Exploring the real Anne Boleyn

I’ve talked before on this blog about my teenage love for historical fiction and also about my obsession (should we use that word?) with Anne Boleyn. I found her at a young age when I bought a children’s book about her—really. It was called Doomed Queen Anne and it was written for preteens. Her story, told in the first person, really enchanted me and it’s been the same ever since, and I know I’m not the only one.

Anne-Boleyn-IvesWith The Tudors and the inaccurate tosh that was The Other Boleyn Girl floating out in the world, I feel very compelled to share what I’ve learned about Anne Boleyn since I was a kid, helped along by a well-researched, fair, and brilliant biography by Eric Ives: The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. I recently re-read this book and once again was plunged into the world of the Tudor Court and saw Anne’s life play out, from birth to tragic death. So I’d like to share some interesting facts about Anne that make me admire her more every time I read about her.

She was considered an honorary Frenchwoman. She was sent to Belgium and then to France when she was 12 or 13 and served in the court of Queen Claude of France. She was an excellent pupil, launching herself into the popular humanist trend at the time (and became an acquaintance of Erasmus later in life). She was also a very skilled musician and had natural taste for the classics. Anne would carry the aura of French sophistication with her for her entire life, and bring this grace and elegance to her role as Queen of England.

She challenged beauty norms and revolutionized style and fashion at court. At a time when English roses were the standard of beauty, Anne shattered the ideal. Instead of blonde and fair, Anne was dark, possibly with brunette or auburn hair, and sallow skinned. She was also thinner and less curvy than was considered attractive, but she used her unique traits to her advantage. She was especially proud of her hair and her dark eyes, and even her enemies found her appearance bewitching.

As Queen, Anne used fashion to buttress her “cult of majesty.” She knew that part of being a queen was looking the part, just like her daughter did.

“It is clear that in dress sense and wardrobe Anne Boleyn anticipated Elizabeth I’s acute awareness of the politics of ostentation. Each had more than a love of mere finery, rather a recognition that in order to play the part one must dress the part. The mother also anticipated the daughter in another way: the exploitation of the cult of monarchy…between Anne and Elizabeth there was an uncanny similarity of attitude toward the projection of monarchy, and of themselves as chosen by God to rule.” (218)

I found it so poignant that mother and daughter had so much in common.

Hever Castle portrait of a young Anne Boleyn

She was a “self-made woman.” One of the common denigrations of Anne Boleyn is her stereotypical role of the “Other Woman” who stole Henry away from the long-suffering Katherine of Aragon with her sexual wiles. Ives parses the evidence at hand and comes to a very different conclusion, however. From the evidence it’s clear that Henry was anticipating a divorce from Katherine before he even met Anne.

Henry’s first wife was barren and Henry had long been looking elsewhere to obtain a male heir. When Anne caught his eye, it was his love for her which made Anne his unconventional choice for a wife, instead of a foreign princess who would cement international relationships. Anne, then, did not “steal” Henry away, but was Henry’s first choice because of love and not politics. Ives says “Henry’s first marriage was dead before Anne came on the scene,” and that her sexuality “challenged Henry.”

Anne was also the first person to become a peer of the realm in her own right, rather than by ancestry or marriage. She was made Marchioness of Pembroke in 1532, the highest rank a courtier can hold, and it was held by a woman for the first time.

She was really, really smart. Anne played the politics game as well as any King Henry or Thomas Cromwell. Instead of a submissive wife, Anne became one of Henry’s most trusted political advisors as well as his queen, something that was almost unheard of. It was actually this “meddling in state affairs” that contributed to her fall and eventual execution.

Anne Boleyn was not the “catalyst in the English Reformation; she was a key element in the equation…Anne was a strong supporter of religious reform, and she was the first to demonstrate the potential there was in the royal supremacy for that distinctive element in the English Reformation, the monarch’s freedom to take the initiative in religious change…Brief though Anne’s influence was, it was a thousand days of support for reform from the throne itself.” (260-61) Popular opinion has Anne bouncing Henry into breaking with the Church because she wanted to be queen, but the evidence shows that she truly believed in reform and in the supreme power of kings to head the church.

She did truly love Henry. At least, that’s what the evidence comes to. Popular stereotypes show Anne as a cold, ambitious woman using her sexuality as a weapon against Henry just to get what she wanted: power and a crown. However, evidence suggests that it was Henry who made the decision to stay chaste for six years while he and Anne prepared for marriage. He would not have risked a male child with Anne being born illegitimate.

Anne, for her part, found in Henry a dashing young king, powerful, smart, and loving. The evidence shows a passionate relationship with both parties exhibiting fierce tempers and a fiercer will. They were quite a pair. Indeed, until just two days before Anne’s arrest, Henry was calling her his “beloved wife” and fighting for her international acceptance as queen.

She was a genuine evangelical with enormous faith and a zeal for reform. Anne was a very religious person in faith and in action. She gave enormous amounts of money in alms to the poor and wanted to use dissolved monastic houses as places of education instead of appropriating their wealth to pay off the Crown’s debts. Anne kept a copy of the English Bible (translated by the “heretic” William Tyndale) on a stand in her rooms, encouraging all her servants and ladies to read it at will. She also kept strict standards of morality and comportment among her retinue.

Anne also “supported learned institutions, perhaps with annual subventions to Oxford and Cambridge” and worked hard to reform and buttress these places of scholarship. The reforms she instituted at Cambridge were so well received that she was “designated the new founder of the college.” (286)

She was innocent! Modern scholarship has now confirmed that not only was Anne’s adultery unlikely, it was very nearly impossible. Anne’s trial outlined the times and places of her alleged adulterous affairs and at nearly every circumstance, she and her alleged lover were either not at court together, she was pregnant, or had just given birth/had a miscarriage, making sex impossible for 16th century people who had strict rules on sexual cleanliness.

Also, Anne swore on the Holy Eucharist the night before her death that she was innocent. Lying would have been tantamount, to someone with Anne’s strong faith, to rejecting salvation and pitching oneself directly into hell. She had nothing to gain by lying; she already knew she was going to die.

Political machinations took her life. Henry VIII’s political advisor Thomas Cromwell admitted to the “coup” he orchestrated to remove Anne and her supporters from power. Cromwell was acting in self-preservation: he and Anne disagreed on major political issues and she could have arranged his downfall if he didn’t act first. For good measure, Cromwell also managed the deaths of Henry Norris, groom of the stool (the highest place in court) and other supporters like William Brereton and Anne’s own brother, George Rochford. Her death was a tragedy and a serious miscarriage of justice.

Anne was a self-made woman who nevertheless was required to be dependent upon a husband, and not just any husband, a king with enormous pride and ego. She was a smart, capable woman who would have made an excellent queen had she lived. Rather than a monster or femme fatale, the image of Anne that emerges from the evidence is that of a smart, talented woman who fell in love with a king and was offered a crown. I would have accepted it, too.

Also excellent Anne Boleyn reads are The Creation of Anne Boleyn, which is a sociological study of Anne’s image, and for a touch of finely-wrought fiction, Jean Plaidy’s 1986 novel The Lady in the Tower. The next book I’ll read about Anne Boleyn is Sarah Morris’s In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, a book which tracks all the places Anne went in her life and their importance. I bought it recently from Wordery.com. Check it out!

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  • Your reviews are always so thorough! I read about many of the famous queens & princesses as part of the “Royal Diaries” series — not all of those books were good, of course, but I do remember liking the one about Elizabeth I very much.
    I like the bit about Anne Boleyn’s understanding of fashion. I think Kate Middleton is very shrewd in that regard as well.

    • Thanks for the comment! This post was longer than usual; I felt like I was on a soapbox trying to defend Anne. I also read those Royal Diaries series and carried them with me everywhere! They’re still here in my room on a shelf somewhere, I loved them! And I completely agree with your opinion on Kate. There is an image of royalty that she projects with her clothing and behavior. I think we all do that, to some extent, but of course royalty is somewhat different, even in the 21st c!

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