There's something about tragic figures in history that catches our interest and contributes to our desire to learn as much as we can about their life and the circumstances that led to their fascinating journeys. We read about them, scour the internet for information, and watch movies based on their lives. Sometimes their stories are happy, sometimes sad, oftentimes tragic. But we continue to learn about them so we can relate in some way. Sure, it's a little hard to relate to someone who lived centuries ago. But there are definitely common themes that continue through time! One of the most fascinating figures we can't seem to learn enough about is Anne Boleyn. The second wife of King Henry VIII and the Queen of England from 1533-1536, Anne's story is filled with tragedy and drama.
From her humble beginnings to her rise to the throne, Anne Boleyn was a powerful figure in history. There's no telling how much more she could have transformed the monarchy had her life not been cut short in such a horrific manner. The monarchy as we know it today traces directly back to Anne Boleyn, in fact! But aside from her role as the Queen, there's so much to admire about her origins, upbringing, and accomplishments. If you're new to Anne's story, these tragic facts about her life will give you a glimpse into why we're still so fascinated by her. If you're an Anne Boleyn expert, maybe there's something here you didn't know yet!
Anne Boleyn was born in what is now Norfolk, England in 1501. But unlike many members who've belonged to the Royal family, she was no royal-by-blood. Her ancestors were peasants (although fairly well-to-do). However, her parents were definitely part of the upper-echelons. Her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, was a courtier and diplomat, and would later go on to become Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond. Her mother, Lady Elizabeth Howard, was the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. She spent much of her teenage years as a lady-in-waiting to the French Queen, who was the sister of her future husband, Henry.
Geoffrey Boleyn, Anne's great-great-grandfather, was one of the well-to-do peasants we mentioned above. He could often be found in front of the manorial court, for such infraction as trespassing on his lord's lands or taking water without paying for it. But he did well enough for himself to be able to set his son Geoffrey up with a hat business in London. Anne's great-grandfather Geoffrey was very successful, eventually joining Mercer's Company in 1435 and building a substantial personal fortune. He served as Lord Mayor of London in 1457, and his wife Anne Hoo was the daughter of a baron.
Saint Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century. The Butler side of the Boleyn family claimed to be descendants of one of Becket's sisters. They were so proud of their assumed saintly lineage that Thomas Butler even bequeathed his soul to Saint Thomas in his will. The family also had in their possession a priceless and precious family heirloom: a white ivory horn garnished and inlaid with gold. They claimed it to be a the cup from which Saint Thomas Becket drank. It's hard to say if their saintly lineage was indeed accurate, but it is quite the claim to fame!
Though her marriage to King Henry was what garnered her a place in history (and cost her her life), Anne Boleyn nearly ended up with a very different life. Upon her return to England in 1522, Anne was set to marry her distant cousin, James Butler. The marriage had been arranged by her father and uncle, both of whom held the title of Earl of Ormond. A marriage between Anne and James would have secured the earldom and kept in within both families. But, perhaps because of poor negotiations, the marriage was called off. James eventually found a place on the King's court, and Anne ended up joining the Queen's household.
Anne Boleyn nearly missed the chance to be Queen several times before marrying Henry (one wonders how her life might have turned out had one of these other avenues panned out!). While serving in the Queen's household, Anne caught the eye of a young suitor named Henry Percy. Percy was the heir to the Earl of Northumberland. He began to seek Anne out, and according to a contemporary of Percy's, the two nurtured a secret love and had plans to marry. However, fate intervened, and the relationship ended after Cardinal Wolsey berated Percy for trying to marry beneath his status. Anne was banished from the Queen's household for a time following the end of the relationship.
During his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, King Henry was well-known to keep mistresses. When Anne Boleyn caught his eye, he pursued her relentlessly, with the goal of making her one of his many mistresses at the time. But Anne had different plans. She rebuffed his advances, having no desire to be a mere mistress of the King - she wanted marriage. She refused to sleep with him, and regularly encouraged him to end his marriage to Catherine. Henry was quite under Anne's spell, and went to great lengths to have his marriage to Catherine annulled, paving the way for Anne to take her place.
Anne Boleyn may have played her cards right to end up as Henry's wife and Queen of England (or played them wrong, depending on your perspective). But she wasn't the first Boleyn girl to catch Henry's eye and spend time in his bed. Before Anne hooked up with the King, her sister Mary spent about a year as one of his mistresses. She bore two children around this time, leading some to believe that she, and not Anne, actually supplied an heir to the throne (albeit an illegitimate one). However, historians believe that the children belonged to her husband, whom she married around the same time.
Given the lengths he went to in order to have his marriage to Catherine annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn, it's not at all surprising that Henry ran afoul of other legal standards of the time. Once his affair with Mary came to an end, and he began his courtship with Anne, there were some matters that needed to be attended to before they could get married. According to laws of the time, it was considered incestuous for a man to marry a woman whose sister he had relations with. In order to get the go-ahead to go after Anne, Henry had to seek a papal dispensation. Ironically, this is the same excuse he used in his request to have his marriage to Catherine annulled (she was previously married to Henry's brother).
So we know that Henry carried on an affair with Mary Boleyn, and eventually went on to marry Anne Boleyn. But what was his relationship with their mother, Elizabeth Jane Howard? It is rumored that Henry and Elizabeth ALSO carried on an affair, and that she was his mistress. In 1533, the wife of a London goldsmith named Elizabeth Amadas publicly declared that Thomas Boleyn "was bawd both to his wife and his two daughters". Henry was challenged about this to his face by Sir George Throckmorton, who told him, "it is thought you have meddled both with the mother and sister".
Under Church law, Henry could not divorce Catherine, so he would be unable to marry Anne Boleyn. But Henry found a workaround that ended up completely changing the course of history in England. In order to secure an annulment, Henry created a new church, the Church of England, and make himself the head. He completely bypassed the Catholic Church, which was based in Rome. Under power of the new Church of England, Henry was able to legally end his marriage to Catherine, paving the way to make Anne Boleyn his wife and the new Queen of England.
The sweating sickness was believed to be a type of influenza that plagued England during the Tudor period. It spread swiftly and killed otherwise healthy young people. It also terrified King Henry. In June 1528, one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting died of the sickness, prompting Henry to flee the castle and order his wife Anne to Kent. It sounds like a awful thing to do, but Anne was indeed infected, and she and her father both battled the illness. Henry, chivalrous as he was, sent his second best doctor to attend to Anne and her father. They both survived, but were very lucky. Sweating sickness took the lives of many members of the court.
Despite vowing to remain chaste and not sleep with King Henry, it appears as though Anne Boleyn was unable to stop herself, and she became pregnant in early 1533. After six years of a clandestine relationship, with Henry still legally married to Catherine, Henry and Anne secretly wed in a small ceremony led by the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer. Henry's marriage to Catherine wasn't declared invalid until the following year. So on top of being an all-around ass, Henry was a bigamist as well. Interestingly enough, even though he slept with his wife's sister, he accused Catherine of incest because she was previously married to his brother.
King Henry needed a male heir to inherit the throne, but he had some trouble making them. Catherine of Aragon bore him a daughter and a son who died in infancy, and Anne's only surviving child with Henry, Elizabeth I, was also not the son he wanted. Anne conceived twice more, but the babies were stillborn both times. It is believed that Anne's inability to produce a male heir might have been what turned Henry against her, and started his disillusionment with their marriage. Henry felt as though God was punishing him for the events that led to his marriage to Anne, and was denying him a male heir as long as he stayed married to her. Of course, we now know that sperm determines the sex of a baby, so he had only himself to blame.
Anne was officially made Queen in 1533. During her coronation, she was allowed to wear St. Edwards Crown, which is one of England's most ancient and revered royal artifacts. It was incredibly surprising that she was coronated with this crown. When Henry and Catherine were crowned together, it was Henry who wore St. Edwards crown, while Catherine was only allowed to wear one that belonged to the royal's wife. The crown was usually reserved for monarchies, so it seemed like Anne's wearing it symbolized that she and the child she was carrying were the legitimate Royal Family. She later wore a crown that was made especially for her.
Before they were married and Anne Boleyn became the Queen, King Henry bestowed upon her a royal title normally reserved for a man. Rather than stay a "lady" (which she was by virtue of her father being an Earl), Anne was given the title of Marquess of Pembroke. A Marquess would be a man, and his wife would be a marchioness. Anne was given the noble title in her own right, and didn't come to it by way of birth or marriage. Henry and Anne were about to embark on a journey to meet with his rival, Francis I of France, and he needed her to have a suitable title that granted her sufficient merit to meet the French king. Because of her title, she actually outranked a lot of the noble males in the kingdom.
Despite the work that went into his being allowed to actually marry Anne Boleyn, King Henry didn't stay faithful, in any sense of the word. He began having affairs again, which enraged Anne and caused much jealousy. In an effort to keep tabs on Henry, Anne actually enlisted the help of her allies and members of her court to seduce him. She was afraid that he would turn to one of her enemies, who would then try to turn Henry against her. It's rumored that she convinced one of her own cousins to seduce him (either Mary or Margaret Shelton). But seeing her relatives carry on affairs with her husband only made Anne more jealous. That in turn made Henry's treatment of her even worse.
Jane Seymour was Anne's second cousin, and would become Henry's third wife. She was also the only wife to give birth to a son, Edward (she died within two weeks of giving birth to the future King of England). But Henry and Jane's relationship started right under Anne's nose. Anne was aware that a relationship was blossoming between the two, and it enraged her. Henry gave Jane a picture of himself to wear around her neck, just like he did when he was courting Anne while married to Catherine. Anne reportedly tore the necklace from Jane's neck so violently that she injured her hand. And one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting, Jane Dormer, recounted that there was much fighting between the current and future Queens.
Anne Boleyn had a reputation as a "sexually promiscuous status seeker" - the public was very fond of Catherine, and didn't take too kindly to Anne's usurping of her role as Henry's wife and Queen of England. However, Anne made very valiant efforts to ingratiate herself to the people during her time as Queen. She played a traditional role of Queen, working to make improvements in the Kingdom, particularly for the poor. She was also a bit of a fashionista, and was known for her extravagant wardrobe. But her efforts to be loved by the people were largely unsuccessful. During her short life and reign as Queen, she remained disliked by much of the kingdom.
Despite giving Henry a healthy baby girl, the pressure was on Anne to produce a male heir before she was cast aside in favor of a fresh wife. In January 1536, Anne gave birth to a stillborn son who had apparent birth defects. It was this event that finally eroded Henry's trust in her. He took action to gain control of his legacy. Henry had already settled on Jane Seymour as his future wife, and began the process of annulling his marriage to Anne Boleyn. To make this happen, he had to pull out all the stops, and Anne was detained and charged with a list of heinous crimes.
Anne Boleyn was detained in the Tower of London on several false charges brought against her by her husband. He accused her of adultery and incest, believing that the deformities of their stillborn son were due to inbreeding. She was also accused of conspiracy against the King, and witchcraft. It is believed that Thomas Cromwell was instrumental in plotting her downfall. He was Chief Minister to King Henry, and Anne's former friend. The charges alleged that she had relations with five different men, including her brother. The conspiracy charge alleged that Anne plotted to murder King Henry so that she may marry Henry Norris.
Anne was kept in the same rooms in the Tower of London where she stayed during her coronation. During her imprisonment, her family was forbidden from seeing her. Her brother, Lord Rochford, was also being held under suspicion of adultery and incest. The once-revered Boleyn family was falling apart and being ostracized from the very society they were one a part of. Their daughter Anne was being held on charges of crimes against the King. Their son was being held on equally distressing charges. Anne routinely asked about her family during her imprisonment, particularly about her father and brother. She was afraid for her mother and how she would handle the stress.
On May 15, 1536, the trial of Anne Boleyn commenced. There was very little evidence that proved Anne committed any of the crimes of which she stood accused. In fact, records showed that she wasn't even in the right places at the times of the dates in question. Anne maintained her innocence from the very beginning. But it was alleged that as a witch she had the ability to materialize anywhere at any time, leading credence to the accusation and witchcraft and demolishing any chances of defense on her part. After four days, Anne was convicted by unanimous decision and sentenced to death. Her marriage to Henry was annulled and declared invalid immediately following her conviction.
During her trial, which was presided over by her uncle the Duke of Norfolk, Anne was accused of sorcery. She was also accused of acting in a "libertine" manner before her marriage to Henry. It was believed that she was a disciple of Satan and used sorcery to bewitch and seduce Henry. Apparently, Anne had a prominent neck mole and an extra finger on her hand, which only reinforced the belief that she was a witch. Additionally, her inability to produce a male heir added to the condemnation. The trial was, by all means, a complete farce. With little to no evidence supporting the charges, she was still convicted.
During her imprisonment in the Tower of London, Anne Boleyn felt comfortable enough to speak freely. She spoke of conversations she had with Mark Smeaton and Henry Norris, two men who stood accused of crimes alongside Anne. The Tower lieutenant recorded her conversations, and relayed her words to King Henry. Henry took this as proof of the adultery she was accused of, and it was used against her during her trial. She also spoke of Sir Francis Weston, saying he once professed his love for her. This resulted in the arrest of Sir Weston, who previously had nothing to do with the investigation.
In his quest to have Anne Boleyn quickly dispatched so he could be free to marry Jane Seymour, King Henry also ended the lives of five innocent men. Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, and Anne's brother Lord Rochford were arrested and convicted of adultery with the Queen. Sir Thomas Wyatt, the famous poet, was also arrested but later released from imprisonment. The men who stood accused were well-known for their illicit behavior, which made the accusations seem more credible. Lord Rochford's own wife Jane Parker testified against her husband, perhaps out of anger over his infidelity. All five men were executed just days before Anne's execution.
The plot to remove Anne was far-reaching. A secret commission was put together to investigate the accusations against Anne Boleyn. Members of the commission included Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Norfolk, and Anne's own father. Anne was initially unaware of any investigation and conspiracy into crimes that would result in her downfall. When she found out, she laughed it off as absurd - after all, one of the men she stood accused of having an affair with, musician Mark Smeaton, was a rumored homosexual and someone Anne had met only briefly. It's very likely her father tipped her off to the investigation and urged her to take the accusations seriously.
Despite being on the commission that led the way for the charges to be brought against Anne, it is believed that her uncle the Duke of Norfolk read aloud her sentencing with tears in his eyes. The executions of the other accused men were horrific and painful, and Anne was left wondering if she would suffer the same fate. She didn't know if she would be beheaded or burned at the stake on account of the witchcraft conviction. Henry himself ordered her beheaded, and the news was delivered to her by friend and supporter Archbishop Cramner. She had very little time to prepare for her death.