Spartacus Blog

Anne Boleyn in the history classroom

Saturday, 29th August, 2015

John Simkin

John Foxe first published his Book of Martyrs in 1563. Foxe, who had been forced to live in exile during the reign of Mary, provides a detailed account of Anne Boleyn: “Many things might be written more of the manifold virtues, and the quiet moderation of her mild nature… Also, how bountiful she was to the poor, passing not only the common example of other queens, but also the revenues almost of her estate; insomuch that the alms which she gave in three quarters of a year, in distribution, is summed to the number of fourteen or fifteen thousand pounds; besides the great piece of money which her grace intended to impart into four sundry quarters of the realm, as for a stock there to be employed to the behalf of poor artificers and occupiers. Again, what a zealous defender she was of Christ’s gospel all the world doth know, and her acts do and will declare to the world’s end." Foxe then goes on to argue that Boleyn used her influence to get Protestant reformers, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Shaxton, placed in important positions in the Church hierarchy. (1)

Foxe was only a young man when Anne Boleyn was alive and there is no evidence that he actually met her. The fact that the book was published during the reign of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth, would not have encouraged him to be critical of the second wife of Henry VIII. However, there is no doubt that he made every attempt to get his facts right. When the book first appeared it had 1,721 pages and ran to 1,450,000 words. After the book was published, many people wrote to Foxe. Some pointed out minor errors in his book. Some gave him information which he had so far been unable to find. This material was included in the second edition published in 1570. This edition had 2,335 pages and 3,150,000 words. It was nearly four times the length of the Bible, and according to Jasper Ridley was the "longest single work which has ever been published in the English language." (2)

Thomas S. Freeman has pointed out that the book made good use of the library accumulated by Archbishop Matthew Parker. "Foxe's second edition also far surpassed any previous English historical work in the range of medieval chronicles and histories on which it was based. Foxe had the immense good fortune to be able to consult the vast collection of historical manuscripts gathered by Archbishop Matthew Parker." (3)

During the Elizabethan period, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was extremely popular and was probably the second best-selling book after the Bible. However, after the death of Elizabeth, her mother’s reputation went into decline. For a time historians began to take the views of Nicholas Sander more seriously. Sander was a Catholic priest who lived in Rome after the death of Queen Mary. His book, The Rise and Growth of Anglican Schism, published in Cologne in 1585, provided a very hostile portrait of Anne Boleyn. It was Sander who first claimed that she was deformed: “She had a projecting tooth under her upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers. There was a large wen (tumour or wart) under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness, she wore a high dress covering her throat." (4)

Several historians have pointed out that Sander was only a child when Anne Boleyn died. George Wyatt was the grandson of Thomas Wyatt, who was close to Anne. He was her first biographer, who compiled his work at the end of the sixteenth century from the reminiscences of his family and those who had known her, such as her former maid of honour, Anne Gainsford. (5) He dismisses Sander's claim that she had six fingers on her right hand. "There was found, indeed, upon the side of her nail, upon one of her fingers, some little show of a nail, which yet was so small... albeit in beauty she was to many inferior, but for behaviour, manners, attire and tongue she excelled them all... she was indeed a very wilful woman." (6) There is no evidence that Anne "wore a high dress", which was not fashionable at this time. Her portraits show that she did not usually cover her neck. (7)

Catholic nations in Europe encouraged this negative view of Anne Boleyn. Eustace Chapuys, was the ambassador of King Charles V who was assigned to Henry VIII’s court from 1529 to 1536. When his letters to the King were published it provided a very different image of Boleyn than the one provided by John Foxe. Chapuys was a supporter of Catherine of Aragon and he claimed that Boleyn had used witchcraft to manipulate and control the king. Despite being in the court Chapuys refused to talk to Queen Anne and most of the comments he made about her were based on rumours he had heard. (8)

Chapuys even claimed that Anne Boleyn was responsible for the death of Catherine of Aragon on 7th January, 1536. Her doctor claimed that she had been suffering from "slow poisoning". Chapuys reported that she had been poisoned at the instigation of Boleyn. (9) This story was believed for many years but as Antonia Fraser has pointed out: "The deaths of prominent persons whose removal was thought to be rather too convenient for their enemies were generally accompanied by such suspicions. The charge is ludicrous... God was likely to carry off Catherine soon enough without extra help. There is also the question of the character of Henry VIII. He regarded poison with moral repugnance: it was alien to him. The axe and rope, wielded in public, not secret poison were the weapons of his authority against those who defied the royal will, preceded if possible by the culprits profound repentance at having crossed or betrayed him." (10)

However, Chapuys was probably right to say Catherine of Aragon was far more popular than Anne Boleyn. It was reported by Cardinal Jean du Bellay in May 1529 that Catherine had the support of the majority of women living in England at the time. "If the matter were to be decided by women, he (Henry VIII) would lose the battle, for they did not fail to encourage the queen (Catherine of Aragon) at her entrance and departure by their cries, telling her to care for nothing, and other such words." (11)

Lodovico Falier reported to King Charles V on 24th November, 1531, that an attempt had been made to kill Anne Boleyn: "It is said that more than seven weeks ago a mob of from seven to eight thousand women of London went out of the town to seize Boleyn's daughter, the sweetheart of the king of England, who was supping at a villa on a river, the king not being with her; and having received notice of this, she escaped by crossing the river in a boat. The women had intended to kill her; and amongst the mob were many men, disguised as women. Nor has any great demonstration been made about this, because it was a thing done by women." (12)

The following year there was "a great riot and unlawful assembly of women" at Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. Sir Thomas Audley, a senior figure in Henry VIII's household was asked to investigate. He later reported that the women had apparently rioted to show their opposition to Anne Boleyn. Audley suggested that their protests were downplayed, because it was thought that the riot "could not have been held without the connivance of their husbands." (13)

George Cavendish, who was a member of Cardinal Wolsey's household later wrote that "the world began to be full of wonderful rumours not heard of before in this realm". This mainly concerned "the long hid and secret love between the king and Mistress Anne Boleyn" and this "began to break out into every man's ears". (14) The chronicler, Edward Hall, confirmed this and commented that there was growing hostility towards a "gentlewoman in the court called Anne Boleyn". (15)

There appears to be little doubt that if public opinion polls were carried out in Tudor England, Anne Boleyn would have been revealed to be an unpopular woman. She had displaced a much loved queen and had broken the existing moral code. Alison Plowden, the author of the pioneering book, Tudor Women (2002), has pointed out that Boleyn was being punished for being a woman. Adultery might be a moral rather than a criminal offence but a woman could expect no mercy from a society organized on strictly patriarchal lines.

Plowden goes on to argue: "This so-called 'double standard' of morality, which has caused so much anguish through the centuries, was not merely a matter of male pride and possessiveness. It was based on inescapable biological fact and the haunting fear that an upright citizen might be tricked into giving his name to another man's gettings or, worse, that land and property might pass to some cuckoo in the nest and a noble line be dishonoured forever." (16)

The historian, Christopher Hill, once commented: “History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past, and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.” This was the same point that Retha M. Warnicke, made in her introduction to he book, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989). She argues that when writing a modern biography of Anne Boleyn one needs to take into account the "sixteenth-century socialization of women" and you need to understand her "viewed within the framework of these social and cultural values". (17)

Sharon L. Jansen, the author of Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996), takes an even more pronounced feminist view of writing history. She sees Anne Boleyn as someone like Catherine Parr, Margaret Cheyney, Elizabeth Barton, Anne Askew, who was trying to participate in the political and religious change that was taking place in the sixteenth-century. (18) It is probably significant that in all these cases, except for Parr, ended up being executed by Henry VIII. Even his sixth wife came very close to being put to death when Henry discovered that she was becoming involved in political and religious matters. (19)



(1) John Foxe, The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe (1965) Volume 5, pages 232-234.

(2) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) pages 222-225

(3) Thomas S. Freeman, John Foxe : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) Nicholas Sander, Rise and Growth of Anglican Schism (1571) page 35

(5) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) pages 151-152

(6) George Wyatt, wrote this account in the 1590s and was published in The Papers of George Wyatt (1968)

(7) David Loades, George Wyatt : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(8) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 2

(9) C. S. L. Davies, Eustace Chapuys : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 229

(11) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 84

(12) Lodovico Falier, report to King Charles V (24th November, 1531)

(13) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 109

(14) George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey (c. 1558) page 66

(15) Edward Hall, History of England (1548) page 155

(16) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002) page 75

(17) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 5

(18) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 84

(19) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 141


Previous Posts

Anne Boleyn in the history classroom (29th August, 2015)

Why the BBC and the Daily Mail ran a false story on anti-fascist campaigner, Cedric Belfrage (22nd August, 2015)

Women and Politics during the Reign of Henry VIII (14th July, 2015)

The Politics of Austerity (16th June, 2015)

Was Henry FitzRoy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, murdered? (31st May, 2015)

The long history of the Daily Mail campaigning against the interests of working people (7th May, 2015)

Nigel Farage would have been hung, drawn and quartered if he lived during the reign of Henry VIII (5th May, 2015)

Was social mobility greater under Henry VIII than it is under David Cameron? (29th April, 2015)

Why it is important to study the life and death of Margaret Cheyney in the history classroom (15th April, 2015)

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