Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Was Anne Boleyn A Modern Woman?



There appears to be a tendency of late to describe Henry VIII's second and most famous wife, Queen Anne Boleyn, as a 'modern woman'. It began with Eric Ives in his 2004 masterpiece The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, in which he referred to Anne as 'a self-made woman' who broke the mould, independently carving out her own destiny at a time when women were politically, socially and culturally oppressed. Cultural depictions of Anne soon followed suit. In The Other Boleyn Girl, a ruthlessly ambitious Anne plots to marry Henry Percy, future duke of Northumberland, as a means of acquiring wealth, position and power - to her family's horror and disgust. They remind her that it is the job of her male relatives to find her a husband, rather than it being her prerogative. In the television series The Tudors, Natalie Dormer portrayed Anne as, in the words of academic Susan Bordo, 'a woman too smart, sexy, and strong for her own time', who was 'unfairly vilified' for her defiance of sixteenth-century norms. Recently, respected historian John Guy referred to Anne in an interview with BBC History Magazine as 'a modern woman'. Finally, actress Claire Foy (who plays Anne in the BBC television series Wolf Hall), described Anne as 'really a modern woman who believed that she could rise above where she was born'. The consensus seems to be that Anne Boleyn, in her fierce independence, assertiveness, confidence in her relations with men, and determination to carve out her own destiny, was a woman who should have lived in the twenty-first century, rather than in the sixteenth.

I'm not afraid to intrude here with my own opinion and say that I find this a deeply unsettling and, in many ways, disturbing interpretation of Anne Boleyn. I feel it relies heavily on the prejudiced dispatches of the Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys and on the traditional belief that it was Anne who called the shots in her dealings with men, namely Henry VIII. Several historians have argued, and cultural depictions of Anne in film and television have followed suit in this, that Anne manipulated Henry, even pressured him into making her his queen, and cajoled him into treating his first wife and eldest daughter with studied cruelty. In short, the lingering view of Anne as a home-wrecker remains prevalent because of its attractiveness to a twenty-first century worldview. Nowadays, of course, such a woman would be termed a home-wrecker, a whore, a schemer or a manipulator (or, of course, all of these things and more). 


Above: Natalie Dormer played a 'modern' Anne Boleyn in The Tudors.

What is the evidence for the claim that Anne Boleyn was 'a modern woman'? Surprisingly, proponents of the 'modern' view have not always specified what it supposedly was about Anne that makes her seem closer to the twenty-first century in her behaviour and character than to her own age. Bordo suggested that it was Anne's inability to shut up, her assertiveness, her independence, at a time when women were expected to be submissive, self-effacing and, above all, silent. The depiction of Anne as confident in her speech, taking on and arguing fiercely with a host of men including her uncle, father and husband, relies on the evidence of Chapuys' dispatches and hostile accounts produced by the likes of George Cavendish. Chapuys asserted that Anne fell out with her uncle, the duke of Norfolk, namely because he took offence at her outspoken and, at times, vitriolic speech. He also claimed that Anne, a crafty and cunning seductress, was responsible for pressuring Henry into mistreating his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and his daughter by her, Mary. Were it not for the 'wicked' Anne, Chapuys believed, Henry might be persuaded to return to his 'true' wife. Indeed, Anne was so powerful at court and dominated her husband so completely, the ambassador proclaimed, that 'there is no one who dares contradict her, not even the king himself'. Chapuys also asserted, somewhat incredibly, that Anne controlled and ruled the government of the realm completely. 

Several historians have questioned Chapuys' hostile reports, with some justice. They have convincingly demonstrated that his evidence was often false. His dispatches were written with a clear agenda: to blacken the name of Anne and, he hoped, bring about the reconciliation of Henry and Katherine. Chapuys did not blame the king for his decisions, including his increasingly harsh treatment of his daughter. Instead, the ambassador resorted to employing the centuries-old trope of the wicked stepmother, casting Anne as a nagging and assertive shrew who hen-pecked her long-suffering husband into doing her will. 

There is plentiful evidence outside of Chapuys' reports that Anne upbraided the king for his extramarital affairs. Numerous stories, some of them lurid, tell of the queen's despair and shock at finding her husband with his future wife, Jane Seymour, on his lap in January 1536, thus bringing about a miscarriage. Anne found it difficult to reconcile the decade-long passion Henry had for her with the disturbing knowledge that he expected her to tolerate his infidelities once they were married. Numerous observers reported of the 'coldness and grumbling' between the couple during their marriage. The queen certainly was hurt, offended and devastated by her husband's affairs with other women, and at her trial in May 1536, she openly admitted: 'I do not say that I have always borne towards the King the humility which I owed him, considering his kindness and the great honour he showed me and the great respect he always paid me; I admit too, that often I have taken it into my head to be jealous of him... But may God be my witness if I have done him any other wrong'. Anne freely declared that she had suffered pangs of jealousy over her husband's extramarital amours. 

But does this render Anne 'modern'? To our knowledge, Henry VIII's subsequent wives did not upbraid him for his infidelities (if they knew about them). But Henry's first queen, Katherine of Aragon, seems to have reacted with hostility when news was brought to her of her husband's liaison with his first-recorded mistress, Lady Anne Stafford, in the early 1510s, and court observers commented that the couple were noticeably 'vexed' with one another for some time. There is little evidence of the conservations between other kings and queens at this period, so it is difficult to attempt to compare the personal relationship of Henry and Anne with another royal couple in similar circumstances; furthermore, we lack detailed evidence for how the ordinary populace viewed the extramarital affairs of their paramours, outside of legal documents produced in the Church courts. To us, Anne's despair and sadness at her husband's affairs are understandable, for we value companionate marriage in the twenty-first century Western world. There is an expectation that partners will be faithful to one another, and will have married for love. But it surely seems a step too far to describe Henry's second wife as 'modern' because she experienced upset and hurt over his sexual affairs. Plenty of women in the sixteenth-century might have experienced similar emotions - we lack evidence for them. Anne Boleyn, by virtue of her status as queen, was in an exceptional position for evidence of her feelings to be recorded. Just because we lack evidence for the emotions of others when news was brought to them of their partners' infidelities does not mean that she was 'modern' and others were not.


The view of Anne as 'a modern woman' ignores a wealth of evidence which proves that she was a product of her time and culture. The evidence of John Foxe and William Latimer indicates that she was a religious and charitable queen with an earnest and pious faith. She was interested in evangelical reform and patronised religious radicals. Anne followed her predecessor in giving alms to the poor and engaging in charitable pursuits that were, unfortunately for her, not publicised in her own lifetime. Anne did not have 'modern' views about social status, later known as 'class': when her sister dared to marry beneath her, the queen reacted with anger and shock, immediately banishing her from court. She also demonstrated humility in relation to her ascendancy to the queenship, informing contemporaries that the king had been 'inspired' by God to marry her, perhaps perceiving it as God's will. 

Furthermore, it has been pointed out by the likes of Warnicke that Henry VIII may have exercised considerably more control over his relationship with Anne than is traditionally believed. We lack her replies to his letters and so do not know how she was responding to him. The prevailing view, that she treated him calculatingly and ruthlessly, with an eye to the throne and a future as queen, rests on no convincing evidence for the simple reason that there really is no evidence. Anne was surely no more ambitious than Jane Seymour, Katherine Howard or Katherine Parr, and it is a step much too far to suggest that she actively set out to destroy the king's first marriage and seduce him into marrying her in a move that resembles that of the modern 'home-wrecker'. Amy Licence has credibly argued, following in the lead of writers such as Karen Lindsey and Joanna Denny, that Anne may have been unwilling or afraid to reply to the king. Perhaps she did not want to become queen. Perhaps, in short, the king pressured her into accepting his advances, a possibility that is often not given the attention it deserves.

Chapuys' dispatches have recently been termed little more than fiction by historians who are convinced that nothing he reported about Anne can be trusted as the truth. This may be a step too far: perhaps there was some truth in his claims that she was fiercely outspoken and assertive, not afraid to upbraid the king for faults she perceived in him. But is this really evidence that she was 'modern'? Henry's final wife, Katherine Parr, challenged his religious beliefs and dared to lecture him when she believed he was in error. Yet Katherine does not tend to be identified as a 'modern woman' somehow transported back in time to the sixteenth-century, although there is an unsettling line of thought which regards her as something of an early feminist. Anne Boleyn was, as Susan Bordo makes clear, no feminist, and neither was she a modern woman. She was a product of her time and the view of her as 'modern' ignores a significant amount of evidence produced by contemporaries. Much of the evidence for her 'modernity' is shaky: either produced by hostile onlookers or supposedly written by Anne herself. I refer here to the infamous letter from 'the Lady in the Tower' in May 1536, in which the queen upbraided her husband for seeking to kill her so that he could marry his new love. Most historians are convinced that Anne was not the real author of this letter, believing that it was penned sometime in the Elizabethan period, long after her death. If evidence for Anne as a 'modern woman' is mostly hostile, non-existent or doubtful, then it cannot, on a balance of probabilities, be claimed that she was ahead of her time in her beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. Anne was a product of her time and class: she may have been assertive, outspoken and ambitious, but other women were too and it certainly cannot be claimed that she was 'a self-made woman', when one examines her family networks and their role in providing her with an excellent education and marriage prospects.

16 comments:

  1. I would like to know what the evidence is for Chapuys's reports being untrue. He may have exaggreated, but would he have out and out lied about the relationship between Anne and Henry?

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  2. Hi Louise, thanks for your comment.

    Chapuys asserted that Anne dominated her weak husband, and identified her as the source of the ill treatment of Katherine of Aragon and her daughter. Yet, even after Anne's execution, Mary continued to be treated harshly by her father, who was, in reality, responsible for her plight. Chapuys alleged that Anne ruled over the court and dictated the unpopular policies set out by the government. He consistently described her as 'the concubine', 'the whore' or 'the Lady'. It was in his interests to blacken Anne's name as far as possible, because he was writing to the Holy Roman Emperor - the nephew of Katherine - and because his aim was to bring about reconciliation between the king and his first wife. Chapuys was hoping for his master to help reinstate Katherine and, by identifying Anne as an evil seductress plotting the downfall of the kingdom, legitimated attempts to remove her.

    Among other things, Chapuys put forward some astonishing claims about Anne: according to him, she was responsible for poisoning Bishop Fisher in 1531; he consistently wrote that she was plotting to kill both Katherine and Mary; and he claimed that she forced Henry's hand when his resolve faltered. His reports are not merely 'exaggeration', but, in many cases, out and out character assassination.

    Anyway, as I mentioned in this post, Chapuys may have been truthful in describing Anne's arguments with her husband. His reports of her anguish, sorrow and despair when faced with Henry's infidelities are corroborated by other sources. Anne herself admitted that she had often felt jealousy of her husband and had not always shown him humility. But my point was to ask, does this make Anne a modern woman? I don't feel it does.

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  3. Chapuys was probably prejudiced against Anne from the outset, because Katharine of Aragon believed that the man who had once written her love songs and called himself "Sir Loyal Heart" could not be the one who was treating her so badly. As late as 1533, she was telling Chapuys if she could only speak to Henry directly, everything would go back to the way it once was, but Anne's minions were blocking her access to the king. She loved him, and she didn't want to believe the man she loved could be doing these things. It had to be Anne who was manipulating him into it.

    Chapuys echoed these views, saying Henry was a nice guy, but it was Anne who put him into these "perverse tempers." Despite the fact Henry said to his face over and over that he considered Mary an enemy for her refusal to capitulate and though Katharine would foment a rebellion against him, Chapuys believed it all came from Anne. How did he excuse it when Henry only increased his cruelty toward Mary after Anne died? Her influence from beyond the grave, I suppose.

    Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and people have the tendency to believe that Anne planned her "seduction" of Henry and rise to the throne from the start, but the idea is preposterous. There's no way she could have believed he'd leave his wife for her - a mere gentlewoman instead of a princess to bring alliances and a huge dower.

    Anne wanted what every obedient Tudor daughter wanted - a good marriage. And while the king was perusing her, no man would ask for her hand. After a few years, no one believed she could still be a virgin. Her reputation was shot. The king's attention was actually harmful for her for the first few years. She tried to gently shake him off, but it didn't work.

    Anne was not the ambitious schemer she's been portrayed as in fiction, nor was she a proto-feminist. She was very much a woman of her time who believed in obedience and duty to family, a woman of strong faith and moral values. She was bold for her times, expressing her opinions, (which was not seen as a positive trait in her age) but "boldness" in a Tudor woman is not the same thing as boldness today.

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    1. Absolutely right. Your line "Anne wanted what every obedient Tudor daughter wanted - a good marriage. And while the king was pursuing her, no man would ask for her hand." is absolutely central to Anne's story and indeed to his subsequent Queen's.
      No other man would dare to look twice at any woman who the King had his eye on. To risk to do so would be to risk one's own head. Thomas Wyatt learnt that lesson and he wasn't even free to court Anne Boleyn as he was already married.

      I can see Anne not wanting to be the King's Mistress, telling him so as politely as she could and Henry, used to getting precisely what he wanted, not listening. And indeed, the refusal making him more interested.

      What could Anne do? Be as polite as she could be without antagonising the King and risking her and her family's safety but still retain her honour so that once he lost interest she could still find a suitable marriage.

      But the King didn't lose interest.

      And then starts to think about destroying his own marriage with the Queen in order to marry Anne. She can refuse as much as she likes but if he is determined, she has no other choice left.

      She can't simply walk away - no one would care for her, she couldn't work to keep herself. A single female on her own would not be given work to do and her education would have marked her out as not a worker. None of the nobility would dare risk to harbour her in the face of the King's anger at her vanishing from his presence.

      All she can do is to see where life would take her and if it did happen that she did become Queen after all, to make the most of that position and to take as much control of it as she could.

      After all, one does not say no to the King.

      In this I agree with Conor - she was not a modern woman from 21st century perspective. If she has the term "modern" applied, its simply that from her perspective, her own time when she lived was "modern" and she was doing what all women of her time did. I also suspect it was very likely that many women did this too - made the best of their situation as did the men of the time too.

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    2. There are instances where Katherine was angry with Henry for his treatment of her during the Great Matter, so I wouldn't say that she was all for believing it was Anne Boleyn. I say the evidence suggests she blamed both, and as always would one blame the King? Especially when it could be construed as high treason? If not, then you can certainly apply the same standards to Anne Boleyn. Why was she fighting with Cromwell over the monasteries when Henry VIII had the power and would not have allowed thing to progress if he didn't want them to? Anyways, I agree Anne wasn't a modern woman. I say she was a 16th century woman who had a fiery like personality. She wasn't the first or last woman to speak up or say something.

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  4. Lissa, I agree with everything you say. I think Henry held all the cards in his relationship with Anne. I find the view that she controlled and henpecked him completely unconvincing. I believe he was fully in control of their relationship from day one, until her execution. He may have referred to himself as her 'servant' in his love letters, but his treatment of her in her final months demonstrates chillingly that he had the power of life and death over her, as he did with all his wives, and I'm sure Anne never forgot that for a moment.

    Chapuys had a clear agenda and while I think there may be truth in what he says - ie. that Anne had a fiery temper and behaved recklessly; she berated Henry for his infidelities, etc. - I don't think his reports of her scheming to murder her predecessor and Mary can be taken seriously. Similarly, I don't see her being in charge of everything and nobody being willing to contradict her.

    I agree with your third point. My personal belief is that Anne cared for Henry Percy. Granted, we have only one source for their relationship - and that's from the hostile perspective of George Cavendish, who served Cardinal Wolsey - but Anne does seem to have hoped to have married Percy, whether for ambition or love, a mixture of the two, who knows. In the early 1520s she would also have been expecting to marry a man of her family's choosing, initially James Butler. When the king declared his intentions in 1526-7 I don't think they were welcome to her. Anne clearly valued her modesty and virtue, and I believe she was sincere in asking Henry to respect that. She did not want to be a mistress, but that doesn't mean that she deliberately angled for queenship. She probably had no idea about what would happen and was pleasantly surprised when Henry proposed marriage. Some contemporary observers alleged she respected, even loved, Queen Katherine, and if this is true, I doubt she deliberately set out to become queen in a calculated and malicious act.

    I guess her virginity depends on how old you think she was during these years. If she was born in 1500/1, then she would have been around 26 when Henry began pursuing her and about 32 when they married - very late by Tudor standards, especially when one considers that Anne was nobly born. Katherine Parr, by comparison, was married in her teens. Then again, Jane Seymour was still unmarried at the age of 27. If you believe Anne was born in 1507, however, then she was about 20 at the start of her relationship with Henry and about 26 when they married.

    I am glad you agree with me that she was a woman of her time: an exceptional woman, yes. She was assertive, opinionated, intelligent, sophisticated and ambitious: but this does not make her 'modern'. She lived hundreds of years ago, in a world of very different social, religious and cultural mores. I completely agree that 'boldness' in a Tudor woman cannot be compared to 'boldness' in a modern woman.

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    1. I'm one of the minority that believes Anne was born in 1507. Many of the commentators of the time refer to her as "young" when it became public knowledge in 1527 that Henry was seeking to marry her, which they wouldn't have done if she was 26 or 27. (No one complained about her age when Henry married her, which they certainly would have done if she was over thirty years old, nearing the end of her fruitful years, as the Tudors saw it.) I also tend to believe Camden on this, who had records now lost to us, and Jane Dormer, who had no reason to lie about this particular fact. (Though there were other facts on which she was mistaken, admittedly.)

      I think you and I have very similar viewpoints on Anne's character! She's an endlessly fascinating creature, isn't she?

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    2. She really is very fascinating. Have you read Retha Warnicke's study of Anne? She makes a case for 1507 and also suggests that Anne was older than her sister Mary.

      If you've perused any of my blog posts on here, you'll see that I have argued for a 1501 birth (Eric Ives persuaded me). However, I won't rule out 1507 for the reasons you believe it was her birth year - there are many references to her as 'young' and, as you say, there was no need for commentators to lie. I just find it difficult to believe that a child of six would have been sent abroad, but then again I guess it depends on what you think she was doing there. If she was a maid of honour at the Burgundian and French courts, then I tend to believe she must have been a teenager, but if as Warnicke says she was being brought up in the nursery then maybe she was a child.

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    3. Researcher Garreth Russell says there was another girl about six or seven at Margaret's court the same time Anne was there (I've seen on his site you've had some spirited debates with him, which I found enjoyable to read.) Margaret took Anne in as a personal favor to Thomas Boleyn, so it's possible Anne wasn't seen as an ordinary maid of honor, but more like a ward. Tudor era families often sent young children off to be raised by other families, generally those in a superior social position who could educate them better and give them advancement opportunities. I'm sure her parent s must have hesitated to send such a young child so far from her home, but they had to see what an amazing opportunity this would be for her, and they didn't really view children in the same manner we do today. It can be very challenging for a modern person to try to see things through Tudor eyes in that regard.

      "La petite Boullain" seems to have enjoyed a very good education at the court - and what great role models she had!

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  5. Modern or not, I like to think (not hindered by any real historical education, merely by my own deductions) she was in many ways not as easily moulded into submission. She was partially raised at the French court, which is said to be a lot more lively than both British and Spanish courts. To compare her to Katherine of Aragon does not either one of them justice, as Anne was a commoner, while Katherine was a princess in her own right, from a far older and more respected Royal house than her husband's and I'm sure she was raised from a very early age to become the queen she was. In this case, Anne had had her examples, but was not brought up to be royalty, so maybe she could not graciously step back and watch her husband philander. Is that modern? No idea, but it must have tataken guts to confront Henry.

    As for her scheming to become queen, I think there might be another motive involved, one that I don't think gets a lot of attention: what were her other choices have been? Sure, she could have become his misstress, but for how long? What if he got sick of her and dumped her? What about having an illegitimate child by him, especially if it was a girl? Henry wasn't forced to acknowledge any child outside wedlock and it would have left her destitude. A new husband would have been hard to find after her reputation was sullied by baring a bastard child, even if said child was the King's. Plus, with religion the way it was, her very soul was at risk. Again, I don 't know if it's to be considered modern to want something more substantial than being one of many toys of an all powerful, but feeble King, but it must have taken guts to go against him.

    Let's just say that modern or not, she fascinates me to no end.

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  6. What are you thoughts about the sassy coments that Anne made about the ballads that Henry wrote?

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  7. Nyele, who knows. Anne could be reckless and she was highly strung, but would she have made fun of her husband, who had made her queen? I'm not sure. If she did speak these words, did she speak them with mirth, or in bitterness? Much of the evidence against her was invented, exaggerated and distorted, so we really can't take these words at face value.

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  8. Hi Conor - forgive me, I couldn't find an email address anywhere, so I must ask my unrelated question here in the comments :)

    Is is okay with you if I use your picture of Anne Boleyn (from an earlier post) as a comparison picture in my blog post below? It was the best version I could find of that particular portrait.

    http://www.needletwig.com/2015/01/15/young-henry-viii-lost-portrait/

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  9. Was Anne Boleyn a modern woman? Maybe; and then again, maybe not. But consider this: “Modern” in the context of the 16th century could be a euphemism for “different”. And a woman is considered “different” if she does not conform to the status quo of what others feel is appropriate for her behavior, morals, thoughts, mode of dress, and language/communication. And as evident in history as in “modern” (current) life, “different” makes people fearful and anxious.

    Anne may have been maligned in the dispatches from Eustace Chapuys. And she may have been criticized by others for expressing her feelings. She may have displayed anger, depression, fear and despair. The truth is, we’ll never know her exact frame of mind, but we can guess that survival at any cost was first and formost in her thoughts as she lived and endeavored to survive in a court full of intrigue and “haters”.

    I would like to think that she was smart, strategic in her thinking and that she kept her wits about her. I would like to think that had she done anything different, she might have been a mere footnote in English history. So I say, “Viva la difference of Anne Boleyn”. I hope she had as good a time as she could have had, as she lived in a castle and court full of friendly enemies or in the lingo of the 21st century => frenemies.

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  10. Natalie Dormer is so attractive, especially as a heroine of the Games of thrones! getessayeditor.com has a list of modern women writers!

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