I Have Not Always Shown Humility: Reclaiming Anne Boleyn’s Rhetoric

I Have Not Always Shown Humility: Reclaiming Anne Boleyn’s Rhetoric

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 3 Spring 2020

Author(s): Amanda Hayes

Amanda Hayes is an associate professor of English at Kent State University-Tuscarawas, where she teaches courses that range from women’s rhetorical history, Appalachian literacy, and medieval literature. She recently published her first book, titled The Politics of Appalachian Rhetoric, and is currently researching the literacy education of 19th century women.

Abstract: Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, is traditionally presented by historians and novelists alike as scheming, shrewish, and rhetorically inept. She challenged her audiences, rather than practicing the feminine submissiveness that was expected of women. This essay questions the notion that her rhetoric resulted from a failure to understand her audience or her own inability to control her speech. Reconsidering her rhetorical purposes and audiences opens up new avenues for questioning the gender constraints on Renaissance women and on modern women who seek positions of power, as well as how we think about rhetorical success.

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In June of 2018, British historian Fern Riddell caused a social media stir by insisting on being referred to as Dr. Riddell, rather than accepting other people’s default of Miss or Ms., in recognition of her authority as a scholar. She described receiving immediate criticism, being “told that wanting my professional title to be acknowledged in a public setting, where I work as a public expert, is ‘vulgar’ and ‘immodest,’ and that I lack ‘humility’” (qtd. in Flaherty). While her critics have been vocal, she has also gained supporters, who use the hashtag #ImmodestWoman in solidarity. Such support, however, is far from universal. Pride in one’s self and accomplishments, not to mention humility, still looks very different for women than it can for men.

At times, it seems rather obvious that women and men can be judged differently on the basis of their rhetorical choices. For example, women face a particular double bind as teachers: “female instructors are expected to be nurturing and supportive; when they’re not, it may count against them in evaluations. At the same time, if they are nurturing and supportive, female instructors risk being perceived as less authoritative and knowledgeable than their male counterparts” (Mulhere). Still, too few people realize how tied to gender their irritation at an accomplished and proud woman like Riddell (or even their desire to downplay her accomplishments) is. Likewise, Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical approach in her presidential campaign was described as showing “intelligence, articulateness, politeness, and a wealth of knowledge” (Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton 185). Yet, “as a woman with those qualities, she also had to be taken down a notch or two—and not just by men, but by those women who resented what they saw as her haughtiness” (Bordo, The Destruction 195; italics in original). What might have worked for a man did not work for a woman, because despite her politeness, she lacked deference to male authority.

In lacking deference, as well as in experiencing a resultant backlash against their rhetorical approaches, Clinton and Riddell share something fundamental with women who have sought public voices throughout Western history. The rhetorical constructions of gender shaping the idea that “women take care, men take charge” (Huston 79) have deep roots, but they are worth considering anew as factors that influence how women experience voice and their receptions in positions of power. Exposing this communicative undercurrent opens a new dimension for considering the experience of one notable sixteenth century figure: Anne Boleyn. Despite her enduring popularity as an object of fascination, few scholars to date have considered her as a potentially skilled and instructive wielder of rhetoric. Instead, her transgressions of accepted feminine rhetorical practices have led many writers and scholars to consider her as rhetorically inept, arrogant, and unlikeable—the ultimate failed feminine public figure. What that idea supposes, however, is that a feminine public figure is what Anne’s use of wording and image was attempting to portray.

While some historical women were able to utilize traditional (i.e. male) rhetorical affordances of bold, public speech, most worked within a separate sphere of accepted female rhetorical forms, such as letters and interpersonal conversation (Donawerth). However, Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical style defies easy categorization, and the social boundaries she transgressed prevent us from seeing her potential as a figure of study. Yet her rhetoric shows us how one woman used language and imagery to challenge the constrictions against women’s voices in her historical moment. In doing so, she helps us question, perhaps even challenge, the constrictions of our own.

Anne is as much an obsession for the modern world as she was for Henry VIII. Many versions of her story, told in novels, histories, movies, and miniseries, invite controversy in their portrayals: Anne the schemer, Anne the seductress, and Anne the bitch battle it out with Anne the intellectual, Anne the politician, and Anne the religious reformer for space in our hearts and minds. Unsurprisingly, the darker, nastier Anne tends to win out in the balance of public opinion, as Dr. Susan Bordo explores in her work of history and cultural criticism, The Creation of Anne Boleyn. Even prominent historians present Anne as, essentially, a sexual predator who victimized her husband and a nation in her desire for power (Bordo 43). What isn’t as often acknowledged is that there is no historical basis for this interpretation; no factual, unbiased accounts exist to indicate that Anne set out to “trap” Henry or that show us her motivations. In fact, if we look more closely at Anne’s own words, a very different presentation of her actions and wishes emerges. The fact that history and fiction have yet to do this looking on a wide-scale tells us much about our own society’s view of women. We continue to define women in terms of “good” and “bad,” and in both our own time and in hers, the quality that puts Anne squarely in the “bad woman” category is her voice, her insistent sense of self: she made herself visible. Writers and historians assume for Anne the role of “bad woman”—using interconnected descriptors of her such as loud, shrill, cruel, and sexually voracious—perhaps without even realizing their own assumption, let alone questioning the social forces framing and encouraging those assumptions (Bordo, The Creation 47).

Regardless, Anne the historical figure and Anne the fictional character loom large in our cultural preoccupations. But Anne the rhetorician? Her we have yet to fully consider. At first glance, she may not appear to warrant such consideration. Yet when we do, we see that Anne’s use of rhetoric opens up new ways of thinking about her as a woman speaking publicly, specifically a woman who re-wrote the rules of what public address was supposed to look like and achieve. Rather than using the available means open to women, through visual messages and performances of gendered submissiveness, Anne usurped the male prerogative of bold speech, in order to create a persona of strength that was otherwise denied women. It was an approach that garnered an undeniably negative response from her contemporary audiences; through her unwillingness to alter her approach, Anne’s rhetoric calls into question why we speak out at all, especially if doing so goes against what our audience will accept.

The Historical Anne Boleyn

In Renaissance English society, women could conceivably achieve public roles and influence while maintaining the veneered gender performance of submission to the “natural order” in which men governed and woman obeyed. For example, Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s grandmother, was able to play a powerful cultural role during her son’s kingship, establishing educational institutions and promoting religious men of her choosing. Yet, in her early efforts to establish the kingship of her son, Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, she had to disavow her own right to the throne, despite the fact that Henry’s claim came through her. Men and women inhabited extremely rigid social roles, and these roles saw expression in the personas each gender was expected to adopt; for a woman, overt rulership was not on the table. Women’s submissive personas were demonstrated and shaped through a variety of rhetorical means, up to and including manners of speaking (Gibson 10), the rules of which Anne would decidedly break.

While Anne’s cultural context was more rigid in its gender norms and the consequences for transgressing them, the gender norms themselves bear a similarity to our expectations today. Generally speaking, gender rules continue to require participants to enact rigid definitions of male and female identity in order to achieve acceptance and reward. In Anne’s day, women’s gender performance emphasized “chastity, silence, and obedience,” while “courageous and active virtue” defined positive masculinity (Gibson 10). Shades of these ideals remain today, as Riddell’s case so starkly demonstrates. In fact, our continuing fascination with Anne and her story indicates that we see in it something of relevance to our own experience—there’s something in Anne’s story we haven’t worked out yet, as evidenced by her enduring presence in films, television shows, biographies, and novels, each with its own unique take on the events of her life and its meaning.

That so many different perceptions of Anne are possible stems from the inconclusiveness of her historical record; much of what can be known about Anne is brought to us through the biases of third party witnesses. More factual data about her was lost, in no small part by Henry VIII’s intentional efforts to erase her from history (Bordo, The Creation x). From a biographical standpoint, we can reasonably state that Anne Boleyn was born (in either 1501 or 1507, the date is disputed) to an upper class family, and her father served as an ambassador for King Henry VIII, a status that would have repercussions for Anne’s educational opportunities.

During Anne’s developmental years, women’s education in and use of rhetoric, in the sense of public speaking, was severely curtailed by their gender. While humanism sparked renewed societal interest in classical education and rhetorical studies, women’s expected roles in society, as chaste, obedient wives and mothers, meant that the education they received was “narrower, usually excluding substantial portions of the pagan classics” (Gibson 10), texts which were seen as essential to the rhetorical education of young boys. These boys were expected, in humanist educational theory, to become the men who would improve society though their participation in legal and political circles. Women, however, could benefit from education as a means to “strengthen and stabilize their characters” (Gibson 10)—given that society viewed women as inherently giddy and mentally and emotionally unstable, this was perceived as important work. In fact, women’s silence in the public arena became conflated with their proper performance of their gender role; “female silence was equated with chastity, female eloquence with promiscuity” (Jones qtd. in Levin and Sullivan 6). Thus, women’s education focused on issues of grammar, languages, and the translation of important texts (an activity which did not necessitate public speech), as opposed to rhetorical persuasion. While men were taught the “diverse forms of argument and the need for a practical grounding and application for argumentation” (Gibson 17), women who received any linguistic training learned to use language to “delight, but to persuade no one” (Gibson 19).

However, Anne would receive learning opportunities unavailable to most of her gender. Because of her father’s international connections, Anne’s family was able to send her to be educated in 1513 by Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands, where she was taught French and court etiquette, subjects seen as fitting for her gender and station. In 1515 Anne went to France, where she became a companion and translator for the French Queen Claude. Here, Anne witnessed the political and intellectual prowess of women like Marguerite of Navarre and Louise of Savoy. While Anne, as a woman, likely never received a formal rhetorical education, through these international connections she gained role models for women as intellectual, outspoken, and politically powerful in a way they had never achieved in England (Lindsey 51). She would have been made aware of popular debates over women’s value and voice, and would likely have had access to Christine de Pizan’s popular Book of the City of Ladies, a famous fifteenth century rhetorical work refuting women’s inferiority and arguing for their right to educational opportunities (Bordo, The Creation 85). These experiences exposed Anne to humanist ideas unavailable to most English women.

It is also while in France that Anne is thought to have developed the religious views that would later influence England’s Reformation. William Latymer, her chaplain and an influential religious reformer, later described Anne’s reformist proclivities: she advocated for an English translation of the Bible, a copy of which she kept in her rooms for people at court to read. She used her authority to protect the illegal influx of vernacular Bibles into the country. This type of radical reformism earned her many enemies, and Anne seems to have done little to placate her opposition.

The progress and tone of Anne’s relationship with Henry is far from clear, though it hasn’t stopped both historians and novelists from assuming Anne dominated Henry with her sexual wiles in a bold attempt to “steal” him from his wife. In fact, what is more definitively documented is that Anne attempted to rebuff the king’s advances, as evident in Henry’s own surviving letters to her, as well as by George Wyatt, one of Anne’s earliest biographers. Yet historians and novelists have long attributed Anne’s refusal to become Henry’s mistress to coyness and design—Anne using sex as “bait” to make Henry leave his wife and marry her—though there is no evidence that this was actually her motivation. Whatever her intent, Anne was trapped by Henry’s desire, unable to marry elsewhere while pursued by the king (Lindsey 59). This does not mean, however, that she had no interest in him, as they at least initially shared intellectual and cultural interests. During the six years it took Henry to annul his first marriage, he wrote a series of passionate love letters to Anne that survive today. Unfortunately, Anne’s responses have never been found; in their absence, many historians and fiction writers alike have fallen back on the gendered cultural stereotype of the femme fatale, filling in the blank with an image of Anne as intentionally playing hard to get, an interpretation not substantiated by any real evidence.

After Henry declared himself head of the church in England in order to achieve an annulment, he and Anne married in 1533. Anne, however, seems to have had a deeper interest in religious reform, as evidenced by her work to popularize the vernacular Bible and protect religious reformers. William Latymer also provides evidence that, as queen, Anne was a vocal advocate for educational access and poverty relief. In her experience among figures such as Margaret of Austria, Louise of Savoy, and Marguerite of Navarre, such advocacy was well-within a queen’s purview (Lindsey 55).1 However, for Henry, Anne’s primary function was to provide him with a legitimate son, not to exercise political power. In fact, the letters of the French ambassador Jean du Bellay note that Henry later blamed Anne’s eventual execution on her “meddling” in his political affairs, a point he raised in order to warn a later queen not to do the same (Correspondence 506).

While Anne did give birth to a daughter in 1533, who would become the much-celebrated Elizabeth I, this was not enough to save her in Henry’s eyes. Anne had at least two miscarriages in the next two years, the second of which was believed to have been a boy. By 1536, Henry was publicly expressing his dissatisfaction with Anne. In early May, she was arrested and charged with adultery and treason. Her execution took place on May 19th; Henry announced his engagement to another woman (Jane Seymour) the following day.

Historians dispute the primary reasons behind Anne’s downfall, yet nearly all agree that she was innocent of the charges against her. As Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb explains, the accusations against her of adultery and incest were deliberately intended to play on the idea of Anne as a sexual predator, and therefore to make Henry seem more vindicated in seeking her death. Anne was found guilty and beheaded on May 19th.  This was the first execution of an English queen in history (although Henry would also execute a later queen, Anne’s cousin Katherine Howard, also for adultery).

Uncounted depictions of Anne’s story have been produced throughout the years since her death, and in them we can continue to read contemporary gender preoccupations (Bordo, The Creation 3-6). The Anne we see in these narratives can vary widely, from the feminist heroine of the 1969 film Anne of the Thousand Days (dir. Charles Jarrott) to the cold-hearted, power-hungry schemer of Hilary Mantel’s popular 2009 novel Wolf Hall. Yet all these depictions, factual and fictional, of Anne share a notable trait: in each, Anne is loud. She doesn’t keep silent; she’s willing to say things that can only make those listening angry. For some, the concept of a powerful, vocal woman is inspiring, but for many others, it is apparently as terrifying now as it was in the Tudor era. Yet for someone who has been characterized as so loud, little attention has been paid to what she actually said and how she said it.2

Anne Boleyn’s Rhetoric

Analysis of Anne’s rhetoric calls into question her customary use as a cautionary tale against female ambition (Bordo, The Creation 221), by asking us to reconsider what Anne’s ambitions were and how her rhetoric achieves them. It requires even more reconsideration of what a woman speaking boldly in such a rigid patriarchy could hope to do, and why. The traces of evidence we have for Anne’s rhetoric, including her letter from the Tower, her trial response, and her execution speech, argue that Anne was not necessarily seeking to persuade; she was using language and image to shape her own voice, to show herself as a woman capable of speaking boldly and valuing her own ideas, even if the cost of her voice was her own life.

That traditional persuasive rhetoric has long been a male preserve is well documented. Education as a whole has for centuries been shaped along gendered lines, with rhetorical study and training available to only a few privileged women, up until comparatively recently. During the 16th century in England, humanism provided slightly more opportunity for women to achieve formal education, but even then rhetoric was unlikely to be part of the curriculum. Dr. Maria Dowling explains that even among the privileged classes, “women were not trained for public office; their domain was the household, their cares were their own moral well-being and the upbringing of their children” (221). The learning women received was intended to thus “enhance those twin jewels, piety and chastity” (Dowling 221); a “good” woman, therefore, was not one brazen enough to speak or hold power in a public arena. Regardless of the fact that this era saw, by the necessity of succession, the first acknowledged queens-regnant in England’s history (Mary I, Elizabeth I, and arguably, the short-tenured Jane Grey), most women’s destinies were not seen as commensurate with formal rhetorical education.

In part, the conceived purpose of such an education made rhetorical training seem unnecessary, even dangerous, for women. Juan Luis Vives, who composed a plan for the instruction of Catherine of Aragon’s daughter Princess Mary titled Instruction of a Christian Woman, stated that “for maids to be eloquent of speech, that is to say great babblers, is a token of a light mind” (113). Despite the fact that his intended recipient of these instructions was not only a princess but, at the time, the heir apparent to the English throne, Vives believed Mary required “an education befitting her station—that of a silent, submissive woman and not of a vocal, aggressive ruler” (Vosevich 65). Vives demonstrates not only the patriarchal ideal of feminine education and behavior, but also that this ideal of womanly silence applied across social status boundaries: even queens should play their proper gender role.3 Tudor-era pedagogues, almost all of whom would have been teaching boys, would likely have defined rhetoric as the Greco-Romans had done, as the art of persuasion. Women, being as they were thought by nature less moral and logical, were thus not fit to be persuaders of men. Some women received such training despite this; Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, for example, studied classical rhetoric under her tutor Roger Ascham. On the whole, however, any education women received in literacy or communication would not have been intended to make them persuasive writers and speakers.

Anne’s rhetoric is therefore particularly intriguing. She doesn’t seem to have received any classical rhetorical education (which would not have been deemed necessary to her gender and station), and yet she does seem to have used language, presentation, and interpretation to establish voice and identity, if not necessarily to be persuasive. If we look at Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical purpose as primarily about audience persuasion, then she has far less to teach us. She was unable to “persuade” the people of England to accept her as queen, while even more specifically she was unable to argue herself out of arrest, a guilty verdict, and execution. By this definition, she is an exceptionally unsuccessful practitioner of rhetoric. Yet for such an unsuccessful communicator, Anne certainly continues to make her presence known. Defining her rhetoric as unsuccessful fails to explain the enduring quality of Anne’s voice and image in our literary and popular culture.

My listing of Anne’s persuasive “failures” does not mean she was incapable of influence. On the contrary, Anne Boleyn was capable of persuasion in a traditional sense. While we don’t know the rhetorical means she utilized to achieve her ends, the success of those ends themselves indicate that she was extremely skilled. Eric Ives notes that Anne was not just the reason for the Reformation, she was also the mental force behind the push for religious reform (48); her first biographer, George Wyatt, having spoken with those who had living memory of Anne, described her as the “mind [which] brought forth [to Henry] the rich treasures of love of piety, love of truth, love of learning” (29). She is described by one witness, Lancelot de Carles, as a skillful user of language as well as appearance to achieve rhetorical effects.

She was also able to persuade the king in smaller, more personal matters; for example, she convinced Henry to read the “heretical” book by William Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christian Man, an incident that was related to George Wyatt by Anne’s former lady-in-waiting, Anne Gainsford. Even George Cavendish, one of Anne’s enemies, noted that she had “a very good wit” (35-6). And Anne seems to have theorized ways of conveying her arguments despite the restrictions of her gender, through the promotion of specifically chosen delegates; though women could not preach, she successfully promoted the appointments of religious figures who would advocate her reforms, including Thomas Cranmer (Ives 73). She also utilized men more directly as rhetorical stand-ins; Anne approved, and perhaps helped compose, a sermon to be delivered by her almoner John Skip, opposing Henry’s plan to confiscate the wealth of several monasteries without turning those resources toward public educational initiatives (the latter being a project Anne advocated). Historian Eric Ives (307-308) argued that Anne’s role in shaping the sermon was most obvious in its preoccupations with the king’s sexual infidelities and misuse of crown funds, by reminding the listeners that King Solomon “became very un-noble and defamed himself sore by sensual and carnal appetite” and “also by avaricious mind in laying too great or sore burdens and yokes upon his subjects.” Skip’s sermon also presented a parable in which Anne represented the Biblical Queen Esther, whose husband King Xerxes was led astray by an evil counsellor, referring to Henry’s secretary Thomas Cromwell (Records Office, State Papers 6). Anne, then, was capable of thinking through her arguments, including her audience’s gendered expectations and the best means to convey points when she would not have been seen as an acceptable voice for making them.

So when Anne’s use of rhetoric does not have the effect of persuading her audience to her side, it is not necessarily because Anne herself is rhetorically unskilled. On the contrary, there are cases where she seems to go out of her way to not utilize the means of persuasion available to her. She had a very good example of what these means were. Anne’s relationship with Henry brought her into the notice of a public that very much loved Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first queen. Catherine projected the ideal image of a queen consort: gentle, submissive, and religious. David Loades notes that Catherine’s time “was taken up with works of piety, with her domestic responsibilities, and with her daughter” (25)—exactly befitting a “good” woman in the Tudor age. That this image of Catherine was one she intentionally created is made clear by her ability to assume roles that were the very opposite of this queenly feminine ideal when she believed them warranted. For example, Catherine could portray herself as a fearsome warrior; she not only oversaw England’s military defeat of Scotland in 1513, she sent the absent Henry the bloody coat of the fallen Scottish king as a trophy. (As she herself noted, the Englishmen’s “hearts would not suffer” her original plan: to send Henry King James’s battered body [Letters and Papers]). In other words, Catherine seemed able to intentionally shape her own public image: in peace time, she showed herself as a gentle, kind, devout woman, devoted to her husband and adopted country, for the most part masking her capability as a martial leader.

One of the ways that Catherine was able to portray her image was through the means of a chosen badge and motto. Read as rhetorical texts, these presented an idea about the bearer (their “brand” as one of my students recently described it), particularly useful for conveying messages in times of high illiteracy. Catherine’s chosen badge was the pomegranate. For anyone with an understanding of Catherine’s Spanish history, this would have held a religious and possibly military meaning: in Spanish, pomegranate is “Granada”, also the name of the region her parents, the Christian monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, had conquered from the Muslims during Catherine’s childhood (Fox 13). However, the English read this image as one of nourishment and feminine fertility (Fraser 71), fitting symbols for the woman who stood to enhance England’s royal line through progeny bearing her illustrious European royal blood. Her motto likewise conveyed her feminine virtues: “Humble and Loyal.” Though Catherine’s ancestry was more exalted than her husband’s, and her home country far more politically and militarily significant than England, her motto disavowed any sense of her own superiority. She did not, her motto demonstrated, look down upon the nation she was joining; given England’s national inferiority-complex in comparison with France and Spain, this was an excellent reassurance for her new people. Catherine would be their humble and loyal English queen, not a self-assured Spanish princess. In short, Catherine used the means available to her to present her ideal feminine qualities, and by doing so, she created an ethos that encouraged the sympathy and support of the English people.4 In these ways, Catherine played by the rules of feminine self-presentation. Yet, Anne did not follow Catherine’s example, seemingly choosing instead to reject the rules all together.

Anne projected her own individual voice and sense of self through at times very unfeminine rhetorical choices. Anne’s desire to convey her individual voice, over persuading others to view her as a virtuous, correct Tudor woman, is demonstrated in her choices of badge and mottos. While Catherine’s badge conveyed what she could provide, fertility and the seeds of future monarchs, Anne’s choice of a falcon conveyed an image of strength over feminine softness. The falcon image conveyed aggression and vitality—not widely held at the time as feminine virtues. As Karen Lindsey describes Anne, “Like the falcon she chose as her emblem, she was a wild creature used, curtailed, but never truly tamed; she was a sexual woman whose vitality belonged only to herself” (48). These are certainly not attributes one would expect to find in the Tudor system of accepted gender norms. Even more significant is Anne’s choice of mottos. Her early motto, chosen in 1530 as she was gaining infamy for her relationship with Henry, was far from designed to placate her detractors: “Ainsi sera groigne qui groigne”, or “Let them grumble; this is how it’s going to be.” Rather than conciliate her opposition, she directly stated her intention to overrule them. Anne thus raised her voice in a very public way: she would speak as she wished and act as she wished, without regard to those who were judging her. Even her more well-known motto, chosen at the start of her queenship, emphasized her right to make her own choices, despite their unpopularity: as Henry’s wife and queen, Anne proclaimed to the world, she would be “The Most Happy,” privileging her own feelings and fulfillment, regardless of how unhappy her status made others. Anne was not utilizing the same tools as her predecessor by embracing an ideal feminine image. Rather, she was creating and projecting an image of herself as outspoken and confident; certainly not what Tudor England expected in the public persona of a good woman, let alone a good queen.

These attributes also come across in the language of what might be the most deeply personal remnant of Anne’s voice, her letter to Henry written during her imprisonment in the Tower of London. This letter is deeply controversial among historians, with some, including Eric Ives and Elizabeth Norton, arguing that it is a forgery. However, I am guided by the recent work of Dr. Susan Bordo and, particularly, historian and writer Sandra Vasoli, who make strong cases for the letter’s authenticity. This case requires further explanation, not least of all because Vasoli is most well known for her fictional, rather than historical, writing. While nearly all popular fictionalizations of Tudor persons are at times problematic in their portrayals—see, for example, the works of Phillipa Gregory—Vasoli’s non-fiction book and research regarding Anne’s letter from the Tower utilizes archival methods and linguistic analysis. Vasoli makes a case for the letter’s authenticity based upon language, syntax, and content commensurate with the historical record and Anne’s own rhetorical self-presentation (23). Additionally, accounts such as that of Lord Herbert of Cherbury report that the copy of the letter that eventually became part of the Cotton collection was originally found among the papers of Henry’s secretary Thomas Cromwell. Another early copy of the letter, located within the British Library’s Stowe collection (MS 151), corroborates this account, recording it as made from an original letter by Anne to Henry which was later found among Cromwell’s papers. The copy itself was made by an anonymous hand known by historians as “the Feathery Scribe,” who was known to have copied documents for highly placed clients, including William Cecil, the chief advisor of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I. Therefore, Vasoli notes, “someone of importance contracted the Feathery Scribe to reproduce the letter in order to preserve the words for posterity, directly from the one found in Cromwell’s papers, prior to 1628” (28). Likewise, she points out that historians from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century treated the letter as genuine (33). The argument for the letter’s authentic provenance rests upon Cromwell having not delivered it to Henry, rather keeping it among his own papers, after which it was preserved by an unknown source before copies were made and became part of private collections. Vasoli makes the (ultimately unprovable) case that the letter might have been transmitted from Cromwell’s protégé William Sadler to his friend and colleague, Cecil, during Elizabeth’s reign.

Ultimately, without definitive evidence of the letter’s authenticity, Vasoli and Bordo look to the correlations between the style and content of the letter to other known statements and speeches that Anne made. Bordo argues that “it’s hard to imagine anyone else” (109) writing the letter that so embodies Anne’s known voice and demeanor, while questioning the gender and personality politics implicit in doubts about its authenticity. Perhaps, she notes, not everyone has been willing to believe that Anne could write what has been called “one of the finest compositions in the English language” (112).

As an artifact, this letter emphasizes Anne’s sense of her own self-worth and desire to speak out in a social context that conflated silence with femininity, even for well-educated women (Gibson). If we look at this letter through the lens of traditional rhetorical analysis, guided by a definition of rhetoric as persuasion, then our foremost question might be about Anne’s persuasive intent. In other words, the letter is, at least on the surface, a persuasive artifact; she has an external audience (Henry) from whom she wishes to achieve something: “My last and only request shall be, That my self may bear the Burthen of your Grace’s Displeasure, and that it may not touch the Innocent Souls of those poor Gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait Imprisonment for my sake” (British Library). Anne thus specifies what she wants from her reader: she wants Henry to pardon the men who have been imprisoned and accused along with her. Again, if we are to judge Anne’s skill as a wielder of rhetoric from her success in using language to achieve this end, she will always be found wanting—each of the five men tried alongside her were also executed.

However, it should be noted that Anne’s request is only a brief section at the very end of her letter. While this is not to say she wasn’t sincere in her wish for their freedom, the small role this plays in the letter overall, and the authorial choices she makes in the earlier part of the letter, indicate that persuading Henry was not her only, or perhaps even primary, purpose in writing. The majority of the letter is what Anne calls her “confession,” the attestation of her point of view on the events that had overtaken her. She analyzes her own feelings on their extraordinary relationship, proclaiming that: “…never Prince had Wife more Loyal in all Duty, and in all true Affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn, with which name and Place I could willingly have contented myself, if God, and your Grace’s Pleasure had been so pleased” (British Library). Anne as self-contented in her role as a private Tudor-era gentlewoman is not what we tend to see in popular representations of her; rather, Anne as a schemer who purposely destroyed a marriage in her thirst for power has been the default interpretation of her for centuries. Yet from her own point of view, Anne attests both her loyalty to Henry as his queen and her own initial disinclination to achieve that status. It was Henry, and God, whose pleasure made her Queen Anne; she would have been happy and proud to remain simply Anne Boleyn. This pride in her sense of self over and above her status as queen is echoed in the letter’s closing, which she signs not as Queen Anne, but as Anne Boleyn. It is Anne Boleyn whose voice predominates throughout this letter, and that, she emphasizes, is enough.

The letter itself, then, is a testament of a voice, an identity, of which she is not ashamed, and which she will not silence or soften for her audience’s pleasure. In fact, if getting back into Henry’s good graces was her chief motivation, she would have been ill advised to include some of the zingers that make it through. For example, she writes that she is well aware of Henry’s inconstancy. It was his “fancy” that made her queen, and she claims to have always understood the fickleness of it. “The least alteration, I knew, was fit and sufficient to draw that Fancy to some other Subject” (British Library) she declares, knowing by this time Henry’s interest in his soon-to-be third wife, Jane Seymour. This also illuminates an aspect of Anne’s character that is often overlooked in popular history and fictional portrayals. Anne was a front row witness to Henry’s poor treatment of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. (In fact, in many of these portrayals, it is Anne even more than Henry who is responsible for these cruelties.) The Anne we see in these portrayals is thus rendered foolish: she fails to understand that a man who treats his first wife cruelly could just as easily do the same to her. The Anne in this letter is no such fool. Not only does she proclaim herself innocent of the charge that she destroyed Henry’s marriage (he being the one to pursue her, rather than vice versa), she also attests her clear understanding that what happened to Catherine might also become her fate.

Likewise, were Anne truly hopeful of persuading Henry of anything, she would also have done well to avoid telling him her hope that God “will pardon your great Sin therein, and likewise mine Enemies, the Instruments thereof; and that he will not call you to a strict account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me” (British Library; italics mine). In other words, she will pray that God will not punish Henry too much…but will punish him some, as he, after all, deserves it. Also, given Henry’s notoriously thin skin and his perception of himself as a chivalric, enlightened monarch, her descriptions of his behavior as unprincely and cruel would have deeply offended him. Again, Anne doesn’t pull her punches; no feminine reticence leads her to soften the blow to Henry’s sense of personal virtue. Why then, write such a letter, and risk even greater anger than Henry already feels? Why is she speaking, when what she says can only do her more harm?

If we think of Henry as her primary audience, and swaying him as her primary purpose, of course her authorial decisions seem illogical. More sensible would be a retreat to a feminine ideal of helpless grief, to play the damsel in distress for Henry, a self-proclaimed adherent of chivalry (Ives 92), to pity and rescue. However, if we see her audience as including herself, Anne’s authorial choices make more sense. Certainly, many of us know the power of words and writing to shape our identities and strengthen our resolves. Anne seems to be doing so here—crafting and reaffirming her own sense of self, identity, and innocence. Yet, she is doing so in a public way; this is not a diary entry intended for her eyes only. It is meant to be read by Henry (though in reality, it likely never reached him [Vasoli 4]), but Anne would have known it would also be read by the chain of people between herself and Henry, including her jailor Sir William Kingston and chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Anne is shaping her truth and speaking it back to power, even though her truth is not what they want to hear.

That the sense of self Anne created with her words and symbols is one of such strength and outspokenness is something that can strike modern readers as feminist in its aims. While we can’t attribute to Anne a prescience of modern day feminism, her formative years in other cultural contexts would have exposed her to women in power (Bordo, The Creation 72); she would have known that such women existed, and perhaps even at this point hoped her daughter would become one. Therefore, it is not impossible that Anne would have seen herself as having a right to speak boldly, a right with which other women and men in English society would have disagreed. There is no evidence that the rhetoric of this letter is the result of her own misunderstanding of the ways her words might be judged. To say that Anne included, for example, the insults to Henry because she was rhetorically unskilled is to indicate that persuading him was her ultimate goal. However, if we read her as having personal and political aims beyond Henry, we might read her as courageous, perhaps even as sensing that future audiences could give her the hearing she wouldn’t receive in her own time.

As previously noted, there are some who debate Anne’s authorship of this letter. Yet two more rhetorical artifacts, more definitely tied to Anne Boleyn, exhibit similar moves: Anne’s trial speech and her execution speech. Specifically, both demonstrate her desire to exert her voice, even when doing so might in some ways be to her present disadvantage.

In a speech delivered to the court following the pronouncement of her verdict, Anne directly challenges the honor of the jurors who have found her guilty. She states, “I am willing to believe that you have sufficient reasons for what you have done, but then they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am clear of all the offences which you have laid to my charge” (De Carles). If taken as straightforward, this statement accuses her judges of deception or conspiracy, as they have produced weak and even demonstrably false evidence against her. This was, in fact, the case. The charges of adultery were made in an obviously slapdash and careless manner: “even after nearly 500 years, three-quarters of these specific allegations can be disproved. In twelve cases Anne was elsewhere or the man was” (Ives 344). The “sufficient reasons,” for finding Anne guilty, therefore, were not about Anne’s guilt, but about the jurors’ unwillingness to displease the king, and Anne wants them to know that she knows it. What Anne is guilty of, and what she admits to, has nothing to do with sexual fidelity (which she asserts that she has always, unlike her husband, maintained):

I have ever been a faithful wife to the King, though I do not say I have always shown him that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way. Think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life, for He who saveth from death hath taught me how to die, and He will strengthen my faith. (in de Carle)

In other words, Anne is attributing her real “crimes” to her insistent use of voice: she lacks the “humility” to remain silent and submissive; she has particularly refused to turn a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities. In demanding a voice in both politics and her own marriage, Anne has made herself a “bad” woman, wife, and queen, with lethal results.

Her last statement is particularly intriguing, and perhaps gives us a better sense of Anne’s own thinking about her rhetorical purpose. She assures her listeners that her purpose in speaking is not to persuade them (“think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life”). Why, then, does she reiterate her failure to perform the appropriate gender rhetoric of her time? Perhaps she is not solely speaking to her contemporary audience at all. She seems to be speaking more to herself, reassuring herself that what this hostile audience believes does not ultimately matter—it is God who will ultimately preserve her and strengthen her faith. This attitude is fitting with the new religious beliefs taking root in England at this time, which Anne advocated. While Anne remained essentially Catholic, never fully committing to the new Protestant ideas in the way her later successor Catherine Parr would, under figures such as Marguerite of Navarre she would have been exposed to reformist ideas. Among these was the priority of personal relationships with God; in other words, of the importance of inward thinking beyond outward ritual. That Anne may have used rhetoric to look inward, to strengthen rather than subsume her own interpretations and beliefs, fits with what is believed about her personality and faith. Her rhetoric demonstrates a belief that she had as much right as a man to seek and speak her own truths. Thus this, her next-to-last opportunity for public address, is used not to persuade her audience, something that was fruitless given their loyalty to the king’s will, but to use language to shape and present her own voice for herself, her God, and as part of the public record for posterity.

Anne’s execution speech does more to acknowledge her audience’s gendered rhetorical expectations, although the way in which she makes these concessions is still atypical for her time. Executions in Henrician England were common enough to have developed their own rhetorical genre, with particular genre expectations. The condemned, after ascending the execution platform, would address the assembled crowd with an oration acknowledging his or her guilt, even if innocent of the crime in question. He or she then asked the audience to turn away from their own sins; finally, the condemned praised the king and asked the assembled to pray for his or her soul. Anne’s own execution speech follows this basic format, but also exhibits her own steadfast belief in her voice and innocence, as well as the possibility that one day these attributes would be judged differently.

Anne’s speech might seem staid and conciliatory in light of her previous rhetoric. Yet when read against the expectations of execution speeches in her day, Anne’s tweaks speak obliquely what the words themselves may not. Anne does not acknowledge guilt or proclaim herself deserving death, as was the expectation; what she does instead is pointedly refuse to discuss this issue. She states, “…according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak of that whereof I am accused and condemned to die” (in Wyatt). So, while not upending the established form by proclaiming innocence rather than guilt, Anne acknowledges the expectation while specifically explaining that she is skipping over it. She is not allowed by tradition to say she is innocent, but she will not say she is guilty.

In a move which both maintains traditional expectations and has the effect of endearing herself, at last, to her audience, Anne praises King Henry, the very man who is most responsible for her death: “I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never, and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and a sovereign lord” (in Wyatt). Anne allows the absurdity of this statement to go unremarked. However, the audience seems to have appreciated Anne’s willingness to make such a pretense. Given Henry’s popularity with his subjects, the statement was well-received; most of the audience fell to their knees in sympathy during Anne’s speech, in what might have been the most overt show of public respect Anne ever received during her career. Yet why would Anne, who has seemed so unwilling to silence herself, even when doing so would be in the best interest of preserving her own power and/or life, not overtly proclaim her innocence in this speech, which was the most likely of all her words to be remembered by posterity? Why would she acquiesce in praising the king? This we might attribute to Anne’s ability to play the traditional rhetorical game when she chose to. In praising Henry, Anne was able to protect her daughter. Henry had already shown himself to be a fickle father, particularly toward daughters, as demonstrated by his humiliating treatment toward his daughter Mary, whose mother Catherine embarrassed Henry by her refusal to accept the annulment of their marriage. Further embarrassing Henry in this last, most public of venues would do little to endear their daughter Elizabeth to his paternal affections. It is also worth considering that Anne was as much a product of her time as we all are of ours, and perhaps therefore she did wrestle with feelings of guilt or shame about her own lack of womanly humility and submissiveness. Maybe she honestly believed, in that moment, what she said—that Henry was a great, gentle, and merciful sovereign, and that what had befallen her was more her fault than his, even if not for the reasons he claimed.

Yet Anne’s denouement also subtly reasserts both her sense of self-belief and her hope that future audiences would acknowledge her differently. Again, she seizes the opportunity to assert her sense of self. As a conclusion, Anne adds, “And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best” (in Wyatt). In slipping in this statement, Anne reminds us that she has a cause worth meddling over. She is not the treasonous seductress as others have defined her; rather, those who may one day judge the best will see her as she has shaped herself: strong, forthright, intelligent, and with a right to both speak and be heard.

Reclaiming Anne Boleyn, Rhetorician

Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical approach, in which the desires and expectations of her contemporary audiences seem almost subsumed by internal or future ones, was not without precedent. The use of language to shape and present identity was in fact becoming fashionable amongst Renaissance intellectuals. Stephen Greenblatt has identified “an increased self-consciousness about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process” (2) during the Renaissance. This contrasts with an earlier medieval philosophy that identified the self as pre-determined and the shaping of it as either useless or even damaging. The self-fashioning possibilities opened by Renaissance philosophy was something achieved through language (Greenblatt 9)…or at least, achieved by men through language. Figures like Thomas More, William Tyndale, and Thomas Wyatt could use language to seek “a new basis of control” (114) over their identity and its dissemination in ways they chose for themselves; Anne Boleyn was allotted no such privilege. Her attempts to do the same have been consistently interpreted not as “Renaissance self-fashioning,” but rather as ill-judged mouthiness.

The default interpretation of Anne’s voice as thoughtless and uncontrolled, rather than intellectual and rhetorical, demonstrates how our gendered assumptions can continue to slip in under the rhetorical radar, for authors across genders. Take, for example, how one of the most well-regarded biographers of Henry’s queens, Antonia Fraser, describes Catherine of Aragon’s rhetorical approach: “Queen Catherine, in her prime, had been far too well-trained, and too clever, to allow herself to appear ungraciously argumentative; she had followed the pattern of a certain kind of intelligent woman throughout history, making her point without confrontation” (265). What’s notable is Fraser’s wording; acquiescing to the status quo of female silence is both gracious and intelligent; by extension, Anne was neither. More overtly, historian Gareth Russell has described Anne’s outspokenness as evidence of “occasional stupidity” from an “otherwise intelligent woman.” Neither seem to conceive of Anne’s insistence on voice as a potentially rhetorical tactic rather than a misunderstanding of her available rhetorical means or a complete failure to think rhetorically at all. This pattern extends to many of her fictional representations. In Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall, the character Anne tells Thomas Cromwell that “People should say whatever will keep them alive” (480), which is, of course, the complete opposite of what she did in reality. Therefore, this Anne, the depiction which is the most prominent in our current cultural moment, is presented as again lacking in rhetorical intelligence—she simply couldn’t understand what the right words to keep herself alive might be. These portrayals of Anne don’t show her as someone who did know what to say to please an audience, but for whom doing so would be a betrayal of herself.

Ultimately, such interpretations of Anne’s rhetorical (in)ability effectively neuter her as a rhetorical power player. We have a reason to not listen to this mouthy woman, because she obviously didn’t put much thought into what she had to say. Additionally, Anne’s perceived lack of feminine graces open her memory up to social stricture. In many interpretations, such as Mantel’s, Anne is a kind of ruthless, hysterical female monster. In these interpretations, Anne, in ending her life on the scaffold, arguably got what she deserved for victimizing the good and proper Queen Catherine, who was standing between Anne and the power she ultimately proved too incompetent to hold onto.

Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical legacy is emblematic of what happens when the social forces that shape our ideas about women’s voices go unacknowledged. Anne’s creation of her image as a woman with a strong public voice, a voice that so greatly challenged accepted feminine characteristics, caused rage among her listeners. Even today, her rhetoric is often correlated with ineptness, as her misunderstanding of what a woman could realistically use rhetoric to do; when this happens, factual and fictional portrayals marginalize the very brave and potentially instructive work she undertook.

Political discourse in the United States is at a particular crossroads, raising questions about the nature of ethos and audience expectations among women in positions of power. Mary Beard identifies Western culture’s fear of women’s public voices as in an inherited Greco-Roman anxiety about gender identities, but also more deeply as a fear for the very social and political orders we live by. In raising these concerns, Beard argues that we can “make ourselves more aware about the processes and prejudices that make us [judge vocal women negatively]” (40). However, she also notes that there is no clear and easy remedy for this state of affairs (49). Should women try to “play the game” of acceptable feminine rhetoric if it means gaining an audience’s acceptance, to be “likeable”…or should we speak our own truth, even for audiences unwilling to accept it? Do we acquiesce to gendered rhetorical expectations in the hope of succeeding to positions of power, or reject them even if that means failure? Is there a middle ground? We don’t yet have answers to these questions, but there is something to be said for the “success” of Anne’s style of rhetoric. While we know that in her own time, Anne Boleyn’s bold rhetoric contributed to her downfall and made her unpopular amongst women and men, there are more in our own time who seem ready to admire her for those very transgressions.

Anne Boleyn did not always bear the humility expected from a woman in her age, as evidenced by the ways she used language and image to create a sense of herself as powerful and outspoken. Many would not see her as much more likeable today. Yet by questioning the gendered rhetorical restrictions of her time, she has ensured a lasting role in our cultural imagination, and inspired some women today as a model for the role voice can play in self-fashioning. In response to a 2010 online poll about Anne Boleyn’s cultural relevance, one anonymous respondent said, “Anne is a good role model for young women. Those who speak out can see her as an ally, and those who are shy can be inspired by her” (Bordo, The Creation 253). It’s hard to see how this could have happened if she had “shown humility” and kept her mouth shut, even if it meant keeping her head.

Had Anne relied on feminine rhetorical means, had she been more silent, played the damsel in distress, and, when speaking, said only whatever would keep her alive (to paraphrase Mantel), we today would likely not know her or, for at least some of us, honor her as one of the original #ImmodestWomen.


  1. It is worth noting that these women, though they inhabited public positions of power, did so through the acquiescence of even more powerful men. Margaret of Austria deferred to her nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles, while Louise of Savoy and Marguerite of Navarre operated through the approval of their son and brother (respectively), King Francis of France. Even so, each faced occasional persecution for such “unfeminine” behavior, especially Marguerite, whose work as an author and religious reformer led to persecution and threat from the powerful religious establishment, despite her brother’s protection (Cholakian).  Anne, while she had Henry’s approval, was relatively safe; without it, she was open to the character assassination that has reverberated across centuries.
  2. Anne Boleyn has been the subject of historical interest as early as the late 16th century, when George Wyatt composed her earliest known biography. Modern examinations of her life have been authored by Retha Warnicke (The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, 1989), Antonia Fraser (The Wives of Henry VIII, 1992), David Starkey (Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, 2003), Eric Ives (The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2005), and Alison Weir (The Lady in the Tower, 2010). These assessments differ over questions such as Anne’s sexual and gynecological history, the prime movers behind her downfall, even her appearance, but only Ives’ superlative study offers any, albeit limited, rhetorical analysis of Anne’s own words. Elizabeth Norton’s 2013 collection The Anne Boleyn Papers combines contemporary texts both by and about Anne, but without a more critical examination of the gendered forces shaping and expressed by Anne’s rhetoric.
  3. Kathi Vosevich contrasts Princess Mary’s education with that of Princess Elizabeth (under Roger Ascham, who praised Elizabeth for her unwomanly intellect) as a means of illuminating their different approaches to the rhetoric of queenship. However, some have argued against Mary’s education being categorically different than Elizabeth’s (see Schutte, Mary I and the Art of Book Dedications).
  4. Given the xenophobia and sexism of Tudor society, that she succeeded in gaining such approval, despite her Spanish heritage and lack of male offspring, is impressive. However, she also had a long tenure as queen, something that made her a more familiar and endearing presence than Anne ever became.

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