Anne Boleyn, a Tudor Feminist?

Rebecca Wilson

There are so many mythologies surrounding Anne Boleyn

There are so many mythologies surrounding Anne Boleyn, it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction. When we study a period of history or an historic person, it is often coloured by our own modern interpretation and experience. Calling Anne Boleyn a “Tudor feminist” is of course anachronistic but she did behave unusually for her time, and has therefore come to appeal to us and fascinate us in the 21st century. There was of course no such thing as feminism in the 16th century, at least not in the way we understand it. Women were the property of their fathers until they were “given away” at their wedding to their husbands; the putting of the bride’s hand from the father’s to the husband’s a symbolic transference of authority and power over the woman. She was to be obedient and serve her husband in whatever means she could. Studying history, we see an increasing number of strong women breaking this subservient mould and they vividly stand out from their counterparts. One such woman was Anne Boleyn. Anne’s first appearance at the English Court was in 1522, at the Chateaux Vert pageant, where she met Henry VIII for the first time. He soon became infatuated with her, despite being a married man. When exactly this happened we do not know, but Henry bombarded Anne with letters, 17 of which still survive today. In those letters he outlines the obstacles that separated them, and his growing affection for her. They are kept in the Vatican Library, as gathered evidence against Henry’s annulment from Catherine. Sadly, none of Anne’s replies have survived but it does give us a tantalising glimpse of their early relationship. What about Anne did he fall in love with? Was it her “black and beautiful” eyes and hair, her dark or sallow skin, her intelligence, or something about her magnetic personality? We will never truly know what drew Henry, and many others, to her. Eric Ives writes that she took the “court and the King by storm” so clearly something about her appealed to the men. Despite Henry’s letters and attention, Anne refused to become his mistress. It would have been very unusual at the time to refuse the King anything, even a woman’s virginity and reputation, if he demanded it. His persistence was so intense that Anne fled Court back to her home of Hever Castle in Kent. When she contracted sweating sickness, Henry’s letters to her were rushed and smudged, perhaps a subtle sign of his concern and fear for her health. The King could have had his choice of mistresses but chose to continue his pursuit of Anne, which could be evidence that he was in love with her by this point, although Anne’s refusal shows her strength of character. She was technically betrothed to Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, at the time the King began showing interest in her; the pre-marriage contract was conveniently ignored by Wolsey and another match was found for the young Earl, leaving Anne free to please the King.
Anne Boleyn, a Tudor Feminist?
Portrait of Anne Boleyn, probably based on a contemporary portrait which no longer survives.

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Anne Boleyn, a Tudor Feminist?
Hever Castle, Kent, The Boleyn family home.

Her continued refusal to become Henry’s mistress prompted him to promise her marriage

Her continued refusal to become Henry’s mistress prompted him to promise her marriage, which led to the “Great Matter” of annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. We don’t know whether Anne reciprocated Henry’s love at this early stage, or possibly thought it was a sign from God that she should do her duty and be Queen. In 1532, Anne was made Marquis of Pembroke, a prestigious role which had previously only been given to men - a crucial detail when considering Anne Boleyn’s role as a non-conformist, and even a trailblazer. She was recognised by Francis I of France as Henry’s consort later that year and returned to London to cohabit with the King. Anne fell pregnant shortly afterwards and faced a lot of criticism from Catholics and supporters of Catherine, who by this point had been demoted to Dowager Princess of Wales. Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, in his correspondence to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, referred to Anne as “the whore” and never Queen. This shows that for Catholic Europe at least, she was an unpopular choice and could be said to be disliked. Anne was a devout follower of the “new faith”, and was very well read and intelligent. She owned a copy of William Tyndale’s “The Obedience of a Christian Man” and highlighted passages which she thought Henry would find useful. These passages were indeed helpful to him, as they suggested that a King should be answerable to no one except God. Using this text, Henry had the evidence he wanted and proof he did not need Rome’s permission or blessing to annul his first marriage and marry Anne. She was clever enough to encourage the King to read this text, to highlight certain passages that he would find particularly interesting and help him with the “Great Matter”. Henry was reported to have been “delighted” with the book and remarked that “This book is for me and all Kings to read” They married in 1533 but from the moment she was pregnant, Anne began to secure her child’s legitimacy by having their marriage recognised officially. Against all odds, Anne was crowned Queen on the 29th May 1533. It was a stressful marriage to say the least, with pressure to have a son, an unenthusiastic stepdaughter, Mary, and her lack of popularity with the people. Her daughter, the future Elizabeth I, was born on the 7th September 1533 and Anne was very happy, although they had yearned for a boy. She was not allowed to see her daughter a great deal, as Elizabeth was sent to Hatfield House when she was only a few months old, to be looked after by Lady Margaret Bryan. Anne continued to buy clothes and material for her daughter, however after Anne died, Lady Bryan was forced to write to Cromwell to beg for more material and clothes for the little girl. She wrote that the young Elizabeth “hath neither gown, not kirtle, nor petticoat”. Despite Lady Bryan doing her best to shield the young Elizabeth from the horrors that were happening around her, like her mother, she was incredibly sharp and perceptive. It is said that even at the age of three, she was aware of the change in the way people would refer to her. She is reported to have said “How haps it governor, yesterday my Lady Princess, today but my Lady Elizabeth?” Anne is sometimes unfairly portrayed on TV and in fiction as being a calculating schemer - a portrayal not necessarily backed up by evidence. The young Boleyn girl simply could not have known her actions would lead to her being Queen. With hindsight, her refusal of the King, and her coyness, are seen by some as “playing hard to get”, although she could not have predicted that this would lead to the break with Rome and her marrying the King. It had never happened before, and would never happen again.
Ancestry UK

Historians cannot fully agree on what brought about Anne’s downfall

Historians cannot fully agree on what brought about Anne’s downfall, but what most agree on is that the charges against her were completely fabricated. The five men she was reported to have “known” (Mark, Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris, George Boleyn, Sir Francis Weston and Sir William Brereton) were tried and found guilty before The Queen’s Trial, making her guilt a foregone conclusion before it had begun. The dates and times used as ‘evidence’ of the alleged dalliances didn’t tally with either the men or the Queen being in the same place on those days. Only one man, the musician Mark Smeaton, ‘confessed’ to sleeping with the Queen, and this was only after torture by Cromwell’s men. The most scandalous crime she was accused of was having an incestuous relationship with her brother George Boleyn, a successful courtier in his own right. This too was a trumped-up change, the only ‘evidence’ for this heinous act being that George once spent “goodly hours” in the Queen’s chamber. They were close and had a strong relationship, but it’s possible that this “unnatural” charge was added by the King himself. It is a vicious and vindictive charge that would have scandalised the court. Claire Ridgeway suggests that as George was arrested quietly, after Anne, and that “the charge of incest [was] made up later”. It was a move by the King to tarnish the name of Boleyn. It was reported than Anne herself said that she and her brother were “blameless” and that “if he has been in my chamber to speak with me, surely he might do so without suspicion”. When Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, was arrested for adultery, in 1541, the King withdrew from the public gaze and was rarely seen. This possibly shows that he was truly upset by being made a “cuckold”. However, when Anne was arrested, Henry was seen in the company of ladies and drinking. This might be a sign that Henry knew of Anne’s innocence and that the charges were fabricated. Despite Chapuys having no reason to defend Anne, he does seem to think she is innocent of the terrible charges against her. He commented to Charles V, “You never saw a Prince or husband [Henry] show or wear his ([uckold] horns more patiently or lightly than this one does. I leave you to guess the cause of it”. He is clearly suggesting that Henry had falsified the charges against Anne and knew she was innocent. It is interesting that even today, when a woman is insulted, it is so often her sexual history, or lack of it, that is targeted, and it was no different for Anne. The easiest way for Henry and Cromwell to bring her down was by sullying her’s and her family’s reputation, throwing incest as a further insult to ruin the family for good. Following Anne’s execution, an attempt was made to erase her from existence. She was buried in St Peter ad Vincular, without a Christian burial or even a proper coffin. Although she was given the courtesy of being beheaded with a sword, her initials were chiselled off the walls of Hampton Court and her likeness painted over. There are no surviving contemporary paintings that can definitely be attributed to be of her, although her memory remains. Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, grew up in a household with many of the Boleyn family supporting and influencing her. She would go on to rule England as a strong female monarch, with her mother’s blood in her veins. Although Elizabeth died childless, she has left an indelible mark on our culture and our collective history. Anne’s legacy has stretched through the centuries, and even though we cannot call Anne Boleyn a true feminist in today’s terms, she is forever intertwined with the most inspiring historical tales of challenging the patriarchy. She had the strength of mind to say ‘no’ to the king of England, and wore the crown with grace and dignity even when others were cruel and told vicious lies about her.
Anne Boleyn, a Tudor Feminist?
Unknown man, possibly George Boleyn
Anne Boleyn, a Tudor Feminist?

Rebecca Wilson

I am Rebecca Wilson, a Cumbrian historian. I read History and English Literature at Liverpool and became a Secondary School history and English teacher for many years. I now live just outside the Lake District with my husband, son and two puppies, Betty and Marlowe, where I enjoy running my history page @tudorghostmammy and writing for The Historians Magazine. I also write freelance and I am a committee member of a charity to raise money for and awareness of the beautiful medieval ruin of Egremont Castle (@egremont_castle). I also run the Instagram page for @playgoersworkington, an early Victorian theatre, that today is run by volunteers, of which I am one.
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