Earlier this month there was a Tudor Treasures exhibition in Cambridge’s St John’s College. This was a fantastic opportunity to see original Tudor items that otherwise are unavailable for viewing. The main reason I was so excited was the inclusion of Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn.
Unfortunately due to Henry’s purge of all things relating to Anne after her execution, very few sources remain that could enlighten us about her life and her relationship with Henry. However, these love letters survived, kept safe in the Vatican archives whilst her responses were destroyed in England. Despite only Henry’s words surviving, they offer us a glimpse of her early relationship with the king and help us discover whether she was the one who refused to share his bed until she was queen or whether it was Henry who, concerned about the appearance of his morality and legitimacy of his case against Rome in his quest for divorce, refused to risk creating the male heir he so desperately wanted out of wedlock.
In one of Henry’s letters from the early stages of their relationship, it is clear that Anne was debating how to respond to the king’s advances. He stated that his purpose in writing to her was to demand a response to his advances as he had been hurt by the information that her romantic interest in him had changed since they had last corresponded. Anne’s returning letters were destroyed during Henry’s attempt to purge the court of any reminder of Anne after her dramatic fall from grace in 1536 but the wording of Henry’s passionate letters are extremely expressive and reflect what she had written. Henry’s confusion over Anne’s conflicting responses is clear when he wrote that Anne ‘would not come to court’ despite being ‘sure that [he had] never done anything to offend [her]’since they had last spoken. This demonstrates that from Henry’s perspective he had not been ambiguous with his desires but was frustrated by her changing affection. It could be suggested that Anne’s motive in keeping the king’s interest alive by changing her mind was to encourage Henry to confirm what her status would be should she comply. Warned by her sister Mary’s brief dalliance with Henry, it is natural that Anne would be wary of becoming the king’s mistress and would seek to ascertain whether a romance with the king would be beneficial to her standing and future. In the early stages of their relationship, it seems more accurate to interpret her motives as being dictated by more moral values as at this point Anne could not have known how far Henry’s love would raise her. Henry’s passion for Anne cannot be called into question at this stage as he describes her as ‘the woman that [he] esteem[ed] most in the world’. This is an important statement as it proves the depth of Henry’s feelings toward a woman he should regard as merely a mistress. It is easy to see how Anne may have understood the implication that Henry held her in a higher regard than that of a standard mistress. By writing that he was hurt and frustrated at not knowing her response, Henry demonstrated that his interest in her was emotional and loving and did not expect to use her as a tool to satisfy his lust. However, in contrast to the love sick Henry depicted in this letter, there is evidence of the king’s power and commanding presence. Despite Henry’s regular depiction as being almost completely bewitched by her, Henry was quick to remind Anne that her refusal to commit to him entirely was ‘a very poor return for the great love’that he bore her.
A second frustrated letter from Henry to Anne offers a time scale for their courtship. This is extremely useful and it can be used to judge how long Anne refrained from admitting her feelings. To be able to date their affair is important as it is paramount in interpreting Anne’s motives. For example, had Anne’s reluctance to commit to Henry only lasted a few months then it is easier to interpret her hesitation as concern over being discarded and destroying the possibility of a suitable for marriage later on. However, if it becomes clear that Anne refrained for a much longer period of time then it could be suggested that she had ulterior motives to gain a higher position in court, perhaps even queen even at this early stage. The timeframe becomes apparent when Henry writes that he had been struck ‘with the dart of love’ for a whole year and is still in ‘great agony’ at being unable to interpret her response to his advantage or disadvantage. By August 1527 Anne and Henry had clearly overcome their differences and were flaunting their new love as the Imperial Ambassador Don Iñigo Mendoza wrote to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, that it was now ‘generally believed that if the King can obtain a divorce he will end by marrying a daughter of Master Bolo’. With this in mind, it appears reasonable to date this correspondence as occurring, at the latest, at the end of 1526 and that Henry began his pursuit of Anne toward the end of 1525. This suggests that Anne attempted to distance herself from the king for at least a year, perhaps even eighteen months. This appears to be rather a long time for Anne to toy with the king’s feelings, and it would be convincing to argue that it was during this time she began to see how she could work the king’s favour to her own personal advantage. This is suggested when Henry writes that if Anne were to ‘give up [her]self body and heart’to him he would take her for his ‘only mistress, casting off all others beside [her] out of [his] thoughts and affections, and serve [Anne] only’. This suggests that Anne must have implied that she regarded the idea of becoming one woman out of many to serve the king as below her.
After a year of arduous, passionate beseeching from the King of England, Anne would have begun to understand the influence she would gain if she used the king’s love to her advantage. Undoubtedly she would have been influenced by Mary’s notoriety after her affair with Henry and would have wished to avoid a similar fate. Her education in the sophisticated and romantic courts of the Dutch and the French had flared her ambitions and led her to aim for a higher position than that of a royal mistress. By refraining from being honest and forthcoming with her feelings toward Henry, Anne was able to understand how far Henry was willing to commit to gain Anne’s love. That Henry continued to try to court Anne and persuade her to love him demonstrates that she was practiced at using her charm to enchant men. It is hard to consider another English woman having the same effect upon Henry in the fifteen-twenties. Thus Anne’s role in her relationship with Henry was extremely significant; her intelligence allowed her to comprehend the political and social gains she could make through a successful romance with the king and her pragmatism allowed her to hold back her true attitude toward Henry until she was certain of her advancement. By promising to cast off all others Henry demonstrated that Anne would gain a greater position in his court than previous mistresses which would have fuelled her ambition. Furthermore, Henry’s attention had rendered her the centre of court and her unique position of being the closest to the King of England, granted her powerful political influence. This suggests that it was Anne who dictated the dimensions of her relationship with Henry; as long as she refused to consummate her romance Henry would be forced to do whatever it took to get her. This implies that it was Anne’s intention from the moment Henry’s affection became clear to try and work the king into creating her Queen of England.
However, Henry’s letters to Anne certainly document a change in the dynamics of their relationship. At the start of their romance, the letters portray an Anne indifferent to Henry’s love whereas the following letters show a loving correspondence between two people who were desperate to hear of each other’s health, happiness and the progression of the Great Matter. The latter was of great importance to Henry and Anne as its successful conclusion would free the former from his supposed illegal marriage to Katherine and allow him to marry Anne, and marry for love, and in so doing he would be granted a son and heir from God. G. W. Bernard champions an alternative interpretation of Anne’s actions during the early stages of her romance with Henry. He writes that not only was Anne incapable of wielding such restraint or control over the king due to her gender, but that it was Henry himself who prevented any sexual encounters. He argues that due to the sensitive morality issues raised in the Great Matter proceedings it was Henry who abstained from sexual relations with Anne. This argument is rather convincing as it fits with the evidence that Henry removed Anne from court during this time. Henry’s case for annulment was based upon a passage in Leviticus that stated that ‘if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is impurity: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless’. Henry would have considered this as proof of the illegitimacy of his marriage to Katherine as their only surviving child, Mary, was female and a female heir was equally as disturbing to a monarch as being ‘childless’ during the early Tudor period. As his case was built upon the questionable morality of his marriage, it would have been of great detriment to his cause to be seen courting a mistress. Furthermore, Henry had had sexual knowledge of Anne’s sister, which considering that he was accusing Katherine of consummating her previous marriage with his elder brother Arthur and therefore making their consequent marriage illegitimate, would have caused doubts over Henry’s true intentions. It was of paramount importance that Henry did not appear to be seeking a divorce from his Queen just because he had fallen in love with another.
Henry had demanded that the annulment should be decided in England by his favourite minister Cardinal Wolsey and a representative from the Vatican who would act with the full authority of the Pope at the Legatine Court constructed at Blackfriars. Cardinal Campeggio was to be the Papal representative and arrived in Dover late September 1528. Considering this, it is not surprising that Henry would want Anne away from court upon Campeggio’s arrival due to the strong moral implications upon his case it would cause if she were present as it would cast doubt upon his intentions. Mendoza wrote to both the Archduchess Margaret of the Netherlands and the Holy Roman Emperor to describe the king’s immediate reaction of ensuring Anne’s safe return to Hever, her father’s house, upon news of Campeggio’s impending arrival. This certainly suggests that as it became apparent to Henry that Anne reciprocated his love it became more important to hide it from those with the power to grant him an annulment. This desire to keep their love away from the prying eyes of the legate is also demonstrated in a letter to Anne in which he states
‘The legate whom we most desire arrived at Paris on Sunday or Monday last past, so that I trust by next Monday to hear of his arrival at Calais; and then I must trust within awhile after to enjoy that which I have so long longed for, to God’s pleasure, and both our comforts’.
This suggests that Henry thought their separation would only be for a short time as he implied that Campeggio would have concluded the Matter swiftly and in Henry’s favour. This agrees with the interpretation that it was Henry who enforced the separation in order to present as more valid case for annulment. Furthermore, it is important not to forget that underlying Henry’s actions was his desperate desire for a male heir. By refraining from entering into a carnal relationship with Anne until they were married, Henry was ensuring that any children born from their union would be legitimate and therefore legally able to ascend to the throne.
Great sources for this period can be found at British History Online.
G. W. Bernard’s book Fatal Attraction can be bought here.