In the Tudors TV show there was a thing with Henry and Anne exchanging love letters/poetry, was that actually a thing in medieval times/common, and if so what can you tell me about it?
Thanks for the question, Anon.
I haven’t seen The Tudors in ages, and I remember not liking much at all what I saw (seriously, Wolf Hall is a much, much better telling of the Henry-Anne story), but I’m very amused to hear they kept the detail of Henry’s love letters to Anne, because not only did that very much happen, but the letters themselves (at least, some of them) survive to this day and provide a fascinating insight into Henry’s passion for Anne Boleyn.
Unfortunately, we don’t know remotely how many she ever sent to him; if Henry kept them after receiving them, I presume he destroyed them no later than her execution. What we do have are 17 letters Henry sent to Anne, between about May 1527 to October 1528. The letters turned up in the Vatican archives decades after being written, and while they were almost certainly stolen from Anne in or around 1529, the exact reason why remains a mystery. Written partially in English and partially in French (a language Anne, who had spent years at the French court in the household of Queen Claude, knew well), the letters reflect Henry’s deep feelings for Anne. It’s not hard to see from them why Henry was willing to, nearly literally, move heaven and earth to have her, and why he would spent the following almost six years trying to make her his queen.
Because the Tudor court reveled in the game of courtly love, it might be expected that Henry’s letters should be steeped in such romantic language. In the fourth letter, Henry, in the fashion of a true Tudor poet, compares his love for Anne to a natural phenomenon: "the longer the days are, the more distant is the sun, and nevertheless the hotter; so is it with our love, for by absence we are kept a distance from one another, and yet it retains its fervor, at least on my side". In the ninth letter, Henry assures Anne that he loves her despite their absence (the king at that time trying to escape the fatal sweating sickness ravaging England), “for wherever I am, I am yours”. Sometimes, Henry casts himself in the romantic role of the suitor begging for his lady’s favor, a move perhaps surprising for this king who wielded more personal power than any English king before him. In the third letter, after briefly chiding Anne for not keeping her promise to answer his last letter with news of herself, Henry notes that “it seems to me it belongs to a true servant (seeing that otherwise he can know nothing) to inquire the health of his mistress”. In the fifth letter, Henry begs that “if any time before this I have in any way offended you”, Anne would give him “the same absolution” which a lost letter of hers asked for; in the sixth, Henry stresses that “if you love me with as much affection as I hope you do, I am sure the distance of our two persons would be a little irksome to you, though this does not belong so much to the mistress as to the servant”. In that same letter, Henry ends his “rude letter” by reminding Anne that “absence from you grieves me sorely” and hoping that Anne does not voluntarily wish to be far from him.
Indeed, reading these letters, it’s hard not to wonder at Anne’s tenacity - not merely to resist Henry’s offers, but to keep him in such a servile position. In the fourth letter, Henry grandly declares that “my heart and I surrender ourselves into your hands, beseeching you told hold us commended to your favor”. The sixth letter opens with Henry mourning that "the time seems very long since I heard concerning your health and you" and that he had “been told that the opinion in which I left you is totally changed”. Nor was Henry satisfied with giving Anne words alone. In the third letter, Henry writes that he is sending Anne “a buck killed late last night by my own hand, hoping that when you eat of it you may think of the hunter”. The following letter notes that Henry is giving Anne “my picture set in a bracelet, with the whole of the device, which you already know, wishing myself in their place, if it should please you”. In the tenth letter, Henry says that he “can do no less than to send her [“my darling”, i.e. Anne] some flesh representing my name, which is hart flesh for Henry, prognosticating that hereafter, God willing, you may enjoy some of mine, which He pleased, I would were now” (probably a play on “heart”, and also very possibly a sexual reference as well). Of course, Anne sent him some (very symbolically potent) gifts as well: in the fifth letter, Henry thanks Anne for “the fine diamond and the ship in which the solitary damsel is tossed about” - a pointed referenced to her uncertain state as neither his wife nor his mistress.
Now, not all of the letters were so poetic or formal. In the fifth letter, Henry signs at the bottom “H. autre A.B. ne cherche R.”, and draws a heart around Anne’s initials - that is, Henry Rex desires no other than Anne Boleyn (and he repeats this in the twelfth letter). There’s also a sexual tone to some of these letters, as Henry desperately tries to convince Anne to become his lover (and indeed, Anne was the only woman Henry offered to make his maîtresse-en-titre, though she refused). In the first letter, Henry promises that if Anne will “do the office of a true loyal mistress and friend” and “give yourself body and heart” to him, he will “take you for my only mistress, casting off all others”. In his twelfth letter, Henry notes at the end that he “wishes himself at this moment privately with you”. In the sixteenth letter, Henry says “I would you were in my arms, or I in yours, for I think it long since I kissed you”. In perhaps the most notorious passage from any of the letters, in the fourteenth letter Henry writes that he wished himself “(especially an evening) in my sweetheart’s arms, whose pretty dukkys I trust shortly to kiss” - “dukkys” being a slang term for breasts.
This is only a brief overview, of course, and I would highly recommend, if you’re interested, to read them fully - it’s a fascinatingly personal glimpse into Henry VIII’s mind and passions.
The Queen Regent (NFriel)