Oneworld £20. Order for £16(free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo, book review: 'The beheaded queen who continues to bewitch and bother'

 

I hadn't realised – until I read this book – how much work Henry VIII's marital problems caused the stonemasons of Hampton Court. After years of carving the letters H&C all over the place, Henry got rid of Catherine of Aragon, so the Cs had to be reworked as As. But, no sooner was the last A in place than Anne Boleyn was executed on Tower Hill and the As had to become Js to suit Jane Seymour, who promptly died in childbirth. And there were still three more queens to go, so, lots more chiseling, presumably.

The work of turning Anne into a non-person was not confined to the palace stonework. Henry and his chief factotum, Thomas Cromwell, were determined to erase all physical mementoes of the late queen, from letters to portraits. They seem to have been incredibly thorough because now no one can say, incontrovertibly, what one of the most controversial personalities in English history actually looked like, or even said. The various portraits reputed to depict Anne might be her, but might equally be some other Tudor lady. As for her words, for those, too, we have to rely on others who recorded them, but who probably selected and reworked them to suit a particular agenda.

Everything about Anne Boleyn seems to have been filtered and interpreted to reinforce some contemporary raging argument about sex, politics or religion. As Susan Bordo points out, even the commonly accepted descriptions of her appearance – the sallow skin, raven-black hair, the wart and the vestigial sixth finger – are highly suspect, because most of them come from the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who loathed her. And, to have dark skin was a no-no in the 16th century, when tans weren't sexy but an indication of humble origins. As for moles and extra fingers, they were the telltale signs of the witch.

Bordo rightly observes that the attempt to erase Anne from history had a different result to the one Henry had intended. Deprived of hard facts about her, Anne was not forgotten but instead became a kind of metaphor for successive generations to vent their idée fixes. After the Catholics of the 16th century demonised her as a she-witch, the Protestants of later generations recreated her as a pious heroine. More recently, courtesy of the TV series The Tudors she has been reborn as a proto-feminist with a side interest in S&M. Whether the real Anne would recognise herself in any of these incarnations, who knows. The point is, the lady didn't vanish.

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Voices
The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food