Anne Boleyn: witch, bitch, temptress, feminist

Hilary Mantel in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_04 May. 22 14.46As a small child I remember being told by a solemn nun that Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand. In the nun's eyes, it was the kind of deformity that Protestants were prone to; it was for Anne's sake, as everyone knew, that Henry VIII had broken away from Rome and plunged his entire nation into the darkness of apostasy. If it weren't for this depraved woman, England would be as holy as Ireland, and we'd all eat fish on Friday and come from families of 12.

Anne Boleyn wasn't exactly a Protestant, but she was a reformer, an evangelical; and the sixth finger, which no one saw in her lifetime, was a fragment of black propaganda directed at her daughter, Elizabeth I. In Elizabeth's reign it was the duty of beleaguered papists to demonstrate that the queen's mother had been physically and spiritually deformed. Hence, not just the extra finger but the “wen” on her throat, which supposedly she hid with jewellery: hence the deformed foetus to which she was said to have given birth. There is no evidence that this monster baby ever existed, yet some modern historians and novelists insist on prolonging its poor life, attracted to the most lurid version of events they can devise.

Anne Boleyn is one of the most controversial women in English history; we argue over her, we pity and admire and revile her, we reinvent her in every generation. She takes on the colour of our fantasies and is shaped by our preoccupations: witch, bitch, feminist, sexual temptress, cold opportunist.

More here.