In today’s enlightened age, few would believe that Anne Boleyn was actually guilty of witchcraft. She may have had traces of an extra nail growing on her little finger, and possibly a mole on her neck, as reported by early biographer George Wyatt (grandson of Sir Thomas) who based his information from interviews with Anne’s former attendants. But who does not have any form of blemish on their body? Such flaws were obviously acceptable to King Henry when he desired her, but they appear to have been greatly magnified by her detractors in later years. By the time Nicholas Sanders gave his account a half-century later, the disgraced Queen was said to have buck teeth and a whole extra finger on her right hand! Yet the remains of a body thought to be Anne Boleyn’s, exhumed in the nineteenth century, showed no signs of skeletal abnormality. Of course, after three hundred years there would be scant trace of a mole or extra finger-nail remaining, but the evidence suggests that any imperfections Anne had were minor. So why were they interpreted as signs of devilry? A clue may be found in the English language.
The Malleus Maleficarum states that “The word ‘woman’ means ‘the lust of the flesh'”(43), which today can be understood as a psychological projection of blame onto the object of male desire. Women were seen as fickle, seductive creatures who would lead good Christian men astray. They made easy prey for demons to recruit and then these familiar spirits would claim their victims with “witches marks” (moles, skin tags, supernumerary nipples, or birth marks) – places on the body where they could suckle human blood. Therefore every sexually-active woman was potentially the devil’s gateway.
Unfortunately, the dual concepts of wickedness and blame worked their way into everyday language. If a man found a woman attractive it was because she was consciously bewitching, beguiling, enchanting, charming, captivating, or seducing him. Now as part of every day speech such terms were harmless. But when certain courtiers wrote them into love songs and sonnets, then they became exceedingly dangerous. Especially for a suspect Queen.
It seems unlikely that Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Anne Boleyn ever consummated their close relationship, despite the fact he was an ardent suitor of Mistress Boleyn before King Henry started noticing her. With the reputation for being one of the best poets of his age, Wyatt used clever wordplay and an ambiguous “I” speaker in the poems thought to have been written with her in mind: “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,” “What word is that that changeth not,” “If waker care, if sudden pale colour,” and “Sometime I fled the fire that me brent.” The poet was arrested in May 1536, charged with committing adultery with the Queen. Five other men were also accused, but he was the only one who escaped execution – proof enough that Henry believed his relationship with Anne was platonic.
And yet the beautiful words in Wyatt’s love sonnets may have ultimately helped to condemn his lady. Find out how in Part Four.
Sources for Part Three:
Daalder, Joost. Sir Thomas Wyatt: Collected Poems (Worldwide: Oxford UP, 1975)
Foley, Stephen Mirriam. Sir Thomas Wyatt (Boston: Twayne, 1990)
Kramer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum (New York: Dover, 1971)
Wiatt, William H. “Sir Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn” in English Language Notes, Vol. VI (December, 1968). Colorado: U of Colorado, 1968. 94-102.