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An Examination of the significance for the Reformation in England of Anne Boleyn

The lives of Henry's Consorts have been related as if each of the six was an isolated phenomenon that had by chance attracted the desire of a lascivious despot, and in her turn had been deposed when his eye had fallen, equally fortuitously, upon another woman who pleased his errant fancy better. This view I believe to be a superficial and misleading one. I regard Henry himself not as the far-seeing statesman he is so often depicted for us... but rather as a weak, vain, boastful man, the plaything of his passions, which were artfully made use of by rival parties to forward religious and political ends in the struggle of giants that ended in the Reformation.
Martin Hume

Anne Boleyn

The quotation above sums up the way in which popular history has presented Anne Boleyn and Henry's role and challenges it but also seems to advance an alternative view that reduces Anne to something of a cipher for her powerful family's political and religious beliefs. I chose to look at the impact of Anne Boleyn on the English reformation.

I argue that that it was Henry's divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn that provided the impetus for break with Rome. I will consider the role of a Boleyn faction in pressing Henry towards Reformation and will consider the legacy of Anne's marriage to Henry - including the daughter Elizabeth who was committed to ensuring that Protestantism remained the established religion.

King Henry VIII

Haigh argued that, Henry was not interested in reform before he sought a divorce from Catherine (for instance, he was happy to support the church's persecution of heretics (Haigh,1993:88)) Indeed, in 1521, Wolsey persuaded Henry to "write" a response to Luther that was refutation of Luther's teachings. (Haigh, 1993:57)

However, Haigh argued, a chance combination of circumstances led Henry to move against the Church. "Wolsey had been disgraced and a Parliament called at time when the king wanted churchmen intimidated" (Haigh, 1993:89) because of Henry's increasing desire for a divorce, driven by his desire to marry Anne and his anxiety to beget a male heir.

Ives saw Henry as one of the only two English monarchs before Elizabeth II (the other being Edward IV) to marry for love. He evidences the passion expressed in their letters. I feel that other factors, such as the need for an heir and the opportunity to impose his power over the church and profit from its wealth, were also of at least equal importance to Henry. Nevertheless, there were clearly adverse diplomatic consequences for Henry in pushing for the annulment, against Katherine's powerful family connections, so he must have had compelling reasons for pushing the matter.

Hever Castle - Anne Boleyn's Family Seat

Anne (whose sister had previously been Henry's mistress) originally refused Henry's advances and only came to welcome them when Henry made it clear that he was seeking an annulment and would be free to marry her. Henry continued to be reluctant to break with Rome, throughout their courtship and showed indecision, had secret reconciliations with Katherine and quarrels with Anne, but by 1532 he had changed his direction. Boleyn's relatives continually used their influence to encourage him to break with Rome. It was Anne's pregnancy and the opportunity to gain an heir that finally convinced Henry to push through the final acts. This bears out Hume's vision of Henry as a weak and vacillating man. It tends to suggest that Anne was ambitious and determined to become queen.

Where several writers have treated both Anne and Catherine as pawns of their powerful families, this seems a debatable approach to me. Catherine's family was powerful enough to influence the pope in her favour by force and diplomacy, but in this case, they were seeking to act on her behalf and not vice versa. The evidence for a Boleyn faction is confusing (see Loades and Walker.) Anne's relations and Anne herself were certainly passionately anti-Wolsey. I feel that an argument that treats women's kinship connections as somehow determinate but which treats men's kinship connections as merely part of their spheres of influence as flawed is part of the processes of obscuring women's contributions to history. While in power, she sought to advance her family's considerable existing influence at court and in religious issues. Anne's fall was certainly related to the manoeuvrings of her family's enemies (as well as to her failure to bear a live male heir and to Henry's lust for a new bride) but this would be true of any Tudor politician.

Against the view that Anne was almost a cipher for powerful male relatives, several historians have reexamined Anne's role with more attention.

Pauline Croft adopts a similar stress on accidents to that of Haigh, but is less willing to see Anne as a mere cipher for powerful relatives. She stressed the importance of court politics without diminishing Anne's importance. "The course of religious change during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation was often crucially shaped by the accidents of court politics. In her years as the leading lady at court, Anne Boleyn played a vital role as the patron and protector of evangelical reformers"

Paul Zahl also argued that Anne Boleyn, Katharine Parr, Jane Grey, Anne Askew, and Catherine Willoughby) were all powerful theologians, who paid the cost of their convictions with imprisonment, exile or death. Anne Pointer similarly saw Anne as deep-thinking and influential theologian. The evidence seems rather scant for her theological expertise but Anne was certainly very interested in the religious debates of her time and may have been responsible for introducing the new ideas to Henry and bringing him to see them in a more positive light than Wolsey had done. (

She was certainly a consummate politician. Her ascent to the throne and her speech on the gallows are evidence of this. ("...I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord...") She failed to bear a male heir for Henry but she gave birth to another remarkable queen who ensured Protestant succession and continued the project that her mother had largely set in motion.

References and Bibliography


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