The Remarkable Anne Boleyn
By Leanda de Lisle
The Remarkable Anne Boleyn
By Leanda de Lisle
A family wrecker and adulteress murdered by her husband. Not the plot for a soap but what people believe about Anne Boleyn. And like most soaps that are far from reality. Anne did not destroy Henry VIII’s 17-year marriage to Katherine of Aragon. She wasn’t a ‘round-heeled’ woman who had sex with her own brother. She wasn’t a gold digger either. Anne was simply the most intelligent, influential Queen consort in English history.
Anne was not beautiful. An Italian man commented on her‘ bosom not much raised’. The best a friend could manage was ‘adequately good looking’. But Anne Boleyn exuded glamour. Her dark eyes and superb head of black hair were what people immediately noticed. Her dress sense made her the leader of fashion at the royal court. The other ladies there hated her. As soon as they successfully copied Anne’s latest, she would switch. Even more important than style were brains and an independent mind. The marriage with Henry was a succession of storms and sunshine precisely because she refused to do meek and submissive. Anne didn’t know how.
This striking personality had emerged from a very unusual education. When Anne was thirteen, her diplomat father sent her to be trained at the top European courts in Brussels and then in Paris. She was abroad for nine years – the only English girl to have this opportunity. She learned perfect French, the language of royal courts. These were the early days of the Reformation. Anne read widely and became expert in the intellectual topics of the day. She was taught the accomplishments expected in high society. An excellent musician, renowned as a dancer she was also an artist in needlework. She learned etiquette and above all social skills.
At the royal court in England, only the tiny number of women served as Queen Katherine’s ladies in waiting. Men left their wives at home and male courtiers both unmarried and married swarmed round the women like wasps round a honey pot. Relations between the sexes were supposed to be controlled by the code of courtly love, but a woman needed character and a quick wit to avoid the flirting from becoming serious and potentially ruinous.
When Anne returned to England she was more French than English and her chic took the court by storm. But to clinch that success she needed to make a top society marriage and there her family was not wealthy. Her elder sister had been the king’s mistress. Henry now turned his eyes on Anne. To his surprise, she turned him down. A short romance and then obscurity did not attract her. The twenty-four-year-old Anne wanted to hold out for a marriage with a great nobleman.
Then politics intervened. Henry VIII faced an impending crisis. He had no son and his wife Katherine was now too old. If he died who was to govern England? He had a daughter Mary, but no woman had ever ruled England. Civil war loomed. And Henry became convinced that the reason he hadn’t had a son was that his marriage with Katherine was cursed. Perhaps that’s what he wanted to believe, but his conviction was absolute. Only the pope, however, had the authority to annul his marriage. Henry wasn’t honest with Katherine and she stuck to her rights as his wife. In the contested action which followed the judge was the pope, who was surrounded by the armies of Katherine’s uncle, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The case lasted six years.
Where was Anne Boleyn during all this? At an early stage it had dawned on Henry that given his feelings for her, the answer was to ask her to marry him when the divorce came through – he hoped within months. The pressure on Anne was intense. No other man could marry her while Henry wished to. She may even have fallen a little in love with her powerful and intense admirer. In any event, she gave way to Henry and agreed. Such personal emotion may seem unremarkable to us, but only one previous English king had ever married for love and none would try it again until modern times. Kings married foreign princesses and sought love elsewhere. But despite their mutual passion, Anne wasn’t yet in Henry’s bed. Both knew that before they tried for a child they must be married. The baby had to be legitimate. Without access to contraception, they resisted having sex. That they did so as long as they did just shows how determined they were.
But Anne wasn’t just waiting. All along she energized Henry’s efforts and provided backbone when he despaired. Very soon she realized that only radical measures would solve the deadlock and she pressed the policy on Henry – dump the pope and have the divorce from Katherine sanctioned by the church in England. But even when procedures for this were in place Henry hesitated. Dare he reject the authority of Rome? Very possibly it was Anne who made up his mind. In November 1533 she slept with him after going through a secret marriage ceremony. Very soon she was pregnant and Henry had to act. The English church did annul the marriage with Katherine. Anne was crowned and in September 1533 the future Queen Elizabeth was born.
Subsequently, Anne had two miscarriages, not the son Henry wanted. As always failure was blamed on the wife but Henry was probably the cause. He had bouts of impotence and may also have had other problems. But the story he had VD is a myth. And despite her failure, Anne was increasingly important. She became the patron of those trying to encourage religious reform. One of her main aims was to promote the Bible in English. She also pressed for social relief and education. It was this that brought her down. Henry thought the church too rich and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, took steps to shut monasteries. Anne supported this believing the money raised would be redirected to education. When she discovered the money was to go on guns, ships and fortifications she campaigned for the money to go charity instead, and for Cromwell to be sacked. Cromwell decided it was his head or hers.
Two things were in his favour. Following Anne’s miscarriage, Henry had begun flirting with Jane Seymour, who bore a physical resemblance to the sandy-haired Katherine of Aragon, and treated him with Katherine’s deference, yet had none of the fire that Katherine could reveal. There’s no evidence that Henry yet intended to get rid of Anne, but Jane did distract him. The second thing was courtly love. Anne was expected to be the unattainable target of courtly love – queen of the hive. But flirting and repartee could be deliberately misinterpreted, especially as she may have upped the atmosphere to compete with Jane. Cromwell seized on a court musician who adored her and pressed him to confess adultery with Anne. Based on his so-called evidence, Anne’s brother and her supporters were arrested. Henry reacted violently to being betrayed and refused to listen to pleas that she was innocent. Anne’s trial was rigged. But she and five innocent men were all condemned and executed for treason.
Henry obsessed about how exactly he would kill Anna. I have written elsewhere to explain why Henry chose to have Anne beheaded with a sword rather than the usual axe. But it is how she faced death that I think she should be remembered for. She did so with great courage and humility, with hope in her heart and not vengeance or anger. It was a good death and an example for us all.
Editor’s Note: The article Leanda reference’s above was first published here on 19 May 2014 – “The Strange Death of Anne Boleyn”. It is a phenomenal look of what drove Henry VIII’s decision to execute his second tragic wife by the Frenchman’s sword.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Leanda de Lisle is a renowned journalist and historian who writes articles and book reviews for BBC History Magazine, History Today, the Literary Review, the New Criterion and the Spectator, as well as several national newspapers in the United Kingdom. Leanda’s first non-fiction book made a huge impression, a runner-up for the Saltire Society’s First Book of the Year award. Leanda’s latest book, Tudor; The Family Story (1437-1603), is currently a top ten bestseller in the United Kingdom and released in the United States, re-titled for America audiences, in September 2013. Fittingly, Leanda lives near Bosworth Battlefield,
Bosworth, England. For more information, visit Leanda’s website at LEANDA DE LISLE.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today marks the anniversary of the tragic execution of Queen Anne Boleyn. Beheaded at the Tower of London on 19 May 1535, Anne’s legacy ranges from “whore of King Henry VIII” to “World History’s first feminist change agent”. Neither characterization true, James Peacock, founder of the Anne Boleyn Society and Beth von Staats, blogger of The Tudor Thomases and owner/administrator of Queenanneboleyn.com, went on a fact-finding mission, asking numerous historians and historical fiction authors what Anne Boleyn should be best remembered for. What follows is historian Leanda de Lisle’s opinion, the short version stated bluntly — “Anne was simply the most intelligent, influential Queen consort in English history.”