A harlot. Incestuous. A witch. All of these myths and more endure about Anne Boleyn, wife of King Henry VIII and Queen of England from 1533-1536. Where have these myths come from and can they be dispelled?
1. She learned about sex in a promiscuous French court
Anne went to the French court in 1514 as maid of honour to Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, who married Louis XII of France. When Louis died, Anne moved to the court of Queen Claude, wife of the newly-crowned King Francis I. The idea that the French court was sexually charged most likely stems from Francis, who kept an official mistress. Stories of Francis’ amorous exploits have proved tantalising with novels and films sensationalising stories of the French court.
But Anne was in service to Queen Claude, a pious woman who spent much of her time in the Loire Valley away from Francis’ court. Pregnant seven times in eight years, Claude preferred to be in the beautiful Chateau of Blois and Amboise whilst with child.
At court, women were supposed to be modest and chaste to conform to feminine ideals so Anne’s days would have been spent doing well-regarded activities like sewing, embroidery, worship, reading devotional texts, singing, walking, and playing music and games.
The few instances we do know of Anne attending Francis’ court, she attended pageants and banquets which would have been no more immodest than those in the English court.
2. She pursued Henry VIII to steal him from Catherine of Aragon
Evidence from Anne’s own letters when she was 12 tells us she dreamed of being a lady in waiting for Catherine of Aragon. From 1522 Anne realised her childhood dream as records show she sometimes served Catherine. Rather than a young woman bent on pursuing a king, it is more likely that Anne and Catherine were friends.
Stories of Anne acting in a flirtatious manner to catch Henry’s eye at a masque in 1522 (her first appearance at the English court after her return from France) are also exaggerated. It is true that Anne played the character of Perseverance, but ideas of Anne bewitching Henry are unlikely as Anne was set to marry James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond – a marriage suggested by Henry.
The first time we have evidence of Anne’s involvement with Henry is in a letter from Henry to Anne in 1526. This letter (one of 17 that survive from Henry to Anne) talks of being struck by the dart of love ‘above a whole year’ but Henry is worried as he is ‘not yet sure whether I shall fail of finding a place in your heart’. Throughout the letter, Henry is ‘beseeching’ Anne ‘to let me know expressly your whole mind as to the love between us two.’ The letter makes it quite clear that it is Henry who is pursuing Anne.
3. She had an incestuous relationship with her brother
The one and only source of evidence about Anne having an inappropriate sexual relationship with her brother, George, comes from Eustace Chapuys, Imperial Ambassador to Charles V. Charles was Catharine of Aragon’s nephew so Chapuys was not an impartial observer, and he remarked on how much time George spent with Anne, but that was it. It is this observation that is the only one we have about the siblings’ alleged incest.
We also know that when Anne’s brother returned from diplomatic missions, he visited her first before seeing the king and maybe this raised a few eyebrows. But it is far more reasonable to suggest that Anne and George were simply close.
4. She was a witch
Anne’s association with witchcraft comes from a report by Eustace Chapuys. In January 1536, Chapuys reported to Charles V that Henry was stressed, and had been heard saying he had been seduced into marriage with Anne by “sortilege”. The word sortilege meant divine power, but it could also be used to imply witchcraft and sorcery.
Chapuys interpreted what he heard as Anne bewitching Henry, but Chapuys did not speak English and only heard that Henry was stressed. Reporting a third- or fourth-hand account, plus issues of translation, undoubtedly muddied the story – it was a serious case of Chinese Whispers.
Historians tend to believe that Henry meant sortilege in terms of divination – the idea that Anne had promised him they would have sons because god wanted the marriage so it was divinely blessed. The day Henry had been stressed and allegedly uttered these words Anne had miscarried a baby.
Anne’s association with witchcraft also comes from a contemporary historian Nicholas Sanders born in 1530. Sanders, a devoted Catholic, published a book in 1585 about Tudor England’s split from the Roman Catholic Church, which painted a very hostile portrait of Anne. Sanders said of Anne: “She had a projecting tooth under her upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers. There was a large wen (wart) under her chin…”. Sanders also picked up on Chapuys’ account of sortilege, painting a picture of witchcraft.
However, given that Henry had chosen Anne to give him a son and heir and was deeply religious, would he really have chosen someone who looked like a witch or who had six fingers when such things were associated with the devil?
There is also the matter of Sanders’ motive. Anne had been a powerful advocate for reform whilst Sanders was a devoted Catholic writing a book about the ‘schism’ of the church – a word implying he saw the Reformation as a negative split.
Finally, if Anne had been accused of witchcraft, we would expect to see it being used by her enemies during her trial as a piece of powerful propaganda – yet it appears nowhere.
5. She gave birth to a deformed fetus
There is no evidence to support this myth. The allegation came from Nicholas Sanders who wrote that Anne gave birth to a ‘shapeless mass of flesh’. Given that Sanders chose to describe what was a tragic miscarriage in 1536 gives us a sense of his brutality towards Anne for writing such a thing. The biological fact is that as the fetus was only 15 weeks old it would not look like a fully-formed baby. No witness or account from the time made a single observation about the child.