Anne Boleyn is one of the most important women in history and the most powerful Queen consort ever to sit on England’s throne. However, opinion remains divided about the most fundamental aspects of her life. She is an enigma, yet even the most negative source material hints at a remarkable woman.
There are vital gaps in Anne Boleyn’s life for which we often have to rely upon the negative propaganda and biased dispatches of her enemies, such as the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who saw her as a ‘she-devil’. Later, her supporters would promote her as a heroine, who did much to further the cause of church reform. The real Anne Boleyn remains buried beneath these conflicting personifications. Controversy rages nearly 500 years after her death. Rarely depicted impartially, Anne Boleyn has suffered the fate of being condemned both in her own lifetime and after it. She is often portrayed as ambitious and unscrupulous, but there have been attempts to portray a more sympathetic woman.
But who was Anne Boleyn?
Anne Boleyn was probably born in 1501 and was the second daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. Her elder sister Mary was probably born in 1499 and a younger surviving brother named George was probably born in 1504. Anne was precocious and was sent to France with her sister at 12 or 13, to be a maid of honour to the new French Queen, Mary Tudor. She remained on the continent and by the time she returned to England in 1522, she was more French than English.
We can discount the disparaging descriptions of Anne Boleyn’s looks, as she may actually have resembled her sister Mary. She was a strikingly attractive brunette and was petite in stature with an olive complexion and large, luminous black eyes. Anne Boleyn was highly intelligent and accomplished, and was great company. She also had fantastic sex appeal and this was not lost on the men of the court, who quickly swarmed around her. One of these men was King Henry VIII, who was then in his physical prime.
Anne may not have intended to ensnare the King, and she found his obsessive attention difficult to handle. Her sister had been his mistress and she did not want to go down that path. During the 7 years of the ‘King’s Great Matter’, in which Henry VIII sought an annulment to his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn would reveal an unexpected fighting spirit and tenacity. She was unpopular from the start, simply because she was viewed as the ‘other woman’.
Anne Boleyn had an independent spirit that was ahead of her time. She did not look or speak like she was supposed to. She was a woman in a man’s world who could do a man’s job better than he could. Not for nothing has she been called a “proto-feminist”.
Anne did not fully surrender to Henry VIII until marriage was assured. The birth of Princess Elizabeth in 1533 might not have been the blow it has been interpreted as, but it did signal a shift in the dynamics of the relationship between Henry and Anne. The new Queen was a devout Catholic, with reformist sympathies who actively protected Reformers such as William Tyndale, and read the Bible and banned religious books. Queen Anne’s charities were widespread and she was very generous to her family and supporters.
The less attractive aspects of Anne Boleyn’s character have certainly been exaggerated by her enemies. The lurid threats that she was said to have made against Princess Mary were almost certainly made out of self-defence. And it is important to remember that the only power Anne Boleyn truly had came through the King: without him, she was nothing. Yet Anne Boleyn undoubtedly had a passionate temperament was not afraid to speak to her mind.
Disaster struck with Queen Anne’s miscarriages, but in spite of this, the evidence suggests that the King remained in thrall to his Queen. Nevertheless, Henry VIII ordered his chief advisor Thomas Cromwell to investigate allegations of infidelity from the Queen, possibly with a view to proving them false. But in the end, it was Anne Boleyn who was her own worst enemy. She had always been flirtatious, and male attention was the breath of life to her. Although she may have been indiscreet within her inner circle, she was far too intelligent to be unfaithful to the King. Her less guarded exchanges and her famous sex appeal may have been all that was needed to weave a case against her.
Five men were accused with her, including her own brother, with whom she was particularly close. The evidence suggests strongly that Queen Anne was framed.
The most well-documented part of Anne Boleyn’s life are her final days, in which she came into her own. She showed great dignity at her trial and she showed great courage in the face of death. The charges of multiple adultery and perversion were trumped and the greatest evidence of this is the fact that Anne Boleyn swore on the damnation of her soul before and after she took the sacrament that she had never been unfaithful to the King.
On the morning of May 19 1536, Anne Boleyn met her death with great courage and dignity. She had left an indelible mark on history and yet the controversy that surrounded her in her own life time continues to rage until the present day.
Anne Boleyn is an enigma. Perhaps the great Tudor poet Sir Thomas Wyatt truly has captured something of the essence of the elusive Anne Boleyn in Who List To Hunt:
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about;
‘Noli me tangere; for Cæsar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame
Today, there are those who perceive Anne Boleyn as an ambitious and ruthless woman, who gambled with her life to get the King and the throne. Then there are those who see Anne Boleyn as unfairly vilified and whose importance to history cannot be underestimated.
The real Anne Boleyn remains just beyond our grasp and I can’t help thinking that is exactly what Anne would have wanted. She would love to know that people are still fighting over her nearly 500 years after her death.
Words: Alex Karas
Image: Sophia Maria