The life of Anne Boleyn is well-known – her lethal fame, the circumstances of her downfall; her public death: the French sword, her bloody denouement. Her queenly career is well-known: bearing the brunt of England’s hatred, riding to her coronation through a rain of spittle and jeers. Her husband is well-known: broad and muscular, red and gold, marbled with fat – a royal butcher. Henry VIII was still young, and for a while had hopes that his dark wife would bear him a son.
And Anne did bear him a child – but a girl. And she is well-known, too. Pale and angular, with intellectual energies burning her into a skeleton, Elizabeth grew to be a brilliant ruler, a devastating opponent, a maddening personality. But that would be in the future. When she lay at Anne’s side, flushed and swaddled, she was only a disappointment.
The face of Anne Bolen is well-known: the eyes as feral and dangerous as a jungle, the currents of black hair that flowed down her back like a thick, depthless river, the skin that her admirers called ‘olive’ and her detractors described as ‘jaundiced’.
Her career was infamous – tantalizing, tormenting and teen-aged, a spirited girl moving with ease through the predatory courts of Francis I and Henry VIII. Without shame, and full of spirit, amongst the young men she was the stuff of legend.
Anne’s death is known to all – the first ‘beheaded’ in the old litany of Henry’s wives: ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died…Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’. Her request for a sword, a blade with would swipe quickly through her neck. The moment when she grasped her neck between her hands, telling her handlers that she had ‘but a little neck’. Her hair piled in careful cords by her ladies, so as not to impede the headsman’s work.
These images are familiar. But they are still things that are read, stationary visions framed by words in a book. There is nothing that makes the miraculous leap from page to heart. There is nothing that will place Anne Boleyn within the warmth, the closeness of your mind.
Sometimes it is a small thing that will bring a distant tragedy, to brilliant, thrilling life.
Witnesses to Anne’s beheading say that before she knelt before the block, she repeatedly looked behind her. A simple act – but something that can be shared; it is something we all do, not a thing only relegated to a doomed queen.
What did she see? What did she hear? Did she hear her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, in the crowds? Did she see him – the glint of his chain of office? Did she think she heard a messenger – perhaps with the king’s reprieve? Did she hear the soft weeping of her ladies?
And suddenly, at the end of her life, Anne Boleyn suddenly comes alive. And we are suddenly near her, pressed against the scaffold, holding handkerchiefs aloft, reading to catch the blood of a tragic, misjudged queen.