letters to Anne Boleyn were the testament to his ineffable passion for the maiden. While most of the King’s letters remained intact in the Vatican library, Anne’s letters were unfortunately nowhere to be found. Therefore, her response to his advances remained an enigma to this day.
Their amorous liaison soon became inflammable. Fueled by his despair of the queen – Catherine of Aragon’s failure to produce a male heir – by August 1527, the King sought an annulment. However, the Pope refused to grant the annulment. Driven by his determination, the King broke free of the Catholic Church, initiated the English Reformation, established the Church of England, banished Catherine of Aragon from court, and married Anne Boleyn. On June 1st 1533, Anne Boleyn was officially crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey. The coronation processsion was a powerful statement that Anne had become the King’s rightful wife and queen. Sadly, their relationship started to go downhill from there onwards. It was the beginning of the end for their marriage when Anne failed to satisfy the King’s unwavering desire to father a legitimate male heir to the throne. She was accused of numerous charges, including high treason, and was executed on May 19th, 1536 within the confines of the Tower of London. She was buried in St Peter ad Vincula, the church of the Tower of London, where she would be later joined by Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Whether Anne Boleyn did commit these crimes or not remains to be a perplexing riddle to historians.
To this day, this powerful couple never ceases to captivate us. Numerous films and novels are inspired by their story, including Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena (1830) and the historical novel “The other Boleyn Girl” (2001) by Philippa Gregory. Through cultural depiction, Anne Boleyn is more often than not portrayed as a ruthless opportunist. Her ascension on the ladder of power was one of prolonged controversy. In “The other Boleyn Girl”, Anne was almost a villain while her sister, Mary Boleyn, was depicted as the epitome of virtue. The novel sparked a heated debate among the historians regarding the level of historical accuracy. Sadly, Anne Boleyn is no isolated case. Many historical figures become distorted through the lens of popular culture. Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France, is a typical case in point. Due to her extravagance and possibly gambling habit, she was overthrown by the French Revolution and was eventually guillotined on October 16th, 1793. Her story was the inspiration for the historical drama Marie Antoinette (2006) starring Kirsten Dunst. However, the film was fraught with historical inaccuracies. The political background of the 18th century was woefully neglected, which inadvertently resulted in the audience’s failure to envision the grand picture. Not to mention the costumes were overly “modernized” with the appearance of a pair of Converse. The historical drama “The Imitation Game” (2014) starring Benedict Cumberbatch is also an archetype of this case. The film, which suggested that the British codebreaker and mathematical genius Alan Turing might have committed the unpardonable crime of covering up for a Soviet spy, was frowned upon by historians and considered “as much of a garbled mess as a heap of unbroken code” by The Guardian.
In the entertainment industry, historical accuracy is more often than not sacrificed in the pursuit of ratings and viewership. Although there is no denying that these products have piqued the lay public’s interest in those historical figures, the question remains whether the dramatic effects or the historical integrity should be of paramount importance. In the world where creativity is highly valued, should the artists’ liberties be bounded within the realm of history or should their works be judged based on the artistic value only?
To conclude, it has been over four centuries since the story of Anne Boleyn came to the last chapter. Although her story has been retold countless times throughout the course of history, she somehow remains in the mists of time.