Although she was Queen of England for just under three years, Anne Boleyn (ca. 1504-1536), 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 was considered one of the greatest English rulers.
No accurate record of the birth of Anne Boleyn existed. Various scholarly and academic research has pinpointed her birth between 1499 and 1504, but other sources said it was as late as between 1507 and 1509. Exact details about her birth and early life were 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 stated she had an extra cervical vertebra), black silky hair, and dark eyes. In contrast to the fine features, Boleyn had two deformities: a mole the size of a strawberry on her neck and the start of a sixth finger on her right hand.
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 (Percy's father) to come to court. Soon after the earl's arrival, an announcement of a betrothal was made. Percy risked being disinherited if he did not marry; so he did, and Boleyn left the court, vowing revenge on Wolsey.
A King's Infatuation
Henry's infatuation with Boleyn 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 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 Boleyn as his Queen and to have a son, as his only living heir was a daughter with Catherine. Henry concocted a mock court that 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 Boleyn and Henry were getting more and more impatient.
Waiting to be Married
Public opinion in England, however, was not on the side of Henry and Boleyn. For the most part, the commoners viewed Catherine as the noble queen and Boleyn as a not-so-noble outsider. As Henry's infatuation with Boleyn grew, so did his impatience with Wolsey and the Pope. Henry VIII wanted his marriage annulled so he could marry Boleyn. He brought her back not only to London but also to his court. Although Catherine was officially his wife and queen, Boleyn 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, was often blamed on Boleyn. 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 finally banished Catherine, but to his dismay (and to the dismay of Boleyn), royal subjects filled the streets of England as Catherine rode away. In 1532 in an attempt to appease Boleyn 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 Boleyn with the remark, "Curse her not, rather pity her."
In January of 1533, Boleyn 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 and Boleyn was then made public.
Besides public opinion in England being against the marriage, in July of 1533, the Pope declared the union of Henry and Boleyn 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. Boleyn 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 Boleyn 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
Boleyn was pregnant again the next year, but suffered a miscarriage. Scholars suggested 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 Boleyn 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, Boleyn gave birth to a stillborn boy. Her fate was sealed, as Henry 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 Boleyn was really a witch and ascended to the throne via witchcraft circulated throughout England. Henry wanted her gone, and Thomas Cromwell conspired with Henry to get rid of her.
Cromwell decided he needed to prove that Boleyn 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 (Boleyn 's brother). The insinuation of incest was as bad as the accusation of adultery.
Boleyn and the others accused all denied the charges, but all were held in the Tower of London until tried. Norris defended Boleyn's reputation to his own death, and the others also protested. All were executed. The trumped-up charges also changed public opinion about Boleyn, who was then pitied.
Although no any evidence existed, Boleyn was found guilty and sentenced to death. Until the end, though, she continued to cause problems for Henry VIII. If Boleyn died, Elizabeth could still potentially be an heir to the throne (if he didn't get a male heir from Jane Seymour).
Cranmer met with Boleyn privately before her death. Although the specifics of their conversation will never be known, Boleyn received a more merciful death sentence (beheading rather than burning at the stake). Also, Cranmer declared the marriage between Henry VIII and Boleyn invalid. This, ironically, should have spared Boleyn'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 Boleyn on May 19, 1536. Eleven days later Henry VIII married Jane Seymour. Although she didn't live to see the day, Boleyn's daughter Elizabeth did eventually ascend to the throne, ruling England for 45 years.
Still Remembered Through the Years
Details of Boleyn's story have evolved and changed throughout the years, but one thing remained: Her legacy remained popular. Many works have been created about the former queen in the centuries since her death. In numerous stage productions, books, films, and television shows, including Showtime's television series The Tudors (2007-2010) and the 2008 film The Other Boleyn Girl, her story continued to be a presence through the twenty-first century. Author Hilary Mantel began a trilogy of books about Henry VIII's life as told by Thomas Cromwell in the late 2000s. The first book, Wolf Hall, (2009) won the Man Booker Prize, and the second book, Bring Up the Bodies (2012) received a Man Booker Prize nomination. The third novel is titled The Mirror and the Light.
- Bruce, Marie Louise, Anne Boleyn: A Biography,Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1972.
- Erickson, Carolly, Mistress Anne,Summit Books, 1984.
- Fraser, Antonia, The Wives of Henry VIII, Knopf, 1993.
- Ives, Eric W., Anne Boleyn, Basil Blackwell, 1986.
- Lofts, Norah, Anne Boleyn, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1979.
- Anne Boleyn--The Six Wives of Henry VIII, (videocassette series) BBC TV, New York: Time-Life Media, 1976.
- "Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies Continues Tudor Tale," USA Today, http://books.usatoday.com/book/hilary-mantels-bring-up-the-bodies-continues-tudor-tale/r701946 (October 5, 2012).