In Memory of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

As any Tudor historian will know, today, 19 May, is an important day – it marks the anniversary of the execution of Anne Boleyn on what many now accept as trumped-up charges of adultery, incest and treason. If you need a refresher on the fall of Anne Boleyn, you can read my undergraduate dissertation chapter, published on this blog []. There is also a very succinct summary on The Anne Boleyn Files [].

Why does Anne Boleyn continue to fascinate us, nearly 500 years after her death? Well, I came across this excellent summary on History Extra:

“The one thing that’s clear is that Anne, with her intelligence and sexiness, played a part in her own destiny. Her choices in life often make her seem more like a modern person than a Tudor woman. That’s why she’ll continue to fascinate us.” []

Although we shouldn’t look at the 16th century through 21st century eyes, people today still seem to be able to connect with Anne Boleyn because many of her decisions, emotions and feelings we can still sympathise and empathise with today. Many of things that she went through still happen today, though on a much smaller and less deadly scale. The idea that she shaped her own destiny is not one we often associate with Medieval and Early Modern women; the idea still prevails that women were at the mercy of their men folk – their fathers, brothers or husbands. Anne Boleyn demonstrates that not all women fell into that mould, some stepped out and made their own futures.

What fascinates me in particular about Anne Boleyn is how different and unique her story is. Even after 500 years I doubt there has been a more controversial queen than Anne. There are debates over her fall, her role in the English Reformation, the effect her execution had on her daughter, Elizabeth, and whether she really loved Henry or just wanted the crown. For me, Anne was the catalyst for the Reformation – it would have happened eventually anyway, but Henry’s love (or lust) for Anne made it happen at this point. Elizabeth I was never heard to mention her mother’s name while she was queen, but I think Anne’s execution did have a massive impact on her decision not to marry particularly, and she obviously kept her in her memory judging by the ring she wore containing her mother’s portrait. I think Anne did love Henry in the end, but a big part of his appeal in the first place was the crown, and she couldn’t have known at that point how dangerous it would be or have any inkling that the man who loved her so much would put her to death.

With regards to Anne’s fall, I find it harder to make up my mind, jumping from one point of view to another as there doesn’t seem to be a single one that entirely makes sense. I don’t think she was guilty – I think there is too much of the so-called evidence that doesn’t stack up and can be disproved. I do think that Cromwell played a role, knowing that their relationship was irrevocably ruined due to their differing opinions over the Reformation, but I can’t imagine that Cromwell acted without the king’s permission. The decision must have come from Henry VIII who wanted a son and heir and believed Anne couldn’t give him one but Jane Seymour could. There is a thin line between love and hate and I think for much of their relationship Henry and Anne teetered on this line, where Henry VIII eventually crossed it, which resulted in Anne Boleyn’s fall and execution.

Anne made her own future and played a great hand, but ultimately she lost. I can’t remember where I read this, and the above is paraphrased as I cannot remember the exact quote, but it sums up Anne Boleyn brilliantly in my opinion (if anyone knows where this came from, please enlighten me as I’ve read so many books on Anne I can’t actually pinpoint it!). She made her own destiny, and although she ultimately lost the game and her head, she had a profound impact on England and on the course of English history.

Recommended Books

  • G.W. Bernard, ‘Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions’
  • Eric Ives, ‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn’
  • Amy Licence ‘Anne Boleyn: Adultery, Heresy, Desire’
  • Elizabeth Norton, ‘Anne Boleyn: in Her Own Words and the Words of Those Who Knew Her’
  • Alison Weir, ‘The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn’

Recommended Websites

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