Anne Boleyn: Opportunist Career Woman?

Posted By on August 18, 2009

Business Woman Being Cruel As you know, Anne Boleyn fascinates me and my mission is to learn more about her, debunk the myths that surround her and try to get at the real Anne Boleyn. This is a tricky mission when even historians using the same sources and evidence can’t agree on her and when movies, books and even historical places proliferate the lies started by Anne’s enemies so long ago.

Labels and Stereotypes

So far in blog posts, I’ve explored the different opinions that people hold of Anne, none of which really sum up this woman in my humble opinion – witch, martyr, whore, victim and homewrecker.

Today I’m going to consider Anne Boleyn as an “opportunist career woman” – a woman who had high ambitions, who had a plan and used events and opportunities that arose to achieve her ambition, to be Queen. Does this label fit Anne any better than the others? I don’t think so, not entirely, but many people do. In my mind, “opportunist career woman” sounds like a woman who will stop at nothing to get her way, rather than a woman who wants success out of life. It sounds like a bad label!

I recently bought a friend of mine Seasons 1 and 2 of “The Tudors”, as I knew she’d love it, and I asked her what she thought of Anne so far (she’s watched the first seven episodes). Her answer was slightly disappointing – conniving, cunning and horrible were the words I think she used, but she commented that Anne’s father, Thomas Boleyn, was far worse. Hmmm… perhaps “The Tudors” is not the best thing for me to give as a present to people!!

The Anne Boleyn of Popular Fiction and TV

This view of Anne as an ambitious, cunning woman who sets out to trap the King, luring him and enticing him with her overt sexuality and dangling her virtue as bait, is one that appears in much popular fiction and on TV.

Even where it is implied that Anne was used by her father and uncle, we still see her as a willing participant who brutally removes people who stand in her way – “Wolsey’s crossed me, must get rid of him”, “Catherine and Mary are rather tiresome, let’s poison them”, “More is getting on my nerves, let’s encourage the King to get rid of him”, “That Pope is stopping me getting my crown, let’s use Lutheran teaching against him”… Still worse, we even see her considering, or even committing, incest in an effort to provide the King with a male heir and to secure her position as Queen.

Was Anne really like this?

The Real Anne Boleyn

While I don’t think that Anne was cunning and conniving, I do believe that she was ambitious and an opportunist. She stood out from other women at court with her appearance, French style and her education. Unlike many fathers who just made sure that their daughters knew how to sew and manage a household, Thomas Boleyn educated Anne to a high standard. She was sent to the Hapsburg Court in 1513, which Eric Ives describes as “Europe’s premier finishing school”, were she was taught French, her role in society, dance, deportment and culture, and where she learned to share Margaret of Austria’s love of art and music.

Her time in France from around 1515, in the household of Queen Claude, solidified Anne’s sophistication and taught her much about life at court. Anne became proficient at singing, dancing and playing the lute, and various other instruments, and may well have met important people like Leonardo da Vinci. I do not believe that Anne became corrupted by her time at the French court, like her sister Mary, but, as maid to the virtuous Queen Claude, was actually not part of what Ives terms as “the blatant sexuality of Francis I’s household”. Anne used the opportunities that her father gave her to improve herself.

So, the Anne Boleyn who returned to the English Court in around 1521 would have been an intelligent, sophisticated young woman who would have wanted more from life than being the King’s mistress or concubine. In fact, I do not believe that Anne was even interested in Henry VIII when he became attracted to her in 1526. Anne had been intent on marrying Henry Percy, a man who she had loved, and had no interest in following in the footsteps of her sister Mary and being a royal mistress – what life was that?

Anne and Henry

So what changed Anne’s mind about the King?

Did she suddenly realise what she could achieve? Did she set out to be Queen? Did she use Henry’s wild passion for her to get the crown and raise her family’s position at court?

Perhaps I’m just an old-fashioned hopeless romantic, but I like to think that Anne fell in love with the King. Here was a man who showed such passion for her, a man who hated writing letters but who bombarded her with love letters, a man who would do anything for her – how intoxicating! When we combine this obvious passion with the fact that Henry was still quite good looking and a man who shared Anne’s interests and intelligence, and I think we’ve got the recipe for love. I may be naive but I believe that Anne was not after the crown alone but that she wanted to be with Henry on her terms, as wife not as mistress. Yes, she was ambitious for herself and would not back down, but I don’t think that she was devious or that she was using Henry.

Opportunist Career Woman or not?

Yes, Anne was an opportunist. She was intelligent enough to use opportunities as they arose to better herself. When Henry VIII proposed marriage to her, she did everything in her power to make it happen, including sharing “New Religion” writing with the King to help him see that he could defy the Pope.

Yes, she was a career woman who did not sit back as Queen but who used her role and her influence over Henry to do what she believed was right. She helped Henry plan his palaces, she got her ladies sewing for the poor, she was a patron of the Arts, she gave more in alms to the poor than many of Henry’s other wives and the King often discussed policies and politics with her. She took her career as Queen seriously.

I guess my conclusion (after all this rambling!) is that Anne was an opportunist career woman, if the label is used as a positive one, however, these labels are often used in a derogatory way and have a double meaning. As has been said before, successful women are often seen to have risen to the top by using their sexuality, by being brutal to others and “using” other people, and Anne is often thought of in this way. If Anne was around today, I’m sure she’d be a CEO of a top company and she would have got there using her intelligence, taking advantage of opportunities, being ruthless (but not cruel) and being focused, not by using people.

What do you think? As always, I want to know your thoughts! Please comment below. Thanks!

****NEWS ROUNDUP****

A few bits of news this week:-

  • Today is the release date of Philippa Gregory’s “The White Queen”, the first novel in her new “Cousins’ War” series on the Plantagenets – Click here to read my review.
  • Launch of “The Tudors” Anne Boleyn headdresses – Ever fancied your very own Anne Boleyn crown, tiara, headdress or headband? Well, we are now offering custom-made Anne Boleyn headdresses – just send us a photo of what you want and we’ll give you a personalised quotation. Click here for examples.
  • Only 9 months to “The Anne Boleyn Experience 2010” – Your chance to meet other Anne Boleyn fans, me (!), Tudor biographer Josephine Wilkinson and other experts, and to actually stay at Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, Hever Castle. I’m counting the days because I’m so excited!! Click here to find out more.
  • The Anne Boleyn Files is growing – As you know, I’m always adding new content and in the past week I’ve been adding content to Tudor Places, Educational Videos, Bios, and Poetry about Anne Boleyn (thanks, Esther!). Let me know if there’s anything you’d like to see on the site.
  • “The Tudors” Season 3 – Nearly forgot! Good news for Brits! Season 3 of “The Tudors” starts this Friday (21st) at 9pm on BBC2 – yay!

20 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn: Opportunist Career Woman?”

  1. This is a very interesting question. Was Anne really a 16th century version of a ruthless modern career woman?

    You pose the question “So what changed Anne’s mind about the King?”, referring to the Percy marriage plans being scuppered and Henry making it known that he favoured Anne.

    I think here is the point at which Anne the Opportunist appears. And I think its purely due to the seriously limited lack of options available to her.

    A young woman of the middling or lower class, or even of lower gentry, would have had far more freedom to marry a person she wished. Anne was at Court. She was of the upper echelons of society. She had caught the eye of the King. Anne had no choices left except the pragmatic – be with the King or the dramatic – suicide!

    The Church could have been an option, but, as with marriage, Anne would have needed the permission of her family AND a “dowry”. She probably would not have got it.

    When the King beckons, none could gainsay him. And Anne of all people – male or female – defied the King and lived. Only Katherine of Aragon herself was able to have the personal confidence in her status to defy the King. But she was a Princess with royal blood herself. She had powerful friends and allies to support her. Anne had nobody but herself.

    So, the King had beckoned – there was no other suitor who would even risk looking at Anne in that way – so Anne really had no other choice. She had to accept the King.

    But she certainly used the opportunity to keep her virtue and get what she wanted. I don’t think she WAS intending to become Queen. The thought and concept would never even have occurred to her until Henry went through the farce at Blackfriars. It may then have dawned on her what King Henry was truly prepared to do.

    All Anne probably knew up until that point, was that Henry wanted her to be his Mistress, just like her sister before her, and that Anne was just as determined not to be. She may well have assumed that after a while of with-holding the ultimate favour, Henry would grow tired of her and she could have been married off – though probably not as well as she would have been with Percy.

    So, in that sense, Anne took the opportunity that was given her and play a waiting game. Who would give in first? The King was generous and kind and was prepared to wait.

    I wonder if Katherine of Aragon was the one person at Court who may have had the faint thought early on as to what Henry was actually prepared to do? We shall never really know.

    As for Anne, her “ambition” was probably no higher than becoming Countess of Northumberland. She would never have dreamed of becoming Queen of England. Perhaps the price she eventually paid for the gift she never asked or dreamt of was worth it in the end. I only hope that she was aware of how great her daughter Elizabeth did become.

  2. Claire says:

    Brilliant comment, Bess! Yes, I never understand people who say that Anne was ruthlessly ambititious and that she set her sights on being the Queen from the start because how could that have occurred to her? She was not a royal princess and none of Henry’s previous mistresses had been raised in such a way. The only time it could have occurred to her is when Henry mentioned it, whereas Jane Seymour knew that the crown was in her sights from the start as there was precedence.

    I think you’re right, Anne could not really refuse the King so she managed to turn the situation round and become the King’s lover on her terms – brave woman! Like you say, she had no way of knowing that the King would continue to pursue her after she had made it clear that she would not become his mistress. I really don’t believe it was all a game to Anne because she had no way of knowing it would work. Henry moved from woman to woman, and there would have been plenty who would welcome the chance to be his mistress, so why would he stick around and wait for Anne?

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. sarah r. says:

    Anne was an accomplished woman in many respects, the education and background you describe, Claire, would have marked her out as an individual of merit and fascination – a worthy prize for any nobleman, and even for a king. Perhaps, also, there was a genuine sense of ‘mission’ shared by her and Henry – a wish, no matter how vaguely formulated at that stage in their relationship, to advance the Humanist movement in education and culture that was emerging at the same time as the reformation of religion in Europe.
    It is not accurate to view these people as merely cynical political animals, intent on advancement and riches, and the king as some kind of lecher lusting after all and sundry. There were other forces at work in their lives. These were people who genuinely believed in the world of spirit, of God, of divine intervention. They prayed every day, they read and discussed theology constantly. Yet they knew that the world was changing, that there were advances in astronomy and the sciences, that new lands were being discovered, new people and cultures emerging. Anne was ambitious, yes, but also perceptive – and I suspect that she saw that change was coming and that she wanted to be part of it with the man she loved. That was her mission. She was provided with a golden opportunity to fulfil that mission, and in a sense she did – though clearly not in the way she envisaged. It was not she, but her daughter who completed the work and brought England into a state where it could embrace all these changes and take advantage of them. The golden Elizabethan age really began with Anne, not simply because she was mother to Elizabeth, but also because she was the herald and instrument of change that allowed that wonderful new age to become possible.

  4. Chris Catralfamo says:

    Excellent comment. Up through the 19th cenury in Anglo-Saxon culture, people are living out of the context of religious belief AND superstition. The modern and post-modern world want Henry to simply be a womanizer-but that’s way too simplistic. Modernists don’t take the “son thing” seriously. But the Tudor crown was picked up on the battlefield with any number of contenders that continued to contend. Add that to the external enemies that saw England as backwater. Henry was unifying and stabilizing England and turning it toward a future as a nation-state. Plus one can’t discount the serious need of the church to reform. The Tudors were the future. Anne in the sense that she could be as a woman, was the highest representative of an emerging reformation and she took that role seriously. This is one of the reasons the Tudors is so unsettling, embarrassing even. You’d never guess from most films the education Henry received as a Prince, and his role as a leading figure in the English Renaissance. Film wants sexual animals to keep modern interest. Ironically, The Tudors does not do a bad job in the script presenting the complexity of Divine Right rule and Henry’s relationship to the Church. But the actor never became Henry for me. I actually prefer the 6 wives and some of the 70’s depictions, which were what got me interested to begin with.

  5. Claire says:

    Brilliant comments, Sarah and Chris! Yes, it is so easy to just consider Henry with our 21st century eyes and minds but he was living in a time when the throne was not secure. It was not long after the struggles of the War of the Roses and previous to that brothers and cousins fighting for the throne, and Henry’s father, Henry VII, had to fend off challenges to his throne. The Tudors were actually usurpers really and Henry VIII knew the dangers if he did not produce a son and heir. I’ve explained that way too simplistically – sorry!

    Yes, both Anne and Henry were Renaissance people who could see that Europe was changing and did not want England to be left behind, and I agree with you both that Anne and Henry were heralding in a new age in English history and were real partners in doing this.

    Thanks for the wonderful comments, Chris, Sarah and Elizabeth!

  6. Bassania says:

    Anne set the bar, she held off and Henry married her and made her queen. This may not have been her vision when he started his courtship of her, but it soon became clear that that was indeed her intention. When her famiy’s enemies, sought to replace and remove her from her throne, they told that Jane Seymour to hold off Henry’s advances, to return his gifts and act like demure little princess. Her actions with Henry, were learnt from Anne. Jane had it easier than Anne, he didn’t have go through a lenghty divorce, someone just had to feed the seed of doubt in his mind about Anne. Anne’s family probably would of thought of her becoming queen before she thought of it, they would have seen how attracted he was to her and that the more she held him off, the more he liked her. If it wasn’t Henry who put it in her mind it would have been her family. Of course, being the intelligent woman she was, she probably would have figured it out sooner or later anyway. However how she treated Henry was her downfall in the end, they learned from her and placed their own pawn in the kings sights.

  7. Linda Saether says:

    I see Anne as a brilliant strategist. I don’t think of her as ruthless, but she did have to have her witts about her, and I like Claire, do believe that Anne fell in love with Henry. Part of the tragedy is that I believe she saw the two of them as a team, and in that respect he betrayed her. She knew that everything depended on him and it must have been maddening to see his interests wander. With her education she may have felt superior to the women of the English court, and that may have fueled her outspoken personality. Please do not forget that within a three year marriage she gave birth to one child and suffered several misscarriages. Imagine the hell of serial misscarriages of a child that would solidify your existance and the hormonal hell resulting from these miscarriages. Our Lady Anne was stronger than anyone gives her credit for.

  8. lisaannejane says:

    I am a bit confused – the third season of “The Tudors” was shown where I live, in California, last April and you can preorder season 3 on Amazon.com. I watched almost all of it on utube – look up Anne of Cleaves and you can see the last 2 episodes. I thought it would have been on in England a long time ago.

  9. Claire says:

    Hi Bassania,
    Yes, all Jane and her family had to do was copy what Anne had done and then change the bit that got her executed!

    Hi Linda,
    I see Anne and Henry as a team too and, as I’ve said many times, a real meeting of minds. Henry must have actually missed Anne’s wit and intelligence when she was gone as I’m sure he could not passionately debate things with Jane!

    Li Lisannejane,
    Yes, in the land of Tudors we have to wait! It doesn’t seem quite right that it is such a long wait when people in America have seen the whole season and the DVD is nearly available! I’m in Spain but I get BBC and I will be watching it Friday – hurrah!

  10. Faye Dufour says:

    Anne was a woman of her time……..that is what everyone must understand. She did not have many choices – either marriage or the convent. She was ambitious and when the King took an interest in her, I believe she wanted to see how far he would go….and she did get him to marry her. And I think the stress of “stringing him along” to use a modern expression, and then trying to bear him a male child made her the “shrew” Henry called her. And, after all, Henry was not a man to tolerate any woman talking back to him.

    I feel sorry for Anne, she seemed to have gotten what she wanted, but could not keep it. And what an outcome, that her daughter would be one of the greatest monarchs England would ever have.

    My two cents on the Tudors…….”Henry VIII and His Wives for Dummies”….please NO insult intended to those who have watched the series…..but I agree with an earlier poster who said they preferred the series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”. Just for a start, the actor who plays Henry looks NOTHING like the paintings of Henry VIII, and the clothing he is wearing is more suited to the reign of his daughter. And as for the women’s clothing…….I do remember reading that the costume designer said the clothing worn during the Tudor period would look “too unusual”…..heck, the clothing worn in the AMC series “Mad Men” probably looks “unusual” to those too young to remember when this was the style. Guess I notice all of this after spending 18 years doing Living History – mainly French Colonial Period in Louisiana, War of 1812 and Civil War. I watched two of the DVS’s of “The Tudors”…..the second one only because I could not belive what tripe it was……and the second one convinced me, yes, it WAS tripe. Again, this is only one woman’s opinion…….but felt Henry VIII, Anne, and all of his wives deserved better……

  11. Claire says:

    You’re right, Faye, I think the pressure of having to provide the King with a son and the fact that everyone wants you to fail is enough to make anyone prone to mood swings! Anne must have felt so stressed!

    As I ahve said before, I love “The Tudors” for its entertainment, for its “colourful” look at this period of history, for making these characters so real and for making a new generation of people interested in the Tudor era but, yes, its inaccuracies can be really really annoying! I guess it’s our job to make sure that people get to know the real story.

    Thanks for the comment, Faye!

  12. Matterhorn says:

    I am really enjoying these series on Anne’s personality and the different opinions people hold of this enigmatic woman. I was wondering, might you consider posting more on what you think her real role was in the treatment of Catherine and Mary, Thomas More, etc.?

  13. Claire says:

    That’s a great idea, Matterhorn, so thanks for the input. I’m glad that you’re enjoying these posts.

  14. Ashley says:

    I agree with you and your friend on, “The Tudors”, I didn’t appreciate at all how she was portrayed, I bought the first 2 seasons and now I’ve given up on it, its so inaccurate! Anyway, I think that if anyone was conniving it was her uncle. I do agree with you on all points, I think she was a virtuous woman with morals and intelligence and not some downright cruel, mean spirited, social climber. Its almost like you get this “sense” of who she really was and I really don’t have any doubts about who I feel she was.

  15. Tricia says:

    Maybe Anne capitulated because she could see that there was no way out. She was about as powerful and expendable as a pawn on a chessboard.

  16. Claire says:

    Thanks, Ashley, I really am trying to figure out who she really was – it’s a “work in progress”!

    Yes, Tricia, all Henry’s women were pawns weren’t they?

  17. Anne says:

    From all the biographies of Anne Boleyn and my own intuition, I would say that the one by E. Barrington (old and out of print) comes closest to who AB really was. She had a very sharp intellect, plus from her various experiences at court, and what she learned from others’ experiences (including her sister), she was politically quite a savvy woman.

    In those days, according to some, a woman who married or had an affair with the king acted as the head of a political party. Her family and friends would benefit as long as she was in favor. And there were competing parties, of course.

    Considering the prominent family, personal talents and education with which Anne Boleyn was gifted, she made as much material and spiritual growth as she could, even for those bloodthirsty times. I feel that her qeenly resolution, resignation and grace that she displayed at the time of her earthly departure shows her to be a woman of great spiritual strength. George Harrison wrote a song called “The Art of Dying”, about how all our life is a preparation for death. I think she would have understood something of this, from a deeply personal realization of the illusion of material life.

    Of course, by the end of her sojourn her husband no longer loved her, her beloved brother George was already gone, her father and uncle had betrayed both of them, so aside from Elizabeth, what did she really have to live for at the end?

    She finished her life with such class, a wonderful example of courage and grace! I love the movement that was started by Wing Commander George Melville-Jackson to have Anne exonerated and her remains moved to Westminster Abbey next to her daughter. He was not successful during his life in this regard, but we can hope his sentiments and convictions continue to gain popular and administrative interest and are eventually honored.

    I would think that in another life, she would have had enough of power and politics, and might end up just trying to do good for others in a relatively anonymous capacity, to work out whatever karmic reactions remained, while continuing to focus on spiritual growth.

    A person of considerable spiritual learning once said to me that the ancient Vedic scriptures state that if a person is killed by the King, all his (or her) karmic reactions from that life are removed. What a great boon that would be, and how ironic for Anne if that were true!

  18. Claire says:

    Hi Anne,

    Thanks or taking the time to comment and what great points! I must try and get a copy of that biography, perhaps there is a copy still kicking around somewhere.

    I think you’re right about her spiritual strength and the fact that she only had Elizabeth to live for, and probably would have been banned from seeing her anyway, would have given her peace in going to her death. Yes, a real example of courage, grace and faith. Bless Wing Commander George Melville Jackson, it’s so sad that he didn’t see Anne pardoned in his lifetime. I would like to see her pardoned or at least some official acknowledgement of the fact that she was an innocent Queen of England who was murdered. I’m not sure anout getting her moved. She is at peace and I don’t think that Anne cares one jot about where her earthly body is and she is in a church where people can go and visit both her place of execution and her resting place. Perhaps her resting place is good in that it draws attention to her story?

    I’m not a believer in karma but it’s interesting what you say about being killed by a King – very ironic!

    Thanks so much for your well thought out comment! x

  19. Chloe says:

    If you had to think about a chosen career by Anne Boleyn, what would that be? What job opportunities could she had had (considering the time period and her conditions as a woman)?

  20. Anjali says:

    Did Anne Boleyn have any type of careers or education in her early life except for that she was a queen? Please reply very soon. I need this information for a S.S project. So the sooner the better. Thanks!

    PS: Sorry, I was not sure what you meant by website on the top.

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