Did Anne Boleyn really fend off Henry VIII’s advances for seven years? Our guest this month, Alison Weir, dishes the dirt.
It was novel for a King like Henry VIII to have to beg for sexual favours. When he asked Anne Boleyn to become his mistress, around 1525-6, she refused. She would not even agree to being named his mistress in the courtly sense, when the word meant a woman who had mastery over a man who played the role of servant, rather than a woman who enjoyed a sexual relationship with him or lived with him as his wife. Anne’s great Elizabethan apologist, George Wyatt, putting the most flattering spin on the situation, says she was reluctant to accept the King’s advances because of ‘the great love’ she bore to Queen Katherine of Aragon. That may have been so, but she had also seen what had happened to her sister Mary, whom Henry had cast off without so much as a pension, and she told him (although perhaps not in as many words as George Wyatt put in her mouth), ‘I think your Majesty speaks these words in mirth to prove me, but without any intent of degrading your princely self. To ease you of the labour of asking me any such question hereafter, I beseech your Highness most earnestly to desist, and to take this my answer in good part. I would rather lose my life than my honesty, which will be the greatest and best part of the dowry I shall have to bring my husband.’
‘Well, Madam,’ Henry told Anne, ‘I shall live in hope.’
‘I understand not, most mighty King, how you should retain such hope!’ she reproved him. ‘Your wife I cannot be, both in respect of mine own unworthiness, and also because you have a queen already. Your mistress I will not be.’
Whether these were Anne’s actual words is immaterial; she must have said something of the sort, and clearly her refusal to sleep with him made her infinitely more desirable in Henry’s eyes. And she went on refusing. There was probably a degree of self-preservation in her resolve, given the example of her sister; and there seems to have more of calculation than love. It was later alleged against her that she had ‘never wished to choose the King in her heart’, while George Wyatt implies that she was not in love with Henry; ‘she imagined that there was less freedom in her union with her lord and King than with one more agreeable to her’. But she was the product of an ambitious family, and it is likely that the prospect of the advantages to be gained from an ardent king would have outweighed all other considerations.
Anne had reason to know that Henry ‘soon tired of those who had served him as his mistress’. The trick was to hold his interest while fending off his advances. If she surrendered, his desire might soon cool, as it had for her sister. We can infer from his love letters that Anne played hard to get, stoking his ardour by permitting certain liberties, dropping subtle hints, intimating that in the right circumstances she was ready to give heart, body and soul to him, leading him on then absenting herself from court for long periods, leaving him to pine in obvious frustration. Her tactics – much the same as those masterfully employed by her daughter, Elizabeth I, with her many suitors – paid off: Henry, like any man kept at bay, grew more intent upon having her. Being deprived of his beloved only added to his torment, inflaming his ardour more fiercely, and he began sending her passionate love-letters, of which this is probably the first:
‘Debating with myself the contents of your letters, I have put myself in great distress, not knowing how to interpret them, whether to my disadvantage, as in some places is shown, or to advantage, as in others I understand them, praying you with all my heart that you will expressly certify me of your whole mind concerning the love between us two. For of necessity I must ensure me of this answer, having now been above one whole year struck with the dart of love, not being assured either of failure or of finding place in your heart and grounded affection. Which last point has kept me for some little time from calling you my mistress, since, if you love me in none other sort save that of common affection, that name in no wise belongs to you, for it denotes a singular love, far removed from the common. But if it shall please you to do me the office of a true loyal mistress and friend, and to give yourself up, heart, body and soul to me, who will be, and have been, your very loyal servant, I promise you that not only shall the name be given you, but that also I will take you for my only mistress, rejecting from thought and affection all others save yourself, to serve you only. Beseeching you to make answer absolute to this my rude letter, how far, and in what, I may put trust…
Written with the hand of him who would willingly remain your H.R.’
It was rare for Henry VIII to be driven to begging. Anne had tied him in knots. When this letter was written, it was over a year since he had fallen in love with her, and still she had not consented to become his mistress – in any sense. She had kept him at arm’s length, blowing first hot then cold, so that he had no idea where he stood with her. It was an object lesson in how to snare your man.
It was probably not until towards the end of 1526 that Anne finally agreed to be Henry’s mistress – but only in the courtly sense. He did not do so openly, which was in keeping with the rules of courtly love and discreet manner in which his earlier extramarital affairs had been conducted; secrecy may have added spice to the relationship. Henry was probably hopeful that Anne would soon surrender to him, yet she continued to play hard to get, remaining at Hever, tantalisingly out of his reach. Their separation was a torment to him, as his letters prove.
Anne was surely flattered by the King’s urgent courtship, yet she knew the stakes were high. She ‘stood still upon her guard, and was not easily carried away with all this appearance of happiness’. We can infer from Henry’s letters that Anne’s feelings for him remained less intense than his for her. The separations do not seem to have grieved her as they did him, which again suggests that she was not as involved emotionally as he was. That his love for her was profound shines forth from his letters, as does his belief that it was reciprocated; and his desperate, unsatisfied desire for her is a constant theme.
She handled him with calculated cleverness. Seven years in France had taught her skill in the game of courtly love. She often failed to reply to his letters. Everything she did, or omitted to do, seems to have been devised to increase his ardour. He always wrote again, chiding her for her ‘tardiness’, begging her ‘to advertise me of your well-being’, and sending gifts to please her. His tone was usually abject and pleading. If she detected a hint of irritation, she dealt with it by quickly reverting from the unattainable to the affectionate, and sending a loving reply.
Sadly Anne’s letters to Henry have not survived. If they had, she would be less of an enigma to us. We can only infer what was in them from his letters to her. These she kept, but they were stolen in 1529, ending up in the Vatican archives.
By March 1527 Anne had returned to court, and her ascendancy over the King immediately became apparent. Almost overnight she found herself in a position of great influence, and week by week her power grew.
When, that month, a French ambassador questioned the legitimacy of Henry’s daughter, the Princess Mary, the King began to have grave doubts about the legitimacy of his marriage, and resolved to seek an annulment and make Anne his wife. Since her virtue could not be breached by ‘those things his kingly majesty and means could bring to the battery, he in the end fell to win her by treaty of marriage’.
That sent Anne retreating back to Hever. She had been offered the highest honour to which an Englishwoman could then attain: the queen consort’s crown. She clearly recognised that, if she was to win it, and overcome all the controversies and difficulties that might ensue from a royal divorce, while retaining her honour and the King’s love, she must continue to play her clever game, which again suggests that the crown of England meant more to her than the man who could put it on her head.
She kept Henry waiting for an answer. It may have been at this time that she sent him a gift of a jewel fashioned as a solitary damsel in a ship tossed by a tempest. The allusion was clear: she was alone in her predicament, and in turmoil; possibly she might be overcome by the tempest – or her boat might take a safe course. It was all part of the play of courtly love.
The letter and the jewel provoked a passionate reaction from Henry:
‘For so beautiful a gift, I thank you right cordially. The proofs of your affection are such that they constrain me ever truly to love, honour and serve you, praying that you will continue in this same firm and constant purpose, ensuring you, for my part, that I will the rather go beyond than make reciprocal, if loyalty of heart, the desire to do you pleasure, even with my whole heart root, may serve to advance it. Henceforth, my heart shall be dedicate to you alone, greatly desirous that my body could be as well, as God can bring it to pass if it pleaseth Him, Whom I entreat once each day for the accomplishment thereof, trusting that at length my prayer will be heard, wishing the time brief, and thinking it but long until we shall see each other again.
Written with the hand of the secretary who in heart, body and will is your loyal and most ensured servant. H. autre ne cherche R.’
‘Henry the King seeks no other than Anne Boleyn.’ And around Anne’s initials the King drew a heart, as lovers have done from time immemorial. Sometime that spring Anne consented to be his Queen, whereupon he ‘took from her a ring, and that wore upon his little finger; and yet all this with such a secrecy was carried, and on her part so wisely, as none or very few esteemed this other than an ordinary course of dalliance’.
This shift in the relationship is apparent in Henry’s letters. In those that evidently follow, it is not Anne who will satisfy Henry’s desire for her: it is God. He speaks achingly of his pain at being parted from her, but he is no longer importuning her to give herself to him. He could not risk the scandal of a pregnancy, especially after he began trumpeting Anne’s virtue to the Pope. The decision not to sleep together was now mutual. The letters reveal that the couple allowed themselves certain intimacies, but it is likely that their love remained unconsummated for another five and a half years, until the autumn of 1532, when marriage, at last, lay within their sights.
Alison Weir is one of the UK’s best-loved and best-selling historians. Her latest project is ambitious – a re-telling of the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives, in six novels, over six years. The first, Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, was published in 2016. The second in the series Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession is out now. Win a copy in our May giveaway!
- Alison Weir
- Henry VIII, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
- Anne Boleyn, National Portrait Gallery.