Fact in Fiction: Anne Boleyn in ‘Wolf Hall’

An analysis of Anne Boleyn’s portrayal in Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed novel, ‘Wolf Hall’!

Anne Boleyn is a central character in the book ‘Wolf Hall,’ by Hilary Mantel. Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power centred on the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, as Cromwell was proactive in speeding up the divorce, and ensuring the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ throughout 1536. This gained him great favour with the King. Ultimately, without Anne Boleyn, Cromwell would not have risen to power and as the novel is largely told from his point of view, a different take on Anne Boleyn is created, which is a wholly negative one. Throughout the book she is presented largely as a villainess, and as a schemer intent on tearing the kingdom away from Christendom and becoming queen, much to the despair of those at court. It’s definitely one for the Catherine of Aragon fans.

In a conversation with George Cavendish, a biographer of Thomas Wolsey, Cromwell discusses Anne’s betrothal and previous relationship with Harry Percy.[1] Cavendish proceeds to tell Cromwell that she did not actually love him. Cromwell asks whether she respected him, and Cavendish flatly tells Cromwell that “she didn’t. She liked his title.” These short, dramatic sentences suggest that Anne was only interested in Harry Percy for his status, as she wanted to elevate herself in the world. It presents her as a liar and villainess, as she pretends to love somebody to gain power and status. This also casts her as a bit of a femme fatale. The fact that other people react negatively to her also proves she is villainous, as there are not many people in the novel who show affection to Anne, such as her own sister, Mary.

Later on in the novel, Mary makes similar comments about her sister, warning Cromwell that Anne probably “has some ideas about what to make you.”[2] This cryptic comment portrays Anne as villainous, as beforehand Mary tells Cromwell that Harry Percy has been turned into a “madman” by Anne.[3] Although this is a negative portrayal of Anne, the comment about Cromwell does not insinuate any positive or negative feeling towards him, but as the comment about Harry Percy is made earlier, this quote is made to make Anne villainous, as again, she is using others for her own advantage. Anne’s villainy is emphasised as it is her own sister that informs Cromwell of her belief. As she is related to Anne it is surprising that Mary thinks so badly of her sister and this rejection reinforces Anne’s villainy in the novel.

It is clear that there is rivalry within the novel between Anne and Cromwell, probably because the book is written from Cromwell’s point of view.[4] Mantel notes that nowadays, Anne Boleyn is an “ambiguous character,” as little is known about her. This serves as the reason as to why Anne is portrayed how she is, as she is viewed through the eyes of her adversary, Cromwell.[5] From this we can learn that Anne is presented as a villainess due to Cromwell’s biased view, and therefore may be a victim to Cromwell’s own agenda and ulterior motives. As Mantel aimed to tell the story from Cromwell’s viewpoint, it would be in her interests to make him appear as a hero and as a likeable character, therefore making Anne Boleyn appear as a villainous character, although in history, it is usually Cromwell who is depicted this way. Hilary Mantel comments that she feels Cromwell sees Anne as a worthy opponent, believing that one must be destroyed before the other.[6]

In a conversation with Thomas Wyatt, Cromwell describes Anne to be a “calculating being.”[7] This gives the impression that Cromwell believes Anne uses others for her own purposes, and the use of the word ‘being’ insinuates that he does not view Anne as a human with emotion, but as an entity intent on destroying and using others. Anne really is taking hit after hit here… and it gets worse.

Cromwell believes Anne to have “hungry black eyes.”[8] This imagery presents Anne as animalistic, implying that she will feast on anything or anyone. As food is needed for one’s energy, Anne can be compared to a bear who uses people, food, for her own elevation, energy. This imagery presents Anne largely as a parasite, one who is willing to ruthlessly use others for her own gain. This gives the impression that Anne’s desires are evil and dangerous, as she is willing to use others for her own ends, and metaphorically, devour them.

According to contemporary accounts, Anne Boleyn did have black eyes in reality. Paintings that date back to the 1500’s of Anne also support this description, like the above image headlining this article. We can see from the painting Anne is accurately described in Wolf Hall, as in reality she had dark eyes and hair. It is clear from this image that all fictional portrays of Anne have been largely based on this painting and others like it, and one could possibly infer that Anne’s portrayal in Wolf Hall could be as accurate in personality as she is in the painting.

Cromwell later proceeds to tell Wyatt that he believes Anne likes to “torment” others for her own sport.[9] This presents Anne purely as villainous, as it is suggested she enjoys being cruel to others for her own amusement and pleasure. This seems odd to the reader, and makes Anne seem like a sadistic human being who enjoys other peoples’ pain, presenting her largely as a villain.

Later in the book Mary talks to Rochford about her sister, saying that for “Seven years she schemed to be queen.”[10] The fact that Anne has planned this for seven years shows she is desperate for power and provides a reason as to why she is seen as calculating, as she has one ultimate goal, making her seem villainous.

However, Anne could be seen as a victim of Thomas Cromwell, as the book is written purely from his point of view. Anne could be seen in this way, because he feels threatened by her, knowing that her power is growing. It could be argued that he fears she will overthrow him, and hates her, presenting her as a villainous and horrible person, in order to persuade others to agree and rise against her.

It would seem that Anne is largely portrayed as a villain in Wolf Hall, and a figure who uses others for her own advantage. By constantly commenting on her scheming ways and using animalistic imagery, Mantel, through Cromwell, portrays Anne Boleyn as a villain to a large extent. It is worth noting that Mantel’s Anne is not infuenced by the times we now live in, but solely on the idea of Cromwell’s protagonism, prompting Mantel to think that Cromwell would have viewed Anne Boleyn as a significant threat.

Thanks for reading!

[1] Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (London, 4th Estate Books, 2009) p. 78.

[2] Mantel, Wolf Hall, p. 346.

[3] Ibid., p. 346.

[4] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3AD7URF5jc

[5] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3AD7URF5jc

[6] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3AD7URF5jc

[7] Mantel, Wolf Hall, p. 350.

[8] Ibid., p. 350.

[9] Ibid., p. 350.

[10] Ibid., p. 598.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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