Anne Boleyn – champion of free thinking

Although Anne is the mother of Elizabeth, for me – Elizabeth begat Anne.

When Elizabeth (1998) became my favourite film, I wondered who “your mother the whore” was, and gradually took a step back in time to the previous generation – and there found an equally, if not even more remarkable woman. 

The first time I read about Anne Boleyn was in 2002 and I came to her almost in ignorance. I dismissed people in my lunch hour, saying I was in 1533 and not available. As I read Philippa Gregory’s novel about Anne’s sister, I suddenly remembered the rhyme about Henry’s wives and what was going to happen. 

By the time Gregory’s venomous pen had done depicting this conniving, hard, brutal woman, I was willing Anne to be executed; but by the time I picked up Vercor’s book, I wanted to put flowers on her grave. 

Vercors  is a photographer’s pen name, whose novelised biography says that the evil, grasping concubine did not make sense; and that underneath the deliberately etched layers was a heroine – for women, for  England – but most of all, free thinking believers. And strangely, it took a Frenchman trying to make sense of our independence from Hitler in the second world war to see it. 

Just as Joan of Arc was resurrected at a time of resurgent nationalism in France, it seems Anne Boleyn is ripe for a similar rediscovery on many levels – yet she has not really been used. 

The harsh view of Anne prevailed over four centuries, but there seemed to be a concurrent re-imagining in the 1980s. Professor Eric Ives, historic fiction writer Jean Plaidy, and Vercors all published in around the same year. Theirs was a different Anne to what had gone before – a maligned woman of sympathy, talent – though complex and potentially with a hard streak. And except for Philippa Gregory, books all have followed this portrayal since – whether they be fiction or academic – but not yet on the screen. Howard Brenton’s recent play is all about the debt that King James  and his Bible owed to the supposed strumpet a hundred years earlier.                    

Joanna Denny’s focus is summed up by her idea that Anne was a neo-Esther, something Anne herself propagated by having her chaplain preach on this in front of the royal court. Likening Anne to Esther recalls not wicked grasping Jezebel but another Old Testament queen, chosen by the king, which gave her an opportunity to save her minority group of endangered religious people. Denny emphasises Anne’s controversial new beliefs and her daring work to use her position to promote them when such beliefs were persecuted. Denny sees Anne as wooed against her wishes and morals, and argues that the portrait (quite literally) was deliberately obscured by her enemies. The dark features, mole and sixth finger are traits attributed in the 16th C to diabolism which were invented to destroy the memory of this powerful woman. 

Professor Ives and Joanna Denny write about her faith extensively, the latter making it Anne’s principle driving force.  

I’ve read in fiction and academic sources of Anne’s forbidden religious book (The Obedience of a Christian Man by William Tyndale) being stolen by Wolsey and given to Henry. Anne uses this opportunity to discuss the book’s radical ‘New Learning’ contents with Henry, and so influence him with protestant beliefs. 

Henry was not interested in reforming the church. After Luther pinned his 99 points on that church door, Henry wrote an impassioned, I think quite immature letter to defend the catholic church. It was his advisor Thomas Cromwell who is understood to have used Henry’s marriage and pope dilemma to allow divergence of belief to come openly and safely into England, and I believe that Anne and Cromwell initially worked together on this. 

What Anne’s beliefs were and how to term them might need some clarification. She has been called evangelical. The term ‘evangelical’ – not quite as we understand it –  was less radical than the Lollards, and not really heretical. It was not the same as being Protestant. The key features of evangelicalism, as today, were reading the bible for oneself; accessing God direct and not through a priest; being against superstition; and on one’s personal relationship with God – which are not unlike Unitarian principles. Anne is said to have exposed the fake miracle at Hailes abbey of Christ’s flowing blood (actually provided thought a duck’s blood dispensing machine). Anne has been spoken of as Lutheran .Yet Karen Lindsey and Ives claim that Anne’s faith was not wholly opposed to the established church, and that she had a confessor and took mass, and did not denounce transubstantiation – only its trappings. 

It might occur to some that if Anne had a reformed faith, that scheming involving adultery, wealth and power are incompatible with it. Ives says that 16th C didn’t see God’s and personal glory as incompatible; as some people today feel wealth is part of their spirituality.

Something which is not readily emphasised about Anne is her moral household –  and her generosity to the poor which went beyond the usual royal favour.  She expected her ladies to sew for the poor, and was likely to be behind a poor reform bill of 1536. She was also a patron of schools and universalise, and rallied for her patronees. Being a reluctant focus of passion and harassment is very different to pursuing Henry purposely – and she did refuse to be his mistress. 

Belief is a choice, and is ultimately, I believe what appeals rather than on argument and proof alone (that subject is another article). So I choose to see Anne as an Esther, a renaissance woman of power, taste and intellect, and I take particular interest in her reformed faith. Anne’s faith was of intellect and heart with practical outworking. And it allowed divergence into non conformism.

I therefore with others think that it was not Henry, and not really William Tyndale that caused the English reformation – but Queen Anne Boleyn of England, the Moost Happy [sic], who was crowned (depending on which calendar you use) this week, 480 years ago.

 

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