Anne Boleyn and the Problem of Providential History

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by Scott Culpepper

On the morning of May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn lost her head. Literally! Convicted of treason and adultery, Anne was sentenced to death by beheading. The execution had been delayed to accommodate the arrival of the executioner, an expert French swordsman. The selection of a skilled executioner was one of the few mercies Henry VIII showed the woman who had once been his obsession.

Anne’s failure to provide a male heir condemned her, as it had her predecessor, to the status of irritating inconvenience in the eyes of her husband. The energetic efforts of Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister to the king, elevated court rumors to the status of official attainders against five men who were accused of having carnal knowledge of the Queen. The most shocking of these charges was the allegation that Anne had committed incest with her own brother, George Boleyn. Anne was also accused of joking about the king’s death with Henry Norris, Knight of Berkshire and one of Henry’s close friends.

anne boleyn 2Most historians today generally reject the validity of these charges. Most of them appear to be based on rumor, comments taken out of context, and Anne’s own flirtatious demeanor with her favorites which seemed to go no further than playful banter. Thomas Cromwell utilized Anne’s inconvenience in Henry’s eyes, her general unpopularity with the English people, and the rumors circulating at court to engineer the downfall of his former ally.

Anne was certainly the sort of person who elicited strong responses from both admirers and detractors alike. Her rise to power had come at the expense of Queen Catherine of Aragon, a popular and pious queen. Anne had managed to secure Henry’s affection and to provide him with a second chance to produce a male heir for his throne. The price had been incredibly high. Henry transformed the ecclesiastical and political order of his realm through a series of Parliamentary Acts that made him Supreme Head of the English Church and the primary beneficiary of confiscated monastic wealth.

Recently I engaged in a historical simulation with one of my classes at Dordt College in which we recreated the Reformation Parliament and the circumstances leading to Anne’s execution. As my students channeled the fractious personalities and events of the sixteenth century, I was reminded of the radically different interpretations of Anne Boleyn’s legacy in the sixteenth century.

Her role as a central figure at the beginning of England’s ecclesiastical transformation meant that she was readily adopted as a heroine by Protestant chroniclers such as John Foxe and demonized by Roman Catholic leaders such as Reginald Pole and Stephen Gardiner.

Catholic detractors suggested that she had bewitched Henry with dark magic, an idea that may have originated with Henry himself after her miscarriage in January 1536. Stories circulated that her internal evil was mirrored on the outside by physical deformity, including an extra finger. There is a fascinating and entertaining account of the legends surrounding Anne in Susan Bordo’s excellent book The Creation of Anne Boleyn (Houghton Mifflin, 2013).

elizabeth 1

Elizabeth I

After the rise of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, writers attempted to craft a more honorable legacy for their new Queen’s mother. John Foxe praised Anne in his famous Acts and Monuments, more popularly known as the Book of Martyrs. He identified her contribution to the English Reformations through her presentation of Protestant writings to Henry and her promotion of Protestant officials such as Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer. Centuries of historical research have gradually chipped away at some of the more fantastic Catholic legends about Anne while also tempering some of the more heroic images advanced by Protestant writers.

What generally remains after historians have sifted through the ashes is a portrait of an interestingly complex woman who was neither witch nor saint. Historians, both academic and popular, have and will always have a variety of responses to Anne. Generally, they do agree that the worst of Anne is not true and the best of her needs some qualification.

It is true that Anne’s influence probably aided the influence of the Protestant faction at Henry’s court. She was most definitely sympathetic to Protestantism. Her charge to Matthew Parker, her personal confessor and later Elizabeth’s first Archbishop of Canterbury, to care for her daughter may have left a Protestant influence for the future queen. That Protestant influence would be cultivated by Elizabeth’s stepmother, Katherine Parr, and the influence of Protestant tutors such as Roger Ascham. She certainly had a genuine motherly affection for her daughter. And she was probably innocent of the charges that resulted in her execution.

But Anne’s status should definitely read “it’s complicated.” Protestant admirers often overlooked the fact that Anne achieved influence through the employment of what Henry referred to admiringly as her “French ways.” Her path to power was paved with the seduction of another woman’s husband, the displacement and humiliation of Queen Catherine, and the rejection of Henry’s daughter, Mary, by her father. One has to remember when admiring her many good qualities that her dark side could be very dark. She could be explosive and vengeful when things did not go her way. And would we really have it any other way? It is the explosive mix of virtue and vice, calculation and volatility that makes her story so interesting.

Historians often use the disastrous campaign of the Spanish Armada in 1588 as the perfect illustration of why strictly providential history is so problematic. I think the polarized interpretations of figures like Ann Boleyn illustrate the potential pitfalls of providential history as well.

Providential history could be defined as history which operates on the assumption that the interpreter understands divine agency in history and can relate every historical event to their interpretation of God’s plan for the ages. I see this kind of historical interpretation as different from the work that academic historians of faith do. A person can have a faith commitment in their historical studies and a general sense that the will of God or ultimate realities guide historical events in a coherent fashion without necessarily engaging in providential history.

Providential history pushes interpretation of historical events to the point of identifying precisely what God was up to in specific historical circumstances. Mature people of faith know that what God is doing is not always obvious nor does it make sense from a human perspective. What we judge to be evil God may intend for good, and what we judge to be good could have the unintended consequence of promoting evil in human societies. It is hard enough to see the divine plan in our present circumstances. It is just as hard if not harder to discern the hand of divine providence in the past.

Historical interpretation, much like Anne, is complicated. And that is what makes it fun! My students are most engaged in my classes when we move beyond the Joe Friday, “Just the Facts Ma’am” approach to history to actually engaging the interesting questions of historical interpretation. Those questions and issues are the stuff that makes history perennially relevant.

Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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