How Have Perceptions and Images of Anne Boleyn Changed Throughout History?

Posted By on August 12, 2011

Anne Boleyn NPG portrait

The Anne Boleyn people love or hate

I keep receiving emails regarding this question so I’m wondering if it’s an essay question in a history course! It is an interesting question and has really got me thinking. It is also something that I know author Susan Bordo is addressing in her next book, working title “The Creation of Anne Boleyn” – see her Facebook page The Creation of Anne Boleyn for more details.

So, how have perceptions and images of Anne Boleyn changed throughout history?

Well, in my opinion, perceptions of Anne Boleyn have gone through various stages:-

  • Being maligned by the likes of Nicholas Sander, a Catholic recusant in the reign of Elizabeth I – 6 fingers, protruding tooth, wen, witchlike, giving birth to a deformed foetus…
  • Being seen as a Protestant martyr by John Foxe in the late sixteenth century, during the reign Elizabeth I, a Protestant and also the daughter of Anne Boleyn
  • Being seen as a tragic heroine and victim by the Victorians who liked to romanticise historical figures
  • Being maligned in the 20th century by authors like Philippa Gregory in fiction

Today, there is not one perception or image of Anne Boleyn, there are many:-

  • A ‘kick-ass’ female role model for today’s women
  • A woman who single-handedly starting the English Reformation
  • A home-wrecker and sexual predator, the ‘other woman’
  • A schemer and plotter
  • An innocent woman who suffered a brutal miscarriage of justice
  • A woman who committed incest and murder
  • A mystery

And I’m sure you can think of more so do add your thoughts in the comment section below.

I find it amusing that Anne Boleyn is also appearing as a vampire in some fictional novels, wreaking revenge on those who betrayed her! What a woman!

Natalie Dormer

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn

Opinions seem to swing back and forth, as you can see, and as someone who runs an Anne Boleyn website I receive emails from people all over the world and from many different walks of life who have completely different ideas about who Anne was. What I do find strange is that there is a lot of  ‘Team Anne vs Team Catherine vs Team Jane’  thinking around at the moment. It’s all very immature and nonsensical, don’t you think? I think that some people have watched “The Tudors” or read “The Other Boleyn Girl” and now think that they have to pick one queen and fight for her. These queens have become like modern day celebrities in a way, like Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie – remember the whole Team Jennifer vs Team Angelina thing? – and their lives like a soap opera.

I run a website about Anne because I am fascinated by her and admire her, not because I feel that she should be put on a pedestal, but I often receive very offensive emails from people who feel that I should not be defending a woman who was nothing but a “homewrecker” and witch, or people who think that I automatically hate Catherine of Aragon or Jane Seymour. Interesting how times really have not changed! People feel the need to label these women and stereotype them, Anne Boleyn has to somehow fit into a box or label, however limited or inappropriate

I’d love to know how you think perceptions of Anne Boleyn have changed between the 1530s and now, and also things you’ve heard people say about Anne, the labels they give her and how they judge her. Please do comment and let’s get some discussion going here and on our Facebook page.

If this really is an essay question for you students out there, I hope this helps!

14 thoughts on “How Have Perceptions and Images of Anne Boleyn Changed Throughout History?”

  1. Charlie says:

    I just had an essay for university on whether or not her role was exaggerated, but the essay deadline was too soon for people to have had time to wait for an email.

    This is such an interesting topic, and I love the differences between the primary sources who either vilify her or write her as perfect, and our present day historians who give a much more balanced view, whether it’s a correct one or not. I’ve been reading Chapuys and on the other side Foxe and Latymer, such contrasting views, though they all had particular reasons.

    Debate, certainly; get angry, no point.

  2. Louise says:

    This post was well timed. A thread on the forum has recently degenerated into a nasty attack on Jane Seymour, including a suggestion she should have been raped and then accused of being a whore. I thought I’d logged on to the wrong forum.
    Attitudes to women have changed so drastically in the last five-hundred years and now we project those attitudes onto women who couldn’t possibly share them. Catherine and Anne had influence over Henry but they had no real power. Likewise, they, like any other woman in the sixteenth century had very little choice or say in who they married or any other aspect of their lives. Yet Anne and Jane have become women who actively pursued Henry and deliberately got one over on the other while doing so.
    On the one hand we give them too much power and influence in making decisions about their lives, but on the other hand they increasingly seem like squabbling, vindictive women who would seem more at home in a cat fight outside a pub.
    They lived their lives subject to the vagaries of men, and rather than being abusive towards any of them, we should have a certain amount of admiration for how each of them in their different ways did it so bloody well.

    1. Claire says:

      The rape post was reported to me and I deleted it as soon as I could as it was highly inappropriate and very offensive. I’ll check into the thread and see if anything else needs moderating. I agree with you, it’s a case of us looking at historical figures with our 21st century eyes and context rather than taking into account the role and position of women in Tudor England. I hate the whole Team Anne thing. While I believe that Jane was coached to appeal to Henry I don’t think she had much choice in what happened to Anne or herself. She didn’t exactly dance on Anne’s grave in her wedding gown!
      Anyway, good to hear from you x

  3. Heroine of Hever says:

    What an interesting question! It definitely sounds like an essay question, and one that in my view would take an age to answer! Opinions on Anne have changed so much over time. I can’t help recalling one of your posts here Claire, called “Anne Boleyn: all things to all people”, I think? =) That’s exactly right; there seem to be so many different “Annes” for different people: historians, authors, movie producers, etc… But I believe that thanks the brilliant Eric Ives, and of course the wonderful Anne Boleyn Files, the real Anne is emmerging through the mist.

    By the way, speaking of the discussion about Jane, I very much hope that my own comment on that thread wasn’t at all offensive! It’s very difficult, when it comes to the six wives, not to pick “sides”. But the way I see it, they were all of them just human beings, with flaws and faults like the rest of us. Besides, women in that time were subjugated, treated little better than cattle to be traded. I can’t bring myself to really like Jane, but I think I can understand that her destiny was in the hands of very powerful men – what choice did she have? My particular complaint about her is that she, like Anne, is very often put into a “box”, a steretype. I don’t believe that Jane was an “innocent angel”, just as I don’t believe Anne was an “evil witch”. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read Jane being called “pure”, “angelic”, and other such names, and Anne called “the evil queen” and many other nasty names. They both deserve better, to be seen as people, who lived and breathed. =)

    I guess what I’m trying to say it that we need to see past the steretypes =) Anyway, that’s all I guess! This is my first ever comment on the main site, and I hope I haven’t rambled too much! =) Keep up the good work, Claire! =D

  4. Anne Barnhill says:

    Wow, this is a great question…I think at the time of her execution, Anne’s reputation was definitely in the gutter. Until Elizabeth became queen, Anne was blotted from history–all her portraits destroyed, her name not mentioned. Then, her daughter rose the to highest position in the land and, at her coronation, there was Anne, with Henry, once again seen in public–in one of the displays,that is. During Elizabeth’s time, Anne was once again changed–now she was the mother of Good Queen Bess and champion of the Protestant cause. Elizabeth obviously held her in high regard (the portrait ring, her treatment of Anne’s extended family) and so her reputation rose again. I think it’s been that way, depending on one’s particular beliefs–religion played such a huge role in it fo the first 2-3 hundred years–it was almost like team Protestant (Anne and Elizabeth) and Team Catholic (Queen Mary and Mary of Scots). Now, I do think we have a more balanced view and we canthink about the psychology of these women as well as their station back in the 16th century. Fascinating! Thanks, Claire

  5. Shoshana says:

    Thanks to modern historians we are seeing a revision of many of the long held to be true myths about historial figures, Anne being but one of many whose reputations have swung like a pendulum from bad to good to saintly to evil and back again. With the advent of computers we can now correlate vast amounts of data to see a more clear picture of past ages and this allows us to revise past opinons. Think of the “new” information that has surfaced over the last decade of Tudor figures; some of it laying in museums, forgotten until decisions to scan information into data bases and put it on the internet. It is no wonder attitudes are changing; we now have access to much more information because it is more easily accessible to the historian and lay person. What an eciting time to be a history buff of any age! As more information is scanned for internet publication, I wonder what “new” information will be again discovered and how will it change our perceptions?

    I have always believed Anne to be innocent; not because of any one fact or myth but simply because of logistics. She was Queen, and as such suject to very little privacy. She was guarded, surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting, and even at night no more than a few feet away from those in charge of her security. If she had ordered to be left alone for even a few moments, it would have been commented on by those around her and probably would have become a juicy piece of gossip that would have certainly found it’s way to the ears of Cromwell or Henry. Anne was no fool; she knew the type of man she married and knew he was capable of great cruelty; she had witnessed his efforts to destroy Katherine of Aragon while seeming to hold her in great esteem. She certainly knew he was capable of turning his affection off when he did not get his way; as evidence just look to his treatment of his own daughter, Mary. It always surprising me when people cite “reasons” why Anne was guilty of adultry and incest; just common sense should prove she would have no easy opportunity. That Katherine Howard was able to conceal her affairs for a short time is contributed to her having help and as we can see, it was not successful. Anne was too smart to fall into a trap of her own making; and Katherine Howard was too young and inexperienced to realize the consequences of her actions.

    I love this website; it offers such a great opportunity for study and learning. Not to mention an easy way to keep up with new therories and discoveries. Claire, you and Time have given those of us with a love of Tudor history a real gift, thank you.

  6. Dawn says:

    To me Anne’s image has had highs and lows depending on the time period, I think we were just reaching a peak of getting a more accurate picture of her as a person with historians such as Eric Ives, and good T.V. documentaries which educate people new to the Tudor period.
    Then ‘Bang’, along comes a book like TOBG and T.V drama like the Tudors, which completely puts the old conceptions of Anne to the fore front. But then again I enjoyed the book, and I loved all the ‘bodice-ripping’ episodes of the Tudors, because I knew the ‘real’ story, but for those that don’t they are going to be lead back to the bad ole days of Anne being a whore, witch and adulteress.

  7. Flora slov says:

    wondering about the passion in the views of this historical icons. feels that if they had lived at that time they would have fought in even worse terms than the actual participants did. One question: How different are the reactions from men and women?

    Thank you so much for your great job!!!!

  8. Emma says:

    I admit that of all Henry’s wives I have the most admiration for Anne because she seems the most like a modern women. She seems to be one of those people who was born before her time. Instead of obeying men she did what she thought was right. When her male relatives wanted her to become a mistress she held out for marriage, when they expected to still defer to them when she was Queen she stood up for herself. If she had been able to produce a male heir god knows what she would have acheived. But she was bound to her own time, a victim of her own environment. From everything I have read about her I believe that she was convinced that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was invalid and that they had the right to marry. She had a strong belief in the reformist cause and like Katherine Parr thought that god wanted her to marry Henry in order to spread it. Yet in spite of this I don’t hate either COA or Jane. They, like Anne, were just doing what they thought was right. Catherine believed she had a god given duty to remain Queen and Jane believed that she was the rightful Queen. Even though I think both were wrong I can understand why their beliefs made them do what they did.

  9. Esther Sorkin says:

    Can’t help but wonder if there is a connection between the views held about Anne Boleyn and those held about her daughter (i.e., those who think well of Elizabeth will think well about Anne; those who think negatively about the daughter will think the same about the mother).

    The religious issue, IMO, shows Anne at both her best (her charities and her desire to make good use of the monasteries) and at her worst (her marriage to Henry) — which (IMO) also explains the confusion about her.

    (I think that the marriage to Henry shows both Henry and Anne at their most hypocritical. The same section of Leviticus that purportedly invalidates Henry’s marriage to Catherine by prohibiting marriage with a brother’s wife, also prohibits a man from marrying his wife’s sister, so Henry’s sexual relations with Anne’s sister could well have invalidated Henry’s marriage to Anne. Since both knew of the relationship, there would be no “good faith” protecting the legitimacy of Elizabeth. However, since Deuteronomy has an “exception” to the “don’t marry the brother’s wife” that does not apply to marrying a wfie’s sister, and, that exception applies to Catherine’s marriage to Arthur, there is a “good faith” argument protecting Mary’s legitimacy.)

  10. MaggieR says:

    I agree with Shoshana. Very well said! I always thought that being the Queen, she would have had next to no privacy, and, of all things, Anne was no fool.

    As to the “Team Anne” vs. “Team Catherine” vs. “Team Jane” thing, ehhh….! I personally have never had much interest in Jane, other than thinking she, too, was probably a pawn, but mostly just thought she couldn’t have been as good as she was painted. That goes double for Catherine of Aragon, who I always thought had a martyr complex, big time! I’ve *always* felt that she lied about never having consummated the marriage to Arthur, for the simple reason that, had it truly not been, she would have been sent back to Spain as a failure. I’ve never bought the “Catherine the Saint” routine, either. All these women were human, no more, no less. I simply prefer Anne over the other two, for many reasons, but I don’t *hate* the other two.

    The final thing I’ll comment on is the Anne being viewed as a saint, then a homewrecker, then back to saint. It’s funny, a relative of mine last summer watched “The Tudors” on Netflix, and she couldn’t *stand* Anne. Called her a “nasty bitch” or something. I just shrugged, and recommended she read the real history. (Somehow, I doubt she has, lol.) It just struck me as rather odd, since she, like Anne, is a very strong minded, intelligent woman. Of all the Anne portrayals in history, I *much* prefer Anne the homewrecker, the villain, because at least she has a *personality.* To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “Bad women bother one. Good women bore one. That is the only difference.” Heh. Honestly, though? I think Anne was a woman ahead of her time in many ways; a tempestuous, flamboyant, and vibrant woman who was caught up in something she couldn’t control. Saint? Villain? I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

    Fascinating to think about, Claire! Thank you (and I’ll have to find the Facebook page of the author doing the book, “The Creation of Anne Boleyn.” Sounds like an excellent book!). 🙂

  11. Kayla says:

    I would love to write an essay to that question, being an essay-writing nerd and History major. I am kind of stunned that people think you automatically hate Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour. I love Anne and I adore Catherine, they’re two great women and completely different personalities; it isn’t a question of liking one more than the other, but appreciating both of them. As for Jane, do I blame her for Anne’s fate? No, not at all! She has been scapegoated in historical fiction a lot, but I don’t hate her. Jane is just not someone who grabs my interest the way Anne and Catherine do, Catherine Howard as well, by the way. I do think that Anne has changed a lot, and there are a few books that discuss this, I think Alison Weir might mention it in one or two of her books briefly. Anne has become this mystery that we seek to decipher by filling in our own answers to the question: “Who was she?” We just don’t know and that is what keeps us guessing. For my part, I think she was a complex character, I believe she had a temper on her and an ambition. Her ambition was probably her downfall, but do I think she used that ambition to get into Henry’s affections? No, I don’t. I think it was an accidental thing that maybe her family took advantage of, and perhaps she herself did too. Again, though, I don’t know, and you don’t know, no one does. We all just guess and that is what makes it so much fun— guessing and debating with other people about why they see Anne the way they do!

  12. Anne says:

    Anne was ahead of its time.
    She was definitely not afraid and did nothing out of the way she dared hefty rulings.
    At that time that a woman could not heard is certainly nothing to interfere.
    That made that they had many enemies within the Court
    And that she knew her world within the Court became smaller and, ultimately, its demise.
    Pity that they so its end had come.

  13. carrie says:

    ok weither you love anne or hate anne you have to look at her true character and within the time she lived. there is a huge space between youth and maturity.henry was a king and a conqueror .henry got what he wanted and would have removed katherine reguardless we must comend anne for not selling herself cheaply.anne walked into a very judged position by very vindictive , ignorant people.i think people need to hate on henry and relize anne did her best.why wouldnt henry have wanted anne she was very educated and elegant and young.katherine though a very good woman had lost her spark and was at a different stage in her life as a couple there relationship had run its course. i think people today don’t always look at historical figures as people and thats what historical figures are human beings!

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