Monday, 5 April 2010

How fundamental was Anne Boleyn’s role in the English Reformation?

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"More Lutheran than Luther himself" - Eustace Chapuys
Anne Boleyn’s role within the early reformation in England, as with her character, has been interpreted in numerous ways, both during her life and after her execution in 1536. Ives champions Anne’s as being “not a catalyst in the English Reformation (but) a key element in the equation.” Starkey’s opinion concurs with Ives, and states that Anne calculatedly “challenged the actual theological basis of Catholicism”, whereas Bernard implies that Anne’s role within the English reformation should be seen as purely coincidental, and that Anne’s role has been embellished due to a ‘fashionable’ approach to the much publicised Queen consort. Warnike goes further in asserting that historians have “greatly exaggerated her influence in religious matters.” The role that Anne had to play in the early reformation has been greatly muddied following her infamous demise, and has undergone further distortion during the Counter Reformation, and again in the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth. The key to understanding how fundamental Anne’s role played in the reformation can be derived chiefly from primary sources, which suggest that Anne, along with her carefully selected patrons, were central players in the early stages of English reform.
Eustace Chapuys stated that Anne Boleyn was “More Lutheran than Luther himself”, and his statement is a typical example of the opinions of Anne in many Catholic courts during her reign. Anne, however, was not a Lutheran. Anne’s personal religious beliefs can be traced to her childhood and adolescence spent in the Netherlands and in France, where courtiers were heavily influenced by the reformer Jacques Lefervre. Queen Claude, although not a reformer, was certainly not hostile to the religious hotbed that ensued her Court, and the Boleyn family embraced the Evangelical stance that Lefevre took. The humanist approach that the French reformist embraced lead Anne to obtain literature complimenting this approach. George Boleyn, Anne’s brother, shared Anne’s radical beliefs, nurtured by their father Thomas, who personally commissioned works by Erasmus for the family to study. Louis de Braun, a French tutor resident in England, wrote to Anne in January of 1530, and praised Anne for never finding her “without some French book in (her) hand…such as Translations of the Holy Scriptures.” He marks that he had observed Anne “reading the salutary Epistles of St Paul”; the key text that Lefevre had used for his religious enlightenment. Warnick argues that there is “no evidence that Anne had been in contact with… radical beliefs” during her time spent in France, and affirms that her possession of a catholic manuscript, in the form of a traditional book of hours, proves that Anne did not lean towards reformist views. It is certainly true that the volume belonged to Anne, as she had inscribed it in several areas, however of the few possessions of hers left in existence, six out of seven books harbour strong reformist views. Her possession of a personally dedicated copy of William Tyndale’s bible is a clear indication of her individual reformist views. Another surviving possession of Anne’s is a vernacular translation of the scripture by Lefevre, embellished with Henry & Anne’s cipher, indicating, contrary to Warnick’s view, that the French court and Lefevre had indeed been key players in Anne’s religious enlightenment.
Certainly Anne’s possession of these forbidden works confirm her own personal beliefs, however they say relatively little with regards to the influence that they played in reforming England’s religion. It is only when we consider how Anne used these acquisitions that we can begin to understand how influential Anne’s actions were. Anne publicly displayed Tyndale’s banned bible, which had been translated into the vernacular, and encouraged her ladies in waiting to read aloud from it. Such actions had previously sent men and women to the stake, but Anne took full advantage of her position of Queen Consort, and was “the first in high places to be so blatant about her reformist preferences.” We can see from the initials on Anne’s copy of Lefevre’s Bible that Henry was clearly aware of his consort’s religious views, and when Cranmer wrote to Henry on 3rd May 1536, desperate to distance himself from his patron, he stated that “there was never a creature in our time that so much slandered the Gospel.” Although Henry was conscious of Anne’s religious position, he did not share the same views. Henry used reform for personal advancement and as a practical justification to aid his ‘great matter’; he would die a “natural catholic.”
Anne’s personal beliefs are clear, and her attempts to influence her personal staff toward a reformist view are evident, however these are seemingly trivial when we explore the lengths that Anne took to establish a reformist faction that would ignite the reformation in England. It is true that out of the ten bishops inaugurated during Boleyn’s reign, seven were clear reformists, however a clearer indication of Anne’s involvement can be found within the key ministers that she would introduce to the Court and patronise within her faction. Arguably the most influential man within the equation of the early English reformation was Thomas Cranmer, once chaplain to the Boleyn family, and a key member of Anne’s faction. Alexander Ayles wrote to Elizabeth I that “the evangelical bishops whom most of your holy mother had appointed from among those scholars who favoured the pure doctrine of the gospel.” Whilst Ayle’s motivations must be carefully questioned during this time, it is certainly no exaggeration to suggest that Hugh Latimer. Nicholas Shaxton, Thomas Goodrich & John Skipp were all reformers, and had all been patronised and elevated by Anne. Warnick believes that to “Suggest that Anne alone had won for these men… their positions in the church… would be a great exaggeration”, but in examining how Anne took great lengths to promote not only those within key roles of the religious sector, but also of numerous clerics of a much lower order, the suggestion that she was responsible for their elevation is very plausible. In the summer of 1528, Anne pressed Wolsey to alter the endowment of the parish of Tonbridge to the parish of Sundridge for William Barlow, a reformist cleric close to the Boleyn family. She also secured the benefice of St Mary Aldermanbury for the reformer Dr Edward Crome 1534. It is important to acknowledge that during Anne’s thousand day reign, not one ‘heretic’ was punished.
Weir believes that, despite the overwhelming contemporary evidence to suggest otherwise, that Anne could not have been a key player in the English reformation because “she had been bought up in the traditional Catholic faith, and would observe its rites faithfully until her death.” Certainly Anne observed elements of the Catholic tradition, especially by continuing to embrace god’s presence in the consecrated host. It is well documented that Anne received communion twice before her execution, and refused to receive a dedication of Lambert’s ‘Farrago Rerum Theologicarum’, which denied transubstantiation. These actions should be seen, however, not as an indication against Anne’s influence on reform, but as an example of the limitations of evangelical beliefs, which were primarily, at this early stage, in winning the church back inwards, to the ‘true’ religion beneath the fossilized Roman Catholic formalities.
It is clear that the motivation behind Anne’s intervention within the reformation, as many historians have alleged, was not in securing her position as Queen, and did not cease following the Annulment from Aragon. Anne keenly sought reform within the monastic houses throughout England and was keen to see her reformist views practiced within them. She deplored the famed ‘Blood of Christ’ at the Abby of Hales, and demanded that it be removed following the discovery that the blood was in fact not that of Christ, but of a flock of domesticated ducks. She visited the Nuns of Syon Abbey on 18th December 1535, and rebuked them for reading Latin primers which they did not understand, and replaced them with vernacular alternatives. Anne was clearly influenced heavily by Tyndale’s works, and her embracement of them lead to a key event within the Reformation in England. Anne leant her copy of William Tyndale’s ‘Obedience of the Christian Man, and how Christian rulers ought to govern’ to Anne Gainsford, who in turn leant it to her betrothed, George Zuche. Zuche was caught with the illegal text and interrogated by Wolsey, who was undergoing a purge of heretical literature. Anne pleaded with the King on behalf of Zuche, and more importantly for the illegal work in question, stating that it was “the dearest book that ever Dean or the Cardinal took away.” She insisted that the King examine the text, highlighting the passage “The King is in this world without law… and shall give account but to god only”, with an indentation made by her fingernail. The King’s response changed the course of his great matter; he proclaimed that Tyndale’s work was “for him and for all kings to read.” The Obedience categorically stated that the idea that the pope and the clergy possessed separate “power and authority was clean contrary to scripture.” In presenting the King with this radical work, Anne effectively provided Henry with a justification to break with the church in Rome; a momentous and significant part of the reformation in England. This incident of supplanting the King with reformist ideas stands not alone. Anne also presented Henry with a pamphlet written by Simon Fish, who had fled England to Tyndale following Wolsey’s purge of ‘heretical’ literature. The work presented by Anne, entitled ‘The supplication of beggars’ attacked the morality of the English clergy, and following his reading the King pardoned Fish and interviewed him privately. With the protection of the Kings love, Anne was frequently able to direct the King towards reform at many stages of their courtship, and during her brief reign. Despite Anne’s “very un-womanishness (which) made her so effective”, it is clear that without the support of her faction and the love of the King, her desire to reform would not have been possible.
It was Anne’s persistence with reform in England that would lead to her downfall, and not at the hands of her Husband, but one of her own faction. The question of the reform of the Monastic houses was one that Anne insisted on involvement in, and was keen to see both the properties and monies raised used towards education. Cromwell, however, saw the Monasteries and a prime source of capital for the royal coffers. It was this distinct clash in direction for the reformist movement that lead to Anne’s execution. It is clear that although Cromwell undoubtedly shared reformist views, he had risen to his position because he had no stable religious ties, and was willing to subordinate religious opinions to civil interests. Following a heated dispute regarding the direction of the reform within the monastic houses, Anne ordered “That godly preacher of England (Skipp) to take some occasion… to dissuade the utter subversion of the said houses and to induce the King’s Grace... to convert them to some better use.” Skipp’s sermon followed a theme entitled “Which of you convicts me of sin” (John 8, 46) where Jesus attacks those who lied about him. He mentioned Queen Esther and a plot against her by King Xerese’s councillor, Haman, who wanted the destruction of both the Queen and the Jewish people. The parallels of the role of Haman and Cromwell were clear: Anne publicly acknowledged that Cromwell had deserted her faction, and no longer supported her idea of reform. Coupled with Cromwell’s new desire for an alliance with Charles V, following the timely death of his Aunt, Catherine of Aragon, a clear break within the Boleyn/ Cromwell faction appears. Cromwell moved swiftly in his actions, fearing the consequences should he not do so. In an uncharacteristically indiscrete manor, Cromwell discloses to Archbishop Gardner on 14th May 1536 that “(the queens) lovers are already condemned to death. The Queen… (is to be)… arraigned tomorrow, and will undoubtedly go the same way”. Considering that Anne herself had yet to be advised of the alleged charges against her, it is safe to assume that the trial already had a full gone conclusion, mastered by Cromwell in order to irradiate a heavily influential player of a reformation he no longer supported.
Following her execution, Anne was much mourned amongst the group of powerfully placed reformist individuals, who now found “England increasingly hot following the death of their patron.” Many who Anne patronised would go on to reform England further, in particular Cranmer, who was instrumental in further reform during the reign of Edward VI: succeeding in publishing two editions of a common book of prayer in the vernacular. The appreciation of Anne’s influence within the early English reformation would vary over time, depending on contemporary religious stances. Anne’s influence within reform can be seen on many occasions during the next 70 years. The catastrophic effect that Anne’s role had on her step daughter Mary can only but have fuelled her irrational desire to purge ‘heretics’ during her counter reformation. Anne’s role within reform would have converse effect on her heir, Elizabeth, who embraced her mother’s leanings and honoured her name. It is no coincidence that Elizabeth would adopt the reformist religion: Anne had entrusted the spiritual education of her daughter to her reformist chaplain, Matthew Parker, two days before her arrest.
Anne Boleyn was a fundamental player in the early stages of reform. Her clear religious beliefs spurred an opportunity to realise a reformation within England, when Henry’s desire for a divorce lead him to a deep infatuation with her. It was just this passion that enabled Anne to direct and influence the King toward her evangelical positioning, and achieved, with the support of a powerful reformist faction, the beginnings of the English reformation. Her role had been grossly overlooked in history, mainly due to the circumstances surrounding her death, and the tarnish that would ensue during years of religious turmoil following her demise. Zahl romantically states that “if (Anne)… lived for one thing (it was) to see the reformed religion overcome the opposition to it… (she) ached to see the Reformation triumph”, and whilst this opinion rather simplifies Anne’s role, it provides a realistic view of a woman who stood alone, amongst her sex, in fundamentally effecting the direction of the Reformation, and who died as a consequence of these actions.
Bernard, G W, Anne Boleyn’s Religion, The Historical Journal Vol 36 No 1
Chapman, H W, Anne Boleyn, 2nd ed (London 1974)
Denny, J, Anne Boleyn – A new life of England’s tragic Queen, 1st ed (London 2004
Frasier, A, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 3rd ed (London 1992)
Gardner, J, Letters and Papers, Foreign & Domestic, Henry VIII, 2nd ed (London 1887)
Ives, E, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2nd ed (Oxford 2002)
Ives, E W, Anne Boleyn and the Early Reformation in England – The contemporary evidence, The Historical Journal Vol 37
Latymer, W, William Latimer’s Croniklle of Anne Buleyn, 4th ed (Dowling 1990)
Maynard Smith, H, Henry VIII and the Reformation, 3rd ed (London 1962)
Starkey, D, The Reign of Henry VIII – Personalities and Politics, 2nd ed (London 2000)
Starkey, D, The Queens of Henry VIII, 2nd ed (London 2003)
Tjernagel, N S, Henry VIII and the Lutherans, 1st ed (St Louis 1965)
Warnick, R M, The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, 4th ed (Cambridge University Press 1989)
Weir, A, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 2nd ed (London 1991)
Zahl, P F M, Five Women of the English Reformation, 1st ed (Cambridge 2001)


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