Today being the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s death, I feel in the mood to talk about her a little bit. My first introduction to Anne came many years ago when as a teenager I first viewed the film Anne of the Thousand Days. Though inaccurate in many things, it is still considered one of the most authentic and earnest depictions of the wild, passionate Anne Boleyn that has ever been brought to the screen — much more so than the paranoid, sexually promiscuous Anne from The Tudors, or Philippa Gregory’s “guilty” version. It was that performance, and that bringing to life of Anne, that first intrigued me and caused me to like the spitfire who would not say “yes” to one of the most powerful men in Europe.
Henry VIII was married at the time to the magnificent Katharine of Aragon (who has eventually displaced Anne in regards of my affection toward the wives) but the union had brought about no living sons and only one daughter, Mary, so his eye turned in other directions. He went through several mistresses before putting his sights on young Anne, who was more French in behavior and fashion sense than English, and who blatantly refused to have anything to do with him. She would not accept his presents or his favors, and had no interest in becoming his mistress. In fact, she gave him a monumental task to perform before she would consider sleeping with him — make her queen. Now, whether or not Anne actually meant it, if it was indeed an indication of her greed, or if she thought it was a version of the moon and would never transpire, I do not know — but Henry was determined not to give her up and so chose to “go after the moon.”
His Spanish wife, and the youngest daughter of the warrior Queen Isabella, did not go down without a fight — and for seven years kept him entangled in ruthless court battles. It did not help that her popularity was immense in England, since she had taken great pains to win over the masses both when she married Henry’s older brother and when she became queen. During this period, I do believe that Anne “fell in love” with Henry of a sort. I believe knowing that he did mean what he promised, and was going all-out to obtain her favor, assisted in her coming around to liking him and from there it progressed into a game of power, passion, and politics. I love in the movie mentioned that at one point Anne says to him, “I hate your desire… and mine,” because in many respects they were incompatible. Anne might have been a spitfire but she was not really monarch material — as she proved in the months after their marriage. Katharine had been raised a princess and understood the ways of kings. Only on rare occasion (Henry’s desire for an annulment being one of them) did she dare contradict her husband, but Anne was accustomed to equality within relationships and had no such inhibitions. When she found Henry interested in her Ladies in Waiting, she threw tantrums. She insulted foreign ambassadors. Her rivalry with Princess Mary, Katharine’s daughter, escalated into something resembling violence. Even Katharine during her imprisonment in the country expressed concern for Anne’s welfare and cautioned her ladies to pray for Anne. Considering Katharine had known and experienced her husband’s cruelty first hand for a number of years, I suspect she had some inkling of how this might all end.
Ironically, the much-loved Katharine (or loathed, depending on whether your asked the masses or her husband) died and Anne celebrated, believing at last she would no longer be compared to her predecessor. Little did she knew Katharine was the only thing keeping her alive — Henry had grown tired of his passionate wife, who so often quarreled with him and challenged his authority, and was searching for a means to replace her with the much more demure Jane Seymour. As long as Katharine lived, he could not divorce Anne, since the religious authorities would insist he go back to his first wife. Henry waited until her next miscarriage, then told Cromwell to “be rid of her.” False charges of adultery, incest, and witchcraft were brought against her, Anne was convicted and then sentenced to death. It was carried out by a French swordsman (a more dignified exit than the axeman commonly used) on the 19th of May 1536.
Anne is most famously known for the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth, which became one of the most prosperous and successful periods in English history. Elizabeth inherited her mother’s wit and charm and her father’s determination and bad temper. Unusually, however, certain Protestant groups have also hailed Anne as a heroine of the Reformation in England, since Henry VIII disobeyed the Catholic Church and introduced the Lutheran teachings into his country as an alternative to the Church’s refusal to grant him an annulment from Katharine. I cannot say I see much to be praised in the means by which Protestantism arrived, since it only spurred the deaths of many people — from commoners to those of high birth — and introduced several hundred years of religious persecution. The Church of England was not a pure representation of the faith Martin Luther professed, but a watered-down version of Catholicism which made the King the ultimate religious authority in England — and considering Henry was a gluttonous, murdering, adulterous tyrant, that doesn’t say much for his original vision for the Church. (No wonder Sir Thomas More would rather die than support him.)
My personal feelings about Anne are that she was a naive young woman who did not understand what she had become involved in. She was accustomed to courtly life but had no experience or training in how to be a monarch and this ultimately, combined with her feisty determination to fight with Henry at every turn, is what led to her downfall. I believe she was a strong woman for the age, even a feminist in the sense that she refused to submit to men of greater authority, but therein too lies her greatest mistake. Despite having watched Henry destroy his first wife in a violent and nasty “divorce” proceeding, Anne did not fear him as a king, only looked at him as a man. She neglected to remember his brutality and meanness and thus it did not impact her treatment of him, something Henry eventually grew to resent. Anne did not display the traits that were common to what he was accustomed to in a queen — at first, this attracted and amused him, but it no longer became so admirable when a crown rested on her head.
There are those who would say Anne should have simply given in to him, but I cannot agree with that, since it would have gone against her morals to do so (another reason I believe she resisted). Nor do I really approve of being “the other woman” — while most of that mess lies at the feet of Henry, by all rights she can share some of the blame for being the object of his desire. Anne’s mightiest fault lay in her arrogance (one that permitted her to insult and repeatedly abuse the memory of her predecessor, which did not always sit well with her husband or his court) and her lack of caution. Promising a king a son and then failing to deliver is no small thing.
Anne was far from a saint, but she was a woman of remarkable courage and an example of the ruthlessness of men during the middle ages. I may not approve of some of her actions but I understand something of the woman behind them, enough to regard her with compassion and wish her many generations of uninterrupted peace in the afterlife.