28 September 2011

Courtly Love and Anne Boleyn

The Art of Courtly Love: 
Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII
By Sandra Byrd

The art of courtly love and chivalric romance so popular during the early medieval period saw a revival during the Tudor era. Because the majority of noble marriages were arranged, with the focus being on financial or political gain, courtly love was a gentle, parrying game of flirtation wherein people might express true, heart-felt affections. According to historian Eric Ives, “The courtier, the ‘perfect knight’, was supposed to sublimate his relations with the ladies of the court by choosing a ‘mistress’ and serving her faithfully and exclusively. He formed part of her circle, wooed her with poems, songs and gifts, and he might wear her favor and joust in her honor … in return, the suitor must look for one thing only, ‘kindness’ – understanding and platonic friendship.” Many of the plays and entertainments in Henry the Eighth’s court reflected these values and Henry himself, early in his reign, was very chivalrous and courtly indeed. 
Andreas Capellanus, in his definitive twelfth century book, The Art of Courtly Love, set out to inform “lovers” which gifts could be offered, (among them a girdle, a purse, a ring, or gloves) and to clarify the signs and signals that indicated such a love game was underway – or on the wane. This way the participants, and those around them at court, would know that the game was afoot. Physical attraction was one of many factors in courtly love, but sexual expression was not necessarily an element of the relationship. Cappellanus further posits that a beautiful figure, excellence of character, and extreme readiness of speech are required for a man or woman to fall in love, with character being the most noble element of all.

The longest game of courtly love, played out before all of Europe, was undoubtedly between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. The relationship started out as courtly flirtation but as sometimes happened, it then progressed to a more serious, deeper connection with a significant goal in outcome and purpose. Although their courtly relationship did not follow each of the thirty-one rules Capellanus lists from the “King of Love,” it did dovetail with some of them – a few of which have been examined below.

Rule II. He who is not jealous cannot love. This rule immediately brings to mind the incident between Henry and Thomas Wyatt during a game of bowls. Thomas Wyatt used one of Anne’s ribbons and bauble to mark distance, and he meant to use it to provoke or test Henry’s jealousy. Henry, predictably, flew into a possessive bluster. Anne recovered nicely from Wyatt’s foolishness, but there was no further doubting that she was Caesar’s and not to be touched.

Rule IV. It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing. One of the most extraordinary things about Henry’s affection for Anne is that she was able to not only capture it but build upon it over a remarkable period of time – seven years from 1525 when it was clear he had fallen for her, to 1533 when their public marriage took place – allegedly, without physical consummation. He did not become bored or disinterested in her companionship. This was no mean feat when one considers Henry’s short attention span. He wrote tender love letters to Anne, some of which still exist, a powerful demonstration of his growing love as Henry loathed writing.

Rule XI. It is not proper to love any woman whom one would be ashamed to seek to marry. Much has been made of the fact that Anne “held out” sexually from Henry for personal reasons, and that Henry wanted his heirs by her to be legitimate, two among other valid reasons why they did not simply have an affair. But there is strong evidence to suggest that Henry found Anne worthy of marriage – he crowned her –and took great pride in displaying her before all the court. In Anne it is clear that for some time Henry believed he’d found a spirited soul mate who was as vibrant as he was and he desired for her to be his wife.

Rule XIV. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized. We’re often reminded that Henry left his wife and broke away from the Roman Catholic Church during his pursuit to marry Anne, courting war and ill will in the process. But Anne, too, made sacrifices. Her child-bearing years were quickly slipping by; there was a rush to judgment as she was reviled by much of the populace as a usurper; she had no official role nor position; and, finally, there was no guarantee that she would even have her marriage. Both of them risked much. Only one of them, in the end, lost everything.

Rule XXVIII. A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved. In the end, it took very little to convince Henry that Anne had betrayed him, a ridiculous acceptance of circumstances that demanded Anne be in places she clearly was not and act in ways that would never have gone unnoticed and that were in stark contrast to her character. . One must ask, why? Cappellanus answers that question for us, too.

“…when love has definitely begun to decline, it quickly comes to an end unless something comes to save it.”

At the point when the King’s affections began their precipitous drop, long after their game of courtly love was over and well into their marriage, the only thing that could have saved Anne was the son she miscarried. Chivalric values included integrity, protecting the vulnerable, and acting with self-sacrificing honor. Sadly, Henry did not turn out to be the “perfect knight” Ives speaks of. In Capellanus’s concluding section, The Rejection of Love, he references , “…lovers who have been driven by love to think of killing their wives and they have even put them to a very cruel death – a thing which all will agree is an infamous crime.” Unfortunately, this evil came to pass. In Anne’s final months, Henry was likely not driven to this crime by love of another woman, although he clearly had one in mind, but perhaps primarily out of love for himself, a nonvalorous motivation indeed

.HH. Thank you Sandra - that was so interesting! This is one of those periods that could have sent hustory off in a different direction (I find them fascinating!) Had Katharine of Aragon borne a son England would have stayed Catholic. Had Anne given Henry a living son.... maybe we would not have had Elizabeth I. I always feel so sorry for Anne - if only she had known that her daughter would become one of England's greatest monarchs.

A couple of questions:

HH : I admit to loathing the Tudors - Henry VII and VIII especially (probably because I am a firm Richard III supporter!) I haven't made up my mind about Anne yet. Was she a scheming little madam, out for all she could get (a crown!) or was she an innocent victim of Tudor politics? What do you think?

SB : I often say that Anne is either portrayed as vixen or victim and I don't think she was neatly either.  All of us are three dimensional; Anne was, too. I think she was an ambitious and strong-willed woman in a time when meek and mild was the expected and admired norm. Remember, after all, during those years a woman could be publicly "clucked," or dunked, for appearing to be a scold to her husband or her father or brother.  Women were chattel.  She also appeared "foreign" for her French polish. Some liked that, some did not. I believe that's why she chose to go to her execution in English gable hood rather than the French hood she was famous for. She was making a point, at the end, that she was English through and through.
History, as recorded during those years, was written down mainly by men who held to those standards of the day.  So I take their impressions with a bit of proverbial salt.
Anne certainly did seek to advance her family and herself through her marriage, and was encouraged in that direction by those who would benefit. But the same could be said for any of Henry's wives as well as 99% of the nobles and gentry class. It was the way things worked, then.  She was a kind and loyal friend, an active supporter of the English Reformation, a fashionista, and politically astute, up till near the end. But she was also blunt, which made her enemies. The forthrightness that king loved in her in the beginning he was irritated an angered by in the end. What really did her in, though, like the queen who came before her, was the lack of a son.
Even her enemies admitted that charges against her were impossible and untrue

HH ; Anne is obviously one of your favourite "Queens" - who is second on your list?
SB : Of Henry's wives, Kateryn Parr would be second, followed closely by Katherine of Aragon.

HH : I believe you are now working on another novel? Is it a sequel, or something completely different?
SB :There will be two more books in the Ladies in Waiting series. The second book, The Secret Keeper, takes place during the queenship of Kateryn Parr. She was a strong woman, given to the reformation, and a best-selling author. But she had a soft spot for a bad boy and it led her, and those under her care, into trouble and distress.  I hope readers will find a deep, witty, and nuanced Parr in this book with perhaps a surprise ending.
The third book in the series will take place in the court of Elizabeth, and will also be told from the point of view of one of her ladies. We often hear about Gloriana, her power and amazing intellect, but not as often about Elizabeth's softer side as it intersected with her friends and her loves. Elizabeth was loyal but could also be a tempestuous friend, which made being her lady in waiting a bit of a balance walk and dangerous in its own right.    

HH :Why  - how - did you become interested in the Tudor period?
SB : I was always a nerdy girl who loved reading, and Jean Plaidy/Victoria Holt got me onto British history when I was young.  She wrote quite a bit about the Tudor era, and I suspect the drama of the era hooked me and never let go.  The "players" all seem like friends, and enemies, by now!

HH : When I was writing my novel Harold the King (titled I am the Chosen King in the US) I had great difficulty writing scenes about William, Duke of Normandy because I can't stand the man. I mentioned this to author Sharon Penman, who advised "Think of something good about him. It will help." That was quite a few years ago - and I'm still trying to think of something good about the wretched man! *laugh* In your opinion, what was "good" about Henry VIII?
SB : First, it's important to see him as the loving and charismatic man he was to Katherine of Aragon for many, many years, and to Anne, too, till very near the end.  He did, absolutely, turn into a tyrant, and there is little left to love by the time he made it to Parr.
There is no doubt that Henry was a strong man, and during that period in English history, I think a strong sovereign was needed to coalesce the kingdom and bring peace and stability among the noble class, which then trickled down.  Did that strength do harm? Yes, indeed, to a great many people. But when Henry VIII took the throne the Tudor claim to it was still a wee bit wobbly.  After all, he and his mother had taken refuge in the Tower during his father's reign. I also believe that his "Great Matter," while initiated for personal intent, also brought about more freedom in religion, eventually, for everyone in the kingdom, and that includes peasants. I have a line in my book that says a farmer does not choose the gentlest beast to break a hard field, but rather the strongest one. The two are rarely the same beast.

thank you Sandra - you've been a very interesting guest!

Learn more about Sandra’s books Here : or purchase her new book about Anne Boleyn, told from the point of view of Meg Wyatt, To Die For

This original article first appeared at the  site, The Tudor Trail

And Finally:

Choose ten dinner guests - alive, dead, or fictional, and why you've chosen them.

Although I adore the Tudor era, and most of the women who lived in it, I don't think I'd invite them all to dinner at the same time. Wouldn't make for a very good vibe, I don't think, no matter how good the food and wine. Instead, I think I'd choose 10 w
omen who have influenced me artistically and because I think they'd get on really well. That's the job of the hostess, right, ensuring that?

Jean Plaidy/Victoria Holt: It's all her fault. She's the author who first piqued my interest in British historicals.  I'm eternally grateful.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus: I have always admired her graceful readiness to the challenges set before her, but she really came alive to me as played by  Keisha Castle-Hughes in The Nativity Story.
Dr. Susan Doran:  She's a solid historian (Oxford) who is meticulous with detail and able to remain nonbiased. Her voice isn't overly academic, she speaks easily to the common reader while commanding respect.  Good sense of aesthetics in her books, too.
Mariko, from the novel Shogun:  Brave, wicked sword fighter, loyal, feminine, terrific mother, great friend, open minded, educated, self-sacrificing.  What's not to like?
Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane: Mother-daughter authors and editors, they worked seamlessly to bring Laura's stories to life.  I'd like to work with my daughter one day, too.
Tiffany Arbuckle:  She's an amazing, genre-bending musician with both contemporary and ethereal qualities that I love.
Cate Blanchett: Brilliant actress, melts into every role she plays.
Julia Child: So honest, so personable, so willing to be herself and not a people pleaser. And I need someone to plan the menu, right?


  1. Great interview. And I also think it's possible to be a scheming vixen and a victim of circumstance at the same time. Given the history of women, it would be shocking to me if any of the bad girls of history were _not_ in some sense, victims of their times.

  2. I think so too, Stephanie. It's just the fictional representation of Anne that I had read often seemed so either/or that it left little room for legitimate three dimensionality. Women were chattel during those times, legally. But they were nimble and intelligent and found ways to be influential in spite of it.


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