Tag Archives: Mary I

The Sisters Tudor: An Evolution in Evaluating Mary I and Elizabeth I

Mary and Elizabeth TudorThe following post is from Natalie Sweet, research assistant to Susan Bordo. She is the creator of Semper Eadem: An Elizabeth I Blog, and is currently at work on a book project that focuses on life within Abraham Lincoln’s White House (you can read a sample of that project here). The following is taken from a piece Natalie wrote in 2008, Two Tudor Monarchs: Analyzing Queenship in Early Modern England.

Scholarly literature on the two Tudor queens regnant, Mary I and Elizabeth I, suggests a number of past themes about their reigns. Authors once obsessed over Mary’s “bloody” moniker and Catholic faith, while others analyzed Elizabeth’s Protestant policies and her “Glorianna” status.  In the late twentieth century, however, the development of fields in women’s history and gender analysis signaled new ways in which to conceptualize the two sisters.  Obviously, historians had always recognized the fact that Mary and Elizabeth were anomalies as female rulers, but there was little discussion about what being a female ruler in early modern England meant.  Therefore, historians wrote their biographies and political histories with little consideration of how female rule challenged and altered the political scene.[1]  Not until the prime of women’s history in the 1980s did authors consider in detail Mary’s and Elizabeth’s struggle in a patriarchal world.[2]

By 1997, the number of articles on Mary and Elizabeth in the women’s history tradition steadily increased. [3]  Eventually, work on Mary I incorporated a method that had already been utilized to study Elizabeth’s reign: gender analysis.[4]   Today, efforts to locate both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s role in formulating English queenship through gender analysis demonstrates how far the study of the two queens has come.[5]  Where mid-twentieth century histories once reflected both the misogynist viewpoints of the queens’ sixteenth century counterparts and the author writing about them, the advent of women’s history and gender studies allowed historians to discover how the queens’ sex substantially affected how they projected their image and participated politically. This evolution in historical methods likewise produced an evolving definition of “success” for the two queens.  While Elizabeth’s unmarried status condemned her in mid-twentieth century misogynist texts, Mary was rescued from her “bloody” image because she represented a good wife and aspiring mother.  However, as women’s history became more popular, Elizabeth gradually gained respect for managing her autonomy while Mary suffered for her perceived failure in marrying Phillip II.  It was not until after historians fully “rehabilitated” Elizabeth’s image through gender analysis that they in turn discovered the legitimate successes of Mary as a female monarch.

In 1943, Theodore Maynard released his simply titled Queen Elizabeth.  With World War II still raging and the London blitzkrieg excruciatingly fresh in everyone’s minds, a biography of Elizabeth I and England’s triumph over the “invincible” Spanish Armada would have been a welcomed read.  Instead, Maynard primarily focused on the problems of Elizabeth’s reign, especially her treatment of Catholics.  Maynard gave no consideration to the inherent problems of female rule in a patriarchal society, and, indeed, wrote about Elizabeth and prior queens consort and regnant in a misogynist tone.  He described Anne Boleyn as a “shrew,” and deemed Jane Grey “a little prig” because of “her refusal to having a parting with her husband, on the grounds that they were soon to meet in heaven.”[6]  But he saved his most demeaning analysis for Elizabeth.  He believed that any ordinary woman would have broken under the strain that Elizabeth was under as queen, and this indicated that she was “no ordinarily constituted woman.”[7]  Instead, he believed Elizabeth suffered from “a sexual abnormality aggravated by syphilis.”[8] For this reason, he held “compassion for a woman so tortured in her body and soul as often not to be held responsible,” for her actions and, to her credit, believed the “abnormality” was “an asset to Elizabeth as a politician.”[9]

VictorianSistersIn this way, Maynard made Elizabeth into no woman at all.  He explained her successes as a result of her unfeminine anatomy while still blaming her failures on the “feminine spite” that “stifled her decent impulses.”[10]  Mary received no better treatment from Maynard in 1943 or in his 1955 biography, Bloody Mary. In Queen Elizabeth, Maynard found Mary to be “surely the best woman who ever sat upon the English throne, one absolutely devoted to what she believed to be right.”[11]  However, he also found her feminine virtue to be what made her “a poor politician.”[12]  By the release of Bloody Mary, Maynard continued to regard Mary’s reign in a misogynist context.  Mary received his sympathy because she- “not only as a woman…but…a very inexperienced woman”- correctly believed that she needed a husband to advise her.[13]  Because of her sex, Maynard asserted that readers should save their “reprehension” “for the men upon whom she relied and who failed her.”[14]

In brief instances, Maynard seemed close to addressing the problems of female rule.  However, like other books written both before and during the time, he ascribed the “real” problem to something other than Mary’s sex.  For example, Maynard noted that many of Edward VI’s councilors objected to Mary becoming her brother’s regent because she was a woman.  Maynard completely tossed the argument aside, however, in favor of his belief that “the real argument was that Mary…was a Papist at heart.”[15]  While Maynard’s assessment had validity, he missed the opportunity to review why the councilors could make such a statement.  Twenty-four years later, David Loades likewise missed the significance of sex in his 1979 Reign of Mary Tudor.  The political biography sought to recapture the dynamics of Mary’s overlooked reign, and Loades showed little interest in the social, let alone gendered, aspects of her rule.  Therefore, his chapter on “The Spanish Marriage,” a topic of obsession for later historians of women’s history and gender, paid little attention to why Mary felt the need to marry or what the consequences of a queen regnant’s marriage might entail.  Instead, Loades puzzled over the point that “[l]ess than twenty years previously Catherine of Aragon had been a popular queen and it is not very easy to understand why Englishmen should have conceived a particular dislike for Spaniards by 1553.”[16]

The development of women’s studies in the 1970s helped to halt the misogynist texts generated about Mary and Elizabeth.  However, it was not until the 1980s that historians of women’s history began to view either Mary or Elizabeth as a viable topic. Allison Heisch attributed this to their belief that “exceptional women are not representative women.”[17] In her 1980 article “Queen Elizabeth I and the Persistence of Patriarchy,” Heisch described Elizabeth’s struggle with patriarchal society in order to understand “those systems which oppress and exclude women” even at the “exceptional” level.[18]  Elizabeth’s councilors viewed her primarily as a bridge between “Henry VIII to some unnamed, but certainly male heir,” and spoke to her as if they were “lecturing a daughter on her duty.”[19] Comparing her to Gertrude Stein, Heisch claimed Elizabeth fought such treatment by becoming “an honorary male,” a woman who legitimized her rule by running with “the boys” and styling herself as different from other females.[20]

Constance Jordan’s in-depth examination of women’s rule in sixteenth century literature went beyond Heisch’s to examine the sex-related problems that both sisters faced in her 1987 article “Women’s Rule in Sixteenth-Century Thought.”  Noting that “[t]he prospect of [a queen’s] government could hardly have been regarded with anything but concern,” Jordan examined how male writers used Mary’s sex to attack her legitimacy but formulated excuses about queenship to defend Elizabeth’s ascension and more “abnormal” reign.[21] Mary’s religion was the primary concern of Protestants like John Knox, Thomas Becon, and Christopher Goodman, but they principally referenced her sex to denounce her. They firmly stated that God made woman inferior to man and submissive to her husband, and Mary’s ascension was thus “the principal mark of a tyrant” because she “step[ped] out of her place.”[22] More seriously, they charged that Mary’s marriage to the foreign, Catholic Phillip II placed England in danger since he could claim his rights as a husband at any time.[23]  Jordan noted that although Elizabeth sidestepped Mary’s problem by refusing to marry, her decision made her more of an anomaly in England’s now Protestant, marriage valuing culture.  However, since Elizabeth was viewed as a defender of Protestantism, there was a reluctance to make misogynist attacks.  Instead, defenders like John Calvin and John Aylmer explained that, like Deborah in the Bible, the “exceptional woman may be ‘raised up by divine authority.’”[24]

FamilyPortraitJordan’s and Heisch’s articles paved the way for Susan Bassnett to pen her 1988 Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective.  Bassnett believed it was time to confront “the strain running through the work of even the most eminent historians that reveal[ed] an uneasiness about Elizabeth’s sex” in a full-length book.[25]  Tackling misogynist texts head-on, Bassnett reiterated the problems of female rule discussed by Jordan and Heisch while simultaneously confronting the aspects of Elizabeth’s reign that could not be blamed on her sex.  For example, Bassnett believed that grumbles about Elizabeth’s feminine “whimsical and capricious” nature were contradicted by her passionate faithfulness to those who she truly cared about.[26]  Likewise, Bassnett did not, as Maynard did, blame Elizabeth’s “feminine nature” on her tendency to demand flattery or banish those who had married without her permission.  Bassnett believed such views were anachronistic “in a world where formal behaviour [sic] played a very important role,” and insisted that “the elaborate sequence of flattery and obsequies that surrounded her [reflected] ritual rather than…realistic demonstrations of feeling.”[27]

Bassnett, along with Heisch and Jordan, demonstrated that being female forced Mary and Elizabeth to deal with problems that no king had ever had to contend with.  Carole Levin’s The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power enhanced their studies by placing Elizabeth’s reign under gender analysis “to understand the intersection of politics with gender, of sexuality with power.”[28]  Rather than simply describing the problems or results that Elizabeth faced as a female monarch, as Heisch, Jordan, and Bassnett did, Levin explored gender constructions and role expectations to determine exactly how Elizabeth surpassed her gender and unmarried status.  More importantly, Levin used the technique on Elizabeth’s subjects to determine how they responded to the queen’s manipulation of her sexual image as well.  In the process, she determined that although the problems Elizabeth faced during her reign – difficulties with nobles, quarrels with Parliament, and unpopular wars – were universal for monarchs, “[t]he way these problems manifested themselves in Elizabeth’s reign had to do with her sex.”[29]  For example, in order to evoke love from her subjects, Elizabeth utilized male and female imagery to secure her status.  She portrayed herself as a wife, a mother, and a female saint while simultaneously taking on the king’s mantle as a magical healer and warrior to maintain her tenuous position.   However, while Levin acknowledged, “Elizabeth was far more successful than Mary and the other women rulers of her time,” she also acknowledged that her refusal to wed, and thus not provide an heir, caused “serious problems” as well.[30]  Her subjects feared civil war, and they voiced their uneasiness about their female monarch in a variety of ways.  In popular literature, poems, and even recorded dreams, Levin discovered that Elizabeth’s subjects variously viewed her as a “sacred monarch” and a “wanton and whore “ at different points in her reign.[31]

Levin’s book marked an important point in scholarship about Elizabeth.  No longer could serious-minded scholars portray the younger Tudor queen as Thomas Maynard had, as a sexually deformed dissembler whose feminine nature made her a vain and capricious ruler.  Instead, historians of women’s history and gender analysis brought her into her own.  They acknowledged that Elizabeth’s sex was a legitimate handicap that, in personal instances, she handled surprisingly well.  As Heisch pointed out, her sex made her susceptible to the bullying of her advisors, but Elizabeth largely avoided the problem by making herself an honorary male.  Heisch may have unhappily noted that Elizabeth’s management of her “sexual problem” “did nothing to upset or interfere with male notions of how the world was or should be organized,” but Basset asserted that Elizabeth’s “feminist attitude” marked a triumph for all early modern women.[32]  Because Elizabeth had never allowed her sex to “diminish her prestige” but had utilized it to increase her esteem instead, Bassnett described Elizabeth’s reign as “a unique and extraordinary achievement” “in an age when the social value of women was in retreat.”[33]  Without these revisions to historical scholarship in the 1980s, it is unlikely that Levin could have argued in 1994 that Elizabeth blurred gender lines to be “more than a man and more than a woman too” in an admiring tone.[34]

At the same time that historians in women’s studies positively revised and rehabilitated Elizabeth’s image, however, they also steadily injured the already poor image of Mary.  Prior to the 1980s, “Bloody” Mary’s reign was popularly remembered for the number of Protestants she burned at the stake and the loss of Calais to France.  After the women’s histories of the 1980s were published, she also became the sister whose disastrous political marriage became an example for her successful sister not to follow.  While Heisch only briefly mentioned Mary’s example, Jordan’s article expounded on the issue, blatantly noting that “[b]y refusing to marry, Elizabeth could avoid risking the loss of control that Mary had experienced.”[35] Likewise, Bassnett viewed Mary’s reign as a lesson in what to avoid as a female ruler, commenting that, “Elizabeth must have seen that in order to stay in control,” she had to avoid the fate of her sister, whose “capacity to govern [was] impaired by the depth of…personal misery” her marriage caused her.[36]  Maynard may have made Mary into a Stepford wife in his chauvinistic biography and Loades may have considered her sex as an afterthought, but at least their treatments of the eldest Tudor queen attributed a few positive qualities to her.

The increasing commentary on the “successful” Elizabeth at least reminded historians of women’s history that there was another Tudor queen.  Since Mary was the “unsuccessful one,” however, the one that patriarchal society had seemingly dominated, historians portrayed her in a sympathetic light.  After all, not much could be expected from the unexceptional sister who had lost her autonomy when she married.  In the tradition of women’s history, Glyn Redworth’s 1997 article “’Matters Impertinent to Women’: Male and Female Monarchy under Phillip and Mary” focused on the Spanish marriage.  More specifically, Redworth zeroed in on Phillip’s influence over Mary.  She contradicted Loades’s assessment of the Hapsburg monarch’s influence, noting that he truly involved himself in Mary’s government to “’make up for other matters which are impertinent to women.’”[37]  As a result, Mary, as the “the first female in English history effectively to rule,” found that “the kingly images she could appropriate were few and far between.”[38]  Redworth noted that when the queen married, she lost both those few images and her will to oversee “kingly” issues altogether. Mary as a wife “would nearly always be obliged to surrender her command in the field,” although she had once “take[n] up arms to put down rebellion” after her brother’s death.[39]  As her subjects suspected, Mary’s sex outweighed any “constitutional attempt to cuckold Phillip [and] restrict his political influence” because “[h]is position as Mary’s husband belied all limitations.”[40]

M&ETombRedworth’s Mary seemed to contribute nothing more to the formulation of English queenship than an example of what could happen when a queen lost her autonomy.  In contrast, Judith M. Richards, through a combination of women’s history and gender analysis, suggested, “Mary’s reign is important in its own right, as well as a necessary introduction for any wider study of English female monarchy.”[41]  Instead of focusing solely on the Spanish marriage in her 1997 article “Mary Tudor as ‘Sole Quene’? Gendering Tudor Monarchy,” Richards examined Mary’s use of gendered symbolism and authority both before and after she wed Phillip.  She discovered that, like Elizabeth, Mary incorporated a number of female and male symbolisms into her coronation ceremony to remind her subjects of both her political and physical body.  Indeed, Richards asserted that Mary’s approaches to queenship “subsequently defined [the] central symbolic forms of Elizabeth’s reign and shaped their readings.”[42]  Additionally, although “how far a married queen could be a king remained a problematic question” at the end of her reign, Mary “produced some ingenious constitutional propositions” by marrying Phillip.[43]  Redworth asserted that the most important constitutional issue, “the ultimate political question…of whether the realm belonged to the monarch or the people” was raised because of the Spanish marriage.[44]

Richards’s article marked the resurrection of Mary’s image and the incorporation of gender analysis to study the eldest Tudor queen.  Suddenly, instead of being the queen whose mistakes Elizabeth avoided at all costs, Mary became the sister whose advantageous use of male and female symbolism provided Elizabeth with an example to emulate.  Likewise, as Richards had hoped, another scholar took up the challenge of incorporating Mary into his introduction to the problems of female queenship.  In The Lion Roared: The Problems of Female Rule in English History, Charles Beem utilized gender analysis to examine the problems of queenship from Matilda to Victoria.  Interestingly, Beem did not examine Elizabeth in-depth because he believed “her position as the archetype of English female rule” had caused her to too “long crow[d] the centerstage [sic] among gender studies concerning the nature of female rule in England.”[45]  Instead, he analyzed Mary and the other English queens to determine what they contributed to the formulation of English queenship.

Beem “identifie[d] Mary as the original architect of [his] conceptualization of female rulership within the social constructs of sixteenth-century womanhood.”[46]  Like Richards, Beem examined the gendered language and images that Mary manipulated in order to “inhabit [the] conventional constructs of womanhood” while “remain[ing] within the patriarchal parameters of legitimized female power, avoiding the mistakes that had cost the empress Matilda her coronation four centuries earlier.”[47]  Beem went beyond Richards or any other analysis of the Spanish marriage, however, when he noted that Mary’s pursuit of the Act concerning Regal Power emasculated Phillip.  Historians of women’s history had only asserted that the act affected Phillip’s pride, not his masculinity.  Beem noted that Mary’s “forceful” emergence “from behind the screen of feminine authority” in such times “served as a blueprint for Elizabeth I’s marriage negotiations with various continental princes after she became queen.”[48]  While admitting that the elder Tudor queen provided both good and bad examples for Elizabeth to follow, Beem asserted, “Mary triumphed against formidable odds…while creating a public image of benign queenship as she arranged for a marriage guaranteeing her autonomous sovereignty of queen.”

Over the past sixty years, scholars traveled a long ways in their studies on Elizabeth and Mary Tudor.  Certainly, no scholar of women’s history and gender analysis today could seriously consider the types of assertions that Thomas Maynard made in 1943.  Likewise, it is increasingly obvious that any future political study of the Tudor queens must include at least some discussion, conducted either in the tradition of women’s history or gender analysis, of their anomalous female position.  Elizabeth’s status as “the Virgin Queen” may make it achingly tempting to solely reference her as the example of extraordinary female queenship, but historians of gender analysis clearly demonstrate through their examinations of both sisters that Mary cannot be forgotten.  Thanks to the evolution in historical methods, it is unmistakable that Mary contributed a model of queenship, with both good and bad aspects, for Elizabeth to follow or ignore.

 

Works Cited

Bassnett, Susan.  Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective.  Oxford: Berg, 1988.

Beem, Charles.  The Lioness Roared: The Problems of Female Rule in English History. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.

Heisch, Allison.  “Queen Elizabeth I and the Persistence of Patriarchy.” Feminist Review 4 (1980): 45-56.

Jordan, Constance.  “Woman’s Rule in Sixteenth-Century British Political Thought.” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (Autumn, 1987): 421-451.

Levin, Carole.  The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and    Power. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Loades, David.  The Reign of Mary Tudor.  London and New York: Longman, Inc., 1979.

Maynard, Theodore. Queen Elizabeth. London: Hollis & Carter LTD, 1943.

Maynard, Theodore.  Bloody Mary. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1955.

Redworth, Glyn.  “’Matters Impertinent to Women’: Male and Female Monarchy under Phillip and Mary.” The English Historical Review 447 (Jun., 1997): 597-613.

Richards, Judith M. “Mary Tudor as ‘Sole Quene’?: Gendering Tudor Monarchy.” The Historical Journal 40 (Dec. 1997): 895-924.


[1] Theodore Maynard, Queen Elizabeth (London: Hollis & Carter, 1943);

Theodore Maynard, Bloody Mary (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1955);

David Loades, The Reign of Mary Tudor (London and New York: Longman, Inc, 1979).

[2] Allison Heisch, “Queen Elizabeth I and the Persistence of Patriarchy,” Feminist Review 4 (1980);

Constance Jordan, “Woman’s Rule in Sixteenth-Century British Political Thought,” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (Autumn, 1987);

Susan Bassnett, Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective (Oxford: Berg, 1988).

[3] Glyn Redworth, “’Matters Impertinent to Women’: Male and Female Monarchy under Phillip and Mary,” The English Historical Review 447 (Jun., 1997);

Judith M. Richards, “’To Promote a Woman to Beare Rule’: Talking of Queens in Mid-Tudor England,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 28 (Spring, 1997).

 

 

 

[4] Judith M. Richards, “Mary Tudor as ‘Sole Quene’?: Gendering Tudor Monarchy,” The Historical Journal 40 (Dec. 1997);

Carole Levin, The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).

[5] Charles Beem, The Lioness Roared: The Problem of Female Rule in English History (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006).

[6] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 5, 50.

[7] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 135.

[8] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 135.

[9] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 139, 135.

[10] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 262.

[11] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 62.

[12] Maynard, Queen Elizabeth, 62.

[13] Maynard, Bloody Mary, 155.

[14] Maynard, Bloody Mary, 285.

[15] Maynard, Bloody Mary, 80.

[16] Loades, 69-70.

[17] Heisch, 45.

[18] Heisch, 54.

[19] Heisch, 48-49.

[20] Heisch, 45.

[21] Jordan, 421.

[22] Jordan, 432.

[23] Jordan, 427.

[24] Jordan, 437.

[25] Bassnett, 120.

[26] Bassnett, 9.

[27] Bassnett, 11.

[28] Levin, 9.

[29] Levin, 9.

[30] Levin, 8-9.

[31] Levin, 11, 66.

[32] Heisch, 53;

Bassnett, 125.

[33] Bassnett, 15.

[34] Levin, 147.

[35] Heisch, 49;

Jordan, 429.

[36] Bassnett, 40.

[37] Redworth, 598.

[38] Redworth, 599.

[39] Redworth, 611.

[40] Redworth, 611.

[41] Richards, 895.

[42] Redworth, 895.

[43] Richards, 924.

[44] Richards, 924.

[45] Beem, 12.

[46] Beem, 22.

[47] Beem, 98.

[48] Beem 98.

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Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

Reflections on Anne’s Remarks at her Trial by Susan Bordo

The following post originally appeared on “On the Tudor Trail,” a website you should definitely check out if you haven’t already!

Full references available upon request from: Bordo@uky.edu. Please do not quote or cite without author’s permission.

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.”[1]

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.
[1] From an interview with Susan Bordo, June 2010
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Filed under Anne and Gender, Anne Through the Ages, Life in 16th century England