Anne Boleyn’s “Feminism”

From The Creation of Anne Boleyn, forthcoming 2013 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, copyright Susan Bordo.

A contemporary cartoon of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Mesinga (http://www.sarahmensinga.com/)

After his years with intelligent but conventional Katherine, Henry had found Anne, whose young womanhood had been shaped by confident women unafraid to speak their minds about virtually any subject to be an intellectually and erotically stimulating challenge.  But the court was still very much a boy’s club, in which Henry had delighted in surprising Katherine by showing up in her bedroom, one morning, 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.”[1]  Blushing bride, boisterous husband; it was just the way it was supposed to be.  But Anne was not a blusher.  Spontaneous and intense in an era when women were supposed to silently provide a pleasing backdrop for men’s adventures, Anne had never “stayed in her place”— which was exciting in a mistress, but a PR problem in a wife.  Even if Henry’s own fascination with Anne had remained unwavering (which it probably did not; after such long, unrealized pursuit, even the most enchanting woman would have to seem a little too “real”) her involvement (read: interference) in the political and religious struggles of the day was a continual annoyance to her enemies, who saw her as the mastermind behind every evil that properly should have been laid at Henry’s feet, from the destruction of Wolsey and More to the harsh treatment of Katherine and Mary.

We know from her actions that Anne was not content to flirt with power through womanly wiles and pillow-talk.  She was a player.  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 reformation, but an active participant herself. She was 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 Margueritte 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 Anne’s 11 year-old daughter, Elizabeth.[2]  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. She had Tyndale English-language New Testament (which was to become the basis for the King James Bible) read to her ladies at court.  She also introduced Henry both to Tyndale’s anti-papal “The Obedience of a Christian Man” and probably also Simon Fish’s “Supplication for the Beggars.”  James Carley, the curator of the books of Henry and his wives, also sees it as highly significant that all the anti-papal literature that Henry collected supporting his break with Rome dates from after he began to pursue Anne.[3] Although she may not have supplied the actual readings herself, the couple was almost certainly discussing the issues and theological arguments involved, as both were avid readers of the Bible.

This was a time of religious anarchy, and although clear-cut divisions between various sects were not yet established—in fact, the Protestant/Catholic divide was just forming itself—Anne clearly stood on the “evangelical” side of issues.  In those days, that chiefly meant a belief that the word of God was to be found in the Bible, unmediated by the interpretations of Popes and priests.  But direct, “personal” access to the Bible required, for all but the classically trained elite, that it be available to them in their own language.  This was a cause Anne passionately supported.   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.  Multiple corroborating sources from her own time remember her as “a patron of rising evangelicals, a protector of those who were harassed” both “a model and champion” of reformers, “in England and abroad.”[4]

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.  Anne’s took a risk in showing Tyndale and Fish to Henry, but it was one that initially paid off, as he immediately saw that they were on the side of Kings rather than Rome when it came to earthly authority.  (Henry’s reported reaction to discovering Tyndale—“This is a book for me and all kings to read”—is one of those quotes, enshrined even in The Tudors, that have become pop signatures of his recognition that he didn’t have to argue with the Pope, just ignore him. ) But even if Henry had no objection to Anne’s tutelage, others did, and their objections were a potent mix of misogyny and anti-Protestant fervor.  Much of the gossip that circulated around court and through Europe 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) enraged Catholic dogmatists, who were quick to accuse them of witchcraft—an old charge against “talkative,” impertinent women which was particularly handy when the women were “heretics.” From “heretic” to “witch” was a short step, and from “witch” to “insatiable carnal lust” and “consorting with the devil” took barely a breath.[5] The same year that Anne was executed, an effigy of evangelical Marguerite de Navarre, on a horse drawn by devils wearing placards bearing Luther’s name, appeared during a masquerade in Notre Dame.[6]

Protestants, of course, could be no less zealous than papists in their diatribes against women who presumed to interfere in men’s business—particularly when women who threatened to bring Catholicism back to the throne were on the horizon. Actually, the Protestants could be even more vehement, as they had a religious doctrine within which the Father, whether God, King, or husband, was the model of all authority.  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.”[7]   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.”[8] No wonder that Elizabeth felt it important that people see her as having “the heart and stomach of a King”![9]

Anne Boleyn’s problem, though, as far as public relations went, was the pro-Katherine, papist faction.  It was they who called her a “whore”, a would-be poisoner, and a vicious corrupter of otherwise sweet-tempered King Hal.  It was they 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. Her actual contribution to the scourge of Lutheranism, far from being minimized as it later was to be in the writings of early 20th century 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.”[10]

It was preposterous, and Henry certainly didn’t believe it.   But it created a political/religious “wing” of anti-Anne sentiment that could be exploited by Cromwell when he turned against Anne, and was a powerful obstacle in the way of Anne’s acceptance by the (still largely Catholic) English people.  In gaining that acceptance—and with it some protection from the winds of shifting politics—Anne already had several strikes against her.  She had supplanted a beloved queen.  She was rumored to be “haughty” and suspiciously “French”–and even worse than that, a vocal, intellectual, “interfering” woman.  Jane Seymour, when she entered the picture in 1536, 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.  True, Jane was a believer in the “old ways” and a supporter of Mary’s rights, which would have endeared her to Chapuys no matter what her personality.  But although later historians would question just how docile Jane actually was, in her own time she was constantly commended for her gentleness, compassion, and submissiveness, which she advertised in her own motto: “Bound to obey and serve.” With few exceptions, the stereotype has not lost its grip on popular culture.

With Anne it was quite the opposite. Even those who shared her religious views, like Cromwell, had no scruples about spreading nasty rumors when it suited their purposes. For Anne’s reputation as a woman who simply would not behave as she should had created an atmosphere that did not incline men to be her protectors, but rather freed them to take the gloves off when fighting with her.  And 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, unleashed his ruthlessness, and insured his success in planning her downfall.  “Had she been gracious and modest,” writes 19th century commentator James Froude, “she might have partially overcome the prejudice against her.”[11] “Gracious and modest” seem like laudable qualities.  But what they meant in the context of the times and why Anne could never play the part is laid bare by David Loades: “Anne…could not pretend to be a fool or a nonentity, and the self-effacement customary in a royal consort did not suit her style at all…In many ways her sharpness of perception and readiness of wit made her more suitable for the council chamber than for the boudoir.”[12]  But women did not belong in the council chamber.

Anne herself recognized that she had over-stepped the boundaries of appropriate wifely behavior.  At her trial, insisting that she was “clear of all the offences which you have laid to my charge,” she went on to acknowledge, not only her “jealous fancies” but her failure to show the King “that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited.”[13]  Anne’s recognition that she had not shown the King enough humility, in this context, shows remarkable insight into the gender politics that undoubtedly played a role in her downfall.  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 wishful, anachronistic thinking of a 21st century woman looking for would-be feminists in the shadows of every historical era.  But actually, educated women of her time were very much aware of the various debates concerning the “querelles des femmes,” which is 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, and which 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 about “the woman question” in England, beginning with Juan Luis Vives Instruction of a Christian Woman (1523), written expressly for Mary, and insisting, against Pizan’s arguments, on the necessarily subordinate role of women.  The debate 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”.[14]  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 some mynd that a man hath, the same reason and speche, she gothe to the same ende of blysfulnes (spirituality], where shall be no 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.”[15]

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 women’s “cause.”  There’s no evidence that Anne felt similarly.  But she had learned to value her body and her ideas, and ultimately recognized that there was something unsettling about this to Henry, understood that this played a role in her downfall.  “I do not say I have always shown him that humility,” she said at her trial, insistent even then on speaking what she believed.[16]  Anne wasn’t a feminist.  But she did step over the ever-moving line that marked the boundary of the comfort zone for men of her era, and for all the unease and backlash she inspired, she may as well have been one.


[1] (Starkey, Virtuous Prince 2008, 330)

[2] (Stjerna 2009, 152)

[3] (Carley 2004, 8)

[4] (Freeman 1995, 819)

[5] (Bordo 1987, 128-9)

[6] (Knecht 2008, 231)

[7] (Jansen 2002, 1)

[8] (Jansen 2008, 15)

[9] For more on this famous stance taken by Elizabeth I, see (Levine 1994)

[10] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: April 1536, 1-20,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87958&strquery=”spread of Lutheranism”

[11] (Froude 1891, 384)

[12] (Loades 2009, 69)

[13] (Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn 2010, 230)

[14] (Jordan 1990, 122)

[15] (Ibid., 123)

[16] (Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn 2010, 230)

1 Comment

Filed under Anne and Gender, Anne Through the Ages, Book Excerpts

One response to “Anne Boleyn’s “Feminism”

  1. AMAZING! Abslolutely love it! Impeccable writing as always, dear Susan! I cannot wait for the book to be published here in Portugal!

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