My old English literature teacher would be appalled by that question, not because she had any strong opinion about Anne but because she hated the word “nice” with a vengeance. She viewed it as weak and inadequate, a word that just didn’t describe anything properly. However, this question is one I get asked on a regular basis and the word “nice” is always used.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, “nice”, when used to describe a person, means ” good-natured; kind”.1 Can we describe someone we don’t know from 500 years ago as “good-natured” or “kind”, or even the opposite: “nasty” or “spiteful”?
I don’t believe so.
As Professor Eric Ives wrote, even “historians see through a glass darkly; they know in part and they pronounce in part” and “What Anne really was, as distinct from what Anne did, comes over very much less clearly.”2 We can only judge Anne Boleyn from primary sources, but this evidence does not give us a clear picture of her. How can we judge someone’s personality on actions and words recorded in documents when we don’t know what else they said or did? The Anne of the sources is a conundrum:
“To us she appears inconsistent – religious yet aggressive, calculating yet emotional, with the light touch of the courtier yet the strong grip of the politician – but is this what she was, or merely what we strain to see through the opacity of the evidence? As for her inner life, short of miraculous cache of new material, we shall never really know.”3
In our hunt for the real Anne Boleyn, we are limited by evidence and also by the bias and opinions of those writing that evidence. No description of Anne’s personality is objective, it is someone’s opinion of her based on their experience of her. You and I might meet the same woman and come away with completely different opinions of her. She may be in a good mood when I meet her but then her mood has changed when you meet her and she comes across completely differently. I’d describe her a pleasant and good-natured, you’d describe her as moody and unfriendly. Neither of us is right or wrong, we’re just making a snap judgement on our limited experience of that woman.
To some, Anne Boleyn is a saint or martyr, to others she is a whore and bitch, and both points of view can be argued and backed up with evidence. Those who see her as a saint might back up their view with the work of martyrologist John Foxe who viewed Anne as a martyr of the Reformation, a “zealous defender” of the Gospel and a “bountiful” helper of the poor.4 George Wyatt,5 grandson of Thomas Wyatt, and William Latymer,6 Anne’s chaplain, also wrote of Anne’s generosity and the way she helped those less fortunate than herself – see Anne Boleyn and Charity, so if we relied on those sources alone we would view Anne as a pious and generous woman who went out of her way to help people. Those who view Anne as a whore and bitch, might back up their view with the letters of Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, who referred to Anne Boleyn as “the concubine” and “putain” (whore) and who wrote of Anne stating “that she wished all Spaniards were at the bottom of the sea” and “that she did not care anything for the Queen, and would rather see her hanged than acknowledge her as her mistress.”7 Can one woman be kind and giving, but also spiteful and hot-tempered? Of course she can!
Anne Boleyn was a real person. She is not the product of fiction, she is not some super-heroine to put on a pedestal, she was a real woman with gifts, talents and positive personality traits, but also character flaws. She accomplished so much but she also made mistakes. Anne was loving and giving, she stepped in and helped people in dire straits, but she also encouraged the ill-treatment of Catherine of Aragon and Mary. I expect she was fiercely loyal and loving to her family and friends, yet quite probably rejoiced in the fall of those she saw as her enemies. She was human and, like all of us, she was a complex person who showed different sides of her nature to different people.
We like to sort people into goodies and baddies, it’s human nature:
- Henry VIII the tyrant versus Henry VIII virtuous prince.
- Jane Seymour the meek and mild versus Jane the plotting woman who stole Henry from Anne and danced on her grave.
- Henry VII the goodie saving England from Richard III the baddie, versus Henry VII the usurper and Richard III the King who was wronged.
- Thomas More the Saint and family man versus the More who delighted in burning reformers.
We even do it with modern day celebrities, politicians and leaders. But people don’t fit neatly into little boxes, pigeon holes or labels, do they? Is it so difficult to realise that nobody is all bad or all good? Can’t we see that it’s impossible to judge people when sources are limited and biased, and we have little or no understanding of the times they lived in? Goodies and baddies belong in cartoons, not history or real life, and even writers of fiction need to give their characters different facets, otherwise they are not believable.
Eric Ives concluded his biography of Anne Boleyn by writing of the woman he had researched for decades:
“Yet what does come to us across the centuries is the impression of a person who is strangely appealing to the early twenty-first century. A woman in her own right – taken on her own terms in a man’s world; a woman who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex; of only moderate good looks, but taking a court and a king by storm. Perhaps, in the end, it is Thomas Cromwell’s assessment that comes nearest: intelligence, spirit and courage.”8
That idea of Anne will resonate with many people reading this article, but others will see her differently. What fascinates me about her will be different to what fascinates you, and that’s fine, just remember that she wasn’t the perfect woman but she also was not the devil incarnate.
Notes and Sources
- Ives, Eric. (2005) The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. New ed. Wiley-Blackwell, p359
- Foxe, John. (1851) Foxe’s Book of Martyrs: Acts and Monuments of the Church in Three Volumes, Vol. II, London, George Virtue
- Wyatt, George The Life of Queen Anne Boleigne in Cavendish, George. (1825) The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, Volume 2. Samuel Weller Singer
- ed. Dowling, Maria (1990) William Latymer’s Cronickille of Anne Bulleyne, Camden Miscellany XXX 39
- LP v. 24
- Ives, p359