Hayley Nolan is the historian and author of Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies which calls out the romanticisation of domestic violence in the Tudor’s shocking and infamous story. She is supporting Women’s Aid’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, from Monday 25th November to Tuesday 10th December.
“People argue the Tudor era was a different a time, too many centuries ago to compare with our own. But as the media start to mirror the language and tone used when reporting similar homicide cases, we soon realise that’s sadly not the case. The romantic spin that has been put on the supposed “love story” of King Henry VIII and his wife Anne Boleyn is the work of modern writers and historians, selling their readers and viewers the warped idea that the brokenhearted king reluctantly sentenced “the queen that he loved to death” and that “Henry loved women that’s why he married so many” – despite his having killed two of them.
But when we know a story ends with a man killing his wife it’s our responsibility to the audience not to put a romantic spin on his actions, sending out the message that these are perfectly acceptable expressions of love and heartbreak in our own lives. This means historians need to stop branding Anne’s running away from court to escape his unwanted advances for a year as “a calculated tactic,” as though the ultimate example of when a girl says no she really means yes. Stop calling his relentless, year-long predatorial pursuit; “love letters” – letters in which he acknowledges she didn’t want him and was ignoring him. Yet we are repeatedly told it’s clear that Henry loved Anne due to the ‘mercy’ he showed her in death; having her decapitated swiftly and pain-free by sword.
The method with which a man kills a woman does not prove his love for her.
Because five centuries later men are still killing their wives in fits of rage with various media outlets citing his poor broken heart as the reason. As though his violence equalled passion. This inevitably leads us down a slippery path of victim blaming that causes us to ask; when a man kills his wife, what did she do to drive him to it? They use the same underlying apologist messaging as the history books; the “henpecked husband”, “the spurned lover” which soon start to read as excuses. “He was the perfect husband…” until he killed his wife and children. But if a man can do this he was never perfect.
I’ve always wanted to understand how Henry VIII could murder his wife but I’ve never sought to sympathise with him. Which is why this language is just as damaging in the history books as it is in the modern media, especially when used to tell a domestic violence story in the style of a whimsical, romantic period drama. Yes, the term ‘domestic violence’ is a modern one and I only use it here so we understand what we’re really dealing with; abuse, not romance. However, the actions are still the same whether they were committed today or in the Tudor era.
I appreciate we have centuries worth of social conditioning to undo here, so all I appeal for is that going forward our focus is always to protect and defend the victims, not the perpetrator.”
Adina Claire, acting co-Chief Executive of Women’s Aid said:
“The way we understand history affects the way we understand the world. Minimising and even romanticising domestic abuse through history sends harmful messages about what is acceptable and what is a serious crime. Women’s Aid is raising awareness of this with Hayley Nolan, who is examining Henry VIII’s harassment and murder of his wife Anne Boleyn, and challenging the way that her story has been told in history.”
Follow Women’s Aid on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram throughout the 16 days of activism to watch Hayley’s exclusive video and other exciting content on empowering survivors, challenging the patriarchy and creating a society where domestic abuse is no longer tolerated.