There are books which are difficult to approach, yet impossible to put down. Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies is certainly one of them. Each page is rich in new historical details and leave us wondering and eager for more.
In this in-depth interview, author Hayley Nolan explains the reasons why she decided to give Boleyn a new voice, allowing her to speak her truth through the pages.
Your book gives new light to a very important historical character. Can you tell us more about your research on Anne Boleyn?
It was one shock after another, not only was I discovering all the good she did, but that the truth behind every major event in her life was the polar opposite of what we get told in the modern media. They say she seduced King Henry VIII and schemed to become his queen, when in actual fact we have letters from the king himself that tell us Anne ran away from court for a year to escape his unwanted advances. He acknowledges that she ignored his letters and didn’t return his affections, yet she is victim blamed for him sexually harassing her. We’re told she was arrested and killed for having affairs with five men, when evidence shows she was framed by the king’s advisor, Cromwell, for trying to create a government council to rival his own. This was in order to launch a nationwide anti-poverty scheme that would provide Tudor England’s first free access to healthcare. We’re told Boleyn spent her reign heartlessly bullying Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Princess Mary, but the archives are filled with accounts of Anne using her position as Queen to offer amnesty to religious refugees and lending her voice to the people’s fight against the oppression of the church - in fact, her evangelical alliance with Germany had almost dethroned her husband in the weeks before her arrest. So when I compiled all this evidence - that never sees the light of day in the mainstream media - I was faced with an incredible woman whose story has been silenced in favour of a more salacious story.
I see your book has encountered many controversial reactions. How do you deal with them? What do you think are the new aspects of her character to be brought to light by it?
This book was a protest against the censorship of a powerful woman in history’s true story, so there was inevitably going to be an uproar from those who had built careers on their version of Anne Boleyn that doesn’t correlate with the full evidence. So I did, sadly, expected this onslaught from them and I braced myself from the beginning. There were a lot of distraction techniques employed on social media, mainly tone-policing; the book is too angry, she can’t speak that way about the hallowed historians. But there is no right way to call out those who have distorted history to fit their own personal spin. There would be no ‘polite way’ I could have written this book that would have made it acceptable to those people; that being the very nature of protest. But when you consider the issues I called out in the book; the romanticisation and victim blaming of a woman murdered by her husband, the omission of vital facts and evidence in order to re-write Boleyn’s story entirely and paint her as the “reckless, evil, power-hungry woman” when all evidence proves she was a humanitarian who used her power as queen to be a relentless activist for the people, you have to question the motives of anyone who would be against those key messages and want to shout me down. I noticed particularly the message of public censorship went over a few critics’ heads. Their ‘issue’ being that this research wasn’t ‘new’ information to the academics, yet that was my whole point! I’m fully aware that the historical researchers “already know this information” - the problem is that it never gets shared with the general public in the mainstream Tudor works, and when an elite group of people are privy to information yet it is kept from the wider world, that’s censorship! So my whole aim with Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies was to bring this evidence out of the historical archives and niche academic studies and into the commercial mainstream for the readers and viewers who have only been fed the “scheming seductress” story. Since publication I’ve received hundreds of messages from readers who have consumed everything out there on Anne Boleyn yet say they’ve never heard most of what is in this book, which is all the proof I needed to know I was right to have put my neck on the line and write this.
When and how did you start getting interested in Anne Boleyn? What aspect of her personal story did you find more intriguing?
It’s been quite an intense research period for me that started almost exactly four years ago! And it actually began with Henry VIII. I had this need to understand how he could do what he did to Anne, as theirs was always sold as the ultimate tragic love story, yet it just didn’t make any sense. That he should fight for seven years to be with the ‘love of his life’ and within three years of marriage decapitate her. None of the explanations available at the time seemed plausible outside the realms of fiction (he wanted a son, her personality became grating, she had a string of unrealistic affairs) so I began looking into, not only his story, but his psyche, which culminated in working with Dr Kevin Dutton, research psychologist at Oxford University on a brand new psychoanalysis. Here I discovered that the king was clearly an undiagnosed sociopath, which provided so many lightbulb moments for the inexplicable events of Anne’s own story. My research on Henry also lead to the discovery of evidence that Anne wasn’t ‘responsible’ for Henry’s break with Rome as he was already looking into an annulment from his first wife long before Anne came on the scene. And it was Rome who broke with England when Henry challenged the extent to which the pope over-ruled his authority as king. Meaning his seven year fight wasn’t for Anne, it was against the pope, which explains how Henry could end up killing the woman he’d supposedly fought so hard for within three years of ‘winning’ her. So yes, this is how it all began for me but, of course, in researching Henry’s story I started to slowly discover that Anne wasn’t the dastardly seductress we’d all be told she was, and quickly got side tracked by her incredible life of activism.
What do you think are the best works on her and which do you think helped you to understand her nuances better?
There isn’t any one work that includes all the vital evidence of Boleyn’s life, which is why I was compelled to write this book. So it was a case of hunting down the smattering of information across various sources in order to piece together the Tudor jigsaw of Anne’s life. Boleyn’s 16th century biography by Wyatt was incredibly insightful in terms of her charitable work. So too were the ‘Letters and Papers of Henry VIII’ which are decades worth of royal correspondence in the historical archives - to be able to read these in detail was invaluable. In terms of modern works, Eric Ives wrote a very balanced tome on Boleyn’s life, although he did overlook the evidence of her vital work on The Poor Law and the significance it had on her takedown and death. For this, G.R. Elton’s research on 16th century politics was a real breakthrough in piecing together why Anne’s government legislation on the poverty epidemic would be a personal threat to the King’s advisor, Cromwell, who framed her for adultery. Then there was the eye-opening research on Anne’s father, Thomas Boleyn, who is always sold to readers and viewers as some sort of Tudor pimp who pushed his daughter’s into the king’s bed. But it was Dr Lauren MacKay’s PhD thesis that confirmed my suspicions that, far from being the mastermind behind Anne’s marriage to the king, he was vehemently against it, seeing it as dangerous. I made a point of referencing all these works clearly throughout my book because I wanted readers to see the truth has been there all along, it’s just been censored in the commercial biographies, documentaries, movies and TV shows. My entire aim with this book has been to let the general public in on the secret now, which is why I was determined to keep the language down to earth and not be tempted to write in academic jargon. It was important to me that it was just as accessible and digestible for someone who had watched The Other Boleyn Girl or read the Wolf Hall trilogy.
Can you already tell us about your future projects?
I’m afraid they are all top secret for the time being, as none have been announced yet! (Boring answer, I know!) Readers keep asking if I will be tackling other maligned women in history next but I’m only just getting started with Boleyn. My mantra now is that I will not stop until the truth is as mainstream as the lies. So watch this space…