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Anne Boleyn
1504 - 1536


Although she was Queen of England for just under three years, Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII, was the center of scandal when she was executed. She was a central reason for the split between England and the Roman Catholic Church. She was also the mother of Elizabeth I, who is considered one of the greatest English rulers.

No accurate record of the birth of Anne Boleyn exists. Various scholarly and academic research has pinpointed her birth between 1499 and 1504, but other sources say as late as between 1507 and 1509. Exact details about her birth and early life are also sketchy. Her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, had his daughter educated, something of a rarity in those times.

She was known for her striking beauty-slight build, long slender neck (popular legends state she had an extra cervical vertebra), black silky hair, and dark eyes. In contrast to the fine features, Anne had two deformities: a mole the size of a strawberry on her neck and the start of a sixth finger on her right hand.

Anne Boleyn and her sisters were attendants to various members of royalty, and in 1523 she was placed as a lady in waiting in the court of Catherine of Aragon, wife of Henry VIII. At court, she caught the king's eye; however, she also caught the eye of a lesser noble, Harry Percy. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey rebuked the boy, but that didn't work, so Wolsey called for the Earl of Northumberland (Harry Percy's father) to come to court. Soon after the earl's arrival, an announcement of a betrothal was made. Harry Percy risked being disinherited if he did not marry; so he did, and Anne left the court, vowing revenge on Cardinal Wolsey.

A King's Infatuation

Henry's infatuation with Anne grew. He visited her at her father's estate, Hever Castle, though Sir Thomas kept his daughter at bay. She toyed with the emotions of Henry VIII for four years-teasing him, nagging him, refusing to be his mistress as her sister had-and all the time demanding that he be divorced before she would allow him into her bed. Because she wanted to be his queen and not his mistress, she eventually gained that recognition.

Henry VIII tried to earn Anne Boleyn's favor through her father, making him Sir Thomas the Viscount Rochford. He tried to woo her through poetry and songs, writing and performing declarations of his love. Nothing worked. Henry was desperate to have Anne as his Queen and to have a son, as his only living heir was a daughter with Catherine. Henry concocted a mock court which called into question the validity of his marriage to Catherine, as she was his brother's widow. He cited a bible passage as proof that God did not view their marriage favorably (and that was why he had no sons). This led to messages and meetings with the Pope and his ambassadors, all the while Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII were getting more and more impatient.

Waiting to be Married

Public opinion in England, however, was not on the side of Henry and Anne. For the most part, the commoners viewed Catherine as the noble queen and Anne as a not so noble outsider. As Henry's infatuation with Anne grew, so did his impatience with Cardinal Wolsey and the Pope. Henry VIII wanted his marriage annulled so he could marry Anne. He brought her back not only to London but to his court. Although Catherine was officially his wife and queen, Anne acted as if she were.

About this time, Henry VIII replaced Wolsey with Sir Thomas More as Chancellor of England. More was a lawyer not a priest, and this change, or reformation, is often blamed on Anne. This act marked the beginning of the split between the Roman Catholic Church and England.

After years of waiting-waiting for the Pope, waiting for Catherine-Henry VIII finally banished Catherine, but to his dismay (and to the dismay of Anne), royal subjects filled the streets of England as Catherine rode away. In 1532 in an attempt to appease Anne as they awaited news of his annulment, Henry granted her a title that no other female had ever carried-Marquis of Pembroke. Through all of this, Catherine remained graceful and full of dignity, even chiding one of her attendants who cursed Anne with the remark, "Curse her not, rather pity her."

Becoming Queen

In January of 1533 Anne was pregnant with Henry's child, having finally allowed him into her bed. Since, of course, they couldn't be publically married, they married in secret. At this time Henry VIII nominated Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer favored granting Henry's notion that his union with Catherine was really a "non-marriage" and through an Act of Parliament, Cranmer received all spiritual power in England, and Catherine was reduced in name to Dowager Princess of Wales (meaning she was the widow of Henry's brother and not Henry's wife). The marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was then made public.

Besides public opinion in England being against the marriage, in July the Pope declared the union of Henry and Anne as null and void and threatened Henry with excommunication if Catherine wasn't taken back as Queen by September. Henry VIII was in a bind at this time. Not only was he in a political battle with the Roman Catholic Church, Anne was expecting a child, his heir to the throne, and he also had a new mistress.

On September 7, 1533, Elizabeth was born. Henry VIII was disappointed that she wasn't a male heir, and didn't attend her christening. He was however at least encouraged that Anne had given birth to a healthy child, as Catherine had suffered six miscarriages. Not willing to back down from the Pope, in the next year Henry had Parliament pass the Act of Supremacy, effectively naming the monarch as leader of the Church of England, thus finalizing the split between England and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Beginning of the End

Anne was pregnant again the next year, but suffered a miscarriage. Scholars suggest that, because of the sores on the legs of Henry VIII and the fact that his wives suffered so many miscarriages, he suffered from syphilis. Early in 1536, Catherine died, and Anne thought she had no more problems as to who was truly considered the Queen of England. However a few weeks later, after learning that Henry had been seriously injured during a jousting match, Anne gave birth to a stillborn boy. Her fate was sealed, as Henry VIII had no desire to remain with her. He now had a fancy for one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. About this time, talk that Anne was really a witch and ascended to the throne via witchcraft circulated throughout England. Henry wanted Anne gone, and Thomas Cromwell conspired with Henry VIII to get rid of her.

Cromwell decided he needed to prove that Anne had committed adultery. For the Queen to commit such an offense was treason, and she'd be put to death. Cromwell and his cronies tortured court musician Mark Smeaton into confessing an affair, and in his confession, he named four other men-Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, and Lord Rochford (Anne's brother). The insinuation of incest was as bad as the accusation of adultery.

Anne and the others accused all denied the charges, but all were held in the Tower of London until tried. Sir Henry Norris defended Anne Boleyn's reputation to his own death, and the others also protested. All were executed. The trumped-up charges also changed public opinion about Anne, who was now pitied.

Although there wasn't any evidence, Anne was found guilty and sentenced to death. Until the end, though, she continued to cause problems for Henry VIII. If Anne died, Elizabeth could still potentially be an heir to the throne (if he didn't get a male heir from Jane Seymour).

Thomas Cranmer met with Anne Boleyn privately before her death. Although the specifics of their conversation will never be known, Anne did receive a more merciful death sentence (beheading rather than burning at the stake). Also, Cranmer declared the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn invalid. This, ironically, should have spared Anne's life-only the Queen's adultery could be considered treasonable, but Henry wasn't taking any chances, and nobody spoke up for her.

Henry did show a bit of mercy at the end, as he called for a skilled headsman from France, who used a sword (a quick form of decapitation when compared to an axe) to execute Anne on May 19, 1536. Eleven days later Henry VIII married Jane Seymour. Although she didn't live to see the day, Anne's daughter Elizabeth did eventually ascend to the throne, ruling England for forty-five years.


Anne Boleyn was the younger daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard, whose father was Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk. Anne’s father was a member of King Henry VIII’s Privy Council, and often served as the king’s envoy to various courts in Europe. When Anne was about twelve, her father arranged for her to enter the service of the Archduchess Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands and aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

After about eighteen months in Margaret’s service, Anne and her elder sister Mary became ladies-in-waiting to Mary Tudor, King Henry’s younger sister, when she married King Louis XII of France. After King Louis died, Mary and Anne remained in his widow’s service until she returned to England and married the Earl of Suffolk. The two Boleyn girls then joined the household of Queen Claude, the wife of the new French king Francis I.

The French court under Francis was notoriously licentious, and young girls seldom stayed there long with their virtue intact. Mary became for awhile the king’s mistress, just as she would later become King Henry’s mistress at the English court. Anne was more discreet. She may or may not have retained her virginity, but she almost certainly experimented sexually, as Henry later remarked when he commented that she had been “corrupted” at the French court. But she was markedly more discreet than Mary, and she was thus able to plausibly resist Henry’s advances on the basis of her virtue when he wished her to become his mistress. At the French court Anne was much admired for her wit, style and vivacity. Apparently she even set fashion trends for the French court, as she would later at the English court.

When Anne returned to England in 1522, she entered the service of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s queen. In 1523 Anne became seriously involved with Lord James Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland. When the two secretly betrothed themselves before witnesses, the Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, who did not consider Anne a suitable match for the heir to one of the greatest earldom’s in England, took steps to prevent their union. Aristocrats could not marry without the king’s approval, and when Wolsey informed Henry of the betrothal, Henry was angry that they had undertaken to contract a marriage without his permission. He was also upset for another reason. He had become interested in Anne himself, and he wanted no young lords in his way. Henry ordered Wolsey to break the contract. Percy’s father, the Earl of Northumberland, was called in to correct his son, and Percy was forced to marry Mary Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. (In fact, a legally binding pre-contract between him and Mary Talbot had been arranged when he was fourteen.)

Cardinal Wolsey, without realizing it, had earned an implacable enemy. Anne would never forgive him for interfering with her marriage plans, or for saying that she was not fit to marry Percy. Though neither knew it at the time, the day would come when she would be in a position to take revenge.

After the betrothal with Percy was broken, Anne left the court and spent a year at her father’s castle in Hever. She returned to the queen’s household in 1525, where once again she became the object of King Henry’s intense interest. Her flirtation at that time with the married poet Sir Thomas Wyatt was probably not serious on her part, but Wyatt took it seriously enough to write a number of poems about her, the most famous of which is “Whoso List to Hunt.” Henry’s ardor seems to have been inflamed by jealousy over her attentions to Wyatt.

Henry was both surprised and intrigued when Anne refused to become his mistress. Anne was well aware that the king quickly lost interest in his conquests, and so she withheld herself, insisting she would not be his mistress, and that since he already had a queen, she could not be his wife. She knew he was beginning to question the validity of his marriage to Catherine and to consider an annulment, and the ambitious young woman saw untold possibilities in the king’s domestic dissatisfaction. Rather than be his mistress, Anne hoped to be his wife—and thus queen of England.

Anne led Henry a merry chase. After some time she probably began to grant him certain intimacies, and such intimacies probably progressed over time; yet she also withdrew from court when his ardor became too importunate, and probably did not actually have full intercourse with him before 1532. She manipulated his emotions for years, using all the skills she had learned during her years at the French court.

Soon Anne became the center of a faction at court, consisting of her powerful uncle, the third Duke of Norfolk, her father, now Viscount Rochford, and others. Like Anne, they all despised Cardinal Wolsey, as much for his low birth as for his bullying arrogance and his influence over the king. Anne used her own influence with the king to persuade him that Wolsey was not actually serving his interests, and the king withdrew his favor from the man who had been his chief minister for so many years. If Wolsey had not died of illness, it is likely that he would have been found guilty of some offense against the crown and arrested, as would happen to so many of Henry’s closest advisers.

When Henry decided to petition Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine, it became Wolsey’s task as Lord Chancellor and as Papal Legate to handle the matter for the king. Henry wanted to marry Anne not just because of his passion for her, but also because he was hoping she could give him the sons that his first wife could not. Catherine was by this time past menopause, and after several pregnancies, she had given Henry only one surviving daughter, the Princess Mary.

When Anne knew that Henry was taking the steps necessary to repudiate Catherine and to marry her, she finally surrendered completely to him. In January of 1533 Henry learned that Anne was pregnant. His petition for an annulment had languished in Rome for over six years, and he was determined that his son, which he presumed his new child would be, would not be born out of wedlock. He married Anne secretly in January of 1533, and less than four months later Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared his marriage to Catherine “null and absolutely void” and his marriage to Anne “good and lawful.” To accomplish this swift resolution, Henry, with the aid and guidance of his Machiavellian chief councilor Thomas Cromwell, had pushed through Parliament several laws that made Henry supreme head of the English Church, confirmed the succession through the children of Anne Boleyn, and denied papal supremacy. Anne Boleyn was a major factor in the break between the English Church and the Roman Catholic Church, thus furthering the cause of the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

Queen Catherine was much loved by the English people, and Anne was equally hated, both because she had usurped Catherine’s position and because she was haughty and vindictive. During the new queen’s coronation parade, the English people maintained a sullen silence, and Anne probably realized then that they would never accept her.

Anne’s child was not the son Henry expected but a daughter, Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth I. Though disappointed, Henry still hoped he might father more children. Anne became an implacable enemy of Catherine and her daughter Mary. The two women refused to take the oath acknowledging that Catherine had not been Henry’s true wife and that Mary was illegitimate. And because of their deep piety, neither woman would deny the supremacy of the pope. Neither Anne nor Henry could bear to be crossed. They persecuted Catherine mercilessly, separating her from her daughter and refusing to allow her to go to her when Mary was so ill she was expected to die. Nor would they allow Mary to go to her mother as Catherine’s health deteriorated. Catherine was deliberately housed in chilly, comfortless castles in cold, damp climates, so that she might grow even weaker and perhaps die. Catherine never did see her beloved daughter again before dying at age fifty, probably of breast cancer.

Anne wanted Henry to have his daughter Mary executed, and for some time Mary’s life was in genuine danger. But Anne’s influence with the king waned as he lost interest in her and turned his attentions to Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s ladies in waiting. Anne’s later pregnancies ended in a miscarriage, and in a stillborn son. Henry blamed Anne, and complained that he would never have married her if she had not bewitched him. Before long, Cromwell had arranged for false charges of treasonous adultery, including incest with her brother George, to be brought against Anne. Her brother and four other men were tortured into confessing to adultery with her. The five men were executed on 18 May 1536. Anne was tried on 17 May 1536 and beheaded on 19 May. Her executioner, a French swordsman, had been hired even before her trial, for its outcome was a foregone conclusion.

When the guns were fired to signal Anne’s execution, Henry hurried to join Jane Seymour at the Strand. The next day found them at Wulfhall in Wiltshire, the Seymour home. Their betrothal was celebrated at Wulfhall the day after Anne’s execution, and ten days later, Jane Seymour became King Henry’s third wife. The Princess Elizabeth, Anne’s daughter, would, like Princess Mary, be declared a bastard because her father now denied the validity of his marriage to his second wife, Anne Boleyn, as he had denied the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.











This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008