Did Anne Boleyn have to die?

When I came back to the Ottawa library, I didn’t quite know what I was looking for, so I just roamed around the shelves and picked up random books that caught my eye and read their book jackets. The two books I ended up leaving with were The School of Night by Louis Bayard and At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Clinard Barnhill.

The School of Night     At the Mercy of the Queen

The two books are pretty different: The School of Night is set in dual time periods – modern day America and 16th century England – and talks about the scientific workings of Thomas Harriot and his assistant and lover. At the Mercy of the Queen is also set in 16th century England, follows the story of Anne Boleyn’s cousin and her time at the court of Henry the VIII and the Goggle Eyed Whore. Interestingly enough, while the subject of the books are nothing alike, the principal female characters are both named Margaret, and they had quite a lot in common. Both Margarets were strong, independent female characters (although they probably would have argued over the definitions of strong and independent). Both were scarcely remembered by historians, which only has a little to do with the fact that Margaret Crookenshanks was a fictional character and Margaret Shelton was often distinguished from her supposed sister Mary Shelton before it was discovered that the two were in fact one person. Finally, both Margarets intrigued me enough with their stories that I couldn’t help but spend hours researching the context of the books afterwards.

While Thomas Harriot’s work was – erm… interesting? – there’s a reason I didn’t choose to become a science major. A girl can only read so much of Snell’s Law, spherical trigonometry and decrepit algebra before it’s time for bed. And since Harriot’s love Margaret was only a figment of Bayard’s imagination, there really was not much material of interest to me in the chronicles of Thomas Harriot.

The reign of Henry the VIII, on the other hand – I could stay in that forest for hours. I’d always been fascinated with the story of Henry and his six wives, especially that of Anne Boleyn, and had watched and read countless documentaries and accounts on the matter before reading At the Mercy of the Queen. And while the novel saw Margaret Shelton as the main character, it served to spark reignite my interest not in this one of many mistresses of the king, but rather the tangled web of seduction, deceit and dangers that was the English court, and along with it, a question:

Did Anne Boleyn have to die?

The second wife of Henry the VIII, Anne Boleyn, is by far the most famous, and her story the most bewildering. Having served as Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon’s maid of honour, when Henry pursued Anne and attempted to make her his mistress, she refused. This was most likely because Henry had taken Anne’s sister Mary as his mistress before.

“I knew what he did to my sister – tiring of her once he’d been invited into her bed. Marrying her off to William Carey, a mere nobody. Of course, once the sweating sickness claimed Carey, poor Mary has had to beg her bread… And her boy, Henry? What is he but another Fitzroy? Another royal bastard! No, I could not face a fate like Mary’s. So I tried to create something different. I tried to find a way where there was no way.”

– Anne Clinard Barnhill, At the Mercy of the Queen

Anne’s way involved rebuffing the King’s sexual advances and returning all of his gifts. She refused to become his mistress, and insisted that she would only sleep with him as his wife. For seven years, Henry’s pursuit of Anne continued, so did his passion, until finally he annuled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and broke the Church of England from Rome in 1533, marrying Anne.

Such actions had never before been performed by a King, and over a woman no less. Henry had literally moved Heaven and Earth for his new queen. So why was it that, only three years later, her head was on the chopping block?

The fact that Anne had fallen out of the King’s favour was not altogether surprising. Henry went through women like a kid goes through Halloween candy, and Anne’s fire and tendency to talk back, while enticing as a mistress, would have been irritating as a wife. Furthermore, just like Catherine before her, Anne had been unable to give Henry the son he desperately needed, and Henry’s new lover Jane was young and fertile. But even if he no longer wished to be married to Anne, there were a variety of ways which he could have disposed her without physically separating her head from her body.

When Catherine of Aragon had become disfavoured, Henry had first asked that she retire quietly to a nunnery. Even when she vehemently opposed this and stirred up trouble in the country with her supporters, he had done little more than banish her from court. So what was so different about Anne Boleyn that she had to be accused of treason, adultery and incest, and beheaded?

It could be possible that Henry truly believed in the charges put on Anne. There are theories that Thomas Cromwell had thought up the entire plot himself and simply got the King to swallow it. Easy to anger, if Henry had thought his wife betrayed him, ordering her dead would be natural.

More likely Henry had hatched the plan for Anne’s death with Cromwell. He had overturned the entire country for her sake, and she had been unable to perform her one duty – bear him a son. Also, as Henry aged, he had become volatile and most likely suffered from Cushing’s syndrome, a hormonal disease. After his fall from a horse at a jousting tournament, he is said to have suffered brain damage. As a result, his mental state during Anne’s reign was considerably worse than during Catherine’s.

Anne Boleyn definitely didn’t have to die. While it can be argued that she was over-ambitious in wanting to become Queen of England, it is undeniable that at the time of her death, she was simply a victim of the King’ fury and undiagnosed mental disorder.

It’s nice to do nothing.

The first term of uni was a lot busier than expected. I specifically chose this program because I thought it would give me some downtime, but I definitely got caught in the hustle-and-bustle of it all. Classes weren’t too difficult, but extra-curriculars sponged up all my excess time.

Which is why Christmas Break is such a godsend. This is the first break where I don’t feel the impulse to have to work on something academic. It feels pretty great. It’s nice to do nothing.

Now there are those words my mother would probably swat me for if I ever uttered them in her presence. Your time is so valuable and so limited – by doing nothing with it, you’re wasting it.

But are you really? Because doing nothing never really happens, does it?

A friend once told me that no one can stand absolute silence. They did an experiment in the US where they led people inside a 99.99% sound absorbent room. The longest a person managed to survive there was 45 minutes. We are unable to stand the concept of nothing.

In casual conversation, “doing nothing” is akin to simply relaxing, which is arguably extremely constructive. It is through relaxing that we stop and remember all those passions we put on the backburner, and all those dreams we set aside to pursue that one big project dominating our lives. Because even if you’ve dedicated your life to something you love, there is no way that you love just one thing.

This past term, I didn’t go to the library once. My proof of residence is still sitting at the bottom of a folder somewhere, waiting for the day I’ll take the time out of my schedule to make the trek out there. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I downloaded an eBook app on my phone and read from that every night, but the fluorescent light from a phone just isn’t the same as the creamy pages of a well-worn paperback.

Residence life is great, but it also hampers my creativity. Constant interruptions are fine when resumé writing, but for other things, sometimes a train of thought can’t be recaptured when cut short. I’ve missed having hours of unhampered solitude, to fill and reshape into whatever I wanted.

It’s not just your hobbies. It’s amazing how all those little things you didn’t have time for can suddenly fill up your entire day. Having long talks with the family, learning to knit, sew and hem, picking up the piano again after four years, all those small pieces make up a peaceful sort of happiness. It’s a nice reminder of all the things you hold dear.

My two most recent reads have been Wish You Were Italian by Kristin Rae and The School of Night by Louis Bayard. The former is about a young schoolgirl rebelling from her home and travelling to Italy to live out her dream of becoming a photographer, while the latter is about a disgraced scholar who is reluctantly led into uncovering the treasure left by a forgotten scientist with a mysterious legacy. Can you guess which one’s the YA novel? Surprisingly, I think I like the other one better. Does this mean I’m maturing? Ew.

Wish You Were ItalianThe School of Night

Chapter 1 – Message to Burn

My dearest child,

            If I were a fraction of the parent I should be, I would start with an apology. I might say something sentimental about not being able to pick up a pen for the last ten years because the thought of communicating anything to you after what I had done terrified me. I might even try to justify my actions and explain what happened once and for all. But I think it’s already been established that I’m a failure as a human being as well as a parent, so I won’t do any of that. It’s not really as if I could anyway: there are certain things that, even now I can’t – and won’t – explain. Like always, you’re only going to be getting the bare necessities… if I can even give you that much.

            Something’s going to happen in this decade that will change the world as you know it. I can’t tell you what it is (I know, what else is new), but when the timing is right, someone else will. Wait for him, and when you are needed, he will tell you what you must do. Don’t let your feelings cloud your judgment, Tara – this information is much greater than just us.

Your mother,

Lydia

If anyone were in the bar watching the girl as she read the letter, they might not have noticed anything amiss. The slight quake of the fingers grasping the paper was mediated by the complete stillness from the rest of her hands up to her forearms. The lines of her upper body streamline into the slant of one leg stretched onto the bench in front of her, the other dangling girlishly from her seat. Up until she sprang up and abruptly thrust the letter into the fire, she had been the epitome of feminine composure.

The girl’s mind, however, was far from still. The bitterness of years of anguish had stewed into a hatred and disgust so powerful it threatened to choke her. Lydia’s warning, she thought, was as useless as the rest of her. Did her mother think that writing a letter, her of all people, writing a letter, would validate anything? The age where Tara hung onto her every word like a devoted, stupid lapdog were long over. Thinking about it, her fists clenched, nails digging into the flesh of her palms. They drew blood, but she didn’t notice. Whatever this plan was, she would decide for herself whether she wanted to take part. ‘Don’t let your feelings cloud your judgment’… how dare she? Those accusations were invalidated simply because they had come from her mouth.

Halting, Tara forced herself to release all the tension from her body with a sigh. There was no point, she decided, in getting riled up over garbage. She had much more important things to do.

Her eyes focused on something in the distance, and in the next second the lone girl in the bar had disappeared, leaving only the cracking of the fire and the door still swinging on its hinges.