In 1533, an event occurred that shook the foundations of Catholic England, Anne Boleyn was crowned Queen Consort as Henry VIII’s second wife. Henry divorced his first wife, the Spanish Catherine of Aragon, and created a new state religion in order to make the divorce legal. In the midst of these turbulent times and despite her Catholic upbringing, Anne Boleyn, England’s most controversial queen consort, assisted the spread of Protestantism in England.
Anne Boleyn’s interest in the Protestant Reformation began while she was a young girl during her schooling in France. Her father obtained a much-sought-after place for her at the French court under the tutelage of Queen Claude. Just before Anne Boleyn’s lessons began, Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the University of Wittenberg’s chapel door. Luther’s teachings soon reached France where Anne Boleyn embraced many of his reformist ideas including the essential belief that a personal spiritual experience is enhanced by Bible reading (Warnicke, 27). Her French tutors introduced her to works by various reformers including Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples and Clement Marot. Lefèvre, a French theologian and humanist, had close ties to Erasmus, and Marot was a French poet who translated the Psalms into French. A courtier at the time wrote that Anne Boleyn read Paul’s Epistles and several Bible translations on a regular basis (Warnicke, 109). Her study of the Pauline epistles acquainted her with the doctrine of justification by faith, though it is not believed that she ever became a devout Lutheran (Ives, ODNB).
Her schooling under some of the most influential females of the century gave her the courage and determination to be a powerful queen. At the court of Queen Claude, Anne became friends with Marguerite d’Angoulême, daughter of the powerful Louise of Savoy. Louise resided at the French court since her son was the future heir for the childless Louis XII. Louise studied the arts of the Italian Renaissance and dabbled in diplomacy and politics. She treated Anne as one of her own as she raised Marguerite and Francis. Anne and Marguerite were educated in history, philosophy, theology, and languages (Lewis, “Marguerite”). Marguerite held strong views on spiritual matters and supported the translation of the Bible into French (Fabbri). Anne followed Marguerite’s example and supported the English Bible when she became queen. After Anne returned to England, she wrote letters to Marguerite expressing her friendship and admiration. Perhaps the last way Marguerite influenced Anne was through her writings, for she wrote many poems and short stories. Many scholars believe her poem Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (A Godly Meditation of the Soul) was sent to Anne since it was later translated into English by Elizabeth, Anne’s daughter (Lewis, “Marguerite”). It was the influence of Marguerite’s radical reform ideas that Anne took back with her to England.
Historians argue about whether or not Queen Anne was a Lutheran, a Catholic, or a reformed humanist. One anonymous article states that the only reason the queen supported Henry’s new religious order was because otherwise she remained the king’s mistress, which could imply that her reformist sympathies and actions were for purely personal image (“Anne Boleyn”). Retha Warnicke declares the queen was a Catholic because one of her last phrases was that she would go to heaven for having done many good deeds, a works salvation to which Catholics hold (Warnicke, 108). On the other hand, John Foxe labels Queen Anne a Protestant in his Acts and Monuments. Eric Ives, who has written numerous books and articles on her majesty, claims that she was neither a Protestant nor a staunch Roman Catholic, but a committed Catholic reformer who based her beliefs on the Bible (Ives, THJ). Despite the controversy, there is no doubt that her reformist beliefs had a tremendous impact on England.
Almost as soon as Anne Boleyn emerged at court, she introduced reformist ideas, and she made a plethora of contributions to Protestant reform in England. Some of her reformist ideas included reading the Bible in the vernacular, preaching the Bible instead of the common rituals, and boldly questioning the actions of the Roman Catholic Church. Because the queen loved debating esoteric theology and analyzing every point of the new reformist ideas, she supported the publication of many religious books. The king eventually appointed himself as the Head of the Church of England because of her influence, and then he disbanded several Catholic monasteries under this new title (“Anne Boleyn,” TSWH). Queen Anne also kept an illuminated copy of Coverdale’s 1535 version on a stand for her ladies-in-waiting to read, and Henry VIII eventually allowed the same Bible to be printed and distributed in England (Warnicke, 153).
The queen maintained a close friendship with Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been appointed to this position for securing Henry’s divorce to Catherine. Since he had been her family’s chaplain before his appointment, Cranmer encouraged the queen’s interest in religious reform. Because she was queen, she possessed a great deal of influence over Henry VIII. Queen Anne’s interest in esoteric theology was a like passion of the king’s, and their debates against each other increased his interest in religious topics. Historians claim that Henry VIII refused Luther’s version of the scriptures because he did not believe it was a valid one, not because he totally opposed a vernacular Bible (Warnicke, 110). This historical theory is supported by the fact that Henry eventually allowed a vernacular Bible to be distributed in England.
While Queen Anne contributed generally to Protestant reform, she is noted for three key influences: her association with the translator William Tyndale, her rescue of various persecuted individuals, and her influence in the elevation of reformed clergymen to leading positions in the Church of England. The queen’s first introduction to William Tyndale’s work was his small book called The Obedience of a Christian Man. One of the key arguments of the book involved Tyndale’s belief that the king of a country should be the head of that country’s religion instead of the pope. Believing the book to be an excellent work, Queen Anne shared it with Henry(“Anne Boleyn,” TSWH). The king enjoyed the book immensely, since it supported his claims as head of the Anglican Church. The queen also obtained a copy of Tyndale’s English New Testament shortly after it was printed in Amsterdam. It is said that the queen accidently left the New Testament lying in a window seat where it was picked up by a courtier. The book found its way into the hands of Cardinal Wolsey who saw his chance to malign the queen’s influence over Henry VIII because of the book’s heretical content. Queen Anne, being forewarned of the danger, told the king the whole story. The king forgave her and then read the New Testament for himself (Bruce, 128-129).
Queen Anne also rescued numerous persecuted reformers. She is believed to have rescued Dr. Thomas Forman, Thomas Alway, Thomas Patmore, and Nicholas Bourbon. Dr. Forman was suspended from his pulpit because he owned several Lutheran books. The queen begged Cardinal Wolsey to restore him since Dr. Forman claimed he only read the books in order to better fight the Lutheran movement (Warnicke, 110-111). Thomas Alway was imprisoned for owning outlawed books, so he petitioned the queen for his release and received it (Warnicke, 111). Thomas Patmore, his crime unknown, was locked away in the Lollards’ Tower for two years. Queen Anne appealed to Henry VIII, and Patmore was released (Warnicke, 111). The queen’s protection reached all the way to France when she rescued Nicholas Bourbon, a French reformer. He impressed the queen so much that she made him the royal schoolmaster in England (Ives, THJ).
Several churchmen owed their elevated positions to Queen Anne. Edward Crome was given St. Mary Aldermary in the rich district of London (Ives, ODNB). The queen honored her old family friend, Thomas Cranmer, by helping secure for him the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Queen Anne personally paid the expenses from her private purse for the elevation of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Shaxton to the respected positions of bishops (Ives, THJ). She patronized Edward Fox, Thomas Goodrich, and William Barlow and persuaded Henry to bestow bishoprics upon them. William Betts became the queen’s personal chaplain (Ives, THJ). Queen Anne also forged strong connections with William Bill and Matthew Parker, two powerful scholars of Cambridge. It was through these men that the queen’s influential beliefs spread into the churches (Ives, ODNB). They preached the traditional reformed beliefs which were dear to the heart of the queen.
The tragic end of Queen Anne’s life will always be remembered because of the charges laid against her. The charges originally came from courtiers who were jealous of the rapid rise of the Boleyn family at court, and her trial was quickly taken to the highest judge. Her death came to the delight of Cardinal Wolsey who played a part in the accusations. Having been convicted for adultery, incest, and treason, Queen Anne was beheaded at the Tower of London after a marriage of only three years.
Anne’s greatest legacy was her daughter Elizabeth (Warnicke, 214). Other notable legacies were the men who tutored Elizabeth. Alexander Ales, a Scottish theologian who had known Queen Anne during her lifetime, told Elizabeth that her mother was responsible for spreading a purer doctrine through the lives of Cranmer, Latimer, Shaxton, Goodrich, and Skip, who were reformed bishops and pastors (Ives, 261). All of these men became evangelical ministers in their churches who influenced Elizabethan England toward Protestant beliefs, with the exception of Cranmer and Latimer who were burned under Mary in 1555. While the extent of her influence over the king is unknown, she cared for religious affairs enough to risk public opinion and the hatred of the Catholic Church. Men whom she supported often received public posts from which they could teach reformed ideas. In the end, Queen Anne helped prepare for the eventual Protestant Reformation in England. Catholics blamed the queen for allowing heresy to enter the English church (Ives, 260-261). Her societal position gave her the opportunity to encourage debate on academic and religious topics that were previously forbidden. While Elizabeth’s mother was not responsible for evicting Roman Catholicism from England forever, the impact of Queen Anne helped shake the hold of the Catholic Church on England (“Anne Boleyn,” TSWH).
The life of Anne Boleyn will always be one of great controversy. The reasons for her advocating reform may never be known. Would England have become a Protestant nation if Anne Boleyn had never been queen? Perhaps it is best to say that while the queen was not an instigator of the English Reformation, she was a crucial component in the equation (Ives, 260). Queen Anne must be admired as a courageous woman who supported and encouraged the reformation of England’s church.
– Hannah S. Bowers
“Anne Boleyn.” 2 November 2008. http://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/boleyn.html (2 September 2011).
“Anne Boleyn,” The Six Wives of Henry VIII. 2003. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/sixwives/meet/ab_handbook_main.html. (5 September 2011).
Bruce, Marie. Anne Boleyn. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972.
Fabbri, Kimberly. “Marguerite, Queen of Navarre.” Women’s History. 18 December 2005. http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/margueritN.html. (30 November 2011).
Ives, Eric. “Anne Boleyn and the Early Reformation in England: The Contemporary Evidence.” The Historical Journal. Vol. 37, No. 2 (1994): 389-400.
– – – –. “Anne Boleyn,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2011. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/557?docPos=1 (5 September 2011).
– – – –. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Lewis, Jone. “Marguerite of Navarre.” About.com. 2011. http://womenshistory.about.com/od/writersmedieval/p/margaretnavarre.html. (30 November 2011).
Warnicke, Retha. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.