Why is it that I keep a small picture of Anne Boleyn in my living room, flanked on both sides by a candles, with a small tapestry of the Fleur de Lis in the rear?
It could be that I have terrible decorating skills and no one to answer to but myself. Or it could be more significant.
The shrine is there to remind me of the tenuous grasp we have on life. To remind me that life can be short. To remind me that the things we often crave: power; money; romance; status; bring with them the seeds of discontent.
For when the marketing messages from Madison Avenue get so strong that I lose site of what’s important in life, I’m reminded of what George Boleyn, Ann’e brother and fellow victim of decapitation, warned the crowd assemble to witness his execution:
“to God the Fathar, the Sonne, and the Holy Ghoste, thre persons and one God, that my deathe may be an example unto yow all, and beware, trust not in the vanitie of the worlde, and especially in the flateringe of the cowrte”
note: I have no clue what a “cowrte” is. And those are not spelling errors. Spelling was not standardized back then. “Trust not in the vanity’s of the world” is the takeaway message here.
I present the following 8 lessons I’ve taken from the study of Anne Bolyen’s life.
1. “What the king giveth, he can taketh away.”
Anne Boleyn always knew her grasp on the crown was shaky. Her position, and that of her brother and father and daughter, were entirely dependent on Anne producing a male heir for King Henry. And no doubt she knew that King Henry’s passions, his emotions and desires, passed as quickly as they came. After all, he had bedded her sister!
She knew her only job was to provide Henry a male heir. She couldn’t. She died as a result.
When you are dependent on other people, be it financially, emotionally, or career-wise, you’re vulnerable. Self-reliance is the only way to go. Don’t compromise your integrity. Don’t give up your individuality. The moment you give in to obtain something material, the moment you sell your soul for a “better” station, you’ve lost control over your own life.
2. The dangers of blind ambition
While I’m not sure if Anne ever really wanted to play the role of Queen (it wasn’t really a choice for women in those days) her father was all for it. He knew his station in life, and that of his son George, would be vastly improved if his daughter became Queen. But would Daddy Boleyn still have wanted that lofty position if he knew that it would cost him the lives of his daughter and son?
Ask yourself: Why do you want what you want? And if what you want is obtained, will you actually get what you thought you’d get from getting what you wanted? Generally, people think they’ll acquire happiness or security when they acquire certain things. A certain income level, a trophy wife or husband, a position of power, a big house.
The truth is, you won’t find either one. You simply trade one set of anxieties for another, or set yourself up with even greater anxieties.
You now have to maintain that income level. You have to keep that trophy spouse happy. You have to maintain the power position while others will be scheming and plotting your downfall. That big house will have a big mortgage. What if you lose your job?
Daddy Boleyn wanted to rise at court, and he did. He went from diplomat to Lord Privy Seal, one of the closest confidants of the King. But it all came tumbling down when Queen Anne lost the King’s favor. After Anne and George’s execution, Daddy Boleyn was banished from court.
Two decapitated children, disgrace, and banishment. Was it all worth it?
3. We are all replaceable.
Anne Boleyn replaced Queen Catherine of Aragon. Jane Seymour replaced Anne Boleyn. Jane Seymour died after childbirth and was replaced by Anne of Cleaves. Henry thought Anne of Cleaves quite ugly, that she resembled a horse, and got that marriage annulled (at least she wasn’t executed). Catherine Howard replaced Anne of Cleaves. Catherine Parr replaced Catherine Howard after Howard was executed for adultery.
The sad truth: we are all replaceable. No matter how great we think we are. Although we can’t live without ourselves (duh), others will make it just fine without us. If anyone says they can’t live without you, they are lying or mentally unstable. Top salespeople can be fired. You can be dumped. Great athletes can be cut from their team.
Don’t take yourself so seriously. There are 6 billion people in this world, we all can’t be the most important person, even though we think we are.
In the end, we are all replaceable–and dead for that matter.
4. Every good has a seed of bad in it. And vice-versa.
Anne’s marriage made her Queen, but planted the seeds of her own demise. If she had never become Queen, she wouldn’t have been executed.
Life is dualistic in nature. Everything good in life has the seed of something bad. Every romance has the possibility of heartbreak. Every job promotion could lead to more responsibility and stress.
But nothing is ever just good and nothing is ever just bad. It entirely depends on how you view things.
The end of a relationship, the loss of a job; whether they are good or bad depends on your view of life. Because just like every good has the seed of bad, every bad has the seed of good. Viewing the difficult times as the beginning of something new and better, as a time for personal growth, can help you move forward, while wallowing in self-pity gets you nothing.
5. Never give up.
It took seven years for Henry to land Anne. For various reasons, mostly political, it was a long courtship. Henry was quite persistent. Although, I’m not sure the end result was ever seriously in doubt.
Interestingly, though, it is believed that their relationship was never consummated until Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled. That’s not to imply that Henry was celibate during that time. He had many mistresses–he was king, after-all. However, Anne was warned by her father not to give in to the King’s passions, lest he lose interest in her. Which leads to the next point…..
6. Once you get something you might not want it anymore.
There are two great disappointments in life: not getting what you want, and getting it.
Judging from Henry’s love letters to Anne, he was quite the miserable prince when he couldn’t obtain the object of his desire.
However, Henry’s interest in Anne quickly waned after getting what he wanted. While the courtship lasted 7 years, the actual marriage lasted only 3, and it didn’t take long before Henry started indulging in other women. While there is no doubt that Henry was fascinated by Anne’s wit, charm, and intelligence, it wasn’t enough to hold his interest.
Like Chris Rock has said, a man is only as faithful as his options.
I jest. Kind of. The reality is that 90% of men have few to no options, so not to worry, ladies, just marry one of them.
But Anne wasn’t naive enough to think that Henry wouldn’t be bedding other women. It was seen as a king’s right. She knew what she was in for.
But for the rest of us, there is a lesson: The thrill of the chase, the fantasy of what we desire, is often more exciting than the real thing. Desires are often best left unfulfilled.
7. Even Kings suffer
(from one of Henry’s letters to Anne)
“it is absolutely necessary for me to
obtain this answer, having been for
above a whole year stricken with the
dart of love, and not yet sure whether
I shall fail of finding a place in your
heart and affection.”
Everyone, even those who seemingly have everything, can’t escape fear, loneliness, suffering, and heartache. Even though in difficult times we often feel isolated and alone, you can be assured that there are millions of people in the world that are feeling the exact same thing, at the exact same moment, that you are.
8. Grace and Dignity.
If you have to go out, go out gracefully and with dignity, never in anger.
I’m assuming you won’t be led out to Tyburn to be “hanged-drawn-and-quartered” anytime soon. But you will be in situations that can hurt you emotionally. Being angry and resentful won’t help things, just make them worse. Always take the high road. Be the bigger person.
Here are Anne’s last words spoken on the scaffolding, after giving payment to her French executioner who traveled across the channel from Calais for this most important of all jobs. Yes, she had to pay her own executioner.
“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”