portrait of Anne Boleyn by an unknown artist, late 16th century
'She is of middling stature, with a swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the King's great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful - and take great effect on those who served the Queen when she was on the throne. She lives like a queen, and the King accompanies her to Mass - and everywhere.' the Venetian ambassador describes Anne, 1532
Anne Boleyn's birthdate is unknown; even the year is widely debated. General opinion now favors 1501 or 1502, though some historians persuasively argue for 1507. She was probably born at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. Her father was Sir Thomas Boleyn, a minor courtier with a talent for foreign languages; he was of London merchant stock and eager to advance in the world. Like most men, he chose to marry well. His bride was Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the second duke of Norfolk and sister of the third duke.
Anne had two surviving siblings, Mary and George. Their birthdates are also unknown, as is the order of their births. We only know that all three Boleyn siblings were close in age.
In 1514, Henry VIII married his youngest sister, Mary, to the aged king of France. Anne accompanied the Tudor princess as a very young lady-in-waiting and she remained in France after the French king died and Mary Tudor returned home. Anne gained the subsequent honor of being educated under the watchful eye of the new French queen Claude. This education had a uniquely French emphasis upon fashion and flirtation, though more intellectual skills were not neglected. Anne became an accomplished musician, singer and dancer.
In 1521 or early 1522, with war between England and France imminent, Anne returned home. When she first caught Henry VIII's eye is unknown. He was originally attracted to her sister, Mary who came to court before Anne. She was the king's mistress in the early 1520s and, as a mark of favor, her father was elevated to the peerage as viscount Rochfort/Rochford in 1525. Mary herself would leave court with only a dull marriage, and possibly the king's illegitimate son, as her reward. Anne learned much from her sister's example.
Anne's first years at court were spent in service to Henry VIII's first wife, Katharine of Aragon. She became quite popular among the younger men. She was not considered a great beauty; her sister occupied that position in the family, but even Mary was merely deemed 'pretty'. Hostile chroniclers described Anne as plain, sallow, and possessing two distinct flaws - a large mole on the side of her neck and an extra finger on her left hand. Such praise as she received focused on her style, her wit and charm; she was quick-tempered and spirited. Her most remarkable physical attributes were her large dark eyes and long black hair.
The king's attraction was focused upon her sharp and teasing manner, and her oft-stated unavailability. What he couldn't have, he pined for all the more. This was especially difficult for a king used to having his own way in everything. Anne was also seriously involved with Henry Percy, the son and heir of the earl of Northumberland; there were rumors of an engagement and declarations of true love. The king ordered his great minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, to end the match. Wolsey did so, thus ensuring Percy's unhappy marriage to the earl of Shrewsbury's daughter and Anne's great enmity. It was safer to blame the Cardinal than his king. Also, Henry's jealousy revealed the depth of his feelings, and Anne quite naturally thought - if she could not be an earl's wife, why not try for the crown of England?
When Anne avoided Henry's company, or when she was sullen and evasive to him, he sent her from court. The king hoped that a few months in the country would persuade her of his charms. It did not work. Anne was already playing a far more serious game than the king. Later, after she had been arrested, Henry would claim he had been 'bewitched' and the term wasn't used lightly in the 16th century. But perhaps it was simply the contrast between her vivacity and Katharine's solemnity, or perhaps the king mistook the inexplicable ardor of true love for something more ominous, long after that love had faded.
It is impossible to fully explain the mystery of attraction between two people. How Anne was able to capture and maintain the king's attention for such a long while, despite great obstacles and the constant presence of malicious gossip, cannot be explained. Henry was headstrong and querulous. But for several years, he remained faithful to his feelings for Anne - and his attendant desire for a legitimate male heir.
One cannot separate the king's desire for a son, indeed its very necessity, from his personal desire for Anne. The two interests merged perfectly in 1527. Henry had discovered the invalidity of his marriage to Katharine. Now it was possible to annul his marriage and secure his two fondest hopes - Anne's hand in marriage and the long-desired heir.
Cardinal Wolsey had long advocated an Anglo-French alliance. For that reason, he disliked the Spanish Katharine of Aragon. He now set about securing his monarch's annulment with the intention of marrying Henry to a French princess. And if not a French princess, perhaps a great lady of the English court. Wolsey did not like Anne, and she despised him for that earlier injury to her heart. She did what she could to work against the Lord Chancellor. And Wolsey's ambitious protégé (and successor) Thomas Cromwell became her close ally.
But Anne alone did not cause Wolsey's fall from grace, though she took the blame for it. Indeed, 'Nan Bullen', as the common people derisively called her, became the scapegoat for all the king's unpopular decisions. But it is important to remember that no one - not Wolsey, not Cromwell, and certainly not Anne Boleyn - ever controlled Henry VIII, or made him do other than exactly what he wanted. He was a king who thoroughly knew and enjoyed his position. Sir Thomas More would aptly point this out to his son-in-law, William Roper - 'If a lion knew his strength, it were hard for any man to hold him.' And later, when Roper commented upon the king's affection for More, the philosopher replied that if his head would win the king a castle in France, then Henry would not hesitate to chop it off.
But most people found it easier to hate Anne than to hate their monarch. As the king's desire for an annulment became the gossip of all Europe, she was roundly criticized and condemned. She was not popular at the English court either. Both her unique situation and her oft times abrasive personality offended many. And Katharine's solemn piety had impressed the English court for three decades; her supporters were numerous, though not inclined to face the king's formidable wrath. In truth, Anne was sustained only by the king's affection and she knew his mercurial temper. It is possible that she was as surprised by his faithfulness as everyone else.
As the struggle for an annulment proceeded and the pope prevaricated between Henry and Katharine's nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Anne's position at the English court became steadily more prominent. There were at first little signs. The king would eat alone with her; she received expensive gifts; she began to dress in the most fashionable and expensive gowns; the king paid her gambling debts since Anne, like most courtiers, enjoyed cards and dice.
The king was not too outlandish at first for he had no desire to prejudice the pope against his case by flaunting a new love. But as the delays mounted, and rumors of his new love spread, Henry realized there was no purpose in hiding the truth. By 1530, Anne was openly honored by the king at court. She was accorded precedence over all other ladies, and she sat with the king at banquets and hunts while Katharine was virtually ignored. The pretense of his first marriage was allowed to continue; Katharine continued to personally mend his shirts and send him gifts and notes. But it was an untenable situation. It grated on both women. Anne perhaps taxed the king with it. To placate her, she was titled marquess of Pembroke on 4 September 1532 at Windsor Castle; she wore a beautiful crimson gown and her hair hung loose. Now elevated to the peerage in her own right, she had wealth and lands of her own. But when she accompanied Henry to France on a state visit a short while later, the ladies of the French court refused to meet with her.
It is believed that her elevation to the peerage marked the physical consummation of Anne and Henry's relationship, as well as a secret wedding. The circumstantial evidence is compelling. Anne would give birth to Elizabeth just a year later, in September 1533, and it is very unlikely that she and Henry - after waiting for years to be together - would suddenly have sex and risk an unplanned and, most importantly, illegitimate pregnancy. Secret weddings were hardly uncommon at the Tudor court. If they had a secret ceremony and consummated their relationship, then Anne became pregnant with Elizabeth just a few months later and that made a second, unquestionably legitimate wedding necessary.
The king had his fondest wish within his grasp. Anne was pregnant with his long-awaited son, or so he thought, and this son must be legitimate. He could no longer wait upon the pope. Henry rejected the authority of the Holy See and Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, annulled his marriage to Katharine. Henry and Anne married again in January 1533 in a small ceremony. But though they were now husband and wife, few recognized the fact.
Her coronation was a lavish affair; the king spared no expense. But the people of London were noticeably unimpressed. They cried out 'HA! HA!' mockingly as tapestries decorated with Henry and Anne's entwined initials passed by. Henry asked, 'How liked you the look of the City?' Anne replied, 'Sir, I liked the City well enough - but I saw a great many caps on heads, and heard but few tongues.'
And so her coronation was yet another reminder of her complete dependency upon the king.
Anne enjoyed her triumph as best she could. She ordered new blue and purple livery for her servants and set about replacing Katharine's badge of pomegranates with her own falcon symbol. She chose as her motto, 'The Most Happy', in stark contrast to her predecessor. Katharine had been 'Humble and Loyal'; Henry's mother, Elizabeth of York had chosen 'Humble and Reverent'. But humility was not a marked characteristic of Anne Boleyn.
She was pious, though not as rigid and inflexible as Katharine of Aragon. Anne's sympathies naturally lay with the progressive thought now challenging Catholic orthodoxy; with Henry's rejection of the papacy and his creation of a new Church of England, the Reformation had come to England. It was not as revolutionary as Luther's movement in Germany. Henry actually remained a devout Catholic, only denying what he now regarded as the illegitimate authority of the papacy. Anne knew that her marriage and future children would never be recognized as legitimate by Catholic Europe. She had to support the new church, otherwise she was no more than the king's mistress.
And this new emphasis upon debating even the most esoteric bits of theology appealed to her nature. She was always curious and open to new ideas; she never blindly accepted anything. But this is not to deny her deep faith. As queen, she was close friends with Thomas Cranmer and she also sponsored various religious books. She had none of the hard-fought pragmatism of her daughter, Elizabeth. Religious faith was a vital part of Anne's life, as it was for every person in the 16th century.
She entered confinement for the birth of her first child on 26 August 1533. The child was born on 7 September 1533. The physicians and astrologers had been mistaken; it was not a prince. But the healthy baby girl called Elizabeth was not the disappointment most assumed, nor did she immediately cause her mother's downfall. The birth had been very easy and quick. 'There was good speed in the deliverance and bringing forth,' Anne wrote to Lord Cobham that very day. The queen recovered quickly. Henry had every reason to believe that strong princes would follow. It was only when Anne miscarried two sons that he began to question the validity of his second marriage.
Elizabeth's christening was a grand affair, though the king did not attend. This fact was much remarked-upon, but Henry confounded all by his continuing affection for Anne. He also promptly declared Elizabeth his heir, thus according her precedence over her 17 year old half-sister, Princess Mary. Anne could breathe a sigh of relief, recover, and become pregnant again.
Immediately after Elizabeth's christening, Henry wrote to Mary and demanded that she relinquish her title of Princess of Wales. The title belonged to his heiress. He also demanded that she acknowledge the validity of his new marriage and legitimacy of her half-sister. But Mary could be as obstinate as her mother; she refused. Enraged, Henry evicted Mary from her home, the manor Beaulieu, so he could give it to Anne's brother, George. In December, she was moved into Elizabeth's household under the care of Lady Anne Shelton, a sister of Anne's father. It was an understandably miserable time for Mary. When told to pay her respects to the baby Princess, she said that she knew of no Princess of England but herself and burst into tears.
Henry was infuriated and Anne encouraged the estrangement. Her daughter's status depended upon Mary remaining out of favor. In the two and a half years she lived after Elizabeth's birth, Anne proved herself a devoted mother. Soon after the birth, Elizabeth had to be moved from London, for purposes of health; London was rife with a variety of illnesses - sweating sickness, smallpox, and plague. Elizabeth and Mary were sent to Hatfield. Both Henry and Anne visited their daughter often, occasionally taking her back with them to Greenwich or the palace at Eltham. During these visits, Mary was kept alone in her room.
There are account books and letters which reveal certain facts about Elizabeth's early childhood: bills for an orange satin gown and russet velvet kirtle, for the king's heir had to be fashionably dressed; a letter in late 1535, after her second birthday, from the wet nurse asking permission to wean her; a plan of study in classical languages, for Anne was determined her daughter would be as educated as Mary.
The conflict with Mary dominated a great deal of Henry and Anne's thoughts. In January 1534, the king's new chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, went to visit Mary at Hatfield. He urged her to renounce her title and warned her that her behavior would lead to her ruin. Mary replied that she simply wanted her father's blessing and the honor of kissing his hand. When Cromwell chastised her, she left the room. Mary, and indeed most of England, believed Anne to be the cause of Henry's disgust with his eldest child. In truth, Henry had far more to do with it than Anne; this was proven after Anne's execution. Mary believed that she would regain her favor with the wicked stepmother out of the way but she was proven terribly wrong. Eventually, under threat of her life, she wrote the letter her father had long desired.
He and Anne also tried a gentler course with Mary; their goal was to show that she had brought Henry's displeasure upon herself and that he and Anne were quite willing - under reasonable conditions - to receive her. At their next visit to Hatfield, Anne arranged to see her stepdaughter. She invited Mary to come to court and 'visit me as Queen.' Mary responded with a cruel insult - 'I know no Queen in England but my mother. But if you, Madam, as my father's mistress, will intercede for me with him, I should be grateful.' Anne did not lose her temper; she pointed out the absurdity of the request and repeated her offer. Mary then refused to answer and Anne left in a rage. From then on, she made no attempts to gain Mary's friendship.
The problem with Mary highlights the untenable positions Anne and Elizabeth occupied in English politics. Many of Henry's subjects did not know who to call Princess, who was the rightful heir, and who was the true wife. Katharine of Aragon lived on, still calling herself Queen, and Mary, encouraged by the spiteful Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, still called herself Princess. Furthermore, Chapuys, who openly despised Anne, told Mary that Anne was planning to have her murdered. It was a terrible lie but one that Mary, in her hysterical state, was inclined to believe. When word came that she and Elizabeth's household was moving from Hatfield to The More, she refused to go. She believed she would be moved and quietly murdered. Guards had to actually seize her and throw her into her litter. Her distress naturally made her ill.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, was too young to notice any of this. But such events helped cement the lifelong hatred Mary would have for her half-sister. Her Spanish friends continued to spread rumors about Anne and Elizabeth, saying the infant princess was physically deformed and monstrous in appearance. To dispel this, in April 1534, Henry showed the naked infant to several continental ambassadors. In that same month, Anne announced she was once again pregnant. Nothing could have pleased Henry more. She may have had a miscarriage in February for there were rumors she was pregnant in January but nothing came of it; given the heightened circumstances, it is unlikely she could have hidden her condition. Even a suspicion of pregnancy was sure to become gossip. But the main source of this miscarriage is Chapuys, hardly an impartial observer. At any rate, she was definitely pregnant again in April 1534.
The elated king took his wife to the medieval palace at Eltham; there, they sent for the princess Elizabeth. Henry was often seen carrying her about and playing with her. The king and queen soon returned to Greenwich and then Henry left on a progress, leaving Anne at the palace. This was probably out of concern for her health and lends some credence to the belief she miscarried in February. If she had, Henry would show special concern for her health, and this he did. He was supposed to meet Francis I of France in June at Calais to sign a treaty but decided not to attend, writing that Katharine and Mary, 'bearing no small grudge against his most entirely beloved Queen Anne, might perchance in his absence take occasion to practice matters of no small peril to his royal person, realm, and subjects.'
His extra attention to Anne did not help her health. In September 1534, she miscarried a six-month-old fetus; it was old enough for features to be discerned - it was a boy. Henry was bitterly disappointed. Anne was likewise. She was also angry for Henry had begun a casual affair that summer. She reproached him and Henry replied, 'You have good reason to be content with what I have done for you - and I would not do it again, if the thing were to begin. Consider from what you have come.' The scene was furious and overheard by her attendants. But it was a passing storm. Henry was already tired of his new mistress and, within days, Chapuys was sadly writing to Charles V of Henry's continued affection. But there were other signs that things were not progressing smoothly.
For example, Henry had hoped to cement his relationship with Francis I by betrothing Elizabeth to Francis's son, the Duc d'Angouleme. After Anne suffered two miscarriages, as the French ambassador reported to Francis, the French king grew wary of such a betrothal. To him, it must have seemed that Anne's position was weakening; after all, Henry had dismissed one wife because she had no sons - would he do the same to Anne? And, if he did, then what good was a marriage to Elizabeth? Of course, it was in France's interests to promote Anne for Katharine of Aragon and her daughter were Charles V's pawns. But his doubts highlighted the instability of Anne's position.
This undoubtedly affected her mental and physical health. Henry was never the mercenary adulterer of legend. In fact, he was remarkably conventional in his sexual appetites, unlike his French rival. Any affairs would have been widely reported and yet, during his long marriage to Katharine of Aragon, there were just a handful of mistresses. He enjoyed being around attractive women. He was flirtatious and would joke with them, compliment them, but only rarely did he enter into a physical relationship.
But for Anne, any occasional fling was devastating, especially if it followed upon a miscarriage. Such behavior was said to indicate his displeasure with her; this she could not afford. They were occasionally estranged and the effect was to increase her already-noticeable anxiety. In late 1534 Anne, accompanied by the duke of Suffolk, her uncle Norfolk, and other courtiers, visited Richmond Palace, where both Elizabeth and Mary resided. Anne entered her daughter's rooms only to realize that the two dukes had left her. They were paying court to Mary and remained with her until Anne had left. Still, this slight could be forgotten when the Treason Act was passed in November. It was now a capital crime to deny the legitimacy of her marriage or children. By December, she and Henry had made up yet again.
A scandal occurred shortly thereafter which added further damage to Anne's reputation. Her sister, Mary, who had been Henry's mistress years before, married Sir William Stafford without her family or the king's permission. Because Stafford was poor, Mary's father was angry and cut off her allowance. She appealed to the king and Anne but they would not help. (Mary did not attend court during Anne's reign, since her presence would have been an embarrassment for the king and queen.)
Always fascinated with rumors surrounding his English 'brother', Francis I decided to hedge his bets in the mercurial Tudor court. In other words, he would remain friendly with Anne and also with Mary Tudor. And so he instructed his new ambassador, Admiral Chabot, to ignore Anne when he arrived at court. Chabot was received by Henry and two days passed without any mention of the queen. Henry asked if Chabot wanted to visit her. The ambassador replied, 'As it pleases Your Highness' and then asked permission to visit Mary. Henry refused, but Chabot made certain everyone knew of his request. He also told courtiers that Francis wanted to marry the Dauphin to Mary; when Henry reminded him of the union with Elizabeth, the ambassador said nothing. Still, Francis did enrage Charles V by acknowledging Elizabeth's legitimacy.
It was a tedious and frightening dance for Anne. During the two and a half years after Elizabeth's birth, she was rarely secure, certain of her position and the king's affections. Her little daughter received every favor she could bestow; Anne insisted Henry favor Elizabeth because it strengthened her position. But she was surrounded by fair-weather friends who, at the slightest sign of Henry's disfavor, ignored her. She only trusted her brother, George, whose wife, Jane Rochford, was a viper in their nest. Meanwhile, Henry was again flirting openly with another woman. This time it was Anne's cousin and lady-in-waiting, Madge Shelton. Anne still had influence over her husband, but knew only one way to make his favor permanent. She must bear a son. Henry would never dismiss the mother of his long-awaited heir. Her enemies would at last be silenced.
Meanwhile, Henry's health had begun to worsen. The first signs of the illness which would kill him (occluded sinus on the leg) appeared . Headaches became frequent and severe. The king was a hypochondriac. Now unable to indulge his love of sports, he instead indulged his fear of pain and illness. And he was frequently impotent. He was in his mid-forties and increasingly obese; this, combined with his other ailments, made his continued virility questionable. Certainly his 'mistresses' did not conceive. But the continued lack of an heir and Anne's miscarriages must have reminded him of Katharine. How could it not? Like most of his contemporaries, the king blamed his wife when she did not conceive or carry to term.
And, like Francis I, Thomas Cromwell - that influential and brilliant man - was keeping his options open as well. He visited Mary and was rumored to promise support for her reinstatement. Anne was terrified at this loss of her one-time supporter who was also the king's most trusted advisor. But Anne had one last chance, and in June 1535, became pregnant again. She lost that child as well, in January 1536; she was reported to have said, 'I have miscarried of my savior.'
When her destruction came, it was rapid and unbelievable. Henry had always been one to plot against people while he pretended affection. Anne suffered the same fate as Katharine. She knew he was dissatisfied with her but he maintained their lifestyle together. And all the while, he was seeking the best way to destroy her. Katharine of Aragon died in January as well, just a few days before Anne's miscarriage. These events, taken together, pushed Henry into action. While Katharine lived, most of Europe, and many Englishmen, had regarded her as his rightful wife, not Anne. Now he was rid of Katharine; if he were to rid himself of Anne, he could marry again - and this third marriage would never be tainted by the specter of bigamy.
Henry's decision to thoroughly destroy Anne baffled even her enemies. There was a possible way out which would spare Anne's life. Henry had admitted an affair with her sister, Mary. He could have argued that was as damning as Katharine's marriage to his brother. But he chose a more direct route. He had her arrested, charged with adultery, witchcraft, and incest; the charges were ludicrous even to her enemies. Her brother George was arrested as well. His despised wife, Jane Rochford, testified about an incestuous love affair. Whether anyone believed her was irrelevant. Henry VIII wanted Anne convicted and killed. George would also lose his life, as did three of their friends. Only one had confessed to the charge, and that was under torture; it was still enough to convict them all.
As queen of England, Anne was tried by her peers; the main charge was adultery, and this was an act of treason for a queen. No member of the nobility would help her; her craven uncle Norfolk pronounced the death sentence. Poor Henry Percy, her first love, swooned during the trial and had to be carried from the room. As a concession to her former position, she was not beheaded by a clumsy axe. A skilled swordsman was brought over from France. She was assured that there would be little pain; she replied, with typical spirit, 'I have heard that the executioner is very good. And I have a little neck.'
'You have chosen me from low estate to be your queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire; if, then, you found me worthy of such honor, good your grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of my enemies withdraw your princely favor from me; neither let that stain - that unworthy stain - of a disloyal heart towards your good grace ever cast so foul a blot on me, and on the infant princess your daughter.' from Anne Boleyn's last letter to King Henry VIII, 1536; its authenticity is debated.
She had prayed for exile, to end her days in a nunnery, but now faced a more tragic fate. She met it with bravery and wit. She was brought to the scaffold at 8 o'clock in the morning on 19 May 1536. It was a heretofore unknown spectacle, the first public execution of an English queen. Anne, who had defended herself so ably at her trial, chose her last words carefully: '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.' She was then blindfolded and knelt at the block. She repeated several times, 'To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesu receive my soul.'
It was a sardonic message to the king. Even now he waited impatiently to hear the Tower cannon mark Anne's death. He wished to marry Anne's lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. They wed ten days after the execution.
Elizabeth was just three and a half when her mother died. She was a precocious child, though; when her governess visited her just days after the execution, Elizabeth asked, 'Why, Governor, how hap it yesterday Lady Princess, and today but Lady Elizabeth?'
Anne was buried in an old arrow box since no coffin was provided. But the box was too short; her head was tucked beside her. The remains were taken to St Peter ad Vincula, the church of the Tower of London, where they would later be joined by her cousin, and Henry's fifth wife, Catherine Howard.
'And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best.'
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Last edited / updated on 2 November 2008.