Key Facts & Summary
- Anne Boleyn received an outstanding education in the Netherlands and in the French court.
- She met Henry VIII at a very young age whilst he was still married to Catherine of Aragon.
- Although Henry was courting her, she did not give into his advances, and obliged the king to divorce from Catherine.
- Anne was not able to provide Henry with any male heirs. However, she gave birth to Elizabeth I.
- Anne was executed on the charges of high treason in 1536.
It is not exactly known when Anne Boleyn was born. According to an Italian text of the XVII century her year of birth is 1499, whereas according to the English biographer William Roper, Anne was born after 1512. However, today the academic debate focuses on two key dates: 1501 and 1507. Eric Ives, a British historian expert in the Tudor period, leans towards the year 1501, while Retha Warnicke, an American scholar who also wrote a biography of Anne, prefers 1507.
Thomas Boleyn, Anna’s father, was a respected diplomat with good command of foreign languages: he soon entered the circle of King Henry VII’s favourites thanks to the numerous diplomatic missions carried out abroad on behalf of the English king. In 1512 Thomas was one of the three envoys assigned to the Netherlands, an appointment obtained thanks to his ability to speak French and the knowledge of his family. Here he met Margaret of Austria (daughter of Maximilian I of Habsburg), with whom he held a friendship that allowed him to obtain a prestigious assignment for his daughter Anne. In fact, Anne became the maid of honour at her service. Anne remained at the Flemish court from the spring of 1513 until the autumn of 1514, where she benefited from an education reserved at the time for very few women.
In October 1514, on the occasion of the marriage between Mary Tudor (sister of Henry VIII of England) and Louis XII of France, her father ordered Anne’s transfer to the French court, where she remained until 1521. Here she was the lady of the queen of France Mary Tudor and, starting from 1 January 1515, of the fifteen-year-old Claudia of France, queen consort of the King Francis I.
During her stay at the French court, Anne learned the French language and developed an interest in art, manuscripts, literature, music, poetry and religious philosophy. She also acquired knowledge regarding French culture, dance, etiquette and courtly love. During this period, she met Marguerite of Angoulême (sister of King Francis I of France), patron of humanists and reformers, as well as a poet and writer herself. The quality of education that Anne received was demonstrated on her return home when she inspired new thoughts and fashions among the ladies of the English court.
Anne’s return to England
In January 1522 Anne was called back to England in order to marry her Irish cousin, several years older than her, James Butler, who lived in the English court.
However the plan failed and the marriage was not celebrated, perhaps because Sir Thomas hoped for a more illustrious marriage for his daughter. Whatever the reason, the negotiations went up in smoke and James Butler married Lady Joan Fitzgerald, daughter and heir of James Fitzgerald, X count of Desmond, while Anne, still a maiden, became the companion of Catherine of Aragon, Spanish queen consort of Henry VIII, King of England.
Anne made her official debut at the court on March 4, 1522, participating, along with her sister Mary, in a dance organised in honour of the imperial ambassadors. The dance was a masque, a sort of theatrical performance very popular at the time, where a theme was chosen on the basis of which each participant was given a role. In Chateau Vert, Anne had to play the part of Perseverance. On that occasion, everyone wore white satin dresses embroidered with gold threads. The grace and beauty exhibited by Anne during the dance were such that she was considered one of the most elegant women of the court.
Among her admirers was Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland (son of Henry Algernon Percy, 5th Earl of Northumberland), with whom Anne secretly became engaged around 1523; the relationship between the two young people, given the social disparity, was opposed by Percy’s father to the point that, in January 1524, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, of whom the young Henry was the pupil, prevented them from marrying.
There was also talks of a relationship between Anne and the English poet Thomas Wyatt, who had grown up in the castle of Allington, in Kent, in the immediate vicinity of Hever Castle.
King Henry VIII falls in love with Anne Boleyn
In the spring of 1526 King Henry VIII, who fell in love with Anne, began to court her insistently and encouraged her to become his mistress. However, Anne refused his advances. The ambitious young woman knew that the king’s infatuation was a great opportunity to be exploited: she was aware of the fact that if she consented to his requests, she would simply be one of her many lovers (as had happened to her sister Maria). Therefore, her option consisted encouraging Henry VIII to separate himself from his wife Catherine of Aragon so that, free from any marriage bond, he could propose to Anne, making her the new queen of England.
Marriage with Anne Boleyn
It has often been thought that Henry’s infatuation with Anne was the only reason for the marriage annulment with Catherine, but another reason could have pushed the king in that direction: the queen’s inability to give him a male heir. After many abortions and miscarriages, Catherine managed to give him only one daughter, Mary I of England.
Since the pope did not want to annul the marriage between Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, it can be stated that Anne Boleyn was one of the main causes of the break between the Church of England and Rome.
On January 25, 1533, King Henry married Anna in London. Also, in this case, certain confidentiality and secrecy was maintained, to the point that to this day we do not know exactly the place where the wedding was celebrated. In any case, the marriage was not made public until April, shortly before the coronation of Anne as Queen of England.
Anne Boleyn’s life at court was characterised by luxury and magnificence. Over 250 people were at Anne’s service. She invested large sums of money on clothes, jewellery, hats, peacock feathers, riding articles, equipment, furniture. Numerous buildings were also renovated in order to satisfy the extravagant tastes of Anne.
The relationship between King Henry and Anne was stormy: periods of tranquillity and happiness alternated with periods of tension and quarrels, mostly due to Henry’s repeated infidelities, which led Anna to a violent crisis of tears and anger. On the other hand, Anne’s marked intelligence and political acumen were considered by Henry to be very irritating.
Following the birth of Elizabeth, the consorts believed that they would have other children, including the much-desired male heir, but the second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage in the summer of 1534. The king began, then, to believe the gossip about Anne’s inability to give him a male child and discussed with Cranmer and Cromwell about the possibility of separating from her without having to return to Catherine. The royal couple, however, reconciled and in October 1535 Anna discovered she was pregnant again. Unfortunately for her, this pregnancy also ended in a miscarriage. The news of the abortion of a male child caused an irreversible deterioration of the marriage with the king who, convinced beyond any doubt about Anne’s inability to give him an heir, began to consider their marriage the fruit of a spell, and therefore, cursed by God. Therefore, already in March 1536, Henry VIII began to court lady Jane Seymour, who would become his third wife. It seems that the king had given his new lover a medallion with a miniature portrait of himself inside.
Anne Boleyn’s death
From April 1536, Anna was investigated for high treason, and on 2 May 1536, around noon, she was arrested and taken to the Tower of London in a boat, where she was entrusted to the custody of William Kingston.
In those days, with the accusation of being lovers of the queen, were arrested: Lord George Boleyn (brother of Anne), Mark Smeaton (court musician of Flemish origin), the poet Thomas Wyatt, Henry Norris (courtier of the Crown Chamber and friend of the king since childhood), Francis Weston (a young gentleman belonging to the intimate circle of the queen), William Brereton and Richard Page (both courtiers of the King’s Private Chamber).
Anna spent the last days of her life locked up in the Tower of London.
At the time of execution, on May 19, 1536, Anne knelt upright (according to the French style of the executions, which did not include a log on which to rest her neck) while repeating the prayer «To Jesus Christ, I commend my soul; Lord Jesus, receive my soul “. Then the ladies who had accompanied her took off her hat (but not the bonnet, which held her hair and left her neck free) and the necklaces, while another lady tied a bandage over her eyes. Suddenly the Executioner brandished his sword with a gesture that astonished the crowd, since no one had noticed the weapon so far, almost giving the impression that it had magically materialised in his hands at that moment. In reality, the executioner had hidden the sword between the straw scattered at the foot of the log and his gesture could be explained with the intention of catching the condemned by surprise, and avoiding her prolonging the anxiety of waiting, as well as any sudden movements. Moreover, to prevent Anna from turning her head instinctively back at the time of beheading, the executioner shouted to the crowd in front of the gallows “Bring me the sword”, so that Anna would look forward, keeping her neck straight. In that exact moment, the executioner lowered the sword and cut her head. A lady covered the queen’s head with a white cloth, while the others took care of the body.
[1.] Bernard, G. W. “The fall of Anne Boleyn”, English Historical Review, 106 (1991), 584–610.
[2.] Dowling, Maria Humanism in the Age of Henry the VIII (1986).
[3.] Warnicke, Retha M. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family politics at the court of Henry VIII (1989).
[4.] Weir, Allison “The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn”.