One of the many things that I hate is the double-standard that exists between Jane and Anne Boleyn. Whereas Anne Boleyn is finally given her due and seen as a woman who stood against the forces of Catholicism and her rival’s powerful friends, her successor is seen as a drab and unattractive and almost no one tries to say the contrary. I mean why should we? She was the bitch who got poor Anne Boleyn killed. It was Henry who permitted it, but if Jane, that drab and meek, passive fat and ugly bitch had never gotten in his way, then he would have never wavered from his loving wife.
This is all fun and romantic and the type of fairy tale I loved when I was a kid, before reality came crushing down on me and I realized that fairy tales were not only untrue, but a bunch of bull-shit designed to keep people content, regardless of what are the state of things.
Jane was not beautiful. She was not outspoken, or alluring, or exotic. But guess what? Neither was Anne Boleyn. The Anne Boleyn we are presented with today is drop-dead gorgeous. A vivacious, young and beautiful woman who is ahead of her times. Starkey wonders how a woman such as her could have ever enchanted Henry. Henry is reported to have said after he married Jane that he saw two beautiful courtiers and he looked at them with regret. Perhaps the King did regret his decision to marry Jane but it was too late to turn back time. Or, he looked at his next conquests as Licence theorizes in her latest book about the many mistresses and six wives of Henry VIII. We will never known and we cannot defend Anne Boleyn in all good conscience and say what fault did she have, when she was only doing what she could to survive, rejecting the King’s advances until she couldn’t because he was becoming too much of a stalker and so, she had to accept his suit and even though she said things that might seem appalling to us about Katherine of Aragon, she said them in haste and desperation after she had become frustrated that Katherine wasn’t being reasonable and accepting for all their sakes’ the course of action that Campeggio offered of becoming an Abbess. Of course Katherine of Aragon is defended in this point as well, historians and fictional authors alike stressing that she would not -and could not- abandon a position that she believed was meant for her or pre-ordained by God Himself. Whether or not this is what Katherine believed and whether or not Anne was pushed into that position, the fact of the matter is that we cannot claim we are giving these women justice when we are ready to be ‘mean girls’ to Jane Seymour, a woman who played the same game as Anne and who was also not attractive, just because of the way Anne died.
Anne did not deserve her death. Certainly, even her rivals such as the Savoyard and Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys admitted it when he related to the Emperor days after her death how brave she was in the face of her demise, and he expressed deep admiration for the woman he had once called ‘Concubine’. Anna Whitelock in her biography of Mary Tudor, England’s first Queen Regnant mentions that during Anne Boleyn’s last days she told Master Kingston and his wife how sorry she was for the ill treatment of the Lady Mary and told them to go and visit her to tell her she was sorry. As Whitelock puts it, it is not clear what Mary thought, we can assume based on her reluctance years earlier not to acknowledge her as her father’s true wife and stay loyal to her mother. But perhaps Mary did forgive her as she must have believed as many of her enemies did, that the accusations against her were false.
“We cannot possibly know what Jane may or may not have felt about Anne’s death -there are no accounts of their personal feelings- just as we do not truly know if Anne felt any sympathy for Katherine when she usurped her. Both women had ambitions and played their own personal games of seduction.
As with Eustace, we must accept that there are nuanced shades of grey in between the black and white depictions of these two figures.” (Mackay)
The accusations were without a doubt false, but to lay the blame on the Seymours, a not-so-prominent family (as Anne’s maternal one, the Howards), a family of evil, who did not seem to mind installing their puppet as their Queen, their vessel to give the King his long-awaited heir is not only unfair but hypocritical. Could Anne have said no to the king, a stalker whom she tried to avoid for so many years until she saw no other choice but to accept his advances when she realized she could have no better prospects and that further refusal would have been political death for her family? Of course not. It is unfair to accuse Anne of being a temptress. Then why do we apply the same treatment to Jane? Is it because deep down we really want to extol one woman to near Christian status. Does some Christian values still exist deep within us, or some religious-like feeling (which scares me) where we want to see some people as messianic or heroic? Life would be easier if it all narrows down between good and evil but life is not that easy. If there were only two sides or “dos sopas” as we say in my native country, then voila! Let’s all choose the side of good and go with it!
But that’s not how things work. There are always more than two sides to every story.
Jane played by Anne’s same rules. Anne was a victim of Henry’s wooing and ambitions much as Jane was of his, and of course her family’s, but was Anne’s family not ambitious? Anne’s brother as Ridgway and Cherry point out was not this philandering fool that was depicted in “The Tudors” but a hardworking man who never missed parliament. Whose attendance was really spectacular.
Similarly, Edward Seymour was equally hardworking and before Jane became the object of the King’s desire, he was rising through the ranks and became the star of his family ever since he got knighted in the Italian Wars when he and other young men eager for fame, went to fight with the royal forces to France where a select few were knighted for their valor by the Duke of Suffolk and among these few was none other than Ned Seymour. Of course Ned in his new position was eager to promote the new religion as his predecessor George Boleyn and just as he, he was invested in looking the part of the courtier. He was not a poet, but he was a good solider and politician and like with George Boleyn he was not without his flaws. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (then Lord Lisle) was outspoken against Ned Seymour when he agreed with Henry VIII to go into Scotland and steal the toddler Queen of Scots from under her mother’s noses. The poor toddler had just lost her father and was not yet crowned, such a thing in John Dudley who was a dedicated family man as Ned Seymour, was barbaric and he successfully convinced most of the men in the privy council against such actions.
Ned would not be dissuaded however and the Scottish wars he invested on weighed greatly on the country. As a man however he was quite shy and not as blunt or someone who enjoyed cruelty as depicted in “The Tudors” and his second wife Anne Stanhope was in fact very loyal to him and she was the only who advocated for his release (when not even his remaining brother, Henry Seymour would) and the two loved each other dearly and had a plethora of children. Yet Ned Seymour’s true mistake was in being too popular and “too lenient” as William Seymour and Leanda de Lisle in their respective biographies of the Seymours and the Grey Sisters, demonstrate with the commons. While he showed great favor and clemency to the commons and wanted to show them great favor, he was alternatively arrogant with the nobles and this was a big no-no when you wanted to keep your head in an age where the nobles’ favor mattered more than the commons.
Of course this is the story no one wants to hear because it destroys the fantasy of Anne Boleyn, of the villain Jane Seymour, of the fairy tale we need so hard to believe because if we don’t what can we believe in? Who or for which woman can we root for?
The answer is simple. Let us root for ourselves, our friends, our communities and our loved ones. As humans we are capable of creating great things or screwing things up big time. We are all walking contradictions and the Tudors and the courtiers that lived alongside of them were no different.
So if we are going to defend Anne, we should try and put ourselves in Jane’s as well. Could anyone really say no to the King? And if they had, as we saw with Anne, that would have meant the political death of her family and when Henry was keen on getting what he wanted -what he viewed should have been his- you as a woman had no other choice. Women did not have it easy; Anne could not say no to Henry’s advances. She tried but Henry kept on going and Jane, whether or not she thought badly on Anne, could not have said no either. But perhaps it is the eternal struggle of pitting one woman against other that has become so appealing and prevented us from seeing the truth. Anne and Jane have been reduced to the roles of the heroine-martyr and the scheming woman.
- Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the Writings of the Spanish Ambassador Estauce Chapuys by Lauren Mackay
- Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen by Anna Whitelock
- Six Wives of Henry VIII by David Starkey
- Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives
- Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A feminist reinterpretation of the six wives of Henry VIII by Karen Lindsey
- George Boleyn: Tudor, Poet, Courtier and Diplomat by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway
- Anne Boleyn Collection by Claire Ridgway
- Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
- Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s True Love by Elizabeth Norton
- Jane Seymour by David Loades
- Ordeal by Ambition by William Seymour
- Sisters Who Would be Queen by Leanda de Lisle