In her new book Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies, historian Hayley Nolan exposes the full truth about the Tudor queen’s life for the first time. Five centuries after her death, is history repeating itself when it comes to female members of the royal family?
What will people say when they talk about Meghan Markle in 500 years’ time?
Hopefully – thanks to social media, digital documentation and a generally more socially advanced, new generation – Meghan’s story will be a well-rounded one, told from all angles.
Because, for too long, the truth about prominent women in history has been tweaked, or even eroded, just to fit an easier, more entertaining narrative that can be turned into a juicy film or period novel.
Elizabeth I is remembered as the virgin queen, rather than a major European power player in politics, commerce and the arts. Anne of Cleves is known as the queen who didn’t quite live up to her portrait, instead of being the smart woman who agreed to a large divorce settlement and a life without a tyrant husband. And Anne Boleyn has the reputation of being the promiscuous, sassy queen who broke up England with one slight smirk, when in fact she was a humanitarian who worked on the Poor Law.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, there is one man who is linked to all three women: Henry VIII.
It was a fascination with the power he had over these women’s lives and reputations that piqued historian Hayley Nolan’s interest into finding out what the hell was really going on. But it was one woman in particular whose true story she really wanted to get to the bottom of.
Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies is Nolan’s new book, which examines the truth of the infamous queen’s life. And guess what? It turns out that the character of a scheming seductress, who “bewitched” Henry VIII into divorcing Catherine of Aragon in order to marry her, was a work of fiction that continues to be sold to us.
Nolan says that, by spreading Anne’s true story, it will help to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself – especially in the case of Meghan, fellow female members of the royal family and women members of parliament.
So, what exactly is Anne’s real story? Nolan spoke to Stylist and ahead of the release of the book.
“This actually started out as research into Henry VIII”
This [book] actually first started because I wanted to know about Henry VIII, to understand how he could do what he did. Because the way it’s always been sold is as a love story: for seven years he fought for the woman he loved; then after another three years he just decapitated her. So I didn’t understand that. And none of the reasons and excuses that historians had given us so far made any sense for me. So that’s how I discovered the whole psychological analysis of him that I’ve included in the book. But then, obviously, the more research I did on Henry, I discovered that ‘Oh, Anne wasn’t the scheming seductress that we’ve all been fed over and over again’. So I was sidetracked by her.
“This book wouldn’t have been published five years ago”
I’m not sure this book would have been published five years ago. I think maybe people are waking up to the fact that we can stand up against the people who’ve been oppressing us, like with Me Too. What would Anne Boleyn say about Me Too? Well that’s a whole other issue…
“Henry’s court was like Hollywood”
As you find out in the book, Anne was harassed by Henry and she removed herself from court to get away from the powerful king. How Hollywood is that? Because he was [basically] in charge of her career, and her father’s and brother’s. So she had to be so delicate in letting him down gently, and not upsetting him. Is that not exactly what all the actresses have been going through with Me Too? We don’t know how far she went to placate him, I dread to think – but I don’t know. And the fact that she removed herself from court is either completely ignored and brushed over in the documentaries. But then, in the history books, this decision is given that slant of ‘oh, she was playing hard to get – when a girl says no she really means yes’.
“There was always a threat of domestic abuse”
I can’t really speak for all women under Henry’s reign, but the way he treated all people at court meant there was always that threat [of violence] because he was just so volatile: you never knew which way he was going to swing. It wasn’t a physical abuse [with Anne] – we have nothing to suggest he ever beat her or got physical, but it was mental torture. He was having affairs and saying ‘I can put you back where you belong’. He was the only one who really validated her position as queen while others tried to bring her down.
“Meghan Markle’s story is a repeat of Anne’s”
I think there are a lot of similarities between Meghan Markle and Anne. They both fell out with their fathers (granted, Anne’s father tried to stop her from getting married because he thought it was dangerous). And yes, Anne was also a humanitarian, as is Meghan – both just trying to do good and getting torn down for it. Anyone who is blasting Meghan right now needs to read this book and learn how it can end. Let’s not go down that road. Meghan sounds like a great person, a really genuine person. I don’t want to comment too much on the duchess, but there are echoes of history just repeating itself. It’s so important that we understand how history really unfolds, so that we can attempt to learn from it. That’s all I keep saying and why I end the book saying “history is watching you”.
“Anne’s story is also relevant to today’s female politicians”
Anne was a female politician: a powerful one, fighting for the people. She was the second most powerful politician of the time, second to the king. So, for example, the Poor Law that I discuss near the end of the book – no one speaks about this, ever. But she got murdered for it. And we think ‘Oh, but it was a different time back then’. No it wasn’t: look at Jo Cox. Another powerful, female politician fighting for the people – and she gets murdered. And Jess Phillips receives daily death and rape threats on Twitter. There’s also congresswoman Katie Hill over in the States who is the victim of revenge porn – and she needed to step down because of it. It’s still repeating itself, it’s still happening, we haven’t progressed as much as we think we have. We are still trying to silence the truth coming out.
“Six the Musical is so disappointing”
I was so disappointed with Six the Musical. They have Anne saying: “Politics not my thing, I just want to have some fun”. But actually she was a working politician. And then “My daddy said you should try get ahead”. No, he didn’t – he was against it! So again, wrong. The writers said they watched one documentary and read one book. I don’t know what the documentary was but the book was one of the worst ‘six wives’ gimmick books out there that put the worst spin on Anne and leaves out all the vital information. Also, it’s like #WomenArentNumbers – it’s called Six. But it does have a great beat and music.
I was thinking about the Princess Diana musical that’s coming out. If they had Diana singing, “Charity? Not my thing. I just wanna have some fun,” people would be up in arms. So why is that unacceptable but it’s OK to rewrite Anne’s history? I guess that over time she’s sort of been dehumanised in our eyes. But if it can happen to her – a queen – it can happen to anyone. This is so scary for all of us, and that people in this day and age can write what they want online as well. We’ve got to learn for ourselves that we need to do something. We just need to stop the bullshit basically. C’mon, we’re too woke now for that.
“This isn’t about #Aragon vs #Boleyn”
I’ve not researched Catherine to the extent of Anne to be able to comment too much on her. I think Anne did show respect to Catherine at first – why did she step away from court in the first place? Probably out of respect for her queen… and for her own self-respect. She’s always portrayed as the scheming smug girl who smirked at Catherine at every opportunity and taking delight in her being shoved aside and discarded. But why? I honestly don’t think that would be the case at all.
I respect Catherine for not backing down. She left her homeland of Spain to be queen of England and she had everyone attacking her from all sides, but she stayed so strong. I will never put any of the wives against each other. People are always like #TeamAragon or #TeamBoleyn – but I’m like, “Nooo!”. They were both very stubborn, in a good way, and they both deeply believed in their own causes, so you have to respect how much they fought for that.
“There are plenty of feminist lessons we can learn from Anne”
I don’t say she was a feminist, because it’s just clear that she was. She believed in equality and she didn’t let her sex hold her back. I’m sure it came into play at some point, so she was aware of it, but she didn’t let it hold her back. Her whole life is full of evidence that she was a feminist, so we can’t question ‘was she or wasn’t she’. I think anyone who wants strong powerful women as well as strong powerful men in the world is a feminist. It’s equality – not man hating.
I think we need to learn Anne’s resilience and passion: standing up for people who don’t have a voice. The Poor Law and all that work she did for it wasn’t an issue that affected her directly but people needed her help. There are so many issues today when we think ‘Oh ,that doesn’t affect me’ – but let’s be allies and step up.
“I don’t think she’d have done anything differently”
All the wives intrigue me. Jane Seymour is fascinating, which is why she gets a mention in the book. Because we need to know why, as a woman, she would be willing to do what she did to Anne. So her backstory starts to make sense and you get her motivation. So, they all fascinate me, but I’m sticking with Anne. I will not stop until her truth is as mainstream as the lies. No one knows that she died fighting for the people. There is that point where, after the Poor Law, she could have scaled it back a bit and toed the line. But then again, why should she wait? They were clearly going to get her anyway. It’s like a fight to the death at that point – go down shouting and screaming for your cause. She could have stepped back and tried to live longer, but what’s the point in living longer when you’re living a lie? I don’t think she would or should have done anything differently.
Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies by Hayley Nolan is published on 1 December 2019.
Nolan will be holding a launch event on the book’s release date. You can find information on tickets here.
Images: Supplied by publisher, Getty