Anne Boleyn has been immortalized by historians, film and TV producers alike as this woman who gave birth to the savior of England (if not the world, according to many), Elizabeth I. While I do not wish to discredit Anne, I think she can stand well on her own without being given importance (uniquely) on the basis of her motherhood. Certainly Elizabeth I ushered in a golden age and is one of the most famous Queens in history, however to say she and her mother were the women who changed the course of global history and ushered in a new era of exploration, and technological advancements and broke the glass ceiling for women is something akin to saying that Sarah Palin is a feminist.
Yes, probably I am going to get a lot of slamming from crazy die-hard fans who have never picked more than two Tudor history books. But let us speak history here, not fiction, but history. Was Anne Boleyn a great woman who stood out from all the rest? Yes and No. Yes, because she captured the attention of many notable men, courtiers and the King alike, because of her charm and intellect. And no, because Anne wasn’t the only intellectual courtier or Queen at the time. There were far many more women that were just as astounding that preceded her. In fact, two generations before her was Katherine of Aragon, her mother Isabella I of Castile and her grandmother-in-law, the late Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. Although not a Queen, Margaret Beaufort was known as ‘My Lady the King’s Mother’.
She helped co-found and fund many colleges –some of which still carry her statue and her family’s symbol, the Beaufort porticullis; and she was considered one of the most learned women of her day. She translated many books and her chaplain who was later executed by her grandson Henry VIII, spoke very highly of her. Katherine of Aragon went even further, encouraging women’s education as her mother had done in her native Castile by becoming the patron of many humanist and scholars, most notably Juan Luis Vives whose books on the education of royals, opened up with a dedication for her. Katherine was no doubt influenced by her mother, the indomitable Isabella of Castile who sponsored many women scholars and who had one of them tutor her children. Beatriz de Galindo is the best known of these women scholars and Katherine would have seen her often in her mother’s court, lecturing her older siblings, and translating classical texts into Latin and Spanish. Her mother’s library was one of the most impressive in Western Europe and Isabella wanted her children to take advantage of it, to read as much they could and be given the educational tools that she was not given when she was growing up. Katherine and her sisters received an education similar to princes; and besides classical and religious texts, they also learned canon and civic law. When Katherine became Henry’s Queen, she took advantage of her position to further education, and her influence no doubt reached her ladies. Among them was Anne’s mother, Elizabeth Boleyn nee Howard who briefly served her.
Anne Boleyn learned mostly from experience. Like her predecessor she was highly cultivated her, and unlike her, she got to visit more places and learn from different cultures. Katherine of Aragon was knowledgeable in history, but Anne got to see firsthand these customs she’d been told about or read about. When she came to England, having served one time when she was between 13-14 in the court of Mechelen of Archduchess Margaret of Austira, and another in France (first as maid of honor to Princess Mary Tudor, her future husband’s youngest sister, and then to the new French Queen, Claude Valois) she came back as a highly cultivated young woman who knew what she wanted and was determined to get it.
However, and this is where we get to dangerous territory, it is highly improbable that she wanted to be Henry’s Queen from the get go. In most movies, even the ones that are really good, about her, she is shown to be highly ambitious –a woman whose sole purpose was to take revenge on Wolsey for breaking up her engagement to Percy, and take on everyone that stood in her path to become Queen. In “The Tudors” this is the idea, and much as I did like the show, I had to laugh so many times because Anne is shown behaving anything less than what the real Anne behaved in that situation. Her mother is nowhere to be seen, so it must be assumed she is gone or the producers just felt lazy and didn’t want to waste any money paying an actress to take on her role. Her father is cold, calculating, disgusting and her uncle is no better. Thomas Boleyn was none of these things, any more than Anne was a monstrous figure plotting the death of everyone like one of those cartoonish villains you see on a Disney movie. Films and TV shows are done for one purpose and one purpose only: To Entertain. They are not there to educate. I love these TV shows but I take it as something of an alternate universe, or a fantasy, where you have all these characters and situations based on real life people and events, but nothing more.
We have to be very careful taking these shows to heart. In Wolf Hall, there is another interpretation to Anne, that is not that different. She is shown as a completely horrible person who has no other interest but to get herself rich and with male child so she can keep her crown. We do not see as we did see in other period pieces –even the Tudors- her interest in religion, or the commons, or her squabble with Cromwell over the misuse of the money gotten from the dissolution of the monasteries. Money which Anne wanted to go to charity, and be used for educational purposes as her predecessor had done. Cromwell on the other hand was eager to please the King and he knew that displeasing him would cost him his life, so he said no to her demands which in turn made her angry. This was an age where the King could not be directly blamed for his actions. If he was doing things that people did not agree on, then they would blame someone else for his actions. Cromwell got to be the target. Anne, being a religious woman, believed that it was time to start investing money on education to advance religious reform. From her point of view it was not Henry who was her enemy, but Cromwell who was misleading him and needed to be scared or done away with. She told her almoner John Skip to give a sermon preaching on Haman, the biblical arch-enemy of the glorious and devoted Queen Consort Esther who like Anne was just looking out for her people. When everyone heard the sermon, Cromwell did not miss the meaning of her message. He was next if she did not do his bidding.
Anne was ambitious, of this, there was no doubt. But she probably did not intend to be Queen in the first place. At the time it was known that Henry was probably thinking of divorcing his wife of many years because she had been unable to give him the son he wanted to secure the Tudor dynasty. But nobody would have thought he would end up with Anne. Her sister had been his mistress and Anne learned a lot from that experience, as well as being lady in waiting to Katherine of Aragon. She heard and saw many dalliances and the consequences suffered because of them. There were many behavioral manuals (for women) at the time that spoke against women being led astray by men or their emotions. Anne was an avid reader, given her religious convictions, it is highly possible she had some of these manuals with her. Besides that, Anne like so many young women at the time, was looking for an advantageous marriage. Marriage was the key goal after all and the higher you married, the higher you and your family prospered. She wished to marry Henry Percy and that union never came to be because Wolsey broke it. And with good reason. At the time, he and the King were discussing with Thomas Boleyn to use Anne as a bargaining tool. To marry her to the Butler heir so she would secure the Ireland’s loyalty. That union never came to be and once again, Anne was in a political limbo like her predecessor had been; waiting in vain to be married.
When Henry noticed her, she was probably looking for the next man who could become her next husband. Henry’s attentions changed everything. He wanted her to be his next mistress and Anne refused outright. She was not going to have her reputation in shambles because of this. But Henry was persistent. And you could not say no to the King. His letters do not speak of love any more than Christian Grey from fifty shades of Grey. Henry VIII was a king who was used to getting his own way, when he didn’t, he would lose his temper and for the first time here was a woman who was saying ‘no’ to him, who was writing to him saying she was not worthy and that he should not continue to write her. Instead of doing the mature thing and let her be, Henry continued to pursue her. Sending her more letters which some of them included little hearts drawn at the end of his signature so she could take his ‘love’ for her seriously. It got to a point where Anne finally realized that this was not going to go away. Henry was going to get what he wanted and if she continued to refuse him, then he would get angry and the angrier he got, the less prospects she would get. After all, who would be dumb enough to marry the woman the King was after? Eh … no one! And then there was her family. Her family would be cast out from court, and her father’s honors would be taken away.
It’s a cruel way to look at things. But it is the way things were back then, and with these limited options, Anne opted for the better of two evils. As the King’s wife she reasoned, she would have honors bestowed on her family; her niece and nephew could marry into great family, not to mention that her offspring could be the next King of England. It was a glorious prospect except for one thing … Katherine.
Katherine was still his Queen. Anne counted on the pope giving him his divorce since Henry had been in high favor with the church since he wrote against Martin Luther which earned him the title “Defender of the Faith”. But Katherine’s nephew just happened to be the most powerful man in Europe and his soldiers ransacked the Vatican and took the pope prisoner. Charles, being the good politician that he was, claimed he had nothing to do with what his rogue soldiers did, but nonetheless took advantage of the situation by keeping the pope under house arrest under the guise that it was for his own ‘safety’. Because of this Anne had to wait over six years to become Queen of England. It is no surprise that during the course of this time, she grew frustrated. She directed her anger towards Katherine whom she spoke of with malice and scorn. When she heard her name, she claimed she felt nothing for her and that she would love to see her hanged rather than acknowledge her as her mistress.
She would regret her words years later when she would be the one in the same position as her late rival, and not only that, but facing a worse fate that her.
But when Anne realized it was time to show Henry what she really believed in, knowing this would benefit them both, she got her long wish and married him in January 1533. She was pregnant at the time and believing she was carrying the next King of England, made sure her joy was known. Henry wasted no time to crown her five months later in June. But to disappointment of many, when her child was born it turned out to be a girl. Henry showed no regret, but said in that same tone of voice he said to his predecessor that if they had a healthy girl, they will have a healthy son.
For almost three years, Anne struggled in her position. Getting to the top was harder, staying there was even harder. The people did not like her, the Catholic fiction considered her a whore and though she was nothing more than an opportunist. And it didn’t help that her stepdaughter did not wish to acknowledge her as her father’s wife. Anne said to her aunt that she should box the Lady Mary’s ears if she continued rebelling against her, and refusing to acknowledge her bastard status and that she (Anne) was the true Queen of England. Anne did not get her wish. Doing this, would have made her more hated amongst the Catholics. Executions abounded during this period and the dissolution of the monasteries was just beginning. And yet, despite all this scorn we hear from Anne, we also hear some positive attitudes. As a deeply religious person, who took refuge in the faith she helped create, she encouraged her servants, including her ladies in waiting, to read from the English bible she kept on her chambers. And she gave alms to the poor and continued to push Cromwell to see that the money begotten from the dissolution of the monasteries be used for education and charity. The latter didn’t happen and when Henry grew tired of her, and she was unable to give him another son (her last miscarriage was in January 1536); he told Cromwell to get rid of her by any means necessary. No time was wasted. People were interrogated, threatened and it has been suspected that some were even tortured, to give them the kind of information they were looking for to condemn her.
The charges against her though, adultery, treason and incest, were so bogus that even the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys; scoffed at them. He told his master, Charles V, that it was ridiculous that she, her brother and the other four men accused of adultery, could be convicted under such bogus charges.
Anne was enraged at the charges, but she kept her dignity. She and her brother defended themselves well and walked to the scaffold to meet their fates, with little fear. Her brother, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, William Brereton, and Francis Weston were the first ones two go. Two days later on the nineteenth of May, 1536, it was Anne’s turn. Her speech was one which moved entire crowds to their knees and as she asked them to pray for her when it was her turn to kneel; they did. In one stroke, it was all over.
Twenty two years later her daughter, rises to the throne becoming one of the icons of her century. Since then the two have been immortalized, romanticized, but just who were they really? Are they who we want them to be because we are so desperate for heroines in today’s bleak world where we see so many problems in our society that we look back at the past with melancholy, wishing that it was like those times? Or is it because we don’t want to accept the truth, that the past was more brutal than today’s world, and that it was an alien world with morals, prejudices, and other attitudes which are so appalling to us now that if we accept that these existed, they will shatter the illusion we have over these women, especially the great icon, Anne Boleyn?
Is it not possible though, that we come to maintain our love for Anne Boleyn by accepting that she was a person of her time with the same prejudices as everyone else, and one who was determined, ambitious, religious and at times compassionate, and someone who can stand out on her own by all her other merits that have already been mentioned, without resorting to exaggeration?
I leave that answer to you.
- Boleyn Women by Elizabeth Norton
- Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives
- Tudor by Leanda de Lisle
- The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
- Henry VIII by Derek Wilson
- Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence