Confession: I spend way too much time thinking about the Tudors.
It started when I was probably about 12 and I happened upon Robin Maxwell’s novel, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn at my local Walden Books. Not knowing who Anne Boleyn was but thinking secret diaries sounded cool, I snapped it up. I learned the broad strokes of her life: that Anne Boleyn was the second wife of the notorious King Henry VIII of England, that their relationship scandalized and alienated the English people and caused Henry to divorce the Catholic Church (for not letting him divorce his first wife), and that he eventually had her beheaded when she didn’t give him a son.
The novel’s perception of Boleyn is largely positive, showing her as a trapped woman struggling for a voice. I would come to learn that this positivity puts it in the minority of things written about her. While I wouldn’t suggest getting your historical information from novels, I can say that because of this novel, I was predisposed to be skeptical of the predominant vision of Boleyn that I found when I started diving into the actual history. Many major historical works and other films/novels have something in common: they hate Anne Boleyn. In fact, hating Anne Boleyn is something of a publishing/film cottage industry.
Ultimately, the Anne Boleyn we’ve inherited in our cultural imagination is a shrewish, home-wrecking temptress who was too stupid to know that a man who cheats with you will probably cheat on you. To better understand how history and fiction have interwoven to “create” Anne Boleyn’s presentation for the worse, read Susan Bordo’s superlative The Creation of Anne Boleyn. But I’m not really here to talk about Boleyn as such.
See, I’ve often wondered how different her life might have been had she lived today rather than 500 years ago, in the changed circumstances of our modern world.
I’m starting the think I know the answer to that question.
I suspect her life would look a lot like Meghan Markle’s.
Meghan Markle and Anne Boleyn share some striking similarities. Both married second royal sons named Henry who go by Harry. (Though it’s unlikely Markle’s Harry will ever become king, and even if he did, wouldn’t have the kind of corrupting absolute power of Henry VIII). Both relationships seem deeply emotional, perhaps even somewhat codependent, to the point that they make very inconvenient decisions, ostensibly for the sake of the other. (Henry VIII broke with Rome, Harry broke with his family.) Both faced negative correlations because of their skin color.
Boleyn’s olive skin and dark hair/eyes made her a kind of Tudor-era racial Other, with many at the time and since commenting negatively about her appearance, in correlation with her personality, against the backdrop of passively blond, pale women at court. Markle, as multiracial, has faced an even more systematic campaign of racism in the press and by the palace officials whose decisions, including that to deny her or her son protection, have had serious implications for her quality of life. However, the perception of Boleyn as a “racialized” figure in the Tudor court has repercussions even today; the most recent treatment of her story, the upcoming Anne Boleyn mini-series, sees her portrayed by a black actor Jodie Turner-Smith.
Most significantly to my present point is that both Boleyn and Markle have shouldered the blame for their husbands’ choices.
Take, for example, Henry VIII’s most egregious actions. First and foremost, Anne Boleyn is blamed for wrecking Henry’s marriage, luring him away from a faithful wife, though the evidence that exists could just as easily indicate that Anne was subject to a one-sided campaign of sexual harassment by Henry until she, with no chance of making a respectable marriage elsewhere, gave in. He split from the Catholic Church when it refused to annul his first marriage and recognize his second (to Anne), a move that led to the violent deaths of upwards of thousands of people who disagreed with this choice. Henry didn’t hesitate to kill anyone who didn’t get on board with his new church, which was headed, funnily enough, by himself.
The gruesomeness of many of these deaths can’t be underestimated; for example, his execution of a group of Carthusian monks by hanging, drawing, and quartering is that kind of butchery that would make some of the baddies in Game of Thrones shudder. He also had executed, arguably more mercifully by a simple beheading, the country’s beloved public intellectual and his own former friend, Thomas More. Despite the fact that these deaths were all ordered by Henry, many, then and now, saw them as directed by a malevolent, power-hungry Anne. (Except, of course, when Henry’s action is seen as positive, a move that would eventually—certainly not in Henry’s lifetime–open the door for religious choice and freedom. Then the credit goes to others such as, if not Henry himself, other anti-Catholic, pro-Protestant men like Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell.)
Likewise, the blame for Henry’s pitiful record as a father is placed solidly at Anne’s feet. His daughter from his first marriage, Mary, was treated abysmally in the wake of her parents’ split when she took her mother’s side, refusing to acknowledge her father’s new marriage, his new church, or Anne’s status as the new queen. Henry responded by stripping his daughter of her status, her friends, and any contact with her mother, refusing to allow her to visit or even write as her mom lay dying. He installed Mary as a waiting lady for her new baby half-sister, Elizabeth, on whom he bestowed all of Mary’s former privileges. (Way to encourage sibling love, Henry.) Anne, however, got the blame for all of these choices, not least of all by Mary herself, who stubbornly refused to believe that her father would treat her thus, despite lots and lots of evidence to the contrary.
Meghan Markle, of course, has likewise shouldered the blame for every major life decision Harry has made since their relationship began. Most notably, his choice to “step back” from his status as a senior royal and shortly thereafter to relocate their family to North America has been largely presented not as his decision or even truly, as it probably was, a joint choice—instead, it has been dubbed “Megzit.”
It is Meghan who is positioned as the prime mover behind these events; were it not for her, we are told, Harry would still be a popular, dependable, and (at least recently) well-behaved major figure in the royal family. This, despite the fact that Harry has stated in an episode of the podcast Armchair Expert that his desire to break away from his role as a senior royal long predated their relationship. I can’t help but see the correlation here with Anne, who continues to be seen as breaking up Henry’s marriage…despite Henry having already discussed annulling his marriage before Anne ever came on the scene.
This isn’t to underestimate Markle and Boleyn’s influence. As shown in the most complete and unbiased academic treatment of her life, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives, Anne shared her Protestant leanings and studies with the king, who was so against such ideas before her that he had made them illegal. She was also instrumental in promoting the careers of the men who later received credit for England’s moves toward a Protestant Reformation, Cranmer and Cromwell.
However, it cannot be forgotten that she lived in a time when she had no direct political power. Only Henry did. He, as an absolute monarch, did nothing he did not wish to do. When those choices proved unpopular, she was a convenient scapegoat. In fact, when Anne tried to exercise political power by swaying people’s opinions—specifically, for example, by having her personal almoner John Skip deliver sermons in favor of using royal funds for public benefits like schools and hospitals—she only succeeded in making Henry angry. Perhaps angry enough to kill. (Henry himself later told a subsequent wife that he executed Anne as a result of her audacity in “meddling” in his political affairs. He told the subsequent wife as a warning to her not to do the same. She didn’t.)
Certainly, for her part, Meghan had a voice in the decision to step away from royal life and later to relocate their family. She has made it clear that the treatment and scrutinous judgement she was facing in England made her deeply unhappy, even suicidal. However, ultimately, a move as major as the one Harry made in resigning from public life is not something that can be blamed solely on anyone other than himself. It wasn’t only the Duchess of Sussex who stepped back, after all; it was both of them. Ultimately, the point is that they, both Anne Boleyn and Meghan Markle, have shouldered an unfair amount of culpability in the actions taken by another who, let’s not forget, had more power to make those choices than they did.
Oddly enough, both Anne Boleyn and Meghan have been positioned in rivalry with a woman named Catherine. In Anne’s case, this was Henry’s first wife (and former sister-in-law) Catherine of Aragon. Like Kate Middleton (aka Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge), Catherine of Aragon was seen as perfect in her role, the angel to Anne/Meghan’s devil. Catherine did everything right, even the things that today we might find problematic, such as keeping silent and accepting in the face of her husband’s infidelities and blatant favoritism to his illegitimate son. (Think of all the crap Hillary Clinton took in some circles for staying with Bill after his infidelities; talk about a lose-lose situation for a woman in public life.) Anne, on the other hand, loudly objected to Henry’s affairs…which, believe it or not, was considered at the time as shrewish and out of line.
Honestly, even some modern critics and fiction writers put this forward as a mark against her. Ask the average Tudor woman of the era who was a better role model, and they would say Catherine of Aragon every time. There’s even a story about Anne Boleyn being attacked by a group of angry Tudor women, determined to vent their anger at the home-wrecking hussy in defense of Queen Catherine.
However, while Anne and Catherine’s rivalry was somewhat inevitable—they were essentially vying for the same position, that of queen—Kate and Meghan’s has been entirely created by people other than themselves. Specifically, by the tabloid media. One only has to peruse Ellie Hall’s Buzzfeed collection of 20 headlines that praise and vilify Kate and Meghan, respectively, for the same actions.
For example, The Daily Mail praised Kate’s “protective” cradling of her baby bump in 2018 and accused Meghan of vanity and/or acting for the same action in 2019. According to The Express in 2017, eating avocados was a healthy choice for Kate; when Meghan ate them in 2019, she was destroying the planet and infringing upon human rights. No wonder there are way too many people who think Kate can do no wrong, and Meghan no right. Nobody realistically believes Meghan will ever be queen, given how far Harry is from the throne with the births of his nephews and niece. Meghan and Kate are not “running” for the same position in the same way Anne and Catherine were. It seems, however, that there are only two roles women can play in public—the good woman or the bad one. And heaven forbid there be more than one good woman in a position of public influence, especially when one of those women is a feminist of color. That alone is enough for the conservative tabloid media to tear her down.
Finally, both Anne Boleyn and Meghan Markle had/have humanitarian ideal that they were/are not fully credited for. While most historians cringe at hearing Boleyn described as a feminist (since the concept of feminism didn’t exist at the time and applying it to her is therefore anachronistic), she did believe that she had a right to speak her own mind and to be heard, rights that women of the time decidedly lacked. She was also exceptionally generous in her almsgiving to women and children, as well as being an advocate for more widespread educational opportunities.
When her husband began seizing and selling off church property, she argued that this money should go toward creating hospitals and schools, rather than toward enriching Henry. (Instead, Henry pocketed the cash and left his country to face a decades-long humanitarian crisis in which the populace had no monasteries to turn to in times of need.) However, the image of Anne that has come down the years is not that of a humanitarian, but rather a shallow seductress who cared more about her own fun than about people’s livelihoods. Even the otherwise delightful recent musical Six has a party-girl Anne Boleyn singing, “Politics? Not my thing.” Politics, and her right to have a voice in them, is arguably what she died for.
Markle, likewise, is being less touted for her feminist activism than for her supposedly shrewish, demanding behavior. According to the British tabloid media, a demanding Meghan was nicknamed “Me-Gain” by palace staff (Friel). The tabloids also claimed that an unreasonable Meghan made Kate cry with her pre-wedding Bridezilla behavior; as we learned in her recent Oprah interview, the opposite was actually true. (Meghan cried, not because Kate was mean but because Meghan was a bundle of stress and wedding nerves.)
However, this didn’t fit the narrative of a spoiled, self-centered shrew. Neither does her activism, apparently. Markle has raised her voice publicly not for self-aggrandizement but for the betterment of women and children across the globe. She has worked with social and environmental organizations, including the United Nations, and volunteered with Project Angel Food in Los Angeles, delivering meals during the pandemic. Doesn’t sound like someone whose nickname should be “Me-gain” — and yet that’s the story we’re sold.
The point of this exploration of Boleyn and Markle’s similarities is that those very similarities have everything to do with our attitudes and blind spots about gender. Why do women continue to bear the blame when others, especially their husbands, make unpopular decisions? Why do we continue to pit women against one another, making one good and the other bad, Madonna and whore? Why do we continue to overlook women’s accomplishments? When women are public figures, why do we oversimplify them, refuse to see them as fully and messily human in the way that we all are? And why, oh why, are we so reluctant to see their gender as the connecting thread between these injustices?
I often think about the people in Boleyn’s orbit, especially the courtiers who were either silent or downright complicit in her death, with an odd mix of frustration and compassion. Could they have helped? Likely not; no one could stop Henry VIII once he’d decided someone needed to die. Neither can we help the historical Anne Boleyn from today—she died, reviled and slandered, centuries ago.
What we can do is repair some of the slander by looking at the whole story, a story of a woman who, like all of us, was not perfect, but whose best characteristics were intentionally obscured and outright vilified, because she was a remarkable woman who got in the way of a very powerful, patriarchal institution. We can recognize and honor her good works and impulses—her valiant fight to put poverty relief, public support, and education above the lining of already wealthy pockets—above the lies that were told about her: that she was a home-wrecking, immoral schemer who lost at her own game.
What can we do, today, for Meghan Markle, our modern-day Anne Boleyn? We can start to recognize what it is those tabloids are doing when they publish those headlines, and what we are doing when we accept them. As women, Boleyn and Markle have been treated unfairly and held to unreasonable standards. When we start to recognize this, we can start to do something about it. We can celebrate Meghan Markle for the good she does in the world, promoting feminism, equality, and representation for people of color at all levels and in all institutions. We can push back against the forces trying to vilify her by lauding the good she does, but also by refusing to credence the gossip and innuendo. When we see a tabloid headline making accusations, we can choose to not click. We can refuse to profit the tabloids that enrich themselves at the expense of her (or any person’s) privacy.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t critique women when they are public figures. Women who run for public office or otherwise work in positions where their decisions affect others can and should be held accountable for those decisions—including their use of language that can potentially cause harm. (I’m looking at US Representative and far-right conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene as I say this.)
However, we’re still struggling to untangle the ability to critique these decisions with the misogynistic impulse to critique women for being anything other than what we allow women to be. The judgment facing Markle, as with Boleyn before her, isn’t about her public works—if it were, the dominant narrative about her would look very different. It’s about a woman who, as a woman, isn’t deemed to fit; she’s too opinionated, too dark, too vocal, too different from her predecessor. Sound familiar?
Nor should we simply flip the narrative and pretend Markle, or Boleyn, for that matter, is a perfect person, any more than any of us are. Idealizing her, making her more than a person, will ultimately be as damaging as vilifying her, because no one can live up to an ideal. But we can recognize when someone, anyone, does good for its own sake. We can stop, finally, believing the lie that women must be either angel or demoness.
People are people, but some try to make the world better in the ways that they can. Anne Boleyn did. So does Meghan Markle. And I, for one, think it’s bloody well time we praised them for it.
Bordo, Susan. The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen. Mariner. 2014.
Friel, Mikhailia. “A UK high society magazine says Meghan Markle has been given the nickname ‘Me-Gain’ in Kensington Palace”. Business Insider. 26 March 2019.
Hall, Ellie. “Here Are 20 Headlines Comparing Meghan Markle to Kate Middleton That May Show Why She and Prince Harry Left Royal Life.” Buzzfeed News. 13 January 2020.
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Blackwell. 2005.
Marlowe, Toby, and Lucy Moss. “Don’t Lose Ur Head”. Six (musical)/ 2017.
Maxwell, Robin. The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. Arcade, 1997.
Oprah with Meghan and Harry. CBS. 7 March 2021.
Roy, Eleanor Ainge. “’Megxit’ Dominates as World Pores Over Meghan and Harry Splinter Group.” The Guardian. 8 January 2020.