Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 6, 2013

Channeling Anne Boleyn


It’s total Tudor Immersion for me lately.  How can we help but be continually drawn to the high drama of this era?  In June I saw Henry VIII at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater; I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall; and next up on my Netflix queue is the TV series on the Tudors.  How many other books, films, and TV productions have we seen about the iconic English Henry’s, Annes, Elizabeths and Thomases?   Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth R captivated me as a girl, and I’ve been hooked on her family ever since.


The most fascinating figure to many of us, after Elizabeth I, is her mother Anne Boleyn, the virgin-or-vixen — a stereotype since ancient times.  Writers love to imagine Anne in extremes:  as either the schemer who caused Henry’s divorce from Katherine, or the innocent girl who just happened to catch the king’s eye and become unwittingly ensnared in his mission.  Like most cases, the truth is probably somewhere in between – or off to the side of both.  What we know for sure is that she paid with her life for the crime of not producing a male heir for Henry.  The irony of her daughter’s long and marvelous rule has kept Anne’s story resonant for generations of feminists.


What fascinates me most about any period that pre-dates photography is that we simply have a hard time imagining the reality of the day-to-day life of the people who lived it.  We love realism today – historical fiction that gives us such details as what people ate, wore, and ailed from.  Watching shows like the wonderful HBO series on John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti, or period films such as Shakespeare in Love, can help give us glimpses of how life must have been, but we can never know what it was really like to live long ago, what it felt like.  Plus any book or film created today is always at least a little bit tainted by our own biases.

intwebWhat would each day have been like for Anne Boleyn as she waited year after year to become Henry’s wife and then, after giving birth to a daughter, waited to see if she would survive?  I can’t begin to imagine it.  What did any women of the court do as the days stretched out before them, especially during the winters when even walking outside was unthinkable?  What amused them?  What tasks, if any, were they responsible for?  Many played music, learned languages, or sewed samplers, that’s evident.  Some accounts say Anne loved gambling at card games.  We have anecdotal notes in books and documents, but no one really knows for sure how they passed the many hours of life in the cold stone halls.  Unlike today’s bloggers and Facebook legions who post daily their every thought, purchase, and meal, people of the 1500s had only paper and pens, if that.  And most were illiterate.

Wondering about the life of Anne Boleyn and the women of her time prompted the following poem.  I used ideas from Hilary Mantel’s perspective in Wolf Hall, as well as from Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and her poem, “Siren’s Song,” to conjure what Anne Boleyn might have to say to us today if she could speak.  Her final words, supposedly recorded in the tower, include many references to God, but the poem attempts to capture another strand of thought that she no doubt had in less pious moments.

Anne Boleyn Attempts a Voice, Again

How many have imagined and re-imagined it?

What it was, the sum of my years at Court,

tried to insert themselves into my skin

and see through my shrewd black eyes

all that I saw and did not see in those

plague-infested, rat-filled,

ever damp and leaking halls?

—-1 Women using the reel, 1400s

Here we are once again, I see.

The presumption of anyone to know

what it was! To aptly sense the boredom,

the tunnel of time black and shadowed

in locked chambers behind chambers

of chambers with my wretched sister

and the endless stream of stitching maids.


Do you see the razor’s edge at my feet

dividing pride and humiliation –

knowing that all who lived saw me as

unworthy interloper, puppet of my father,

beguiler of the king, usurper of the throne?

And whore, of course, but what woman wasn’t

who saw the reins and tried to grab them?


Yes, I was made of pale flesh and my heartHenryVIII-CC

beat as fast as yours. It is all you can know,

no matter how far you pry behind

time’s million-stitched and faded arras.

The histories set down by men –

exalting or damning Wolsey or my father

or Henry himself – paint me as they will.


Had I written it myself in the end, been given

a pen and been asked, been thought capable

of telling it, been thought honest enough,

a girl-woman like any whose grandmother

may have had a serpent’s tail beneath her skirts

or a teethed hole between her legs –

still you would not begin to know.


How could I write the chill of constant fear,Tower-of-London

waiting for reprieve or annihilation

in equal measure? Three short years I had

to live as queen: to write, speak, command

as Henry’s equal. How I worked to bear

a healthy son. How those who came to

bow for me soon clamored for my blood.


Might I have coveted the throne, fine-cut

emeralds, pearls the size of thrush eggs

draped across my neck? Which of you would not?

And who would not tremble at the thought

of the Tower and its axe? To see good men

tortured for defending you? I am but one

of many who saw such things, felt the blade.


It is so easy to pity such a woman.eliz1-scrots

So easy, too, to envy and malign, to accuse:

She made her bed. Much harder to imagine

my slight frame as both spider and fly,

as were we all in that cold, dark place –

its whispering halls the webs that would

finally ensnare us all, save only one.


But for my name I would have been

elsewhere, my child some other child.

This is all that remains of me: a mere

oxcart fated to deliver a queen. So be it.

It is all you ever need to know, but this:

Life is fleeting; power more fleeting still.

I faced my executioner and smiled.


  1. Thought provoking…

  2. Enjoyed this piece — thanks!

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