The BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel makes compelling viewing. It may not be the fastest moving drama on television but it more than makes up for this with the depth of its acting and its faithfulness to the novel and to the Tudor period. All the principle actors are brilliant, but for me Claire Foy’s performance as the charismatic and ruthless Anne Boleyn stands out.
Anne Boleyn, who infamously became the second of Henry VIII’s six wives and ended up with being beheaded in the Tower of London, is well known for beguiling the king with her charms. Sadly though, most people are left with this rather two dimensional and sexist view of Anne as the archetypal temptress who stopped at nothing to take the throne from her rival, Katherine of Aragon, the king’s first wife.
There is much more to the story of Anne Boleyn than a soapy love-triangle and I think it’s high time that Anne’s reputation was rehabilitated and for us to see her as one of the most impressive political leaders in the Tudor period.
To historians today, Anne remains as divisive and controversial as she was in sixteenth century. She was queen consort of England for less than three years, ended up being the first queen consort executed for treason, and yet her legacy is still with us today.
Her rise was meteoric and her fall was just as spectacular. To many people, she was simply the woman that Henry VIII fell in love with, who caused the break with Rome and the foundation of the Protestant Church of England. Others just remember her for the lurid and politically motivated allegations of incest and sexual impropriety that were used to bring her down.
The reality of Anne’s rise and fall is actually much more stunning. As a politician she was shrewd and as astute as the male advisers who surrounded the king. She was certainly as able a politician as Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey. She commanded her own powerful Boleyn faction at court; the more influence she had with the king the more of her family and supporters found themselves in high office. Rather than relying on her beauty (as many have assumed) it was her sheer charisma and political calculation that meant that she unseated a queen and became the most powerful woman in England.
However, for me Anne should also be acknowledged as the mother of the English Reformation. What is often glossed over or forgotten is that the break with Rome wasn’t just a politically expedient for her to usurp Katherine as queen, instead it could also be argued that Anne herself was one of the evangelical reformers herself.
Her role in the English Reformation is controversial, and certainly the break with Rome was politically expedient for Anne’s own ambition to become queen, but I believe there is evidence to suggest that Anne genuinely held a reformist position. Eric Ives’ excellent biography of Anne lends much weight to Anne as an evangelical reformer and as a patron of reform: ‘Anne played a major part in pushing Henry into asserting his headship of the Church…Yet over and beyond this, Anne was a strong supporter of the religious reform.’ Ives argues that evidence for her role in reform of the Church can be seen through her influence in getting evangelical bishops appointed to sees during her three years as queen consort. ‘Indeed,’ Ives writes, ‘of the ten elections to be episcopate between 1532 and Anne’s death in 1536 seven were reformers who were her clients.’ (Ives, p. 260-1) The most influential of these men was to be Thomas Cranmer, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 and was formerly a chaplain to the Boleyn family.
According to Ives, further evidence of Anne’s reformist agenda can be seen through her patronage of reformers at all levels of the Church, including her own personal chaplains who she chose from amongst reformist scholars at Cambridge. He strengthens her reformist credentials further by saying that, ‘the absolute conviction which drove Anne was the importance of the Bible.’ She studied the Bible in the vernacular, encouraged the reading of the Bible in English and protected the illegal trade in Bibles (Ives, ch. 18). She also believed that money from the dissolution of the monasteries should be used to benefit charities and education rather than filling the king's coffers (Ives, p 308-12). In short, Ives' writes: 'It is hard to deny Anne a personal faith. Apart from the Bible in which, significantly, we know she had an interest in Paul's epistles, the works she read and collected are certainly redolent of a Christianity of commitment and not of routine observance.' (Ives, p. 279)
Despite her strong religious convictions, Anne was no saint and was as ruthless as any of Henry’s male counsellors. She was a politician and religious reformer in equal measure.
What cemented Anne’s place in history was her spectacular fall from grace. As Dr Suzannah Lipscomb outlines, historians still argue about what factors brought an English queen to be beheaded, but what seems certain is that Anne was innocent and was convicted and executed based on trumped up charges.
For me what makes Anne remarkable is not her spectacular death and the sordid, though blatantly untrue, allegations against her, but rather by what she achieved as a young woman in a patriarchal world. Today, Anne’s ambition would probably have propelled her into Downing Street or Whitehall, but in the sixteenth century she rose as high as she could to become Queen of England. However, perhaps another reason for her downfall is that she didn’t play the game in the way that was expected of her. In the sixteenth century, queens were there to forge political allegiances and to produce a male heir. As a commoner who produced a daughter, Anne did neither but instead she sort to wield unprecedented political power at the heart of Henry’s court. Maybe that is what was her undoing?
Whatever the reason, Anne Boleyn deserves to be rehabilitated as a significant political player and religious reformer in her own right.