Thank you to Clare Cherry, co-author of George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat, for sharing her thoughts on Anne Boleyn’s position as “the other woman” and second wife.
Divorce is highly distressing and stressful, especially when there is a third party involved. Sometimes couples come to the mutual decision that their marriage is at an end, and in those circumstances, it is far easier for both of them because they are both reconciled to in inevitable. More often it is one of the parties to a marriage who wishes to bring it to an end. That causes enormous heartache to the other spouse, and that heartache often leads to anger and bitterness. That is tenfold when the spouse who is seeking an end to the marriage is doing so because they have met someone else. Although there are as many husbands whose wives have left them for another man, for the sake of this narrative I’m looking at the husband going off with a trollop…oops, other woman. Actually, isn’t that the general assumption, even today? If a woman commits adultery she is a whore, if a man commits adultery he is committing it with a whore.
Either way, it’s a nightmare for the injured party. It can also be a nightmare for the other woman, who automatically becomes the guilty party.
All of this leads me to Anne Boleyn. I know we cannot look at sixteenth century people and morality from a twenty-first century perspective, but they were still human beings, and I think a lot of the issues and emotions surrounding Henry, Catherine of Aragon and Anne (there were three of them in that marriage!) can still be understood by us today.
Catherine was set aside because she couldn’t give Henry VIII a son. If she had provided healthy sons, then Henry would have settled for mistresses. That meant he would not have had Anne Boleyn as a mistress because she refused to have him, but that would just have been tough luck for him. Sons by Catherine would have provided him with no supposed reason for setting aside the marriage by using Leviticus as justification. So healthy sons with Catherine would have meant no Queen Anne Boleyn.
But as we all know, it didn’t happen that way. So not only did Henry annul his marriage to Catherine because she couldn’t give him sons, but he also had another wife lined up at the same time. Double distress for Catherine. Catherine didn’t want to lose her husband or her position as queen. She saw behind her husband’s hypocrisy, and she wanted to protect her daughter from being bastardised. Also, because the Pope would not grant a divorce, Henry ultimately sort the break with Rome leading to the creation of the Church of England, of which he was the head. To the devoutly Catholic Catherine that would have been appalling. Her distress at the religious upheaval can only be imagined, but many people can empathise with her regarding the loss of her husband and position at his side. She blamed the other woman just as many wronged wives do today. A whore had stolen her husband and was taking her place as queen. A whore was leading her husband away from the true religion thereby risking his immortal soul. She hated Anne Boleyn, and it’s easy to understand why.
But what if there had been no Anne Boleyn? What if Anne had married James Butler and lived happily ever after? Do any of us seriously think that no Anne meant Henry would have stayed married to Catherine until the bitter end, irrespective of the fact she couldn’t provide him with a son and heir? Henry was looking at ways to divorce Catherine some considerable time before he considered Anne as a possible replacement. In any event, if it had not been Anne, it would have been someone else.
Anne Boleyn gets a huge amount of flack for breaking up the marriage of Henry and Catherine. The reality was that the marriage was effectively over, and had been for some years. Anne and her faction provided Henry with the answer to his desire for the annulment by evoking Leviticus, but who is to say that Henry would not have eventually come to that answer through his advisers such as Cromwell?
It was Anne Boleyn who caught Henry’s eye. She fled to Hever to avoid his advances, but when pursued by him eventually agreed to become his wife. She, like his other wives, had little choice in the matter once he had set his heart on marrying her, but for what it’s worth I also believe that she came to love him.
But we could say that all of that is irrelevant. Henry wanted to divorce Catherine, and he wanted another wife who would provide him with an heir. That woman happened to be Anne Boleyn, but if there had been no Anne Boleyn, then it would have been someone else. It was Anne Boleyn from Hever Castle with her reformist views, but it could have been Doris Smith from Clacton. That may be taking it a bit far, but you surely understand where I’m going with this.
Anne Boleyn turned the country on its head. She separated Henry from a much loved Queen, put the country at risk of war with Spain, and caused huge religious upheaval and thousands of deaths. Of course, those comments are completely ridiculous. Anne Boleyn didn’t turn the country on its head, she didn’t separate husband from wife, and she didn’t order the deaths of More, Fisher etc. or authorise the dissolution of the monasteries; Henry did that. To blame Anne is to suggest that Henry VIII was a weakling and a fool, and it gives far more power to Anne than she actually had.
Anne was blamed, abused and vilified by the public, both then and now, for Henry’s actions. But what if Henry’s second wife had been someone other than Anne Boleyn? What if the second wife had been a shy and retiring sweet-tempered woman who favoured the traditional Catholic faith? Would that have made any difference to how she was viewed then and now?
Anne Boleyn was charming and vivacious. She could be kind and generous, and was witty and intelligent. She was religious and genuinely attracted to reform. She could also be sharp-tempered, arrogant and cruel. She protected Elizabeth with the same zeal as Catherine protected Mary. Anne was cruel to Catherine and Mary. She demanded precedence for her daughter. She was jealous of Catherine and any communication or contact, whether direct or indirect, which Catherine had with Henry. In other words, taking a modern phrase, she was bolshie. That didn’t endear her to many of her contemporaries. But even if she had been that sweet-tempered, shy woman, she would still, in my opinion, have been seen as the guilty party. After all, who would have the audacity to blame the King, or criticise him for the choices he made. Because make no mistake that the choices made were Henry’s and his alone.
But it was Anne who was placed in the position of the other woman, the whore who broke up a marriage and who displaced the well-loved Catherine. If Anne had been an angel, she would still have shouldered the blame for that in the eyes of Catherine and the public. But Anne wasn’t an angel, few of us are. So let’s step into her shoes for a while. When a husband remarries, his new wife often has to cope with the hatred of the first wife, and the first wife’s friends and family. That’s even more tricky when the first wife was Queen of England and had the support and love of most of the country. It’s also hard when the first wife’s family include the King of Spain who can declare war at any moment.
Anne was not a fool. She and her family knew her marriage to Henry wasn’t supported by the English people or the majority of Henry’s court. She knew she was blamed for usurping Catherine, and was faced with a hostile court who were mostly opposed to reform of the church. Taking it at a human level, her husband’s friends preferred his first wife and wouldn’t accept her. Henry was the King, who paid his courtiers salaries, provided their wealth and power, and who they had to support at risk of being labelled a traitor. She retaliated to their antipathy with arrogance and determination. She was too proud to allow herself to be beaten into submission by those opposed to her marriage and who blamed her for all the ills at court.
Some disliked Anne because of her fiery personality, but she wasn’t hated for that. The hatred owed itself little to who she was or what she was like as a person, the hatred was because she was the other woman and because she supported reform of the Catholic Church within a court which was intrinsically orthodox.
The position she was in was down to Henry, and as long as he loved her he protected her from the enemies that he had largely created for her. But later, when he had tired of her as he had with Catherine, Henry conveniently forgot that he had pursued Anne rather than the other way around. He conveniently forgot that the hatred directed at her had been instigated by him and his actions. When he tired of her he fed her to the wolves by allowing her enemies, which he had effectively created, bring her down.
Anne was not to blame for the breakdown of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, although I don’t blame Catherine for choosing to believe that she was. Anne did not help her position following her marriage to Henry due to her temper and defiance, though I don’t blame her for reacting to her impossible position in that way. Anne was not to blame for the breakdown of her marriage to Henry either, just as Catherine of Aragon was not to blame for the breakdown of her marriage. Neither of them gave Henry the promised son. Henry tired of both of them. Catherine was set aside and banished for that. Anne died for it. If we are going to play the blame game’ there is really only one realistic suspect: the husband.