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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)

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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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