Did Anne Boleyn crave the crown?

For years we’ve been told that Anne refused to sleep with Henry VIII until he made her his queen. Yet, says George Bernard, the argument that she demanded a crown on her head simply doesn’t stack up...

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Henry VIII’s passion for Anne Boleyn has never been in doubt. In one of his love letters to Anne, Henry lamented her absence, “wishing myself specially an evening in my sweetheart’s arms whose pretty dukkys [breasts] I trust shortly to kiss”, noting that the missive was “written with the hand of him that was, is and shall be yours”. But while his desire isn’t in question, other aspects of the beginnings of their relationship need to be reassessed.

It is widely held that Anne, with whom Henry fell in love in the mid-1520s, was prepared to accept his advances only if he married her and made her his queen. By then Henry had been married to Catherine of Aragon for nearly 20 years and she had borne him a child, Mary, though no surviving son. Could it be true that Anne suggested to Henry that his marriage to Catherine, widow of his elder brother Arthur, had always been invalid – that it was against divine law? And did she steadfastly refuse to yield to Henry until his marriage to Catherine was annulled, leaving him free to marry Anne?

For centuries, historians have reiterated this theory. Yet, when you look at it closely, it does not make sense. Imagine Anne as a lady of the court who was wanted by the king as his mistress. In a world in which divorce on the grounds of the irretrievable breakdown of a relationship did not exist, could such a lady realistically hope to persuade Henry to abandon his wife in order to marry her? 

Catherine of Aragon is depicted in a 16th-century portrait. Henry worked to have their union annulled, claiming that her previous marriage to his brother invalidated their own. © Bridgeman

If Anne did make such demands, would she not be taking the risk that Henry would simply laugh at her and look elsewhere? After all, Catherine was not one of Henry’s native subjects but the aunt of Charles V – the powerful Holy Roman Emperor. Such a rejection of Catherine would risk serious diplomatic and dynastic consequences.

It’s much more likely that Anne asked that she should be the king’s only mistress. That at least was fully in Henry’s power – as several of Henry’s love letters to Anne discussed.

 

The king’s pleasure

Those who have suggested that Anne was holding out to be queen may have simply misinterpreted her initial reluctance to yield to Henry. What Anne feared was an all-too-common fate of royal mistresses: to be used and discarded at the king’s pleasure – as had happened to her sister, Mary. Henry’s love letters suggest that Anne was won over by his promise to make her his exclusive mistress.

One of the letters confirms that Anne did not at first commit herself unreservedly. For a year, Henry lamented, he had been stricken by the dart of love but unsure whether he would find a place in her heart. And so he offered to make her his sole mistress, banishing all others from his thoughts and affection.

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Once Anne had accepted Henry’s promises, they probably enjoyed full sexual relations for a while – at least, such is suggested by the details of a mission entrusted to one of the king’s secretaries, William Knight, in the summer of 1527. Knight was charged with securing a dispensation from the pope permitting the king to remarry if Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was first annulled.

A copy of a letter that Henry wrote to Anne in 1527. The king’s missives in this period suggest that he was the one holding back from full sexual relations. © Bridgeman

It has long been noted that this draft dispensation allowed the king to marry someone with whom he was already related in the eyes of canon law – in particular, a woman with whose sister he had had sexual relations. By this time, Henry had already enjoyed an affair with Mary Boleyn; it’s quite likely that he was the father of her two eldest children. With the papal dispensation, Henry was anticipating and attempting to deal with a potential obstacle to a marriage to Anne.

Less often noticed, and then usually dismissed, is the provision in the draft dispensation for Henry to marry a woman with whom he had already had sexual intercourse. Why should Henry have bothered to include that provision unless it were true? This strongly suggests that, after convincing Anne that she would be his only mistress, he did indeed sleep with her.

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But only for a brief period. It was probably at this point that Henry came to the conclusion that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had never been valid in the eyes of God. If that marriage were annulled, Henry realised, he would be free to marry Anne as his first wife. Any child born would be of unquestioned legitimacy. But in order to make his case for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine, Henry needed to hold the moral high ground.

Throughout the proceedings leading to his divorce, Henry claimed not that his marriage to Catherine had broken down but that it had always been against divine law. If Henry had publicly admitted that he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, it would have cast doubt on the sincerity of his concern not to break divine law. In an age without reliable methods of contraception, there was also an obvious risk of pregnancy – and nothing would be more damaging to the king’s moral credibility. Jean du Bellay, the French ambassador, vividly outlined the problem in June 1529: “I very much fear that for some time past this king has come very near Mme Anne,” adding: “If the belly grows, all will be spoilt.”

A portrait of Henry VIII from c1525–30. Once Anne accepted the king’s promise to make her his sole mistress, it is implausible to think that she could have prevented him enjoying full sexual relations. © Bridgeman

What’s more, Henry was determined that any child he might have with Anne should be indisputably legitimate, not the controversial offspring of a relationship not yet validated. Anne never did become pregnant during the long years in which Henry and his advisors worked towards the end of his marriage to Catherine. That does not prove that it was Anne who was holding Henry back, but is consistent with the suggestion that it was Henry, not Anne, who refrained from full sexual relations.

 

“Our desired end”

Henry’s love letters support this theory. In one he informed “darling” Anne that the letter-bearer was being sent with “as many things to compass our matter and to bring it to pass as our wits could imagine or devise”. Once brought to pass, “you and I shall have our desired end, which should be more to my heart’s ease and more quietness to my mind than any other thing in this world”.

Henry’s subscription – “written with the hand of him which desireth as much to be yours as you do to have him” – hints that it was Anne who needed reassurance of Henry’s desire, and Henry who was holding back.

On another occasion Henry wrote to Anne: “What joy it is to me to understand of your conformableness to reason and of the suppressing of your inutile and vain thoughts and fantasies with the bridle of reason.” Continue, Henry urged, “for thereby shall come, both to you and to me the greatest quietness that may be in this world”. Here Henry was urging patience – “conformableness to reason” – on Anne until the church found in his favour.

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In a letter most likely written soon after Anne agreed to become his mistress, Henry assured her that “henceforth my heart will be devoted to you only, greatly wanting that my body also could be”. Daily he begged God to intervene and help him achieve his goal, hoping that at length his prayer would be heard. Yet, in doing so, Henry was not berating Anne for holding back, for refusing to sleep with him. Instead it was Henry who refrained, and what he regretted were the complexities and the delays imposed by the laws and procedures of the church.

The love letters also reveal that theirs became an intimate relationship. As we have already seen, Henry longed to hold Anne in his arms and kiss her breasts.

 

Resorting to force

Henry’s armour shows that he was a big man, and we know that he was forceful in emotion: in 1535, he came close to killing his court fool in a rage. If he had wanted to go further with Anne, it is implausible to think that she could have prevented him.

From where, then, did the story arise that Anne was refusing Henry’s advances until she was made queen? Perhaps the source was the scholar and cleric Reginald Pole who had gone abroad to study rather than become implicated in the king’s divorce. In 1536, Pole attacked Henry fiercely, calling on the king to repent and return to the fold of the church. He berated Henry for the many terrible things the king had done for the love of Anne Boleyn; she was presented as a femme fatale who convinced Henry that, as long as he maintained Catherine as his wife, he was living in mortal sin. In doing so Pole was offering Henry a way out – an excuse that he could use if he repented and ended the schism with the Catholic church.

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In many ways, it was a characteristic of Henry’s rule that he placed responsibility for unpopular policies on others. Here, Pole was offering him scope to do that again. But even though Anne Boleyn was by then dead, Henry did not take the opportunity offered by Pole’s comments – and we should not treat Pole’s remarks as the truth. Nothing in the surviving sources from the late 1520s points to Anne being involved in making the case for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine.

Henry’s writing box (c1525–27) bears the heraldic badges of both the king and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry may have kept the  pens he used to write his love letters to Anne in this box. © Bridgeman

On the contrary, many of the sources suggest that the opposite was true. In one of his love letters, Henry told Anne that he had spent four hours that day working on the book in support of his case for an annulment – collecting and elaborating on biblical examples that justified his stand – but he made no attempt to involve Anne in this. Henry sent Francis Bryan, a trusted courtier, to Italy to report on how things stood in the papal courts. Bryan took care to write to the king only, giving Henry the opportunity to tell Anne just how much, or how little, he pleased. She was not directing Henry’s marital diplomacy.

The suggestion that Anne Boleyn did not refuse to sleep with Henry until they could be married may diminish her in some people’s eyes – unfairly, in my view. If Anne insisted that Henry enjoy her as his sole mistress before she agreed to any relationship, it showed she was no doormat – rather, a woman who stood up for her interests as she understood them. Demanding to be Henry’s queen, though, would have been a step too far – and there is nothing to show that she did.

 

Timeline: The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn

c1525-26

Henry falls in love with Anne. He pursues her for a year before she agrees to become his mistress, though their sexual relationship continues for only a limited time – perhaps a year.

May 1527

Henry is convinced that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon contravenes divine law and is invalid. With Thomas Wolsey, lord chancellor, cardinal and legate, and many churchmen and lawyers, Henry tries to persuade the pope to grant an annulment.

Thomas Wolsey was cardinal and lord chancellor from 1515. © Bridgeman

Autumn/winter 1527

Henry requests a papal dispensation to permit him to marry a woman with whose sister he had enjoyed sexual relations, and with whom he had already had sexual relations.

11 July 1531

Henry sees Catherine of Aragon for the last time. She is forced to leave court, dying at Kimbolton Castle (in what’s now Cambridgeshire) in 1536.

Winter 1532/33

Henry sees Catherine of Aragon for the last time. She is forced to leave court, dying at Kimbolton Castle (in what’s now Cambridgeshire) in 1536.

May 1533

Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, pronounces Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon invalid.

Thomas Cranmer. © Bridgeman

1 June 1533

Anne is crowned queen in Westminster Abbey.

September 1533

Anne gives birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. This was a disappointment to the king.

May 1536

Anne is charged with and convicted of treason. She is alleged to have committed adultery with five men, including an incestuous liaison with her brother, George.

19 May 1536

Anne Boleyn is beheaded with a single sword strike at the Tower of London. 

An 18th-century illustration depicts Anne’s execution. © Getty

George Bernard is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton, and author of Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2011)

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