Behind the Black and Beautiful Eyes: Why is Anne Boleyn Fascinating?

By James Peacock

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Queen Anne Boleyn
Queen Anne Boleyn

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It has been more than 478 years since the Calais swordsman severed Anne Boleyn’s head from her body on that morning of 19th May 1536. Already carpenters, stone-masons and seamstresses had descended on the royal palaces to remove any trace of the fallen queen — her “H and A” symbols, her falcon emblem, and her mottoes. In fact, they had begun this work before the swordsman completed his task! Once the executioner’s job was done, Anne’s husband King Henry VIII married his new wife Jane Seymour just a few days later!

For the rest of his life, King Henry VIII never openly mentioned Anne Boleyn’s name in public (though he did make one brief reference to her). The woman he moved heaven and earth to marry and torn his country away from the Church of Rome was to be eliminated from history like she had never existed. Anne Boleyn’s portraits were destroyed so even today we do not know exactly what she looked like. He most likely even destroyed her letters that she had written to him, for they have never been discovered since. But Henry would never get his wish, for Anne Boleyn would not go away easily. In fact, nearly four hundred and seventy nine years later, Anne’s memory is still very much alive.

Queen Anne Boleyn Artist: Kirsten Marie Christensen
Queen Anne Boleyn
Artist: Kirsten Marie Christensen

These days endless visitors stroll through the gates of Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London and Hever Castle fascinated by Anne Boleyn – wanting to walk in her footsteps, hoping to see the rooms where she slept. (In the case of Hampton Court Palace and the Tower, they are sometimes devastated to discover they no longer exist). People are in awe of the execution site- some even being moved to tears, also keen to see the “H and A” entwined symbol and the falcon emblem in the Great Hall at Hampton Court, often hoping to get a bit closer to the woman who lived over four hundred years ago.

Even people with very little knowledge or interest in history know of Anne Boleyn. She has become an enigma, someone who endless historians, authors and TV/film producers can’t leave alone. There are dozens of biographies, novelisations and studies in just the last few years — and that’s without considering electronic editions, reprints of Henry’s love letters, and Tudor books where Anne is a central, though not a main focus. Several Internet sites are devoted to her.

In the gift shops of the various sites associated with Henry’s reign, there are countless thimbles, chocolates, soaps, tea towels, mugs, etc. commemorating all of Henry’s wives in order, giving them equal billing. Yet ask any general member of the public to name one of his wives, and the answer is  Anne Boleyn. Why? Why does this woman who lived over four hundred years ago inspire such passion and devotion? Why is she more well remembered than about 90% of all monarchs, not just in the UK, but elsewhere?

The question, I feel, is not an easy one to answer. Perhaps it is mostly due to Anne’s life story- the girl of noble birth, sent to be educated at the “premier finishing school of Europe” (as one renowned historian puts it), then onto serving as lady-in-waiting to the Queen of France before returning to England, where she captures the eye of the king. Henry VIII, rather than simply desiring her as a mistress, decided to take her as his wife. He ventured on a seven year-long battle to divorce Katherine of Aragon, which eventually caused a split with the Church of Rome. Establishing himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England, he married the woman he had long desired and crowned her Queen of England.

Queen Anne Boleyn Artist: Arafel3873 (Tumblr)
Queen Anne Boleyn
Artist: Arafel3873 (Tumblr)

Within three years, Anne Boleyn was not just discarded, but executed. Perhaps it is the story of her downfall that intrigues us. Whether Henry VIII was desperate for a male heir or perhaps it was politics – the story of Anne Boleyn’s swift fall itself has left historians and people alike scratching their heads ever since. Perhaps the story lies in her character, which in itself, has been created by those historians, novelists and film/TV producers for many years. After all, there is often more than one Anne – the evil and the good.

The Two Annes

Anne Boleyn has often been portrayed in two different ways. We have the “evil” Anne, portrayed by Catholic propagandists such as Nicholas Sander, who described her as “jaundiced looking, with a projecting upper tooth, with six fingers on one hand”. He further proclaims she slept with her father’s butler, this being the apparent reason why she was sent to France. Sander further claims Anne Boleyn slept with her Chaplains, her own brother and half the French court. Then we have “good” Anne. Protestant propagandists describe her as the unsung heroine of the English Reformation. Yet can either be the real Anne? Was she either a saint or sinner?

The Real Anne Boleyn

Anne was certainly no saint, but she was also no sinner. One of the reasons I personally admire Anne so much is that I feel she appears quite human at times – prone to rash outbursts of temper. In one incident, during the long difficult process of Henry securing the divorce, she famously declared angrily in a moment of frustration,“I wish Spaniards where at the bottom of the sea”. Another angry outburst happened after her marriage to Henry and the birth of their daughter Elizabeth. After Henry’s eldest daughter Mary was declared illegitimate, the Lady Mary refused to accept it or accept Anne as her father’s rightful wife and true queen. Anne would rant about threatening to “curb her proud Spanish blood”, one time allegedly ordering Lady Shelton to box Mary’s ears for the “accursed bastard she was”. That is, of course, if we are to believe Eustace Chapuys’ version.

Anne Boleyn  Doll Craftsman: Gill Leaf
Anne Boleyn
Doll Craftsman: Gill Leaf

We also have accounts of Anne’s kindness. For example, she took on her nephew Henry Carey as her ward, making sure he received an excellent education, after her sister Mary was left penniless and widowed. Her chaplain William Latymer wrote of how on one Maundy service, “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 alms that wanted to be given.” In fact, the amount in the royal Maundy purses increased when Anne was queen. Whilst on royal progress, Anne would also “give in special commandment to her offices to her officers to buy a great quantity of canvas to be made into shirts and smocks and sheets to those of the poor”.

Another time, when a Mrs. Jaskyne’s (who attended Anne) husband was “greviouslye sick” Anne “not only granted her leave, but commanded sufficiente furniture of horse and other necessary’s for her journey, and tenne pounds towards her travel”. When Mr. Ive at Kingston lost most of his cattle, Anne gave his wife a purse of gold, asking her to let her know if they needed further help.

Humanist scholars, who believed society could be rescued by education and scholarship, dedicated their work to Anne. Men like Edward Fox, Hugh Latimer, Matthew Parker, William Barlow, Nicholas Shaxton, Edward Crome, Thomas Garrett and William Betts were just some of the reformers who gained positions due to Anne’s help and patronage. People in prison for possessing heretical books petitioned her for help, and she was the prime mover in rescuing Nicholas Bourbon from trouble in France and employing him as tutor to her ward and nephew, Henry Carey.

Anne Boleyn was an affectionate mother, who lavished love and affection upon her daughter Elizabeth. Courtiers looked on in astonishment and embarrassment as Anne carefully set Elizabeth down on a velvet cushion next to her throne under the canopy of state. She often ordered countless amounts of fine clothes for her daughter, furniture for her bedding and satin caps. In addition, Elizabeth’s household consisted of many of her mother’s relatives, Anne writing regularly to her daughter’s governess Lady Bryan for updates as to her well being.

Anne Boleyn Pendant Craftsman: Ilana Leah
Anne Boleyn Pendant
Craftsman: Ilana Leah

Anne was also known for her great wit and humour, even when facing death. When her execution was postponed she told Master Kingston, the constable of the Tower, “Mr. Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain “. When Master Kingston said there would be no pain, it was so little, Anne replied, “I heard say the executioner was very good”, then famously adding, “and I have a little neck”. She then put her hands about her neck and laughed. She also joked with her ladies that she would go down in history as “la Royne Anne Sans Tete” or “Queen Anne Lackhead.”

Anne did not care for those that did not like her. She was not interested in gaining popularity and sympathy. As far as she was concerned, she was the rightful Queen of England, and the King was only answerable to God and not the Pope. “Ainsi sera, groigne qui groinge”, in English “Let them grumble, that is how it is going to be..” was her motto.

Summary

Anne was her own person with her own beliefs — and she stood by them. She fought for her daughter’s rights, believing her the true heir of Henry VIII, just like Catherine of Aragon did with her daughter Mary. Anne was not an evil scheming women, just as she wasn’t a saint either. Who is a saint I ask? Instead, Anne Boleyn was a sixteenth century lady surviving in a sixteenth century court in a sixteenth century world.

Anne Boleyn, like many human beings, could be rash, hot tempered and volatile. Complex, she was also kind, compassionate and loving. It is for these reasons why I myself admire Anne so greatly. I can be rash and hot tempered, just like Anne, but I like to think I can also be kind and compassionate just as Anne was.

Of course, I can not speak for all the Anne admirers around the world as to why they admire her, and no doubt some will disagree with why I admire her so much. Her life story is remarkable: a King besotted with her, then sending her to her death, trying to obliterate all traces of her. Perhaps he would have succeeded if his son by Anne’s successor Jane had lived into adulthood. But of course, it did not turn out the way Henry wished. Instead his most successful heir was his and Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, who in her remarkable reign gave Anne something of a posthumous triumph, a sort of resurrection as it were.  It has been that way ever since, for no doubt to Henry’s great chargrin. Anne in the end had the last laugh.

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Eric Ives, eminent historian of Queen Anne Boleyn
Eric Ives, eminent historian of Queen Anne Boleyn

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I would like to end this article with a quote from “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” by historian Eric Ives, which I feel sums up Anne perfectly.

“She was a remarkable women. She would remain a remarkable woman even in a century which produced many of great note. There were few others who rose from such beginnings to a crown, and none contributed to a revolution as far-reaching as the English Reformation. To use a description no longer in fashion, Anne Boleyn was one of the ‘makers of history’. Yet historians see through a glass darkly; they know for part and they pronounce in part. What Anne really was, as distinct from what Anne did, comes over very much less clearly. To us she appears inconsistent- religous yet aggressive, calculating yet emotional, with the light touch of the courtier yet the strong grip of the politician- but is this what she was, or merely what we strain to see through the opacity of the evidence? As for her inner life, short of a miraculous cache of new material, we shall never really know. Yet what does come to us across the centuries is the impression of a person who is strangely appealing to the early twenty-first century. A women in her own right- taken on her own terms in a man’s world; a women who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex; of only moderate good looks, but taking a court and a king by storm. Perhaps, in the end, it is Thomas Cromwell’s assessment that comes nearest; intelligence, spirit and courage”.

RESOURCES:

The following books were most helpful and are sources for this article:

*’The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn’ by Eric Ives
* ‘The Creation of Anne Boleyn’ by Susan Bordo

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James Peacock

I run The Anne Boleyn Society, which I set up in 2014. Over the years the society has grown tremendously and there are accounts on Facebook, Instagram (@society_anne) and Twitter (@Society_Anne). With over 20,000 followers, the society aims to debate and discuss the life and times of Queen Anne Boleyn while taking into account the period in which she lived in.

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