In my last article, I looked at Anne’s role in the Reformation and today I continue the theme of religion by looking at Anne Boleyn’s personal faith and the clues and evidence which give us an idea of what she truly believed in her heart.
One of Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours is on display at Hever Castle and it is in that book that we can see not only Anne’s signature but the inscription “le temps viendra“, “the time will come”, under an illumination of the Last Judgement. Eric Ives, in “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, writes of how these words are an abbreviation of the proverb “a day will come that shall pay for all”, a precis of part of “The Ecclesiaste”, an illuminated manuscript produced for Anne, which says “the judgement of God shall be general and universal where as all things shall be discovered and nothing shall abide hidden, whether it be good or evil.” The fact that Anne wrote this inscription in her own Book of Hours shows that these words had real meaning to Anne and it was something that she was pondering deeply.
But before we look at the clues to Anne’s faith, let’s consider the people who had influence on her when she was growing up:-
Joanna Denny describes Anne Boleyn’s father, Thomas, as a “firm advocate of the New Religion” and writes of how he used his diplomatic missions to import heretical tracts into England. This was a dangerous thing to do as he could easily have been caught and condemned for heresy. Denny also writes of how he translated one of these heretical publications and dedicated it to Anne, an act which suggests that Anne was interested in these works.
In 1513, at around the age of 12, Thomas Boleyn sent Anne Boleyn to the continent to become one of Archduchess Margaret of Austria’s maids of honour. She stayed on the continent for nearly 9 years so it is important that we look at the people she spent time with, the people who may have influenced the teenage Anne and shaped her mind and her faith.
The Court of Margaret of Austria
The Habsburg court of Margaret of Austria at Mechelen in Brabant, in the Lowlands, was a sophisticated Renaissance court. Here, Anne Boleyn learned a multitude of skills and vast knowledge: the language of French, the tradition of courtly love, music, dance and culture. Eric Ives writes of how Flanders and its adjacent lands had, for a century, been the cultural heart of Europe, it must have been culture overload for Anne’s young mind! It is likely that Anne’s love of illuminated manuscripts came from her time with Margaret, who had a huge collection.
A Move to France
It is not known exactly when Anne Boleyn left the Lowlands for France. Her father, Thomas Boleyn, wrote to Margaret of Austria in 1514 asking for Anne to be released to go to France as a member of Mary Tudor’s entourage for her marriage to Louis XII of France, but a list in the French archives makes no mention of Anne in this group, only of her sister, Mary. Ives wonders if there was some delay with Thomas Boleyn’s message, or Margaret of Austria delayed sending Anne, and Anne was unable to get back to England in time to escort Mary Tudor from England to France and so met the group in Paris for Mary’s coronation on the 5th November 1514. What we do know is that in 1515 Anne Boleyn joined the household of Queen Claude, daughter of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany, and wife of Francis I who became King on the death of Claude’s father.
Anne Boleyn was a member of Claude’s household for nearly seven years and although some historians like to make out that her time at the French court corrupted Anne they do not take into account the fact that Claude’s court was not as public as her husband’s and was actually sophisticated, cultural and chaste. Claude actually had strict moral codes for her household and Anne would have been expected to follow them and remain chaste and virtuous. It is at Claude’s Renaissance court that Anne would have had her mind further opened, not just to culture but to religion.
Eric Ives writes of how Anne may have met Renaissance giants like Leonardo da Vinci and how she may well have accompanied Claude and Louise of Savoy on their ceremonial journey to welcome Claude’s husband, the King, back from his victory at Marignano. This journey also took them to Lyons where they undertook a pilgrimage to Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, the location of the supposed tomb of Mary Magdalene – did Anne visit this tomb? Perhaps so, but we have no idea what Anne thought of this pilgrimage.
Renée of France
Renée of France was Queen Claude’s younger sister and we know from the way that she spoke affectionately of Anne Boleyn to Nicholas Throckmorton in the 1560s that she had great respect for Anne. She knew Anne through her sister Claude but also because Anne was her companion for a while. The interesting thing about Renée is that during her time in Ferrara (she was married to the Duke of Ferrara) she was arrested as a heretic. She was in regular correspondence with Protestants abroad and had also been known to have taken the Eucharist in a Protestant manner. The introduction of a special court of Inquisition at Ferrara led to many Protestants being executed but Renée escaped from any serious punishment when she recanted and received the Eucharist at mass.
The death of Renée’s husband allowed her to return to France in late 1559 and following the death of her great nephew, Francis II, she established Protestant worship at her estate at Morntargis and supported Protestants in the area by turning her castle into a refuge.
Marguerite of Angoulême was Queen Consort of Navarre and sister-in-law to Claude of France, being the sister of Francis I. She was a famous Renaissance figure and is known for her patronage of the arts, her strong religious views and her religious poem “Le Miroir l’âme pécheresse” (The Mirror of the Sinful Soul), the same poem which Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, translated as a gift for her stepmother, Catherine Parr. This poem is a mystical poem which combines evangelical protestant ideas with Marguerite’s idea of her relationship with God as a familial one, God as her brother, father or lover.
It is not known exactly what Anne’s relationship with Marguerite was. Marguerite was said to be close to Claude and Renée, who Anne served, and some even believe that Anne served Marguerite herself. What is clear is that Anne knew Marguerite intimately enough to write in 1535 “that her greatest wish, next to having a son, was to see you again” (quoted in Ives P33) and Ives also writes that in 1534 Anne had written to Marguerite about the 1532 meeting between Henry and Francis I, saying that although there had been “everything proceeding between both kings to the queen’s grace’s singular comfort, there was no one thing which her grace so much desired…as the want of the said queen of Navarre’s company, with whom to have conference, for the more causes than were meet to be expressed, her grace is most desirous.” This sounds like more than polite flattery, it sounds like Anne really missed Marguerite’s company. Anne also wrote to Marguerite in 1534 confiding that she was pregnant and so wanted to postpone a meeting between Henry and Francis until around April 1535.
Could Marguerite have influenced Anne’s faith? Possibly. What is clear is that Anne Boleyn spent her formative years, the years where we question what we believe in, surrounded by what Ives terms as “aristocratic women seeking spiritual fulfilment” and that must have had some effect on her, her outlook and her faith.
Anne Boleyn’s Personal Faith
So, here we have a woman who lived for many years in Renaissance Europe with women searching for spiritual fulfilment and who then moved back to England where, some would suggest, that she was the catalyst of the English Reformation, but what was her personal faith?
Le Temps Viendra
As I said earlier, Anne inscribed the phrase “le temps viendra“, “the time will come”,in her personal Book of Hours, along with an astrolabe and her signature. The phrase “the time will come” suggests that Anne is looking to the future and perhaps to a future of reformation and new ideas. The astrolabe, or armillary sphere, was a popular Renaissance symbol and can be seen in Renaissance paintings, such as Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”, and was used to symbolise time, wisdom, cultural excellence and knowledge. It is hard to understand what exactly Anne Boleyn meant by this inscription but it suggests that she was passionate about new ideas and knowledge, particularly in religion, seeing as she wrote it in her Book of Hours.
Although G W Bernard sees Anne’s faith as more political than personal and Ives writes:-
“Self-interest and ambition – which Anne had in plenty – each pointed to reform as the cause that would serve her best”
Ives also points out that “Anne’s evident interest in French reform cannot be dismissed as a posture taken up for the occasion.”
It seems that Anne’s passion for reform was real, not just a convenient, political move.
We also have to consider another influence on Anne, that of her brother, George Boleyn, a man who was a zealous reformist and who “spoke the language of Zion” (Ives p278) at his execution on the 17th May 1536. Like his father, George used his diplomatic missions to France, as ambassador, to smuggle back to England reformist literature and he shared this literature with one of his best friends, his sister Anne.
How do we know this?
Because of the collection of French evangelical books which were found amongst George and Anne’s belongings when their possessions were seized after their executions and also because George presented Anne with manuscripts he’d transcribed from the works by Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples (“Les Epistres et Evangiles” and “L’Ecclesiaste”), dedicating them to her and signing them her “moost lovyng and frynddely brother”. If Anne had not been interested in such works then George would not have spent time working on these manuscripts and translating the commentary which was full of Lutheran ideology, such as having a living faith in Christ, rather than relying on ritual, and the idea of justification by faith alone.
Anne and George were bound by more than blood, they were also bound by their shared faith and ideology.
A True Faith
Anne Boleyn may have been ambitious but, as Ives says, “why should we not allow her genuine religious experience?”, why do we have to explain away her faith by blaming her actions on politics?
Yes, she had a lively court and a sexual magnetism; yes, she enjoyed luxuries and the good life, but does that mean that her faith was not true? No. Eric Ives writes:-
“It is, indeed, hard to deny Anne a personal faith. Apart from the Bible in which, significantly, we know she had an interest in Paul’s epistles, the works she read and collected are certainly redolent of a Christianity of commitment and not of routine observance.”
In the words of George Boleyn’s translation of Lefevre’s “Ecclesiaste”:-
“There is nothing better than by true faith to take Jesuchrist of our side for pledge, mediator, advocate and intercessor. For who that believeth in him and doth come with him to this judgment, shall not be confused” (quoted in Ives p280)
and, as Ives points out:-
“If this was Anne Boleyn’s experience of faith, then she was evangelical by conviction and not just policy.”
But what about her actions in the Tower, the way that she made an oath on the bread and wine and spent her last night praying before it?
This does not mean that Anne was a conservative Catholic deep down, nor does the sermon in which her almoner, John Skip, defended the value of the ceremonies and rituals of the church. The fact that Anne did not completely reject established religion and the rituals associated with it, does not mean that Anne’s reformist faith was not a true faith. As Ives explains, the writings that Anne read were not necessarily challenging the belief in the bodily presence of Christ in the consecrated host, they were challenging “the late medieval focus on the miraculous mechanism of the mass rather than its significance” and Skip’s famous sermon defending church rituals was not defending their sacred power but defending them as aids to memory:-
“holy water…to put us in remembrance that our sins be washed away by the sprinkling and shedding of Christ’s blood; holy bread [to remind us] that all we that have professed Christ’s faith be one body mystical and ought to be one in mind in spirit in Christ our head…”
In my last post, I also mentioned how G W Bernard uses Anne’s refusal of Tristram Revell’s translation of “Farrago Rerum Theologicarum” as evidence of her conservative ideology but Ives argues 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.”
Anne was reformist but did not go as far as some on the continent, but she was not a closet conservative.
The Ambassadors – A Clue to Anne’s Lutheran Leanings?
In his biography of Anne Boleyn, “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, Eric Ives ponders if Anne Boleyn actually commissioned Hans Holbein’s famous painting “The Ambassadors”. Anne was a patron of Holbein and had already commissioned “Mount Parnassus” and the fact that “The Ambassadors” must have been painted during the weeks when Anne was preparing for her coronation, combined with the fact that the “shepherd’s” or pillar dial in the painting shows the date of the 11th April, the exact date when the royal court was informed that Anne was queen, does imply that Anne commissioned this work too.
Like many of Holbein’s works, this painting of ambassadors Jean de Dinteville (a secular landowner) and Georges de Selve (a bishop) is rich in symbolism. As well as objects symbolising the seven liberal arts that were popular at the time – grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy – the painting also includes religious symbols, here are a few of them:-
- The lute with the broken string – a symbol of discord
- A case of flutes with one instrument missing – more discord
- A pair of dividers and an arithmetic book open at a page on division – more discord and division.
- A hymnal open to show the “Veni Creator Spiritus” (“Come Creator Spirit”) and the Ten Commandments – Ives points out that although these were “basic anthems of the Latin Church, Holbein shows them in a vernacular Lutheran version.
- Crucifix and set square – According to Ives, these symbols, along with the Lutheran vernacular and texts, “together express the conviction of evangelicals that the way to unity in the Church was a response to Christ by the Holy Spirit, leading to a life of everyday obedience to the commandments.
If Anne was indeed involved in commissioning this painting, it shows her interest in Lutheran ideology and her recognition of the religious divisions that were around her and which lay in the future.
It is impossible for us to know what was in Anne’s heart, but I think the evidence points towards her having a true faith rather than her using religion for political motives. The Catholic Church at the time was full of corruption, such as the sale of indulgences, and what is unclear is whether Anne was seeking to get rid of this corruption, while remaining in the Catholic Church, or whether her views were even more radical.
- “Anne Boleyn’s Religion” by G W Bernard
- “Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors: Anamorphic Renaissance Art”Analyzed by Stephen Greenblatt
- “Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen” by Joanna Denny
- “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” by Eric Ives
- Photo from littlemisssunnydale’s flickr collection – http://www.flickr.com/photos/20631910@N03/3296906993/in/set-72157605795898944/
Don’t forget to read my other post on Anne and religion: “Anne Boleyn and the Reformation”.