Friday, 23 October 2015

The Stereotyped Six Wives: Two: A Dangerous Obsession

Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII of England
Lifetime: c. 1507 - 19 May 1536
Reigned: May 1533 - May 1536 (3 years)
Pregnancies: 3 
Elizabeth I of England: 7 September 1533 - 24 March 1603
Stillborn child: June/July 1534
Miscarried son: January 1536

In this new six-part series, I will be reexamining the lives and personalities of Henry VIII's six wives, seeking to portray their lives realistically in a process that discards prevailing stereotypes. Much scholarly work has been done on Henry's reign in recent decades, affording fresh insights into the politics and achievements of the period. Understandably, widespread interest in Henry's marital affairs remains unabated. Yet stereotypes continue to bedevil our knowledge of the wives of this most enigmatic king. 

The historiography of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second consort, is paradoxical. More has been written about Anne than any of Henry's other wives, yet she remains the most maligned of his queens. An explanation for this can perhaps be found in the polarising nature of the surviving sources. Protestant literature that approved of the break with Rome and celebrated the accession of Elizabeth I presented Anne as 'that most holy Queen', a charitable and pious reformer who had married the king solely to further the reformed faith. By contrast, Catholic polemical works depicted Anne as a monstrous vixen who had vindictively encouraged Henry to destroy both his first marriage and the Church in England. In these accounts, the bewitching Anne was indeed guilty of the crimes of which she was charged and was punished with a shameful death for her sins.

It is unfortunate that the sources concerning Anne's life are so polarised, for they strip away the queen's humanity, presenting her as a figure not wholly human. In the Protestant works she is saintly, whereas in Counter-Reformation histories she is less than human, a worshipper of the devil. Only with difficulty can historians navigate their way through the conflicting stories of Anne's life and reach a realistic understanding of Anne as a person and as a queen. The true story is a sinister one of fatal obsession rather than love.

Hever Castle
Above: Hever Castle in Kent, where Anne Boleyn may have been born.

Anne was the younger daughter of the diplomat and courtier Sir Thomas Boleyn and his wife Lady Elizabeth Howard. While it is a myth that she was the most nobly born of Henry's English wives, her pedigree was impressive. On her mother's side, she was the niece of the Earl of Surrey and granddaughter of the Duke of Norfolk, while on her father's side she was related to the earls of Ormond. Anne's date of birth and birthplace are unknown. Traditionally it has been suggested that she was born either at Blickling Hall in Norfolk or at Hever Castle in Kent, but several of Anne's relatives were of the opinion that her birthplace was London, perhaps Norfolk House at Lambeth. The majority of modern historians favour a birthdate of circa 1501; however, the Elizabethan antiquarian William Camden confirmed that Anne was born in 1507, while the Duchess of Feria informed her biographer Henry Clifford that Anne had not yet reached twenty-nine years of age when she was beheaded in 1536. 

Cardinal Wolsey himself allegedly referred to Anne in 1523 as a 'foolish girl', while Cardinal Reginald Pole described Anne as a 'girl' when Henry VIII fell in love with her. In 1534, a year after her marriage, Anne was described by the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys as being 'in a state of health and of an age to have many more children'. While she could have had more children, the adjective 'many' is questionable if she were actually 33 or 34 years old. Finally, when Anne was sent abroad to the court of Margaret of Austria, she was described by the regent as being 'so pleasing in her youthful age'. In the sixteenth-century, children of the nobility and gentry were routinely sent to noble households at an early age to acquire an education. Sir Thomas, an ambitious and well-educated diplomat, surely had similar hopes for his daughter. Recognising that she was 'bright and toward', it is entirely credible that he arranged for her departure to Europe at the age of only six years old. Perhaps it was only in 1519 or 1520 that Anne formally served as a maid of honour. 

From an early age, Anne would have been brought up to value her lineage. The Boleyns were not nobility, but they were an ambitious and enterprising family that had consistently married well. Sir Thomas's marriage to Elizabeth Howard had been a considerable achievement for him in that it allied the Boleyns with the Howards, the premier ducal family in England. The Howards, moreover, were closely linked to the Tudor dynasty, for Queen Elizabeth of York's younger sister Anne had married Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey and later duke of Norfolk. It is entirely credible that Anne Boleyn was named after her aunt. 

Bernard van Orley - Portrait of Margareta van Oostenrijk - WGA16689.jpg
Above: Margaret of Austria, duchess of Savoy (left) and Queen Claude of France (right). As a young girl, Anne Boleyn was closely acquainted with both ladies.

It is usually asserted that Anne's older sister Mary also accompanied her to France, but the list naming the maids of honour serving Mary Tudor when she married Louis XII of France in 1514 referred only to one 'M. Boleyn' rather than two. The initial 'M' referred to the title mistress rather than one's Christian name. A later inventory of ladies remaining in France referred to 'Mademoiselle Boleyn' which, again, almost certainly referred to Anne. Why Sir Thomas elected to send Anne rather than Mary to serve in the courts of Europe can perhaps be explained by the brightness and shrewd intellect that Anne already possessed. The ambitious Thomas was perhaps also hoping to wed Mary to a high-ranking English nobleman. Sending Anne abroad, rather than Mary, cannot necessarily be read as evidence of Thomas' preference for Anne or as evidence that Mary was intellectually inferior to her sister.

Anne's childhood in Europe profoundly influenced her worldviews and her inner character. Like Katherine of Aragon, she was acquainted with strong ruling women that were more than capable of governing kingdoms. Margaret of Austria was the shrewd regent of the Netherlands during Anne's stay there, and when Anne departed to France to serve Queen Mary she was acquainted with Marguerite de Navarre, sister of Francois I. The duke of Norfolk, Anne's uncle, was later to inform Marguerite that his niece was 'as affectionate to your highness as if she were your own sister, and likewise to the queen... My opinion is that she is your good and assured friend'. Two years later, in 1535, Anne herself informed Marguerite that 'her greatest wish, next to having a son, was to see you again'. While it is difficult to uncover the true nature of relations between Anne and Marguerite, it seems likely that the young Anne admired Marguerite. She was both an author and a patron of humanists and reformers. Her most famous work was Heptameron, which has been interpreted as a social and political critique, combining religiosity (pious dedication and high moral standards) with 'lurid voluptuousness'.  

If Anne was influenced by Marguerite, then she would have grew to value her own ideas, to think critically of the world around her, and to place a great emphasis on inner piety and spiritual enlightenment. Anne also served Claude, wife of Francois I. Claude was renowned for her piety, virtue and goodness, and she did not encourage the licentious intrigues that pervaded the French court. As a favoured companion of the French queen, Anne would have understood that female virtue was her greatest prize. She likely came to understand her own worth and arrived at a deep understanding of herself as a woman. Influenced from a young age by strong women on the continent, including the capable Margaret of Austria, the sophisticated and educated Marguerite de Navarre, and the virtuous Queen Claude, Anne Boleyn grew up to be a remarkable woman.

She was not the most beautiful of women, but she had something more. She valued her own ideas, she read widely in secular and religious literature, and she developed an intense fascination with the reformed faith. Eric Ives has speculated that Anne underwent something of a religious enlightenment while in France, and it is certainly possible given her receptivity to the beginnings of the reformed faith that were developing across Europe. Anne also became a highly skilled musician, an excellent dancer and an intellectual with a keen interest in the Renaissance movement. Although she had not been groomed for queenship like Katherine of Aragon, she was in many respects a highly suitable candidate for royalty given her piety, her intellect, her sensitivity to the artistic movement and her interest in the Reformation. Moreover, she came from a fertile family and, while not blessed with outstandingly good looks, was physically attractive. The Venetian ambassador recorded that she was of medium stature, with a swarthy complexion, a wide mouth, and 'black and beautiful' eyes. Her brown hair was lustrous and long and her hands finely formed.

Anne returned to England late in 1521. Her father had arranged a most advantageous marriage for her to James Butler, later ninth earl of Ormond, in a bid to settle the Boleyn-Butler dispute over the title of Ormond. An ambitious young lady who had been educated to advance her lineage, Anne would surely have been aware of the advantages presented to the Boleyn family by the alliance with the Butlers. For reasons that remain unsolved, however, the marriage did not take place. Around this time Anne was appointed to serve Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, and alongside her sister Mary and former mistress Mary Tudor, she appeared in a court masque in March 1522 in the role of Perseverance. If George Cavendish, gentleman usher of Cardinal Wolsey, is to be believed, Anne soon afterwards became acquainted with Henry Percy, heir to the earldom of Northumberland and the two fell in love with one another. He wrote that 'there grewe such a secret love between them that at lengthe they were ensured together intending to marry'. Percy was captivated by Anne's 'excellent behaviour and gesture'. He regarded Anne as 'a convenient wife', informing the enraged Cardinal thus when Wolsey discovered the secret relationship between them. Percy described Anne as being 'descended of right noble parentage' which, in truth, she was. Heartbroken, Percy was forced to separate Anne, and she seems to have been sent from court in disgrace.

As an assertive, intellectual young woman who valued her own ideas and was interested in both the Renaissance and the Reformation, Anne Boleyn attracted admirers. At some point she attracted the king himself. It is a lingering myth that Anne deliberately set out to become queen, calculatingly ensnaring the unsuspecting king and seducing him in a bid to become queen of England. If anything, the evidence indicates the exact opposite, as recent research has demonstrated. Anne may have been in love with Henry Percy and, when the king of England fell in love with her, she might not yet have recovered from the heartbreak she had endured over Percy. A charismatic, attractive woman, she provoked dangerous obsession in men who became interested in her, one of whom was the king, and another of whom was the musician Mark Smeaton. Only in the realm of fiction have these obsessions been interpreted in a sinister light, but it is possible that fiction, in this case, mirrors reality. 

For Henry's obsession with Anne was completely one-sided. She was not interested in becoming his mistress; neither did she, at least initially, wish to become queen. This perhaps is at odds with the admirable marital successes achieved by Boleyn ambition, but Anne had served several royal women on the continent and had been close to at least two of them. Her relations with Marguerite and Claude perhaps instilled in her a deep-seated loyalty to the traditions of monarchy. George Wyatt, a grandson of the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, confirmed in his biography of Anne that she bare great 'love to the queen [Katherine] whom she served, that was also a personage of great virtue'. Loyal to Queen Katherine, and well aware that her sister Mary had been discarded by the king once her period as his mistress was over, Anne had no wish to become queen of England, and by ignoring the king's relentless stream of letters she likely hoped that he would leave her alone.

Related image
Above: Henry VIII wrote repeatedly to Anne beseeching her to become his love, but her replies were vague and she often neglected to reply, probably due to an earnest desire to be left alone.

However, Anne's behaviour served only to make the king more obsessive, often dangerously so. Nowadays his behaviour might be interpreted as stalking, which is what a handful of modern historians have interpreted it as. When she remained aloof, Henry reproached her by opining that her lack of enthusiasm 'seems a very poor return for the great love which I bear you'. She retreated from court to Hever and returned only in the company of her mother. Henry continued to entreat her 'earnestly to let me know expressly your whole mind as to the love between us'. Anne's replies, in reality, had not exactly suggested that she felt 'love' for him, as Henry disingenuously wrote. She surely knew that involvement with the king would constitute a betrayal of her mistress, and as Wyatt's evidence suggests, Anne was loyal to Katherine and had no wish to hurt her. Yet, in refusing to become Henry's mistress and in retreating from court in an attempt to escape his lust, Anne's situation only worsened. For the more she retreated, hoping that the king would respect her wishes to be left alone, the more his obsession was inflamed until it became fatal. Not, at this stage, fatal for Anne, but fatal for his kingdom and fatal for his first marriage. By the summer of 1527, Katherine was informed that her marriage was invalid on account of her previous marriage to Henry's brother Arthur. The king was certain that their lack of sons was because their marriage had offended God as an unclean union. 

Whether Anne was prepared for what was to befall her cannot be known with certainty. When she danced with Henry at a reception for the French ambassadors in May 1527, the court became aware that it was Sir Thomas Boleyn's younger, sophisticated daughter who would replace the beloved Katherine as queen of England. Anne's life became much harder around this time. Queen Katherine was reportedly 'much beloved in this kingdom' and the king himself, despite his desire to annul his first marriage, was well-liked by the people and respected by his courtiers. Who to blame, then, for the royal marital crisis? Anne herself. With the passing of time, in the exaggerated dispatches of ambassadors, the whispers of courtiers and the murmurs of discontent across the kingdom, Anne was gradually endowed with enormous power that was regarded as unthinkable in a woman. Her power was heinous, dark, supernatural: it was whispered that she had cast a spell on the unsuspecting king, manipulating him with the promises of sexual fulfillment to put aside his long-suffering wife and marry her, a younger woman, instead. Endowed with this unnatural power, Anne was figured as a witch, an enchanting siren who resorted to poisoning her enemies (including Bishop John Fisher in early 1531) and threatening the life of the Queen (that same year apparently wishing that all Spaniards were at the bottom of the sea). In short, she became a scapegoat for the annulment and a scapegoat for the king's relentless lust. 

Those who scapegoated her were ignorant of her admiration for Katherine, her love for Henry Percy and her insistent refusal to become involved with Henry. They either ignored, or were not aware, that Henry's obsession for her was lethal and could not be escaped from. She had sought to escape court, she had failed to reply to his letters, she had only given in after draining months of messages and gifts. She was an intelligent, shrewd and sophisticated young woman, but she placed great value on her own virtue and piety and had no desire to replace Katherine as queen. Whether her family respected her wishes and resigned themselves to the king's longing, or whether they actively encouraged her to cultivate his interest, cannot be known with certainty. But what seems clear is that Anne herself never set out to become queen and became the victim of a relentless campaign of hatred and lies beginning in the late 1520s and continuing to her death and beyond.

It is highly unlikely that Anne Boleyn had any initial desire to become queen of England. She sought to distance herself from Henry VIII's relentless obsession, but eventually resigned herself to her fate. 

In truth, Anne's individual involvement in the stages leading to the annulment was minor. As Warnicke has asserted: 'It is possible Henry... had considerably more control over their relationship than is sometimes alleged'. In his letters, he was able to deny her suits and requests, while comforting her during her absence from court in 1528. However, even if she had no desire to become queen, Anne seems to have gradually understood that she was a position to further the reformed faith. The Spanish ambassador described her and her brother George as 'more Lutheran than Luther himself', but Anne continued to respect the revered rituals and traditions of Catholicism. She read the Bible in the vernacular and increasingly afforded support to reformed scholars. Thomas Cranmer, who later became archbishop of Canterbury, was a chaplain of her family. Cranmer was later to confirm that he 'never had better opinion in woman, than I had in her'. She was also highly charitable as queen. The martyrologist John Foxe, writing in the reign of Elizabeth I, recorded: 'Also, how bountiful she was to the poor, passing not only the common example of other queens, but also the revenues almost of her estate... Again, what a zealous defender she was of Christ's gospel all the world doth know, and her acts do and will declare to the world's end'.

Given her receptivity to learned ideas on the Continent and her years of experience serving pious, virtuous royal women, it does not seem likely that Anne was the loose-living, vulgar woman of popular legend and the vitriolic dispatches of Ambassador Chapuys. Describing her as 'the concubine' or 'the whore', Chapuys believed that her primary ambition was to cause harm to Katherine and Princess Mary, asserting: 'the King's mistress has been heard to say that she will never rest until he [Henry] has had her [Katherine] put out of the way'. He had earlier opined that 'Anne might be further encouraged to execute her wicked design'. And yet Chapuys consistently refused to meet Anne and had no way of knowing her inner thoughts or the details of her conversations with Henry. Indeed, other evidence indicates that she was initially loyal to Katherine and, as queen, she consistently wrote to her stepdaughter Mary promising her that she would enjoy a favoured position at court if she would recognise that her father's marriage to Katherine was invalid. Henry's first wife had angrily referred to Anne as 'the scandal of Christendom' because, like her subjects, she blamed her husband's mistress rather than the king himself for the decision to break with Rome and the annulment of her marriage. But it seems unlikely that Anne was so consumed with hatred towards Katherine and Mary as Chapuys makes out that she would relentlessly plot their deaths.

Anne was close to her brother George and seems to have enjoyed warm relations with her mother Elizabeth. Her relationship with her older sister is uncertain, but Julia Fox's biography of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, intriguingly suggests that Anne was closer to her sister-in-law Jane than to her sister Mary. Although Antonia Fraser commented that Anne had no interest in developing close friendships with other women, Anne enjoyed a warm friendship with Elizabeth, Lady Worcester, and was initially on good terms with Lady Bridget Wingfield. She also concerned herself with the marriage of her young cousin Mary Howard, arranging an excellent alliance for her with Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII's bastard son by Bessie Blount. 

Anne's position during these years and during her queenship caused her grave anxiety. There is enough extant evidence to indicate that she never felt entirely secure in Henry's affections, while simultaneously revealing her to be a highly strung, anxious and occasionally fragile woman. At a banquet in January 1535 given in honour of the French alliance, Anne reportedly 'burst out laughing' upon seeing that her husband was engaged in conversation with a beautiful lady, bringing tears to her eyes. Upon news of Katherine's death in January 1536, Anne apparently withdrew to her apartments and wept because she feared that Katherine's fate would become hers. Although Chapuys absurdly stated late in 1535 that Anne 'now rules over, and governs the nation; the King dares not contradict her', Henry was always fully in control of his relationship with Anne, as demonstrated in his chilling reminder to her that he had the power to lower her. As with Katherine, Anne's queenship, in which she enjoyed noted successes as religious patron and as governor of her household, was undermined primarily by her failure to bear a healthy son. The queen had conceived soon after the birth of Elizabeth in the autumn of 1533, but probably gave birth to a stillborn child in the early summer of 1534. Anne was well aware that her position, and that of her daughter, remained uncertain. When the Admiral of France late in 1534 proposed a marriage alliance between Mary Tudor and the Dauphin, the queen was said to have reacted with 'anger', as well she might have, for it constituted a snub of her and her marriage. Having spent her childhood in France and having enjoyed good relations with the French ruling women, as a queen herself Anne might well have expected greater support from France. 

Although it is unlikely that she had ever plotted Katherine's destruction, Anne might have felt relief upon hearing of her former mistress' death in early 1536. She herself was pregnant at the time and perhaps anticipated a secure future as queen were she to present her increasingly irascible husband with the much-desired male heir. Having lived in fear during Henry's dangerous obsession with her, Anne was perhaps now apprehensive that his obsession for her was dead and feared the resulting consequences. When she miscarried a son at the end of January, the die was cast. Henry's growing infatuation with Anne's attendant Jane Seymour only worsened the perilous situation facing the queen.

Above: The Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, where Anne Boleyn was buried in May 1536.

Only four months after her final miscarriage, Anne was executed at the Tower of London alongside her brother George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton on charges of adultery and conspiracy to murder the king. The speed of the queen's downfall astonished her contemporaries and has perplexed historians ever since. A variety of complex explanations for her demise have been proffered, including the birth of a deformed foetus to Anne (thus convincing her husband that she was a witch); a court conspiracy masterminded by Anne's former ally Thomas Cromwell in alliance with those hostile to Anne and loyal to Mary Tudor; the influence of foreign policy; and more recently, that Anne was guilty as charged. Perhaps what all of these explanations lack is the human side of the story. 

Anne Boleyn's rise to queenship had occurred solely because the king of England had fallen dangerously, possessively, in love with her. His obsession for her had caused him to break with the Roman Catholic Church, annul his first marriage, and ruthlessly put to death those who opposed him, including his former friend Sir Thomas More and the aged bishop John Fisher, his own grandmother's chaplain and confessor. Anne had been blamed for all of this: by the English people at large, by foreign rulers in Europe, and by her former mistress Katherine and her daughter Mary. Only after Anne's brutal demise did they learn where responsibility for these momentous events truly lay. As mentioned, Anne's influence in the annulment proceedings was minor, and she exercised far less control, if any, in her relationship with Henry than is traditionally thought. She did not have the powerful protection of royal relatives abroad, as Katherine had. 

The best explanation for Anne's demise was offered by Amy Licence in her biography of Henry's wives and mistresses:

Henry was ruthless in his personal relationships... Once-beloved favourites were rejected suddenly, almost overnight, being sent away from court with little warning, never to be seen again. Once he had made up his mind, he never went back. He could no longer tolerate their existence and had a need to close a door upon them... The greater the love he had felt for them, the greater the suffering he needed to inflict upon them... It appears that Henry had a need to punish Anne, to exact a complete revenge on her that owed less to her reputed crimes than to his own monocracy. Thus, as he had dictated the path of her rise, he had to end it decisively. He had controlled and shaped her as a mistress and queen; she was his subject, his plaything, and he could not resist imposing the ultimate authority when he had tired of the game.

Anne Boleyn was not the tyrannical, monstrous witch of Catholic propaganda or the wily seductress of popular culture. An intelligent, sophisticated and principled woman, she had sought to distance herself from Henry's relentless advances but had eventually capitulated. Once she had assented to his demands, there was no way out. Responsibility for the ill-treatment of Katherine and Mary, the break with Rome, and the brutal persecution of those who refused to recognise the king's supremacy as Head of the English Church lies entirely with Henry, not Anne. Once his obsession with her had ended, she faced a brutal death because she had not provided him with a son and because she had disappointed him. Henry's great joy at her downfall and execution, publicly displayed to his courtiers and ambassadors, is indicative of the price Anne paid for having the misfortune to attract a dangerous ruler whose obsessions proved lethal. 


  1. Finally, someone actually (other than me) may argue Anne did not want to be queen or have anything to do with Henry

  2. An extremely well written and refreshing article which I have enjoyed reading. Well done Conor for not portraying her as the Catholic propagandists of the time would have.

  3. Great well written article thank you Conor. I have often felt that 'what Henry wanted Henry got' and when he didn't woe betide. I agree with your view that it looks like she tried to deflect his passion , but once in his sights the die was cast. However once he married her maybe she truly believed she could make a difference and would have had a little power , although I don't believe from things I've read she was the vindictive woman that historical fiction so often portrays or indeed as some Historical academics do. You state she was described as fragile etc and it isn't surprising after the relentless years with Henry that once his passion appeared to be cooling she was frightened for herself, her family. The speed of her downfall is truly shocking whether you like Anne or not. Here is a woman probably still recovering from a miscarriage fighting for her life. Personally I have huge sympathy for her. I agree with Amy Licences quote you used too. Thank you.

  4. This is a great article and series. I really enjoy this perspective and I am thankful someone is finally exploring the truth of Henry Viii. I am very impressed. You are educating many people!

  5. In 1528, Anne Boleyn is half dead with the sweat yet she manages to write a letter to Wolsey asking him how the divorce was going and it's too bad she is not there to help. Where was Anne's loyalty to Katherine of Aragon then?

    1. We have to ask ourselves how much of a choice Anne Boleyn really had in the matter. I'm not saying, by any means, that she was a passive victim. However, the lingering idea that Anne was a soulless schemer who seduced an unsuspecting Henry should be rejected for the nonsense that it is. We should remember that Henry's three other English wives may not have had a say when they realised that Henry's eye had fallen on them. Anne probably saw an opportunity, and took it. There is no real evidence (outside of the Spanish ambassador's reports) that she was hostile to Katherine of Aragon.