Anne Boleyn: A Romantic Heroine?
Anne Boleyn is a woman whose reputation has fluctuated over the course of time but a woman about whom we actually know very little. People of all eras have been fascinated by the queen who was the mother of Elizabeth I. The Victorians were just as interested in her as we are today and many at the time saw her as a romantic heroine. Among many others, Jane Austen wrote about and was interested in her. She was talked about in school textbooks, she was painted, and historians of the day keenly discussed her character.
Agnes Strickland was a significant Victorian writer who praised Anne’s “calm, dignified air” as she ascended the scaffold. It is a positive description of Anne that seems to admire her bravery in the face of death; as if Anne was a martyr who went to her death without flinching. Jane Austen saw Anne as an “amiable woman” who was “entirely innocent of the crimes with which she was accused, and of which her beauty, her elegance, and her sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention the solemn protestations of her innocence”. This suggests that she adhered to the same view as Agnes Strickland had of Anne being a martyr; contrasting with the earlier Catholic views which had reviled her as a witch and heretic. For the Victorians her religion was, in itself, enough to make her a good person, particularly considering she was often seen as key to the Protestant reformation in England. Oliver Goldsmith, although writing in the eighteenth rather than the nineteenth century, tells his readers that Anne refused Henry’s “criminal desires” and thought only of marriage as the way forward. Her fidelity and innocence made her a moral person in his eyes. What is interesting about the Victorians is that they never discussed the nature of Anne and Henry’s sex life: the fact that Anne slept with Henry before they were married is simply not commented upon.
There were also several portraits of Anne that show Victorian sentiment towards her. These portraits emphasise her feminine qualities. In Gustav Wappers’ portrait, for example, Anne is shown first and foremost as a mother saying a brave farewell to her child before she is executed. In this way Anne is showing motherly tendencies which were an ideal for women in the nineteenth century. The crying Anne in Edouard Cibot’s portrait also emphasises Anne’s emotion and femininity. Both suggest Anne as a victim of Henry VIII’s tyrannical regime, a suffering woman rather than the scheming character that Anne is often described as in other eras. Anne is often blonde in Victorian portraits, which is not the hair colour normally ascribed to her. It can, perhaps, be suggested that these artists were trying to create an image of Anne that would make her an acceptable martyr to the Victorian population. Since blonde was the fashionable colour of hair for women to have, she was shown to be blonde; similarly, a woman must be motherly, affectionate and sensitive (Anne is often shown kneeling or sitting due to her emotions) to be an attractive partner, and therefore the artists show her to be as such.
Most of the authors that we have discussed were not, however, seen as particularly effective historians by contemporary standards. The Victorian historian Henry William Herbert derided most of the female biographers as giving “lighter and more gossiping sketches” of the queen. His arguments were biased, as he was conforming to the common Catholic opinion of Anne. Herbert was not the only one to conform to this view in this era; Knox, for example, sees Anne as a determined and wily Lady in Waiting to Katherine of Aragon. Thus we can see that, despite much fascination with Anne, there was no clear opinion on her in the Victorian era. So-called “professional” historians (history was often a hobby for these people) saw Anne as many others before them had seen her; a temptress and, for some of them, a witch. Many female writers took an interest in a different side of Anne, one that saw her as a heroine and martyr, persecuted for her religion. As with everything about Anne Boleyn, the truth about her is unknown but the debate as to her true character has always been a presence since her dramatic death in 1536.
Written by Lauren Miller
Austen, Jane. The History of England. Penguin Books: 1995.
Bordo, Susan. The Creation of Anne Boleyn. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
Goldsmith, Oliver. The History of England: from the earliest times to the death of George II, Volume II. London: T.Davies, 1771.
Strickland, Agnes, and Elizabeth. Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.