Thursday, March 14, 2013

Queen Anne and Queen Elizabeth I: Royal women, powerful women

Anne Boleyn, alongside Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette, and Marilyn Monroe, remains one of history’s most accomplished, fascinating, and, ultimately, controversial women. Not only immortalized in romantic legend, she lives on through the forces of the remarkable envy and hate of her contemporaries, miraculously transcended five centuries to this present day. There is much said of her that Boleyn should probably turn over in her cold grave to hear – that she was a whore guilty of adultery, a witch with six fingers, a husband-stealing Jezebel, and a wicked stepmother straight out of one of Grimm’s fairytales – but the most painful of these by afar for her would be the common misconception that she had neither relationship with nor effect on her only daughter, Elizabeth I. Indeed, Anne Boleyn was executed and forgotten before the bastardized princess turned three, and Elizabeth was raised primarily by a beloved governess and final stepmother, but events to transpire later on in her glorious and tumultuous life would prove that a bond from beyond the grave and the precaution of a mother in the face of death were the driving forces behind her greatness.

4 PM, September 7th, 1533, and the nine month wait was over. Queen Anne, the woman Henry VIII fought seven years to win and marry, gave birth fairly easily to Princess Elizabeth of Wales. While the majority of England was somewhat soothed by their queen’s ability to deliver a healthy child to term, the first and last royal birth of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII was also met with embarrassment, disappointment, anxiety, and alas, bloodshed. The predictions of astrologers and Anne’s own confidence had the king convinced absolutely that this would be the male heir who would prevent civil war after his death, who he had waited nearly twenty-two years for. Unlike any other queen-consort in history, she had been crowned with St Edward’s crown, which previously only king regnants had been honored with; this was performed out of the belief that, five months pregnant, she bore England’s next king regnant in her belly. Along with formal announcements of a prince’s birth prepared days earlier, this built up so much hype that Elizabeth’s gender indefinitely heeded to miserable disappointment, and the congratulations for a newborn prince by Henry’s foreign rivals, to intense embarrassment. Having dramatically separated from and defied the Roman Catholic Church, Henry VIII and his reformist clergy were excommunicated, and his former wife Catherine of Aragon had to explicitly tell her nephew the Holy Roman Emperor not to invade England on behalf of herself and her disinherited daughter. It was a dark and anxiety-crazed time for Parliament and the newly-wed couple, but had Elizabeth been male, victory-induced intoxication would leave fear of a Holy War in the dust. The kingdom’s most well-respected theologians might have accepted Anne if she secured the Tudor line with a boy, but the 1534 Act of Succession sent dozens of them and other men who refused to cleave to a princess, to the Tower and their deaths.

Anne indefinitely experienced embarrassment, disappointment, and anxiety having given birth to Elizabeth, crushed beneath failed expectations of her, and while pride could be credited with preventing her, as well as Henry, from reacting negatively, nothing save the love of a first-time mother could be credited with her open and shameless doting on the girl. ‘Saintly’ Catherine of Aragon will always be remembered as one of history’s greatest mothers, but not even she had dared to breastfeed her beloved daughter Mary. The first queen-consort to feed her own child, Anne scandalized her contemporaries, mystified as to how their majestic mistress could be so enamored of a baby and especially a girl one. Against the criticism of courtiers and ambassadors, she fawned too publicly over the princess; however, granted her less-than-royal birth, she could not have entirely understood what was dignified and what was not for a queen to do, as her precedent had. As the world around her became dark and volatile with miscarriages and strife with her husband, Anne’s visits with her daughter became more frequent, and regularly ordering the princess new finery and reinforcing decorum in her household, the queen found solace in being a more active mother. While Elizabeth’s gender might have been alone appreciated by her mother Anne, it would be the key to the celebrated religious virtue which would define her reign.

Something extraordinary and too-often overlooked occurred in around 1528. Nearly at the height of her influence with King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn was exposed owning a heretical tract –Protestant William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man was found among her possessions. Easily she could have been prosecuted, but even in the face of danger she sought Henry, owned up to her possession of the tract, and then showed him previously marked passages from it. Previously marked, for she had been a long time planning to share them with him. The passages encouraged Christian kings to take charge of religious houses of their kingdoms from the Pope, and because of Anne, the first ever to present and encourage Protestant ideals to a king of England, an alternative path for them, should Rome continue to stall Henry’s divorce case, opened up. Until her fall from grace and death in 1536, Anne implored sympathy for Protestant heretics, according to her contemporaries, at several instances. While Anne Boleyn never came out as anything more than an Anglican reformist, her daughter transformed the United Kingdom into a Protestant empire, when easily she could have fallen in the wretched footsteps of her tragic half-sister, ‘Bloody Mary’ if her chaplain had not been a good Protestant carefully-chosen by her mother. Her wise choice for the keeper of her daughter’s spirituality upon Anne’s death was Matthew Parker, who would eventually be her daughter’s choice for Archbishop of Canterbury, or principal religious leader of the Church of England. Most amazing of all, just as Anne both encouraged the English Bible and sought charity for Catholic monks who lost their homes to the Reformation, Elizabeth was the first monarch to practice religious tolerance, boldly claiming, “I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” Their shared religious ideals making them stand out as leaders despite their sexes, their ‘like-mother-like-daughter’ allure only added to their naturally powerful charismas.

While Anne reigned as but a queen-consort, her only responsibility and expectation to make a boy, at the zenith of her royal influence she excelled as a leader in the same way that, as queen-regnant, Elizabeth would preside over even the most powerful men in the land. Sometime before 1533 while Henry VIII was still forced to hold the title ‘Defender of the Catholic Faith’ by the Pope, he entrusted Anne to spearhead secret meetings in which the Reformation was discussed with learned clergy. This was impressive not only because she was but an inferior woman, but also due to what was hanging on the meetings – Henry’s liberation from his first marriage, and effectually, their future together and England’s. Next, despite the only church positions he ever held being modest, all it took was the recommendation of Anne Boleyn for Thomas Cranmer to be enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury. Aside from being willing to oblige his mistress, Henry obviously had respect for Anne’s opinion in spite of her sex, and his admiration of her was again reflected in his creation of her as the only female and non-royal peer in England when he granted her the marquessate of Pembroke in her own right. While it is commonly believed that Anne was destroyed for her ‘inability’ to give the king a son, it is acknowledged among most historians now that it was Anne’s influence over Henry and his decisions, above those of even his favorite advisers, that largely brought on her fall. In his lust for power, Cromwell, the king’s chief henchman, feared that Anne would provide the king with a son and use her new power and intelligence to destroy him as she had once, almost a decade ago, torn down his precedent – Cardinal Wolsey, the most powerful man in the land next to the king – and in so, effectually freed Henry to be his own leader. Her quarreling with Cromwell reached its height in April 1536 when Anne was all that stood in his way of access to money from destroyed Catholic monasteries that she demanded to be put toward charity and education for the poor. He allied himself with factions supporting a woman who Nicholas Carew promised would be easily manipulated, as steadfast, politically-astute Anne Boleyn had not been, for their means as wife number three. Naturally, as queen-regnant of England, Elizabeth’s decisions were shaped largely by competent, hand-picked advisers, but the decision that defined her reign was entirely her own, and was perhaps even, to some degree, a tribute to her tragic mother.

Whether or not she was a virgin seems rather irrelevant in these more permissive days, but at any rate, Elizabeth never married, and historians debate the reason for this endlessly. If she married a foreign prince, then his country would take the charge of England. If she married an Englishman, there would be civil unrest between noble English families. If she married any man, then even as the queen, scripture would demand for her to cleave to her husband and the kingdom would puzzle over who their leader was. If she did not marry at all, the Tudor line her grandfather had struggled endlessly to bring to power would collapse. It was an “I’m damned if I do, I’m damned if I don’t” situation if ever in history there was one, and while facing the world alone definitely appears outwardly to be an act of pure fearlessness, ironically, fear definitely played a handsome part in her decision. Elizabeth feared men, and based on the story of her mother she had apt reason to. Just as Elizabeth was, Anne had been admired, beloved, and essentially worshipped by men, but she had been eventually betrayed and destroyed by them within ten years. Her mother’s life proved two valuable things: women could be powerful leaders and, for all their vows of undying love, men could not be trusted. Elizabeth never even said a word of her mother; by law Anne was a traitor found guilty of plotting her sovereign’s death and a whore who managed a harem of lovers which included her brother. However, a picture is worth a thousand words and a famous locket that Elizabeth wore on a secret ring unto death that depicted her mother and her, together, explains without fail what she felt about the most controversial Englishwoman in history.

What was Elizabeth’s opinion of her mother? Did she see in herself any trace of the mother she mentioned not once all her life? The epic mother-daughter duo can be compared and contrasted for centuries longer, but alas some things are damned as eternal puzzles. What is known without doubt is that Anne and Elizabeth were both champions of the Reformation and Renaissance, talented musicians and poets, charismatic and sexually charged leaders, and a pair of dark-eyed, alluring, and, ultimately, deeply lonely women whose distrust of men changed the course of history.

Ridgway, Claire. "The Anne Boleyn Files." The Anne Boleyn Files RSS. Wordpress, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.

Ives, E. W. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: 'the Most Happy' Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.

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