Why Anne Boleyn doesn’t deserve her bad reputation
January 25, 2020

For most people, Anne Boleyn simply appeared at the Tudor court one day, an ice-hearted villain ready to smarm and smirk her way into history.

The dark-haired beauty became the second wife of England’s King Henry VIII on this day in 1533, and for the 487 years since has been painted as a power-hungry seductress who pursued the crown and lived a cruel and scandalous existence.

But everything we’ve been told about Boleyn, who only ruled as queen for three years before her husband ordered her beheading, is a lie, according to Tudor historian Hayley Nolan.

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Everything we believe about Anne Boleyn is a lie, according to historian Hayley Nolan.Source:News Limited

Ms Nolan’s book, Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies, is part biography and part historical expose, challenging the conventional sources often used to explore Boleyn’s life while highlighting her humanitarian, religious and political efforts that often go forgotten.

“We have an overwhelming amount of sixteenth century reports of Anne, by supporters and enemies alike, that confirm her activism and religious zeal,” Ms Nolan told news.com.au.

After four years of research, she found that the generally accepted image of Boleyn might not be the royal reality.

“Anne was not the smarmy and smug, cold-hearted scheming seductress we’ve so often been assured she was, in everything from sixteenth-century propaganda to modern-day mass-market history. Nor was she the ruthless mistress with lofty yet empty ambition, as she is repeatedly dismissed as being in the Tudor biographies”.

Below, Ms Nolan has unpacked three of the biggest misconceptions about one of the most controversial women in history.


Far from her father pushing her to seduce the king, as is often stated, Ms Nolan found that Boleyn actually left the royal court for a year in order to escape Henry VIII’s unwanted advances.

While much has been made of the love letters Henry wrote to his future wife, within them he accused Boleyn of ignoring him and failing to return his affections.

“Not only that, we have letters from the Spanish ambassador within the Tudor court, Eustace Chapuys, reporting that Anne’s father Thomas Boleyn was actually against her marriage to Henry VIII and tried to stop it at one stage,” Ms Nolan said, who added that this wasn’t surprising.

By the time Boleyn began her affair with the king, her father had been a successful royal diplomat for 20 years, and, “what he needed was to protect the king from breaking the delicate international and political ties his marriage with first wife, Katherine of Aragon, brought,” the author said.

Anne Boleyn was courted by Henry VIII for a long period of time.Source:Supplied

King Henry VIII reprimanded his future second wife for failing to return his affections.Source:istock


Another “major misconception” about Boleyn is why she accepted Henry VIII’s proposal of marriage, said Ms Nolan.

It wasn’t for “glory or prestige”, as we’re often led to believe, but to help the religious reformation that was tearing through Europe, led by the likes of German whistleblower Martin Luther.

“We have evidence from as early as 1530, three years before her marriage to the king, that proves Anne was using the title of ‘Queen’ to recuse religious refugees, who were getting in trouble with the Catholic authorities while campaigning for English bibles and calling out the abuses of the church,” she said.

This was an action Boleyn repeated “over and over again” in long lists of amnesty throughout her reign.

Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn in TV series ‘Wolf Hall’ was portrayed as being part of an ambitious and social-climbing family.Source:Supplied


The most damaging part of Boleyn’s story, said Ms Nolan, is the way historians, writers and producers “spin the murder of a woman at the hands of her husband as a ‘love story’ where the killer gets called ‘romantic’ and the victim is called a ‘scheming seductress’”.

“Almost all depictions put a victim blaming twist on the king’s harassment of Anne Boleyn by labelling his year-long predatorial pursuit of her as ‘love letters’, while her running away and turning him down gets called a ‘calculated tactic’ and strategy’,” she said.

The method by which Henry assured Boleyn’s death has been suggested by some to indicate his fondness for her. Decapitation, it’s argued, was a swift and pain-free method of dispatch for someone found guilty of adultery and incest.

But death by sword doesn’t impress Ms Nolan who said, “the manner with which a man kills his wife does not prove his love for her,” who called this portrayal of their relationship a "disgusting rhetoric”.

Natalie Portman portrayed Anne Boleyn as a scheming temptress in ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’.Source:News Corp Australia

Ms Nolan sees parallels between the understanding of Boleyn and Henry VIII’s relationship and the ways in which modern media report on cases of domestic homicide.

“Tabloid headlines often have similar victim-blaming and apologist undertones that the perpetrator ‘was the perfect husband … until he killed his nagging wife!’” she said.

“Even if people try and say (the Tudor) period was a different time – no it wasn’t. It’s always trying to discredit the victim when actually we need to be defending the victim – that’s why we can’t dismiss the romanticisation of Anne’s story. It filters down and has effect.”

All of these misconceptions about Boleyn are problematic to modern audiences and readers, Ms Nolan said.

Leaving the queen’s current reputation unchanged would be giving future generations “a distorted view of the world” by the censoring the truth,” she added.

“By telling them the only women who achieved power schemed their way to the top and were evil.

“This is still happening, and this is why we need to learn what really happened, in order to make sure history never repeats itself again.”