She failed to give Henry VIII a son and paid with her life
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Anne Boleyn is one of the most divisive figures in British history. Her love-match with Henry VIII and her subsequent execution at the Tower of London after only three years of marriage have inspired dozens of books and films.
Everyone wants to know how she really felt and how and why she became queen: was she a ruthless schemer or was her death simply a tragic consequence of court politics?’ We will never, really, know.
Anne has left behind virtually nothing of her own voice, and all of the histories of her life are marred by the writers’ prejudices or leaps of imaginative fantasy. Even the simplest statements about her are difficult. And all the portraits of Anne that survive were created during the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I.
The fascination with the life and death of Anne Boleyn lives on. The closest we can get to Anne today is by visiting her final resting place; she is buried in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London.
Anne was born in about 1500 (we don’t know exactly when), the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, a respected courtier, and Elizabeth Howard, the daughter of Sir Thomas Howard, one of the most powerful men in the country.
Impartial descriptions of Anne are hard to find: she appears to have had dark hair and eyes and a slender neck, but no contemporary portrait of her has survived, and we know little about her personality.
She spent her childhood at Hever Castle in Kent, and her adolescence at the French court, originally as a companion to Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, who was married to Louis XII.
Anne was back in England by 1522, and Henry may have first encountered her when she took one of the lead roles, ‘Perseverance’, in a court masque in March at Thomas Wolsey’s residence at Whitehall.
Image: Anne Boleyn by William Nelson Gardiner, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Anne was not short of admirers on her return to England.
This seems to have been partly due to her glamorous French fashions. Henry Percy, later Earl of Northumberland, and the poet Thomas Wyatt both courted her, but these dalliances seem to have remained within the accepted boundaries of flirtatious ‘courtly love’ and romantic poetry.
In 1526, the King’s interest significantly upped the stakes.
Henry VIII’s long marriage to Katherine of Aragon had produced only one surviving child, Princess Mary. By the mid-1520s, Henry was becoming increasingly desperate for a legitimate son and heir to secure the future of the Tudor dynasty.
Image: Henry VIII, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Henry may have originally courted Anne as a prospective mistress, but, if that is the case, she refused.
Either driven by her own virtue or ambition, or by her scheming relatives, and aware of the King’s dynastic dilemma, Anne held out for the possibility of marriage.
Image: Cardinal Wolsey and courtiers with, on the right, the King meeting Anne Boleyn at the Cardinal's residence, York Place, later Whitehall Palace. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
A series of 17 letters survives in the Vatican Library which detail Henry’s growing infatuation over the next couple of years.
One, awkwardly and explicitly, declared that the King’s heart belonged to Anne alone, and that he hoped his body would soon also. It was signed with a loveheart around Anne’s initials. Anne’s responses do not survive.
Henry and Anne also exchanged gifts. Anne sent the King a present of a jewelled ship “in which the solitary damsel is tossed about.”
In the Tudor period, not even a king could simply decide to get a divorce.
If Katherine of Aragon had meekly accepted her fate, then English history may well have turned out rather differently. But Katherine was a proud and pious queen who believed that her marriage to Henry VIII was a sacred institution.
In 1527, the King began looking for a political and legal solution, petitioning the Pope and claiming that his marriage had never been legitimate because he had sinned in taking his brother’s widow, which some scholars believed to be prohibited by the Bible.
Thomas Wolsey was charged with procuring the divorce. He failed, and his own career was destroyed in the process as the Pope refused to give into Henry’s demands.
Image: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, © National Portrait Gallery, London
This book argued that the supreme authority was not held by the Pope but by the words of God enshrined in the Bible.
Henry defied the Pope and dismissed Katherine in 1531.
Anne finally married Henry in January 1533 and was crowned Queen in Westminster Hall on 1 June that summer. Henry's marriage to Anne was technically bigamous, as his marriage to Katherine was not annulled until May 1533.
The following year, Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church, setting himself up instead as the Supreme Head of what would become the Church of England. This created shockwaves, which caused religious and political unrest in Britain for the next 200 years.
Unsurprisingly, Anne supported Henry’s new religious and political policies, gathering around them a new team of rising courtiers, including Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer.
From what little we can discover about her time as queen, Anne seems to have been active in promoting new educational identities for monasteries, no longer under the protection of the Catholic Church.
She was also the first royal patron of the great court artist, Hans Holbein, who designed an arch for her coronation and a rose-water fountain.
Meanwhile, Henry and Anne’s first child, born on 7 September 1533, was a healthy daughter, who would grow up to become Elizabeth I.
Image: Anne Boleyn Clock, reputed to have been given by King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn on the morning of their marriage in 1532, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
But Anne and Henry had no more children. Miscarriages in 1534 and 1536 may have led Henry, always spiritually superstitious, to question whether he had made the right choice in marrying Anne.
Meanwhile, a promising new foreign alliance with the Holy Roman Empire floundered because the Emperor, Charles V, refused to ratify the Boleyn marriage.
Hostile factions gathered in the wings, led by all those courtiers who had lost their influence during the Boleyn change of regime. Thomas Wolsey too resented Anne’s influence over the King, calling her the “night crow”, cawing into his ear at night.
Image: Anne Boleyn by William Nelson Gardiner, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Many people sympathised with Henry’s first wife Katherine. Even during Anne’s coronation procession in 1533, one eye-witness claimed that people lining the route looked “as sorry as though it had been a funeral.”
Ultimately, Henry and Anne’s relationship, built on passion and expectation, seems to have become more tempestuous and Henry, again, began to look outside his marriage for solutions
Image: A coverlet traditionally thought to have been associated with Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
In 1536, Cromwell made a decisive move against Anne. Accusations of adultery and even of plotting against the King’s life were levelled against the Queen, her brother and a small group of courtiers.
Anne was arrested on 2 May 1536 and taken by barge to the Tower of London, passing under the most notorious of all the Tower's entrances, Traitors Gate. (pictured)
Henry VIII, notoriously prone to suspicion, and now besotted with one of Anne’s own ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, ignored the Queen’s protestations of innocence.
A sham trial filled with Anne’s enemies found her guilty, and she found herself a prisoner at the Tower of London, in the same royal apartment where, just three years before, she had awaited her coronation.
Anne was effectively written out of the history books for the rest of Henry VIII’s reign, and that of his son, Edward VI. Her name was literally chiselled out of the fabric of Hampton Court, her badges and heraldry replaced by those of Jane Seymour.
Katherine of Aragon’s daughter, Mary I, promoted the view of Anne as a heretical seductress who had destroyed her mother and corrupted her father away from the ‘true religion’ of Roman Catholicism.
Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, resurrected her mother’s role in establishing the Anglican church.
Historians continue to battle over Anne Boleyn’s reputation today.
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