Rewriting her story

Far from scheming to advance her own interests, Anne Boleyn was actually pursuing the causes of the poor

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It’s time to forget everything you’ve been told about Anne Boleyn. The reckless woman who hunted down a king for selfish gain and glory, ousting her own sister as mistress in the process, only to be executed for failing to provide a male heir and cheating with every man in the kingdom, including her own brother. Yes, history has told you her sordid tale. But guess what? History lied.

The suppression of Boleyn’s true story in everything from the commercial history books and documentaries right through to the blockbuster movies and dramas is one of the most appalling cases of censorship I have ever come across. Because the depraved version of Boleyn that the general public get repeatedly fed only works if writers miss out the most vital pieces of evidence the Tudors left behind. But now in our modern climate of activism and change, where it’s somewhat frowned on to silence powerful women fighting for social justice, it is time to bring Boleyn’s truth out of the dusty depths of academia and into the mainstream.

Far from pursuing king and crown to live a vacuous life of parties, evidence proves that right from the start she accepted the king’s advances in order to fight against the suppression of the people from a genuine position of power.

The radical Poor Law that Boleyn proposed would see the sick get access to free healthcare

Long before England’s reformation, where we broke from our alliance with Rome to go it alone – sound a little familiar? – there was another reformation brewing throughout Europe. It is here we have reports of Boleyn intervening to save the lives of activists who were revolting against the corruption within the Catholic church – the main issue being that priests were hiding behind the language barrier of a Latin Bible in order to get the people to pay cash to forgive their sins! As you can imagine, this was quite the money-spinner but Boleyn and a growing band of European rebels, including Martin Luther, were ready to call this out, arguing that only God could forgive a person’s sins. So, when the Pope made fugitives out of those fighting for a Bible in their own language, Boleyn offered amnesty to them here in England, and stepped in to protect her fellow countrymen when Henry VIII’s right-hand man, Cardinal Wolsey, joined in with the persecutions.

Boleyn went on to use her role as queen to place key evangelicals in vital positions of power to support ongoing reform. It was she who appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. In the months following her death, he successfully pushed the king to approve the first English Bible.

But as England and Rome continued to battle it out, neither daring to make the catastrophic call that it was finally over between them – if you think Brexit has lumbered on for long enough, spare a thought for the Tudors, who had to suffer delays and missed deadlines for seven epic years – Boleyn was pursuing a political contingency plan. From the early months of her engagement to Henry right through to the final weeks of her life, Boleyn led an international campaign for England to form an alliance with Germany’s Schmalkaldic League, which had also broken away from the clutches of Rome and was fighting for reform like Boleyn. These negotiations have since been accredited to the industriousness of the king’s new adviser, Thomas Cromwell. But as we’re about to see this wouldn’t be the last time history would accredit him for Boleyn’s political acumen.

With her eventual marriage to the king – one that quickly developed into Henry VIII needing to prove his power as King of England over the Pope’s authority in Rome – Boleyn stepped up her political work. Now, this is no glib analogy for “playing the game in order to survive the Tudor court”. The monarchs of the 16th century had a power like today’s prime minister and Boleyn was determined to use that power to incite positive change for those without a voice. Yet one of the final government acts she lobbied, in March 1536, was the reason her political opponents would conspire to have her dead within two months.

Main image Hayley Nolan and above Anne Boleyn anonymous 16th century portrait

The radical Poor Law that Boleyn proposed, with her protege William Marshall, would see the sick get access to free healthcare and provide the unemployed with jobs – very similar to today’s NHS and Job Centre Plus. This scheme was exceptional, not least because Boleyn got the king to personally back it in parliament but also because he also supported her ambitious proposal for a nationwide council to oversee its execution – a council that would rival the powers of the king’s infamous Privy Council, which was headed by none other than Cromwell.

But when there was huge opposition to Boleyn’s incredibly expensive initiative that would eat up all the new money pouring in from the dissolution of the monasteries, Cromwell was quick to jump in with a heavily diluted version of the scheme that was conveniently minus the free healthcare, mandatory job centre and – surprise, surprise – minus the rival council.

Her anger at being double-crossed by a member of her own faction is clear when we see how she fought back immediately, blocking Cromwell’s plans to close the smaller monasteries that were being used as a refuge for the poor – a move that has been cited as the somewhat less convincing reason he decided to risk his own life and conspire to kill the Queen of England, quickly concocting false charges of adultery to present to the king. Alas, it was the disastrous timing of Cromwell’s plot that caused the mentally unstable king to sentence his wife to death with a chilling flippancy that we still struggle to come to terms with today.

The Holy Roman Empire was in the midst of blackmailing the king, as it was the only one standing in the way of a decree being published that would dethrone him when it heard Boleyn was still pursuing an alliance between England and its rivals in the Schmalkaldic League.With the threat of losing the throne due to his wife’s political pursuits, when Cromwell told the Henry VIII that Boleyn was better off dead, devastatingly she found he agreed.

History may have called it Cromwell’s Poor Law for the past five centuries, while the lies her enemies created about her life and character have become mainstream in the modern world, but in November 2019 justice has finally been served. I have secured Parliament’s acknowledgment that the anti-poverty scheme was Boleyn’s work with a campaign called #BeMoreBoleyn, a call to action for women to take inspiration from Boleyn’s true story and run for MP in order to fight for those without a voice, just as Boleyn did all those years ago.

Hayley Nolan is an historian and the author of Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies published by Little A, £8.99

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