Anne Boleyn: Wicked Stepmother?

Anne Boleyn's relationship with Princess Mary Tudor was doomed from the start.

Mary was her mother's fierce partisan when it came to the Great Matter and would not accept that her parents' marriage had been annulled by the English church. She felt that doing so would be a betrayal of her mother, and a betrayal of her Catholic faith. Her father might claim the title of Head of the English Church, but to Mary, the Pope was the only one who could rule on the legitimacy of her parents' marriage, and of Mary herself.

Because Mary refused to accept her new status, the king exiled her from court, separated from her mother, whom she would never see again. Mary blamed this cruel treatment on Anne, whom she was convinced had bewitched her father.

Mary had memories of a golden childhood in which her proud father carried her around and showed her off, calling her the "pearl" of his kingdom. Now, he wouldn't even speak to her, or allow her to see her beloved mother. He now called Mary his "greatest enemy" and told ambassadors she was trying to incite rebellion against him.

Anne is often portrayed as having been spiteful and vindictive to her stepdaughter, but the documentary evidence for their relationship actually indicates that Anne tried several times to reconcile with Mary, or to at least make peace. She first sent Mary a message, offering to intercede with the king on her behalf if she would but acknowledge Anne as queen. Mary sent back a "puzzled" response saying she knew of no queen in England but her mother, but if Lady Pembroke wished to assist her in reuniting with her father, she would be grateful.

According to legend, Anne and Mary were once in the chapel of Eltham at the same time. A lady in waiting erroneously informed Anne that Mary had bowed to her, but Anne hadn't noticed. She sent Mary an apologetic note in which Anne explained she hadn't seen Mary's symbolic submission to her, but hoped this would be the beginning of friendly relations between the two.

Mary's ladies brought the note to her, saying it was from the queen. Mary retorted that the note couldn't be from the queen because it wasn't from Katharine. It was from Lady Pembroke, and Mary certainly hadn't acknowledged Lady Pembroke.

The story might not be true, but it illustrates the impasse of these two women.

Anne was exasperated and frustrated by this. She'd tried kindness and patience, and that didn't work. Henry was outraged. He expected his daughter to be obedient, and her defiance was infuriating.

Henry ordered that Mary was to go serve her new half-sister Elizabeth as a maid, hoping to break her "stiff-necked Spanish pride." Instructions were given to Lady Shelton, her governess, to box Mary's ears as "the cursed bastard" she was if she refused to obey. Who sent these instructions? Most history books attribute them to Anne, but I haven't seen documentary evidence of it. Likely, Eustace Chapuys heard of it and attributed it to Anne, as he did every cruel action Henry took toward his daughter.

Despite the multiple conversations Chapuys had with Henry about the princess in which Henry restated his hostility to the girl for her refusal to obey, Chapuys believed it was Anne who put him in this "perverse temper." Anne undoubtedly had her own frustrations with Mary, but it's ridiculous to paint the situation as though Anne somehow manipulated or henpecked Henry into abusing his daughter, especially considering the fact the cruelty only increased after Anne died.

Mary was truly Henry's daughter. Her will was iron. She would not bend. Her always-fragile health suffered, but Henry was unsympathetic. As far as he was concerned, her misery could end as soon as she was once again an obedient daughter, but until then, she could suffer in a situation of her own making.

We can't know how Anne felt about Princess Mary. If we accept the position of Eustace Chapuys, Anne despised her, but he's the sole source for most of this "information," and it's well-known that he was deeply biased, and not above reporting snippets of gossip as fact, as long as it made Anne look bad.

Chapuys quoted Anne as saying that "[Mary] is my death, and I am hers," meaning, "That girl will be the death of me, or I'll be the death of her." He reported it as a cold-blooded threat, but I'm sure many stepmothers have thrown up their hands in exasperation and something similar of a rebellious teenage girl.

Chapuys also reported Anne told her brother if Henry left for France and made Anne regent, she'd take it as a chance to execute the girl, to which George replied the king might be upset. Anne supposedly said she didn't care if it meant her own death. Again, Chapuys reports these words literally, as statements of intent, but people sometimes say things they don't really mean in the heat of the moment. Anne is also known to have had a macabre sense of humor and may have even been joking about it in order to relieve stress.

And in this particular situation, we have to question whether they actually said them at all. Chapuys never gives a source for who overheard these supposed statements, only that it was someone he trusted. Why would Anne be stupid enough to publicly threaten to murder someone?

Who knows how many layers of "the telephone game" the story went through before it got to Chapuys's eager ears? Some historians acknowledge Chapuys's errors and biases, but then go on to report his words as established fact, basing judgments about Anne's actions and character on them.

Anne tried one last time when Katharine died. She told Mary she would find a second mother in Anne if Mary would obey her father and extend just the minimal courtesies. Mary retorted she would obey her father as far as her conscience would allow - which was, essentially, a flat-out refusal.

Soon afterward, Chapuys reported a strange incident. He said Mary found a letter in the chapel, addressed to her guardian, Lady Shelton. She copied it and put it back where she found it. Chapuys and Mary didn't know what to make of the letter. Chapuys thought it had to be some kind of trick.

Mrs. Shelton, my pleasure is that you do not further move the lady Mary to be towards the King's Grace otherwise than it pleases herself. What I have done has been more for charity than for anything the King or I care what road she takes, or whether she will change her purpose, for if I have a son, as I hope shortly, I know what will happen to her; and therefore, considering the Word of God, to do good to one's enemy, I wished to warn her before hand, because I have daily experience that the King's wisdom is such as not to esteem her repentance of her rudeness and unnatural obstinacy when she has no choice. By the law of God and of the King, she ought clearly to acknowledge her error and evil conscience if her blind affection had not so blinded her eyes that she will see nothing but what pleases herself. Mrs. Shelton, I beg you not to think to do me any pleasure by turning her from any of her wilful courses, because she could not do me [good] or evil; and do your duty about her according to the King's command, as I am assured you do.

Little mention of this letter is made in some histories of Anne and Mary, except for taking the line, "I know what will happen to her," and making it sound ominous. (Likely, Anne referred to Henry's plans to marry Mary off to one of his courtiers once he had his heir.) As far as Anne was concerned, she wasn't going to try anymore, and Mary and the king would have to sort it out themselves.

It would be very odd for Anne to have written, "What I have done has been more for charity than for anything ..." if her actions had been spiteful and cruel as some people allege.

Anne would be arrested only a few months later.

Before she died, Anne called aside Lady Kingston, who was known to be friendly with Mary. The
Victorian version of this story says Anne asked Lady Kingston to take a message to Mary and deliver it exactly as Anne was delivering it. She pushed the protesting Lady Kingston into her chair of estate and bowed to her - bowing to Mary by proxy - and begged on her knees that Mary would forgive Anne for any wrongs Anne had done her. This story has a ring of truth, though I don't think it was so dramatically enacted. Anne likely did ask lady Kingston to ask Mary's forgiveness. It was something customarily done by prisoners awaiting execution, to try to right any wrongs, settle debts and differences.

But Mary would not forgive. She was delighted with Anne's fall and execution. She thought the sentence was just and legitimate, and was later fond of saying that Elizabeth looked just like her father, Mark Smeaton. She thought her suffering was over at long last, and she would soon be restored to her position as princess and as the jewel of her father's heart.

But Mary was stunned when the cruel treatment only increased after Anne died. Her father still insisted his marriage to Katharine had been invalid and demanded Mary admit she was a bastard. Mary had firmly believed that all of it - the isolation, the increasing pressure, her friends and partisans being taken from her, being forced to serve as a maid to her sister, the "heretical" changes her father was making to the church - had been Anne's doing. But her father's demands and pressure only increased after Anne's death. Eventually, Mary broke beneath it and submitted to her father's will.

Ultimately, Henry was the one to blame for all of this. Even if Anne had been as vindictive and spiteful as she's sometimes painted, it was Henry who had the last word, Henry who could have stopped it with one single command. It was Henry's authority which carried out these cruelties. The fact that it didn't stop after Anne died shows who was really the one who was inflicting the punishment on Mary.

Mary would spend the rest of her life trying to undo what Anne Boleyn had done and restore England to what it had been during her childhood. She would die lonely and heartbroken, having never accomplished it. And Anne Boleyn's daughter would rule after she took her last breath.


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  2. I am pretty sure that Mary was not too fond of some people telling her that her half-sister Elizabeth looked more like their father King Henry VIII than even she herself did especially from some of her own most loyal supporters. This was a good article. It was a pleasure reading it.

  3. Well i have always preferred Anne and Elizabeth over Katharine and Mary. This article points out the one to blame was Henry and the fact Mary really spent her life living in the past in a hell,of her own making long after Anne was dead proves that Mary really was a pathetic woman.

    1. I don't think it's fair to call her pathetic. We're talking about a 17-year-old girl who just lost her title, her rank, and was bumped down from being the next in line for the throne. She was now told she was a bastard, (all of which would have made her a less attractive prospective as a bride!) kept from her beloved mother (who she was being being horribly mistreated). She also saw her religion being swept away, which to Mary, a devout Catholic, was naturally horrifying. It was only natural for her to blame her new stepmother. I don't think Anne was the "Wicked Stepmother", I think she was just somebody who was very outspoken, very stubborn, and she and Mary were bound to butt heads. I think if she had been a wee more patient, she might have eventually won her over, but the circumstances being what they were, it wasn't likely to happen any time soon.
      As for Mary not blaming her father (who was the one really at fault), it's not uncommon for kids to look for a scapegoat and see the step-parent as the one at fault.

  4. I am so happy to have found this blog and site. I like the articles and much from a refreshing, unbiased viewpoint. I, personally believe the relationship between Anne and Mary was just destined to be the way it was. Mary naturally blamed Anne for all her misfortunes. And Anne had to consistently deal with Mary's obstinancy, disrespect or lack thereof etc. It was just a vicious cycle from the two.

    Stepping back, I can understand Mary's side of course and even sympathize with her. But... Had Mary relented and at least shown some kind of respect for her father, the kings new marriage and even slight respect for Anne her circumstances would have been MUCH different. I can see more from Anne's perspective of having to deal with this step child and the patience she just have had to deal with that ugly situation. Between the long divorce, all the parties pro Catherine and Mary, and then Mary's obstinancy and disrespect it is truly a wonder Anne handled it as well as she did.

    I believe the facts we have regarding Mary's treatment were of course reported by Chapyuis and therefore exaggerated or possibly never even occurred. The verbal statements sound more like as the author said out of sheer impulse and anger of the moment. Not an actual threat to be carried out.

    Also what does box the ears mean? I have always wondered that though.

    1. "Boxing the ears" meant slapping someone on the side of the head, the palm impacting over the ear. Because of the way the palm forced air into the ear, it was painful and could pop the eardrum. (George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life" goes permanently deaf in one ear because a pharmacist boxes his ear.)