Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn, a 19th-century painting based on a disputed sketch by .  Legend has it that this image is the basis for the queens in a deck of cards, but the actual inspiration was Anne's mother-in-law
Anne Boleyn, a 19th-century painting based on a disputed sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger. Legend has it that this image is the basis for the queens in a deck of cards, but the actual inspiration was Anne's mother-in-law Elizabeth of York

Anne Boleyn, Marchioness of Pembroke and Queen Consort of England (?1507May 19, 1536) was the second wife and queen consort of Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Henry's marriage to her was the pretext of considerable political and religious upheaval, having led to the separation of England from Rome and ultimately opening the way for the Reformation called for by the people. Her life has been the subject of numerous biographies, novels, motion pictures, plays and operas.



Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire and 1st Earl of Ormonde, and Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire and Ormonde (ne Lady Elizabeth Howard), daughter of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk. The year of Anne's birth is uncertain. Modern historians tend to insist that it was summer of 1501. In recent years the debate has been re-opened by several leading historians, chiefly Retha Warnicke, who argued in favour of the more traditional date of 1507. Other historians like John Guy, Derek Wilson and Peter Gwyn tended to agree. The controversy may never be fully resolved and so it now seems safest to guess that she was born sometime around 1505 - something which was suggested by Paul Friedmann in the 19th century and again by Norah Lofts in the 1970s. Friedmann based it on several comments relating to Anne's age in the late 1520s and Norah Lofts argued that 1505 was the compromise date and, therefore, the safest guess.

Later tradition would preach that the Boleyns were practically middle-class, but recent research has proven that Anne Boleyn was born a "great lady". Her great-grandparents included a Lord Mayor of London, a duke, an earl, two aristocratic ladies and a knight. She was certainly far better-born than either Jane Seymour or Catherine Parr, two of Henry's other wives.

Anne's father secured a place for her with Margaret, Archduchess of Austria and daughter of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, for Anne to be educated in the Netherlands where it is believed she lived from the spring of 1513 to the autumn of 1514. This was followed by some years in France, until 1521, where she was lady-in waiting to Queen Claude of France. In the Queen's household, she completed her study of French as well as acquiring a thorough knowledge of French culture and etiquette. Anne's European education ended in the winter of 1521, when she was summoned back to England on her father's orders, sailing from Calais around January 1522.

The Rise of Anne Boleyn

Missing image

On her return to England, Anne apparently became an attendant of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's "formidable" Spanish queen, who was still much respected but whose good looks and youthful charm were fading.

During this time, there was much talk of marrying Anne to one of her cousins, James Butler, the son of Sir Piers Butler. This was, however, cancelled, for uncertain reasons. It is presumed that Anne's father was secretly against the marriage, which had been engineered by the king's chief minister Thomas Wolsey who had shown himself to be the enemy of the Boleyns in previous years.

Around 1522, Anne began being courted by Lord Henry Percy, the son of the Earl of Northumberland. Some say that they became lovers, while others maintain that it was just a simple courtship. The latter was probably true, for Anne was far too intelligent to waste what value she had on a few nights' passion that were to avail her nothing. Her elder sister, Mary Boleyn had been sexually 'adventurous' in France, and Anne had been deeply humiliated as a result.

Probably in the spring of 1523, Anne and Percy were secretly betrothed. Lord Henry's father refused to sanction the marriage when he heard of it from Cardinal Wolsey, who was possibly acting upon the King's instructions to leave Anne free for him. Anne was sent from court to Hever Castle in Kent. It is not known how long she remained away from court, although she was certainly back by mid-1525. At Shrovetide 1526 Henry began the serious pursuit of Anne Boleyn.

Anne's elder sister, Mary had previously been King Henry's mistress and may have borne him a child, and gossips believed their mother Elizabeth Boleyn had been Henry's mistress too, though Henry denied it and it seems extremely unlikely. However, the affair ended when Mary got married twice, first to William Carey of Norfolk, the second time to a poor man called William Stafford.

Anne refused to become the King's mistress, and she effectively dodged his advances for over a year. Feminist historians now believe Anne was suffering as a silent victim of 16th century sexual harassment. Henry proposed marriage to her sometime in 1527 (probably around New Year), and after some hesitation, she agreed.

It is often thought that Henry's infatuation with Anne led him to seek a way to annul his existing marriage. However there is good evidence to suggest that Henry may well have made the decision to set aside his marriage with Catherine of Aragon solely because of her failure to bear him a male heir. He believed this was essential to prevent the collapse of the Tudor dynasty which had only been secured by his father Henry VII of England on winning the Wars of the Roses in 1485.

Anne became the victim of a public hate campaign, mobilised by Catherine's supporters, and in 1531 a crowd of 8,000 women and men dressed as women marched through the streets of London in an attempt to lynch her. During this period, Anne played an enormous role in England's international position, by solidifying the French alliance. She established an excellent rapport with the French ambassador, de la Pommeraye, who was captivated by her.

When, in 1532, Henry gave her the title Marchioness of Pembroke, it was the first time a woman had ever been created a peer in her own right. Anne's family also profited. Her father became Earl of Ormonde and Wiltshire and her brother George Boleyn was made Viscount Rochford. Thanks to Anne's intervention, her sister Mary received an annual pension of 100, and Mary's son Henry Carey received a top-quality education in a prestigious Cistercian monastery.

Anne and Henry finally slept together for the first time in late 1532 at Calais, and her reasons for submitting at this point are difficult to fathom. One historian has suggested that was probably because she had, by this point, fallen in love with the King.

There are other possible suggestions.

Joanna Denny and Dr. David Starkey both argue that there was a secret wedding between the royal couple late in 1532. Denny, in her book Anne Boleyn: A Life of England's Tragic Queen argues that the marriage took place in Calais, and Dr. David Starkey argues that it took place once the couple landed at Dover, in England. Their arguments are convincing, and it helps explain the physical consummation of the couple's relationship, after so many years of resistance on Anne's part. However, it is widely believed it took place sometime early in 1533.

Anne's personality was complex, and it has been greatly distorted by those opposed to her marriage and religious views. She was a devout Christian in the new tradition of Renaissance Humanism (calling her a Protestant would be too strong). She was also a very loyal woman who gave generously to charity and, contrary to popular myth, was extremely emotional. In her youth she was "sweet and cheerful," enjoyed gambling, drinking wine and gossiping. She was also brave and charismatic and her personal motto loosely translated as This will be, no matter who grumbles! or "The Most Happy." She was also well-educated, clever and charming. The French ambassador, de la Pommeraye, was completely captivated by her and paid tribute to her formidable intellect and influence over English foreign policy. The diplomat John Barlow was devoted to her, and spied for her in Rome. Later in life this ability to attract fanatical male devotion back-fired spectacularly when she found herself the object of feverish unrequited love from a Dutch musician in her household called Marc Smeaton.

Yet Anne could also be extravagant, neurotic and bad-tempered. She was embroiled in numerous arguments with prominent figures — including her uncle the Duke of Norfolk and the King's brother-in-law.

Marriage to Henry VIII

Henry VIII, by

On January 25, 1533, before announcing the decision that his first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon, was invalid, he secretly wed Anne, either at York Place or at the Palace of Westminster. The reason for this (probably second) marriage was because Anne had become pregnant since the first, and there needed to be another to ensure the child's unquestioned legitimacy.

Anne's coronation in May of that year had been marked by the people's hostility, and they had refused to remove their hats as a sign of respect for their new queen. When asked what she had made of London at her coronation, Anne replied, "I liked the City well-enough, but I saw few caps in the air and heard few tongues."

On September 7, 1533, after a difficult pregnancy, Anne gave birth to the future Elizabeth I at Greenwich. Some sources say Henry was reasonably pleased and believed that he and Anne could always have another child, even if the first was a girl, but many tell how disappointed he was anyway.

Throughout her time as Queen, Anne patronised numerous religious scholars, and saved the life of a French philosopher, Nicolas Bourbon, who had been sentenced to death by the Inquisition in Paris. It was said that every reformist bishop in England at that time owed his position to Queen Anne's influence. Her court was generally regarded as extremely cultured and merry, and one observer remarked that "past time in the queen's chambers was never more."

Unfortunately for Anne, her next three pregnancies all ended in miscarriage or stillbirth. The last of these pregnancies resulted in a stillborn male child born in January 1536.

Anne's demise

In May, 1536, Anne was accused of having used witchcraft to trap Henry into marriage and to entice five men to enter into adulterous affairs with her; being a whore; of creating competition and jealousy between the five; of afflicting the king with bodily harm; and of conspiring to effect his death — treason. The men alleged to have been involved in adultery were a groom of the Privy Chamber — Marc Smeaton; Anne's own brother — Lord George Rochford, Henry Norris, Francis Weston and William Brereton. Anne's brother was effectively held to have been the father of the stillborn child. It is now generally accepted that none of the charges were valid; although that has not stopped the theory re-surfacing in several sensationalist historical romances.

There are several theories about the events leading up to these accusations:

The first is that Henry had been disenchanted with Anne for some time, but was reluctant to divorce her while his first wife Catherine was alive, because there was a large faction in England that believed Catherine's marriage was still binding. But in January 1536 Catherine died of cancer, reducing the potential backlash. However several people who had met Henry and Anne in October 1535 reported them to have been getting on well. The royal marriage had certainly shown signs of strain (even as early as 1534) but this strain cannot be regarded as the cause of the queen's downfall without incorporating other factors.

The second is that Thomas Cromwell used Anne's miscarriage as a lever to persuade Henry to remove her, taking the opportunity to plot to remove five of his own political enemies in the process. More recently David Starkey has suggested that Henry had recently fallen in love with Jane Seymour and so moved quickly to fabricate charges to remove Anne so he could remarry again.

The final theory, argued by Retha Warnicke, is that Anne's stillborn child of January 1536 had been deformed, provoking terror and disgust in the King. It was widely believed at the time that deformities resulted from illicit sexual acts by the parents — and obviously Henry could not be seen to be responsible. By accusing Anne of incest and adultery, his paternity of the deformed stillborn child could largely be disproved. It is also suggested that those executed for adultery were chosen because they were known libertines, and that under questioning Anne's maids had identified them as having visited Anne during the period from October 1533 and December 1535. This theory, however, is almost totally dependent on circumstantial evidence and there is almost no supporting evidence to suggest that the royal foetus was deformed. And Henry's supposed impotence as a result of the shock has been much exaggerated, since he was still capable of consummating a marriage in 1543.

The truth is probably that Henry's disaffection with his strong-willed wife pushed him into the arms of the doe-eyed and manipulative Jane Seymour, who was the pawn of Anne's many political enemies. Anne had quarelled with Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister, and he moved swiftly to exact revenge. These enemies capitalised on her last miscarriage and Catherine's death, and with the help of Thomas Cromwell and the secret support of the king, engineered an elaborate plot to bring the queen to the scaffold along with several of her strategic allies at court.

Anne was arrested on May 2 1536, and taken to the Tower of London. In her early days at the Tower she seems to have suffered a minor nervous breakdown, lapsing from fits of hysterical laughter to uncontrollable weeping. She is rumoured to have written a letter to her husband remonstrating against this "unworthy stain" on her reputation, and pleading with him to spare the five men accused with her and to remember their daughter Elizabeth.

Missing image
The Tower of London

On the evidence of Marc Smeaton's false confession, obtained by torture, Anne was convicted at her trial on May 15. She behaved with remarkable courage, and after her conviction told her judges that whilst she could believe they had good reasons for condemning her to death they were not the reasons produced in the courtroom.

On May 17 her marriage to Henry was annulled, though the arguments used aren't known since the records were later destroyed. Anne found spiritual peace during her last two days on Earth, and told her jailer that she had confidence in God's mercy and believed that she would go to Heaven. She swore twice on the Blessed Sacrament that she was innocent of all the charges they had accused her of.

On May 19, 1536 Anne was beheaded in the Tower of London. Before her death, she joked that, "I heardsay the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck." The executioner, an expert swordsman from France, was reputed to be an excellent (and quick) executioner. Anne selected a dark grey dress for her execution, with a crimson underskirt. On the scaffold she forgave those who had brought about her death, and prayed for her husband. She was blindfolded, and whilst she was kneeling the executioner called for his sword, which was in the straw, and as she turned her head he quickly pulled it out. Her head came off with a single stroke. Some people say that her eyes and mouth moved afterwards, as the executioner held it up. The chief mourner at her funeral was Lady Margaret Lee. They hadn't ordered a coffin for her, so they placed her in an arrow box, and since it was too small, they placed her head under her arm.

Henry married Jane Seymour on May 30.

In 1876 when the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula [1] ( (in the Tower of London, where Anne was interred) was extensively restored, one of the bodies exhumed, examined, and re-interred was identified as hers.

On film

Numerous works of fiction, books and films have been produced on the subject of Anne Boleyn's life. She was first portrayed on the silver screen in 1911 by Laura Cowie in a silent movie adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Henry VIII". Nine years later, in 1920, a German company produced "Anna Boleyn" with Henny Porten in the title role. The movie portrayed Anne as a frumpy, frightened creature pursued by a lecherous Henry VIII.

In 1933, the British cinematic classic "The Private Life of Henry VIII" had the day of Anne Boleyn's execution as its starting point. The beautiful Anglo-Indian beauty, Merle Oberon, played the doomed queen preparing for her death. The film was hugely successful.

In 1952, American actress, Elaine Stewart, made a brief appearance in the film "Young Bess" - a highly-romanticised examination of Elizabeth I's teenage infatuation with Admiral Thomas Seymour. Anne Boleyn appeared briefly in two scenes before meeting her grisly end. Elizabeth was played by Jean Simmons and Seymour by Stewart Granger. As in the 1933 film, Henry was played by Charles Laughton.

Actress and activist, Vanessa Redgrave, had a cameo role in "A Man for All Seasons" - a sympathetic look at the rise and fall of Sir Thomas More. Ms. Redgrave appeared briefly as a laughing, delighted Anne presiding over her wedding day festivities.

Promotional poster for "Anne of the Thousand Days"
Promotional poster for "Anne of the Thousand Days"

Three years later, Hal B. Wallis produced "Anne of the Thousand Days" which explored the life of Anne Boleyn from her engagement to Harry Percy until her death in 1536. Quebecois actress, Genevieve Bujold, was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the fiery, argumentative and brilliant Anne Boleyn - as was her co-star, Richard Burton who played Henry VIII. Sir Anthony Quayle co-starred as Cardinal Wolsey, with Greek actress, Irene Papas, as Katherine of Aragon.

In 1970, as part of the BBC six-part dramatic television series "The Six Wives of Henry VIII", the episode "Anne Boleyn" was aired with Dame Dorothy Tutin as the Queen and Australian actor Keith Michell as her husband. Sheila Burrell co-starred as Anne's vindictive sister-in-law, Lady Rochford and Patrick Troughton as the Duke of Norfolk. The drama focussed on the fall of Anne Boleyn.

In 1972, Barbara Kellerman appeared as Anne Boleyn in a television adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry VIII."

A year later, Charlotte Rampling appeared as Anne Boleyn in the movie "Henry VIII and his Six Wives." This movie was the only one to incorporate the legends of Anne's "deformities." Ms. Rampling appeared with an extra finger and small wart on her neck. Keith Michell reprised his 1970 role as Henry VIII. Although all six queens appeared, most time was spent on the story of Anne's cousin, Catherine Howard played by young actress Lynne Fredericks. Donald Pleasance played Thomas Cromwell and Jane Asher appeared as Jane Seymour.

Julia Marsen appeared as Anne Boleyn in Dr. David Starkey's documentary series "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" in 2001.

In January 2003, Jodhi May played Anne in a BBC drama "The Other Boleyn Girl." This was a wildly-inaccurate production which portrayed Anne as a manipulative, promiscuous shrew. Natascha McElhone starred as Mary Boleyn, Steven MacIntosh as George Boleyn and Jared Harris, son of screen legend Richard Harris, played Henry VIII.

In October of that year, the 2-part ITV television drama "Henry VIII" aired in Britain. Helena Bonham Carter starred in Part 1 as Anne Boleyn, opposite Ray Winstone as Henry VIII and David Suchet as Cardinal Wolsey. Part 1 followed Henry's life from the birth of his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy until the execution of Anne Boleyn. Part 2 started on Jane Seymour's wedding day in 1536 and ended with Henry's funeral in 1547.

Anne's story appears fictionally in the novels: The Lady in the Tower by Jean Plaidy, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell, The Queen of Subtleties by Susannah Dunn and the controversial The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory.

robert guillory Dr. David Starkey (author of "Six Wives") and Lady Antonia Fraser (author of many royal biographies, including those of Marie Antoinette and Mary, Queen of Scots) both offer more positive interpretations of her. Starkey is adamant that Anne was the most politically important of Henry's queens, and calls her "the most interesting, if not the most attractive" of the bunch. Lady Fraser, whilst acknowleding there is something "splendidly fearless" about Anne's fiery personality, nonetheless gives a more favourable moral account of Anne's predecessor Catherine of Aragon and supplanter, Jane Seymour.

The most favourable accounts of Anne Boleyn come from Professor Eric W. Ives, author of several political studies of the era, including a biography of Anne entitled "The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn", originally published in 1986 and revised and republished in 2004. He argues that she was "one of the makers of history" and an appropriate feminist icon.

Professor R.M. Warnicke, author of "The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn" and several studies on the era's sexual, religious and social morals, also offers a favourable interpretation of Anne's "energy and vitality." Feminist historian, writer and activist, Karen Lindsey, in "Divorced, Beheaded, Survived" believes Anne's story is one of the great feminist parables of all time and explores sexual harassment, psychological conditions at the time and says that the traditional image of Anne as a morally-loose ambitious homewrecker, "makes for great melodrama, all it lacks is accuracy." Recently, English historian Joanna Denny, author of "Anne Boleyn: A Life of England's Tragic Queen," has examined the enormous role Anne played in England's religious development.

Unfounded allegations

Nicholas Sander, an opponent of the English church and of Elizabeth, was born after Anne's execution and made a number of claims about Anne, which were reworked and published after his death in De origine et progressu schismatis Anglicani (The origin and progress of the English Schism), 1585.

He was the first to claim in print that Anne was deformed, giving her the features of a witch. Allegations included that Anne was a nymphomaniac with in excess of a thousand lovers; that she had three breasts (the third "nipple" was a large mole on her neck); that she had a projecting tooth; and that she had six fingers (hexadactyly) on one hand. All these are features traditionally associated with witches, and there is no contemporary evidence to support such allegations, despite their popularity and inclusion in many textbooks. Indeed it is unthinkable that Henry would have accepted such deformities at a time when they were considered bad omens.

Modern-day Pardon

On April 1 2005, Wg Cdr George Melville-Jackson approached British Home Secretary Charles Clarke in a bid for a formal pardon for Anne. Although she is long-dead, he claims that she does not deserve to be branded historically as a criminal. Although he would prefer her to be declared not guilty of her crimes, he would settle for a pardon. He also wants her remains to be moved from her resting place at the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, where Elizabeth I is also buried. [2] (

External links

  • website ( on Anne Boleyn's life and career. Excellent for beginners and those with wider knowledge.
  • website ( exploring the Rise and Fall of the Boleyn family. It's particularly good for understanding Anne's political career, and her family background.
  • a look at Anne's life ( from a feminist perspective
  • BBC website ( A look at the fall of the Boleyn family.
  • MSN web-group ( devoted to the study of Anne Boleyn's life and career.
  • published essay ( of art expert, Ronald Hui, who examines all of Anne's portraits and decides which is the most accurate
  • probably the most accurate portrait ( of Anne Boleyn currently in existence
  • interview ( with Anne's most respected modern biographer, E.W. Ives, from a Birmingham magazine in 1996
  • Tales from the Tudor Rose Bar ( for a bit of light-hearted fun at the Tudor family's expense. Anne appears here as a Hollywood-style diva.
  • Site of author Wendy J. Dunn, author of "Dear Heart, How Like You This?" ( a novel about Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder.
  • Article by author Wendy J. Dunn concerning Anne Boleyn's birth year. (
  • Hever Castle (, childhood home of Anne Boleyn.

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