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.