Academic journal article Parergon

Anne of the Wicked Ways: Perceptions of Anne Boleyn as a Witch in History and in Popular Culture

Academic journal article Parergon

Anne of the Wicked Ways: Perceptions of Anne Boleyn as a Witch in History and in Popular Culture

Article excerpt

Opinions about Anne Boleyn (1501/07-1536) have always been polarizing. Chiefly, as the mother of the Protestant Elizabeth I, she was hailed as a promoter of religious reform and as a 'zealous defender [...] of Christ's Gospel'. (1) John Aylmer, Bishop of London (1521-1594), went so far as to refer to the late Queen as 'the chief, first, and only cause of the banishing the beast of Rome with all his beggarly baggage'. He even compared her to the Biblical Queen Esther. (2) But to her detractors, Anne Boleyn was likened to a much different figure from the Old Testament--the wicked Jezebel. As the very 'scandal of Christendom', (3) she was blamed for destroying Henry VIII's first marriage and for severing the English Church from Rome.

Having exerted such influence, Anne Boleyn is often suggested by modern authors to have been, or been perceived by contemporaries to have been, a witch. References to her as a raven-haired sorceress with an extra finger who enticed Henry VIII to her bed through 'sortileges and charms' are abundant, and they continue to appear in both the academic and popular press. Susan Doran's recent scholarly Elizabeth I and Her Circle (2015) made mention of Anne Boleyn having 'the physical characteristics of a witch', while Hilary Mantel's widely read novel Wolf Hall (2009) had Anne referred to as one putting the King 'under an enchantment'. (4) The notion of Anne Boleyn as a witch has even drawn the attention of modern science. Biologist Nessa Carey, in discussing the effect of protein-coding genes upon tissue development in her book Junk DNA (2015), refers to Anne's alleged deformed hand that had her sounding like the '16th-century image of a witch' to the Queen's contemporaries, as Carey puts it. (5) Popular culture too has been eager to embrace this depiction of the Queen. In the 2001 film adaptation of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Anne's portrait can be seen hanging at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, while at the 2009 Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, a 'Witch's Garden', stocked with 'aphrodisiacs, fertility and other potions', was created in her honour. (6) An Anne-inspired perfume, scented with strawberry like 'the birthmark that condemned her as a witch', can even be purchased online. (7)

Despite the wealth of material tying Anne Boleyn to witchcraft, no extant evidence indicates that she was ever branded a witch in her own lifetime. From the time she first drew attention as the King's mistress in 1526 to her death on the scaffold ten years later, disapproval of Anne was chiefly about her supposed sexual immorality. While her reputation would come--as expected--to be somewhat restored with the accession of Elizabeth I, she was still perceived as a lady of dissolute living by those still hostile to her memory. By the twentieth century however, Anne's infamy took on a new form--she was indeed the evil sorceress she ought to have been. Beginning in the 1930s, writers of historical fiction in particular were eager to build up this notion. While academics too would contribute to the creation of Anne Boleyn's new alter ego over time, it was largely those engaged in popular media--authors of historical fictions and romances, and film and television script writers--who would be responsible for creating 'Anne the witch'. Their output will be considered here to chart the evolution of the Queen from a seductress--a view that was commonly advanced by contemporaries--to a witch. This essay argues that Anne Boleyn as a sorceress is in fact a relatively recent concept--a twentieth- and twenty-first-century perception developed by modern writers and historians, and perpetuated in popular culture. More so, these mainstream perceptions of Anne as a witch have undoubtedly coloured factual presentations of her life, so much that some modern historians--though they do not believe that Anne Boleyn was actually a witch--are nonetheless certain that she was taken as one for centuries after her death. …

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