January is a monumental month for Anne Boleyn fans. Not only do we have the speculated date for her secret marriage to Henry VIII on the 25th of 1533, but several other less fortunate events, consisting of what would be the ultimately infamous year 1536. On January 7th, 1536 Catherine of Aragon died at Kenilworth; Henry questionably celebrated the death of his first wife by throwing parties, jousting, doting on his second, legitimate daughter Elizabeth, and wearing ‘yellow for mourning.’ These festivities lasted weeks to the offense of Catherine’s supporters and most of the public.
Yet while Henry saw Catherine’s death as the ultimate finalization of his second marriage, Anne Boleyn, 15 weeks pregnant, was nervous. Her marriage to the king already suffered fissures and cracks, and he had begun to tire of the fiery personality that had won his heart nearly ten years earlier. The king’s eye had begun to wander again, this time to her own lady in waiting, Jane Seymour.
On January 24th, Henry suffered a severe jousting accident and was unconscious for several hours. Anne was understandably distraught, and the stress of Henry’s near-death, her failing marriage, and catching her husband with Jane Seymour ‘on his knee’ likely resulted in the miscarriage of a male foetus on January 29th (ironically the same day as Catherine’s funeral).
This miscarriage is widely acknowledged to be the kick-start of Anne Boleyn’s quick demise from her already-tenuous situation as Queen. I’ve heard the loss of this baby described as her greatest failure.
I pondered this. In conjunction to this ‘failure,’ her birthing the girl who would become Elizabeth I is largely considered her greatest triumph or accomplishment.
Now, I know this is not an universal agreement, but I’ve come across these opinions often enough to feel fair in generalizing it for the sake of this post. I’m also not a mother, so if producing a child is the greatest thing a woman can do in your opinion, that’s great, too.
However, to say that Anne Boleyn’s greatest failure is the miscarriage of a child is a bit inaccurate, don’t you think? She didn’t make the mistake of miscarriage, she didn’t have a choice. Circumstances were unfortunate what with Henry’s accident and her failing marriage, but it was not a failure in the sense that she had a conscious option to instead succeed.
If you want to talk about her greatest failures, perhaps we could include making an enemy of Thomas Cromwell, or underestimating the love of the king, or what colour dress she wore on a certain day. Those are mistakes and failures, things she could have done differently to prevent the outcome that eventually came to be. Miscarriage is a biological occurrence with many factors, factors that the century was unable to control. The loss of her child on January 29th was a tragic happening. It might have been her greatest misfortune, but it was not her greatest failure.
The flip side of this coin is the birth of her daughter Elizabeth almost three years earlier, on September 7th, 1533. Was it her greatest accomplishment? Some might see it that way, and others might see it as a result of chance and good luck. Elizabeth just happened to come to term and survive infancy. Anne had very little part in the enduring existence of her daughter.
In this regard, it might be more fair to say that Anne Boleyn’s influence on Elizabeth was her greatest accomplishment, but even this is uncertain. Like all royal children, Elizabeth was raised by nurses and nannies, and saw her mother only occasionally. There is no doubt that Anne loved Elizabeth, there is no question of that, but Elizabeth wasn’t even three years old when her mother met the French swordsman on May 19th, 1536. Whatever stories were passed down and whatever idea the little bastard princess formulated on her own of Anne Boleyn may have influenced her later actions as both woman and queen, but Elizabeth was her entirely own person. Anne Boleyn had scarce much to do with who her daughter would become.
So was Elizabeth’s birth the greatest accomplishment of the ‘most controversial queen’ in English history? I just can’t say it. Labelling such an extraordinary woman as Anne Boleyn — who I often see as the epitome of womanhood and female strength — for her success as a baby-making machine is something I disagree with. She was much more than a vagina, uterus, and ovaries, despite being forced into the role of fertile, heir-producing queen.
She was a well-read, educated woman who formed her own opinions, supported religious beliefs that were at the time considered incorrect and scandalous, and debated at equal and sometimes superior skill with the highest and most notable noblemen and scholars of her time; she was a patron of the arts, advocate of religious reform, and supporter of the less fortunate. Her friendships — and indeed enmity — with the highest men in the land brought both greatness and demise. She defied the convention of her times by taking the bold step into independence, becoming an utterly unique person envied by all the court, and left everything she knew beyond into the murky waters ahead by capturing the heart of the most powerful man in the country, which led to the separation from the Roman Church and creation of today’s Church of England. She dined and danced with kings and queens, both supported and argued with some of the most distinguished intellects of our history. She married for love, an act in itself unknown. She defended her innocence like few had done. Her infamous death at the hand of a French swordsman and is seen as a beautiful act of bravery and true faith. Her words and actions survive today to inspire new generations of women to embrace who they are and the dare defy what society wants to mold us into.
Yes, she popped out one of the greatest monarchs, but this in itself was not her greatest act.
Anne Boleyn was more than a vagina.
Let them grumble!