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Hever Castle, family seat of the Boleyn family
History has to take the mess of history and make a story out of it. Many stories have been made out of the life of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. For catholic writer Nicholas Sander in the reign of Elizabeth I, she was an evil deformed witch, not a surprising interpretation given Anne's role in the rise of Protestantism in England. On the other hand sixteenth century historian John Foxe saw Anne as a protestant martyr. In the Victorian era, when history was the realm of romance and magic, Anne became a tragic heroine and victim. These various stories have resulted in Anne Boleyn today having many perceptions attached to her. She is vaguely thought of as a forceful woman who showed the men a thing or two, a schemer, plotter and marriage wrecker, as well as an innocent victim who suffered a brutal miscarriage of justice. In the popular Tudors television series, originally aired between 2007 and 2010, Anne was mainly portrayed as an intelligent, seductive schemer.
Shakespeare is one writer who took on the story of Anne Boleyn, late in his career, in his play Henry VIII. Rarely is something said or portrayed in Shakespeare without its opposite also cropping up. The story of Anne Boleyn is like this.
Hever Castle in the spring
The foundations of the Boleyn family fortune were laid in the 1420s. Geoffrey Boleyn left Norfolk to be apprenticed to a hatter in London. He soon became a successful business man in his own right, and built Hever Castle with his money. Such was the increased prestige of the family that Geoffrey's grandson Thomas was in a position to pursue a career in politics, greatly helped by a good marriage to Lady Elizabeth Howard, a daughter of one of the most powerful families in England.
Thomas was a diplomat and courtier, one of the group of powerful men jostling for position around Henry VIII, often doing mundane jobs like attending the king on the toilet, in return for prestige and influence. His wife, also a courtier, served in the entourage of Henry VIII's first wife Catherine of Aragon. They married and had three children survive to adulthood. Anne, Mary and George. Anne was born around 1501, although the exact date is unknown.
Following childhood schooling, Anne and Mary - who was probably the older sister - were sent to France to finish their education. This period in France, between 1513 and 1514, was to have a profound effect on Anne. She was placed in the court of Margaret of Austria, in the Hapsburg court of Mechelen in Brabant. The training was in deportment and French, all designed as preparation for a career as an attendant to Catherine of Aragon. Anne also had lessons in dressing, dance and music. She seems to have been a very able pupil, excelling in music and French.
In 1514 Anne was called away from Mechelen, perhaps to attend Henry VIII's sister Mary, who was to marry the old French king Louis XII. Louis only survived for eighty two days after his marriage. For some reason Anne then remained in the court of the new French king, Francis I, attending his wife Claude. Anne stayed with Claude for seven years, probably putting her language skills to good use as an interpreter. She attended Claude at the extravagant summit meeting between Henry VIII and Frances I, known as the Field of Cloth of Gold, held between 7th - 23rd June 1520. It is possible that Henry first met Anne here.
Wolsey's Hampton Court
Anne returned to England in March 1522. Marriage proposals were in the air. Anne's name was linked with Henry Percy, heir to the earldom of Northumberland, and with the poet Thomas Wyatt. Whether it was at the Field of Cloth of Gold, or some time afterwards, King Henry was now interested in Anne. The king personally blocked the Percy marriage, demanding the boy be disciplined by his father. Henry's senior aide Cardinal Thomas Wolsey warned Percy off, and married him safely to the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. As for the poet Thomas Wyatt, it is not clear what sort of relationship he had with Anne, or what exactly happened to end it, but it is clear Wyatt was smitten with a love that could be dangerous to him:
Sometimes I fled the fire that me brent
By sea, by land, by water and by wind:
And now I follow the coals that me quent
From Dover to Calais against my mind
(Wyatt Poems LIX)
With all suitors out of the picture, Henry now had Anne to himself. If Anne had been quiet and compliant, she probably would just have been another mistress, like Anne's sister Mary. But it seems that Anne Boleyn was a young lady of strong character. It is not clear when Henry VIII first decided that he had to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Eric Ives thinks it was around 1525 when Henry made his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy the title of Duke of Richmond. Clearly at this time he was preparing for the eventuality of not being able to have a son with Catherine. But ousting Catherine's legitimate daughter Mary in favour of illegitimate Henry Fitzroy was a very risky strategy. Perhaps an alternative plan was also being considered. A tentative chronology of events sees Catherine isolated at court by December 1526. Early in the new year Thomas Wyatt found it advisable to leave the country, heading for Italy. By May 1527 a preliminary annulment hearing had been held in secret. At some point that summer Henry and Anne agreed to marry, and in August a decision was made to ask the pope for dispensation to free Henry from his first marriage to marry Anne.
There were, however, significant obstacles. The pope had already been required to offer a dispensation to allow Henry to marry Catherine, to avoid the charge of incest - Catherine was the former wife of Henry's dead elder brother. The pope found it awkward to accept an argument that Catherine's first marriage invalidated Henry's marriage to her. After all agreeing to this would mean that the pope had been wrong in his original dispensation, and the pope as god's representative on Earth could not be wrong. There was also the difficulties posed by tensions in Europe. The French, and a large power bloc in central Europe known as the Holy Roman Empire were struggling for supremacy in Italy. In May 1527 troops loyal to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had sacked Rome. Pope Clement VII had been a prisoner of these troops for a few months, and was not in a position to defy them. And Charles V was Catherine of Aragon's uncle. King Henry tried to back the French effort in Italy to help Clement, but this was unsuccessful.
This stalemate dragged on for two years, with tension building all the time. On 21st June 1529 a public confrontation between Catherine and Henry took place in the parliament chamber at Blackfriars. Henry sat in embarrassed silence as Catherine called for justice, turning her back on her husband as she walked away. Anne meanwhile had been living with her mother at Hever, communicating with Henry by letter. She wasn't sitting quietly and patiently. At the end of November 1529 Savoyard ambassador Eustace Chapuys recorded the following harangue from Anne, worried about slow progress:
"Did I not tell you that whenever you disputed with the queen 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." (Quoted in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives, P128.)
Horse Guards Parade, once the jousting arena of Wolsey's Whitehall Palace, seized from Wolsey by Henry VIII in 1530
Even though progress towards divorce was slow Anne now held complete power over the king. Jealous of others who held influence over him, she set out to destroy Cardinal Wolsey, who by October 1529 was ruined, surrendering all his property to the Crown and throwing himself on the king's mercy. In one of the ironies of power Henry imagined that he was expressing his own power by seeking a divorce in the face of all obstacles. But in doing this he was putting himself into the power of Anne. In late 1530 Anne demonstrated this power in a ferocious manner as Wolsey counter attacked. Wolsey worked for an agreement between Catherine, Charles V and Rome, aimed at protecting Catherine's position. Anne treated Henry to "a scene or a series of scenes, which reduced him to tears" (Ives P131). She brought up her wasted youth again, demanded that Henry respect all that she had risked for Henry, and threatened to leave him. The only way Henry could pacify Anne was to move against Wolsey. His once trusted advisor was arrested and charged with treason. In The Tudors television series Wolsey then kills himself, though there seems no evidence for this. According to Henry VIII scholar J.J. Scarisbrick Wolsey had the good fortune to die quietly at Leicester Abbey before he could be taken to the Tower.
This was a great victory for Anne, but she had to wait another year to marry. If the pope would not allow a divorce, the pope would have to be bypassed. Anne showed Henry a book called The Obedience of the Christian Man and How Christian Rulers Ought to Govern by William Tyndale. This book was an iconic text in the rise of Protestantism, which aimed to provide an alternative to the Catholic Church. Henry was a receptive reader. By the end of 1532 Henry and Anne felt confident enough in their position to start living together. Then early in 1533, probably on 25th January, Henry and Anne went through a secret wedding ceremony. It was clear that Anne was now pregnant, and that the legitimacy of the heir had be ensured. This meant finally breaking with the authority of the pope. On 23rd May Archbishop Cranmer declared the marriage between Henry and Catherine null and void, which gave official acceptance to the marriage which had already taken place between Anne and the king. The deed was done. England had acted alone. Now all attempts to keep Anne in the background ended. Her coronation as queen on 1st June 1533 was a lavish public affair.
The Anne Boleyn Memorial on Tower Green, Tower of London
Almost immediately, however, Anne's position began to weaken. A baby arrived on 7th September 1533, but it was a girl - the future Queen Elizabeth I. In February of the following year Anne was pregnant again, but miscarried. By the summer of 1535 Henry had a new mistress, Jane Seymour. Henry's marriage to Anne had been based on a fierce emotional attachment, which was unusual when most royal marriages were carefully plotted diplomatic manoeuvres. This meant that Anne refused to accept her husband's mistress, which added to tensions. For Anne there was one brief period of macabre togetherness in January 1536, when her old enemy Catherine died at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire. But on the day of Catherine's funeral, 29th January 1536, Anne miscarried again. Then, disastrously, she fell out with Henry's senior advisor Thomas Cromwell, who wanted to make an alliance with Charles V, who of course had made Anne's life so difficult as Catherine of Aragon's uncle. The Boleyn family had many enemies and they now saw their chance. An alliance was quietly forged between the powerful Seymour family and the anti Boleyn faction. They knew that the best way to control Henry was through a woman. So Jane Seymour, a quiet and compliant character, was carefully coached to pour poison in Henry's ear and turn him against Anne. According to Thomas Cromwell, Easter Sunday 1536 was the day when the decision was made that Anne had to go. On the morning of 2nd May 1536 Anne was charged with adultery with three men and sent to the Tower of London. On the morning of 19th May Anne was executed at the Tower.
At the end of his play Henry VIII, Shakespeare finishes with an apparently throwaway little speech about keeping the audience satisfied. He says you can't please all the people all of the time, but if you please the women that's a good start, because men will be obliged to follow them: "All the best men are ours; for 'tis ill hap if they hold when their ladies bid 'em clap" (Epilogue). This seems a fitting way to end a play about Henry VIII, and an article about Anne Boleyn, a woman who was a victim of a powerful man, and the only person who could control him.