Anne Boleyn: The Myths and Bad History

Posted By on July 26, 2010

There was an interesting article in Saturday’s Daily Mail entitled “Anne Boleyn, harlot or heroine? Was she a scheming sexual predator, or a brave reformer who changed Britain for ever?” about Anne Boleyn, the myths surrounding her and Howard Brenton’s new play “Anne Boleyn” which is being performed at The Globe.

While I applaud Brenton for writing this play, which sounds like it challenges some of the many labels which Anne has been given in the past (witch, whore, harlot, sexual predator), I wonder if, like the Victorians, Brenton is swinging too far the other way. In the article, Brenton talks of Anne Boleyn being “a Joan of Arc, driven by religious vision” and while I agree that Anne had a role in the English Reformation and was passionate about religious reform, I don’t see her as a woman who gave her life for her faith or who purposely initiated the reformation in England. A woman with a true faith and passion for reform, but no Joan of Arc.

A French Lover?

According to the article, Brenton also has an interesting idea about Anne’s love life, believing that her first lover was a French Protestant – hmmm, I haven’t found any evidence of that. I believe wholeheartedly that it was Anne’s time in France, combined with her father’s interest in the New Religion, which gave Anne her passion for reform, but I believe it had more to do with the women she spent time with there, the daughters of Anne of Brittany (Queen Claude and Renée of France) and Marguerite of Angoulême, rather than any love affair.

Anne Boleyn and the Reformation

We also have to remember that Anne Boleyn was no Protestant, that label did not even exist then. She may have been a catalyst of the English Reformation and influenced Henry VIII with her “heretical” reading material, but she was reformist rather than Protestant and she died in the Catholic faith. As my good friend, Olivia Peyton, said to me: “Anne Boleyn did not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater”, meaning that Anne could see that the Catholic Church was fundamentally ok, she did not reject the established religion and its rituals, but she realised that reform was required – the church needed some work! Anne’s almoner, John Skip, defended the ceremonies and rituals of the Catholic church in a sermon supported by Anne, defending them as aids to memory rather than the belief that they had sacred power. Eric Ives points out too that the reformist literature Anne was reading was not necessarily challenging the belief in transsubstantiation, that Christ’s body was present in the consecrated host, but instead was challenging “the late medieval focus on the miraculous mechanism of the mass rather than its significance”. Ives goes on to explain that:-

“Her attitude would be characteristic of all shades of English evangelical reform for at least a decade more: real spiritual experience, yes; the priority of faith, yes; access to the Bible, yes; reform of abuses and superstition, yes; but heretical views on the miracle of the altar, no.”

I think that we need to throw out the myths regarding Anne, both good and bad, and stop bad history in its tracks. Let’s challenge people who present Anne Boleyn as a harlot, witch and sexual predator, but also question those who think she was a Protestant martyr and leader of the Reformation.

Who was Anne Boleyn?

So, how would I describe my Anne, the Anne Boleyn I believe in?

  • A Renaissance woman who loved the New Learning and Arts
  • A highly intelligent woman who could hold her own in debates with her husband, Henry VIII
  • A woman of style – Her “Frenchness” made her stand out at the English court
  • A woman who was not a classical beauty or English rose, but someone who had sexual magnetism and made people’s heads turn
  • A passionate reformer – Someone who was interested in religious reform and the ideas coming from the continent and who hated the superstition that seemed to have taken root in the Church
  • A woman of faith – It is clear that Anne had a true personal faith
  • A hot-tempered and outspoken woman
  • A charitable woman who was concerned about poverty and education
  • An ambitious woman who loved the limelight
  • A woman ahead of her time
  • A loving mother who wanted her daughter close by her and to see her as often as she could
  • A stubborn woman – Her role of “Perseverance” was spot on
  • A woman who was not afraid to upset people and make enemies
  • A feisty woman who was not afraid to take risks and who lived life to the full

My Anne was no sexual predator or witch but she was far from perfect and was not a martyr. Who was your Anne Boleyn?

Miranda Raison as Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn at the Globe

Howard Brenton’s “Anne Boleyn” is on at The Globe between now and the 21st August and looks like a wonderful play. Starring as Anne is Miranda Raison, who played Jo in “Spooks”, and the blurb from The Globe website says:-

“Anne Boleyn celebrates the life and legacy of a great English heroine – traditionally seen as either the beautiful and virtuous victim of a tyrant husband, or as an ambitious and ruthless reformist manipulating her way into power.

But Brenton puts a very different Anne – and her ghost – on the Globe stage. Witty, flirtatious and confident, she’s in love with Henry but also with the most dangerous ideas of her day. Conspiring with the exiled William Tyndale, Anne plots to produce a Bible that everyone can read – a translation that will permit her marriage to Henry, haunt her daughter’s successor, and transform Britain forever.”

Tickets can be ordered online at http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/theatre/annualtheatreseason/anneboleyn/

If you go and see it then please let me know, as I’m unable to go and I’d love someone to review it for the site.

Notes and Sources

Further Reading

Read more about Anne Boleyn’s faith and her role in the Reformation in:-

8 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn: The Myths and Bad History”

  1. Candice says:

    Anne Boleyn was, and remains, a polarizing figure. It seems people either love or hate her, and the same can be said for how people define her. This polarity rears its ugly head when Anne is placed within a dichotmy of either a sexual predator or a brave reformer, the saint or the sinner. However, these kinds of dicothomies destroy any of Anne’s humanness, agency, and complex nature. Claire’s list of her Anne Boleyn is a woman, who runs the whole gamut of human emotion and behaviour.
    Anne, for me, is a complex woman, like myself, who does not always do, say, or make the right decisions. A woman who found herself in a situation, where her enemies surrounded her, but she faced her death with courage.
    Furthermore the idea that a love affair turned Anne into a reformer is ridiculous. Why can’t it be the women she surrounded herself with in France who inspired her learning. It seems to me this shall only reinforce many assumptions that Anne’s religious beliefs were a shear attachment to her sexual attraction, and not a true portrait of her faith.

  2. BoleynChild says:

    Anne was exactly what you have described- she knew what she wanted, and how to change matters and put them into her own hands. She was a wonderful mother, no matter what other people said. She was strong-willed and would always voice her own opnions to Henry VIII, and she just had this essence of power around her. She is passionate about what she believes in, and would try to get others to see things as she did- Claude in my opnion was a real muse for her.

    Anne was a real women. Just like any of us. She was never a “sexual predator”, she was brought up in the French court and taught to ‘flirt like the French’. All she did was use this skill on the king. In my opnion Anne would never ever be considered as a sexual predator because of the speech she said on her excecution day. This woman was pure innocent, and knew she was, and her Lord was waiting for her because he knew the truth. But apparently, the power she had over Henry for that long period of time could be considered witchcraft to some because of the enourmous hold she had on him. Anne was very insightful about the future. She WAS very ahead of her time, and such a smart woman. Never will our Anne be called witch, sexual predator, or harlot.

  3. miladyblue says:

    It is amusing there is always a mention of Anne’s looks – though perhaps it is reasonable, considering Henry had a taste for beautiful women, and people were remarking at the time about how Anne fell short of that ideal, somehow.

    I have two major thoughts about this – aesthetics are personal. The surviving descriptions (those of Anne’s enemies, mind you) are that she was of “middling beauty” or “not the handsomest woman in the world.” Could that be because she did not fit the ideal of the English Rose – pale, blue eyed blonde? Unfortunately, the portraits of Anne do not seem to represent the same woman. The Hever castle portrait above in the article, looks quite different from the very famous National Portrait Gallery picture, which is in the banner at the top of the Blog. I think she was a very attractive woman, but she didn’t have the “approved” color scheme.

    The other thought about her looks is that maybe she wasn’t the best looking woman at court, but there was something about her that made her a beauty in truth. Even in the rantings of Anne’s enemies, the clear picture emerges of a very intelligent, charming, vital, magnetic and witty lady that had an irresistable, fiery allure. It certainly worked on Henry!

    I have known people who were not up to the high (some would say impossible) standards of beauty, and yet, there is something about their personalities that made you overlook the physical flaws, whatever they were, and truly see that person as beautiful. A kind heart, keen intelligence, great sense of humor, or other positive personality trait or traits can go a long way toward making up for, if not eclipsing, a physical lack of attractiveness.

    Anne’s intelligence seems to have been the spark, I think, of her downfall. She was very well educated and worldly, in addition to being smart, witty, etc. The imbecilic double standards women were subjected to were ridiculous, and she refused to go along with them. All the effort that went into her education were not going to be put aside as she meekly served as a brainless baby-maker.

    It might have occurred to her that intelligence was as much a family inheritance as a product of upbringing/education. Much like her father, Anne had a flair for languages, as evidenced by her fluency in French. Foreign languages, after all, were taught all over England at the time, yet Anne, according to sources at Margaret of Austria’s court, picked up French quickly and easily. Before her death, she arranged for Elizabeth’s education with the “Cambridge Connection” to use the title of Claire’s earlier blog post. Maybe she recognized that Elizabeth had inherited her own intelligence, and wanted to make sure Elizabeth did not languish in ignorance?

    I do agree with you, Claire, that there is more to Anne than the divided lines of “saint” and “sinner”. Passionately agreeing with one view or the other misses the point that Anne was a complete person, with bits of both in her character.

  4. Anne Barnhill says:

    Claire, I think you are right on the money with your description of Anne–I do think she had charisma or sex appeal, whatever you want to call it, and her daughter had the same. Of course, Henry also was an attractive character early on and could still be kind and bluff on occasion as he aged. I don’t think we will ever know the fullness of Anne Boleyn but I do think she was more than a stereotype–She was fully woman and all that means. And she had great courage which seems to have jpassed to Elizabeth. I guess it’s obvious how much I just admire and love her…

  5. Valerie says:

    I think that Anne was neither a saint or a sinner, she was, like most other people, somewhere in between. The Anne Boleyn I admire is someone who was brave, ambitious, not afraid to stand up for her beliefs, well-educated, a lover of fashion and a trend-setter and someone who cared passionately about those close to her. She was aware of her sexuality and knew how to use it to her best advantage. A woman of deep faith who loved life at court which at times could be quite shallow.

  6. julie b says:

    To me there has to be something about Anne Bolelyn that we are attracted to. Maybe we have similiar personalities that draw us to her. I can see qualities in Anne that I may have or have had…you too?
    She had to have been a strong woman to deal with Henry’s infidelity and the fact that she had enemies lurking about constantly. Who could live like that?

  7. Eliza says:

    I agree Julie B! I do see some sides of Anne that I have, too. For me Anne had an all-around personality. She had many sides, that’s why she is so interesting.

  8. Kara says:

    It’s weird how some pictures of Anne show her with full
    beautiful lips and others with tight almost stern lips….I wonder
    why certain paintings were painted this way and which one is
    closest in real resemblance to her. I really do want to know what
    she really looked like all around. I am sad that so many portraits
    were burned or destroyed by Henry. Aw well…

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