What Was Anne Boleyn Really Like? A Look At Her Personality

Anne Boleyn. The steadfast, strong and cunning woman who attracted the heart of King Henry VIII and inadvertently changed the structure and religion of England in the process. 

That's the legend. 

But what was she really like? Is it possible, through the yellowed scraps of paper left behind from her short life, to come to an idea as to her personality and the things that made Anne tick? While an accurate, full and detailed psychological profile might be beyond us with a distance of five hundred years, the good news is that we can glean some idea of what we would see in Anne, if we could meet her, through snippets of documents that have survived. 
Attributed to Anne Boleyn, Seventeenth Century, Wenceslas Hollar (c) Public Domain

Anne's background
Anne was born in around 1501, to a noble household - her father Thomas Boleyn was an ambassador to France from 1518-21, where Anne had been sent to serve in the French court. There, she learned the etiquette of royal service, courtly ways and adopted the latest French fashions, which she would bring back to England with her in 1522. Soon after, she would catch the eye of King Henry. 

Confident, bold, self-assured, clever
Unsurprisingly, as daughter of the enterprising Thomas, Anne was confident, self-assured and had a sense of her own importance. She was bold enough to resist the king's offer of making her his 'sole mistress', and wouldn't be bedded and forgotten. With a little light manipulation, a royal marriage could be on the cards, a tactic later copied by her successor, Jane Seymour. 

Although she wasn't widely thought of as a great beauty, Anne showed confidence in bringing new fashions from France, wearing her French hoods and dress, while everyone else wore the older-style, slightly frumpier English dress. Undeterred by what people might think at the court, which had its own strict set of rules on decorum and dress, Anne displayed not only confidence but a strong spirit and resilience from the curious, gawping eyes of the English court. In short, she showed boldness, courage and a lack of anxiety about what others would think of her. 

Intelligent, well educated, persuasive, composed when needed
Anne was well educated, an able musician and reader. She could speak fluent French as well as English, and, it's thought, some Latin. She read widely, including William Tyndale's  The Obedience of a Christian Man, a book banned at the time in England, which, in true Anne style, she went on to urge the King to read (1). Anne displayed her persuasion and her eloquence (a trait described by John Barlow) during her trial in 1536 (2). Being accused of treason meant that Anne was denied a lawyer - but by all accounts she didn't need one. She was able to make 'so wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her, excusing herself with her words so clearly, as though she had never been guilty of the same.'(3) She was able to take facts, construct legally significant arguments with them and was said to have maintained her composure throughout the legal proceedings. (4) 

Passionate, emotional
But the strong spirit that attracted Henry to Anne would, soon after their marriage, boil into resentment in the eyes of the king. The French Ambassador wrote in 1535 that by now, the king's regard for Anne 'diminishes every day'. (5) Chapuys, who was no friend to Anne, but his account supports other similar accounts of Anne during their marriage, stated that 'When the Lady Wants something, there is no one who dares contradict her, not even the King himself, because when he does not want to do what she wishes, she behaves like someone in a frenzy.' (6) 

Chapuys' letters are often dismissed as inaccurate, as he was very much anti-Boleyn, but this doesn't mean he was any less truthful. He may have extracted the negative parts of Anne's behaviour and played down the good - but I don't think he made these claims up completely and that there is likely still to be some truth to what he writes. 

Also remember that if these were indeed lies, Charles V could have acted upon this false information presenting a risk to the ambassador. That's not to mention what Henry might do to him, if letters slating Anne with obvious lies were intercepted. In any case, Anne's  tendency to become impassioned and loud when she was emotional has been borne out by others from the time, too, as we'll see later. 

Anne's emotional 'frenzies' can also be seen when she was kept in the Tower - it was reported by her jailer that she often swung from crying to laughter to being staunchly unafraid and resolute when facing death. In the circumstances, these swings of emotion were definitely not unreasonable, but it does give us a clue as to Anne's temperamental hold over her emotions. 

Wished for mutual respect, saw herself and Henry as a 'team'
Anne upbraided Henry for continuing to have mistresses after their marriage, accusing his openly-flouted relationship with Jane Seymour of causing a stress-induced miscarriage she had suffered in January 1536 (7). Henry retorted angrily that she should put up with it as others have done before her - and bited back that she wasn't going to give him any sons anyway. (8) It seems from this, that although English kings had openly bedded mistresses for hundreds of years, Anne considered that the king should break this tradition and wholly respect their marriage. I think she saw them both as a team - and her anger at him entertaining mistresses in his free time instead of her, didn't help her goal of successfully bearing sons.

But it wasn't all bickering and bellowing. There were tender moments, too. When Anne's beloved pet dog Pourquoi died suddenly after an accident back in 1534, no one wanted to break the news to Anne, and so it was arranged that the king would be the one to break the sad news to her. (9) This indicates that despite their arguments, he was known to handle his wife with care and comfort. Had this not been the case, a trusted lady in waiting to the queen would probably have been chosen to console the queen instead. 

A natural planner, dutiful consort, efficient
It's also telling that shortly after their marriage, Henry and Anne started to draw up plans to develop Whitehall Palace and make renovations to Hampton Court together (10). Another example that she saw herself as an active queen, Anne was clearly a natural planner, a 'doer'. One of the most heartbreaking accounts of her forward thinking and preoccupation with planning is at her execution. Kneeling and preparing herself for the fatal blow, Anne pointed to her coiffed head and asked the executioner if the material would get in the way of the sword, telling him: 'you will have to take this coif off'. Alison Weir writes that the executioner indicated it would not, but she continued to hold the coif in place as the executioner swung the sword (11). Even as death faced her squarely, she was trying to remain efficient. 

Caring mother to Elizabeth, frustrated and sometimes angry with her step-daughter
Anne also threw herself fully into the duties of becoming a mother to the Princess Elizabeth. There is no indication of neglect or indifference during Anne's life. One of Anne's last acts as queen was to order clothes and other finery for Elizabeth, who was approaching three years old. These included riding reins for her daughter and 'a cap of taffeta with a caul of damask gold.'(12) She seemed to have doted on her daughter. Her relationship with Mary though, would remain strained.  

Prone to blurting out words without thought or care
It was natural that the sixteen-year old Mary would resent Anne as the incoming queen: in her eyes, she had replaced her mother, who was brutally discarded on her divorce and as a result, Mary herself was disinherited. Like many children, Mary could have seen all this as Anne's fault and taken it out on their relationship. Although it must have been frustrating for her, Anne seems to have responded in anger and often thoughtlessness. She exclaimed, on news of Katherine of Aragon's death in January 1536, 'Now I am indeed Queen!' and wore yellow, as Weir says, in a 'calculated insult to the memory of the woman she had supplanted.' It's also been suggested that yellow was the colour of mourning in Spain, and Anne may well have been paying her respects to the late queen instead. (13 

In any case, she did continue to promote her own daughter above Mary - an act that was set out in law - but at the cost of peace with her stepdaughter. In 1533, when Mary refused to acknowledge Elizabeth as primary heir, Anne allegedly instructed Lady Shelton to give Mary 'a good banging on the ears, like the cursed bastard she was.' (14) The atmosphere between the royal family was such that rumours of Anne attempting to poison Mary or starve her to death started to gain ground through various channels at court. While there's no evidence for this other than rumour, it's telling that it wasn't immediately dismissed as rubbish. There is rarely smoke without even a tiny spark of fire, so the saying loosely goes. 

Lack of patience
Anne's exasperation with Mary perhaps isn't unrealistic - Mary was an argumentative and stubborn character, but Anne's reactions to her seem to show a lack of patience or compassion. Mary would continue to resent Anne's memory even twenty years after her death, partly fuelled by loyalty to her 'discarded' mother. This also suggests that Mary might have railed against any woman who replaced her mother, and in this case it was Anne. An ambassador to Charles V wrote to him in 1553 that Mary 'still resents the injuries afflicted on Queen Catherine, her lady mother, by the machinations of Anne Boleyn.' (15) 

Opinionated, vocal
This is not to say that Anne lacked compassion entirely. She used her influence as queen to help family members and to advance members of the clergy. But the way she treated her enemies is another matter. Friendly at first with Thomas Cromwell, they drifted apart when Anne disagreed with the way the religious reform was being carried out in the kingdom, and Cromwell's opinions on foreign policy. Anne must have made this obvious within the court, because Cromwell was to confide in Chapuys that he knew the queen would like to see his head off his shoulders. (16) She was also heard to use such words to her uncle 'that shouldn't be used to a dog'. 

Good etiquette, outward behaviour but prone to emotional outbursts
This is strange for someone David Starkey has called a 'brutal and effective politician'. (17) Surely, if Anne wanted a long political life in the Tudor court, she would have learned to bite her tongue more often and appear likeable and dignified, using delicate and subtle actions to pursue one course above another. For the most part, Anne was poised and had impeccable behaviour, as one writer states: 'for behaviours, manners, attire and tongue she excelled them all' (18). But sometimes Anne tripped up, especially when she became emotional, and all subtlety was lost. Anne demanded respect and likely thought (misguidedly) that she had the king's complete protection in all she did. It was no surprise  perhaps that influential members of the court would desert her when she fell. 

Anne's flirtatiousness was well known in the court, with one French account remembering that she was 'the fairest and most bewitching'.(2) When she was arrested as queen in 1536, it speaks volumes that the charges of adultery against her were thought believable. Accounts tell us she used her brown eyes to great effect, with Lancelot de Carles writing 'in truth, such was their power that many a man paid his allegiance.' (2) 

Sometimes careless
These flirtations were all well and good - and considered acceptably within the realm of courtly love - until Anne made her biggest mistake. She was alleged to have fluttered her eyelashes at a flattering comment made by Sir Henry Norris and replied "you look for dead man's shoes...". (19) This exchange seems typical Anne: she was poised, dignified and supreme - but was occasionally liable to trip herself up with thoughtless words. 

So what was she like? 
Strong, intelligent and ambitious is the Anne many of us know and love, from popular film, culture and historical biography. But she was also, at times impatient, had a need to command respect and was prone to violent swings of temper or impassioned emotion. She has been praised as having a flair for planning and politics - but through her voiced opinions ended up making enemies for herself in Henry's turbulent court. She was undoubtedly a doting mother to Elizabeth, but frustrated as a stepmother to Mary. Anne certainly took her queenly duties seriously, but in return expected outright respect - and fidelity - from her husband. Maybe these qualities make her a lady born before her time, before bravery, courage and outspokenness became more respected attributes for a woman? 

If you could meet Anne today, I think you would greet a woman who was charming and would listen intently to your words, her expressive dark brown eyes focused on you. If your business with her was official, she would observe protocol and appear dutiful and dignified, witty and eloquent with her words. But if you watched her speaking with a trusted person from across the room you might see bursts of passion, anger and impatience. A look at the evidence of her behaviour and actions rounds out her character so she emerges as a fleshed out person in her own right. 

Judging by all of this, I think Anne had a much more complex character than many of us give her credit for and I love her all the more for it.

What do you think of this? Do you agree? Let me know in the comments below.

Did you know that Anne Boleyn had an influential female relative who was active during the Wars of the Roses? You can find out all about her and other forgotten women of the period in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses published by Pen and Sword Books. It discusses many woman of the fifteenth century conflict that played parts we don't often hear about to day. You can Order your copy here.

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Notes and Sources
(1) The Anne Boleyn Files, William Tyndale. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020. 
(2) On the Tudor Trail, Anne Boleyn's Appearance, accessed 6 Apr. 2020 
(3) * affiliate link, helps to support the blog: Alison Weir, The Lady in the Tower, The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Vintage, 2009. pp272-273
(4) Ibid., p278
(5) Ibid., p14
(6) Ibid., pp14-15
(7) History Extra, Jane Seymour In Profile. accessed 6 Apr. 2020. 
(8) Weir, p25
(9) Under These Restless Skies, Anne Boleyn's Pets, accessed 6 Apr. 2020 
(10) The Tudor Travel Guide, Whitehall, accessed 6 Apr. 2020
(11) Weir, p344
(12) Ibid., p117
(13) Ibid., p21
(14) Ibid., p41
(15) Taylor-Smither, Larissa J. "Elizabeth I: A Psychological Profile." The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 15, no 1, 1984, pp 47-52. JSTOR. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020
(16) Weir, p67
(17) Ibid., p88
(18) Maria Hayward, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII, 2017. p180. 
(19) The Fall of Anne Boleyn, April 1536 Dead Mens Shoes, accessed 6 Apr. 2020