1536: The Beheading of Anne Boleyn

Perhaps the best-known of all Henry VIII’s many wives, Anne Boleyn was spirited intelligent and, by all accounts, one of the dominant personalities at the famous Tudor Court. She and her own political convictions played a powerful role in England’s separation from Rome, and her delicate playing of Henry during his courtship was masterly. These characteristics made her irresistible to Henry as a mistress, but once they were married and she failed to bear him a son, her days were numbered.

Anne’s date of birth is a matter of much tedious conjecture amongst scholars, but took place in either 1501 or 1507. Her family were of good aristocratic pedigree, and this – combined with a native and precocious charm – helped her win places at some of Europe’s most extravagant courts. Her father Thomas Boleyn was a diplomat in King Henry’s service, and was admired by Margaret of Austria, ruler of the Netherlands and daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor. Margaret offered his daughter a place in her household, and though she was not yet twelve Anne came to know the structures of dynastic power early on, as well as the rules of courtly love. Though her formal education was fairly limited, the court was an easy place to pick up interests in literature, poetry, art and heavy religious philosophy, especially after she entered the service of Margaret’s step-daughter Queen Claude of France, who she would stay with for seven years. It was there in the French court that she really blossomed, attracting the eye of many suitors and vastly improving her ability to understand and navigate the male-dominated world that she lived in. In Paris its also likely that she fell under the influence of the King of France’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre, who was a famous patron of humanists and church reformers. Protected by her status as the King’s sister, Marguerite herself also wrote anti-papal tracts that would have landed anyone else in an Inquisitorial jail. It is likely that these remarkable influences played a major role in shaping Anne’s personal convictions, and then those of her future husband in splitting with Rome.

Marguerite of Navarre looking formidable with a parrot

In January 1522 Anne was recalled to England to marry her land-owning Irish cousin, James Butler. By now she was considered an attractive and desirable match, and contemporary descriptions of her focus on her olive skin, long dark hair and slim elegant figure which made her a fine dancer. Luckily for her (or perhaps unluckily in retrospect) the marriage to the unimpressive Butler fell through, just as the Boleyn family came to King Henry’s attention. Anne’s older sister Mary – already famous for her affairs with the King of France and his courtiers – had become the King’s mistress, and as a result the younger Boleyn made her first appearance at the English Court in March. With her French clothes, education and sophistication, she stood out from the crowd and was quickly one of the most coveted women in England. One of her many suitors was Henry Percy, the powerful future Earl of Northumberland, who she secretly agreed to marry until his Father banned the union. All accounts of the time suggest that Anne reveled in all the attention that she was receiving, and was extremely good at attracting and sustaining it with wit and vivacity.

By 1526 the King himself – bored with his first wife Katherine of Aragon, was growing besotted with Anne, having long since dispensed with her sister. Anne was both ambitious and canny, and knew that if she succumbed quickly to the King’s advances then she would get the same treatment as Mary, and therefore refused to sleep with him and even left the court whenever he started being a bit too forward. These tactics seemed to work, for Henry proposed to her within a year, despite still being married to Katherine. Enamoured though he definitely was, there was also a more political aspect to this pursuit. With half a mind cast back to the problems of succession that had plagued the previous century, Henry was also desperate for a son, something that the now ageing Katherine seemed unlikely to give him. For this reason, he was even more desperate to marry Anne and consummate their union – assuring her that he would be able to secure a divorce from the Pope with ease. Unfortunately for Henry, however, the Pope was now a prisoner and virtual hostage of the Holy Roman Emperor, a man who happened to be Katherine’s Uncle. Unsurprisingly, the request for annulment was refused, and the King began to consider taking more drastic action. In this he was encouraged by Anne, who – remembering her time with Marguerite, showed him anti-Papal books and added her own support behind a split with Rome. The process took a long time – and was not completed until 1532, but by this time Katherine had been banished and her younger rival was in the ascendancy.

A portrait of Anne in England done in Elizabethan times, but possibly a copy of an original from the early 1530s

Even before they were formally married in November of that year, Anne was a huge influence on Henry and his policy-making. Numerous foreign ambassadors commented on the importance of winning her approval, and her links with Ireland and France helped the King smooth over his sensational break with Rome. Anne was crowned Queen in June 1533, and her visible pregnancy delighted the King, who convinced himself that the child would be a boy. The new Queen had an important political role to play too, as the Pope’s policy and statements towards Henry grew nastier and the religious outlook of the nation began to change rapidly in response. The child, meanwhile, was born premature in September, and dissapointed everyone by being a girl – Elizabeth. The jousting tournament organised to celebrate the birth was then quickly cancelled. This dampened Henry’s enthusiasm for his new wife, and by the end of 1534 he was already talking about replacing her. Her desire to get involved politically was beginning to irritate him, and a final miscarriage in January 1536 – which she claimed was due to worry after the King was unhorsed and injured in a joust – sealed her fate.

Henry’s jousting armour in later life. He was 44 when he was almost killed when a horse fell on top of him in January 1536. Modern analysts have suggested that brain damage suffered during this incident was to blame for his terrible subsequent behaviour

By this time the King’s perpetually wandering eye had turned to the plainer but more submissive Jane Seymour, and he enraged Anne by frequently opening a locket containing her picture, even when they were together. To make matters worse for herself, the Queen was also quarreling with Henry’s favourite Thomas Cromwell over church land distribution, and together King and Cromwell began to plot her downfall over that Spring. In April a musician in Anne’s service was arrested and tortured until he confessed to adultery with her, and a series of other arrests of supposed lovers continued into May, including her brother George – who was charged with incest. As sex with the Queen could damage the line of succession, it was considered high treason and punishable by death, both for Anne and her supposed lovers. On the 2nd May the Queen herself was arrested, and being understandable bemused, wrote a long, loving letter to Henry pleading for her release. She received no response. She was predictably found guilty at her trail, and her old flame Henry Percy – who was on the jury – collapsed when the verdict was passed. Henry’s last act of dubious kindness towards his now ex-wife was securing a professional swordsman from France to perform the execution, which she is said to have met with great courage, in an extraordinary end for an extraordinary woman.