A woman who dared to rule a King.
Anne Boleyn has been selling books again. The story of her intense, passionate hold over England’s King and subsequent, dramatic fall has captivated historians and public alike in the intervening centuries. She has been portrayed in literature and on screen as a temptress and whore, a scheming politician and reluctant romantic heroine, whose heart had already been bestowed elsewhere. No other Tudor woman has elicited so much devotion among her followers or spawned so many books. Publications of 2011 alone, included a kindle edition of Henry and Anne’s love letters (March), Norton’s “Anne Boleyn in her own words” (March) the paperback edition of Philippa Gregory’s “The Boleyn Inheritance,” (May), David Loades’ study of the family’s fortunes (Sept) and a cluster of other novels. Yet Boleyn is never a straightforward character and the dramatic events of her short reign will always elicit a variety of interpretations.
But new truths still remain to be told. Whilst accounts rightly focus on Anne’s personal appeal and volatile relations with the King and her centrality to Tudor factional politics, one key aspect of her life has largely been neglected. Anne Boleyn was the casualty of Tudor gender politics. A casualty, as opposed to a victim, although she was undoubtedly the victim of a miscarriage of justice, engineered by the Machiavellian dealings of court politicians. For all its speed and disingenuousness, Anne’s fate was partly of her own making. She was a classic over-reacher of the Shakespearian kind; an over-mighty subject who played for high stakes and lost. Yet her greatest crime, in the eyes of her patriarchal contemporaries, was to transgress social boundaries and exploit her femininity to usurp the position of an anointed Queen and master the will of England’s most wilful King.
Sources disagree about Anne’s birth date; 1501 and 1507 are usually suggested, with modern scholarship tending towards the earlier year. Raised in the refined court of Margaret of Savoy, in the Netherlands, then as maid to the unfortunate Queen Claude of France, she acquired a polish that set her aside from her English counterparts, despite not conforming to contemporary standards of beauty. By the time she caught Henry’s eye in around 1526, he had already been married seventeen years and had possibly fathered two children by her more infamous sister. Anne’s policy of refusal, either by accident or design, put all the power into her hands. Women did not usually turn down the king’s advances but his romantic “enslavement” meant their roles were inverted, with Henry as the subject and Anne approaching some sort of rule over him. In personal terms, she held all the cards. Yet it was a misleading power, as it always came with the King’s permission; he allowed her dominance as part of his devotion. His favoured identity as “Sir Loyal Heart” and employment of the motifs of chivalry were genuine enough. In spite of his marital history, Henry retained a belief in true love and romance: he wanted to woo Anne; he was in love with the idea of the pursuit and the ideal. In the period of their courtship, spanning 1526 to early 1533, he allowed Anne a license which she exploited to the full. Yet once she became his wife, he expected her to conform to contemporary notions of submissive womanhood. He had allowed her to “win;” now the proper power balance must be restored.
Yet Anne was not a typical submissive female. Henry had fallen in love with the wrong woman, if he expected her to sit silently by and tolerate his opinions and peccadillos. Anne’s appeal to the modern reader lies in exactly this defiance; the insistence on an equality that was anachronistic in the Tudor court. She was opinionated and prepared to argue with him and did not show the deference he expected from a wife; ideally, he should have chosen a younger, more fertile model of Catherine of Aragon. In this, Anne was merely continuing the pattern of their pre-marital relationship in the belief that in this lay the “truth” of their union. Her “power” over the king before 1533 was so assured that she had assumed it would outlast their vows. Yet she failed to recognise that even when professing himself most in love, Henry’s submission had been a form of permission. As he later warned her, he could bring her as low as he had once raised her. Once she made the transition to Queen, her power began to dissolve. She was no longer the unattainable figure of romance but an obstinate woman who dared to try and rule her husband, such as were ridiculed and “tamed” in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. As such, she can be seen in the tradition of other females who were punished for attempting to defy their status, such as the prophetess Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, executed in 1534 for her resistance to the Reformation and Boleyn marriage.
Widespread misogyny was common during the Sixteenth century. Female inferiority was transported between discourses, from the law courts to medicine, familial relations to lyrics, jokes and sayings, so their low status was “overdetermined” by male society. Their subordination and otherness from men permeated mass-market culture, through sermons, manuals, treaties, popular literature, proverbs, folklore, charms, rhymes, song, ballads, anecdotes, jokes, superstition, seasonal crafts and customs, festivities, religious iconography, medicinal and herbal practices, emblem books, woodcuts for ballads and broadsheets, engravings and illustrations. Women were considered to have a particular talent for being subversive: feminine intelligence was often presented proverbially as cunning: “women in mischief are wiser than men,” they were “necessary evils” and were “made perfect by men”, a woman was “the weaker vessel”, “the woe of man” and “a man of straw was worth a woman of gold.” Popular culture identified them with noisy, silly geese, deceitful and insatiable cats, slippery eels, angry wasps and inflexible swine.
One common joke told how a Tudor man was asked why he had married a tiny woman and replied: “because of evils, the least was to be chosen.” Some pamphlets and chapbooks showed emblems of women lacking heads, in the sense of flawed intelligence but also decapitation as a symbol of the loss of power, the seat of wisdom, an inversion of patriarchal and therefore political power. Disobedience to a husband was small-scale treason, almost as threatening to society as uncontrolled sexuality: one pamphlet’s caption reads “a headless maid is the worst of all monsters,” punning on the unsanctioned loss of virginity and sexual appetite that conflicted with the notion of female submission. Assuming Anne’s trump card during her courtship was her virginity, later slanders of sexual lasciviousness highlight just how fragile and short-lived her main bargaining tool had been. Her appeal for Henry had partly lain in her denial and abstinence; as she refused to conform, she was redefined in the terms of a sexual predator. The fear of female disobedience to male authority was apparent in popular maxims: “a woman does that which is forbidden her,” “women are always desirous of sovereignty” and “all women are ambitious naturally:” the new Queen represented the epitome of Tudor men’s most deep-rooted fears. Set within this context, the terminology of Anne Boleyn’s fall, with all its sexual and moral slurs, underlines a new truth about her condemnation.
Anne’s delivery of a daughter is often considered a factor in the failure of her marriage. Certainly, the much needed son and heir might have bought her more time, even assured her position by removing a key source of conflict but even before Elizabeth’s birth, the cracks had begun to show. Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys noticed the strain between the couple in the weeks leading to Anne’s confinement, which meant they were barely on speaking terms; violent arguments, flirtations and rumours undermined their remaining three years. As Henry’s romantic vision of Anne rapidly crumbled, she and her faction became vulnerable. Her accusers attacked her as a woman; sexually and morally: adultery, incest and witchcraft were classic weapons used by men to demarcate a female who had transgressed; they formed part of a recognisable social code that signalled a viable target, in which even other women and the King himself, participated. Without Henry’s protection, the already unpopular Anne became a scapegoat for social and gender venom, heaped with the abuse usually reserved for upstarts like her previous adversary Thomas Wolsey. When she miscarried her final child, early in 1536, those about her could see her days were numbered.
Alison Weir’s recent analysis of Anne’s fall posits a sudden, desperate attempt by Thomas Cromwell to save his own skin, with the reluctant co-operation of a monarch surprised by the nature of his wife’s charges. Yet Henry’s resentment had been brewing since at least the end of 1533 and found a welcome outlet in his servant’s case, which struck a chord with his wounded pride. His basis for divorce, reform and remarriage had lain in the inadmissibility of his first match to Catherine of Aragon: he had broken with Rome in the hope of a son who had not materialised. Anne had promised him the earth, or rather, he had romantically imagined the earth he allowed her to project. Now, her outspokenness and failure to produce an heir left him in no stronger position than in a decade before, although now he was the subject of humour and gossip throughout the whole of Europe. The reality of his dream became a source of humiliation and emasculation in a man defined by his pride and sense of prowess. Henry was not Cromwell’s instrument in Anne’s fall; rather, it was a savage retaliation of a male ego. By recategorising his wife’s early appeal as a form of witchcraft and enchantment, by pandering to the stereotypes of beauty and disfigurement and permitting her disingenuous condemnation as an incestuous, insatiable adulteress, in the knowledge that the supposed dates of her crimes tallied with times of her confinements, he colluded in the exploitation of contemporary misogyny to slur a woman he wished to be rid of. Anne’s shameful trial, in May 1536, as well as that of her co-accused; her brother George, Norris, Weston, Brereton and the musician Mark Smeaton marks an unforgettable low point in the King’s reign and explains the fascination of subsequent generations with this miscarriage of justice.