In Defense of Anne Boleyn

Several Christmases ago, I received Joanna Denny’s book Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen. This book opened my eyes to the story of a much-maligned and disgraced young queen, whose grace, elegance, and honor have been erased from modern history books.

Anne Boleyn is most commonly described as a scheming beauty who “bewitched” the egotistical King Henry VIII. Ensnared by her charms, Henry put away his aging first wife, Catherine of Aragon,  breaking with the Catholic Church so he could marry the younger and seductive Anne. In only a few short years, however, Anne was convicted of adultery and Henry had her put to death, marrying his one true love, Jane Seymour, a few days later.

Oh, and did I mention that I’d also heard Anne Boleyn may have really been a witch? And that she had six fingers? Yep, six fingers–definitely the mark of a witch. Just plain-out-all-around weird. Her daughter was the future Queen Elizabeth I. Up until the time I was about seventeen, I would’ve told you that Good Queen Bess had quite a–ahem–creepy background.

Hey, it’s what I’d heard. I was very innocent, no doubt; I had no intentions of defaming anyone. Blame centuries of misinformation– some of it deliberate and some merely the effect of tradition.

So what is the truth about Anne Boleyn?

Anne was the intelligent, vivacious, but strong-willed daughter of Thomas Boleyn, who was himself known as a “firm advocate of the New Religion”–namely, Protestant Christianity. Thomas even risked his reputation and life by sneaking Protestant literature into England. As a child and a young woman Anne was heavily influenced by Queen Marguerite of Navarre, a woman of astonishing intelligence and a firm evangelical, Protestant faith. Anne herself was known for her outspoken but eloquent personality, and the strict moral code with which she governed her household (ladies-in-waiting and other servants).

She attracted the attention of Henry VIII while he was still married to Queen Catherine of Aragon (the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, who were, coincidentally, the same Sovereigns who sponsored Christopher Columbus’ journey to the New World in 1492). Catherine hadn’t given him a son–only a daughter, Mary–and was now past childbearing age. Henry had a pretty disgusting reputation as a womanizer, and the pretty daughter of Thomas Boleyn caught his eye. Anne, however, wasn’t like most of the women Henry had admired. Instead of submitting to his advances, she held him off at arm’s length. It was a dangerous situation: she risked not only the King’s wrath but his sword in refusing him. In fact, she insisted she would never become his mistress, only his wife.

Now, we could argue back and forth that perhaps Anne should’ve accepted death rather than yoke herself with such a repulsive, ungodly man. Nevertheless, evidence shows that Anne, rather than being a seductress, held Henry off as long as she could, and when she finally did agree to become his wife and Queen, considered it the providence of God in her life and in England’s history. Catherine of Aragon had been a fiercely Catholic queen who discouraged any kind of religious reform in her adopted country. Anne, however, was eager to see greater religious liberty in England. If she were Queen, and if her influence over Henry was strong and positive, she could effect great change for God’s glory, just like the biblical Queen Esther.

During her short time as Henry VIII’s queen, she strongly encouraged the English Reformation. She sponsored William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament and even persuaded Henry to read one of Tyndale’s books. She gave refuge to Protestant refugees from the European continent. Joanna Denny writes of how she appointed Protestant chaplains in her household and exerted influence over the election of Protestant bishops in the newly-established Church of England.

“Hers was no superficial faith. Since her education in France she had an abiding interest in the New Learning and the religious reformation that was spreading like a revolution in thinking across northern Europe. Her views were evangelical, many would later say “Lutheran”. She read the Bible daily and believed that everyone should be able to read God’s word in a language they could understand.”

–Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen

Author P.F.M. Zahl also writes:

“[Anne Boleyn] lived for one thing: to see the Reformed religion overcome the opposition to it both within the Church and outside it…[she] ached to see the Reformation triumph.”

Anne gave birth to a daughter on September 7, 1533–a daughter she and Henry named Elizabeth. After Elizabeth’s birth, however, things began to go downhill. Anne miscarried or gave birth to stillborn baby boys, and while she struggled through difficult pregnancies her enemies at court–mostly allies of Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary–began plotting against her. Not only that, but Henry was (to put it bluntly) freaking out at this point for a male heir. He was also (to put it bluntly again) lusting after one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Anne’s enemies put all this together and concocted an elaborate plot to get rid of the Protestant queen.

To make a long story short, Anne was falsely accused and “convicted” of adultery, and her four supposed “lovers” included not only three innocent friends but her own brother, George Boleyn. Such a conviction earned her a death sentence, as unfaithfulness to the King amounted to treason. Anne maintained her innocence throughout the mockery of a trial, defending herself with grace and eloquence. She was beheaded on May 19, 1536.

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul. To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesus receive my soul.

–Anne Boleyn’s last words

And now excuse me while I go and have a good cry.

Just kidding. Seriously, though, I never knew of Anne’s influence on the English Reformation, and I certainly never knew the truth about her personality or her faith. In my humble opinion, Anne Boleyn was an imperfect woman living in dangerous times, but nevertheless made a very real effort to introduce biblical Christianity into her beloved country, and left a powerful heritage for her daughter Elizabeth. Because, as most of us know, it was Anne Boleyn’s daughter who eventually became one of the greatest Queens–if not THE greatest Queen–in English history.

Elizabeth I made it very clear that she believed in her mother’s innocence, and although she probably didn’t share her mother’s personal faith, she certainly furthered Anne’s goals of religious liberty for the Reformers. Under her reign, the English Reformation flourished to full glory and laid the foundation for a generation of Pilgrims and Puritans who came to America in the early-to-mid 1600’s.

If you’re interested in Anne Boleyn and re-educating people about her story, I would strongly encourage you to read Joanna Denny’s book, as well as to explore The Anne Boleyn Files. Also of interest is John Foxe’s tribute to Anne Boleyn in his masterpiece Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which, if a little effusive, still gives you an idea of the regard the Reformers had for Queen Anne. Resources that I haven’t read but which have come highly recommended include Eric Ives’ The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn and P.F.M. Zahl’s Five Women of the English Reformation.

(May 1, 2013–I’ve read Eric Ives’ book since writing this article, and while I would definitely recommend it, I found it a harder read. Unless you’re prepared to tackle this very well-researched, scholarly, but somewhat laborious work, I suggest reading Denny’s book and then Ives’ book, especially if you’ve just been introduced to Anne’s true story. They come to a few different conclusions in some places but they do compliment each other.)

May 19, 2013–on this the 477th anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s death, I’m posting the links to my 4-part blog series, “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn.”

Part 1: The Little Boleyn 

Part 2: Anne and the King

Part 3: The Downward Spiral

Part 4: Terror & Triumph

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17 thoughts on “In Defense of Anne Boleyn

  1. So it’s not just me that thinks that sure was more innocent than she was perceived to be. I always thought Anne Boleyn was awesome witch/seductress/queen/commoner, whatever.

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    1. Yes, there’s plenty of historical evidence that Anne Boleyn was innocent of the charges of adultery/incest/witchcraft. She was far from a witch or a seductress: she was the first English Queen of common birth and the first English Queen to embrace Protestantism. Pretty amazing when you stop to think about it!

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  2. So much enjoyed your post on Anne Boleyn. I was first captivated by her when I found an old bio about her in my grandmother’s library- maybe about 14 (?)- I’m 61 now. As years went by, I always believed she was innocent of said charges – although I still believe she must have been ambitious- whether it was due to her religious convictions or not. Love your wording that Henry 8th was repulsive & ungodly- do agree. And it’s always been my belief that the magnificence of Elizabeth I came from her mother- not the father. I do not call myself a Christian- but obviously- Anne was the only godly person in that marriage.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment! No doubt Anne was ambitious to an extent–I believe all Christians who desire to serve their King should be ambitious for His glory!–but as you said, she was innocent of said charges and also, I believe, innocent of malice towards Catherine of Aragon. (Referring, of course, to the rumors that she had–or attempted to have–Catherine poisoned.)

      I don’t suppose it would be to much to ask if you remember the biography you read as a girl? I’m looking into putting a few books about Anne on my Christmas wishlist this year 🙂

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  3. Hi Maribeth!

    So, after you pinned the picture of your blog button, I decided to really come over and explore your blog (I have read your LM review, but I wanted to look everything over more carefully – I’m lovin’ it so far!) and I came across this page. So…I totally agree with you. I have this Christian novel called ‘Beyond The Sacred Page’ and Anne Boylen is a secondary character and the author portrays her as a devoted Christian who was afraid of what the king could potentially do to get rid of her because he was focusing his attentions on her lady in waiting, Jane Seymour. The story took her from being a queen to her execution. I was crying, really crying, when she died. It was so unfair! So, let me just say that I heartily agree with you and I’m glad someone has taken up Anne’s cause 🙂

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    1. Hi, Eva! (*waves happily*) I’m so excited to see you! Really, sincerely–I do not say it lightly–I am THRILLED you’re on my blog! 😀

      Oooh, I will have to look for “Beyond the Sacred Page.” For Christmas my parents gave me “To Die For” by Sandra Byrd, and Anne was a secondary character in that book also. It was pretty good–although the writer in me was a harsh critic and I had a few bones to pick with the development of the story during my first read. I ended up reading it a second time and enjoyed it more. But as you said, the evidence shows that Anne was indeed a devout Protestant Christian, and when I discovered that I simply had to know more. My parents can testify I spent several week ranting against Henry VIII, court intrigue, and ignorant historians 😉

      P.S. I’ve been looking at your blog, too! Didn’t know you had one before…and I am smiling, because thus far I’ve seen your “War Horse” review (I want to do one myself!) and also your post about your own book…and I had to let out a little squeal when I saw “Eric.” (*whispers*) The reason being that I cast HIM in my book, too, after seeing pictures on Pinterest of HIM in that show! I had HIM down as a possible main character even before I knew HE was Monsieur Pontmercy 😉 Anyway, I will definitely be following your blog!

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    2. I have been an avid student of Tudor history since I was a child. I too thought Anne was an adulteress woman until I saw a season of the series the Tudors. As she stood at the block awaiting her fate I almost cried. Her courage and devotion to the Lord was very moving and I believe without doubt that she was framed and the charges against her were trumped up. I very much look forward to hearing her story in person when I get to heaven. I often wonder whether her husband got saved on his deathbed. With all the horrid treatment he put his wives through surely his conscience would have been seared enough to bring him to repentance!

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      1. Thanks for the comment, Alana! I haven’t seen The Tudors but I did watch Anne’s execution scene on YouTube, on the recommendation of one of my favorite Boleyn authors, Claire Ridgeway. Ms. Ridgeway said that although The Tudors isn’t very historically-accurate, it showed Anne’s arrest, trial and execution very well. I thought Natalie Dormer did a great job of showing Anne’s calm courage! It was infinitely better than Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the event, which I also watched on YouTube.

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  4. I also read a fictitious diary of Queen Elizabeth I as a child (she was just Princess Elizabeth then) and since Anne was her mother, she got a lot of good points in that book 🙂 Before I read those two books that defended Anne Boylen, I didn’t really think of her that much but I had this vague sense that she wasn’t good – but then I read books that defended her and my opinions changed. A strange thing about me is that I tend to stick up for people (real or fictional) that other people don’t like (as long as they’re not ‘bad guys’) so Anne was a perfect person to defend 🙂 My brother is like me in that way too (Javert is his favorite character from Les Misérables and when I asked him why he said “Because everyone’s always against him”)

    Ooooh, yes – I love Eric and part of my love for him may or may not be connected to the fact that a Certain Person has been cast as him 😉

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  5. I have been obsessed with Anne Boleyn and her innocence since I was a teenager. All I knew back then was that she was beheaded. Then I saw Anne of the Thousand Days and I was hooked. I went to the library and got everything I could about her and the other 5 wives as well. But, I was emotionally attached to Anne and the lies that led to her death. That’s is why I believe Elizabeth I was the greatest British queen…what goes around comes around. So glad there are other Anne Boleyn fanatics out there.

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  6. EXCELLENT post. After watching seasons 1-2 of “The Tudors”, I was very interested in how much of their depiction was historically accurate, so I started reading pro-Anne Boleyn books as well. I discovered exactly what you did — she was a HERO for religious freedom, and a woman of intense character and amazing faith, especially given the situations she found herself in after becoming Queen. And I do think it’s not unfair to say America wouldn’t exist without Anne Boleyn, because the Pilgrims wouldn’t have sought out the New World without the previous influence of the Reformation. I’ve definitely become a champion for the misunderstood gracious Queen Anne, and any chance I get, I encourage people interested in the history of Western religious liberty to take more than a second look at this truly inspiring woman.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment–and I’m so sorry it took so long for me to reply to it! Thrilled to know that Anne is getting plenty of second looks lately; there’s a lot of evidence that she was a far more admirable woman than myth and legend would have us believe.

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