Anne Boleyn has fascinated people across the centuries: mother of Queen Elizabeth I, Anne herself was a strong woman who got her way in a world full of men using the resources available to her. Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church in order to marry her, causing one of the most seismic events in European history. But what do we really know about Anne?
1. We don’t know exactly when she was born
Anne was born at the Boleyn family home of Blicking, Norfolk, but the precise year of her birth remains unknown thanks to gaps in parish records. Historians estimate it was somewhere between 1501 and 1507, making her somewhere between the ages of 29 and 35 when she died.
Anne and her two siblings, George and Mary, grew up at Hever Castle in Kent. The Boleyn family was a well-established favourite at Henry VIII’s court, and Anne had the most noble ancestry of all of Henry’s English-born wives.
2. She spent most of her childhood abroad
As befitting a woman of her status, Anne received a comprehensive education in everything she was perceived to need to know: arithmetic, writing, reading, history, dancing, music, embroidery, hunting and riding amongst other skills.
By 1513, she had joined the court of Margaret of Austria, and in 1514, her father arranged for her to be a maid-of-honour to the new French queen, Mary – the youngest sister of Henry VIII, and later the court of Queen Claude.
By the time she was summoned back to England in 1522, Anne had learnt the ways of the elegant, cultured French court, and her glamorous, exotic style and mannerisms set her apart from many of her contemporaries.
3. Her family were embroiled in the politics of the Tudor court
Anne’s uncle was the Duke of Norfolk, one of the great nobles of the land. Her uncle and father were both Knights of the Garter and able soldiers. In 1522, Norfolk was made Lord Treasurer, and the family had ambitions.
Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, was Henry VIII’s mistress from around 1520, and there were even rumours that her mother, Elizabeth Howard, had shared Henry’s bed too. Having the ear of the king was important for family advancement, and the Boleyns had no qualms about using their daughters to advance their prospects.
4. Anne had no shortage of suitors
Anne was summoned back to England in 1522 primarily because her family had arranged for her to marry James Butler, Earl of Ormond. This marriage was political: it was organised by Henry VIII himself in an attempt to solve disputes between the Boleyns and the Butlers about the earldom. The marriage fell through, and Anne became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine instead.
Anne was also secretly betrothed to Henry Percy, the son of the Earl of Northumberland – one of the most powerful nobles in England. The marriage would have been hugely advantageous for Anne, but Henry was already betrothed to Mary Talbot, an heiress of much more suitable status.
The young couple were found out by Thomas Wolsey, and with no support from their families, the match was forbidden. Anne was banished back to her family’s estates in Kent.
5. She had a powerful charm
Contemporaries were divided on whether Anne could be considered beautiful, but she was certainly striking and elegant: tall, dark and sophisticated, with all the charm of a young woman raised in the French court. She was accomplished, witty and strong-willed, and the court was taken with her.
Legends arose that Anne had six fingers and/or a large welt on her throat, both signs of her consorting with the devil according to popular superstitions. There remains no evidence that either of these things were the case: most likely they were invented by Catholic polemicists long after Anne’s death.
6. She really did play a major role in Henry’s break with Rome
Henry could not get the Pope to agree to an annulment from his wife, Catherine of Aragon – mainly due to political pressures. Catherine was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, one of the most powerful men in Europe: he would not take the insult of an annulment lightly. Catherine, as a devout Catholic, also was sure that their marriage was valid and legitimate: suggestions otherwise were simply wrong in her eyes.
As it became increasingly clear the Catholic Church would not grant Henry an annulment, Anne is believed to have encouraged Henry towards supposedly heretical literature. Certainly, it seems Anne was exposed to ideas around religious reform during her time in France, and had an interest in Martin Luther’s condemnation of the excesses of the Catholic Church.
Anne also told Henry she would not sleep with him until they were married: a powerful combination of lust, desire for living male heirs and Henry’s supposed ‘scruple of conscience’ lead to Henry demanding the clergy and Parliament agree to the 1534 Act of Supremacy and the Treasons Act. Both of these acts helped cement the authority of the Church of England, and allowed Anne to finally step into the role of Queen of England.
7. Anne promised Henry an heir
Henry was desperate for a son and heir. His first wife Catherine had only had one child who survived past infancy, the Princess Mary – although she had given birth to several other children who died within a year of their birth. By the late 1520s it had become apparent Catherine would not have any more children.
Part of Anne’s allure was that she was considerably younger than the then Queen Catherine, and both the Howard and Boleyn families were known to be fertile. Anne told Henry she could give him a son (something she probably fully believed), and her role would only be cemented once she had done.
Anne became pregnant very quickly, and was pregnant when they married and when she was crowned: she then gave birth to a girl, the Princess Elizabeth. Whilst Anne did become pregnant at least twice more, she either had stillbirths or miscarriages: the historian J.E. Neale argues that in January 1536, Anne ‘miscarried of her saviour’ as her marriage became increasingly tense.
8. She was never popular in her lifetime
Whilst Anne may have had a good deal of personal charm, she was not much liked by the wider population. Her predecessor, Queen Catherine, had won the hearts of the people, and Anne was very much seen as a usurper: she had several run-ins with mobs of angry women, and her coronation was not met with the jubilation and celebration normally expected.
Anne’s inability to produce the longed for son and heir further hurt her reputation, as did Henry’s increasingly tyrannical behaviour following the break with Rome. These may have not been Anne’s fault, but for an already unpopular queen, they eventually proved fatal.
9. Anne’s allure eventually became her downfall
Everything that attracted Henry to Anne – her strong will, sex appeal, and potential fertility – eventually became her downfall.
She failed to give him an all important son, and her fiery temper and strong will were much more desirable qualities in a mistress than in a recipe for domestic bliss. Anne was jealous (she reportedly ripped a locket Henry had given Jane Seymour from her neck hard enough to draw blood) and her lack of popularity at court meant she had few allies to turn to.
Anne’s relationship with Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Chief Minister, had considerably soured by 1536. Many historians view him to be instrumental in engineering trumped-up charges against Anne in order to rid Henry of Anne and allow him to marry again.
Between late April and early May 1536, seven men were arrested and questioned about their relationship with the Queen: Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Richard Page and George Boleyn, Anne’s brother. Wyatt and Page were later released and acquitted.
Anne was arrested on 2 May 1536 and taken to the Tower. On 15 May 1536, Anne and her brother George were tried on charges of high treason, adultery and incest in front of a jury of 27 of their peers. They were found unanimously guilty and sentenced to death.
10. A noble death?
Historians are divided on how Henry truly felt about Anne’s execution: he arranged at great expense for a French swordsman to come from Calais to behead Anne – traditionally death by sword was more honourable and less likely to be botched.
However, he also was betrothed to Jane Seymour the day after her execution, marrying her a mere 2 weeks later. Quite what this says about Henry’s feelings towards the woman he had just had tried on five counts of treason, including incest with her own brother, and who he had pursued for nearly ten years, is hard to tell.
Anne maintained her innocence throughout proceedings, and reiterated it on the scaffold, whilst also commending Henry as ‘a good, a gentle and sovereign lord’. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula within the grounds of the Tower.