There is an old adage that well-behaved women seldom make history. No-one alive in the sixteenth century could have doubted that Anne Boleyn had made history and there were a great many who would have agreed that this was because she hadn’t been particularly well-behaved. She had gone down in a maelstrom of pornographic conspiracy, accused of multiple acts of sexual perversion and attempted regicide. Popular belief in her links to the occult was widespread amongst the lower classes, particularly in the north of England, eventually giving rise to the legend that she had had six fingers and various other marks of the Devil upon her body. Despite Anne’s plea of innocence, even in the face of death, many refused to believe that the King would have moved against her unless she had been guilty of at least some of the charges of adultery for which she had ostensibly been beheaded. A contemporary lawyer spoke for many when he ruled that ‘there was never such a whore in the realm,’ and Tudor loyalists, attempting to reconcile the Anne that so many of the elite had known personally with the nymphomaniacal Anne of the indictments, concluded that she had been ‘a woman endued with as many outward good qualities in playing on instruments, singing and such other courtly graces as few women of her time, with such a certain profession of gravity as was to be marvelled at. But inward she was all another dame than she seemed to be; for in satisfying her carnal appetite she fled not so much as the company of her own natural brother besides the company of three or four others of the gallantest gentlemen that were near about the king’s proper person – drawn by her own devilish devices’. For many, she was ‘the vicious Queen,’ ‘the misfortune that has happened to England’ and ‘the ruin of many pious and worthy men’.
For others, however, the Queen had been ‘more accused than convicted,’ ‘that most holy Queen,’ ‘God’s Nymph,’ ‘virtuous,’ ‘worthy,’ ‘the most beautiful of all in true piety and character,’ and the Queen Dowager of Hungary spoke for many when she said that no woman could afford to glory in the fate of Anne Boleyn. Much to his evident chagrin, the Spanish ambassador to London, who had loathed the slaughtered queen, was forced to admit that he could find no evidence to suggest that she had actually been guilty – although he was swift to clarify that this did not necessarily mean she had not somehow deserved her death.
Every point of Anne’s life – from the date of her birth to the reasons behind her destruction – has been the subject of historical “trench warfare,” and this fascination does not show any sign of abating. Since the publication of Marie Louise Bruce’s Anne Boleyn in 1972, Henry VIII’s second queen has been the subject of ten individual biographies, with a further two more on various specific stages of her life – a account of her early relationships and a thorough study on her imprisonment and death. She has featured as a character in fifteen motion pictures and eight television shows, being played by actresses like Merle Oberon, Vanessa Redgrave, Charlotte Rampling and Helena Bonham-Carter. There have also been treatments of her in the numerous biographies written about those who knew her – including her husband, her daughter, her stepdaughter, her illegitimate stepson, her sister, her sister-in-law, her cousins, Archbishop Cranmer, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. She has been extensively analysed in the five published works on Henry’s half-dozen consorts as a collective that have appeared in print following Alison Weir’s best-selling The Six Wives of Henry VIII in 1991 and there was also a ferocious academic spat over her destruction between four academics, played out in the usually far-more sedate pages of the English Historical Review.
Many who read this blog know that over the next five years, along with my other projects, I will be researching a biography of Anne myself and I was touched that many encouraged that decision after reading my series back in May, chartering Anne's downfall day-by-day from May 1st to May 19th. But, many may justifiably ask - why the need for another treatment of Anne's life? Well, truthfully, part of it is sheer egotism. Having studied Anne for years, I believe that I have constructed a believable portrait of her and whilst I agree with a lot of what has been written about Anne by modern writers, I disagree with much as well and the areas in which I believe mistakes have been made are important ones.
Less egotistically, but with equal selfishness, writing a biography of Anne Boleyn is both hugely enjoyable and perpetually intriguing. Her ability to fascinate shows no sign of dimming, death and time not withstanding. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Anne Boleyn is a creature of infinite variety, which age has not withered nor custom rendered stale. Her story is dramatic, engaging and possesses a gradient of catastrophe which still has the power to boggle the imagination. The proliferation of novels, operas, plays, television shows and movies based on her life, however loosely, are a testament to the selling-power of that story. Agents, being agents, do not commission what will not sell.
Paradoxically, it is this aspect of her life which turns so many people off studying her - much less from taking her seriously. Whilst none of my tutors made such a mistake, many of my fellow undergrads at Oxford seemed to regard Anne Boleyn with a sort of snobbish intellectual disdain. The unmistakable impression conveyed was that she was a footnote to history, not a factor, for it is a sad truth that so many of those who fancy themselves to be historians believe that if something is interesting, it cannot also be important. And if it is a subject of popular interest, as well, then that is even worse.
Someone who shared no such qualms was Professor Simon Schama, who in his pithy and popular A History of Britain, nailed the problem of Anne and the academics when he said: ‘So much saccharin drivel has been written on the subject of Anne Boleyn, so many Hollywood movies made, so many bodice-buster romances produced, that we serious historians are supposed to avert our gaze from the tragic soap opera of her life and concentrate on the meaty stuff – like the social and political origins of the Reformation or the Tudor revolution in government. But, try as we might, we keep coming back – time and again – to the subject of Anne, because it turns out that she was, after all, historical prime cause number one.’
Thanks in no small part to the work of historians like Eric Ives, Maria Dowling and David Starkey, attitudes like Professor Schama’s are becoming increasingly widespread amongst experts in the field. One writer went so far as to pronounce in a 2009 biography of Henry VIII that, ‘No woman has ever made a greater impact on the history of England than Anne Boleyn.’ Admittedly, this particular statement at first strikes a hyperbolic note. The leap from contemporary importance to maximum political impact is a fairly large one; surely, such an accolade should go to Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, who ruled as queen in her own right for almost half a century and gave her name to an era?
Perhaps. But upon reflection, it is not such a dubious claim. In the History of the British Isles, most would agree that it has been the Norman Conquest, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and the Second World War which changed England, or Britain, forever and it was these four events which continued to define the nation for generations after they had happened. Certainly, the policies enacted in the time of Henry VIII are still affecting the lives of British citizens and their monarchy, even today. Moreover, no woman played as decisive a role in the Conquest, industrialisation or the war, as Anne Boleyn played in the Reformation. It was she, far more than Henry VIII, who truly believed in its early mission and whilst it was certainly not Anne’s intention, the Reformation did eventually shatter one thousand years of English Catholicism and started England on a series of religious, cultural and social revolutions which irrevocably altered both its position amongst other nations, its world-view and its idea of self. Without the Reformation, the iconoclasm of Edward VI, the persecutions by Queen Mary, the Spanish Armada, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, the evolution of a constitutional monarchy, Irish nationalism, the history of Northern Ireland and the very creation of the British Empire itself might never have happened – at the very least, they would all have happened in profoundly different ways. And nurturing this revolution, in the very first days of its existence, was Anne Boleyn. That Anne would have been appalled by its later progress is neither here nor there, that she was beginning to turn against it only weeks before her own death is equally irrelevant. She would have been appalled and disgusted by the religious policies of both of her husband's other children, Edward VI and Mary I, but that too quite simply doesn't matter. In the halcyon days of early Reform, it was Anne who placed into Henry’s hands, sometimes quite literally, books that were technically illegal because they articulated exactly how a religious reformation should begin; it was she who nurtured condemned heretics at her court when they should technically have been imprisoned or burning at the stake, it was she did everything to thwart the campaign against heresy which was being mounted throughout the late 1520s by the government and it was Anne and her family who ensured the promotion of men like Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Matthew Parker, all of whom would have enormous roles in shaping the nature of English Protestantism. Small wonder then that, looking back from the triumphantly Protestant times of Queen Elizabeth, Protestant writers recalling Anne’s legacy gushed ‘in praise of this noble queen as well as for her singular wit and other excellent qualities of mind as also for her favouring of learned men, zeal of religion and liberality in distributing alms in relief of the poor’.
This is, in part, the second reason for wanting to research and write my own life of Anne. She mattered – far more so than any of Henry’s other wives, particularly those who came after her, and far more so than most, if not all, of the other queen-consorts in British history. And whilst time and context help explain why she could wield such enormous and unprecedented influence, her personality was also crucial to the equation. But, if Anne’s importance has been clearly established, her personality has not. What I hope to do here is present a more logical and convincing portrait of Anne the woman to help us better understand Anne the queen and Anne the politician.
It might seem incredible that after almost a dozen biographical studies in just over three decades, Queen Anne’s character should still elude us, but mistakes have been made and, as all historians stand on the shoulders of giants no less than scientists do, these mistakes are invariably repeated. Recently, Sarah Gristwood, a biographer of Anne’s daughter wrote: ‘We realised a while ago that Anne was not the villainess of earlier legend, just as we know how unsubstantiated were the charges of adultery that prefaced her death. But it has proved curiously hard to replace that biblically colourful image with another that entirely convinces.’ Part of the problem has been a dangerous over-reliance on the fulsome correspondence of the Spanish ambassador to England during Anne’s queenship, Eustace Chapuys, who wrote with acute observation on everything in London except Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn – the former whom he idolised, the latter who he despised and refused, point-blank, even to speak to. Listening solely to the accounts of her numerous enemies, Chapuys’ usually detached tone is frequently exaggerated, often downright deranged, on the subject of Anne and it is to him, and him alone, that we owe the legendary story of her “persecution” of her stepdaughter, Mary Tudor, in which he does not hesitate to cast Anne as the archetypal Wicked Stepmother, more suited to the stories of the Brothers Grimm than the Calendar of State Papers. It is only now that historians are beginning to question the veracity of Chapuys’ letters, a partisan diplomat devoted to Anne’s rival, who spoke no English and listened only to stories that were sometimes deliberately “fed” to him by the English government or gleefully relayed to him, as gossip, by courtiers who shared his sympathies. Chapuys’ correspondence is useful, yes, but it is not always honest and almost never fair.
In one recent study of Henry VIII, the historian Derek Wilson cautioned against taking an ‘unnecessarily cynical’ attitude when assessing Anne’s motivation and character. It is a fair point and an overdue one, for, thanks to Chapuys, unnecessary cynicism has been the driving force behind most modern assessments of her and this cynicism has led to a serious lack of logic in the study of her life and nowhere are such discrepancies more glaringly obvious than when it comes to the subject of her morals.
Irish actor Anthony Brophy in the role of Ambassador Eustace Chapuys in the Showtime television series The Tudors, with Sarah Bolger as the young Mary Tudor
Anne’s position as a femme fatale is too deeply ingrained in the public mind to ever be eradicated and, in all fairness, it must be said that it is not an entirely undeserved label. Given the potent allure attached to such an image, many historians have been all too eager to believe the more moderately salacious rumours concerning Anne’s personal life and have insisted that she must have been sexually active prior to her marriage. ‘It is hard to believe,’ wrote Alison Weir in her book Henry VIII: King & Court, ‘that she had remained virtuous and almost certain therefore that her calculated refusal to succumb to the King’s advances stemmed from self-interest and ambition rather than much vaunted moral principles.’ Others have asserted that she had ‘a universally bad reputation,’ that she was ‘a woman of light morals,’ with one writer boldly asserting, ‘Anne had several lovers … [and] she acquired a reputation for unchastity.’ Yet, the very same writers have not hesitated to portray Anne as a rabidly ambitious and manipulative figure – ‘an ambitious adventuress with a penchant for vengeance,’ ‘a prideful young woman.’
However, one cannot logically have it both ways. Anne cannot have been sexually disreputable and at the same time insatiably ambitious. One has got to give. There was nothing to be gained by promiscuity in the sixteenth century, and everything to lose – as the tragedy of Anne’s cousin, Catherine Howard, would show in the following decade. Virginity was power, sexual restraint was a potent weapon, and in the game of courtly love, the chase was everything. What people seem incapable of grasping is the simple fact that the kind of potent obsession Anne provoked in so many of the men around her is the kind that only comes from the unobtainable - a girl who gave-in in any way would never have been able to wield the kind of potent allure that Anne did. Thus, we should not separate Anne’s morals and her ambition as if they are two mutually-exclusive forces – they were two sides of the same coin. By following through her relationships with the men of her life, what emerges is a portrait of a woman who men found endlessly fascinating and endlessly frustrating. And in this, the biographer feels the same way as her long-dead suitors, I can assure you!
Another problem with all this attention is one common to any noted person, any celebrity, in fact – the problem of preconceptions. Anne’s story has been told and re-told so often that certain versions of her story are held to be veritably sacrosanct, solely by virtue of repetition. Similar problems bedevil the biographies of Henry’s other queens – Jane Seymour’s kindness to her youngest stepdaughter, Elizabeth, Catherine Howard being dubbed "the rose without a thorn" and Katharine Parr serving as her husband’s nursemaid in his old age are all commonly stated as if they are facts, when there is not one jot of evidence from the period to support any such supposition.
For a very long time, in Anne’s case, it was the more melodramatic embellishments of her story that refused to go away – the six fingers on the left hand, the middle-class birth (‘merchant’ or ‘mercer’ was how some novelists chose to describe it), the mole on her neck, the beautiful but dissolute sister, the cloying dependence on her brother, the country bumpkin stepmother, the fact that the real love of her life had been “Harry” Percy of Northumberland (no evidence that he was ever nicknamed “Harry,” or she “Nan,” but that’s by-the-by), Greensleeves, the long, hanging sleeves of her gown, the bejewelled collars, thick hair, the hatred the common people felt for her, the accusations of witchcraft and the ego-soothing fling with the poet Thomas Wyatt. Modern writers may have moved the preconceptions in a slightly different direction, but if the image of Anne is slightly different, the tendency to place confidences in pre-judgements is not.
What has now become entrenched, almost like a litany in the reading public’s mind, is the story of a plain-looking commoner, possibly sexy but certainly not pretty and definitely not beautiful, who clawed her way onto the throne of England using only the strength of her personality. A free-thinking, proto-feminist – gutsy, unconventional, liberated – who dared to live as an honorary man in what was then very much a man’s world, ignoring the seething hatred the populace felt for her and the misogyny of her rivals. A figure who, at the time of her death in 1536, was pushing middle-age by Tudor standards, and whose downfall had nothing whatsoever to do with love, sex or even sentiment, but everything to do with politics, international diplomacy and religion.
In fact, Anne Boleyn was significantly younger, “better-born” and more beautiful than the recent perception of her suggests. And passion, and obsession, had everything to do with both her rise and her fall. I have argued on this blog that she was born much later than the work of historians in the 1980s suggested and that she was born closer to the end of the first decade of the sixteenth century, rather than the very beginning. I also know, as other historians have before me, that by the standards of her day Anne was by far and away the highest-born of Henry’s four English wives – her father was the heir to an earldom, her mother the daughter of a duke. Far more so, indeed, than any of Henry’s other wives, Anne Boleyn was entirely the product of sixteenth century upper-class high society, a ‘heady, sophisticated and superficial atmosphere ... an ambience in which she flourished, like a fine orchid in a hothouse.’ She was every inch the courtier, the aristocrat, the socialite. She knew no other life. Even Henry’s first wife, Katherine, whose pedigree was vastly superior to Anne’s, had at least experienced some financial deprivations during her early twenties. His third wife, Jane, knew what it was to dwell in total anonymity and his fifth, Catherine Howard, was brought up by a well-born but impoverished debtor, who occasionally had to go into hiding to escape his creditors. There is no evidence to suggest that Anne ever experienced one moment of financial or material uncertainty and her knowledge of what life was like beyond the palaces’ walls must have been fairly limited. To use modern parlance, Anne Boleyn was very much “of a class,” and she preferred people of a similar background, for all her friendly interest in her servants’ wellbeing – as poor Mark Smeaton was to be reminded when he over-stepped the boundaries of etiquette in her presence.
Finally, whilst no amount of re-writing will ever be able to present Anne Boleyn as one of the great, picture-perfect beauties of her age in the ilk of Caterina Sforza, Diane de Poitiers, Veronica Franco or Mary, Queen of Scots, she was much closer to beautiful than plain. Nowadays, with her fragile build and long dark hair, we would almost certainly consider her beautiful and concur with the King of France when he nicknamed her "the Brunette Venus," but for most of those around her it was curvaceous, sexy blondes who defined the ideal, not willowy brunettes. In any case, Anne is now routinely described as "plain" in modern histories, but as appealing as the idea of a great love affair devoid of the expected female beauty might sound, it is simply unrealistic, particularly in a life bedevilled by as much male attention as Anne’s. The image of her as being physically unremarkable comes from an oft-quoted remark by an Italian diplomat made in 1532, where he remarked that she was ‘not one of the handsomest women in the world’. This one, fairly mild description has inexplicably cancelled out the numerous other eyewitness accounts of her which described her as ‘beautiful,’ ‘pretty,’ ‘good-looking’ or the aforementioned Venus comparison.
It might very well be that the Anne who emerges from my research - and there is a still a long, long way to go - is far closer to a more traditional portrait, but whatever differences will emerge, she is no less fascinating and, I believe, no less important. I have uncovered no evidence to challenge the basic premise that she was interested in politics. I see no reason to revise history for the sake of it and, in terms of politics, with a few subtle queries of my own, I would still state with certainty that Professor Ives’ twin biographies of Anne have established beyond all reasonable doubt the full impact she had on monarchy, church and nation and that she wielded such influence on purpose, with considerable aplomb and intellect.
Having fallen “in love” with Anne Boleyn’s story at the age of eight, thanks to the Oscar-nominated performance of Geneviève Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days (below), which aired on television during a particularly rain-soaked family holiday to the Irish Republic, I have had my own preconceptions to overcome and the research I am doing and have done is constantly challenging them.
Since childhood I had read everything I could on Anne Boleyn – I was fascinated, entranced, as so many had been during her life and in the years to come. Therefore the real temptation was to twist the evidence to present Anne as I wished her to be and, most dangerously of all, to project modern beliefs and sympathies onto her journey and her century. I, of course, wanted to believe that she had lived longer or experienced some kind of passionate love affair with Henry Percy or Thomas Wyatt. It seemed somehow both grotesque and unbearably tragic that a woman like Anne Boleyn – or any woman, for that matter – should have saved her virginity for marriage with a man such as Henry VIII, a ‘devious, man-mountain capable of remorseless cruelty’. Yet that is precisely what I believe the surviving evidence points to and no amount of wishing on the part of the historian, or adherence to our modern sensibilities, is going to change that. History can never be what we want it to be, or even what it ought to be, despite what Herodotus said. It can only ever be what happened, or what we think happened – what the evidence tells us.
Above all, as any good biographer will tell you, there is a sense of duty to your subject. A biography should never be about the biographer and so I hope, when the time comes, to have done enough research and written it up with sufficient style and points of interest that it will allow Anne Boleyn - socialite, muse, schemer, queen, mother, sister, daughter, wife and victim - to take centre stage and to recount, as best I am able, the extraordinary story of her life and death.
© Gareth Russell