In history

Anne Boleyn is probably one of the most divisive female figures in history. As the second wife of Henry VIII she is credited with influencing the reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries and for the ensuing religious chaos which lasted years after her death and of course, she is the mother of one of the world’s best loved queens.

Anne Boleyn was executed for treason on 19th May 1536 and just two weeks later, Henry VIII married her second cousin and lady’s maid, Jane Seymour. As the anniversary of her death falls, we thought we would take a look at the life and times of Anne Boleyn and discover whether history has remembered her fairly.

Anne Boleyn was born in 1501 at Bickling Hall in Norfolk to Sir Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard.

Thomas Boleyn had been Squire of the Body at the funeral of Henry VII and was knighted at the coronation of Henry VIII. He would later go on to become an Earl and a prominent member of Henry VIII’s court. Her mother, Elizabeth, was descended from King Edward I and was the daughter of Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, one of the most powerful men in the country. She also spent time in the royal court, forming part of Catherine of Aragon’s household for a time.

Anne had an older sister, Mary and a younger brother, George. The family moved from Bickling Hall to Hever Castle in Kent in around 1504, around the time that George was born. The castle was inherited by Thomas Boleyn on the death of his father.

Descriptions of Anne are hard to come by but contemporary accounts agree that she had dark hair and eyes and was very slender. No contemporary portraits of her have survived and most of those that exist were created during the reign of her daughter Elizabeth I. There is also some debate over her true personality, which is why there is such debate over whether she was a politically minded schemer or just a victim of the machinations of more powerful men. We do know that she received an education that was typical for her class and as her father continued to act in a diplomatic position, would have included languages, grammar, history, spelling and writing. She also learned skills such as dancing, household management and singing and was taught falconry, archery and horseback riding.

When she was around 12 or 13, she was invited to join the schoolroom of Margaret of Austria and her four wards. Margaret was a long time friend of her father’s and at the time, ruled the Netherlands on her nephew, Charles’ behalf. Anne made a good impression in the Netherlands and letters from the court show that she was much loved and well regarded.

Anne would stay at the Court of Savoy in Mechelen until her father arranged for her and her sister Mary to travel to France as part of the retinue of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister who was to marry Louis XII of France. Anne would stay in France for the next six years, first as a maid of honour for Mary and then later for Mary’s step-daughter Queen Claude. Anne’s education continued in France and would inspire many new trends among the ladies and courtiers of England. It is also at this time that she may have begun to show an interest in religious reform, which was beginning to take hold in Germany.

Thomas Boleyn would recall Anne to England in 1522 on the promise of marrying her cousin, James Butler, an Irish man who was living at the English court. The marriage was intended to settle a dispute over the title and estates of the Earldom of Ormond, which both Thomas Howard and Thomas Boleyn had a claim to. The marriage negotiations came to a halt and James Butler married Lady Joan Fitzgerald.

Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn was married to William Carey, a minor noble, a few years before at a ceremony that was attended by Henry VIII. This is believed to be their first meeting and she would become one of his mistresses. There is some debate over whether Henry VIII or William Carey fathered the two children born during the marriage. The king did not acknowledge either child but did recognise his son Henry Fitzroy by one of his other mistresses and both children took Carey’s name but would be involved in court life throughout their lives.

Anne made her debut at the English court in a pageant where she performed alongside the king’s younger sister Mary and several other ladies of the court. During this time she established herself as a fashionable young lady and was courted by Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland. They entered into a secret betrothal but was broken off after Percy’s father refused to support the match. Anne was sent back to Kent while the affair was handled. Percy would later marry a woman he had been betrothed to as a child and Anne was returned to court as one of Catherine of Aragon’s lady’s maids. Around this time, Thomas Boleyn would be appointed Treasurer of the Royal Household.

Historians think that Henry VIII’s infatuation with Anne began in 1526. Some say that Anne refused to become his mistress and resisted his attempts to seduce her, often returning to Hever Castle for short periods of time. Henry would start writing letters to Anne during this time which would be stolen and then recovered decades later at the Vatican. By this time, Henry had been married to Catherine of Aragon for over a decade and was getting increasingly more desperate for a legitimate son and heir to secure the future of the Tudor dynasty. He and Catherine only had one surviving child, their daughter Mary.

Henry’s courtship of Anne would last nearly seven years, during this time it is believed that she resisted his charms, either because of her own morals or because her family knew that by holding out for a marriage proposal, she would be elevated to a better position. Henry would eventually propose marriage and Anne accepted, though it would be a long time before they would tie the knot as getting an annulment appeared to be much more difficult than had initially believed. It would seem that to start, it was a love match between Henry and Anne, when she retired to Hever Castle during an outbreak of the sweating sickness, Henry sent his best doctors to the castle to care for her. She survived, William Carey did not.

It wasn’t all Anne’s fault that Henry wanted to divorce Catherine. Records show it was something he had been considering since 1509 after she failed to give him a male heir. Henry had been pushing for an annulment on the grounds that the wedding was not valid due to Catherine’s earlier marriage to his brother Arthur. The battle for an annulment would be a long one, with representatives coming from Rome and even bringing England to the brink of war against the Holy Roman Emperor, who was Catherine’s nephew. Public support stayed with Catherine, but eventually Henry got what he wanted, as did the Boleyns. Their family chaplain, Thomas Cranmer was appointed with papal approval to the role of Archbishop of Canterbury.

Even before becoming queen, Anne was given influence and power in court, she even negotiated an important alliance with France.

Soon after the conference with the French king, Anne and Henry married in a secret ceremony and she soon became pregnant. A second wedding, also in private took place in 1533 and Thomas Cranmer would declare Henry’s first marriage invalid and his second legal.

Anne was crowned as Queen Consort on 1st June 1533 in a magnificent ceremony at Westminster Abbey, she was the last queen consort of England to be crowned separately to her husband and unlike others in her position, she was crowned with St Edward’s Crown, which had previously only been used to crown monarchs. It was after this, Henry’s First Succession Act rejected papal authority in legal matters, those that refused were imprisoned in the Tower of London and declared that Henry was the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England, meaning that the church was now under his control rather than the pope’s.

After the coronation, Anne settled into confinement at Greenwich Palace to prepare for the birth of her baby. The child was born prematurely and was christened Elizabeth. It had been assumed the baby would be a boy and Elizabeth’s arrival was seen as a huge blow.

Both Anne and Henry seemed to have a reasonably happy marriage to start with. However, Anne’s wit, intelligence and popularity in the court began to be seen as unacceptable in a wife and after a number of miscarriages, Henry was discussing with Cranmer and Cromwell, the possibility of divorcing her without having to return to Catherine. Anne spent lavish amounts of money on gowns, jewels and more to show off her status and was generally viewed as being the reason behind Henry’s tyranny. Public opinion fell further after it was deemed that she was celebrating Catherine of Aragon’s death.

Though Anne was pregnant again by 1536, Henry had already begun perusing one of her maids of honour, Jane Seymour. A few months later, Henry was injured during a tournament resulting in Anne miscarrying the baby. Henry responded by claiming he had been tricked into the marriage and moved Jane Seymour into royal quarters. This sparked the beginning of Anne’s downfall.

Historians believe that Anne’s execution was engineered by Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry’s most trusted advisors and at one time, one of Anne’s biggest supporters. Cromwell, like Anne, was interested in moving away from Catholicism and after Henry began redistributing church revenues, he started taking a cut for himself and refilling the crown’s treasury, rather than using the funds for charitable endeavours, as Anne had asked

Henry instructed Cromwell to investigate his wife and uncover reasons for divorce. During his investigations, Mark Smeaton, a musician who was in Anne’s services was arrested. He initially denied having an affair with her but was later tortured and confessed. Another, Sir Henry Norris was arrested but was treated kindly. Sir Francis Weston and Sir William Bereton were also imprisoned and released. The final man accused of an affair with the queen was George Boleyn, Anne’s younger brother. The pair were accused of two counts of incest dating back to 1535. Once George was in custody, Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London but was not told about the charges against her.

While imprisoned, Anne wrote to the king claiming complete ignorance of how she had offended him and why she was in the Tower. This letter is reputedly the last she ever wrote.

Four of the men accused of having an affair with the queen were tried in Westminster on 12th May 1536. Only one pleaded guilty. Three days later, Anne and George Boleyn were tried separately at the Tower of London before a jury of 27 peers, which included Henry Percy. Anne was accused of adultery, incest and high treason. At the time, adultery on the part of the queen was considered to be high treason. The penalty for this was hanging, drawing and quartering for a man and burning alive for a woman. She was also accused of plotting the king’s death with her lovers.

The jury found Anne unanimously guilty and it is said that Henry Percy had to be carried from the courtroom. Less than a week later, Thomas Cranmer, even though an ally of the Boleyns, declared the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was invalid.

Henry did show her one last kindness though, he commuted her sentence from burning to beheading and rather than use a common axe, he insisted that an expert swordsman be brought in from France to perform the execution.

As for the men, all were found guilty and condemned to death.

George Boleyn and the others were executed on 17th May 1536. It is believed that Anne could see and hear this from her cell in the Tower.

Shortly before dawn on 19th May, she valled William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower to hear mass and swore in his presence that she had never been unfaithful to the king.

A few hours later, she was taken to a scaffold erected on the north side of the White Tower, which is now the Waterloo Barracks. She was accompanied by two female attendants and made the walk in a determined manner. After climbing the scaffold, she made a speech to the gathered crowd, paying homage to Henry. She was allowed to say goodbye to her ladies and say a prayer before being blindfolded. As was custom in France, she knelt upright for the execution.

Thomas Cromwell, Charles Bandon, Henry Fitzroy and most of the king’s council were in attendance. Anne’s body was taken away from the scaffold and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St Peter and Vincula. During the reign of Queen Victoria, a skeleton was discovered during renovations of the chapel and was identified as Anne Boleyn. Her final resting place is now marked with a marble stone on the chapel floor.

Eleven days after Anne’s death, Henry married Jane Seymour.

From her marriage onwards, Anne has been considered to be a political mastermind who threw England into chaos but after the coronation of Elizabeth I, she was seen as a heroine of the English Reformation. During the rest of Henry’s and then later Edward VI’s reign, she was effectively written out of history. In fact, her name was literally removed from Hampton Court, with every reference to her removed and replaced by Jane Seymour. Regardless of how you feel about Anne, there is no doubt that she was the most influential queen England has ever had.

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