“I wrote this play to celebrate her life and legacy as a great English Woman who helped change the course of our history.’ HOWARD BRENTON
As a teenager I became captivated by the legend of Anne Boleyn. Here was a young woman, not born into Royalty, who enchanted a King and in becoming our Queen was part of shaping a New England. A woman who was the mother of the much loved Queen Elizabeth I; and who one thousand days after becoming our Queen would die a traitors’ death for adultery with five different men including her own brother. To make her story more interesting, it has now been persuasively argued that she was innocent of these charges. Since then I have set out to learn more about this remarkable woman, and whilst watching Howard Breton’s play Anne Boleyn at the Globe in 2011, I was struck by the longevity of her story. Not only are we as a nation intrigued enough by Anne to still be searching out the truth about her through plays, fiction and Historical Biographies, we are also a Nation whose Monarchy would undoubtedly be wholly different without her . She was and still is a maker of history.
‘She had been a remarkable woman. ..There were few others who rose from such beginnings to a crown, and none contributed to a revolution as far-reaching as the English Reformation.’ ERIC IVES
Anne Boleyn’s story is essentially a love story. All evidence points to Henry VIII being passionately in love with Anne and that this feeling was returned, despite his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Anne, however, was also in love with the new religion and reform and her hold on the King gave her a unique opportunity to bring these ideas to the attention of the ruler of our country. Henry’s contemporary foreign monarchs could not understand his insistence not only on having Anne for his Queen and not just his mistress, but also his insistence on having dispensation from the Pope prior to their marriage. This shows Henry’s deep affection for Anne and his desperate need for a legitimate male heir. To state that Anne Boleyn was merely the catalyst for the reformation would severely underestimate her religious feeling, intelligence and political influence with the King. She was responsible for bringing the King important writings on the new religion and reformation, such as William Tyndale’s The Obedience of A Christian Man which she had access to when it was published in 1528. This was a key text of the Reformation attacking the Church and the Pope and it is reported that when she showed this book to Henry he said ‘This book is for me and for all Kings to read.’
Largely assisted by the brilliant politician Thomas Cromwell, Anne succeeded in gaining the two loves of her life – The King and religious reform in England. In order to marry Anne, Henry set himself up as the Supreme Head of the Church and made the break from Rome, leaving himself excommunicated. Once made Queen, Anne was influential in gaining important clerical positions for reformist bishops, such as Thomas Cranmer, who she assisted in placing as Archbishop of Canterbury. Before the Reformation, British Monarchs, like many of their counterparts, had been almost at the mercy of the Pope. This break with Rome has allowed them more free will on how to manage themselves, such as divorce, but has also allowed some manipulation of the church. Today, the Church of England is at the Heart of British Monarchy, and I cannot help but feel Anne would have felt a great deal of pride at this.
Anne also left the legacy of her only daughter, Elizabeth I. After Anne’s death as a traitor Elizabeth was bastardised and removed from court, only being returned to the succession plan following the birth of her half-brother Edward VI. However, it is unlikely Henry ever envisaged the circumstances that would lead to the long reign of the daughter he had with Anne Boleyn. After her half-sister Mary I’s bloody reign, Elizabeth was welcomed to London with much ceremony and the cheers of the London people. It seemed that her mother had finally been vindicated. Elizabeth was our Queen for 45 years, and has remained one of our best loved and best remembered Queens. We can see many of the influences of her mother in the way Elizabeth fashioned herself.
Anne Boleyn was an intelligent woman with a great understanding of the power of image and of Monarchy. Elizabeth seems to have inherited her mother’s innate understanding of the importance of image, not for its own sake, but for its representation of power and authority. Both Anne and her daughter had a complete understanding of the fact that to play the part you must look the part. Reportedly, Elizabeth also inherited her flashing temper from her mother. The reason that Elizabeth never married may have been partly the example of her parents’ marriage. More importantly, it allowed her to play a political game, not having to ally England with any other particular country – a political astuteness that she may well have also inherited from her mother. Elizabeth also completed the work of the Reformation with the Elizabethan Settlement which developed the character of the Church of England through its thirty nine articles. Today, the Church of England remains at the heart of British Monarchy.
Anne has also left us with the legacy of her memory, she is a historical figure that many strive to understand and indeed vindicate. She only lived for an estimated 35 years (there is some doubt over the date of her birth) and was Queen of England less than three years before she was executed, yet nearly 500 years after her death she is still a regular feature of literature. Recent biographers have provided us with a more sympathetic image of Anne, than the husband stealing adulteress she was previously seen as. Both Eric Ives and Alison Weir have provided us with compelling evidence of Anne’s innocence of the adultery charges and Thomas Cromwell’s own instigation of her destruction for his own motives. There are a number of recent historical novels featuring Anne, including the highly acclaimed Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel, where she is represented as a highly intelligent yet dangerous woman. In the introduction to his play, Howard Brenton states:
“Today there is a fast-growing Anne Boleyn cult … we love her story but feel guilty towards her. I think I’ve understood why and it’s made me a paid-up cult member.’
In her recent article on Royal Bodies, Hillary Mantel argues that Anne Boleyn was only valued in her own time for her Body; and it is true that had she had a boy, her place as Queen would have been assured. However, someone valued her not for her body, but for her ‘intelligence and soul’ as this was not a woman who could be quietly removed from court in the same way Katherine was – this was a woman who had to be swiftly and completely destroyed. Her intelligence, political acumen and ability to entrance the King made her a dangerous adversary. If we take the position that Cromwell was responsible for her downfall, he was not a man to be scared easily and so Anne’s importance cannot be underestimated. Looking at the Monarchy today and the impact this single woman had on us all, I cannot help myself signing up to her cult too.