I apologise for the “inflammatory” title but blame David Starkey as it was he who got me wondering!
When I watched Starkey’s recent “Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant”, the episode on Anne Boleyn really got me thinking if Anne Boleyn has to take some responsibility for her downfall and execution. In it, Starkey talked about how Anne’s forthright character and ability to say “no” to Henry, which had been so attractive in a mistress, was not what Henry wanted in a wife. Starkey talked of how Henry could no longer tolerate Anne’s nagging and jealousy, and this must have affected his feelings towards her.
(Video from YouTube – ignore the intro, it’s worth the wait!)
In her book “The Other Tudors: Henry VIII’s Mistresses and Bastards”, Philippa Jones talks about how Henry VIII had unrealistic expectations of women:
“Henry VIII was a man who longed for love. His tragedy was that he was looking for a love that could never exist. He had a vision of the perfect woman, an image of his mother, and no woman could measure up to this fantasy.”
He was attracted to Anne because she was so different to the usual English Rose – she was dark haired and dark eyed, she exuded sex appeal, she was intelligent and could debate subjects like theology with Henry, and she was feisty and would stand up to him – and the couple were known for their passionate arguments, and their passionate “reunions”, but it seems that Henry expected Anne to change once she was Queen. It appears that Henry wanted to “have his cake and eat it” – own a passionate woman but also a woman who was like his mother, or former wife, a woman he could control and master. Anne was not this sort of woman.
We know, from Eustace Chapuys the Imperial ambassador, that Anne Boleyn was jealous of Henry VIII showing attention to other women. Who can blame her when her position relied on keeping Henry’s interest and love? Chapuys writes of how Anne showed jealousy and had words with the King and that he replied that she should “shut her eyes and endure” and that he could lower her as quickly as he had made her rise. What a threat but, if you look at it through Henry’s eyes, a king was expected to have mistresses and dalliances, and a queen was supposed to turn a blind eye, just as Catherine of Aragon and Henry’s mother had done.
So, what mistakes did Anne make that could be responsible for her downfall and tragic end?
- She nagged Henry – Henry wanted to be in control and live his own life, he certainly did not want a wife who nagged him! A documentary entitled “Days that Shook the World: The Execution of Anne Boleyn” states that there were two reasons for Anne Boleyn’s fall: her “refusal to curb the bold manners he once found so attractive” and her failure to provide a son.
- She showed her jealousy and berated Henry for flirting with other women, like Jane Seymour – Chapuys describes Anne’s “intense rage” over Henry’s behaviour with Jane Seymour.
- Anne made an enemy of Thomas Cromwell – Overnight, Cromwell went from being Anne Boleyn’s greatest ally to being her greatest enemy. If Anne had not argued with Cromwell over the dissolution of the monasteries and shown that she was pro-French and against an imperial alliance then Cromwell may well have stayed her supporter. We now know that Cromwell’s plans for an imperial-English alliance, and his fear that Anne would lead to his downfall, led to him conspiring against Anne.
- Anne incriminated herself – Cromwell cooked up a plot that Simon Schama calls “pure devilry, a finely measured brew: one part paranoia, one part pornography” but did not have any real and credible evidence to convict Anne. As well as a confession of adultery with the Queen from Mark Smeaton, who only gave this confession under torture, Cromwell was fortunate enough to get evidence from the Queen herself. In her fright and confusion, Anne rambled and talked about possible events that could have been misconstrued. She spoke of episodes of courtly love – of Francis Weston declaring his love for her, of reprimanding Smeaton who had made eyes and “love sighs” at her and of reprimanding Henry Norris for looking for ” dead man’s shoes” – but all these entirely innocent shows of courtly love that Anne spoke of were fed back to Cromwell by Lord Kingston and twisted into orgies and adultery.
- Anne did not provide a male heir – She promised Henry a male heir but did not deliver on her promise.
- She openly supported the “New Religion” – Anne had an English Bible that she encouraged her ladies to read and shared heretical books with the King. She made many enemies because of this.
- Anne made an enemy of Mary – Her fear and jealousy of Catherine of Aragon and Princess/Lady Mary led to her alienating Mary and making an enemy of her.
- Anne believed in Henry’s love for her – Anne was naive enough to believe that Henry’s love and passion for her could last for ever. Who can blame her? Henry moved Heaven and Earth to get Anne!
- Anne set a dangerous precedent – Anne had shown ladies at court what could be achieved. She, herself, had risen from a lady-in-waiting to usurp the Queen’s place and now somebody could do that to her. No longer did ladies just have to pin their hopes on being a mistress, they could be queen!
- Anne was reckless – David Starkey talks of Anne’s ambition and recklessness. Was she over ambitious and too reckless?
However long I consider these mistakes that Anne is said to have been made, I can never convince myself that Anne Boleyn was responsible for her fall and execution. As Simon Schama says: “the author of this bloody drama was Thomas Cromwell” and he only acted because he feared for his life and knew that the King had fallen in love with Jane.
In my opinion, Henry VIII has to take responsibility for Anne’s cruel and tragic end. He had warned her that he could drag her down as quickly as he had raised her, and he was true to this promise. Henry VIII had tired of Anne, felt betrayed by her (because she had broken her promise to give him a son) and now wanted to move on to another woman. Henry’s priority was the succession. Unfortunately for Anne, divorce was out of the question and another ending was required – death.
We now know, from historical evidence and research, that Anne Boleyn was innocent of all charges and was executed an innocent woman. She had her faults, like any of us, but she did not deserve to die a traitor to the crown and did not deserve Henry’s hatred or worse, indifference.
What do you think? Does Anne have to take some responsibility for her downfall? Let me know!
The video I’ve included above is from “The Tudors” and, in my opinion, gives a great overview of the passion that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had for each other.