ANNE BOLEYN: Beautiful Saint or Scheming Bitch?

by James Peacock

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When promoting her 2011 film W.E., which tells the story of two women — the fictional Wally Winthrop in 1998, and the American divorcée Wallis Simpson in 1938 — co-author and director Madonna recalled from life experience, that whenever she brought up King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson at a dinner party or social gathering, it was like “throwing a Molotov cocktail into the room.” She went on to describe how everyone would “erupt into an argument about who they were,” admitting that “they were very controversial- and continue to be.”

In many ways it is the same with Anne Boleyn. Nearly 500 years after her death, the second wife to King Henry VIII and mother to Queen Elizabeth I of England, continues to draw strong passion from people – even on many occasions leading to arguments! People are often divided into two camps: “Bitch Anne” vs. “Saint Anne”.

Camp “Bitch Anne” sees her as a cold-hearted, husband-stealing bitch, who, from the moment she arrived at the English court, had her eyes firmly set on the crown, stopping at nothing to get it. Camp “Saint Anne” sees her as an innocent victim, manipulated by her overly ambitious father, Thomas Boleyn, and uncle, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. This Anne is often seen as being ahead of her time, leading the way for the feminist revolution.

So is the bitch or the saint the real Anne Boleyn? Well, that we will never really know for sure, as she lived over four hundred years ago in a world so alien to our own. We will never know for certain what Anne Boleyn looked like. We can guess what she thought in her mind of certain things, events and people, but we will never be 100% certain. We can, however, take a look at certain traits which give us an inkling into the real Anne Boleyn.

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Ben Miles and Linda Leanard (WOLF HALL/BRING UP THE BODIES, Royal Shakespeare Company) Photo Credit: Donald Cooper
Ben Miles and Linda Leanard (WOLF HALL/BRING UP THE BODIES, Royal Shakespeare Company) Photo Credit: Donald Cooper

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Hot-Tempered and Rash Tongue:

It is reported that on New Years Day 1531, Anne, full of confidence and brave as a lion, declared that she “wished all Spaniards were at the bottom of the sea” and that “she cared not for the Queen (Catherine of Aragon) or her family, and would rather see her hanged than have to confess that she was her queen and mistress.” Some may think this was sheer folly to speak openly in such a way of Catherine, who was well liked by many of her subjects. As we know Anne cared nothing for popularity. After all, she had briefly had “Aisi sera groigne qui groigne”, which translates to “Let them grumble; that is how it is going to be” as her motto in 1530. Anne even boldly commanded the motto be embroidered on the livery coats of her servants. Though removed in time, it was clear sign of her response to the critics of the King’s great matter.

Other reports of Anne’s hot temper and rash tongue stem from her stormy relationship with stepdaughter Mary. Ordering her aunt Lady Shelton to “box” Mary’s ears “as the cursed bastard she was”, further commanding her to take every opportunity to reinforce the girl’s inferiority. When reading this, it is easy to see Anne as some vicious monster. Did her actions stem from insecurity of the position of herself and her daughter Elizabeth? This we can only guess. On yet another occasion of Anne’s loose tongue, she told Sir Henry Norris during a conversation that he “looked for dead men’s shoes” for if anything became of the king, he would look to have her. Such a rash comment would haunt Anne even as she was in the Tower awaiting her execution.

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Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII Credit: The Tudors, Showtime
Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII
Credit: The Tudors, Showtime

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Charity and Patronage:

We see a very different Anne from the hot-tempered woman when we look at surviving accounts of her charity work and patronage. Although some like Reformer and Matyrologist, John Foxe may exaggerate the amount of her donations to the poor, there are surviving accounts from those that knew Anne personally. William Latymer, her chaplain, writes of her being “generous to the poor”, and “Upon a certain Maundy Thursday”, in which performed the usual ceremonies of washing and kissed the feet of simple poor women, she “commanded to be put pivily into every poor woman’s purse one george noble, the which was 6 shillings 8 pence over and besides the almes that wanted to be given”.

In fact, the amount in the royal Maundy purses increased when Anne was Queen. The court expenses for 1536, show the “cost of the Queen’s Maundy” were 31 pounds, 3 shillings and 9 and a half pence. On royal progresses she would “give in special commandment to her officers to buy a great quantity of canvas to be made into shirts and smocks and sheets to those of the poor.” Anne Boleyn also ordered her ladies to make shirts, smocks and sheets for the poor, ordering “flannell” to be made into “pettycotes for poore men, wemen and children,” which were then distributed “to every of whom was distributed by her graces commaundemente a shurte, smok, or petticote, and 12 pence in money, and to some more, according as her grace understod of their nede and necessitie.”

On one occasion, a ‘Mrs Jaskyne’s’, who attended the queen, husband fell “grevioslye sick” and had called for his wife. Anne “not only graunted her licence to depart…, but also most bountyfullye commaunded to be prepared for her sufficiente furniture of horse and other necessarys for journey, and tenne pounds in monye towarde the charge of her travaill.” One particular story that deserves attention is of a Mr. Ive at Kingston, who lost most of his cattle “almost to his utter undoing”. Anne gave his wife a purse of gold with xxIi in it (£20) and said to tell her if they needed further help.

Anne Boleyn gave aid to refugees and reformers from both home and abroad. Many reformists gained their positions due to his Anne’s help and patronage — men such as Thomas Cranmer, Edward Fox, Hugh Latimer, Matthew Parker, William Barlow, Nicholas Shaxton, Edward Crome, Thomas Garrett and William Betts. People in prison for possessing heretical books often successfully petitioned her for help.

Anne also helped members of her family during difficult times, such as her sister Mary, who following the death of her first husband was serious financial difficulty and was forced to write to the king for help. Henry duly stepped in and secured financial help for her from her father, and granted Anne the wardship of Mary’s son Henry. This has often been twisted into an act of vicious malice, thanks to a certain fiction book. It was in fact an act of kindness. Anne, in an obvious position to help, provided her nephew with a good education. Wardships were not uncommon in the Tudor time s- take for example, Lady Jane Grey being the ward of Thomas Seymour and Catherine Willoughby being the ward of Charles Brandon.

Anne Boleyn also helped members of her family gain positions at court. For example, Anne helped secure her uncle Lord Edmund Howard (father of Catherine Howard) the position of controller of Calais in 1531. Anne further secured her uncle Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, the wardship of the King’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy and subsequent marriage of Fitzroy to her cousin Mary Howard. Her aunts Lady Shelton and Anne Clere were secured the positions of running the household of her daughter Princess Elizabeth.

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Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn
Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn

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Conclusion:

Anne Boleyn is not someone who followed convention, that much is certain. As historian Eric Ives points out, “she appears inconsistent-religious yet aggressive, calculating yet emotional”. Anne was prone to loosing her temper and speaking rashly, but also of great acts of kindness to those in need. Anne cared nothing for popularity, believing firmly in her cause.

Anne Boleyn was a woman of great wit- even in the face of death- with her comment, “I heard say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck”, to which she put her hands around her throat and laughed. On another occasion whilst awaiting death she joked with her ladies that the people would soon find a name for her- they would call her “Queen Anne Lackhead”. During her trial Anne “made so wise and discreet aunsweres to all thinges layde against her, excusing herselfe with her wordes so clearlie”, defending herself admirably, addressing the court boldly and fearlessly.

Anne Boleyn never wished to make herself a martyr, nor did she try to gain sympathy during her final days. Instead, what we see is a woman who stood up to her accusers and laughed in the face of death. Anne was far from perfect, but I truly believe that is the reason why so many are drawn to her and admire her. Anne had flaws- like any human being- she was not a 100% saint like some characters from that period appear to be. It is one of the reasons why I myself admire her so much. Anne Boleyn was not 100% “nice as pie”, like some wish to be. She showed her flaws and made herself appear human to us in the 21st century. She took charge of her own destiny, her own style, and was as much as she could be in those days, her own person.

Anne Boleyn was certainly no saint – no person living or dead is – but she was certainly no cold-hearted scheming bitch either.

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Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn  "Anne of the Thousand Days"
Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn
“Anne of the Thousand Days”

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 Sources:

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives

The Anne Boleyn Collection Vol II by Claire Ridgway

The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

Cronickille of Anne Bulleyne by William Latymer

Actes and Monuments by John Foxe

Six Wives, The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey

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James Peacock

I work as a State Apartment Warder at Hampton Court Palace, a job which gives me the chance to walk in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn and many great and important figures of English/British history. There is nothing more special at times, then standing in the Great Hall at Hampton Court and looking at the surviving Falcon, Anne's symbol, or the entwined HA that possibly got left behind (or is it Victorian?- either way a marvelous tribute). Earlier this year i founded The Anne Boleyn Society on the basis to discuss, debate and deliberate the life and times of the notorious English Queen, second wife to King Henry VIII and mother to Queen Elizabeth I. The page can be found at; https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Anne-Boleyn-Society/344546252366375 and on Twitter; "Society_Anne :)

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