Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Anne Boleyn: Evil Witch or Innocent Victim?

Anne Boleyn is one of the most famous queens in all of England. Granted she was only a crowned queen for 3 years, she still made history. She has been named the savior of England, and proclaimed a martyr and heroine for the English Reformation. Something must be said of the mother of one of the greatest monarchs of all time, Elizabeth I of England.

The Seduction

Anne came to the court of Henry VIII to work as a lady in waiting to his current wife Queen Catherine of Aragon. Henry, known for his luscious appetite had begun a relationship with Anne’s sister Mary, who was married at the time. Anne had been away at the French court, but came home as soon as the English and French relationship began to dwindle.

When she arrived in about 1522, many of the young men were enamored with her. She wasn’t considered a great beauty, but had an amazing wit, excellent talents, and charismatic attitude. Many were enchanted with her. She became engaged to young Henry Percy, heir and son to the Earl of Northumberland, but the marriage was not supported by his father who threatened to disown him, and instead married Mary Talbot. This left Anne again looking for a husband.

King Henry’s eye began to wander from Mary to Anne around 1525, however she refused his attentions. She’d seen the scandal her sister’s affair with the king had caused, and refused to be put in the same position. She wanted more. She would only cave in to Henry’s approaches if he married her. He agreed, and began seeking an annulment from Katherine. Even with Henry putting the plans in motion, Anne still refused to sleep with him. Not until a priest had blessed the union and pronounced them husband and wife.

Anne was also sent away from court at this time and in the summer of 1526 received word that the king wanted her back at court to serve as a lady in waiting. In Anne’s letter responding to Henry, she makes it clear that a budding relationship has begun.

One could say that Anne knew the king well, and knew how to make him pant. Henry was an extremely selfish man, unused to not getting want he wanted. The seduction became a huge game for him, and he aimed to win. I would also venture to say that Anne having been put aside by the Earl of Northumberland because of her lack of sufficient noble birth, perhaps aiming for a king would be a good, “I told you I was worth it…”

She also held over the king’s head her promise to give him a son, which we all know he so desperately wanted. Despite the public’s hatred of Anne, she became the scapegoat for every bad decision Henry made, his love for her did not wane, if anything it intensified.

It took seven years for Henry to annul his marriage to Catherine, and in the process the English Reformation with its sovereign being head of the Church began.

The Marriage

As the annulment seemed to be coming closer and closer, Anne practically became queen in everything but name alone. She was elevated to the status of Marquess of Pembroke in late 1532, a title in her own right, she was given rooms fit for a queen at court, and accompanied Henry’s side everywhere, including meals. Queen Catherine was essentially pushed aside before the annulment or subsequent marriage even happened. However elevated her status may have been, when she traveled with Henry to the French court, the ladies refused to see her.

Rumors abound that when she received her elevated title, is when Anne did allow the king to pursue his sexual appetite. A secret marriage was held in the winter of 1532, before an annulment had been presented. She became pregnant a short time later, at which time a legitimate wedding was now top priority for Henry and Anne. For her, her worst nightmares were coming true. She wanted nothing of the scandal her sister had gone through, and now she was pregnant by the king, and not married. At this time, Henry decided to break with the Roman Church and take matters into his own hands. He named himself head of the church, and had Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury annul his marriage to Catherine. They were married in January of 1533. Ironically Anne's motto would be, "The Most Happy."

Anne and Henry sought the advice of astrologers and physicians who assured them both that a son would be born. Unfortunately for Anne, Elizabeth was born. The disappointment of both Anne and Henry is ironic considering Elizabeth was one of the greatest monarchs England has ever had. Elizabeth was named heir, and Mary his first daughter with Queen Catherine was ordered to relinquish the title Princess. With this news Anne could breathe a sigh of relief, she was safe for now.

The Downfall

Henry kept up his optimistic attitude that sons would follow, and they did. Anne did get pregnant two more times, both pregnancies ended in miscarriage, one of them old enough to show that it was a boy. Henry’s affections began to dwindle. As many men did back then, Henry was blamed Anne. It must be entirely her fault that she wasn’t able to conceive a male heir or carry one to term.

In January of 1536, Anne miscarried again, and is reported to have said, “I have miscarried of my savior.” With such a comment, I presume that the baby was a boy.

At that point, Henry lost all affection for Anne. Had he not annulled his marriage to Catherine to marry Anne and beget a male heir? Now that it was obvious his marriage to Anne had only resulted in a daughter and dead son, what would happen? With many at court not too keen on Anne, rumors flitted about and eventually made it to the king’s ears.

With some ammunition in hand, Henry developed a plot to be rid of his current wife. Catherine had just died that summer, and if he were rid of Anne, his third marriage would not be tainted by any previous wives. He would not be satisfied until Anne was gone.

He accused her of bewitching him, and as we know witchcraft was not something to joke about or lightly accuse someone of in the 16th century. He accused her infidelity and having an incestuous relationship with her brother. Adultery was considered treason for a queen. Even to some of Anne’s enemies these accusations appeared false and fabricated. Henry wanted Anne executed. But why? Why not set her aside as he’d done with Katherine? Was it because he knew most people never accepted Anne as true queen, and he wanted his next marriage to be unblemished?

Were there any truths in the matter? Some people say she did have an affair with her brother George. George’s own wife, Jane Rochford testified in court that she’d witnessed such an affair.

Anne was arrested on May 2, 1536 and taken to the tower. Ironically she was housed in the same rooms she’d stayed in while awaiting her coronation.

The Execution

Anne as queen was tried by a jury of her peers, of which included her own uncle Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and her previous fiancé Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland. She denied all charges, and the evidence itself was unconvincing. Upon naming her guilty it is said that Percy fainted and had to be carried from the room. Her uncle gave her the sentence of death, along with her brother George and four men accused of dallying with her. Although only one admitted to it after being endlessly tortured. She was to be burnt at the stake or beheaded, whichever the king chose.

Anne prayed every day after her sentencing to be pardoned and sent to a nunnery. After her brother was executed Anne became hysterical, having somewhat of a nervous breakdown. The king chose for her to be beheaded and sent for an excellent swordsman from France. Shortly before her execution her marriage to King Henry was dissolved and declared invalid. Why would Henry have had this done, if he still planned to execute her? Furthermore, how could he execute her for adultery (treason) if they were not married? It further shows that Henry wanted her dead and out of the way for his next marriage.

On the morning of May 19, 1536, Anne was taken to Tower Green where she would be executed. Her head was removed by the swordsman with one quick stroke, her body buried in an arrow chest, as Henry didn’t provide a proper casket. She was then buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. Her body was later identified when Queen Victoria had renovations done to the church, and she then received a marker which she’d lacked for three hundred years.

So what do you think? Was she as evil as history would have us believe? Or perhaps just a head strong woman intent on finding a powerful position that would lead to her ultimate death?


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Excellent post, Eliza. I think Anne was a strong woman who clearly wanted a) revenge for having Wolsey end her betrothal to Percy. There is belief that she and Percy were actually married and the marriage consummated. She had to some tap dancing when it came to Henry's ears before they were married. b) what woman wouldn't want to become queen to thumb her nose at her enemies? c) Anne came from an extremely ambitious family. Northumberland wasn't above pushing her sister into an affair with Henry, and later pushing Katherine Howard at Henry.

Henry clearly was a man who once he got what he wanted, didn't want it anymore, particularly after she didn't give him a son immediately. Its ironic that both his sons died young and it was only his daughters who eventually ruled England. I call that karma.

Chicks of Characterization said...

Hi Eliza, I think everyone's mind is on Anne Boleyn right now. Wouldn't she have been pleased? lol
I don't beleive that Anne was the evil witch some say she was. I think she was a young woman used as a pawn by the heads of her family. That's not to say that she wasn't head strong and ambitious, beccuase I think she was all those things. Obviously she was used to getting what she wanted, and I beleive thats exactly what happened. When her sister Mary failed to hold onto the King, Anne knew she could do better. And like Elizabeth Mahon said, it was also a great opportunity to take revenge on Wolsey and all those who made her give up Henry Percy. And lets not forget her families influence- her father and Uncle were forever scheming and pushing her into the Kings bed.
What else could she do but suceed?
Do I beleive she did some of the awful things she was accused of? Who knows, desperate people do desperate things. And having that power could have gone to her head.
As far as incest? Who knows. Her and George were said to have had a very close relationship, but I've never heard that there was proof about that from anyone other than George's wife, a woman who hated him for not desiring her.

So do I think Anne was an innocent victim? No, she put the plan in motion, played the King like a fiddle and ultimately got what she wanted. But did she deserve to be charged with crimes and beheaded? No, at the most Henry should have set her aside like he did Katherine. But he saw an opportunity to get rid of her and he took it. Ultimately for her ambition she and her family paid a huge price.

Great post!!! I am reading the biography of Anne Boleyn right now!
As they say- Great minds.... A-:O)

Delilah Marvelle said...

Wonderful, wonderful post! With regards to Anne, I believe that regardless of her intentions, she ended up a victim of her own game. If Henry could easily rid himself of Katherine, she was downright snotty to think Henry would have treated her any different. Of course, if she had not been beheaded, Elizabeth I may have very well married and changed the face of England. History is such a strange thing, isn't it? Once again, excellent post.

Nicole North said...

Wonderful post, Eliza! I'm a fan of the Tudors series so I find all this history interesting. I don't think Anne was an evil witch. I think she played an incredibly important role in the reformation in England, whatever her intentions. She was strong, ambitious and manipulative but also used as a pawn and eventually ended up a victim.

Bearded Lady said...

Hi Eliza, just found your blog. tons of interesting information!

In reference to Anne's downfall, there were political machinations beyond Henry simply being sick of Anne's nagging and needing a son. During this time, Henry was trying to form an alliance with the Emperor of Spain, Charles V, against the increasing power of the French. Charles (being nephew to Catherine of Aragon) hinted that this alliance wouldn’t happen unless Henry dissolved his marriage to Anne and restored Charles’s niece, Mary I, to her rightful place in the royal succession.

The only way to make everyone happy was to make Anne a head shorter.

Pat McDermott said...

I visited the spot at the Tower of London where Anne was beheaded. Unsettling to see. One of my favorite accounts of Anne and Henry was Anne of the Thousand Days with Genevieve Bujold and Richard Burton. Great movie. And great post, Eliza.

Shannon said...

Wonderful post Eliza - I'm very intrigued by the tale of Anne and you did a wonderful job here. I don't feel that she was an evil woman - more likely, she seems to have been a woman fit for the twenty-first century instead of her own. Headstrong, tenancious, and very well successful until Henry's change of mind. I feel for women of those times and what they had to endure. Thanks for posting this!

Eliza Knight said...

Wow! Thank you all for the fabulous comments! I believe we are all pretty much on the same track. I don't think she was an evil person by any means. I think she was very ambitious and wanted what she wanted, and knew exactly how to get it. However I think the game got too big for her, and I'm not sure she really knew what she was getting herself into. I do think she was an innocent victim to Henry's plan for her execution, however I don't think she was completely innocent in all other aspects.

I do find it ironic that for a man so obsessed with getting a male heir, that he ended up with his only son ruling with a Lord Protector for a short time before dying at a very young age, then Mary ruling for a short time, and Elizabeth ruling for about 44 years.

Thank you all for your comments!!! I'm so happy that everyone enjoys the blogs.

Kathy said...

I love reading your posts on this topic. :-)

Ann lived in a world rife with conceit and envy. In order to survive, she had to align herself with someone strong. Just think how hard it must have been to be surrounded with power hungry people using you and your sister as pawns to attain close quarters/confidences of the king. She was smart and played the game with skill. That was the only way to survive in court. If you didn't match the chess move, you were privy to being stabbed in the back. (Literally.)

I find it especially ironic that not only was she the mother of the most famous/skilled monarch in history but that she also haunts the Tower of London followed by an entourage. Most ghosts haunt because they've been wronged. No other queen haunts the tower. Hmmmm.

Lexi said...

Great post! Thanks for the info.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Lexi!

Kathy I agree completely!

Eliza Knight said...

Kathy, I also wanted to add that I think in a lot of ways, it is still the same way today. People fighting for power, fame and riches, in all aspects of life. And when someone gets angry at that person, we find out the worst thing about them, affairs, drugs, cheating on exams, etc... I think as human beings most of us are pretty competitive and fighting to be the front runner for something. Nobody aims to be the loser.

Anyways enough philosohy from me :)

Amanda Elyot said...

Terrific post, Eliza. Anne Boleyn (and her entire relationship with Henry) have a large entry in my upcoming nonfiction debut (June 3, from NAL), "ROYAL AFFAIRS: A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures that Rocked the British Monarchy". My purview was to choose (out of the zillions of royal affairs over the course of English history), the most scandalous liaisons that (as noted in the subtitle) had a huge effect on the monarchy, and on English history. Anne Boleyn is sort of the poster child for that -- arguably the most influential person vis-a-vis religion in England since Jesus Christ, as it was she who urged Henry to read Luther, etc.

Amanda Elyot said...

Just re: Ms. Mahon's post -- it wasn't [the Earl of] Northumberland (father of Percy) who pushed Mary Boleyn and Kathryn Howard at the king. It was the Duke of Norfolk, the brother of Anne and Mary's mother, and also an uncle to Kathryn Howard.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you for your comments Amanda!
I can't wait for you book to come out! It will prove to be a very titillating and interesting read :)

Anonymous said...

I do not think Anne Boleyn was evil. I believe she was just a bit too outspoken to her husband's liking and therefore paid the price.

I believe she was a strong character, however, I do not believe that she was a "bad" person. King Henry VIII was a major jerk and Anne was just one of the many women he mistreated.

It is my belief that her only true flaw was speaking her mind and falling in love with such a disgraceful man.

She is, to me, a victim and not a seductress or an "evil witch."

She may have been manipulative, but did it occur to anyone that she, herself, was being used and manipulated by her husband, just so he could have a son? It sounds to me like she was just trying to stay alive as long as she could.

God rest her soul.

Rorshack said...

What is your idea about Clare Luckham's "The Seduction of Anne Boleyn" ?

Anonymous said...

I have been a Tudor fan for a very long time and have never believed Anne was guilty of anything other than not bearing a son. Also, Anne or any other woman of the time did not have a choice who they married and I believe none of Henry's wives wanted to marry him, they were simply doing what the men in their lives told them to do. Anne didn't have a choice and couldn't say no to King Henry, I have always wondered why she was so unpopular when certainly people knew this to be true. Anne was not an evil person at all, she was simply trying to survive a situation beyond her control and in a time when men dominated.

Anonymous said...

Ive always believed that Anne was a victim and didn't deserve to die....she was a very unique woman who was bold and strong and was only killed because she couldn't produce sons...