She was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, a courtier, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, sister of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. While still a child, Anne was sent to the Netherlands for her education, and later to France; she returned to England in late 1521.
Upon her return, she was made lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine. Around 1525 or 1526, Henry became enamoured of Anne and began pursuing her. Anne parried the King's advances, refusing to become his mistress; she said she only wanted to be his wife. Thus, the King became absorbed with annulment of his marriage to Catherine so he could marry Anne. When Pope Clement VII seemed unlikely to grant the annulment, the inexorable rift between King Henry and the Roman Catholic Church began.
Sometime in late 1532, after being made Marquess of Pembroke in her own right, Anne finally gave in to Henry and quickly became pregnant. The two were secretly married on 25 January 1533. However, because the child was conceived before Anne and Henry were legitimately wed, the child was considered a bastard (as the marriage itself was technically not legal; Henry was already married). To make the imminent birth legitimate, Thomas Cranmer, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the marriage of Henry and Catherine null and void and the marriage of Henry and Anne to be valid.
Anne was crowned Queen of England on 1 June 1533. She was the second commoner to be elevated to that title. Later that year, Anne gave birth to a girl, the future Queen Elizabeth I of England. Like her predecessor, Anne failed to produce a surviving male heir, which proved her downfall. Sir Thomas Cromwell led a plot to replace her, some say at the King's order. Despite unconvincing evidence against her, she was condemned and beheaded as guilty of adultery, incest, and high treason.
The academic debate of Anne's birthdate revolves around two key dates: 1501 and 1507. Eric Ives, a British historian and legal expert, promotes the 1501 date, while Retha Warnicke, an American scholar who has also written a biography of Anne, prefers 1507. The key piece of surviving written evidence in the argument is a letter Anne wrote sometime in 1514. She composed it in French (her second language) to her father, who was still living in England while Anne was completing her education in the Netherlands. Ives argues that the style of the letter and its mature handwriting prove that Anne must have been about 13 at the time of its composition. This would also be around the minimum age that a girl could be a maid of honour, as Anne was to the regent, Archduchess Margaret of Austria. This is supported by claims by a chronicler from the late 16th century, who wrote that Anne was 20 when she returned from France. These findings are contested by Warnicke in several books and articles, but the evidence does not conclusively support either date.
Anne's great-grandparents included a Lord Mayor of London, a duke, an earl, two aristocratic ladies and a knight. Tradition held that one of them, Geoffrey Boleyn, may have been a wool merchant prior to becoming Lord Mayor. This is disputed by some historians, who make the case that the family had held a title for four generations.The Boleyn family originally came from Norfolk and lived at Salle, near Aylsham, which was, in the fifteenth century, a thriving community grown prosperous as a result of the lucrative wool trade with the Low Countries.The spelling of the Boleyn name was variable. Sometimes it is written as Bullen, hence the bull's heads that formed part of her family arms. At the court of Margaret of Austria, Anne is listed as Boullan. She signed the letter which she composed to her father shortly upon her arrival in France as Anna de Boullan. What is known is that at the time of Anne's birth, the Boleyn family was considered one of the most respected in the English aristocracy. Among her relatives, she numbered the Howards, one of the pre-eminent families in the land. From her maternal grandmother Elizabeth Tilney, Anne was a direct descendant of Welsh Prince Gruffydd II ap Madog, Lord of Dinas Bran of Powys Fadog and his wife Emma de Audley.
Anne's father had continued his diplomatic career under Henry VIII. In Europe, Thomas Boleyn's charm won many admirers, including Archduchess Margaret of Austria, the daughter of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor. During this period, she ruled the Netherlands on behalf of her father and she was so impressed with Boleyn that she offered his daughter Anne a place in her household. Ordinarily, a girl had to be 12 years old to have such an honour, but Anne may have been somewhat younger, as the Archduchess affectionately referred to her as "La petite Boleyn". It is not known if this was in reference to Anne's age or her stature. She made a good impression in the Netherlands with her manners and studiousness, and lived there from the spring of 1513 until her father arranged for her to become a maid-of-honour to Henry VIII's sister, Mary Tudor, Queen of France in the winter of 1514.
Her education in France later proved to be of value. Anne made a good impression with her style and fashion sense, inspiring some new trends among the ladies of England. William Forrest, author of a contemporary poem about Catherine of Aragon, complimented Anne's "passing excellent" skill as a dancer. "Here," he wrote, "was [a] fresh young damsel, that could trip and go. These graces were important, as Anne was not considered to have beauty. One historian compiled a number of descriptions and concluded:
She was never described as a great beauty, but even those who loathed her admitted that she had a dramatic allure. Her olive complexion and long, straight black hair gave her an exotic aura in a culture that saw milk-white paleness as essential to beauty. Her eyes were especially striking: 'black and beautiful' wrote one contemporary, while another averred they were 'always most attractive,' and that she 'well knew how to use them with effect.'
People seemed primarily attracted by Anne's charisma:
Anne’s charm lay not so much in her physical appearance as in her vivacious personality, her gracefulness, her quick wit and other accomplishments. She was petite in stature, and had an appealing fragility about her...she shone at singing, making music, dancing and conversation...Not surprisingly, the young men of the court swarmed around her.
Anne's experience in France also made her a devout Christian in the new tradition of Renaissance humanism, although calling her a Protestant would be an overstatement. While she would later hold the position that the papacy was a corrupting influence on Christianity, her conservative tendencies could be seen in her devotion to the Virgin Mary. At this stage of her life, Anne was described as "sweet and cheerful". She enjoyed gambling, drinking wine, and gossiping. She was brave and emotional. However, Anne could also be extravagant, neurotic, vindictive, and bad-tempered:
To us she appears inconsistent—religious yet aggressive, calculating yet emotional, with the light touch of the courtier yet the strong grip of the politician...A woman in her own right—taken on her own terms in a man’s world; a woman who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex; of only moderate good looks, but taking a court and a king by storm. Perhaps, in the end, it is Thomas Cromwell’s assessment that comes nearest: intelligence, spirit and courage.
Her French education ended in the winter of 1521, when Anne was summoned back to England by her father. She sailed from Calais, which was then an English possession, in January 1522.
Anne's sister, Mary, was at this time the King's mistress. Mary was the wife of Sir William Carey, a Gentleman of the King's Privy Chamber. It has long been suspected that one or both of Mary's children were fathered by Henry VIII, although some writers, such as Alison Weir, now question whether Henry Carey, Mary's son, was fathered by the King. Anne Boleyn was sent to the court of Henry VIII as a maid-of-honour to Queen Catherine. Anne made her début at a masquerade ball on 4 March 1522, where she was described as a woman of "charm, style and wit, and will and savagery which make her a match for Henry". There she performed an elaborate dance accompanying the King's younger sister Mary, several other ladies of the court and her own sister. All wore gowns of white satin embroidered with gold thread. Within a few weeks of this performance, Anne was known as the most fashionable and accomplished woman at the court and has been referred to as a "glass of fashion".
During this time, Anne was courted by Lord Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland. The exact nature of their relationship is unclear. A priest, George Cavendish, who disliked Anne but was friendly with Lord Percy, later stated categorically that the two had not been lovers. It thus seems unlikely that their relationship was sexual. The romance was broken off in 1523 when Percy's father refused to support their engagement. According to George Cavendish, Anne was briefly sent from court to her family’s countryside estates, but it is not known for how long. When she returned to court, she gathered a group of female friends and male admirers around herself, but became famous for her ability to keep men at arm's length. Her cousin, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote about her in the poem, Whoso List to Hunt, in which he described her as unobtainable and headstrong, despite seeming demure and quiet.
In 1525, Henry VIII became enamoured with her and began his pursuit. Anne resisted his attempts to seduce her and she refused to become his mistress, unless she could become his wife. Henry was all the more attracted to her because of this refusal and he pursued her relentlessly. Anne continued to reject his advances by saying, "I beseech your highness most earnestly to desist, and to this my answer in good part. I would rather lose my life than my honesty.
In 1528, sweating sickness broke out with great severity. In London, the mortality rate was great and the court was dispersed. The King left London, frequently changing his residence. It is believed that Anne contracted--but survived--the sickness in June. Henry sent his second physician, Dr. William Butts to Hever Castle to care for her. It soon became the one absorbing object of the King's desires to secure an annulment from Catherine. Henry set his hopes upon a direct appeal to the Holy See, acting independently of Cardinal Wolsey, to whom he at first communicated nothing of his plans so far as they related to Anne. William Knight, the King's secretary, was sent to Pope Clement VII to sue for the annulment of his marriage with Catherine, on the ground that the dispensing bull of Pope Julius II was obtained by false pretenses. Henry also petitioned, in the event of his becoming free, a dispensation to contract a new marriage with any woman even in the first degree of affinity, whether the affinity was contracted by lawful or unlawful connection. This clearly referred to Anne.
As the Pope was at that time the prisoner of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, Knight had some difficulty in obtaining access to him. In the end, the King's envoy had to return without accomplishing much, though the conditional dispensation for a new marriage was granted. Henry had now no choice but to put his great matter into the hands of Wolsey. Wolsey did all he could to secure a decision in the King's favour. How far the Pope was influenced by Charles V in his resistance, it is difficult to say, but it is clear Henry saw that the Pope was unlikely to give him an annulment from the emperor's aunt. The Pope forbade Henry to proceed with a new marriage before a decision was rendered in Rome. Convinced that he was treacherous, Anne Boleyn maintained pressure until Wolsey was dismissed from public office in 1529. The Cardinal begged her to help him return to power, but she refused. He then allegedly began a secret plot to have Anne forced into exile and began communicating with the Pope to that end. When this was discovered, Henry ordered Wolsey's arrest and had it not been for his death from an illness in 1530, he might have been executed for treason. A year later, Queen Catherine was banished from court and her old rooms were given to Anne. Public support, however, remained with Queen Catherine. One evening in the autumn of 1531, Anne was dining at a manor house on the river and was almost seized by a crowd of angry, hostile women. Anne just barely managed to escape by boat. With Wolsey gone, Anne had considerable power over government appointments and political matters. When Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham died, the Boleyn family's chaplain, Thomas Cranmer, was appointed to the vacant position. Through the intervention of the King of France, this was conceded by Rome, the pallium being granted to him by Clement VII.
The breaking of the power of Rome in England proceeded little by little. In 1532, a supporter of Anne, Sir Thomas Cromwell, brought before Parliament a number of acts including the Supplication against the Ordinaries and the Submission of the Clergy, which recognised royal supremacy over the church. Following these acts, Sir Thomas More resigned as Chancellor, leaving Cromwell as Henry's chief minister.
On 1 September 1532, she was created suo jure Marquess of Pembroke, and became the most prestigious non-royal woman in the realm. She was the first female commoner to become a Peer by direct creation (as opposed to by marriage or inheritance); and she remains the only woman ever to have been made a marquess in her own right. She is sometimes incorrectly described as "Marchioness of Pembroke", but she was known as Marquess. The Pembroke title was of emotional value to the Tudor family: Henry's great-uncle, Jasper Tudor, had held the title of Earl of Pembroke. With her later conviction for treason, the title was confiscated.
Anne’s family also profited from the relationship; her father, already Viscount Rochford, was created Earl of Wiltshire and, by means of a deal made by the King with Anne’s Irish cousins, the Butler family, he was made Earl of Ormonde. At the magnificent banquet to celebrate her father's elevation to the Earldom of Wiltshire, Anne took precedence over the Duchesses of Suffolk and Norfolk, seated in the place of honour beside the King which was usually occupied by the Queen. Thanks to Anne's intervention, her widowed sister Mary received an annual pension of £100, and Mary's son, Henry Carey, received his education in a prestigious Cistercian monastery. The conference at Calais was a political triumph, since the French government gave its support for Henry's re-marriage. Soon after returning to Dover in England, Henry and Anne went through a secret wedding service. She soon became pregnant and, as was the custom with royalty, there was a second wedding service, which took place in London on 25 January 1533. Events now began to move at a quick pace. On 23 May 1533, Cranmer, sitting in judgment at a special court convened at Dunstable Priory to rule on the validity of the King's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, declared the marriage of Henry and Catherine null and void. Five days later, on 28 May 1533, Cranmer declared the marriage of Henry and Anne to be good and valid.
The little princess was given a splendid christening, but Anne feared that Catherine's daughter, Mary, would threaten Elizabeth’s position. Henry soothed his wife's fears by separating Mary from her many servants and sending her to Hatfield House, where Princess Elizabeth would be living with her own magnificent staff of servants. The country air was better for the baby's health, and Anne was an affectionate mother who regularly visited her daughter. She often told Elizabeth of the love she had for her.
The new Queen had a larger staff of servants than Catherine had kept: over 250 servants to tend to her personal needs, everyone from priests to stable-boys. There were also over 60 maids-of-honour who served her and accompanied her to social events. She employed several priests who acted as her confessors, chaplains, and religious advisers. One of these was Matthew Parker, who would become one of the chief architects of Anglican thought during the reign of Anne's daughter Elizabeth I.
The couple was happily married for a time, but relations between them became strained. Henry disliked Anne’s tendency to stand up for herself, argumentativeness, and sharp tongue. She was once reported to have spoken to her uncle in words that "shouldn't be used to a dog". After a false pregnancy or miscarriage in 1534, he saw her failure to give him a son as a betrayal. As early as Christmas 1534, Henry was discussing with Cranmer and Cromwell the chances of leaving Anne without having to return to Catherine.
Anne, unaware of the dangerous position she was in, presided over a magnificent court. She spent lavish amounts of money on gowns, jewels, head-dresses, ostrich-feather fans, riding equipment, and the finest furniture and upholstery from across the world. Numerous palaces were renovated to suit her extravagant tastes. Anne also began to share in the blame for the tyranny of her husband's government. Public opinion of her dropped, following her failure to produce a son. It sank even lower following the executions in 1535 of her enemies, the Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, and Sir Thomas More.
Anne, pregnant again, was aware of the dangers if she failed to give birth to a son. With Catherine dead, Henry would be free to remarry without any taint of illegality.
Later that month, the King was unhorsed in a tournament and was badly injured. It seemed for a time that his life was in danger. When news of this accident reached Anne, she was apparently sent into shock and miscarried a male fetus that was about 15 weeks old. This happened on the very day of Catherine’s funeral, 29 January 1536. According to most observers, this personal loss was the beginning of the end of the royal marriage, although many others say it was already failing.
There is uncertainty about how many pregnancies Anne had, although Elizabeth was the only live birth who survived for any time. Mike Ashley speculated that Anne had two stillborn children after Elizabeth's birth and before the birth of the male child she miscarried in 1536. Williams considers that she had a stillborn male child in the summer of 1534, and a miscarriage after almost four months pregnancy in January 1536. As Anne recovered from what would be her final miscarriage, Henry declared that his marriage had been the product of witchcraft. The King's new mistress, Jane Seymour, was quickly moved into new quarters. This was followed by Anne's brother being refused a prestigious court honour, the Order of the Garter, which was instead given to Sir Nicholas Carew.
In the final days of April, a Flemish musician in Anne's service named Mark Smeaton was arrested and tortured. He initially denied that he was Anne’s lover, but under torture he confessed. Another courtier, Henry Norris was arrested on May Day, but since he was an aristocrat, he could not be tortured. He denied his guilt and swore that Anne was also innocent. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge. William Brereton, a groom of the King's privy chamber, was also apprehended on grounds of adultery. The final accused was Anne's own brother, arrested on charges of incest and treason, accused of having a sexual relationship with his sister over the span of 12 months. Anne's midwife was forced to describe the miscarriages, which was also instrumental in her charges.
On 2 May 1536, Anne was arrested at luncheon and taken to the Tower of London. In the Tower, she suffered a minor nervous breakdown, demanding to know full details of her family's whereabouts and the charges against her. Four of the men were tried in Westminster on 12 May 1536. Weston, Brereton and Norris publicly maintained their innocence and only the tortured Smeaton supported the Crown by pleading guilty. Three days later, Anne and George Boleyn were tried separately in the Tower of London. She was accused of adultery, incest and high treason.
This morning she sent for me, that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to the intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocency always to be clear. And in the writing of this she sent for me, and at my coming she said, 'Mr. Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain.' I told her it should be no pain, it was so little. And then she said, 'I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck,' and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily.
I have seen many men and also women executed, and that they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady has much joy in death. Sir, her almoner is continually with her, and had been since two o'clock after midnight.
She wore a red petticoat under a loose, dark grey gown of damask trimmed in fur and a mantle of ermine. Her dark hair was bound up in a white linen coif and she wore her customary French headdress.She was accompanied by four young ladies as she made her final walk from the Lieutenant's Lodgings to Tower Green. She looked "as gay as if she was not going to die". She made a short speech:
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 then knelt upright, in the French style of executions. Her final prayer consisted of her repeating, "To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesus receive my soul." Her ladies removed the headdress and tied a blindfold over her eyes. According to Eric W. Ives, her executioner was so taken by Anne that he was shaken, and found it difficult to proceed with the execution. In order to distract her, the swordsman shouted, "Where is my sword?" and then beheaded her so she would not know that the sword was coming. The execution was swift and consisted of a single stroke. Across the river, Alexander Ales accompanied Thomas Cranmer as he walked in the gardens of Lambeth Palace. When they heard the cannon fire from the Tower, signalling the death of Anne, the archbishop looked up and proclaimed: "She who has been the English queen on earth will today become a Heaven's queen." He then sat down on a bench and wept. When the charges were first brought against Anne, Cranmer had expressed his astonishment to Henry and his belief that "she should not be culpable." Still, Cranmer felt vulnerable because of his closeness to the queen. On the night before the execution, he had declared Henry's marriage to Anne to have been void, like Catherine's before her. He made no serious attempt to save Anne's life.
Henry had failed to provide a proper coffin for Anne, and so her body and head were put into an arrow chest and buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Her body was identified during renovations of the chapel in the reign of Queen Victoria and Anne's final resting place is now marked in the marble floor.
After her death, a number of rumours sprang up about Anne. It is possible some could be true, but most of them are probably not. It was reported by some that Anne suffered from polydactyly, having six fingers on her left hand. Although it is possible this is true, as accounts of her when she was alive have noted this, others claimed she had a birthmark or mole on her neck that was at all times hidden by a jewel.
Although the first legend is popular, there is no contemporary evidence to support it. None of the many eyewitness accounts of Anne Boleyn’s appearance--some of them meticulously detailed--mention any deformities, let alone a sixth finger. Moreover, as physical deformities were generally interpreted as a sign of evil, it is difficult to believe that Anne Boleyn would have gained Henry's romantic attention had she possessed any; especially considering that Henry refused to marry Princess Renee' of France because he did not consider her to be able to bear healthy children, due to a slight limp she had inherited from her mother. Anne was known by many to be of high intelligence, possessing wit and charisma, but she was also cruel, impatient, and bad tempered among other things and was said to be very talented at music and enjoyed literature.
Following the coronation of her daughter as queen, Anne was venerated as a martyr and heroine of the English Reformation, particularly through the works of John Foxe, who argued that Anne had saved England from the evils of Roman Catholicism and that God had provided proof of her innocence and virtue by making sure her daughter, Elizabeth I, later became Queen regnant. Over the centuries, Anne has inspired or been mentioned in numerous artistic and cultural works. As a result, she has remained in the popular memory and Anne has been called "the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had love."
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