According to Henry VIII, the Tudor king of England in the 16th century, his wife Anne Boleyn was guilty of incest, adultery and high treason, in a way that deserved “death… by burning of fire… or decapitation”.
Modern historians differ— they say queen’s only fault was her failure to produce a male heir. What nobody disputes is that the fiery Anne, who was beheaded at the Tower of London on May 19, 1536, was white-skinned.
A few days ago, when Channel 5 announced a three-part psychological drama in which black actor Jodie Turner-Smith will play Anne, the ‘For’ and ‘Against’ camps took firm stands on social media.
Here’s a look at why Anne Boleyn has attracted controversy through her brief life in European history:
Who was Anne Boleyn?
The headstrong daughter of a nobleman, Anne was maid of honour to queen Catherine of Aragon in the court of England when she caught the eye of Henry VIII. Unlike most women, she rejected the king’s advances because she wanted to be a wife and not a mistress. Driven by desire, Henry VIII took on the powerful church, caused a scandal by annulling his marriage to Catherine (who too had failed to produce a male heir) and married Anne, at first secretly and then in a lavish ceremony.
Anne was not the traditional queen, especially in comparison with the devout Catherine, and never became popular with the people. For one, she was very fashionable and followed the styles of the French court, where she had spent several years in her youth. At home, too, the happiness was short-lived, as the temperamental Henry VIII took up with other women from the court and Anne, unable to have a son, became a source of frustration for him.
Three years later, on May 2, 1536, she was accused of adultery and imprisoned in the Tower of London. A trial found her unable to “control her carnal lusts”, though Anne denied it.
Towards the end of October 2020, a document was found at the National Archives in the UK that showed how Henry VIII had meticulously planned Anne’s execution in fine detail. He would marry four more times, and his queens would –– in this order –– die, be divorced, be beheaded and survive.
Anne’s daughter was Queen Elizabeth I, the famous Virgin Queen of England.
The story of Anne Boleyn has occupied the imagination for 500 years as women’s rights battled with patriarchy across the world. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
What is the show about?
The Channel 5 period drama, with the working title Anne Boleyn, does not pretend to be a documentary, but is a piece of fiction by Eve Hedderwick Turner in which the queen takes on the straitjacketed society of England as she sees herself equal to men.
The plot focuses on the last months of Boleyn’s life when the queen struggles to secure a future for her daughter, Elizabeth. The series will be directed by Lynsey Miller and co-stars Amanda Burton, Paapa Essiedu, Thalissa Teixeira, Barry Ward and Jamael Westman. “I am so excited to join these exciting filmmakers in bringing the story of one of history’s most controversial queens to the screen. Delving deeper into Anne Boleyn’s immense strengths while examining her fatal weaknesses and vulnerabilities, Eve’s scripts immediately captured my imagination.
In the hands of Lynsey Miller, the legend of this formidable queen and fierce mother will be seen as a deeply human story that is still so relevant for today. I look forward to bringing my heart and spirit into this daring retelling of the fall of this iconic woman,” said Turner-Smith in a statement.
Is colour only skin-deep?
While the casting salutes diversity, especially at a time of Black Lives Matter and the election of Kamala Harris, objection to Channel 5’s decision revolves around problems of historical accuracy, representation and tokenism.
“Anne Boleyn was white. A white person would not be picked to play a well known historical black person, it would be classed as white washing. The same applies the other way around in my opinion,” wrote one user on Twitter.
Another said that Channel 5 would have lent greater force to the cause of diversity by telling the story of a woman of colour instead of plugging a black actor into a white woman’s story. “Why couldn’t they make a series about black history that would educate many and this would have been appropriate casting,” said a tweet.
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