The public fascination with the Tudor period continues unabated, and Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife, features in many books and television programmes today. However, much of what is portrayed and written there only loosely touches base with the facts.
Many appraisals perpetuate the myth that Anne Boleyn was an immoral woman who seduced Henry VIII away from his rightful wife, for the advancement of her family and personal gain. The known facts suggest a different story.
Anne Boleyn was born into a medieval Roman Catholic world in 1501, the second daughter of Thomas Boleyn — a diplomat, linguist, sportsman, expert in law, and member of Henry VIII’s close circle of courtiers.
Probably aged 12, Anne was sent to the continent to assimilate French culture and language, which were all the fashion at the English court. Later, in winter 1521, she started her homeward journey. Met by her father at Calais, they undertook the hazardous crossing to Dover and went on to London.
Many historians choose 1520 to mark the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era. Father and daughter would have had no concept of this as, in December 1521, they rode on horseback along the rutted and muddy roads of Kent — nor that they were going to be involved in one of the great dramas of English history.
Anne had used her time abroad well. According to her contemporaries, she was a brilliant, vivacious, sharp-witted young woman, who spoke French as if it were her mother tongue. She had completely mastered French culture, manners and dress code.
Anne was all set to make a big impression at court — and did — wearing at its New Year celebrations a yellow satin gown and close-fitting headdress of Venetian gold, which was the subject of special comment. What nobody could have predicted was that England was about to strike out in a dramatic new direction. The next 150 years would see the most momentous events in the nation’s history — years that were subsequently labelled as the English Reformation. With the hindsight of nearly 500 years and much historical research at our disposal, it is difficult not to see that Anne Boleyn brought something with her, in winter 1521, that had a significance totally eclipsing any expensive satin gown.
All the evidence points to the fact she brought with her evangelical convictions, having in her time abroad found a personal faith in Christ.
In 1517 Martin Luther had set Europe aflame, when he nailed his famous 95 theses on the door of the church of Wittenberg Castle in Germany, outlining his objections to Catholic doctrine and practice. The European printing presses had burst into life, producing the new evangelical books and tracts.
While in France, Anne was a reader of this ‘new learning’ sweeping across Europe — literature that had to be smuggled into London, since it had been banned as heretical.
These were the days before meaningful parliamentary democracy. The Tudor court under Henry VIII was where all the power lay. The key factor lay in getting close to the monarch. All the secular authority of the nation ultimately was with him personally; anybody’s political career was made or broken according to his or her relationship to the king.
It was not long before Henry himself started to take note of the new arrival — both the woman herself and her new learning. The French ambassador to the Tudor court remarked, ‘Mademoiselle Boulan has returned to court. The king is so infatuated that none but God can cure him’.
Did Anne accept Henry as a suitor? And, if so, why?
Henry was already married to Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his brother, a marriage he was keen to extricate himself from. But Henry was one of the most powerful and ruthless men in Europe, and it can be seen in the correspondence surviving this early period that Anne was desperately trying to keep Henry at arm’s length.
If she antagonised Henry, it would damage not only her but also her family. Her father, brother and uncle all had important places at court. Her frequent absences from court and her ambiguous replies to Henry, which left him confused, show that far from encouraging him, she was trying to avoid the king without offending him. It is difficult to see how Anne could have handled things differently in these early years. But, in June 1527, Henry told Catherine he was seeking an annulment of their marriage. The Catholic Church then, as today, did not accept divorce, but, if it could be shown that the marriage had in some way not been performed correctly, or that the relationship was invalid, then it might be considered that the marriage had not taken place.
This would make Henry a single man once more. So Henry, because Catherine had previously been married to his brother, claimed that his marriage had been against the teaching of the Bible, and the original papal dispensation to allow his brother’s marriage should not have been given.
Whatever her personal feelings for Henry, Anne, it seems, now saw the possibilities that marriage to the king offered.
The Reformation was gathering pace in mainland Europe and penetrating England. Books were being smuggled into the country that threatened the future of the Catholic Church; those involved in disseminating them were risking their lives. Anne was sympathetic to the new learning and its books.
Did she reason that she could play a great part in influencing the king, to further the evangelical cause she believed in? Did she believe she could be a Queen Esther to Henry?
After six years of prevarication, Anne gave way. The 16th-century chronicler Edward Hall says, ‘The king, after his return [from Calais] married privily the Lady Anne Bulleyn on Saint Erkenwald’s Day [Thursday 14 November 1532], which marriage was kept so secret, that very few knew it, till she was great with child, at Easter after’.
Why did Anne agree to this before Henry was ‘divorced’?
Both Anne and Henry were agreed that Leviticus 20:21 meant that Henry should not have married his sister-in-law. All that Henry was waiting for was a papal decree to declare his marriage invalid. But Henry had already been declared by the English church’s own convocation to be head of the Church in England, so it seems the couple thought the long awaited papal decree was no longer required.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of these arguments, it seems that Anne, based on her own understanding of Scripture, felt free to marry Henry. On 25 January 1533, a more formal wedding ceremony was conducted and the coronation day set for 1 June 1533. It was to be a magnificent display of wealth and power — everything befitting such a coronation.
Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth 1) was born on Sunday 7 September 1533. Everybody, especially Henry, had been confidently predicting a son. Somewhat naively, Henry had had all the documents drawn up with the word ‘prince’, but now all had to be duly modified. Henry could not disguise his disappointment.
Seventeen-year-old Mary (Henry’s daughter from his marriage with Catherine of Aragon) refused to accept her new half-sister and the family dynamics became tense, not lessened by the fact that, in July 1534, Anne miscarried.
Just after Christmas, on 7 January 1536, Catherine died unexpectedly. Henry’s relief was demonstrable. But on 29 January 1536, just five days after Henry had suffered a bad fall from his horse, Anne miscarried and events seemed to take a turn for the worse for the royal couple. Was Henry having second thoughts? Anne’s vivacious wit and sharp mind, her integrity and new ideas had been seen by him as a breath of fresh air. But he had risked all for her, and now he stood alone against the power of the Church and the Holy Roman Empire.Despite these difficult times, there were encouragements for Anne. In September 1535, due in no small part to Anne’s influence, three evangelicals were consecrated bishops in the fledgling Church of England.
Furthermore, Anne was creating her own power base in the many appointments she had influenced, particularly in the Church, and she was pressing for the money raised from the dissolution of the monasteries to be used for educational and charitable purposes, rather than for royal patronage as Henry and Thomas Cromwell (chief minister to Henry) had planned.
It is also possible Henry was tiring of Anne. A quick wit can soon cross the dividing line to become a sharp tongue. It was said that Anne could best Henry in many an argument!
The exact sequence of events leading up to the first execution of a queen in English history, and what lay behind them, has been the subject of debate by many historians. But what is certain is that, sometime early in 1536, Thomas Cromwell had it in mind to move against Anne — and when he eventually did, it was with ruthless, cold efficiency. With Catherine’s death, new possibilities were opened up. Perhaps Henry could now be tempted with a new, younger, potentially more fertile wife? Such a woman would be innocent of any charge of causing the split with Rome, and so be accepted by both factions at court: those who wanted reform, and those that wanted the ‘old religion’.
He brought charges of treason and adultery against Anne and others that few believed. They were judged in a trial that some described as a farce. The foregone verdict of guilty was duly announced and her execution soon followed.
Although calm, she did what so many others did in this situation and continually glanced behind, afraid that the swordsman would strike before she was ready. One of her ladies-in-waiting moved forward and tied a blindfold.
Anne began to say, ‘To Christ I commend my soul’, but while her lips were moving the sword struck. As the cannons fired announcing her death, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, her friend and pastor, sat on a bench in the gardens of Lambeth Palace and wept.
Many have judged Anne harshly, but she lived in difficult and dangerous times. There was no certainty that the Reformation would win the day in England, and there were few she could look to as mentors in the rapidly changing political and religious situation.
As believers, should we not give her the benefit of the doubt when her motives do not seem clear? And forgive her for those things that we might perceive to be mistakes?
As to her legacy, the late Professor Eric Ives, the foremost academic expert on Anne Boleyn in his day, stated: ‘Anne Boleyn was not a catalyst in the English Reformation; she was a key element in the equation … a thousand days of support for reform from the throne itself. And hindsight can say more. The breach in the dyke of tradition, which she encouraged and protected, made the flood first of Reformed, and later of more specifically Protestant Christianity, unstoppable’ (Eric Ives, The life and death of Anne Boleyn; Blackwell, 2004; pp. 260-61).
The author served for many years as an elder of Grace Baptist Church, Astley. His publications include Anne Boleyn: one short life that changed the English-speaking world (Day One, 2007) and Thomas Cranmer (Evangelical Press, 2012).