Anne Boleyn. Who was she? Ask any schoolchild with even the most mediocre grasp of the Tudor period of history, and the immediate answer is likely to be, “she had her head chopped off”. And so she did.
But the woman herself? How to define her? Surely she was an enigma? She has not lost her fascination for historians, scholars and ordinary people alike for almost five centuries since that gruesome event. Interest in her is as strong today, perhaps even stronger than it ever was. And perhaps it is in that key word – fascination – that part of the answer might lie.
Of course, it is easy enough historically to trace the amazing events that led up to Anne’s three-year tenure of the position of queen consort of King Henry the Eighth. Mistress Anne Boleyn was not a noblewoman herself, but through her mother she was the niece of Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk. Like her sister, Mary Boleyn, Anne spent her early girlhood at the French court, where she acquired the polish comparable to that obtained in those “finishing schools” where later generations of young ladies were sent to acquire those social and personal skills considered necessary to enhance their marriage prospects. The stakes were high, much to gain, even more to lose! Mary Boleyn herself had already attracted the roving eye of King Henry. She had become his mistress, and then been discarded. This was not a career move for the ambitious Anne, or equally ambitious family.
Upon Anne’s return to the English court, she formed a misalliance with young Henry Percy, the son and heir of the Earl of Northumberland. The affair was promptly broken up by the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, in whose service the young man then was. Young Percy was hauled off home to Northumberland by his irate father, and Anne too was despatched home in disgrace, to Hever Castle in Kent. In her fury, Anne is reported to have vowed to do the Cardinal a disservice, if ever it was in her power to do so. Was it then, at that time of youthful heartbreak, that Anne Boleyn learned to be a good hater?
She was not a great beauty, by all accounts. So where did her magnetism lie? It seems she had something else, and that something was compelling…. powerful! She was a stylish, witty, intelligent, more French, it was said, than English, and intriguingly possessed of an indefinable allure. That something compelled King Henry, a man not used to being thwarted, nor blessed with infinite patience, to wait so many frustrating years for her.
What did the strain of those years of waiting do to her? When she first came back to the court from France, she was described as “a fresh young damsel”. At the time of her decline, in the uncomplimentary words of Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, “that thin, old woman”.
Anne was volatile, highly strung, strident, quarrelsome, neurotic and spiteful. But she was the only one of Henry’s wives who dared to indulge in full-blown rows with him and get away with it! This was certainly so at the beginning of their relationship, and with seemingly harmonious makings-up. But when, after their marriage, and Anne’s failure to deliver him the promised male heir, she found herself in the same invidious position that her predecessor, Queen Katherine of Aragon had been – replaced in the King’s affections by one of her own ladies in waiting. What goes around, comes around! As her hitherto incredible power to influence the King ebbed away, in her insecurity, Anne was to find she could expect little support from her own family. She was expendable. At her subsequent trial, even her own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, joined in pronouncing her guilty of the charges of which she was accused.
I find it endlessly intriguing too, to speculate as to how events might have developed if the disappointing daughter that Anne gave birth to, had been the eagerly awaited and expected male heir – not, as the variously described “high and mighty princess of England” at her christening, or in the disparaging tones of again, Eustace Chapuys, “the little bastard”. Just think, if Elizabeth had been a prince, what might the course of this country’s history have been like? That surely is one of those tantalising imponderables of history!
If that imaginary prince had lived to reign, as Elizabeth did for over forty years, and had produced healthy sons of his own, for how long, I wonder, might the Tudor period have continued? There would have been no need, as at the end of Elizabeth’s barren life, for a messenger to gallop some four hundred, mud-splattered miles to Scotland to inform the Stuart king, James the Sixth, that the queen of England was dead, and that he now inherited her crown.
In that hypothetical event, there would have been no Stuart era, and after that time, when England was in dire need of direct heirs, would it, one might ask, have been necessary to import a series of European royalty to occupy the English throne – those German princes from the house of Hanover, and of Saxe-Coburg Goth, whose line descends even now to the house of Windsor. Might there then have been no “Cousins’ War” in 1914, involving the German Kaiser, the Tsar of Russia, and the British King? Would that bloody conflict that blighted Europe have never been? We cannot know.
If I am asked what it is that fascinates me about Anne Boleyn, I would have to say that in researching the cataclysmic events leading up to Henry the Eighth’s famous break with Rome in order to make her his wife, the life and death of Anne Boleyn play such a crucial part. I did not chose to research her, I could not avoid her. Though the years of her brief life seem just a passing phase in the wide expanse of history, this woman made her own indelible mark there. I have read widely on whatever aspects of her life I could discover, and I too continue to find her fascinating.
Brief though Anne’s life was, I believe that for a significant moment of time, she played a life-changing role in the history of England. She could not have known it, but the death she faced with such undoubted courage, was not an end to her influence, as she herself must surely have believed. Rather, was it not a beginning? For I maintain that Anne Boleyn left a splendid legacy to England – her daughter – that unwanted, small princess, who, when she outgrew her childish clothes, the lady mistress appointed to care for her, had almost to plead for new ones to fit the growing child.
What then of Elizabeth Tudor? Before her accession, she must have pondered on the career patterns of each of her father’s six wives, i.e. to quote the now familiar “aide-memoire” of children’s lessons – “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”. Even Queen Katherine Parr, Elizabeth’s kindly, last stepmother, like Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, she too was to die in childbirth after her swift re-marriage following King Henry’ s death.
It was not necessarily an enviable thing to be a queen consort. But to be a queen regnant and rule in her own right? That had been her sister Mary’s destiny. But from the moment of Mary’s accession, she was expected to marry, in the hope of producing an heir, preferably male. But a married queen regnant was then subject to the authority of a husband. Even the reformed faith Elizabeth herself professed, requires this. Is it any wonder that Elizabeth shied away from the marriage trap?
So what was the alternative? Elizabeth had declared, early in life, that she had no wish to marry, that the single life contented her most. It was a bold, unprecedented step she took, to reign alone, an unmarried, virgin queen. It was an unknown phenomena.
In her famous speech at Tilbury, when England was threatened by invasion by the Spanish armada, I believe Elizabeth proved she was not only a great queen, but worthy of the title of king as well. “Though I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and stomach of a king…” she said.
What splendid genes Anne Boleyn passed on to her daughter!
Margaret Williams is no stranger to adventure. She has been married for thirty three years to her Welsh husband, whom she met as result of a coach crash in Bulgaria, while they were travelling across Europe on the old Crusader route to Palestine.
Margaret has always been passionate about her family history and Tudor history, and it was through her research that she realised her Bowerbank line must have lived through and witnessed the events leading up to the Pilgrimage of Grace as it affected Cumberland. She used the actual names of family members as characters, and researched how certain trades would have dominated their imagined lives. Margaret visited the Eden Valley on several occasions and was struck by the beauty of the landscape and the river there, and walked along that narrow foothold above the water leading into the gorge described in the book. Margaret has published several short stories, and “This Other Eden” is her debut novel.
Spartan Publishing is offering one lucky Anne Boleyn Files follower a copy of This Other Eden. Simply leave a comment below saying what you’d write about if you were writing a Tudor-themed historical novel. The closing date for comments is midnight 20th December 2015. The winning commenter will be picked at random and contacted via email.
This Other Eden is available now in paperback from Amazon.com, Amazon UK and other book retailers.
Paperback: 594 pages
Publisher: Spartan Publishing (October 14, 2015)