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To what extent can anne boleyn be regarded as the key figure in henry viii’s reformation of the church in england?

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The Reformation of the Church in England was an event of the utmost importance in England’s history. It freed England of the Papal rule and handed over all the influence to the king. This event is often investigated by historians. However, not many of them focus on Anne Boleyn, the person who possibly played a huge role in it. Being interested in the role of women in politics and society in general, I found it interesting to look more closely at this powerful woman who lived in the times that were very unforgiving for females. Hence the research question of this essay is: To what extent can Anne Boleyn be regarded as the key figure in Henry VIII’s Reformation of the Church in England?


In order to answer this question, primary (letters, accounts of contemporaries) and secondary (books written by historians in different periods) sources will be examined. Close attention will be paid to the factors that could have influenced the Reformation, such as the general political situation in Europe at that time, the situation of the Catholic Church, Anne’s own faith and the influence she had over Henry VII. All these will help with answering the research question.


The conclusion reached is that, due to the insufficient sources (the bias present in the primary sources available for analysis to both the author of this work and to the historians) it is impossible to say without a doubt that Anne was the key figure in the Reformation. We can see that she did have influence on Henry, but it was not unlimited (she did not manage to convert him to her faith). Her influence, however, cannot be disregarded, as she did play a role in the Reformation, possibly placing the idea in Henry’s head. She cannot, however, be called “the key figure”.


Anne Boleyn is probably the most well-known wife of Henry VIII, and also the one that was the most mistreated both by her contemporaries and, later on, historians. Little of what we know about her can be regarded as hard facts. There are several possible dates of her birth, with historian Joanna Denny arguing it was 1501. She had two siblings: sister Mary, who was believed to have had an affair with Henry, leading to the birth of two illegitimate children, whom, Henry never acknowledged and brother George, who was executed, accused of high treason and incest with Anne; he was a devoted evangelical, like Anne and their father. Their father came from gentry, and people said he “had married above his station in life” as his wife was the daughter of Earl of Surrey. Anne was hence not equal to Henry, but she became nearly so when he made her the Marchioness of Pembroke. Anne was also well-educated, which was unusual at that time, she often argued with the King, what was probably one of the things that attracted him to her. She was also unusual in refusing the King for 7 years, whereas most women gave in to him easily.


She became the wife of Henry VIII (1532 or 1533 – they are believed by some to have got married in secret in 1532 and then officially in January 1533) and the Queen of England (1533-1536) after he established himself the Head of the Church in England, and granted himself a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon. In order to do so, Henry had to reject the power of Papacy in England, therefore bringing the Reformation to his state.


Anne’s role in Henry VIII’s divorce is rather clear. It is possible that she was not the one that triggered the decision but from some point on, she was the one Henry had in mind as his future wife (even though, judging from the letters he wrote to her, she did not share his feelings for a long time). However, her role in the Reformation of the Church in England is more of a mystery. For years, historians couldn’t reach an agreement on whether she was the key figure in it or had no say.


This work will further investigate the role of Anne Boleyn in the early Reformation of the Church in England. This will be achieved by analysing her religious beliefs, her influence over Henry VIII, the condition of the Church in England and Europe in that period and the political situation in Europe. Attention will be paid to both the secondary sources (historians’ opinions) and primary sources (mostly letters). Such an investigation is important to establish possible misinterpretations of the person of Anne Boleyn (primarily done by relying too heavily on the accounts of Eustace Chapuys), the possibility of a stronger than generally suspected role of women in Tudor England and also deciding if Anne’s influence on the Reformation was significant.

Condition of the Church in Europe in Tudor times

The condition of the Church in Europe over that period was rather bad. Since the capture of Constantinople in 1453 (causing Greek scholars to move to Italy and further, bringing with them Christian manuscripts previously stored in the captured city) people started to get back to the bottom of Christianity, hence doubting the contemporary doctrine of the Catholic Church. These were the times of such scholars as Tyndale and Erasmus, who made people reconsider what they had been told for centuries. In general, during that period, the morale of the Church were believed to be at their low, regardless of it being true or not (as historian Richard Marius said “It is well enough for us to argue now that the moral and intellectual state of the church in the Renaissance was probably better than it had been for two centuries. People like Thomas More, John Colet, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and Martin Luther thought that the church was in miserable shape and that reform had to come if society was to endure.” However, the fact that the author puts the Thomas More, known for burning heretics, and Martin Luther, in the same category, is quite controversial), providing good conditions for the Protestant Reformation to begin. Philosophers focused on the incoherency of the teachings of the Church with common knowledge and the reformists blamed the Papacy as “the core of all wickedness”. Church at that time had to fight not only with Lutherans (through “denunciations, arrests and executions”) but also the spread of Islam.

Condition of the Church in England in Tudor times

Although similar to the ones of the Church in Europe, the condition of the Church in England differed in a significant way. While the reformist movement was blossoming out in Europe, Englishmen limited themselves to mere criticizing of the clergy, without challenging the doctrine itself. Most of the historians agree that the clergy in England were corrupt and impious, but the extent to which they agree with it is not the same. While some can mostly find words of distaste for them, others are less extreme in their judgement, admitting that most of these opinions were exaggerated. There is, however, some truth to these opinions, as monks and nuns were found involving in practices of incest, child abuse and homosexuality, and even Cardinal Wolsey is known to have had children whom he greatly supported. Despite this all, English people remained orthodox, with their discontent being rather anticlerical than antidoctrinal, resulting in the Reformation in England being more freeing the country from Papal influence than changing the faith, unlike the continental Reformation.

England’s foreign policy and the situation in Europe in the time of the reign of Henry VIII

The politics of Europe at that time revolved mainly around three states: England, France and Spain. All three formed independent alliances and fought wars, either as allies or against each other. All of them at different times claimed to be a deadly enemy of the other two, yet it did not stand in the way of it uniting with them or betrothing its princesses and princes to the princesses and princes of the other. In the early years of Henry VIII’s reign (1512-1514) a war with France took place, which ended in a treaty sealed with the marriage of Henry’s sister, Mary, with French king Louis XII, which could be considered rather strange considering Henry’s negative opinion of France. However, this could be due to the pro-French policy of the English Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey (some say he was mostly pro-papal), which he pursued by forming alliances with France (such as the Treaty of Cognac of 1526, where France, England and some Italian states united against Spain). This did not stop him from attempting a more Europe-wide peace – in October 1518 the Treaty of London was signed between England, France and Spain which was supposed to be one against Turks but failed to achieve anything despite the best wishes of its initiator. England was allied with France, with princess Mary betrothed to the French Dauphin, this, however, was rather fragile, and at some point English sympathies turned to Spain, and when the Emperor defeated Francis I in 1525, Henry expected him, quite foolishly, to make it possible for Henry to once again acquire the French crown for England. Understandably, Charles V declined. At this point, Charles V ruled over the Papal state, with the Pope Clement VII under his direct influence (as Henry VIII said in his letter to Pope Clement VII “The Pope shows by his acts before all the world that he is wholly devoted to the Emperor's will, and that he ordains, prorogues, and alters things to serve the times.”, which was the cause of the difficulty in obtaining a divorce by Henry VIII in later years, as Charles was a nephew of Henry’s wife, and very fond of his aunt. We can, to an extent, say that Charles V contributed greatly to the Reformation of the Church in England, however unwillingly (he was a great defender of the faith, which can be seen , for example, in the letter he wrote to the Sieur the Noircarmes, in which he said, about Henry’s divorce with Catherine of Aragon “You must ask him also to prevent the university of Paris and the rest of his subjects favouring the King unduly; and to have regard to the Queen's rights, which will be meritorious towards God, and pleasing to us.”).

Anne Boleyn’s religion

The origins of Anne’s religion can be traced back to the time she spent in France as a young girl. Her religious interests have always stayed with France, with her reading in the subject conducted mainly in French (though she did have in her possession the English version of the Psalms which she gave to her servants). Most of the books she owned were evangelical works, which she read with great interest, even though it was illegal at that time in England, she also helped in bringing these works to England through the network of her servants. This was not a thing a woman at that time would usually engage in. Anne, however, was well-educated and had a “keen mind”, and this notion is not doubted by historians. Historians also agree as to Anne’s personal faith. Due to her time at French court, she found herself following the evangelical wave, though not by many is she called a Protestant. She was called “More Lutheran than Luther himself” by Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys, whose accounts, however, are hardly reliable considering that he had never met her, didn’t speak English and based his opinions on gossip, and most likely based this judgement on the fact that anyone who didn’t follow the traditional Christian religion at that time was called Lutheran (which could also support the claim that Anne was in fact evangelical, but this is the case if we are to believe Chapuys at all). Looking at the accounts of what Anne’s faith was like, one would hardly consider her Lutheran as she did not stray much from the regular doctrine of the Church. She did, however, believe that everyone should have access to the Holy Bible in the language they understand, and the right to the free interpretation of the words therein, which was against the contemporary policy of the Roman Catholic Church. There seems to be some disagreement between historians as to the extent to which she was religious. Antonia Fraser stubbornly calls her reading reformist books “an interest” in reform, and later “her personal taste in religion”, as if not believing it was really sincere. On the other side, we have Joanna Denny (who said that “Hers was not a superficial faith”) and David Starkey (who said, about Anne encouraging her ladies in waiting to read the Scriptures, „There is every reason to think that these activities of Anne’s were sincere” ), who seem convinced that her faith was sincere. Looking at the fact that she always carried some book with her, it often being the translation of the Bible (this coming from Louis de Brun, Anne’s contemporary „I am not surprised that you are never found, if circumstances permit, without your having some book in French in your hand which is of use and value in pointing out and finding the true and narrow way to all virtues, as, for example, translations of the Holy Scriptures”), helped in bringing forbidden reformist works to England and helped with saving reformists from death, it can be assumed with a great dose of probability that she was, in fact, a zealous believer (citing Foxe, Anne’s contemporary: „What a zealous defender she was of Christ’s gospel all the world doth know, and her acts do and will declare to the world’s end.”), and an evangelical at that. Therefore, having established Anne’s personal faith, it is important to look at how she may have influenced the King. Well known is a story of her showing Henry William Tyndale’s “The Obedience of the Christian Man and How Christian Rulers Ought to Govern”, pointing out to him the parts where Tyndale says that there should be no power over kings but this of God. This, however, is not believed in by everybody, with Antonia Fraser describing it as “alleged” and David Starkey claiming she did it only to annoy Wolsey, whom she did not like. Whatever the truth is, Henry VIII most likely did read this passage and it is not impossible that it did influence his decision about the break from the Papacy. It needs to be noted here that, although Henry did go through with the Reformation, it mostly lied in the shift of power over the Church from the Papacy to the King, and not in major changes in the doctrine, like in Germany. Also, Henry’s personal faith did not change, he was always a Catholic. It is established, however, that Anne did try, to no avail, to influence her spouse with reformist thoughts, meaning she was willing to spread her views further, not only indulge in them herself.

Anne’s influence over Henry VIII

The relationship between Anne and Henry changed over time. In this work, attention will be paid only to its beginnings (before the marriage), as this was the time most crucial to the Reformation which is of importance here. Overall, historians, whatever their personal opinion of Anne is, agree that she exercised significant influence over her future spouse. This opinion is derived both from the accounts of her contemporaries and from the letters Henry wrote (which, in itself, was quite a compliment to Anne, as he did not like writing letters, so they fact that he chose to contact Anne this way is a proof of his passion for her) to his “darling”, painting a picture of the king who was so deeply in love that he was ready to do nearly anything for Anne, whom he called “the woman in the world that I value the most”. This picture seems to be mostly accurate, as she was allowed by the king to have influence over political matters, which in turn let her get favours for the matters dear to her heart, in a fashion that was popular at that time – one person getting close to the ruler (in this case, Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII) in order to gain favours for a bigger group of people. This was probably due to the king’s infatuation with her, so clearly visible in his letters to her. In one of them he writes “wishing myself (especially an evening) in my sweetheart’s arms, whose pretty dukkys I trust shortly to kiss.”, expressing his love for “Mistress Anne” (as she is sometimes called). However, things did not always look so great, and Anne’s influence over Henry was not unlimited either. This is important in considering her possible influence in him bringing the Reform to England, since if she had no real influence over him, there would be no reason to assume she had it in that matter. Even though Cavendish seemed to believe that Anne’s power was great (he said “judged by and by, through all the court, of every man, that she, being in such favour with the king, might work mysteries [wonders] with the king and obtain any suit of him for her friend.”), she did find it difficult to convince Henry that Cardinal Wolsey may not have been working in their favour, even though he was very unpopular all around England. Despite his general leaning towards the theory of Anne’s great influence, even Eric Ives found himself admitting that Henry may not have been so easily manipulated (the history of his relationship with Anne Boleyn tells us that Henry was an authority – even though he depended on others to some extent and was rather prone to being pressured, “this did not mean he was a puppet” – his decisions were the final ones), even by the hands of his lover. Also worth noting is that she failed to secure help for her sister, Mary, who was believed to have had children with Henry, and who had been widowed at the time; Henry instead suggested that her father should take care of her. There also remains the issue of her religious influence over him. This issue has already been partially settled in the previous chapter, as it was said that whatever Anne did, Henry remained a Catholic (he did read whatever Anne gave him to read, but was, at heart, too scared that the pope would excommunicate him to actually give up his religion). He, however, did derive from what she gave him whatever suited him, as after reading a passage from “The Obedience…” he said “This book is for me and all kings to read”, as if he agreed with the Reformist views held by it.

Anne’s support for the reformation

There are contradicting opinions as to whether Anne had any influence on the Reformation of the English Church. There are some who believe that it would not have happened if it had not been for her. These historians seem happy with their theory as Anne being a leader of the reformist movement. Eric Ives even goes as far as to say „Anne Boleyn was not a catalyst in the English Reformation; she was the key element in the equation”, he also called her the “key figure” and said that she “played a major role in pushing Henry into asserting his headship of the Church”, he is more or less saying that Anne, even though she was a 16th century woman (regardless of her being Queen later on) was so ardent in her religious beliefs that she, to an extent, led the whole movement in England (Ives called her time as Queen “thousand days of support for reform from the throne itself”). This view seems to be shared by Joanna Denny; she even uses similar words to describe Anne (looking at the Bibliography of her book, she actually used Ives’s works), she also quotes John Aylmer (he was a scholar who lived in the time of reign of Elisabeth I), who said “Was not Queen Anne […] the chief, first and only cause of banishing the beast of Rome with all his beggarly baggage?”, giving Anne, more or less, all the credit for the Reformation, even though even Ives admits that Anne was but a member of a group of people supporting the Reform. Also, Ives seems to be a bit limited in his opinion of Anne being so important to the Reformation, as he does not really give credit to Latymer who praised Anne for the very same virtues Ives had himself ascribed to her (Ives claims that „[Latymer] was committed to portraying Anne as the archetypical ‘godly matron’”) , making himself slightly incredible. There are also historians that are more limited in believing that Anne was that important. David Starkey does claim that Anne stood up for Lutherans, but also says that Anne’s intent in showing Henry “The Obedience…” was to annoy the detested cardinal, not necessarily in bringing on the reform. Antonia Fraser is even more restrained, reminding all the enthusiasts that Henry did not fall for Anne because of her religious beliefs but rather for her looks and character. These are, however, still very mild views, with some going even as far as to dismiss Anne’s influence completely. Elton claims that personal matters the weight of an infatuation of a monarchy could not (and did not) influence a matter of such importance as the Reformation, thus dismissing completely the person of Anne Boleyn not only as the “key figure”, but completely. Hume, on the other hand, does not dismiss the individuals’ influence in the Reformation, but only that of Anne herself (“Anne flattered and pleased the king, but it was hardly her mind that moved him to defy the powerful Papacy, or sustained him in his fight with his own clergy.”. He does, however, in general seem not very fond of any of the persons involved, be it Anne, Henry or even Catherine. Therefore, it can be seen that there is no agreement between historians on this matter, however, the views of Hume and Elton seem to be a bit too radical and also poorly supported, unlike the ones of other authors.


The Reformation of the Church in England in the 16th century was an important event in English history – it freed it from the control of the almighty Papacy and gave all power to its ruler. Looking at the European history of the time of Henry VIII’s reign, the decision to break from Rome was not such a foolish one as his contemporaries may have thought, especially looking at the matter of Henry’s divorce, blocked not by the Pope, but by the Emperor who had a personal interest in not letting it happen. The Reformation in England, as it was shown in this work, was not a religious one but a political one – its aim was not interfering greatly with the doctrine of the Catholic Church but independence from Papacy (or rather – those who controlled the Papacy). It has to be remembered, though, that this move did not necessarily bring Henry allies at that time, as the power of the Catholic Church, and also the Holy Roman Empire, was still great.


These are the hard facts. The role played by Anne Boleyn in this event is, however, much more of a mystery. Of course, we do have the accounts of her contemporaries, which either make her into a “godly matron” or claim that she had no say in the Reformation. We can draw some conclusions, though, from these accounts, having assessed their credibility, and also from looking at Anne’s own religion (and hence identifying her possible sympathies with the reformist movement) and her influence over the king. There is no doubt that Anne was more of an evangelical than a Catholic, but despite the influence she undoubtedly exercised over the king in matters of politics, she failed to change his religion. Thus, even though it is believed that Anne showing Henry “The Obedience…” was a ground-breaking point in the Reformation, it cannot be concluded beyond reasonable doubt that it actually was.


Furthermore, looking at the matter of the divorce – even when it was quite obvious that the Pope would not grant him the annulment, Henry still tried to pursue this path, in his belief in the Papal power. We can speculate (but with a great dose of certainty) that if the Pope had not been under the direct influence of Henry’s wife’s nephew, he would have gone through with granting him the divorce, Henry would have married Anne and there would have been no need for the Reformation – hence, it would not have happened. These, however, are mere speculations because the circumstances did not allow for such a resolution of this matter. Also, through analysing the situation of Catholic religion both in England and in Europe it was shown that it was not in the best shape, and the Church in England needed a reform anyway, which was even realised by its people. However, as Elton points out, Henry’s reform was the one from the outside, not from the inside, which the Church really needed.


Whatever the cause, the Church in England underwent the Reformation. It is most probable that Anne Boleyn did play a role in planting the idea of a break from Rome in Henry’s head, but, as it was proven, her influence over him was not unlimited and we cannot be sure what exactly her influence was in this matter. This we will probably never know for sure, as Anne’s image was so severely distorted after her death – by her enemies, who hated her, by her supporters, who saw her as a goddess and by her husband, who, after she failed to give him an heir, decided to simply behead her.


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