Anne Boleyn , a beautiful, dark-eyed brunette, was the first of two of King Henry VIII’s wives to die under the axe at the King’s command. They died for two different reasons: Anne couldn’t produce a male heir for the King, and Catherine Howard, a 20-year-old, had an affair with a prominent man at court. Anne was a liberated woman in many ways and in fact, it is because of her that divorce became possible in England, and possibly in the Western world. Until Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon, people were pretty much stuck with their spouses ’til death did them part. For many, I’m sure, that was a relief.
Many of you will argue that overthrowing a fine woman like Catherine, who had been wed to Henry without significant marital strife for two decades, is nothing to be celebrated and I’m with you on that one. Catherine was no slouch. Catherine and Henry had a good marriage. She actually managed the finances, balancing the sizeable books and recommending business investments for her husband. Henry was always pleased with her decisions as these usually turned out to be a good move for him. Catherine also oversaw a battle with the Scots while Henry was waging war in France. She gave Henry a beautiful daughter, Mary Tudor, but alas, Henry wanted a male heir to his throne and although Catherine had given birth, by 1525, physicians informed Catherine that she was barren. There would be no sons for Henry.
Henry’s decision to divorce Catherine caused her great humiliation. She was offered the option to simply have the marriage annulled rather than resorting to the extreme measure of divorce. She was, after all, the reigning Queen of England and no other Queen in British history had thus far been deposed from the throne (except Lady Jane Grey, of the previous blog, and she only reigned for 9 days, so that hardly counts). Henry asked the Catholic Church to invalidate his marriage because Catherine had been married to his brother. However, Catherine didn’t take the threat of annulment sitting down. She swore that her marriage to Arthur (Henry’s late brother) had remained unconsummated so the Church sided with Catherine. Smart woman. The public was loyal to Catherine, not Henry or Anne. They wanted their rightful queen and they made this known quite brazenly. The first royal procession Henry and Anne held after she was named Queen wasn’t particularly welcoming. The crowds spit at Henry and Anne, calling him a traitor and her a whore. Meh. You can’t please everyone.
Anne was a brave soul in her own right. While still wed to Catherine, Henry informed the 20-year-old Anne he wanted her for a mistress but she refused him outright. That wasn’t the safest move with the temperamental King of England, but he accepted her decision. It was Anne’s refusal to bed down with Henry unless the two were wed that set a precedent in history. No one in Roman Catholic history had ever officially divorced from a spouse and it was necessary for Henry to break ties with the papacy in order to do so. In the 1500s, that was big time. The Church was as powerful a ruler in the country as the King but Henry severed his ties with the Vatican and began the Church of England, all to wed his beloved Anne Naturally, he was the head of the new church. This was the dawn of the Protestant religion. A protestant is simply any Western Christian who is not an adherent of a Catholic, Anglican, or the Eastern Church. You know, heathens.
Perhaps Anne should have taken a closer look at her hubby. Henry was a ruthless man, known as the Tyrant King. He was brutal and unconscionable, and obsessed with treason. The latter trait would have been one Anne should have taken into consideration before marrying the bastard. Henry held a terrorizing reign over England. He made the public and his court aware of virtually every execution he held. He believed that what he wanted was what God wanted. No one ever knew from one day to the next whether he or she would live to see another day. Thousands of men and women lost their heads due to Henry’s rage and paranoia. Commoners, courtiers and Queens were on the list of his victims. No one was safe from the royal axe. Foolishly, Anne ignored the impending signs of doom for herself. In fact, she was an occasional influence on Henry as to which of his victims met with the axe.
All good Kings had sons to take over the throne when they shuffled off their mortal coils. This became more and more of an issue. After three years of marriage Anne had produced a daughter but no son for Henry. He grew increasingly dissatisfied with his young wife. It was only a matter of time before a high-ranking confidante, Thomas Cromwell, was able to convince the King that Anne had been unfaithful to him. Five courtiers, including Anne’s own brother, were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Soon afterward, Anne was also arrested. Of course, if the Queen had committed a sexual indiscretion this amounted to treason. Anne’s arrest was a complete shock to her. The accused courtiers had been executed. Cromwell had set her up. Within days Anne’s head was on the block. Henry was already courting one of Anne’s handmaidens, Jane Seymour. As far as Henry was concerned, his wife was already dead. Within days of Anne’s execution, Henry married Seymour. Soon afterward Seymour also died. Henry felt she had died nobly – while giving birth. It was just a matter of time until he discarded her anyways, I’m sure.
When Anne failed to give Henry a (living) male heir, he gave her the axe. Gutsy to the end, Anne gave a speech to the onlookers that they were to respect and remain loyal to the man who had “always treated her well.” No one cried over her grave. She was completely unpopular with the public who had never forgiven her for Henry’s divorce from Catherine. And her sharp tongue and lofty attitude had isolated her from all of her previous supporters at court. Okay so, Anne’s long-term goal for her marriage to Henry didn’t go quite as planned but three years on the throne with the King of England wrapped around her little finger is pretty impressive. It’s an oversimplification to suggest that Anne Boleyn’s influence on Henry VIII was the reason he insisted on a divorce from his Queen, but she certainly had a lot to do with it.
Perhaps Henry’s death was a type of karma. The smell from his putrid sores as he lay dying was the first thing anyone noticed when entering his bedchamber. Even as he lived, his body was rotting. He had left England bankrupt. Finally people breathed a sigh of relief. However that didn’t last long, as his daughter, Mary, took over the throne and soon turned out to be a tyrant herself. She must have learned her lessons from her father. She became known as Bloody Mary.
As for Anne her role in the love triangle between herself, Henry and Catherine still affects people in the Western world today. It was Anne’s insistence on becoming Queen of England that led to the freedom people now experience in (and out) of their marriages. You don’t have to tolerate a loveless, unhappy marriage. You can walk away. I’m not suggesting that’s the best way to deal with the stressors that marriage creates between people, but sometimes divorce really is the best option for everyone. And we have a controversial, arguably selfish, yet undoubtedly brave woman in history, to thank for that.