Anne Boleyn’s emergence as woman with a healthy self regard and flinty determination to manage her own destiny is part of her enduring appeal, particularly to women, in a post-feminist era. Living as she did in a very different age, when women were considered naturally inferior to men and required to be self-effacing and acquiescent, when their social status was determined at birth, and their lives largely under the control of fathers and husbands, her independence of mind and willingness to hold out for the greatest prize of all was remarkable.
In the historically inaccurate film adaptation of Phillippa Gregory’s novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne is portrayed as a pawn in the dynastic ambitions of her male relatives, her uncle the Duke of Norfolk and her father, Thomas Boleyn. Yet contemporary accounts of her, whether Chapuys’ depiction of her as an irrepressible termagant or more charitable portraits, seldom fail to mention her strong sense of purpose and indomitable spirit. She was in all senses a maverick, the knight’s daughter who had the temerity to broker her own marriage to Henry Percy, whose family was socially elevated so far ahead of her own that the match was unthinkable. Thwarted by Wolsey, as she believed, she later embarked upon a rise so meteoric that it saw her occupying the throne of England in an age when social mobility was an inadmissible concept. And while Henry’s courtiers danced attendance upon him, she had both the courage to resist him and the integrity to pass up what many women would have regarded as a golden opportunity for self-advancement.
Yet was the girl who tamed the lion the victim of her own unprecedented success, and the envy that good fortune draws in its wake? Was character in this instance destiny? In transcending her original place in the rigid social hierarchy of the day and disregarding contemporary expectations of womanly behaviour, Anne invited retribution. In encouraging Henry to break free of papal influence and using her influence to further the cause of religious reform, it could be further argued that she plunged the court and wider European society into a state of turmoil that would inevitably engulf her. She may have danced to her own tune for the duration of her astonishing trajectory but the jig proved short-lived and, when the music stopped, there was a price to be paid for upsetting the social apple cart. Equilibrium needed to be restored, social stability reinforced. That Anne did not foresee this, or if she did, carried on regardless, only makes her all the more intriguing to us. It is the blind spot, the fatal flaw, an excess of a particular quality that awakens our interest in a character, fictional or historical, by reminding us of our fallibility. At what point does courage become recklessness, or steadfastness inflexibility?
At the height of Anne’s influence over Henry, contemporary accounts report that he was fearful of her outbursts of temper and her acidic tongue, and strove slavishly to appease her. He, a medieval dictator, the metaphorical sun in the solar system, the source of all light, warmth and beneficence, was in thrall to a commoner. But, in encouraging him to break with Rome, to engage a long and bitter battle to divorce his wife of almost two decades, and to put to death not only recalcitrant subjects but dear and long-standing friends such as Thomas More, all for the slender promise of future stability in the form of a son, whose birth would ensure peace when Henry himself vacated the throne, Anne racked up a huge debt of expectation. Only a male child could vindicate Henry’s actions, whose author and instigator, it could be argued, was Anne rather than Henry himself. And she, whose sparkling wit and diverse accomplishments were widely admired, was to find, following her long-awaited marriage to Henry, that only her ability to bear a healthy male child was of any significance.
But it was not as if she lacked the prescience to discern that this would be the case. Although she could not have known, as Alison Weir suggests in The Lady in the Tower, that her blood type was rhesus negative and she was therefore destined to miscarry every pregnancy after her first, as was indeed the case, Anne was undoubtedly aware that she had gambled everything on a wager with very high stakes, the protracted nature of Henry’s divorce from Katherine having consumed her best childbearing years. She was also highly dependent upon Henry’s good will and his affections, yet often behaved in a fashion that appeared designed to alienate him. As he pointed out to her during one of their quarrels, he had been responsible for her elevation and could just as easily, should he wish, bring her down. This hardly needed to be spelled out. The wheel of fortune could plunge the most illustrious and seemingly untouchable courtier into penury and disrepute, as Wolsey’s final days bore witness, and no-one had their hand more firmly on the wheel of fortune than Henry Tudor. And Anne was no princess of Aragon or of Cleves. When Henry tired of Katherine of Aragon and later Anne of Cleves, the protection they enjoyed from powerful relatives obliged Henry to be highly circumspect in the manner in which he extracted himself from his marriage vows. Anne Boleyn’s family, however, was entirely dependent upon her status at court and when she fell so spectacularly, she merely took them down with her. In contrast to the long-drawn out and hotly disputed divorce from Katherine and the generous terms of that from Anne of Cleves, Henry orchestrated his second wife’s despatch within a period of less than three weeks. This reflects in part not only his determination to be rid of her but also her own infinite vulnerability.
It was, however, a destiny that she not only actively chose but equally could almost certainly have avoided, whilst still enjoying the fruits of the king’s early fascination with her. A more prudent woman might have contented herself with the title of maîtresse en tître, a less ambitious one would have considered her personal aspirations fulfilled by becoming Marquise of Pembroke, both positions that did not carry with them the awesome responsibility of producing a healthy male child in an age when both child and maternal mortality were high.
We can now only speculate as to why she chose the path that led her ineluctably to the scaffold on Tower Green. Karen Lindsey argues in Divorced, Beheaded, Died that Anne was initially alarmed by Henry’s advances and her insistence that her maidenhead belonged to a future spouse was a ruse to deter him rather than propel him into a proposal of marriage. Doubtless by the time it had been made and accepted, she had begun to enjoy the gifts that were lavished upon her. The trappings of power and the intoxicating privileges which accompanied propinquity to the throne, and also benefited her family, doubtless became an irresistible lure, as did the opportunities to disadvantage and discredit old enemies and repay former slights; for Anne, it appears, was of a somewhat vengeful disposition, as her treatment of Wolsey and Princess Mary suggests.. She may also have come to feel that, despite a family background that debarred her marriage to Henry Percy, her subsequent elevation to queenship was merited by her intellectual acumen, her aptitude for court life, her youth and beauty, her sheer presence.. Certainly her relationship with Henry appears to have begun to deteriorate after their marriage had taken place, and this was probably initially due less to her failure to produce said male heir but rather her glaring lack of the forbearance, grace and queenly disposition exhibited by her predecessor. Again, an excess of self-confidence and a failure to read the situation she found herself in, a reckless indifference towards her own tendency to alienate others and make enemies saw her sowing the seeds of her own destruction. Nowhere do we see this more graphically illustrated than in her remark to Henry Norris that if ‘aught but good should come to the king’, he looked to dead men’s shoes, which both turned the rules of courtly love on their head by transforming her into the aggressor in an encounter with a man and, worse, contemplated the death of the monarch. By the time she realised her own error and sought to rectify it, the damage was irreparable.
There are doubtless a number of factors that conspired firstly to elevate Anne Boleyn to the highest position in the land and later to plunge her into obloquy but we cannot ignore the part played by her own disposition and personal makeup. Few women of her time would have dared to aspire to a position to which they were not born and, having achieved it, to exploit it as vigorously in favour of religious reform The mixture of charm and invective, steel and volatility, piety and wilfulness, mercurial wit married to intellectual incisiveness that characterised her and captured the attention of her peers, including the most powerful man in the realm, beguile us still down the long corridors of the past.
The Other Boleyn Girl – Philippa Gregory
The Lady in the Tower – Alison Weir
Divorced, Beheaded, Died – Karen Lindsey