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?
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.
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.