The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn
Blackwell Publishing, 2004
458 pp., 89.9
The Rise & Fall of Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn, claims her biographer Eric Ives, "was the most influential and important queen consort this country has ever had." This would seem a very strong statement when we consider that Anne spent a mere three years as queen. But it is hard to come up with any real alternatives. The most obvious competitor would be Eleanor of Aquitaine, but of course she was a very powerful woman in her own right, the sole owner of large portions of France; Anne was born a commoner. In recent centuries the most influential queen consort was probably the late Queen Mother, wife of George VI, but her influence, while beneficial, did not change the course of history. Anne, on the other hand, was the catalyst for a series of events that would spiritually and politically detach England from Europe and set the country onto the exceptionalist course it would pursue for the better part of five centuries.
Anne has certainly proved one of history's most consistently controversial figures. During her life many thought of her as the "great concubine." Conservatives and pious Catholics considered her marriage to Henry illegal and herself no better than a whore. After her execution she became, if not exactly a martyr, than at least a figurehead for the nascent Protestant movement, as her predecessor Katherine of Aragon had been for the Catholics. Her good looks, and the dignity with which she faced her gruesome and certainly unjust execution, won admiration even from her enemies. In death she became a potent symbol of what is destroyed when royal greed and lust go unrestrained by a legal and constitutional framework. Henry VIII was Leviathan run amok, Anne his tragic victim.
Anne's obvious sexuality—she "radiated sex," says Ives—was for many years a point against her, especially since she has always been compared with the long-suffering, virtuous (and perhaps a little self-righteous?) Katherine. But the feminist movement has validated different traits in women, and 21st-century historians and readers are more likely to see Anne's confidence and aggression in a positive light. This is Ives' thesis. "Anne deserves to be a feminist icon," he claims, "a woman in a society which was, above all else, male-dominated, who broke through a glass ceiling by sheer character and initiative." Ives' use of the term "glass ceiling" is misleading. A glass ceiling is usually meant to connote a worldly or professional height beyond which women, qua women, can not advance. Anne was a consort, and never rose above the status of consort, though no one could deny that she possessed character and initiative aplenty. And can she really be described as a feminist icon? This woman who achieved every goal through her sexual enthrallment of a man? That is a difficult case to argue.
When Anne first came to Henry VIII's attention in 1526, England was an apparently obedient daughter of Catholic Europe. It had only been nine years since Martin Luther issued his Ninety-five Theses, and while "Lutherans" had already rent the social fabric in Germany, there seemed little danger of this occurring in England. Henry had eloquently expressed his personal dislike of the Lutheran heresy in a pamphlet, earning from the pope the title of Defender of the Faith. Henry's wife Katherine (who had previously been married to his elder brother Arthur, dead many years earlier) was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the "most Catholic" monarchs.
But despite Henry's theological orthodoxy and his respect for Katherine's powerful Habsburg relatives (the power of whom was now concentrated in the person of her nephew, the new Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), his disaffection with Katherine had already begun before Anne arrived on the scene, as Ives' careful chronology and meticulous examination of the historical sources proves. By 1524, Henry was finding Katherine a liability: in 15 years of marriage she had only produced one surviving child, a daughter (the future Mary I). England had only recently emerged from long and devastating dynastic struggles, the Wars of the Roses. If Henry proved unable to sire a legitimate son, such anarchy could easily descend again. This was a very real worry, as events in France proved three decades later when the untimely death of Henri II, who left a family of small, feeble children and an inexperienced wife as regent, plunged the country into many years of bloody civil and religious wars. Henry might have confused lust with politics and demonstrated extreme crudeness when he cast Katherine aside, but we should allow that his all-consuming effort to produce a son was not an act of personal selfishness but a vital part of his kingly duty.
A passage from the Bible haunted him. "If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing … he shall be without children" (Lev. 20:21). It had required a special dispensation from Pope Julius II for Henry to be allowed to marry Katherine at all; only the importance of the Anglo-Spanish alliance, and Katherine's assurance that her marriage to Arthur had been unconsummated, had made it possible. Now Henry began to see the lack of a son as evidence of God's displeasure. He stopped sleeping with Katherine in 1524; she had not conceived in seven years, and now, at the age of thirty-nine, she was unlikely to.
Initially, then, Henry's wish for a divorce from his wife and his pursuit of Anne Boleyn were two separate issues. His early plans for Anne had nothing to do with marriage; she was only a courtier, after all, albeit a rich and noble one, a Howard on her mother's side and the niece of the Duke of Norfolk. The conventional step would have been for him to take her as maitresse en titre. Indeed her sister Mary had played this role of "official" mistress for him a few years earlier. But Anne wanted more, and she gambled on the possibility that his infatuation might even lead to marriage. Backed by her power-hungry family (her father, Thomas Boleyn, was one of Henry's staunchest and best-rewarded administrators) she refused to yield. She was to hold out for six years.
Henry's 17 surviving love letters to Anne (now, ironically, in the Vatican) testify to the real emotional upheaval he was undergoing:
Debating with myself the contents of your letter, I have put myself in great distress, not knowing how to interpret them, whether to my disadvantage, as in some places is shown, or to advantage, as in others I understand them; praying you with all my heart that you will expressly certify me of your whole mind concerning the love between us two. For of necessity I must ensure me of this answer having been now above one whole year struck with the dart of love, not being assured either of failure or of finding place in your heart and grounded affection.
A letter like this would be nothing special coming from an ordinary man, but from Henry, who had never had anything but his own way, it was rather extraordinary, as Ives points out: "Charity demands that we recognize the genuineness of the king's passion; from a person who hated writing as much as Henry did, such letters are in themselves a remarkable testimony. For the first time in his life he was having to build a relationship with a woman who had not been provided by the diplomatic agency or whistled up by droit de seigneur." Henry was abject; Anne, during the years of her ascendance, imperious:
Did I not tell you that whenever you disputed with the queen [Katherine] she was sure to have the upper hand? I see that some fine morning you will succumb to her reasoning and that you will cast me off. I have been waiting long and might in the meanwhile have contracted some advantageous marriage, out of which I might have had issue, which is the greatest consolation in this world. But, alas! Farewell to my time and youth spent to no purpose at all.
This rare little relic of Anne's unguarded temper brings her to life as no second- or third-hand account of her can do. Anne had had a number of suitors before Henry (including Henry Percy, heir to the Duke of Northumberland, and the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt), and she understood men's vulnerabilities. Ives' reconstruction of events demonstrates that she was born circa 1501, several years earlier than was long thought to be the case. In 1527, then, when Henry first applied to the pope for a dispensation to marry again, Anne was a mature and experienced woman of twenty-six, rather than the young girl of nineteen or twenty that has so often been portrayed by writers and filmmakers (see, for instance, the choice of the waiflike Genevieve Bujold for the role in the film Anne of a Thousand Days). And when Henry rejected Anne in 1536 she was not a still-youthful twenty-nine but an ageing thirty-five, increasingly unlikely to produce the all-important son.
Henry's push for a papal dispensation was doomed from the beginning, if only he had known it. In 1527 the armies of Charles V had sacked Rome, forcing the Medici pope, Clement VII, to cravenly lock himself up in the Castel Sant'Angelo. From then on Clement was more or less a creature of the emperor, who certainly had no wish to disgrace his aunt by allowing her to be cast aside by the upstart English king. Cardinal Campeggio, the papal legate in England, was under strict instructions to stall for time and produce no results.
Cardinal Wolsey, who in better days had ruled the country and seemed to rule the king (he was widely known as alter rex), found himself for the first time impotent. His power had seemed real enough when he had wielded it; now it was exposed for what it had always been, a gift proffered at the king's whim and as easily taken away. Anne, many said, had hated the cardinal since he had broken up her match with Henry Percy years before. Recognizing the force of his character and his ability to rule Henry, she blocked his access to the king. When he failed to produce the desired dispensation, he was done for. In Ives' opinion "the fall of Wolsey was first and foremost Anne's success," and it is certain that the vacuum left by his absence was filled by her own men: as the French ambassador Jean du Bellay wrote, "The duke of Norfolk is made chief of the council and in his absence the duke of Suffolk, and above everyone Mademoiselle Anne."
Ives says of Henry that "The drive to marry Anne was not only to satisfy emotion and desire; it became a campaign to vindicate his kingship." Henry was, in youth, the last medieval monarch of England; in middle age, he became the national avatar of the new age of divine right, a concept which would not be amended until 1688. His whole career can be seen as an exploration of the meaning and limits of kingship. What does it mean to be a king—how far do the monarch's rights extend? Is he, or is he not, appointed by God? If he is, then why should he be subservient to the Pope? "Henry knew absolutely," writes Ives, "that the law of Christ did give him headship of the Church."
With Anne's active prompting, he set about creating a legal framework for what he "knew." Anne read Willian Tyndale's The Obedience of the Christian Man and How Christian Rulers Ought to Govern and marked passages for Henry's edification: "The king is in the person of God and his law is God's law"; for the Church to rule over the princes of Europe is "a shame above all shames and a notorious thing." Thomas Cranmer, theologian at Jesus College, Cambridge, was pressed into service. He suggested that Europe's faculties of theology should be consulted, and helped fashion their response into an argument in favor of divorce. The aged lawyer Christopher St. German drafted legislation to make Henry, as king, the supreme head of the national Church. Thomas Cromwell, Henry's brilliant new "fixer," stage-managed the events.
These moved rapidly. The submission of the clergy took place in 1531. Soon Henry and Anne were secretly married, probably in January 1533, and Anne was pregnant. Katherine was given the consolation title of "Dowager Princess of Wales" and the Princess Mary declared a bastard. In June, Anne had an incomparably splendid coronation, with four days of lavish celebrations and pageantry; she was even crowned with the crown of St. Edward, previously used only for reigning monarchs. The festivities were engineered, Ives says, as "a piece of corporate idolatry" and as a "significant lesson. Henry had had his way; the king's will was irresistible." Except for a few principled, or disgruntled, objectors (Thomas More, the Duchess of Norfolk), courtiers toed the line and transferred their rapturous affection from Katherine to Anne—in much the same way that Londoners would quickly desert the glamorous Edward VIII in favor of his previously disregarded brother some four centuries later. The great of the land, according to More, had been "deflowered."
Anne's triumph was brief. The baby, born in September, was a girl, and two subsequent pregnancies ended in miscarriages. Henry concluded that God was denying him sons—the marriage, by that argument, must be as unclean as the previous one. Jane Seymour was waiting in the wings; a quarrel between Anne and Cromwell, and a simultaneous alliance between the Seymour faction and the political conservatives, who on Katherine's death in 1536 had lost their royal focus, helped to ensure Anne's downfall. A charge of multiple adulteries was quickly cooked up, a confession from one of the unhappy men procured by torture, and a hostile jury assembled by Cromwell.
Anne's own behavior, as had not always been the case in the past, was impeccable. Even an unsympathetic observer at the trial noted that "she made so wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her, excusing herself with her words so clearly as though she had never been faulty to the same." Ives points out that the submissiveness she showed, at both her trial and subsequent execution, "reveals the enormous gulf between the sixteenth-century mind and our own." This was conventional good behavior, but Anne's contemporaries would have noted that she made no public admission of sin, nor any admission that she had wronged her husband. Henry and Jane were betrothed the day after Anne lost her head. The following year the long desired son, the future Edward VI, was born.
But Anne was not so easily forgotten, and her influence continued after her death in many areas—first and most obviously in the person of her only child, Elizabeth I, who ascended the throne after the deaths of her half-brother Edward and her half-sister Mary. Elizabeth, Ives suggests, was "very much her mother's daughter." This is true, just as it is true that Mary turned out to be very much her mother's daughter. Elizabeth resembled Anne in her strength and her determination; her intelligence (Anne, like her daughter, was a bit of a bluestocking); her ability to manipulate others. They both understood the importance of glamour, glitz, and appearance: if one is to project an idea of royalty and magnificence, one must look the part.
Just as important was Anne's religious influence, which was in fact tremendous. While queen, she procured positions of power and influence for "her" clerics, men like Cranmer, Latimer, Shaxton, Goodrich, and Fox. These men favored her style of reformed religion, which was enlightened and humanist. She encouraged the clause in the 1536 injunction to the clergy that required every parish to set up both a Latin and an English Bible in its church "for every man that will to look and read thereon." By and large, these men or their like were still in place at the end of Henry VIII's reign, so that "the influence of this spate of appointments was crucial to the future of the Reformation."
Neither the Catholic version of Anne as a whore nor Eric Ives' version of her as a feminist icon is satisfactory. She strikes me, rather, as a high-stakes poker player. As Ives points out, she was neither a fool nor, by the standards of her day, a kid. For Anne to have considered that the king might rid himself of his wife and make her queen needed extreme audacity. It is only now, with the recent engagement of a divorcée to a Prince of Wales who is himself divorced, that anything like this has entered the realm of possibility. The odds were always that Anne would lose her poker game, and in the end she did.
Brooke Allen is the author most recently of Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior (Ivan R. Dee).
Copyright Â© 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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