Renaissance and Reformation Anne Boleyn
by
Susan Bordo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0425

Introduction

Anne Boleyn (b. 1501–d. 1536), Henry VIII’s second wife, is an endlessly fascinating historical figure about whom we know very little with certainty, yet who has inspired countless works, both fictional and nonfictional. The significant events of her life and death—Henry VIII’s courtship and the momentous historical ruptures that followed, the birth of Elizabeth I, Anne’s beheading on charges of adultery and treason (not witchcraft, as is commonly thought)—are documented. Her life before Henry, much of it spent as a lady-in-waiting in the courts of some of the most influential women in Europe—can only be speculatively reconstructed. Her activities as Henry’s queen, including her support of the cause of reform, has only recently been carefully pieced together. Very little exists in Anne’s own words. Seventeen of Henry’s love letters to her survive, but only two letters that may be from Anne to Henry remain, and one is almost certainly inauthentic. Beyond these and some inscriptions in prayer books, most of our information about Anne’s personality and behavior is secondhand: Cavendish’s memoirs of Cardinal Wolsey, which credits Anne with Wolsey’s downfall; the far from unbiased reports of Eustace Chapuys and other foreign ambassadors; Constable Kingston’s descriptions of her behavior in the Tower; and various “eyewitness” accounts of what she said and did at her trial and her execution. Yet despite the absence of Anne’s own voice among the relics of the period, she is undoubtedly the most famous of Henry’s wives. She has been the focus of numerous biographies, movies and plays, a much-watched television series, and an ever-growing mountain of historical fiction. Internet sites are devoted to her, and she appears as a subject of feminist art. Throughout these different genres, and depending on whether or not the account is friendly or antagonistic, radically different pictures of Anne emerge. For supporters of Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, she was an ambitious schemer. For Catholic propagandists like Nicholas Sander, she was a six-fingered, jaundiced erotomaniac, who slept with butlers, chaplains, and half of the French court. For Elizabethan Lutherans, she was the unsung heroine of the Protestant Reformation. For the Romantics, particularly in painting, she was the hapless victim of a king’s tyranny. In postwar movies and on stage and television, Anne has been portrayed as both a spirited rebel and a cold manipulator. Who is the “real” Anne? While some accounts can be definitively disputed or confirmed, many more remain contested territory. Thus, any responsible bibliography must take account, as this one tries to, of radically competing perspectives on the elusive, compelling Anne Boleyn.

Significant Primary Sources

Shortly before Henry VIII married Jane Seymour, he conducted a great purge of all reminders that there had ever been an Anne Boleyn. This left the earliest chroniclers with the task of piecing together the significant events of her life and death from scattered and often biased sources. Later historians, in their turn, often relied on the descriptions and interpretations offered in those early accounts. In this way, a great many unsupported anecdotes and myths about Anne have been unquestioningly passed on from writer to writer. It’s especially important, then, for students of the period to return to the primary sources themselves, but with a critical eye. In doing that, today’s readers are fortunate to not have to sift through the voluminous Letters and Papers of Henry VIII and various other collections of correspondence in order to construct a coherent picture of Anne’s life and death, for Elizabeth Norton has curated and arranged relevant material from the Letters and Papers, Volumes I, III, IV, V, X; the Calendar of State Papers, Spanish, Volumes IV–V (see de Gayangos 1882–1888); along with substantial selections from well-known as well as more obscure sources, in the order in which they pertain to Anne’s life and death (see Norton 2013). They include Cavendish’s account of Anne’s relationship with Henry Percy (thought by many to have been Anne’s first love) (Cavendish 1905), Thomas Wyatt’s poetry (Wyatt 1858), Henry’s love letters to Anne (Phillips 2006), Ambassador Eustache Chapuys’s ongoing commentary on Anne’s character and the nature of her relationship with Henry (in de Gayangos 1882–1888), Sir William Kingston’s account of Anne’s behavior while imprisoned in the Tower (in Cavendish 1827), two letters purported to have been written by her while awaiting her death, and the contrasting portraits, written after Anne’s death, presented by Protestant defender George Wyatt (Wyatt 1817), and exiled Catholic polemicist Nicholas Sander (Sander 1877).

  • Appendix of Letters Relating to the Arrest and Behavior in Prison of Queen Anne Boleyn. Appended to Cavendish, George, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey. Edited by S. W. Singer. London: Harding and Lepard, 1827.

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    Originally published as an appendix to Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey, the letters sent by Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, to Thomas Cromwell are the source of everything believed to have been said and done by Anne during the final days of her life in prison. Readers will recognize many famous anecdotes and quotations that have made their way, although not always in the same form, into virtually every popular representation.

  • Brewer, J. S., James Gairdner, and R. H. Brodie, eds. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII. London, 1862–1932.

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    Originally published between 1862 and 1932, the Letters and Papers remain a key resource to this day. The full set includes surviving documents from the Public Record Office (now the National Archives), the British Museum (now the British Library), grants, and payments from accounts. Material is presented in date order, with explanatory footnotes. Available online.

  • Cavendish, George. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1905.

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    Cavendish served Cardinal Wolsey as a gentleman usher until Wolsey’s death, and his devotion is evident in this memoir, the first account to offer information on Anne’s life before Henry began his romantic pursuit. Cavendish, who held Anne responsible for Wolsey’s fall, was “inclined to think the worst” of her (Norton 2013, 39.) However, most factual details (although perhaps not his speculations about motivation) concerning Anne’s early relationship with Henry Percy are likely to be trusted.

  • de Gayangos, Pascual, ed. Calendar of State Papers, Spanish. Vols. IV–V. London, 1882–1888.

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    The calendar includes the letters of Eustace Chapuys, ambassador for Charles V. They provide the most continuous portrait of Henry’s court from 1529 through the sixteen crisis-ridden years that followed, and early biographers have relied on them heavily. Later commentators have been more skeptical, accepting Chapuys’s accounts as factual when corroborated by other sources, but noting as well the overly zealous role he played in championing Katherine’s cause and denigrating Anne.

  • Norton, Elizabeth. The Anne Boleyn Papers. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2013.

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    Particularly useful for teaching purposes, Norton has collected the essential letters, dispatches, and chronicles relating to Anne’s life and death, including the few surviving letters written by Anne herself, one of which some scholars believe was composed while Anne was imprisoned in the Tower of London, awaiting her execution. Norton includes helpful introductions to all selections.

  • Phillips, J. O. Halliwell, ed. Love Letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn. Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2006.

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    Among the most fascinating artifacts relating to Henry’s courtship of Anne are seventeen undated love letters, discovered in the Vatican roughly fifty years after they were written. Historians have struggled for centuries to place the letters in coherent chronological order; the task is particularly difficult, as none of Anne’s replies have survived. Regardless, they are vivid illustrations both of the “courtier” side of Henry VIII and of the intensity of his pursuit of Anne. Originally published in 1906.

  • Sander, Nicholas. The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism. London: Burns and Oates, 1877.

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    Catholic polemicist Nicholas Sander, exiled during the reign of Elizabeth I, viewed Anne as a harlot and seductress who led Henry into heresy and filled the court with fellow heretics. First published in Latin in 1585 and bursting with salacious tales about the Tudor royalty, Schismatis Anglicani gained great influence through translation and wide circulation and is the source of some of the most enduring myths about Anne.

  • Wyatt, George. Extracts from the Life of the Virtuous Christian and Renowned Queen Anne Boleigne. Isle of Thanet, UK: Manuscript Collections of Rev. John Lewis, 1817.

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    Among Anne’s most prominent Protestant defenders was George Wyatt, grandson of the poet. He challenged physical descriptions of a grotesquely deformed Anne, praised Anne for her numerous virtues—including her support for reformist writing and activity—and argued for her innocence of all charges of adultery and treason. The circulation of Wyatt’s manuscript was highly limited until the beginning of the 19th century, when it was printed along with the first published edition of Cavendish’s Life of Cardinal Wolsey.

  • Wyatt, Sir Thomas. The Poetical Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt with Memoir and Critical Dissertation by the Rev. George Gilfillan. Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1858.

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    Thomas Wyatt authored several poems that many commentators—including Wyatt’s grandson George—believe refer to an early infatuation with Anne. His most famous poems, however—“In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase” and “Circa Regna Tonat” (often referred to as “These Bloody Days”)—describe Wyatt’s grief over the executions of Anne and the men with whom she was convicted of adultery. (Wyatt had been arrested but never tried, and witnessed the executions from his room in the Bell Tower.)

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