Nearly 500 years before Princess Diana became known as the royal rebel, that title belonged to Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife who was beheaded at the age of 35. Though she has long been considered the most infamous queen in English history, she has also become a favorite subject for historical reimagining in books and film. This weekend, PBS is premiering The Boleyns: A Scandalous Family, a new documentary about the former queen and her family. Over three episodes, the show takes a deep dive into Anne’s roots and how cunning and a bit of palace intrigue on behalf of her relatives helped her become one of England’s most notorious powerful women, featuring leading historians of the period and luxurious reenactments.
According to Estelle Paranque, a historian of Anglo-French relations who appears on the show, the story of Anne and her family still resonates because of her daughter’s reputation as a monarch and the tragic, mythical nature of her story. “Anne Boleyn remains one of the grandmothers—or one of the great aunts—of the British monarchy,” Paranque explained to Vanity Fair. “People are drawn to her because she’s the mother of one of the greatest monarchs that has ever ruled, Elizabeth I, but she also died when her daughter was only two-and-a-half years old.” Though Elizabeth I died childless, the current Queen Elizabeth is still related to Boleyn through her sister, Mary. Paranque added that Boleyn is one of a handful of women in the era who seized power the only way they could, through marriage and diplomacy.
The show’s first episode, which airs on Sunday, takes viewers inside Tudor England’s halls of power, with a focus on Thomas Boleyn, a minor noble who aimed to improve the status of his three children, Mary, George, and Anne. For Anne, that meant being sent to France at a young age, where she was educated in the ways of the court of Francis I, before returning as a young woman. In a preview from the second episode, Paranque and other historians explain what happened when Henry VIII became infatuated with the young Anne even though he was still married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Paranque said it’s important to know about Anne’s time in France because it’s where she learned about how much unofficial power women can have in a court. “We can’t understand Anne Boleyn and her relationship with Henry VII and this toxic passion between the two without understanding Francis I of France, his mother, his sister and his wife, because these three women are going to play a huge, important role for her,” she said. “In Francis I’s court, women are right at the center alongside him. Women, and especially queens, are treated amazingly.”
When she returns to England, she becomes one of about thirty women in his court and Henry VIII, desperate for a son, notices her and begins to write her love notes. “In many ways she’s pushed into Henry VIII’s arms, and I’m not sure she falls for him. I think she falls for the idea of a crown. I think she goes for the idea of being queen herself,” Paraque said. “Anne Boleyn sees an opportunity, and sees this lust or toxic passion that eventually was going to consume her—but that toxic passion comes from him. He’s infatuated with her, he wants her. Obviously he’s also infatuated with the idea of a son, right? And she played on that.”
“Anne Boleyn is the woman who’s going to make all the ambitions of her father possible and help the family in general,” Parenque said. The Boleyns documents the family’s rise, but it also shows their rapid downfall when rumors of her infidelity—which were false, Paranque noted—led to her execution. “It’s quite painful how quick it was.”
Parenque told V.F. that her original interest in the early modern period came from touring the castles of France when she was younger, and she mentioned that the fact that people can still tour the Tower of London, where she died, has helped add to her mystique. “There are so many myths and legends about her,” she added. “How did this woman manage to convince the king to marry her when she didn’t have any role models and not much to bring to the table?”