Anne Boleyn and the Chop Heard ‘Round the World

In the following essay, Frances E. Dolan, author of Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy reflects on popular culture’s long-standing fascination with one of England’s most dysfunctional families.


On May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded at Tower Green with a chop heard ‘round the world and still resonating in popular culture. Hers is a spectacular story–Henry left Catherine, his wife of almost twenty-four years, for Anne, finally marrying her when she was pregnant with Elizabeth, future queen of England. Three years after Henry married Anne, she was tried on trumped up charges of adultery, incest, and conspiracy to murder the king, convicted, and executed. The next day, Henry was betrothed to his third wife, Jane Seymour.  Sex, scheming, ambition, power, and violence: perhaps it is unsurprising that this story is told so often. “You think you know the story,” teases an ad for the Showtime series The Tudors, now in its second season, promising to tell us something new. But many people do know the story. The question is why. Why is there still so much interest in Henry and his wives, especially Anne?

The saga continues into the next generation as well. The Tudors are
a brand, appearing in movies, cable “special events” and series, and
mass-market fiction. And at the heart of this franchise, especially if
we include novels, stand Anne and her daughter Elizabeth, the so-called
“virgin queen.” Popular representations of Anne and Elizabeth, taken
together, suggest that the conflict between the self-possessed woman
and marriage ends in stalemate: one either marries and dies or avoids
marriage altogether. The defining event, and the key to why this
multi-generational saga remains so compelling, is the execution that
occurred 472 years ago today.

Bodices rip in the Tudor court, to be sure. But what really hooks
readers and viewers is that heads roll. The various depictions of Anne
and Elizabeth suggest that marriage is dangerous–even deadly–because
when two equal partners face off it always comes down to a “him or me”
“die or kill” contest in which one spouse will triumph at the other’s
expense. This is an extreme view of what marriage means, of course. But
that’s the appeal of the Tudor court: it’s an arena of extreme
marriage, in which we can see a conceptualization of marriage that, in
some ways, we still share with the sixteenth-century, played out in the
starkest possible terms but with the comforting distancing effect of
period sets and costumes.

Popular biographers and novelists depict Elizabeth’s fear of
men and marriage as her “legacy” from her disgraced, beheaded mother.
Academic research on Elizabeth I continues to debate what it means that
Elizabeth never married. Did she refuse to, fail to, or just never wind
up doing it? In popular biographies and novels, the answer is simple.
Elizabeth did not marry because she had learned from her mother and
stepmothers that it was wiser not to. Since Elizabeth was only two
years old when Anne was beheaded, and we have no record that she ever
referred directly to her mother, it is hard to know what her attitude
toward her mother might have been. But novelists and biographers alike
assume that Anne Boleyn’s execution had a traumatic effect on
Elizabeth. In novel after novel, we find an Elizabeth who chooses
queenship over marriage and does so in part because her history
suggests that the two roles are incompatible and that marriage is a
death sentence. For instance, in Rosalind Miles’s novel, I, Elizabeth,
Elizabeth constantly articulates a fear of “what marriage was, what
marriage did, even to a queen.” As a consequence, she decides, “If I
had to marry, I would much rather be a husband than have one! For I had
seen at first hand with Dame Katherine and sister Mary what it was to
be a wife, to be subject to a man and bound to obey his will. In
marriage men gain, women lose!

But the legacy Elizabeth inherits from her mother is not simply
the fear that, if she marries, she will lose her power and perhaps even
her life. The Elizabeth of popular culture fears becoming her father as
much as her mother. Matched with an equal, she fears that she will have
to kill him to maintain her own dominance. Thus the Earl of Essex, a
favorite whom Elizabeth had executed for rebellion, stands as a kind of
bookend to Anne Boleyn in stories of her life: at the beginning of her
life, we have the beheading that instilled her fear of marriage and at
the end of her life, we have the beheading that confirmed that she was
a sovereign and not a subordinate, a husband and not a wife.

As compared to film and television depictions of Anne’s and
Elizabeth’s lives and loves, historical novels devote considerable
attention to the queens’ thoughts and feelings, thoughts and feelings
about which we can only speculate. In historical fiction, particularly
in Philippa Gregory’s enormously popular novels about Tudor queens,
what we find are robust critiques of whether marriage is a sufficiently
or reliably happy ending for women. In The Other Boleyn Girl, for
instance, Anne’s sister Mary explains her understanding of marriage to
their brother George: “It’s earning no money for yourself and
everything for your husband and master. It’s obeying him as quickly and
as well as if you were a groom of the servery. It’s having to tolerate
anything he chooses to do, and smile as he does it.” Such statements
oversimplify sixteenth-century marriage. Even as they mark Gregory’s
novels and her protagonists’ fears and frustrations as “historical”–as
something we’ve moved beyond–they also justify the robust, passionate
critiques of marriage that animate the novels and allow readers to
explore their own ambivalences.

It is often said of Anne Boleyn that Henry “met his match” in
her–because she was intelligent and talented, ambitious, and knew how
to sustain his sexual desire without satisfying it. Her story unfolds a
tragic vision of what meeting one’s match means in popular depictions
of Tudor marriage. For to meet one’s match is to enter into a contest,
not a collaboration, a contest only one party can win. Perhaps this is
why the Tudors are so well suited to games such as the one on the
website for the Showtime series
in which the options are “wed me, bed
me, behead me.” In such contests, there will only be one winner. And
that winner won’t be a wife.