On the 19th of May 1536, a truly shocking and unprecedented event in English history was about to reach its tragic climax. Anne Boleyn, the controversial second wife of Henry VIII, tentatively climbed the steps of the scaffold on Tower Green. After a dignified speech, praising the King and asking for the crowd to pray for her, she was executed with swift precision by a French swordsman. It has been said that after her head was severed, her lips still moved in prayer.
What made this so shocking? She was the first English queen to be publically executed. Rewind back to June 1533 when Anne was at her most powerful; crowned Queen of England and already pregnant with Henry’s baby, she was at the top of fortune’s wheel. Henry’s love was assured or so it seemed. He broke with the catholic church and passed the Act of Supremacy to make himself head of the Church of England. But fortune’s wheel is fickle; what must go up can also come crashing down. A love affair of seven years that led to the transformation of England forever ended in tragedy. It is the stuff of legend and yet its cataclysmic end is all too familiar. Anne Boleyn was another victim. A victim because she transgressed boundaries of her sex.
I entitled this blog post, ‘The Plight of a ‘Difficult’ Woman because I think Anne was seen, and in some respects to this day, still seen as a ‘difficult’ woman. In a world driven by patriarchy and misogyny, Anne Boleyn had to die.
The exact birth of Anne Boleyn is still largely debated but historians agree that she was most likely born between 1501 and 1507. Before being appointed lady-in-waiting to Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon in 1522, Anne Boleyn spent her childhood in the courts of Europe, first as lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Margaret in the Netherlands and later at the glamorous French court. Daughter to the ambitious Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn and sister to Mary, Anne captivated the King, whom by this stage was increasingly tiring of his first wife. Obsessed with begetting a male heir, Henry turned his attentions to Anne.
Was Anne trust into court life by her ambitious and ruthless family? The timing was convenient. Her sister Mary was one of the kings mistresses and while she was in favour, so was her family. When Mary was cast aside, Anne’s opportunity to take centre stage arrived. Throughout the intense seven year courtship of Henry and Anne, her family accumulated an impressive array of titles and influence. Thomas Boleyn was now Earl of Wiltshire. Anne’s brother George, was appointed to the Royal Privy Chamber and created a Lord. Women were useful until their usefulness grows out and then they become collateral damage. Not only was Anne a victim of a tyrannical king, like so many before and after her, but she was a victim of family ambition. It is telling that the secret commission set up to investigate the charges bought against Anne later when she was queen, included her uncle the Duke of Norfolk.
In life Anne was hated. She was hated by ambitious courtiers and the public. She was hated because she was just as ambitious as her family, just as ruthless to succeed where her sister Mary and Catherine of Aragon failed. In a world where women flocked to become Henry’s mistress, she famously refused, retaining her honour. She would not be cast aside like all the other mistresses before her. She was educated, intelligent and pious. She was not afraid to challenge Henry (allegedly flying into a rage when she found out that Catherine of Aragon was still mending his shirts) and she was committed feverishly to the protestant cause, famously butting heads with Thomas Cromwell. Both united by political and religious cause, Boleyn and Cromwell fell out when she disapproved of how Cromwell was diverting the wealth of the dissolved monasteries to the crown. Boleyn was adamant that the wealth should be distributed to charitable causes.
What ultimately destroyed Anne was her inability to give Henry what he most desperately desired, a male heir. The fault was always the woman’s. A queen is duty bound to create heirs, it is their most important function. Anne had several miscarriages during their short marriage, including miscarrying a fourteen week foetus that had the appearance of a male. Recent research indicates that perhaps the fault did lie with the King after all, citing a disorder in his blood was to blame. If this new research is to be believed, Henry’s blood carried a rare Kell antigen, triggering immune responses in the body. A Kell-positive man and a Kell-negative woman are able to have a healthy baby. However, this only works during first pregnancies, all subsequent pregnancies are likely to end in miscarriages and stillbirth due to the antibodies the mother produces attacking a Kell-positive foetus. We have no way of knowing for sure what caused Anne’s miscarriages. But by 1536 Anne was becoming a very difficult problem for the king and for Cromwell. She could not be just set aside, she had to be destroyed and annihilated.
Henry claimed that Anne had ‘bewitched’ him. While men and children were accused of witchcraft, it was women that were predominately persecuted for it. The general image of a witch is either the youthful enchantress tempting men into sin or the old, lonely hag casting spells and misfortune wherever she went. In short, women and witchcraft are bound synonymously with one another. This ideology of a woman using witchcraft to tempt a man exposes deep religious, political and social anxieties of female sexuality. It is still does to this day.
Anne’s charges of adultery (along with witchcraft) with five men, including her brother George was shocking. Despite no evidence surrounding the charges, Anne’s fate was sealed. The charges of incest is interesting; alongside witchcraft it hints at Anne’s ‘unnatural and immoral’ (and exclusively female?) nature. Anne’s character was completely dismembered.
Boleyn was indeed a victim. A victim of court politics, a victim of patriarchy, a victim of an ever increasing tyrannical king but she was to have the last laugh. Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth I became Queen of England in 1558 and reined for fourty four years. Her rein is often depicted as the golden age in English history.