Understanding Anne Boleyn

By Lana Norris

It is in the human nature to want to assign blame. Cleaning up rough edges, tying up loose ends, putting things to bed. I even see it in my children; when no one is clearly in the wrong, in order for there to be justice in the world someone must take the fall. In most people there is an innate desire to see justice, balance, punishment befitting the crime. Human beings love a good mystery, but even more they love a good ending.

Was anyone responsible for Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace? Was there a coup, a conspiracy, a premeditated and meticulously thought out plan to bring about her disgrace and death? If so, then who was behind it? What ruthless and cunning enemy went to such great lengths to achieve the utter blackening of her name? Because Henry and Anne had such a passionate and romantic love affair our own hearts are not satisfied with a simple explanation. We create complex drama, conspiracy theories. A relationship that shook the foundations of the world to the extent that we live with the results of it even today should not sputter out like a candle.

What if no one and yet everyone is to blame? What if the whole thing simply resulted from the emotional ebb and flow of an emotionally unstable king who wielded total power and authority over every individual in his kingdom. An emotionally unstable king and an emotionally volatile queen, both made insecure and paranoid by the trappings of court life would be easily manipulated by clever and ambitious people. Jealous and envious people. Enemies.

Anne had made many enemies during the years of her spectacular climb to the throne. Women like Anne elicit strong emotions from both men and women; indifference has never been associated with even her memory. It does not require a leap to imagine her as a target for any or all of her enemies. Jealousy, revenge, political advantage, religious zeal; all played their part.

All of these motives combine in the Catholic faction. Loyal to Princess Mary and jealous on behalf of Katharine of Aragon. On fire with religious zeal and seeking an opportunity to turn England back to Rome. The Pope, Ambassador Chapuys, the Emperor Charles, all were certainly active in plotting against the reformation that Anne was leading in England. There were those in the English nobility who were covertly seeking ways to preserve their own influence as well as the influence of the Catholic Church. Princess Mary herself had no love for Anne and no sympathy for her when it became apparent that Anne was losing favor. She would have been a saint not to have desired to seek revenge against the woman who had displaced herself and her mother in her father’s affections. Anne had allowed her ambition and fear to over-ride her good sense and she had alienated Mary by her unnecessary acts of cruelty. It was unlikely that Anne’s late overtures towards Mary could have won her friendship, but her hateful actions and spiteful words certainly hardened Mary’s heart against her when she needn’t have. Mary was the figurehead for those hopeful of restoring the Catholic Church in England.

Jane Seymore? She was in the right place at the right time and appears to have been astute enough to take advantage of the fact. A bystander. The person who thru a stroke of luck witnesses a bank robbery and calls 911, thus receiving the reward for assisting in the apprehension of the criminal. There is no mention of her having been a beauty, or possessing grace, elegance or wit. Marriage to Jane would bring Henry no political advantage. Why Jane? Perhaps she was soft and compliant in the face of Anne’s strength and determination. Perhaps she was sympathetic while Anne was demanding. Perhaps she was sympathetic when Henry needed sympathy. Perhaps she was blonde and Henry was weary of brunette.

Anne and Henry’s relationship was turbulent and passionate. But turbulent and passionate can wear on one’s nerves after awhile. It is impossible to sustain the intensity of a relationship like theirs had been and the moderating influences of marriage and pregnancy and everyday life would be a bit of a letdown. Henry was in need of distraction and Jane was there. We can speculate about what attracted Henry to Jane, but no one really knows. The record does show that Jane had an ambitious family, as had Anne, to promote her, guide her, advise her. Brothers Edward and Thomas Seymore seemed to have had no scruples at offering up their sister to Henry in return for power and prestige at his court. It would stand to reason that they would have had no scruples in participating in Anne’s downfall should an opportunity present itself. And they were Catholic. And they had been loyal to Katherine and sympathetic to Mary.

Did Thomas Cromwell play a part? Anne and the Boleyns had had a symbiotic relationship with Cromwell since the days of his apprenticeship with Wolsey. But now they had both reached their zenith. Their individual roads to power which had converged years before, had reached a fork; now their interests were diverging. As Anne had acquired power her goal, among others to be sure, was to use that power to further the reformation of the church. Cromwell, while he may have desired reformation, was willing to jettison his fellow reformists when they stood between him and his true love…power. Cromwell’s interest in the Boleyns and the reformation appears to have been mostly self-serving. Cromwell’s desire to keep the status quo was at odds with Anne’s resolution to redeem the past.

It appears that Anne truly desired to be a good Queen. She had done things during her climb to power that I think were actually abhorrent to herself and her faith. Any student of Anne’s life notices the contradictory stories about her and while no one is all good or all bad, it is usual for one to follow a pattern of behavior. A young woman raised and educated in the scriptures and with an obvious love for the Gospel must have found it difficult to justify the things that were necessary to hold her place in Henry’s heart. In the age of Machiavelli, a case could be made that whatever she needed to do to further the reformation and to advance her family was ultimately good. It would be very easy to perceive a “calling” from God in her situation. To be raised from her position as Lady Anne to the side of the King, with the very real possibility of something as seemingly impossible as replacing Queen Katherine might appear indeed to be an act of God.

After years of living by the premise that the end justified any means, it seems she was now ready to settle into a new role as Lady Bountiful to the poor, a benefactress to religious reformers, and a patroness of the arts. It is my opinion that she desired to do much good to make up for having done much bad. Not necessarily logical, but certainly human. From what is evident of Anne’s character she was ambitious, but also truly Christian in her beliefs. It would be a total contradiction of her Christian beliefs to not feel guilt at some of the measures she had taken to oust Katherine and Mary and become Queen. To desire to redeem the past. To be absolved. Anne was a reformer and yet still a child of the Catholic Church.

Hence the division between her and Cromwell over the riches resulting from the dissolution of the monasteries. Cromwell was putting his hand into the cookie jar of those monasteries. Anne had supported the dissolution of those monasteries as a means of curtailing the power of the Church but her desire was to apply those monies to benefit the people of England, especially the poor and to support writers, scholars and musicians sympathetic to a reformed Church. The wealth obtained from these monasteries, Cromwell wanted for his own purposes. Anne placed herself opposite him at this juncture with the King in the center. Cromwell had striven for too long to reach his pinnacle of power; the three of them, Henry, Anne and Cromwell were as the triumvirates of old Rome, destined to self-destruct. And there is no reason to think he would stand in line behind Anne for the King’s ear.

All of these and more were declared enemies of Anne Boleyn, but could any of them really have brought her to the scaffold along with five of the King’s closest friends and companions? Not unless Anne herself had prepared the way for them. If Anne could have contented herself with being Henry’s Queen, I think he might have been content to give the marriage longer to produce an heir or to settle a divorce upon her and send her away. But Queen was not all she wanted. Anne was not only ambitious, I think she truly loved Henry and wanted to be treasured as his wife as she had been as his mistress.

Anne and Henry had been through so much together. They had fought a war; against nations, kings and queens, even the Pope and all of christendom could not stand against them. Together, they had planned, schemed, dreamed. Side by side they deconstructed and reconstructed their world to fit their desires. Separately they had not been worth so much…he a playboy king with no heir and Cardinal Wolsey running the show, she, simply Lady Anne, a knight’s daughter and sister of one of the King’s mistresses. But together, the sum of them became much greater than their individual parts. Their love overcame all odds. She inspired him to become the ruler he had always wanted to be and he lifted her from her humble station and made her the first lady and the most desired lady of the land. He gave her a stage from which she could showcase her considerable accomplishments and she gave him back his image of himself as a romantic knight in shining armour.

Unfortunately at the zenith of their relationship, the roads which had once converged now began to diverge. For Henry, marriage was the end. For Anne, marriage was the beginning. The common purpose which had bound them together and made them partners in crime was realized. Anne was a queen. Henry was now a ruling as well as a reigning king. All who had stood against them had been bent to their will. All that remained was for Anne to produce a son and that was a solo job. As Henry saw it, he did his part. It was now up to Anne to do hers. Alone. Pregnancy is a lonely business for a queen.

I think that Anne could not do what queens have always been expected to do…look the other way. That was for unfortunate women who were political pawns, not for her for whom a king had moved heaven and earth. Queens who had been married as a token of an alliance or to seal a treaty could not expect their husbands to remain faithful. But queens who had been pursued relentlessly and loved tenderly for seven long, unfulfilled years were not just queens but wives in the true sense. I think Anne believed Henry’s promises made to her before their marriage. Promises of faithfulness and true love and loyalty. He had shown her love and respect, he had waited for her, he had fought for her and won her. I think Anne believed in their partnership as well as their marriage. Henry had treated her as an equal for all of their relationship, even placed her on a pedestal above himself. She believed he loved her as she loved him.

I think it was her fight to keep that love that cost her her life. Her fight to retain her place at Henry’s side when he no longer needed or wanted her there. Her attempts to keep alive their partnership. After their marriage Henry seems to have been no longer interested in the reformation of the church beyond stealing from it. That subject no longer interested him now that it had served it’s purpose, to rid him of Katherine and get him Anne. She missed their life together. He was now rather bored by it. He had never seen their relationship in the same way that she did and she could not accept what he expected of her.

Disillusionment. Bewilderment. Frustration. Anger. Desperation. Bitterness. One after the other in rapid succession over three years time. And a queen who has not born a son in three years and who is angry and desperate and bitter is an easy target. Bitterness and jealousy provide fertile ground for those who would sow seeds of dissension.

Perhaps Cromwell did plan a well-executed coup with the help of the Catholic faction. Perhaps Jane Seymore and her family were waiting in the wings for the coup to topple Anne. Perhaps Henry was so desperate for a son and so weary of Anne and all the baggage associated with her he was thinking of a fresh start with Jane Seymore. However, the groundwork for her destruction was laid by Anne herself. By demanding that Henry keep his promises to love her faithfully and be at her side as together they reformed the Church of England Anne was putting him into an unhappy position for kings do not like to be held to their promises, nor backed into corners. Henry was tired. He, too could not feel easy in his conscience about the extreme measures necessary to place Anne on the throne. Kings need forgetfulness and Anne would not allow Henry forgetfulness.

I think Anne’s fatal error was in under-estimating Henry and in over-estimating Henry. She under-estimated the king who had been superceded by the lover for all the years of their affair. She over-estimated Henry the man, who had been her protector and defender and champion. The knight in shining armour was ready to take off the armour for a respite and she was insisting that he keep it on.

Kingship sometimes eats away at character and she had not noticed the slow eating-away of Henry’s character. She did not understand the dual nature required for positions of absolute authority. Henry especially had a need to compartmentalize his life. Of all the people in his life, Anne was the only one (now that More was dead) who held Henry to any semblance of accountability. What is new and stimulating and challenging at the beginning of a relationship becomes a nuisance as the relationship wears on. Anne was playing her role in the only way she knew how, forcing a love that should have been allowed a time of dormancy.

So, was their love a real thing, or was it only lust fueled by ambition? I think it was. Their love was real, but Henry was not. A real person. He could play a real person for only so long before he needed to shed that skin and the Absolute Monarch needed to escape and dominate again. Unfortunately for her, Anne gave Henry too much credit. She thought he was like her. Living for love and a common goal. She was mistaken. He was like no one else. Living out his destiny as a Tudor king, taking what he wanted and giving no quarter.

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2 Responses to “Understanding Anne Boleyn”

  1. Terri says:

    I feel Anne’s pain. To love is to love completely. Henry/men do not seem (at least those I’ve known) to have the same capability.

    [Reply]

    Hannele Reply:

    What a wonderful article! Thank you!

    [Reply]

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