Anne Boleyn has to date had far too many biographies written about her. She is such a fascinating character, the woman for whom Henry the VIII broke faith with Rome to form an entirely new English church, and threw his family, and his kingdom into turmoil, and moreover lost Sir Thomas More’s head. (Someone else had to lose Sir Thomas More’s head; he never lost it himself.)
Anne Boleyn has been endlessly misjudged in my estimation. People marvel at her success with her off-beat looks, and her eleven fingers, and her elegance, and think that those things, together with the solely contemporarily detectable quality of sexiness, explain her hold on King Henry – but I don’t think so.
The most discernible quality of Anne Boleyn was I think intelligence, and intelligence of an extremely high order. You have only to look at her portraits to see this. Her face has all the alertness, all the temporarily stilled activity of those who are near geniuses. She would have had to be brilliant to captivate Henry, because he certainly was intelligent. His father Henry the VII was a weaver of webs complicated enough to tangle spiders in, and his grandmother, Lady Beaufort, was undeniably bright, and a noted blue stocking – no small feat in the fifteenth century, when even great ladies were not considered to have much more intellectual capacity than pack animals.
Henry could do without ho-hum conversation. Henry might like to chase the ladies, but he, I suspect, was often bored with the talk that follows conquest. He wanted a woman who could produce a great king, and dumb blondes and boring brunettes were unlikely to deliver.
Enter Anne; she had style, she knew how to speak French, and how to flirt when flirtation was an art form, she was quickly something of an It Girl at Henry’s court. As he’d already had it off with her sister, scoring sister no 2 was not going to be so difficult for a good looking King like Henry, now, was it?
Ah, but there was the rub. Nothing about Anne was easy, and she saw Henry coming a mile off.
She eluded him, sexually, conversationally – even her thought processes were a bit out of reach for Henry. Just what exactly was this woman, who commanded quicker repartee than the brightest poets of his court? She was up on things, too. She had been at the court of Marguerite of Navarre and probably had picked up some of the nascent protestant writing and theories of the day, and these theories included the idea that under God the supreme head of anything you might like to mention on earth was – the King. Previously, for all practical purposes the King had his place and it was behind that of some really influential people like cardinals and popes, and sometimes even the odd bishop or so, but not for these new writers, and not for Anne. If Henry wanted to do something, well, said Anne, he could.
I think that most historians assume that it was Cromwell who suggested to King Henry that he already possessed the power he needed to free himself from the grip of Rome and his Spanish marriage. I think it equally possible that as the business of appealing to Rome bogged down and then collapsed when Rome was sacked by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor, who was coincidentally Queen Catherine’s nephew, Anne turned to this new breed of theologians/political theorists.
She was quite intelligent enough to do so, and bold enough too. Consider the matter of the translation of the Bible. It was quite simply illegal to translate the Bible into English at the time, but that had not stopped William Tyndale, a very learned and pious proto-protestant who had started just this project. Anne had a copy of his Bible. And she had it set out in her room on a stand for anyone to see, as they passed by, despite its illegality. We know this because the Bible still exists at Oxford, as one of the treasures of the collection there. If the highly intelligent and recklessly bold Anne was brave enough to display an illegal Bible, wouldn’t she have been bold enough to argue to her besotted King that he could have her, and supreme supremacy in England, and a great deal more money and land besides, if he would only assert himself? I think she had the brass, and I suspect she did make that argument.
“Nonsense!” you may say. “Mere cleverness is not enough to hold a man like Henry.”
But I’m not arguing mere cleverness here. I am arguing something close to genius, and about as rare. Genius combined with fast moving wit, physical allure, and personal style. If you want to see someone vaguely similar from the world of pop culture, take a look at Bethany Frankel. Now there’s another woman who parlayed a similar set of characteristics into a multi-million dollar fortune. She, too, is mercurial, witty, rapid of speech and thought process and obviously possessed of both driving ambition, and something that at times resembles the hysteria of which Anne was later accused. If someone can come along in the early part of the twenty first century and essentially talk their way into a fortune, why shouldn’t Anne Boleyn have done the same in the sixteenth?
The truth is that, like her enemies, posterity has misjudged Anne, and has underestimated her. Henry, I would guess, hated Anne after she lost her hold on him because he suspected that she had gotten the better of him, as indeed she most certainly had. She was quite simply smarter than Henry and she had remained more than one step ahead of him the entire time of their liaison and subsequently marriage, but even she could not overcome biology. Females don’t pass on the chromosome that determines the sex of offspring. In other words it was Henry, most ironically, who was the author of his own undoing. He sired little girls, and then did not Thank Heaven for them. It was once again Anne who fulfilled her promise. She said she would provide Henry with a fitting heir and a great monarch which, in Elizabeth, she did. She simply included in that brilliant package the gift of a second X chromosome.
Did I mention that she was smart?