Thursday, September 8, 2011

Consort Profile: Queen Ann Boleyn

Of all the famous “Six Wives of Henry VIII” probably none among them is as famous or has been the focus of as much attention as his second wife Ann Boleyn. To some she is a scheming home wrecker, to others a virtuous victim. History has been a rough ride for Ann Boleyn but, for the most part, has probably served her well. In her own time she was deeply unpopular and could be seen as made to measure for the part of villainess in the story of the marital problems of the second Tudor King of England. Yet, it was her offspring who became probably the most celebrated Queen in English history and who set the country on the political and religious course maintained almost ever since, the effects still around today and so, because of that, Ann Boleyn has not been consigned to the proverbial dust bin of history. Even today she has as many defenders as detractors and she remains, to some extent, a controversial figure, still talked about, written about and even made the subject of numerous dramas, television shows and feature films. Few can still spark such heated debate as Ann Boleyn.

Even the date of birth of Ann Boleyn is argued over, most putting it sometime in or between 1501-1507. She was common born but had titled, well connected parents and at an early age was sent abroad to be educated. Her schooling in the Burgundian Netherlands was typical but it was in France where she first began to turn heads. Originally to serve Mary Tudor, once she was out of the picture she remained, along with her sister Mary Boleyn, to serve Queen Claude of Valois. Claude ran a tight ship and with her Ann learned discipline while her sister did not. She became one of the many mistresses of King Francis I and later King Henry VIII as well, embraced quickly and abandoned quickly. Ann would not make the same mistakes. By most accounts she was not drop-dead gorgeous, yet, her bearing and behavior caused her to have the same effect on almost all the men around her. She had alluring eyes, was graceful, charming, witty, an expert at fashion, an excellent dancer and rather flirtatious. She learned all about ‘court politics’ and, even at an early age, showed great ambition and determination. Ann was a woman who knew what she wanted and how to overcome obstacles to reach her goals.

There was hardly anyone at the French court who was not impressed with her. She made herself a joy to be around in almost any company. She liked to sing, gamble, hunt, exchange jokes and was a great conversationalist. Later many would claim that she also became an expert at what we shall politely refer to as ‘bedroom antics’ while in France, however, it is hard to determine the truth of those claims as most appear after opinion had turned against her whereas, at the time, she was reported to be quite virtuous. Some find that hard to believe but, even if she was not pure as the wind-driven snow she must have been very discreet about her affairs and that could be almost as great a recommendation for the circles she moved in. In 1522, when relations between England and France were growing worse, she returned to her homeland and, thanks to her family, was promptly given a place at court as one of the ladies-in-waiting to Queen Katherine of Aragon. It did not take long before she caught the eye of King Henry VIII, always a man easily distracted by women and growing increasingly frustrated with his older wife and her inability to provide him with a male heir.

The King came on strong but Ann resisted. She was not prepared to be just another mistress and Ann told the King, in so many words, ‘if you like it, put a ring on it’. Whether this was Ann being virtuous or playing a clever game has been endlessly debated and the answer will only ever be known to Ann herself. If it was a strategy it was a fine one as Ann gained the status of “forbidden fruit” in the eyes of Henry VIII. The longer she resisted the more the King had to have her and the more willing he became to move heaven and earth, even change the religion of an entire country and isolate his country in order to have her. This was when religion entered the story of Ann Boleyn in a big way. Ann has been accused of being a Lutheran, which she was not though she would defend them when necessary. However, she was what was known then as a “reformer” or essentially what we would today call a Protestant. She did influence the King in this regard but it would, perhaps, be giving her too much credit to say that she single-handedly turned him away from the Catholic Church simply by whispering sweet Protestant nothings in his ear. By this time Ann, though not a mistress, was recognized as the King’s “other woman” and thus the start of a growth in unpopularity on her part.

Henry VIII would try to get his own way within the Catholic Church but his patience was near exhaustion. Ann knew she had the King wrapped around her little finger and, perhaps unwisely, began making enemies in some pretty high places. Cardinal Wolsey was certainly at the top of that list. He warned the King against trying to divorce Queen Katherine. She was the aunt of the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, she had been married to Henry for quite a long time already, had a child with him and the King had received a papal dispensation in order to marry her in the first place. Cardinal Wolsey was certainly no pious churchman but he was realistic and informed statesman and knew that, for all of these reasons, the Pope would never agree to Henry divorcing his wife. This made him as much an enemy to Ann Boleyn as the Queen herself and, though it seemed impossible, when Henry had to choose between his chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, and Ann Boleyn it was Ann who won the day. When Wolsey failed to obtain the answer from the Church Henry wanted his political career was over and there was no doubt that Ann was to be the replacement for Queen Katherine as consort of England.

This made Ann many enemies, at one point she was nearly attacked by an angry mob, as people across the country, especially women, saw her as a home-wrecker and Queen Katherine as the faithful, long-suffering wife about to be ‘traded-in’ for a younger model. However, there was no turning back. Ann even gave in to the King a little early and the future Queen Elizabeth I was already conceived when Henry VIII broke with Rome, declared himself “Supreme Head of the Church on earth”, annulled his marriage to Queen Katherine and married Ann Boleyn. For Ann, the newly declared Queen of England, it was the zenith of her life. She loved Henry, they were married, she was Queen and while she certainly had enemies, none could touch her. Everything seemed to be going her way but, alas, problems were not slow in rising up. More than anything else, Henry wanted a son and a son was not forthcoming and Ann, for all of her intelligence, strength and charm, could do nothing to influence the mechanics of nature.

The King also began to be put off by many of the qualities which had first drawn him to Ann. He no longer found her assertiveness attractive. She was educated, intelligent and didn’t mind showing it and he didn’t like that. She was bold and opinionated and he didn’t like that and she was not bashful about speaking her mind and he didn’t like that either. As tensions grew Ann also became more unpleasant herself. People complained about her lavish spending, her cruelty toward her step-daughter Mary and many blamed her for dissolution of the monasteries, the religious innovations that divided the country and the execution of popular and respected Catholics such as Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher. All of this only seemed to make Ann more defiant and her public image was certainly not helped when she wore a bright yellow dress to a party after learning of the death of Queen Katherine. This all had an impact on the King as well and he began to likewise blame Ann for all of his misfortunes, whether it was the rebellions that broke out or the growing political isolation of England by the great Catholic powers of France, Spain and the Empire. Of course, Ann was not responsible for all of this, but she made for a convenient scapegoat, often by others, such as the King, who were themselves just as much or more responsible for the state of affairs than she was.

Eventually, Jane Seymour caught the roving eye of the King and in regards to Ann, as sympathetic as some might be to her plight, one cannot help but remember the saying that, ‘if he will cheat with you, he will cheat on you’. With no sons forthcoming and discontent growing in the country (which Henry was content to lay totally at the doorstep of Ann) the King determined to get rid of her. About a month after he started moving in on Jane, the King launched an investigation against Ann for treason in April, 1536. In the years since, even those not inclined to look with favor on Ann have agreed that the charges against her, adultery and even incest, were totally false and certainly excessive. Nonetheless, the King was determined to ‘change his woman’ and had already proven, with Ann’s cooperation, that he could do it and would stop at nothing to get his way. On May 17 she was executed, though Henry at least had enough sympathy to send for an expert swordsman from France to conduct the beheading so it would be as quick and painless as possible. Still, he made no provision for her burial at all and in less than two weeks was already married to Jane Seymour.

Since that time, Ann has been featured in numerous media, even up to the present day in several movies and television series. Opinion about her remains divided. Protestant opinion is, rightly, positive and Catholic opinion, just as rightly, is negative. However, it is probably the negative image that prevails more often than not even amongst disinterested historians. This is probably partly due to the fact that, after her death and particularly after the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, the Protestants went a little overboard in portraying her as a pristine saint. That, she certainly was not. She had many admirable qualities but employed them in less than admirable pursuits. However, her execution was certainly unjust and it is unfair that she alone was made to suffer for decisions made by others. Even if she urged them toward those decisions, she was certainly not solely culpable. For myself, I recognize the injustice of that even though, like others, I cannot feel very sorry for her given how she came to that unenviable position. She had played a dangerous game, and in the end, was hoisted with her own petard.


  1. Well, it took longer than I thought but, before the morning was out I already got a nasty message from an irate Catholic accusing me of being insufficiently anti-Ann Boleyn.

    I could set my clock by it.

    Now, I have to wait for a nasty message from an irate Protestant for bashing their Queen.

  2. Incidentally, I think you are the only writer I have seen call her 'Ann'. Usually, I've seen it spelled with an 'e'.

    More to the point, some historical accounts state that she also made an enemy of Cromwell, who had originally been an ally of the Boleyns, partly by disagreeing with him on the use to be made of the confiscated wealth of the monasteries. Apparently, the Queen wanted it put into educational and charitable works, while Cromwell just wanted to channel it into the royal coffers.

    I do feel sorry for her, in spite of her faults, although I believe Catherine of Aragon was the rightful wife, in religious terms.

  3. Many of those who had been allies of Ann were fair weather friends. Cromwell knew where his bread was buttered and, like others, they cheered her when she was in the King's good graces and when she was not they abandoned her. I recognize that she was, in some ways, treated unfairly. Her execution was certainly unjust but I have a hard time feeling sorry for her because it seems to me her problems were all, to some extent at least, of her own making.

  4. I'm a bit conflicted on Anne. I do think Catherine was the rightful Queen (and the common people of England thought so to) and I don't really believe those who say Anne had "no choice" in becoming the king's 2nd wife/mistress since the King would have her in any case. She was very smart and she knew she was playing a game that had after-effects that went across Europe. The way she treated Mary is usually ignored by her defenders since it was entire unjustifiable and many instances, deliberately cruel (and perhaps influenced the way Mary would look at Elizabeth much later in life).

    Yet she was innocent of the charges against her and in my opinion if it hadn't been Anne, it would have been some other women Henry would have overturned his country for in order to get a son. And she's mostly shouldered the blame when it reality it should be on Henry and Cromwell's shoulders.

  5. I agree and that's what irritates me about people who say I'm not hard enough on her. Anytime one person is singled out as the scapegoat it means that other guilty parties tend to get away with it and while she was certainly not blameless, as you say, Henry was ultimately responsible and there were others just as active, be it Cromwell or Cranmer or the Boleyn clan, as she was if not moreso.


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