• Jul 6, 2014

Primary Sources: Anne Boleyn and the theatre of reformation

This essay by Anne Boleyn playwright Howard Brenton was originally published in The Guardian on July 8, 2011.


My father, who was a Methodist minister, once had a blazing row with a fundamentalist. This good soul – a butcher and fiery lay preacher always with a battered King James Bible tucked under his arm – argued that the miracles of Jesus really happened. Dad was what was then called a "modernist": he believed that many of the Bible stories, Old and New Testament, were not literally true but "symbolic"; in unguarded moments he would hint that even the resurrection of Jesus did not necessarily happen, what mattered was that the gospel story illustrated a great mystical truth.

The butcher would have none of this. Everything in the Bible was true: the Red Sea literally parted, Lazarus rose from the dead, the disciples saw the resurrected Jesus ascend into heaven. The Bible is the word of God, end of argument. A realisation began to dawn on my father, and he said something like "but it is only a translation, from Hebrew and Greek". The butcher exploded. Translation? No! He believed Jesus and the disciples actually spoke the words of the King James Bible. The language of biblical Palestine was Jacobean English.

This literalism seems absurd. The title page of the King James version reads "newly translated out of the original tongues, and with former translations diligently compared and revised, by His Majesty's special command". But I suspect that, since its publication in 1611, millions in the English speaking world have shared the butcher's certainty. Nowadays James's "authorised version" is seen as merely a monument of beautiful but antiquated English. But for the faithful it was – and for many still is – the word of God made ink on paper.

So the butcher was expressing a fundamental Protestant belief: the word of God must be absolute, certain, unquestionable, because it is the only thing we have to live by. By attacking my father's "rationalism" he was also expressing a deep, Protestant fear: call the literal interpretation of the Bible into doubt and God's word becomes incoherent. God begins to mumble, then falls silent and dies. The word is all.

This is not a dry point of theology. It is the idea that was used to challenge and break the power of the Roman Catholic church in northern Europe, the detonator of the 16th-century political and religious explosion we have come to call the Reformation. Countries, families and even individual consciences were torn apart. To some the Reformation gave the freedom and ecstasy of voicing long-suppressed beliefs, to others the choice of apostasy or martyrdom, but to most it brought uncertainty and fear to everyday life: can I still pray to the Virgin Mary, why is the abbey burning, are those soldiers in the village Papist or Protestant? In our country the aftershocks are still with us in the uneasy peace in Northern Ireland and the sporadic violence at Celtic v Rangers football matches.

The great reform leaders – the Frenchman John Calvin living in Geneva, Martin Luther in Germany, the Englishman William Tyndale who spent many years in hiding in the Netherlands – may have disagreed theologically on many things but on the word of God they were united: sola scriptura, the Bible not the Catholic church and its traditions is the sole source of authority for all Christians.

In England at the Court of Henry VIII a Protestant underground, led by Thomas Cromwell, broke cover and gave the King the grounds for breaking with Rome. Henry wanted a male heir to secure his family's dynasty. Cromwell wanted a new heaven on earth. Henry's wife, Catherine of Aragon had borne a daughter, Mary, but they had no sons who survived infancy. And so God's word became enmeshed in a bitter dynastic struggle.

The well-known stories of history seem so inevitable, as if they were set in stone – or on celluloid – even as they happened. But actually most of us, kings included, act in the moment. History is the mess "living in the moment" leaves behind. In the second when Anne caught the attention of Henry VIII during a court masque – she had thrown an orange at him – a chaos of religious controversy began. The Marxist view of history as the playing out of class conflict and commercial interest may be true on a macro scale, but the "what ifs" of history tell us we are free and nothing is certain: what if one of Catherine of Aragon's sons had survived – would England have stayed Catholic? What if Henry had not caught Anne's orange – would the Protestants at court have lost out? He could have chosen a fertile young Catholic – as he did later in Jane Seymour. And if Anne had had a surviving son she would have been unassailable, the church of England would have been thoroughly Protestant and never have split into the factions that beset the reign of James I. It is my view that personalities do make history, alas.

Henry was given to taking a lot of advice and procrastinating; then suddenly something would provoke him and he would decide on a course of action from which he never deviated. He was not so much a loose cannon as one which, though you saw where it was pointing, you never knew when or if it would fire. His reign was resplendent with pageantry, he built great palaces, held magnificent tournaments, but this was a policy of show to mask a deep unease. He was only the second generation of a family that were little more than bandits who had taken over the country by force, killing the Plantagenet King Richard III. Throughout Henry's reign there were pretenders to the crown, some of whom, such as the colourful imposter Perkin Warbeck, were a serious threat. Henry's policy was to decrease the power of the aristocracy by concentrating patronage in his court. Anyone who dared to build bigger or throw more lavish entertainments than the king could find themselves in the Tower. A new England was beginning to emerge – mercantile, with taxes regulated and collected, and a strong central government. But if the Tudors fell England could return to the chaos of the wars of the roses. There had to be a male heir.

The Catholic church forbade his divorce. There is, however, a verse in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (20:21): "If a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness: they shall be childless." Henry, to the alarm of the diehard Catholic Thomas More but encouraged by the closet Protestant Thomas Cranmer, argued that this verse meant that, in the eye of God, he should never have married Catherine because she was first married to his elder brother, Arthur. Catherine, herself a great political infighter – these people were extraordinarily tough – countered that she and Arthur had never consummated their marriage.

Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's chancellor, did his best with Leviticus but the pope was having none of it. Complex and frustrating negotiations petered out. For his own political reasons – Catherine's nephew had recently sacked Rome and he was terrified of her family – Pope Clement forbade the divorce. The church's word was final. But the cannon had fired – the king had made up his mind – and there must be a divorce. Wolsey fell, Cromwell became chancellor and the Protestants' moment had come in England. The word of scripture, not the command of the Catholic church, would rule the king.

When Dominic Dromgole, the artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, asked me to write a play about the translating of the King James Bible I couldn't see how to do it. But I had long wanted to write about the Tudors – I once had a crazy idea for a play called Tudor Rose in which one actor would play all the monarchs, Henry VII to Elizabeth. Then I remembered reading that Anne Boleyn owned a copy of Tyndale's translation of the New Testament. She also had got hold of a copy of his incendiary The Obedience of a Christian Man, published in 1528. This was a key text of the Reformation; it attacked the Catholic church and argued that kings, like all of us, are responsible directly to God who speaks to us through scripture, not through the church or the pope. Wolsey, forever trying to stem the Protestant tide, confiscated the book from one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting. Anne went at once to the king and Wolsey was forced to return it. She marked up passages for Henry and gave it to him. He famously commented: "This book is for me and for all kings to read." The word had wormed its way into the king's head.

And I had another crazy idea: what if when James ascends the English throne in 1603 he is looking through Queen Elizabeth's effects and, hidden in an old chest, he finds her mother's copies of Tyndale's books and becomes obsessed with her?

After Henry the country Catholic and Protestant martyrs burnt. Elizabeth tried to damp down controversy but failed. James was faced with a dangerous schism between "high church" – whose adherents longed for the old Catholic glories and hierarchies – and "low church", where worshippers wanted to be like the early Christian communities which had no bishops at their head, just Christ and his word.

James saw where this could lead: a challenge to the authority of the throne itself, the divine right to rule. He called a conference at Hampton Court to settle the controversy. The exchanges between the divines and their king are a dramatist's sweetshop; James was a brilliant, savage debater with a scabrous wit that stunned the assembly. The idea for a new translation came from a moderate Puritan scholar from Oxford, John Reynolds. Immediately James saw the opportunity: a new Bible could unite the Protestant factions in agreement. He set up many committees of translators from all sides. The King James Bible was a brilliant, inventive political manoeuvre. The text was largely based on Tyndale's translation subtly amended to enhance the authority of the state and downgrade personal faith (Tyndale's "congregation" became "church", "elder" became "priest" and "love" became "charity".) Now controversy could end. The word of God was clear for all to read.

James's settlement failed. The Protestant revolution that began in Henry's time exploded into the English civil wars of 1642 to 1649. What James feared came to pass: monarchy's divine power was broken forever.

For there is a deadly fault-line in the Protestant dependence on the word. My father and the butcher were standing on it: it is interpretation. Tyndale's book gave Henry the intellectual authority to break with Rome. But in a virulent pamphlet, The Practice of Prelates, Tyndale attacked Henry's desire for a divorce quoting the Book of Deuteronomy (25:2): "If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child. The wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger but her brother's husband shall go unto her." But which is true, Leviticus or Deuteronomy? Is God contradicting himself?

Anne Boleyn and Tyndale never met but in my play they do (it's what playwrights call "the Schiller manoeuvre", after the great scene in Maria Stuart where Elizabeth I meets Mary Queen of Scots). Anne challenges him: which of the two verses is God's word? Tyndale replies that Leviticus refers to taking a brother's wife when the brother is still living.

ANNE: Nowhere does it say that!
TYNDALE: That is the revealed 
ANNE: Revealed how?
TYNDALE: By prayer.
ANNE: Oh, then let's pray and make 
anything true!

This is the tyranny of the word of God. It is meant to free you. But interpret it wrongly – that is against the interpretation of the men with swords or guns – and it can kill.