Anne Boleyn: The Most Slandered Woman in History

She's been called a witch, a poisoner, an ambitious tease who used her sexual wiles to dupe a hapless king into giving her a throne. She was called a whore, a heretic, and a traitor. But did Anne Boleyn deserve any of those labels?

What do we know of her, for certain? The answer is "surprisingly little." For one of the most famous women in English history, Anne Boleyn left little documentary traces. We only have a couple of letters that we can confirm for certain were written in her own hand. Most of the reports we have of her conduct as queen comes from extremely biased sources, and scraps of court gossip which may have no factual basis. We have only one single image of her created in her lifetime, a badly damaged portrait medal. Anne Boleyn remains an enigma.

Sometime around 1525 or so, Anne came to Henry's attention. The relationship wasn't recorded at first, so we can't be sure when it began. The court was used to Henry's flirtations, though he's recorded to have only had two mistresses. Mary Boleyn was one of them, and we're not sure when that relationship began or ended.

Anne was not a great beauty, but she had charm, grace, and wit that far more than made up for her physical shortcomings. She likely had auburn hair, and brown eyes, which she knew how to use too her advantage. Lancelot de Carle, a French poet who became the Bishop of Riez (he attended Anne's execution) said her eyes were:

always most attractive which she knew well how to use with effect. Sometimes leaving them at rest and at others, sending a message to carry the secret witness of the heart. And, truth to tell, such was their power that many surrendered to their obedience.

But Anne refused to become the king's mistress. Why did she refuse? Was it because of her ambition, as some say? Or could there have been another reason?

Anne's initial refusal could not have been to try to force the king to marry her. She wouldn't have expected Henry to put Katharine aside in favor of her; such a thing was preposterous, and highly unlikely given Spain's power with the Pope. Knowing how her story turned out, we can "armchair quarterback" the events of 1525-1536, but Anne could not have realistically been aiming for a throne when she first turned down the king.

The more likely explanation lies in Anne's religious faith, something that is ignored in most fiction written about her. Anne was a fervent evangelical, passionate about reforming the Catholic church. She was intense in her faith and owned dozens of books on religious subjects. She was a virtuous woman because it was a tenant of her faith, not because she hoped to barter her virginity for power. She was also cognizant of her reputation. Her sister, Mary, had been humiliated by Francis's un-gallant comments about her. Anne did not want to end up the same way as her sister, pawned off on a willing courtier when the king was done with her.

But Henry did not get tired of the pursuit of Anne, as she had likely expected. His interest was also a trap. While he was obsessed with her, no other suitor would try for her hand, fearful of the king's wrath. As poet Thomas Wyatt wrote:

Noli me Tangere, for Caesar's I am.

Anne's real value in the marriage market plummeted as though she were the mistress of the king in truth. She was called "the Great Whore," the "scandal of Christendom." Even if the king had abandoned his pursuit of her, Anne would never recover her reputation. It was onward and upward, or go home in disgrace, un-marriageable, a burden on her family for life.

In 1527, Henry began seeking an annulment of his marriage to Katharine. Marrying the king became a legitimate possibility. At this point, Anne made real enemies, just by existing. Eustace Chapuys, who loved Katharine as a personal friend, hated Anne Boleyn so much, he could not bring himself to write her name in his dispatches, referring to her as "the concubine" or "the whore."

It is from Chapuys we get much of what we "know" about Anne Boleyn, and her behavior as Henry's lady-love and queen. Chapuys was eager to report any negative news about Anne, and he painted her actions in the worst possible light. Every word from her mouth and every snippet of gossip he reported was projected through the lens of his disdain for her. Whenever Henry was in a temper, it was because Anne had put him there. Whenever Katharine or Princess Mary was treated harshly, it was because Anne had insisted on it. He reported every quarrel, and watched closely for any evidence her influence was waning.

Despite knowing his bias, historians have - for the most part - taken Chapuys's word for it that these incidents really happened, or the words he reported had the meaning he attributed to them.

One thing that can be stated with almost absolute certainty: Anne Boleyn was not a murderer. It's alleged that Anne tried to have Bishop John Fisher poisoned. The Bishop and his household fell ill after a meal, and after an investigation, it was found that the food had been poisoned by a cook, Richard Roose. Roose allegedly claimed he only intended to make the dinner guests sick, but two people died. Roose was boiled to death, and never named Anne Boleyn or any of her servants as accomplices. It's a horrifying way to go, and if he could have used implicating someone else as a bargaining chip for a lighter sentence, he would have.

The second allegation stems from the death of Katharine of Aragon. During her embalming, a black growth was found on her heart, which the embalmers thought was sure evidence she had been poisoned. Modern historians believe it was a cancerous growth. There is no reason to believe poison was involved in Katharine's death. She was fifty years old and had been ailing for some time.

The last bit of "evidence" comes from Henry VIII himself. After Anne's arrest, he called for his children to be brought to him, and weeping, embraced them as he said they ought to be grateful that "venomous whore" had not managed to poison them as she intended. But at that point, Henry was willing to say or believe anything it took to rid himself of his wife. Had he truly believed his children were in danger before Anne's arrest, he would have taken action. Instead, he dismissed Mary's claims of illness as hysterical malingering, and was delighted when Katharine finally died.

When Henry set his sights on a young woman in court (we do not know her name) Anne and Jane Parker conspired to have her sent from court. Anne didn't try to poison her. Why would she have taken a risk like that? Especially in the cases of Katharine and Mary, who were watched closely, and protected by their partisans. Anne had to know the likelihood a plot like that would fall apart. Anne might have been many things, but she was not stupid. Being named as someone who tried to kill "Good Queen Katharine" would have destroyed the reputation she was working so hard to build.

So, if we leave aside the uncertain evidence of Anne's activities, what do we have from the documentary evidence of Anne's reign? We know that she was very charitable. The expenses from the queen's privy purse for charity were high. She greatly increased the amount of money put in purses for alms for the poor, sponsored young men to attend universities, paid tuition for impoverished children to attend school, and commanded her ladies in waiting to make shirts for the poor.

Anne wanted her court to be known for its virtue as well as its poetry and music. She was a flirt -she admitted that readily - but she was a pious woman and expected her court to be virtuous, as well. When her sister, Mary, turned up pregnant from a secret marriage, Anne banished her from court. Various authors have put spiteful motives behind this action, but the simple truth is that Anne could not be seen to support a young woman defying her family in such a way. She later quietly sent her sister much needed money and a gift.

She was a patron of religious scholars and helped to install reformist bishops in high positions within the new English church. When the king dissolved the monasteries, Anne and Cromwell quarreled over the money. Anne wanted it to be used to found schools. He wanted it to go into the king's and nobles' pockets. Guess who won?

We know she argued with the king, as well. This was shocking in an era in which women were supposed to placidly obey the men in their life. Anne was sharply intelligent, and very bold for a woman of her day. While she was the king's lady-love, it was Henry who became the supplicant, Henry who apologized, Henry who begged her not to leave court and go home to Hever. Once they married, it was Anne who begged for attention, who had to be the one to make up for their quarrels. The balance of power shifted fast. Henry expected her to become a submissive wife, and Anne stayed the same girl she had always been.

The king quickly tired of a politically-active, argumentative wife. He wanted a placid, obedient woman at his side, and he found just the perfect one in Jane Seymour. Anne's fall was swift and brutal. It's telling that even her greatest enemy, Chapuys, didn't believe the charges against her. But the facts were irrelevant. The king wanted Anne dead and she must die to make room for Jane.

It's almost absolutely certain Anne was not guilty of the crimes of which she was accused. The "evidence" was flimsy at best. On at least twelve occasions in the indictment, she can be proved to be at another location than the one cited, in front of a thousand witnesses. She also swore to her innocence - twice - on the host before her execution. A deeply religious woman like Anne would not have damned her immortal soul by lying in such a manner when she was about to die.

She admitted she had not always been as respectful to the king as she should have been, but nothing more.

Anne Boleyn went to the scaffold and made the expected speech before the crowd. The crowd fell to its knees when Anne knelt before the swordsman, something that is recorded at no other execution of the time period. It was a show of deep respect for her, and I hope she saw it before the blade fell. She died bravely. She died well.

But the world was not done with Anne Boleyn. Her reputation suffered further slights during her daughter's reign with the work of Nicholas Sander, a Catholic apologist nearly as biased as Chapuys. Sander (or "Slanders" as he has been called by some historians, not without reason) was only ten years old when Anne Boleyn went to the scaffold, and likely never saw her. He described her thus:

Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair, and an oval face of a sallow complexion as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness she wore a high dress covering her throat. 

He included such fanciful details of her reign, such as Anne wearing a dress covered with human tongues with nails through them as a warning to her critics.
Recently confirmed as a portrait of
Anne Boleyn by the Royal Archives

It is from Sander that we get the idea Anne had black hair, a convention that has stuck with every actress who has played her in movies or television, with the notable exception of the wonderful Geneviève Bujold, whose chestnut locks are probably the closest a movie portrayal has had to Anne's real hair color.

In closing, there is no reason to believe that Anne was vindictive, cruel, malicious, or evil. The documentary evidence points to a woman of strong religious faith, who had a temper, and strong opinions with the guts to voice them. Undoubtedly, her temper led her to say some things she likely regretted, but there's no reason to think she was a bad person. Indeed, what little we have suggests differently.

She still fascinates us, this mysterious woman who changed the world.

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