Anne Boleyn: The Home-Wrecker?

Did Anne Boleyn "steal" Henry VIII away from his wife, Katharine of Aragon, and thus deserve some of her infamous reputation as a home-wrecker?

According to historian David Starkey, it had been rumored in Rome as early as 1514 that Henry intended to put Katharine aside,"to repudiate his wife ...because he is unable to have children by her," nearly a decade before Anne Boleyn was on the scene. He voiced doubts as to the validity of his marriage to his confessor in 1520, according to Alison Weir, and it wasn't until 1526 that we have solid evidence that Henry was interested in Anne Boleyn.

Katharine was a good queen. She was kind, pious, and popular with her people. Her greatest flaw was that she had only one living child, a girl. At one time, Henry fancied himself in love with her, calling himself "Sir Loyal Heart," and writing her love ballads. But as the years passed and Katharine endured many miscarriages and stillbirths, Henry began to have doubts about his marriage to her.

Henry had one of the most flexible consciences in recorded history. He sincerely believed his desires and God's will were one in the same. Once he decided he wanted out of his marriage, he became convinced it was because it had never been valid in the eyes of God in the first place. He ceased to have marital relations with Katharine in 1524, around the time he was told it was unlikely she would bear any more children.

Around the beginning of 1526, Henry first noticed Anne Boleyn, one of his wife's ladies in waiting. Henry had many flirtations with ladies of the court, but they usually went nowhere, and such things were of little interest to the chroniclers of the day. And so, the beginnings of his "dalliance" with Anne is not recorded.

Unlike most kings of the era, Henry had more wives than mistresses. We only know of two for certain during his marriage to Katharine, Bessie Blount and Mary Boleyn. He hoped Anne Boleyn would become the third.

Anne refused to become his mistress, which is often portrayed as a calculated move on her part. She is usually accused of intentionally trying to keep the king's interest. Leading him on. Teasing him. Using her seductive wiles to lure him away from his wife so she could be queen. But when Henry first began to pursue her, in spring 1526, Anne could not have had any designs on the throne. No one would have imagined Henry would sever a thousand years of religious tradition in order to put aside his wife to marry a mere gentlewoman of his court. Such thing simply did not happen.

Anne refused to sleep with the king because of her own moral beliefs about chastity, and because she had seen the shame her sister, Mary, endured after being the mistress of two kings. Anne was an intensely religious woman, something that is often lost in fictional portrayals of her. She was a fervent evangelical. Not a Protestant, but someone who wanted to reform the Catholic church from within. Anne was glamorous, with an interest in art and fashion, flirtatious and lively, but she was also deeply pious.

It appears at first Anne tried to dissuade the king, going home to Hever, but the king continued to contact her. He complains in one of his first letters that she hasn't written back to him. Some have put this down to strategy, that Anne somehow instinctively knew that the best way to keep his interest was to ignore him, but Henry had always lost interest before when a lady indicated she wouldn't welcome his advances any further. In this case, though, Henry continued his pursuit.

Anne was in a delicate position. Offending or angering the king could put her entire extended family at risk of financial ruin or worse. She had told him she would not surrender her virginity and had tried to gently shake off his pursuit. It didn't work.

There's a poem by Thomas Wyatt which is about Anne and Henry's courtship of her.

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

Anne, the deer, flees from the hunter. But many writers have portrayed this deer as the one leading the hunt. As the poem notes, the collar around her neck identifies the prey as belonging to the king. While Henry was pursuing her, no other man would offer for Anne's hand, and she could not fulfill her her primary duty as the daughter of a well-born family.

The longer the courtship went on, the less people began to believe Anne could still be a virgin. It left her just as unmarriageable as though she had been the king's mistress in truth.

Henry began to ply Anne with gifts. As the king honored her family with titles and riches, Anne would have been under more pressure from her relatives to keep him happy. By 1527, the king was serious about obtaining an annulment from Katharine, and about marrying Anne. It was the only way he could get what he wanted, both Anne and the sons he believed he would have with her.

Some writers have portrayed Anne as playing a skillful game to keep Henry "on the hook" for the seven years it took for him to find a way to rid himself of Katharine, as though Henry would not have been interested in Anne for so long without great manipulative effort on her part.

Anne's rise is ascribed to raw ambition, but it's important to note that Anne didn't really have a choice in the matter. Once the king decided he wanted her, her fate was sealed. Anne could work toward accomplishing the goal, or she could go home to Hever in disgrace, unable to marry, a burden on her family instead of an asset. Her duty was to advance her family, and that is what she did.

Henry was convinced that marrying Anne was what God wanted him to do. Anne began to see the hand of the Lord at work, as well. She believed He must be raising her to this position so she could help reform the Catholic church. She began to give the king reformist books, smuggled into England by her brother, George. It was Anne who introduced Henry to Tyndale's school of thought that kings should be absolute rulers in their own domains, both temporal and spiritual.

Did Anne ever love Henry? It's possible. When Henry wanted to be, he could be extremely charming, but he also had an ugly side, selfish and cruel when he did not get his way. Anne had to see the way he treated his wife and daughter, but like many women, she probably assured herself that while he treated his ex like that, he would never treat her in a similar fashion. We know from the reports of courtiers that Anne got jealous on occasion, and she and Henry had bitter quarrels over it.

There are some authors who have portrayed the story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII as a grand romance, albeit one that ended in tragedy. For seven years, he sought to marry this woman. To accomplish it, he broke with a thousand years of religious tradition, and set all of Europe in a roar.

Three years later, he killed her.

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