We heard about Anne Boleyn in our post about Catherine of Aragon. Anne has the distinction of being the first Queen Consort to be beheaded and because of her, the course of ecclesiastical history in England changed forever.
Anne’s exact birth date is lost but the consensus is it was either 1501 or 1507 at either the family home of Hever or possibly Blickling Castle. Her father was Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, an accomplished linguist and diplomat. Her mother was Elizabeth Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. Anne’s education was typical for a young noblewoman. She was taught arithmetic, family genealogy, reading, writing, history, dancing and music, needlework, household management, game playing, horseback riding and hunting.
Through diplomatic contacts, Thomas Boleyn met Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands and she offered Boleyn’s daughter a place at court, so Anne was sent there in 1513. She was there until her father procured Anne a position in the service of Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII, when she married the King of France in 1514. Anne served Mary and then Queen Claude for seven years in France. While there she learned a unique sense of style and all the charm and graces that she would use later in life. Anne was never known as a ravishing beauty, but she was famous for being enchanting and captivating when she was young.
Anne returned to England in 1522 and made her debut at court. She immediately caught the attention of many young men but the one who captured her eye was the young Henry Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland. Percy was already contracted to marry Mary Talbot, daughter of the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury. Anne’s father was working on a match for her with James Butler. While we will never know for sure, Anne and Percy may have made some kind of agreement to marry because they were truly in love. It was also at this very same moment that Anne was noticed by Henry VIII and he fell hard. Henry’s chief minister Thomas Wolsey broke off Anne’s relationship with Percy, reminding him of his pre-contract with Mary Talbot.
It was now clear that Henry wanted Anne. Anne did not want to become Henry’s mistress as her sister Mary Boleyn had been. Her family was now putting pressure on her to become Queen to further their fortunes. So there were seven years of a cat and mouse game where Anne teased Henry and held him off. Henry asked his wife, Catherine of Aragon for a divorce and she steadfastly refused. Henry then asked the Pope for a divorce or annulment due to Catherine having married his brother Arthur before him. The city of Rome had just been sacked by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V who happened to be Catherine of Aragon’s nephew. The Pope was in no position to grant a divorce. There were promises to look into divorce or annulment and the Pope even sent an envoy to England to hear the case but all this was for nothing.
During this time, Anne and her family gained much influence at court. In 1532, Henry wanted to enlist the support of Francis I, King of France for his marriage to Anne and a meeting was held at Calais. Henry made Anne the Marquess of Pembroke in her own right and she was basically treated as Queen during the meeting with Francis. It is believed that after this trip, Anne relented and she and Henry had sexual relations.
Anne was pregnant. Things began to move rapidly now. Cardinal Wolsey’s successor as Henry’s chief minister was Thomas Cromwell. He began dismantling the Catholic Church in England by passing legislation in Parliament. Henry declared himself the head of the church in England, renouncing the Pope. Thomas Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and he declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon null and void. Henry was free to marry Anne and the Church of England was born.
Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I) was born September 7, 1533 at Greenwich. Can we even imagine the disappointment of Henry and Anne when the child was a girl after all they had gone through? Anne was to become pregnant at least another two times but both times she miscarried or had stillborns. Alison Weir, in her book “The Lady in the Tower” has speculated that Anne was rhesus negative and Henry positive. This seems to explain the birth of one healthy child and the rest of the pregnancies resulting in problems.
Anne’s advocacy of foreign policy and distribution of church revenues differed from Cromwell’s views and he probably considered her a threat to his position. Historians are now presuming that Thomas Cromwell essentially plotted the downfall of Anne. To complicate matters, Henry’s wandering eye had fallen on one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour in 1536.
Anne was arrested on May 2, 1536. She was accused of treason for speaking of the King’s death. She was accused of adultery with one of her household musicians, Mark Smeaton and with Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton, and the poet Thomas Wyatt. She was also accused of incest with her brother, Sir George Boleyn. Smeaton was tortured and “confessed” and this was used to convict Anne and her alleged lovers at her trial. All were executed except Wyatt, who managed to survive being jailed and was released.
Anne was found guilty and her marriage to Henry was dissolved on May 14 by Archbishop Cranmer. Anne was executed on May 19th on the green near the White Tower in London. Her body and head were crammed into a small armory box and she was buried in the Church of St. Peter Ad Vincula in the Tower precincts. Anne had gambled and lost and Henry was ready to move on in his desperate attempt to have a male heir.
Further reading: “ The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn” by Alison Weir, “Mistress Anne” by Carolly Erickson, “The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty” by G.J. Meyer