Kit’s Crit: The Other Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory)

Gregory

On my first reading of The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, I was impressed by Philippa Gregory’s bravery in writing against the popular romantic image of the Tudor queen as a much-maligned victim.  I re-read the book again this past week as part of my research into medieval witchcraft, and still maintain this is one of the finest examples of historical fiction in the genre.

Gregory plays the devil’s advocate by posing the question: What if Anne Boleyn really was guilty of the charges brought against her?  She then weaves a plausible explanation of the young woman’s dangerous rise to power, a gamble that ultimately cost her life.  The story is told through the eyes of the other Boleyn girl at court, her sister Mary.  And although British historian David Starkey claims there are only “four known facts” about Mary Boleyn, and that this therefore amounts to “one fact per seventy-five pages,” Gregory does a splendid job of recreating an authentic version of the Tudor court from numerous other sources.  There are, fortunately, many more extant facts regarding Anne and Henry!

Gregory’s Queen Anne is not an endearing character, but then everything said about her comes from the rival sister’s lips – one of the women she ousted from the king’s bed.  Anne is portrayed as ambitious, vain, single-minded, selfish, ruthless, callous, manipulative, and amoral.  Yet she is also intelligent, artistic, fashionable, and fun.  She is not a practicing witch – though she does enchant Henry and all those around her – but when placed in a desperate situation she turns to a local wise woman for help.  As the king is aging and impotent, when Anne needs a son to secure the throne her brother George steps in as a replacement.  And she may or may not have poisoned some of her enemies.

The Other Boleyn Girl strips away the traditional glamor of court, presenting a much more realistic insight into the fragile and perilous lives of the youngsters groomed as bargaining chips by their ambitious families.  It also highlights the differences between those born high and low, and how real happiness lies in the simple pleasures of life.  The characters are engaging and interesting – even as they descend into strange, dark places.  And the psychological explanations offered for Anne Boleyn’s criminal behavior are fascinating, thought-provoking, and plausible –  even if factually untrue.

A five-star read!

Anne Boleyn, the Witch: Part Four

Anne Boleyn 4

 Witch Crime #4: Anne Boleyn was presented as a seductress by her early suitor, Sir Thomas Wyatt.

In Poem XI he writes –

“Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”
Wyatt is thought to be describing his own romantic pursuit of Mistress Anne, in direct competition with the reigning “Caesar” (King Henry).  With his characteristic play on words he presents “an (Anne) hind (deer)” – “Dear Anne” as their beautiful prey.  But as Karen Lindsey points out, “everyone knew what happened to the wild creature at the hunt’s end”(59) – it was captured, possessed, and destroyed.  Further, by alluding to the ingrained imagery from the Malleus Maleficarum, Wyatt’s line, “Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind” unfortunately conjured up the witches described by the two Catholic Inquisitors: “Their face is like a burning wind . . . and when it is said that her heart is a net, it speaks of the inscrutable malice which reigns in their hearts” (46).  Yet while Wyatt’s word-choice was most likely an unconscious literary device intended to portray the beloved as an illusive free spirit, his subliminal portrayal of Anne as a wild woman was not in her best interests, especially when the courtiers familiar with the Malleus, who had access to his early manuscript poems, were most likely the same men who sat at her trial.  The pretty doe of the hunt soon turned into a dangerously seductive temptress.
Even Wyatt’s enigmatic riddle (Poem LIV) implicates the Queen –
“What word is that that changeth not,
Though it be turned and made in twain?
It is mine answer, God it wot,
And eke the causer of my pain.
It love rewardeth with disdain:
Yet is it loved. What would ye more?
It is my health eke and my sore.”
Again, not intentionally associating his “answer” (Anne, sir) with witch craft, the poet’s ambiguous phrasing lends itself to a potentially sinister interpretation.  For although both the “causer of my pain” and “my sore” are common terms from the Courtly Tradition, they are also reminders of the Inquisitor’s warning  that, “a woman is beautiful to look upon, contaminating to touch, and deadly to keep” (46), and one of her many “injuries towards men” is the agony of “bewitching into an inordinate love”(47).  Wyatt’s poems stand in acknowledgement of Anne Boleyn’s seductive powers.  They may further have reminded her enemies of the old Queen Catherine because of this statement from the Malleus: “. . . how many adulterers have put away the most beautiful wives to lust after the vilest of women!” (51).
Perhaps one of Wyatt’s most damning poems is XXV –
“The lively sparks that issue from those eyes
Against the which ne vaileth no defence
Have pressed mine heart and done it none offence
With quaking pleasure more than once or twice.
Was never man could anything devise
The sunbeams to turn with so great vehemence
To daze man’s sight, as by their bright presence
Dazed am I, much like unto the guise
Of one ystricken with dint of lightning,
Blinded with the stroke, erring here and there.
So call I for help, I not when ne where,
The pain of my fall patiently bearing.
For after the blaze, as is no wonder,
Of deadly ‘Nay’ hear I the fearful thunder.”
 
It is thought that “The lively sparks” may be a reference to Anne Boleyn’s “striking and unusual” dark eyes (Chapman, 21).  The second line, “Against the which (witch) ne vaileth no defence,” suggests that the lover has no protection against the sorceress, and the phrase, “Have pressed mine heart ” recalls one of the punishments dealt to witches when their bodies are “pressed” under heavy stones to extract a confession.  The speaker of the poem is “ystricken with dint of lightning” as if falling under a spell, and though he should say “Nay”(No), her power over him is too strong to resist. Ironically, this young man’s heart-felt love poems may have helped pave the way for his sweetheart’s execution.
It is doubtful if any of the Queen’s friends actually believed she was a witch.  And though she was condemned for treason and adultery, her own conscience was apparently clear.  Shortly before her death Anne told her jailor that she “would be a saint in Heaven, because I have done many good deeds in my days” (Lindsey, 100).   But unfortunately, over the centuries,  Wyatt’s damning words have reached far more ears than her last cry of innocence.
Sources for Part Four:
Chapman, Hester W. Anne Boleyn (London: cape, 1974)
Kramer, Heinrich; and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum (New York: Dover, 1971)
 (Worldwide: Addison-Wesley, 1996)
Wyatt, Thomas. The Complete Poems Ed. R.A. Rebholz. (Worldwide: Penguin,1978)

Anne Boleyn, the Witch: Part Three

 

In today’s enlightened age, few would believe that Anne Boleyn was actually guilty of witchcraft.  She may have had traces of an extra nail growing on her little finger, and possibly a mole on her neck, as reported by early biographer George Wyatt (grandson of Sir Thomas) who based his information from interviews with Anne’s former attendants.  But who does not have any form of blemish on their body?  Such flaws were obviously acceptable to King Henry when he desired her, but they appear to have been greatly magnified by her detractors in later years.  By the time Nicholas Sanders gave his account a half-century later, the disgraced Queen was said to have buck teeth and a whole extra finger on her right hand!  Yet the remains of a body thought to be Anne Boleyn’s, exhumed in the nineteenth century, showed no signs of skeletal abnormality.  Of course, after three hundred years there would be scant trace of a mole or extra finger-nail remaining, but the evidence suggests that any imperfections Anne had were minor. So why were they interpreted as signs of devilry? A clue may be found in the English language.

 Boleyn 2

The Malleus Maleficarum states that “The word ‘woman’ means ‘the lust of the flesh'”(43), which today can be understood as a psychological projection of blame onto the object of male desire.  Women were seen as fickle, seductive creatures who would lead good Christian men astray.  They made easy prey for demons to recruit, and then these familiar spirits would claim their victims with “witches marks” (moles, skin tags, supernumerary nipples, or birth marks) – places on the body where they could suckle human blood.  Therefore every sexually-active woman was potentially the devil’s gateway. 

Unfortunately, the dual concepts of wickedness and blame worked their way into everyday language.  If a man found a woman attractive it was because she was consciously bewitching, beguiling, enchanting, charming, captivating, or seductive.  Now as part of every day speech, such terms were harmless.  But when certain courtiers wrote them into love songs and sonnets, then  they became exceedingly dangerous.  Especially for a suspect Queen.

It seems unlikely that Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Anne Boleyn ever consummated their close relationship, despite the fact he was an ardent suitor of Mistress Boleyn before King Henry started noticing her. With the reputation for being one of the best poets of his age, Wyatt used clever wordplay and an ambiguous “I” speaker in the poems thought to have been written with her in mind: “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,” “What word is that that changeth not,” “If waker care, if sudden pale colour,” and “Sometime I fled the fire that me brent.”  The poet was arrested in May 1536, charged with committing adultery with the Queen.  Five other men were also accused, but he was the only one who escaped execution – proof enough that Henry believed his relationship with Anne was platonic.

And yet the beautiful words in Wyatt’s love sonnets may have ultimately  helped to condemn his lady.  Find out how in Part Four.

Sources for Part Three:

Daalder, Joost.  Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems  (Worldwide: Oxford UP, 1975)

Foley, Stephen Mirriam. Sir Thomas Wyatt (Boston: Twayne, 1990)

Kramer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum (New York: Dover, 1971)

Wiatt, William H. “Sir Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn” in English Language Notes, Vol. VI (December, 1968). Colorado: U of Colorado, 1968. 94-102.

Anne Boleyn, the Witch: Part Two

 

The Malleus Maleficarum stated that, aside from fornication, “the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith” (43), which the English Catholics interpreted as the influx of Lutheranism coming from Henry’s break with Rome, after his marriage to Mistress Boleyn.  Bluff King Hal was  beyond reproach, but his concubine was not.  Anne – an intelligent, radical thinker with her own ideas about religion – became a rallying point for the Reformers.  But how much of a Protestant was she? Katherine Lindsay’s book Divorced, Beheaded, Survived points out there was no record of the queen “denying the doctrine of transubstantiation, one of the central Protestant concerns,” and she clung to the Catholic notion that “good works could assure a place in Heaven,” as opposed to the Lutheran “insistence on justification by faith” (100).  It seems evident, therefore, that the queen believed herself to be a good Christian.  But the plotting courtiers painted her in an entirely different light.

Witch Crime #2: Anne Boleyn was suspected of being a key player in a diabolical plot to overthrow the Church of Rome.

Boleyn 3

Archbishop Chapuys reported to his employer (Emperor Charles V) that His English Majesty was “bewitched by this cursed woman . . . does all she says, and dare not contradict her” (Chapman, 151).  For as Alison Weir explains in The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Cromwell had told him the king “made this marriage seduced by her witchcraft, and for that reason he considered it null and void” (304).  The Malleus decreed that “if witchcraft takes effect in the event of a marriage” it “destroys the contract” (4).  This gave the unhappy husband a loophole to be rid of Anne so he could wed Jane Seymour instead.   By itself, however, enchantment was not a sufficient reason to execute a royal wife.  Other charges were needed.  So as the case against Anne grew she became accused of “having poisoned the late Queen Katherine [and] attempting to do the same to Lady Mary” (Weir, 326) – which on top of the multiple counts of adultery, including incest with her brother, amounted to the heinous crime of witchcraft.

Exodus 22:18 commands, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and the Catholic Inquisitors were quick to condemn all women as inherently wicked “because of the first temptress, Eve, and her imitators” (Malleus, 44).  According to Pierre Brunel’s Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes, and Archetypes the sorceress became “the core, the center of all that cannot be understood or accepted.”  She attracted fear, hatred, and loathing until she was no longer seen as a human being but instead turned into “the expression and cause of the misfortune” suffered by all (1165). In short, the cunning woman became the royal scapegoat.

Witch Crime #3: Being an instrument of darkness, Anne Boleyn was directly and indirectly responsible for all the wrongs in the kingdom.

Yet who did the most damage to the Queen’s reputation?  The answer may surprise you!  Check back for Part Three on Thursday.

Sources Cited in Part Two:

Brunel, Pierre. Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes, and Archetypes (London and New York: Routledge, 1992)

Chapman, Hester W. Anne Boleyn. (London: Cape, 1974)

Holy Bible (London: Collins)

Kramer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger.  The Malleus Maleficarum (New York: Dover, 1971)

Lindsey, Karen. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived (Worldwide: Addison-Wesley, 1996)

Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VIII (New York: Ballantine, 1993)

Anne Boleyn, the Witch: Part One

Boleyn 1

How could anyone believe that the crowned Queen of England was a witch?  Of all the accusations made against Anne Boleyn (c. 1501-1536) this seems the strangest to the modern observer.  But the Tudors were more than willing to accept the king’s second wife was guilty of a whole list of diabolical crimes.  Let us examine why.

Although witches had been persecuted for over a hundred years on the European Continent, the first statute was not passed in England until 1542, when the Catholic clergy persuaded their congregations that Satan’s army was on the march.  This was likely the direct result of the widespread distribution of the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) – the prominent and damaging witch-finder manual written by two German Inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger.  The Malleus  was intended to halt pagan practices, but instead it triggered a wave of witch hunts that resulted in countless innocent deaths.

James Sharpe, in Instruments of Darkness, explains how the Reformation caused similar concerns among the early Protestants because “Idolatry included not only witchcraft but also the telling of the rosary, going to Mass, and saint worship” (27).   But while Catholicism and sorcery were the twin evils in the early Lutheran mind, the Papists thought Protestants and witches were heretics too.  And as Hester Chapman’s biography claims, it was not a huge leap for the Catholics to see Protestant Anne Boleyn as the temptress whose “advent had brought about disaster on the kingdom.  She was the personification not only of evil, but of an assault on religion, crops, cattle, fair weather – every aspect of daily life” (106).

Unfortunately Mistress Boleyn was an easy target.  An unconventional beauty, her enemies claimed she bore the mark of the devil from birth in an extra finger (or finger nail), and that she had numerous moles, which were widely associated with wicked women.  But as Antonia Fraser reveals in The Wives of Henry VIII , as a mature lady she “exercised a kind of sexual fascination over most men who met her” (123).   Anne was condemned for adultery with several others, but because the cuckolding of a king had no legal precedent, this alone was not a Capital offence.  So Thomas Cromwell had to imply hundreds of liaisons between Boleyn and her lovers because the Malleus claimed “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust which is in women insatiable”(47). If she could be proven to be a lascivious witch – especially one who intended to use magic to harm or kill members of the Royal Family – then she could be sentenced to death.  Not for witchcraft per se (because laws against this specific problem had yet to be passed in Henry’s reign)  but rather for the ambiguous, treasonable act of betraying the sanctity of marriage and entertaining malice against the king.

Witch Crime #1: Anne Boleyn was a wicked seductress who intended to harm the royal Defender of the Faith and destroy his Christian kingdom.

Part Two tomorrow . . .

 

Sources Cited in Part One:

Chapman, Hester W. Anne Boleyn (London: Cape, 1974)

Fraser, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII (New York: Random, 1994)

Kramer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. The Malleus Malficarum (New York: Dover, 1971)

Sharpe, James. Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550-1750 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996)