On this date in 1536, Anne Boleyn lost her head.
Any queen decapitated by her king would of course rate an entry in these grim pages. But this does not quite explain Anne Boleyn‘s enduring appeal, relevance and recognizability for the most casual of modern observers, and her concomitant footprint in popular culture, even with the “Greek tragedy” quality of her life.
Anne stands at the fulcrum of England’s epochal leap into modernity. Whether she was that fulcrum might depend on the reader’s sympathy for the Great Man theory of history, but little more do we injure our headless queen to regard her as the woman for her time and place — the accidental hero (or villain) raised up and thrown down by the tectonic forces of her milieu.
Through Anne was born — for reasons of momentary political arrangements of long-forgotten dynasts, which seems a shockingly parochial proximate cause — the English Reformation, and through the Reformation was born the crown’s decisive triumph over the nobility, the broad middle class nurtured on the spoils of Catholic monasteries, the rising Britannia fit to rule. Most would take as an epitaph historical accidents of such magnitude.
Of course, by those same accidents, Anne was the instrument of thousands of deaths herself, and little did she appear troubled in life by the corpses upon which she ascended the throne.
Her own family maps the change wrought on England. An ancestor was beheaded in the Wars of the Roses, medieval England’s last great breakdown; her uncle Thomas Howard was one of the throwback scheming Dukes, mastered by his sovereign to the extent of issuing Anne’s capital sentence from his own lips;* the beheaded woman’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, set a recognizably centralized English state on the path of empire.
Fitting tribute that, from the Tower where she met her end** to lands undreamt-of in her time, people still, like Henry, find her captivating.[audio:http://www.bl.uk/whatson/podcasts/podcast95533.mp3]
* Anne’s father also declared for her guilt. Unprincipled as these men undoubtedly were, it cannot have been a pleasant responsibility; the question of whether she was actually guilty of adultery-cum-treason, the fatal charge extracted from a supposed lover by torture, has been hotly and inconclusively disputed by posterity.
** With a solemn speech submissive to Henry but not admitting any guilt — in an earlier moment of levity, she had famously remarked of the French swordsman hired to do the job, “I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.”