‘The Scandal of Christendom’: Who Was Anne Boleyn? | History Hit

‘The Scandal of Christendom’: Who Was Anne Boleyn?

A Victorian depiction of Anne Boleyn weeping before her execution.
Image Credit: Public Domain

Anne Boleyn is one of the most famous woman in English history: the woman a king turned his country upside down to marry. Her dramatic rise to power precipitated an equally dramatic fall from grace, eventually resulting in her execution on 19 May 1536. No queen – or former queen – had been executed in England before. Anne’s death was a momentous event, and has helped fuel ongoing interest in King Henry VIII and his wives.

Join Prof. Suzannah Lipscomb as she unravels this character who changed the course of history.
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Family and childhood

Anne Boleyn’s early life is relatively obscure. Born in the early years of the 16th century at Blickling Hall, in Norfolk, she spent much of her childhood at Hever Castle, in Kent. Whilst it wasn’t the grandest of the Boleyn properties, it was well located: half a day’s ride from London and a day from the coast. Anne frequently retreated to Hever during her time at court, which was closed and personal – a world away from the buzz of the Tudor court.

Hever Castle, Kent, United Kingdom.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

The Boleyn family had risen from relatively humble origins in Norfolk to become an important noble family, well-connected, powerful and part of the social fabric of the Tudor court. Thomas Boleyn was well-respected at court and whilst he would have wanted advantageous marriages for his children, there is no suggestion he pushed them towards Henry’s bed for his own personal gain.

Unusually for women of her status at the time, she benefitted from the same education as her brothers because her father, Thomas, was a humanist. Thomas was also a diplomat and thanks to his connections, Anne and her sister Mary both secured advantageous positions at European courts in their teenage years. Anne spent time at the courts of Margaret of Austria and Queen Claude of France, where she learnt the sophisticated ways and mannerisms of the French court.

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Wit and intellect

Contemporaries were divided on Anne’s appearance: even if not conventionally beautiful, she was certainly deemed attractive. She had long dark hair, a pale complexion – sometimes described as sallow – and dressed in the French style, which made her stand out from the milk-and-honey English roses which dominated court.

anne boleyn henry viii wives

A 16th century portrait of Anne Boleyn, based on a more contemporary portrait which no longer exists.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Her sharp wit and intellect also marked her out: Anne possessed a polish and self-confidence which 16th century women were frequently denied the opportunity to develop. She wrote Henry love letters in her own hand, many of which are now lost to us, which stoked his passion for her and she was an active participant in the complex rituals and games of courtly love and sexual favours.

She also showed an academic interest in reform doctrines and religion – she was a patron of scholars and innovation, including Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English.

Faith and religion

Anne is often associated with the Break with Rome, and for influencing Henry’s decision to make himself the Head of the Church in England. Anne certainly had exposure to a wide variety of religious and spiritual beliefs, including possibly Martin Luther‘s radical ideas.

Her interest in religion was certainly not a passing one – she had several beautiful Books of Hours in her possession, sponsored some of William Tyndale’s ‘New Testament’ translation of the Bible into English (extremely radical for the time), ensured that her ladies had copies of the Psalms in English, and favoured evangelical chaplains in her household.

Whilst Anne’s true faith and spirituality remain known only to her, her actions imply a genuine interest in Renaissance ideas, and an interest in Lutheranism that went beyond simply her own personal gain. She certainly cultivated an image of sobriety as queen, with her household instructed to dress in certain ways and kept under strict rules.

After her death, Anne was widely portrayed as a good Protestant woman in subsequent late 16th century propaganda, particularly in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Several copies of her Books of Hours have survived to the modern day – one inscription reads ‘le tiemps viendra’ (the time will come), marked with an astrolabe. Both the motto and symbol were closely associated with the Renaissance, and suggest Anne’s affinity to its ideas.

Suzannah Lipscomb's latest work unearths the lives of women in 16th and 17th century through a series of court sources that few have looked through. Dan talks to her about the ways in which these women were far more violent and aggressive than previously assumed, and the ways they fought for power in a patriarchal world.
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Sexual appetites

Tried for adultery and incest, and becoming queen at least in part thanks to Henry’s lust for her, Anne’s exploits and allure have long fascinated historians. It seems that Anne and Henry really did only consummate their relationship in early 1533, on the way back from Calais – there is no evidence that this happened earlier, and their crazed love letters suggest a passion and lust that had been denied.

For a woman whose sexual allure helped her rise, it is perhaps unsurprising that it also precipitated her fall. Whilst there is no hard evidence for Anne ever committing adultery or taking lovers as queen, it was a brush that tarred her indelibly.

Anne did not go down without a fight: she maintained her innocence throughout her trial and execution. At her trial, it emerged that she had once told her brother, George Boleyn, that Henry was “not skilful in copulating with a woman & had neither vigour nor potency”. Such a revelation being aired in public must have been a moment of wry humour amongst such grim proceedings.

Nothing could save Anne once Henry had made up his mind: she was executed, having been found guilty of adultery, insect and high treason, on 19 May 1536. Anne’s mysterious appeal has endured, captivating historians and the general public alike for nearly 500 years.

Sarah Roller