Warning: emotive post and mini rant! Feel free to ignore if it’s not your cup of tea.
With running an Anne Boleyn blog, having made videos about her and having written books on her, I come across the following views on a fairly regular basis:
- Anne was no innocent victim
- She knew exactly what she was doing
- She played a game and lost
- She knew the dangers/risks
- She didn’t deserve to die, but she was far from an innocent victim
- She was a whore who took a man from his marriage and got her just desserts
- She got what she deserved
- She may have been innocent of the crimes but her death was karma
The general idea I get from these types of commenters is that even if Anne was innocent of the charges against her in 1536, she can’t be viewed as an innocent victim because her fall was her own fault; she was overly ambitious and set her sights on a married man because she wanted the crown. Pride comes before a fall, don’t you know?
I’m sorry, but I struggle with this type of view. These comments make me very cross.
Anne Boleyn is not a fictional character. She’s not a Game of Thrones character. Anne was a living, breathing person whose life ended on a scaffold when her head was removed from her body by a sword. Yes, her head was cut off. Before that brutal end – and it wasn’t a fake CGI death, it was real – she had had to come to terms with the fact that she had been sentenced to death for crimes she didn’t commit, that five innocent men had lost their lives because of a plot against her, that her daughter would grow up without her mother and believing her mother to have been a traitor, that her family name would be blackened by the charges against her, that her parents were losing a son and a daughter, that her husband had already replaced her… Can you imagine what she went through in those last days? I can’t even begin to imagine.
But, hey, guys, we can’t feel sorry for her because she knew exactly what she was doing – right?
Yes, apparently, back in the 1520s, this young, power-hungry woman with her eye on the crown set her sights on Henry VIII – a married man no less – seduced him and manipulated him, all the time knowing that she risked this bad end. The crown was worth it all. She knew the risks! Yes, she knew she risked death because this had happened before, hadn’t it?
Erm, no, since when had a queen consort been executed? Ooops, hadn’t she read The Other Boleyn Girl?
How could Anne have been aware of the risks? How could she have known what she was doing, what she was letting herself in for? Even if we go for the sexual predator-type Anne Boleyn doing all she could to get the crown, how could she ever know that her actions would lead to her being on the scaffold on 19th May 1536? I just can’t see how it can be said that “she knew what she was doing”. There was no precedent, she wasn’t one of Henry VIII’s later queens who’d seen how the earlier ones had been treated.
But this sexual predator-type Anne Boleyn doesn’t even fit with the evidence we have regarding her early relationship with Henry VIII. OK, so we’ve only got Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne and not her replies, but these surviving letters do give us some insight into their courtship and it is possible to ‘read between the lines’ at points. It is clear that Henry set his sights on Anne and that he then wooed her, going all out to obtain her, wanting her to become his mistress, then his official mistress, and then, after her refusal of this offer, wanting her to become his wife. He was obsessed with her, he wanted Anne at all costs and it is clear that Anne rebuffed him at first, that she even left court and retreated to the family home at Hever in Kent. But Henry didn’t take no for an answer, he was king after all. One author goes as far as to depict Anne Boleyn as a victim of sexual harassment, basing this idea on Thomas Wyatt the Elder’s famous poem “Whoso List to Hunt”:
“Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
In this poem, which is based on Petrarch’s “Una Candida Cerva”, Wyatt starts with a challenge, telling those who want to hunt that he knows the location of a hind, but he goes on to say that he is weary of the chase and that his hunt failed, that the hind was claimed by Caesar: “Noli me tangere [don’t touch me],” says the hind, “for I am Caesar’s . This “wild to hold” hind can’t be Wyatt’s, she doesn’t belong to him. It is thought that this poem is about Wyatt’s feelings for Anne Boleyn, and, in an article in The Guardian, Carol Rumens writes:
“But this is still a love-poem, and nowhere more obviously than in that final, para-rhymed couplet, where, having quoted the injunction, Noli me tangere, the hind describes herself as “wild for to hold”. This instantly transports us to a hinterland of erotic excitement, and registers the extent of the poet’s loss and hurt, now that the King has claimed Wyatt’s dear as his own.”
It’s a poem about a lost love, but is Wyatt saying something even more by depicting Anne Boleyn as a hind? Is he seeing her as a quarry hunted down by the King, ensnared by him and becoming his whether she liked it or not? Being owned by him, even labelled by him as his possession. Perhaps that’s reading too much into it, but Karen Lindsey, author of Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation Of The Wives Of Henry VIII certainly sees Anne as Henry’s victim:
Today, Henry’s approach to Anne would be instantly identifiable as sexual harassment. Anne however, had no social or legal recourse against a the man who ruled the country. She continued, as so many women before and since have done, to dodge her pursuer’s advances while sparing his feelings. It didn’t work… It was a hellish position. Could she really tell the king to his face that she had no interest in him? She could reiterate her desire to keep her chastity and her honor, but clearly he didn’t respect that. She could ignore his letters and stay away from court, but he refused to take the hint. To offer him the outright insult he asked for would be to risk not only her own but her father’s and brother’s careers at court. She undoubtedly kept hoping he would tire of the chase and transfer his attentions to some newer lady-in-waiting.
But he didn’t and she was trapped: there was no chance of her making a good marriage when every eligible nobleman knew the king wanted her. She began to realize she would have to give in. [as Wyatt wrote in his poem ‘Whoso list to hunt’] ‘Nole me tangere, for Caesar’s I am’.
Virtually every account of Anne’s story cites the poem, yet its central image is ignored. Anne was a creature being hunted, and hunted by the king — like the buck he had killed and so proudly sent to her. There could be no refuge from the royal assault; no one would risk protecting her from Henry’s chase. She could run, hide, dodge for a time, but the royal hunter would eventually track down his prey. And he would destroy her. The hunt was not an archaic metaphor in sixteenth century life, it was a vivid integral part of that life and everyone knew what happened to the wild creature at the end.
You may feel that Lindsey is going too far, and you may believe that Henry’s wooing caused Anne to fall in love with him, but then it still appears that he was the instigator. He chased her, she rebuffed him; he made her a good offer while also wooing the hell out of her, and she accepted it. Only then did she start to fight for her position, support the King in his quest for an annulment and support his treatment of his first wife and daughter. I haven’t see one iota of evidence that Anne set out to seduce Henry, that she dangled her virginity as bait for him.
Yes, Anne had a hand in the ill-treatment of Catherine and Mary, something that she appears to have regretted in her last days, but she wasn’t solely responsible for it and Henry was very much in charge. No woman ever controlled Henry VIII, he wasn’t a puppet. If you think that Anne Boleyn deserved to be beheaded because of Henry’s treatment of these women then I really don’t know what to say to you, I just don’t.
As for her being responsible for England breaking with Rome, for the executions that took place during the Reformation, for Mary I turning out the way she did and doing what she did, for Henry’s ‘tyranny’… Hmmm… I didn’t realise that Anne was the one in charge? What else can we blame her for? World poverty?
Just desserts, karma, you reap what you sow, what goes around comes around…
I despair when I see these types of comments on social media about historical people being executed. Perhaps I should be glad that there are such perfect people in the world who can sit in judgement on those of us who are flawed. I pity people who make these types of comment about Anne Boleyn, I really do, because they have no compassion. I’d like to take them out of their ivory towers and glass houses back in time to Anne Boleyn’s trial, to the executions of those five men, to Anne’s last days in the Tower, to the nights she spent in prayer, to Anne’s execution, to Archbishop Cranmer’s garden when he explained to his good friend Alexander Alesius that Anne was being executed that day before being overcome with grief, to the Boleyn family as they heard the news of their children’s deaths… “This is real”, I’d remind them over and over, “this is not a Game of Thrones episode.”
I’m sorry that this is an emotive post and not at all a scholarly article, but sometimes I worry about people and sometimes it all becomes too much for me and I have to have my say. I don’t believe that Anne Boleyn was an angel, I don’t believe that she should be put on a pedestal, I think that she had her flaws and that she wasn’t a nice person at times. Like all of us, she had her good points too – she appears to have inspired love and loyalty in those around her, she was charitable and was interested in poor relief and education, she was a patron to religious reformers, she believed in the dissemination of the English Bible, she was courageous, she was witty, she spoke her mind and was true to herself and her beliefs… She was a multi-faceted character and that’s what makes her fascinating to me. Whatever her flaws, though, she didn’t deserve her end. It wasn’t karma, it wasn’t her “just desserts”, it wasn’t the result of any game she played, it was a travesty and a tragedy. It’s something that should make us feel horrified and sick, not satisfied and happy.
Just minutes before she was executed, Anne Boleyn said: “And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best.” I choose to do that and thankfully I’m not alone.
You may also be interested in my article Anne Boleyn: A cheat who deserved death? I don’t think so which looks at the charges against her and why I don’t believe she was guilty..
Notes and Sources
- Wyatt, Sir Thomas, Whoso List to Hunt.
- Lindsey, Karen (1996) Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation Of The Wives Of Henry VIII, Da Capo Press.
- Rumens, Carol (2009) “Poem of the week: Whoso List to Hunt by Thomas Wyatt”, The Guardian, Monday 10 August 2009. See https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/aug/10/poem-of-the-week-thomas-wyatt
- My own addled brain!