I’m doing the contemporary descriptions of Anne Boleyn.
References will come from those 9 documents which consist of primary sources from
Describe both appearance and her character, most describing her as an unremarkable woman except for having captured the king’s affections.
One document also refers to her tendency to be rather promiscuous.
Of the 9 documents, only one demonstrates a favourable view of Anne.
Thomas Cranmer in 1536, a known friend of Anne.
Since the hostility towards Anne in the documents is quite obvious, the question I have decided to pose is
Many people of the time disliked Anne Boleyn, Why was this?
Brief summary of early life
Unfortunately, Anne’s exact D.O.B. is not known however most guesses fall within 1499 – 1512.
Anne grew up as the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, later Earl of Wiltshire and Earl of Ormond, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. She spent her childhood at Hever Castle in Kent with her siblings Mary and George and later, aged 12-13, served at the court of the Archduchess Margaret of Austria. She was then moved to France to serve in the household of Queen Mary, Henry VIII's sister, who was married to Louis XII of France. When Louis died, Anne remained in France to attend Claude, the new French queen.
Anne returned home in 1522 when her father summoned her back to England. The first recorded appearance of Anne at court was at a masque in 1522.
Like everyone at court Anne had her friends and her enemies. In the documents however, the negative comments far outweigh the good. Even the Venetian Ambassador could not help but notice what other people were saying about Anne. He comments that many people say Anne is of “bad character”.
So basically a lot of people at court did not like Anne however, there were those such as Catherine of Aragon and her followers who had good reason to. Anne had, according to Eric Ives, taken “a court and a king by storm” and Catherine was not impressed when she discovered Anne was to take her place beside Henry. When Henry demanded that Catherine relinquish her jewels to Anne, she replied:
“I will not give them up to a person who is the scandal of Christendom and a disgrace to you”
Catherine was not the only one angered by the new developments in Henry’s court. During her reign of more than 20yrs Catherine had won the hearts of the English people and they were none too pleased to see her so unceremoniously replaced, and especially on such an illegitimate claim. There was actually an instance where Frazer reports that:
One evening in the autumn of 1531, Anne was dining at a manor house on the river Thames and was almost seized by a crowd of angry women. Anne just managed to escape by boat.
Anne’s unpopularity had actually caused the people to rebel against her.
Since Catherine was a foreign princess, whilst she was married to Henry the alliance with Spain still held. But when Henry finally got the divorce he wanted, this relation was broken. This caused many of the nobles in parliament to favour Catherine becasue she had a far more legitimate claim to the throne than Anne.
People had long since decided that it was Anne who controlled Henry, and they did not like it one bit. At the time there were also rumours flying around of Anne supposedly having affairs with several men at court which lowered people’s opinions of her still further. I think it was for this reason that the people decided to blame Anne if Henry did something they didn’t agree with. It was convenient for them to pin the blame on someone who was already hated and I think it was easier for them to blame Anne so that they could excuse their king’s behaviour. It didn’t help that Anne was a Protestant and many of the Protestants in England hailed her at the time when England was mostly Catholic oriented, and I think this made it particularly difficult for her when Henry broke from the Roman church in order to marry her. This was a bit unfair because even though Anne may have been the cause for Henry breaking with Rome, the English church remained Catholic, and did not turn Protestant.
Another reason Anne was not liked among the people, and especially the other nobles, was that she was looked down on as an interloper. Although she was of noble birth, kings were not expected to marry their own countrymen but to marry a foreign princess to form alliances. People felt that it was not “her place” to be a member of royalty, and the Abbot of Whitby refers to her as “common”. Anne was just a girl who was aiming far to high for her status.
Many times historians have described Anne as an opinionated, educated and independent woman which, unfortunately for her, was exactly what wives were NOT supposed to be like in the 16th century. Anne was a woman before her time and many were not impressed when they saw how completely she controlled Henry. Their hostility prompted them to make some pretty nasty comments about Anne, for example in the early 1530’s the Abbot of Whitby said:
“The Kings Grace is ruled by one common stewed whore, Anne Boleyn, who makes all the spirituality to be beggared, and the temporality also.”
Comments such as these could have been a result of political rivalry for it was common at that time for the more influential nobles to try and set one of their daughters up to be the king’s mistress. It was common for a king to seek a mistress even whilst married and if the nobles could get their daughter in the king’s bed then they were likely to receive special attentions from Henry. However, this could not happen whilst Anne had Henry so completly in her grasp.
Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor was not too happy either when he discovered his aunt would be forced to divorce Henry. The Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys described the circumstances to Charles in 1533:
“Your Majesty must root out the Lady and her adherents... This accursed Anne has her foot in the stirrup, and will do the Queen and the Princess all the harm she can. She has boasted that she will make the Princess her lady-in-waiting, or marry her to some varlet.”
Eustace knows that Anne will try to get rid of any threats to her position by forcing them into a lower position. Here, Anne plans to subject the Princess Mary to the humiliation of marrying a page or some other lowly person when normally she would be married to a foreign prince. Charles’s relation to the Queen was also what made it so hard for Henry to get a papal dispensation from the Pope to divorce Catherine. At the time Bindoff (1950) says:
“The Pope was politically in the pocket of the Emperor Charles V”
And so Henry was unable to persuade the Pope to grant permission to divorce Catherine.
Anne however, chose to ignore her unpopularity at court. After her corronation she even had a new motto embroidered on to her livery. This one, when translated means
“Let them grumble; that is how it is going to be”.
Anne didn’t care that she was disliked, she had what she wanted and no one else would stand in her way. After Cardinal Wolsey broke apart Henry Percy and Anne so that the king could have a free path to her, she replied with the threat:
"If it ever lay in my power, I will work the Cardinal as much displeasure as he has done to me."
It is interesting that Anne forgave Henry in this situation considering she must have known that it was he who instigated the affair when he began court her. I think that once Anne realised that she could make the king marry her, it didn’t matter what he had done, as long as she was made queen she could forget Percy and forgive Henry.
Despite all of these unsympathetic views towards Anne she has time and again been described as an intelligent, witty and charming courtier. Contemporaries and historians alike could not fail to notice the many admirers she had at court as a result of her lively personality. William Forrest, author of a contemporary poem about Catherine of Aragon, says:
“Anne’s charm lay not so much in her physical appearance as in her vivacious personality, her gracefulness, her quick wit and other accomplishments. She was petite in stature, and had an appealing fragility about her… she shone at singing, making music, dancing and conversation… Not surprisingly, the young men of the court swarmed around her.”
Another person who held Anne in high regard was Thomas Cranmer who says
“I had never had a better opinion in woman than I had in her”.
Cranmer even wrote to Henry on hearing of Anne’s arrest protesting that she could not possibly be guilty of the crimes she was accused of.
It has been long since decided by modern historians that the accusations that stood against Anne at her trial were too utterly preposterous to be true. There was absolutely no evidence to support the claims and they were all, according to historian Alison Weir, engineered by Thomas Cromwell. I think that Anne had been in control for so long and so Cromwell had no choice but to fabricate lies which would be believed, to get rid of her.
There is a quote by Eric Ives in his book Anne Boleynwhich describes Anne Boleyn, I think, without prejudice and pretty accurately. And he says
“To us she appears inconsistent – religious yet aggressive, calculating yet emotional, with the light touch of the courtier yet the strong grip of the politician … A woman in her own right – taken on her own terms in a man’s world; a woman who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex; of only moderate good looks, but taking a court and a king by storm. Perhaps, in the end, it is Thomas Cromwell’s assessment that comes nearest: intelligence, spirit and courage.”
During her time, Anne was one of the most influential women in England. Even today she is a great source of debate for many historians. I think it is safe to say that no matter what Anne was thought of then, she has become one of the most famous British monarchs in history today.
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Wilson, D. 2001, In The Lion’s Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, Hutchinson, London.
Weir, A. 2009, The Lady in The Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Jonathan Cape, London.
Ives, E.W. 1986, Anne Boleyn, Basil Blackwell Inc., New York.
Fraser, A. 1992, The six Wives of Henry VIII, N/A, N/A
Benger, E. 1821, Memoirs of the Life of Anne Boleyn: Queen of Henry VIII, Second Edition, Vol I and II, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Paternoster-Row.