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Following the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn

Updated on January 30, 2015

The Most Happy

The first time I heard of Anne Boleyn as a child was a mentioning by my mother of Henry VIII and his treatment of his wives. There was also that catchy pop song "Henry VIII I Am". I dismissed it as history that I could have cared less about and went about my life. Why were people so obssessed with some medieval king in the 20th century anyway?

In 2004, I was at a holiday celebration and a relative mentioned the book The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory. She said it was a fascinating book that I had to read. So I picked it up at the bookstore. I couldn't read this book fast enough. I was enthralled by the woman that was Anne Boleyn and how she was so captivating to a king. If she was truly the demise of a nation, the reason for the fall of the Catholic church in England, what was so special about her? Would a king so devoted previously to the Holy See up and separate from the church because of a woman with six fingers, a wart and not of good looks? It doesn't make sense. It is no wonder people of the time believed that witchcraft was the cause. The Holy Church would have you believe anything that wasn't their doing was witchcraft anyway. So of course their pious English followers would follow suit. Not to mention that the king himself used her wicked ways as an excuse upon her beheading, stating he was free of her spell as he heard the bell toll to confirm her death in the tower.

After reading this historical fiction novel by Gregory, I decided that the rationale here didn't make much sense by modern day standards and I am always one to hear both sides of an argument before condemning someone, particularly to witchcraft. There was just something captivating about this woman. I had to know more. I picked up every biography I could on Anne from her sympathizers to her critics. To name a few, I read Anne Boleyn: A new life of England's tragic queen by Denny, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Ives, Five Women of the English Reformation by Zahl, The Last Boleyn by Harper (It is about Anne's elder sister, Mary, but goes into detail about their relationship), The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Weir and The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn by Warnicke. From my reseach I have come to several conclusions: Firstly, Anne was devout to her faith; second, Anne prided herself in being on the cutting edge of fashion, current events and taking care to precure her wit which caused her to care very much how others viewed her; third, Anne did more charity work and good deeds in her 3 years as queen than the rest of Henry's wives; fourth, Anne and Henry married for love, not for political gain; Finally, Anne was one of the first feminists in history.

Coin of Anne Boleyn

This is the only surviving coin from Anne Boleyn's reign.  Henry VIII had the rest destroyed after her death.  It is also the only known contemporary portrait of her.
This is the only surviving coin from Anne Boleyn's reign. Henry VIII had the rest destroyed after her death. It is also the only known contemporary portrait of her. | Source

A Faithful Servant

Anne Boleyn began her life a Blickling Hall in Norfolk, England. Shortly thereafter, her family moved to Hever Castle in Kent. Her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, was not of noble birth and was eager to climb in status. He married Elizabeth Howard, who was of noble birth, to propel his climb up the regal ladder. Thomas wanted the best for his children, not, I believe, for their benefit, but as a tool to climb further up the proverbial ladder. He was a calculating man, and his first move was to educate his daughters in France. Mary and Anne Boleyn were first sent to Austria, and then on to France to be educated and to learn the customs. Both of these countries were sympathetic to the protestant readings that were going around, which promoted the ability of all peoples to connect with their God and not need a person of the cloth or king to do so. These teachings were right up Thomas' alley. This was his ticket to see that the common man could make his own fortune. France was also more keen on educating women. So off he sent his two daughters.

In France, Mary seemed to be more interested in the social aspects at court and was quickly drawn into King Francis' court known for its licentious passtimes. Anne, on the other hand, a few years younger spent her time learning proper ettiqute and reading books to educate herself. I also believe that Mary's choices left a mark on Anne. It was through this experience that she learned how precious someone's reputation was. She became almost manic in producing this facade of what she would present to the world. Anne, too, agreed with the writings of Machiavelli and Luther. She had enough pride to want better for herself, as did her father, but not enough to be the calculating witch history has left her to be.

Through Anne's study of these writings and her bible, as all educated women of the day did, she found herself to be a true believer in Christ and closely followed his teachings. These beliefes would later lead to how she handled her relationship with Henry and how she would become a pioneer for feminism.

Anne's piousness continued to follow her when she met Henry. Henry pursued her vehemently and her stout beliefs, along with her father's game playing, led her on trips back and forth between the English court and her family home at Hever. It is also fair to argue that Anne held Henry off in the bedroom due to her belief in consummating a relationship after marriage. If she is as learned a student of the bible as history tells, this seems to be a more likely scenario than a wild goose chase that lasted 7 years. It is also an argument Henry would believe as he too was a faithful man, although ultimately self-serving.

When Anne finally becomes Queen of England, she is said to have her ladies in waiting regularly studying the bible. I don't believe that her image of pioty was simply an image. It is a common theme beginning in her childhood, and it follows along with a conversation topic for Henry and her that other women of her time could not offer.

Anne's final symbol of her faith was in her last confession to Bishop Kranmer in the Tower of London. The day before she was executed, the bishop came to her for her last Eucharist and confession. As the bread was approaching her mouth, Anne professed her innocence. In medieval time, even more so than today, people would speak the truth in this circumstance. To do otherwise was to be eternally condemned to hell. In the privacy of her last confession with the bishop and before God, she claimed that she was ever faithful to Henry. She did not do this on the scaffold, as a public showing for all to hear. If Anne Boleyn was ever an actress, she would have stood there in front of the people who gathered to watch her execution and stated her case. Instead she chose to profess her innocence in private for God's ears only because at the end of the day, that was all that mattered.

Hever Castle

Hever Castle, Anne's childhood home in Kent, England.
Hever Castle, Anne's childhood home in Kent, England. | Source

Fashion Forward & Image Conscious

As mentioned before, Anne and her sister spent their adolesence being educated at the court of King Francis I in France. There, Mary chose to pass her time with many of the male courtiers and allegedly King Francis himself. She earned a reputation that a lot of the court assumed would also apply to Anne. Anne, with her faith, immediately let people know that she was not an unwise, plaything for the men at court to toy with. She was knowledgeable enough in current events, learned enough in her studies and quick witted enough to keep these male courtiers on their toes. If she was ever to be a conquest, Anne let it be seen early on that she would not be an easy one.

In addition to her sharp mind, Anne also was fashion forward. It was typical of the English ladies of the day to wear a hood to cover their hair, as it was thought to be sexually arousing. In France, however, the women wore hoods that showed the front area of their hair, where a woman's bangs would be today. French women were also more educated than a good deal of the courts in Europe. Anne took wearing the French fashions as a sign of her intelligence and as a sign of her worldliness. Not many English courtiers had studied abroad in the 16th century, particularly female ones.

When Anne arrived back in England, this fashion sense and quick wit made her stand apart from her English counterparts. Some men found her threatening. Others found her mesmerizing. Those who were mesmerized followed her everywhere. She quickly had a flock of people surrounding her. It was vital to her survival at an every changing English court to have people who favored her. Therefore, her image of the mysterious and educated woman had to be upheld.

Charitable Deeds & Public Works

All queens of England are responsible for the philanthropic works of the crown. Anne was no exception. She gave three quarters of her household income to alms for the poor. As an evangelical Christian, and as a woman in power, Anne felt it was her duty to reach out to the poor. She gave on Maundy Thursday, at weekly services, on seasonal progress to beggars on the road.

In addition to monetary donations, Anne also gave shirts, smocks and sheets. She and her ladies worked tirelessly on making these items, particularly for homes with many small mouths to feed.

Here again, we see Anne's Christain leanings. She spent her free time making items for the poor. She also gave the majority of her income to those in need, which is far more than Henry's other wives, as Anne held the title of Marquess of Pembroke, which entitled her to money and land.

For the Love of a Woman

If you are a believer that Henry VIII was a just ruler, or believe strongly that the Catholic faith is the one true religion, it is likely that you believe that witchcraft on the part of Anne Boleyn was the only reason he broke with Rome and jilted his first wife. However, if you look through a humanistic lens and see that Anne was a Christian in all ways, you may come to see that Henry couldn't have been bewitched. Also, if you have ever been in love, you would see that a man would move Heaven and Earth to be with her.

Henry married Katherine of Aragon after she had married his brother, Arthur. Arthur died shortly after the marriage and Henry VII, the boys' father, didn't want to lose his alliance with Spain. By all accounts, Henry and Katherine had a good marriage. Henry was eighteen. She was 24. If any of us know an 18 year old boy, how much do they really have in common with a 24 year old woman? Particularly a boy of Henry's nature. He was wild, flirtatious, a real sportsman. He certainly was not wise beyond his years. Katherine was more of a mother or older sister figure, a constant companion, than the love of Henry's life. She also turned her head while Henry had flings in the court, two of which produced children.

When Henry met Anne, he was still young and good looking. She was learned in the areas that appealed to him, particularly the evangelical teachings of the time. They had much to converse about and laugh about. It was the meeting of two minds and hearts. Henry fell head over heels for Anne. Anne fell for Henry too, but for virtuous reasons and not wanting to be second fiddle to another woman, she held out for marriage. I don't believe that Anne ever truly thought at first that Henry would leave Katherine. Over seven years of Henry's ego, no annulment, and Henry dotting on her with titles and land, Anne was Henry's wife in all but name. It was after her introduction to the French court as the Marquess of Pembroke and his fiancée, that Anne succumed to Henry's desires.

We also know that Henry and Anne were students of the reformation. Henry's ego was far greater than his love of Rome. So any readings to give him ultimate power over his own destiny were used to his advantage. Did Anne tell him about these books? I'm sure she did. But did she do it for her own end? Or because she was passionate about her cause? With her years of studying the bible and in reformer-friendly courts, I would argue that it was the later.

In the end, the things that Henry fell in love with - Anne's wit, intelligence, flair - would be the things he chose to hate. As with all good love affairs, it takes great love to cause great hate. Henry's ego couldn't take that he had not conceived a son. His legacy may not go on. The saddest and most tragic part of all of this is that Elizabeth I, Anne and Henry's daughter, was one of the most successful monarchs in England's history. Henry's legacy lived on, but Anne's fate fueled Elizabeth's fire.

Henry & Anne

H & A, for Henry and Anne, initials intertwined.  When Henry wanted all traces of Anne erased, this was left up due to comprimising the structural integrity of the archway at Hampton Court Palace.
H & A, for Henry and Anne, initials intertwined. When Henry wanted all traces of Anne erased, this was left up due to comprimising the structural integrity of the archway at Hampton Court Palace. | Source

Reformist, Feminist, Icon

Anne Boleyn went through her life as we all do. Experiencing things as they came and trying to procure the best she could in all things - education, marriage, her career, her philanthropy. I don't believe she ever set out to become a queen or an icon. Anne educated herself, stuck to her beliefs and her status rose. She had more say and influence than any other woman of her time, all by being herself. Her moves were not calculated. They were the moves of an educated, pious, worldly woman in the 16th century.

The problem was there weren't many of those. After her death, Henry had every trace of her erased. His next wife, Jane Seymour, was everything that Anne was not - quiet, uneducated and Catholic. Jane gave him the son he always wanted almost immediately and died in doing so. Henry wanted to pretend that Anne never existed. He couldn't have broken from Rome without her. She filled his mind with poisonous thoughts, he claimed. Her coins were destroyed. Their daughter lost her birthright. Her decorations throughout Hampton Court Palace were taken apart, except one that would have ruined the structural integrity of an archway. For many years, until Elizabeth's rise to the thrown, it was as if Anne never existed.

Publicly, Elizabeth never discussed her mother or the issue of her parents. Privately, it is obvious it ate away at her decisions in relationships. Elizabeth had a ring made with a picture of her mother inside. She wore it everyday, as she said, as a reminder of what a man could do to a woman if given the chance. It is for this reason I believe Elizabeth never married. Henry wanted a son to be the greatest monarch of England. Out of Henry's strength of character and Anne's quick mind, they did produce one of the greatest monarchs of England. She just happened to be a girl - a living testiment that Anne's life was not in vain, but that Anne's life made way for a new generation of women.

Elizabeth I's Ring

Elizabeth I's ring that had her and her mother's portrait inside, reminding her that a woman's power is all her own.
Elizabeth I's ring that had her and her mother's portrait inside, reminding her that a woman's power is all her own. | Source

Tower Green & St Peter ad Vincula

Tower Green in the Tower of London, where Anne Boleyn was executed.  Her remains are buried in the altar of St Pater ad Vincula in the background.
Tower Green in the Tower of London, where Anne Boleyn was executed. Her remains are buried in the altar of St Pater ad Vincula in the background. | Source


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