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Eight Simple Things That Weren’t

June 6, 2012

Weren’t in Anne Boleyn’s world, that is. In this case I’m not talking about the gaudier excesses of the novels, even the really unlikely ones (Want to read about Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard having an affair? That book exists). This is purely about factual errors which lend nothing to the story and serve mainly to hamper the reader who stops and thinks “Wait, I thought it wasn’t quite like that.”

1. There was no Papal infallibility. It sounds old, doesn’t it? Reminiscent of a grasping, worldly church which would use any means to quash the ambitions of merely secular rulers? But in fact it falls solidly into the category of Newer Than They Think. It wasn’t promulgated until 1870 and it caused quite an uproar at the time. The idea certainly existed in the sixteenth century, but it was not official doctrine. Characters reflecting ruefully on papal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra don’t need to worry; they won’t be officially obliged to believe in it for another three and a half centuries.

2. There was no Princess of Wales. There has never been a Princess of Wales in her own right. Mary Tudor came close – she was sent to nominally govern the Welsh Marches at the age of eleven, and her tutor dedicated a book to her as “Mary, Prince of Wales” (note the masculine form) but she was never officially created such. Elizabeth certainly was not; Henry had no intention of stopping with her, and it would have made no sense to give Elizabeth the title just to rip it away again when the inevitable son was born (he was bound to turn up eventually, wasn’t he?) Mary’s title of Princess of England was given to Elizabeth, and she herself demoted to Lady Mary. After Anne Boleyn’s death, Elizabeth was in her turn demoted to Lady Elizabeth.

3. There were no Protestants. Oh, there were plenty of people who were on board with the idea of rejecting Papal authority, reading the Bible in English, smuggling Lutheran books in from Antwerp and so on. But Anne could never have referred to any of them, or to herself, as Protestants. The word wasn’t coined until three years after her death, and only began catching on in England around the time of Elizabeth’s accession. “Lutheran” or “reformer” or “new religion” will have to do for this one.

4. There was no flexibility in titles. Women did not style themselves Mistress Anne one day and Lady Anne the next like teenage girls trying out different spellings of their names. Titles had very specific meanings and fouling one up would be like forgetting the name of someone you’ve known since kindergarten (not to mention considerably more socially risky).

5. There was no stepmother. The original mistake was Agnes Strickland’s, and it’s hard to blame earlier novelists for following her, but it’s been cleared up for a long time and there’s really no excuse now.

6. There was no sixth finger, nor was there a wen. Eric Ives has studied the subject exhaustively and has concluded that at most she may have had a bit of a double nail on one finger, but certainly nothing considered disfiguring or ominous. If you want a quick, easy and accurate way to make your Anne Boleyn novel stand out from the crowd, all you have to do is give her the standard-issue five fingers on each hand and jettison that ubiquitous hanging sleeve. That’s all. Boleyn novelists have had to work harder and harder in the last decade to put a new spin on a story which has been told an insane number of times, and here’s the simplest and most truthful new angle of all. No wen, no sixth finger. And speaking of which …

7. There was no witchcraft. Henry certainly spoke of Anne bewitching and cursing him in his post-arrest pity party, but she was never charged with it and there’s no indication that she was generally thought of as a witch. As a schemer, whore, temptress, raging bitch – yes, all of these verbal bouquets were laid at her feet. But never a serious accusation that she so much as visited an herbalist with an unfortunate reputation.

8. There were no hangings of anyone closely connected to Anne. A lot of unfortunate peripherals were hanged, drawn and quartered (most famously the Carthusian monks), the Nun of Kent was hanged, and Bishop Fisher’s cook was actually boiled alive, but of Fisher, More, Brereton, Norris, Weston, Smeaton and the two Boleyns, every single one was beheaded without any gothic preliminaries. This may seem like a can’t-miss, but I’ve read more than one book which had some or almost all of the men were hanged. Anne herself has never actually traded in the Sword of Calais for an eight-foot drop or a stake, but sometimes it seems like a close thing.

That it’s — eight painless changes which can make the sixteenth century seem a little bit nearer. And if Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard still can’t resist each other in the end, at least you’ll have a more historically consistent background for their doomed romance.

From → Essays

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