“No English queen has had more impact on the history of the nation than Anne Boleyn”
(Joanna Denny’s “Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen”)
There are many figures in our great world that have made a significant impact on the course of History. From the United States stand point, for example, our Founding Fathers who themselves laid down and established a document that would lead our nation from it’s very humble beginnings to what it is today. It took strength, courage, tenacity, and even faith. They brought about a change that would inevitably change our world as a whole and put the United States on the map so to speak. There are countless examples of this everywhere, but for the purpose of this article, I turn to Anne Boleyn and her impact on History. In my research over the past couple years of becoming more and more interested in Anne Boleyn, I have come across countless texts that have proclaimed Anne Boleyn making an impact on History because of her reputation as a “whore,” “adulteress,” “concubine,” or even a “witch.” Juicy gossip, huh? We, of course, know all of these titles to be false and completely bogus. One might question then, how did she make an impact on History if she wasn’t any of those things since those myths are so intriguing? In this article I will explain why I personally feel Anne Boleyn made a great impact on our History by being herself and due to her Renaissance attitude, her help and passion for the Reformation, her daughter Elizabeth, and for simply being a true inspiration to others.
Webster’s dictionary describes a “Renaissance man” as one who “has wide interests and is expert in several areas.”1 This definition, I believe, describes a Renaissance woman as well. The Renaissance in England was full of new and exciting things. There was questioning of new ideas. There was inventing, arts, poetry, plays, writing. Everyone was freely thinking and doing things that they may have never done before. To me it sounds like a wonderful time; discovering new passions and learning new things! Almost how I feel when I am reading or learning about the Tudor time period—there is always something new that I discover! This time brought a lot of change to the English court and to their thinking. I, of course, am not saying that the court was boring before this; however, it became more interesting; more intriguing. How, though, does Anne Boleyn fit into this? I believe whole heartedly that Anne was the quintessential Renaissance woman. Her “training” into this started during her days in a “succession of French-speaking continental royal households;”2 the first being in the household of the Archduchess Margaret. Here she learned French through formal instruction with a tutor named Symonnet and made rapid progress with the language3. In August of 1514, her father, Thomas Boleyn wrote to the Archduchess asking her to release Anne because she would now be in the service to Mary Tudor who would be heading to France to marry Louis XII4. It was here in the French Court where Anne blossomed. The French court was the center of an “advanced, brilliant, Italianate culture”5 and Anne learned many skills. She perfected her knowledge of the French language and fashion; she refined her musical skills which included singing and dancing and even learning to play the lute. However, the one thing that she really improved was the way she handled herself. She learned the French way of keeping a man close, but then backing off. It was this skill that she brought to the English court which drove men wild!6
As said before, I don’t think that the English court was boring necessarily, but if you truly think about what Anne brought to the table there, how could she not have become successful? She brought knowledge of new fashion, art; she was educated and refined. She had an air about her that was addicting. She attracted the attention of men and the jealousy of women. I believe all of this led up to her being the perfect model of a Renaissance woman. She breathed a new life into the English court. Anne kept this same mindset throughout her reign of being Queen. Whereas Catherine of Aragon started her reign off as a beautiful, exciting Queen, the years of miscarriages and “let downs” from Henry took their toll on her and when Anne came along to be Queen, who wouldn’t have enjoyed the new “light” that Anne provided. To me, Anne left an impression on the English court during her wonderful days there and became the ultimate example of a Renaissance woman.
The English Reformation is the second way I feel Anne Boleyn had an impact on History. The Reformation is slightly related to the Renaissance in that the thinking and learning of a new religion took shape in the Reformation. I am not saying that it was because of Anne that the Reformation happened or that the split from the Catholic Church occurred; however, I feel that she helped nudge King Henry along in his break with Rome. I believe that her education in France is what helped shape her “open thinking” and ultimately her future. The major thing I credit to her is that she was very fervent that everyone should have the right to read the Bible in English. I think this was a major step for the English people and for all who came across this idea because of the fact that those who may not have been “well educated” in the sense of knowing Latin, could possibly read the Bible. This makes it to where everyone would have the chance to read God’s word and learn from it. I find that empowering as a woman to have another woman stand up for something that she believed in to create a better society. I may be looking at it the wrong way, but that’s how I feel. Of course with books being written in English and new ideas prospering, I am drawn to the fact that Anne owned the copy of William Tyndale’s book The Obedience of the Christian Man and How Christian Rulers Ought to Govern7. The simple act of Anne owning this book and then showing it to Henry was, I believe, a huge turning point in his “Great Matter.” Anne had read this book and marked the pages that she thought were relevant to Henry and his situation. The marked passages commented on how the king or ruler was answerable only to God; not the pope8. So therefore, Henry could do what he wanted, when he wanted, and how he wanted with the only being to answer to was God. This radical thought would take Henry on his way to the divorce he wanted by breaking with Rome and starting the Church of England. It takes two to tango of course, but Anne putting that little glimmer of hope into his hands in the form of the “illegal” book, definitely set everything in motion. I feel it’s partly because of her that the king got his power. She was there to tell him her thoughts and opinions and show him things that proved King Henry was the Supreme Ruler. I don’t see this in a bad light at all, although I could see how it can get turned into Anne constantly “whispering things in his ear” for personal, family, or political gain—but I don’t think it was like that at all. I think Anne was passionate about the Reformation and helping people. She could have been executed for her thoughts since they were considered heresy, but because of the king’s constant need of trying to find an answer for his divorce and because of her desire to give her opinion and to get points across about a subject that she deemed necessary to be out there—the Reformation and break with Rome continued and took place in England. She was a small reason for everything happening, but I truly believe it was her passion for the subject that caused her to make an impact on religious and English history. I just marvel at her tenacity and her courage to take something she believed in to the next level. It’s an attribute to look up to in my opinion and very inspiring!
The third reason why I feel that Anne had an impact on History is that she gave the world Elizabeth. I cannot imagine having a whirlwind wedding, coronation, and being pregnant hoping for a son—only to be given a daughter. Anne must have felt not disappointed in the sex of her child or Elizabeth in general, but disappointment in herself. She had told the king and everyone that she was having a son and promised all these things and then to let someone down who was so powerful—I would be fearful of losing my position—which I’m sure she was! But, Elizabeth, I think was one of, if not the most, important things Anne ever did for History. During the Tudor times, women did not have much power, which of course we all know was the reason Henry “needed” a son. This is one of the reasons I LOVE the story of Elizabeth being born to these amazing and powerful parents, being dropped so low as being a bastard, and then rising against all odds to rule a country and bring it back from the depths of where it was. To me, it seems like a very “in your face” moment for Anne. Henry had no hopes for his two daughters and focused all attentions on a son who would die later on—which you can’t fault him for really, since that was the thought process during the time, but surely he could have recognized something in his daughter that would have given him hope. I love how Eric Ives describes this whole event of Elizabeth coming to power in his book, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. He talks of how for twenty years, no one talked of Anne or dared mention her for reason of being fearful of the king’s wrath I’m sure. She was disgraced in the king’s eyes. Elizabeth bastardized, yet somewhat accepted as the king’s child continued to live out her life with perilous events along the way until in 1558 “the bastardized daughter of the disgraced Anne Boleyn, with her father’s complexion but her mother’s face, splendidly dressed in purple velvet: Elizabeth, by the grace of God, QUEEN of England, France and Ireland, defender of the faith”9 rose to power. Doesn’t that sentence just send chills down your spine? A baby born to a father who didn’t like the fact that she was a girl; rose up to do such amazing things for the world! The list of things she did for England are remarkable: she continued her father’s work in establishing the Church of England, she fought countless rebellions and dealt with those who wanted to take her power (Mary, Queen of Scots and followers), and of course the defeat of the Spanish Armada, plus much more! She ruled with wonderful composure; perhaps, in my opinion, better than any man might rule—and she was to rule for a long time as well—for forty four years in fact! Her reign may not have been an easy one—but she did it! And that’s what is truly inspiring to me. She overcame many odds and created for her world a “Golden Age.” Anne was part of that. Anne was in her. Anne, I’m sure, was looking down on her. She was indeed her father’s cub, but she was also her mother’s jewel. I have no doubt in my mind that Elizabeth did what she did during her reign for her mother and father and with them in mind. To prove to the world that she was the rightful heir and that she was a living testimony to her parent’s love. Anne gave us Elizabeth—and that for me is a tremendous impact on our History.
Lastly, and this may be a long shot, I feel that Anne made an impact on History by simply leaving a legacy and a mystery about her that has simply impacted us. After all, aren’t we talking about her now? For me she has made a tremendous impact on my life. I first learned about Anne through The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory. I picked up the book in a store because it was considered a “best seller” and it was intriguing to me. I start reading the book and absolutely could NOT put it down. My boyfriend (now husband) couldn’t believe how obsessed I was with this book and their characters so he did a simple Google search on the names—turns out the book was based on real people! What?!?! I couldn’t believe the intense storyline (while it may not all be true) happened! I had to know more. It’s from that simple beginning about three years ago and a casual book pick up on some random store aisle that I’m now completely and utterly pro-Anne. It may sound ridiculous, but because of the knowledge that I’ve stored up from learning about her I have found myself reaching out for more things. Feeling confident in everything I do. Constantly thinking about her life and wanting to tell everyone I know about her. I want to get her story out to the world and to show them that she wasn’t simply a person in History that got dealt a “bad card,” she was this amazing and strong woman that was so vibrant and full of life that I just have to smile thinking about her. Knowing about her led me to want to know more about her lifestyle and how she lived; I want to learn French, I want to perfect the violin, I listen to Renaissance music all the time—maybe too much; but the point is that yes, of course she was a catalyst in so many areas of History, for me though, it’s her life and the way she lived it that is inspiring. Those that know of her, know an energetic soul, someone with spirit, passion, and an amazing feistiness! For me, she has made me more zealous for different things in life. She has made me want to better myself; to live life to the fullest and never take anything for granted. It really seems strange to me that someone who lived over 500 years ago could have such an impact on my life and my day to day thoughts. Her zest for life is truly inspiring and that in itself is why I feel that she’s made an impact on History—because of the fact that she has impacted our lives. She has made us want to avenge her death in a way. She has given us things to talk about and learn about. She has given us the chance to voice our opinions and maybe live a little differently—exactly how she was and how she existed in this life.
So, in closing, to me she has indeed made an impact on History—through her thoughts and actions during her life; through her contributions to the Reformation; through being daring to be fashionable and a true Renaissance woman; through her giving the king not the son he had hoped for, but for giving the world a daughter who would go onto reign over a “Golden Age” and who made huge strides not only for England, but setting the pavement of success for the world. Most of all, though, she made an impact on History by making an impact on us. By touching our lives in whatever personal way she’s had. I mean look at the wonderful website we visit each day! We study about her, her life, and all those involved. We keep her legacy alive by reading about her, talking about her, or sometimes even dreaming about her. To me, that’s how she’s made an impact on our lives—by simply touching our hearts in different ways. She has brought together a bond of people from all over the world and all walks of life to discuss (and sometimes debate) her life. She has made an impact on us (and History!) by simply being the Anne that we know—and the Anne that we all love.
by Jennifer Schuh
Notes and Sources
- Webster’s Online Dictionary
- Six Wives of Henry VIII, David Starkey, p258
- Ibid., p260-261
- Ibid., p261-262
- Ibid., p263
- The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p132-133
- Ibid., p133
- Ibid., p365-366