Sunday, May 19, 2013

Anne Boleyn: Impact and Legacy

On this 19 May, 2013, the 477th anniversary of Anne Boleyn's execution, a reflection of the impact she had on her world and her legacy, in ours.
Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn being crowned on Showtime's The Tudors.
It seems there has always been a mixed reaction to Anne Boleyn – to her life, to her death, and, today, to her legacy. Should we remember and revile her, a six-fingered whore and witch, a grasping, cunning man-stealer? Or should we just accept that the truth of it is not so simple? The only simple statement that one could extract from so bold, colorful and powerful a life is that Anne, in her own right, had and has tremendous impact on her world and ours. She, a woman in the 16th century, was a guiding force in religious tolerance and the Reformation, a key player in one of the most enthralling political and diplomatic wars of history, a leader of the Renaissance, the single character who changed Henry VIII’s 55 year life most, a strong influence to among the most highly-regarded English monarchs in history, and ultimately, a feminist icon who embodies strong women of all centuries.
                Anne Boleyn was not a Protestant – but neither was she a corrupt manipulator of Scripture, happy to twist words about when the Roman Catholic Church failed to suit her needs. Many of the reformist pieces Anne owned being in French, her interest in church reform was probably sparked during her early years in France through her close friend, Protestant Princess Renee. Anne would be the one to supply Henry with a book key to his future cause – establishing a national church independent from Rome – this book was the martyr Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man, which stated all princes, being divinely chosen by God, should be freed from papal tyranny. Illuminating the Book, a list of all the books owned by the wives of Henry VIII, shows Anne owned at least a whole library of books of theology like this. As queen, she would be at Henry’s side through every step of the summer 1535 progress which was so key to gaining favor from the highly reformist progress around the Severn. On a more personal note, Anne owned various religious pieces describing the Lutheran idea of salvation through faith alone, but, again, she was not quite a Protestant at all. Imprisoned in the Tower of London she begged for the Sacrament, and her last earthly morning was spent attending Mass; yet, that she was a Catholic woman, debating and reading about the Reformation, funding poor Protestant scholars, encouraging the English Bible with such a fire, and urging the freedom of persecuted heretics, is a testament to her subtle devotion to religious tolerance.
Whatever her religious views, with the gift of foresight we can see that, intemperate and at times, arrogant, Anne was no saint. Yet these personal impurities were unknown to the Protestant community who adored her, would privately defend her innocence and revere her as exactly that: a saint. We can never know for certain who she was, privately, and yet the actions of hers that have not evaded record depict a brave, generous, thoughtful and intelligent lady, passionate about education, theology and, in every way, reform. Anne had the courage to defend said persecuted heretics, who include a merchant of Antwerp bullied for owning an English Bible; she had the courage to defy the king and his puppet-minister, Cromwell, so that money from dissolved Catholic monasteries could be offered to charity and improvements to the education system, above personal gain. The chronicles of Bishop Latymer, a future Protestant martyr under Anne’s stepdaughter Mary I, list the amount of money she donated as a staggering fortune of 14000 pounds within three years, not even including private sums allotted to struggling gentry or the scholarships she offered poor but hard-working theologians so they could attend prestigious universities. Anne Boleyn was the first queen of England to spread and encourage the English Bible; there was a copy, open and available to everyone, in her rooms, as well as several translations dedicated to her name. There was deeper meaning to this, yet another tie to her famous passion for education. Herself a trilingual since her education abroad at two of the greatest courts in Europe, understanding Latin bibles was no problem for Anne, but, English bibles being forbidden, the commons who could not understand Latin had to believe everything the clergy told them. They were unable to consider the word of God with their own opinions just because they had not been wealthy enough to get educations. Opinions were indeed important to the queen, and she used hers, paired with her political influence over Henry to create a legacy as one of history’s most prominent and generous spiritual benefactresses.
Natalie Dormer, The Tudors
By 1527, Henry VIII was determined to marry Anne Boleyn. The attraction must have been more than physical because Henry understood the magnitude of her intelligence and even trusted in it as he had and would never, again. Henry constantly wrote her letters updating her with every move regarding their Great Matter – he treated her as a partner and allowed her to receive foreign ambassadors even before they were married; one of them commented about the necessity of cultivating her graces if they sought the king’s. Catherine of Aragon would never have dared tell her husband what to do or who to favor; Jane Seymour would be reprimanded harshly for saying so much as two words in defense of northern rebels; poor Katherine Howard would be but an innocent, and perhaps unwilling, accomplice in her creation as queen; and Catherine Parr would be forced to kowtow to her husband for safety after a single religious debate with her tyrannical husband. It seems Anne Boleyn was the only woman in Henry’s life ever to be regarded as an equal, by him. Even when he disrespected her, Anne could not be silenced if she had an opinion to share; perhaps this was a reason why they were constantly at odds.
A bit less concretely, Anne was, in many ways, key to the creation of Henry as a more independent king – she used his trust and her influence over him to spearhead a faction against Wolsey, the corrupt adviser who had essentially ruled Henry for more than 20 years. In many ways she replaced Wolsey and upon his ruin became Henry’s most intimate adviser. Her family was elevated to one of the highest in the land, her father receiving two wealthy Anglo-English earldoms, her brother was made Lord Rochford, and in her own right she was made one of, and the only female, of five peers of the land. By right and not marriage she was already the most influential woman perhaps in England; Henry not only loved her but trusted in her abilities as a leader; this was unprecedented. Perhaps even more so was the appointment of the most powerful religious authority (second only to the king) almost entirely through the favor of a woman – Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cranmer, who enjoyed patronage from Anne and the Boleyns through the years of her courtship with Henry and her reign – would hail the queen as a woman he respected above all others. Many of the bishops would respect her as well, as she would have a significant hand in their appointment; she was one of few queens in English history with such a strong role in the assignation of clergy. Even many of the king’s councilors, Cromwell among these, were her picks, and the king’s inner-circle of most trusted friends, who included her brother and Henry Norris, were her loyal servants. Contrary to the stereotype that upon becoming queen, Henry instantly came to show his wife disfavor, Anne was the first queen-consort to have some statutory claim to the throne through Parliament’s Act of Succession.
“She (Anne) knew perfectly how to sing and dance…to play the lute and other instruments.” Anne was a talented musician, and some historians argue that it was this trait of hers in particular that earned her royal favor. A poet, too, she seemed to excel in nearly everything artistic, offering patronage to the most uniquely talented artists in the land and decorating her rooms with French styled art. Some of these artists include Holbein, a man regarded as a genius. Acton Court, one of the grandest castles Henry and Anne stayed at during their summer progress in 1535, was decorated with French wall paintings like art the queen herself would commission, and the fashions were styled entirely to her liking in the French manner. As a young debutante in England, teenaged Anne Boleyn had probably been expected to wear the traditional dress of an Englishwoman – the gable hood, the overly-ostentatious gowns – but very typically of her, she created her own ‘fashion’ rules and set in motion new national trends. In many ways Anne directly affected the Renaissance with all the taste and precision of a Medici or d’Este.
Long after her death, the memory of Anne Boleyn and the impact of her life would affect not only all of Henry VIII’s next four wives, but the last three Tudor monarchs as well. Tudor historian David Starkey was right in going as far as saying that his ten-year romance with Anne Boleyn was the last time the king would ever fall in love truly and properly; it was sharing in opinions, sharing in faith, sharing in everything as equals the way very few kings and queens after them would. Jane Seymour was reminded time to time what would happen if she incurred her husband’s wrath, cruelly told by him to ‘remember what happened to [her] predecessor’ when she ‘meddled in [his] affairs’; Anne of Cleves cried for relief upon learning she could leave her marriage with her life, indefinitely expecting something far worse given the fate of Wife number 2; if Katherine Howard, poor young girl, had been old enough to understand her cousin’s life, perhaps she could have avoided her fate; and Catherine Parr, an intelligent Protestant in many ways similar to Boleyn, would work hard to help guide Elizabeth in the faith of her mother. King Henry hated Anne Boleyn in May 1536 when he sent her to her death, but no matter how hard he worked to lie to his conscience, somewhere in his corrupt soul, he knew she was innocence, and there is evidence that, whether he regretted his decision or not, he may have missed her. Henry would recall that Anne Boleyn was unlike Anne of Cleves, a woman unattractive and unexciting in every sense, with something like regret, in a very brusque letter to his six-year-old daughter Elizabeth. All his life he would keep some of Anne’s books and tablets of their entwined names.
 However briefly Anne was in her daughter’s life, she was one of Queen Elizabeth I’s strongest influences – perhaps she was even regarded as a role model. A week before her arrest, sensing trouble in the air, Boleyn made a heartfelt request to her chaplain, a kind and paternal Protestant man, to guide the spirituality of her daughter; decades later, upon miraculously becoming queen of England, Elizabeth would practically give Parker supreme religious authority, begging him to be her Archbishop of Canterbury. Elizabeth’s fate and faith were in that sense, beyond the grave, largely shaped by her mother. Dark-eyed, tall, slender; fiercely witty, charming and flirtatious; a talented musician and linguist, Elizabeth was in many ways like the redheaded reincarnation of her mother, but in this second lifetime, at least in the department of men and their fickleness and treachery, she had learned a lesson and never married. It is a fascinating debate indeed – why did a woman so eligible and so sensual never wed? There are many ideas – that she was a lesbian, that she lacked female sex organs, that she was afraid of childbirth – but most historians are in agreement: aside from wanting to protect England from a foreign king and creating civil unrest through marrying an Englishman, on a personal note, she feared men. And she had good reason: her father executed a teenage girl who she had enjoyed a friendly relationship with, and the mother whose name she revered. Unto her death Elizabeth kept a ring which had enclosed miniatures of herself and her mother, together, as circumstances had prevented them from being, in life.
“…But perhaps I have not always shown to him such a perfect humility and reverence as his graciousness and courtesy deserved, and the honor he hath done me required,” Anne Boleyn said in her unforgettable speech at her May 1536 trial. In the sixteenth century, a wife ought to submit to her husband, in body, in word, in everything, even if they were but shepherd boy and goose girl; Henry was not just Anne’s husband, he was her sovereign but still she did not submit. She demanded to be treated as an equal, and in so holds true to the greatest concept of modern feminism. Brave, independent, formidable and defensive of the things she loved, with a sense of humor, charity and compassion, a wide range of talents, and, to top it off, intelligence, charisma, and iron will, perhaps it would not be a stretch to say her personality itself is her greatest legacy of all. Here we have a woman who wasn’t born for greatness, but shaped her own destiny and made herself a legend.
Natalie Dormer


  1. For those who are interested in Anne, and Henry for that matter, they might like to know that there is a project in the works to do a play that involves two people who believe they are the modern day versions of the queen and king. Harry Houdini also makes an appearance. The play is in the form of a mystery - who was it done to as much as who done it. When its ready, I'll let people know.

    Roy Schreiber

  2. It took a lot longer than I had hoped, but the forty-five minute long radio play about the modern day versions of Anne and Henry, In the World, is finally finished. For those who would like to hear it, it is available on Sound Cloud [user name royschreiber]