#WednesdayFact – Anne Boleyn refused Henry VIII’s advances

#WednesdayFact – Did you know that Anne Boleyn refused Henry VIII’s advances?

Yes! Contrary to popular myth, Anne Boleyn didn’t set out to attract the king, she actually rebuffed his advances for quite some time. And there’s no evidence that she was ‘playing hard to get’, playing some game to trap him, or manipulating him, she just wasn’t interested.

When Henry VIII started wooing Anne Boleyn, Anne retreated to the family home of Hever Castle in Kent and left his letters unanswered. She must have thought that the king would move on to easier conquests, she could never have dreamt that he’d end up proposing marriage to her.

Here’s my video on the topic, and you’ll find the script below:

Anne Boleyn may have been successfully rehabilitated in many ways, with the majority of historians believing her to be innocent of the charges laid against her in 1536, but her relationship with Henry VIII, who was, of course, married to Catherine of Aragon when he met Anne and even when he married her, has led to all kinds of accusations and name calling.

Homewrecker, wh*re, manipulator, sexual predator, sl*t and worse.

Fiction and TV often depict Anne as a woman who set her eyes on the crown, who wasn’t content with being a king’s mistress, she wanted to be his queen. Her ambition knew no bounds. She wasn’t going to be cast off like her sister before her, she was going to get everything. And how does this fictional Anne do that? She plays a game. She dangles her virginity in front of the lustful king, and then she reels him in. She manipulates him. She turns him against his wife and daughter, and makes him consumed with lust for her. He’ll do anything to have her and he finally offers her marriage and the crown.
Even if this fictional Anne isn’t fully in control, and is a pawn of her family, she still traps the king, holding him in some kind of sexual stranglehold, and all for ambition and power.

There is so much wrong with that depiction that it’s hard to know where to begin. But there are two main problems with this idea of Anne:

  1. We are judging Anne with our hindsight, hindsight that she never had. We know that Anne finally became queen in 1533 and we are judging her actions in the 1520s and her relationship with Henry VIII based on that.
  2. We are judging Anne, Henry VIII and their times with our 21st century eyes and views. We are not taking into account the role of women in the 16th century, the ideas regarding monarchy and the king’s position, and the context in which these people were living.

Now, we don’t know the ins and outs of King Henry VIII’s relationship with Anne Boleyn. What we do know is that Anne was recalled from serving Queen Claude in France in late 1521 so that she could return to England to serve Queen Catherine of Aragon and also because there were negotiations for Anne to marry James Butler of Ormonde in Ireland. Anne’s first recorded debut at court was at the Chateau Vert pageant in March 1522 but she doesn’t become linked to the king until at least 1524, some say 1526, following her relationship with courtier Henry Percy, which was broken up by Cardinal Wolsey. Sometime after that and before summer 1527, when Henry VIII applied for a dispensation to marry her, Henry began wooing her.

Unfortunately, we know very little of their early courtship. We have some letters, love letters, written by Henry to Anne, but we don’t have her replies, so our view of their courtship is very one-sided and limited. However, we can ascertain certain things by reading in between the lines of Henry VIII’s love letters. We know, for example, that Anne refused to become the king’s mistress, that she retreated to the family home of Hever Castle to get away from the king and court, that she refused even to be his official mistress, and that her radio silence caused the king to believe that he had offended her, and panicked him. It is clear that he wasn’t receiving any replies to his letters at this point and that she was refusing to come back to court.

All part of the game, some people will say, she was playing hard to get.

But that’s ridiculous.

How could Anne have ever known that refusing to sleep with the king and keeping away from court would lead to Henry VIII proposing to her?
Wouldn’t it have been more likely for the relationship to have ended at this point? Henry was king, there were women who would have said yes to his advances. He surely would have been more likely to have moved on to an easier conquest, rather than chasing a woman who didn’t seem to want to be caught.

As Eric Ives points out in his biography of Anne, only one thing can explain why Henry did not stop courting Anne at this point, and that is the king’s realization that he could not live without Anne. And there is no way that Anne could have known that the king felt that way and that he would do everything in his power to marry her.

There was no precedent. Bessie Blount, a previous mistress, had given the king a longed-for son and she hadn’t been offered marriage, had she? How could Anne have predicted any of this? She couldn’t.

With some people, it’s a case of Anne being damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. By refusing to sleep with the king and hanging onto her virtue, she’s a manipulator using her sexuality, and when she finally does give in to him she’s a homewrecking wh*re.

And what about the “homewrecking” bit? Did she destroy Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon?

Well, I suppose I’d have to say “yes” in that Henry’s love for Anne did lead to him annulling his marriage to Catherine, but,
and this is not to condone extra-marital affairs in any way, Henry appears to have already viewed his marriage as over, and, in fact, as having never been valid. Catherine’s last pregnancy had been in 1518 and it had resulted in a stillborn daughter. She’d been pregnant at least six times and had only managed to give the king a son who lived for just 52 days and a healthy daughter, Mary. Eric Ives believes that Henry ceased sexual relations with Catherine around 1524 and that he may even have been considering a divorce as early as 1522. By 1525, when he created his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy Duke of Richmond, he appears to have given up on Catherine and was building up Fitzroy as an alternative heir. Then, Anne happened and gave him hope for the future.

It is easy to see Henry’s troubled conscience over his first marriage, and the fact that he’d committed incest by marrying his brother’s widow, as a convenient excuse to get out of the marriage and move on, but it does appear that the king truly viewed Catherine’s reproductive woes as proof that their union was against God’s law. That God hadn’t blessed them with a living son and heir because there was something wrong. He therefore viewed the marriage as invalid and so could take Anne as his wife. We need to understand how Tudor people felt, how things were seen as portents, omens, signs…

But what about Anne in all of this? How could she betray her mistress the queen and become involved with Henry VIII?

Well, as painting Anne as this scarlet woman and homewrecker, we’re conveniently forgetting Anne’s status and that of the king.
Anne was a maid of honour, she was a servant, AND she was a woman. A woman in those days really expected to have her life mapped out by the men around her. A young woman didn’t have much say in her destiny. Here was the King of England, God’s anointed sovereign, someone Anne would have believed had been chosen by God to rule over England, not only wooing her, but telling her that his marriage was invalid and then choosing her as his wife. Plus, those close to the king, and his canon lawyers, were agreeing with him.

There is absolutely no evidence that Anne reciprocated the king’s feelings at first, and she definitely refused his advances. It is hard to know when or even if she fell in love with the king, but she probably believed that it was her destiny, that it was God’s plan, for her to be with him. Catherine Parr in 1543 would put aside her love for Thomas Seymour to accept the king because she thought it was what God wanted for her, in 1553, Lady Jane Grey accepted the crown although she didn’t really want it because Edward VI had chosen her as his heir, because it was God’s plan for her. I believe that Anne thought that her destiny was in God’s hands, and also the king’s hands. The king wanted to marry her, so be it.

My own personal opinion is that Anne did fall in love with the king. He was charming, witty, intelligent, generous, handsome, and they shared many interests. To be wooed by him must have been a wonderful thing, but that’s straying from the topic of this talk.

Another problem I have with the “homewrecker” label for Anne is that it’s blaming everything on Anne. I really thought we’d moved on a bit with regards to our views on women, but some people are misogynists. Why should Anne get all the blame? Shouldn’t Henry VIII as the married man in this situation take the blame? He was the one abandoning his wife and wooing another woman. He’d already had other affairs and even an illegitimate son. But, oh yes, he’s a man and he just can’t help himself. It’s not his fault that he fell into Anne’s trap, her sexual strangehold…. Bizarre. Please stop blaming the women all of the time. Henry was a man, that was a position of power, and then he was king too, plus he was Anne’s employer and the employer of her family. He was all powerful.

And then there’s Jane Seymour. Anne is the homewrecking wh*re, while Jane is the meek and mild virtuous one. Anne who rebuffed the king’s advances, who said no to becoming his mistress, with no precedent for her to believe that that would only increase his ardour and lead to a marriage proposal, is somehow a game player and master manipulator. Yet, Jane, who we know played a part in Anne’s fall by telling him of Anne’s unpopularity, who had Anne’s example to copy, who was coached by her brothers and the likes of Sir Nicholas Carew in how to behave with the king, is somehow not a homewrecker. Now, of course, I’m not trying to demonise Jane as we know from Chapuys that she was being used as a pawn, that she was being told what to do, and of course she could have had no idea that all of that would lead to Anne being executed. What I’m just pointing out is how unfair these labels thrown at Anne are. Anne had no way of knowing that her actions could lead to her being queen, Jane did.

I’m not trying to make out that Anne was perfect, that she was some kind of saint, and a complete victim of circumstances. I just don’t believe she set out to wreck Catherine’s marriage, to take her place and to become queen. When it was finally offered to her, when she believed that it was her destiny, then she was willing to fight tooth and nail for it, and to support the king, but she didn’t decide one day, as a maid of honour, to be queen at all costs.

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