I can no longer think about the subject of how Elizabethans viewed Anne and Elizabeth without thinking of a cracked.com article that was posted in September of last year. Cracked.com is, at best, a highly off-kilter website (read: not for a younger audience), and the majority of its articles are done by freelance writers. One might read a terribly off-balanced fact sheet on Anne Boleyn penned by someone who had clearly just watched The Other Boleyn Girl, or one might read an article by an author who put serious (albeit, colorful) consideration into the topic. The latter was the case of an article I read in September 2010, titled “5 Fictional Stories You Were Taught in History Class.” The #1 myth, as chosen by the author, was “Anne Boleyn was a Deformed Freak.” While giving a brief overview of the Catholic-Protestant debate in England, the author explained that the lies about Anne’s appearance were a creation of Nicholas Sanders, a Catholic priest who realized that the best way to criticize Queen Elizabeth was to insult her mother, who had died nearly fifty years before Sanders wrote his book. The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, so explained the author, might as well be titled The Rise and Growth of Your Mom, so to use a modern, turn-of-phrase insult.
What, however, does this have to do with what we know of Elizabethan views of Anne and Elizabeth? The point of discussing this article is to demonstrate that much of what we know about how Elizabethans viewed Anne is clouded by the propaganda of Elizabeth’s contemporaries, who were locked in the religious politics of Roman Catholic vs. Anglican vs. Puritan (vs. Puritan became a greater issue in the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign). For many Elizabethans, insulting or praising Anne was a way to either support or challenge the changes that had been brought to England first by the Reformation and later by Elizabeth. No one who liked the Anglican Church as it was, or who wished to remain in Elizabeth’s good graces, would have dared to question the validity of Anne’s position. To do so would call into question the legitimacy of Queen Elizabeth, and also the Church of which she was the governor. The only people of position who made such insults were those who boldly attacked England’s new religious policies. The majority of those Elizabethan who criticized Anne Boleyn, as it turned out, were criticizing Elizabeth.
Aside from books that had a clear religious or political agenda, it is difficult to find Elizabethan opinions on Anne. Certainly, opinions of Anne were more positive during the time of the Armada, when Elizabeth’s “pure” English bloodline was celebrated in the face of foreign threat. We do, however, have one Elizabethan account of Anne and Elizabeth that was not to be found in a political/religious tract. In her book The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power, Carole Levin relates the following story:
“ Joan Notte had two dreams she thought important enough to share with the government. In each of them a variety of beasts threaten both Elizabeth and Sir Robert Cecil. In one of the dreams Anne Boleyn is also a character. Joan Notte described how, although she had been dead for nearly seventy years “Queen Anne Boleyn…appeared warning Queen Elizabeth not to go further from London than St. James.” Joan Notte would never have even seen Anne Boleyn, who died long before Notte was born. We do not know whether she had ever seen Elizabeth either, though she might well have; Notte had been to London during the last few years, and Elizabeth did go on progress throughout the countryside. Of course, we can never know even with our own dreams why certain people and symbols appear, much less with the dream of a woman who lived hundreds of years earlier…So we might speculate as to why in Joan Notte’s dream it is Elizabeth’s mother rather than her father Henry VIII who comes back to deliver the warning. Perhaps Joan Notte as a woman imagined that a mother would be the one to care most, even more than a father, over what happened to their child, especially a daughter as opposed to a son. Or it may be that Anne Boleyn’s own spectacular and horrific death was so much a matter of public memory that any worry over the fate of Elizabeth would coalesce with the image of that ritualized slaughter, the beheading, of the earlier queen. Joan Notte may have envisioned a connection between Anne Boleyn, a queen consort whose vulnerability was expressed by attacks on her sexual reputation and her inability to have a living son, and Elizabeth, queen regnant, who was called whore by some of her subjects and also had no heir of her body. Anne Boleyn was killed by her husband, the man who had so desired her, written her impassioned love letters, and waited almost seven years to make her his queen. Though over thirty years younger than the queen, Essex beseeched her favors by acting like a lover, and the rumors of sexual misconduct that had been circulating throughout the reign about Leicester and Hatton had their last appearance in whispers about Elizabeth and Essex. Henry the king had had his wife Anne executed. Essex might kill Elizabeth to become the king. And why does Anne Boleyn warn her daughter not to leave the city? The court near London was the center of power; for Elizabeth to leave, to abandon that power, would put her at terrible risk” (Levin, The Heart and Stomach of a King, 159-160).
Such an interesting account suggests that Anne existed very much in the minds, and even the dreams, of the English people during her daughter’s reign. Because of Elizabeth, Anne could be neither forgotten nor erased.