It seems fitting during Holy Week to look at Anne Boleyn’s role in the English Reformation. However, one of the mysteries surrounding Anne Boleyn is what Anne herself believed, i.e. her own personal faith, and what her role in the English Reformation actually was. Historians just can’t seem to agree!
In his report, “Anne Boleyn’s Religion”, G W Bernard writes:-
“It has become fashionable to characterize Henry VIII’s second queen, Anne Boleyn, as evangelical in religion and as a patron of reformers. But this rests heavily on the later testimony of John Foxe and of one of Anne’s chaplains, William Latimer. Contemporary evidence of Anne’s activity, under critical scrutiny, turns out to offer a different impression, as does an analysis of episcopal appointments in the early 1530s. A remarkable sermon preached by John Skip, the queen’s almoner, a few weeks before her death, casts further doubt on the claims for Anne’s reformist zeal.”
So, let’s look at the different theories regarding Anne’s faith and later on this week I will examine Anne Boleyn’s personal faith and the people who may have influenced her.
Anne Boleyn the Protestant Martyr
This is the Anne Boleyn that martyrologist John Foxe wrote about in his book “Actes and Monuments”, or “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”. Foxe saw Anne Boleyn as a martyr of the “new religion” who was a “zealous defender” of the true Gospel, a woman who used her position as queen to further the Protestant cause. Foxe wrote of Anne:-
“Godly I call her, for sundry respects, whatsoever the cause was, or quarrel objected against her. First, her last words spoken at her death declared no less her sincere faith and trust in Christ, than did her quiet modesty utter forth the goodness of the cause and matter, whatsoever it was. Besides that to such as wisely can judge upon cases occurrent, this also may seem to give a great clearing unto her, that the king, the third day after, was married in his whites unto another. Certain this was, that for the rare and singular gifts of her mind, so well instructed, and given toward God, with such a fervent desire unto the truth and setting forth of sincere religion, joined with like gentleness, modesty, and pity toward all men, there have not many such queens before her borne the crown of England. Principally this one commendation she left behind her, that during her life, the religion of Christ most happily flourished, and had a right prosperous course.”
John Foxe also believed that Anne Boleyn’s execution was due to:-
“Some secret practising of the papists here not to be lacking, considering what a mighty stop she was to their purposes and proceedings, and on the contrary side, what a strong bulwark she was for the maintenance of Christ’s gospel, and sincere religion, which they then in no case could abide.”
So, in Foxe’s eyes, Anne Boleyn was a zealous reformer and someone who died for her faith, a true martyr. Foxe concluded his “Oration to Saint Anne Boleyn” by saying:-
“Furthermore, to all other sinister judgments and opinions, whatsoever can be conceived of man against that virtuous queen, I object and oppose again (as instead of answer) the evident demonstration of God’s favor, in maintaining, preserving, and advancing the offspring of her body, the lady ELIZABETH, now queen, whom the Lord hath so marvellously conserved from so manifold dangers, so royally hath exalted, so happily hath blessed with such virtuous patience, and with such a quiet reign hitherto, that neither the reign of her brother Edward, nor of her sister Mary, to hers is to be compared; whether we consider the number of the years of their reigns, or the peaceable-ness of their state. In whose royal and flourishing regiment we have to behold, not so much the natural disposition of her mother’s qualities, as the secret judgment of God in preserving and magnifying the fruit and offspring of that godly queen.”
showing that he believed that Elizabeth I had been protected by God and allowed to prosper because she was Anne Boleyn’s daughter.
Anne Boleyn Passionate Reformer
Joanna Denny, one of Anne Boleyn’s biographers, writes of Anne’s faith:-
“Hers was no superficial faith. Since her education in France she had an abiding interest in the New Learning and the religious reformation that was spreading like a revolution in thinking across northern Europe. Her views were evangelical, many would later say “Lutheran”. She read the Bible daily and believed that everyone should be able to read God’s word in a language they could understand.”
Here are some of the reasons why Denny believes that Anne Boleyn was such a passionate reformer:-
- Anne used her influence to save some victims of the heresy laws, people like the Prior of Reading, who had been found in possession of Lutheran books, and Nicholas Bourbon de Vandoeuvre, the French poet.
- She kept in contact with people she had met during her time abroad and used these contacts to obtain evangelical works like Clément Marot’s “Epistle and Gospel for the Fifty-Two Sundays in the Year” and “Le Pasteur Evangélique”.
- Anne sponsored Tyndale’s “New Testament” and owned his “The Obedience of a Christian Man”, the book which she persuaded Henry VIII to read.
- Anne saw herself as having been called by God to marry the King, just like Esther in the Bible, a Queen who would save her people by promoting religious reform. Denny writes “she believed that God was with her, steering her towards her destiny. If it was God’s will that she should become England’s Queen, then the annulment would go through.” Denny also writes of how Anne told the Venetian ambassador that God had “inspired his Majesty to marry” her.
- She gave each member of her household a book of Psalms in English.
- Anne appointed evangelical chaplains to her household and influenced the election of reformist bishops – Alexander Alesius (Ales) described to Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I, during her reign, “the evangelical bishops whom your most holy mother had appointed from among those scholars who favoured the purer doctrine of the gospel”.
- Some of Anne’s silkwomen were evangelicals who helped to import illegal Bibles.
- Anne displayed a copy of Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament.
- She supported exiles and refugees from abroad – Denny writes of how Anne wrote to Cromwell appealing for the release of an Antwerp merchant, Richard Herman, who had been imprisoned under Wolsey for his “help to the setting forth of the New Testament in English” (Anne’s words). Herman was released and went to work for Cromwell. Anne also secured the release of the poet Nicholas Bourbon.
Joanna Denny ends her chapter “A Renaissance Family” by saying:-
“Anne Boleyn was the catalyst for the Reformation, the initiator of the Protestant religion in England”
and she quotes P F M Zahl (“Five Women of the English Reformation”) as saying that Anne Boleyn “lived for one thing: to see the Reformed religion overcome the opposition to it both within the Church and outside it…[she] ached to see the Reformation triumph.”
Many discount Joanna Denny’s book as being anti-Catholic and too over-the-top in its defence of Anne Boleyn, but she does make some good points about Anne’s faith and her zeal for the new ideas coming out of Europe. Denny, however, is not the only historian or author to believe that Anne was a keen reformer, Eric Ives also writes of Anne Boleyn’s role in the English Reformation in his chapter “The Advent of Reform”. He writes that:-
“Anne played a major part in pushing Henry into asserting his headship of the Church…Yet over and beyond this, Anne was a strong supporter of the religious reform…Brief though Anne’s influence was, it was a thousand days of support for reform from the throne itself. And hindsight can say more. The breach in the dyke of tradition which she encouraged and protected made the flood first of reformed, and later of more specifically Protestant Christianity, unstoppable. Catholic hatred of Anne damned her for the break with Rome and for the entrance of heresy into England. It was right on both accounts.”
Ives agrees with Denny that Anne’s influence in the church can be proved by the appointment of evangelical bishops such as Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Shaxton and Thomas Goodrich. Both Ives and Denny point out that out of the ten elections to the episcopate from 1532 and 1536 seven were reformers with links to Anne
Ives also writes of how Nicholas Shaxton wrote to Cromwell after Anne’s death asking Cromwell to remain as diligent in promoting “the honour of God and his Holy Word than when the late queen was alive and often incited you thereto”, and how Alexander Ales (Alesius) said to Elizabeth that “true religion in England had its commencement and its end with your mother.”
Ives also agrees with Denny on Anne’s careful choice of reformist scholars, her habit of studying the Gospel, her displaying of the Bible in English, her protection of the illegal trade in Bibles and reformist literature, and her rescuing of refugees such as “Mistress Mary” and Bourbon. Her actions seem to suggest that she was an active defender of the new religion.
Anne the Conventional Catholic
G W Bernard sees Anne differently and actually argues that Anne Boleyn was a conventional Catholic, not a zealous reformer and certainly not a Protestant martyr.
In considering the words of Foxe and Latymer, who both wrote of Anne helping those who were persecuted and being responsible for the preferment of bishop with evangelical reviews, Bernard says that we should remember that they were writing propaganda:-
“First, they were trying to influence the developing Elizabethan religious settlement. Secondly, and more importantly, in presenting Anne as a modest and virtuous patron of religious reform, they were by implication suggesting that so devout a lady could not possibly have been guilty of those shocking adulteries for which she had been condemned. They were not just presenting Anne as a pious evangelical, they were attempting to retrieve her reputation in general. At the accession of Queen Elizabeth in I 559, her mother stood in great need of rehabilitation: that is what in effect Foxe and Latymer attempted to do. Both purposes may have encouraged them to exaggerate, invent or misinterpret Anne’s religion.”
Bernard does not think that we should rely on the reports of Foxe and Latymer because:-
- It is known that Foxe exaggerated and presented distorted views and cites as an example his account of the Marian martyrs in Kent – Foxe “presented as true protestants and co-religionists men and women who were nothing of the kind but rather rank heretics of a more extreme and eclectic kind” (quoting P. Collinson from “Truth and Legend: the veracity of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs).
- Latymer is now thought to have suppressed anything relating to Anne Boleyn which did not fit in with his “portrait of a pious and solemn reformer” (Dowling “Latymer’s Cronickille”).
- Both Foxe and Latymer describe Anne Boleyn’s household what Bernard terms “a centre of pious and godly living”, emphasising the Queen’s high standards and purity, yet there is other evidence that actually Anne’s household was pleasure-loving. We have evidence that there was flirtation and teasing, for example, Anne’s words to Sir Henry Norris:”you loke for ded mens showys, for yf owth came to the king but good you wold loke to have me”.
- It is doubtful that Anne pushed Henry into breaking with Rome – Although John Foxe writes of Anne giving Henry VIII Simon Fish’s “Supplication for the Beggers” and John Louth (archdeacon of Nottingham in 1579) writes of how Anne persuaded Henry to read Tyndale’s “The Obedience of a Christian Man”, it actually seems that Anne lent Tyndale’s book to a servant who gave it to her suitor who had it confiscated from him and given to Cardinal Wolsey. It was when Anne went to Henry on her knees to get the book back that she persuaded the King to read the book, she never set out to give it to the King.
- Although Chapuys called Anne and George Boleyn Lutherans, Bernard points out that anyone who supported a break with Rome was Lutheran in the ambassador’s eyes.
- Anne’s possession of the Bible in English or French could be more to do with being “fashionably humanist” than a radical reformer.
- Anne’s almsgiving and support of scholars can be taken as an attempt to gain popularity rather than evidence of Anne’s religious commitment.
- Anne Boleyn did not write any religious works – Bernard points out the contrast between Anne and Catherine Parr, who wrote the “Lamentation of a Sinner”.
- Anne’s patronage of evangelical bishops could be more to do with getting support for Henry VIII’s divorce than the furtherance of evangelical doctrine: a political, rather than religious, move.
- It is not clear that Anne’s chaplain, John Skip, was actually a reformer.
This last point, put forward by Bernard, is particularly important because if the man that Anne Boleyn chose as her personal chaplain was not a reformer then that casts doubt on the view that Anne had radical religious views.
But, what is the evidence that Bernard uses to back up his theory that Skip was not a reformer? It is a sermon preached by John Skip on the 2nd April 1536 which was a mix of religious and political issues.In this sermon, Skip attacked the King, his council, the English nobility and the clergy, but his sermon was not a reformist sermon. In preaching about the abuses of ancient and traditional ceremonies, Skip said that it was right to get rid of the abuses of the ceremonies but that it would be a “greite pyte” if the ceremonies themselves were taken away: “As for theis litle ceremonys of the churiches (he sayde) I am suire their is none of you that wold haue them takon awey and no marvell therof for they cost you litle and litle ye shall gayne by the takyng awey of them.”
As G W Bernard points out, Skip seems to be “arguing not for their [ceremonies] rejection but rather in order to defend them from exaggerated criticism and precisely to protect them from outright abolition” and
“It is an astonishing sermon for the queen’s almoner to have preached. In attacking innovations he was implicitly attacking much that had been done in recent years: in defending ancient ceremonies he was taking the side of those who did not seek any radical reformation. The timing of his sermon was not accidental. In early 1536 a bill dissolving the smaller monasteries had gone through parliament. Edward Foxe, bishop of Hereford, led an English delegation which was negotiating on doctrine with Lutherans in Wittenberg. Most relevantly, in March a group of bishops had been meeting to determine certain articles and to reform ecclesiastical ceremonies, studies which were to result in the elaboration of the Ten Articles in Convocation in June. Skip’s sermon was surely a contribution to that debate, intended to halt the speed of reform. That such a man was Anne’s almoner – and was to be continually with her in the Tower as she awaited execution – must at the very least cast doubt on her own alleged radicalism.”
G W Bernard also presents further evidence of Anne Boleyn’s conservative views:-
- Anne refused a translation of Francis Lambertus’ “Farrago rerum theologicarum” which was offered to her by Tristram Revell in 1536, showing that she was orthodox in her views on the doctrine of the mass.
- Anne was keen to have the sacrament when she was imprisoned in the Tower.
- Her words to Sir William Kingston, “shall I be in heaven for I have done mony gud dedys in my days”, suggest that she did not believe in justification by faith alone.
- After her trial, Anne spoke of entering a nunnery and of her desire to be shriven.
- Some accounts (Chapuys and the French poem) of her words at her execution suggest that she believed in purgatory because they have her asking for prayers to be said to Jesus for her sins so that her soul would not be burdened by her sins after death.
Bernard concludes his report on Anne’s religion by saying:-
“But that dabbling with the new sects may for both Rochford and Anne have been more a matter of politics and radical chic than a matter of religious conviction. The break with Rome, which had made Anne’s marriage to Henry possible, had to be explained and defended; the very preachers like William Barlow, prior of Haverfordwest, who were willing to work against antichrist – the pope – were also keen on spreading the gospel of Christ, the Bible in English, attacking ‘abuses’ of the church. Whether Anne Boleyn went much beyond the conventional and the political is much more doubtful than the thrust of recent writing allows. Anne was much more secular than the Elizabethan or the modern portrait of her as a pious lady suggests; she (and Henry) distributed patronage because they sought support more than enlightenment; the undoubted recipients of that patronage included conservatives such as John Skip; and what she revealed in the Tower through her belief in good works and her attachment to the sacraments was a deeply conventional catholicism.”
Although Bernard makes some great points in his report and reminds us that we should not fully trust the reports by Foxe and Latymer which were written decades after Anne Boleyn’s death, I cannot believe that Anne’s religion, and that of her brother and father, were “more a matter of politics”. In times when you could be arrested and burnt at the stake for heresy, it was dangerous for Anne to possess heretical works, however much the King favoured her. Surely Anne would only risk her life and her relationship with the King for something that was important to her.
Also, Anne may have been keen to raise her profile and popularity by good deeds, almsgiving and aiding the poor, but when you combine this with her support of refugees and people in exile from persecution from abroad, her support of evangelical bishops, her habit of studying the Bible and encouraging her ladies to do the same etc. etc. then surely you have to conclude that Anne was acting out of more than selfish ambition, these actions came from her heart and her faith.
What do you think?
- “Anne Boleyn’s Religion” by G W Bernard
- “Oration to Saint Anne Boleyn” by John Foxe
- “Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen” by Joanna Denny
- “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” by Eric Ives