Guest post: The Anne Boleyn Papers by Elizabeth Norton

Today we have a special treat: a Guest Post from acclaimed historian and author, Elizabeth Norton. Elizabeth’s books are always delightful and well researched, and today you have a chance to win one in my give-away.  The paperback version of Elizabeth Norton’s “The Anne Boleyn Papers” (previously published in hardback as “Anne Boleyn: In Her Own Words & the Words of Those Who Knew Her”) is up for grabs. Leave a comment under this article, or any other article on my blog; winner will be chosen from among everyone who will leave their comments here.

The Anne Boleyn Papers by Elizabeth Norton

Anne Boleyn has been the subject of countless biographies, novels, films and plays. It seems like we know her – the French educated beauty who captivated Henry VIII and helped to bring about the Reformation in England. But where does this picture of Anne come from? Everything we know about this five hundred year old Tudor queen is based on the documents that have survived and come down to us.

 Few contemporary sources survive for Anne’s early life. We do not even know when she was born, with her age estimated from the facts of her life. The first time that she crops up in contemporary documents are the letters written from the court of Margaret of Austria in Brussels in 1513. Both are addressed to Sir Thomas Boleyn. One is from Margaret herself, complementing him on the daughter that he had placed with her, whom she found ‘of such good address and so pleasing in her youthful age that I am more beholden to you for having sent her to me than you are to me’. Another is from the young Anne herself, complete with the bad French of a beginner.

  Following this, Anne appears in documents relating to her service with Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, in France, before disappearing from contemporary notice again. She next appears in the letters that passed between her uncle, the Earl of Surrey, who was then in Ireland, and Henry VIII in England. Surrey had a scheme to settle the disputed inheritance of the Earldom of Ormond, which was claimed both by Anne’s father and by his distant cousin, Piers Butler, with the matter to be settled by the marriage of Anne to Butler’s son, James. The king approved and it was this that brought Anne back to England in 1522 where she begins to appear in a few contemporary accounts of the English court, for example, documents relating to a masque at Greenwich in which she danced as the virtue ‘Perseverance’.

  By far the most important source for Anne’s early life is George Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey. It is Cavendish who tells us of the relationship between Anne and Henry Percy, as well as her enmity towards Wolsey. While Cavendish was at court at the same time as Anne, he wrote from memory, in his old age. He is also supported by other scattered sources, such as a letter by Henry Percy in 1536, denying that he had ever been engaged to Anne.

  Similarly, the Elizabethan account of Anne written by George Wyatt was not contemporary, but it was based both on Wyatt family memories and George Wyatt’s interviews with Anne’s friend, Anne Gainsford. It is George Wyatt who tells us of the flirtation between Anne and Sir Thomas Wyatt (his grandfather) which, once you are aware of it, can be seen in his poems, several of which address or refer to her. George Wyatt wrote to address the slanderous account of Nicholas Sander, which was published in 1585. While this contains an account of the young Anne Boleyn, it cannot be taken seriously and Sander’s sources were inferior to the better connected Wyatt.

Anne Boleyn's letter to to Cardinal Wolsey, 1528

Anne Boleyn’s letter to to Cardinal Wolsey, 1528

 Finally, for Anne’s youth, we have Henry VIII’s love letters, seventeen of which are preserved at the Vatican. The letters, in Henry’s own hand, plot the course of their relationship and give a flavour of the way in which she had captivated him. They are, however, unfortunately one-sided. Anne’s replies do not survive and there are only two doubtful letters written by Anne to Henry: both of which are likely to be forgeries.

 So, this is it. This is Anne as a young woman, just as she captivated the heart of the king. From May 1527 onwards, when Henry began his long attempt to end his first marriage, she began to attract more attention and to appear in more documents. She is a regular feature in the hostile accounts of the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, something that is both helpful and unhelpful. Chapuys always ensured that he recorded the worst of Anne but, without his writings, we would be poorer in detail about her daily life and actions. Many people admire Anne Boleyn for her spirit and this comes across in Chapuys’ dispatches, even if portrayed in an unflattering way.

 Finally, of the many sources that describe Anne as queen, the most poignant must be the accounts of her imprisonment in the Tower, written by Sir William Kingston. In them, Anne showed herself at various times frightened, brave, witty and defiant. This was a woman who, the night before her death could joke that ‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck’. She then put her hands about her neck, ‘laughing heartily’.

 Anne Boleyn the woman and Anne Boleyn the queen can be glimpsed in the papers that survive detailing her life. You can read more in my book, The Anne Boleyn Papers, which is a collection of sources relating to Anne. It was previously published in hardback as Anne Boleyn in her Own Words and the Words of those who Knew Her.

Thank you, Elizabeth! If you enjoyed this article, you can also visit Elizabeth Norton’s blog.

40,883 Comments

  1. Sarah
    Oct 18, 2013

    I wish we had Anne’s letters to Henry. That would be wonderful to see how her feelings were for Henry too. I can’t wait to read The Anne Boleyn Papers! Always something new to learn about her fascinating character.

  2. Magdalena Nosal
    Oct 18, 2013

    I’ve always wondered, what are the documents that historians derive their knowledge from. It would be great to read them and to try to draw some conclusions yourself, instead of accepting the interpretation of historians.

  3. Lynette Riley
    Oct 18, 2013

    The Tudors are a never ending source of fascination all over the world. After Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn is the most fascinating Tudor of them all. From her virtually unknown beginnings to her tragic end she appeals to the hearts and minds of everyone.
    It’s amazing how her story continues to captivate generations of people, generate debate and inspire authors everywhere.

  4. Linda Jenkins
    Oct 18, 2013

    Looks hugely interesting – so ironic that Henry’s love letters (well, 17 of them) should end up in the Vatican, after they refused the annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

  5. Denise Duvall
    Oct 19, 2013

    Very informative post. What was Henry’s sister Mary’s opinion of Anne from the correspondence dating during the time, when Anne served Mary in France? I read, that at Henry’s court Mary had a low opinion of Anne.
    Thank you for the giveaway.

  6. Carrie Layne-Drowns
    Oct 19, 2013

    This would be an interesting read! :)

  7. Hilary
    Oct 19, 2013

    Great post! I can’t wait to read the book…!!!

  8. Olga
    Oct 19, 2013

    I always find something new in Elizabeth’s books and this one looks fascinating. Even a few personal letters can give us a small insight into someone’s character.

  9. Kerry
    Oct 19, 2013

    Thankyou for this article. Anne and her siblings seemed well educated and were fortunate to travel, which was not the norm for a lot of the elite in those days. She also seems to have had a no nonsense attitude and expressed what she thought rather than sink into the background and bite her tongue, which seemed to be expected of women. I wonder if the attributes that Henry fell in love with eventually became annoyances? Did Henry fall in love with Jane so quickly that he had to be rid of Anne in such haste? I think Anne’s death was political murder, an assassination, and Henry was the instigator. Poor Anne.

  10. Sarah
    Oct 19, 2013

    It is always my wish that somewhere, hidden and waiting to be found are more letters/reports/recounts of Anne and her life!

  11. Pamela Kapustka
    Oct 19, 2013

    This sounds like a great book…I find it simply fascinating that Henry VIII’s love letters would be housed at the Vatican! I’m just wondering how they got there? Did some spy steal them from Anne Boleyn’s possession, in order to possibly use them later for ammunition in their on-going dispute with Henry…perhaps to help Catherine of Aragon, or to re-claim England’s “true religion”, or even for evidence at a trial of Henry as a heretic???

    • Sylwia
      Oct 20, 2013

      Someone had probably stolen them to use against Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I believe that Anne’s responses were stolen as well.

  12. Stefanie
    Oct 19, 2013

    I know it is very unlikely to happen but I would love someone to find something that proved her innocents and that Henry was manipulated into having her executed by her enemies!

  13. Sarah Campbell
    Oct 19, 2013

    Fab-u-lous x

  14. Marsha Weaver
    Oct 19, 2013

    What a find! Thanks for sharing. I wasn’t aware of this book. I’ll be ordering it for the library where I work!! :-) .

  15. Norborough
    Oct 19, 2013

    I did not realise that the letters thought to be written by Anne are suspected to be forgeries, how disappointing. Thank you for this article, it looks like a fascinating book.

  16. Brett Markham
    Oct 19, 2013

    Interesting! Cant wait to read it!

  17. Lindsay
    Oct 19, 2013

    I find the Tudors very fascinating, most especially Anne and Elizabeth. I would love to read this book!

  18. Eliza
    Oct 19, 2013

    I would love to read Anne’s reply to Henry’s letters… But I would love more if someone somehow discovered Anne Boley’s diary!! That would give us full insight on her life…
    The Anne Boleyn Papers seems really interesting!!

  19. Lisa Finch
    Oct 19, 2013

    It seems like people can never get enough of Anne, and I am no exception. She’s the portrait of a woman who was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such a sad story…

  20. Katherine
    Oct 20, 2013

    Wow, great article. I am amazed at all the great info and yet always hoping for more.
    Thanks Kat

  21. Katherine
    Oct 20, 2013

    Wow, great article. I am always amazed at the info I find on new websites.
    Thanks Kat

  22. Jane
    Oct 20, 2013

    Great article, I love this page!

  23. HistoryGirl
    Oct 20, 2013

    Nice article!

  24. Areti
    Oct 20, 2013

    Thanks again for your article.I wonder where are Anne’s letters =(

    How little we know about her… I wish I woke up one day and read Anne Boleyn portrait/letter/birth date…etc found =) I would be so happy!!!!!

  25. Amanda
    Oct 22, 2013

    We have recently commenced home ed and have fallen in love with the Tudor era and in particular, Anne. We visited Hever two weeks ago which simply fueled our passion further. This is a truly wonderful article and would love a copy of the book.

  26. Samantha Talarico
    Oct 22, 2013

    Anne Boleyn is a fascinating figure from history and a terrific example of a strong and intelligent woman.

  27. Lucy Gameson
    Oct 22, 2013

    What a fantastic article, thank you very much for sharing! Anne Boleyn has been my favourite of Henry’s Queens since I saw Genevieve Bujold in ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’ when I was a little girl, and continues to fascinate me :)

  28. Yvonne
    Oct 23, 2013

    This promises to be a great read. Am really looking forward to it!

  29. BanditQueen
    Oct 23, 2013

    The book is a tremendous resource for historians who want to look at the life of Anne Boleyn. The letters are fascinating but it would be lovely to have had Anne’s to Henry. Where they in the Vatican Library at all or the Spanish Archives? There are many accounts of Anne and the court, some that have to be taken with a bit of a pinch of salt as they are hostile, but still give us a good insight to Anne, her times, trial, accused lovers, and her coronation and so on.

    Which two letters do you refer to to Henry? I have read one that she is meant to have written in the Tower. Is this now believed to be a forgery?

    • Sylwia
      Oct 24, 2013

      The first is probably Anne’s response to Henry VIII’s love-letter; it is thought to be a forgery written during the Victorian period. The second is Anne’s letter from the Tower.

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