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Text copyright © 2019 by Hayley Nolan
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This book is dedicated to
every powerful woman
whose truth has ever been
suppressed and censored.
It is also dedicated to every person
who has had a hand in that censorship.
Sit down. It’s over.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?
This is not a love story. I hate to be the one to break the news, but epic love stories don’t end with one partner decapitating the other. The more we normalise and romanticise this notion the deeper down the great rabbit hole of self-deception we go.
If you’re coming to Anne’s story fresh, let me fill you in on what you’ve missed.
We’ve been sold a lie. All these years. It’s been one vamped-up story after another in a desperate bid to keep the ever-growing legend of Anne Boleyn alive. But the lies don’t add up. So many of the stories that have been spun just don’t make sense – in the media and movies, but even more shockingly, in the hallowed history books by those we’ve come to trust. I’m angry and you should be too. Anne Boleyn has been wrongly vilified for five hundred years, her truth silenced and suppressed, with no one revealing the full, uncensored evidence of this complex, convoluted and contradictory story. Until now.
After four years of rigorous and exhaustive research, the archives have begrudgingly revealed that, contrary to popular belief, Anne Boleyn was not the smarmy and smug, cold-hearted scheming seductress we’ve so often been assured she was, in everything from sixteenth-century propaganda to modern-day mass-market history. Nor was she the ruthless mistress with lofty yet empty ambition, as she is repeatedly dismissed as being in the Tudor biographies. In fact, all these ‘versions’ of Anne’s character clash spectacularly with the few fragments of evidence we actually have regarding her life: facts that rarely see the light of day because, to the irritation of writers the world over, they somewhat ruin the pantomime villain caricature they feel is necessary to sex up their dastardly Tudor plot.
Of course, the age-old story you’ll be familiar with, straight from the trusted wisdom of some distinguished historical sage, goes something like this: Anne and her father scheme to place her in the king’s path, whereupon she oozes sexuality, her wit and foreign charm seducing the hapless Henry VIII. Then, being the devious mastermind that she is, Anne plays a blinder, telling the king that she won’t be his mistress. Oh no, if he wants her . . . he’ll have to divorce his queen and marry her.
And for what?
For mindless power and selfish gain, of course; Tudor villains don’t need any more motivation than that.
But there are several years of vital information – either brushed over, dismissed or downright ignored – that happen to ruin that entire theory. For why does anyone want power? So they can sit on a throne contemplating inwardly how powerful they are? No! Power is used to put policies in place and implement change. So what deceitful plans did the power-hungry Anne Boleyn enforce as queen? Surely this is where every theory regarding her true character either gains merit or falls flat? Indeed, it does, and as you will discover within the pages of this new analysis, every single one of Anne’s royal missions had charity, education or religion at the heart of it. A true sign of a terrible trollop, if ever I saw one.
The level of censorship that has taken place over the last five centuries – and is still alive and well today, I hasten to add – will shock, disturb and baffle in equal measure. Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you with the shock (perhaps try a sip of brandy), but I can help with the confusion by providing a groundbreaking re-examination of Anne Boleyn and her entire relationship with Henry VIII – one that for the first time pieces their story together realistically, reflecting the true people we have hard evidence that they were, providing light-bulb moments for the questions historians have, so far, only managed to provide absurd and illogical answers to. As a result, I’ve found myself tackling the first Tudor biography that mixes historical fact with psychological analysis; this, I’ve discovered, is vital to finally understanding the two Tudor monarchs with whom society has had a mild obsession for several centuries now.
Already I can hear the academic reader guffawing at such a statement: we only deal with facts and evidence here, Ms Nolan!
Well, sure, if we’re talking about a study on the interaction of robots. But if we want to understand the human beings that were Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, complete with all their seemingly irrational decisions and nonsensical actions, then we must also take into account the one thing historians tend to dismiss, and that is the screwed-up enigma of the human psyche. I mean, let’s face it, no one makes the monumental decision to divorce a queen, start an international war, relentlessly pursue an annulment for seven years and fight to change the religion of an entire country without little things like emotions coming into play. Or an alarming lack of emotion, as you will come to see in the case of Henry VIII.
Which is why you should question anyone – historian or not – who tells you that true love can end in decapitation. When similar acts of violence are carried out as terrorism around the world today they are met with an appropriate level of horror and disgust, but throw in a Tudor king and queen and suddenly it’s the most tragic love story of all time. Often it’s presented to us so subtly that we don’t even realise it’s a love story we are being sold; it’s the biographer who tells the tale of a passionate king fighting to marry his forbidden mistress, the researcher who calls Henry’s correspondence ‘love letters’, the historian who credits the religious reformation to ‘the lovers who changed history’, or the news article that cites England’s break from Rome as the grandest romantic gesture a man ever made for a woman.
However, we need to ask ourselves what the more logical truth is: that all-consuming true love can end with a man cutting his soulmate’s head off because she apparently broke his heart? Or that the two were never in love in the first place and there was something else powering their dysfunctional relationship?
For indeed there was, and if ever there was a moment in history for the truth to finally be revealed, that time is now. Our bullshit meter is at capacity. Our tolerance for being lied to, manipulated and treated as the gullible consumers who will lap up anything has well and truly hit its limit. And so, as a consequence, I’m here to introduce a woman you’re unlikely to have met before. This isn’t a woman you’ll recognise from the commercial or academic history that is readily available, where Anne is repeatedly relegated to the subplot role of ‘love interest’ or ‘opportunistic wife’. But worry not, for this is a woman I guarantee you will grow to respect and admire, because a funny thing happened in uncovering the truth, and that is that Anne Boleyn’s story has now become more relatable and inspiring to the modern reader than we could have ever predicted.
Ah yes, for who could fail to be inspired by that classic tale of the systematic suppression of a strong and powerful woman who tried to take on a corrupt establishment?
I’m afraid I can provide no whimsical escapism here, so please leave any expectations of outdated Tudor folklore at the front door. This is no fairy tale and Anne Boleyn was no heartless villain. Yet equally, I’m not here to paint her as the fantasy princess – as though these are the only two categories available for women in history!
Anne was real. She lived and existed just like every one of us. Her personality wasn’t written to fit plot points; that means she was complex, with contradicting character traits that cause biographers in need of a neatly packaged page-turner to leave out the vital parts that don’t make sense and somewhat ruin their narrative. Anne’s story wasn’t created for entertainment purposes, which is perhaps why it’s been so heavily rewritten over the years. But as tempting as it might be, let’s be careful not to describe this analysis as a ‘new take’, a ‘retelling’ or ‘reinvention’ of Anne Boleyn and instead call it what it really is: an exposé of the truth.
The problem is, history is written by the winners. The story the world was told of Anne Boleyn in the sixteenth century was carefully stage-managed by those who killed her, so is there any wonder that what has filtered down is a warped and perverted version? This great legend has now been passed on from generation to generation, evolving along the way. Snippets of her story were told by those who knew her best, but the majority has been told by the people who hated her the most. Of course, the centuries that followed Anne’s death were hardly known for their level-headed rationality, so they were unlikely to question the standard spin. Why would they even want to, when they had tabloid tales of witchcraft and incest to tell?
As for how the lies have survived in the twenty-first century, I blame lazy writers not bothering to venture beyond surface-level research, a disturbing spate of sexist historians with outdated interpretations of the actions of women, and a need for Anne to fit the caricature of the ‘scheming seductress’ within the whole ‘six wives’ gimmick that it’s become.
Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived . . .
What a delightful way to trivialise thirty-eight years of collective trauma, misery and murder into a memorable playground ditty. But believe me when I say that Anne being ‘one of six’ is the least interesting thing about her. So, it’s time to rescue her from the restraints of a fictional character description as Wife Number Two, remove her from the ‘six wives’ line-up and let her stand on her own. Women aren’t numbers!
You may or may not be surprised to hear the main problem encountered over the past five centuries is that most historians simply aren’t as impartial as they are meant to be, and neither are the historical sources from which we all work. Be it due to the political climate of that era, social beliefs of that generation, or a whole host of other personal agendas, what the reader gets to see is rarely the unembellished truth. Of course, in the modern world, we also have to contend with the fact that the media can legally rewrite Anne’s life in books, movies and TV shows – the means by which the wider public consume history nowadays. Here they declare it ‘historical fiction’, safe in the knowledge that the reader and viewer will assume the only ‘fictional’ aspects will be the imagined scenes and dialogue, never suspecting for a minute that what writers are actually doing is changing the entire timeline and facts of Anne’s life, rendering her whole story a fabrication.
Yet even those rare gems, the few non-sensationalist academic biographies, somehow manage to overlook the most vital evidence about Anne’s life. This is where I have come to realise, with fiction or non-fiction, often it’s not what a writer says but what they miss out that can do the most damage when trying to uncover who Anne Boleyn really was, what drove her and why she made the decisions she did.
This censorship is a real issue and it starts with Anne’s Tudor peers. One of the most comprehensive accounts of life at the court of Henry VIII was written by the Spanish ambassador, Eustace Chapuys. God bless this man’s attention to detail and ability to ramble or we would never be in possession, as we are, of the intricate knowledge of life and politics during Anne’s reign. However, rather frustratingly, his reports are deeply biased in favour of the king’s first wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon, whose family Chapuys was working for. Of course, none of the reports written by Anne’s enemies were ever going to be an impartial reflection of true events, and if they were the only accounts history had to go by, the truth would have died along with Anne. But they’re not, and that’s where we discover a disturbing double standard.
We have the writings of a range of sixteenth-century historians from in and around the Tudor court, including John Foxe, who reported stories from Anne’s household employees, George Wyatt, who provided a unique insider family account, not to mention Anne’s own chaplain William Latymer and theologian Alexander Alesius, who both knew her personally, and worked directly with her in the crucial months leading up to her murder. Yet these reports continue to be dismissed to this day as merely trying to gain favour with Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, during her later reign. Of course, they did themselves a disservice by glossing over every negative in order to paint Anne as an angelic martyr devoid of any human fault. But equally, her enemies would gloss over the overwhelming good, and paint her in a singularly one-dimensional bad light. Yet their negative propaganda is not similarly dismissed as ‘biased and unreliable’, and this is where the shocking censorship begins.
This lack of objectivity was, perhaps, understandable when writers were so close to events in the sixteenth century, but modern researchers and writers, with their apparent impartiality, should surely now see all these accounts for what they were: wade through the propaganda – negative and positive – in order to piece together a story reflective of the truth. You’d hope they would. You’d trust they would. Alas, they don’t, and I have discovered it increasingly rare to find a neutral historical Tudor biography.
A famous female historian recently illustrated this point in a succinct tweet, admitting she is on #TeamAragon, demonstrating somewhat depressingly that we have been pitting women against each other in divorce for the past five centuries and we’re not about to stop now.
So, may I take this moment to assure the reader that I have approached this biography with an ambitious attempt at unbiased neutrality, strictly regulating my work to avoid being in favour of one person over another – admittedly, a difficult task when the whole book is centred around arguing Anne’s case against the lies! Even so, my vow has been never to deviate into sympathiser, apologist or martyrdom territory. Hence, in order to present the most honest and objective account of Anne’s life, this new analysis has incorporated it all: the good, the bad and the censored. Because, as you’ll see, it’s only when we fuse the contrasting sixteenth-century reports that we are at last met with a fully rounded, fallibly flawed Anne Boleyn who starts to resemble something close to a human being.
Of course, I am fully aware that the world holds many clashing opinions on the life and character of one of Britain’s most controversial queens – expressing everything from hate to indifference, admiration to pity; not to mention the restless and growing community worldwide who suspect she has been terribly maligned, but are just not yet privy to the evidence that proves it. Try as I might, I’m afraid it will be impossible to address each person’s individual assumptions and beliefs in this correctional biography. Instead, I can only endeavour to highlight the manipulation of the facts and revelation of the truth – or at least the closest we will ever get to it with the evidence that remains.
I don’t know why it’s taken this long for vital research to come into the mainstream, or why the task of Tudor whistle-blower has fallen to me, but it’s a challenge I’m ready to take on. The sheer thrill I’ve experienced in piecing it all together, the moments of sudden realisation when the penny dropped and it all started to fall into place, excited me more than any sexed-up version of the story ever has.
Bit by bit, the one-dimensional portrayal of the ruthlessly ambitious Anne Boleyn who wanted power for power’s sake was replaced by a real-life person I could finally understand. Sometimes you’ll want to shout at her from behind the page for being so self-destructive; behold, here is a woman who had more foot-in-mouth moments than Bridget Jones. You’ll cheer for her. You’ll cry for her. You’ll grimace as she plays the situation so wrong, storming inevitably into the plot of her own murder.
Don’t worry, the truth you’re about to read is still worthy of a thousand books and movies. But better than most soap operas, you can’t make this stuff up. Well, as we’re about to see, over the past five centuries they have tried, but the lies aren’t nearly as exciting as the truth.
Anne’s final words in her scaffold speech heartbreakingly declared, ‘If any person will meddle of my cause, I require thee to judge the best.’
Well, I have judged the best and to Anne I say, like for her, the time has passed for staying silent. The world in which we live now requires us to stand up for the truth and fight for what’s right, because, disturbingly, the twenty-first century is starting to mirror Anne’s own era; so we need to know what really went down in order to ensure we never repeat it again.
We are the people, and together we have a power that is stronger than those who want to manipulate us. As historian Professor Timothy Snyder says, ‘To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.’1 It starts with knowledge. It starts with the truth. It starts here.
So, if you want to know the story behind the shocking censorship of a woman whose power to do good was considered so threatening she was killed, and her reputation systematically ruined over the years, then read on!
THE PART THEY DON’T TELL YOU
For most people, Anne Boleyn simply appeared at the Tudor court one day, an ice-hearted villain, ready to smarm and smirk her way into history. Yet there is an incredibly valid reason writers tend to brush over Anne’s early life, and that’s because it contradicts and spectacularly ruins the whole ‘scheming seductress’ image we’ve been repeatedly fed.
However, these aren’t just the revelations that have come to light in recent decades of a strict upbringing at the hands of several pious, powerhouse European monarchs – although this was indeed a long overdue, truthful counterargument to sixteenth-century propaganda that had Anne practically raised as a courtesan in the sex-driven boudoirs of the French courts. Not that even this admission of virtue would cause modern historians to stop and question how such an honourable upbringing could produce a depraved schemer who would soon stalk the halls of the Tudor court. In fact, it only served to add a delicious new element to their juicy story: that of the good girl gone bad.
But no, as it turns out, Anne’s childhood was more monumental than the mere fact that she was nurtured in the royal courts of the Low Countries and France; for she grew up in the pulsating heart of the religious Reformation. This meant that far from simply attending a finishing school that churned out well-bred young ladies brought up to honour and obey, Anne was taught instead to fight back against the questionable authority of Rome by the very activists who kick-started the Reformation.
This ‘fierce intelligence’ Anne was later said to possess was not used to outwit and bring down petty rivals at the royal court, but to join a war that was brewing across the whole of Europe. This was the rousing religious climate in which Anne thrived and became a passionate fighter for those who had not been afforded the same privileges in life as she; those who had not yet understood that they were being suppressed by what many saw as the all-dominating authority of the Church.
It’s only when we delve into Anne’s world during the vital years in which she entered adulthood – the people she grew up with, the court influences and hot topics debated daily – that we can truly grasp how laughable it is to say that she returned to England an unscrupulous temptress whose sole aim in life was to be flirty, frivolous and to frolic with kings.
Of course, even when taking her story back to the innocent years of her childhood, we have to wade through an onslaught of eye-roll-inducing lies. The obvious one we should get out of the way first is that Anne was banished abroad as punishment in adulthood. Contrary to what has been depicted in recent novels and movies, she was in fact sent on a prestigious placement as a child.
However, it would appear this lie wasn’t plucked entirely out of thin air and was inspired by sixteenth-century propagandist Nicholas Sander. One of his stories is that Anne was sent away to France after her father caught her in bed with both the family butler and chaplain at her childhood home of Hever Castle in Kent. Anne was only fifteen years old when this illicit debauchery was meant to have taken place, following which we’re supposed to believe that her father sent his disgraced daughter to one of the most distinguished courts in Europe, that of Archduchess Margaret of Austria, which Thomas Boleyn frequented as a special envoy representing the king of England.
It makes perfect sense to risk Anne continuing her alleged sexual exploits in the legendary imperial court, where she could bring shame on not just the Boleyn family and the English monarchy, but her new mistress, Archduchess Margaret, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, governess of the Low Countries, who was charged with overseeing the education of her nephew, the future King Charles V of Spain.2
Need I really point out the improbability of this claim? Not likely. Particularly as we’d have to also overlook the fact that Anne had been living in France for two years by the time this scandal was meant to have taken place back in England. Ah.
In reality, Anne was sent to Margaret of Austria at around the age of twelve, following her father’s first diplomatic mission at her court, where it’s said the pair struck up a friendship of mutual respect. This resulted in the offer for Anne to finish her education there in 1513. Boleyn family expert and historian Dr Lauren Mackay states in her doctoral study of Anne’s father, Thomas, that securing such an illustrious placement for his daughter reveals a great deal about his relationship with his middle child: not only in that he sought out such a placement, but trusted she would conduct herself well and bring honour to the Boleyn family.3
Margaret even wrote to Thomas: ‘I find [Anne] so bright and pleasant for her young age that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me than you are to me.’4
This note proves what an asset Anne was considered to be and the incredible impression she made on the royals and nobles of Europe within mere months of her arrival.
So, no sign of her hooking up with the mail man, then.
It has to be said, this education was seen as a highly radical move in itself. While it was the norm for boys in the Tudor era to be given tutors and sent to university, girls of Anne’s social standing were merely expected to be taught at home by their mothers. Here they would specialise in household chores, while simultaneously tackling heavyweight subjects such as embroidery, music and dancing.5
Anne’s placement also supports the argument for her year of birth being 1501, not 1507, as some have suggested, with the generally accepted age to serve abroad being twelve. But more to the point, a letter Anne sent home to her father where she spoke of being a ‘worthy woman when I come to court’ is written with the intelligence of a young teen, not a six-year-old.6
Though it has been widely acknowledged that Anne’s French education was responsible for the more radical belief system that would carry her through life, the impact this first year abroad at the Habsburg Imperial Court would have had is often overlooked. Even to just take a look at the works Margaret of Austria promoted within the court library shows us the intellectual, religious and cultural interests Anne was exposed to. Among them were names that are still studied in universities to this day, including philosophers Aristotle and Boethius, the Renaissance humanist Boccaccio as well as the incredibly progressive work of Christine de Pizan, who became infamous for challenging misogyny and stereotypical views of women in the late medieval era.7
In addition to the books they read, Margaret’s court was well known for accepting some of the most enlightened thinkers of Europe, including the humanist priest and theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam, who would go on to be commissioned later in life by Anne’s father.
So it was here, in this extraordinary setting, that Anne would spend over a year following a strict regime of study and courtly etiquette at the hands of an inspirational and powerful female ruler. But even that short time was filled with drama.
It was some time around 1514 that rumours began to swirl that Anne’s mistress, Margaret of Austria, was set to marry King Henry VIII’s closest companion, the infamous Charles Brandon. The couple had seen each other regularly in the autumn of 1513, at approximately the time of Anne’s arrival.
Historians revel in playing up the importance of the moment when Henry and Anne most likely set eyes on each other for the first time, at the iconic Tudor summit that was the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. This was the first time she saw the man who would become her husband! Talk about romanticising history. You mean, this was the first time she laid eyes on the man who would murder her?
But as historian Steven Gunn confirms, Anne would have met the king many years earlier, because Henry VIII and Charles Brandon visited the court of Margaret of Austria together during the time of Brandon and Margaret’s courtship, if we can even call it that.
So realistically this is more likely to have been the moment and the setting in which a young Anne Boleyn first saw her future killer.8 But what did she make of him? Was she besotted? In awe of the two men? Probably not. In fact, the events that unfolded were likely to cement Anne’s lifelong disdain for the king’s best friend and fuel a feud that would one day destroy her.
It started when Margaret and her ladies were summoned to celebrate the victory of her father the emperor and Henry VIII at Tournai, in September 1513. Drunk on high spirits and no doubt copious amounts of wine, Charles Brandon appears to have taken the game of courtly love too far when, egged on by a boisterous Henry, he proposed to Archduchess Margaret.
To confirm their ‘engagement’ and as a token of their love, Brandon then took a ring from her. But clearly feeling the joke had run its course, Margaret was quick to ask for it back; at which point Brandon refused, no doubt thinking the whole thing was totally hilare. But the situation soon got out of hand – as most drunken proposals tend to do. She called him a thief; people in London started taking bets on a wedding; her father, the emperor, was shocked to say the least, and Margaret began threatening death to those who continued to spread the story.
All in all, this was not the best first impression for Anne Boleyn to have of Henry VIII, but it most certainly would have fixed her low opinion of Charles Brandon.9
By the final months of 1514, Anne’s French was so accomplished that she was requested to join the court of the new French queen, Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor. Yes, on the advice of Henry’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, England and France were to settle their political differences with a marital alliance between Henry’s younger sister and the old and ailing King Louis XII of France.10 She was eighteen. He was fifty-two. I believe this is what they call ‘taking one for the team’.
However, the royal request for Anne to move to France caused friction between her father, Thomas, and his old friend the archduchess of Austria, as Mary Tudor was breaking her betrothal to Margaret’s nephew Charles V in order to marry their rival over in France. Boleyn biographer Eric Ives gives this as the reason for a gap between the request for Anne to join the French court and official records of her eventual arrival, suspecting the archduchess might have held on to her for a while just to spite them.11 But for his part, Thomas was honest with Margaret, saying he ‘could not, nor did not know how to refuse’ the request.12
This meant that, although Mary Tudor arrived in France and married the French king in October 1514, we don’t have evidence of Anne’s arrival until January 1515. So consequently, she spent hardly any time serving the new French queen, Mary, for after a mere eighty-two days of marriage, King Louis died on 1 January.
Louis’s daughter, the fifteen-year-old Claude, was poised to take her father’s place on the throne; however, due to the delightfully sexist sixteenth-century French laws, her new husband, Francis, became the reigning monarch. Claude was henceforth relegated to baby-making machine, apparently a fair trade-off back then. ’Twas indeed a great time to be alive.
But eager to not let Mary Tudor’s short-lived reign stunt his daughter’s education, Thomas Boleyn pulled a few strings in order for Anne to remain as lady-in-waiting to the new Queen Claude – not that this was a hard sell, coming straight from the tutelage of the Imperial Court in Mechelen and being the same age, Anne was no doubt seen as the ideal companion for the young queen.
Some historians have tried to argue that when Anne moved on to serve the wife of the notorious womaniser King Francis I, she most definitely must have been corrupted; that, as French historian Brantôme once said, no one leaves the infamous French court chaste,13 and that this is how Anne became the sultry seductress the world has come to know.
However, if we look closely into the time Anne spent in France, we discover that she lived an extremely sheltered existence and was never exposed to the legendary shenanigans for which the court was well known. In fact, far from joining a court of debauchery, when Anne entered the service of the French royal family in the early months of 1515 it was a sad and subdued time.
When Claude’s father, King Louis, married Mary Tudor, it had been a mere nine months since Claude’s mother had passed away. Fifteen-year-old Claude was so distraught that she cried throughout her own wedding ceremony to her twenty-one-year-old husband, Francis, on 18 May 1514. The court at the Château Royal de Blois was still in mourning when Francis’s sister Marguerite d’Angoulême joined them, taking on the role of big sister to Claude and her younger sister Renée.14 To add to Claude’s misery, several days after her wedding her new husband left for Paris to be with his mistress for two months.15
As Queen Claude began her spate of obligatory pregnancies, she spent more and more time retired within the castle at Blois, accompanied by Anne Boleyn and her other ladies-in-waiting, living what sounds to have been a pretty dull life of seclusion.
Tudor historian Elizabeth Norton confirms that Queen Claude was renowned for her piety and keeping her household apart from that of her scandalous husband.16 It’s well known among Anne’s more serious biographers that in this household, she was educated in a strict code of conduct and the highest moral standards. Claude was known for being reserved and retiring. She rarely made public appearances, which was why it was said her husband’s sister, Marguerite d’Angoulême, was queen in all but name, performing most of the duties usually required of Claude. Even when attending the legendary Field of the Cloth of Gold it was Claude’s mother-in-law, Louise of Savoy, and sister-in-law, Marguerite, along with her husband’s official mistress, who stepped in to perform Claude’s duties at the event.17 Vitally, what this demonstrates is that as lady-in-waiting, Anne was given rare opportunity for the life of smut and corruption she was meant to have led in her early years in France.
Now, the reason for Claude’s isolation was less to do with social anxiety and more to do with illness. She was never a healthy girl to begin with, walking with a limp from a young age, and she soon found herself crippled with continual pregnancies, giving birth to seven children in eight years. That’s a lot of time to be pregnant and confined to bed rest. So, what did Anne Boleyn and her fellow ladies do during those months Claude was being ‘churched’ alone?
After careful discussions with the Château Royal de Blois, where Anne and Claude spent the majority of their time, it’s thought likely that Anne would have been put to work in the retinue of other members of the royal household. But who?
Well, let us consider the evidence: two decades later, in 1535, Anne would write to Marguerite d’Angoulême saying that her ‘greatest wish, next to having a son, was to see you again’18 – quite the statement for someone she had known only at a distance. Similarly, in 1534, when Henry VIII wanted to get out of a meeting with Francis I, Anne was the one who sent a message to Marguerite via her brother, George Boleyn, that she was, in fact, pregnant and needed Henry by her side, so could they possibly postpone. Pretty intimate information to be sharing with someone she barely knew. It’s certainly not the kind of excuse you would give another politician – which the royals of Europe essentially were in the sixteenth century – if schedules had to be changed. It is these glimpses into the obvious intimacy of the two women’s friendship that indicates it was most likely that, during Claude’s bouts of sickness and pregnancy, Anne and the other ladies-in-waiting were placed in the unofficial service of Marguerite.19 This explains why Francis I referred to Anne Boleyn as Claude’s lady rather than his sister’s, because, officially, that was the role she was contracted to do.20
Yet, if you are an avid reader of Tudor biographies you will be aware that this friendship is something many have set out to discredit. But why do historians feel it so necessary to prove, or more to the point disprove, that Anne was close to Marguerite during her time in France? Because Marguerite was a renowned reformist and a huge supporter of France’s leader of religious reform, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples. So, of course, such a strong, religious upbringing for the young Anne Boleyn does not, I repeat not, fit in with the slutty, scheming seductress image we have of her. It works much better for historical writers on #TeamAragon if Anne was involved in the immoral depravity that we are repeatedly told was rife at the French court.
But even if we don’t take into account the likelihood of Anne directly serving Marguerite, with the latter seen as the ‘unofficial queen’, it’s inescapable that all courtiers would have been hugely impacted by this powerhouse ruler. So, what did this mean for the religious climate at court?
Marguerite was only twenty-two, yet already known to be ‘learned and witty’. She called herself the ‘prime minister of the poor’, something you’ll come to see Anne Boleyn could equally have called herself later in life. Marguerite was a woman of high moral standards; even though she was in an infamously unhappy marriage, she apparently never took a lover, when it was all the rage in sixteenth-century Europe.21 She was to fill the French court at Blois over the years with religious activists who would go on to be major players in the rebellion against the Catholic Church. These were the very people with whom Anne Boleyn would have been interacting on a daily basis and found herself inspired and influenced by.
In 1515, following the deaths of Queen Claude’s parents, their valet de chambre, the poet Jean Marot, moved into the household of Francis I along with his son, Clément.
Clément Marot would go on to become the renowned French reformist who controversially translated the Psalms. Interestingly, he moved into the new royal household at the same time as Anne, and together the two became immersed in court life. The fact that when Clément was later accused of heresy he was offered royal protection by Anne Boleyn, it’s clear she was not just aware of his work but cared deeply about him, indicating she knew him on a personal level from her childhood in France.22 But one might question how they could have become so closely acquainted when working in the separate households of the king and queen. Quite. Which is why it’s intriguing to learn that Clément moved into the service of Marguerite d’Angoulême as her valet in 1518, with her becoming his patron the following year,23 suggesting that the obvious time frame Anne would have got to know Clément was during her stints serving Marguerite.
Whenever Clément Marot’s time at Blois is discussed, it’s implied that it was he, as an avid reformer, who ran around court radicalising all those he came into contact with. But in actual fact, it appears it was the other way around; it was here that Clément first came into contact with the evangelical ideas that would drive the course of his life. This confirms one vital thing for us: that the French court was a hotbed for reformist ideology. And if it was to have this impact on Clément, then what effect would it have on Anne Boleyn?
Alas, despite the clear evangelical influence of Anne’s French childhood home, some historians have tried to skirt around this by pointing out that we only have evidence of Marguerite’s own interest in religious reform from mid-1521, when she started writing letters to the reformist Bishop Guillaume Briçonnet; and that this being a mere six months before Anne left court, it could not have had the profound effect we presume.
But in fact, European historians suspect it was Marguerite who, in 1515, encouraged her brother, Francis I, to make Briçonnet the bishop of Meaux in the first place: a post that would see him create the Circle of Meaux, an infamous group of French reformists including Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, France’s leader of the Reformation.24
Indeed, religious reform is something that Marguerite would have been debating with the scholars and theologians of the court for years before her letters to Briçonnet began. The Cholakian biography states that it was as early as 1516, when Marguerite was on an expedition with the royal court, that she began to show early signs of being unhappy with the Church and was actively trying to reform its ways. During the trip she called in on badly run convents that were home to nuns surviving on insufficient funds. This was where she came across a pregnant nun who revealed a monk had seduced her, and at another had stopped a nun from self-harming as penance for her sins.25
But guesswork is not required here, as we have evidence that Marguerite’s interest in reform had an impact on young Anne Boleyn’s childhood more than is ever revealed, with Marguerite’s letters to Briçonnet showing she was actively working on converting the whole French court to this new underground religion.
The explosive letters exchanged between Marguerite and the man who would become her confidant and counsellor date from 12 June 1521 to 18 November 1524. So sensitive were the contents that she only entrusted a few close allies to deliver them, one being Clément Marot. During this correspondence Marguerite wrote excitedly to Briçonnet telling him, ‘My sister-in-law, my dear sister is quite of our opinion.’ Marguerite’s biographer, Mary F. Robinson, believes she could only have been talking about Queen Claude.
There is the possibility that the ‘sister-in-law’ Marguerite speaks of could have been Françoise, the sister of her husband Charles, duke of Alençon. However, considering Marguerite’s main aim was to convert the king, her excitement at getting his wife, Queen Claude, on side would make more sense than her husband’s sister, who had no power to help the Reformation whatsoever. Her victory there would certainly not have been worthy of writing with celebratory news to Briçonnet. Nor would it have prompted Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples to write to congratulate Marguerite, as he did, on her good work.26
Briçonnet was ecstatic that the ‘true fire which since long has been lodged in your heart, [is now] in that of the King and Madame’, again confirming that this had long been an issue of importance for Marguerite, not a burning new religious query that suddenly began to eat away at her only months before Anne left court.
Marguerite later responds, ‘Madame has begun to read in the Holy Scriptures. You know the confidence that she and the King place in you.’27
So, you see, the detail of this correspondence proves to us that Marguerite had long been questioning the Church. Not only that, but she had been recruiting at court for her religious cause. To that end, it makes perfect sense for her to try and influence the young daughter of the English ambassador who, one day, would be returning to the royal Tudor court of England, where she would be able to spread the word of their new religious fight.
Mackay points out that when Thomas Boleyn joined his daughter at the Château Royal de Blois for almost two years, from November 1518 to March 1520, he found numerous evangelical and humanist priests preaching the reform message, to which, at this stage, Francis I and his sister, Marguerite, were sympathetic. This was a court that was at the forefront of the reformist development. So it’s unrealistic to think that Anne lived among these progressive thinkers, was educated alongside them and socialised with them, without them influencing her and enlightening her as to the revolution that was tearing through Europe.
Oh, but wait, what was that you say? Anne’s father joined her in France?
Oh yes, as if a strict, religious upbringing at the hands of France’s leading reformists wasn’t enough to keep Anne in check during her years abroad, then her father living with her for nearly two years as an ambassador for King Henry VIII ought to do it!
Sorry, what was that? No one’s told you that before?
No, of course they haven’t. I mean, how could she have been running riot, learning sordid French tricks at the court, if she was the respectable daughter of the royal ambassador representing the king of England? Once again, we have the pesky facts ruining the slutty narrative.
In 1518, Thomas Boleyn joined his daughter at the Château Royal de Blois, during which time he became so highly respected by the royal family that he was invited by Louise of Savoy to personally socialise with Queen Claude herself. Similarly, it would be during those intense years abroad, when Thomas and Anne were each other’s only immediate family, that father and daughter would have really bonded, becoming closer than ever before.
Thomas’s role negotiating diplomatic relations between England and France was such a delicate one that it was of utmost importance that the whole Boleyn family represented king and country with grace and dignity. So where did that leave the ‘great and infamous whore’ Mary Boleyn – Anne’s sister, who, history will tell you, was banished from the French court following an illicit affair with the new French king?
The original source of the Mary Boleyn/Francis I affair rumours is a single letter written by the pope’s official representative, Pio, Bishop of Faenza, on 10 March 1536. The fact it was sent mere months before Anne’s death, when the anti-Boleyn slur campaign was in full swing, should tell us all we need to know about its reliability, but here we go nevertheless. Pio wrote:
Francis said that ‘that woman’ [Anne Boleyn] pretended to have miscarried of a son [her last miscarriage before her death] not being really with child, and, to keep up the deceit, would allow no one to attend on her but her sister, whom the French king knew [supposedly in the biblical sense, having slept with] in France to be a great prostitute and infamous above all.28
Considering that two months later, this same man would write that Anne had been arrested with her whole family, including mother and father,29 should again highlight the fact that Pio’s reports are to be taken with a pinch of salt and dash of seasoning.
The only problem with his Mary Boleyn claim – which has built in momentum and infamy with historians ever since it was written – is that she has been recorded as having spent a grand total of seven months in France before returning home to England, along with Mary Tudor, at the end of April 1515. Mary first arrived with the royal party from England in October 1514, ahead of her sister Anne’s arrival, and was not one of the ladies who were kept on to serve Queen Claude after the death of the French king in January.
It was during the transitional, crossover period of the monarchs that both Anne and Mary Boleyn would have spent the obligatory forty days of mourning locked away with Mary Tudor, a precautionary move to check Louis’s widow was not pregnant with his heir before King Francis I and Queen Claude took over the throne. Mary Boleyn left with the English party in April once the all-clear was given.
For two of her months in the French court, January and February, Francis was away from Blois in Rheims and Paris for his coronation;30 then we have the forty days spent in isolation with Mary Tudor. So, if these accusations of Mary Boleyn’s string of torrid affairs are true, this must have been some record achievement, with the young girl treating sex as an Olympic sport during the five short months she and Francis were actually in court at the same time. This, in order for them to not only hook up, but for Mary to stand out to Francis as a particularly depraved sexual beast. That’s if Bishop Pio did indeed mean Francis knew Mary in the biblical sense; after all, he said he ‘knew her to be a great prostitute’, not that he simply ‘knew her’, implying that he had slept with Mary himself.
After all, if this had been the case, it would certainly beg the question as to quite why her sister, Anne, would have been allowed to serve Queen Claude, if Mary had been having it away with her husband. Come to think of it, if Mary Boleyn had earned herself a sordid reputation and been disgraced, would she really have been taken on to serve Queen Katherine of Aragon back in England in 1519? More to the point, would Mary have realistically been allowed to marry the king of England’s cousin and member of the exclusive privy chamber, William Carey, in 1520? This was two years before she was to begin an affair with Henry VIII, so not something we can dismiss as a reward for being the king’s mistress, as many have claimed over the years.
So, you see, when you consult the facts and not the gossip, the idea that Mary Boleyn ever had an affair with the king of France, or indeed anyone at the French court, starts to look less and less likely. But if you came here for sex and scandal, worry not, for as I say, it appears she did have an affair with Henry VIII, and all the juicy gossip there is yet to come.
Well, thank God for that!
Can’t have a Boleyn biography without at least one affair, can we?
The religious revolution that was brewing during Anne’s years in France was inescapable. It was at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and everyone had an opinion. It would divide not just the country but the whole of Europe.
In 2017 we marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Yes, it’s been five hundred years of war, death and sacrifice over exactly how we pray for love, peace and forgiveness. Oh, the irony. But you may note that Henry VIII didn’t break from Rome in 1517. Indeed, he did not, and that’s because the sixteenth century experienced two very different reformations that often get muddied and mixed into one.
1517 was to be the year of sixteenth-century whistle-blower Martin Luther’s infamous war with the pope that created a religious storm and made fighters out of the most unlikely of people. You want to know what was Anne Boleyn’s driving force? What made her the ballsy, driven and unapologetic fighter she grew up to be? Then it’s vital we take a look at the religious climate of her youth that she was to rebel against.
Like their rulers, the people of England and Europe lived for Catholicism and all its so-called ‘superstitions’ that these new reformists were opposed to. People would wake in the night to pray, suffer treacherous pilgrimages to have their prayers answered and wear hair shirts in penance for their sins. English reformer and Bible translator William Tyndale complained of the relentless tolling of bells from dusk till dawn by friars and nuns who ‘vex themselves, night and day, and take pains for God’s sake’.31
It’s difficult in this day and age to convey how deeply religious the sixteenth century was, and how seriously the people took all these rituals. Yet to understand it, we have to remember just how grim the Tudor times truly were. The mortality rate was high and life expectancy was low; disease could unexpectedly wipe out whole communities within days, and public executions were a normal part of daily life. Death wasn’t something that would eventually creep up many decades later, but was ever looming ominously overhead. For the nation, faith was more than saying prayers by rote; it was a vital connection to an afterlife that not only promised salvation beyond the dour realities of the world around them, but one they might have to face in the not-too-distant future.
So, believe me when I say it was no joke that there were charms to recite during childbirth to make sure babies were born without complications, certain incantations were said to halt bleeding, and fevers could be stopped in their tracks by ‘casting of the heart’, which is not an 80s pop song but apparently some sort of magical process.32 It was said that a prayer to St Apollonia would cure toothache, and oats offered to the statue of St Wilgefortis apparently rid women of unwanted husbands.33 There were ‘dismal days’ on which weddings and travel were to be avoided at all costs;34 and when high winds once hit the steeple of St Alkmund’s Church, there was talk that Satan himself had left scratches on the bell.35
It’s all too easy to mock now, but sixteenth-century folk had a true fear of God, and apparently some priests were all too happy to take full advantage of it. But by 1517 the people had finally had enough. You see, the backlash that was to come with the Reformation wasn’t against God or even initially the Catholic faith – it was against a number of people who ran the Church at the time.
The storm finally broke in October 1517, when Martin Luther accidentally released hell by posting his now infamous Ninety-Five Theses. However, this was not on the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church, as we’ve been told, and I say ‘accidentally’ because it was never intended to be the war cry it became.
Now, if a Ninety-Five Theses sounds like quite a heavy tome to pin anywhere, let me explain that it was actually a one-page document, a sort of Ninety-Five Dos and Don’ts of how Luther believed the Catholic Church should be run. For the uproar it caused you would have thought he had condemned the pope to the fiery pits of purgatory, but in actual fact it listed simple notes such as: ‘Only God can give salvation and forgiveness, not a priest. Penitence must be accompanied by a suitable change in lifestyle. An indulgence will not save a man; people are being deceived by indulgences.’
Now, indulgences were pardons for sins that were being sold by the Catholic Church.
Yep, you could buy a pardon for your sin. Pay for salvation, not pray for it.
Early modern humanist Erasmus famously mocked those who ‘enjoy deluding themselves with imaginary pardons for their sins’ in his satire In Praise of Folly.36 To illustrate this point, in 1519 Frederick the Wise catalogued over five thousand supposed holy relics at Castle Church in Wittenberg, which you could pay to be in the presence of.37 It was said the saints in heaven would listen more attentively to prayers made close to these holy relics.38 And let’s just say that the authenticity of some of them was somewhat questionable – this, in particular, is an issue we will see Anne Boleyn personally fighting against during her time as queen.
Yes, depending on which relics you prayed in front of, you earned a certain number of days’ suspension from your sins. In 1513, Castle Church was offering forty-two thousand years’ worth of cancelled sins in the afterlife – that’s if you could perform all the devotions for their five thousand or so relics.39
Sounds great. Where do I pay?!
Safe to say, indulgences were quite the money-spinner for the Church. So, when Martin Luther and his fellow reformists suddenly called them out and tried to regulate or put a stop to them altogether, you can imagine the Church wouldn’t have been all too happy about it.
The money from the sale of indulgences and access to holy relics at Castle Church largely paid for the establishment of the university in 1502, at which Martin Luther also taught. So, there is something to be said for the money going to good use. In England and Europe, money raised from the sale of indulgences was often ploughed back into the local community to build roads and bridges, so you could see it as some sort of religious tax. Indeed, people who bought into these indulgences sometimes did so just to support local projects, not necessarily to ‘save their soul’.
But that wasn’t so much the issue; after all, there is such a thing as free will. No, it was more the lies the preachers were telling their congregations in order to get them to pay up, playing on their fears of damnation in the afterlife. Indulgences even had a slogan: ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, at once the soul to heaven springs!’
Ah yes, so that was the other issue the new evangelicals had with indulgences: the promise that a priest could forgive your sins.
Reformists were firmly of the belief that no man on earth could guarantee your salvation. Only God could forgive. Not even the pope could save you, who, the people had been told, was the only figure of authority who could grant complete forgiveness for sins – meaning if he deemed you worthy, you could skip purgatory altogether and go straight to heaven.
Another area where these bothersome evangelicals were demanding reform, and one Anne Boleyn was to be heavily involved with in her lifetime, was how the Bible should be read; they claimed it should be available in all languages for everyone to read and understand. This was as opposed to hearing it only in Latin from a priest. Given that the majority of people couldn’t understand Latin, this made the language barrier in daily Mass somewhat tricky. Yet the pope was adamant that Latin was the official language of the Church and the only language the Bible should be read in. However, he clearly flunked religious education in school, as that’s not quite the case.
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek. It was only from there that they were both translated into Latin. But, unable to understand it, the majority had no idea what was being preached to them; so the reformists wanted this changed in order for the people to have a more meaningful connection with God’s word. These may sound like pretty reasonable requests now, but in 1517 they were radical and dangerous thoughts.
But why would the Church be so scared of the people reading the Bible in their own language?
Some claimed it was so the priests could have more power over them. This way they could twist the scripture to suit their own agenda regarding the sale of indulgences and exactly who was responsible for a soul’s forgiveness. After all, if the people didn’t understand what was written in the Bible, they couldn’t challenge what they were being told.
Martin Luther wasn’t the first to speak out or question the Church about all of this. Nor did the poor bloke intend to be the spokesperson and international hate figure for the Reformation. On 31 October 1517, rather than posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Castle Church, as has been reported for the past five hundred years, Martin Luther sent it to the Bishop of Mainz for approval. It was accompanied by a very polite letter drawing the bishop’s attention to the shocking sermons of controversial indulgence preacher Johann Tetzel, for the ‘insanity’ of claiming that the latest indulgence he was selling was so powerful it could even forgive a sinner who had violated the Virgin Mary!40
Ah. Right. Tad blasphemous.
But Luther ran into problems due to the fact that his Ninety-Five Theses was intentionally provocative. It was purposefully written and designed to stir up academic debate at the university where he taught. Years later Luther would say of his gutsy letter: ‘I did not yet see the great abomination of the Pope but only the crass abuses’ and that his intention was not ‘to attack the Pope, but to oppose the blasphemous statements of the noisy declaimers’, meaning the indulgence preachers.41 Either way, I’m sure he didn’t expect the Bishop of Mainz to forward the thesis directly to the pope. Nor did Luther expect such an overwhelming reaction from the people.
After university staff posted his Ninety-Five Theses around the city of Wittenberg to advertise the upcoming debate (historian Peter Marshall believes it was more likely they who posted it on the church door bulletin board), Luther went viral. He was shocked to find his argument was spread ‘throughout the whole of Germany in a fortnight’, and by spring the next year it had reached the rest of Europe.
Henry VIII got his hands on the controversial thesis when Erasmus sent a copy to Thomas More,42 who was acting at the time as, among other things, Henry’s secretary, interpreter, chief diplomat and adviser.
Reformists at the French court would have been abuzz with news of this gutsy priest who was daring to stand up and challenge the pope. There is no doubt that Anne would have followed the story just as intently as everyone else. Whether you were for or against Luther, you could not have failed to hear about him. And there were plenty who were against him, with Henry VIII fast becoming one of Luther’s most famous critics. As the increasingly volatile situation developed, the king of England was kept up to date with secret coded letters via his right-hand man, Cardinal Wolsey.
The people’s army of rebel ‘Lutherans’ grew so fast in Europe that by June 1518 the pope was forced to react. He authorised a judgement saying that, ‘Whoever says regarding indulgences that the Roman church cannot do what it de facto does, is a heretic.’43
This wasn’t just a threat against Luther but all reformists who took issue with indulgences, making it incredibly dangerous for the likes of Anne Boleyn and Marguerite d’Angoulême to go on to support such radical thinking. A line had been drawn in the sand.
The pope’s judgement also stated, quite incredibly, that his authority was greater than that of the Bible.
Tensions continued to build, but by 1520 Luther had well and truly had enough. He had been accused of being a heretic, ripped to pieces by every high-profile figure in the land, and so he fought back by publishing three pamphlets that put his little Ninety-Five Theses to shame. Here he called for German nobility to reform the Church, incredulously declaring that four of the seven sacraments had been invented. It was at this point that the pope issued a papal decree, in June, threatening to excommunicate Luther if he didn’t abandon his entire belief system immediately. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I learned that this meek friar, who had at first set out to get papal approval for his unassuming university debate and didn’t want to upset anyone, on 20 December 1520 threw the pope’s threat on to a bonfire outside Wittenberg’s Elster Gate, to the rapturous cheers of his supporters.44
Perhaps caught up in the adrenaline rush of rebellion, Luther then published the jauntily titled ‘Assertion of All the Articles Condemned by the Last Bull of Antichrist’.
Needless to say, the pope confirmed Luther’s excommunication in January 1521.
Like all his new fellow reformists, Luther was scared but defiant. Sometimes, in order to cover our fear, the human psyche will have us play up the bravado even more, which certainly seems to have been the case here, and is something we will see in Anne Boleyn many a time, too.
And so, you see, this was the explosive religious climate in which Anne was being raised in Europe. After seven years of a radical religious upbringing, in which she was taught to question the authority of those she had been conditioned to follow blindly, and made aware of how she and the people were being manipulated and taken advantage of, like most of her generation she was ready to join the crusade: fight with the people for the people in order to reconnect with the undiluted doctrine.
It was then, at this crucial moment, that Anne is meant to have returned to England and magically morphed into a ruthless, morally corrupt, scheming seductress for no apparent reason whatsoever.
BANISHED FROM COURT: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED
In December 1521 Anne was summoned home to England. Some have attributed this timing to the war that was brewing between England and France,45 but in truth a marriage match was being arranged for her with a courtier named James Butler.46 This marriage was meant to kill two birds with one stone. Firstly, it would unite two sides of Anne’s family who were at loggerheads over the title of the earl of Ormond. Secondly, Wolsey needed a ploy to keep James, who was a valuable courtier in his own household, in London rather than him being sent back home to Ireland.
In a letter to the king, Wolsey says: ‘On my return I will talk with you how to bring about the marriage between [Butler’s] son and Sir Thomas Boleyn’s daughter, which will be a good pretext for delaying to send his son over [to Ireland].’47
Who says romance is dead, eh?
So, while this match was being negotiated, Anne Boleyn at last made her debut at the Tudor court of King Henry VIII.
Anne’s personality is said to have stood out in court because she actually possessed one. She was said to have been a fan of lively conversation at a time when to give a simple smile was considered the height of intelligence. No wonder historians accuse her of shamelessly flirting with every man she encountered; she was probably the first woman who talked back and held eye contact when a coy glance to the side was all the fashion.
One historian recently described Anne as having ‘brazen self-confidence’.48
Brazen, you say? How very dare she? If Anne was living in the modern world today, I suppose she would be one of those presumptuous women who speak up in the boardroom with an opinion of her own. So very brazen!
Now she was back in England, far from her focus solely being on how to have an uninterrupted stream of banquets and balls, as it’s often said, fresh from her powerful and progressive education in France among reformists and royalty, Anne would have been ready to make a difference in the world. And indeed, it’s said she made a splash from the start. People would speak of how she dazzled with a natural charm, impeccable manners, social grace and witty repartee. Even George Cavendish, a firm member of the later anti-Boleyn faction, admits that when Anne joined the court to serve Katherine of Aragon her ‘excellent gesture and behaviour did excel all others’.49 Frankly, this is a missed opportunity from Cavendish to paint her as the flirty whore from hell, but he provides his readers with a startlingly honest recollection of her. Needless to say, this is one report from Cavendish that rarely sees the light of day in the popular history books.
As we’ve seen, during her time in France Anne had learned all about the state of religion, and the girl certainly had an opinion about it. Here was a lady of the court who was not scared of taking on the men in a theological debate. As part of Marguerite d’Angoulême’s court she had been taught to be literate, accomplished, intelligent and, lest we forget, in possession of that infamous brazen self-confidence. So, you see, it would have been impossible for Anne to return to the English court and play the meek and mild submissive.
Yet we have to realise that although she was joining her family at court, with her older sister, Mary, in the service of Katherine of Aragon and younger brother, George, in the king’s prestigious privy chamber, Anne was also joining a strange new world of cliques and factions where she was viewed as a foreigner.
Now, while Anne is regularly described as arriving at court with enviable French sophistications, the reality of sixteenth-century London, as J. J. Scarisbrick points out, was that the English held a deep-rooted antipathy towards the French. As unsavoury as this thought is, it got to the point where, on 1 May 1517, a racist mob took to the streets of London attacking all foreigners, including the Spanish and Portuguese, causing hundreds of locals to end up imprisoned in the Tower. Katherine of Aragon, to her great credit, intervened to appeal for leniency against the xenophobes who had abused her countrymen.50
But one thing this tells us is that the French influence in Anne’s life would have been something that marked her out in a not particularly positive way at court. Following her arrival, she couldn’t have failed to notice the animosity felt by the English towards her childhood home. So while she may have appeared confident and knew how to hold a conversation, she probably would have been desperate to fit in and be accepted by these new people.
Alas, there was one way in which courtiers of every rank bonded, and that was via the sporting act that has now gone down in history as courtly love; this is basically an over-romanticised way of saying that they loved to flirt. The men would endeavour to outdo each other with acts of chivalry to woo the women, who in turn played along, writing poems and riddles back and forth.
What can I say? They didn’t have TV back then so they had to make their own entertainment. But it was all incredibly sanitised and proper; they exchanged rings, not bodily fluids, as most at court were married or betrothed to others. But this was just an innocent way to kick back and have a few bants after the daily toil of serving king and country. No one took it too seriously.
No one, that is, except the past five centuries’ worth of historians who have since pored over every jaunty poem in existence that Anne Boleyn may or may not have written, searching for any hint that she was a wanton vixen who lured men in with a saucy iambic pentameter.
Now, of all the relentless accusations of illicit affairs that have plagued Anne from adolescence to adulthood, there is one that has really gained momentum over the centuries, and that is her supposed dalliance with Thomas Wyatt. Popular history has reduced him to a simple court poet, but he was also a diplomat and ambassador to Rome. Wyatt was supposedly good-looking and wealthy, hence quite the catch. He was also married, and had been for ten years; so if Anne was as smart as she appears to have been, it makes absolutely no sense for her to have risked her honour and respectability for a quick roll in the hay with a married man with whom she had no future. Even when she accepted Henry VIII, he was separated and in the process of getting his marriage annulled.
Of course, that’s not to say that Wyatt didn’t fall head over heels with Anne and try his luck.
Boys will be boys, eh?
As his grandson George explains in one of Anne Boleyn’s first sixteenth-century biographies, her ‘witty and graceful speech’ had Wyatt utterly smitten. However, the vital part we must take away from this insider family account is Anne’s response to his unwanted advances, with his grandson conceding that upon ‘finding him to be then married . . . rejected all his speech of love’.51
Now, it’s certainly not improbable that Anne played along in the etiquette of courtly love and flirted with the good-looking Wyatt. Indeed, we have a few poems and ditties they apparently wrote to each other, which, of course, certain historians have taken to be hard evidence of a full-blown sexual affair.52 (For the benefit of the jury I am inserting an ‘eye roll’ emoji right here.) But Wyatt’s grandson hits the nail on the head when he confirms in his biography that Anne ‘was not likely to cast her eye upon one who had been married ten years’.53 I rest my case.
Of course, Anne was meant to have achieved this alleged feat in mass seduction during her early years in England and France while, according to some sources, looking like a three-armed hunchbacked deformed crone.
So let’s just clear up the sixth-finger rumour once and for all, shall we?
The fact is that Anne’s mere presence at the royal court meant there was no way she could have had an extra finger, welts on her face and wens on her chin,54 as has been reported over the years, because noticeable birthmarks or any kind of deformity in the sixteenth century were interpreted as the ‘devil’s mark’ and signs of being a witch.55 So, while this explains why the slurs about Anne’s appearance became part of the great legend following her death, it’s the very extremity of these supposed disfigurements that makes it impossible for them to be true or she would never have been allowed in high society, let alone the queen’s household and the king’s bed.
Henry VIII was extremely superstitious – we’re talking about the man who would cross himself at the sound of thunder and interpret any inclement weather as a sign from God. So, do we really think he would have been cool about his lover having an extra digit?56
George Wyatt addressed the sixth-finger rumour directly, stating that while, no, there was none, Anne simply appeared to have ‘some little show of a nail’57 on the side of her finger. But he went on to explain it was so small that it could be easily covered by her other fingertip. So whatever the anomaly was, realistically this has to be the extent of any deformity in such superstitious times, when people lived in fear of any signs of the devil, witchcraft or the occult. It also means you need to seriously question the reliability and motivation of any modern-day historian who implies the presence of a sixth finger in order to complete the picture of Anne Boleyn the Evil Witch who swept into court on her broomstick and cast a spell on the lovesick Henry VIII.
But I have something controversial to admit: I really couldn’t care less what Anne Boleyn looked like. I harbour not even a morbid curiosity. Those who hated her say she was ugly; those who loved her say she was pretty, as though any of it matters as to the person she was and what she achieved in her lifetime. The only thing these contrasting reports succeed in proving is that society has had an obsession with beauty since time began.
The Venetian ambassador said she ‘is not the most handsomest woman in the world. She is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth and bosom not much raised.’58
Oh, you old charmer!
Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander later reported Anne to have had jaundice, a projecting tooth, the obligatory sixth finger on her right hand and a large wen under her chin. But then, in contrast to the insults, he describes her as ‘rather tall of stature’ and somewhat bafflingly concludes ‘she was handsome to look at’.59
The French diplomat Lancelot de Carles, who was never a big fan of Anne’s, surprisingly goes against the trend of hostile sources in saying she was beautiful and ‘of elegant feature’.60
However, I don’t need Anne to have been a stunning beauty devoid of all human imperfection, and neither should you. She had far too much else going for her. She was a kick-ass young woman, so I couldn’t care less if she was ‘goggle-eyed’61 or ‘reasonably good-looking’.62 The only reason I address her looks here at all is because, as we’ve seen, the accusations actually have a much more sinister meaning, with every imperfection being an apparent sign she had been ‘marred by the devil’. So it seems only right we put those myths to rest once and for all.63
Alas, though those early days of courtly love were jolly good fun and all, while everyone else around her grew up, got married and became serious courtiers, Anne Boleyn has never been allowed to escape this flirty reputation from her early years at court, even as she matured and focused her energy on more important issues of the day.
Historian Maria Dowling points out that: ‘Traditionally [Anne] is pictured at the centre of a circle of brilliant gentlemen-poets who were devoted to the pursuit of courtly love and other frivolous matters.’ 64
Yes, as though there weren’t more pressing concerns to be thinking about. While all of Europe was in religious upheaval, some writers will have you believe the royal courts were solely focused on shagging. You’ll be relieved to hear that this was not quite the case.
As it turns out, all evidence points towards Anne coming back to England with a revolution building inside her. Like a lot of her young European contemporaries, she would have been inspired by Martin Luther’s ongoing battle with the pope, which had begun to seep into England by the summer of 1521.65 Now that the injustices had been brought to light, Anne would have been ready to join the cause herself and make a difference. But what could she do? Where was she needed?
One thing was for sure, if Anne wanted to do anything for the evangelical cause, she would need a voice. She needed to be in a position of power, and for most Tudor women, who weren’t allowed to climb the ranks of Parliament, this came in the form of a marriage alliance. If Anne was going to have the clout she required to help this so-called reformation that was rousing a new generation of activists then she needed the protection of a powerful title. Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to come from James Butler, whose father was still locked in a battle with Anne’s own father over the title of the earl of Ormond.
So, when she caught the eye of the strapping and single Henry Percy, who was the direct heir to the earldom of Northumberland, it’s not surprising that this would be a marriage she would want to pursue. Percy was a much better match than Butler, who, in time, did indeed spend years back home in Ireland and would have likely taken Anne with him. It’s always implied that Anne chased Percy down so she could live a meaningless life of luxury, but as the evidence we are soon to uncover shows, she had other plans in mind. As the wife of a genuine, legitimate earl, just think of the difference she could make in the world.
However, if Anne and Percy wanted to be together, not only would she have to perform a Houdini-style escape from Wolsey’s marriage negotiations for her to Butler, but they also had to tackle the small matter of Henry Percy’s own betrothal to Mary Talbot. That’s not even taking into account the fact that both marriages had already been personally approved by the king of England.
But young and headstrong, Percy and Anne were swept up in the romance of it all, for she had found herself that rarity in sixteenth-century England: a smart marriage match and alliance with a man she was not only attracted to, but who was equally as dedicated and smitten with her. So, throwing caution to the wind, the two did something highly controversial that would cause an uproar in court and come back to haunt them many times over the years: they attempted to arrange their own marriage match.
You thought I was going to say ran off, got married and consummated their illicit affair, didn’t you?
Not that I’d blame you. So much has been made of the whole Henry Percy debacle over the centuries. So many sordid rumours are thrown around in the history books and documentaries that during my research I kept expecting to come across some damning evidence of the two having had a forbidden sexual relationship; or perhaps a secret elopement so that their parents had no choice but to accept their union. Just something terrible, as it was dredged up during Anne’s imprisonment and has been used ever since as a scandal that irrevocably proves she was a vixen of moral depravity.
But though Tudor biographer George Cavendish claims Percy and Anne signed a binding pre-contract,66 the king’s men never found any proof of this in all their years at court. Evidence of an illicit marriage or pre-contract would have been a godsend when later annulling her marriage to the king. The fact that they even felt the need to interrogate Percy on the subject around the time of Anne’s trial speaks volumes. Surely, if they already knew Percy had been pre-contracted back when it supposedly happened, they wouldn’t need him to confess to anything, because they would have already had an admission of guilt in 1523 when the couple were trying to marry.
So, what did they do?
Well, the bare facts are pretty straightforward. Anne and Henry Percy wanted to be married, but his father disapproved, as he didn’t think she was of a high enough social ranking to marry his son. The Percys and Talbots had been in marriage negotiations since 1516, and for good reason;67 Mary Talbot’s father was the fourth earl of Shrewsbury, lord lieutenant of the North and a trusted courtier of Henry VIII.
And who was this Anne Boleyn? Her great-grandfather Geoffrey Boleyn was a merchant who became the lord mayor of London in 1457, where he was later knighted. It was due to Geoffrey’s son William marrying Margaret Butler that the Boleyns had the Butler connection and an earldom in the family themselves. It was Margaret’s father who became the earl of Ormond, making Anne the great-granddaughter of an earl.
Nevertheless, this did not carry the same weight as ‘daughter of an earl’, which is what Mary Talbot was. Even though Anne’s father was an esteemed royal diplomat and her mother, Elizabeth Howard, was the daughter of the earl of Surrey, this connection was still not good enough. Sorry, love.68
There was also such a thing as courtly etiquette; one did not gazump a husband or wife while marriage negotiations were ongoing. So, the happy task of warning Percy off his plans with Anne fell to the king’s adviser Thomas Wolsey.69 You see, not only were Percy and Butler both members of staff in Wolsey’s own household – can we have a #Awkward? – but Wolsey was also good friends with Mary Talbot’s father. So, as well as taking orders from the king to stop Percy and Anne ruining a powerful alliance between two high-profile families, Wolsey was also looking out for his friend, who didn’t want to see his daughter Mary essentially ditched at the altar.
Wolsey’s gentleman usher, George Cavendish, reports in his biography that Wolsey gave Percy a public slap on the wrist in front of all his staff, explaining that the king had already arranged a match for Anne. However, it is at this point that Wolsey is meant to have confided in the group of men that the king wanted Anne for himself.
Oh, but shhhh, they had to keep it a secret, as no one knew, least of all Anne.70
Do you even need me to point out how unrealistic this was? Firstly, as if Wolsey would just announce the king’s supposed top secret to his entire workforce, even if it were true. Secondly, the James Butler marriage to Anne was still in negotiations, so it’s highly likely that this was the match the king had in mind for her. And then, of course, there was the trifling matter of Henry VIII being in the midst of a relationship with Anne’s sister, Mary, at the time of the Henry Percy debacle in 1523.
But what we have to realise here is that Henry VIII didn’t end his relationship with Mary and begin to pursue her sister until 1525. So, are we meant to believe the king put a stop to Anne’s marriage attempt in 1523, then played coy for two years before finally plucking up the courage to make a move? Henry was many things, but a cautious and slow mover he was not. Alas, the timing simply doesn’t add up for us to credit the king’s desire for Anne as his motivation behind putting a stop to her attempted match with Percy.
But either way, I think we can all imagine this wouldn’t have sat too well with someone as outspoken and opinionated as Anne, who no doubt would have fought the decision. It’s thought that Percy, too, tried to win his father round when he came to London to confront his son about the scandal in June 1523. Yet his father was not for turning, and told Percy in no uncertain terms he was to break this apparent promise to marry Anne, avoid her company entirely or be disinherited.71 This threat did the trick and Percy was quick to concede defeat, reluctantly following through with his commitment to marry Mary Talbot the following year.
What did Anne think of her dashing earl now? Like him, did she see the situation as hopeless, or did she think him spineless for backing down so quickly? We appear to get our answer in her defiance at accepting their fate, because the king decided it would be best if she was ‘sent home again to her father’ for a season to cool the rebellious romance down.72
It seems Anne was all riled up and ready to challenge the system, but was perhaps picking the wrong fight.
Considering his role as the English ambassador, Thomas Boleyn would have been as horrified at the unfolding situation as everyone else, and so was likely to have supported the king’s decision for Anne to leave.73 It certainly wasn’t the kind of scandal the daughter of a high-profile royal diplomat should be involved in. But attempting to arrange her own marriage was the extent of it. Aside from an obvious lack of evidence to the contrary, it makes little sense that a smart and deeply religious woman who’d had a respectable upbringing like Anne’s would have risked jeopardising a potential match to the son of an earl with anything as unholy as an illicit sexual affair.
So, if the hapless Wolsey was simply acting on the king’s orders,74 as was the nature of his role, why would Anne shoot the messenger to the extent she’s been accused of doing? For isn’t this meant to be the very point at which she began to harbour a deep resentment of the cardinal? It is, and it all comes back to that public dressing-down he gave Henry Percy.
Cavendish reports that Wolsey berated Percy for attempting to marry without consulting his father or the king, who would have ‘matched you according to your estate and honour’. Ouch. Wolsey’s public declaration that he deemed Anne too lowly to marry the son of an earl would have made for salacious gossip at court, and soon enough it got back to Anne, who was understandably mortified at the slur.75 Cavendish reported she was ‘greatly offended’, apparently saying, ‘If it ever lay within her power, she would work the cardinal as much displeasure.’76
This statement, I believe, could very well have been true. It sounds like the kind of childish threat Anne was known to have made in the heat of the moment when hurt and embarrassed. But would it be the grudge that Cavendish claims brought about Wolsey’s downfall years later?77 Oh no, for there were several more years and opportunities ahead for the cardinal to greatly offend the increasingly zealous reformer Anne Boleyn.
So Anne was sent home to Hever Castle ‘for a season’, where it was said she ‘she smoked’, so angry was she at being placed under what must have felt like house arrest.78 She wouldn’t have been alone during her time back home, as her old governess, Mrs Orchard, was still in attendance at the castle, as was Anne’s grandmother Lady Margaret. In fact, Margaret lived at Hever until her death in 1539, and outlived almost the entire family, although she was said to have not been of sound mind with what we would today diagnose as dementia. So, it’s likely that Anne would have helped to care for her, possibly alongside her mother, Elizabeth, who may have accompanied her during her stint back at Hever.
But as nice as this quality family time surely was, there’s no doubt it still would have been a frustrating time for Anne, halting her religious mission before it had even begun.
Of course, the big question historians feel compelled to stop and ask here is: was religion really Anne Boleyn’s driving force? Either that or they downright dismiss all notions of her having had any true religious intent, too sexual and power-hungry was she to have ever been a good woman.
Yes, it may have started as sixteenth-century propaganda so the king didn’t come out of Anne Boleyn’s murder looking like the bad guy, but there are a depressing number of contemporary historians who have bought into the lie that to be a powerful woman your intentions have to be bad, to achieve greatness you had to have slept your way to the top, as well as the old classic that Anne had too strong and fiery a personality for religion to have been her true motivation. It’s apparently hard to swallow that someone so steely could be motivated by something as pure and delicate as religion. After all, religion is meant to be about piety, prayer, peace and love.
While it might be fair to argue that, for the elite few who ruled the Church, religion was less about salvation in the afterlife and more about gaining power here on earth, we can’t deny that for the people, it was about having a deeper connection to God and the gospel.
And you’re telling me someone who had quick-witted comebacks and putdowns for those who challenged her had religion and faith in her heart?
As though the two simply don’t go together. But as history has taught us, indeed they do.
Thomas More tortured people for wanting to read the Bible in English. Henry VIII had people executed for refusing to accept him as the head of the Church of England. For centuries to come, Protestants and Catholics would regularly take it in turns to hack each other to death, all in the name of religion. These were forceful men willing to kill for their faith; not something any of us condone, but we do readily accept that men fight wars in the name of religion.
Yet we struggle to accept that Anne Boleyn could have been religiously motivated because, you know, she had quite a harsh tongue and could be rather sharp with people! I think if we were a bit more honest with ourselves, we might admit that it comes down to the fact that she was a woman.
While the men could hang, draw and quarter someone in the name of faith, we appear to expect our religious women to have been peacekeepers, spreading their good mission calmly and in a loving manner. Like Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa. Why else do we struggle with allowing Anne Boleyn to have been angry, frustrated and fighting for her religious beliefs with the same unapologetic gusto as her husband? Yet the idea crops up time and time again with baffled biographers that because Anne would sometimes lash out with harsh insults, this subsequently cancelled out her lifelong faith.
Or is the issue more to do with her having been a cheeky flirt who was seen as potently sexual to men? Even Anne’s most neutral biographer concludes that she ‘radiated sex’,79 and this is something many historians have decided doesn’t sit well with her being a religious woman.
Sixteenth-century historian de Carles spoke of her ‘eyes always most attractive, which she knew well how to use with effect, sometimes, leaving them at rest, and at other, sending a message’.80
Can we have a collective eye roll, please?
Firstly, may I point out that the contemporary reports as to how alluring Anne was come from men, who appear to be blaming her for their being attracted to her. Sadly, it was Anne’s misfortune, and that of all sixteenth-century women, that her character and indeed life were left solely in the hands of male record-keepers, to be interpreted and written from their viewpoint. So, it’s not difficult to see how the misogynistic narrative of Anne Boleyn’s story began. What’s harder to accept, however, is how it’s been upheld for so long in the modern world, not only by men but an alarming number of female writers. These are the historians who reason that because Anne had once been happy to play along with her friends in the game of courtly love, she was somehow the one courtier who wasn’t deeply religious, whose world didn’t revolve around an almost hourly devotion to God. That because she had a flirty manner, she couldn’t have also been angered into rebellion by the misdemeanours of the Church.
Henry VIII was a notorious philanderer, regularly taking a mistress, yet we never question his Catholic beliefs because of it. In 1525, Martin Luther, priest and leader of the religious reformation, married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, to prove that vows of celibacy got you no closer to God than raising a family and enjoying a bit of hanky-panky. (You heard me, ladies and gentlemen, hanky-panky!)
Reformists like Anne were liberated by this new evangelical understanding that no amount of self-punishment and deprivation would advance your salvation before God. Meaning that, alongside her daily prayers, there was no harm in Anne Boleyn enjoying the flirty traditions of court life, so long as she had true faith in her heart and never took it any further than writing a silly poem and making eye contact with the opposite sex. It didn’t have to result in affairs or dalliances; a flirt does not a slut make. Yet people really struggle with this one – as though good girls do not laugh and dance. There is to be no joy when you are a true woman of God, apparently.
Of course, there are a smattering of historians from #TeamAragon who claim Anne was only an evangelical to be fashionable. Now, knowing how closely she grew up with the religious reformists of the French court, it’s not surprising to learn that she owned many controversial works by evangelicals such as fellow courtier Clément Marot, who, as we’ve seen, translated the Psalms into French. Ignoring the ban on English Bibles, Anne defiantly owned a copy of Tyndale’s 1534 English translation of the New Testament and Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples’s French translation of the Bible, which caused just as much outrage to the authorities as its English counterpart, and was burned en masse. Anne also owned two other highly controversial works by Lefèvre, The Pistellis and Gospelles and The Ecclesiaste of 1531.81 Rose Hickman, a friend of sixteenth-century historian John Foxe, also remembered that Anne had her father import manuscripts of the scriptures written in French, an incredibly risky move at a time when freedom of religious expression was essentially illegal.82
By the time Anne was arrested in 1536, among her seized possessions were forty progressive reformist books and manuscripts.83 There were strict bans on owning most of these works, and individuals caught in possession of them could face arrest, imprisonment and punishment as a heretic. So, forgive me if I don’t buy into the idea that Anne risked her career at court and any possibility of a prestigious marriage match simply to be seen as ‘on trend’ and a bit edgy. Lest we forget, her father was a high-profile royal diplomat and right-hand man to Cardinal Wolsey,84 who was the all-powerful and devoutly Catholic adviser to the king of England. If Anne ever put that in jeopardy it was going to be for something she truly believed in. She was not playing games.
But perhaps the biggest clue that her true motivation was religion comes from Anne herself, in one of her few surviving written messages: the simple note of ‘Le temps viendra’ in her Book of Hours, which translates to ‘The time will come.’ This haunting handwritten note can be viewed to this day at the Boleyn family home of Hever Castle. But writers and historians alike, myself included for some time, have wondered exactly what Anne was alluding to. Was it her pursuit of power? Her quest to be queen? A prophecy for her daughter’s future on the throne? As it turns out, it is none of the above.
I have discovered a note written by Jacques Lefèvre D’Étaples in his Commentarii initiatorii in quatuor evangelia in 1522, during Anne’s first year at the Tudor court, which reads: ‘Le temps viendra bientôt où Christ sera prêché purement et sans mélange de traditions humaines, ce qui ne se fait pas maintenant . . .’85 which translates as: ‘The time will soon come in which Christ will be preached purely, unsullied by human traditions, which is not being done now.’
His words ‘Christ will be preached purely’ relate to the evangelical quest to have a French translation of the Bible, a fight that Anne was personally to champion in her time. Then the line about ‘unsullied by human traditions’ is what Lefèvre sees as the priests’ misinterpretation of the scripture and the man-made rules they fed their congregations while hiding behind the language barrier of the Latin text. The note as a whole is a direct reference to the religious reformation that was whipping everyone into rebellious angst.
So, with Anne collecting Lefèvre’s work and here, it appears, cryptically quoting him in her Book of Hours, the connection is an obvious one and possibly the first indication that she was motivated by religion from the moment she set foot back on English soil.
Yet it appears to be only modern historians who question Anne’s religious conviction, because sixteenth-century supporters and enemies alike saw her as an evangelical reformer who championed the work of religious activists.
Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador in England during Anne’s ascent to the throne, regularly complained in letters home of her being ‘the cause and nurse of the spread of Lutheranism in this country’.86 It was also Chapuys who said Anne was ‘more Lutheran than Luther himself’,87 quite the statement knowing, as we do, how passionate Luther was about reform. Not that she held quite the same extreme religious beliefs as Luther; but it was a telling thing for Chapuys to claim.
Nicholas Sander, the propagandist responsible for a steady stream of vitriol about Anne over the years, believed it was Marguerite d’Angoulême who corrupted her, and Anne in turn who ‘corrupted’ England.88
Jeez, no word of a thanks!
John Aylmer, who was later to become the bishop of London, wrote An Harborowe for faithfull and Trewe Subjectes in 1559, in which he confirms Anne’s religious mission by explaining that, in his view, the Reformation was not started by men but by a certain woman: ‘Was not queen Anne . . . the chief, first, and only cause of banishing the beast of Rome? Was there ever in England a greater feat wrought by any man than this by a woman?’
Not, he hastens to add, to take away from the work Henry VIII did, but ‘yet the crop and root was the queen’ and that Anne deserved her due praise, for she was the driving force of the Reformation, which he believed God had given her the wisdom and mindset to achieve.89
It appears John Foxe agreed with him, believing Anne was a martyr of the ‘new religion’ and ‘zealous defender’ of the gospel, who used her powerful position as queen to promote the evangelical cause.90 So too did George Wyatt, who credits the Reformation and changing of religion to Anne, saying she ‘bore a most great part in the great and remarkable conversion in the state of religion . . . which living she so courageously stood to support’.91
Then someone much closer to home, William Latymer, Anne’s chaplain who went on to become one of her earliest biographers, confided that she dedicated her time to furthering the ‘purity of the scriptures’ and to the ‘abolishing of the blind ignorance and abuses grown in this land’ – clearly a reference to practices such as the sale of indulgences and fake holy relics.92
Even following Anne’s death, Nicholas Shaxton wrote to Cromwell asking him to be as committed to spreading the ‘honour of God and his Holy word than when the late queen was alive and often incited you thereto’.93 Wyatt takes this one step further, controversially confirming that it was Anne’s pushing for religious reform ‘which has moved so many to write and speak falsely and foully of her’.94
On and on it goes, pages of eyewitness accounts from Anne’s Tudor peers confirming the evangelical motivation behind every action in her life. Anyone who continues to overlook these statements is dismissing the very original sources on which our entire knowledge of Tudor history is built.
However, I suspect part of the reason modern historians have jumped to the conclusion that Anne’s religious conviction wasn’t as strong as the more gung-ho reformists was due to the fact that she championed ‘moderate reform’. Indeed, there is a great deal of confusion over the meaning of this phrase, but let me clarify: when history speaks of moderate reformists, who were mostly Christian humanists, it didn’t mean they were half-arsed about their religion. It simply meant that they were in support of reform in the main areas that needed change, as opposed to bull-in-a-china-shop, we’re leaving, it’s over, don’t text me again!
Anne still fought hard for what she believed in and was deeply passionate, but the difference between her and, say, the Martin Luthers of the world, is that she wanted to see change rather than complete abolishment where reformers felt the Church was taking advantage of the congregation. But it’s interesting to note that while many moderate reformers went on to become evangelical and eventually Protestant, many still remained Catholic.
You see, reformists didn’t reject or deny Roman Catholic teachings; it’s just that they felt the leaders of the Church didn’t quite practise what they preached. And it appears this is where Anne sat in the theological debate. It explains why she didn’t want the monasteries to be ripped apart in their entirety but did make the effort during her reign to visit them and help them reform their practices, as we will come to see.
But we have to remember that Anne Boleyn was a first-generation evangelical. It’s called a ‘new religion’ for a reason. Anne was finding her feet, just like everyone else, figuring out where she stood with these new ideas versus the orthodox Catholic teachings. It was a time of religious growth and uncertainty, and hence we shouldn’t chastise the Tudors for not knowing immediately where their beliefs lay.
So, historians who use the fact that Anne took holy communion and prayed before the sacrament while in prison as final proof she wasn’t a true evangelical, really need to go take a theology lesson and hit us up when they’re down with the basics.
By the time Anne was finally allowed back at court, the Butlers had given up on any hopes of a marriage between her and James.95 So it’s at this point that she found herself in London, for the first time unattached and ready to forge forward to find a marital alliance of worth. All scandal was in the past; nothing was going to ruin her mission this time.
Little did she know Henry VIII was about to bulldoze his way into her life.
THE LOVE OF A KING AND SOCIOPATH
Historians have delighted in casting Henry VIII as the ultimate one-dimensional Tudor villain almost as much as they have Anne Boleyn, simplistically explaining away his actions as those of a narcissistic pampered prince. They’ve called him a tyrant, a murderer, an obsessive, paranoid, heartless egotist. And he clearly was. Don’t worry, I’m not here to defend him and claim he too has been misrepresented all these years. But his behaviour has been misunderstood.
He harboured all these complexities and more. But what makes such traits manifest so cataclysmically in one person? What makes Henry’s destructive patterns of behaviour, with all those seemingly irrational and evil decisions, slowly evolve his story from one of many brutal tales in history into a psychological evaluation?
The answer is mental illness.
The evidence I am about to present in these pages points unequivocally to Henry VIII being an undiagnosed sociopath.
If at this point your mind automatically veers towards Henry’s infamous jousting accident of 1536, the year the king supposedly ‘changed’ from an easy-going, happy-go-lucky tyrant to a short-tempered one with a limp, then let me stop you right there. We are about to discover that Henry’s issues were so much more deeply ingrained in his psychological make-up than history has ever considered before. So, while I definitely support the school of thought espoused by recent historians that the king’s later accident did indeed affect him, the evidence we will dissect in this book proves that his head injury only served to exacerbate a clearly pre-existing, lifelong mental illness: one we can trace right back to its development in childhood and its grave effect on the people in his life, not months before Anne’s death in 1536 but decades.
Which means Henry’s entire relationship with Anne Boleyn suddenly goes from the world’s most unconvincing love story to the chilling case study of a sociopath.
The key element of looking at the king’s actions through the eyes of his mental illness is that it not only sheds brand-new light on his own life, but affects how we interpret Anne Boleyn’s story in the most catastrophic way. It means she didn’t have to have done anything drastic to cause his affections to wane; she didn’t have to