How to Read the Love Letters of a Tudor King

Henry VIII's writing desk

This is condensed version of a section of a chapter from  Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and is her intellectual property.  Do not quote, reproduce, or cite without author’s permission.  

A note on this “note”: Out of context it may sound like I’m saying that Henry was not passionately in love with Anne. He was! I have a whole chapter on WHY he was. This particular section is meant to challenge two common mistakes: (1) reading the love letters out of context of the conventions of the times; (2) not realizing that “courtly love” was changing. The Anne/Henry story embodies both the “old” and the “new.”

How to Read the Love Letters of a Tudor King

In 2009, as part of an exhibit at the British Library marking the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the throne, a letter described by David Starkey as a piece of the most “explosive royal correspondence” in the history of England was displayed.  For the general public, it created quite a stir.  “Henry VIII reveals his softer side in never-before-seen gushing love letter to Anne Boleyn” read the headlines. Tudor scholars were already well aware of the existence of this letter, along with sixteen others, all undated, which were revealed roughly 50 years after they were written to be in the Vatican, presumably stolen from among Anne’s possessions in order to make the case, should it be needed, that Henry’s request for a divorce stemmed from erotic rather than theological considerations. Passionate they certainly are.  But do they reveal Henry’s “softer side,” as the headlines proclaimed?

To answer that question, we have to leave our own era and enter another.  For one thing, unlike contemporary bloggers, who say pretty much anything that they want to say without worrying about offending anybody, Tudor correspondents were constantly mindful of what was respectful, what was conventionally required, and what would make the best impression. They flattered, they made grand gestures of allegiance and everlasting commitment, and they often lied—without ever feeling that they were doing anything “wrong.” For another, Henry in particular was a master at contriving affection and devotion to suit his purposes.  A relatively benign example: newly married to Catherine of Aragon, Henry wrote to her father, King Ferdinand of Spain: “Day by day, her inestimable virtues shine forth, flourish and increase, so that even if we were still free, it is she that we would choose.” This letter, we first should bear in mind, was written to King Ferdinand, Catherine’s father, and Henry’s father-in-law.  It would have been unthinkable for Henry to say anything less praising about Catherine.  But he also trotted out exactly the same rhetorical flourish some years later, attempting to prove to Rome that his motives for divorce from Catherine were pious:

“And as touching the Queen, if it be adjudged the law of God that she is my lawful wife, there was never thing more pleasant nor more acceptable to me in my life, both for the discharge and clearing of my conscience and also for the good qualities and conditions the which I know to be in her.  For I assure you all, that beside her noble parentage of which she is descended, she is a woman of the most gentleness, of most humility and buxomness, yea and of all good qualities appertaining to nobility, she is without comparison, as I this twenty years almost have had the true experiments, so that if I were to marry again, if the marriage might be good I would surely choose her above all other women.” (Ridley, 176; emphasis mine.)

This is pretty difficult to buy, as in 1527 Henry was already writing those beseeching letters to Anne Boleyn, describing being “stricken with the dart of love” for over a year, begging her to give herself up “body and heart” to him, and sending her charming love tokens such as a freshly slaughtered buck.  It’s doubtful that he expected anyone to believe that he wanted more than anything else to stay married to Catharine.  But a certain amount of play-acting was required, for his image, possibly for Catherine’s, and to allow the church to grant the divorce with a clean conscience. He was saying what was expected of a just, loving Prince.

Was he “acting” too, in his letters to Anne?  We want to believe that they, of all his letters and proclamations, reveal the existence of an “authentic” Henry, throbbing with longing for Anne’s presence, agony over her absence, and turmoil over his feelings.  And, on the face of it, they certainly read that way:

“My mistress and friend, my heart and I surrender ourselves into your hands, beseeching you to hold us commended to your favor, and that by absence your affection to us may not be lessened:  for it were a great pity to increase our pain, of which absence produces enough and more than I could ever have thought could be felt..at least on my side; I hope the like on yours, assuring you that on my part the pain of absence is already too great for me; and when I think of the increase of that which I am forced to suffer, it would be almost intolerable, but for the firm hope I have of your unchangeable affection for me: and to remind you of this sometimes, and seeing that I cannot be personally present with you, I now send you the nearest thing I can to that, namely, my picture set in a bracelet, with the whole of the device, which you already know, if it should please you.  This is from the hand of your loyal servant and friend, H.R.”

The mere act of writing such a letter was by itself an indication of the depth of Henry’s yearning for Anne. Although intellectually accomplished, he was an impatient and restless personality; in our time, he probably would be diagnosed with ADD.  He read voraciously, but only after others had scoured the contents of books for him, and presented them in digest form. He didn’t even like to read his letters. And he absolutely hated to respond to them.   His secretaries had to cajole him to deal with his correspondence, which he put off as long as possible, and wouldn’t deal with until he had returned from hunting and had a good dinner.

But Henry had been raised on tales of King Arthur’s round table, virtuous knights, maidens in distress and chivalrous deeds, and he knew courting was required.   When he was knighted himself—becoming Duke of York at just 3 and a half years old—he had gone through all the Arthurian rituals a grown man would have gone through, and after a purifying bath, told that his duty, as a knight, was to be strong in the faith of the Holy Church, love and defend the king, and protect all widows and oppressed maidens. Nobility, generosity, mercy, justice, and the power of true love were the stuff of his boyish fantasies.

However, by 1526, when Henry began to pursue Anne, Arthurian chivalry, a deeply spiritualized ideal, was well on its way to being transformed into the political “art” of courtly behavior, aimed at creating the right impression, even if deceptive, to achieve ones ends.  It’s all there, in Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, which, although not  published until 1528, “summarized” the new rules of courtly love.  The Book of the Courtier surprised me. I was raised on bedtime stories—and later, movies—with strong, pure-of-purpose male leads (which set up some unrealistic expectations from the boys I dated) from Alexander the Great (my father’s favorite) to the self-sacrificing Arthur and absurdly handsome Lancelot of Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot.  When I thought “courtly love,” I imagined knights on horseback worshiping ladies from afar, fighting great battles to win their love, their minds full of noble thoughts and dreams of honor.  That’s how Henry the boy probably imagined chivalry, too, as court minstrels performed and sang of the heroic exploits of Jason, Hector, Charlemagne, Arthur, Lancelot, and Galahad.  But by the time Henry was born, the printing press was competing with oral traditions for the hearts and minds of would-be-courtiers, and along with print came popular books of “instructions” for courting, which, like all guidebooks, replaced romance with formula. This is the genre in which Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier belongs.  It is not so much a celebration of chivalry as it is an advice-book on how to “perform” it.

Earlier treatises, such as Andreas Capellanus’ The Art of Courtly Love, had treated love, in true Platonic fashion, as a god who seizes and obsesses the lover, putting his soul in a state of turmoil (“When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates,” “He who is not jealous cannot love,” “He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little”, “A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by thought of his beloved”).  The beloved, on his/her part (depending on whether it’s Plato or Capellanus), is more detached, cool, and inclined to play hard-to-get.  Over-heated and possessed, the lover must then learn how to manage his passion so it will not self-destruct in rash action, jealousy, or carnality. Castiglione, in contrast, is less concerned with the state of the lover’s soul than honing his skill at seducing the beloved. It is she who is to be “managed,” not the lover’s tumultuous passions. And in the service of that goal, all manner of deception and manipulation is permitted.

The book is full of clever, deceptive strategies for seduction.  Here, Castiglione wonders (through one of the characters in his fictional conversations about the virtues and conduct of the ideal courtier) how any girl could escape such an onslaught of “snares”:

What day, what hour, ever passes that the persecuted girl is not besought by the lover with money, gifts, and all things that must please her? When can she ever go to her window, but she shall always see her persistent lover pass, silent in word but with eyes that speak, with sad and languid face, with those burning sighs, often the most abundant tears?  When does she ever go forth to church or other place, but he is always before her, and meets her at every turn of the street with his melancholy passion depicted in his eyes, as if he were expecting instant death? …Then at night she can never wake but she hears music, or at least his unquiet spirit sighing about the house walls and making lamentable sounds….I could not in a thousand years rehearse all the wiles that men employ to bring women to their wishes, for the wiles are infinite; and besides those that every man finds for himself, writers have not been lacking who have ingeniously composed books and therein taken every pains to teach how women are to be duped in these matters.”  (p. 215)

Castiglione’s jaded, ironic tone makes it clear how he regards these practices:as a kind of socially sanctioned harassment (he didn’t have the word, but he sure gets close to the concept), in which it was acceptable to dissemble, badger, and lie in order to “dupe” the woman into falling in love with her suitor.  Among the tactics recommended was the fictional suspension of the social positions of lover and beloved.  Ignoring actual rank, swearing total allegiance, the lover is advised to address the beloved with deep humility, abject before her, totally submissive. But it’s all a ploy, designed to take advantage of the woman’s vanity and gullibility.  Or, if she was cleverer or more cynical, to engage her in a pleasurable fiction. With all this in mind, now consider the letter in which Henry offers to make Anne his “maitresse en titre”:

“In debating with myself the contents of your letters I have been put to a great agony; not knowing how to understand them, whether to my disadvantage as shown in some places, or to my advantage as in others.  I beseech you now with all my heart definitely to let me know your whole mind as to the love between us; for necessity compels me to plague you for a reply, having been for more than a year now struck by the dart of love, and being uncertain either of failure or of finding a place in your heart and affection, which point has certainly kept me for some time from naming you my mistress, since if you love me with an ordinary love the name is not appropriate to you, seeing that it stands for an uncommon position very remote from the ordinary; but if it pleases you to do the duty of a true, loyal mistress and friend, and to give yourself body and heart to me, who have been, and will be, your very loyal servant (if your rigour does not forbid me), I promise you that not only the name will be due to you, but also to take you as my sole mistress, casting off all others than yourself out of mind and affection, and to serve you only; begging you to make me a complete reply to this my rude letter as to how far and in what I can trust; and if it does not please you to reply in writing, to let me know of some place where I can have it by word of mouth, the which place I will seek out with all my heart.  No more for fear of wearying you.  Written by the hand of him who would willingly remain your HR”

“I beseech you,” “if it pleases you,” “begging you,” “fear of wearying you,” “your loyal servant”, “to serve you only.” Etc. etc. Deeply felt emotion, or a pleasurable fiction, designed to woo and win?

My own recommendation is that we approach these letters as embodying the contradictions of Henry’s own personality and place in historical time.  It was a time of transition, and Henry stands at the cusp of enormous cultural changes.  He is in love, yes, and with a strong, unconventional woman.  But he was never the helpless swain that he makes himself out to be in these letters.  A corollary of accepting Henry’s being helplessly in love has often been to cast Anne is an enchantress, with Henry as the besotted recipient of her spells.  In these letters, on such a reading, she keeps him bewitched by carefully and strategically manipulating his emotions.  Alison Weir:  “[S]he handled him with such calculated cleverness that there is no doubt that the crown of England meant more to her than the man through whom she would wear it…[E]verything she did, or omitted to do, in relation to Henry was calculated to increase his ardor.  In this respect she never failed.” (173-74, Six Wives)

Weir’s chief evidence for Anne’s manipulation is the fact that Anne “often failed to reply to [his letters].”  But the fact is that we don’t know when or whether or in what way Anne replied, for we don’t have her letters to Henry. Historians sometimes write as though we did.  Weir again: “If she detected a hint of irritation in his letters, she dealt with it by quickly reverting from the unattainable to the affectionate, and sending a loving reply.”  Weir is a wonderful historian. But the “loving replies” in response to “hints of irritation” that Weir refers to exist only in her own imagination. Henry’s letters are unfailingly courteous and deferential; he moans and groans over his lovesick “agony” but he never scolds her. And since we don’t have Anne’s letters, we can only infer what she said from Henry’s.

And Henry’s letters, I have suggested, are more complicated than simply an expression of his “softer side.” Henry VIII believed in Arthurian honor, which served and protected women as one of its highest goals, and for which Arthur had stood nobly and patiently by while his best knight and his wife engaged in a long affair.  But he himself could never abide by anything except his own supremacy.  He was also an instrumental thinker, for whom the ends ultimately justified all means, and he lived in a time when kingly authority—not “knighthood”—was in flower. Raised on the romance of one set of ideals, he was capable of setting aside his dislike of letter-writing to pen seventeen love-stricken letters to Anne.  But we are mistaken if we take what he says in those letters too literally.  He wanted her, yes.  But he was never her servant—not even emotionally—and even in these letters, he never forgot that.

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Filed under Anne and Gender, Book Excerpts, Life in 16th century England

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