The politics of public relations: concepts of image, reputation and authority in henry viii’s england

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Henry’s image is undeniable, and the most commonly recognized, even by those not familiar with English history. From early in his reign, he appreciated and understood the role of art as “the politics of his image” in serving as an advertisement of martial prowess, a diplomatic token, and a symbol of his personal authority painted on to the records of the law.225 As Sharpe suggests, this is due in large part to his patronage of the artist Hans Holbein. Coincidentally, it was Anne Boleyn who gave Holbein early entry into the realm of royal patronage. His first royal commission was to design displays and portraiture for the queen’s coronation in 1533.226 The artist would define the Henrician monarchy with his outstanding works, which to this day make Henry, the most recognizable English monarch.227 Holbein arrived in England for the second time in 1532 where he soon became renowned for his extraordinary talent for representing his sitters with almost photographic realism.228 Holbein would be vitally important in redefining the king’s image post-1532 as the divorce and break with Rome “dictated a change in the image of the king” and demanded “new, more polemical and personal modes of his visual representation.”229

One such post-Supremacy piece depicts Henry “standing upon a mitre with three crowns, having a serpent with three heads coming out of it and having a sword in his hand wherein is written Verbum Dei,” depicting Henry’s overthrow of the papacy and his claim as Supreme Head to present and mediate God’s word to his subjects.230 The royal arms and badges as well as the Tudor Rose were not only placed on royal proclamations as a tool of branding, but also appear on countless items including cups, plate, pots, spoons and even bedclothes and furniture. The king’s badges were associated with other symbols of royalty including the sun, as depicted on basins or lanterns, associating the king with light, and with Christ himself, who purported to be the Light of the World.231 In Miles Coverdale’s 1535 edition of the Bible, Holbein’s cover page art depicts Henry “like a little god, handing the Bible down to the prelates and lords” indicative of his new role as spiritual authority.232 The piece was doubly powerful and highly circulated throughout the realm because it depicts Henry not only as an enthroned king and godly monarch, but also as a godlike figure himself.233 Another 1535 painting by Holbein portrayed Henry as a prince of “unparalleled wisdom and prudence,” receiving gifts from a kneeling Queen of Sheba.234 John King too asserts that the onset of Reformation in England “entailed a fundamental transformation of the public image of the monarch.”235 Henry was determined to project an image of himself as religious leader of the nation. Tudor monarchs were ordained by God to protect and lead the realm, therefore obedience was not only a duty to God but an action in self-interest.236 Most notably in 1536, fresh on the heels of Boleyn’s scandalous downfall, Holbein produced the most defining and well-known portrait of Henry to come out of the reign. More significantly, “it marked a departure from previous representations of the king” in that Henry is depicted forward facing, looking directly into the frame, disembarking from his previous portraits painted from the side as was tradition during his father’s reign.237 This demonstrated a more aggressive, direct and unchallengeable Henry imbued with strong, virile, ultra-masculine qualities. “It was a portrayal that not only radiated majesty and authority but one that inspired awe, even fear, in those who viewed it,”238 signifying the marked shift in the kind of ruler Henry would be moving forward. The original mural resided in Whitehall palace before it was destroyed in the late seventeenth century, but multiple copies survive of it. Lipscomb suggests that it is now the primary image through which Henry is identified and as a result, the characteristics that it imbues are now also ones we associate with the Tudor king.239 Due to this consummate skill of image building, Henry ended his reign as a great king in the eyes of his subjects. By the time of his death, despite obvious character flaws and questionable religious policies, Henry had become “the symbol and embodiment of England to a degree which none of his predecessors…had attained.”240
"Brunet, that did set our country in such a roar."
Thus read the original opening lines of Thomas Wyatt’s poem about Boleyn. He later changed it to "Brunet, that did set my wealth in such a roar" for subtly’s sake. By the early 1530s Henry had been successful in his campaign to “impose his fiction on the world” or had managed to at least make his version the dominant story of a newly emerging nation.241 But this had its price, as does any hard won victory. The king had undergone a slow process of refinement into a budding tyrant. His challenging of Rome’s authority had grown into outright rejection and the establishment of himself as the final authority in all things. The frustrations and setbacks of six years had taken its toll on Henry, who was no longer quite as shiny, bright and youthful as he had been when the journey began. Having examined in detail the efforts he made to justify his divorce and supremacy, we must now turn to what Boleyn was doing during these years and what the king did for her benefit. She was by no means a passive figure, but rather an active agent in the monumental changes that enveloped England during the period. While it is well established that Boleyn was not the cause of the divorce, she certainly did her due diligence to ensure the goal was achieved. The couple had become ever closer, co-conspirators and partners in every way, except sexually of course. While the court had made Boleyn, she quickly demonstrated that she had no intention of playing its games traditionally and soon set about making her own rules. By gaining first the king’s desire, and later respect and devotion, Boleyn played the game so magnificently that by 1527 she was in control of the king himself. The Abbot of Whitby, in describing the political state of England wrote: “The King's Grace is ruled by one common stewed whore, Anne Boleyn, who makes all the spirituality to be beggared, and the temporality also.” The Venetian ambassador described her as “a young woman of noble birth, though many say of bad character, whose will is law to him, and he is expected to marry her should the divorce take place.”242 In 1528 Boleyn gave Henry a copy of William Tyndale’s evangelical work The Obedience of a Christian Man, which asserted it was against divine order for princes to submit to the Church in Rome. Tyndale stressed that it was in fact kings, not the pope, who were meant to have no superior on earth. As such, kings were to be obeyed without question, as they were subject to God alone. This idea of Henry’s supremacy and direct position under God became a strong conviction and “like all his firm convictions, it was not easily moved” once planted.243 It was Boleyn who planted some of these seeds. She empowered the king to wield such absolute authority that no one would question him when he demanded the head of a queen on a platter just eight years later.

Initially, Boleyn was content with Wolsey’s attempts to procure a settlement through a papal annulment, but she soon became convinced that the cardinal was half-hearted about her marriage to Henry. It is well documented that Wolsey and Boleyn did not see eye-to-eye. It is equally well recorded that she begrudged Wolsey his earlier injury to her heart with his interference in her affair with Henry Percy and did what she could to work against his interests. By 1529, she had tired of Wolsey's failure, aligning herself with the faction plotting to get rid of the minister. She decisively blocked his communication with the king following his disgrace in 1529 after the failure of the legatine court at Blackfriars. The king’s increasing impatience reached its breaking point when Wolsey was accused of praemunire, summarily stripped of his royal offices, and banished from court. He died in disgrace on his way to London to stand trial for treason. Many of the cardinal’s supporters blamed his destruction on Boleyn, whom the cardinal called “the nyght Crowe,” always in a position to caw in the king’s ear.244 In her encouragement of the king, acting as the prize to be won from the uphill battle for his divorce, Boleyn made few friends and a great deal more enemies. Opposed both abroad and at home, the only thing that kept her in power was Henry’s surprisingly unwavering devotion.

At least initially, Henry made every effort to appear a morally conflicted yet devoted husband. He continued to share Catherine’s bed and dined with her regularly, performing every husbandly duty short of intercourse in the early years of the divorce quest. As the quest grew longer and more difficult, Boleyn’s power and position at court grew more and more prominent. Henry, who had remained cautious in flaunting a new lover while the pope considered his case, grew increasingly emboldened as the legal proceedings of his divorce drew longer. He began elevating Boleyn’s position and status as a signal to the country of his intentions, doing everything short of marrying her to demonstrate that Boleyn would be queen of England.245 Lodging her at great expense at some of the finest houses in England, Henry saw to it that Boleyn kept great state fit for a queen. Attended by ladies-in-waiting, trainbearers and chaplains, Boleyn was queen in all but name. She occupied the consort seat at banquets, dressed in gowns of purples, which were reserved strictly for royalty.246 The king himself gifted these to her. Henry bedecked her in jewels, furs and all the traditional trappings of a monarch. By the early 1530s, Boleyn was openly honored as the king’s mistress while Catherine was virtually ignored. Courtiers flocked to pay their respects to the new head lady at court.

Henry also set about elevating the Boleyn family, as his next queen must be seen to be from good, noble stock. In 1529, Anne’s father, already Viscount Rochford from Mary’s time in the king’s bed, was raised higher in the peerage and received the titles of Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde (giving Anne the courtesy title of Lady Rochford) and later Lord Privy Seal. In doing so, Henry decisively sided against Butler’s claim to the Ormonde title. That summer Henry took Boleyn on progress with him, displaying her to the people. The lovers remodeled much of Wolsey’s original work together at Hampton Court Palace, known as their love nest till this day. It was during this time that Henry famously had those entwined H’s and A’s carved into every possible surface of the palace. That summer was a golden one for Boleyn. “Above everyone” du Bellay noted was “Mademoiselle Anne,” whose word was law to the king.247 By 1531 Henry formally separated from Catherine, making Boleyn his unchallenged mistress at court, being shown every deference as a queen would be. That same year accounts show the Duke of Milan being advised to treat her as a force in her own right and to set his ambassador with the task of winning her over.248 By fall 1532 it became clear that king’s paper-thin patience was nearing its end. In September, Henry ordered the refurbishing of royal apartments in the Tower of London in preparation for Anne’s coronation and Catherine, in disgrace at Bishop’s Hatfield in Hertfordshire, was forced to give up her royal jewels while Boleyn lived like a queen.

The king’s awareness of image and representations of legitimacy had not wavered during the years of tumult and he remained ever the PR man when it came to his choice of future queen. In preparation for a pivotal diplomatic mission to France where Boleyn wrote to a friend “that which [she] has been so long wishing for will be accomplished,”249 Henry made her Marchioness of Pembroke in order to “increase her status and give her equal rank with some of the noble ladies whom she would meet in France.”250 Henry and Boleyn traveled to Calais in October 1532, where she was honored openly as his queen with a great train of ladies. Having gained the renewed enmity of the Emperor, Henry sought to bolster his friendship with King Francis I of France during the trip. The two sovereigns met at Boulogne and discussed, among many things, the king’s matter. Francis promised his support and influence in Rome to bring about a favorable outcome for Henry. Some days later Francis traveled back to Calais with Henry where he gifted Boleyn a large diamond and spent an hour talking with her in a window seat following a masked dance at which Boleyn had been his partner.251 Overall the mission to France had been a success. It was during this trip that many historians suggest Boleyn finally gave in to Henry’s wishes and conceived the princess Elizabeth. She was certainly pregnant by December. The couple secretly married in January 1533, and she was recognized as queen on Holy Saturday that April. The pageantry of her coronation celebrations displayed some of Henry’s grandest public relations skills of the reign. Henry and Boleyn’s triumphal entry into London was intended as “an official and public affirmation” presenting the pregnant Boleyn “as rightful and fertile queen, as reassurance of the security of the dynasty and realm, and proclamation of Henry as a righteous ruler who had followed his conscience and God’s will and who was careful for the welfare of his subjects.”252

It was during this time that Boleyn adopted her own crest, a falcon (associated for generations with the Ormondes, which her father had adopted upon being named early in 1529) alighting upon a bed of roses. Ives suggests this choice too was calculated by both Henry and his wife. First, it symbolized that “with the advent of Anne, already pregnant, life would once more burst forth from the apparent barrenness of the Tudor stock”253 as indicated by the bloom of roses. The imperial crown worn by the falcon doubly illustrated Boleyn’s impending coronation and “was a deliberate allusion to the claims Henry had recently emphasised that he had the powers of an emperor in his own kingdom and so was entitled to reject papal authority.”254 Even more fittingly, the falcon is often associated in heraldry as “one who does not rest until the objective is achieved.”

Nearly two weeks later, Boleyn was welcomed into London for her coronation and greeted with pageants and other displays linking her to St. Anne, her holy namesake and mother of the Virgin Mary, as well as speeches associating Boleyn with the fruitfulness of St. Anne, establishing her as the future of the English nation. Here again, her falcon heraldry was exalted in a child’s reading during the ceremony:

Honour and grace be to our Queen Anne,

For whose cause an Angel Celestial

Descendeth, the falcon (as white as [the] swan)

To crown with a diadem imperial!

In her honour rejoice we all,

For it cometh from God, and not of man.

Honour and grace be to our Queen Anne!
The coronation procession and pageantry presented her “as a classical heroine, saint and fertile mother who heralded for England a golden age.”255 More importantly, the words of numerous poems like the aforementioned also clearly indicated that Boleyn was set on the throne not by Henry VIII, but by God himself.
“And wild for to hold, though I seem tame”
In reality, England stood on the precipice of an unknown world, not a golden one, in 1533. Its king, spurred on by the promise of one woman and his own arrogance, had broken with the Church of Rome, deposed a rightful queen and married his mistress. For all those involved, whether friend or foe of the Boleyn cause, the victory was an uncertain and fragile one. The Imperial ambassador and champion of Catherine of Aragon, Eustace Chapuys, described it best in his account of Anne's attendance at Mass in April 1533: “It looks like a dream, and even those who take her part know not whether to laugh or to cry.”256 This dream would turn to night terror almost three years to the day. But until then, Boleyn had a rather large mess to make. The fact remained that royal mistresses, no matter how charming or loyal, are never much liked, especially when they become queen. Boleyn and her family had not been popular from the start. Many at court saw them as grasping upstarts. The English people were loyal to Catherine and detested Henry’s choice of mistress, often hissing at her when she went hunting with the king. On one occasion, Henry’s subjects yelled “Back to your wife!” as the royal train passed.257 In 1531, a hostile mob of thousands descended on the London house where Boleyn was dining, forcing her to make a rapid escape by barge.258 She was equally unpopular abroad. During their monumental visit to France in 1532, not a single French royal lady made herself available to receive Boleyn with both Francis’ queen and sister refusing to entertain “the King’s whore.” Her apparent religious beliefs were even more troubling. Much of the political hostility towards Boleyn stemmed from the religious overhaul, which, much at her urging, her husband was imposing on the kingdom. She and her family were known supporters of the evangelical movement and had long encouraged and counseled the king in breaking with Rome. They became more and more radical as the years of the divorce dragged on.

Like Henry, Boleyn too was hardened by the long years of conflict. They had made her “haughty, overbearing, shrewish and volatile, qualities that were frowned upon in wives.”259 In one of her many poor public relations choices, by 1530 Boleyn had adopted as her motto “Ainsi sera, groigne qui groigne” or “This is how it will be, grudge who likes” in response to her detractors. She clearly did not intend to bend to propriety or the new rules that would apply to her when she became queen three years later. Ives suggests that it was during this period that she adopted more radical attitudes and brazen displays so that by 1533 she had lost nearly all sense of caution or of the precariousness of her position. Boleyn found the transition from mistress with the upper hand to compliant and deferential wife an impossible one. Her high-handedness had offended and alienated many of her onetime allies by the time of her marriage. One of the most damning of the fallouts came with her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Though he had once been a pivotal bolster in Boleyn’s early campaign to win the king’s affections, by 1533 her brashness and temper had permanently severed their alliance. Unbeknownst to Boleyn at the time, this was a devastating loss to her faction as Norfolk was the realm’s leading peer and one the foremost members of Henry’s Privy Council. He was widely respected and known to be ruthlessly ambitious. It would be Norfolk who presided over her trial in 1536. Still, having been unchallenged for so many years had hardened Boleyn’s resolve and lost her much in the way of tact and discretion and this would cost her dearly. As both she and Henry would quickly learn, what was required of a queen was a training very different from the “education” that court women such as she received in France.260

What Henry had admired in a mistress and friend proved problematic in a queen. The popular literature of the age demanded behavior that was the very antithesis of who Boleyn was. Anne of France’s Lessons for My Daughter perfectly describes the expectations of queenship in sixteenth-century Europe. First printed around 1520, the work outlined in detail the requirements and proper behavior of a queen. It identifies chastity, obedience, and above all, silence, as the chief duties of queenship. Furthermore, when a queen did speak, she should do it not for debating or entertaining, but to comfort, reassure, and serve others. Juan Luis Vives’ The Education of a Christian Woman, written expressly for Boleyn’s stepdaughter Mary, reminds women that they are “the devil’s instrument” and gives instruction on how to vigilantly guard their chastity from temptation. Proper women were to abstain from reading anything but scripture and the work of scholars of the highest moral worth and to avoid any vainglorious adornment in dress or behavior. Above all, they must refrain from engaging in the witty banter common at Henry’s court, the language of courtly love, which was the gateway to sexual immorality. This was a lesson Boleyn would have done well to consider. In fact, conversation between the sexes should be prohibited, even between siblings, as it was best for a true lady to “have as little contact with men as possible.”261 Married women were prohibited from dancing, banqueting or really any form of revelry or gaiety.

These works, esteemed by the English, were the antithesis of what Boleyn had been taught. Her idea of pleasing female conduct, learned at the French court, was more along the lines of Baldassare Castiglione’s. In his The Book of a Courtier, women were advised to cultivate “a certain pleasant affability” that was pleasing to men but still did not cross into inappropriate “unbridled familiarity.”262 Walking this “tightrope between vivacity and modesty” was no easy task for any female courtier, let alone the queen, who was under the most scrutiny of all.263 Essentially, women of the court were to entertain their boisterous male counterparts while still projecting feminine delicacy, making the whole song and dance of femininity a balancing act that required great skill and social discernment. Men were sexually aggressive, while women had specific sexual boundaries that they could not cross. They “should be physically desirable and could engage in flirtatious, even sexually provocative talk (and should, when to do otherwise would shame the men or mark her as a prude), but her social performance must never raise doubts about her virtue.”264 Again we shall see Boleyn's failure to heed these warnings. This antithetic existence demanded constant vigilance, a quality that Boleyn had long ago abandoned as Henry’s unrivaled consort. In short, it was very difficult to be a proper royal lady in sixteenth-century England. Where vivacity was expected, chastity was still required. Boleyn had played this game brilliantly when she first arrived at court. She bobbed and weaved and pirouetted on the “tightrope” of courtly femininity. Once she wed Henry in 1533, officially becoming his Queen, the game changed, and Boleyn never quite adapted. The fire and vivacity that had allured Henry for nearly a decade was certainly not becoming or favorable in a queen, no matter how unconventionally she came to her crown or how passionate her husband’s love. Boleyn seemed to have forgotten, or rather never learned, that Henry loved nothing more than his own honor and authority as king. In the end, it would be the very weapon that had won Boleyn her crown that would unseat it: her own nature.

Though she was initially untouchable even after they married, Boleyn’s failure to deliver on her promise of a son began to etch cracks in her marriage. The princess Elizabeth was born on September 7, 1533 and from all accounts, the king was not unnerved by the birth of yet another daughter. The general consensus is that the marriage remained on solid ground until early 1536, though it was not without its troubles. When the king’s eye began to stray shortly after the birth of Elizabeth, Boleyn’s shortcomings as wife and queen were put on full display. When in 1534 she attempted unsuccessfully to banish a young woman who had caught Henry’s attention, he brutally warned that “she had good reason to be content with what he had done for her, for were he to begin again, he would certainly not do as much.”265 She argued with the king in public, was said to have mocked him privately and often appeared forlorn in his presence. In February 1535, Boleyn had reached near hysteria while conversing with the Admiral of France while watching Henry flirt with a court lady at a banquet. That same month she became so desperate to keep her hold on the king that she planted her own cousin, Madge Shelton, in the king’s way as his mistress in an effort to have a loyal mistress who would not turn against her with the rival factions at court.266 More problematically, Henry likely met Jane Seymour while on progress during the summer of 1535. Seymour was one of Boleyn’s maids of honor and many accounts suggest the queen was livid upon learning of her husband’s particular interest in her lady. Though given Boleyn’s and Henry’s natures, the marriage was often stormy, it appears to have flourished almost until the end. What it lacked, fidelity aside, was the vital outside support from the court and nation. Once again, a woman’s only surety in the world were her sons. Boleyn’s failure to produce a male heir kept her position ever open to both political and personal threat. Unlike Catherine, who had wed the king out of dynastic decree, Boleyn had won her husband through years of scheming and she knew all too well the necessity of keeping his affections. Opposed on almost every front, she was on her own. Unlike Catherine’s just cause, no one but her family and clients would bat an eye should the king lose interest and set her aside. Boleyn was vulnerable as the foundation of her influence rested heavily on the king’s capricious affections.

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