There are few historical figures whose stories are more enduring than that of Anne Boleyn. Nearly 500 years after her death, she still has the power to reach out across the ages; enigmatic, tragic and fascinating. She was a complicated woman. Ask anyone in the UK of primary school age and older and they will know something of Anne’s tale. My own 5 year old son will cheerfully tell you that Anne’s ghost prowls the Tower of London with her head under her arm and he certainly isn’t the only person who thinks so. When it comes to Anne, fact and fiction intermingle to create a confusing image. Did she have six fingers? Was she a witch? Did she really sleep with her brother? And was she truly a home-wrecking seductress who used her feminine wiles to manipulate a great king into tearing his country apart? When you see the famous portrait of her with her mysterious smile and iconic ‘B’ necklace, what do think?
For me, I see a proto-feminist heroine who fought to make her mark in a world entirely unsuited to a woman like her. She was ahead of her time in every imaginable way. She was a devoted mother, fiercely intelligent, accomplished and brave. She was also tempestuous, willful, stubborn and did not always think before speaking. The daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard, Anne was born somewhere between 1501 and 1507 at either Blickling Hall in Norfolk or Hever Castle in Kent. Her father served King Henry VIII as a diplomat and she had two siblings, George and Mary. She was highly educated, especially by the standards of the day, learning numerous subjects including arithmetic, history, embroidery, music and archery. In October of 1514, she went to France to act as lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII’s sister Mary, who was to marry Louis XII. Her sojourn abroad ended in January 1522 when she returned to England.
Initially she was summoned home to marry her cousin James Butler, but the marriage negotiations soon ground to a halt. Sometime around 1520, her sister Mary became the Kings mistress, who possibly fathered her two children. Anne joined Henry’s court in March 1522 and quickly became one of the leading lights due to her consummate sense of style and many accomplishments, attracting many suitors. These included Henry Percy, the son of the Earl of Northumberland and gentleman usher of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a powerful and influential politician. However, both the Earl and Wolsey were against the match and Anne was sent home to Hever Castle in disgrace. She soon returned to court however, re-entering the service of Queen Catherine of Aragon.
In 1526, she caught the eye of the king. Henry’s pursuit of Anne was relentless. Like so many other female historical figures, Anne has been the victim of endless misogynistic tropes. She is frequently portrayed as ‘playing hard to get’ and ‘saying no when she really meant yes’ in order to increase Henry’s ardor and to secure her place in his affections so he would put Catherine aside and make Anne his queen. However, there is evidence to suggest Henry was considering an annulment long before Anne came along due to his burning desire to have a son. It is also highly likely that Anne was serious when it came to resisting Henry’s advances. She left court for an entire year in 1526 in the hope that it would cool Henry’s desire, but it was to no avail. She knew that if she consented to become Henry’s mistress she would inevitably cast off just as her sister had been, and was aware of the good she could do the country as queen. Henry was determined to take another wife, and so Anne ultimately accepted his marriage proposal.
However, in order for them to marry Henry would first have to divorce Catherine. They had married in 1509 and despite Catherine’s many pregnancies they had only one daughter, Mary. Prior to Henry’s father taking the throne, England has been beset by civil war due to rival claims to the throne and Henry believed that by having only a female heir, history was at risk of repeating itself. Catherine was fast approaching the end of her childbearing years. Originally they had required a papal dispensation to wed as Catherine had previously been married to Henry’s elder brother Arthur prior to his early death, although Catherine was adamant the marriage had never been consummated. Ultimately, it would take seven years for Henry to achieve his annulment. As the Pope refused to cooperate, Henry broke with Rome and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, granting his own divorce.
Henry and Anne secretly married on 14th November 1532 and Anne quickly fell pregnant. She was crowned Queen of England on June 1st 1533, giving birth to her daughter Elizabeth on September 7th of the same year. Her birth was a bitter disappointment to her parents, who were convinced she would be a longed-for baby boy. It appears Anne suffered a miscarriage in 1534, and another in 1536. Just three short years after marrying Henry, it was the beginning of the end for Anne.
Anne had made many powerful enemies during her time at court. As I said above, Anne was quick to anger and not always careful with her words. The most dangerous of these enemies was Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister. Although they were originally allies, working together closely to further the cause of the English Reformation, they had become enemies. They had argued over what to do with the funds raised from the dissolution of the monasteries. Cromwell favored filling the king’s depleted coffers whilst taking a substantial cut for himself, whereas Anne wanted to use the proceeds for charitable purposes. They also differed over foreign policy; Anne supported a French alliance, Cromwell and imperial one. As long as Anne remained queen, she posed a serious threat to Cromwell. To his mind, it was Anne’s head on the block or his own.
Furthermore, it was around this time that Henry fell in love with Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting. The Seymours were a powerful and ambitious family, and Cromwell gave them the use of his rooms so Henry could have easier access to Jane. This further provoked Anne’s enmity. Cromwell had heard rumors about Anne’s conduct with various gentleman of the court, and Henry ordered him to open an inquiry. This began in April 1536, when a musician, Mark Smeaton, who had enjoyed Anne’s patronage was arrested and accused of committing adultery with the queen. He initially denied this, but confessed after being tortured. His arrest was followed by that of Sir Henry Norris on May Day and two days later Sir Frances Weston, Sir William Brereton, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Richard Page and the queen’s brother George Boleyn were arrested on similar charges. Wyatt and Page were soon cleared, the others would not be so fortunate.
Anne herself was arrested on May 2nd 1536 and taken to the Tower of London by barge, entering through the infamous Traitor’s Gate. Weston, Brereton, Norris and Smeaton were tried together and convicted on 12th May. Only Smeaton pleaded guilty, the others who were noblemen and therefore could not be tortured, professed their innocence to the end. As for Anne, she was tried on May 15th 1536 in the King’s Hall, Tower of London. Today, we can recognize this ‘trial’ for the utter travesty that it was, and that the court presiding over Anne was a kangaroo court, but it must be noted that Henry broke none of his own laws in the way she was tried. The result of the trial was a foregone conclusion; Henry was happily planning his wedding to Jane Seymour and had informed her on the morning of the trial that Anne would be condemned that day. Anne was charged with treason under statute 26. Ironically, this statute was created to protect Anne, the Princess Elizabeth and the royal issue in general from slander. Part of her indictment accused her of: ‘Despising her marriage and entertaining malice against the King, and following daily her frail and carnal lust,’ as well as seducing her five co-accused and plotting the King’s death.
All in all Anne was accused of committing adultery on twenty separate occasions; she had firm alibis for twelve of those but that did not seem to matter. Evidence cited included giving money to her courtiers and dancing with George; entirely innocuous actions that would have been expected of a Queen. The trial was presided over by Anne’s own Uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, a devious, entirely self-serving, conniving man who had happily encouraged and profited from Anne’s rise but felt no compunction whatsoever in sentencing her to death now she had outlived her usefulness. He would treat another niece and future Queen Katherine Howard in the same deplorable fashion. He pronounced her guilty and Anne gave the following, characteristically eloquent and articulate response:
“I do not say that I have always borne towards the King the humility which I owed him, considering his kindness and the great honour he showed me and the great respect he always paid me; I admit too, that often I have taken it into my head to be jealous of him… But may God be my witness if I have done him any other wrong.”
At this, Anne’s former sweetheart, Henry Percy, collapsed in a heap and had to be carried from the courtroom. It was simply too much for him. He had been forced to pronounce Anne guilty, in the full knowledge that she was innocent, and had no choice but to do the same for her brother whose trial took place immediately afterwards. Anne was executed on May 19th 1536 by a French swordsman and by all accounts died as she had lived; with great poise, dignity and grace.
As I’m sure you can tell by the tone of this article, I have great admiration and respect for Anne. I fondly like to imagine that had she been born in the modern age, she would have made as great an impact now as she did in her own time. A progressive woman, she might have been the first female Labour Prime Minister. Devoted to the betterment of the less fortunate and fiercely intelligent, she might’ve been a University professor leading a humanities department or headed a non-profit. She could have been so many things. Instead she died a brutal and premature death at the hands of her cruel and capricious husband. Over the years, many historians have sought to lay blame at the feet of people other than Henry for Anne’s judicial murder. Cromwell, of course, played his part but he was acting on the King’s orders. Another popular scapegoat is Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, wife of George Boleyn and therefore the sister-in-law of Anne. She is often described as jealous and vindictive, eagerly accusing George and Anne and testifying against them. However, Jane has been much-maligned and like Anne, is innocent of the charges against her. Ultimately, the buck stops with Henry VIII and his desperate quest for a son.
Interestingly, it has been theorised that Henry himself may have been the cause of his own reproductive woes. Bioarchaeologist Catrina Banks Whitley and anthropologist Kyra Kramer have posited that Henry suffered from MacLeod Syndrome, which causes muscle weakness and dementia-like cognitive decline; its effects usually become noticeable when the sufferer is between 30 and 40 years of age. We know that in his youth, Henry was a handsome, athletic and kindly man who only used the axe as a last resort. However, when he reached his 40s he ballooned into the morbidly obese, headsman-happy tyrant we are more familiar with today. MacLeod Syndrome only afflicts Kell-positive individuals. If a Kell-positive man and a Kell-negative woman have children, the first pregnancy will usually be successful. Any subsequent pregnancies, however, will result in the antibodies produced in the first pregnancy attacking the Kell-positive foetus, leading to late-term miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death. This fits Henry’s wives and mistresses reproductive patterns with startling accuracy. The irony of this is both poignant and heart breaking. Not only was Anne’s death cruel and based solely on lies and fabricated charges, it was also entirely unnecessary. The historical treatment of Anne is often deeply unfair, although thanks to dedicated historians she has been somewhat rehabilitated in recent years. It is my sincere hope that this blog entry will, in some small way, assist with that rehabilitation. It is the least I can do for this brave, principled and inspiring woman.