By Kyra Cornelius Kramer
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The true nature of Anne Boleyn is reflected in her relationship with one of her greatest enemies, her erstwhile step-daughter Mary. Like in many other facets of history, Anne is remembered as a great sinner against Mary when in reality she was more sinned against.
Mary hated Anne with a white-hot intensity. Anne was the woman who had (from Mary’s point of view) broken up her happy family and caused her beloved mother to be driven away. Anne was a threat not only to Mary’s family, but to Mary herself. If Anne were truly married to the king it would mean that Mary was actually a bastard, the result of an incestuous relationship, and cut out of the line of succession. Anne, with her Protestant leanings, was also a heretic in Mary’s eyes and a source of evil that could undo Christianity itself.
While it is easy for a modern reader to sympathize with Mary’s dislike of the woman supplanting her mother in her father’s affections, it was less understandable in the Tudor Era. A child, especially a female child, was to obey her parents – period. Disobedient children weren’t seen as a rebellious teens; they were seen as ungodly sinners flaunting the will of heaven by not honoring their mother and father. In the patriarchal society of the time, the father’s authority was paramount to the mothers so one’s father had the last say. It didn’t matter what Mary felt or her justifications. She was socioculturally and religiously duty bound to do Henry VIII’s bidding and accept his authority, both as father and as king.
This put Mary in a terrible bind. To be a good Catholic and daughter she needed to obey Henry, but to be a good Catholic and daughter she needed to defend and affirm the legality of her parent’s marriage. She couldn’t openly defy her father without being a traitor to her country and the Ten Commandments, yet neither could she accept his dictates without being a traitor to her mother, the Ten Commandments, and the Church.
Mary and her supporters excused her nearly open rebellion against her father by putting all the blame for Henry’s behavior on Anne Boleyn. Mary could hate and defy Anne with no black marks on her conscience. The worse her father’s behavior, the more Mary blamed Anne. For Mary, her father had not turned into a despot and become cruel toward his daughter; he was ensnared by a blasphemous witch. In Mary’s mind she was not transgressing against parental authority; she was battling that evil Nan Bullen for her father’s soul!
Anne famously said of Mary that, “She is my death and I am hers”. That seems quite harsh, particularly since Mary was only eleven or so when the wider world became aware of Henry’s infatuation with Anne. However, by the time Anne was reported to have said this Mary was seventeen and thought of as a young adult. The Catholic Church considered the age of reason to be seven and the nobility often began assuming the mantle of adult responsibility at age twelve. Anne was, in essence, fighting an adult nemesis rather than a recalcitrant stepchild.
Nonetheless, Anne was (in spite of rumor and legend) not cruel to Mary. In fact, several times Anne tried to give Mary an opening to mend fences with her father. Mary was unrelentingly rude and disrespectful to Anne, which inspired Anne to rant about Mary but not to go out of her way to make Mary’s life harder. Things that Mary detested – such as her mother’s banishment and being forced to serve in baby Elizabeth’s household as a lady in waiting and being separated from her godmother Margaret Pole – were Henry’s decisions. Like so many of Henry’s vicious actions, these have been historically laid on Anne’s doorstep without cause.
When Katherina of Argon passed away in January 1536, Anne made yet another attempt to bring Mary into the family fold. Anne was, of course, heartily rebuffed. Even then Anne tried one more time to get through to the king’s eldest daughter. In a letter that was conveniently left for Mary to find, Anne wrote to Lady Shelton:
“My pleasure is that you seek to go no further to move the Lady Mary towards the King’s grace, other than as he himself directed in his own words to her. What I have done myself has been more for charity than because the king or I care what course she takes, or whether she will change or not change her purpose. When I shall have a son, as soon I look to have, I know what then will come to her. Remembering the word of God, that we should do good to our enemies, I have wished to give her notice before the time, because by my daily experience I know the wisdom of the king to be such that he will not value her repentance or the cessation of her madness and unnatural obstinacy when she has no longer power to choose. She would acknowledge her errors and evil conscience by the law of God and the king if blind affection had not so sealed her eyes that she will not see but what she pleases. Mrs. Shelton, I beseech you, trouble not yourself to turn her from any of her wilful ways, for to me she can do neither good nor ill. Do your own duty towards her, following the King’s commandment, as I am assured that you do and will do, and you shall find me your good lady, whatever comes.”
Shortly afterwards, Anne miscarried a male fetus. Nevertheless, her marriage to Henry by all accounts remained solid. As late as March 30, 1536 Thomas Cromwell was confiding to Ambassador Chapuys that the king was still committed to his marriage to Anne, even though he was prone to flirtations and mistresses. Even in April the king was still referring to Anne as his dear and entirely beloved wife. It was only after Anne accused Henry Norris of looking for ‘dead men’s shoes’ did the king turn on her and become serious about Jane Seymour.
Mary was jubilant about Anne’s death on May 19, 1536. Anne’s happiness when Katherina of Aragon died pales in comparison. Anne, in reflection, is reported to have grieved and even wept for the former queen. Mary was never anything but exultant about Anne’s execution. In jaunty spirits over her stepmothers beheading, Mary wrote an affectionate letter to her father under the assumption that all snakes had been driven from her personal garden. She was badly mistaken, as she would find out. It was always Henry, not Anne, who was determined to break Mary’s resistance and spirit. This is yet another case where the atrocities of Henry VIII have been scapegoated onto Anne Boleyn. Ultimately it was Henry, not Anne, who was willing to crush Mary in order to force her to acknowledge the nullity of the relationship that produced her.
What Anne’s relationship with Mary shows us is that Anne seems to have been a woman of sharp retort but soft deeds. She may have had spiteful things to say about Mary when she was vexed, but Anne’s actions were kinder than Mary’s behavior warranted. Anne was far more aware than Mary as to how far Henry was willing to push his daughter. Anne, regardless of Mary’s insults and flagrant disrespect, tried to warn the teenager about her peril from her father’s wrath. Anne, in direct contrast to her reputation as a scheming and vengeful harpy, tried repeatedly to make peace with Mary and never took drastic measures against her or egged the king on in his ire.
As in many things, Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Mary demonstrates that she was much kinder and more forgiving than she is ever given credit for.
Editor’s note: Kyra’s biography is provided by her website, Krya Cornelius Kramer and is provided to us in her own words.
Kyra Cornelius Kramer is an author and freelance medical anthropologist. She holds BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She and her beloved husband live in Bloomington, Indiana, USA with their three young daughters.
Kyra is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Kyra is high-functioning, meaning that most of the time Kyra can pass for “quirky” with a dash of “gauche”. As a function of being an “Aspy”, she has a deep and abiding love for facts, which she stuffs into her writings like chestnuts in a Christmas goose. Seriously, you will knee-deep in facts by the time you are three paragraphs into her work. Moreover, she has a sardonic sense of humor that flavors her writings, no matter how academic they are in nature. Her editors appreciate this, but the review board usually makes her take any humor out before publishing in a peer reviewed journal. Kyra hopes that the academic reviewers were at least amused before they crossed the sentence out with heavy red pencil marks. She suspects not.
Editor’s note: For more information about the remarkable accomplishments of Kyra Cornelius Kramer, do visit her website linked above. Queenanneboleyn.com will be publishing a review of Kyra’s newly released book The Jezebel Effect: Why Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters in the coming days.
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