boleyn1She was a brunette in an age of blondes. She was marked by a graceful manner, a striking eloquence in French, and an unforgettable pair of black eyes. All these served her and her family well, for the Boleyns were social climbers, always aiming at advantageous alliances with noble or royal families, either in England or on the Continent. Anne was prepared from her youth to be a willing pawn in this potentially profitable, though sometimes dangerous, game.

As a child, Anne was educated, first, in the royal nursery of the Netherlands with three little Hapsburg girls, each destined to be a queen herself, and, later, at the French court with Princess Renée, daughter of Louis XII and sister-in-law to Francis I. During these years, she learned to play the lute, dance well, sing beautifully, do exquisite needlework, and converse in French with wit and verve. In Paris, particularly, her tastes were formed. She learned, for instance, to prize French fashion and French-Flemish music. But she also learned to love the Bible.

Chief among her available role models was the king’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre, a lady of deep faith and spiritual commitment.{footnote}Marguerite was the mother of Jeanne d’Albret. See Kate Uttinger, “The Huguenot Queen,” in Leben, a Journal of Reformation Life, Vol. 5, Jan-Mar, 2009.{/footnote} Marguerite had grown up under the influence of the Brethren of Common Life, the same educational movement that had given direction to Thomas á Kempis, John Wessel, and Erasmus. Marguerite studied the Bible carefully for herself and enjoyed discussing it freely with others. She listened eagerly to the preaching of evangelical pastors. In her writings, which are mostly poetry, she insisted “on justification by faith, on the impossibility of salvation by works, on predestination in the sense of absolute dependence on God in the last resort.”{footnote}Thomas Martin Lindsay, A History of the Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 138.{/footnote} She was patron to the poet Clément Marot, remembered best for his work on the French Psalter, and to Jacques Lefèver d’Étaples, the early French Reformer who wrote commentaries on the Psalms (1509) and Paul’s epistles (1512) and translated the New Testament into French (1523).

So, perhaps through Marguerite, certainly through the religious and intellectual life of the French court which was open to an evangelical spirituality, Anne “was introduced to a religious reform that centered on a personal spiritual experience bolstered by Scripture reading.”{footnote}Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 27.{/footnote} But whether or not at this early age she claimed such an experience for herself, we can’t know with certainty.

HenryVIIIBAt the end of 1521 Anne returned to England with her father. The deteriorating political relationship between England and France meant that Anne’s French patrons would be slow to promote a Continental marriage for her. At the same time, a possible match with her cousin James Butler, the heir of the late earl of Ormond, looked promising. When that failed, Anne passed quickly through two other romantic relationships and ended up in Court as a maid of honor to Queen Catherine, the wife of Henry VIII. And here begins the history the world knows so well.

Henry, who fancied himself a theologian, had wrestled for some time with the morality of his marriage. Catherine had been the wife of his late brother Arthur, a marriage never consummated, Catherine insisted. But when son after son was stillborn, Henry took to heart the warning of Leviticus 20:21: “And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” His marriage was invalid from the beginning, Henry decided, and he needed two things: papal recognition of that fact—that is, a divorce or, more accurately, an annulment—and a likely young woman who could bear him strong sons and thus provide an undisputed male heir to the throne. The first he could not obtain: the pope was under the thumb of Emperor Charles V, and Charles was Catherine’s nephew. But the second Henry discovered in Anne Boleyn, Catherine’s new maid. In time she returned his attention. She refused to be seduced, however; she insisted on marriage and the crown.

What we think of Henry’s marriage and pursuit of a divorce will likely color what we think of Anne’s faith and character. The same was true then. Those who found Henry’s argument from Leviticus convincing saw him trapped by a legal fiction that threatened both Henry and his kingdom. Anne offered hope for Henry and his kingdom. At the least, she encouraged him to break ties with the Church of Rome and begin the process of ecclesiastical reform in England. Opponents of the divorce saw Anne as a strumpet, a seductress, a desecrator of holy matrimony. But even admitting the worst, we ought to remember that Christians have indeed been guilty of adultery and that adulterers have come to Christ. Nonetheless, John Foxe and William Latimer, Anne’s contemporary biographers,{footnote}William Latimer was her chaplain; John Foxe wrote Acts and Monuments—what we call Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. See, for example, Warnicke, 149ff. Ives also makes extensive reference to these writers.{/footnote} had no hesitation in declaring her a champion of a Reformation not quite born. They held up Anne’s interest in evangelical theology, her patronage of evangelical preachers, and her public character as queen, as evidence of her godly faith and character.

clementCertainly Anne read her French Bible. It was one of Lefèver’s, the 1534 Antwerp edition. She delighted especially in Paul’s epistles. Though her earliest religious books were Latin devotionals of the traditional sort, her later books were evangelical and written in French or English. Here, then, her French served her well, since it was easier and safer to obtain such books in French than in English.

Anne received, read, and recommended “heretical” books. Simon Fish sent her a copy of A Supplication to Beggars (1528). The book portrayed the clergy as ravenous wolves, devouring the money of the poor, and as seducers, who violated the women who came to confession. Anne presented the book to Henry, and he read it with approval. Anne also passed on William Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man (1528). It attacked papal power, but was more generous in the authority it ascribed to kings and princes. Henry said, “This is for me and all kings to read.”{footnote}E. W. Ives, Anne Boleyn (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 163.{/footnote}

In Anne’s own possession were a number of illuminated manuscripts, including “The Pistellis and Gospelles for LII Sondayes in the Yere” and “The Ecclesiaste.” Both contain Scripture texts in French and commentary in English. The commentary in the first manuscript was written by Lefèver. There is now conclusive evidence that the translation was done by Anne’s brother, George, himself a supporter of the evangelical cause. In his introduction, George reminds Anne, “by your commandment I have adventured to do this.”{footnote}Eric William Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Bolyen: ‘The Most Happy’ (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 271. This is updated version of Ives earlier work (see above), and the evidence he presents for Anne’s evangelical faith is much more conclusive.{/footnote} In other words, Anne wasn’t collecting pretty manuscripts; she was hungry for evangelical theology.

Something Lefèver wrote in “The Epistles and Gospels” on Hebrews 9 is worth noting here:

The true host is Jesus Christ which hath suffered death and passion for to save us, the which in shedding his precious blood upon us all, hath given unto us life and hath wholly purged us of sin.{footnote}From The Pistellis and Gospelles on Hebrews 9: quoted in Ives, Anne Boleyn, 326.{/footnote}

William_TyndaleIn her last hours Anne asked that the host, the sacramental bread, be placed near her cell as an aid to devotion. Apparently she wasn’t ready to abandon belief in the real Presence; yet she had read and kept Lefèver’s commentary, which pointed her to the finished work of Christ as the ground of salvation. A reformer she was; Reformed, she wasn’t. But neither was anyone else in England—yet.
The second manuscript, “The Ecclesiaste,” has proven to be Lefèver’s translation of a commentary (c. 1531) by the Lutheran Reformer, Johannes Brenz. On the final verses of Ecclesiastes—”Fear God, and keep His commandments” —, Benz writes this:

For faith which giveth the true fear of God, is it that doth prepare us for to keep the commandments well, and maketh us good workmen, for to make good works; and maketh us good trees for to bear good fruit. Then if we be not first well prepared, made good workmen, and made good trees we may not look to do the least of the commandments. Therefore Moses giving the commandments for the beginning said: ‘Harken Israel, thy God is one god’, which is as much as to say as, believe, have faith, for without faith God doth not profit us, nor we can accomplish nothing: but the faith in God, in our Lord Jesuchrist is it which chiefly doth relieve us from the transgressions that be passed of the sentence of the law, and yieldeth us innocents, and in such manner that none can demand of us anything, for because that faith hath gotten us Jesuchrist, and maketh him our own, he having accomplished the law, and satisfied unto all transgressions. Then faith having reconciled us unto the Father, doth get us also the Holy Ghost. Which yieldeth witness in our hearts that we be the sons of God. Whereby engendereth in us true childerly fear, and putteth away all servile and hired fear. And then it sheddeth in our hearts the fire of love and dilection, by the means whereof we be well prepared for to keep the law of God, which is but love….{footnote}Quoted in Ives, Anne Boleyn, 322f.{/footnote}

JacquesLefevreFaith delivers us from our transgressions; faith also prepares us to keep God’s commandments. This is good evangelical theology. The “Ecclesiaste” also bemoans that generation’s lack of biblical knowledge and scholarship and the regular subversion of biblical authority by “pernicious sermons.” Kings and princes are responsible to govern their realms, not only with the sword, but also with “good doctrine”:
If it had been so in times past, the holy Word of God should not have been so long hid, nor out of use and in the stead of the same so many superfluous and unprofitable books and curious vain questions brought forth which serve not only to lose time but they be clean contrary from the true and pure truth.{footnote}Quoted in Ives, Anne Boleyn, 324.{/footnote}

But Anne not only read books banned by Rome—or by her own husband; she often gave assistance to those who owned or sold them. In the early 1530s Thomas Alwaye wrote to her, “I remember how many deeds of pity your goodness has done within these few years . . . without respect of any persons, as well to strangers and aliens as to many of this land, as well to poor as to rich.”{footnote}Quoted in Antonia Fraser, The Wives of Henry VIII (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 144f.{/footnote} Alwaye had been imprisoned and, later, forbidden to travel for owning an English New Testament and other outlawed books. There is no record of Anne’s response, but certainly Alwaye wrote in hope: Anne had already helped others.
Furthermore, Anne used her patronage to place reform-minded men into ecclesiastical office. Not all were evangelical in their beliefs, but some were. All were supporters of Henry’s divorce. These men included Thomas Cranmer, future author of the Book of Common Prayer, and Hugh Latimer, whose martyrdom would light a candle of gospel witness in England.

CranmerThomasThe evidence, then, shows that Anne was interested in genuine reform within the Church, and that she was more than acquainted with evangelical theology. She certainly believed that men and women should be able to read the Bible in their own language. And, of course, Anne was critical of the pope and of papal corruption. After all, a puppet papacy was the chief obstacle to her marriage to Henry and the kingdom’s security, and she had firmly encouraged Henry to make the break with Rome.

As to her public conduct, Anne took seriously her responsibility as Queen to set a godly standard within her court and to show mercy and kindness to the poor. She had read in “The Ecclesiaste”:
The court of kings, princes, chancellors, judging places and audiences be the places where one ought to find equity and justice. But, oh good Lord, where is there more injustice, more exactions, more oppressions of poor widows and orphans, where is there more disorder in all manners and more greater company of unjust men than there, whereas should be but all good order and just people of good and holy example of life.{footnote}Quoted in Ives, Anne Boleyn, 326f.{/footnote}

Latimer and Foxe speak of Anne’s great charity. They say she gave standing orders for the relief of the poor, and that she established stocks of materials to provide work for the poor.{footnote}See Ives, Anne Boleyn, 327f.{/footnote} Though such attention to charity was not uncommon to the great ladies of her day, it was not the natural habit of worldly wantons. On the contrary, Anne maintained her court in righteousness. There was no licentiousness or “pampered pleasures” among her attendants, but virtue and hard work—much of it sewing to meet the needs of the poor. Anne insisted that her attendants hear divine service daily, and she gave them each a book of psalms and prayers. She even rebuked one of her ladies, a cousin, for writing “idle poesies” in hers. Her silk woman, a Mrs. Wilkinson, said that never was seen “better order amongst the ladies and gentlewomen of the court than in Anne’s day.”{footnote}Warnicke, 149.{/footnote}

Latimer_Ridley_MartyrdomBut Anne’s story ends on the executioner’s block. She bore Henry one daughter, Elizabeth. Two, perhaps three, miscarriages followed. Henry became disenchanted and began to look elsewhere. Soon he accused Anne of witchcraft, adultery, and incest. Even the secular historians are slow to believe the charges. Henry may have, though.{footnote}The last miscarried child seems to have been badly deformed—monstrous to the superstitious eye, and superstition linked such “monsters” to witchcraft and witchcraft to sexual sins. See 3, 191-195ff.{/footnote} His obsessive, even idolatrous, desire for a son made it possible for him to believe all sorts of things. Anne was convicted and went to her death professing faith in Christ and speaking well of Henry—Christian charity indeed:

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul . . . . To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesu receive my soul.{footnote}As recorded by Tudor chronicler Edward Hall. Other versions differ slightly.{/footnote}