A Cromwell Adventure – Part 6: Anne Boleyn

a copy of an Anne Boleyn painting, thought to be from about 1534

Everyone knows Anne Boleyn; home wrecker, whore, poisoner, birther of the vicious redheaded queen, married to a vicious redheaded king. But as we all know, history is not kind to women, thus most of what is known is a lie, and most basic details about Anne’s life are not known by the wider public. Here is a neat round-up if you are new.

Anne was the daughter of Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the second Duke of Norfolk (and brother of the 3rd, obviously), and Thomas Boleyn, a courtier and diplomat (who married up in my opinion). Anne’s birthdate is unknown, and is either accepted as 1501 or 1507. It has been suggested Anne was born anywhere from 1499 to 1512, but as a daughter, the date was not considered worth recording. Based on research and writings, it is generally believed Anne’s sister Mary was born 1499, and her brother George was born about 1504, putting Anne around 1501 (as Eric Ives claims; he’s my personal Anne historian of choice). There is also evidence of further Boleyn sons, Thomas and Henry, but we will leave that for another post.

Anne was born to parents with a rich family history in the  Howards and their Norfolk dukedom, though the Boleyn family also boasted Earls, knights and one Lord Mayor. The Howard family could be traced right back to King Edward I, and Anne’s family were well-respected and noble by the time of her birth.

Anne Boleyn moved across to Europe in 1513, aged either 12 or 6 (depending on your preference) to study while her father worked for the ruler of the Netherlands, Margarete of Austria (daughter to the Holy Roman Emperor). Anne learned the traditional subjects of dancing, sewing, manners, music, singing, along with more useful skills such as math, history, grammar, reading and writing, etc. Anne’s mind would have quickly flourished with all this, along with more social subjects like chess, dice, falconry and hawking, horseriding and hunting. Anne sent a year in her studies and serving at the court until her father arranged for her to go to France, to serve King Henry’s sister Mary, who was due to marry the King of France.

Princess Mary’s marriage to the French king lasted three months before he died, but Anne stayed in France, serving the new Queen Claude for seven years. The life and education Anne would have received is unclear, but would have been the best a girl could have hoped for. The French court would have taught her French culture, along with their games, dances, literature music and poetry, and the ever-present flirting and courtly love. The French court would have also influenced Anne’s religious beliefs, where the traditional Catholic learnings were being questioned by many reformers and writers.

Anne was a pretty girl, with dark hair and black eyes, and olive-coloured skin, rather than the more pasty English and French girls. But her personality was what shined, setting her apart from others. Anne was also known as educated, witty, funny and sophisticated. She could gossip and flirt as well as any, then also hunt, gamble and play with the best of them. Anne’s lack of beauty (or what was considered a beauty standard of the era) was noted, yet her charm made up for it (that’s not my view, it’s the sexist opinion of the time). Much has been made of her appearance, such as her sixth finger (could have been nothing, could have been little more than a sixth nail, no one knows), to moles on her neck, crooked teeth, jaundice skin, but much of it is considered a 16th century way of blackening her reputation over time. King’s don’t leave their queens for monster-like women, do they?

Anne’s family had been busy while she lived it up in France. Her older sister Mary had also been in France, but was called home in 1519, and much was made her whoreish behaviour at the court, even with the new French king. Mary was married off to William Carey in 1520, but then became King Henry’s mistress, up until around 1525. One or both of her children may have been Henry’s. Again, that’s another post.

Anne’s father Thomas had been locked in a dispute for the title of Earl of Ormond in Ireland, as the eldest son of one of the women who had inherited the title from their father. With many family members battling for the prize, it was decided Anne had to leave France in 1522. She came home to England, with plans to marry into Ireland, to James Butler, a cousin also with a claim to the title. Anne had no desire for the plan, and Thomas Boleyn kept negotiations slow, so slow that James Butler married someone else in the family for the inheritance.

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Holbein style painting of (probably) Anne, date unknown

Anne went to the English court in 1522, bursting on the scene in a masque for King Henry, alongside her sister Mary, and the king’s sister (also a Mary). It wasn’t long before Englishmen were falling over themselves for Anne, though King Henry was still bedding her sister. Despite loving the attentions and affections, Anne fell in love with Henry Percy, future Duke of Northumberland. Only, his father, the current duke, hated the idea, and Anne’s and Henry private betrothal was cut off by Percy’s family and Percy’s boss Cardinal Wolsey, the most powerful man in the country and right hand of the king.

Anne continued in the service of Queen Katherine, and spent much time with her friend Thomas Wyatt, whose love for Anne grew with their friendship. Wyatt’s wife had been charged with adultery, but there was one bigger obstacle. Anne’s sister Mary had fallen pregnant again during her affair with the King, and his eye needed a new girl to bed, and it fell on Anne in late 1525/early 1526. Poor Wyatt had to stand back, and Anne spent time away from court at Hever Castle, to avoid Henry. But he was a persistent man, and a king, so eventually Anne came around to being a mistress, but a celibate one. Anne was smarter than her sister.

King Henry wanted out of his marriage to Katherine. Now he had met a woman worthy of being a new queen. Anne was young and had a womb that might give Henry and England a son and heir. By 1527, Henry was petitioning the Pope for annulment, to no avail. Everything was tried (see my great matter post if you aren’t aware).  But in 1528, Anne, along with much of England, caught the sweating sickness, a now-ancient illness which killed within days. Anne managed to survive the illness, a rare occasion, though her sister’s husband (and cuckold) did not. Henry sent his best doctor to care for Anne (though went nowhere near her himself, a real germophobe) and she became his obsession; Henry had to marry her at any cost.

Long story short, Henry could not gain an annulment and solve the great matter, not from the Pope, nor the legatine court set up in London to decide on his marriage’s validity. This is when Anne’s influence as a woman educated in reformation and Protestant teaching came in useful. She had Henry turn on the leader of England, Cardinal Wolsey, and along with Thomas Cromwell, Anne had moves made to extract the Catholic faith from laws around marriage. Queen Katherine was banished from court and Anne and Cromwell was at Henry’s side in all matters (but Anne still wouldn’t get in bed with Henry).
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imagined painting of Anne and Elizabeth by Gustaf Wappers 1838
In late 1532, Anne went with Henry  to the French court, and Anne, now Marquess of Pembroke in her own right (yet another post), was presented as future queen of England. It is suggested this is when Anne gave in to Henry’s sexual demands, and they married in secret in London in January 1533, or even more secretly in France months earlier (yet another post). Together with Cromwell’s law changes, and a reformer placed as Archbishop of Canterbury saw Henry and Anne allowed to be legally married and Anne crowned in June 1533.
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Anne gave birth in September 1533, to Princess Elizabeth, not the son she had promised the king. Laws were sent out, making sure only Elizabeth could inherit the throne, not Henry’s daughter Mary, Queen Katherine’s daughter. Heads rolled as influential men like Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher refused to agree to Henry’s rule over the church and baby Elizabeth’s inheritance. Anne was lavished as the new queen; she had 250 servants in her household and spent much time on the love and attention of her daughter. Historians state Anne lost a child in late 1534 and Henry was tiring of his new wife. His first wife was still alive, tucked away in poverty, and Anne, his pet project, wouldn’t give him a son as promised. Henry didn’t want to go back to Katherine, and made up with Anne, who got pregnant again by spring 1535.
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19th century imagined sketch of Henry and Anne by George Cruikshank
1536 had a bumpy start, but Queen Katherine died of cancer, causing joy for Henry and Anne. Finally Anne was out from Katherine’s shade and she could be recognised as a queen, not a whore. Everyone believed Katherine was poisoned by Anne, but there was no proof, but Princess Mary, Katherine’s daughter, was not forgiving to Anne. But Henry was tired of his second wife, and with her pregnant, as his eye found Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting (one of sixty!). In late January, King Henry’s famous accident occurred, when he fell during a joust and was unconscious for two hours. Anne was in a panic, and miscarried her son five days later.
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Henry had a blonde in his sights, and Anne’s son was dead. Anne was forced to see Henry lavish love on Jane Seymour as the Boleyns were put aside. Anne then fell out over confiscated monasteries with Thomas Cromwell, the man who had got her the crown, and without Cromwell or Henry, Anne was doomed. Henry and Cromwell came up with a plan; charge Anne as adultery with courtiers and incest with her brother, and she could no longer be queen.
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Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who had made the marriage of Anne and Henry could unmake it; Thomas Cromwell had George Boleyn, Mark Smeaton, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Henry Norris (all whom worked for Henry) charged with adultery. With a false charge, false evidence and a corrupt jury, Anne and her fake accomplices were found guilty. The men were all promptly beheaded.

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imagined execution image from Matthäus Merian 1629
Anne’s day came on May 19, and executed by an expert French swordsman (again, the whole event is for another post). She was dumped in an unmarked grave at St Peter ad Vincula chapel until 1876, when workers identified her (and perfectly formed hands), and is now marked there. Anne’s daughter of course went on to be Elizabeth I and reigned England for 40 years, also never gaining a son.  Anne may have wielded power for a time, but never really stood a chance as a woman up against King Henry and Thomas Cromwell. All images of Anne were destroyed, any and all paintings are now recreations of her likeness.
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The way I write Anne in my first Cromwell book is of a quiet woman, intelligent and charming, but very much eclipsed by the situation around her. In the second book she shall become more of a power, more of the strong Anne many portray her as.
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