Anne Boleyn: A Seductress?

The ill-fated second queen of King Henry VIII is truly one of history’s most divisive and controversial figures. The concept that Anne was a coldhearted seductress who lusted after power has entered into legend. Many come to the conclusion that she calculated to separate the king from his loyal first wife, and plunged England into a state of chaos purely for her own elevation. However, is this assessment fair? What was the true story behind Anne Boleyn’s formidable rise to power?

Anne Boleyn

We have an image of Anne taking the Tudor court by storm as soon as she arrived, with Henry becoming besotted as soon as he set eyes on her. It is therefore surprising to learn that Anne was recalled from France to the English court in 1522, with Henry’s infatuation not beginning until around 1526. However, we do gather a sense that Anne burst upon the court with a certain brilliance. During these four years Anne established herself as one of the most stylish and accomplished women of the court, attracting many admirers. These men included the famous Tudor poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Henry Percy, who became the 6th Earl of Northumberland. It is probable that Anne and Percy were genuinely in love as their secret betrothal suggests. Nevertheless, the match was blocked by Percy’s father and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, giving a suggestion that Henry ordered the separation. However, it is more likely that the couple were forced to separate due to Percy’s arranged betrothal to Mary Talbot. As for Wolsey’s involvement, Percy was a member of his household, therefore it was his business. These examples show how Anne had ambitions to marry high, but also that she originally had no interest in Henry and did not intentionally seek his attention, let alone seduce him. In actual fact when Henry first noticed Anne it appears that his advances towards her were not initially welcome.

Before Henry began his pursuit of Anne he had been in a relationship with her sister Mary Boleyn. Mary had also been the mistress of the French king, Francis I. As a result, she became known as the ‘great prostitute infamous above all others’. Mary was subsequently abandoned by Henry as all his mistresses eventually were. Anne was determined not to follow in her sister’s footsteps and seems to have tried to avoid Henry’s attentions. She retreated to her family home at Hever, sent back gifts and refused to give Henry a clear answer on whether she would take him to her bed. This conduct has led many to believe that Anne was simply playing a game, that this was a sort of tricksy behaviour that she used to engross Henry further into his infatuation. However, I don’t see it like that.

Anne’s European sophistication, French style and intelligence, made her a leading lady of the court, tying her closely into the ideals of courtly love and codes of chivalry. According to these codes the leading man of the court (the king) was expected to chase, or in other words seduce, the leading lady. Henry enjoyed these games and played up to them. Therefore, it was Henry’s job to seduce, not Anne’s. Moreover, when Henry set his eyes on her he had to have her. It would have been an embarrassment to Henry’s masculine image if a woman were to reject him, he could not be seen to fail in the ideals of courtly love that dominated his court. The fact that Anne retreated from the court once Henry began pursuing her suggests she was trying to escape his advances, not that she was playing a game as it has often been assumed. However, this only made Henry all the keener, he was after all used to getting his own way. No woman had ever behaved in this manner towards him before, which both excited and frustrated him in equal measure.

In the end Anne had little choice but to go along with Henry’s wishes, he was clearly not going to give up the hunt for her, furthermore there was always a danger of invoking the king’s wrath. Henry was forced though to keep up his pursuit of Anne for over a year before she finally gave him an answer, but it wasn’t the answer he would have been expecting.

Hnery and Anne
Early 20th century painting of Henry and Anne deer hunting

Henry had entertained the idea of securing an annulment from Catherine of Aragon before his interest in Anne had even developed. The court was well aware that Catherine was probably never going to give the king a son due to her age, therefore Anne, especially being a lady in waiting to the queen, would have been mindful of this predicament. It must have been clear to Anne that Henry was head over heels in love with her by this point, he had even resorted to petitioning Anne’s father and writing desperate letters to Anne for her return to the court. Being aware of this, and Catherine’s barrenness in later life, Anne’s high ambitions surfaced, could there perhaps be a vacancy for queen?

In a move of astonishing braveness Anne took a gamble which paid off. She consented to giving herself up to the king body and soul, but only as his wife, not as his mistress. It’s this boldness and ambition, which was considered unnatural in a woman at the time, that I believe gave rise to Anne’s reputation as a seductress and schemer.

However, when looking at this situation with a 21st century outlook we may see Henry’s initial unwelcome pursuit of Anne as a form of sexual harassment, but being the intelligent woman Anne was she was intent to turn the situation to her own advantage. It was not to be an easy ride, the Tudor court was no place for an ambitious woman and added to the turmoil that resulted from Henry’s divorce, resulted in Anne gaining countless enemies who sought to discredit and destroy her. Moreover, the blame for the religious chaos that came to a head in England as a result of Henry’s divorce was all laid at the feet of Anne Boleyn. The king could not be blamed directly, it became a treasonable offence to even speak out against Henry. In the eyes of her contemporaries Anne was portrayed as a conspirator who bewitched the king, providing an explanation for the break from Rome without holding Henry directly responsible. The fact that many believed Henry would return to Rome once Anne had been discarded and replaced by Jane Seymour only enhances this point; this was never to happen.

Anne Boleyn continues to intrigue and fascinate, however this image of a seductress I believe is an historical inaccuracy. All of Henry’s six wives have been given labels, another example being ‘plain Jane’. These conceptions are now being challenged by historians, most notably in the works of Lucy Worsley and Suzannah Lipscomb. Ultimately, Anne was just another victim of a tyrannical king.

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27 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn: A Seductress?

  1. A great read – it is easy and lazy to paint Anne as an evil, scheming woman but no one is so 2D. Anne may have had ambition and done some questionable things, but as you said, she was another of Henry’s victims

    1. Thank you, and yes I totally agree! In the end Anne was a victim, but like you said she did some questionable things, and many also fell victim to her. She really is a paradox!

  2. A thought-provoking article, Jack. Like “justhistoryposts”, I think “it is easy and lazy to paint Anne as an evil, scheming woman” and I think people are too easy to believe fiction. She is too often seen as a homewrecking seductress and schemer, someone who set her sights on the crown, whereas we know that she rebuffed the king and left court. I think Karen Lindsey raised an interesting point in her work regarding Anne being a victim of what we’d call sexual harassment today. Wyatt’s poem “Whoso list to hunt” definitely depicts her a prey that can’t get away, as something that becomes a possession. I think Henry wore her down, although I do think she fell in love with him too.

    1. Thank you Claire! I think Wyatt’s poem depicts the situation perfectly, Anne simply didn’t have much choice! But like you said she fell in love with Henry eventually, that’s what makes the outcome even more tragic.

  3. I think Anne was more complicated than just being either pious or seductress. Don’t get me wrong I believe her ambition had no bounds once she had the taste of coming queenship. My rub comes with her treatment of KOA and Princess Mary! Yes, Princess not Lady! Regardless of what one thinks Mary should have remained legitimate for her parents marriage was made in good faith and any legitimate son would have precedence over her. Getting back to Anne, she was a Boleyn first and foremost she had ambition in her blood! That is not a sin. I think she played the game well, but Jane Seymour had the winning hand. The lack of a son by Anne and after everything Henry had done for her , I think was the rotten apple in the barrel of the court that just boomeranged for her. SHe was neither saint nor sinner. Just a very complicated character of History.

    1. I agree that Anne and Henry’s treatment towards Katherine and Mary was terrible, something that deeply troubled Mary for the rest of her life! I think Anne was simply snapping at those who she thought to be her aggressors, like Anne said of Mary, ‘she is my death and I am hers’ validates this. However, Anne did try to make peace with Mary, but this was something Mary was never going to accept because she thought Anne was wholly responsible for her parents divorce. Like you said Anne is just a very complicated woman, neither saint nor sinner!

  4. A very well written and thought provoking article. I agree with everything you have said.
    I will share this on my Anne Boleyn Society Facebook page as well as Twitter and Instagram accounts 😊

      1. You are welcome! I’ve shared on my Anne Boleyn Society page on Facebook as well on the Twitter and Instagram accounts. It’s had a lot of positive response with people saying it is outstanding. You should feel very proud of your work 😊

  5. Well written and thought provoking for those who haven’t read widely on Anne Boleyn. To me, she is one of the most fascinating women and it is frustrating that Henry VIII destroyed her portraits and writings.
    I firmly agree she had no choice but to accept the King’s advances. No woman, once the King decided he wanted them, could escape. Anne, using her intelligence managed to escape the role of mistress, which would have resulted in any future marriage prospects being severely limited; it is a tragedy she did not escape the Tower.
    The role of Seductress being passed down through history is a reflection of the bad press Henry and Cromwell ensured she got. And what a good job they did of it! It’s heartening to see articles like this, explaining the world she lived in and the timing of her rise to Queen in relation to what was happening in Henry’s world.

    1. Thank you Caroline! I 100% agree with everything you have said. It is the most frustrating thing that Henry tried to wipe her from history, destroying her portraits and letters! However by doing so he only created a deeper myth that surrounds her. The fact we know so little about Anne in comparison to other historical figures just makes her all the more intriguing and fascinating!

  6. Just another thing I find both upseting and confusing is the fact that it has been mentioned that Henry tried to destroy all her portraits and letters. Are we not allowed to mention all the love letters that were stolen and now still sit in the Vatican. I must be stupid Jack, why can’t we get them back. I don’t know where these documents belong but it is not in Rome. As far as literature is concerned those students who wish to read up on Anne can easily turn the wrong way. I am presently readings Alison Weir nail Anne to a door. The hate pours of the page. I truly hope those who want to study Anne Boleyn will turn to Eric Ives and Claire Ridgeway.
    Thank you x

  7. Great insight, I always felt that Anne was not only abused by Henry but also her family, who pushed for more power at court. She was a pawn in the power of Henrys court.

    1. Thank you Judy! I do agree with you to a certain extent. There is no doubt that Anne’s family, especially her father and brother, profited from her rise.

  8. Brilliant reading I have always thought Anne made good of a bad thing she really didn’t have any choice I so admire her for her bravery and the way she fought for her daughter who became the best monarch ever Elizabeth 1st.

    1. Thank you Ann! I to have always admired her for her bravery throughout all the stages of her life. In many ways she was fearless, just like Elizabeth I.

  9. Although we can never know the truth, I agree with your assessment of the situation. Worth reading!

  10. Excellent article. Historical individuals, just like people today, could not be definited by any one thing, and Anne Boleyn is no exception. As a person who really existed, she was a complicated character. I have read multiple fictional depictions of Anne throughout the years. In one she is portrayed as the innocent victim (Robin Maxwell’s The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn) and in another as a scheming seductress (Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl). But by far my favorite is Susan Dunn’s The Queen of Subtleties, where Anne is depicted somewhere in-between, as she was more likely to have been in real life. Just as with Henry’s other wives, no one word or attribute could have definitely her. She was a real and, therefore, a complicated individual. Even Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn, has recently been described as far more than just a lusty whore. In Alison Weir’s biography Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings, Anne’s sister was revealed to be a more complicated figure than she was previously given credit for. Every contribution to the ongoing debate on Anne Boleyn is important, whether or not it is met with applause or criticism. Thus it was essential that you share your own offering.

    1. Thank you Tanya and I entirely agree! In my opinion Anne has become one of the most mythologized women in history, therefore it can sometimes be difficult to think of her as a real person, let alone understand her story. That’s why it’s so easy to just think of her in black and white terms, but like you said no one can be judged like this, therefore Anne shouldn’t be either.

  11. A very interesting article . I had always thought of Anne as a very cunning lady who set out to capture a king. You have certainly made me view the story differently. Your work is well written and researched . I have changed my opinion of Anne! Her spirit and passion were to be seen in her daughter Elizabeth. Two remarkable ladies I would have loved to meet.

    1. Thank you Maralynn! I’m very glad that I helped to alter your perceptions of Anne! I also agree that so much of Anne can be seen in Elizabeth, they were two women so ahead of their times.

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