Natalie Dormer is no stranger to playing the Queen. Having played the enigmatic Anne Boleyn in Showtime’s The Tudors, there were going to be some inevitable comparisons between Margaery Tyrell and Anne Boleyn. One is a fictional queen and one is amongst the most controversial queens in English history. Natalie is resolved to separate the two:
“You’ll appreciate that I’m trying very, very hard as an actor to separate my characterizations,” Natalie said in an interview last year. “It was a concern for me when I took on the role that I wanted to differentiate them as much as possible. So I aim to do that and I challenge myself to do that every single day. I want to create a completely independent character.”
Natalie fought very hard to improve the Anne Boleyn that The Tudors portrayed, going so far as to beg producer Michael Hirst to represent the real Anne Boleyn and her role in the beginnings of the English Reformation. After having to smirk and flounce her way through Season One, Natalie was able to give a performance in Season Two that has cemented her place as a favourite among Anne Boleyn admirers. Natalie’s casting as Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones was met with wide approval from fans. But are there any actual similarities between Margaery Tyrell and Anne Boleyn? We can draw parallels from historical events, but their personalities are night and day.
Anne Boleyn was fire and Margaery is ice
According to Natalie:
“They’re totally different women… In so far as it’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Anne Boleyn was fire and Margaery is ice. Margaery is a lot more practical, cool. She’s been trained for this sort of level of politics and machinations from an early age. She’s intellectual about it, whereas Anne Boleyn was very much a creature driven by passion and instinct and visceral qualities. So, in their roots, the characterizations come from two different places.”
One of the fundamental disparities between Margaery and Anne is their upbringing. Margaery is of House Tyrell of Highgarden, one of the Great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms. House Tyrell is wealthy and powerful; its wealth is only surpassed among the Great Houses by House Lannister. Mace Tyrell may be the head of House Tyrell, but it is the matriarch Olenna Tyrell who wields the true power. Under her grandmother’s wing, Margaery learns just how much power the women of the family can wield. House Tyrell comes to dominate their alliance with the Lannisters, with Margaery in the place of utmost importance, the soon-to-be Queen of Westeros.
The Boleyn men were wealthy merchants who made a habit of marrying above their station. One of the greatest marriages made was between Sir William Boleyn and Margaret Butler in 1475. It was her status and wealth that may have secured her son Thomas Boleyn a place at the Tudor court. Thomas’s rising career at court saw him soon married to his own heiress, Elizabeth Howard of the powerful House of Norfolk. In 1509 he was created a Knight of the Bath, and by 1513 he had managed to secure his younger daughter Anne a highly sought-after place in the household of Margaret of Austria.
Anne received an unusually good education for a woman and her intelligence was evident from an early age. Margaret of Austria wrote to Thomas Boleyn: I find her of such good address and so pleasing in her youthful age that I am more beholden to you for having sent her to me than you are to me.1 In 1514 young Anne was sent to France, along with her sister, as part of Mary Tudor’s entourage. It is likely Anne was chosen for her fluency in French. When it was time to come back to England, however, 15 year-old Queen Claude requested Anne stay in her household. Anne would go on to serve her for seven years.
|Queen Claude||Mary Boleyn|
By the time Anne arrived back in England, her sister Mary was involved in an affair with King Henry VIII. One of the most popular myths that surrounds the Boleyn family is that Thomas used his daughters’ affairs with the king to advance his position at court and increase his wealth. Henry VIII was, in fact, not particularly generous to lovers. Historians often date the beginning of Mary and Henry’s affair to 1522 as this was when her husband William Carey began to receive some lucrative grants and offices. But Carey was an established favourite of the King. Thomas has been at court for more than two decades and was already a trusted member of Henry’s inner circle. Thomas never received any offices or grants he did not earn himself. Mary received nothing of significance. In fact, when Carey died, all of the lucrative grants from the king passed back to the crown. An impoverished Mary had to ask her sister to intercede with the king, who reluctantly granted Mary a pension.
By the time King Henry VIII noticed Anne, the Boleyns were a successful family of accomplished courtiers. But they were yet to be a truly powerful family.
“Stricken with the Dart of Love”
We see Margaery neatly step over the corpse of one husband and claim another. Joffrey seems as fond of Margaery as Joffrey can be fond of anything. As for Margaery, a King is a King. One will do as well as the other. But it is not a passionate affair that tore a kingdom apart.
The relationship between King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was in fact a rather one-sided affair to begin with. When Anne Boleyn realised that Henry’s affections were a little more serious than courtly love, she flatly refused to become his mistress and retreated to her family home at Hever.
The other great myth surrounding Anne Boleyn is that she manipulated Henry VIII by withholding sex. This rather simplistic misogynistic trick has been perpetuated by male and female writers alike over the centuries, creating an image of the scheming femme fatale who plotted and poisoned her way to the throne. One of the main reasons this argument, if you could call it that, has no credibility is that Anne had just had her hopes of marrying Henry Percy (Earl of Northumberland) dashed. If she was not good enough for a Percy — and the Percys were certainly very powerful — why would Anne think she had a chance at marrying a king? More likely, Anne did not want her chances at a good marriage ruined simply so a king could use and discard her, as her own sister had been.
It is likely Anne thought putting some distance between them would cool Henry’s fervour. It had the opposite effect. Henry was a real romantic — when he was not trying to get rid of his wives. He began to write his now-famous love letters to Anne and shower her with gifts. He went so far as to offer her the position of “official mistress”, which Anne again refused. She only succumbed when Henry decided he would make her his wife.
The affair between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII outraged the nobility and the common people alike. Certainly you could argue there had been another “commoner” who had become a queen: Henry’s own grandmother, Elizabeth Woodville. And Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville because she refused to become his mistress. Of course, the difference there was that Edward was a young bachelor, and Henry VIII had already been married for fifteen years.
|Elizabeth Woodville||Edward IV||Katherine of Aragon|
Elizabeth Woodville may never have been popular with the nobility, who saw her family as social upstarts, but the common people liked her well enough. She was an exemplary consort: a beautiful, pious and graceful queen who gave England a large brood of princes and princesses. Anne Boleyn, on the other hand, was breaking up the marriage of Henry VIII and the beloved Katherine of Aragon. Henry VIII began his dubious campaign, the “King’s Great Matter” to have his marriage to Katherine annulled. Katherine was not going to give in so easily. For seven years, the battle between them raged, and Henry VIII did the unthinkable. Unable to secure an annulment from the Pope, he broke from Rome. It would change English history and see centuries of religious upheaval. And all for the love of a woman.
From Courtier to Queen
Margaery: Calling yourself a king doesn’t make you one, and if Renly wasn’t a king, I wasn’t a queen.
Petyr Baelish: Do you want to be a queen?
Margaery: No. I want to be the queen.
Margaery Tyrell is the perfect consort. When faced with Renley’s lack of arousal for her, Margaery cheerfully suggests her brother join them to get things going. When her husband is murdered, she moves smoothly on to the next. When confronted with Joffrey’s former betrothed at court, Sansa Stark, rather than treating her as a rival she befriends her and takes her under her wing. When Sansa tells her Joffrey is a monster, Margaery sighs and proceeds to ponder on how to manipulate Joffrey to keep him under control. Margaery is the ultimate politician, practical, cool and composed.
We cannot fault Anne’s performance as a queen consort, she was dedicated to religious reform, education and charity. She became pregnant immediately after her marriage to Henry VIII. While she suffered two miscarriages after her first birth, there is no reason to assume she may never have been able to conceive again. She may have secured her place had she given birth to the longed-for prince and may have eventually won the people over. But perhaps it was not in Anne’s nature to be Henry’s perfect wife.
It is difficult to ascertain what sort of queen Anne Boleyn would have become had she been given time. The contemporary accounts of Anne are fragmentary, although that is not to say what accounts we have of her give us a superficial picture. Some of the most valuable observations of Anne come from the pen of the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys. While many assume he was her bitter enemy and gives us a biased account, this is not truly the case. Chapuys’ shrewd observations showed us the real Anne Boleyn, a fiercely intelligent and passionate woman, yet a woman under immense pressure who would let her temper get the better of her. And a woman who was naturally jealous when — after many years of a devoted and monogamous relationship — her husband took a mistress.
Anne admitted as much at her trial “I do not say I have always shown him that humility which his goodness to me merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way2 .”
Chapuys had the measure of Henry VIII. He wrote to Charles V in July of 1536 “…the executioner’s sword and her own death were virtually to separate and divorce man and wife. But if such was their intention it strikes me that it would have been a far more decent and honest excuse to allege that she had been married to another man still alive…May God permit that this may be his last folly3 .”
Historians are still – and likely always will be – divided over the fall of Anne Boleyn. We may scrutinize Anne’s actions, her temper, her failure to provide Henry with an heir, but perhaps we should consider the least complex of matters. As Henry had threatened Anne when she complained of his taking a mistress “she ought to know that he could at any time lower her as much as he had raised her.” And so he did.
When you play a game of thrones you win or you die. Anne Boleyn paid with her life. Let’s hope fate is kinder to Margaery Tyrell.
By Olga Hughes. Olga runs the online magazine Nerdalicious with her partner C.S. Hughes. Nerdalicious is the best source of Game of Thrones and other pop culture news, including books, film, sci-fi and medieval history.