Today, 19th May, marks the day in history (1556) when the English Tudor Queen Anne Boleyn was executed at the behest of Henry VIII on various trumped-up charges of adultery and treason. There were even accusations of witchcraft!
Anne Boleyn has become something of a international celebrity in recent times - due in no small part to movies and the popular TV series The Tudors. But also because of a good many works of fiction and non-fiction and the dedicated work of authors and bloggers. In fact, the 19th May is in the process of becoming 'Anne Boleyn Day.' Though to some this might seem a bit mawkish, here are some thoughts about why this might not be such a bad thing.
The Phenomenon of Anne Boleyn
No matter what our level of interest in the ill-fated Tudor Queen who died so many centuries ago, one has to admit the modern phenomenon of Anne Boleyn is an interesting development. Her story and her predicament will invariably strike a chord with those who have suffered some form of unjust persecution, and many people will resonate with it even today. It's not just a story of a clever female intelligence being overcome by a powerful and mediocre male one. But also that of any sensitive soul, of any gender, being destroyed by a brute. A tragedy that takes place everywhere on Earth, and daily - hourly.
The portrait of Anne Boleyn in the National Portrait Gallery.
A Victorian Anne Boleyn
In my novel 'The Arrow Chest' we find Anne Boleyn in the 1870s. She has moved forward a few centuries to Victorian England. It is a good fit for many reason. The world of Victorian England had many similarities to that of the Tudors. There was a crisis in religious belief, for instance. The Tudors had the Reformation to contend with – the Victorians had Darwin. It also had its fair share of powerful, egocentric alpha males who, on a whim, could have any inconvenient wife put away in a mental institution. Doctor's orders. And it also had a political elite of career politicians and corrupt officialdom at large, among which the truth often took second place to the prejudices and whims of the those at the very top.
Henry VIII got rid of his wife because she failed to produce a male heir. In The Arrow Chest much the same thing occurs between the fictitious characters, Lord and Lady Bowlend. And for much the same reasons. Dynastic considerations were as important in the 1870s as they were in the 1530s. And if the woman failed to deliver, she was often set aside. Sometimes not at all kindly. The Tudors had witchcraft to level against their inconvenient women. The Victorians had hysteria.
King Henry in a topper - a Victorian, or of any other period you care to mention.
A Convenient Malady
There were, in fact, thousands of women classified as suffering from madness and shut away in mental asylums even during the 19th century. This was often for illnesses which we would today class as curable or based on social conditions - such as eating disorders, menopausal or pre-menstrual syndromes, post natal depression. Sometimes it was simply for being unwilling to conform to the expected norm of being the perfect wife. A convenient malady.
Incarceration could be a matter of convenience, for example, for a man wanting to be rid of an ageing or disobedient wife. And it was all too easy to find a pseudo-medical pretext for this. The woman herself had no right of reply or redress once a so-called diagnosis of insanity or hysteria was pronounced by a doctor. Often this could be based on little more than a few shreds of 'evidence' given by the husband himself.
Sketch by Holbein - possibly of Anne Boleyn.
Anne Boleyn, in this sense, is a symbol for all those falsely accused. No matter where or when. It is why she remains such a figure of fascination. Her suffering is a universal occurrence that so many people can relate to on all sorts of levels. And her place in history can only become stronger.