Born in 1501, Anne Boleyn was only eight years old when Henry VIII married his first wife Catherine. By 1522 she would become one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting and eleven years later she would become Henry VIII’s wife. It lasted less than three years, but it was one of the most significant marriages in English history. We speak to authors Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger about Anne Boleyn and her enduring appeal.
What first drew you to the story of Anne Boleyn?
Natalie: For me it was a visit to the Tower of London, which ignited my interest in Anne’s story. Being an Australian, I hadn’t learn about Henry VIII and his six wives at school, so when I visited the Tower for the first time, I knew very little about Anne. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, (excruciatingly cold for an Aussie!), I paused by the plaque on Tower Green that named seven victims who’d been executed, among them was the name ‘Queen Anne Boleyn. Second wife of Henry VIII’. I was immediately drawn to her name above all others; I yearned to discover more and to try to understand how and why this woman had met such a violent end. Countless questions danced around in my head: Why had a devoted husband turned on his own wife—his Queen—and ordered her execution? Had she been guilty of the crimes of which she was accused? What part had she played in her own demise and untimely death? Why did her name stand out above all others? I still find this final question particularly difficult to answer.
Your new book, In the footsteps of Anne Boleyn, is described as a visitor’s companion to the palaces, castles and houses associated with Anne’s life. Which of these locations do you think had the greatest impact on Anne?
Natalie: I don’t think I can narrow it down to just one location. Both Mechelen in Belgium and the French locations had a huge impact on Anne. It was during her time at the courts of Margaret Archduchess of Austria and Queen Claude that Anne was introduced to the Renaissance culture. Surrounded by the finest minds of the time, including poets, artists, philosophers and musicians, Anne learnt and mastered the skills that would go on to set her apart from every other woman at the English court and ultimately, win her the admiration and love of a King and cement her place in history.
You both run successful Tudor websites. How, and why, did you decide to partner on a new book?
Sarah: Natalie and I had been in correspondence since I first launched my Facebook page in February 2011. We soon struck up a long-distance friendship, supporting each other’s endeavours and discussing ideas and mutual areas of interest. It soon became clear that one of those areas of interest centered on the buildings / places associated with Anne Boleyn. It was the shared sense that whilst we could not connect with Anne directly, as we say in the book, when you stand in one of the locations she visited, it is only time and not space which separates us from this most remarkable of women. From the wealth of research that I was accumulating during my research for the novel I was writing at the time, (Le Temps Viendra: a Novel of Anne Boleyn), combined with a similar amount that Natalie had amassed in building up her web site, On the Tudor Trail, it seemed a natural next step to fill in the gaps and write a definitive guide to as many locations as we could identify that were associated with one of England’s most iconic queens.
Compared to the standards of the day, how unusual was Anne’s upbringing?
Sarah: I think there are two ways I might answer this question. On the one hand, Anne found herself at the forefront of a new way of approaching the education of women. Renaissance culture was finally embracing the idea that a girl’s education should be taken seriously. The nobility and those aspiring to be social climbers began teaching their daughters classical languages and literature, although there was still an emphasis on subjects considered suitable for females such as art, poetry, needlework, music and dancing. Certainly, Anne was an accomplished musician, a graceful dancer, who spoke English and French fluently. Her Latin was said to be acceptable. So in this respect, she was in line with her peers. However, in other ways, her education was unique in that she had the good fortune to be placed at both the Hapsburg and French courts during some of the most formative years of her life. She met indomitable women such as Margaret, the Regent of the Netherlands, Louise of Savoy, the French queen mother and her daughter Margaret, later the Queen of Navarre. She was subsumed into two of the most sophisticated courts in Europe for nearly a decade, meeting leading humanist thinkers and probably even genius’s like Leonardo da Vinci, who was resident at the French court in Amboise at the same time as Anne. Only six English ladies stayed behind in France as ladies in waiting to Mary Tudor, after she was crowned queen in 1514. Combine these unique circumstances with Anne’s natural flair and intellect and it is not hard to see how later she stood out at the English court, capturing the heart of Henry VIII.
What have you found to be the most surprising thing about her?
Sarah: The amount that she travelled actually! In researching the key locations associated with Anne in France, it soon became clear that the French court was much more itinerant than the English one. Although Francis I soon established a power base in the Loire during the early years of his reign, conversations with local historians revealed that in fact the king and court regularly progressed around huge swathes of France. Of course, we have no direct evidence that Anne was there in these different locations (which are not covered in the book) but as a maid of honour to the queen, there is no reason to suspect that she was not in attendance on her royal mistress during most of this time. I knew of Anne’s time spent in Paris and the Loire, but the fact that she had probably seen so much of France was a revelation to me.
She has become one of the most iconic characters of English history. Can we ever know what she was really like? Do any sources describing her appearance and character still exist?
Natalie: There is no known contemporary portrait of Anne Boleyn and the contemporary descriptions we do have, many written during her controversial relationship with Henry, are often overly hostile or contradictory. The evidence suggests that she was slim, of dark complexion, with a long oval face and high cheekbones. She had long dark hair and beautiful, expressive eyes that were almost black in colour. While it appears Anne was not a conventional sixteenth century beauty—plump, fair-haired, with porcelain skin—she was most certainly fiercely intelligent, stylish, charming, sexy, sophisticated, witty, elegant and a trend-setter. Anne was an accomplished singer, dancer and musician; she spoke several languages and was skilled in the game of courtly love.She was also spirited, an independent thinker and an astute politician. On the flipside, she could be ruthless, calculating and unrelenting. She had a fiery temper and gave in to bouts of ‘rashness’.
Her marriage to Henry VIII disintegrated in a most spectacular way. Do you think her fate was sealed the moment her 1534 pregnancy failed?
Natalie: I think Anne’s fall from favour and ultimate downfall were a result of a combination of factors and events, unique to the time and place in which they occurred. I don’t think we can lay the blame solely on any one event or one person in particular. So while I don’t think this sealed Anne’s fate, I do believe it served to reawaken Henry’s demons. It’s likely that the tragic loss of Anne and Henry’s second child in 1534 planted a seed of doubt about Anne in Henry’s mind, and fuelled deep-seated fears born out of Henry’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, where their sons died in utero or in infancy and their only surviving child was a daughter. These fears, which no doubt resurfaced with the birth of the Princess Elizabeth in September 1533, would eventually lead Henry to openly question whether God indeed approved of his union with Anne.
The million dollar question, how different would the Tudor period have been had Anne Boleyn produced a male heir?
Sarah: It is really impossible to say, isn’t it, as it depends on so many factors? Would Anne’s son have survived childhood? What would his character have been like? Who would have taught him? Would it have been a reformist education, or would Henry have insisted on a more conservative, Catholic one? We might have to imagine a male version of Elizabeth, in which case we would find someone of fierce intellect, exceptionally well educated, but perhaps like Edward VI, a pompous, somewhat self righteous manner. However, of course, it is unlikely that this child would have had to bear witness to his mother’s execution, which must have indelibly shaped certain aspects of Elizabeth’s character. Anne’s son would probably have had no qualms about marrying, as Elizabeth clearly did. Therefore, we can imagine the continuation of the Tudor dynasty. I don’t know enough detail about the genesis of the English Civil War to really make a rigorous evaluation of whether having this strength of continuity might have dispelled unrest between the crown in subsequent generations and ‘commoners’, but I have often wondered. Of course, on another note, we might not well have had a Scottish king, or the union with Scotland.
About the Authors:
Sarah Morris is a writer and researcher and the author of Le Temps Viendra: a novel of Anne Boleyn, a fiction novel to be published in two volumes. She has a lively Facebook following www.facebook.com/LTViendra..
Natalie Grueninger is a researcher, writer, educator and creator of On the Tudor Trail, a website dedicated to documenting historic sites and buildings associated with Anne Boleyn and sharing
information about the life and times of Henry VIII’s second wife.
Their non-fiction book, In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, is published by Amberley Publishing. Natalie and Sarah are currently working on book number 2 in the series, In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of