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The Secret of Our Obsession With Anne Boleyn

Hilary Mantel's new novel feeds our curiosity about a woman who played the real Game of Thrones. Was she history's first modern woman?

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The courtly love ideal, stoked by one of medieval Europe’s most powerful women, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and in the writings of poet Marie de France, provided a script for women to freely express their sexuality and openly flout the conventions of patriarchy. In courtly literature, the relationship between the knight and his lady was a two-way street. The demand for chastity was put aside, as was the need for the legitimacy of children. Feudal values, based on a system of private jurisdictions, fed the possibility of love outside the bounds of marriage. Women shaped the courtly love ideal—and they could because they had real power in the feudal realm, not only as patrons of the arts, but as political players and economic actors. Feudal conventions in many places held that women could both inherit and manage property.

Anne Boleyn, who spent her formative years abroad, saw women who embodied this independence and power. Susan Bordo, author of the forthcoming book, The Creation of Anne Boleyndescribes her teenage years as “dominated by some of the most independent, influential women in Europe, first (for two years) the sophisticated and politically powerful Archduchess Margaret, regent of the Netherlands, and then, during her seven years in France, Marguerite of Navarre, King Francis’ sister.”  Marguerite, Bordo notes, surrounded herself with reformist intellectuals and operated as a kind of “shadow-queen” at court.

When Anne arrived at the court of Henry VIII as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon, she knew how to charm – and also how to think and act forcefully. But the times were a-changing. A writer like Thomas More, a major figure in Henry’s court, could promote equal education for men and women in his Utopia (1516), but the humanist scholar had little use for female sexuality and political power. Bourgeois writers attuned to the demands of the mercantile and manufacturing economy set about shrinking the personal and social options for women. Sexuality was to be regulated, religious devotion encouraged, public life curtailed. Patriarchal family values were restored. For women, love must lead to marriage and it had better not stray beyond that boundary. Among noblewomen, “unseemly” physical activities like riding or handling weapons were discouraged. The Virgin Mary became the ideal woman – something Anne's daughter Elizabeth I would later exploit in her embrace of chastity and virginity.

The despotic ruler of the newly emerging state demanded subservience from all and set himself to suppress the feudal privilege of his vassals, a model of subordination that would color the relations between men and women. New laws governed membership in a hereditary aristocratic class. Legitimacy was now everything. The monarch’s power was construed as symbolic of God, and his wife was to be his handmaiden – not his ladylove. As the ideal of love as mutuality and reciprocity declined, love became, in Kelly’s words, a “narcissistic experience.”

Henry fancied himself a Renaissance ruler, but he was still touched by the ideals of courtly love – jousting away in the tournament, his lady’s favors tied to his lance. He was both a romantic and a despot. In the stages of his relationship with Anne, he seems to read from one cultural script, then discard it for another.

In courtship, Henry is the feudal knight, pledging himself to be Anne’s servant and writing letters that praise her hot body. She is Guinevere to his Lancelot – a lady to celebrate, deserving of homage. Gradually, as the divorce decree from Catherine fails to materialize, Anne morphs into something more akin to the early Renaissance style of Dante’s Beatrice – a love object, but one who inspires a certain frustration. Anne may or may not have refused to have sex with Henry until they were married, but there was an awful lot of waiting around. Talk of touching Anne’s pretty breasts turned to talk of God and what He wanted from the union. And what it would mean to England.

Finally, when Anne becomes queen, the Greek mold favored by Renaissance writers takes over Henry’s perspective. Aristotle – a favorite of the period -- views woman as a defective man. She is knocked from her feudal pedestal. Something to be feared and shunned. Why does she display her emotions? Why does she meddle in affairs of state? What is wrong with her womb? Is she a witch? As wife – especially a wife who can’t deliver male children! -- Anne becomes something degraded, unnatural.

As Henry becomes more insecure of his rule, he starts thinking of his wife as a threat. Anne becomes Circe, a powerful, erotic woman who emasculates her lovers. In a still darker incarnation she is Medusa, the object of desire transformed into monster whose snaky visage turns men into stone. In Bringing Up the Bodies, Hillary Mantel calls up this association in the image of Anne facing her accusers in the English court, charged with the monstrous crime of having sex with her own brother:

 
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