I have to give credit to Historical Honey for inspiring this blog. Until I read their blog I didn’t quite realise just how popular Anne Boleyn was (because she is completely massive online). People love her. She has fans! Once you grasp this concept, it becomes obvious. For example:
Her Wikipedia biography is over 10,000 words long. In contrast, Henry’s is only 12,000 words and he lived for at least 20 years longer, was a bloke, the King of England, and did quite a lot of crazy shit. Catherine of Aragon has 6,500, Jane Seymour gets just over 2,500, Anne of Cleves gets 6,000-odd, Catherine Howard gets barely 3,500 and Catherine Parr gets around 5,500.
This video has inspired me to try and figure out whether there is more going on here than meets the eye. Is Anne Boleyn more than just some broad from the past? Is she my spirit animal? Let’s have a look at the reasons why she is so damn popular.
She died at the peak of her popularity; like Jesus, or Princess Diana. People who die young, or just ‘before their time’ tend to get remembered better than those who live on. Their myth can be gradually sculpted, so that it forms a cohesive character, rather than the shambling, irrelevant, contradictory figure they might have become if they had lived on. Better Lennon than McCartney.
This is a great clip, but the relevant part is at about 3:13
Tragic and undeserved deaths are much more poignant than natural ones or, for example, death in battle. Anne had at least two miscarriages, which might have been sons, at least one of which might have been caused by the fact that Henry had put Anne B in such a compromised position.
Shit, Wikipedia thinks that she might have miscarried when she was traumatised because Henry had been in a coma for two days, or the fact that he was already fooling about with Jane Seymour. No-one should have to deal with that. Of course, had her sons lived, Henry would have had the successor that he wanted, and the situation might have had a happier resolution. But sadly, history doesn’t always take the happy route, and what-ifs and maybes don’t change unhappy facts.
She snagged the King of England – while he was married! As desirable titles go, this one has to be near the top of most ladies’ lists. What’s more, their relationship caused an international political crisis, which is impressive by anyone’s standards. This was kind-of like what happened to Wallis Simpson. Henry divorcing Catherine of Aragon lead to a feud with Spain and the creation of the Church of England. In order to marry Mrs Simpson, Edward VIII had to abdicate the throne. So yeah, that’s pretty damn romantic. Of course, subsequently having the same woman killed kinda ruins that a bit. Damn it all to heck, Henry!
You may be wondering why she’s so popular, when none of the five other wives were. I like to imagine that this is down to the law of diminishing returns. Once you’ve beheaded one queen, any further beheading or mere divorce loses its novelty value. She was the one for whom Henry told the Pope to go screw himself, and that earns you serious clout.
She was the mother of Elizabeth I. With Elizabeth succeeding as monarch, Anne beat the five other wives to produce an heir, even if it wasn’t quite the one Henry would have liked. But there is another relevant point here. The online world is pretty heavily influenced by women. The web is way more democratic than the academic world, and so it is of little surprise that female heroes should come to the fore. We love strong women, and here we have one who is the mother of another. It’s thematic, and there’s nothing a historian loves more than a theme.
She was executed with a sodding sword! She’s practically Eddard Stark. It was a horrific way to go, but it was way more punk-rock than Henry, who died of obesity aged 55.
Anne B is massively popular online because she was an ambitious woman who died before her time, in tragic circumstances, but not before she managed to massively alter the course of history. As a historian in the digital age, she is my spirit animal.