Anne Boleyn is universally recognised as the infamous harlot determined to be queen, credited with Henry VIII’s break from the Roman Catholic Church and the years of turmoil that followed in England. Moreover, she mothered Elizabeth I and famously lost her head after wild accusations of treason and incest resulted in an improper trial that already had a verdict. The time certainly captivates our imagination in its chaos, fraught with games and power struggles. These blog posts on Anne are concerned with a past life connection to her (no – not a claim to be her), and the musings of what was whirring around in the head and heart of arguably one of the most famous Tudor personalities.
We are all aware that since we have occupied the planet, women have been slandered for any sign of nonconformity and historical female figures have been subject to tarnished reputations, more often than not unfounded. An example of this would be the witch hunts which have consistently, and in some parts of the world, continue, to condemn women to death. Anne Boleyn appears, for her time at least, to have been a feminist (with a loose 16th century meaning). Accounts from the Tudor court attribute her as being headstrong, well-educated and with a wit unrivalled by many courtiers.
As far as the contemporary media interpretations go, it is fair to say that biased judgments from five hundred years ago have cemented themselves into the history books we open now (another prime example of this would be Richard III’s fabricated hunchback). I cannot help but find myself discontent with portrayals of Anne such as the one in ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. While great entertainment, not only does it contain large discrepancies that contradict the evidence, moreover we are still lumped with a conniving and divisive woman ‘protagonist’ who was prepared to trample on her own sister. Alison Weir, my favourite author on the Tudors, is a thorough historian and has created novels that offer us the closest personality parallels to characters such as Anne and Lady Jane Grey. Not only does she manage this with apparent ease, but she also succeeds in capturing the introspection and highlighting the suppression of women within the times that they were living. Considering we do not even have a date of birth for Anne, with the estimates ranging from 1501-1507 (though almost certainly 1501), this is quite a feat.
After Anne’s execution, not only was her name smeared, but a lot of information regarding her and her possessions were swept out of view so Henry VIII was not to be reminded of the ‘traitor’. The first biography was written by George Wyatt, Thomas Wyatt’s grandson, two generations later. What has stood the test of time are a number of Henry’s love letters to Anne from the mid 1520s. If we look at the king’s own words, we can make an educated guess that Anne’s responses were distant and at times non-existent. Furthermore, if we attempt to transport ourselves back to that time, we would surely find Anne’s uncle and father breathing down her neck, intercepting letters and monitoring penned responses to advance themselves at court. Those who are content to believe that Anne had full control in her relationship with the king and what was to follow are paying her a huge disservice.
We know that not only had the Boleyn family already sent Anne’s married sister, Mary, to be the king’s mistress, but the Boleyn/Howard family later contrived the same plans for Catherine Howard as they had for Anne just four years after Anne’s demise. The two were cousins, and in both incidences their marriage to the king (his second and fifth wives) ended in the loss of their heads. This offers us an insight into how the family were willing to throw their daughters and nieces in front of the king to rise at court.
It seems to be a very simple and obvious fact that Anne Boleyn did not reciprocate Henry VIII’s feelings, at the very least for the first few years that he pursued her, and he became infatuated. If we study the evidence we have, her heart was almost definitely taken by Henry Percy in the early to mid 1520s, and perhaps a little later, Thomas Wyatt. When Henry began inundating Anne with love letters, her lack of response is quite clearly neither coy nor cool, but downright fearful. We can see Henry demonstrating his obvious frustration, and as someone who was seldom left wanting anything, it did nothing but fuel the fire of his wanton chase.
‘…Not yet sure whether I shall fail of finding a place in your heart and affection’
‘…How to interpret them, whether to my disadvantage, as you show in some places’
‘It has not pleased you to remember the promise you made me when I was last with you’
‘I have been told that the opinion in which I left you is totally changed, and that you would not come to court’
‘It seems a very poor return for the great love which I bear you to keep me at a distance’
The king’s words and Anne’s coyness have been interpreted as Anne holding out in pursuit for the crown, adamant that she would not give herself over to the king unless she was to be the most powerful woman in the kingdom. These quotes, taken from six letters dated between May and July 1527, demonstrate Henry’s exhaustive efforts at gaining her affection with little (if any) response. It is worth noting that it had been four years since Henry had put an end to Anne’s engagement to Henry Percy, which is when it is first acknowledged that Anne had piqued the king’s interest. Once her family were aware of the king’s affections and caught wind of his letters, they no doubt began using Anne as a pawn. During the hiatus between these letters in Summer 1527 and the next letter dated February 1528, Anne would have most likely met with the king on his and her family’s demands. February 1528’s letter introduces the subject of ‘the matter’, which is known to be Henry VIII’s divorce to Catherine of Aragon which would be the bitter battle lasting until 1533, when Henry finally married Anne after the break with Rome.
It seems a little bizarre that, were Anne to have been as ambitious enough to desire the crown, that she would have been retracting promises she had made and show the king disadvantage. Before the divorce was set in motion, it would have been virtually impossible for her to envisage herself as queen, and so we can come to a fairly certain conclusion that she simply did not wish to be the king’s mistress despite her family’s aspirations. She had almost certainly already been in love with Henry Percy, may have currently been falling for Thomas Wyatt’s poetry, and was intelligent enough to know that the king’s infatuation was dangerous. As Thomas Wyatt astutely put it, ‘For sure, circa Regna tonat’ – ‘It thunders through the realms’.
Photos courtesy of:
Anne Boleyn: http://www.historytoday.com/
Henry VIII: http://www.marileecody.com/
Letter, and with credit to: