Boleyn, Anne (c. 1507–1536)

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Boleyn, Anne (c. 1507–1536)

English queen who precipitated the English Reformation and gave birth to England's most famous queen, Elizabeth I. Name variations: Nan Bullen; Anne of the Thousand Days. Pronunciation: BOE-lin. Born 1507 (some sources cite 1501) somewhere in England; executed May 19, 1536, in London; daughter of Thomas Boleyn, earl of Wiltshire (diplomat and courtier) and Elizabeth Howard (daughter of the earl of Surrey); educated at royal courts in the Netherlands and France; married Henry VIII, king of England, on January 25, 1533; children: Elizabeth (1533–1603, later Elizabeth I, queen of England); Henry Tudor, duke of Cornwall (1534–1534), and an unnamed baby (1536–1536).

Appointed lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon (1526); beloved by Henry VIII (1527); became Henry's mistress (1532); crowned queen of England (1533); miscarried male child (January 1536); accused of adultery and treason (May 1536).

On Thursday, May 19, at eight o'clock in the morning, Anne Boleyn entered the courtyard of the Tower of London. Dressed in a robe of black damask covered by an ermine mantle of white, she was escorted by the Tower's Constable Sir William Kingston, followed by four ladies-in-waiting. As was customary in 16th-century executions, she addressed the large crowd from the scaffold with a short and simple speech. Explaining that she had come to die, rather than preach, Anne Boleyn prayed for the king, who she described as a "good, gentle and sovereign lord." She then removed the ermine headdress and tucked her long flowing hair into a small linen cap. Blindfolded, she knelt down repeating the words, "To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesu, receive my soul." With a stroke of the sword her words were silenced forever. The woman who had captured the heart of a king, ushered in a religious Reformation, and been crowned queen of England was dead. Her fall was as spectacular as her rise to power.

The date of Anne Boleyn's birth was never recorded and has remained a matter of debate among historians. Most place it around 1501 while others prefer the later date of 1507. What is certain is that she was one of three children born to Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard , daughter of the earl of Surrey. Although the Boleyn family had rather humble beginnings as small tenant farmers, by the mid-15th century Sir Geoffrey Boleyn was lord mayor of London. He also acquired prosperous lands and manors in Norfolk and Kent. Additional manors were obtained when Anne's grandfather married one of the richest heiresses in England. Anne's own father had steadily risen to a prominent place at the royal courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII and, in the spring of 1512, Thomas Boleyn was sent as an envoy to the Netherlands. His six-year-old daughter soon followed.

Anne Boleyn spent two years at the court of Margaret (of Austria) , archduchess of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. Here she resided with young girls from the royal families of Europe, three of whom became the future queens of France, Denmark, and Hungary. In the royal nursery at the court of Malines, Anne was taught to speak French as well as the traditional accoutrements of any well-bred young woman. Hence she was taught to sing, to play musical instruments, such as the lute and the clavichord, to dress stylishly, and to be a good conversationalist.

Howard, Elizabeth (?–1538)

Countess of Wiltshire. Birth date unknown; died on April 3, 1538, at Barnard Castle, Durham, England; buried at Lambeth Church, London; daughter of Thomas Howard (1473–1554), 2nd duke of Norfolk, andElizabeth Tylney (d. 1497); married Thomas Boleyn, earl of Wiltshire, before 1507; children: George Boleyn, 2nd viscount Rochford (d. 1536);Mary Boleyn (d. 1543);Anne Boleyn (c. 1507–1536); Thomas and Henry (both died young).

Anne's peaceful sojourn was interrupted when Henry VIII's sister Mary Tudor married King Louis XII of France in August 1514. Since the Boleyn family accompanied the wedding party to France, Anne's presence was also required.

By November 1514, she was residing at the French court with the king's daughter Renée of France . When Louis died in January 1515, Anne remained in France to attend Queen Claude of France , the wife of the new king, Francis I.

Anne Boleyn spent seven years on the Continent. During these formative years, she became thoroughly fluent in the French language, as well as immersed in French culture. For the rest of her life, she retained a taste for Franco-Flemish music and French fashion. She was also introduced to ideas for religious reform. Francis I's sister, Margaret of Angoulême (1492–1549), queen of Navarre, wrote both secular and religious literature that focused on a more personal, mystical faith based on readings from Scripture. Although she never advocated schism from the Roman Catholic Church, Margaret of Angoulême's ideas were believed to be heretical by several French theologians. It is evident that Anne's own religious beliefs were inspired by these early reforming ideals. In later years, she debated and discussed theological issues with Henry VIII as well as supporting the belief that Scriptures should be read in the vernacular.

Anne's early years in France and the Netherlands also exposed her to strong female role models. Both Margaret of Austria and Louise of Savoy , Francis I's mother, ruled as regents for two of the most powerful monarchs of 16th-century Europe. In a society that barred the majority of women from exercising any kind of public authority, these women provided Anne with examples of intelligent and influential female power. Finally, Anne grew up in the company of royal children. Historian Retha Warnicke has concluded that this "served to heighten her sense of her personal worth and to strengthen her determination to elevate her status and lineage."

In 1521, Anne returned to England. Her father, whose star was steadily rising at the court of Henry VIII, was busily arranging marriage alliances for his children. Anne's sister Mary was married to William Carey the year before, and it was clear that Thomas Boleyn desired a favorable alliance for his other daughter. Negotiations for her marriage to the son and heir of Sir Piers Butler, earl of Ormond, began even before Anne had returned to England. While the negotiations were in progress, Anne was placed as a maid of honor in the household of Henry VIII's sister, Mary Tudor, the former queen of France.

By 1523, the negotiations had broken off. For Anne, this was a welcome relief, as she had already formed a romantic attachment to Lord Henry Percy, heir to the earldom of Northumberland. Unfortunately, their love affair was discovered by the king's chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, who forced Percy to give up the relationship. Although the status of the Boleyn family was rising, Percy was a member of one of the richest and most influential noble families in England. Neither the king nor the cardinal would ever allow the heir of Northumberland to marry below his station. Hence a year later, in 1524, Henry Percy was married to Lady Mary Talbot . From all accounts, the marriage proved to be an unhappy one.

Anne's reaction to the loss of her betrothed is unrecorded. In any event, it was a lesson in power politics that she never forgot. Marriage alliances among noble families had little to do with affection or choice; instead, satisfying the requirements of parents and the crown were the determining factors. Her disgrace is evident for there are no records of her actions or whereabouts between 1524 and 1527.

During those three years, however, one important development arose which was to change her life forever. Henry VIII was becoming increasingly concerned that he would have no male heir to succeed him. In 1509, shortly after acceding to the throne, Henry married his brother Arthur's widow, Catherine of Aragon . For the next 16 years, he waited for an heir. Although Catherine was often pregnant and gave birth to several children, only one child, Mary (later Mary I ), born in 1516, had survived. Like most other 16th-century parents, Henry believed that this failure to beget a male heir was a sign of God's punishment. In order to placate an angry God, Henry went on pilgrimages and prayed several times a day. After 1518, he began to respond to the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. In 1521, he wrote a treatise refuting Luther's beliefs that instantly became a hot seller. As a reward for his efforts, Henry VIII was named "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Leo X.

Boleyn, Mary (d. 1543)

Sister of Anne Boleyn. Name variations: Mary Carey; Mary Stafford. Died on July 19, 1543; daughter of Thomas Boleyn, earl of Wiltshire, andElizabeth Howard ; married William Carey (gentleman of the privvy), on January 31, 1521; married William Stafford; children: (first marriage) Henry Carey (c. 1524–1596), 1st baron Hunsdon;Catherine Carey (1529–1569, who was chief lady of the bedchamber).

In spite of these efforts, by 1525 Henry concluded that Catherine was no longer able to bear children. His anxiety over the future of England escalated. The following year, he finally made up his mind that his marriage to Catherine must be dissolved. Although previous historians have argued that it was the king's love for Anne Boleyn that drove him to seek a divorce, recent research has concluded that Henry arrived at the decision to terminate his marriage alone. More significantly, he was determined to end his marriage before he had even met Anne Boleyn.

Henry's decision was a matter of conscience. He truly believed that his inability to beget a male heir was a result of God's anger. The justification was found in the Old Testament commandment that a man must not marry his brother's widow. In 1501, Catherine of Aragon had married Henry's brother Arthur. One year later, Arthur was dead. Although Catherine swore that the marriage had never been consummated, Henry was convinced that by ignoring the commandment, God was preventing them from producing a male heir. As Defender of the Faith, Henry also believed that his theological expertise would not be challenged. By 1527, however, all of his attention was soon focused on a young lady who had just returned to court.

In December 1526, Anne Boleyn had secured an appointment as one of Queen Catherine's ladies-in-waiting. Six months later, she met Henry VIII. The 36-year-old king was tall, fair-haired, graceful and athletic. He was a well-educated, deeply religious man who composed music and hunted vigorously. He also fell deeply in love with this woman, who was 16 years his junior. The object of his affections was not a beauty by contemporary standards. Instead of the customary blond hair and blue-eyes, 20-year-old Anne Boleyn had lustrous, thick dark brown hair, black eyes and an elegant, long neck. Her allure was due more to her charm and self-confidence than her personal appearance. She was a graceful and elegant dancer, a good conversationalist, and a skilful singer and musician. As Warnicke has concluded, she was an "intelligent, quick-witted noblewoman" whose "energy and vitality made her the center of attention in any social gathering." Although later inimical writers described her as having a sixth finger on her left hand, this has never been confirmed. After meeting her, the king was even more convinced that his first marriage must come to an end.

In May 1527, secret proceedings were held in which Henry was called to defend himself on the charge of having cohabited with his deceased brother's wife. This began what became known as "the King's Great Matter." In June, Henry informed Queen Catherine that he wanted a divorce, and by July he was determined to marry Anne Boleyn. Although the customary solution to a king's amorous affection for a young woman was to make her his mistress, Anne Boleyn declined this role. She was in love with the king but was determined not to become his concubine. Consequently, for the next five years, she sustained Henry's passion by denying him full sexual relations. The extent of his desire is evident in several love letters he wrote to her during the summer and autumn of 1528 when they were separated during an outbreak of the sweating sickness. Written in his own hand, the letters declare his undying love for her.

By the early months of 1529, Henry was becoming increasingly anxious to have his marriage annulled. In May, the papal legate Cardinal Campeggio convened a tribunal to dissolve the marriage. Catherine of Aragon soon learned of the proceedings and requested that her case be heard in Rome. She also repeated that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated. For the king, this was an unfortunate admission, as his entire case was built around the Biblical injunction against marrying his brother's wife. If Catherine's marriage to Prince Arthur had never been consummated, as she claimed, Henry's justification for the divorce was nullified. In addition, the situation was complicated by 16th-century politics. Catherine of Aragon's nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Two years earlier, Charles' Imperial troops had sacked the city of Rome and kidnapped Pope Clement VII. Consequently, Clement was unwilling to slander the emperor's aunt by granting Henry's request for a divorce.

For Henry, the matter was not running as smoothly as he had hoped. In July, the proceedings of the tribunal were stayed and a decision was never given. While much of his anger was directed towards Campeggio and the pope, the bulk of the king's wrath fell upon Cardinal Wolsey. The cardinal's fall was swift. In October 1529, he was commanded to hand over the great seal thus signifying his dismissal as lord chancellor of England. Shortly after, his goods and property were seized and a year later he was dead.

Contemporaries blamed Anne for Wolsey's fall, although it was the cardinal's failure to secure a quick divorce for the king that led to his demise. Wolsey's fall from grace was noted by the king's new minister, Thomas Cromwell, who recognized that the king's desire for a divorce would not prevent him from turning his back on loyal servants. It was not only unwise, but politically dangerous, to disappoint King Henry.

After 1529, the king was forced to look for new methods to obtain the divorce. Led by Cromwell, steps were taken to divert power away from the papacy and into the king's hands; the English Reformation had begun. In 1531, Henry VIII was declared Supreme Head of the Church of England. A year later, the clergy surrendered their legal autonomy to the king; all future clerical legislation required royal assent. It was also evident, from the summer of 1531, that Queen Catherine was no longer the king's consort. Until that summer, Henry had taken care to treat his wife cordially, allowing her to accompany him to state functions and religious festivities. By August 1531, however, Catherine of Aragon was banished from court and the king's presence. Anne Boleyn's star, in the meantime, was steadily rising. She was given separate apartments close to the king and now appeared openly at his side on formal occasions. Henry showered her with gifts of clothing, furs, jewelry and books as well as giving members of her family land and minor government offices.

Unfortunately, Catherine's banishment did nothing to improve public opinion of Anne. She was very unpopular and was openly referred to as the "King's whore." Nonetheless, she went from one triumph to another. In September 1532, she was created Lady Marquess of Pembroke and was given lands and manors in Wales and Middlesex. More significantly, in October, Anne accompanied the king to Calais where they visited Francis I. It was also sometime during this visit that Anne and Henry finally became lovers. By December, she was pregnant and on January 25, 1533, they were secretly married. From this point on, events moved rapidly.

In April, the English Parliament approved the Appeals statute, which prohibited appeals of marriage and divorce cases to Rome and allowed the king's marital dispute to be settled in England. After Parliament was prorogued, the king publicly announced his marriage to Anne Boleyn and, in early May, Thomas Cranmer, the new archbishop of Canterbury, decreed that the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon was invalid. Catherine was asked to give up the title of queen, although she refused. In July, Pope Clement condemned the king's marriage to Anne. By this point, however, his condemnation was meaningless. Anne Boleyn had already been crowned queen of England.

For Anne, this was surely the greatest day of her life. On May 29, 50 barges, decorated with colorful banners, streamers, and flags escorted her from Greenwich along the Thames River to the Tower of London. Here, she was greeted by the king who escorted her into the Tower where they spent the next two nights together. On June 1, Anne made her triumphal entry into London. Carried on a litter of gold and white, the new queen was dressed in a crimson gown encrusted with precious stones. Her long hair hung down, and she carried flowers in her hand. Along the route, the long procession of nobles and attendants was greeted by various forms of entertainment and elaborate pageants.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury">

For I never had better opinion in woman, than I had in [Anne Boleyn] … next unto your Grace, I was most bound unto her of all creatures living.

—Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

The event was significant both for its pageantry and its symbolism. It not only allowed Henry VIII to introduce his new queen officially, but also to display the wealth and prestige of the crown to his subjects. It was also hoped that the celebrations would convince the public that his new wife was here to stay. On Sunday, June 1, at eight o'clock in the morning in Westminster Hall, Anne Boleyn was anointed and crowned queen of England by the archbishop of Canterbury. She had reached the pinnacle of her life. As queen, she was able to exercise great social and political influence. As Warnicke concludes, she also "set a high moral and charitable standard" for the court and country. She instructed her ladies-in-waiting to sew clothes for the poor, and she provided stipends for poor university students. But most important for Anne, she was five months pregnant with the king's long-hoped-for male heir.

Elaborate preparations were made for the royal delivery but both Anne and Henry were disappointed when she gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth (I) , on September 7, 1533. Nonetheless, Henry was still confident that Anne would bear an heir. He commanded his eldest daughter Mary to give up the title of princess of Wales, and shortly thereafter she was declared illegitimate. In the early months of 1534, Anne was again pregnant, and the king was once more hopeful for a male heir. In late June, however, their hopes were dashed when she miscarried. From this point on, Henry's feelings for his wife began to dissipate, and by September it was widely rumored that he had taken a mistress. Neither of these events alleviated Anne's unpopularity among the English populace. She was still viewed by many as an adulterer who had destroyed the king's first marriage. The extent of his subjects' continuing dislike of her led Henry to pass a statute making it treasonable to criticize the new queen.

In spite of these trials, Anne remained optimistic about her future, especially when she found herself pregnant once more in autumn 1535. Unfortunately, her confidence was shattered when she prematurely delivered a stillborn male child in January 1536. This event led to her tragic downfall. Recent research has concluded that not only was the child premature, but it was also deformed. In the 16th century, it was believed that witches gave birth to deformed children due to their excessive lust and tendency to engage in illicit and deviant sexual acts. When Henry decided to cast off his second wife, it was precisely those charges that were used to convict her. Henry's commitment to Anne had already begun to wane even before her miscarriage. His eyes were soon attracted to a new member of Anne's household, Jane Seymour . By mid-March 1536, Henry made his commitment to Jane public. From this point on, Anne's fate was sealed and few people at court remained loyal to her.

On April 30, five men, one of whom was her brother, were arrested on charges of having committed adultery with the king's wife. Shortly thereafter, Anne herself was charged with inciting these five men, through the use of witchcraft, to have sexual relations with her. In addition, she was accused of afflicting the king with bodily harm and of plotting his death. Anne's public unpopularity contributed to widespread acceptance of the charges against her, though none of them could be substantiated. Her only true crime was having failed to provide a male heir. Even Henry began to assert that she had "bewitched" him. Although she confronted him with three-year-old Elizabeth in her arms and proclaimed her innocence, the king was intractable.

On May 2, she was taken by barge to the Tower of London where she was housed in the same quarters in which she had awaited her triumphant coronation just three years before. During her imprisonment, she was closely watched. Observers noted that she wept often and, just as often, had fits of hysterical laughter, an understandable emotional state, considering that she had recently recovered from a miscarriage, then been repudiated and imprisoned by the man she loved.

Anne Boleyn's trial took place on May 15, 1536. She confronted her 26 male judges in a calm and composed manner. Although she denied all the charges, they declared her guilty. Her uncle, the duke of Norfolk, sentenced her to death, with discretion given to the king as to whether she would be burned or beheaded. Two days later, Henry divorced her. On the same day, the four men, including her brother, who had been accused of being her lovers, were executed on Tower Hill. On May 18, when Anne was told that she was to be beheaded, she commented, "I have heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck." Then, she put her hands around her neck and laughed. The following morning, she was executed in front of a large crowd. Twenty-four hours later, Henry VIII was formally betrothed to Jane Seymour whom he married on May 30, 1536. (See alsoSix Wives of Henry VIII.)


Fraser, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

Ives, E.W. Anne Boleyn. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Warnicke, Retha. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

suggested reading:

Scarisbrick, J.J. Henry VIII. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968.

related media:

Anne of the Thousand Days (146 min.), starring Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold , directed by Charles Jarrott, 1969.

The Life of King Henry VIII by William Shakespeare.

Private Life of Henry VIII (97 min.), starring Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn, Elsa Lanchester, Wendy Barrie, Binnie Barnes , produced by United Artists, 1933.

Six-part BBC series (9 hrs.), "Six Wives of Henry VIII," starring Annette Crosbie as Catherine of Aragon, Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn, Ann Stallybrass as Jane Seymour, Elvi Hale as Anne of Cleves, Angela Pleasance as Catherine Howard, and Rosalie Crutchley as Catherine Parr, with Keith Mitchell as Henry VIII.

Margaret McIntyre , Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

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Boleyn, Anne (c. 1507–1536)

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