This article has been inspired by three different things:-
- An extract from Susan Bordo’s book, “The Creation of Anne Boleyn”1, which is due to be published in 2012.
- An interview question I was asked yesterday, “How did his incredible passion for her turn, if not to hatred, at least to a willingness to let her die violently?”
- A conversation I had on this year’s Executed Queens Tour with historian Eric Ives
The issue of how Henry VIII could executed his second wife, or at least stand by and do nothing while she was framed and executed, has bothered me for many years and is something I ask myself on a daily basis. The idea that a man could pursue a woman relentlessly for seven years, turn his life and country upside down to marry her and then just switch that love and passion off and court another woman while his wife’s life was hanging in the balance is just foreign to me, it just does not compute.
How could he go and visit Jane Seymour straight after Anne Boleyn’s execution? How could he become betrothed to Jane the day after Anne’s brutal death? How could he kill the woman he broke with Rome for? What happened to the man who wrote those beautiful love letters?… Was he fickle? Had he just enjoyed the thrill of the chase and then got bored? Was Anne an unsuitable Queen? Did he believe she was guilty? Had love turned to hate? Aaaaggghh, does your brain explode with these questions? Mine does!
There are many different theories and I will look at those before I put forward the one that makes sense to me:-
- Henry became disillusioned – Susan Bordo discusses the view of Michael Hirst, creator of The Tudors, who described in an interview with her how Henry’s psyche became shattered when he realised just how much he had done to marry Anne Boleyn and have a male heir – broken with his beloved Church, executed friends, put aside his wife etc. – only to have the marriage go the same way as the first. His hopes for the future had been dashed.
- Anne Boleyn broke her promise – In the interview with Susan Bordo, Michael Hirst also commented on how Anne Boleyn had promised Henry a son and then had not delivered on that promise, instead the birth of a daughter had been followed by miscarriages. Anne had let Henry down, she had betrayed him.
- Henry VIII was a ruthless monster and tyrant – Hirst describes how Henry had a ruthless streak and “killed off the best part of himself in the attempt to reconcile his psychological issues”2. Anne Boleyn was not the first person who he loved and then executed, just look at the example of Thomas More who had been a friend and father figure to Henry. Henry seemed able to switch from love to hate, from “Virtuous Prince” to “Tyrant” when he felt he had been let down or betrayed.
- Henry VIII was “a borderline or narcissistic personality type”3 – In the extract from her book, “The Creation of Anne Boleyn”, Susan Bordo quotes the definition of “splitting” from the book “I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me” by Jerry Kreisman, M.D., “The world of a BP [person with borderline personality disorder] , like that of a child, is split into heroes and villains. A child emotionally, the BP cannot tolerate human inconsistencies and ambiguities; he cannot reconcile good and bad qualities into a constant coherent understanding of another person. At any particular moment, one is either Good or EVIL. There is no in-between; no gray area; people are idolized one day; totally devalued and dismissed the next.”4 Anne Boleyn suddenly went from heroine to villain just as Thomas More went from beloved friend to traitor, in Henry’s mind anyway.
- Henry’s childhood – Susan Bordo talks of how Henry’s childhood was “split between the “cosy feminine world” of his mother and sisters and the cold indifference, then hostile domination, of his father”5.
- “His sense of omnipotence”6, as Bordo calls it, which called for those around him to obey him.
- His belief that his marriage to Anne was, like his first marriage, contrary to God’s law – Was his second marriage also ‘incestuous’ because he had slept with Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn? Is that why God was not blessing the marriage with a male heir?
- Henry VIII believed that Anne was guilty – In her book, “The Lady in the Tower”7, Alison Weir talks of how the King himself was a victim of the miscarriage of justice which saw Anne go to her death on the 19th May 1536, suggesting that Henry had been led to believe that Anne was guilty of incest and adultery. Eric Ives, in “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, believes that Anne Boleyn’s fall was the result of a faction battle and Cromwell’s plot to bring Anne and the whole Boleyn faction down. “The king’s behaviour on Easter Tuesday 1536 had finally convinced him [Cromwell] that so long as she was queen, Henry would obstruct what was safest both for his kingdom and for his secretary”8, Anne had to go and Cromwell framed her.
In an article she wrote for The Anne Boleyn Files, author and historian Suzannah Lipscomb wrote “The explanation that I would offer is that Henry believed that Anne was guilty of adultery. This revelation came amidst a succession of other shattering events in the year 1536, and was absolutely devastating for the king. He felt he had been terribly betrayed. Henry’s response to Anne came from great depths of grief, pain, anger, and loss.” His behaviour with Jane Seymour and his “unseemly haste in remarrying” can then be explained as “a way of demonstrating to all those people who mattered that, in fact, he did still have what it took to be a man” after Anne had cuckolded him and questioned his sexual prowess. See “Henry VIII and the Fall of Anne Boleyn” to read Suzannah’s article in full.
- Henry VIII’s jousting accident in 1536 – Did Henry’s brush with death cause brain damage which made him into a tyrant or did it shake him up and make him realise that he wasn’t immortal and that he needed a male heir for the succession?
- Love turned to hate – What had attracted Henry to Anne in the 1520s and early 1530s drove Henry mad when they were married. Anne Boleyn had a fiery temper, she stood up to Henry and told him what she thought and David Starkey, in his TV series “Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant”9 talks of how Henry could no longer tolerate Anne’s nagging and jealous – what had been attractive in a mistress was not what Henry wanted in his wife and queen. Also, Anne was said to have ridiculed Henry’s dress sense and to have discussed his sexual problems with Lady Rochford, did Henry feel betrayed and hurt by this indiscretion? Did hurt turn to hate?
- Unrealistic expectations – In her book, “The Other Tudors: Henry VIII’s Mistresses and Bastards”, Philippa Jones writes of Henry VIII’s 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.”10 Henry, therefore, felt let down when Anne Boleyn did not live up to his expectations and perhaps this, combined with her inability to provide him with a son, made him desperate to move on to another woman who might live up to the perfect image he had in his head.
- Henry’s insecurity – Did sexual insecurity and self-doubt make Henry intent on proving his power?
- Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage of 1536 – The loss of this male foetus led Henry to believe that his marriage offended God and that it was all Anne’s fault.
- Self-pity – In his book, “Henry VIII”, David loades writes “with that capacity for maudlin self-pity, which was one of his most unlovable characteristics, Henry was suddenly prepared to believe almost any charge which was fired against his wife”11 and this is shown by him talking of her being a witch who seduced him, an adulteress who had a hundred lovers and a would-be murderess who was intent on poisoning the Duke of Richmond and Princess Mary.
- Henry’s infatuation with Jane Seymour – Loades writes of how “some contemporaries believed that the King’s infatuation with her [Jane] was one of the main reasons why he wanted rid of his second wife”12.
- Guilt – Perhaps Henry was consumed with guilt over the way he had treated Catherine of Aragon and the execution of Thomas More, his beloved friend, and so he heaped that guilt on Anne who he saw as responsible for making him commit such cruelty.
I’m sure you can think of some other reasons and please do share them in the comments section below.
When I met Eric Ives in May I just had to ask him the burning questions “How did Henry’s love turn to hate? Why did he execute Anne Boleyn?” and put him on the spot.
Eric gave a wonderful answer which really made sense. He talked of how Henry was a dominant character but that dominant people are, ironically, often malleable, i.e. easily influenced by others. Thomas Cromwell was able to make the King suspicious of Anne because Henry was already insecure and paranoid. This made me think of a boss I used to have when I was teaching. He was a man who was very much in charge, a really dominant person who would not listen to anybody else’s ideas, but he could be ‘played’. You could drip feed him an idea over time and then he would suddenly announce that he had had a great idea and it would be your idea. He took ownership of that idea and suddenly it was a brilliant idea because he thought that it was his! Perhaps this is what Cromwell did and to me that makes sense. Cromwell had decided that Anne Boleyn had to go, it was her or him, but he could not move against her without the King’s blessing as to do so would be to put his life in danger, to put his neck on the line. He could only move against Anne if Henry was suspicious of her, he had to feed the King’s paranoia and that back it up with ‘evidence’. Unfortunately, Anne played into his hands by having the argument with Henry Norris, accusing him of looking for “dead men’s shoes”, i.e. having feelings for her and wanting to replace the King in her affections. In saying this, Anne had also mentioned the King’s death, which could be construed as treason. This whole episode could be twisted nicely by Cromwell to make Henry suspicious of Anne and when this was backed up by a confession from Mark Smeaton, well, Anne was doomed!
To believe that Henry was malleable and influenced by Cromwell is not to take any responsibility away from Henry, in my opinion anyway. Cromwell did what he had to do to survive and I’m not one to believe that he got ‘what was coming to him’ in 1540. Cromwell exploited the King’s volatile relationship with Anne Boleyn and tried to give the King what he wanted, a fresh start which would allow him to have a son, but he could not have brought Anne, her brother and members of the King’s Privy Chamber down in such a brutal and very final way without the King’s whole-hearted agreement and commitment. There is no evidence that Henry fought for Anne in any way, yet in 1541 when he was confronted with evidence of Catherine Howard’s rather colourful past he refused to believe it and ordered an investigation to clear his wife’s name. Henry was willing to believe that Anne had committed incest with George and adultery with his friends, he was also willing to believe that a man like Henry Norris, a man who he was very close to (Norris was Henry’s Groom of the Stool, i.e. the Royal bum wiper), could betray him. Hmm…
Well, those are the various theories I have read concerning Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s fall, how love could turn to such hatred, and also what I believe, but I would love to hear your thoughts. There are no wrongs or rights with this because we just don’t know, so feel free to share.
Thanks so much to those who inspired me to write this article: to Susan Bordo, whose book I am so eager to read! To TJ, a blogger who interviewed me and asked me this very question for her blog Sketch People (the interview is not on there yet), and to Eric Ives for not minding me grilling him over dinner!
Notes and Sources
- The Creation of Anne Boleyn Facebook Page, Susan Bordo – You can read the extract at http://www.facebook.com/notes/the-creation-of-anne-boleyn/how-could-he-do-it-new-excerpt-from-susans-book/224330794252331
- Quoted in “How Could He Do it?”, an extract from Susan Bordo’s book “The Creation of Anne Boleyn”, due to be published in 2012
- The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir
- The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p319
- Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, TV series by David Starkey
- The Other Tudors: Henry VIII’s Mistresses and Bastards, Philippa Jones
- Henry VIII, David Loades, p267
- Ibid., p269