The life of King Henry VIII, would not be complete without one important person in the king’s life; his second wife, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. Though her life and reign were short, she made a huge impact on England’s history, becoming one of the most well-known figures of her day. Her name is synonymous with torture, death, and seduction, but what was her real story?
Anne Boleyn was born to Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and of Ormond and his wife Elizabeth Howard between 1501 and 1507. She had one older sister, Mary Boleyn (later Carey and Stafford after her marriages), and a brother, George, Viscount Rochford. Anne was said to have a sharp tongue and an even stronger wit, as well as a terrible temper, but she was well-mannered and graceful. Her hair was dark brown and nearly black, her eyes also dark brown, with an olive complexion, and a slender build – all things considered, a very pretty and charming woman. She spent her early years being educated in the same school as the Archduchess of Austria in the Netherlands, and later went to France, becoming maid of honor to Queen Claude, wife of Francis I. While there, her sister gained a reputation when she became mistress to the French king, who nicknamed her “The English Mare.” Anne, a devout Christian who idolized the Virgin Mary, was rather conservative by contrast.
Upon her return to England in 1522, Anne became Lady-in-Waiting to Catherine of Aragon, youngest daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile and first wife of Henry VIII of England, where she caught the eye of the king, then young, handsome and athletic. Catherine was in her mid-thirties at the time, and her marriage to Henry was strained; she had had several pregnancies, but only one surviving child, a daughter named Mary, but Henry wanted a son to secure his succession, and Catherine had been unable to produce the desired heir. To add insult to injury, Catherine had been previously wed to Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur Tudor, whom died soon after the wedding, presumably without consummating the marriage so as to seal it. Henry had his suspicions that the marriage had indeed been consummated despite Catherine’s word that it had not (Arthur was young and in poor health at the time, a victim of an unknown epidemic that swept through London that was dubbed “the sweating sickness”). By this time, Catherine was passed the age where it was considered possible for a woman to bear children, and Henry was desperate. He had one bastard son, Henry FitzRoy, the young Duke of Richmond and Somerset, but now he needed a legitimate one to become his heir. He could either legitimize FitzRoy, which would require the intervention of the Pope or he could somehow rid himself of Catherine and marry again. Henry chose the latter option.
Henry began pursuing Anne in 1526, but she rejected his advances, not wanting to become just another of the king’s many mistresses. Her sister had been a king’s mistress for a short time before being cast aside and Anne refused to be put in the same position. As a result, Henry, completely smitten, sought an annulment of his marriage, which resulted in a break from the Catholic Church when the Pope refused to grant him one. He created the Church of England with himself as the head, and soon after, his and Catherine’s marriage was declared null and void by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry and Anne were wed soon after on 25 January 1533, and on the first of June, she was crowned Queen of England.
Catherine continued to refer to herself as the rightful queen and Henry’s only lawful wife. The king refused to offer her any title save one, Dowager Princess of Wales as widow to his brother. She spent the last of her days at Kimbolton Castle, where she was confined and left only for Mass. She was forbidden to see or communicate with her daughter Mary, whom was declared illegitimate and was from then on referred to as Lady Mary Tudor instead of Princess. Henry offered to let them see each other if they both acknowledged Anne as the rightful queen, but both refused. Catherine died on 7 January 1536 at the age of fifty, evidently of heart disease, and was buried in Peterborough Cathedral. Henry forbade Mary to attend her funeral and did not go himself.
On 7 September, just three months after her coronation, Anne gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Elizabeth. Elizabeth was a beautiful girl with brown eyes and curly red hair, but she was not the son her father wanted so desperately. Three miscarriages would follow the princess’ birth, leaving Henry even more distraught. By 1536, he had given up hope that Anne could conceive his desired boy and soon found a new flame, Jane Seymour.
By all accounts, Jane was a generous woman with a childlike face and fair blond hair, but she was not of noble birth. She was the daughter of a courtier and the fifth of nine children. When she met Henry, she was serving as Lady-in-Waiting to Anne, who was once again pregnant at the time. Soon after, Henry suffered a traumatic injury during a jousting match where he was thrown from his horse and knocked unconscious for two hours. The incident made Anne so distressed that she miscarried again, this time a baby boy. When he recovered, Henry made it clear that Anne was out of chances, even going as far as to say she bewitched him into marrying her. Jane officially became his new mistress and was quickly moved into the royal apartments.
There were many people who did not like Anne, believing her to have stolen the throne from Catherine. One of these men was Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and Henry’s chief minister of the Privy Council. Many historians, including Alison Weir and Eric Ives, believe that Cromwell plotted and engineered her downfall because he was threatened by her influence over the king, which seemed to be wrecking his plans for foreign policy because Anne disagreed with them and told Henry so. In addition to her position as queen consort, Anne was said to have had a sharp tongue that made her many enemies, including Cromwell himself. What is certain is that both Henry and Cromwell both wanted Anne gone and needed a reason to dispose of her.
Cromwell got his wish. On 2 May 1536, Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London by the command of her husband. She was charged with adultery, high treason, and even committing incest with her brother George. Seven others were arrested with them, all under the accusation that they were her lovers; Mark Smeaton, a Flemish musician who first denied having a sexual relationship with her but later confessed, perhaps under torture; Henry Norris, an aristocrat was accused of coming to the queen’s chambers at night, but was in fact courting Anne’s cousin, Madge Shelton; Sir Thomas Wyatt, a poet and friend, was charged and released; Sir Richard Page was accused and later acquitted; William Brereton and Sir Francis Weston were also arrested. Four of these men were tried, though only Smeaton pled guilty under torture. On May 15, Anne and George Boleyn were tried separately. She was found guilty and her marriage to Henry was dissolved.
The accused were found guilty and executed on the Seventeenth of May. Anne herself was given a small mercy from the king; he called upon an expert swordsman from France to behead her so she would not suffer. On the morning of May 19, Anne’s execution was carried out. She wore a grey gown with a red cloak of ermine and was said to have been in good spirits. It was remarked by the Tower Constable William Kingston that when he promised her that death would come quick, she said, “I heard the executioner was good, and besides, I have a little neck” and laughed heartily before saying Mass and swearing her innocence “on the eternal salvation of her soul”. She seemed at peace and ready to die. A single stroke of the executioner’s sword was all it took. Her execution was witnessed by Cromwell, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and husband to the king’s sister, Henry FitzRoy, who died two months later at the age of seventeen, the Mayor of London and several others. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, did not attend, but was found weeping in his London gardens, saying that he was sure Anne “was Queen in life and was surely now a Queen in Heaven.” Henry married Jane Seymour less than two weeks after Anne’s death.
In his haste to rid himself of Anne, Henry neglected to make arrangements for her burial. Not even a coffin had been provided for her, and as a result, her body was hurriedly placed in an arrow chest and put into an unmarked grave in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, but is now marked upon the marble floor thanks to Queen Victoria, during whose reign her skeleton was found during renovations of the church. After Anne’s death, her daughter Elizabeth would face the same treatment as her half-sister Mary; she would be declared a bastard and her title of Princess was revoked. Both girls were barred from the line of succession.
Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour would produce one child, a long-awaited baby boy named Edward, but Henry’s joy at being granted a son was overshadowed by grief when Jane died as a result of the birth on 24 October 1537. She would be the only one of the king’s wives to receive a queen’s funeral and the one whom he would be buried beside upon his death in 1547. Before that, he would go on to have three more marriages, first to the German Anne of Cleves, and this marriage was once again annulled, its organizer, Cromwell, soon executed for heresy. Next would be the teenage Catherine Howard, Anne’s own cousin, who would be beheaded for adultery along with her lover, Thomas Culpepper. Last would be Katheryn Parr, a two time widow who would outlive him only to elope with Jane’s brother Thomas Seymour.
The throne would be succeeded by Henry’s son, Edward VI, only nine years old at the time of his father’s death. Edward’s reign would be short due to illness, and he died at the age of fifteen in 1553 of an infection of the lungs, reportedly tuberculosis, much like his half-brother Henry FitzRoy before him. The next monarch would be Mary, the first Queen of England in her own right. Mary I would restore Roman Catholicism to England and burn nearly 300 religious nonconformists at the stake, including Thomas Cranmer, and kill Lady Jane Grey, her cousin and Edward’s heir according to his will, for which she would come to be known as Bloody Mary. She married Philip II, the acting King of Spain, who would enjoy the title of King of England, but would have no influence in the kingdoms politics, although coins were issued with both of their profiles and a crown between them to symbolize joint rule. There would be no children for the couple, although Mary did have two false pregnancies throughout her five year reign.
With Mary’s death came the ascension of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, whose forty-four year reign would be England’s Golden Age. Elizabeth never married, thus her death in 1603 would mark the end of the Tudor dynasty and the beginning of the rule of the Scottish Stuarts, starting with the great-grandson of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, James VI of Scotland, who would become James I of England. The first English settlement in America would be named Jamestown in his honor, but the colony would be called Virginia as tribute of Elizabeth, who would go down in history as the Virgin Queen.