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Reflections on Anne’s Remarks at her Trial by Susan Bordo
At her trial, Anne Boleyn insisted that she was “clear of all the offences which you have laid to my charge.” But she went on: “I do not say I have always shown [the King] the humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way.” Anne’s recognition that she had not shown the King enough humility, in this context, shows remarkable insight into the gender politics of her day. She stood accused of adultery and treason. Yet she did not simply refute those charges; she admitted to a different “crime”: not remaining in her proper “place.” In juxtaposing these two, Anne seems to be suggesting that not only did she recognize that she had transgressed against the norms of wifely behavior, but that this transgression was somehow related to the grim situation she now found herself in.
The idea that Anne was aware that she had fatally defied the rules governing wifely (and Queenly) behavior may seem, at first, like the “p.c.” thinking of a 21st century woman who sees would-be feminists lurking in the shadows of every historical period. But actually, educated women of Anne’s time were very much aware of the various debates concerning the “querelles des femmes” (in English-speaking countries, known as “the woman question”) which was first introduced by Christine De Pizan in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and which had a particular resonance in Britain, where the issue of whether or not women were suitable to rule became more than just theoretical under Henry VIII’s reign. Pizan is most famous for her Book of the City of Ladies (1404-5), which gathers heroines from history and Pizan’s own time to refute ancient views of female inferiority. It was published in Britain in 1521, around the same time that Anne was about to return from France.
Historians of women have made a strong argument that Pizan’s book became part of an ongoing debate in England, beginning with Juan Luis Vives’ Instruction of a Christian Woman (1523), written expressly for Princess Mary, and insisting, against Pizan’s arguments, on the necessarily subordinate role of women. Vives’ book purports to offer instruction for all women, but was clearly written with Catherine’s strict Catholicism as its model. Young girls were forbidden to read anything other than scripture or philosophers of high moral worth, advised to leave their homes as rarely as possible, to use no artifice of any sort in the “vainglorious” pursuit of physical beauty, and most especially to avoid the kind of conversation cultivated in court: “The custom to give praise to a woman for her ability to converse wittily and eloquently with men for hours on end is something that is welcomed and prescribed by ordinances of hell, in my opinion, “ Vives writes. Heterosexual conversation is so much the devil’s tool that Vives advises, “it is not to be permitted that a young woman and a man should converse alone anywhere for any length of time, not even if they are brother and sister.” Indeed, it is “best to have as little contact with men as possible.” Once married, a woman should leave the home as little as possible, speak “only when it would be harmful to be silent,” and at home “administer everything according to the will and command of her husband.”
Vives was not the last word on the subject, however. The debate about woman’s place (which was largely conducted by men) continues in 1540 and 1542 with Sir Thomas Elyot’s refutation of Vives, Defence of Good Women and Agrippa of Nettesheim’s Of the Nobilitie and Excellence of Womankynde, which historian Constance Jordan describes as “the most explicitly feminist text to be published in England in the first half of the century.” In its original Latin form, published in 1509, it was dedicated to Margaret of Austria, who was to be Anne’s first model of queenly behavior. Anticipating later enlightenment thinkers, Agripa argued that the differences between men and women were only bodily, and that “the woman hathe that same mynd that a man hath, the same reason and speche, she gothe to the same ende of blysfulnes (spirituality], where shall be noo exception of kynde.” Why then are they everywhere subordinate to men? Because they are not permitted to make the laws or write history, and therefore “cannot contribute to or criticize the intellectual bases on which they are categorized as inferior.” (Jordan, 123)
The same might be said of the slant on Anne that is presented in most of the historical documents from her own time—which have, unfortunately, provided the basis for most historical accounts written later. Natalie Dormer, who played Anne on Showtime’s The Tudors, was emphatic on this point:
“History was written by men. And even now, in our post-feminist era we still have women struggle in public positions of power. When you read a history book, both the commentary and the first hand primary evidence, all the natural gender prejudices during the period will certainly be there.”
Natalie goes on: “Anne was that rare phenomenon, a self-made woman. But then, this became her demise, because she was a challenging personality, and wouldn’t be quiet and shut up. So all the reasons that attracted [Henry] to her, and made her queen and a mother, were all the things that then undermined her position. What she had that was so unique for a woman at that time was also her undoing.”
Where did Anne develop her “uniqueness”? The first term in what Eric Ives calls Anne’s “European Education” began in 1513, when she was just twelve, sent to the court of the politically powerful and independent-minded Archduchess Margaret of Austria, who was serving as regent for her 13 year-old nephew Charles of Burgundy. After that, Anne spent six years at the French court, where many historians surmise that she became acquainted, and possibly friends, with Francis’ sister Marguerite de Navarre. De Navarre, who historian Patricia Cholakian describes as “the mother of the Renaissance,” was largely responsible for the reputation that the Valois court had as a center of intellectual and artistic brilliance. Pious and retiring Queen Claude had the babies, but as the “king’s respected counselor and confidante” since he took the throne in 1515, Marguerite filled the court with poets, philosophers, and the most provocative reformist intellectuals of the time. They debated all the hot humanist topics of the day, from the “Bible Question” (Did people needs priests to interpret scripture for them, or should vernacular versions be widely available?) to “The Woman Question.” (Could a woman be virtuous? If so, what kind of virtue was distinctively hers? Was her intelligence lesser than man’s? Was she even of the same species as man?) De Navarre’s own collection of some seventy stories, The Heptameron, did not appear in print until after both she and Anne were dead, but their content gives some indication of the radical ideas circulating among her “salon,” and the potential links between criticism of the church and the assertion of female equality. Many of the stories deal with the sexual abuses of men—almost always libidinous monks and friars, ravaging the countryside—and the overlooked worth of women.
Marguerite’s influence on Anne is speculation on my part, of course, in that none of it is documented. However, with only twelve ladies-in-waiting serving at Claude’s court, it’s not a stretch to imagine frequent contact between them. (In 1535, Anne sent a message to Marguerite saying that her “greatest wish, next to having a son, was to see you again.”) If so, it’s possible that Marguerite taught Anne, by example, that “woman’s place” extended beyond her husband’s bed, and that this, ironically, was part of Anne’s appeal for Henry. For traditionalists at court, the mere fact of Anne having any say in Henry’s political affairs would have been outrageously presumptuous, particularly since Anne was not of royal blood. Henry, however, has been educated alongside his two sisters and was extremely close to his mother; there’s no evidence that he regarded women as naturally inferior to men, or that he saw Anne’s early “interference”, so long as it supported his own aims, as anything other than proof of her queenly potential. In fact, in the six-year-long battle for the divorce, they seem much more like co-conspirators than manipulating female and hapless swain.
Henry would later become less open to the political participation of his wives, warning Jane, for example, not to meddle, and holding the example of her predecessor ominously over her head (so to speak.) But there’s no evidence that during the six years he pursued Anne he had any objection to her counsel. It has to be remembered that these were six years in which Henry spent far less time mooning about Anne than he did arguing, gathering forces, reviewing texts, his ego and his authority more on the line every year that passed. Initially, Henry had every expectation that the Pope would quickly reverse the dispensation he had granted for the marriage to Katherine. But for complexly tangled political reasons, the Pope was not about to give Henry the easy divorce he imagined, and Henry was drawn into battle with the papacy itself. It was long, fierce, and bloody, fracturing British loyalties, sending devoted papists like Thomas More to the scaffold, and ultimately resulting in a new Church of England with Henry as its head. Anyone who follows it closely can see that the autonomy and authority of kings ultimately became more at issue for Henry than the divorce itself.
As a dedicated reformist whose criticisms of the church were probably fueled (if not formed) by the powerful intellect of Marguerite and her circle, Anne was perfectly in synch with Henry’s growing hostility toward the papacy. She more than supported Henry’s efforts, supplying the reformist texts and arguments that gave Henry the justification he needed to enlarge his role as the spiritual leader of the nation. In fact, James Carley, the curator of the books of Henry and his wives, notes that all the anti-papal literature that Henry collected supporting his break with Rome dates from after he began to pursue Anne. Although she may not have supplied all the actual readings herself, the couple was almost certainly discussing the issues and theological arguments involved, as both were avid readers of the Bible. Most famously, Anne introduced Henry to Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man, which must have prickled Henry’s sense of manliness as well as supporting his resistance to the church—and suggesting it could be very profitable as well. Tyndale complained that the monarchs of Christendom had become mere shadows, “having nothing to do in the world but when our holy father needeth help” and encouraged them to take back “every farthing”, “all manner of treasure”, and “all the lands which they have gotten with their false prayer.” It did not require feminine brainwashing, as Chapuys and others charged, to convince Henry that such ideas were on his side. As early as 1515, the youthful Henry, pronouncing on a dispute about the relative powers of ecclesiastical and state courts, declared that the king of England has no “superior but God only” and upheld the authority of “temporal jurisdiction” over church decrees. This point of view, growing sharper every year that followed, was the cutting edge that ultimately cost Thomas More his head, not Henry’s marriage to Anne.
Although a few historians are still insistent that Anne’s contribution to “The King’s Reformation” (as G.W. Bernard titles his book) was exaggerated by later protestant “rehabilitators” of Anne’s image, by now most historians agree that Anne was not just the face that launched the English reformation, but an active participant herself. Multiple corroborating sources from her own time remember Anne as “a patron of rising evangelicals, a protector of those who were harassed” both “a model and champion” of reformers, “in England and abroad.” (Freeman, 819) As queen, she secured the appointment of several evangelical bishops and deans when Henry created the newly independent Church of England. She attempted to intervene on behalf of reformists imprisoned for their religious beliefs. She was also an avid reader of the radical religious works of the day (many of them banned from England and smuggled in for her), both in French and in England. Her surviving library of books includes a large selection of early French evangelical works, including Marguerite de Navarre’s first published poem, Miroir de l’ame pechersse”, (1531), which was later to be translated into English (as “Mirror of the Soul”) in 1544 by none other than Anne’s 11 year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Anne’s library also included Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples’ French translation of the bible, published by the same man (Martin Lempereur) responsible for publishing Tyndale’s New Testament, and numerous other French evangelical tracts.
The promotion and protection of the cause of reform was an especially dangerous business for Anne to engage in, because it was such a divisive issue (to put it mildly) and men’s careers (and sometimes heads) would hang or fall depending on which side was winning. And the religious “culture wars” provided fertile soil for the anti-Anne propaganda that circulated around court and through Europe. Much of this came from the tongues (and pens) of those for whom to be anti-papal was to be pro-devil. “Lutheran” women (an incorrect appellation for Anne, who did not subscribe to Lutheran doctrine) were “heretics.” From “heretic” to “witch” was a short step, and from “witch” to “insatiable carnal lust” and “consorting with the devil” (K and S, p. 188) took barely a breath. The same year that Anne was executed, an effigy of Marguerite de Navarre, on a horse drawn by devils wearing placards bearing Luther’s name, appeared during a masquerade in Notre Dame. And although Anne was not charged with witchcraft, the atmospherics that allowed her to be eliminated so ruthlessly certainly contributed to the extremity of her downfall. When Henry claimed she had bewitched him, he may have half (or even wholly) believed it.
Protestants, of course, could be no less zealous than papists in their diatribes against women who presumed to interfere in men’s business. Often they were more vehement, as they had a religious doctrine within which the Father, whether God, King, or husband, was the model of all authority. Rather, depending on which side you stood—Catholic or Protestant—determined which presumptuous women were most offensive to you. When Mary Tudor became queen of England in 1553, her Catholicism added fuel to the fire that was already burning in Protestant reformer John Knox, who argued, in his famously titled The First Blast of Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, that any woman who presumed “to sit in the seat of God, that is, to teach, to judge, or to reign above a man” was “a monster in nature.” And then the old familiar charges came pouring out again: “Nature…doth paint them forth to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish, and experience hath declared them to be unconstant, variable, cruel, and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment.” (Jansen, 1) No wonder that when Elizabeth took the throne, she was insistent that she had “the heart and stomach of a King”!
Anne Boleyn’s problem, though, as far as public relations went, was the pro-Katherine, papist faction. It was they who saw her as a vicious corrupter of otherwise sweet-tempered King Hal. It was they who wrote that her coronation dress was covered with tongues pierced with nails, and who later spread rumors that she bore physical marks of the devil on her body. It was they who were most terrified of her insidious influence on the King’s politics. Ambassador Eustache Chapuys, in particular, was a constant source of anti-Anne propaganda. Chapuys, a great champion of Katherine’s and the papal cause, despised Anne with a passion that he didn’t even try to disguise, disgustedly referring to her in his official communications as “the concubine” and “that whore”—or, with polite disdain, “The Lady.” (Accordingly, Elizabeth was “the little bastard.”) He accused Anne of plotting to murder Catherine and Mary—without a shred of proof beyond a few reported outbursts of Anne’s—and was the first to advance the argument that she was responsible for Henry’s “corruption.” (“It is this Anne,” Chapuys wrote, “who has put Henry in this perverse and wicked temper.”)
My belief is that Chapuys was enraged, not only by Anne’s religious politics or supplanting of Katherine and Mary, but of her refusal, as Natalie Dormer put it in my interview with her, “to be quiet and shut up.” Anne was a religious radical, yes, but probably would have been seen as less of a monstrosity had she been a less vocal, intellectual, “interfering” woman. As such, her actual contribution to the scourge of Lutheranism, far from being minimized as it later was to be by later historians, was inflated to unbelievable proportions. In one letter to Charles, Chapuys went so far as to blame “the heretical doctrines and practices of the concubine” as “the principal cause of the spread of Lutheranism in this country.” (April 1, 1536)
Anne’s reputation as a woman who simply would not behave as she should, however, spread and resonated way beyond pro-papist circles. While her unwillingness to occupy her “proper place” was not in itself the cause of Cromwell’s turn against her, it certainly contributed to their stand-off and unleashed his ruthlessness in planning her downfall, as well as striking at Henry’s manly pride and vulnerability to believing the charges of adultery and treason laid against her. Anne’s confidence and insistence on holding her ground also helps account for the general failure of anyone to serve as her protector when she needed it. Jane Seymour was no less the “other woman” than Anne was (and probably more deserving of the charge of using her virginity as bait than Anne was), but her apparent docility miraculously spared her, when she became queen, from the antipathy that Anne inspired. While Austria and France, where Anne was “finished,” had become accustomed to a strong female presence, the English court was still very much a boy’s club, in which men like Henry delighted in surprising a wife like Katherine by showing up in her bedroom, as he did one morning early in their marriage, with 12 of his hyper-active companions, dressed like Robin Hood and his Merry Men. “The queen,” Hall reports, “the ladies and all other there were abashed, as well for the strange sight, as also for their sudden coming.” Blushing bride, boisterous husband; it was just the way it was supposed to be. But Anne was not a blusher.
To describe Anne Boleyn as a feminist would be an anachronism—and not nearly as appropriate an anachronism in her case as in that of Marguerite de Navarre and others who openly championed for female equality. Marguerite did not have the word, but she was conscious of a female “cause.” There’s no evidence that Anne felt similarly. But she had learned to value both her body and her ideas, seems to have realized that there was something unsettling about this to Henry, and perhaps also understood that this played a role in her downfall. “I do not say I have always shown him humility,” she said at her trial, insistent even then on speaking what she believed. Anne wasn’t a feminist. But she did step over the ever-moving line that marked the boundary of the comfort zone for men (and most women) of her era, and for all the rage that inspired, she may as well have been one.
 From an interview with Susan Bordo, June 2010