TO THE CATHOLIC CHURCH SHE WAS YOKO ONO, the interloper,
the harpy sent to turn the prince’s head and break up the band. Eustace
Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, when he wasn’t calling her “the concubine,” he and others (many others) were calling her “the whore.” Some claimed Anne Boleyn was a witch, among other things. But she held the gaze of the king, and the rest just didn’t really matter.
Anne Boleyn's legend seemed to glow with an intense, feverish, brilliant, but tragic light. She was not the paragon of beauty, though some contemporary observers described her as "very beautiful," and with "an excellent figure," "young and good looking." One priest said the King's mistress, Bessie Blount, was more beautiful. Anne was not the current fashion. She was by no means the delicate little creature, with the "peaches and cream complexion and fluttering eyes."
The Venetian diplomat, Francesco Sanuto, described her, saying, "Madame Anne is not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the English King's great appetite and her eyes, which are black and beautiful." She was witty, feisty, ambitious, and confident. In spite of the descriptions favorable or unfavorable, she had what might be called sex appeal.
For the poet, Thomas Wyatt, Anne was the true lady of his imagination. He wept at her death, watching, as he was, from his own prison cell in the Tower of London. In may ways Anne Boleyn was exceptional, beyond her own times.
She was a friend to the English Reformation, a prime mover. She was certainly a prime mover of Henry. She was the captain's captain. Spiritually, between Henry and Anne, she was the experimenter, untangled and unbound from the old religion. According to Joanna Denny, "Anne Boleyn was the catalyst for the Reformation, the initiator of the Protestant religion in England." Whether or not this assertion is completely accurate, Anne was at the center of the King's little problem.
Married 20 years to Katherine of Aragon, when Anne Boleyn came along, poor Henry was "struck with the dart of love." Their relationship started in 1526, the year of Tyndale's English New Testament. Henry's motto that year was Declare je now (Declare I dare not). Anne was twenty. Henry was thirty-five. The neglected Katherine was an aging forty-one.
The dart-wounded young king quite literally turned over an entire world for Anne. A master tactician as her daughter Elizabeth would prove to be, Anne maddened Henry with her refusals, with her carrot-stick playfulness. She not only refused him sexually, she would not consent to be his mistress as acknowledged at court (or as her ill-fated sister Mary had been to the robust king). All this was for a season only. Once Henry's ardor cooled (as it did when she could produce no male heir), even Anne knew she was in trouble.
Henry's break with Rome had layers and layers of meaning, some more conspicuous than others, some latent. And there were certainly more elements in the break than lust or the desire for a male heir, but these were the initiators, the triggers.
Anne Boleyn supported the trafficking of Tyndale's New Testament into England, along with other Tyndale literature. In 1534, when she was queen and an English New Testament was still outlaw, she not only had a copy, she kept it on a lectern in her chamber for her ladies to read. She also had a copy of Tyndale's OBEDIENCE OF A CHRISTIAN MAN, which was precious to her. Of that book, Henry said, "This is a book for me and all kings to read."
For all its benefits and entitlements, living in the gaze of the dragon has consequences. In the end, Anne was accused of a variety of ridiculous charges, simply because the King wanted an end to her. From witchcraft to incest with her own brother, she had no chance against the will of Harry VIII. For her "treason," she did not have to suffer the usual gruesome punishments. She was granted beheading, and by a highly skilled French swordsman. It was a kind of mercy, I suppose.
I could be overstating it, and simply for my affections for Lady Anne, but to many, Anne Boleyn was the woman who changed the heart of a King. To others, myself included, she changed the heart of England, and what it meant to be English. The King's love was tyranny. Vilified by some, sainted by others, Lady Anne remains a complication in the memory of England, and slips our traps when trying to reduce her to words. As Sir Thomas Wyatt cautioned, "Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am."