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 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.