Henry and Anne: The Great Matter

Arguably one of the best known and most controversial monarchs in British history, Henry VIII was prepared for a life in the church. As second son he wasn’t meant to be King. That bitter inheritance fell to his older brother Arthur.  However on Arthurs death, the young Henry was whipped away from his mother’s household and isolated from the world by an iron wall of guards and tutors, all intent on undoing ten years of education setting the young prince for a career in the church.

Arthur was fifteen when he died of “sweating sickness” which I can only presume is a reference to sepsis of unknown origin. The ten year old Henry not only inherited the crown and the country. In a profound demonstration of using women like chattels Henry also inherited his older brother’s wife.

He not only bore the mantle of King, but also of dynastic head. The country had been rocked by dynastic succession troubles for generations leading up to the wars of the roses in which his father had, through cost of much blood secured the crown and founded, what he hoped would be, a dynasty. This would have put a huge amount of pressure on the young Henry. If he failed to provide a son, his father’s efforts and their dynasty would fizzle into nothing.   The overwhelmed, unprepared king relied heavily on the advice of Cromwell and other older, paternalistic advisors who were largely part of the clergy. This offered a very specific view on the role of women.

Side Note: I recently found out that one of the excuses used to support the dissolution of the monasteries was that masturbation was considered sodomy, as a result a large number of monks, nuns and the extras of clergy life were charged, some even executed. I wonder if I will ever be able to use this knowledge in a pub quiz.

There are a lot of reasons to believe that Henry was rather hapless. He was almost certainly charismatic and athletically inclined, however easily swayed by flattery and quick to anger. The contemporary accounts wouldn’t explicitly state this given Henrys tendency toward axe based conflict resolution. A trait absolutely inherited by his daughter, which I would imagine would have quashed candid accounts of Henrys character for almost a hundred years. At which point he would have passed from living memory.

The infamous wrestling match between Henry and the King of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold indicated Henrys ongoing misplaced hubris. He seemed determined to match the achievements of his namesake over a century before when Henry V, King of England took Harfleur and attained immortal memory on the field of Agincourt. Shakespeare wrote “no King of England is not to King of France” and whilst this had some basis in truth it would be more true to say No King of France is not to King of England given the empire began with the arrival of William the (utter) Bastard. Whilst the exact words would not have been known to Henry, I strongly suspect the sentiment was impressed upon him as a member of the Royal Family from a very young age. What his tutors probably neglected to mention was that King John utter shagged that principle, losing huge chunks of France (and almost losing England).  

Depictions of Anne Boleyn have varied wildly depending on the period and agenda of the author. Some have her a witch, using dark powers and sexual wiles to ensnare the king, others have her a predator, who ruthessly pursued the king and drove the country to “the great matter” without any care beyond her own ambition. Mid-Twentieth century authors of historical fiction have the most to answer for in the depictions of Anne.

A historian can use the evidence to generate a potted narrative based in fact, however this narrative will always have gaps. Novelist’s benefit in their freedom to fill the gaps. The problem comes when people perceive historical fiction as historical fact. The hypersexualised view of Anne existed before these novelists however the genre really drove the misconceptions forward. Based on their depictions, popular culture has taken Anne forward into representations that are certainly wholly fiction.

Side Note: My absolute favourite semi-contempory explanation for why this was all Anne’s fault was a combination of all the above. It was said that she learned dark, satanic sexual magic from the French and used her magic vagina to put a spell on the king. Again I think this is giving Henry…. And men in generally way too much credit. Also, possibly the French.

Historians like Claire Ridgeway and Natalie Grueninger, whose websites will be well known to anyone interested in Anne Boleyn, put forward some very compelling arguments that Anne was just a girl, maybe slightly more academic than her peers, who became the victim of contemporary scorn due to adopting a role outside of the domestic, which was expected of women at the time. In fact, the evidence suggests Anne’s father required her to be better educated than many noblemen of the times. Whilst she was probably not unattractive, I think it would be unrealistic to compare her to Scarlett Johansson.  

Henrys pursuit of Anne led to what the clergy thought was the unthinkable, separation from the Catholic Church. I am not even convinced Anne was a necessary component in this process. Henry needed to secure his dynasty with a male heir. His wife was aging, the chances of securing a male, particularly if he wanted to hand over the reign directly without a period of regency, was fading. Henry needed a new wife, a legitimate wife, to provide a legitimate heir. This could only be achieved through divorce. Anne just happened to be there at the time. Had she not been it is likely any other walking set of ovaries would have done.  

Side Note: I have written a lot of horrific things whilst maintaining this blog and its associated works. I think referring to a woman as a “walking set of ovaries” is the worst thing I have ever written. However I genuinely thing it was accurate in what Henry was seeking. Whilst serving in the court of Archduchess Margaret at Vuere, before attending the English court, Anne wrote a letter to her father. I feel this paints the picture of a young girl eager for her father’s approval and an opportunity to do her duty to the family. This does seem to indicate that she was subject to the will of her father and does beg the question how much were her father and brother responsible for the events that followed.

“Sir,  

I understand by your letter that you desire that I shall be a worthy woman when I come to the Court and you inform me that the Queen will take the trouble to converse with me, which rejoices me much to think of talking with a person so wise and worthy. This will make me have greater desire to continue speaking French well and also spell, especially because you have enjoined it on me, and with my own hand I inform you that I will observe it the best I can. Sir, I beg you to excuse me if my letter is badly written, for I assure you that the orthography is from my own understanding alone, while the others were only written by my hand, and Semmonet tells me he letter but waits so that I may do it myself.


Written at Veure by Your very humble and very obedient daughter,

Anna de Boullan”

Anne was clearly well educated, and her service at Vuere would have given her insight into the cutthroat world of court politics. I find it extremely hard to belief that she was entirely naive to the intrigue that surround her in her later years. It is worth remembering though, Anne was a noble woman which offered her certain rights and protections however she was still a woman, at the time it would have been particularly challenging for her to deny a man, a nobleman, let alone a King. She also wouldn’t have been able to offer much resistance to the ambition of her father. 

Anne and almost every other woman in the Kings life were absolutely victims. I am in no way trying to whitewash what happened to them. However I am not sure any of the frontline players in this particular drama were those actually in control. Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Boleyn …… So there is no one in this story with the name Thomas that can be trusted. Anne’s mother was also a Howard, a notoriously ambitious and driven family who would have benefited greatly from her success. Anne was victim by nature of her gender in the context of the times and Henry just doesn’t appear to have been that bright.     

So many authors and historians seem intent on absolving the admittedly tarnished reputation of Anne Boleyn. However this in itself is an agenda. The greatest clarion call appears to be the cry of Misogyny. Men brought this innocent girl to her fall and then blamed her for it. Whilst there is certainly a lot of gender discrimination by modern standards, the level of misogyny is fairly mundane by the standards of the day. It is essential that when reviewing materials from any period in history you take their context without impressing your own upon them. This is something I strive for, and admittedly often fail at. However I do not claim to be a historian.

I have also relayed a number of concepts above that are accepted by those who have studied the period in great detail and for the most part I find their arguments and conclusions compelling. I have however yet to be convinced by the allegation that Thomas Boleyn had much to do with the Great Matter and the eventual demise of his children. Thomas was rather a rising star before Anne’s birth, he had well proven himself as a diplomat and earned the respect of some of the continent’s most powerful families. Whilst being the father of the queen would have brought some increased prestige it was minimal compared to the risks and efforts of the large number of plots in which he would have needed to take part.

I am by no means saying the treatment of women in the sixteenth century was acceptable. It was however five hundred years ago and, whilst I don’t believe things are perfect now, I think I can confidently state that things have improved in that time. The irony being that when Big Liz took the throne it would be expected that the lot of women in English society would improve however the Queen did more to erode the rights of women than any of her male predecessors. A trend also seen in the reign of Queen Victoria. I would love some suggestions on why women’s rights seemed to suffer more under female monarchs than male. Is the peculiarity unique to the British monarchy?

As a final note, I have been fascinated by the drive for a child resulting in the divergence of a religion and its comparison to the story of Isaac and Ishmael. It turns out this trope tends to result in a lot of bloodshed.

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