It’s May 19th, the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution. I thought today would be a good day to offer an excerpt from my book The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters about Anne’s enduring and unjustified reputation as a home-wrecking whore:
Bearing the historical facts in mind, what exactly did Anne do to be slut shamed for the next five centuries? She refused to date a married man until she knew he was getting a divorce. She refused to have sex with her fiancée until he put a ring on her finger. She gave birth to a daughter and had two miscarriages (perhaps three). All the evidence shows she was innocent of the adultery and incest of which she was accused. What on earth did she do that was oh-so-slutty?
Like any good slut shaming narrative, what she did is not as important as the cultural motif she can be shoehorned into. Any of her actions that flat-out contradict her supposed harlotry are ignored or dismissed. She refused to date a married king? Well, since Henry VIII didn’t reward his mistresses as handsomely as did other royals, “it cannot be considered an act of great virtue that Anne showed no eagerness to become the king’s mistress” (Friedmann, 1884). Remained chaste? She was just keeping Henry entangled in her guileful web. Got her head chopped off? It’s implicitly her fault for “miscarrying of her savior” (Lipscomb, 2009); if she had given Henry a son then he wouldn’t have had to look for a reason to kill her. Sluts, as everyone knows, get what’s coming to them.
Even Henry’s actions were her fault. Inasmuch as Henry “frequently made a public fool of himself in his fervor for Anne and his love for her” (Norton, 2011), Anne has been blamed for “making” the king act like a buffoon. Much of the hatred of Anne Boleyn in her own time stems from the fact that a “love-struck middle-aged man was an unsettling sight. When that ageing man was a king … the uneasiness grew, for here was an all-powerful being in thrall to a woman … the obvious way to absolve that feeling of unseemliness in the spectator was to blame Anne”. (Dunn, 2007).
Everyone blamed Anne. Katherina blamed Anne for Henry’s desire for a divorce. Wolsey blamed Anne for his political and economic losses, not the king and certainly not his own actions. Chapuys blamed Anne for the schism between Catholicism and England, not the actions of the Holy See that had inspired an entire reform movement throughout Europe. Princess Mary blamed Anne for the king’s emotional cruelty toward his once pampered eldest child. A large chunk of the population blamed her for Henry’s lusts. It must have been very hard for the English when Anne was dead, because she took the ultimate scapegoat with her to the grave.
Anne’s true crimes were not those of sexual impropriety, but those of gender inversion. She was too “masculine” to be a good girl. A man — a king no less — fell in love with her and acted “feminine” in his adoration, which had to have been her fault somehow. She was too smart to be discounted, and she was determined to bring about religious reform that would flout the existing conventions. Like other evangelical women she was outspoken about her religious opinions. She made a mockery of the status quo.
Anne Boleyn is a slut because she had a vagina and a strong will.