Intelligence and Witchcraft – What Caused the Downfall of Anne Boleyn?
Heartless propaganda made people believe that Anne Boleyn was a witch - a woman who manipulated the king and put spells on him to reach her goals. She was obviously a very intelligent woman, but her story shows that the skills she gained were not enough to survive.
Anne Boleyn didn't cry when she was going to her death. She was dressed in a gray dress worthy of a queen. Did she hope that Henry would save her at the last moment? The answer is unknown. While she was on the way to her demise he was fighting with his doubts, but before he had made a decision whether to cancel the sentence or not, Anne was already gone from this world.
A Girl Who Loved to Learn
Anne Boleyn was born in 1501 as a daughter of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, and Lady Elizabeth Howard. Her childhood was similar to that of other noble daughters. Apart from learning, she spent much of her time in nature and playing. Over time, she understood that if she was going to advance higher than most of the women of her status she needed to be more exceptional and much smarter.
Oil on panel of Anne Boleyn, held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, England. (Public Domain)
A hunger of knowledge made Anne very different from most of the young ladies of noble families from her times. She had a desire to study all the books and disciplines that she could. When she was sent to the Netherlands, she amazed everybody she came in contact with due to her hunger for knowledge.
When she appeared in the French court as a queen’s maid, she surprised everybody there with her level of French as well. She spoke like she was a Frenchwoman, and her knowledge of diplomacy, geography, history, and politics was impressive.
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Anne wasn't like other maids, who were focused on reading the Bible, enjoying the entertainment characteristic of the royal courts in the 16th century, and making crafts. She laughed loudly, looked people in the eyes, enjoyed difficult conversations, and the level of her knowledge put many men of her time to shame.
Claude of France, wife of Francis I. Anne served as her maid of honor for nearly seven years (Public Domain)
Anne Boleyn was also talented in embroidery. She was well aware that if she didn’t know common skills that were characteristic for women, she wouldn’t be treated seriously. This combination of a good wife and a great partner was perhaps what made Henry VIII so obsessed with Anne.
European courts burned with gossip about the new woman in the alcove of the king from London. Anne’s influence appeared stronger than ever before in the beginning of the English Reformation. She didn't want to be just another of the king’s lovers, she had a dream to become queen. To accomplish this goal, she needed to find a way to cancel Henry’s previous marriage with the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon.
16th century woodcut of the coronation of Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon showing their heraldic badges, the Tudor Rose and the Pomegranate of Granada (Public Domain)
When Henry and Anne realized that Pope Clement VII wouldn't annul his marriage, it was the final straw. Henry made a decision about separating England from the Catholic Church and became the head of a new Church – Anglican.
An Unhappy End to a Fairy Tale
Anne and Henry married before he divorced Catherine. The marriage with Catherine was annulled on May 23 1533, but they married, secretly on November 14, 1532 and later, officially, on January 25, 1533. For a time, it seemed that Anne was one of the most powerful women, and nothing could break her position.
Henry with Anne Boleyn, by George Cruikshank, 19th century. (Public Domain)
The dark clouds arrived, when on September 7, 1533 she gave a birth to her first baby – a girl. Henry was deeply disappointed. When Elizabeth became one of the most famous queens in the entire history of the world, Henry was already dead. If he could have seen that the daughter of Anne Boleyn became a greater ruler than her father, he would have perhaps understood his mistake.
Political issues and the rising anger of his advisers, who were jealous of Anne’s hold on the king, along with an unsolved situation connected with the separation of the kingdom from the Catholic Church, became the basis for the attack on Anne.
A group of noblemen, with Thomas Cromwell as their leader, started to spread stories about the queen. Anne’s position was dangerous for their goals and businesses, as the king listened to the words of his smart wife over theirs.
They accused her of witchcraft and betraying the king, having lovers, and even trying to dethrone Henry VIII. The king didn't want to believe his wife was innocent, partially because Anne had recently lost a baby boy. Her enemies suggested that her loss was punishment for witchcraft. Henry turned to another lover, Jane Seymour, and on May 1536 the trail began against Anne.
Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger, around 1537. (Public Domain)
The One Who Put a Spell on the King
It is believed that the first one to call Anne a witch was King Charles V of Spain. It was the only explanation, in his opinion, why Henry would have divorced the woman from such a noble family as the House of Aragon.
In January 1536, Henry VIII said for the first time that he believed he was seduced by witchcraft. It is unknown if the idea came from Henry, or the men who were jealous of Anne’s influence over him. According to Eric Ives, it is likely that the inspiration for this thought came from Cromwell.
‘Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’; engraving by T. L. Raab. (Public Domain)
Although, the propaganda Henry created said that she was a very religious woman who worshiped the Christian God, Anne was tried for witchcraft (amongst other things). She was depicted as a woman who prayed a lot, spent much of her time at church, and who passed days contemplating the verses of the Bible. According to legend, her decapitated head was still whispering prayers for some time after it was separated from her body.
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On the other hand, Spanish sources say that Anne believed in the ancient prophecies of Merlin. She was also described as a superstitious lady, who could inflict impotency on men, but also make them fall in love with her.
Anne was accused of spreading gossip that Henry VIII was unable to satisfy a woman. Even though she probably did not tell the tales, the king’s pride was very hurt, and she had to pay for it. The records of her trial survived in a faint epitome, however the details were lost over time.
Anne Boleyn in the Tower. (1835) (Public Domain)
The story of her trial and sentence still contains many mysteries. Without the full documentation of the trial, it remains uncertain what exactly Anne Boleyn was accused of doing. The only known reasons were plotting the death of the King and adultery. The cause for the disappearance of the documents is unknown, but it is certain to have happened during Henry VIII’s reign. Historians believe that the information was destroyed by his orders.
The Epilogue of Anne's Story
Did Henry VII love Anne Boleyn? It is hard to believe that he didn't, if one reads his love letters to her. Henry saved the letters for Elizabeth, perhaps to prove that he wasn't a heartless monster, but had once loved her mother. Did he believe that Anne loved him? That question cannot be answered.
An early-20th-century painting of Anne Boleyn, depicting her deer hunting with the King. (Public Domain)
Anne Boleyn was one of the most intelligent queens in the history of England. Her great knowledge made her one of the most influential women, but her power led to her death. The position she gained made her more important than others, but she didn't have enough wisdom to survive and not provoke the closest of the king’s advisers. The connection of Anne with witchcraft is possible as well.
Her husband had a strong desire to become the most influential ruler of the world, but his possibilities became smaller than he hoped. Diseases made his life harder and the growing position of Spain, France, and the Ottoman Empire blocked many of his goals. The ruler who gained the position which Henry wanted for himself was actually his daughter Elizabeth. Some scholars say that she had the ambitions of her mother and strength of her father.
Featured image: Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, 18th Century Miniature based on Holbein's Sketch. Source: Public Domain
Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2005.
Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII, 1992.
Alison Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, 2010.