Myths surrounding Anne Boleyn : Immoral temptress?

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn by Arthur Hopkins c. 1860's-1870

When Henry VIII noticed Anne Boleyn in 1526, he didn’t wanted her to become his wife and queen. He simply desired Anne as his mistress. The king offered her a title of Maîtresse-en-titre, this title was very famous in France and meant that woman who had such a title was a chief mistress of a sovereign, and she had her own privileges like her own apartments, servants, etc. Although Henry VIII had many mistresses, he never actually had a maîtresse-en-titre and this title was offered only to Anne Boleyn. But Anne refused. Why would any woman refuse the king of England? Well perhaps Anne thought that if she refuse, then Henry will give up and find a new mistress. But perhaps, which is more likely, Anne learned from her sister’s example ; Mary Boleyn was Henry VIII’s mistress for few years, she gave birth to two children during affair with the king but in the end Henry casted her aside.

Anne’s refusal really made Henry VIII want her even more.  What was so special about Anne Boleyn? When she came back from France in 1522, she was considered a Frenchwoman – she was elegant, well-spoken and gracious. Although she was not a typical blue-eyed ‘English Rose’ with pale skin and blonde hair, she caught the attention of male courtiers and soon became very popular. She was a dramatic brunette with olive skin and enchanting black eyes, even French King called her a ‘Venus’ and Venus was synonym of beauty.

So Anne refused to have sexual relationship with Henry VIII until they were married. She was determined to preserve her virginity, but some people didn’t believe that she was as chaste as she wanted to be seen. She was seen by her enemies as a sexual predator, a lady with low moral standards, a harpy who entraped a great king. But was she really the one who entarped Henry?

Henry VIII c. 1536 by Hans Holbein

“Today, Henry’s approach to Anne would be instantly identifiable as sexual harassment. (…) Could she really tell the king to his face that she had no interest in him? She could reiterate her  desire to keep her chastity and her honor, but clearly he didn’t respect that. She could ignore his  letters and stay away from court, but he refused to take the hint. To offer him the outright insult he asked for would be to risk not only her own but her father’s and brother’s careers at court. She undoubtedly kept hoping he would tire of the chase and transfer his attentions to some newer lady-in-waiting. But he didn’t and she was trapped: there was no chance of her making a good marriage when every eligible nobleman knew the king wanted her. She began to realize she would have to give in. [as Wyatt wrote in his poem 'Whoso list to hunt'] ‘Nole me tangere, for Caesar’s I am’’.[1]

So Anne made her own conditions – she would became Henry’s wife and Queen, and not a mistress. But why Anne was slandered if she insisted so much to preserve her virginity?

Le Chateau d Amboise, France, where Anne Boleyn served as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude of France

Perhaps because she spent her youth in France. Since c. 1515 to 1522 Anne Boleyn served as a lady-in-waiting to Francis I’s wife, Queen Claude de Valois. French court was infamous for it’s immorality and Francis himself cheated on his wife (who was constantly pregnant) with many mistresses. Brantome wrote that ‘rarely, or never, did any maid or wife leave that court chaste’[2]  How about Anne? Queen Claude, whom Anne served, was only 15 years old and she ‘insisted upon high morality and restraint and showed a strict regard for etiquette.[3] Because she was so religious and because of her almost annual pregnancies, she spent her time mainly at the Chateau of Amboise and Blois, while ‘her philandering husband entertained scores of mistresses and set the tone for one of the most licentious courts of the period’.[4] It seems that Anne Boleyn accompanied her royal mistress and learned from her. Although we don’t know the exatc date of Anne’s birth, we might assume, that she and Claude were the same age[5], so they understood each other perfectly well. Some historians claim, that Claude’s court was too boring for vivacious Anne, however she entertainded herself and her royal mistress by singing and playing on the instruments.

Anne’s attitude towards her duties is also expressed in a letter she wrote to her father in 1514. Although she was writing this letter from Margaret of Austria’s court, we can be sure that her sense of resposibility did not change when she was in France ;


I understand by your letter that you wish that I shall be of all virtuous repute when I come to Court and you inform me that the Queen will take the trouble to converse with me, which rejoices me greatly to think of talking with a person so wise and virtuous. This will make me have greater desire to continue to speak French well and also spell, especially because you have so recommended me to do so, and with my own hand I inform you that I will observe it the best I can.’[6]

It was in 1585, 49 years after Anne Boleyn’s death, when a staunch Catholic on exile, Nicolas Sander, wrote about her that ;

At fifteen she sinned first with her father’s butler, and then with his chaplain, and forthwith was sent to France, and placed at the expense of the King, under the care of a certain nobleman not far from Brie. Soon afterwards she appeared at the French court where she was called the English mare, because of her shameless behaviour; and then the royal mule, when she became acquainted with the King of France.”[7]

Anne's sister Mary Boleyn, who was French king's mistress and later went on to be Henry VIII's mistress

It is Sander who started rumours about Anne’s alleged six fingers, moles, projecting tooth and wen under her chin. So his writing is not reliable at all. He does not even get the right dates ; Sander wrote that Anne ‘sinned’ when she was 15, and then she was sent to France as a punishment. However, Anne was sent to Margaret of Austria’s court first in 1514 when she about 14 years old (if we assume she was born in 1501 and not in 1507, which would make her even younger at the time) and then, in 1515 she was sent to France as a lady-in-waiting to King’s sister, Mary Tudor. Sander also states that Anne Boleyn was called an ‘English Mare’ and she was Francis I’s mistress.

Informations about Anne Boleyn’s misconducts are also described in the Spanish Cronica del Rey Enrico ; for example there is a description of Anne’s escapades with Mark Smeaton or Thomas Wyatt. But this Spanish Cronicle is not a reliable source of information – Anne Boleyn was enemy of Spanish Queen Cathrine of Aragon, and it is obvious that Anne was maligned. Also Eustace Chapuys who was imperial ambassador, hated Anne and called her ‘the whore’, ‘the concubine’ or ‘the English Messalina or Agrippina’.

During their long courtship, there were rumours that Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII had few children together, but there is no evidence. We can assume that Anne Boleyn knew that if she surrender to Henry and get pregnant too soon, her child will be no more than another royal bastard. And she was clever enough to wait with the consummation of this relationship.

In his letters to Anne, Henry often described his feelings about her.

‘There is a strong sexual tone to this letters. The king spoke often of his need to be ‘private’ with Anne, and wished he was, ‘specially an evening, in my sweetheart’s arms, whose pretty dugs (breasts) I trust shortly to kiss’.’[8]

There are strong inclination that Anne Boleyn remained virgin until 1532.  Alison Weir states that ;

‘Some intimacies she may have permitted, but never full intercourse. This is substantiated not only by King’s repeated denials that she was his mistress in the sexual sense, but also by the fact that, once the affair was consummated, Anne became pregnant immediately and conceived regularly thereafter’.[9]

So what had convinced Henry VIII in 1536, that a woman, who refused to sleep with him for almost 7 years, was guilty of multiple adultery?

In the same book, Alison Weir stated that Henry VIII confided to imperial ambassador that Anne was ‘corrupted’ in France and that French King told Duke of Norfolk that Anne was not a virtuous person during her youth spent in France. However I did not found such informations in primary sources so I think that this is Alison Weir’s pure imagination.


Anne Boleyn

We can easily say that Anne Boleyn changed everything ; she was the second commoner to become English Queen (first one was Elizabeth Woodville) . She took Catherine of Aragon’s place and she set up an example for other ladies at court . Who could ever imagine that a ‘foolish girl’ as Wolsey described Anne once, could dare to replace the Queen? Anne Boleyn did it – for her Henry VIII broke up with the Catholic Church, risking everything. People had to find a scape goat – someone they could blame for all the evil that fallen on England – and Anne was such a scape goat. Henry could do a little to stop the malicious rumours about his future bride, but little did she cared about them. ‘Let them grumble’ was her motto in 1530. Anne Boleyn had her flaws. She was not afraid to express her own opinions, even if others did not approve of them. In the end Henry VIII felt tired of such an outspoken wife and he cheated on her with new mistresses. But Anne was not afraid to show how jelous she was although the queen’s role was to ‘shut her eyes and endure’.

Was Anne an immoral temptress? I think not. She was Henry’s victim. Anne Boleyn payed the ultimate price for her relationship with the king. She died accused of adultery, incest and witchcraft, and yet she said nothing at the scaffold, when she  prayed  ‘God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never’. [10] Even her enemies, like Chapuys, did not believe in her guilt ;

‘You never saw a prince or husband show or wear his horns more patiently and lightly than this one does.’[11]

Anne Boleyn died innocent. For many years to come her name was slandered and malicious rumours were spread about her. She was a brave woman who lived in a very difficult times. She proved that woman can be equal to a man. Today she is remembered and celebrated not only in England, but also in the whole world.


[1] Karen Lindsey, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived : Feminist Reinterpretation of the wives of Henry VIII

[2] Alison Weir, Six Wives of Henry VIII, p. 154

[3] Josephine Wilkinson, Anne Boleyn : A young Queen to be, p. 35

[4] Alison Weir, Six Wives of Henry VIII, p. 150

[5] Queen Claude was born in 1499, while Anne’s birth date is unknown; the most probable date of Anne’s birth is between 1500 and 1502.

[6] Anne Boleyn to her father, Le Veure, 1514

[7] Nicolas Sander, The Rise and Growth of Anglican Schism

[8] Alison Weir, Six Wives of Henry VIII, p. 173

[9] IBID

[10] Anne Boleyn’s execution speech

[11] Eustace Chapuys, 18 May 1536

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