Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: Suzannah Lipscomb dispels the myths

They are two of history’s most captivating figures, their romance-turned-tragedy known the world over. But what was the true nature of the relationship between Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, and how did Anne come to lose her head?

In a new two-part series for Britain's Channel 5, Tudor historian, author and TV presenter Dr Suzannah Lipscomb will seek to answer these questions.

Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History will take Lipscomb on a journey from Anne's childhood home at Hever Castle in Kent, to the French palace where, some say, she learned the art of love. She will also visit Hampton Court, where Henry built the Great Hall for his new queen, and the Tower of London, where he had her beheaded.

Here, ahead of her new two-part series that airs on Thursday, the delightful Lipscomb dispels some of the myths that surround one of history’s most iconic couples:

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: Suzannah Lipscomb dispels myths about the lovers who changed history

Tuesday 18th February 2014
BBC History Magazine

By Suzannah Lipscomb, a convenor and senior lecturer in history at New College of the Humanities, London

“The love affair between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is shrouded in historical myth, romantic legend, cliché and half-truths. Much of their story remains fiercely debated by historians – everything from why Henry fell for Anne, to why he destroyed her in the end.

“Making this two-part series for Channel 5, I tried to find some answers: I travelled to the places they lived and went, examined books that they wrote in, studied 16th-century manuscripts – even stayed in the room they had slept – in search of the closest thing to the truth that it is possible to get at a remove of 500 years.

“The first myth about Henry and Anne is that Henry ditched the dowdy Katherine of Aragon, driven wild by his first glimpse of the beautiful Anne Boleyn. The success of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl might give us pause over the question of love at first sight: when Anne first joined the English court in 1522, a Boleyn girl did have his eye, but it was Anne’s elder sister, Mary (Henry is said to have once been asked if he had slept with Anne’s sister and mother and muttered, ‘never with the mother’!)

“Anne only seems to have attracted Henry’s interest four years later, but he wouldn’t have been bowled over by her good looks. The surprising thing about Anne is that she wasn’t considered to be a great beauty.

“The Venetian diplomat, Francesco Sanuto, said she was ‘not one of the handsomest women in the world; of middling stature, a swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised’, but did add that she had ‘eyes which are black and beautiful’.

One of her friends (some friend!) said she was ‘good-looking enough’. Which was, of course, true in the end.

“What attracted Henry in 1526 was not, therefore, so much Anne’s beauty, but her character, intelligence and charm. Anne had spent nine years on the Continent – seven of them at the French court.

“I followed her to the Château Royal de Blois, one of the pleasure palaces where the French king, Francis I, held his court. Blois’s spectacular spiral staircase, ornamented with classical statues and filigree, which Francis built in 1515, indicates in stonework precisely what Anne found there: the French court was at the heart of the Renaissance – Francis even invited Leonardo da Vinci to visit – and in spending time here, Anne became a cultured, sophisticated woman.

“In what remains a compliment of the highest order, one observer later said, ‘no one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but a native-born Frenchwoman’ . She had acquired a certain cosmopolitan glamour, conversational wit, and the graceful epitome of courtly life – an ability to dance. All these entranced the English king.

“It was touching to read the letters that the lovesick Henry sent to Anne in the heady days of their courtship. In one he writes, ‘I wolde you were in myne armes or I in yours for I think it long syns I kyst you’ (‘I would you were in my arms or I in yours for I think it long since I kissed you’).

“Another he signs off with his initials separated by the French ‘autre ne cherche’ (is not looking for any other), with Anne’s initials at the centre of his signature in a love heart. It is reminiscent of a schoolboy doodling in a textbook.

“The problem is that none of Anne’s letters back to Henry have survived, which can give us the impression that Anne was being coy, when hers might have been just as impassioned.

“What we do have is a Book of Hours – an illuminated prayer book – that I went to see in the British Library with curator Dr Andrea Clarke. The extraordinary thing about this book is that Henry and Anne appear to have used it to pass notes.

“On one page, depicting a picture of Christ as the Man of Sorrows – which Henry evidently thought a fair image of himself – he wrote to her in French: ‘If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours, Henry R[ex] forever’. But here, on a page that depicts Mary being told that she will give birth to a son, Anne replies with the couplet:

‘By daily proof you shall me find
To be to you both loving and kind.’

“Unfortunately for Anne, although Henry broke from the Church of Rome, divorced his first wife and changed the very faith of England to be with her (it was immensely moving to visit Charterhouse in London, whose monks became victims of Henry’s marriage to Anne, which they could not accept), she could not deliver on the implicit promise of that page. Just as Katherine before her, she could not give Henry the son and heir he needed and craved.

“Ultimately, after only 1,000 days of marriage, Henry would order Anne’s execution on charges of adultery, incest and conspiring the king’s death.

“Historians have disagreed over whether Anne was guilty (few think she was), whether she was the victim of a court conspiracy, or whether Henry wanted to get rid of Anne. Or, as I suggest in these programmes, whether it was none of the above, and Anne was not guilty – but appeared to be so.

“From her indictment, now stored at the National Archives, we can understand the real issue at the centre of the marital breakdown that had such horrific consequences: Henry’s honour was at stake.

“Anne is charged with having ‘diabolically seduced [five] men because of her frail and carnal appetites’ , including her own brother.

Anne is painted in the worst possible terms to suggest that no man, not even a king among men such as Henry, could be expected to keep up with a woman of such depraved and voracious sexuality.

“In her speech on the scaffold, Anne swore she was innocent, and ‘a faithful and loyal wife to the King’ , but revealed what I think was the real fault – she had ‘not, perhaps, at all times shown him that humility and reverence that his goodness to me… did deserve’ – in other words, she had been a bit feisty, she had spoken back and had perhaps even flirted with other men.

The very same conversational wit and sophistication that attracted Henry in the first place led to her downfall.


Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History , produced by Lion TV, airs at 8pm on 20 February on Channel 5.

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb is a convenor and senior lecturer in history at New College of the Humanities. You can follow her on Twitter @sixteenthCgirl or visit her website www.suzannahlipscomb.com

Next month, Lipscomb will co-present with Paul Martin and Steve Mould an eight-part series on ITV, Never Knew That About Britain. The series begins at 8pm on Monday 3 March.

To listen to our March 2013 podcast, in which Suzannah Lipscomb explores the downfall of Anne Boleyn, at the Tower of London where she met her end, click here .

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: Dr Suzannah Lipscomb dispels myths about the lovers who changed history in new Channel 5 series | History Extra
Last edited by Blackleaf; Feb 19th, 2014 at 02:52 PM..
Watch Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History (which, rather inconveniently, just happened to be on at the same time as the Swansea City vs Napoli match in the Europa League):

Episode 1 | Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History | Channel 5

This week, Susannah explores the extraordinary seven-year courtship of the royal couple, from their first meeting at a royal banquet to their marriage seven years later. She delves into their backgrounds and personalities, searching for the triggers – personal and political – that would lead to their passionate falling in love, asking what was it about Anne that made Henry prepared to pursue her for so long and to risk both his own and his country's future to win her?

Susannah's first destination is Anne Boleyn's childhood home at Hever Castle in Kent. Inside this atmospheric country house, Suzannah finds Anne's Book of Hours, a religious text in which the future queen wrote the prophetic phrase: "The Time Will Come".

Hever Castle in Kent: Anne's childhood home

From Hever, Suzannah heads to France and the Château de Blois, where the young Anne was once a lady in waiting to the French Queen, Claude. Suzannah discovers that Anne would have met some leading Renaissance figures (Leonardo da Vinci was a regular guest) and would have emerged more sophisticated, witty and intelligent.

But was she also ambitious? And hungry for love? From the fashionable French court, Suzannah heads to the decadent English court of Henry VIII. At Hampton Court, she meets Tom Betteridge who explains how Tudor courtship worked, and how passion could so quickly kindle in the young king's sexually charged royal court.

Next Suzannah heads to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, home to a tiny gold dog whistle that is said to have been Henry's first gift to Anne. The idea behind it was that if she whistled, he would come. Suzannah also discovers the frustrated ardour of the love-sick king in his passionate letters to Anne.

At the British Library, Suzannah is thrilled to see another Book of Hours in which Henry and Anne have written messages of love to each other. Anne's message is under an image of the Angel Gabriel telling Mary that she will have a son, a clear message to Henry who wanted a male heir more than anything.

Finally, Suzannah looks inside the Cabinet Office where a remnant of a Tudor wall is all that remains of Whitehall Palace, once the largest palace in Europe. It was where Henry and Anne were married – and where her fate was sealed.