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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.

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