Was Anne Boleyn a Victim of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Karen Lindsey, author of Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII puts forth a very interesting opinion on the way we should view Anne Boleyn's time at court:

I was doing an article for Ms. about sexual harassment on the job and reading about Henry's wives in my free time, but it took a while to put together the fact that Ann Boleyn's position as lady-in-waiting to Henry's wife Catherine of Aragon was her job, and that, far from trying to lure Henry away from Catherine, she had spent over a year tactfully trying to repel his sexual advances. 
Today, Henry’s approach to Ann would be instantly identifiable as sexual harassment. Ann however, had no social or legal recourse against a the man who ruled the country. She continued, as so many women before and since have done, to dodge her pursuer’s advances while sparing his feelings. It didn’t work.
It was a hellish position. Could she really tell the king to his face that she had no interest in him? She could reiterate her desire to keep her chastity and her honor, but clearly he didn’t respect that. She could ignore his letters and stay away from court, but he refused to take the hint. To offer him the outright insult he asked for would be to risk not only her own but her father’s and brother’s careers at court. She undoubtedly kept hoping he would tire of the chase and transfer his attentions to some newer lady-in-waiting.
But he didn't and she was trapped; there was no chance of her making a good marriage when every eligible nobleman knew the king wanted her.

Lindsey is correct that Katharine of Aragon's court was Anne's workplace. Service in a noble court was the 16th century's version of the corporate ladder.

The world of the nobility was a system of intricate social stratification where everyone sought employment from the rank above. The Babee's Book laid out this chain of service in example:

Even the duke's son preferred page to the prince, the earl's second son attendant upon the duke, the knight's second son the earl's servant, the esquire's son to wear the knight's livery, and the gentleman's son the esquire's serving-man. 

Those who were charming, talented, clever, or amusing, could be promoted with additional job duties and income, or move up to the household of a noble higher in rank. 

The duty of service to one's betters was bound up in religious faith. The Tudors believed that God had ordained the social order of the world. A person's status was the position to which God had called them, and so service to their superiors was as service to God.

Only those of the highest pedigree and social connections could hope to find a job serving the king or queen. Anne Boleyn was not titled, but she was the granddaughter of a duke. Her father was a very wealthy and well-connected man who had served as the king's ambassador, and Anne's mother had served Elizabeth of York. Securing Anne a job as a lady in waiting to Queen Katharine was a boon for their family.

Anne was employed in a series of royal households from the time she was a very young child, learning the social graces that would entertain those who employed her. She could dance, play instruments, engage in witty conversation, and was well-read enough to debate on intellectual topics. She was the consummate professional in her work, and remained chaste while she waited for her father to arrange a good marriage for her.

At one point, Anne took the bull by the horns and tried to arrange her own marriage with the son of the Earl of Northumberland. The results were disastrous, as far as her career was concerned. Once it was discovered what she was doing, she was banned from seeing the young man again and sent home to Hever in disgrace. She was fired, in other words.

Her family must have been livid. The match her father had been working on - perhaps unbeknownst to Anne - fell apart. Some scholars believe it might have had something to do with Anne's failed betrothal, but no records exist to explain it. The Butler family may not have wanted the union in the first place, which might have been engineered by Cardinal Wolsey to resolve an inheritance dispute. In any case, Anne now had no job, and no prospects for a husband.

Anne returned to court about a year later. We know nothing of the next two years or so, except what fragments can be deduced from the memories of Thomas Wyatt, as related by his grandson

There was, at this present, presented to the eye of the court the rare and admirable beauty of the fresh and young Lady Anne Boleigna, to be attending upon the queen. In this noble imp, the graces of nature graced by gracious education, seemed even at the first to have promised bliss unto her aftertimes. 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.

She seems to have been very popular at court. Northumberland's son wasn't the only man who was attracted to Anne. Thomas Wyatt fell in love with her, according to his grandson's book, and several of Wyatt's poems seem to refer to Anne and his unrequited passion for her. But Anne was cautious of her reputation, and rejected Wyatt's advances.

King Henry seems to have noticed Anne in late 1525/early 1526. His favor came with a "promotion" offer for her: an appointment to serve his wife, Katharine of Aragon. Anne wrote the king a letter, thanking him for the appointment. But this promotion came with some drawbacks.

As Karen Lindsey notes, Anne was in a very delicate situation with Henry's favor. Having his interest meant her family's advancement, and indeed, her father and brother received a steady series of gifts, grants, properties and titles, including his long-desired title of Earl of Ormond. Anne herself was showered with gowns and jewels, and fawned over by the court, seeking her favor so she might help advance them as well. Rejecting the king outright would have cut off this flow, and perhaps even set the Boleyn family back to being worse off, if the king became angry about it.

  In February 1526, Henry made a public declaration of his interest in Anne, hoping the fawning attention of the court would pressure her into giving into his advances. Anne was suddenly thrust into the international spotlight as Henry's love interest, and suddenly had dozens of new "friends" seeking her favor and trying to use her for their own advancement. And, of course, they encouraged her to accede to the king's wishes. But Anne held firm to her principles. She would not sleep with any man outside the bonds of holy matrimony.

Henry now spent more time in his wife’s quarters than he had in years, but it was to visit Anne where she couldn’t escape his attentions.

In May, it got so bad that Anne actually quit her job as a lady in waiting and retreated to Hever, where she refused to answer Henry’s letters and sent back his gifts. Henry’s letters to her at this point are full of pouting complaints that she won’t write back to him. He claims not to understand it.

I cannot sufficiently marvel at, because I am sure that I have since never done any thing to offend you, and it seems a very poor return for the great love which I bear you to keep me at a distance both from the speech and the person of the woman that I esteem most in the world...

Henry still wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and chased after her. He went to stay with a cousin of Anne, Nicholas Carew, whose house was a convenient distance from Hever so he could ride over at his leisure. Anne could not refuse to receive him at the house. She refused wherever she had agency, but in this she did not. No one could refuse the king admittance.

When Anne did return to court, she had to face a great deal of hostility. Those still loyal to Katharine of Aragon despised Anne for "luring" the king away from his wife. Anne had enemies she'd never even met, people who hated her for everything she represented, who twisted her words and spread malicious gossip about her throughout Europe. Courtiers who smiled at her and bowed whispered behind their hands. Families were divided as religious reformers sided with the Boleyn faction, and the conservatives sided with Katharine.

But the greatest problem was that no man would seek Anne's hand in marriage while the king was pursuing her, certainly, and not after he lost interest, either. Few people believed Anne was still a virgin, and her reputation was in tatters around Europe. Around the time the king decided he wanted to marry her, Anne may have realized herself that she would marry the king, or have to remain unwed, a burden on her family. 

Thomas Boleyn has been portrayed as grasping and heartless, selling his daughters like a common pimp, but truthfully, he had little say in the matter, either. It wasn't only his fortunes at stake, but the entire future of the Boleyn family. If he'd had a choice, he probably would have wished Anne would give in and become the king's mistress, because Henry tended to find respectable husbands for the women he bedded once he was done. But Anne's religious convictions were too strong for that.

Anne was, indeed, trapped. She could not risk offending her "boss" and losing her job with her entire family's future at stake. Whether she liked it or not, she had to keep the king's favor. It was upward toward the throne or utter ruin. Anne Boleyn never really had a choice.

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