Anne Boleyn – Wicked Stepmother or Historical Scapegoat?


In last week’s blog I explored how Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon’s daughter Mary Tudor was affected by her parent’s martial breakdown and the King’s eventual marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Much has been made of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in particular being responsible for Mary’s frequent bouts of stress related ill health. No doubt this turbulent and

Queen Mary I

uncertain period of Mary’s life contributed to her transforming from a carefree and loved princess to the embittered religious zealot that earned her the nickname Bloody Mary during her own five year reign.

It is well documented that on the annulment of her parent’s marriage Mary was deemed a bastard, restyled Lady Mary instead of Princess and made to suffer the humiliation of being one of her baby half sister’s attendants.

History has recorded the partial truth that in classic wicked stepmother mode, a spiteful and vindictive Anne encouraged Henry VIII to disregard Mary, and therefore she was wholly to blame for her stepdaughter’s misery.   Although is it historian Eric Ives’ opinion that Anne’s threatening outbursts with regards to Mary were mostly based on sheer frustration and temper that she would not accept her new status or obey her father.

Indeed when the Earl of Essex came upon Mary’s point blank refusal to sign the oath acknowledging her father’s new marriage and his powers over the church he was quoted as saying ‘Were she his or any other man’s daughter, he would beat her to death, or strike her head against the wall until he made it as soft as boiled apple.’

We do have reliable evidence for at least two occasions when Anne did try to reach out to Mary in order to establish a better relationship. Anne’s 20th century biographer Eric Ives writes in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn that in February or March 1534 Anne did make an effort to improve circumstances. Anne had tried to bargain with Mary that if she accepted her as Queen, she would act as a go between to improve Mary’s standing with her father. Mary’s response was to tell Anne “that she knew no Queen save her mother, but if she the King’s mistress would intercede with her father she would be grateful.’ Anne was predictably furious but undeterred made another attempt on the same day, which was met with the same discourteous response.

Lady Anne Shelton

Anne made further efforts to ease their difficult relationship by asking her Aunt, Lady Shelton to pass a message to Mary that the Queen wished to be kind. After Katherine of Aragon died in January 1536 Anne even offered to be ‘as a second mother, if only she would show her the minimal curtseys’. Still Mary remained stubborn. Anne changed tactics and a piece of subterfuge was tried when a letter/thinly veiled threat from Anne Boleyn to Lady Anne Shelton was deliberately left for Mary to find. The letter warned that all efforts at friendship were to ‘save the girl from her own folly’ and not because Anne needed her approval. With this change of tone things had taken a sinister turn, but even with her mother dead still Mary persisted in her obstinacy.


Queen Katherine

The fact that Anne Boleyn and Lady Mary Tudor did have a strained relationship is obvious, however what role did Katherine of Aragon’s defiance play in her only daughter’s strife? Katherine would not yield to her husband’s view that their marriage was invalid. Neither would she accept Henry’s offer of an honourable retirement to a religious house of her choosing.   Katherine’s intransigence lead to her removal from court, together with the King’s orders that she would not be allowed to see or even communicate with her child. Even in January 1536 when Katherine was clearly dying the King would not relent and allow Mary to bid a final farewell to her mother.

Was Henry VIII ulimately responsible for his daughter’s change in personality or did Mary pay the price for Katherine’s stubborness with her self-esteem, security and mental resilience?



Anne Boleyn and Bloody Mary

The Life & Death of Anne Boleyn: ‘The Most Happy’ by Eric Ives


3 Comments Add yours

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