Did Anne Boleyn not actively seek to become his queen? (not a rhetorical question; genuinely confused)
No, Anne Boleyn did not seek to be Henry’s queen, not at the beginning, anyway.
The first year of Henry and Anne’s relationship can be better described as sexual harassment in the workplace than a romance. Anne spent most of 1526 trying to tactfully dodge Henry’s advances. She had told him she would be no man’s mistress, but he didn’t respect that.
In February, he made a public declaration of his interest in Anne, hoping the fawning attention of the court would pressure her into giving into his advances. it didn’t work. Anne still would not become his mistress. Henry now spent more time in his wife’s quarters than he had in years, but it was to visit Anne where she couldn’t escape his attentions.
In May, it got so bad that Anne actually quit her job as a lady in waiting and retreated to Hever, where she refused to answer Henry’s letters and sent back his gifts. Henry’s letters to her at this point are full of pouting complaints that she won’t write back to him.
Henry still wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and chased after her. He went to stay with a cousin of Anne, Nicholas Carew, whose house was a convenient distance from Hever so he could ride over at his leisure. It wasn’t like Anne could refuse to receive him at the house. She refused wherever she had agency, but in this she did not. No one could refuse the king admittance.
Anne had to walk a delicate balance. If she had offended the king, it would have put her entire family’s future in danger. She undoubtedly faced pressure from her family and friends - who were benefiting from the king’s attentions to Anne with a stream of offices, appointments, and titles - to keep the king “happy” and not anger him. And so Anne had to remain polite and friendly, smiling while she tried to duck away from his reaching hands.
Anne wanted what every girl of the era wanted, to make a good marriage. She was intensely religious, something that’s often forgotten in her on-screen portrayals, an evangelical with a reformist zeal. No matter what the king offered her, she would not sleep with any man unless he was her lawfully-wed husband. But she couldn’t find a husband while the king was pursuing her. No man would ask for her hand and risk enraging the king. And the longer the king chased her, the less people believed Anne could still be a virgin. Her reputation was just as ruined as though she’d been the king’s mistress in truth.
Later writers, seeing how things turned out, have posited that Anne planned the whole thing from the start, “luring” Henry away from his wife with her sexy feminine witchery. They imbue her with supernatural foresight, as if she somehow knew if she ignored him, refused him, and left court, it would drive him mad with lust and he would leave his wife for her. But that’s ridiculous. Anne could not have possibly hoped Henry would make her his queen when he was chasing her back in 1526.
In the past, Henry had always gracefully backed away when a lady indicated she wasn’t interested in being perused by him. Henry had a very fragile ego and was pained by being refused. His way was to sniff around and drop hints, and if the lady was cool toward his overtures, he would step back quickly and pretend the whole thing never happened. “Interested in her? Huh! Me? No way. Maybe she was interested in me, but I wasn’t into her!”
In Anne’s case, he wasn’t taking the hint. Anne was as blunt as she could be without being outright rude, but he kept coming back, offering her larger gifts, and promoting her family members to higher offices with greater income. Her family must have despaired when Anne left court because it put her prestigious career as a maid of honor in danger, but even that drastic move wasn’t enough to push Henry off his course.
Thomas Wyatt, who watched the whole thing and may have been in love with Anne himself, wrote a poem about it, Whoso List to Hunt. He portrayed Anne as a deer, fleeing for her very life, with Henry and others in pursuit. But Henry has already put a collar around the deer’s neck, proclaiming the prize as his own, whether she likes it or not. And though Anne seems “tame,” she has a wild longing to be free. But later writers have portrayed it as though it was the deer luring Henry into the hunt.
While everyone knew by 1526 that Henry wanted to divorce Katharine (he’d stopped sleeping with her years ago and had told several people he thought his marriage to her was invalid), everyone fully expected his next wife would be a princess of the blood, someone who would bring him a huge dowry and an alliance with a foreign power. A king marrying a mere gentlewoman for love? The idea was ridiculous. All the time he was trying to arrange Henry’s annulment, Wolsey was planning the king would marry a French princess. Even he, who probably knew the king better than anyone, didn’t think Henry would really marry Anne.
In 1527, Henry asked Anne to marry him. Two things are important to note here. First of all, a royal proposal was not a request. A woman did not turn down a proposal of marriage from a king. She just couldn’t. (Ask Kateryn Parr, who was in love with another man when the king proposed.) It’s not like today, when a woman has agency in deciding her marital future. In those days, if a man of appropriate rank and wealth approached for a marriage, the girl’s father would decide if the union was good enough and if it was, the girl was expected to accept. If his rank was much higher than her own, or her father’s, the girl and her father had no little choice in the matter. They could appeal to higher authorities, such as the king or cardinal, and they might put a stop to the match, but the girl’s opinion on the matter was inconsequential. In this case, there was no higher authority to whom Anne could appeal if she didn’t want to marry Henry.
Secondly, once Anne had accepted, they were legally bound to one another. A betrothal was almost as legally binding as a marriage itself, requiring a dispensation from the pope to dissolve. Once she had accepted, Anne had to put her effort into furthering her marriage. If the king had changed his mind at this point, Anne would have been ruined. Few men would have been willing to take the king’s discarded “mistress,” and even with a papal dispensation freeing her from the engagement, her marital prospects would have been dim.
In short, there is no evidence whatsoever that Anne had a grand, cunning scheme to make herself queen. It would have been a ridiculous plan, and incredibly reckless. “I’m going to risk inciting the queen’s hatred, the king’s anger (potentially ruining our family), and destroying my reputation around Europe on the off chance that this time Henry won’t back away when I refuse him. Because I’m just so awesome, he won’t be able to quit me, you know.”
Humans have a tendency to look back at events once they’ve occurred and see a master plan behind it all, but there’s simply no evidence of it. Instead, what we see is a young woman harassed in her workplace to the point of quitting her job, but was still unable to shake off her boss’s attentions.