Full Title: The Relationship of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
The marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was an unlikely match when considering the circumstances. When Anne Boleyn returned to England from France, her sister had already been in the English court for two years and was probably by this time already the mistress of King Henry VIII. It is unlikely that Anne would have been attracted to her sister’s lover at this time, and in any case, she was by now betrothed, having returned to England for the express purpose of marrying James Butler, her distant cousin. James was at court at the time as a kind of hostage and it is likely he and Anne would have seen each other often. The fact that they would have known each other combined with the lack of evidence of any friendship between the two shows that the potential spouses didn’t make much of an effort to get to know each other in preparation for marriage.
James Butler probably just didn’t have the wit to engage in the kind of repartee Anne Boleyn was known for. As soon as she arrived at court, Anne attracted a circle of admirers. Foremost among them was poet Thomas Wyatt, Anne’s childhood friend, with whom she shared a love of poetry and music. The already-engaged Earl of Northumberland fell under her spell and never got over her. “She knew perfectly how to sing and dance…to play the lute and other instruments,” wrote Lancelot De Carles. Her contemporaries mention that she seemed more French than English and thus had an exotic allure. She enjoyed gambling and flirting obviously made the men around her feel good about themselves. As her biographer Eric Ives mentions, the tradition of courtly love was still prevalent and can be seen as a kind of antidote to boredom at court. Anne loved games and was known for her skill in the game of courtly love.
King Henry, on the other hand, was more uncouth than the foppish men Anne would have known in France. Coming from an upstart dynasty with a somewhat debatable claim to the throne, he was desperate to be seen as cosmopolitan, a ruler on par with the great noble houses of the continent, most of whom saw England as a backwater island of no real importance. He was anxious to prove that he was every bit as good as his “brother” King Francis I of France, childishly asking his courtiers if they thought Francis had better looking legs than him. Perhaps this is why he took Mary Boleyn as a mistress-Francis had her first. If she was good enough for Francis, she was good enough for Henry. Henry had a queen, Katherine of Aragon, but Francis referred to her as “old and deformed” (despite the fact that his own wife Queen Claude was actually deformed). Katherine turned a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities so long as he was discreet, so Henry boosted his ego by sleeping with the cosmopolitan Mary Boleyn and the beautiful Elizabeth Blount.
As Henry grew tired of his affair with Mary, his eye began to wander to her little sister. Anne was younger, very popular, and didn’t have the sullied reputation that Mary did. For someone who considered himself an outstanding musician, an accomplished singer and player like Anne Boleyn was indeed a catch. Her father was an ambitious courtier who had already allowed one daughter to sacrifice her virtue to his ambition, so surely he wouldn’t mind if the king pursued his other daughter. When Henry discovered that Anne and Henry Percy, the aforementioned Earl of Northumberland, had actually become engaged, he ordered his minister Cardinal Wolsey to break the engagement. The couple had apparently been truly in love, having become engaged even when both were already promised to others, but it would never have occurred to the king to consider their feelings. He wanted something, and when he wanted something, it was given to him, simple as that.
Anne refused his advances at first, probably because she was still heartbroken over Henry Percy. Henry didn’t see it like that though. He was a hunter, and here was a hart giving chase-it was all sport at first. He came on very strong-sending her at least 17 love letters full of traditional courtly love imagery, calling himself Anne’s servant. When she replied that she should actually be considered his servant, this tickled Henry. In the courtly love tradition, the man was servant to the woman. By insisting she was actually the servant, Anne gave herself an appealing kind of androgyny that still stroked Henry’s dominant ego. Eventually he decided the French way would probably appeal to her-she could be his maitress en titre-official mistress. Again she refused.
Henry had by this time been conspiring secretly to get rid of his wife and marry another so he could have an heir. He was also completely in the thrall of Anne Boleyn, who probably did not feel the same, at least not yet. The idea slowly dawned that perhaps he could make Anne his queen instead of some foreign princess. He proposed marriage some time around New Year 1527, and this time, Anne could not refuse. We all know what happened next-Henry tried desperately to get a divorce for the next five years, eventually declaring himself head of the Church in England so he could order his first marriage declared invalid.
As the haze of love began to wear off, Anne’s faults became apparent to Henry. Instead of the boy-child he’d expected, her first child was a girl. Her wit began to grate on him, and she dared to argue with him, especially when he would sleep with other women. He started to wake up to the fact that instead of gaining international credibility, his obsession with Anne had made him a laughingstock and alienated his international allies. Of course, to an egomaniac like Henry, he hadn’t made a fool of himself, Anne must have seduced him through witchcraft. Her continental ways were no longer alluring. Now they made Henry wonder if she actually thought she was better than him.
Henry’s paranoia of course got the better of him. He couldn’t stand rivals and began an affair with one of Anne’s maids, Jane Seymour, who had no admirers to speak of and was being coached in how to stroke the king’s fragile ego. Her lack of good looks and education must have made Henry feel safe. He no longer wanted an exciting woman but one who would defer to him and be in his thrall. We can see this even more clearly in his later marriage to Katherine Howard, who stroked his ego and made him feel young, then made him feel like a fool and lost her life for it.
Anne Boleyn famously lost her life in May of 1536 and Henry married Jane a little over a week later. Though the English people had referred to Anne as “the king’s whore,” among other things, his hasty remarriage and subsequent behavior rehabilitated her image somewhat, as the people realized that both her rise and fall were precipitated by the king’s whims and ego. Her time as queen gave a foothold to the incoming Reformation, and her daughter became arguably the greatest monarch England has ever had. Her relationship with Henry was not all waste, either. As David Starkey says in his Six Queens, Anne “made him, for the first and last time in his life, fall properly in love.”