Oh Anne Boleyn, how you do haunt us. Apparently, if one is of a psychic bent, you might run into her spectral form floating around at Blickling Hall in Norfolk where she was born or Hever Castle where she lived as a child, or at Hampton Court or Windsor Castle where she spent time as Queen.
All this popping up and making herself known suggests an unquiet grave and, since 19th April was the anniversary of her beheading in 1536, the last few weeks were probably the best time to spot her. As one of the best known characters in English History it is no bad thing to be able to claim the occasional sighting if you want to capture the public’s interest, so I am more than a little sceptical.
One thing is sure; she certainly continues to haunt our bookshelves and our televisions. What is that prevents us from letting go of this tragic story?
It is partly that Anne is so attractive. Her pale dark eyed face gleams back at us from her portrait, mysterious, intelligent, secretive, framed by the famous necklace with its initial B and pearl drops. Actually, she doesn’t seem to have been the beauty of the court but she must have had something.
For a modern woman, the appeal of a girl who achieved her position through wit and charm is far greater than one who relied on winning the lottery of good looks. And her determination to control her man and avoid being cast aside like her sister Mary, who had been the King’s mistress before his roving eye fell on Anne, has a very modern air.
The facts about her are clear. She came to court as a sophisticated young woman with the foreign allure of adolescence. She had lived in France where, at the court of Francis I, she had been partly educated with the royal children. She had learned to dance and enjoyed something of the southern tradition of the troubadours, where the medieval idea of courtly love was still admired.
Francis I and Henry VIII were rivals as the most talented Renaissance Princes in Europe, both celebrated musicians, poets and sportsmen. The Boleyn family had been on the rise for more than a generation and Sir Thomas Boleyn owned extensive estates based around two great houses, Blickling in Norfolk and Hever in Kent. Henry VIII’s relationship with Mary Boleyn in the 1520s had further advanced their fortunes.
Anne was clever and held out for marriage, so that the King was persuaded to do the unthinkable and divorce his wife, split with the Pope in Rome and set in train the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Three of the King’s love letters to Anne survived among the Vatican papers and we have an intimate glimpse into this great love story.
To the modern mind, the idea that such a fundamental series of political changes, which have done so much to create the Britain we see around us today, could have been predicated on love is irresistible. Anne’s allure is complete.
I think there is one thing that we seem to miss. At Alnwick Castle survives a relic of an earlier love affair of Anne’s. She was first attracted to, and probably engaged to, Henry Percy, heir to the Duke of Northumberland. The Percy family still have her prayer book, a Book of Hours. Two others survive at Hever and one in the British Library.
Contemporary accounts of her last days in the Tower before her execution attest to her religious devotion, but we also know that she read widely, enjoyed the company of clever men and was interested in the new religion of the Reformation, probably far more than the pious Henry. We just don’t know how important her influence was in the coming Reformation and changes in the Church.
The school boy’s view is that the whole scheme was inspired by the greed and machinations of the evil Cromwell, but the portrait of Cromwell that the novelist, Hilary Mantel, paints for us in her books gives us a far more complex man. At the time of her disgrace, few of those at court spoke up for Anne; she had many enemies and Thomas Cromwell was probably the organiser, if not the instigator, of her fall.
Among her few supporters was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer who would go on to become one of the key geniuses of the nascent Church of England. He wrote to the King shortly before her death, stating plaintively, ‘I loved her not a little for the love which I judged her to bear towards God and His Gospel.’ It sounds like a man talking about a close associate, one reformer talking about another. No one has doubted her faith or that she had protestant leanings. Cranmer’s personal intervention just before her death suggests her importance to his cause, and his cause was to bring the new religion and its gospels to the people in plain English. He did after all give us the service that was still in use word for word until the 1970s.
If Anne was part of his circle then she was right at the heart of the new religion; but how much was she a driving force? Could a woman of personal religious conviction in a position of power have failed to exercise that power at a time when change was sweeping Europe?
We know that she discussed religion with the King; it is not hard to see that she must have influenced him. Do we owe Anne some debt for the form of the Church of England that has lasted us for 5 centuries? Have we been so busy looking into her beautiful dark eyes, lapping up her love story and admiring her fiery determination that we have failed to give her credit for her most significant lasting legacy?