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Anne Boleyn and Saint Anne: Using a Miniature to Send a Message

Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and Queen of England, was a powerful and controversial figure in the medieval period. In her coronation as Queen in 1533, Boleyn was surrounded by imagery of Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary. Anne was a popular and respected Saint in England, France, and many other European countries at the time of Boleyn’s coronation, and is also the first female Saint to be seen in the Book of Hours that Boleyn used. Though this Book of Hours was not specifically made for Anne Boleyn, Saint Anne was sure to be one of the suffrages that received a lot of attention from her. To understand why this may have been the case, we first need to understand the history of Saint Anne and why she was so important.

Saint Anne is considered to be of the house and line of David, and is the mother of the Virgin Mary. She is also the grandmother of Jesus Christ. She married Joachim, and struggled for many years to have a child. Because of her empty womb, Anne and her husband where shunned. It was the belief of many at the time that a childless woman was the direct result of displeasure by God. All of this changed when Anne and Joachim where older however, as Anne immaculately conceived Mary, mother of Jesus. At the time, it was believed that a child of an older mother was going to accomplish great things and was blessed by the Lord, so Anne and Joachim took her to the temple when she was just three years old. Mary did go on to do great things, as the Mother of Jesus, and is still the center of Christian praise today. Saint Anne is usually portrayed in Books of Hours as a matronly figure teaching a young Virgin Mary. She is the patroness of unmarried women, housewives, grandmothers, women in labor, and horseback riding. Many people to this day pray to Saint Anne for pregnancy and marriage, and I am sure than Anne Boleyn did the same thing, especially in the time during and before her marriage, and the birth of her daughter Elizabeth. It would have been useful to pray to Saint Anne, as Boleyn knew that she needed to have a strong marriage to Henry VIII and a son to continue the Tudor dynasty.

Kings MS9 53-54
Kings MS9 53-54

In the Book of Hours that Boleyn used, Saint Anne is teaching her grandson, Jesus, while Mary holds him. This is a direct look at the genealogy of Jesus and what side of the bloodline mattered most. Saint Anne was from the house and line of King David, meaning that Jesus’s line was matrilineal. This imagery would have been pretty powerful to Boleyn, as she was desperate to provide Henry and England with a male heir to the throne. She was equally desperate to prove her worth to the English people and to Henry, as well as solidify her importance within English history. Boleyn’s interpretation of the miniature of Saint Anne inside of the Book of Hours she used would most likely have been one of reverence as well as how she wanted herself to be remembered in England for centuries to come. She wanted to be important and seen as one of the key figures in producing an heir that could continue the greatness of her country.

That being said, the choice to use Saint Anne imagery in her coronation as Queen in 1533 was not only a message to England, but a message to Henry as well. Henry was desperate for a son, and Boleyn promised to give him one. By using Saint Anne, Boleyn could have been alluding to the story that the Saint and her husband where shunned from the temples because her womb was barren (just like Henry had been barren of a son). Of course, God showed favor on Saint Anne and her husband, and blessed them with an immaculate conception. Boleyn promised Henry an almost as immaculate conception of a male heir as Henry was under the impression that he could not have a son because he had “coveted another man’s wife” with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. She was to be married to Henry’s brother, but he passed before they could consummate the marriage. Henry most likely would have looked upon Boleyn with admiration and high hopes with all of her allusions to her connection with Saint Anne, and that is exactly what Boleyn would have wanted from him. She knew that he could snap at any moment given his past of beheading close friends and advisors as well as divorcing his first wife. However, connecting herself with the image of Saint Anne in Henry’s mind would be a good way to ease his anxiety and provide positive reinforcement of his decision to marry her.

I think that it is important to note how a connection to Saint Anne would have potentially eased the minds of the English people as well. Boleyn was not popular but Saint Anne was. Saint Anne brings along images of intelligence, godliness, and nurturing that I feel would have been beneficial to Anne. She was younger than Queen Catherine, and I am sure that she wanted to distance herself from the idea that she was just a silly girl who the king was fascinated by. One way that she could do that is by aligning herself with a matronly figure. Boleyn also wanted to seem intelligent, which could have affected her choice in choosing Saint Anne to represent her, because Saint Anne is usually seen teaching Mary (and sometimes Jesus) from a book. It was some serious girl power to align yourself with a Saint who taught and raised the beloved Virgin Mary. Finally I think that it was important to covey to the people of England that she cared about being pious and was not just another one of the King’s whores like so many thought her to be.

There is also a chance that Boleyn did not chose her coronation imagery herself, but that the pageant director did this specifically because they shared a name. If this is the case, there are certainly enough connections between the two to add validity to the comparison. Boleyn would have most likely been pleased with this imagery and welcomed the comparison with open arms. Either way, choosing Saint Anne imagery was important for the way that Boleyn was seen by the people around her. The obvious connection is there, but I am sure that the more masked connection would be easily seen by Boleyn in her reading and prayer using her Book of Hours. This same connection would have also been seen by other people as they read their Books of Hours and would succeed in its attempt to portray Boleyn as possessing the same grace, godliness, and intelligence as Saint Anne.