“And if anyone wants to meddle in my cause, I ask them to judge the best.” Anne Boleyn spoke these words from the scaffold on May 19, 1536. A few seconds later, the swordsman from Calais whom her ex-husband Henry VIII had thoughtfully arranged to decapitate her with a single blow.
Since that day, scholars, novelists, filmmakers, bloggers and others around the world have taken up Anne’s challenge to ‘get involved’ in her cause and tell her story. In the process, she was variously portrayed as a back-scheming schemer, an evil temptress, a betrayed wife, and a tragic heroine. The performances varied so much because, despite being the most famous and outrageous of Henry’s Six Wivesshe left valuable traces of her own voice.
This was partly deliberate: Anne was by nature an enigma. She liked to be mysterious, to keep people guessing. But there has also been a deliberate destruction of Anne’s memory following her dramatic fall from grace. Henry was known for his former wives and history favorites, and Anne was no exception. While 17 of his love letters to her survive, there are none of his answers. In the voluminous collection of state documents and personal correspondence from the 1500s, there are only a handful of documents written by Anne Boleyn; most of his lyrics were recorded by others, who were almost without exception hostile contemporaries, so cannot be relied upon.
Yet the testimonies that can be gleaned from archives and portraits, the places where she lived and the people she knew, however fragmentary, still provide revealing information about this fascinating enigma. They helped shape the many versions of Anne in film and television, the most recent being in the new Netflix series, Blood, sex and royalty.
Played by Amy James-Kelly, this Anne Boleyn is a feisty, outspoken and fiercely intelligent woman who defies the male-dominated world of the Tudors and takes control of her own destiny. She is a strong advocate for women’s education at a time when most of society considered it a waste of time. it promotes radical religious reform, even if it endangers it; and she has one of Europe’s most feared monarchs eating out of the palm of her hand.
In short, she’s the closest thing Tudor England can get to a feminist (until her daughter Elizabeth takes the throne). Undoubtedly, Blood, sex and royalty gives us a startlingly modern take on Anne, and yet it could be argued that this is a more complete – and authentic – portrayal than the traditional tragic heroine who is viewed only in the context of her relationship with Henry (played by Max Parker in the playoffs).
Born to ambitious courtier Thomas Boleyn and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, she was probably the second of three surviving children. The Boleyn family had grown from obscure sharecroppers to titled nobility with court presence through a combination of political cunning and advantageous marriages. Her father’s family position and connections meant that Anne enjoyed an upbringing and upbringing far superior to most of her contemporaries.
A natural scholar, she was described as exceptionally “wormy” by her proud father, who secured her a place at the court of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, when she was only around 12 years old. It was a graduation school like no other, giving Anne an excellent foundation in languages and exposing her to some of the brightest minds of the European Renaissance, including Erasmus.
It was a world in which women wielded power, and did it brilliantly.
It was there that she became familiar with the works of Christine dePizan, a prolific poet and writer who condemned the widespread idea that women were intellectually inferior to men and celebrated the achievements of successful scholars and women leaders. Then, when Anne was at the court of France, spending several years there after leaving the Netherlands in 1514, she found even more inspiring examples of female leadership. She forged a close friendship with the king’s sister, Marguerite de Navarre, an influential figure in the French Renaissance; the king’s mother, Louise of Savoy, was also a dominant force at court. It was a world in which women wielded power, and did it brilliantly.
It was a lesson Anne never forgot. From her first appearance at the court of Henry VIII – 500 years ago now – she made it clear that she was a woman like no other. Her continental sophistication made English ladies seem positively provincial. “In behavior, manners, dress and language, she excelled them all,” enthused an admiring courtier.
Anne Boleyn certainly knew how to make a good impression: when the king first saw her, she was playing the role of Perseverance in a court performance on virtues. That would prove appropriate, given what happened next. In 1526 everyone knew that Anne was the king’s new lover. He wandered around the yard like a loving puppy, declaring that he had been “struck by the arrow of love”.
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The object of Henry’s affections, however, was to keep him at a distance. Anne had learned from the example of her predecessors – including her own sister, Married – and refused to become a mere mistress who could be easily dismissed. The harder she played to get it, the more the king, who loved nothing more than the thrill of the hunt, was driven to extreme measures to get it.
When the Pope refused to play ball by annulling Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he took the drastic step of separating England from Roman Catholic Europe and creating a new church of which he was the head. supreme. All of this had been encouraged by Anne, who had introduced her royal suitor to the radical new religious ideas that were sweeping the continent and were collectively known as the reform.
Anne Boleyn was finally crowned queen in June 1533, by which time she was already heavily pregnant. Joyfully anticipating the birth of the male heir he so desperately needed, Henry planned a series of lavish celebrations. But on September 7, they had to be called off when news reached him that his queen had given birth to a daughter.
The birth of the future Elizabeth I was a bitter disappointment for Henry, and the beginning of the end for Anne. The fiery nature that had been so irresistibly attractive before their marriage was annoying in a woman and a sharp-eyed ambassador noted that he “backed down from her”. He also started indulging in business and outright told Anne when she complained to “close your eyes and endure”.
Anne went on to suffer a number of miscarriages, the last of them in January 1536 – the day her former rival, Catherine of Aragon, was buried. Apparently the fetus was developed enough for the midwives to tell it was a boy. For Henry, it was the last straw. He privately asked his ruthlessly efficient chief minister Thomas Crowell to get him out of the wedding. False charges of treason and adultery with five men, including her own brother, were brought against Anne, of which she was almost certainly innocent. However, the king had already brought the executioner to Calais even before the trial took place.
Elizabeth I devoted much of her 45-year reign to avenging the injustice of her mother’s fate
With her red hair and changeable temper, Elizabeth may have resembled her father, but in temper, ambition, and leadership, she was her mother’s daughter. Both women broke the mold that Tudor society had created for queens – and, indeed, for women in general. Elizabeth I became a leader of whom Anne would have been exceedingly proud; the kind of queen she herself might have become if her life hadn’t been so brutally cut short. There is a delightful irony that the child who had been Henry’s most bitter disappointment was to become the longest reigning and most successful of his heirs.
Elizabeth devoted much of her 45-year reign to avenging the injustice of her mother’s fate. Courtiers soon learned that honoring Anne’s memory was the surest way to win the Queen’s favor. It set off a rush of essays, pamphlets and portraits, all glorifying the woman who had ousted the “beast of Rome”, inaugurated a new and enlightened church, patronized scholars and artists, promoted social reform and changed the world. England for the better. As a result, thanks to her daughter, Anne regained her lost voice.
And yet, in the centuries that followed, the tragedy of Anne’s downfall eclipsed the achievements celebrated by Elizabeth and her courtiers. With this new series, even with its modern version, there is a chance that the real Anne Boleyn will once again emerge from the shadows: the religious ember, the visionary thinker and, above all, a woman who has broken all the rules.
Tracy Borman is a historian and author, and served as the historical advisor for the new series Blood, sex and royalty, streaming on Netflix. His next book is Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I: The mother and daughter who made history (Hodder and Stoughton, 2023)
Blood, sex and royalty premieres November 23, 2022 only on Netflix