Anne Boleyn, 1st Marchioness of Pembroke (c.1501/1507–19 May 1536), also called Ann Bolin and Anne Bullen (the original medieval English pronunciation), was the second wife and queen consort of Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I.
Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Boleyn was part of the complex beginning of the considerable political and religious upheaval which was the English Reformation, with she herself promoting Church Reform.
She was beheaded on charges of adultery and treason on 19 May 1536.
Childhood and family
Boleyn was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire and 1st Earl of Ormonde, and his wife Lady Elizabeth Boleyn (born Lady Elizabeth Howard), daughter of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk. It is not known for certain where she was born, but it was either at her family's mansion of Blickling Hall in Norfolk or at their favourite home of Hever Castle in Kent. It was rumoured later in her life that she had been born with six fingers on her left hand (at the time considered a sign of the devil), probably as a reaction by Catholics following Henry VIII's separation from the church of Rome. She had two siblings: Her sister Mary was probably a little younger than she was and her brother George may have been older. The controversy about the order of the children is described by Ives (2005 pp16-17). Some claim Mary was younger than Anne, some claim older. George was probably the youngest, having been married last (other than Anne, who was, of course, courting the king at the time.)
In later life, Boleyn did not have a particularly affectionate relationship with her father, but in her childhood she was anxious to please him. Her relationship with her sister Mary was turbulent, as she disagreed with Mary's second husband (who was far below her- a common soldier) and the two were not on speaking terms at the time of Anne's death. She enjoyed a much happier relationship with her mother and her brother, both to whom she was very close.
The Boleyns were not high nobility, and had only held power for four generations. Boleyn's father had married into the powerful Howard family. She had a very powerful aristocratic heritage; her great-grandparents included a Lord Mayor of London, a duke, an earl, two aristocratic ladies and a knight. She was certainly more aristocratic than either Jane Seymour or Catherine Parr, two of Henry's other wives. She was also the elder cousin of Henry's fifth wife, Lady Catherine Howard.
Boleyn's father was a respected diplomat with a gift for languages who had been a favourite of Henry VII and Henry VIII, who sent him on many diplomatic missions abroad. In Europe, Thomas Boleyn's professionalism and charm won many admirers, including Archduchess Margaret of Austria, the daughter of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor. Margaret was currently ruling the Netherlands on behalf of her father and caring for her nephew and three nieces. Margaret was so impressed with him that she offered his youngest daughter Anne a place in her household. Ordinarily, a girl had to be 12 years old to have such an honour, but Anne might have been somewhat younger, as Margaret affectionately referred to her as "la Petite Boleyn"; this appointment, however, is often used as evidence that Anne was born in 1501, not 1507. She made a good impression in the Netherlands with her manners and determination to work hard at her education. She is believed to have lived there from the spring of 1513 to the autumn of 1514.
While attractive, Boleyn was not a great beauty of the time, considered too thin and too dark (although many people commented on her magnificent dark eyes and beautiful dark hair). Her sister, on the other hand, had traditional good looks - buxom, with fair hair, skin, and eyes. Boleyn made up for it with her fashion sense, inspiring many new trends; she was probably the biggest fashion icon of her time. One Italian who met her in 1532 wrote that she was "not one of the handsomest women in the world", but others thought she was "competent belle" ("quite beautiful") and "young and good-looking." Her vivacity was also considered attractive. William Forrest, author of a contemporary poem about Catherine of Aragon, described her "passing excellent" skill as a dancer. "Here," he wrote, "was [a] fresh young damsel, that could trip and go."
Her personality was complex, and it has been greatly distorted by those opposed to her marriage and religious views. She was a devout Christian in the new tradition of Renaissance Humanism (calling her a Protestant would be too strong). She also gave generously to charity and, contrary to popular myth, was extremely emotional. In her youth she was "sweet and cheerful" and enjoyed gambling, drinking wine, and gossiping. She was also brave and charismatic. Her personal motto loosely translated as "This will be, no matter who grumbles!" and "The Most Happy." French ambassador Giles de la Pommeraye was completely captivated by her and paid tribute to her formidable intellect and influence on English foreign policy. Yet she could also be extravagant, neurotic, and bad-tempered.
Her time in the Netherlands was followed by some years in France where she was a favoured lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude of France and also a translator whenever any English visitors arrived to meet the Queen. In the Queen's household, she completed her study of French and acquired a thorough knowledge of French culture and etiquette. She also developed an interest in fashion and the religious philosophy that called for reform of the Church. Her European education ended in the winter of 1521 when she was summoned back to England on her father's orders. She sailed from Calais in January 1522.
A royal love affair
Boleyn became a lady-in-waiting on her return to England to Queen Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's politics and court life for some time.
Boleyn made her court dAcbut at a masquerade ball in March 1522, where she performed an elaborate dance accompanied by the king's sister and his mistress, her sister Mary. Boleyn was known as the most fashionable and accomplished woman at the Court and she has been referred to as a "glass of fashion".
During this time, she was being courted by Henry Percy and son of the Earl of Northumberland around 1522. The exact nature of their relationship is unclear, but it is worth noting that it would have been impossible to break their betrothal if it had been consummated, and Anne had seen too many reputations ruined to risk hers.
The romance was broken off in 1523 when Lord Henry's father refused to sanction the marriage upon hearing of it from Cardinal Wolsey. Legend has it that the liaison was secretly broken up because Henry desired her for himself. It is impossible to say if this is true and historians are divided on the issue. She was briefly sent from court to Hever Castle in Kent. She spent the summer there before returning to Court and gathering a clique of female friends and male admirers for herself, though keeping them at arm's length. The poet Sir Thomas Wyatt complained that she was unobtainable, temperamental, and headstrong, despite seeming demure and quiet. In 1525, Henry VIII fell in love with her and began his pursuit.
Anne's sister, Mary Boleyn, had previously been King Henry's mistress, beginning in 1519 and ending in 1521 when she was married through arrangement to William Carey, a gentleman of the king's Privy Chamber. There is a rumour that Mary's two children were HenryâÇÖs, though they were born after the affair had officially ended. There is no truth in the much later gossip that Boleyn's mother had been Henry's mistress too.
It seems that this scandalous accusation arose over a confusion of the Boleyn name with that of an early mistress of Henry's, Elizabeth Blount.
Henry's affair with Mary had been ended for some time when he became involved with Boleyn. She had returned to England at the end of 1521 but the marriage planned for her with one of her Irish cousins had fallen through, and her own unauthorised romance with Percy had been blighted by Cardinal Wolsey, so that in the mid-1520s she was still unspoken for.
It is often thought that Henry's infatuation with her led him to seek a way to Spanish wife, whose sons by Henry had all died young. Catherine was popular with the people, although she had been inactive in annul his existing marriage. However there is good evidence to suggest that Henry may well have made the decision to set aside his marriage with Catherine of Aragon solely because she hadn't delivered a male heir. He believed this was essential to prevent the collapse of the Tudor dynasty which had only been secured by his father Henry VII upon winning the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
At first, Boleyn was kept in the background, but by 1528 it was common knowledge that Henry intended to marry her. She kept herself out of politics and she enjoyed a civil relationship with Cardinal Wolsey, despite her father's hatred of him. At court, she reveled in her newfound lifestyle; Henry paid for everything, and she was showered with magnificent gowns and jewels.
She decided not to sleep with Henry before their marriage, as pre-marital sex would mean that any children they had would be born out of legitimate wedlock. She was given her own staff and several ladies-in-waiting to advertise that she was now the next queen.
The power behind the throne
In 1529, it seemed as if Pope Clement VII was no nearer to granting Henry a divorce than he had been in 1527. Boleyn's spies reported that part of the problem was her supposed ally, Cardinal Wolsey, who had assured her that the Pope would help make her queen. A group of aristocrats opposed to Wolsey had been at court for over a decade and they saw her as the perfect instrument to help topple the Cardinal from power. Henry refused to be persuaded until Wolsey's promises once again proved unfounded, when one of the Pope's delegates in England refused to find in the King's favour and instead referred the matter back to Rome.
Boleyn maintained pressure until Wolsey was dismissed from public office in 1529. Henry insisted upon Wolsey returning to York and keeping out of politics. The Cardinal begged Boleyn to help him return to power, but she refused to help him. Wolsey then began a secret plot to enlist Papal support for himself. When this was discovered, Henry ordered Wolsey's arrest; Had it not been for Wolsey's death from a terminal illness in 1530, he may have been executed for treason. A year later, Catherine was banished from court.
With Wolsey gone, Boleyn became the most powerful person at court. She had considerable power over appointments and political matters. She clashed with the king’s new chief minister, SirThomas More, who was opposed to reform in the Catholic Church, a cause she and her brother supported. Her exasperation with the Vatican also persuaded her to promote a new alternative to Henry; She suggested that he should follow the advice of religious radicals like William Tyndale, who denied Papal Authority and believed that the monarch should lead the church of his own nation. When Willaim Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, died, Boleyn had her family's chaplain — Thomas Cranmer — appointed to the vacant position. She also facilitated the rise ofThomas Cromwell, who became the king's favorite new adviser.
During this period, Boleyn also played an enormous role in England's international position by solidifying the French alliance. She established an excellent rapport with the French ambassador, Giles de la Pommeraye, who was captivated by her. With his help, she helped arrange an international conference at Calais in the winter of 1532, in which Henry hoped he could enlist the support of Francis I of France for his marriage to her.
Before going to Calais, Henry named Boleyn Marchioness of Pembroke. Her family also profited from this; her father, already Viscount Rochford, was created Earl of Ormonde and then Earl of Wiltshire. Thanks to her intervention, her widowed sister Mary received an annual pension of £100, and Mary's son, Henry Carey, received a top-quality education in a prestigious Cistercian monastery.
|The Six Wives of
King Henry VIII
|Catherine of Aragon|
|Anne of Cleves|
The conference was a political triumph, since the French government gave their support for Henry's re-marriage. Immediately upon returning to Dover in England, Henry and Boleyn went through a secret wedding service, finally enjoying a sexual relationship after seven years. She became pregnant within a few months.
Catherine was formally stripped of her title as queen in time for Boleyn's coronation in June 1533. In defiance of the Pope, Cranmer now declared that the English Church was under Henry’s control, not Rome's. This was the famous "Break with Rome", which signalled the end of England's history as a subordinate Roman Catholic country. Few people were aware of the significance at the time, and even fewer were prepared to defend the Pope's authority. She was delighted at this development; She was a Catholic, but she believed the Papacy was a corrupt and immoral influence on Christianity.
After her coronation, she settled into a quiet routine to prepare for the birth of her child. She was deeply distressed when Henry was infatuated with a lady of the court, which provoked their first serious fight. The girl was just a passing fancy, as Henry wanted nothing to jeopardise his wife's pregnancy.
Henry and Boleyn's child was born slightly prematurely on September 7, 1533, at the king's favourite palace of Greenwich. The child was a girl who was christened Elizabeth, in honour of Henry's mother, Elizabeth of York. She was given a splendid christening, but Boleyn feared that Catherine's daughter, Mary, would still have enough popular support to threaten Elizabeth’s position. Henry soothed Boleyn's fears by separating Mary from her many servants and sending her under guard to Hatfield House, where Princess Elizabeth was also given her own magnificent staff of servants. The country air was better for the baby's health, and Boleyn was an affectionate mother who regularly visited her daughter. Her visits were also scenes of friction between her and Princess Mary, who referred to her as "my father’s mistress", while Boleyn called Mary "that cursed bastard."
Life as Queen
Boleyn had a larger staff of servants than Catherine; there were over 250 servants to tend to her personal needs, everything from priests to stable-boys. There were also over 60 maids-of-honour who served her and accompanied her to social events. In return, their parents hoped the queen would act as a good mistress and arrange a suitable marriage for them. She maintained a strict control over her maids’ morals and spiritual well-being, chastising Margaret Shelton when she was caught writing poetry in her prayer book. She also employed several priests who acted as herconfessors, chaplains, and religious advisers. Her favourite was the religious moderate Matthew Parker, who would become one of the chief architects of the modern Church of England under her daughter Elizabeth I.
Her reputation as a religious reformer spread through Europe, and she was hailed as a heroine by Protestant figures; even Martin Luther viewed her rise to the throne as a good sign. She also saved the life of the French radical Nicolas Bourbon, who was sentenced to death by the French Inquisition. She appealed to the French Royal Family, who spared Bourbon’s life as a favour to the English queen. Bourbon would later refer to her as "the Queen whom God loves". Although she championed religious reform, especially translating the Bible into English, she did not challenge the sacred doctrine of Transubstantiation. She was also a generous patron of charity, distributing alms to poor relief and funds to educational foundations. She and her ladies would often sew shirts for the poor.
She presided over a magnificent court. In the 16th century, royals were expected to be extravagant in order to convey to their people the importance and strength of the monarchy. She spent huge sums on gowns, jewels, head-dresses, ostrich-feather fans, riding equipment, and the finest furniture and upholstery from across the world. Numerous palaces were also renovated for the royal couple.
A group of young gentlemen continued to visit the queen’s apartments, where they flirted with her ladies-in-waiting and, with permission, danced with the queen. She never stepped beyond propriety, however, even going so far as to reprimand them if they became too jovial with either her or her maids. There was nothing new in this, for a group of young men had also served as Catherine of Aragon’s adherents in the 1510s; it was only later that this behaviour would harm Anne’s reputation.
Boleyn's married life was stormy; The royal couple enjoyed periods of calm and affection, but Henry's frequent infidelities greatly wounded his new wife, who reacted with tears and rage to each new mistress. For his part, Henry found Boleyn’s strident opinions about religion and politics as intolerance, and he saw her failure to give him a son as a betrayal. Her second pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage in the summer of 1534.
The French Ambassador watched with amazement at the frosty atmosphere between the royal couple at a banquet in 1535. When he asked Boleyn about it later in the evening, she laughed sadly and told him that she felt utterly lonely and that she could feel the eyes of the entire court spying on her.
This pressure inflamed her temper, and she clashed with her ambitious uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, when she discovered his loyalty to her was suspect. When her sister Mary secretly married a commoner, she exiled Mary from her court. Both sisters refused to apologise to one another; Mary wrote a letter proclaiming her steadfast love for her new husband.
Boleyn was also blamed for the tyranny of her husband’s government. She was said to have pushed Henry to sign his old adviser Sir Thomas More's death warrant when he was beheaded in 1535 for refusing to break his oath of loyalty to Pope Paul III. While it's true that Anne did not like More, there is no evidence that she advocated for his death. It is unlikely she defended him, but he had acknowledged her as queen instead of Catherine.
A Flemish musician in her service named Mark Smeaton had been arrested and tortured by Thomas Cromwell. He had initially denied that he was her lover, but under torture he confessed. He also provided the names of another courtier — Sir Henry Norreys (or Norris) — who was an old friend of hers. He was arrested on May Day, but since he was an aristocrat he could not be tortured. Norris denied his guilt and swore that Boleyn was absolutely innocent. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later. William Brereton, a groom of the king's privy chamber, was also apprehended on grounds of adultery, but it seems likely he was innocent and was in fact the victim of an old grudge against him held by Thomas Cromwell. Boleyn's own brother was also arrested on charges of incest and treason, accused of having a sexual relationship with his sisters.
On 2 May 1536, Boleyn was arrested at luncheon and taken up the River Thames 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.
The four gentlemen were tried on May 15, 1536. Weston, Brereton and Norris publicly maintained their innocence and only the tortured Smeaton supported the government by pleading guilty. Two days later, Anne and George Boleyn were tried separately. Popular suspicion against Henry and his mistress, Jane Seymour, was widespread. Boleyn was accused of adultery, incest, and high treason. Although she was not popular by any means, her trial was so unfair that even the citizens protested. Even so, the king demanded her head and she was condemned to death.
On May 17, 1536 — the day Boleyn's alleged "lovers" were publicly beheaded — she was stripped of her title as queen and her daughter Elizabeth was declared illegitimate. The following day, Boleyn heard Mass for the last time, and publicly swore on the Blessed Sacrament that she was innocent. When her jailer, William Kingston, told her that she was to be given the privilege of being executed by a French sword expert, she laughed. "I heard say that the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck." Kingston was amazed at the composure she now demonstrated, writing, "She hath much joy in death."
She dressed in an elegant grey dress and styled her famous dark hair on the morning of May 19, 1536. A crowd of officials had gathered on Tower Green to watch her execution. On the scaffold, she gave a short, dignified speech. She did not admit to any guilt, but diplomatically avoided attacking the king in case he sought revenge on her surviving relatives. She then knelt down and was blindfolded with a linen handkerchief. The executioner took off her head with a quick, clean sweep of his blade. Eye-witnesses claimed that, when her head was shown to the spectators, her eyes were open and she appeared to be attempting to speak. She was buried later that day in the nearby Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.
In 1542, when her brother's widow, Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, was executed for her part in Catherine Howard's extra-marital indiscretions, she confessed that she falsely accused her husband of incest with Anne.
Henry VIII’s conduct immediately following Boleyn's death was so openly joyful that it shocked even the Spanish Ambassador, Chapuis, who commented that the king seemed to wear his "horns very readily."
Nicholas Sanders, an English Catholic priest who was opposed to the Church of England and advocated the deposing of Elizabeth, made a number of claims about Boleyn, which were reworked and published after his death in De origine et progressu schismatis Anglicani (The origin and progress of the English Schism), 1585.
Sanders was the first to claim in print that Boleyn was deformed, giving her the features of a witch. His allegations included the claims that she was a nymphomaniac with an excess of lovers; and that she had a projecting tooth; and that she had six fingers (hexadactyly) on one hand. All these features were traditionally associated with witches. There is no contemporary evidence to support such allegations, despite their popularity and inclusion in many modern textbooks.
Meanwhile, the Protestant writer John Foxe proclaimed that she had been a saint. He repeatedly stated that the Church of England owed its existence to Queen Anne, who was “the most beautiful of all in character, learning and piety.”
William Shakespeare began the tradition of presenting her as a romantic lady in his 1613 play Henry VIII. The play focuses on the king’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and, although Boleyn’s part is small, she still speaks some of the most memorable lines in the play. She is also eulogised in her coronation scene, when one of the spectators refers to her as being a woman of exceptional beauty and piety. In order to avoid demonising Henry VIII at her expense, the play ended with the christening of their daughter, thus avoiding the controversial issue of Boleyn's execution.
Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena was first performed in Milan in 1830 to popular acclaim. It was revived in the 20th century, when the legendary opera singer Maria Callas took the title role and achieved some of her greatest operatic success.
Boleyn’s life has been the subject of numerous biographies, novels, motion pictures, plays and operas.
The most favourable accounts come from Professor Eric W. Ives, author of several political studies of the era, including a biography entitled The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, originally published in 1986 and revised and republished in 2004. Professor R.M. Warnicke, author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn and several studies on the era’s sexual morals, also offers a favourable interpretation of her “energy and vitality.” Feminist historian, writer and activist Karen Lindsey, in Divorced, Beheaded, Survived believes Boleyn’s story is one of the great feminist parables of all time, and says that the traditional image of Boleyn as an amoral, homewrecking social climber “makes for great melodrama, all it lacks is accuracy.” Recently, English writer Joanna Denny, author of Anne Boleyn: A Life of England’s Tragic Queen, has positively interpreted the enormous role Anne played in England’s religious development.
The story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII was the subject of the 1969 Academy Award-nominated film, Anne of the Thousand Days, starring Richard Burton as King Henry VIII and Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn.
There is still some disagreement over which portrait authentically represents Anne Boleyn’s true appearance. An original full-length portrait was painted when she was queen, but it disappeared over the following centuries. In the lifetime of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, several copies were made — all of them depicting the same black dress and pearl necklace, but with some variations on skin and hair colouring. One of Queen Elizabeth's locket rings contains a portrait of her mother.
Two images made by the German artist Hans Holbein also survive. The first was drawn sometime around 1530, but it was not labeled as “Anne Boleyn” until 1649 — over a century after her death — and so it is now generally regarded as inaccurate by most historians. Another Holbein sketch was labelled as Anne Boleyn in the reign of Edward VI, but mistakes were made in this labeling process. Furthermore, the woman’s physical appearance does not match accounts of Boleyn's. Evidence suggests that it might actually be a sketch of a lady of the Wyatt family. The sitter is a fair-featured woman wearing a furred dressing gown and linen cap.
A miniature by the Flemish artist Lucas Horenbout was identified as of Boleyn in the 1980s because the broach the lady wears supposedly shows a white falcon, which became her symbol in 1533. However, the white falcon was also the symbol of Anne’s Irish family, and so it could be a portrait of any of her female relatives. Furthermore, the wings of the falcon on the broach sweep downwards, while the wings on Boleyn's falcon went upward. The image is actually too small to really say it's a falcon.
Another portrait, which now hangs at Nidd Hall in England, is supposedly painted of Boleyn later in her life. However, recent research has suggested that it was not painted until the 1560s and that the owners used it as a tool to express their loyalty to her daughter, Elizabeth.
In later centuries, hundreds of portraits were made to satisfy the public’s fascination with her. These later portraits often showed her in inaccurate costumes, or drew inspiration from the scene of her demise.
On April 1, 2005, Wing Commander George Melville-Jackson approached British Home Secretary Charles Clarke in a bid to formally pardon Boleyn. Although she was long-dead, he asserted that she never deserved to be branded as a criminal; in the event that a declaration that she was not guilty of her alleged crimes was not possible, he would have settled for a pardon. He also sought the removal of her remains from her resting place at the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, where Elizabeth I was buried. The request was later rejected, since the antiquity of the case meant that so much of the original evidence had been destroyed, and so the British government was incapable of proving her innocence.
- Anne Boleyn by Marie-Louise Bruce (1972)
- The Challenge of Anne Boleyn by Hester W. Chapman (1974)
- Anne Boleyn by Professor E.W. Ives (1986)
- The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family politics at the court of Henry VIII by Professor R.M. Warnicke (1989)
- The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir (1991)
- The Wives of Henry VIII by Lady Antonia Fraser (1992)
- The Politics of Marriage by David Loades (1994)
- Divorced Beheaded Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII by Karen Lindsey (1995)
- Doomed Queen Anne by Caroline Meyer (2002)
- Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by Dr. David Starkey (2003)
- Anne Boleyn: A new life of England's tragic queen by Joanna Denny (2004)
- The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Professor E.W. Ives (2004)
Catherine of Aragon
|Wives of Henry VIII||Followed by:
Catherine of Aragon
|Queen Consort of England
25 January 1533 - 19 May 1536