Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: Suzannah Lipscomb dispels myths about the lovers who changed history

They are two of history’s most captivating figures, their romance-turned-tragedy known the world over. But what was the true nature of the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and how did Anne come to lose her head?

This article was first published on HistoryExtra.com in February 2014

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger - copyright GL Archive/Alamy

In her two-part series for Channel 5, which aired in 2014, Tudor historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb sought to answer these questions. 

Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History took Lipscomb on a journey from Anne's childhood home at Hever Castle in Kent, to the French palace where, some say, she learned the art of love. She also visited Hampton Court, where Henry built the Great Hall for his new queen, and the Tower of London, where he had her beheaded.

Here, Lipscomb dispels some of the myths that surround one of history’s most iconic couples...

The love affair between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is shrouded in historical myth, romantic legend, cliché and half-truths. Much of their story remains fiercely debated by historians – everything from why Henry fell for Anne, to why he destroyed her in the end.

Making this two-part series for Channel 5, I tried to find some answers: I travelled to the places they lived and went, examined books that they wrote in, studied 16th-century manuscripts – even stayed in the room they had slept – in search of the closest thing to the truth that it is possible to get at a remove of 500 years.

The first myth about Henry and Anne is that Henry ditched the dowdy Katherine of Aragon, driven wild by his first glimpse of the beautiful Anne Boleyn. The success of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl might give us pause over the question of love at first sight: when Anne first joined the English court in 1522, a Boleyn girl did have his eye, but it was Anne’s elder sister, Mary (Henry is said to have once been asked if he had slept with Anne’s sister and mother and muttered, ‘never with the mother’!)

Anne only seems to have attracted Henry’s interest four years later, but he wouldn’t have been bowled over by her good looks. The surprising thing about Anne is that she wasn’t considered to be a great beauty.

The Venetian diplomat, Francesco Sanuto, said she was ‘not one of the handsomest women in the world; of middling stature, a swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised’, but did add that she had ‘eyes which are black and beautiful’. One of her friends (some friend!) said she was ‘good-looking enough’. Which was, of course, true in the end.

What attracted Henry in 1526 was not, therefore, so much Anne’s beauty, but her character, intelligence and charm. Anne had spent nine years on the Continent – seven of them at the French court.

I followed her to the Château Royal de Blois, one of the pleasure palaces where the French king, Francis I, held his court. Blois’s spectacular spiral staircase, ornamented with classical statues and filigree, which Francis built in 1515, indicates in stonework precisely what Anne found there: the French court was at the heart of the Renaissance – Francis even invited Leonardo da Vinci to visit – and in spending time here, Anne became a cultured, sophisticated woman.

In what remains a compliment of the highest order, one observer later said, ‘no one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but a native-born Frenchwoman’. She had acquired a certain cosmopolitan glamour, conversational wit, and the graceful epitome of courtly life – an ability to dance. All these entranced the English king.

It was touching to read the letters that the lovesick Henry sent to Anne in the heady days of their courtship. In one he writes, ‘I wolde you were in myne armes or I in yours for I think it long syns I kyst you’ (‘I would you were in my arms or I in yours for I think it long since I kissed you’).

Another he signs off with his initials separated by the French ‘autre ne cherche’ (is not looking for any other), with Anne’s initials at the centre of his signature in a love heart. It is reminiscent of a schoolboy doodling in a textbook.

The problem is that none of Anne’s letters back to Henry have survived, which can give us the impression that Anne was being coy, when hers might have been just as impassioned.

What we do have is a Book of Hours – an illuminated prayer book – that I went to see in the British Library with curator Dr Andrea Clarke. The extraordinary thing about this book is that Henry and Anne appear to have used it to pass notes.

On one page, depicting a picture of Christ as the Man of Sorrows – which Henry evidently thought a fair image of himself – he wrote to her in French: ‘If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours, Henry R[ex] forever’. But here, on a page that depicts Mary being told that she will give birth to a son, Anne replies with the couplet:

‘By daily proof you shall me find
To be to you both loving and kind.’

Unfortunately for Anne, although Henry broke from the Church of Rome, divorced his first wife and changed the very faith of England to be with her (it was immensely moving to visit Charterhouse in London, whose monks became victims of Henry’s marriage to Anne, which they could not accept), she could not deliver on the implicit promise of that page. Just as Katherine before her, she could not give Henry the son and heir he needed and craved.

Ultimately, after only 1,000 days of marriage, Henry would order Anne’s execution on charges of adultery, incest and conspiring the king’s death.

Historians have disagreed over whether Anne was guilty (few think she was), whether she was the victim of a court conspiracy, or whether Henry wanted to get rid of Anne. Or, as I suggest in these programmes, whether it was none of the above, and Anne was not guilty – but appeared to be so.

From her indictment, now stored at the National Archives, we can understand the real issue at the centre of the marital breakdown that had such horrific consequences: Henry’s honour was at stake.

Anne is charged with having ‘diabolically seduced [five] men because of her frail and carnal appetites’, including her own brother. Anne is painted in the worst possible terms to suggest that no man, not even a king among men such as Henry, could be expected to keep up with a woman of such depraved and voracious sexuality. 

In her speech on the scaffold, Anne swore she was innocent, and ‘a faithful and loyal wife to the King’, but revealed what I think was the real fault – she had ‘not, perhaps, at all times shown him that humility and reverence that his goodness to me… did deserve’ – in other words, she had been a bit feisty, she had spoken back and had perhaps even flirted with other men.

The very same conversational wit and sophistication that attracted Henry in the first place led to her downfall.

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb is a convenor and senior lecturer in history at New College of the Humanities. You can follow her on Twitter @sixteenthCgirl or visit her website www.suzannahlipscomb.com

To listen to our March 2013 podcast, in which Suzannah Lipscomb explores the downfall of Anne Boleyn, at the Tower of London where she met her end, click here

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