Several Christmases ago, I received Joanna Denny’s book Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen. This book opened my eyes to the story of a much-maligned and disgraced young queen, whose grace, elegance, and honor have been erased from modern history books.
Anne Boleyn is most commonly described as a scheming beauty who “bewitched” the egotistical King Henry VIII. Ensnared by her charms, Henry put away his aging first wife, Catherine of Aragon, breaking with the Catholic Church so he could marry the younger and seductive Anne. In only a few short years, however, Anne was convicted of adultery and Henry had her put to death, marrying his one true love, Jane Seymour, a few days later.
Oh, and did I mention that I’d also heard Anne Boleyn may have really been a witch? And that she had six fingers? Yep, six fingers–definitely the mark of a witch. Just plain-out-all-around weird. Her daughter was the future Queen Elizabeth I. Up until the time I was about seventeen, I would’ve told you that Good Queen Bess had quite a–ahem–creepy background.
Hey, it’s what I’d heard. I was very innocent, no doubt; I had no intentions of defaming anyone. Blame centuries of misinformation– some of it deliberate and some merely the effect of tradition.
So what is the truth about Anne Boleyn?
Anne was the intelligent, vivacious, but strong-willed daughter of Thomas Boleyn, who was himself known as a “firm advocate of the New Religion”–namely, Protestant Christianity. Thomas even risked his reputation and life by sneaking Protestant literature into England. As a child and a young woman Anne was heavily influenced by Queen Marguerite of Navarre, a woman of astonishing intelligence and a firm evangelical, Protestant faith. Anne herself was known for her outspoken but eloquent personality, and the strict moral code with which she governed her household (ladies-in-waiting and other servants).
She attracted the attention of Henry VIII while he was still married to Queen Catherine of Aragon (the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, who were, coincidentally, the same Sovereigns who sponsored Christopher Columbus’ journey to the New World in 1492). Catherine hadn’t given him a son–only a daughter, Mary–and was now past childbearing age. Henry had a pretty disgusting reputation as a womanizer, and the pretty daughter of Thomas Boleyn caught his eye. Anne, however, wasn’t like most of the women Henry had admired. Instead of submitting to his advances, she held him off at arm’s length. It was a dangerous situation: she risked not only the King’s wrath but his sword in refusing him. In fact, she insisted she would never become his mistress, only his wife.
Now, we could argue back and forth that perhaps Anne should’ve accepted death rather than yoke herself with such a repulsive, ungodly man. Nevertheless, evidence shows that Anne, rather than being a seductress, held Henry off as long as she could, and when she finally did agree to become his wife and Queen, considered it the providence of God in her life and in England’s history. Catherine of Aragon had been a fiercely Catholic queen who discouraged any kind of religious reform in her adopted country. Anne, however, was eager to see greater religious liberty in England. If she were Queen, and if her influence over Henry was strong and positive, she could effect great change for God’s glory, just like the biblical Queen Esther.
During her short time as Henry VIII’s queen, she strongly encouraged the English Reformation. She sponsored William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament and even persuaded Henry to read one of Tyndale’s books. She gave refuge to Protestant refugees from the European continent. Joanna Denny writes of how she appointed Protestant chaplains in her household and exerted influence over the election of Protestant bishops in the newly-established Church of England.
“Hers was no superficial faith. Since her education in France she had an abiding interest in the New Learning and the religious reformation that was spreading like a revolution in thinking across northern Europe. Her views were evangelical, many would later say “Lutheran”. She read the Bible daily and believed that everyone should be able to read God’s word in a language they could understand.”
–Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen
Author P.F.M. Zahl also writes:
“[Anne Boleyn] lived for one thing: to see the Reformed religion overcome the opposition to it both within the Church and outside it…[she] ached to see the Reformation triumph.”
Anne gave birth to a daughter on September 7, 1533–a daughter she and Henry named Elizabeth. After Elizabeth’s birth, however, things began to go downhill. Anne miscarried or gave birth to stillborn baby boys, and while she struggled through difficult pregnancies her enemies at court–mostly allies of Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary–began plotting against her. Not only that, but Henry was (to put it bluntly) freaking out at this point for a male heir. He was also (to put it bluntly again) lusting after one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Anne’s enemies put all this together and concocted an elaborate plot to get rid of the Protestant queen.
To make a long story short, Anne was falsely accused and “convicted” of adultery, and her four supposed “lovers” included not only three innocent friends but her own brother, George Boleyn. Such a conviction earned her a death sentence, as unfaithfulness to the King amounted to treason. Anne maintained her innocence throughout the mockery of a trial, defending herself with grace and eloquence. She was beheaded on May 19, 1536.
Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul. To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesus receive my soul.
–Anne Boleyn’s last words
And now excuse me while I go and have a good cry.
Just kidding. Seriously, though, I never knew of Anne’s influence on the English Reformation, and I certainly never knew the truth about her personality or her faith. In my humble opinion, Anne Boleyn was an imperfect woman living in dangerous times, but nevertheless made a very real effort to introduce biblical Christianity into her beloved country, and left a powerful heritage for her daughter Elizabeth. Because, as most of us know, it was Anne Boleyn’s daughter who eventually became one of the greatest Queens–if not THE greatest Queen–in English history.
Elizabeth I made it very clear that she believed in her mother’s innocence, and although she probably didn’t share her mother’s personal faith, she certainly furthered Anne’s goals of religious liberty for the Reformers. Under her reign, the English Reformation flourished to full glory and laid the foundation for a generation of Pilgrims and Puritans who came to America in the early-to-mid 1600’s.
If you’re interested in Anne Boleyn and re-educating people about her story, I would strongly encourage you to read Joanna Denny’s book, as well as to explore The Anne Boleyn Files. Also of interest is John Foxe’s tribute to Anne Boleyn in his masterpiece Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which, if a little effusive, still gives you an idea of the regard the Reformers had for Queen Anne. Resources that I haven’t read but which have come highly recommended include Eric Ives’ The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn and P.F.M. Zahl’s Five Women of the English Reformation.
(May 1, 2013–I’ve read Eric Ives’ book since writing this article, and while I would definitely recommend it, I found it a harder read. Unless you’re prepared to tackle this very well-researched, scholarly, but somewhat laborious work, I suggest reading Denny’s book and then Ives’ book, especially if you’ve just been introduced to Anne’s true story. They come to a few different conclusions in some places but they do compliment each other.)
May 19, 2013–on this the 477th anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s death, I’m posting the links to my 4-part blog series, “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn.”