Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Anne Boleyn: a Life


“To us she appears inconsistent—religious yet aggressive, calculating yet emotional, with the light touch of the courtier yet the strong grip of the politician—but is this what she was, or merely what we strain to see through the opacity of the evidence? As for her inner life, short of a miraculous cache of new material, we shall never really know. Yet what does come to us across the centuries is the impression of a person who is strangely appealing to the early 21st century: A woman in her own right—taken on her own terms in a man's world; a woman who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex; of only moderate good looks, but taking a court and a king by storm. Perhaps, in the end, it is Thomas Cromwell's assessment that comes nearest: intelligence, spirit and courage.” –Eric Ives

“Let them grumble – that’s how it’s going to be.” – Anne Boleyn, December 1531

Hever Castle painting, c.1534
As Anne’s most respected biographer, Ives, so eloquently stated, Anne Boleyn’s life and character were indeed fraught with contradictions. Her recorded charity work, patronage and merciful religious interventions paint her as a kind and gracious lady; her ruthless hand in the destruction of Wolsey, beneficial for England or not, and her less-than-kind treatment of her stepdaughter Lady Mary, a cruel one. Her life as a politician and the most dominant female figure of her day, until Elizabeth, touched many and earned her a secure place in international historical record across the continent – how we, in our independent research, choose to view her from her actions and words is entirely our choice and opinion. In this series of articles, all of the stereotypes and misconceptions of her character, now and 500 years ago, as well as her legacy and her life in the dark, history-altering year 1536, will be discussed, but before that, the plain facts of her life must be laid out.

Today, most historians agree that Anne was born in 1501, key evidence being the age-minimum of twelve for an education in the Netherlands under Margaret of Austria in 1513. However, given the only primary sources, written by two figures very close to her life, that exist and list actual years, favor 1507, and the unlikelihood of her, known for attracting male desire, being a single 26-year-old (in 1526) when her two siblings were married at around 19, I believe she was born in 1507. Considering her father and Margaret of Austria were friendly, Anne’s young age as a girl of seven and not twelve probably mattered little. As for Anne’s remark in 1531 that her youth was passing her by, were that she was thirty and not twenty-four, by Tudor standards it would have passed long ago.

Her father was Thomas Boleyn, of some Irish and Norman descent, and her mother was Elizabeth Howard, sister of the most prominent figure in England, the Earl Marshal and Duke of Norfolk. Her older sister was Mary Boleyn, who, aside from being a royal mistress to King Henry VIII and King Francis I of France, was a very minor figure, and George Boleyn was her brother and best friend, a diplomat who shared her French inclination, taste for art and religious views. He enjoyed a close relationship with her future husband, King Henry.

Anne spent a year from 1513-1514 in the Netherlands, and became close to the Archduchess, who would write very positive comments like “so presentable and so pleasant, considering her youthful age, that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me, than you to me” in a letter to her father. She studied intensely and became fluent in French and Latin, and also began to learn music, dance and other female virtues. Archduchess Margaret was an independent, well-learned woman and a woman-regent in her own right and patroness of extravagant art, and Anne would grow up to embody her in many ways. In 1514 Anne became a maid-of-honor to Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, when she married Louis XII of France. Though Louis died within months and Princess Mary remarried, for love, and returned to England, Anne would spend almost ten years at the French court. Its dark, glamorous fashions and cultural graces would never leave her – nor would the values imparted in her between 1514 and 1522. Many of Anne’s books were reformist pieces in the French language, and her religious ideals would mirror the radical reformist king’s sister’s, Marguerite de Navarre. Later correspondence between these two shows respect and friendship.

Victorian engraving of Boleyn.
Anne Boleyn returned to England in January 1522, and contrary to popular belief, she did not attract Henry’s attention until around 1526. She did, however, attract attention, being, if not pretty, then highly alluring, graceful, stylish and of unique dark coloration. Her return was probably for a betrothal her father and Cardinal Wolsey were developing to settle the inheritance of the Irish Ormond earldom, which her father believed he had a claim to. But it came to nothing, probably dissatisfactory to Thomas Boleyn, who believed it should simply have been his. Anne’s older sister, Mary Boleyn, who had lied with her in France and briefly been King Francois’ mistress, was probably Henry VIII’s mistress around this time, and Anne began to pursue a doomed love affair with the heir of a powerful earldom – Henry Percy of Northumberland. Although they would fervently deny being betrothed, later on, it is likely that they were or at least discussed marriage at some point in their relationship. Whether or not this affair was consummated, we can never know, but he was her first love, and when they were tragically split by Percy’s father and the all-powerful Cardinal Wolsey so he could marry a wealthier woman, Anne’s heart probably hardened and this was where a future desire for vengeance against the cardinal began. Soon after this, Anne was exiled back to her family home of Hever Castle in Kent, and upon her return to court probably around 1525, she and Thomas Wyatt, a family friend to the Boleyns, began to court. Wyatt would compose a whole plethora of poetry describing his desire for the elusive Anne, who would be the great love of his life, and, a talented linguist and poet, herself, Anne enjoyed and excelled at making her own witty compositions.

However, Wyatt was married, and by 1526, probably not too long after the end of his relationship with her sister, Henry VIII, who would not only be the great love but the destroyer of her life, began his ardent and border-line obsessive pursuit of her. Anne and her dark French style and sumptuous wit stood out amongst the pale and shy English flowers; she was not only a particularly graceful dancer but the most talented female musician at the court: Lancelot de Carles said, “She knew perfectly how to sing and dance…to play the lute and other instruments.” Henry initially believed this would be just another flirtation or that he would perhaps have her as a mistress, but Anne resisted him at every turn. She was ambitious and eventually wanted to contract an advantageous marriage, which she knew would be impossible if her reputation was ruined for pre-marital sex escapades with a king, as her sister’s reputation had been. Her elusiveness only spurred Henry on, and when she withdrew from his advances to her family home at Hever Castle, he was desolate and wrote her many letters (eighteen in total, over the course of their affair survive). Henry had never written love letters to any woman before, and he seldom wrote even the most important of state papers in his own hand, letting Wolsey or a secretary write them. He was clearly taken with Anne.

Painting of Anne Boleyn & Henry hunting at Hever.
Although he was already strongly of mind to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, as she was undergoing menopause and they were without male heirs, his growing passion for Anne made for encouragement in his ‘matter’. When she refused even to be his maîtresse en titre, one and only mistress, a title he had never offered before, it was around 1527 and Henry decided he could not live without her – he proposed marriage to her. Henry probably explained that he was intensively working on proving the illegality of his current marriage, and Anne accepted his offer with a very witty letter and a small trinket of a woman on a ship finally giving in to the ardent tide. Henry was that ardent tide, and unable to resist his charm and the inescapable heat of royal desire, she relented and became determined to be queen of England. We know that they became betrothed in 1527 as she began accepting his lavish gifts, where she had returned them for her virtue as a single maid, before. It was around this time that Henry made his disfavor with Catherine very clear, abandoning her Spanish and Imperial faction entirely to begin an alliance with the French.

From 1527 on Anne became very involved in the ‘Great Matter’ -- Henry's divorce -- which would be the papal court case of the century. Henry truly kept her in the know with regular updates, treating her as an equal, and tasked Cardinal Wolsey with getting him his annulment. In June of 1527, Henry would confront Queen Catherine, and when she accused him of Anne, he would not deny it. But unfortunately, the shifting political sands would not make getting a divorce easy – the Pope, the only religious authority in the continent who could grant Henry his annulment – was a prisoner of Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, Emperor Charles, and at his mercy, the Holy Father wouldn’t dare disgrace his captor’s family. While most of England was in a roar, especially when they discovered that Henry intended to marry an English commoner, Henry’s case, which he constantly discussed with both Anne Boleyn and canon lawyers, was plausible to him. Catherine being his late older brother’s widow, their marriage was thus incestuous and cursed by God to be fruitless and without male heirs.

In the meanwhile, Cardinal Wolsey was thwarted at every turn in his attempts to appease his increasingly frustrated master with an annulment. It should not have been so difficult; Eleanor of Aquitaine and her first husband easily acquired one for only the slightest degree of affinity. Wolsey tried to set up his own papal court based in France, he tried sending canon lawyers to beg the Pope for a divorce, and bombarding him with letters protesting Henry’s cause. Wolsey favored a French alliance deeply and was surprised and upset upon learning that the king intended to marry not a French princess, but Anne Boleyn. At last in 1528, the same year Anne nearly died of sweating sickness, a papal legate consisting of Wolsey and Campeggio was sent to England, to arrive in 1529, but after hearing testimonies from both Henry and Catherine, it was revealed that the Pope was but stalling for time and no decision was made. Anne and Henry were both outraged.

Tensions between Anne and Cardinal Wolsey had been high since the beginning, given their dark history regarding the Percies, and Anne, who had never forgiven him, now had the means to expose and destroy him for his continual failures. She and her family, the Boleyns and the Howards, turned against him, along with Henry’s best friend, the Duke of Suffolk, and Anne spearheaded his destruction, repeatedly reminding Henry of Wolsey's fatal mistakes in such an important matter, and going as far as implying that he was sabotaging him. Wolsey was thus stripped of several church offices and eventually left with but his place as Archbishop of York. As his power came to lessen and lessen, Anne’s mounted exponentially, and as she began to doubt that the Pope would ever give them what they wanted, she began to share some of her reformist pamphlets with Henry, which included Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man. These pamphlets denounced papal authority in kingdoms, claiming the head of a country’s church was its king, not the Pope. Anne had felt strongly about the reformation of the church since she was a child in France, and so we cannot fully credit her desire for a split with the corrupt Vatican to her ambitions for the throne.

By 1530, Anne’s father was made Lord Privy Seal and Earl of Wiltshire, and when Wolsey was found to be plotting Anne's exile and demise with the Pope and Queen Catherine, she had a strong hand in his arrest for treason. Wolsey was saved from potential execution by death on the road. In isolating the king from the cardinal, who had effectually ruled through Henry since his ascent in 1509, Anne became his primary adviser despite her gender, and set him free from the greedy and unpopular clergyman, to be his own king. Henry was declared Head of the Church of England but was faced with not only criticism from Englishmen, but the clergy, who included Fisher and More, too. His unpopularity began to rise, especially when he separated from Catherine of Aragon entirely in summer 1531, but the English victimized Anne, the 'Concubine' -- not the king. In 1532, to secure an alliance with France, Anne accompanied him on the greatest state trip since the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 (which Anne had attended as a girl) of his reign, as his consort, to Calais. She was created Marquess of Pembroke in her own right, and thus the wealthiest and most influential woman in England. Henry proved to not only love Anne, but to respect and revere her, too, in entrusting a whole marquessate to her. However, the royal women of France did not respect her and though King Francois was happy to have a private audience with her, not even Marguerite de Navarre would see her. Anne scandalized the whole continent with her uncharacteristically brazen and proud behavior as a Christian woman, and also her relationship with Henry, who was technically not her husband.
Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn and Jonathan Rhys Meyer as Henry VIII
Their relationship was consummated around this time after six years, probably because, with Henry as Head of the Church of England, Anne’s most loyal supporter as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the French their steadfast ally, her future appeared secure regardless of the Pope’s desires. She found herself pregnant in January, although the child was conceived around a month earlier in December. They were secretly married twice – once in Calais and then a second time in January of 1533 to make matters as secure as possible. Henry would take no chances when it came to a potential male heir for England.

The months to follow would be focused intensely on both the formal split with the Roman Catholic Church and Henry’s annulment. Thomas Cromwell, a skilled lawyer and thanks to Boleyn patronage, Henry's favorite new henchman, worked closely with the Archbishop of Canterbury to pass English laws that stated English matters were to be settled in England and foreign powers had no right to interfere and their rulings were null on English ground.

Their marriage was faced with severe disapproval once it was made public, and in July 1533, Henry was excommunicated by the Pope although by law, this should have had no effect on Henry. Princess Elizabeth was born in September, and while there was disappointment pertaining to her sex, that Anne proved capable of bringing a baby to term gave England some hope. Overcome by affection for her daughter and even breastfeeding Elizabeth much to Henry’s and the people’s outrage, Anne worked to secure her daughter’s place as Princess of Wales, and to appease his wife the king declared his daughter by Catherine, Mary Tudor, illegitimate, and went as far as forcing her to serve her baby-stepsister. The legend that Anne was a wicked stepmother has little basis – she was polite to Mary, but when her stepdaughter refused to acknowledge her as Queen, a title she had worked relentlessly for, Anne was displeased and encouraged her relatives to whom Mary deferred to treat her with more strictness, something she would repent deeply within a few years.

In 1534 Anne conceived a second time, but by the summer when her brother George returned from an embassy to France, she had either miscarried or had a stillbirth; this was, by Henry’s orders, kept secret for as long as possible. 1534 was an important year of Anne’s reign; the Act of Succession was created sometime while she was pregnant. The Act of Succession of 1534 declared that the heirs of Anne Boleyn – not simply ‘wife of King Henry’ – would rule as the next kings or even queens of England, thus giving her power as queen by statutory right. Thomas More, who had always been an admirably steadfast supporter of Catherine, would repeatedly refuse to swear an oath on the act, and by summer of the next year he would be executed for treason. By the end of that year, the French, who had once seemed to favor Anne so staunchly, publicly insulted her by trying to arrange a marriage between the dauphin and Lady Mary, disregarding her daughter Elizabeth entirely. It was around this time that her older sister eloped with a common man and took with child at once; in response, Anne coldly turned her face from and banished her. It is possible that this was out of envy – her own marriage was at this time rather cold, and while her sister was pregnant, she had just lost a child, secretly in summer 1534. These must have been harsh times for Anne, so used to 'winning' by now; her favorite lapdog Purkoy took a fall from a window, which biographer Joanna Denny suggests might have been the doing of her enemy the Spanish Ambassador Chapuys, and Henry VIII began to court her young cousin, Mary Shelton.

The Book of Hours of Anne Boleyn.
Queen Anne's royal court became a center of art and education as Margaret of Austria’s had been. She was a patroness to many artists, encouraging the spread of the Renaissance, and also to poor scholars, funding the educations abroad for men who would eventually write great Protestant literature and dedicate their books to their queen. In Queen Anne’s own court, a book of poems called the Devonshire Manuscript was written. Though her reign was short, she had very much influence over Henry and his decisions, so that most of the men he appointed as bishops or councilors were of her choosing, and her favor was regarded as the key to the king’s ear. Her influence was further exhibited in the marriage of her cousin to her stepson, Henry’s bastard Fitzroy.

However, by the fateful summer of 1535, Anne was at the height of her influence over Henry, and it seemed he was more in love with her than ever. The court went on progress to the Severn, home to many families of reformers, to get support for the changes of the Church of England. Queen Anne was paid every respect, especially at Acton Court where the French-styled art of many of the artists under her patronage, and her own French fashions, were encouraged in full. The tour was also a personal trip to Anne, as its goal was to spread the Reformation and so, essentially, her own religious views. The queen was a key player in the Reformation; aside from sponsoring the writings of many reformers, owning many books (some secretly) describing radical reformist ideas, and fervently encouraging the spread of the English Bible (there was a copy available to everyone in her rooms), she implored mercy for Protestant ‘heretics’ who include a merchant Richard Herman, a man persecuted for owning an English Bible. By the time they returned to London in the fall, Anne was pregnant again.

In January 1536, Catherine of Aragon died after being sick for months, and though many believed that this was Anne’s doing via poison, she recklessly celebrated the death of her foe and former mistress. Anne had definitely respected Catherine as a worthy opponent -- otherwise she would not have been so relieved by Catherine's death. Although Anne viewed it as a good thing, it made her, in a sense, more vulnerable than ever until she had a son – with Catherine dead, if Henry returned to the Roman Catholic Church, he would be a widower free to remarry. However, she was pregnant and at last it seemed like she had it all.

But tragedy struck in the form of a miscarriage at the end of the month. She blamed the miscarriage not only on the nearly fatal fall Henry had taken in a jousting tournament, but also his dalliance with her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Although the miscarriage was severe to the point that she was not even able to walk, Henry offered her no comfort and instead coldly replied that he now saw God did not see fit to give him heirs male through her, and left her, Jane Seymour on horseback beside him, to Greenwich. Thomas Cromwell, once a loyal supporter to her, gave up his own rooms for the king's new mistress. Biographer Retha M. Warnicke attributes Anne Boleyn’s tragic and impending fall from grace and execution on this miscarriage, but it seems more likely to me that it was more political. Not only were the diplomatic sands once again shifting with the king considering an alliance with the Spansh, but as were the political sands with Cromwell taking charge of money from destroyed monasteries and ruling that it should be placed in the state treasury. Anne wanted a percentage of these moneys to be dedicated to education and charity, causes that were clearly very close to her based on prior generous actions, and sparred ferociously with Cromwell demanding her will be seen to over his.

Cromwell’s influence over Henry was perhaps second only to Anne’s, and if he believed this, then his fatal split with the queen could mean losing everything, as it had for Wolsey when he fell out with her so many years ago. If Anne was able to eventually have a son then her renewed favor with the king would endow her with the power to destroy him. Thus, in around April 1536, Cromwell allied with all of Anne’s enemies – the Seymours (the family of the king’s mistress), Ambassador Chapuys and other powerful political factions who were quick to jump from a sinking ship. This involved forcing confessions from one of her musicians of her involvement in adultery, incest, treason and even witchcraft. By May 2nd she was arrested, and her five lovers and partners in treason were revealed to be the musician, Mark Smeaton, as well as hers and the king’s best friends, Sir Henry Norris, loyal to her to the end, Francis Weston, William Brereton, and her own loyal brother, George Boleyn. At her trial on May 15th, Anne was gracious and dignified as she accepted the sentence of death from her own uncle, and made an eloquent speech which roused favor for and sympathy from the English commons; the general opinion was that Henry was a philanderer and a wife-murderer. One of the men who should have been her judge, Henry Percy, her former lover, refused to attend the tral, claiming to be ill.
Artistic depiction of trial of Anne Boleyn on 15 May, 1536
On 17 May, Anne’s lovers were executed not far from her chambers, and George Boleyn’s highly Protestant final words probably touched the queen, a reminder of all the times they had spent sharing in theological discussion and debate together. Her marriage to Henry was also annulled by a reluctant Archbishop Cranmer on that day, who revered her deeply and in a letter to the king said he never had more respect for a woman than he did, her. Clearly he admired her, but he feared the king more and must have believed, to some mild extent, that she was guilty as charged. Although the Act of Succession had not yet been revoked and thus she was still queen by statutory right, her daughter Elizabeth was declared a bastard. Two days later on the morning of 19 May, Anne Boleyn was executed by a French swordsman who must have been called from France days before her trial, days before she was even sentenced to death, further highlighting the injustice of her death, in order to arrive on time. The execution was closed to spectators who weren’t Englishmen for fear that her tongue would be sharp as it had always been in her life and she would say rash things to incriminate the king; however, in order to protect her family and loved ones still living, including her daughter Elizabeth, her speech was typical of all execution speeches – she praised the king and asked onlookers to pray for her. It mattered little what she said as she had made the speech of her life at her trial, anyway. Chroniclers who witnessed the event said that the queen had never in her life appeared more serene or beautiful.

Elizabeth would grow up to embody her late mother in many ways – she would be a linguist, a musician and the strongest Protestant ruler ever. She would also be as strong, intelligent, ferocious and void of feminine weakness as Anne Boleyn had been. In the days before her arrest, Queen Anne, sensing danger, had chosen her friend and chaplain, Protestant Matthew Parker, to be responsible for her daughter’s religious upbringing, and he obviously raised her in the faith of her lady mother. Elizabeth would clearly appreciate her mother's choice, and in 1558, upon becoming Queen of England, she would appoint him as her Archbishop of Canterbury, the most powerful religious authority in the land.

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn alongside her young daughter Elizabeth in a vision of Henry VIII's on The Tudors.

A/N: I have written a lot more about Anne Boleyn and the important year of 1536 and I highly recommend two articles I wrote which include details that had to be omitted, for length, in this post. Thank you for reading! 

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