The true personality of Anne Boleyn was lost the moment the sword struck off her head. After her death only the bravest, or most fool hardy spoke out in her defence. She was the subject of poems, histories, scandals, and it wasn’t until her daughter Elizabeth’s reign, twenty-two years after her execution, that it was safe to speak well of her again.
Recorded feelings among her contemporaries are mixed, John Hussey, a former supporter of Anne wrote, “...that which hath been done and committed by Anne the Queen...which is so abominable and detestable that I am ashamed that any good woman should give ear thereto.”
Sander, a Catholic priest and not an admirer of Anne, writing long after her death, published a scathing attack, describing her with witch-like features, and the child she lost in 1536 to be a “shapeless mass.”
At the time of her arrest Archbishop Cranmer wrote to the king of his shock and horror. As a friend
and supporter of
the queen, he was clearly on edge and aware that should she fall, her
supporters could be suspect too. It is interesting that he qualifies his
condemnation of her with the little word, “if.”
“If the reports of the Queen be true, they are only to her dishonor, not yours. I am clean amazed, for I had never better opinion of woman; but I think your Highness would not have gone so far if she had not been culpable. I was most bound to her of all creatures living, and therefore beg that I may, with your Grace’s favor, wish and pray that she may declare herself innocent. Yet if she be found guilty, I repute him not a faithful subject who would not wish her punished without mercy. And as I loved her not a little for the love which I judged her to bear towards God and His Gospel, so if she be proved culpable there is not one that loveth God and His Gospel that ever will favor her, but must hate her above all other”
A few were more outspoken in their support. Her long-time friend, and (some say) one-time sweetheart, Thomas Wyatt, made his feelings quite plain. “These bloody days have broken my heart.”
And even her enemy, the Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys, raised some doubt as to her guilt in his remark, "there are some who murmur at the mode of procedure against her and the others..."
During Elizabeth’s reign, the poet John Foxe included Anne in his Book of Martyrs, declaring that Elizabeth’s long reign was God’s way of testifying to her mother’s innocence.
Later historians and, more recently, novelists have taken Anne’s name and molded her into something unrecognisable, in some cases bordering on the inhuman. By the late nineteenth century her guilt was a bone of contention. In 1884 Friedmann’s, Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English History 1527-1536 the author places the blame squarely with Cromwell, seeing her downfall as a political coup. And Agnes Strickland, with supreme elegance, states quite plainly that Anne, “never incurred the crimes for which she was brought to the block.” Strickland denounces Henry as a “despot” in pursuit of an heir.
Similarly, the twentieth century did not find a resolution to the question of Anne’s character and, like Strickland, the leading Tudor historian A. F. Pollard regards Anne as a victim of Henry’s quest for an heir, although, instead of Cromwell, he cites Chapuys as being behind the initial rumours against her.
In the 1970’s Anne becomes the heroine of feminists and Anne Chapman, while agreeing that her failure to produce a son was the main reason for her fall, puts the blame squarely on Cromwell’s shoulders. In Chapman’s hands Anne is not so much a maligned innocent as a heroine, a tragic martyr flying the flag for the cause of feminism.
“In these conditions of capricious hatred and undeviating ruthlessness, Anne Boleyn lived, triumphed – and perished.”
As we approach the 1990’s Anne character changes once again in a study by Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII, in which she states Anne’s fall was due to her having given birth to a monster, a fetus so deformed as to suggest witchcraft. Warnicke argues that during the period in question doctors believed birth defects to be the result of sexual misconduct. This may well be true but charges of sexual misconduct, incest in particular, had long been used against women who stepped far enough from their prescribed role s to become a nuisance to their male contemporaries.
In her book published in 1995, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, Karen Lindsey returns to the idea of Anne as a feminist icon, reconfirming that Anne’s failure to provide an heir caused her fall, but this time citing Cromwell as the main instigator of her arrest.
Today, the leading historian in Anne Boleyn studies is the late, great Eric Ives whose concise and in-depth research has, in my opinion, yet to be bettered. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn provides a balanced opinion, citing not just Anne’s failure in childbirth as the catalyst for her fall but extending her crimes to include meddling in politics and fervour for reform.
Initially, the shared desire for reform brought Cromwell and Anne together but, where Cromwell wanted to bring down the church and enrich Henry’s coffers, Anne desired to restructure the existing church, iron out the rough edges, remove the wheat and throw away the chaff.
Ives also cites the Anglo-Imperial alliance, during which negotiations Henry and Chapuys fell out over Charles V's refusal to acknowledge Anne as queen. When Henry, quite typically, refused to back down Cromwell was unwilling to jeopardise his dealings with the Spanish ambassador and Ives says, “…Anne Boleyn had become a major threat to Thomas Cromwell…A hostile Anne threatened both his standing with the king and his key financial achievements…Despite the risk, despite all his past debts, Cromwell’s very survival no longer coincided with the survival of the queen. She must go.”
There are still those who persist in seeing Anne as she was originally personified and G. W. Bernard in his book Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions asserts that the accusations against Anne were all true and that, according to Tudor law, her death was deserved. Although he accepts that the accusations made against her, (mostly by clergy) could be the product of gossip, Bernard maintains that “Gossip is not necessarily false.” The unfortunate death of Princess Diana in 1997 gave rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories, none of which have any real basis in fact. Royals will always be the focus for gossip and rumour, and since Anne's prominence in church reform made her some powerful enemies, it seems only fair to regard the charges laid against her with some suspicion.
When it comes to fiction, Anne’s reputation has suffered even more, and she appears either as a too-good-to-be-true heroine of all the virtues, or a depraved, incestuous, power-hungry mother of monsters. I think I have shown that opinion has been divided since the moment of her arrest and, considering the historical material available to novelists (as discussed above) there is little surprise that historical ‘truth’ (whatever that is) has been lost along the way. Readers of novels should always be aware of the distinction between historical fact, and historical fiction.
In my forthcoming novel, The Kiss of the Concubine, I have tried to keep my feet more firmly on the ground and find a middle way. Of course, there is no hope of ever knowing the ‘real’ Anne Boleyn, or categorically defining the reasons behind her fall, but it seems we never tire of trying.
In writing The Kiss of the Concubine, I have juggled with all these sources, wrestled with the conflicting opinions and applied some commonsense but, in the end, Anne tells her own story. I haven’t tried to purify or excuse her, and neither is she demonised. The voice that speaks from the pages of my novel comes from the inner ‘Anne;’ the hidden ‘self’ that nobody can ever really know. As human beings we always rationalise our own actions and justify even our cruelest moments, and maybe her proud, power-seeking ways were like a suit of armour, covering perceived inadequacies and protecting a vulnerable, ordinary woman, who just happened to attract the attentions of a king.
If you read my novel, please remember it is fiction.
The Kiss of the Concubine will be published very soon.
Watch a trailer of The Kiss of the Concubine here.
Illustrations from Wikimedia Commons.
Further Reading and works consulted:
A.F.Pollard, Henry VIII, (London: Longmans,1905)
Agnes Strickland, Lives of the Queens of England, from the Norman Conquest, vol. 2 (London: George Bell & Sons,1882)
Alison Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn (Reading: Random House, 2009)
G.W. Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010)
Greg Walker, “Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn,” The Historical Journal 45, no.1 (March 2002)
Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn (Chatham: Piatkus Books, 2007)
Karen Lindsey, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII (Reading,MA: Addison‐Wesley,1995)
Paul Friedmann, Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English History,1527‐1536, vol.1 (London: MacMillan,1884)
Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (New York: Cambridge UP, 1989)
Hester Chapman, The Challenge of Anne Boleyn (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1974)
Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The Most Happy (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004)