A UK newspaper, the Telegraph, has a hot news story—“proof” that Anne Boleyn was guilty of adultery after all! Nearly 500 years ago! A scholar has decided to give credence to a vicious contemporaneous poem which most other scholars have discounted as mere character assassination. You remember Anne Boleyn, of course. King Henry VIII of England broke with the Pope and most of Europe to put aside his first wife and marry Anne, hoping to get a male heir. Instead, he got the first major queen regnant, Elizabeth I. Of course, Henry did not know how great his daughter would be, so he had Anne arrested for multiple adulteries while she was married to him and pregnant most of the time. And then he had her executed, the first queen England ever treated so, even though other queens had been openly unfaithful. This new claim is nonsense, of course. Anne Boleyn was framed, and well-known Tudor popularizer Alison Weir has just published a book, The Lady in the Tower, which goes over each accusation against Anne and shows how impossible or unlikely adultery on those dates would have been. Coincidentally, the novel that won the UK’s Man Booker Prize for literary fiction last year was Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, which is about Thomas Cromwell, the architect of Anne’s doom. What do you bet that this novel also goes over the same questions of guilt or innocence?
I’ve talked before about how wild it is that 500 years after these people lived, thousands of us still are interested in them, indeed, deeply curious about the truth of their lives. This was brought home to me recently when I saw a concert version of the opera Boris Godunov. In it, Tsar Boris is racked with guilt over his murder of the Tsarevich that led to Boris ascending the throne. But perhaps the boy is not dead after all, for a pretender springs up to supplant Boris. That historical event happened nearly 500 years ago. And what about the mystery of the Princes in the Tower? Over 500 years ago. Is 500 the magic number? No, but it is proof that when a mystery is compelling, people still care about finding the truth, no matter how completely the story was covered up at first.
Perhaps we want to know if Anne Boleyn ever loved Henry VIII. We know he had loved her enough to move mountains. But then why did he have her judicially murdered? She was framed, no doubt about it, despite the Telegraph’s bland claim. But why do we care?
These mysteries never really go away. The people who destroy the evidence and hide the truth may get what they want. They topple governments or murder enemies, and sway multitudes. But the multitudes are always, always aware that the official story is a cover-up. And if the truth does not come out, then one by one, over the next years, decades, and centuries, every person involved in these tragedies is trotted out as the guilty perpetrator. There are people who are convinced that Lyndon Johnson ordered the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There are others who think Fidel Castro ordered it, and still others who think the Mafia did it. And on and on and on. And every once in a while, we get a lurid headline about new “proof.”
Was Anne Boleyn guilty of adultery with four men and incest with her brother while she was queen? Very unlikely, and yet people are still taking sides on it. Did Boris Godunov murder Ivan the Terrible and/or his son? Did Lee Oswald shoot a magic bullet that killed JFK or was there another shooter on the grassy knoll nearby whose better angle made his aim true? Did Richard III have the Princes in the Tower murdered, or did Buckingham do it? Or Henry VII? We still want to know the truth.
Is this the real romance of history? Not whether people loved, but what happened when love failed? What happened when people were willing to kill to attain their power goals? As much as romance today is viewed as upbeat, happy storytelling, romance historically has been about great events and tragic endings. And we still are searching for the whole truth about them.