Anne Boleyn’s Romantic Entanglements
“The Scandal of Christendom” – Katherine of Aragon
Anne Boleyn’s romantic entanglements were controversial – Henry Percy, the future Earl of Northumberland, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Henry VIII himself. The earlier two relationships ultimately affected her relationship with her future husband, the King, due to Henry’s suspicious nature. But ‘she touched their lives, as they did hers’ and each left lasting impressions on the other.[i] Essentially Anne’s public image was shaped by her romantic entanglements.
There is little surviving evidence of Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Henry Percy. There is still less from her relationship with Thomas Wyatt and we do not even know just how deeply Anne was involved with either of them. However, we can get a sense of Wyatt’s own feelings for Anne through his poetry, like Circa Regna Tonat and Whoso List to Hunt. Obviously, there is the most surviving evidence for Anne’s relationship with Henry VIII, as she rose to become royalty, though even this is lacking during their early courtship. Historians have interpreted what does survive in many different ways, affecting her public image according to their own bias.
Anne’s flirtatious nature meant that she was sexually attractive to men, and her appearance was unusual, in that she was not a typical English rose.[ii] This is what initially attracted Anne’s suitors to her and eventually what caused her fall. Her public image has been built around this rumour and innuendo surrounding her romantic entanglements, as it affected other areas of her life.
The relationship between Henry Percy and Anne Boleyn was very controversial at the time, and still is today. Elizabeth Norton argues that ‘the relationship … was doomed’ from the beginning.[iii] Because it was kept secret, it suggests that Anne and Percy knew that what they were doing was wrong and Percy’s father would never endorse their marriage. David Loades describes it as a ‘genuine infatuation’.[iv] Noble marriages were not generally built on love in the sixteenth century, but on power, wealth and advancement. Alison Weir also discusses the improbability that Percy’s father would accept Anne as his daughter-in-law as Anne was ‘no fit bride for a Percy’.[v] Henry Percy was the heir to the earldom of Northumberland, while Anne Boleyn was heiress to nothing, because she had a brother who would inherit. However, G.W. Bernard argues that Thomas Boleyn was negotiating a marriage with the Earl of Northumberland between Anne and Henry Percy, and the fact that Percy fell in love with Anne made the negotiations easier.[vi] However, Bernard fails to explain why, if negotiations were underway, why there is no record of them. It seems more likely that Anne and Percy courted in secret. This relationship was the most detrimental to Anne’s marriage to the King because it was one which could mean that she was unable to marry him, and it was considered in 1536 as a way to annul her marriage. In this way, Anne’s public image suffered because, if the above assumption was true, Anne had deceived the King and this could have been her death, and perceived deception eventually was.
Perceptions of the depth of their involvement were rampant, even at the time, particularly as to how far they had progressed. Had they entered into a pre-contract? Had the relationship been consummated? But as Antonia Fraser puts it ‘the exact measure of their intimacy is destined to remain tantalisingly obscure’.[vii] This is because evidence of Anne’s early life is lacking, therefore evidence of this relationship is also lacking. Historians believe the relationship occurred in the summer of 1523, as it would have to have been before Henry Percy got married in late 1523, but after Anne’s return to court in 1522.[viii] Joanna Denny says that there was ‘no evidence’ that Anne had promised to marry Percy, or that she was interested in him, although she relates correspondence and rumour to the contrary.[ix] The evidence given is a letter written by Chapuys, of rumours of a betrothal, and stories about Percy being dressed down in front of Wolsey’s servants. Retha Warnicke, on the other hand, says that the relationship between Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy had led to them exchanging de futuro vows which were binding only if followed by sexual intercourse.[x] If their relationship had not been consummated, then their vows could be easily annulled. But if the relationship had been consummated they were effectively married. George Cavendish, Wolsey’s gentleman usher, devoted some time in his work talking about the relationship between Anne and Percy, saying that they had entered into a betrothal of sorts, and were intending to marry.[xi] If this was true, Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy had behaved rashly; listening to their hearts rather than their heads. At least, Percy was. This match would have made sense to Anne’s ambitious brain as well. Her ambition is a major part of her public image as it was perceived that she was reaching well above her position in society by wanting to be a Countess, and then a Queen.
Cavendish also says that it was Henry VIII who asked Wolsey to intercede to stop a marriage between Anne and Percy because he already had his eye on Anne.[xii] However, if their dalliance happened in 1523, then this is far too early for Henry’s interest in Anne, as there is no evidence of their involvement until 1525 at the earliest. It is more likely, according to Wilkinson, that Henry was angry that their relationship put the negotiations for
a marriage between Anne Boleyn and James Butler into disrepute.[xiii] This proposed marriage was important because it would resolve the issue over the disputed earldom of Ormond. The Percy relationship could be part of the reason why these negotiations never materialised into marriage. Antonia Fraser, however, says that Cavendish was wrong to assume that Henry VIII’s feelings for Anne were the reason why he wanted an end to her relationship with Percy as it took place too early.[xiv] Henry Percy was threatened with being disowned if he did not acquiesce to his father’s wishes and choice of bride.[xv] Percy and Anne were forbidden to see each other and by the end of 1523, Percy had married Mary Talbot, the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and Anne was in exile at Hever Castle, the Boleyn residence. She would not return to court until 1524 or 1525.[xvi] The fact that Anne was prepared to risk everything to make a marriage of her own shows just how strong and determined she was. Although this entanglement made Henry suspicious of her towards the end, so affected her public image negatively in his eyes, it portrays her as her own woman who was not afraid to do what she felt was in her best interests. She made her own future and her own image.
Anne’s relationship with Thomas Wyatt has attracted more popular attention then her relationship with Henry Percy. This is possibly due to poetry written by Wyatt about Anne. Wyatt was nearly executed alongside Anne in 1536, although he escaped after a short period in the Tower.[xvii] Because of this connection, many have assumed that Anne and Wyatt were very much in love. However, there is no evidence of Anne’s feelings for Wyatt, and the only evidence of his feelings for her can be found in his poetry, some of which cannot even be attributed to being about Anne. In many ways, Anne’s relationship with Wyatt was the least controversial of her romantic entanglements, as there is no evidence of Henry VIII trying to use it against her.
Circa Regna Tonat is Thomas Wyatt’s most well-known poem. He wrote this while he was imprisoned in the Tower in May 1536, about the events of that month.[xviii] ‘Circa Regna Tonat’ aptly translates as ‘thunder rolls around the throne’.[xix] This is probably a reference to Anne’s tumultuous three years on the throne, and how low she had been brought by rumour. Wyatt describes May 1536 as ‘these bloody days’ where eight were arrested and six executed, and he acknowledges that ‘the fall is grievous from aloft’, meaning that the higher you rise, the further you have to fall, as in Anne’s case.[xx] Anne had begun life as a mere miss, rose to become Lady, then Marquess and then Queen. In the final verse, Wyatt outlines what people can do to avoid his situation; that ‘wit helpeth not defence too yerne, of innocency to plead or prate. Bear low, therefore, give God the stern’.[xxi] Wit does not help in declaring innocence, but if you stay out of the limelight and do not climb higher than your birth place, then you will not fall, but by all means leave it to God and the fates. Wyatt’s attempt to describe what happened at the end of Anne’s life has been dissected over and over by historians, who try to establish some kind of relationship between him and Anne based on this poem. However, Circa Regna Tonat is not written about Anne, but about the events surrounding her, of which Wyatt was a part. This affected Anne Boleyn’s public image because Wyatt uncovers the philosophical truth behind her rise and fall – she was ambitious and reached above her station. Although he does not condemn her for this, he implies that she could have avoided it, yet knowing she would not have. This outlines literature’s importance in looking at image, because it tells us what was perceived about a person or event, even if it was not true.
There are two shorter poems written by Thomas Wyatt, which perhaps offer more insight into his feelings for Anne Boleyn: Whoso List to Hunt and Sometime I Fled the Fire. Whoso List to Hunt outlines Wyatt’s early feelings for Anne and how he backed off from her when Henry VIII made his interest clear. Wyatt quotes when Anne made clear that she chose Henry VIII over him – ‘noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am’.[xxii] Noli me tangere translates as ‘do not touch me’; Anne was declaring that Wyatt could not touch her because she belonged to someone higher and more powerful than he. Wyatt acknowledges that he did not have a chance with Anne as he ‘farthest cometh behind’ once Anne knew she had the interest of Henry VIII – she would not choose a poet over a King.[xxiii] Sometime I Fled the Fire is a metaphor for Wyatt’s fiery feelings for Anne. It possibly dates from 1532 when Wyatt accompanied Henry and Anne to Calais. Wyatt says that he was burnt by his powerful feelings for Anne and fled the court to avoid them when she was being courted by Henry.[xxiv] He recognised that he may have overreached himself in his pursuit of Anne and that his efforts to curry favour could all have been in vain as he was entangled in Henry and Anne’s relationship at its most volatile.[xxv] In this way, Anne’s public image was shaped by something that she could not control, and something which did not come to light until after her death. Yet still Anne Boleyn’s image was affected by Thomas Wyatt’s poems, and she could not counteract the implied feelings in them.
Thomas Wyatt was very much embroiled in court life, as was Anne Boleyn. It was possibly this which drew them together, and they had known each other for most of their lives.[xxvi] David Loades, however, says that their relationship was ‘anti-Boleyn propaganda’ of later years and calls it ‘infatuation’ written in ‘cryptic verse’ on the part of Wyatt, but fails to mention Anne’s emotional involvement.[xxvii] Wilkinson does suggest that historians need not look at Wyatt’s poetry for evidence of a connection. She relates a story where Wyatt visited Anne and found her in bed. Allegedly, Wyatt then told Anne that he loved her then kissed her, and she did not stop him.[xxviii] However, this story is not cited by other historians, so we can safely doubt its authenticity. Wyatt was ‘honest and indiscreet’ in his writing about Thomas Cromwell posthumously, so we can assume that he may well have been after Anne Boleyn’s death, although we cannot confirm this.[xxix] Retha Warnicke has written that the love triangle between Anne, Wyatt and Henry VIII is ‘another of the myths obscuring her role in Reformation politics’ and should be abandoned, seeing that Anne’s religion was more important than her relationships.[xxx] But this opinion should be discarded; as Anne’s early romantic relationships affected her marriage. Anne Boleyn’s public image has been affected by her entanglement with Thomas Wyatt less than her entanglement with Henry Percy, but it still caused Henry VIII to be suspicious of her, and this caused her death.
Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Henry VIII was the best-documented of her romantic entanglements, and this section will largely focus on how Henry VIII saw Anne during their courtship, through the love letters he sent her. David Starkey suggests that Henry VIII’s interest in Anne likely dates to the winter of 1524, and quotes his source as being George Cavendish.[xxxi] According to Cavendish, Henry began to ‘kindle the brand of amours’ for Anne on her return from France, though in the beginning Anne did not know of it because she was involved with Henry Percy.[xxxii] David Loades says that people were fascinated with Anne because of her variety of accomplishments – she could dance in several styles, play various musical instruments and hold her own in a conversation, as well as being feisty and independent. This drew Henry VIII to her because she was so different to Katherine of Aragon.[xxxiii] In this way, Anne Boleyn’s public image was very much based on the fact that she was so different to her predecessor, and her successor, Jane Seymour. Anne’s relationship with Henry was one of the most tumultuous times in English history, and changed the face of the British monarchy forever. It demonstrated that a Queen could be executed for treason, and that, however much you try to create your own image; it is often out of your control.
In Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn, historians find their most valuable source of the feelings involved in their relationship. The letter which most outlines this is the one in which Henry thanked Anne for her
submission to him, her agreement to marry him once divorced. Anne was obviously fond of symbolism, choosing to submit to Henry in the form of a ‘fine diamond and … ship in which [a] solitary damsel is tossed about’.[xxxiv] A ship symbolises protection, for which Anne meant Henry, and the damsel was herself. She wanted Henry to protect her, as King and husband. Henry says ‘aut illic, aut nullibi’ meaning ‘either there or nowhere’.[xxxv] Henry wanted to be with Anne, body and soul, or he would rather not live. This may be exaggerating but the other letters testify to Henry’s obsession with Anne. This probably led to the later accusation that he had been bewitched by her.[xxxvi] In this letter, Henry also apologises for any wrong he may have done to Anne in the past – he had asked her to be his mistress but she refused – and promised that he would not take a mistress, that his heart was ‘dedicated to [Anne] alone’.[xxxvii] Because of this, it is easy to understand why Anne became so upset when Henry took mistresses during their marriage. She had been used to having Henry to herself during the seven years of their courtship, and worried she was losing her hold on him, knowing that his love was all that stood between her and disaster.
The letters written during Anne Boleyn’s time away from court with the sweating sickness in summer 1528 demonstrate the depth of Henry’s love for her and the lengths he was, apparently, willing to go to protect her. It is well-known that Henry VIII had an abhorrence of illness, was ‘petrified’ and fled at the first sign of it.[xxxviii] Therefore him professing that he would ‘gladly bear half [her] illness to make [her] well’ was a sign of his very deep love for, or obsession with, her, as he would not have said that to anyone prior to this time.[xxxix] Henry was well aware that if he died, the realm would quite possibly fall back into civil war, a repeat of the Wars of the Roses, as there was no male heir to succeed him. Anne had made clear to Henry her fears that he would put her aside, but Henry tried to allay these, calling her ‘entirely beloved’ and asking her not to be ‘uneasy’ at his absence.[xl] However, Anne knew that Henry was at Hunsdon when she was in Kent, spending time with his wife and their daughter, and she was obviously worried that, during her absence, Katherine would persuade Henry to abandon his divorce and return to her.[xli] If Katherine did indeed try this, he paid her no mind. Anne seemed to have such a hold over the King that no one would dissuade him. Because of this, her public image has suffered and she has been vilified as a witch and seductress.
Only one of Anne Boleyn’s letters to Henry VIII survives and it seems to be from fairly early in their courtship, probably summer or autumn 1526, and is likely the first letter Anne ever wrote to him. According to the editor of the collection, its authenticity is not in doubt. It refers to a short conversation that they had, which Anne describes as being ‘artless and short’ but ‘extraordinary’.[xlii] Evidently, Anne was not at her wittiest, but she obviously had enchanted the king for him to begin writing her letters, particularly in his own hand, which he was loath to do. It was most likely ‘extraordinary’ for Anne because the King of England had deigned to talk to her. But, from what we know of Anne’s personality, she was probably plotting a way to use his interest in her to the advantage of her and her family. Anne did not consider herself worthy of Henry’s attentions but ‘would with pleasure make a sacrifice of [her] heart’, especially if Henry saw it as worthy, which would increase Anne’s pleasure and happiness.[xliii] Anne knew how far below Henry in rank she was, and never dreamed he would pay attention to her, particularly after his relationship with her sister, Mary. This shows an entirely different image of Anne; an almost shy, young woman, without the flare she is noted for.
With hindsight, we know that Anne captured Henry’s heart, and he hers. Anne was at the height of happiness; then crashed into the depths of despair. Anne’s ambition was her death and her relationship with Henry VIII helped her to the pinnacle of her ambition, and then he crushed her and forgot his love for her because she failed to fulfil her main use as a wife and royal consort – to give a king a son. This is probably the most damaging aspect with respect to Anne’s public image. Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn because he believed she could give him a son. He broke with the Roman Catholic Church and outlawed his wife and daughter because he needed a son and Anne failed.
[i] Josephine Wilkinson, Anne Boleyn (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2011) p. 8
[ii] Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (London: Random House, 1997) p. 152
[iii] Elizabeth Norton, Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2009) p. 38
[iv] David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2010) p. 41
[v] Weir, Six Wives, p. 157
[vi] G.W. Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (London: Yale University Press, 2011) p. 13
[vii] Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (London: Phoenix Press, 2002) p. 152
[viii] Weir, Six Wives, p. 157
[ix] Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn (Chatham: Piatkus Books, 2008) p. 47
[x] Retha Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 40
[xi] George Cavendish, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey (London: C. Whittingham, 1825) p. 58
[xii] Ibid, p. 58
[xiii] Wilkinson, Anne Boleyn, p. 60
[xiv] Fraser, Six Wives, p. 154
[xv] Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey, p. 60
[xvi] Weir, Six Wives, p. 159
[xvii] David Starkey, Six Wives: the Queens of Henry VIII (London: Random House, 2004) p. 572
[xviii] Alison Weir, The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009) p. 291
[xx] Thomas Wyatt, Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei in Greg Walker, Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) p. 290
[xxii] Thomas Wyatt, Whoso List to Hunt in Writing Under Tyranny, p. 287
[xxiv] Thomas Wyatt, Sometime I Fled the Fire in Writing Under Tyranny, p. 287
[xxvi] Norton, Anne Boleyn, p. 41
[xxvii] David Loades, The Boleyns: the Rise and Fall of a Tudor Family (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2011) p. 74
[xxviii] Wilkinson, Anne Boleyn, p. 81
[xxix] Raymond Southall, ‘’Love, Fortune and my Mind’: the Stoicism of Wyatt’, EIC, Vol. 34, No. 1 (1989) pp. 18 – 28, p. 27
[xxx] Retha Warnicke, ‘The Eternal Triangle and Court Politics: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas Wyatt’ Albion, Vol. 18 (1986) pp. 565 – 579, p. 579
[xxxi] Starkey, Six Wives, p. 273
[xxxii] Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey, p. 57
[xxxiii] David Loades, The Tudor Queens of England (London: Continuum UK, 2009) p. 115
[xxxiv] J.O. Phillips (ed.) Love Letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn (Boulder, CO: Merchant Books, 2009) p. x
[xxxv] Ibid, p. xi
[xxxvi] Weir, Lady in the Tower, p. 24
[xxxvii] Phillips, Love Letters, pp. xi – xii
[xxxviii] Weir, Six Wives, p. 186
[xxxix] Phillips, Love Letters, p. xxii
[xl] Ibid, p. xxvi
[xli] Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) p. 100
[xlii] Phillips, Love Letters, p. lxi