A Harness For The Storm
There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.
A human genome is a three-foot long thread of 22,000 genes. Anne and Henry’s courtship would spin a thread of a very different kind. And that thread would sew together the currents of the zeitgeist. It would be used to reap the whirlwind. And to tame it. It would be used to harness the hurricanes of history.
Can you simultaneously surf the hurricanes of history, sow them with seed crystals, and sew them together with threads? Can you be an instigator, an integrator, and a binder? Yes. If you are spectacularly well situated. And if you are gifted with talent. If you are like Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII.
Anne Boleyn was plunged into the battle between Lutherans and the Catholic Church at the age of 16, when Martin Luther’s 95 theses went viral.
When she was just twelve years old, Anne’s father, a diplomat with international connections, had sent Anne to Burgundy to be an attendant to the most powerful woman in Europe, Archduchess Margaret of Austria Margaret’s court overflowed with intellectuals–poets and scholars. Says Hayley Nolan, “Anne spent only a year at the court of Margaret…before joining” Mary Tudor, sister to Britain’s king, who was married briefly to the king of France, Louis XII.
In other words, Anne moved from the court of the most powerful woman in Europe to the most powerful court of any kind in Europe, the court at Versailles. As one of only four maids of honor to Queen Mary But Mary had been only 18 when she’d married Louis XII. Louis, on the other hand, had been 52. So King Louis died three months after the wedding. And Mary went back to England. But Anne stayed at the French court,” the pinnacle of European power, for another six years.
Which means that Anne’s courtly training included more than just etiquette. Anne was steeped in the machinations of kings and queens for seven years. And those machinations were fierce.
When Martin Luther’s heresies, his 95 Theses, smacked Europe up the side of the head in 1517, Anne, to repeat, was a sweet sixteen. And the court of France, in the words of Tudor historian Hayley Nolan, “was rife with reformers.” In other words, the French court was roiling with rebels against the Catholic Church. Seething with Lutherans. And Anne caught the Lutheran fever.
Or did the Lutheran fever catch Anne? Did Lutheranism harness Anne Boleyn the way the first flowering plants harnessed insects?
Little did Anne know it, but she would soon have an opportunity to infect an entire nation with Martin Luther’s heresy. And she would soon get the chance to turn the order of that nation on its head. Thanks to sex.
After her seven years in Europe, Anne returned to England at the age of 21 to marry her cousin, James Butler. But that marriage would never happen. Why? First because Anne fell in love with a dashing military man, Lord James Percy. But that was just a prelude.
In early March of 1522 Anne was in York Place for a Shrovetide Pageant. In fact, she was in York Place at a prized location, the sort of location she’d been used to for seven years. She was at the court of the king.
In the royal Shrovetide pageant, Anne was one of sixteen young women playing the parts of characteristics like Beauty, Honor, Kindness, Danger, and Jealousy. Anne played the part of Perseverance. An omen of the perseverance about to come.
Acting the role of an attacking knight in the pageant was a figure no one could miss. Writes Hayley Nolan, “At over six feet two inches,” he “was described as ‘the handsomest prince ever seen,’ an ‘Adonis of fresh colour’ with an extremely fine calf to his leg.’” That prince was in his prime. He was 31 years old, just ten years older than Anne.
It is almost certain that this “Adonis” saw Anne. And it is absolutely certain that she saw him. Why? He was the king of England. He was Henry VIIIth. And wherever he went, he made a splash.
What’s more, King Henry was apparently ripe for love. His personal motto for the event was “elle mon coeur a navera,” in English, “she has wounded my heart.” But this man with the wounded heart wasn’t available. He was married. Was the woman who had inflicted a wound his wife? Or was it, as Claire Ridgway, writes, Anne’s sister, with whom the king was starting an affair?
We do not know what happened in the next two years. But by December 21, 1524, everything had changed. Henry had been married for fifteen years to a wife who had brought him the most powerful ally that England could possess—The Holy Roman Empire, the first transoceanic empire in history. Henry’s wife’s name was Catherine of Aragon. But there was a problem. A sexual problem. Catherine had not given birth to an heir. Yes, she had given birth to a son, but that son had died within weeks of birth. The only child of Catherine’s to reach adulthood would be her eight-year old daughter. And in English history, trying to put a woman on the throne had led to disaster. So Henry had stopped sleeping with Catherine and seemed intent on getting out of the marriage.
There may have been another reason Henry had left his wife’s bed. Some dedicated Anne Boleyn fans—and there is an international pack of them–think that Henry had fallen in love with “the Boleyn.” With Anne.
Henry was athletic and liked to show it. He was particularly big on jousting. So Henry staged a tournament in the Christmas season of 1524 at which he appeared in the tiltyard of Greenwich Palace on horseback furiously unseating opponents with an image of a heart in flames above the motto “Declare je nos”—declare my love I dare not–stitched on his costume. Some interpret this to mean that he was consumed by a love he dared not reveal. And that his overwhelmingly powerful attacks on his opponents were meant to impress a lady.
Meanwhile, Anne was in high demand. She had that new love in her life we glimpsed a minute ago, Henry Percy. The two were secretly engaged. Yes, while Anne was apparently still engaged to James Butler.
In early 1525, Henry went to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey–one of those high-level bureaucrats appointed by the pope—and asked him to “break up the relationship between Anne and Percy.” The King’s excuse? The love was unseemly. After all, Anne was already betrothed.
But George Cavendish, who wrote about these events way back in 1641, a mere seventeen years after they happened, believes there was more than a sense of propriety at work in Henry’s heart. Wrote Cavendish about the king, “he could hide no longer his secret affection, but revealed his secret intendment unto my Lord Cardinal in that behalf.” In other words, the king was forced to confess to the cardinal that he was in love with Anne Boleyn.
To make sure Anne’s potential engagement to Percy was thoroughly stomped out, Anne was sent to her family home, Hever Castle, 30 miles outside of London, where she “was left to simmer and sorrow… for a year or more.” To simmer and sorrow in anger. As Cavendish describes it, she was so furious that she “smoked.” When she returned to the king’s court, it was as an attendant to, ironically, Catherine of Aragon, the wife Henry was apparently trying to ditch.
In the autumn of 1526, when Anne was still at Hever Castle, Henry began to bombard Anne with love letters. Letters filled with something that you know from your own experience. The keenest price of love is not material. It’s emotional. Sex harnesses hurricanes of the heart. Sex stirs tornadoes of emotion. And Henry was thoroughly tornadoed. The result was emotional torture. Henry wrote to Anne:
In turning over in my mind the contents of your last letters, I have put myself into great agony, not knowing how to interpret them, whether to my disadvantage, as you show in some places, or to my advantage, as I understand them in some others, beseeching you earnestly to let me know expressly your whole mind as to the love between us two. It is absolutely necessary for me to obtain this answer, having been for above a whole year stricken with the dart of love, and not yet sure whether I shall fail of finding a place in your heart and affection,
Note the emotions: agony, feeling stricken, feeling brutalized by insecurity. Remember the last time you fell in love? Just how agonized you were, how uncertain about whether the object of your affections loved you? And how every minute of uncertainty felt like an hour of pain? And every hour felt like a year? That’s what Henry VIIIth told Anne Boleyn he was going through.
By 1528, Henry’s pain had grown even harsher. He wrote to Anne that the torture of her absence at Hever Castle was unbearable. “My heart and I surrender ourselves into your hands, beseeching you to hold us commended to your favour, and that by absence your affection to us may not be lessened: for it were a great pity to increase our pain, of which absence produces enough and more than I could ever have thought could be felt.”
Yes, Henry VIIIth, a king, was feeling more pain “than I could ever have thought could be felt.” Because of one price of human sex: love.
Despite being apart from Anne, Henry swears that, “by absence we are kept a distance from one another, and yet it retains its fervour, at least on my side; I hope the like on yours, the pain of absence is already too great for me… it would be almost intolerable, but for the firm hope I have of your unchangeable affection for me.”
But Henry had certain privileges you and I will never experience. Kings can have both wives and mistresses. In Easter of 1527, two years into the relationship, Henry made Anne an offer—to take her as his one and only mistress.
If you please to do the office of a true loyal mistress and friend, and to give up yourself body and heart to me, who will be, and have been, your most loyal servant, (if your rigour does not forbid me) I promise you that not only the name shall be given you, but also that I will take you for my only mistress, casting off all others besides you out of my thoughts and affections, and serve you only.
A generous offer if you take into account the fact that Henry was a king and could put Anne at the very top of England’s social pecking order, England’s dominance hierarchy, England’s elite.
This is where the peacock’s tail comes in, the display of materialist, consumerist luxuries. The fanning of your feathers in vain display. For the sake of sex. “Henry ordered four gold brooches from his goldsmith: one representing Venus and Cupid, the second of a lady holding a heart in her hand, the third depicting a man lying in a lady’s lap and the fourth of a lady holding a crown.” The one-of-a-kind jewelry was one of the expenses of love. And Henry had more to expend that anyone else in England.
Then Henry gave another flick of his peacock’s tail. He sent Anne “my picture set in a bracelet.” A painting no normal mortal would be able to afford in a bracelet that no one like you and I could have purchased.
Anne reciprocated with a piece of jewelry that Henry himself described as a “fine diamond and the ship in which the solitary damsel is tossed about.” But Anne gave another present of far greater value to the poor, love-tortured king. She accepted his love and returned it.
In a letter to Anne, Henry said that, “The demonstrations of your affection are such, the beautiful mottoes of the letter so cordially expressed, that they oblige me forever to honour, love, and serve you sincerely, beseeching you to continue in the same firm and constant purpose, assuring you that, on my part, I will surpass it rather than make it reciprocal, if loyalty of heart and a desire to please you can accomplish this… assuring you, that henceforward my heart shall be dedicated to you alone.”
But keep your eye on that piece of gold jewelry Henry had sent with “a lady holding a crown.” Henry had asked Anne to be his mistress. But Anne apparently wanted a different sort of hold over the crown. So she turned him down. It appears that she was fishing for something better.
In fact, Anne was so successful at holding out yet tantalizing Henry that his courtship of her would last a full seven years.
One reason: there was a fly in the ointment. Or, more precisely, a wife in the ointment. Henry had petitioned the pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The pope had turned him down. Over and over again. So Henry said, “henceforward my heart shall be dedicated to you alone. I wish my person was so too.”
Only “God can do it,” said Henry, “if He pleases, to whom I pray every day for that end, hoping that at length my prayers will be heard.” And God, indeed, was about to give Henry an escape route from matrimony And a way to over-ride the Pope. Through the dedicated Lutheranism of Anne Boleyn. Through harnessing the hurricanes of history. And through choosing which of those hurricanes would harness Henry and Anne.
Hayley Nolan, Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies, Little A, 2019.
Sarah Gristwood, Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe. Basic Books, 2016.
Elizabeth Norton, Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession, Amberley Publishing Limited, 2008.
Catherine Hanley, Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior, Yale University Press, 2019.
George Cavendish, Thomas Wolsey, Late Cardinal: His Life and Death Written by His Gentleman-usher, George Cavendish, Folio Society, 1962. And https://www.gutenberg.org/files/54043/54043-h/54043-h.htm.
The Love Letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, https://tudorsdynasty.com/love-letter-henry-anne/.