Hollywood's New It Girl Is Anne Boleyn

The famously beheaded 16th century royal had her best year yet — and even Bella Hadid was taking notes.

Beheaded Royal Anne Boleyn Has Had an Amazing Year, Actually
Photo: NEON, AMC, Getty Images/InStyle

While most would think the modern woman would have little to nothing in common with a 16th century Tudor queen, Anne Boleyn has proven herself to be shockingly relevant in 2021.

For those in need of a refresher on English Renaissance history, Boleyn was the second wife of King Henry VIII, and is considered to be the most cunning of his six wives as the royal had to jump through some serious hoops in order to marry her. For one, the King was already married to Catherine of Aragon. When he couldn't convince the Pope to annul that marriage, he renounced Catholicism entirely, making himself the head of the newly-founded Church of England. But even kicking off the English Reformation wasn't enough to slow down this guillotine-happy king's wandering eye. Shortly after his 1533 wedding to Boleyn and the birth of their daughter Elizabeth I, Henry began courting his next wife, Boleyn's lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour. By 1536, Boleyn was beheaded after being framed for treason, adultery, and incest.

It's unknown what Boleyn actually looked like, as Henry ordered all portraits of her to be destroyed after her death. But even so, the royal has received a wide array of depictions this year across movies, TV, and art. The ghost of this decapitated queen even plays a prominent role in the new Princess Diana film, Spencer. After someone leaves the biography Anne Boleyn: Life and Death of a Martyr on Diana's bedside as a warning, Boleyn's ghost visits the princess to warn her of her disposability as an outsider, advising her to assert her power while she still can. The comparison between the two women is apt given that both were parvenues to the royal family whose lives were subjected to intense public scrutiny and cruelty, made all the worse by their unfaithful husbands. Diana was also Boleyn's distant great-niece as the Spencers are descendents of her sister, Mary Boleyn. And though both women's stories still loom large over pop culture, it seems the royal family has already started to forget them. Sarah Ferguson, the ex-wife of Prince Andrew, told Madame Figaro this month, "I may have been the most persecuted woman in the history of the royal family, but I'm still here."

In December, the Tudor queen's life also got the small-screen treatment with the debut of Anne Boleyn on AMC Plus, a three-episode "psychological thriller" starring Jodie Turner-Smith as the beleaguered monarch. The series begins with the miscarriage of Boleyn's second child, a son, documenting the final months of the royal's life, "follow[ing] her as she struggles to survive, to secure a future for her daughter, and to challenge the powerful patriarchy closing in around her." Turner-Smith's performance highlights Boleyn as something more than just one of Henry's many wives; she was also a savvy, independent woman who refused to conform to the standards of her era, setting her daughter up to become one of the most powerful rulers of all time.

Boleyn's plight as spurned wife also found new resonance this summer in the artwork of Anna Marie Tendler. While the artist has yet to publicly discuss her high-profile divorce from comedian John Mulaney, she appears to make reference to the breakdown of their relationship via her work on Instagram, using Boleyn as a potent iconographic stand-in. The most obvious reference to the 16th-century queen was posted to her Instagram in June, showing Tendler composed very similarly to how Boleyn appears in her most famous surviving portrait by Hans Holbein. In the image, Tendler also wears the royal's signature monogram accessory — a pearl necklace featuring a gold B pendant with three pearl droplets — but in this case, the B has been swapped out for a T. The artist captioned the shot, "The Moost Happi Anno 2021," in reference to a medal featuring that slogan made in anticipation of what would have been the birth of Henry VIII's first son. A TikTok user also pointed out the similarities between a photograph Tendler posted on Mother's Day, the day before her divorce was announced, and another famous portrait of Boleyn. In the photo, Tendler cradles her dog Petunia, celebrating women who have chosen unconventional paths of motherhood. In another well-known painting of Boleyn, the queen cradles her daughter Elizabeth in a very similar pose as she awaits her own execution. Mulaney welcomed his first child, a son, with actress Olivia Munn last month.

But it wasn't just Boleyn's story that captivated modern audiences this year, it was also her fashions. The queen proved she can still set a trend, even five centuries after her beheading. Over the summer, supermodel Bella Hadid was spotted out multiple times wearing a replica of Boleyn's iconic choker by designer Dilara Findikoglu. While the real necklace has been lost to time, the initial accessory was immortalized thanks to its appearance in that 17th-century Holbein portrait that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Such monogrammed accessories were also considered a symbol of great wealth at the time as they signaled that the owner had the disposable income to have such pieces commissioned.

This recent resurgence of Boleyn as a misunderstood historical figure attempting to seize control over her own destiny in a male-dominated world also dovetails nicely with the current trend of closely re-examining the stories of women society has maligned in the past, from Britney Spears to Monica Lewinski. In that light, Boleyn serves as a powerful reminder that history is too often dictated by Henry VIIIs, when we should be listening to the voices of these trailblazing women instead.

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