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Never In Her Proper Place: The Feminism of Anne Boleyn

Illustration for article titled Never In Her Proper Place: The Feminism of Anne Boleyn

Whether Anne Boleyn can be considered a feminist by modern terms is up to debate. Regardless, Anne did circumvent traditional gender roles of the time. Coquettish, boisterous, and outspoken, Anne remains one of the most controversial, intriguing, and intoxicating characters of the Tudor era.


Anne as an individual was much different than any Queen in power before her. This dichotomy was not only reserved to how Anne obtained the throne. As Susan Bordo states in her novel, The Creation of Anne Boleyn; "Anne had never 'stayed in her place'- which was exciting in a mistress, but a PR problem in a wife."

Anne was an active participant in the religious reformation of England. (Bordo) Anne was also no stranger to "modern" women's writing; in Anne's surviving collection of books, a copy of Margueritte de Navarre's first published poem (Miroir de l'ame pechersse",1531) can be found. (Bordo) Margueritte de Navarre also was a public champion for female causes at the time as well. (Bordo) Anne's library also includes a mass amount of French evangelical texts from the era, which shows that Anne was well versed in Protestant theology on the whole. (Bordo) Anne also supported the Protestant cause of the Bible being available to the "common" people in their own language (not just Latin or Greek), which was an extremely controversial and potentially dangerous opinion to have. (Bordo) The issue of religious reformation in England was a contentious one, with the fates and lives of the men that were impacted by the turmoil hanging in the balance. (Bordo)

With Anne standing at the forefront, and by being the reformation's greatest champion, Anne became an increasingly more divisive figure at court. (Bordo) Anne's largest public relations problem would become those pro-Papist (and therefore pro-Catherine of Aragon, who remained a devout Catholic) individuals, who called her a whore, and who claimed that she was the defiler of the sweet-natured King, Henry VIII. (Bordo) Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador to Charles V (The Holy Roman Emperor) wrote that "the heretical doctrines and practices of the concubine" were the "the principal cause of the spread of Lutheranism" in England- the concubine Chapuys mentioned was Anne. (Bordo) Anne campaigned viciously against Henry VIII's former wife, Catherine of Aragon, and Catherine and Henry's first daughter, Mary. When Catherine eventually passed away in 1536, Anne wore a yellow gown (in supposed honor of Spanish Funeral practices) and danced at court, spurning rumors that she had poisoned Catherine. (Bordo) Eventually, the King's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, began gathering evidence against Anne. (Bordo) Anne would eventually be brought to trial the same year that Catherine died, having been charged with adultery and treason. (Bordo)

Anne was a woman who simply "would not behave." (Bordo) Anne was not remain gracious, humble, or docile; which were traits that women were pressured to have and exhibit at that time in royal courts throughout Europe. (Bordo) Anne's sharpness perception, and her inherent wit, made her more suitable for the council chamber than the bower; but at that time, women did not belong in the council chamber. (Bordo) At her trial, Anne recognized that her behavior at court was not appropriate for the time. (Bordo) While proclaiming her innocence, Anne acknowledged at her trial that she had jealous tendencies, and noted failure to show Henry VIII "that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited." (Bordo) This is fascinating insight to the gender politics that played into Anne's downfall; in lieu of confessing to adultery or treason Anne confessed to a different crime; the inability to remain in her "proper place." (Bordo) Anne was eventually found guilty, and executed by a swordsman that was brought over from France. (Bordo)


Although not a published feminist herself, Anne read and owned works by feminists of the time. Anne also succeeded in pushing men out of their comfort zones. By valuing her own body, and her own ideas, Anne stood out as a firebrand for male enemies to unite against her. (Bordo) Was Anne Boleyn a feminist? Anne's refusal to confine herself to the traditional gender roles at the time caused her an immense amount of backlash, and might have been one of the reasons she lost her head. Anne might as well have been a feminist. (Bordo)

Works Cited:
Bordo, Susan. "Anne Boleyn's "Feminism.'" Bordo, Susan. The Creation of Anne Boleyn. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Image via: Sarah Mesinga

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