Women's History Wednesday

Anne Boleyn and the English Reformation

Anne Boleyn was the reason behind the English Reformation. This one woman drove King Henry VIII to break with the Catholic church in Rome. She was persistent, calculating, and determined. Anne Boleyn demanded that there be a church that she could be married in and queen of before she would have sexual relations with King Henry VIII. She was defiant. She denied her king what he desired until he gave her a ring and a crown. She did promise him many healthy sons in return though, a promise that would be her downfall. It was King Henry VIII’s lust for Anne and desire to leave behind a secure legacy in the hands of sons that drove him to create the Anglican church. He did all this just so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.

            The climate was ripe for dissention against the Catholic Church in the 1530’s. A few years earlier, in 1517 Martin Luther had nailed his Ninety-Five Theses attacking the Catholic Church particularly for the sale of indulgences to the cathedral door. [1] This act and Luther’s continued defiance against the Catholic Church started the protestant reformation in the continent of Europe. Yet this fervent reformation did not reach the English isles. England was blissfully set apart and did not have to deal with the religious wars that began to tear apart the mainland of Europe.

            But Anne Boleyn was not in England during this time. She was in France, serving as a lady in waiting to the new French queen, Mary Tudor, King Henry VIII’s sister. She was also being exposed to new religious ideas. In France she was introduced to a religious reform that centered around a personal spiritual experience bolstered by biblical readings. [2] It was said that Anne had several religious reform texts in French in her possession.[3] She was actively learning about the changing role of religion around her.

Anne’s time at the French court influenced her in many ways. She spoke French fluently, apricated French culture, and liked the French style of dress better then that of the English. She is most famously noted for wearing a French hood rather than an English gable style hood.[4] She brought these French ideas and fashion back to the English court. The French court made a serious impression upon the young Anne Boleyn and that influence would continue throughout her life. She was often described as being “very French” or “having been corrupted in France.”[5] The English did not care much for the French. They were traditional enemies.

It was clear that the Boleyn family was not overly attached to the Catholic church and had reformist sympathies. Anne’s brother George was a diplomat with noted reformist enthusiasm.[6] The Boleyn family also had a copy of Tyndale’s a New Testament.[7] The first translation of the Bible into the English language.[8] Tyndale was the first person to take advantage of Gutenberg’s movable-type press for the purpose of printing the scriptures in the English language. Tyndale also held and published views which were considered heretical, first by the Catholic Church, and later by the Church of England. Tyndale’s translation was banned by the authorities, and Tyndale himself was burned at the stake in 1536 by King Henry VIII and the Anglican Church.[9] It is not apparent that the Boleyn family did anything to stop Tyndale’s death. They were interested in religious reform but were not ready to risk their position within the court by defending Tyndale’s radical views.

While Anne was not a vocal reformist herself, she had reformist sympathies and it was known around the English court. Reformers could view her as an ally. In 1530 or 1531 Thomas Alwaye, an otherwise obscure evangelical prosecuted by Wolsey and the bishops for buying English new testaments and other prohibited books, petitioned Anne Boleyn for intervention in his affairs.[10] Anne’s personal sympathies were not just with reform in general, but with reform in its early manifestation among the Christian humanists in France specifically.   

Anne has been widely accepted as a Protestant reformer.[11] She embodied a variety of qualities that would be found in a religious reformer. Anne often indulged in reading radical religious literature, leading her to favor biblical translations, and be identified as a schismatic.[12] A schismatic is a person who was in favor of the separation from the church in Rome. But it is important to note that she never openly identified herself as a Protestant until after the English Reformation. The religious stance Anne Boleyn had could be described as reformist, biblically based, humanist, Francophile, and committed.[13] She was not a godless woman, or a witch as she would later be called by some of the members of court. She was a strong woman who asserted what little liberty she could muster over her life, yet history sometimes paints her as an adulterous Jezebel.   

Anne was a strong woman who refused to be a pawn in her family’s game to gain power. The Boleyn family was always on the climb upwards. One of the ways that the Boleyn’s climbed up the latter of political and social power was by advantageous matches in marriage. The Boleyn’s had pretty much crawled out of obscurity. Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s father, had married a Howard which had helped him rise in position.[14] Anne’s sister, Mary, was wed to William Carey before Anne was married.

This was odd for the time since Anne is the elder sister and it is customary to marry the oldest daughter first and then continue down the line in order of the daughter’s seniority. William Carey as a gentleman of the royal privy chamber and had day to day contact with the king. He could give the Boleyn family up to date information about what was going on at court. While William did not enhance the titles of the Boleyn’s, he did give them important political information and courtly intrigue. But Anne wanted more. She would be the Boleyn’s brightest star, and their shameful downfall.

It is clear that Anne Boleyn was unsatisfied in her position as a lady-in-waiting, and longed to be more.[15]  Marrying the king had not been Anne’s only attempt at an advantageous match. Anne had been engaged to Lord Henry Percy, heir to Northumberland which was one of the largest earldoms in the north. Percy wanted to marry Anne because he truly liked her and had romantic feelings for her. The couple was in love. They were secretly engaged and planned to marry. Henry Percy was convinced that Anne’s pedigree was equivalent to his own, but he was the only one who thought that.

The couple was denied permission to marry. Henry ordered Cardinal Wolsey to end the engagement and therefore, the engagement was dissolved.[16] Wolsey even scolded Percy telling him that he must remember that he was hair to one of the “worthiest earldoms of the realm”.[17] This act earned the cardinal Anne’s lasting enmity. He did not say that the Boleyn family was beneath him to marry, but it was heavily implied. This most definitely hurt Anne’s pride.

In 1526, King Henry VIII began to make advances towards Anne. It is obvious that Anne expressed reluctance. She did not hop into bed with the king like he was probably used to. Anne gave him the thrill of the hunt. In a letter Henry VIII wrote to Anne, he attempted to convince her to be his mistress saying that “…but if you please to do the duty of a true and loyal mistress, and to give up yourself, body and heart, to me, who will be, as I have been your most loyal servant, I promise you that not only the name shall be given you, but also that I will take you for my mistress, casting off all others that are in competition with you, out of my thoughts and affection, and serving you only.”[18]

            Anne knew better then to trust the Kings sweet words. It is a continuous thread that runs throughout history, that most women know, and Anne surely did, that a man will sometimes say anything to get the woman he desires into bed. Anne had witnessed this first hand when King Henry VIII had made her sister, Mary, his mistress.

Mary was Henry VIII’s mistress for a short time, and the Boleyn family increased its prestige because of their daughters in the new position in the king’s bed. It is often thought by historians that Mary gave birth to the king’s bastard son, who was also named Henry. [19] But not even giving him a son that he so desired was enough to keep Henry’s interest. Henry’s eyes still wandered away from Mary to her sister, Anne. Mary was not the king’s first mistress, and she would not be his last to the dismay of Henry’s lawful wife.

            It can be inferred that Anne saw how Henry used these women he took as his mistresses, and what happened to them when he lost interest. Anne wanted something more permanent then the position of mistress. She wanted to be Henry’s queen. There was just one problem. Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Argon. 

            Catherine of Argon was never supposed to be Henry VIII’s wife, and Henry VIII was never supposed to be king. But Catherine was always supposed to be queen. Catherine of Argon, a Princess of Spain, was originally married to Henry VIII’s older brother Author.[20] In 1501 she married Prince Arthur, eldest son of King Henry VII of England. At that time, she believed she was eventually going to become the queen of England, and she did, just not in the way she expected.

Author died shortly into their marriage. At that point it was decided that Henry VIII should marry the Spanish Princess. That way England could keep their new alliance with Spain and Catherine’s dowry. Henry VIiI and Catherin of Argon were married in 1509 when Henry took the throne as King of England. The couple lived happily at the beginning of their marriage. Catherine was Henry’s intellectual equal and the two enjoyed many stimulating conversations together. Catherine was a competent regent while he was campaigning against England’s traditional enemies, the French.[21]

            But the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Argon turned sour. Between 1510 and 1518 Catherine gave birth to six children, including two sons, but all except Mary, who would later become known as bloody Mary for her harsh persecution of protestants while she reigned as queen, were either stillborn or died in their early infancy.[22] It was fact that his only surviving heir was a girl which drove Henry to desperate measures in 1527. At this time, Catherine of Argon was forty-two years old. Her child bearing years were done. But the young and perky Anne Boleyn had many years of healthy childbearing protentional. Anne could give Henry the son he so desired. A son that he could leave the throne and have continue the Tudor Dynasty.

             In 1527 King Henry VIII appealed to Rome for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Argon on the grounds that the marriage had violated the biblical ban against a union between a man and his brother’s widow. Henry sighted Leviticus 20:21 “And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”[23] Henry believed that his marriage with Catherine was displeasing to God and that is why God had not given him a son. He believed God was punishing him for living in sin with his dead brothers’ wife.
                Catherine did not share her husband’s views. She appealed to Pope Clement VII, contending that her marriage to Henry was valid because the previous marriage to Arthur had never been consummated.[24] When Catherine had married Author he had been young, sickly, and then died about a year later so it is very likely that the marriage was never consummated. The pope avoided issuing the annulment because he did not want to upset Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V who had the Vatican surrounded by his troops. The pope stalled for a long as he was able. He was caught in a hard predicament between to leaders of two powerful nations. The pope did not want to lose England as he had lost many other European nations to the protestant reformation, but the pressure of having Charles V’s troops literally at his doorstep was more threatening.

            After waiting and receiving no answer from the pope and having Anne refuse him sexual relations for several years, Henry VIII finally separated from Catherine in July 1531.[25] Anne Boleyn had won. She had asserted the limited power awarded to her as the woman the king desired and manipulated her relationship with Henry VIII to become Queen of England. Anne Boleyn would now go down in history as having the role as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation in England. Henry’s desire for her, the fact that she would not sleep with him until she was promised a ring and a crown, and the Pope not granting an annulment for the King to marry Anne led England to break with the Catholic Church in Rome. [26]

                King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were secretly married in January 1533. This act caused Henry and the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Thomas Cranmer, to be excommunicated from the Catholic church.[27] Anne Boleyn had manipulated a man that had once been awarded the title Defender of the Faith by the Pope, to being excommunicated from the very church he had protected. The publics opinion of Anne was not good. Most subjects still felt loyalty to the old queen, Catherine of Argon. Therefore, the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne was kept relatively secret until the Easter celebrations of that year had started.

On May 23, 1533, five months after King Henry VIII had married Anne Boleyn, he had his own archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cramer, annul his marriage to Catherine of Argon. [28] This devastated Catherine. She was sent into exile, but to her dying breath she called herself the rightful Queen of England and refused to acknowledge Anne Boleyn. She also never wavered in her account that she and Author had never been together sexually and that her marriage to King Henry VIII was valid. Catherine of Argon had always been loved by the English people, but Henry VIII forced her to spend her last years isolated from all public life. [29]

On Sunday, June 1, 1533 the heavily pregnant Anne Boleyn was crowned queen of England in a lavish ceremony.[30] Henry VIII was determined that all people domestic and abroad would accept that Anne was to be honored as his wife and Queen. Her crowning must therefore incorporate every traditional element of a medieval coronation.[31] The events surrounding her coronation lasted for four days. It began with a fleet of barges rowing to Greenwich to accompany the Queen in her barge to the Tower of London. As she approached, over a thousand rounds were fired from the great guns at the Tower of London.[32]

Continuing with tradition, on the third day Anne was paraded through the City of London. Anne was dressed in all white with an ermine mantle. Her dark hair was flowing loose as she was carried through the streets on a litter. She was surrounded with hundreds of courtiers, ladies, and officials in scarlet and violet velvet robes.[33] She looked every inch the queen she dreamed of being.  

Early on Sunday Anne left Westminster Hall, clad in purple velvet and ermine. She walked under a canopy borne by the Lords Warden of the Cinque Ports to Westminster Abbey. There she prostrated herself before the High Altar, then received the Crown of St Edward and the rod and the scepter from the Archbishop of Canterbury. A Te Deum was sung, then Anne returned to preside over the extravagant coronation feast at Westminster Hall.[34]

 Anne had finally gotten what she wanted. She was married to King Henry VIII, crowned Queen, and had a child on the way. It only took her husband creating a new church to do so. Anne, who was a private gentlewoman from a middle-ranking family, had displaced a Spanish Princess, and overturned a thousand years of English obedience to the Church of Rome. It was her moment of glory, and the culmination of more than seven years of ambition, frustration, and legal wrangling.[35]

In 1534 Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy which rejected all papal jurisdiction in England and made King Henry VIII head of the English church. This act declared Henry VIII was the “Supreme Head of the Church of England.”[36] It was Thomas Cranmer and the king’s influential adviser Thomas Cromwell who built a convincing case that England’s king should not be subject to the pope’s jurisdiction. This made perfect sense to a King who believed in the Devine right to rule. The Devine right to Rule asserted that kings derived their authority from God alone and could not therefore be held accountable for their actions by any earthly authority such as a parliament.[37] Here King Henry VIII took this doctrine of Devine Right one step further and decided that the Pope was another form of earthy authority that he should not have to answer to as King of England. 

As the Act of Supremacy States, “Albeit the king’s Majesty justly and rightfully is and ought to be the supreme head of the Church of England, and so is recognized by the clergy of this realm in their convocations, yet nevertheless, for corroboration and confirmation thereof, and for increase of virtue in Christ’s religion within this realm of England, and to repress and extirpate all errors, heresies, and other enormities and abuses heretofore used in the same, be it enacted, by authority of this present Parliament, that the king, our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted, and reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia;.”[38] This document stated that Henry VIII and all of his heirs who ruled England would no longer be under the Pope’s authority, but rather that they themselves were head of the church of England and answered only to God on high.

            The Act of Supremacy also required an oath of loyalty from all English subjects that recognized King Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn[39]  In the document it talks about the Act of Supremacy and how it was “enacted in this session which concerned the confirmation of the law that the royal issue begotten now or in the future of the bodies of our fearsome lord the King, and the lady Anne his consort, Queen of England, should be considered first and most fit [for the succession] to the imperial crown of this region of England; whereby it is established that all and singular should swear a corporal oath to undertake and to fulfill all that is in the same Act, on whose observance the good fortune of this realm is founded. Arrangements were put in place for the swearing of an oath by the king’s subjects, to affirm the Act.”[40] Refusal to swear the oath was treated as treason.[41] The act delegitimized Henry’s daughter Mary that he had born with Catherine of Argon and recognized the children that he would have with Anne Boleyn as his rightful heirs. Refusal to swear to this act would therefor be kin to refusing to swear allegiance to the future Monarch. Here it is shown that the foundation for the church of England was so that Henry VIII could marry Anne Boleyn and have sons that would rule England with her.

Parliament’s passage of the Act of Supremacy in 1534 solidified the break from the Catholic Church and made the king the Supreme Head of the Church of England. With Cranmer and Cromwell in positions of power, and a Protestant queen by Henry’s side, England began adopting “some of the lessons of the continental Reformation,” including a translation of the Bible into English.[42]

King Henry VIII would be work on sorting out exactly what the doctrine of his new Anglican Church would be for the rest of his reign. His religious policy is best characterized as a search for the middle way.[43] The Anglican church looked very much like the Catholic church, but without the Pope. While there is no clear evidence that Anne Boleyn helped with the creation of church policy, it can be assumed that her own religious beliefs influenced the king’s thoughts and beliefs to some extent.

                 Henry VIII had brought about a political, legal and religious transformation of England on a scale not seen since the Norman Conquest, all to make Anne his queen.[44]  Germany had Martin Luther. England had Anne Boleyn. She was a woman who was open to religious reformation and openly embraced the new Anglican church that made her Queen. She knew how to play courtly games and used Henry VIII’s attraction to her for her own advantage. Anne’s ambition to marry well came at the cost of England cutting ties with the Catholic church in Rome. She became the first queen in the Church of England. Her desire to be queen along with Henry’s desire for sons led the creation of a religious institution that continues to this day and is still headed by the English Monarch.


[1] Smith, Ronald F. Martin Luther. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2018.

[2] Warnicke, Retha M. (Retha Marvine). The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII. Cambridge: University, 1989.

[3] Ives, E. W. “Ann Boleyn and the Early Reformation in England: The Contemporary Evidence.” The Historical Journal 37, no. 2 (1994): 389–400. doi:10.1017/S0018246X00016526.

[4] Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn

[5] Weir, Alison. The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn. Toronto: Emblem, 2011.

[6] Ives, Anne Boleyn and the Early Reformation in England: 

[7] Ibid.

[8] “TYNDALE BIBLE HISTORY.” William Tyndale Bible History. Accessed April 15, 2019. http://www.william-tyndale.com/tyndale-bible-history.html.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dowling, Maria. “Anne Boleyn and Reform.” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 35, no. 1 (1984): 30–46. doi:10.1017/S0022046900025938.

[11] Abrams, Cynthia L. “The Role and Influence of Anne Boleyn.” Portland State University PDXScholar, April 28, 2016. Accessed April 12, 2019. https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1097&context=younghistorians.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ives, Anne Boleyn and the Early Reformation in England

[14] Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn.

[15] Abrams, Cynthia L. “The Role and Influence of Anne Boleyn.”

[16] “Henry Percy & Anne Boleyn Relationship – Romance In 1523.” English History. March 19, 2015. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://englishhistory.net/tudor/henry-percy-anne-boleyn-relationship/.

[17] Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn.

[18] Abrams, Cynthia L. “The Role and Influence of Anne Boleyn.”

[19] Weir, Alison. Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings. New York: Ballantine Books, 2012.

[20] Pruitt, Sarah. “Henry VIII Wanted a Divorce So He Sparked a Reformation.” History.com. October 22, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/henry-viii-divorce-reformation-catholic-church.

[21] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Catherine of Aragon.” Encyclopædia Britannica. March 07, 2019. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Catherine-of-Aragon.

[22] Ibid.

[23] The Holy Bible: The King James Version. Canberra: Bible Society in Australia, 1993.

[24] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Catherine of Aragon.”

[25] Ibid.

[26] Abrams, Cynthia L. “The Role and Influence of Anne Boleyn.”

[27] Catton, Pia. “How Anne Boleyn Lost Her Head.” History.com. April 20, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/anne-boleyn-beheaded-facts.

[28] Pruitt, Sarah. “Henry VIII Wanted a Divorce So He Sparked a Reformation.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “The Coronation of Anne Boleyn.” Britain Magazine | The Official Magazine of Visit Britain | Best of British History, Royal Family,Travel and Culture. June 09, 2015. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://www.britain-magazine.com/features/anniversary-of-the-coronation-of-queen-anne-boleyn/.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Act of Supremacy.” Encyclopædia Britannica. February 18, 2011. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Act-of-Supremacy-England-1534.

[37] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Divine Right of Kings.” Encyclopædia Britannica. March 22, 2017. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/divine-right-of-kings.

[38] Britain Express. “Henry VIII ‘s Act of Supremacy (1534) – Original Text.” Britain Express. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://www.britainexpress.com/History/tudor/supremacy-henry-text.htm.

[39] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Act of Supremacy.”

[40] “Oath of Allegiance to Henry VIII and His Successors,1534.” Citizenship. Accessed April 15, 2019. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/citizen_subject/docs/oath_allegiance.htm.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Pruitt, Sarah. “Henry VIII Wanted a Divorce So He Sparked a Reformation.”

[43] BERNARD, G. W. “THE MAKING OF RELIGIOUS POLICY, 1533–1546: HENRY VIII AND THE SEARCH FOR THE MIDDLE WAY.” The Historical Journal 41, no. 2 (1998): 321–49.

[44] The Coronation of Anne Boleyn.” Britain Magazine.

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