Interview with Elizabeth Norton
Posted By Claire on December 10, 2009
Elizabeth Norton is an historian and author whose books include “Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession”, “Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s True Love”, “Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride” and “She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England”. She is presently working on a book about Catherine Parr.
Elizabeth gained her first degree from the University of Cambridge and her Masters degree from the University of Oxford. She is one of our guest speakers at The Anne Boleyn Experience 2010 at Hever Castle in May.
Here is an exclusive Anne Boleyn Files interview with Elizabeth:-
The Tudor series portrays Thomas Boleyn as a manipulator who used his daughters to gain favour and titles yet to Joanna Denny he is some kind of Reformation hero and caring father who strove to protect his daughters, what do you think?
From what is known about them both, I would say that Thomas Boleyn and Anne were very similar characters and Anne was very influenced by her father in her youth. It was Thomas Boleyn who first recognised Anne’s potential and secured a place for her with Margaret of Austria and, as the best French speaker at the English court, it is also likely that he instilled in Anne an early interest in the French language and French culture. Anne’s earliest extant letter (written in school girl French) is addressed to her father.
Thomas was ambitious for his family as a whole and benefited from the rise of first Mary and then Anne. It is difficult to see his influence as a manipulator behind either Mary or Anne’s relationships with the king and, the evidence for Anne at least is that she won and held the king by herself.
Thomas, like Anne, was influential in the early religious reform movement and so, to a certain extent, can be seen as a Reformation hero. However, his court career and ambition were certainly the driving forces in his life and he was prepared to make use of his daughters’ positions in order to further his ambition, and distance himself from them when they fell into disfavour.
Mary Boleyn has been called Henry VIII’s ‘favourite mistress’ and Henry VIII himself called Jane Seymour his true love, but who do you think was really Henry VIII’s true love?
Looking back over his life with the benefit of hindsight, it is likely that Henry himself would have said Jane Seymour. From a dynastic point of view, she was his only successful wife and the wife with whom he requested to be buried. It is clear however that she was not so cherished during her marriage and Henry is known to have mentioned soon after his marriage to Jane that, after seeing two new beauties at court, he wished he had not been so hasty in making his choice. Jane was also very aware that, like her two predecessors, her position was vulnerable until she bore a son.
Henry VIII believed himself to be in love with Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard at the time of his marriages to them. His relationship with Catherine Parr was also a fond one. The length of his relationships with Bessie Blount and Mary Boleyn also suggest that he may have been in love with them. I think it is difficult to see Henry VIII as having one true love and various women filled that post at different points of his life. Henry’s relationship with Anne Boleyn was the greatest love affair of his life and she may well merit the title of his true love but, given that he eventually had her executed, it is clear that he would not himself have considered her to have that honour.
Henry VIII was unusual for a king of his time and he chose to marry women who, for most kings, would have been merely mistresses. There is no doubt that he was a romantic at heart and he built up romantic ideals of most of the women with whom he was involved, including Anne of Cleves before he actually met her. It is Jane Seymour with whom he had the most enduring affection, albeit mostly posthumously.
Anne Boleyn is known to have had a number of admirers in her early years. Who do you think Anne really loved and was she in love with Henry VIII at any point?
Anne was ambitious and, whilst she was happy to flirt with Thomas Wyatt, she was aware that, as a married man, he could offer her nothing. It is therefore unlikely that she was in love with him. James Butler, the man she returned from France to marry, is also unlikely to have meant anything to her and neither Anne nor her father appear to have been particularly interested in the match.
If Anne had an early love, it was Henry Percy. Marriage to the heir to the Earl of Northumberland would have been an extremely advantageous match for Anne and so it is difficult to identify what Anne’s true feelings were. Henry Percy was in love with Anne and Anne’s later enmity towards Cardinal Wolsey, who was responsible for breaking off the match, also suggests that she felt strongly about Henry Percy. If Anne consummated her relationship with anyone before Henry VIII, it is most likely to have been with Henry Percy. She certainly consummated her relationship with Henry VIII once it was clear that her marriage was inevitable and she may have felt in a similarly secure position with Henry Percy following their betrothal.
It is likely that Anne was also in love with Henry VIII. Again, this was obviously an advantageous marriage and Anne’s personal feelings are difficult to separate from her own ambition. However, Henry VIII in the late 1520s and early 1530s was still the most handsome and cultured prince in Europe and, unlike the ailing and bloated king of his later years, he would have been an easy man to fall in love with. Anne’s jealousy over Henry’s infidelities and, also his relationship with Catherine of Aragon, were partially motivated by a fear that her position was insecure, but her reaction is also likely to have been the result of genuine emotional hurt at his betrayals of her.
Alison Weir, in her latest book, talks of how Anne and Henry’s marriage was unhappy from the start, do you agree with this?
Anne and Henry’s marriage was certainly controversial and the actual ceremony was secret and kept deliberately vague. However, I cannot agree that it was unhappy. Anne and Henry were blissfully happy for the first few months of their marriage: they had finally been able to consummate their relationship and they were expecting a longed-for ‘prince’. Within months of her marriage Anne was able to appear publicly as queen and was also crowned as queen. Henry was also finally able to disentangle himself from Catherine of Aragon and marry the woman he loved. Their marriage was dogged from the start by political problems, but, on a personal level, they are likely to have been among the happiest few months of Anne and Henry’s lives.
There are different opinions about Henry VIII’s involvement in Anne Boleyn’s fall, do you think he was involved in the conspiracy or was he also an innocent victim of Cromwell’s plot?
Henry VIII remained, until the end of his life, in full control of his kingdom. The plot against Catherine Parr, in which she was very nearly sent to the Tower for heresy in 1546 shows that it was not possible for Henry’s wives to fall without his express agreement. Henry’s seeming compliance in agreeing to Catherine’s arrest was part of a test of his wife and an attempt to push her back into a more domestic sphere.
In contrast, Anne Boleyn was allowed to fall and there is evidence that Henry had tired of her. Whilst he did still seek Imperial recognition of his marriage to Anne as late as April 1536, it is clear that he was already by then becoming more committed to Jane Seymour – he perhaps simply had not found the mechanism by which to engineer Anne’s fall. Cromwell and the other factions working against Anne provided the means by which she could be brought down, with the rumours of infidelity and the precontract with Henry Percy. It was Henry VIII himself who had to agree to the final attack on Anne and, his conduct at the May Day jousts shows that he did indeed agree to this.
Which of Anne’s early loves do you think she should have married?
Anne did not really have the opportunity to marry any of her early loves. Her proposed betrothal to James Butler came to nothing, perhaps because of Thomas Boleyn’s hopes of securing the Earldom of Ormond for himself. Anne’s betrothal to Henry Percy was broken by Cardinal Wolsey. Thomas Wyatt, the third man with whom Anne was definitely linked, was married. The match with which she would have been happiest is, however, likely to have been that with Henry Percy. The couple were similar in age and apparently in love and Anne’s ambition is likely to have been satisfied with being Countess of Northumberland. Of course, this was not to be, and she secured a much greater match for herself…
Do you agree with Joanna Denny and Karen Lindsay, who say that Anne was a victim of sexual harassment and that she was ‘stalked’ by Henry? Could she have turned Henry down, or was to keep her virtue and have the relationship on her terms her only course of action?
Henry VIII certainly ardently pursued Anne, bombarding her with letters when she retreated to Hever. Anne had seen how Henry VIII had treated her sister, simply discarding her once his interest had waned. It is clear from her involvement with Henry Percy that Anne was seeking an advantageous marriage. She therefore had no intention of becoming Henry VIII’s mistress and made this clear to him throughout their courtship. She could, perhaps, be seen as a victim of sexual harassment and stalking by Henry VIII. However, Anne was well able to hold her own in a flirtation with a married man as she had shown with Thomas Wyatt. She is also likely to have been flattered by Henry VIII’s interest although, until he finally made the proposal of marriage, she is unlikely to have known just what to do with him.
I think that Anne could have turned Henry down. It would have been difficult for her to do and she would have been under considerable pressure from her family. However, the fact is, she did turn Henry down, even refusing his offer to make her his official mistress. For all his dubious record with women, there is no evidence that Henry would have actually forced Anne to become his mistress and he was therefore forced to either abandon his pursuit of Anne or offer her marriage. It was the offer of marriage that finally persuaded Anne that Henry was serious about her and changed the course of their relationship, allowing her to deal with Henry on her own terms.
What do you think Jane Seymour was like? Was she an innocent, demure, meek and mild woman or was she scheming and ambitious?
Jane Seymour was as politically ambitious as Anne Boleyn. She is likely to have come to court with the purpose of becoming the king’s mistress but, following Anne’s final miscarriage, she changed course, seeking marriage with the king. This can be seen in her willingness to accept Henry’s advances before Anne’s miscarriage (for example, that Anne herself was said to have blamed her miscarriage on the sight of Jane on Henry’s knee). Following the miscarriage, she made a great show of her virtue and her image as Anne’s opposite.
Jane’s political interests can also be seen after she became queen, in particular, her support of Princess Mary and the Imperial party. Even after becoming queen, she was forced to maintain her meek image and Henry had set a dangerous precedent for his subsequent queens in his treatment of Anne Boleyn.
How did the fate of Anne Boleyn affect Henry VIII’s relationships with his subsequent wives and mistresses?
By marrying Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII demonstrated to other women that, by insisting on remaining virtuous, it was possible for them to aspire to becoming queen. Jane Seymour obviously followed this course, as did Catherine Howard when she ousted Anne of Cleves. The danger of this approach was obviously that each of Henry’s later queens risked bringing their own successor to Henry’s attention and this may be why Jane Seymour was so strict in her requirements for her maids’ dress. One notably pretty maid of Jane’s, Anne Basset, was required to wear an English Gable Hood rather than the more flattering French Hood on Jane’s express orders.
For Henry, the fate of Anne Boleyn also made it more difficult for him to actually obtain a bride. Following Jane Seymour’s death there were rumours that Christina of Milan said that she would only risk marriage to Henry if she had two heads. It is unlikely that she actually said this but, certainly, she was concerned by Henry’s dangerous reputation as a husband. Catherine Parr is also reported to have said she would prefer to become Henry’s mistress than his wife.
Finally, Anne’s execution provided a terrifying precedent for all Henry’s future wives. Henry reminded Jane Seymour of Anne’s fate when she attempted to involve herself in politics during the Pilgrimage of Grace and this was her last recorded overtly political action. Anne of Cleves is also likely to have feared that she would be imprisoned and, perhaps, beheaded, if she did not comply with Henry’s wishes in her divorce and Catherine Parr was terrified when she found herself at the centre of a plot to send her to the Tower.
No king of England either before or after Henry went so far as to actually execute their wives and Anne’s execution, even to those of her contemporaries who did not recognise her marriage or saw her fall as her just desserts, were shocked by what happened.