History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Anne Boleyn: a 16th-century feminist?

Can Anne Boleyn – the second wife of Henry VIII – be considered a feminist? While the word 'feminism' may not have existed in the Tudor period, the concept of equality between the sexes was very much a subject of debate at the time, says historian Alison Weir. Here, she considers Anne's early years spent in Europe and the many influences on her, from female rulers and thinkers to cultural debates

A portrait of Anne Boleyn. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Published: November 2, 2020 at 7:00 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

In recent years, Anne Boleyn has acquired almost celebrity status. Henry VIII’s second wife has become many things to many people, and, in the process, controversial. When I asked readers on Facebook why they admired her, the overwhelming response was that they revered her as a feminist icon. This rather surprised me, as feminism was an unknown concept in early Tudor England.


In discussion with historian Sarah Gristwood, who was then researching her ground-breaking book, Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe, I dismissed the view of Anne as feminist as wrong and anachronistic, whereupon she replied, “Well, actually…”

Sarah Gristwood’s research, which she generously shared with me, encompassed the ‘querelle des femmes’ (‘the woman question’), an intellectual and literary debate that questioned traditional concepts of women and called for them to enjoy equality with men. Nowadays, we call this feminism, but even if the word did not exist then, the concept did. Many scholars use the term ‘Renaissance feminism’. In the 16th century, all the arguments for equality of the sexes were in place. This debate was lively in Europe, where Anne Boleyn spent her formative years at the beginning of the century. This was an age of female rulers and thinkers, and in the royal women she served, Anne had two shining examples before her: Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands; and Marguerite of Valois, Duchess of Alençon. In my novel, Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, I have portrayed Anne in this European context, because we cannot hope to understand her without being aware of the early cultural influences to which she was exposed.

As a young – and no doubt impressionable – teenager, Anne served at the court of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, between 1513 and 1514. Margaret’s library included the works of the influential French poet and author Christine de Pizan (1364–c1430), Europe’s first professional female writer. At that time, women were regarded as inferior in every way to men. For a female to question her role in this male-dominated world, in which women were legally infants, was revolutionary.

A medieval illustration depicting writer Christine de Pizan. (Photo by Getty Images)
A medieval illustration depicting writer Christine de Pizan. (Photo by Getty Images)

Christine de Pizan had become famous for daring to say that the celebrated poem, Le Roman de la Rose, slandered women, portraying them all as seductresses. In 1405, she published her most famous work, The Book of the City of Ladies, the first book written about women by a woman, and one of the earliest examples of feminist literature. The book was an attack on stereotypical, misogynistic perceptions of women by male historians of the time. It celebrated female achievements throughout history, and advised women how to counter masculine prejudice and negative portrayals of their sex. Christine de Pizan concluded that patriarchal attitudes hampered women achieving their full potential.

“Not all men share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated,” she wrote, “but it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.” This must have come as a revelation in an age when most women were taught that men, by the natural law of things, were the cleverer sex. But Christine de Pizan disagreed. “Just as women's bodies are softer than men's, so their understanding is sharper. If it were customary to send girls to school and teach them the same subjects as are taught to boys, they would learn just as fully and would understand the subtleties of all arts and sciences. As for those who state that it is thanks to a woman, the lady Eve, that man was expelled from paradise, my answer would be that man has gained far more through Mary than he ever lost through Eve.”

She took a dim view of marriage: “How many women are there who, because of their husbands' harshness, spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves among the Saracens?” As for women of rank: “The wives of powerful noblemen must be highly knowledgeable about government, and wise – in fact, far wiser than most other such women in power. The knowledge of a noblewoman must be so comprehensive that she can understand everything. Moreover, she must have the courage of a man.” It is easy to see why Margaret of Austria favoured Christine de Pizan’s works.

In 1513, Anne Boleyn would have been present in Tournai [in modern-day Belgium] when the city fathers presented Margaret of Austria with a set of tapestries woven with scenes from the The Book of the City of Ladies. In Margaret’s household, the young Anne would have become familiar with Christine de Pizan’s works, which had spurred the spread of female literacy and ultimately led to early modern women writers and humanists in France, Italy and (later) England advocating female education and attacking the institution of marriage.

Margaret of Austria, whose court Anne Boleyn served at between 1513 and 1514. (Photo by Getty Images)
Margaret of Austria, whose court Anne Boleyn served at between 1513 and 1514. (Photo by Getty Images)

Renaissance feminism

Renaissance feminism also had its origins in works written in early 15th-century Italy. These works had fuelled the debate on women and protests about inequality, leading to a new awareness of the female condition, expressed chiefly in women’s literature. Both men and women argued that the female sex had made many praiseworthy contributions to civilization, and therefore should not be excluded from universities, government, politics, employment and owning property.

Rediscovering the literature of the ancient world had inspired the humanist learning of the Renaissance. Intellectuals spoke up for the education of women and defended them from inequality, from Italy to the northern courts of Europe. Female humanists inferred new meanings from ancient texts, and enlightened men – such as Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII and Sir Thomas Boleyn – saw to it that their daughters were well-educated and literate. The 16th century was an age of female European rulers, women who were instrumental in shaping politics and culture, and helped to disseminate new ideas. Some, like Margaret of Austria, were intellectuals and humanists, and questioned traditional norms.

Hundreds of other women were putting pen to paper, thanks to the spread of literacy and the invention of printing, spreading feminist ideals, and contributing to the querelle des femmes. Some argued that it was only male tyranny that accounted for the subjection of women, and that men were concerned only to retain their power. Men too – such as Mario Equicola, Agrippa von Nettesheim and Ludovico Ariosto – spoke out in print for women. (Discussions in my novel are based on contemporary quotes drawn from such works.) This was the means through which early feminist thinking evolved. It was a debate that would continue to rage for 400 years. This was the cultural climate in which Anne Boleyn spent her formative years.

Anne Boleyn and the French court

By 1515, we find her in France, first serving Mary Tudor, widow of Louis XII, and then Claude, wife of the king, François I. Both William Camden, and Lord Herbert of Cherbury stated that Anne later became a fille d’honneur to François' sister, Marguerite of Valois, and remained with her until 1522.

Marguerite has been called 'the mother of the French Renaissance'. (Photo by Getty Images)
Marguerite has been called 'the mother of the French Renaissance'. (Photo by Getty Images)

Marguerite was one of the foremost female writers of the age, who has been called ‘the first modern woman’ and ‘the mother of the French Renaissance’. Her works, the most famous of which was the Heptameron, inspired a new upsurge of literary activity among women. Marguerite could read and write in seven languages, and corresponded with many humanists, including Erasmus, who had also been welcomed at the court of Margaret of Austria. Married to a man who was generally regarded as a dolt, Marguerite resided at the French court, where she distinguished herself for her learning and her patronage of the arts.

Marguerite of Valois also contributed to the debate on women. Some of the stories in the Heptameron touch on inequality between the sexes, and reflect both feminist and chauvinistic views. In consequence, Marguerite has been called a model feminist. From 1521, she showed a keen interest in religious reform, and in this too she may have influenced Anne Boleyn.

Given that Anne served these two powerful role models, Margaret of Austria and Marguerite of Valois, it is inconceivable that she was not influenced by their ideals, or that she was unaware of the querelle des femmes. She did not herself leave any written contribution to the debate, but did manifest the confidence and initiative of a liberated woman who believed that she was the equal of any man. There is no evidence that her father was involved in her decisions to marry Henry Percy, the future Earl of Northumberland, and then Henry VIII; it sounds as if she made up her own mind. And she was certainly in command of the king during their courtship. Effectively, she displaced her father as the head of her family.

Anne’s career reveals a woman who knew what she wanted and was determined to have it. Daringly, she took the initiative in showing Henry the banned books that outlined the Reformation in embryonic form, years before it happened. She was active in exercising patronage, advancing her relations and furthering the cause of reform. With the crown in sight, she took the decision to sleep with the king. In insisting on virtue in her servants, she brooked no double standards: the men were barred from frequenting brothels. In the end, of course, the constraints of marriage, queenship and her own biology defeated her.

But I believe it is legitimate to see Anne as a feminist long before her time – or, to be accurate, of her time: it is a concept she would have understood, and it underpinned her ambitions and self-image. It was not just her French fashions and manners, but also her Renaissance cultural background and radical opinions that made Anne stand out at the English court.

Alison Weir is a bestselling author and historian. Her book, Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, was published by Headline Review in May 2017


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in May 2017


Sponsored content