Hilary Mantel on Anne Boleyn


Hilary Mantel wins the Man Booker Prize for the second time!
Hilary Mantel wins the Man Booker Prize for the second time!

You might have realised by my previous posts, my love for Hilary Mantel, who has written an article on Anne Boleyn. This are only snippets with my opinions underneath. To read the full article, click on the link above. The tagline of Hilary Mantel’s article on Anne Boleyn:-

“We argue over her, we admire and revile her – we constantly reinvent her. Henry VIII’s second wife is one of the most controversial women in English history”

Mantel is very right – there has never been anyone in English history who has prompted quite so much argument as Henry VIII’s second wife. We admire her deeply for everything she’s done and everything she’s been through, and the way she handled her death. She has been reviled, but that is a less likely outcome than admiration. She is reinvented by different historians in different areas of her life – guilty or innocent, Catholic or Protestant, whore or not. She is controversial because of the lack of evidence and sources on her, and the imagination that goes into fictional adaptations of her.

“It was for Anne’s sake, as everyone knew, that Henry VIII had broken away from Rome and plunged his entire nation into the darkness of apostasy. If it weren’t for this depraved woman, England would be as holy as Ireland, and we’d all eat fish on Friday and come from families of 12”

Mantel recalls an incident when she was told the above about Anne Boleyn. That it was Anne’s fault for the change in English religion, the divorce, and the revolution. There are historians now, like G.W. Bernard, who refute Anne’s religion, arguing that she was in fact Catholic rather than Protestant. Some historians believe that Anne was merely the catalyst for the divorce and that Henry VIII was already considering a divorce before she came on the scene. Anne was also seen as the cause of the later Pilgrimage of Grace, as she supposedly promoted the dissolution of the monasteries during her lifetime, carried on by Cromwell after her death.

“And the sixth finger, which no one saw in her lifetime, was a fragment of black propaganda directed at her daughter, Elizabeth I. In Elizabeth’s reign it was the duty of beleaguered papists to demonstrate that the queen’s mother had been physically and spiritually deformed”

There is no evidence that Anne Boleyn actually had a sixth finger, or any of the other so-called ‘deformities’ like a large wen or moles, which were allegedly signs of witchcraft, even though the witchcraze didn’t take off until the end of the sixteenth century and the seventeenth century.  There was no evidence of witchcraft in the accusations levelled at Anne in 1536, which there probably would have been if there was any evidence at all. Catholics were against Elizabeth’s religious settlement in the late 1550s and 1560s and so it has been suggested that the so-called ‘deformities’ were a ploy by the anti-Protestants to defame the mother of the monarch.

“She takes on the colour of our fantasies and is shaped by our preoccupations: witch, bitch, feminist, sexual temptress, cold opportunist. She is a real woman, who has acquired an

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

archetypal status and force, and one who patrols the nightmares of good wives; she is the guilt-free predator, the man-stealer, the woman who sets out her sexual wares and extorts a fantastic price”

We see Anne Boleyn through twenty-first century eyes, when she lived by sixteenth century rules, so shaping her by our fantasies gives us an inaccurate portrayal of her in her own times, but we can gain valuable insight into her character and representation and how she would have survived in our times, theoretically. Everyone has their opinions on Anne, as Mantel points out, and these affect how we view her. Personally, I think that Anne is a feminist and an opportunist – she was an outgoing woman, unusual for the times, who took advantage of opportunities that were presented to her, like marriage to an earl then a king. It was said at the time that Anne Boleyn set a bad precedent for women who were married to unhappy women – if a king could divorce a queen, what chance do ordinary women have?

“She was, and is, credited with serpentine sexual wiles, as well as a vindictive streak that ruined anyone who crossed her. The truth may be more prosaic. Henry had decided at some point that Anne was the woman who would give him a healthy son. He wanted that son to be born in wedlock. It may have been he who insisted on self-control, and Anne who simmered and fretted”

Anne possibly did have sexual wiles which she used on the King, possibly learned from her sister and her exploits with Francis I and Henry VIII. It is possible that Anne did have a vindictive streak – she promoted the destruction of Thomas Wolsey, Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More. Henry was so desperate for a son that he fell for Anne because she made him believe that she would give him a son, even though she couldn’t know for sure. She was so desperate for the power that being queen would give her that she promised what she needed to, without considering the consequences. Because Henry was so eager for a legitimate son, it is very possible that he was the one who put off being intimate with Anne.

“The psychology of the relationship between Henry and Anne is impenetrable at this distance, but contemporaries did not understand it either. The courtship lasted longer than the marriage. They quarrelled and made up, and if Anne thought Henry was looking at another woman she made jealous scenes. She was untrained in the iron self-control that Katherine had exercised”

Anne wasn’t born to be queen, and so she was freer with her feelings, believing that Henry wouldn’t leave her after all he had gone through to get her. Because their courtship was longer than their marriage (seven years compared to three years) Anne was used to being able to express herself how she wanted to, and found it difficult to make the transition to queen, where she had to acquiesce to Henry’s will. Katherine of Aragon was used to hiding her feelings when Henry had affairs, but Anne was used to having Henry’s love all to herself.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

“Anne had not risen in the world as a solitary star; she trailed an ambitious family with her. By 1535 Cromwell was outshining them all, accumulating offices of state. Anne had been his patron, but he had outgrown her, and by the spring of 1536 she had lost her value to him. It was Katherine’s death that changed everything”

Anne was the one who got all of the power and glory, but her family went up in the world too. The Duke of Norfolk became Head of the Council after Wolsey’s fall, Thomas Boleyn became Earl of Rochford and was a member of Council, George Boleyn became Lord Rochford and made an advantageous marriage, as well as becoming a member of the Council. Anne had helped Cromwell to the top, and then he decided that, as Anne was falling lower in Henry’s estimations, he needed to act for himself. Katherine’s death meant that Anne’s position wasn’t as secure, because Henry could divorce Anne without having to return to Katherine.

4 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel on Anne Boleyn

    1. Me too! Luckily I’m still young so I’ve got my whole life ahead to dedicate to it!
      Oh, and I’m really looking forward to reading your book at some point! Any tips on getting published? How did you start? 🙂


  1. I enjoy Mantel’s writing very much, she always has such clever observations. Perhaps you will find it interesting – Nicolas Sander actually didn’t write in his book that Anne Boleyn had ‘a large wen under her chin’. In original Latin text he wrote that Anne had ‘something swallowed under her chin, but what, I do not know’. Interesting, that the translator (David Lewis in 1877) translated ‘something swallowed’ as ‘the large wen’ (I wrote a post about it on my blog).
    I enjoyed your article, keep them coming! Oh, but I have one thing to notice – Thomas Boleyn was not the Earl of Rochford, but Viscount Rochford, and later Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond.
    Best wishes,


    1. Whoops, I actually knew that! Another typo. I’m not very good at checking things over once I’ve written them, you might have noticed! Glad you like my posts though! Is there anything in particular you’re interested in?
      And that bit on the translation is very interesting – something I didn’t know! Any chance you could post a link to the post on your blog?


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