Happy Valentine’s Day!
As today is the day of love, I thought I’d share this video I did a few years ago, along with a transcript for those of you who prefer articles. I examine the question “Did Henry VIII love Anne Boleyn?”. I also look at whether Anne Boleyn loved the king.
“Did Henry VIII love Anne Boleyn?” is a question that is impossible to answer. Only Henry VIII would be able to answer it. However, it’s a question that often comes up, and it’s one I want to explore.
Anne Boleyn was recalled from serving Queen Claude, the wife of King Francis I of France, in late 1521. It appears that she had been recalled due to negotiations regarding a potential marriage match with James Butler. The idea was that this marriage would settle the dispute between James’s father, Sir Piers Butler, and Anne’s father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, over the title of Earl of Ormond following the death of Thomas’s grandfather, Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond. On her arrival in England, Anne began serving Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, as a maid of honour.
Not long after her debut at the English court, Anne became romantically involved with Henry Percy, son and heir of the 5th Earl of Northumberland. In his biography of his master, Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman-usher, George Cavendish, writes that when the cardinal spent time at court, Percy “would then resort for his pastime unto the queen’s chamber, and there would fall in dalliance among the queen’s ladies, being at the last more conversant with Mistress Anne Boleyn than with any other.” It was then “that there grew such a secret love between them that, at length, they were ensured together, intending to marry.” According to Cavendish, the king found out about the romance and was “much offended” because of his own “secret affection”. He ordered Wolsey to put a stop to it. Wolsey and Percy’s father berated Percy, and a marriage match with Mary Talbot, a daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, was arranged for him instead.
Now, we don’t know for sure that the king put a stop to the romance because he was himself interested in Anne. Cavendish was writing with the hindsight of knowing that the king did eventually fall in love with Anne and marry her. What is more likely is that the negotiations for Anne to marry James Butler were still ongoing (and the king was involved in them) and that Percy was due to marry Mary Talbot. The couple’s “folly” threatened these marriage plans.
It is impossible to date the start of Henry VIII’s interest in Anne Boleyn. David Starkey believes that Anne first caught the king’s eye in the winter of 1524/5 as that fits in with Cavendish’s account of Wolsey’s fall. Eric Ives, however, dates the start of their courtship to Shrovetide 1526, when the king rode out to the Shrovetide joust with the motto “Declare je nos” (Declare I dare not) embroidered on his costume along with an image of a heart engulfed in flames. It may, however, simply have been a chivalric theme which had nothing to do with the king’s love life.
Whatever the truth of the matter, in August 1527 Henry VIII applied to the pope for a dispensation to cover the impediment of affinity in the first degree – Henry wanted to marry a woman who was closely related (mother or sister) of a woman he’d already been involved with sexually.
So sometime before August 1527, Henry VIII had proposed to Anne Boleyn, and she had sent him a “costly Diamond, and the Ship in which the solitary Damsel is tossed about” which Henry described in a love letter he wrote to Anne as her “humble submission”, her ‘yes’. David Starkey believes Anne sent this jewelled trinket to the king as a New Year gift in January 1527 because Henry described it as an “étrenne”, a gift usually given at New Year. An acceptance of the king’s marriage proposal at this point does fit in nicely with Henry seeking a dispensation in August 1527, so it’s a valid theory.
But what do we know of their courtship?
Unfortunately, very little. There is not one iota of evidence for the idea that Anne’s father and uncle acted as pimps and pushed the sisters, Mary and Anne Boleyn, at the king. There is also no evidence for the idea that Anne set out to seduce and manipulate the king. What we do know, from the king’s love letters to Anne, which are unfortunately undated, is that the king pursued Anne, bombarding her with letters and gifts, that she retreated from court to her family home of Hever Castle, that he offered her the opportunity to be his official mistress, that she refused and that he eventually proposed marriage to her and she submitted.
Was this love or lust?
Again, it’s impossible to say, but in June 1528, during an outbreak of sweating sickness, a disease that could kill in hours, Anne became ill. The king heard the news that his sweetheart was ill and wrote her a panicked letter. My dear friend, author Sandra Vasoli, has held and looked at Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn in the Vatican Archives and she noticed a marked contrast between this letter and the others that the king sent to Anne. Sandra described it as “visually a mess” because the ink is smeared, there are sprays of ink where the nib of the quill caught on the parchment, and there are ink blots. It was a hurried letter written by a panicked man. Its appearance is evidence of Henry VIII’s terror on hearing the news of Anne’s illness. This surely points to him loving Anne.
He also waited over six years for her, went through all the stress of the Great Matter, making enemies of the Pope and Holy Roman Empire, risked excommunication and finally broke with Rome to be with her. A bit much for lust. He could have taken a mistress of two to satisfy his lust.
You could argue that this was all because Henry was intent on having a son and Catherine of Aragon couldn’t give him one, but then Henry, I’m sure, could have legitimised Henry Fitzroy with the Pope’s blessing. But he wanted Anne.
Let’s go back to his pursuit of her.
Thomas Wyatt, a man who appears to have been in love with Anne himself at one point, appears to describe the king’s pursuit of his wife’s maid of honour in his poem “Whoso List to Hunt”. In the poem, the poet is hunting a deer but has to withdraw from the hunt when another hunter claims the hind. He writes of how the words “Caesar’s I am” are written about her neck. Wyatt is describing how he had to give up on Anne when the king, Caesar, claimed her for himself. Henry VIII being the hunter, and Anne a powerless hind hunted down by him and then possessed by him, when combined with the king’s letters, his gifts and Anne’s retreat from court, have led to the idea that Anne can claim to be a member of the #metoo campaign, that she was a victim of sexual harassment. Karen Lindsey, in her book Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation Of The Wives Of Henry VIII, writes “Today, Henry’s approach to Anne would be instantly identifiable as sexual harassment. Anne however, had no social or legal recourse against the man who ruled the country. She continued, as so many women before and since have done, to dodge her pursuer’s advances while sparing his feelings. It didn’t work.”
I think the keyword here is “today”. Today, a business owner bombarding an employee with love letters and gifts after she has declined his advances and taken time off work would be accused of sexual harassment, and rightly so. But Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were 16th century people. The king was expected to get what he wanted, and Anne was unusual in saying “no” to him. Once the king proposed to her, she said yes, and from that point, she seems to have put her all into supporting his quest for an annulment and fighting to be his wife and queen.
Did she love him?
Probably not from the start, but I think she did come to do so. It’s easy for us to forget that Henry VIII was quite a catch. At this point, he was handsome, he was charming, he was witty, he was intelligent, he was athletic, he was a gifted Renaissance Prince. Anne was intelligent and well-educated, and they shared interests – architecture, music, theology… What wasn’t there to love about the king, except that he had a wife?
I’ve heard it said that Henry could not have loved Anne because he ended up hating her and executing her. That real love can’t lead to a man standing by while his wife is framed for crimes she didn’t commit and then beheaded as a result. But we all know couples that started off deeply in love and somehow ended up hating each other. We’ve all read about cases where a man has murdered his wife, and sometimes his children, and yet friends and neighbours all testify about how happy they used to be. People can go from having stars in their eyes, hearts floating around their head, being head over heels in love and being prepared to give their life for their loved one to wanting the object of their affections to die a slow, painful death. We hear about “crimes of passion”. Love really does turn to hate. Does that mean it never properly existed? No, of course not, it’s just that feelings change. People are human; they can make mistakes and hurt the people they love, they can change and not be the same person, there can be outside pressures that come to bear on the relationship. When we realise that the love of our life is not who we thought they were, when the person we have invested time, effort and feelings into lets us down or changes then we can get angry, and anger can turn to hate.
When I first got married, a friend quoted the Bible verse “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…” (Ephesians 4: 26) to me and I have tried to keep to it. It’s wise advice because if you go to bed angry, then that anger festers and turns into resentment, which, in time, could turn to hate. Your mind brings forth other episodes from the past, and you get angrier and angrier. This may well have happened in Henry and Anne’s marriage.
Henry also seems to have been the kind of person that could flip from love to hate if he felt let down in any way. Look at Thomas More who went from loved and respected father figure to a victim of the axeman when he refused to do what the king wanted, Catherine of Aragon and Mary who were Henry’s loved and pampered wife and daughter but who defied him and so were treated abominably. People who let him down or defied him in some way went from being loved to being hated just like that.
We can’t know what happened in Henry and Anne’s marriage. We know that it was a relationship based on love and that this led to Anne being worried and jealous when her husband showed an interest in other women. We know that Henry was obsessed with having a surviving male heir. Did Anne’s jealousy annoy the king? Did her failure to provide him with a son make him feel let down by her? Or did he begin to believe that the marriage was wrong and against God’s laws? Did their relationship become more storms than sunshine? Did it all become too much of a stress and effort for the king? Did he come to believe that he’d made a huge mistake turning the country upside down and making enemies so that he could marry Anne?
It’s impossible to say, but it’s easy to understand how all of those stresses could undermine his love for his second wife. Hate is a strong feeling, just as love is, and I think we can only truly hate someone if we have loved them at some point. They are two extremes. Just my view, of course!
Historians are not in agreement about who was ultimately responsible for Anne Boleyn’s fall, whether Henry VIII ordered Cromwell to remove Anne at any cost or whether Cromwell manipulated the king and made him believe that Anne had been unfaithful. I’m in the ‘Henry’s to blame” camp, but either way, I believe that the lover who penned that distraught love letter came to hate his wife and let her be executed on 19th May 1536.
Notes and Sources
- Cavendish, George (1827) The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, Second Edition, Harding & Lepard, p. 121.
- Starkey, David (2004) Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, Vintage.
- Ives, Eric (2005) The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Wiley-Blackwell.
- “Sandra Vasoli on the love letters of Henry VIII”, talk on 6 January 2015, The Tudor Society.
- Lindsey, Karen (1996) Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation Of The Wives Of Henry VIII, Da Capo Press.
- Henry VIII’s Love Letters to Anne Boleyn by Sandra Vasoli
- Henry VIII’s Love Letters to Anne Boleyn
- Read Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn
- Henry VIII Falls in Love with Anne Boleyn
- When did Anne Boleyn say yes to Henry VIII?
- A Timeline of Anne Boleyn’s Relationship with Henry VIII – From 1528-1533