Was Anne Boleyn a Bitch?

Traitor, whore, home-wreckerwicked stepmothermurderer...

Anne Boleyn has been given many labels over the years. But what is the actual evidence we have regarding her personality?

In the past few years, there have been some unsympathetic portrayals of her that paint her as a downright nasty creature. Is there anything to support this assessment of her character? What do we know of this girl with the "black and beautiful" eyes who set her country in a roar?

It's difficult to separate fact from fiction. Much of what we "know" about Anne comes from the reports of her enemies, who reported snippets of gossip as fact. Who knows how many layers of "the telephone game" the stories went through before they reached the ears of those who were eager to believe anything bad about her?

What we know about Anne is that she was very intelligent and charming, which made her a popular courtier. Her personality is probably is what drew the king's interest to her, not her physical appearance, which did not conform to the era's standards of beauty. With this charm stripped away from her in some modern portrayals of Anne as a nasty, disagreeable woman, you would be left wondering what the king saw in her at all!

Even as a child, she seems to have charmed those who met her. Margaret, the Archduchess of Austria, wrote to Anne's father after Anne was sent to Margaret's court:

I find her so bright and pleasant for her young age that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me than you are to me.

There, and at the French court, Anne learned manners, grace, and the courtly arts. The worst her enemies could say about Anne's manners were that they were "French." She was not known for rudeness, in other words, even to her enemies. Lancelot de Carles wrote of her:

For her behaviour, manners, attire and tongue she excelled them all.

Sir William Forest, who wrote poetry about Katharine of Aragon, described Anne Boleyn in this fashion:

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.

Anne would not have drawn people to her with a sparkling personality if she was an unpleasant, bitchy woman. Anne had many enemies because of her reformist faith and the Great Matter, but she also had many friends. Thomas Wyatt's grandson, who wrote a book based on his grandfather's memoirs, said that Anne had a sweet and cheerful demeanor:

She was taken at that time to have a beauty not so whitely as clear and fresh above all we may esteem, which appeared much more excellent by her favour passing sweet and cheerful; and these, both also increased by her noble presence of shape and fashion, representing both mildness and majesty more than can be expressed.

The Wyatt family seems to have cherished Anne's memory. They owned a small prayer book of Anne's that was supposedly given to Wyatt's sister, Margaret, on the scaffold before Anne's execution. The records don't indicate that Margaret was present at the execution, but she was known to be a good friend of Anne's at court.

She appears to have had quite a few women friends, despite portrayals of her as a vain creature who saw other women as competitors. Her only surviving personal letter is to a friend, Lady Bridget Wingfield, whom she says she loves more than any other woman in the world, aside from her mother.

As queen, Anne was polite and kind to the ladies who served her, and generous when they were in need. She made a secret loan to the Countess of Worcester of £100 - a vast sum that was still unpaid at the time of Anne's death - and paid for a midwife for the countess from her own privy purse in 1530. The countess would ultimately end up betraying Anne - some speculate the unpaid loan may have been a motive - but Anne is recorded to have worried about the countess's pregnancy while she was in the Tower.

Charity seems to have been a priority during Anne's short reign. She donated some £1500 per year according to George Wyatt, far more than her predecessor. She engaged her ladies in sewing clothing for the poor. Some paint this in the light of propaganda, but there's no way of judging sincerity through the ages.

Education was another one of her causes. Anne sponsored scholars, including John Cheke. It's known Anne argued with Cromwell about the funds from the dissolved monasteries, which she wished to use to fund schools, instead of going into the king's treasury or the pockets of the nobles. It's hard to paint this in a nefarious light, and so it's sometimes ignored by those who want to portray her as selfish and greedy.

A small snippet of Anne's personality comes through one of the stories she told while incarcerated in the Tower after her fall. When questioned about Mark Smeaton, the musician with whom she was accused of committing adultery, she said she thought she had only spoken to him once, aside from occasionally sending him requests to play certain music.

I found him standing in the round window in my chamber of presence; and I asked why he was so sad [...]

In the grand scheme of court life, Mark was a very minor servant, someone lowly and unimportant, but Anne was kind enough to take the time to talk with him.

[...] and he answered and said it was no matter.

Mark's response was very impolite at best. Instead of bowing and answering her question, as was proper, he sighed and said it wasn't important, because he was hoping she would be curious or flirtatious enough to coax it out of him and he could draw her into a conversation.

Anne immediately recognized this tactic for what it was. 

And then I said, “You may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a noble man because you be an inferior person.” 

Anne's response wasn't as harsh as it sounds. In fact, it was far kinder than necessary. Instead of ignoring him or ordering him punished for insolence, she explained why she wasn't going to play the flirtatious game with him. As an "inferior" person so much lower in rank than she, he could not be so familiar with the queen. The queen was expected to flirt with her noblemen and have them pay her extravagant compliments. As a commoner, Mark was grossly overstepping his bounds by even attempting it. The best modern comparison is a janitor walking up to a CEO on the job, calling her "honey," and expecting her to respond in kind.

“No, no,” said he, "a look sufficed me; and thus fare you well.”

Mark's retort was even ruder than his previous comment. Not the part about the glance being sufficient, but the fact that he dismissed the queen. Anne's tolerance in this instance is noteworthy, because had she been so arrogant and vengeful as her enemies claim, she surely would have punished this shocking breach of decorum.

There's no doubt that Anne had a temper and was bold enough to express it, unusual for her day and age, and not a character trait that was admired. Today, her self-assertiveness wouldn't be seen as unusual, but in her day, it did her reputation no favors. Anne admitted at her trial that she had not always been as respectful to the king as she should have been, and if some of the outbursts attributed to her by Chapuys are true, she may have said some things in a temper that she later regretted. But haven't we all? If every word we said was recorded and repeated out of context, our utterances might not seem very pleasant at times.

When Anne was put in the Tower, an order was given that she was never to speak to the unfriendly ladies assigned to serve her without Lady Kingston present. What was the reason for this unusual order? The ladies had already been instructed to report every word she said to Sir William Kingston. Was someone afraid that Anne would charm the ladies into friendship and possibly interfere with the mission? An unpleasant person would not be a risk in that regard.

It's recorded that Anne Boleyn's ladies wept as though "bereft of souls" at her execution, and so some historians assume she must have been allowed to have her own serving women to replace the hostile ladies she had been assigned in the Tower. There's no record of it, however. If such a replacement was not made, those hostile ladies came to care deeply for Anne in the scant two weeks she was in the Tower before her execution. Either way, the women around Anne loved her enough to mourn her death.

Her last moments attest to her character. Kingston feared Anne would use her last words to declare herself "a good woman" in front of the crowd, but Anne obeyed convention. She said the usual words of the condemned, and submitted meekly. A bitchy person would have thrown convention to the winds and defiantly condemned the injustice that was happening to her, but Anne had manners and grace, even at the worst moments of her life, and regard for the future of her family.

In the moments before she died, the thousand or so people who came to witness her execution gave Anne a touching tribute. When she knelt for the stroke of the sword, the massive crowd knelt with her, falling to their knees in prayer around the scaffold. Such a thing is not recorded at any other execution of the era. I have a whimsical hope that she saw it.

1 comment:

  1. The fragmented quotes attributed to Sir William Forest (sic) are obviously modern. They are actually from Alison Weir's The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Note also "swarmed around her" should be "swarmed round her".