The Legacy of Anne Boleyn, died 19th May 1536

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

Anne Boleyn still fascinates us today, possibly more than she did at the time of her death. But why? She was executed for adultery, incest and treason. Possibly our interest derives from Anne’s own assertion that she was innocent, or even the success of her daughter Elizabeth I in ruling England. For me personally, what is so interesting about Anne Boleyn is that she was almost a modern woman. She did not seem to believe in what many men in the sixteenth century were saying – namely that women were superior and had no place in politics, religion or society, except to have children.

There has been a lot of talk about how popular Anne Boleyn is. Some people have spoken against the interest in her. Judging by the popularity of both fiction and non-fiction works written about her this criticism seems misplaced. The likes of Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel and Jean Plaidy have revolutionised historical fiction as a genre, proving that it can be done well and relatively accurately, allowing for some historical license. Historians like Eric Ives, G.W. Bernard, Alison Weir and David Loades have brought general interest to the Tudors as a period, rather than merely a scholarly interest. This has been magnified by the success of the TV show The Tudors, although of course its accuracy is hotly debated.

With Anne Boleyn in particular, the range of books written about her, the amount of primary sources available to us online (particularly through British History Online), and the series of blogs dedicated to her, gives us a rich source of knowledge and speculation about her. Possibly this is one reason why Anne Boleyn is so popular as a subject and a woman. Because of the lack of sources and the unfair way in which she died, she can be seen in a variety of ways: an adulterous whore, a marriage-wrecker, an innocent woman, and a Protestant martyr.

Anne’s greatest legacy was her daughter, Elizabeth. She ruled England for 45 years after the disastrous reign of her half-sister, Mary I. She set a precedent that women could rule successfully, although it has taken until 2013 for the law to be changed to give women equal rights to the throne. Elizabeth’s reign was seen as a ‘Golden Age’ due to the rise of the arts, particularly theatre, the stability provided by a long reign and set principles, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which showed that England was a power in her own right. Elizabeth’s image of the Virgin Queen, got rid of the worry that England would be ruled over by a foreign power if she married. However, it did open a succession crisis which eventually led to uniting England and Scotland under one ruler. Elizabeth’s reign set the standard for the future, and it was Anne who allowed it to happen.

Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575
Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575

Of course, the legacy that Anne Boleyn will always be associated with is that of the divorce and the break with Rome. In one word: Reformation. Although Anne’s involvement in the English Reformation has been thoroughly debated for many years, a conclusive opinion cannot emerge. In my opinion, Anne Boleyn acted as a catalyst for the Reformation. Even before 1526 Henry VIII had already talked about the possibility of annulling his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, which was essentially the trigger for the Reformation. Even without the divorce, the Reformation in England would probably still have happened although maybe not as early. It was because Anne Boleyn was so ambitious and Henry was so desirous of her, that England had to break with Rome. The importance of a male heir was, to Henry, too important to consider anything else.

Eric Ives claims that Anne ‘deserves to be a feminist icon, a woman in society which was, above all else, male-dominated, who broke through the glass ceiling by sheer character and initiative’.[1] Although other historians may disagree with this interpretation in my opinion, it is as accurate an opinion as we are likely to get without new revolutionary evidence. Anne was unique in her time and although it does not seem that unusual now, she was so outside the bounds of society in which she lived that it was a contributing factor to her fall. Her legacy was in part an early fight for women’s rights within politics in particular.

G.W. Bernard’s controversial opinion of Anne’s guilt nevertheless gives an important conclusion. Bernard suggests that although Anne was not a ‘protestant legend’ or a ‘modern heroine’ she is still ‘one of the most important figures in Tudor history’.[2] However, if she was constantly at the mercy of an all-powerful king, as Bernard suggests, then how is she still an important Tudor figure? In my opinion, Bernard still sees Anne as the reason behind the divorce and the break with Rome, but not playing a central role. She was still the reason Henry wanted a divorce, and hence broke with Rome, but she did not instigate it.

G.W. Bernard of the University of Southampton.
G.W. Bernard of the University of Southampton.

Alison Weir suggests that Anne’s fall from power was ‘one of the most astonishing and brutal coups in English history’.[3] Although I am not sure whether it was a coup or not, certainly not one originated by Cromwell, it was entirely astonishing and brutal, and not just to us today. Even at the time, people were astounded, and her fall actually changed people’s opinions about her. It has been argued that after Anne’s execution people in London began to believe that she was actually innocent. It was particularly suspicious when Henry married Jane Seymour just ten days after Anne’s execution.

What these opinions suggest is that Anne’s legacy is not just the material things she left behind; the Reformation and Elizabeth I; but the ideas. She believed that a woman could wield power and was not merely a pawn in a man’s game. There had been examples of female power elsewhere in Europe, notably Isabella I of Spain and Margaret of Austria in the Low Countries, and Anne took her cue from these women. Anne Boleyn is an example of a woman who managed to change the dynamics of the English court, and change the balance of power in Europe.

[1] Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005) p. xv

[2] G.W. Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2011) p. 195

[3] Alison Weir, The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009) p. 7

3 thoughts on “The Legacy of Anne Boleyn, died 19th May 1536

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s