The Scandalous and Corrupt Anne Boleyn?

Posted By on October 11, 2011

Apologies for the absence of Anne Boleyn articles recently but I’ve been busy immersing myself in Letters and Papers and the Calendar of State Papers for Spain trying to find something that has been bugging me for the past few weeks. When something bugs me, I’m like a dog with a bone and I just cannot let go until I’ve found the answer…grrr!

A few weeks ago, I read Alison Weir’s new book “Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore” (or “Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings” to give it its US title), and in it Alison Weir repeats something which she referred to in her earlier book, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, her idea that Anne Boleyn had been corrupted by her time in France.

Here is what she says in “Six Wives”:-

“There is some later evidence that she was perhaps not so virtuous during her years in France as has hitherto been supposed. Brantôme tells us that ‘rarely, or never, did any maid or wife leave that court chaste”, and in 1533, Francis I confided to the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle, that she ‘had not always lived virtuously’. More tellingly, Henry VIII told the Spanish ambassador in 1536 that Anne had been ‘corrupted’ in France, and that he had discovered this when sexually experimenting with her.”

This is repeated in “Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore”:-

“But Anne, too, risked becoming the subject of scandal at the French court. In July 1535, King François was to confide to Rodolfo Pio ‘how little virtuously she has always lived, and now lives’; he may have been referring to Anne’s later reputation, but in 1536, Henry VIII himself would reveal to Eustache Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador in England, that it was only after he had begun having sexual relations with Anne that he found out she had been corrupted in France. After her death, when offered a French bride, the King insisted ‘he had too much experience of French bringing up and manners’ – a clear reference to Anne Boleyn. Evidently Anne was discreet and clever enough to ensure that barely a soul knew of these early falls from grace.”

So, according to Alison Weir, a clever Anne Boleyn was able to hide her sexual experience and rather muddied past from Henry VIII and pass herself off as virtuous and Queen material. But what’s the evidence for Weir’s conclusion? Well, she does give references but they are not at all helpful: “L&P” for the King François quote and “S.C.” for Chapuys. Now, L&P, or Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, has 21 volumes covering 1509 to 1547, and some of them are split into two parts, and S.C., or Calendar of State Papers, Spain, has 13 volumes, so it is difficult to find the evidence cited when an author or historian does not reference it properly. The norm, in history books, is to say precisely which document in which volume you are referring to, e.g. LP xv.25, making it easy for the reader to check it.

Anyway, I managed to find the first source that Alison Weir was referring to, the one about Anne Boleyn not living virtuously. Weir is wrong in “Six Wives” when she attributes the words to Francis I confiding in the Duke of Norfolk in 1533, but is correct in “Mary Boleyn” when she attributes them to Francis I confiding in Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza, who then repeats it in a letter to M. Ambrosio on 4th July 1535:-

“Francis also spoke three days ago of the new queen of England, how little virtuously she has always lived and now lives, and how she and her brother and adherents suspect the duke of Norfolk of wishing to make his son King, and marry him to the King’s legitimate daughter, though they are near relations.” LP viii.985

The Chapuys reference has been more problematic but, with the help of the wonderful Clare Cherry (fab researcher and definitely a Captain Hastings to my Poirot, or perhaps it’s the other way round!), I think I’ve cracked it. Alison Weir says that the King confided in Chapuys in 1536 that Anne Boleyn had been ‘corrupted’ in France and that a report of these words can be found in the Calendar of State Papers, Spain. Well, I have gone through every document written by Eustace Chapuys in those records in 1536 (L&P, Calendar of State Papers, everything!) and other years and cannot find any reference to Henry VIII saying that Anne had been corrupted in France. I have however found the reference to Henry VIII not wanting to marry a French woman after Anne Boleyn:-

“The King replied that she was too young for him, and that he had had too much experience of French bringing up and manners, alluding to the late concubine, to take her to wife.” ‘Additions and Corrections’, Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, Additions and corrections to No.61, 6th June 1536

This was in reference to the idea that Henry VIII should marry “Madame Magdelaine”, Madeleine of Valois, Francis I’s daughter. I think it is reading far too much into Henry VIII’s words to read “bringing up and manners” as referring to sexual experience!

However, Clare thinks, and I agree with her, that Alison Weir is actually basing her theory on Paul Friedmann’s interpretation of Henry’s words. Friedmann, Anne Boleyn’s 19th century biographer, writes:-

“After the death of Anne a courtier told Chapuis (so Chapuis reports) that Henry had refused the hand of the daughter of Francis I [Madeleine of Valois] because she was too young and because in the said concubine he had had too much experience of what the corruption of France was.”

Friedmann cites “E.Chapuis to N. de Granvelle, June 6, 1538, Vienna Archives” but this does not exist and is actually 6th June 1536, the same letter I quote above, mentioning “French bringing up and manners”. Not quite corruption, although Friedmann makes the point that it depends on how the original French is read and whether the word used is “nourriture” or “pourriture”, “food/fare/nourishment/nurture” or “decay”. Henry had either had too much experience of the French bringing up or the French “decay”. However you read it, you are reading Friedman’s interpretation of Chapuys’s interpretation of Henry’s words and, in the case of the book “Mary Boleyn”, Alison Weir’s intrepretation of Friedman interpreting Chapuys interpreting Henry!! Aaaggghhh! A bit of a game of Chinese Whispers or Telephone, I feel.

In Letters and Papers, we have the letter that Eustace Chapuys wrote to the Emperor on the 6th June 1536 and the only reference to Anne in that is:-

“He further told me that the bailiff and the other ambassador, his colleague, had proposed the marriage of the eldest daughter of king Francis to this King, but it was lost time altogether, for king Henry would never marry out of his own kingdom. Having then asked him what reason he (Cromwell) had for making such an affirmation, he stated one which, in my opinion, is futile and weak enough, namely, that if he ever marries a foreign princess of great blood and high connexions, should she misbehave herself he could not punish her, and get rid of her, as he had done of his last wife.”

Again, it makes no mention of Anne Boleyn’s alleged corruption at the French court.

It is annoying that Alison Weir’s shaky referencing and her use of inverted commas, “Henry VIII told the Spanish ambassador in 1536 that Anne had been ‘corrupted’ in France”, lead the reader to believe that there is evidence to back up Weir’s theory that Anne Boleyn was sexually experienced before she met Henry VIII. In my opinion, the evidence is lacking and it is pure supposition. What do you think?

Don’t get me started on the whole Elizabeth Boleyn and her “dubious reputation” theory, that’s another story!

Notes and Sources

  • The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir, Chapter 7 “Mistress Anne”
  • Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore by Alison Weir, p76 (Jonathan Cape UK paperback edition)
  • LP viii.985
  • Additions and Corrections, Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, Additions and corrections to No.61, 6th June 1536
  • Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English history 1527-1536 by Paul Friedmann, p318 in Appendix Note A
  • Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, no. 61, Eustace Chapuys to Emperor, 6th June 1536
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