The Tudor Society

Talk on Anne Boleyn and Charity by Claire Ridgway

Anne Boleyn

It is impossible to talk about Anne the patron and generous giver without looking at what drove Anne to be the person that she was. Her driving force in that respect was her faith.

In brief, Anne was an evangelical who was heavily influenced by French reformers, men like Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples and Clément Marot, rather than German reformers like Martin Luther.

In his 1512 commentary on Romans 3, Lefevre distinguished between the justification (or salvation) of the law and that of faith, explaining that justification of the law came from works and justification of faith came from grace. He believed that both faith and works were necessary for salvation. Where Martin Luther emphasised justification by faith, salvation through accepting Christ as one's saviour, Lefevre insisted that works, or good deeds, were also important for salvation. Works that stemmed from a person's faith. To put it simply he believed that faith without works was not faith, and that works without faith were not works. They were both important and hinged on each other.

This kind of thinking on faith and works must have influenced Anne. Historian Maria Dowling points out that “Poor relief was both a humanist and a Lollard preoccupation, and Anne was, according to all her panegyrists, outstandingly generous to the poor” and this was something that was emphasised in The Ecclesiaste, the book that her brother gave her and which contained a translation based on Lefèvre's translation with a commentary by Johannes Brenz, the German theologian and reformer.

In the Bible, Ecclesiastes 11 verses 1 and 2 says:

“Be generous: Invest in acts of charity. Charity yields high returns. Don't hoard your goods; spread them around. Be a blessing to others. This could be your last night.”

And Anne's copy of The Ecclesiaste said:

“The court of kings, princes, chancellors, judging places and audiences be the places where one ought to find equity and justice. But, oh good Lord, where is there more injustice, more exactions, more oppressions of poor widows and orphans, where is there more disorder in all manners and more greater company of unjust men than there, whereas should be but all good order and just people of good and holy example of life.”

Anne was in such a place being the King's queen-in-waiting and then queen, and she was in a position to obey the Bible and help those who needed it. Charity and the dissemination of the English Bible were the two reformist principles that were close to Anne's heart.

But just how generous was Anne?
What evidence is there of her charitable giving and how did she help people?

Let's consider some 16th century sources...

John Foxe (1516/17-1587)

John Foxe was an English historian, reformer and martyrologist who is known for his accounts of religious martyrs published as “Actes and Monuments” and abridged as “Foxe's Book of Martyrs”. Actes and Monuments contains a section on Anne Boleyn, a woman who Foxe clearly sees as a Protestant martyr. Foxe also writes of Anne's charitable giving:

“Also, how bountiful she was to the poor, passing not only the common example of other queens, but also the revenues almost of her estate; insomuch that the alms which she gave in three quarters of a year, in distribution, is summed to the number of fourteen or fifteen thousand pounds; besides the great piece of money which her grace intended to impart into four sundry quarters of the realm, as for a stock there to be employed to the behoof of poor artificers and occupiers.”

Ives believes that the Foxe is exaggerating when he says £14-15000 and we have to remember that Foxe was writing in Elizabeth I's reign and may have been flattering the Queen or trying to get her to be just as generous as her mother.

William Latymer

William Latymer was a man who knew Anne Boleyn personally. He had acted as her chaplain and had also undertaken travels abroad to bring back religious books for Anne. In his biography of Anne, his “Cronickille of Anne Bulleyne” written in Elizabeth I's reign, he described Anne as “generous to the poor” and gave the following examples of her generosity, charitable giving and kindness:

Thomas Alwaye

Thomas Alwaye, who is described by historian Maria Dowling as “an otherwise obscure evangelical prosecuted by Wolsey and the bishops for buying English new testaments and other prohibited books”, petitioned Anne Boleyn in 1530 or 1531, seeking her help and intervention. In his letter, he wrote:

“But anon I remembered how many deeds of pity your goodness had done within these few years, and that without respect of any persons, as well to strangers and aliens as to many of this land, as well to poor as to rich.”
And he also made mention of Anne's “charity” and said that her “Christian mind is everywhere ready to help, succour and comfort them that be afflicted, troubled and vexed”.

Yes, he may have been flattering her to get her assistance but, as Dowling points out, for him to even turn to her in his hour of need shows that Anne was known for helping reformers. Would he have dared write to her otherwise?

George Wyatt

Wyatt was the grandson of courtier and poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, and author of “The Life of the Virtuous Christian and Renowned Queen Anne Boleigne” which was written towards the end of the 16th century, during the reign of Elizabeth I. His account of Anne's life was based on information given to him by his family and by Anne Gainsford, former lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn.

Wyatt wrote of Anne:

“And yet far more rich and precious were those works in the sight of God which she caused her maids and those about her daily to work in shirts and smocks for the poor. But not staying here her eye of charity, her hand of bounty passed through the whole land.”

And then concurred with Foxe over the amount Anne gave in poor relief.

“Her ordinary amounted to fifteen hundred pounds at the least, yearly to be bestowed on the poor. Her provisions of stock for the poor in sundry needy parishes were very great. Out of her privy purse went not a little to like purposes. To scholars in exhibition very much: so as in three quarters of a year her alms was summed to fourteen or fifteen thousand pounds.”

Foxe's Acts and Monuments was first published in 1563 so perhaps Wyatt used that as a source, we just don't know, but historian Eric Ives believes that the regular amount of £1500, mentioned by Wyatt, would be more credible. According to Ives a sum of £14/15000 was “twelve times larger than the annual surplus on Anne's expenditure” so just does not make sense unless it is a typo, a case of an extra 0 being added.

William Marshall

In 1535, William Marshall, a man who was enlisted by Cromwell to draft legislation for poor relief, dedicated his work “The Form and manner of subvention or helping for poor people, devised and practised in the city of Ypres” to Anne, writing:

“My very mind, intent and meaning is (by putting of this honourable and charitable provision in mind) to occasion your grace (which at all times is ready to further all goodness) to be a mediatrix and mean unto our most dread sovereign lord... for the stablishing and practising of the same (if it shall seem so worthy) or of some other, as good or better, such as by his majesty or his most honourable council shall be devised.”

Maria Dowling points out that it is “a telling indication of the distribution of political influence that Marshall, primarily a Cromwell protégé, should consider it more effective to present his work through Anne rather than through his own patron”. It shows that Anne had a reputation for being concerned with poor relief, that she had influence over the King and that she did play a part in the government's decision to provide poor relief.

Anne Boleyn and Cromwell's Poor Law

Contrary to popular opinion, Thomas Cromwell was not a greedy money-grabbing statesman whose main motivation in office was to line Henry VIII's pockets and his own on the way. Cromwell, like Anne Boleyn, was concerned with poverty. In June 1535, Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, reported to Emperor Charles V that Cromwell had told him that he “and other privy councillors are now looking out for the means of checking this King's avarice, and making him spend his money for the benefit of the nation”.

As the Thomas Cromwell Experience website explains “Cromwell, and his army of staff, spent a year investigating the causes of poverty. Among their conclusions were: cruel employers, ill health/incapacity, crime, and bad living conditions/poor upbringing.”

With the main causes of poverty identified, Cromwell then began planning how the problem could be tackled. His biographer John Schofield explains that “An ambitious plan of public works was then laid out. It included new buildings, repairs to harbours, highways, and fortresses, and scouring and cleansing of water courses; all under the direction of officers reporting to a central council.”

By Autumn 1535, Cromwell had the draft bill prepared, legislation that would provide help for the unemployed, relief for those in poverty and care for those who were incapacitated. However, the rather conservative House of Commons did not agree to Cromwell's legislation and the resulting poor law was much more modest than Cromwell's draft policy.
Cromwell's investigations and his proposals show that Cromwell was on the same page as Anne with regards to charity. Whether or not they argued on the proceeds from the dissolution of the monasteries, they were both concerned with poor relief.

Did Anne have any input into Cromwell's poor law plans? We don't know, but as Maria Dowling points out, William Marshall was linked to Cromwell and the Boleyns, and he was definitely involved in Cromwell's plans. Eric Ives goes as far as to describe Marshall as a Boleyn protégé, so Anne may well have been involved in Cromwell's plans.


Humanist scholars, who believed that society could be rescued by education and scholarship, dedicated their works to Anne. These scholars included Robert Whittington, Robert Wakefield and Louis de Brun. Anne also supported men at Cambridge – John Elmer and William Barker for example – and those studying abroad, e.g. John Beckynsaw, who was given £40 per year, and Wolsey's illegitimate son, Thomas Winter. William Barker mentioned Anne's “bountiful benevolence” in the dedication of his “Nobility of Women” to Anne's daughter, Elizabeth I, in 1559.

Men like Edward Fox, Hugh Latimer, Matthew Parker,William Barlow, Nicholas Shaxton, Edward Crome, Thomas Garrett and William Betts were just some of the reformers who gained positions due to Anne's help and patronage. Eric Ives writes of Anne being seen “as someone for reformers to turn to”. People in prison for possessing heretical books petitioned her for help and she was “the prime mover” in rescuing Nicholas Bourbon from trouble in France and then employing him as a schoolmaster for her ward Henry Carey and also Henry Norris the Younger and Henry Howard. Nicholas Bourbon thanks and praises Anne for her help in his verses.

“A poor man, I lie shut in this dark prison: There is no one who would be able or would dare to bring help: Only you, Oh, Queen: you, Oh noble nymph both can and will dare: As one whom the King and God Himself loves.” (A Frenchman at the Court of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives)

And his friend, Etienne Dolet, wrote a favourable epitaph on Anne after her execution.

Maria Dowling writes of William Latimer’s story of a French woman, Mrs Marye, “who “fled out of France into England for religion”, and was so well received by Anne Boleyn that she declared she had gained more from banishment than from staying home with her friends.”

John Cheke, in a letter to Matthew Parker in Sept 1535 “praised Anne's munificence to scholars”, so it was obviously no secret.

We also know that Anne supported the universities of Oxford and Cambridge with annual subventions and interceded with her husband, Henry VIII, to secure exemption of both universities from the clerical tax which had been introduced. She also supported the collegiate church of Stoke by Clare, the church to which her chaplain Matthew Parker, had been appointed dean in 1534. Anne was not only supporting education and scholarship, she was also advancing the cause of reform by supporting men of reformist persuasions and influencing appointments within the Church.

When Nicholas Shaxton and Hugh Latimer were made Bishops (Salisbury and Worcester respectively), neither man could afford to pay their first-fruits to the King. Anne stepped in and lent each of them £200. They were, after all, reformers and men she knew.


Anne Boleyn is often portrayed as a woman who only thought about herself, as someone who was ambitious, greedy and power hungry. But that is far removed from the truth. Evidence shows that she was a religious woman with a true and living personal faith, and that her faith led her to commit to doing good with what God gave her.

She didn't need to instruct her chaplains to look out for needy people and to tell her about them, she didn't need to increase the amount in the Maundy purses, she didn't need to be so generous of her time, money and influence, but she did it. Yes, it was good for her image, and some might call it public relations or propaganda, but she risked her reputation and image to support reformers, so I don't believe that it was all about making Anne look good to the people. Her good deeds and her charity surely came from her faith and her love for her people. What a role model for us today!

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