The year was 54 BC, but not really, because Christ hadn’t been born yet. In Rome, it was 700 ab urbe condita, or 700 years since the founding of the city; at the northern edge of the empire, Julius Caesar was veni, vidi, vici-ing his way into Britain for a second time. In Egypt, it was the 251st year of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and a 15-year-old Cleopatra was scheming. In Judea, which had recently lost its full sovereignty and become a client state of Rome, the year was… who even knows? The Judeans of the time would count it as year 258 in the Era of Contracts, though for Jewish people living after the 12th century, it’s anno mundi 3707. Either way, it was there that a new princess was born into a royal family torn apart by usurpers, civil war, and aggressive foreign meddling. In spite of all the chaos in the Hasmonean household, no one could have imagined that tiny Miriam would one day be that dynasty’s last hope.
Like so many women from ancient history, we have very few concrete facts about Miriam, who would gain wider infamy under the Hellenized version of her name, Mariamne. What little information we do have was recorded by men. Even her birth year is pure speculation, based on the typical ages for engagement and marriage in her culture during the 1st century BCE. What we do know for certain is that things were not going well for the Hasmoneans when Mariamne entered the scene.
Late into the 16th century, Kengela ka Nkombe gave birth to her second child. Her first had been a son, and she had dutifully named him after his father, Mbande, the future king of Ndongo. This one was a girl. The birth was difficult; the baby was breech, her face was upturned, and the umbilical cord was wrapped firmly around her neck. Royal attendants were able to safely guide the baby out of her mother’s body, but everyone present agreed that the birth foretold an unusual life. Mbande, who openly doted on Kengela as his favourite concubine, was immediately smitten with his newest child. He named her Njinga, from the Kimbundu verb kujinga, which means to twist or turn — ostensibly a reference to the cord wrapped around her neck. But perhaps as he held his daughter for the first time, he caught a brief glimpse of her future: how she would twist and turn to outwit her enemies, gain the throne, and, ultimately, fight for her country’s freedom.
When I was 20, I cornered my ex-boyfriend in his bedroom during a party and cried on him for two hours, leaving a watery mascara stain down the front of his shirt. When he finally managed to extricate himself, I found his best friend and did the same to him. I made the rounds of the party, rehashing my misery to anyone who would listen: how my ex had broken my heart, how I was certain that I was an unloveable failure, how I thought about killing myself. I knew that I should stop and go home, but I couldn’t; my feelings were huge and immediate; the thought of being alone was unbearable.
I’d always been an over-emotional cryer, but that year was a personal nadir when it came to mental health. There had been the breakup, then I’d lost my housing situation, and finally, financial problems had forced me to drop out of school. I went from being an occasional downer to a wailing banshee party-ruiner. I just couldn’t differentiate between the immediate relief of dissolving into tears and the long-term gratification of cultivating emotional continence — probably because I no longer believed I had a future. My friends were exasperated and wanted to know why I couldn’t just stop doing things that made me feel bad. My answer — everything made me feel bad anyway, and I just couldn’t help it — seemed insufficient even to me.
A few weeks after the party crying incident, I found a copy of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation at a secondhand bookstore. It had been out for nearly a decade, but up until then I’d resisted it. For one thing, I’d actually been on Prozac for the previous three years, so reading it seemed a little too clichéd. For another, I was skeptical that the beautiful girl on the cover, with her clear skin and artfully messy hair, could know anything about my ugly life. But by the end of the prologue — titled, with extreme subtlety and nuance, “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die” — I was hooked.
Whether we like it or not, Prozac Nation really did change the landscape when it comes to the way women write about themselves.
Prozac Nation is a young person’s book, both in terms of its author and its target audience. It’s full of florid language, sweeping generalizations, and an obsessive, unproductive introspection. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from someone like Albert Einstein, Sylvia Plath, or Edith Wharton. Many of the original reviews were negative, and offered valid critical perspectives on the book. The text did need a stronger editorial grip, at the very least to fix the distracting moments when Wurtzel jumps from one tense to another within the same paragraph. The narrative really was just as repetitive and self-pitying as critics accused it of being. Wurtzel seemed to have no perspective when it came to her own behavior, offering it all up for consumption without any kind of analysis. But all of this (tense-jumping aside) might be the book’s secret genius.
Prozac Nation was the first time I saw myself reflected in writing about mental illness. Sure, I’d read and loved Plath, Kaysen, and all the other stars of the depressed-lady canon, but none of their work was as relatable to me then as Wurtzel’s prose, at once grandiose and claustrophobic. It’s the kind of book that feels like edgy literature to a white girl in her early 20s, and I don’t mean that as snidely as it might sound; everyone deserves their own version of On The Road or Naked Lunch for that period in their life. Prozac Nation read to my 20-year-old self like something I aspired to someday write, precious epigraphs and all. At one point early in the narrative, Wurtzel voices a worry that her story is “too stupid, too girlish, too middle class.” But that was exactly why it resonated with me. Even the parts that grated on my nerves, like Wurtzel’s frequent bewailing of the fact that she had once been the best little girl in the world, sounded like me. In fact, I had a litany of similar regrets that I dragged out whenever I was down; I called it my catechism, which I thought was witty and ironic. There are certainly times when Prozac Nation feels monotonous and solipsistic, but that aligns with my own experiences with depressive spirals. Repetition and self-obsession are part of the nature of the illness.
Wurtzel was oversharing before oversharing even became an everyday term we use, writing in a way that made people recoil with discomfort.
What seemed most important to me about Wurtzel’s writing was that she had been messy, and she was willing to detail that mess without apology. Just: here is how I’ve behaved. She offers the reader no contextualizing, no explaining, no objective distance from the events described. I still can’t tell if Wurtzel did this intentionally or not — and, if it’s a device meant to draw readers deep into her own stream of consciousness, she doesn’t always wield it skilfully — but either way, it was a radical departure from how I’d seen women write about themselves. I’d never read a story about a woman engaging in such rambunctious self-destruction that didn’t turn into a morality tale; on the other hand, there was no shortage of stories about men being comparably messy. This isn’t meant to be a bad faith argument about how “equality” means women deserve to behave just as badly as men, but rather that youthful messiness is a reality for people of all genders. There is power in seeing yourself represented, warts and all. How do you survive something if you don’t know that someone else has already survived it, too?
Whether we like it or not, Prozac Nation really did change the landscape when it comes to the way women write about themselves. It laid the groundwork for the what Jia Tolentino called the “personal-essay boom” of the early 2010s, an era when no detail was too graphic, no humiliation too private for sharing. Wurtzel was oversharing before oversharing even became an everyday term we use, writing in a way that made people recoil with discomfort. But, like so many of those XOJane-style pieces, she also made people feel seen. Wurtzel’s writing has influenced how I write about mental illness; it’s made me more committed to relate my experiences in honest ways, rather than style them to appear more understandable or sympathetic. Through her, I’ve learned that it’s much more interesting when I center myself in my own narrative rather than the feelings my readers might have about it. The embarrassing personal details are, somehow, what makes these stories relatable. I’m sure there are many others whose writing owes a similar debt of gratitude to Wurtzel, even if they don’t realize it.
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Prozac Nation was published on September 25, 1994, three days after Friends premiered on NBC. Both are emblematic of that era: angsty Gen-X youth and the golden age of television sitcoms. Like many cultural artifacts that are very rooted in their particular time and place, neither has aged very well. Wurtzel’s semi-premise — that the use of SSRIs was too widespread, that America had become a nation of pill-poppers who were drawn to Prozac because of its name-brand trendiness — seems especially unsturdy. For one thing, she doesn’t even encounter the drug until the very end of the book, and when she does take it, she experiences a swift and nearly miraculous recovery. For another, all of the panic about SSRI consumption seems, in retrospect, almost adorable in its unfoundedness. Doctors were pushing the idea that oxycontin was non-habit-forming in any amount, but people were worried about Prozac?
Re-reading Prozac Nation again after all these years felt a bit like being a 20-year-old melting down at a party: embarrassing, but somehow comforting in its familiarity.
Many of those concerns piggybacked on the very real problems with mid-century tranquilizer use, but they were also influenced by what psychiatrist Gerald L. Klerman termed pharmacological Calvinism: the idea that a drug that alleviates unhappiness is morally questionable. It’s an attitude that’s still very much present today, even though the use of SSRIs has become more normalized over the past 25 years. Pharmacological Calvinism is what makes your high school friend share those memes describing nature as the real antidepressant. It’s what leads people to view medication that treats anxiety and depression as a “crutch” rather than an ongoing and necessary treatment (which is a weird framing in and of itself, considering that people rarely use crutches unless they really need them). It’s the reason we hear arguments like the one in David Lazarus’ recent Los Angeles Times essay, where he describes himself as a “drug addict” because quitting antidepressants caused him to experience symptoms of depression, and quotes doctors praising the “work” of not taking medication as compared to the “easy” out of taking a pill every day. Of course, some people do experience adverse reactions while discontinuing use of SSRIs, but history has largely proven them to be quite safe compared to many other medications that experience similar faddish moments.
Re-reading Prozac Nation again after all these years felt a bit like being a 20-year-old melting down at a party: embarrassing, but somehow comforting in its familiarity. It made me feel grateful, above all else, for no longer being young. It’s such a relief to get older and be less vulnerable to Big Emotions, to have better coping skills, and to know how to opt out of drama. But I’m also grateful to my younger self for being deep in that depressive morass and still managing to navigate us to where we are now. I don’t hate her for who she was, as much as she sometimes failed to measure up to who I wanted to be. I try to be tender to her and understand that she was doing the messy best she could. Hopefully Wurtzel feels the same way.
* * *
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer whose bylines can be found all over the internet, including at the Guardian, The London Review of Books and Longreads, where she created the Queens of Infamy series.
When we left the future Empress, she was 32 and had just completed her third transformation — and name change — in as many decades. First she had been Yeyette, the coarse, uneducated girl from the colonies struggling to find her place in Paris society; then she had been Marie-Josèphe, the beautiful and popular estranged wife of a Revolutionary hero with a whiff of the courtesan about her; now she was a survivor of the Reign of Terror, a Merveilleuse famous for her revealing clothing, and a semi-professional mistress to the rich and powerful. It was in this latest incarnation that she was christened Josephine by her newest bedmate, a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte.
The young lovers had met through Paul Barras, who was both Napoleon’s boss and Josephine’s sugar daddy. After being aggressively pursued by the famously uncouth Corsican for months, Josephine had, for her own inscrutable reasons, decided to give in to his advances.
If she’d hoped that sleeping with him would somehow slake his obsession with her, she was wrong. Very wrong.
Napoleon’s fixation on Josephine only deepened once they became lovers, and often it tipped over into vicious fits of jealousy. In a letter to a friend, Josephine wrote, “I am afraid, I admit, of the empire he seems to want over all those who surround him.” She also wrote that the “force of [his] passion” made her uncomfortable, although she couldn’t quite articulate why; she knew that she should find his devotion to her attractive, but it creeped her out. Still, after weighing the pros and cons, she eventually gave in to his marriage proposal. She was getting older, and she wanted the security of a husband. Plus, he did seem to genuinely love her, even if his particular brand of love sometimes had a frightening edge.
The wedding was set for March 9, 1796. Since Catholicism was still banned in France, it was a civil service held at a small town hall. Napoleon arrived two hours late, a total asshole power move. The rest of the event was as messy as its beginning: the ages on the marriage certificate were wrong, one of the witnesses was too young to legally be a witness, and everyone was in a bad mood. It almost certainly wasn’t the wedding Josephine had expected, but she grimaced her way through it. When they got home, Josephine refused to move her beloved dog Fortuné off the bed to make room for Napoleon. When his mistress’ new husband tried to push him aside, the pug bit him. Sometimes dogs just know.
If Josephine found one bright spot on her second wedding day, it might have been the inscription on the wedding band Napoleon placed on her finger: “au destin,” to destiny. Both husband and wife believed that they were marked by fate, and nothing could have been a more fitting motto for them. Their shared faith that their marriage — and, indeed, their entire lives — had been predestined would shape many of their choices in the coming years.
* * *
Two days after the wedding, Napoleon left for a military campaign in Italy. His letters from this time are textbook examples of the cycle of abuse, heady declarations of love alternating with vicious scolding for not writing back often enough or with the right emotion. That being said, Josephine’s reasons for not replying in a timely fashion were less than virtuous: she’d begun an affair with a beautiful young soldier named Hippolyte Charles and, through him, had become involved with some shady backroom arms dealing. In Josephine’s defense, taking a lover or two on the side was a normal part of the world she lived in; after all, it hadn’t been that long since she’d been a fixture at Thérésa Tallien’s orgies. Still, she must have known that Napoleon expected monogamy. She must have known that she was playing a dangerous game.
While Josephine was ignoring her husband’s letters and living the high life in Paris, Napoleon was growing more and more anguished, and when he told Barras that he hated all women and was consumed with despair, the older man decided that he needed to step in. Napoleon had been racking up astonishing victories in Italy, and Barras couldn’t afford to have him distracted from his work. So one night, after a dinner given in her honor, he muscled Josephine into a carriage bound for Milan. She cried and begged him to let her stay, but Barras was adamant. He was going to give Napoleon whatever he wanted, including, once again, Josephine.
When they got home, Josephine refused to move her beloved dog Fortuné off the bed to make room for Napoleon. When his mistress’ new husband tried to push him aside, the pug bit him. Sometimes dogs just know.
Napoleon was overjoyed by his wife’s arrival. Their time apart had only heightened his obsession and when they met in Italy, he couldn’t stop fondling her, even in front of his staff. Josephine found his attentions overwhelming. “My husband doesn’t love me, he worships me,” she wrote to an acquaintance. Even though her life in Milan was lavish — she was staying in a literal palace — Josephine was miserable. She missed her life in Paris, she missed her children, she missed her freedom.
Napoleon had to return to the front lines soon after Josephine’s arrival, from whence he sent her letters about her vagina, calling it “the little black forest” and writing that “[t]o live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian fields.” Truly, this man missed his calling as a romance writer.
JOSEPHINE: on the whole, Italy was kind of a wash
JOSEPHINE: I mean, the plundering part was pretty fun
JOSEPHINE: the Italians make great art, I’ll give them that
JOSEPHINE: but then Napoleon’s family arrived from Marseilles
JOSEPHINE: I mean, they basically moved in with us!
JOSEPHINE: and there are not enough Correggio paintings in the world to make it worth putting up with them
Napoleon’s family had been less than enthused to learn about his marriage. Josephine was infamous by this point, and her scandals well-known. Napoleon’s mother opposed the match from a moral standpoint as well as a financial one — her son had been supporting the family ever since his father’s death several years earlier, and she didn’t relish seeing that support drained away by a depraved slattern from the colonies. In spite of Josephine’s attempts to charm her new husband’s family, they would openly loathe her for the rest of her life. His 16-year-old sister Pauline was especially heinous to Josephine: she referred to her as “la vielle” (the old woman), stuck her tongue out at her behind her back, and did her best to outdress her sister-in-law on every occasion.
Josephine left Italy in November, ostensibly bound for Paris. Napoleon left at the same time, but headed to peace talks in Austria first. He was shocked when he returned to Paris in December and his wife still wasn’t there. Instead of going straight back, Josephine had met up with Hippolyte in Nevers, and the two were leisurely fucking their way across France. A ball dedicated to her was organized by Napoleon’s ally Talleyrand in Paris for December 25th, but when she still hadn’t arrived it was postponed until the 28th. Josephine didn’t show up until January 3rd, by which point organizers had been forced to throw out two rounds of food and flowers. The event went grimly ahead but Napoleon was furious, as Josephine must have known he’d be. Josephine and Napoleon reconciled with a Big Dramatic Scene, a completely healthy relationship dynamic they both seemed to relish. This was something that played out over and over again throughout their time together: Napoleon would stomp around and yell, while Josephine wept and begged for his forgiveness. Eventually he would play the part of Big Merciful Daddy and take her into his arms and comfort her; nothing made Napoleon feel more secure in his masculinity than reducing his wife to tears and then comforting her. Josephine, for her part, seemed to feel like she could get away with almost anything as long as she cried hard enough about it later.
In 1797, Napoleon began planning his next big military campaign.
NAPOLEON: babe, I’m going to conquer Egypt
JOSEPHINE: can I ask why?
NAPOLEON: for the empire
JOSEPHINE: sure, but, why Egypt specifically?
JOSEPHINE: I mean, isn’t it kind of … out of the way?
NAPOLEON: Alexander the Great conquered Egypt
JOSEPHINE: I don’t know if that’s really a reason
NAPOLEON: it’s an empire-building thing, you wouldn’t understand
If Josephine had been reluctant to join Napoleon in Italy, she was now desperate to accompany him to Egypt: her involvement in Hippolyte’s shady business had been revealed and the resulting scandal had been deeply unpleasant; she wanted to have Napoleon’s baby and solidify her position as his wife; she owed a lot of people a lot of money. But Napoleon refused to take her, so instead she headed to the spa town of Plombières, where she hoped to recover her fertility. Both she and Napoleon were desperate for a baby, but lingering physical trauma from her time in prison coupled with years of using what then passed for the morning-after pill (highly toxic douches, mostly) had left her unable to conceive. She hoped that “taking the waters” would improve her reproductive system. Instead, her time at Plombières made her chances of getting pregnant even more remote when a balcony she was standing on collapsed, leaving her with a broken pelvis and a severe spinal injury. Although she would go on to make an incredible recovery, the incident almost guaranteed that she would never have another child.
Meanwhile, things in Egypt weren’t going so great. The British were sinking Napoleon’s ships, and his friend Junot was sinking his hopes by telling him what everyone in Paris already knew — that Josephine was fucking Hippolyte. You would think Napoleon might have figured this fact out on his own, but denial is a powerful drug. Admitting that Josephine had betrayed him shook not only his relationship with her, but also his relationship with himself: maybe he wasn’t actually the most virile and powerful man in the world, but a cuckold and a laughingstock. He swore to divorce Josephine, and for once she wasn’t there to weep and rend her garments and beg forgiveness.
And then the unthinkable happened: the British seized a French mail ship containing a letter from Napoleon to his brother about Josephine’s unfaithfulness. Then, like an 18th-century WikiLeaks, the London Morning Chronicle published selections from the letter. If the French had been tittering behind their hands about the military genius and his cheating wife, the English were outright guffawing.
* * *
Now the entire world knew about Napoleon’s humiliation.
Josephine, ever practical, decided that this would be a great time to buy a house. Actually, not just a house — a proper country estate called Malmaison (a name that roughly translates to “bad house,” which is … a choice). Josephine’s reasons were twofold: she wanted somewhere to live if Napoleon divorced her, but she also hoped that a beautiful property like Malmaison might lure him back. Barras, who obviously had a vested interest in her marriage, loaned Josephine the money she needed. She moved in almost as soon as the sale was completed, and quickly realized Malmaison was a great place to carry on her relationship with Hippolyte away from prying Parisian eyes.
Napoleon didn’t return to France immediately after finding out about his wife’s relationship with Hippolyte, partly because he preferred to bury himself in his work, partly because the situation he’d started in Egypt was still unstable, and partly because he wanted to have his own revenge affair. Josephine spent the better part of a year on tenterhooks, waiting for her husband and praying that she could pull off the most audacious weep ‘n’ beg of her life. Finally, in October of 1799, while dining at a friend’s house, she received word that Napoleon was back in the country. She dashed from Paris to Lyon, hoping to get to him before anyone else could, but arrived to find that he had already left by a different road. When Napoleon arrived in Paris and found his house empty, he assumed Josephine was off with her lover. Furious, he ordered his staff to begin packing up her clothes.
When Josephine finally got back to Paris she went straight to Napoleon, but he had locked himself in his room and refused to see her. She sat on the floor outside of his door and cried all night, but her old tricks failed to move him. At 5 o’clock in the blessed morning, Josephine sensed she would need stronger ammunition, so she roused Eugène and Hortense. The two sleepy teenagers, still in their nightwear, joined their mother and begged their stepfather not to abandon them. Napoleon was genuinely fond of Josephine’s children, and it was their pleading that finally softened his heart. He allowed Josephine to come into the room and then, not long after, into his bed. Plus ça change!
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Napoleon did not live to regret this decision. Josephine’s ability to wield soft power — flattery, distraction, general diplomacy — soon came in very handy. While Napoleon was in Egypt, several of his sources informed him that the current government was deeply unpopular and France was in dire straits. The rumors were not an exaggeration. He plotted with Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, one of the five leaders of the Directory — the committee that had governed France since the end of the Revolution — to overthrow the other four. As soon as that was done, Napoleon immediately double-crossed Sieyès and declared himself First Consul of France, an authoritarian title that basically put him in complete control of the country. Like many two-bit despots, Napoleon claimed to be acting in the interests of liberty and democracy; like many two-bit despots, he felt that this was a personal victory that he had earned because he was destined to rule. But the truth was that Josephine had done much of the backroom work for him: hosting dinners, inflating egos, and diverting attention. Without her, it’s unlikely that the rough-mannered general would have succeeded.
Shortly after his coup, Napoleon decided that he needed a residence more befitting a ruler. First he and Josephine moved into the Luxembourg Palace, and a few months later into the Tuileries. The latter was a symbol of the ostentatious excesses of the French monarchy; built by Catherine de’ Medici in the 16th century, the Tuileries was where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were kept after their removal from Versailles. Napoleon’s choice to align himself with the kings of the Ancien Régime was obviously intentional, and he immediately installed his wife in Marie Antoinette’s old chambers. Josephine, though, was ill at ease. She hated the stiffness and formality of her new role, and complained to Hortense that she felt haunted by the dead queen’s ghost. Still, she did her best to fulfill her new role as consuless, even though her heart longed to return to Malmaison.
She soon had her chance, as Napoleon gave her permission to renovate Malmaison to use as a country estate for entertaining guests. Once that was completed, Josephine began working on the estate’s grounds. She discovered that she had a natural aptitude for horticulture, and began cultivating as many species of plants as she could. Tired of the formal gardens of Paris, Josephine hired an English gardener to achieve the jardin à l’anglaise look, much to Napoleon’s horror; she also used her husband’s connections to solicit seeds and plants from around the world, delighting especially in the rare and difficult to grow. Although she was entirely self-taught, Josephine’s botanical knowledge and ability impressed even the experts, and gardening was a passion she would keep up for the rest of her life. She even convinced Napoleon to let her import plants from England during the trade blockades that would mark the wars between Britain and the Napoleonic Empire.
JOSEPHINE: I also built a giant greenhouse and started importing exotic animals
JOSEPHINE: I had llamas and an orangutan that could eat with a knife and fork
JOSEPHINE: I know this all sounds ridiculously expensive
JOSEPHINE: but if life has taught me anything, it’s that you should spend money while you can
JOSEPHINE: because tomorrow you could go to jail
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: seriously, that’s your takeaway from the Revolution?
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: not that monarchy is oppressive, or that we should strive for freedom and equality
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: you’re as bad as any of those Bourbon kings
JOSEPHINE: stay away from my fucking llamas, Robespierre
* * *
Josephine succeeded in building an estate that both she and the First Consul could love. Napoleon began to use Malmaison to meet with all kinds of dignitaries and officials; in the early years of his rule, much of his government business was conducted at the country estate. They hosted days-long events that involved outdoor dinners and games, and even theatrical interludes starring Bonaparte family and friends. Josephine had transformed herself once again, from sexually adventurous good-times Merveilleuse into a consuless at the height of sophistication and good taste. Unfortunately for her, this state of affairs couldn’t and wouldn’t last long.
As Napoleon’s authority grew, so did his royal ambitions. He began to consider Malmaison beneath his station, preferring life at the Tuileries. Josephine was forced to spend more and more time in the city (and more and more time with her miserable in-laws). Napoleon, meanwhile, was sleeping with as many women as possible. These affairs — if you can call them that — took an odd form. The consul would have the women he chose wait for him, naked, in bed; he would be in and out (so to speak) in a matter of minutes. More than sex, he seemed to enjoy his ability to order his mistresses around, to control how they interacted with him. These liaisons also gave him another type of power, over Josephine: the ability to reduce her to tears, push her to the brink of despair, then soothe her like a fretful child.
Napoleon’s attitudes toward women oscillated between furious resentment and paternal infantilization. Both of these were reflected in his Napoleonic Code, which severely restricted the rights women had gained during the Revolution and even the few they’d held under the Ancien Régime. He also made chattel slavery legal again, in spite of his promises to uphold abolition, a decision many blamed on Josephine’s influence. Whether or not she advocated for the reinstatement of slavery, Josephine certainly didn’t seem to oppose it, writing to her mother that Napoleon was “very attached to Martinique and is counting on the support of the planters of that colony.” Josephine was uniquely positioned to understand both the brutality of chattel slavery — she had witnessed it firsthand, after all — as well as the Revolutionary arguments that had led to its abolition. Her entire personal brand was built on the indignities of losing her freedom during the Reign of Terror. She either knew on every level that slavery was a violation of basic human rights and didn’t care, or she found some way to rationalize it to herself, which is functionally the same as not caring.
To justify his regressive laws, Napoleon reinstated Catholicism as the state religion. He explained his rationale to the senator Pierre Louis Roederer succinctly: “Society cannot exist without inequality of wealth and inequality of wealth cannot exist without religion.” With the Catholic Church back in business, nearly every change wrought by the Revolution was undone.
* * *
As time went on, Napoleon became increasingly preoccupied with having a child. It was becoming clearer and clearer that Josephine was not going conceive, although she suggested that the problem lay with him — after all, hadn’t she already had two healthy pregnancies? Her fertility was, according to her, demonstrably fine. But still Josephine was terrified that her husband would leave her for a younger woman who might provide him with a baby. Eventually, she came up with an idea straight out of Aunt Edmée’s playbook: Hortense, now 18, could marry Napoleon’s brother Louis. The children of that union would bear both Napoleon and Josephine’s blood, and would make the perfect Bonaparte heir.
HORTENSE: but Louis is awful!
JOSEPHINE: well, we all have to do our duty
JOSEPHINE: to the empire, you know
HORTENSE: this feels more like me taking one for the team so that you can get what you want
JOSEPHINE: aren’t we all on the same team?
JOSEPHINE: really, you’re helping me to help yourself
Louis, like the rest of Napoleon’s extended family, hated Josephine and spent his wedding night reciting all the reasons why his new bride’s mother was a slut. In spite of this, Hortense gave birth to a son almost exactly nine months later, who she christened Napoleon Louis Charles. Her mother and stepfather were exultant.
Shortly before the birth of his heir, Napoleon was made “Consul for Life.” He officially moved his country seat from Malmaison to the Chateau de Saint-Cloud, one of Marie Antoinette’s former residences, where he did his utmost to recreate the court life of the Bourbon dynasty. He dressed his staff in red velvet and gilded everything in sight. He insisted that Josephine order extravagant new gowns for every occasion — including one covered with real rose petals — although he balked when her bills arrived. Few people remembered all the arcane rules and rituals of court, so Napoleon had Josephine consult with Henriette Campan, who had been Marie Antoinette’s First Lady of the Bedchamber, about things like who was supposed to bow when.
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: what was the point of even having a revolution??
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: did 40,000 people die in vain?? So that we could have another KING?
NAPOLEON: well, I didn’t start the Revolution, I just finished it
NAPOLEON: so that sounds like more of a you problem than a me problem
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I’m dead, I don’t have any problems
NAPOLEON: with all due respect, Max, I would say that even in death you have a lot of unresolved issues
If Josephine had been overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Tuileries, Saint-Cloud was even worse. She missed the casual country vibes of Malmaison, not to mention the public affection her husband had showered her with there. His liaisons were becoming more and more public, and Josephine knew that pushing back against his infidelity would only put her position at risk; in spite of Hortense’s child, Josephine was still terrified that her husband would leave her. Napoleon wielded his new relationships like weapons — he loved to recount graphic details about his conquests to Josephine, demanding that she applaud his sexual prowess. If she got upset, he grew vicious, reminding her that she had been unfaithful first. By Napoleon’s logic, she deserved payback for humiliating him in front of the entire world.
In January of 1804, a plot to assassinate Napoleon was discovered. The Duc of Enghien, a nephew of Louis XVI, was arrested at his home in Baden (even though there was no evidence linking him to the plot), found guilty in a secret military trial, and summarily executed. The rest of Europe was appalled — Baden was a neutral territory, and the legal proceedings had hardly been fair. But in France, Napoleon successfully spun the story; he was the hero his country needed, protecting it from anarchy and the dregs of the Bourbon dynasty. Riding a wave of popularity, Napoleon launched a referendum and was elected Emperor of the French. “I am the man of the State,” he declared. “I am the French Revolution.”
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I just want to say I totally called it that you would make yourself king
NAPOLEON: technically, an emperor is not a king
NAPOLEON: spiritually, it’s more in the tradition of the Roman Empire? Anyway, it polls well
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I fail to see how the Roman emperors were less oppressive or corrupt than the French kings
NAPOLEON: Max, you know I always treasure your input
NAPOLEON: but don’t you have anyone else to haunt?
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: you know I don’t, I beheaded all of my enemies 10 years ago
Josephine was going to be “greater than a queen,” just as Euphémie had said — she was going to be an Empress. Or was she? Even though her husband was going to be Emperor, she didn’t have an official title. Napoleon himself didn’t seem to be too sure about which direction to jump. On the one hand, crowning Josephine as Empress would make it a lot harder to get rid of her if and when he wanted to take a new wife who would give him an heir. On the other hand, he was deeply superstitious and believed that his wife was his good luck charm; without her, he worried that his winning streak would break. Plus, every time he leaned toward not crowning Josephine his terrible family rejoiced, which infuriated him.
Josephine and Napoleon began playing a dangerous game of chicken. He told her that he was too loyal to leave her, and begged her to do the leaving for the sake of his dynasty. She retaliated by saying that she would separate from him as soon as he gave her a direct order to do so. Every time Napoleon was on the brink of breaking it off, something — his love for his stepchildren, his fear of a life without Josephine, her ability to lure him into the bedroom — stopped him. Finally, less than a month before his coronation, his family made up his mind for him. The Bonapartes, feeling triumphant, had spent weeks alternating between snubbing and teasing Josephine, sure that her downfall was imminent. Piqued by their disrespect, Napoleon publicly announced her coronation, then rubbed salt in the wound by telling his sisters that they’d be carrying Josephine’s train during the ceremony.
The night before the coronation, Josephine made the ultimate move to keep her husband at her side. The Pope was in town to do the coronating — although Napoleon actually ended up crowning himself, because despots will despot — and Josephine sought a private audience with him. She confessed that her wedding to the Emperor had been a civil service, which meant that they weren’t truly married in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Horrified, the Pope refused to participate in the coronation unless Napoleon and Josephine were married in a religious ceremony. Knowing that the Pope’s support was key to legitimizing his reign, Napoleon gave in. Josephine’s gamble had paid off.
* * *
On December 2, 1804, Josephine — heroine of the Reign of Terror, scantily clad Merveilleuse, former mistress of half a dozen men — was crowned Empress of France in front of the Pope himself.
All of this was, of course, set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s military career. He managed to spin even his defeats as successes, and used them to justify further expansion of his empire. In the summer of 1805, he turned his attention once more toward Austria, which was still salty about the whole Marie Antoinette thing and allied with Britain and Russia against France. Napoleon abandoned his plans to invade England in order to head east to quash the Austrian army, and he was hugely successful. The next year, he pressed even farther, into Prussia, and in early 1807, into Poland. He wrote to Josephine often, but even as he proclaimed his love, he was distracted by news out of France: one of his mistresses was pregnant. Josephine, who had traveled with Napoleon as far as Mainz, knew exactly what that pregnancy could mean for her marriage. She begged her husband to let her join him in Warsaw but he ordered her back to Paris, where she spent the winter white-faced and weeping, certain that orders for a divorce would come through any day.
Josephine had little reprieve from her unhappiness. In the spring of 1807, her grandson and heir Napoleon Louis Charles died. Hortense and the Empress were inconsolable; Napoleon, who thought they should be paying attention to his victories in the east, grew impatient with their grief. Less than a month later, Josephine’s mother died in Martinique. Napoleon refused to make the news of his mother-in-law’s death public, claiming that it would cast a shadow over his victories, and refused to name Hortense’s younger son his heir, which Josephine took as a further sign that he was about to leave her. When the Emperor returned to France after sealing an armistice with Tsar Alexander, his manner toward his wife was noticeably chilly.
Now that he was secure in his fertility, Napoleon began to consider a divorce in earnest. The idea of solidifying his new alliances with Austria and Poland with a marriage was deeply appealing and, he reasoned, the death of his heir was a good excuse to find and impregnate a new wife. Josephine, knowing she was about to be discarded, fell into an emotional spiral, dragging Napoleon with her: the more miserable she became, the more he resented her. But he still loved her, too, and couldn’t picture life without her gentling influence. Plus, he was sure that she brought him luck; his greatest victories had come after their wedding, and after all, what about “au destin”? Would his military winning streak continue without her? But in 1809, after learning that a Polish mistress was pregnant with another one of his children, he made up his mind: he had to divorce Josephine.
On November 30th, just two days before the 5th anniversary of their coronation, Napoleon and Josephine dined together. At the end of a nearly silent meal, the Emperor took his wife’s hand and told her that, while he would always adore her, he had to put the interests of France in front of his own wants. Josephine fell into hysterics, and Napoleon began to cry too, becoming even more upset when he realized that losing his wife meant losing his stepchildren. He had thought this through thousands of times, but faced with the reality of divorce, he blanched. In the end it was Eugène who insisted that the separation happen. He knew that a reconciliation would be brief and ultimately unhappy for everyone.
On December 14, 1809, Napoleon and Josephine convened a grand ceremony in the throne room to announce their divorce. The Emperor wept as he described what a wonderful wife the Empress had been. Josephine — whose face was a mess of tears and makeup — swore that Napoleon would always be her dearest love. Together, they signed the record of proceedings. That night they clung to each other in Napoleon’s bed, both sobbing, before Josephine retreated to her own chamber.
Josephine decamped to Malmaison, where Napoleon visited her. The pair continued to cry together over the dissolution of their grand love affair, more united in their separation than they had been over the last year of their marriage. But the Emperor’s grief didn’t stop him from marrying 18-year-old Marie Louise of Austria (who happened to be Marie Antoinette’s great-niece) on March 11th, 1810, just months after his divorce. He told Josephine that she would have to leave Paris before his new wife’s arrival, and at the end of March the deposed Empress set off for a chateau in Navarre.
Josephine did her best to rally her spirits, even though the lovely new home Napoleon had promised was a damp, drafty monstrosity, so hideous that people called it “la marmite” (the cooking pot). She began renovating its gardens, and occupied her evenings doing tarot readings for her ladies; years before, she had developed a close relationship with cartomancer Marie Anne Lenormand, and remained obsessed with Lenormand’s fortune-telling deck of cards for the rest of her life. Between her love of plants, her tarot fixation, and her (still ongoing) debt, Josephine was basically a prototype for the modern millennial lady.
* * *
In March of 1811, Marie Louise gave birth to a son. Napoleon was beyond exultant — he finally had a legitimate child and heir. In a fit of good temper, he allowed Josephine to return permanently to Malmaison (she had been there the year before, but was only allowed to stay briefly before traveling onward to Aix-en-Provence). She began to build a quiet life for herself — collecting art, hosting intimate soirées, and spoiling her grandchildren. She grew sugarcane in her greenhouse and let Hortense’s young sons suck on it just like she had as a child. Napoleon remained close to her, writing to her often and spending two hours visiting her before he left to conquer Russia; he even let her kiss and cuddle his son, although Marie Louise was furious when she found out.
I probably don’t have to tell you that things didn’t go well in Russia. Things never go well for invading armies in Russia. Over 500,000 French soldiers died; fewer than 100,000 came home. Napoleon was ousted from power in the spring of 1814, and Paris was soon overrun with triumphant Cossack forces. By the beginning of May, they would restore the Bourbon dynasty to the French throne. Napoleon, meanwhile, had been exiled.
Tsar Alexander, who was in Paris to ensure that Louis XVIII acceded peacefully, began visiting Josephine. He was fascinated by the legendary woman who had held his enemy in thrall for so long, and the former Empress, for her part, received him graciously. She understood that this man held her life — and the lives of her children and grandchildren — in the palm of his hand, and turned on the charm accordingly. Other conquering dignitaries began to visit her as well; she was, after all, one of the spoils of war. She belonged to them now.
Stay away from my fucking llamas, Robespierre.
In the middle of May, Josephine caught a chill while out walking around the grounds of Malmaison with the Tsar. By the end of the month, she was desperately ill with a high fever and a rash. On the morning of May 29th, delirious but still the same old Josephine, she insisted on being dressed in a pink satin gown and rubies in case the Tsar came. She was dead by the time the clock struck noon.
French public opinion had run hot and cold on Napoleon — mostly cold over the last years of his reign — but Josephine had been almost universally beloved. She represented so many things to so many people, from the wild hope of the early days of the Revolution to the desperation of the Reign of Terror to the grandeur of the French Empire. Perhaps above everything else, she represented pragmatism and tenacity; she’d never been ashamed to do what was necessary to survive. Thousands upon thousands attended her funeral, weeping for their Empress. Her legacy was complicated, but it was the legacy of their people.
And Napoleon? In his disgrace, he was abandoned by almost everyone, including Marie Louise; Eugène and Hortense were among the few that remained loyal to him. He died seven years later, exiled to the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. His last word was “Josephine.”
There is a statue of Josephine in Fort-de-France, Martinique. In 1991, it was beheaded, just as she would have been if not for Robespierre’s timely downfall. It was a fitting tribute to the heroine of the Terror who had watched the restoration of slavery with the same secretive Mona Lisa smile she wears in all of her portraits.
Long live the dissolution of oppressive monarchies. Long live freedom. Liberté, fraternité, égalité forever.
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.
In 1768, a 15-year-old girl traveled to the hills near her family home in Martinique to visit a local wise woman. Desperately curious to know what her future held, the girl handed a few coins to the Afro-Caribbean obeah, Euphémie David, in exchange for a palm reading. Euphémie obligingly delivered an impressive-sounding prediction: the girl would marry twice — first, unhappily, to a family connection in France, and later to a “dark man of little fortune.” This second husband would achieve undreamed of glory and triumph, rendering her “greater than a queen.” But before the girl had time to gloat over her thrilling fate, Euphémie delivered a parting blow: in spite of her incredible success, the girl would die miserable, filled with regret, pining for the “easy, pleasant life” of her childhood. This prophecy would stay with the girl for the rest of her life, and she would think of it often — sometimes with fervent hope, sometimes with despair, always with unwavering belief that it would come true.
That girl was the future Empress Josephine Bonaparte. Everything Euphémie predicted would come to pass, but young Josephine could not have imagined the events that would propel her to her zenith: the rise through Paris society, the cataclysm of the French Revolution, the brutal imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, the transformation into an infamous Merveilleuse, the pivotal dinner at her lover’s house where she would meet her second husband.
She wouldn’t even have recognized the name Josephine — that sobriquet would be bestowed by Napoleon some 18 years hence. The wide-eyed teenager who asked Euphémie to tell her fortune still went by her childhood nickname, Yeyette.
When one thinks about Roman triumvirates, insofar as one ever thinks about Roman triumvirates, there are two that spring immediately to mind: the First Triumvirate and the Second Triumvirate. The former involved a would-be emperor (Julius Caesar), a man with a beautiful head of hair (Pompey), and a guy whose name no one can ever remember (Crassus); the latter included an actual emperor (Augustus), a noted piss artist who also happened to have great hair (Mark Antony), and another guy whose name no one can ever remember (Lepidus). But I propose we add another Ancient Roman triumvirate and turn this list into a triumvirate of triumvirates. This last (and, frankly, greatest) of the triumvirates consists of the three queens who led revolts against the Roman occupation of their lands: Cleopatra, Boudicca, and Zenobia.
Do I understand that the term “triumvirate” means “three people who operate together as a governing coalition”? Yes. Since vir is Latin for “man,” wouldn’t the term refer specifically to men? Sure, whatever. Given that Cleopatra, Boudicca, and Zenobia were women whose lives were separated by the vagaries of time and geography, doesn’t that suggest that I’m applying “triumvirate” incorrectly here? Probably. Do I care about your petty and pedantic opinions on this matter? Not especially.
Cleopatra and Boudicca’s stories are both fairly well-known in the West, if somewhat distorted in their retellings (the Egyptian queen wanted her legacy to be tax reform and a stable, drought-resistant economy, but instead we mostly remember her as being sexily embroiled in Roman politics). Zenobia is a popular historical figure in the Arab world, especially in her native Syria, where her image appears on banknotes and where her story featured heavily in the 1997 historical soap opera Al-Ababeed (The Anarchy). Outside of the Middle East, though, she seems to be half-forgotten aside from a few works produced during the Enlightenment and the Romantic period, all of which employ extreme artistic license. Part of the problem is that when it comes to Zenobia, hard facts are few and far between. This is almost certainly related to gender; while historians were studiously chronicling the frequency and texture of royal men’s bowel movements, the most basic details of women’s lives are lost to time. The Romans were particularly reluctant to include women in their accounts, so it’s unsurprising that they didn’t leave much information behind about the queen who conquered a solid chunk of their empire.
When we last left the Serpent Queen, things were looking dire. She had been married to Henri, the heir to the French throne, for nearly five years. Although the Dauphin and Dauphine were both young and healthy, Catherine was failing in her most fundamental duty: providing the country with an heir. Rumors had spread throughout the court that she was incapable of conceiving. Since her husband’s only living brother was unmarried and childless, the entire fate of the Valois dynasty rested on Catherine’s ability to produce a child.
Faced with a rival noble faction, the Guises, who wanted to replace the apparently barren queen-to-be with one of their own, Catherine had thrown aside her pride and made a risky preemptive strike. Swooning pathetically at Francis I’s feet, the young woman tearfully begged the king to go ahead and replace her, saying that she loved Henri beyond measure and just wanted him to have a wife who could give him heirs. Catherine asked only that she be allowed to stay in France and humbly serve her beloved’s new bride.
It was a risky move, but Catherine had banked on the fact that the aging king couldn’t bear to see a young woman crying. Francis, nearly in tears himself, declared that it was God’s will that Catherine be the Dauphin’s wife. The question of replacing the Dauphine was resolved, for now.
The year was 1519. Henry VIII was king of England and still (mostly) happily married to Catherine of Aragon. The throne of France was held by Francis I, also known as “Francis of the Large Nose,” which may or may not have been a dick joke. Charles I of Spain had just become Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Martin Luther was stirring up shit in Germany. And in Florence, a couple whose union represented a last-ditch coalition between France and the Pope against the ever-expanding Holy Roman Empire welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Catarina Maria Romula de’ Medici (hereafter referred to as Catherine).
I like to think of the Medicis as the Kardashians of Renaissance Europe; at the very least, they had the same intuitive understanding of how to create and exploit a personal brand. Just the mention of the Medici name conjures up images of vulgar opulence, moral decay, and murderous treachery. Machiavelli’s The Prince — the so-called “textbook for tyrants” — was dedicated to Catherine de’ Medici’s father, and it was rumored that each of her children carried a copy with them at all times. Catherine herself inspired such nicknames as the Serpent Queen, the Black Queen, the Maggot from Italy’s Tomb, and (more flatteringly) the Mother of the Modern High-Heeled Shoe. She was also called the Merchant’s Daughter, a dig at her family’s nonaristocratic origins.
Whether or not Catherine was a basilisk who covered her shimmering scales with silk and velvet is up for debate, but it’s true that the Medici dynasty had decidedly common roots. In fact, a little over a century before Catherine’s birth, the Medicis were little more than casually wealthy textile traders. I mean, they had money, but not in mind-boggling amounts. That all changed in 1397, when they started a bank and discovered a latent talent for money management. By the mid-1400s, the Banco dei Medici was the biggest bank on the continent, and the Medicis themselves were the richest family in Europe.
Money can’t buy you happiness, but it sure can get you just about anything else, including various titles, marriages into noble families, a couple of popedoms, and the de facto lordship of the entire city-state of Florence. Also: a tomb designed by Michelangelo! The only problem with the Medici family’s scheme to dominate Europe was that supply couldn’t keep up with demand; even as they acquired all these positions of power, their ability to produce heirs veered into a steep decline. By the time Catherine was born, she was the only legitimate heir of the main branch of the family, and it soon became clear that she was quite possibly the last.
Are you the sort of person who loves a high court drama with plenty of devious intriguing? Is learning about grisly murders one of your guilty pleasures? Do you get a voyeuristic thrill out of tracking the rise and fall of royal romances? What about plagues? Do you like plagues? If you are currently clutching your chest and muttering “yes, yes, a thousand times yes,” then: a) sick, and b) keep reading. We’re about to take a deep dive into the life of Joanna I of Naples, and shit’s about to get really, really real.
Joanna — or Giovanna, as she was and still is known in her mother tongue — was born in 1326 to Charles, Duke of Calabria and heir to the Kingdom of Naples, and Marie of Valois. Although she was Charles and Marie’s fourth child, Joanna was predeceased by her three older siblings and became second in line to the throne at birth. A member of the Angevin dynasty, Joanna was the great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Like Eleanor, she would prove to have a knack for ruling. Also like Eleanor, her ambition and capability would threaten the powerful men around her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both queens found themselves having to run for their lives. Joanna’s flight — which involved escaping her besieged castle under the cover of night and then undertaking a dangerous journey across plague-ridden seas (all while pregnant, mind you) — might be less famous than that of her predecessor, but it’s arguably an even more incredible story.
Some people believe that the Myers-Briggs questionnaire is the ultimate way to classify personality types. Others think that the Enneagram is the way to go. Even more people set their stock in astrology, hoping that the fixed position of the stars at the time of a person’s birth will explain everything about them. I, however, think that you can tell everything you need to know about someone based on which wife of Henry VIII’s is their favorite. Do you prefer Catherine (or Catherine, or Catherine)? Do either of the Annes do it for you? Or, god forbid, are you a fan of the insufferable Jane Fucking Seymour?
Personally, I’m Team Anne Boleyn. My reasons for this are multifold. As an Anne, I am naturally sympathetic to others of my name. I also can’t help rooting for an underdog, and if being beheaded because your crusty husband wants to marry Jane Fucking Seymour doesn’t make you an underdog, I don’t know what does. Finally, I respect a good hustle, and Anne’s hustle was iconic — my god, how she hustled! Even if you think Anne Boleyn was a king-seducing homewrecker extraordinaire, it’s impossible not to appreciate the sheer audacity of it all.
But who was Anne Boleyn, exactly? The mythology surrounding her improbable rise and sensational fall is pretty well-known, yet most of the information we have access to was either written by haters or produced decades after her death (or both). It’s hard to know much about Anne as a person (as opposed to Anne, Destroyer of Marriages and Churches). We’re not even sure what year she was born — 1501 and 1507 are the two most likely candidates, with arguments hinging on a letter Anne wrote to her father in 1514. Historians have endlessly debated what age Anne was when she composed that neat, measured handwriting (in her second language, no less), and while I am absolutely not an expert, I will say that as the mother of a 7-year-old, I feel 97.5% sure that a child of that age did not write that letter. Then again, maybe my low penmanship expectations are the product of my plebeian public-school education.
Anne was writing to her father because her educational circumstances were about to change drastically. Initially, Thomas Boleyn had managed to secure a spot for his young daughter in the Burgundian court in the Netherlands. There, she was educated alongside several royal children, including Charles of Castile, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It’s unknown how Thomas, a diplomat whose closest personal tie to royalty was his wife, a descendant of Edward I, managed to winkle this incredible opportunity for his daughter; some historians speculate that it may have had to do with a gambling debt owed to him by Margaret of Austria, regent of the court where Anne was staying. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the gift for aggressive upward social mobility was strong in the Boleyn blood.
Even if you think Anne Boleyn was a king-seducing homewrecker extraordinaire, it’s impossible not to appreciate the sheer audacity of it all.
Just a year after Anne’s arrival in the Netherlands, shifting international alliances caused her abrupt departure. Henry VIII’s 18-year-old sister, Mary, had initially been promised to Charles of Castile, forging strong ties between the Holy Roman Empire and the Tudors. Then, in August of 1514, Mary wed the aging French king, Louis XII, by proxy. This sudden and stunning rejection of the teenaged Charles in favor of the visibly infirm, 52-year-old Louis likely made Anne’s position in the Burgundian court very uncomfortable. Luckily, Thomas Boleyn was able to place his daughter as a maid of honor in Mary’s household (my god, how these Boleyns hustled).
The Burgundians certainly weren’t the only ones who were upset about Mary’s wedding. Mary herself was less than enthused about the whole situation — understandably so, since she was a) three and a half decades younger than her new husband and b) deeply in love with her brother’s BFF, Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. Apparently she only agreed to marry Louis on the condition that after he died she would be allowed to marry whomever she wanted; the stars seem to have aligned in Mary’s favor, because Louis dropped dead just three months after they married. Henry sent Charles Brandon to France to collect his widowed sister, but with strict instructions:
HENRY VIII: Bro, whatever you do, DON’T propose to Mary when you get to France
Charles Brandon: LOL bro, I won’t!!
HENRY VIII: I’m serious, bro. Louis just died, like, five minutes ago
HENRY VIII: so be chill, ok?
Charles Brandon: Bro!! I promise I’ll be chill!!!
FIVE MINUTES LATER
Mary: We should secretly get married while we’re still in France
Charles Brandon: YOLO
To say that Henry was pissed would be an understatement. Not only had Charles Brandon directly disobeyed him, it’s also unlikely that Henry had ever intended to let his friend marry his sister. After all, the only value royal sisters and daughters had was to cement alliances through marriage; it’s unlikely Henry would have wasted the opportunity to marry his sister off to a foreign power (again) just because she was in love with a trifling Duke. Henry’s privy council wanted to imprison and/or execute Charles Brandon for treason, but in the end the king realized that would probably make family reunions super awkward, so Brandon just had to pay a stiff fine.
What was Anne Boleyn up to while this whole Charles Brandon foofaraw was happening in England? Still in France, she was now a maid of honor in the service of the new queen, Claude. At the French court, Anne learned all the skills necessary for being a good courtier — including (allegedly) the art of the blow job which was (again, allegedly) unknown in England at the time. While this last part is entirely apocryphal, it is my favorite rumor about Anne Boleyn. I have so many questions! What did it feel like to introduce la beej to an entire nation? Do you think she later demonstrated it to her own ladies-in-waiting so that they, too, could spread the gospel of buccal onanism? What were they even doing in England before Anne taught them the joys of fellatio? The mind boggles.
In 1521, Anne’s father recalled her from France with the hope that she would marry her Irish cousin James Butler and resolve a dispute over the Earldom of Ormond. It was one of those very boring succession situations that were always popping up among the gentry: Anne’s grandmother Margaret Boleyn was the daughter of the 7th Earl of Ormond and had been co-heiress to his estates, but now James, who was a descendant of the 3rd Earl of Ormond, was claiming the title for himself. Several of the parties invested in the outcome of this situation — including Henry VIII himself — thought that a union between Anne and James would settle the Ormond question. This probably wasn’t the marriage Anne was hoping for; at the very least, she would have known that she could do better than a discount wanna-be earl.
As you’ve no doubt already sussed out, the marriage between Anne and James never happened, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
* * *
At this point it behooves me to mention Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn; she figures importantly in this story not only as Anne’s sibling, but also as one of Anne’s predecessors in Henry’s bed. As with Anne, Mary’s birthdate is unknown — actually, it’s not even clear which sister was born first. On the one hand, the fact that Thomas Boleyn chose Anne to be the daughter brought up in the Burgundian court indicates that she was older (it would have been extremely strange to pass over an eldest daughter in favor of a younger one when offered such an opportunity). On the other hand, Mary was wed before Anne, and it would also have been uncommon for a younger sister to be married first. There’s also some boring stuff about which of their descendants inherited which titles under which circumstances, but there’s evidence to support both birth orders, so basically: who even knows at this point?
Like Anne, Mary Boleyn accompanied Henry VIII’s sister Mary to France for her wedding. (As a side note: if you’re starting to think there are too many Marys and Catherines and Annes in this story, you’re right — Tudor England was desperately uncreative when it came to names.) Like Anne, Mary Boleyn also stayed in France after the widowed Queen Mary returned to England for some Hot Charles Brandon Action. Unlike Anne, Mary Boleyn allegedly had an affair with the new King of France, Francis, who apparently referred to her as “my English mare” and “a very great whore, the most infamous of all.” I’m sure he totally meant these things as compliments!
Mary Boleyn returned to England in 1519 to become one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting, at which point she almost definitely started sleeping with the English king. We know this because later, when he was trying to get with Anne, Henry requested a special dispensation that allowed him to marry the sister of his former mistress. During the period when she and Henry were Doing It, Mary Boleyn got married to a courtier named William Carey. Mary and William had two children together, but it’s speculated that Henry fathered one or even both of them. On the one hand: maybe not. On the other hand: just look at Mary’s granddaughter Lettice Knollys and tell me she doesn’t have Tudor blood. Lettice Knollys would later go on to wed noted Tudor fuckboy Robert Dudley, a favorite of Elizabeth I’s, and their marriage would earn them a banishment from court thanks to Elizabeth’s jealousy (of Lettice) and intolerance (of fuckboys).
Some people might regard Mary Boleyn as a classic example of “why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?” — after all, if she’d played her cards right, she could, in theory, have wound up as the king’s wife instead of his mistress. On the one hand, it’s likely that Anne viewed Mary as something of a cautionary tale, and that’s partly why she was so intent on keeping the king at arm’s length (literally, with hand jobs) until he finally put a ring on it. On the other hand, Mary was the only Boleyn sibling to come out of that whole situation with her head still attached to her body. It’s possible that Mary survived through sheer luck, but it’s also possible that she understood more keenly than Anne just how fickle the king was and how harshly this world punishes clever, ambitious women.
If Anne had been subdued by her banishment, it certainly didn’t show; if anything, she came back smarter, stronger, and even more committed to marrying up.
While Mary Boleyn and Henry VIII were making googly eyes (and other googly body parts) at each other, Anne had her own blossoming court romance. She and Lord Henry Percy, who belonged to one of the richest and noblest families in England, fell in love and became secretly engaged. Actually, they went even further than just an engagement — they were alleged to have entered into a “pre-contract,” which involved saying wedding vows in front of a witness. This distinction is important, because the church considered these de futuro vows to be binding if they were followed by sexual consummation of the union. Percy was a page in the service Henry VIII’s favorite cardinal, Thomas Wolsey, and when Wolsey found out about the betrothal, he was absolutely furious. It wasn’t so much that Anne wasn’t wealthy or titled enough for the Percys (although she wasn’t), or that Percy was already engaged to someone else (although he sort of was), or that Henry VIII was wildly jealous (Anne wasn’t even on his radar yet); the main problem was that Percy and Anne had taken something that was supposed to be a public business contract between two families and turned it into a private love-fest. Percy and Anne brought shame on their families by violating one of the most deep-seated rules in their culture: marriage between nobles wasn’t supposed to be based on love, and it certainly wasn’t supposed to happen in secret. They had to be punished.
Percy was immediately and unhappily married off to Lady Mary Talbot, the woman to whom he had been betrothed when he was a teenager. Anne was “rusticated,” which meant that she was removed from court and sent to live in her family’s country estate. The experience must have been not just heartbreaking, but also humiliating for both of them — in trying to behave like adults, they’d ended up being treated like naughty children. At any rate, Percy seems to have loved Anne for the rest of his life; several years later, when Thomas Cromwell wanted to use the pre-contract as a way to annul Anne’s marriage to the king, Percy repeatedly denied its existence. It’s possible that Percy did this because he was (rightfully) afraid that admitting to having a past sexual relationship with Anne would get him into hot water with the king, but it’s also likely that he was doing his best to save Anne’s life.
A few years after Anne was dishonorably discharged from the court, she was given the chance to return and join her sister as one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting. If Anne had been subdued by her banishment, it certainly didn’t show; if anything, she came back smarter, stronger, and even more committed to marrying up. This time, she would aim high — real high. And, for a while, it would seem as if she’d succeeded in her ambitions.
* * *
By the time Henry VIII began to pursue Anne Boleyn in 1526, he’d been married to Catherine of Aragon for nearly two decades. In that time, they’d only managed to produce one living heir, Mary Tudor, the future Mary I of England. By the late 1520s, the subject of succession caused Henry a great deal of anxiety. As his father’s only surviving son, the burden of continuing the Tudor line was riding entirely on the king. A series of English civil wars, now commonly known as the Wars of the Roses, had ended only with the marriage of Henry’s parents; he knew that a succession crisis could plunge the country back into conflict. On top of all that, England had historically bucked under women’s rule, so even if Mary — by all accounts a sickly child — survived to adulthood, that was no guarantee of peace.
The big question is, of course, whether Anne was the cause or a symptom of Henry’s decision to dump Catherine. Was she a wily enchantress, luring the King away from his beloved Queen by casting dark spells on his dick? Or did she arrive back at court and catch Henry’s attention after he’d already started looking for a new wife? Catherine’s sympathizers preferred the dick-spells theory, with Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sanders writing half a century after Anne’s death that she had six fingers on one hand and a cyst under her chin, both of which were thought to be the markings of a witch. I guess it’s possible that, while in France, Anne learned not just blow-job skills but also black-magic skills. Who even knows what goes on in France? That being said, it’s absolutely no coincidence that Henry’s realization that Catherine would probably never bear him a son happened at roughly the same time as his burgeoning obsession with Anne. While it might be tempting to analyze their eventual marriage as the result of six years of cock-blocking, Henry was probably already looking for a new wife when his eye happened to wander in Anne’s direction. The fact that Henry began asking the Pope about annulling his first marriage less than a year after Anne’s return to court is evidence of this.
I guess it’s possible that, while in France, Anne learned not just blow-job skills but also black-magic skills. Who even knows what goes on in France?
That’s not to say that Anne never encouraged Henry’s pursuit of her. Did she flirt with him? Sure! Did she tell him she wanted to marry him? Totally! Did she promise him a billion legitimate sons once he finally ditched his pious snooze of a wife? Almost definitely! But there are two things we have to keep in mind when considering Anne’s role in the annulment of Henry and Catherine’s marriage. The first thing is that it’s very, very dangerous to refuse to give a king what he wants, especially if that king is a man who is only too happy to snuff out the lives of those who have disappointed him. The second thing to remember is that Anne literally had one job in life: to marry a rich, powerful man. This job was the only end-game of all her fancy education, all the years spent learning multiple languages, studying religious texts, and perfecting her dancing skills. Every opportunity Thomas Boleyn had secured for her was to serve the goal of her marrying well; to marry beneath her station or not marry at all would mean that Anne had failed to make good on her family’s extensive investment in her.
Some of you might be wondering: why Anne? Why, out of all the women available to him, did Henry fixate on her? Was she incredibly beautiful? No, not exactly; even the most flattering contemporary accounts describe her as being just average in the looks department (though the king did refer to her breasts as “pritty duckys,” thus confirming my suspicion that he was a boob man). But she was charming, witty, and apparently a lot of fun to be around. And she was patient. Boy, was she patient. Having watched her sister Mary be picked up and then later discarded by the king, Anne knew that sleeping with Henry during their long courtship would only undermine her chances of marrying him, so she dug in and played the long game — one that involved keeping her chastity technically intact while at the same time maintaining his sexual interest (which probably involved a lot of what is euphemistically referred to as “heavy petting”). It was a fine line, but one she managed to walk for six years as Henry tried to negotiate his annulment with Pope Clement VII.
HENRY VIII: Heyyyyyy bro
CLEMENT VII: Oh. Hey. It’s you again.
HENRY VIII: Remember how I’m the best Catholic?
CLEMENT VII: Not really
HENRY VIII: Sure you do! I wrote that book? About the sacraments?
CLEMENT VII: Doesn’t ring a bell, sorry
HENRY VIII: I’m officially a Defender Of The Faith!!
CLEMENT VII: I’ll take your word for it
HENRY VIII: Anyway. Since I’m really amazing at figuring out this God shit now, I’ve been thinking about my life
CLEMENT VII: Oh good
HENRY VIII: I’ve decided that I don’t have any surviving sons because I’m a horrible sinner
CLEMENT VII: So you’re going to stop having affairs? Give up drinking? Quit gambling?
HENRY VIII: Lol no, I’m going to leave my wife for a much younger woman
CLEMENT VII: …
HENRY VIII: Yeah, because in Leviticus? It says that if you marry your brother’s wife? You’ll be childless? And Catherine was totally my brother Arthur’s wife first
CLEMENT VII: That’s … ok, you’re completely misinterpreting that law
CLEMENT VII: And anyway, you were granted a papal dispensation to marry your brother’s wife
CLEMENT VII: This is a problem that has literally already been solved
HENRY VIII: Ok well I’m going to need you to cancel that dispensation lol
HENRY VIII: And also annul my marriage
HENRY VIII: Thanks in advance!!!
The Pope was not, in fact, interested in annulling Henry and Catherine’s marriage. This was at least in part because Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, had just sacked Rome in 1527 and was basically holding Clement VII hostage. Henry, never one to be deterred easily, followed up his request for an annulment with an inquiry into getting a papal dispensation for bigamy which, unsurprisingly, the Pope was not super enthused about either. There was a trial, and a lot of it involved some cold-case sleuthing over whether Arthur and Catherine had consummated their brief marriage. Catherine swore up and down that they hadn’t, but some of Arthur’s pals from back in the day said he’d emerged from his bedroom the morning after his wedding declaring that he’d “been to Spain” (because Catherine’s vagina was apparently a Spanish territory). Sadly, this A++ dick joke did not persuade the papal legate who was overseeing the trial and Henry was not granted his annulment.
* * *
In late 1532, three very exciting things happened. Anne accompanied Henry to France, a move that legitimized her position as his partner. Then, when bad weather forced them to dawdle in Calais for two weeks while their Channel crossing was delayed, Anne and Henry took a Fornication Vacation and finally consummated their love. It was also around this time that Thomas Cromwell drafted the Act of Appeals, which, when passed in 1533, would make Henry the final legal authority on all English matters, meaning that he could finally get his annulment over and done with and also take his first official step away from the authority of Rome.
Henry and Anne (who was almost certainly already pregnant) were secretly married on January 25, 1533. On May 23rd, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine to be invalid (which meant that he’d technically been bigamous for four months, but since he was calling all the shots now that didn’t really matter); on May 28, the Archbishop declared Anne’s marriage to Henry to be good and valid. On June 1, Anne was crowned queen in an elaborate ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Six years of various jobs (hand, blow, and otherwise) had finally paid off!
Henry cancelled the jousting tournament he’d been planning to celebrate the birth of his son, because apparently men only pretend to murder each other on horseback for fun if a baby is a boy.
The three months that followed would later be seen as the apex of Anne’s upward trajectory. She chose “The Most Happy” as her royal motto, and certainly it must have been a very happy time for her: not only had she finally hustled her way into the highest office an English woman could occupy, but she was also pregnant with the king’s child, whose birth would hopefully secure Anne’s future. That is, if the child was a boy, of course — and everyone, including Henry, assumed that this would be the case. After all, now that he was no longer breaking Levitican law, surely God would see fit to shower him with all the sons he wanted?
On September 7, 1533, Anne gave birth to a healthy baby girl, whom she and Henry named Elizabeth. They had been so sure the child was going to be a boy that they had already commissioned letters announcing the birth of a prince; these had to be hastily corrected before being sent out. Henry cancelled the jousting tournament he’d been planning to celebrate the birth of his son, because apparently men only pretend to murder each other on horseback for fun if a baby is a boy. Still, it must have given both Anne and Henry some comfort that both mother and baby were healthy. The fact that Anne had survived giving birth was proof that God favored her, and although she wasn’t a boy, Elizabeth was still an heir — something Henry very much needed, since he was about to declare his daughter Mary illegitimate.
There’s a myth that the king’s interest in Anne began waning almost immediately after Elizabeth’s birth. Even today, Anne is often represented in popular media as a shrewish schemer who made Henry’s life miserable from the moment he put a crown on her head. Certainly she had her own ideas about how things should be done, and occasionally she and Henry were seen arguing over the course of their marriage. But her inability to produce a male heir notwithstanding, the two and a half years following Elizabeth’s birth were generally happy ones for Anne. She was finally able to put her fancy education to use and was instrumental in helping Henry reform the church in England, advocating for the availability of religious texts in vernacular instead of Latin. When her downfall came, it was swift, unexpected, and hinged on a series of life-changing events that occurred in January 1536.
In 1533, Henry had been certain that he’d solved his succession crisis by marrying Anne. Now, the old panic set in.
Anne became pregnant at least twice more after Elizabeth was born, but none of these pregnancies made it to term. She suffered from either a miscarriage or a stillbirth in late 1534 or early 1535; by late 1535 she was definitely pregnant again. This, along with the death of Catherine of Aragon on January 7, 1536, gave Anne and the king a good deal to celebrate, since now the persistent question of whether Henry was still legally married to Catherine was finally resolved. The day after her death, Henry and Anne dressed in yellow silk — a color of mourning in Catherine’s native Spain, but widely regarded as a symbol of joy and vitality in England. Henry, of course, could never resist the chance to be a tacky asshole.
Shortly after Catherine’s demise, on January 24, 1536, Henry fell from his horse. This accident caused the leg wound that would plague him for the rest of his life; he also suffered a head injury so severe that he spent two hours in a coma. Less than a week later — perhaps as a result of the stress from Henry’s near-death experience — Anne miscarried what appeared to be a male fetus. Around the same time, Henry began courting Jane Fucking Seymour, who was one of Anne’s maids of honor and also happened to be her second cousin. If romancing your wife’s employee-relative while she is either pregnant or has just suffered a miscarriage isn’t the definition of Tacky Asshole, I don’t know what is.
The fallout of this rapid succession of events was complex. According to some accounts, Henry was increasingly paranoid, moody, and volatile after his fall; coupled with the fact that he was unconscious for so long, these symptoms could point to a possible traumatic brain injury, which might explain the heightened violence and unpredictability he displayed for the rest of his life. The fact that Anne had miscarried his longed-for son only made things worse. As someone who believed that God rewarded the righteous, he would have seen this event as proof that he was still not in God’s favor (and that it was almost certainly Anne’s fault). In 1533, Henry had been certain that he’d solved his succession crisis by marrying Anne. Now, the old panic set in. It must have seemed to Henry that the only way forward was to marry someone new; into that void stepped Jane Fucking Seymour.
Here’s the thing about Jane Fucking Seymour: I actually have a grudging admiration for her. In many ways, she played the game just as skillfully as Anne. The things that had initially drawn Henry to Anne — her lively wit, her intelligence, her strong-willed nature — were the same things that made him tire of her. The fact that she tried to blame her miscarriage on Henry’s fall (as well as possibly implicating his nascent romance with Jane) only added to his fury towards Anne; everyone knew that reproductive issues were the woman’s fault, and were almost certainly a punishment from God. How dare she say that Henry was to blame instead of repenting whatever sin of hers had led to this? While Henry was trying to grapple with the idea of having lost a potential male heir, Jane cleverly presented herself as the anti-Anne: quiet, pious, and submissive to the king’s every whim. Although it’s tempting to view Jane as a bland, milk-fed virgin who just happened to trip and fall into Henry’s lap, the truth is that she had a few power moves up her (huge) sleeves.
* * *
Not long after Anne’s miscarriage, the king began to say that he had been tricked into marrying Anne by her use of “sortilege,” a French word for sorcery. It’s possible that he honestly believed this, or else his desire for Jane Fucking Seymour (and a male heir) meant he was beginning to build a false case against Anne. Whatever the truth is, Thomas Cromwell — who had earlier been a sometime-ally of Anne’s — now fully turned against the queen. At least part of this about-face can be traced to their disagreement over the redistribution of the church’s wealth; Anne wanted the money to go to charitable causes, and Cromwell preferred to use the money to line the royal coffers (while taking a cut for himself, naturally). Cromwell did not relish the idea of having someone undermining his authority in the king’s presence, especially if that someone was a combative and opinionated woman. It’s completely within the realm of possibility that he was the one who orchestrated Anne’s downfall, then helped pull the strings to get meek old Jane set up in her place.
HENRY VIII: Do you ever feel like Anne is, um …
CROMWELL: A total slut who’s sleeping with her own brother?
HENRY VIII: I was going to say “sometimes kind of a bitch,” but now that you mention it, yeah
CROMWELL: You should kill her
HENRY VIII: Isn’t that kind of drastic?
CROMWELL: Nah, you’re the king, you can kill whoever you want.
CROMWELL: And you need to get her out of the way if you want to shack up with Jane
CROMWELL: You don’t want a repeat of the Catherine situation where she’s still alive and people feel sorry for her
CROMWELL: So let’s just make some shit up and execute her for high treason
CROMWELL: Nice and clean, no loose ends
HENRY VIII: I do hate loose ends. Almost as much as I hate not having sons
The arrests began at the end of April: first Mark Smeaton, a musician in Anne’s employment, then a handful of noblemen and a poet named Sir Thomas Wyatt, and finally her brother George. Each was accused of having a sexual relationship with the queen; each of them denied this accusation, although Smeaton later confessed after being tortured on the rack. On May 2, Anne was arrested and brought to the Tower of London. Her charges were adultery, incest, and high treason. On May 14, the Archbishop of Canterbury — the same man who had annulled Henry’s first marriage and then validated his second one — declared Henry and Anne’s marriage to be null and void. On May 15, Anne was put on trial at the Tower of London. A jury of 27 peers found her unanimously guilty.
Because Henry was such a nice guy, he gave Anne the fanciest execution possible. She was the first English queen to be publicly executed, and Henry didn’t want to look like a thoughtless jerk on this special occasion.
When the verdict was announced, Henry Percy, now the Earl of Northumberland, collapsed and had to be carried out of the courtroom. He died eight months later, apparently having loved Anne until the end of his life.
Because Henry was such a nice guy, he gave Anne the fanciest execution possible. She was the first English queen to be publicly executed, and Henry didn’t want to look like a thoughtless jerk on this special occasion. He even brought in a swordsman from France who was skilled enough to kill a person kneeling upright with just one blow (as opposed to the traditional English executioner, a comparatively clumsier axeman — apparently France has a long-standing tradition of killing royalty with style). Historical writer Leanda de Lisle speculates that Henry preferred a sword because it was both more romantic (think King Arthur and Excalibur) and also more phallic; on the one hand, this might be a reach, but on the other hand, “killing my wife with a penis” seems extremely Henry. A true gentleman among princes!
HENRY VIII: Babe
HENRY VIII: I know things aren’t great right now, but I’m really trying
HENRY VIII: I got you the best executioner money can buy
HENRY VIII: Babe, look at me
HENRY VIII: Babe
HENRY VIII: You don’t like it, do you?
HENRY VIII: Just tell me if you don’t like it
HENRY VIII: We’ll get you whatever kind of execution you want
HENRY VIII: Do you want a swordsman from Italy instead? Is that it?
HENRY VIII: Because I can get you an Italian if you want
HENRY VIII: Lol, I mean, you still have to die
HENRY VIII: But you’ll die like a queen!
William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, reported that Anne was facing death in the most Anne-like fashion: with (almost literal) gallows humor. “And then she said, ‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck,’ and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily,” Kingston wrote. On some level, Anne might have seen death as an escape from the shame and misery of Henry’s wrath. At any rate, she would have known that her execution was inevitable, and, according to Kingston, wished to get it over with as soon as possible. One poem, widely attributed to Anne, begins with the lines:
O death! rock me asleep,
Bring me on quiet rest;
Yet pass my guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast
On May 19, Anne climbed the steps to a scaffold that had been built especially for the occasion and made a short speech to the crowd. In it, she maintained her innocence and described Henry as a gentle and merciful ruler; although she knew that she could not spare her own life, it’s likely that praising Henry was an attempt to make things easier for Elizabeth. She took off her headdress and tucked her hair up, then knelt on the scaffold. After asking the crowd to pray for her, she repeated “Jesu receive my soul; O Lord God have pity on my soul” over and over until death came. When it did, it happened in a single stroke of the sword, just as she had hoped.
The next day, Henry announced his betrothal to Jane Fucking Seymour, because these two couldn’t even wait until Anne’s half of the bed was cold before making it official. Jane would go on to give Henry the son he wanted, although she would give up her life in the process. The fact that she had died producing Henry’s only surviving male heir gave her a mythic near-martyr status in his eyes, and he would do creepy things like having her appear in a family portrait eight years after her death (and not even as a zombie or vampire, much to my dismay). She was the only one of his wives to be buried next to him.
I know I’ve made lots of jokes about how terrible Jane Seymour was, and while I do think she’s literally the worst, I want to say a brief word in defense of all of Henry VIII’s wives. It can be tempting to think of them as a succession of catty bitches, all intent on tearing down the reigning queen in hopes of taking her place — certainly that’s how they’re often portrayed in pop culture. But really, they were all Henry’s victims, each of them placed on a pedestal by him and then toppled by his violent, capricious will. If they competed with each other, it was because they lived in a culture where women were often forced to turn on other women in order to survive. That’s not to say that any of them were completely blameless in their behavior (other than Catherine of Aragon, of course, whose picture you would probably find in the dictionary if you looked up “blameless”), but they all deserve a certain amount of sympathy. Even Jane Seymour, as much as it pains me to say that.
Anne had the last laugh, of course. Jane’s son Edward was at best a useless boy-king, and at worst a divisive religious extremist who disinherited his sisters. It was Anne’s daughter Elizabeth who would go on to become one of the savviest and most popular rulers England has ever had, leading the country into a social and political golden age. From sparking a radical religious reform to giving birth to one of England’s most beloved monarchs, it’s possible that Anne shaped her country more than any queen before or since.
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.