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Anne Boleyn (c.1507-1536)

Portrait of Anne Boleyn, attr. to John Hoskyns
Anne's Signature

ANNE BOLEYN, Queen of King Henry VIII of England, daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, afterwards Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde, and of Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, afterwards [2nd] Duke of Norfolk, was born, according to Camden, in 1507, but her birth has been ascribed, though not conclusively, to an earlier date (to 1502 or 1501) by some later writers.1

In 1514 she accompanied Mary Tudor to France on the marriage of the princess to Louis XII, remained there after the king's death, and became one of the women in waiting to Queen Claude, wife of Francis I. She returned in 1521 or 1522 to England, where she had many admirers and suitors. Among the former was the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt,2 and among the latter, Henry Percy, heir of the earl of Northumberland, a marriage with whom, however, was stopped by the king and another match provided for her in the person of Sir James Butler. Anne Boleyn, however, remained unmarried, and a series of grants and favours bestowed by King Henry VIII on her father between 1522 and 1525 have been taken, though very doubtfully, as a symptom of the king's affections. Unlike her sister Mary, who had fallen a victim to Henry's solicitations,3 Anne had no intention of being the king's mistress; she meant to be his queen, and her conduct seems to have been governed entirely by motives of ambition.

The exact period of the beginning of Anne's relations with Henry is not known. They have been surmised as originating as early as 1523; but there is nothing to prove that Henry's passion was anterior to the proceedings taken for the divorce in May 1527, the celebrated love letters being undated. Her name is first openly connected with the king's as a possible wife in the event of Catherine's divorce, in a letter of Mendoza, the imperial ambassador, to Charles V of the 16th of August 1527,4 during the absence in France of Cardinal Wolsey, who, not blinded by passion like Henry, naturally opposed the undesirable alliance, and was negotiating a marriage with Renee, daughter of Louis XII. Henry meanwhile, however, had sent William Knight, his secretary, on a separate mission to Rome to obtain facilities for his marriage with Anne; and on the cardinal's return in August he found her installed as the king's companion and proposed successor to Catherine of Aragon.

Portrait of Anne Boleyn, 1533. Chateau de Beauregard, France. After the king's final separation from his wife in July 1531, Anne's position was still more marked, and in 1532 she accompanied Henry on the visit to Francis I, while Catherine was left at home neglected and practically a prisoner. Soon after their return Anne was found to be pregnant, and in consequence Henry married her about the 25th of January 15335 (the exact date is unknown), their union not being made public till the following Easter. Subsequently, on the 23rd of May, their marriage was declared valid and that with Catherine null, and in June Anne was crowned with great state in Westminster Abbey. Anne Boleyn had now reached the zenith of her hopes.

A weak, giddy woman of no stability of character, her success turned her head and caused her to behave with insolence and impropriety, in strong contrast with Catherine's quiet dignity under her misfortunes. She, and not the king, probably was the author of the petty persecutions inflicted upon Catherine and upon the Princess Mary, and her jealousy of the latter showed itself in spiteful malice. Mary was to be forced into the position of a humble attendant upon Anne's infant, and her ears were to be boxed if she proved recalcitrant. She urged that both should be brought to trial under the new statute of succession passed in 1534, which declared her own children the lawful heirs to the throne. She was reported as saying that when the king gave opportunity by leaving England, she would put Mary to death even if she were burnt or flayed alive for it.6 She incurred the remonstrances of the privy council and alienated her own friends and relations. Her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, whom she was reported to have treated "worse than a dog," reviled her, calling her a "grande putaine."

But her day of triumph was destined to be even shorter than that of her predecessor. There were soon signs that Henry's affection, which had before been a genuine passion, had cooled or ceased. He resented her arrogance, and a few months after the marriage he gave her cause for jealousy, and disputes arose. A strange and mysterious fate had prepared for Anne the same domestic griefs that had vexed and ruined Catherine and caused her abandonment. In September 1533 the birth of a daughter, afterwards Queen Elizabeth, instead of the long-hoped-for son, was a heavy disappointment; next year there was a miscarriage, and on the 29th of January 1536, the day of Catherine's funeral, she gave birth to a dead male child.

On the 1st of May following the king suddenly broke up a tournament at Greenwich, leaving the company in bewilderment and consternation. The cause was soon known. Inquiries had been made on reports of the queen's ill-conduct, and several of her reputed lovers had been arrested. On the 2nd Anne herself was committed to the Tower on a charge of adultery with various persons, including her own brother, Lord Rochford. On the 12th, Sir Francis Weston, Henry Norris, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were declared guilty of high treason, while Anne herself and Lord Rochford were condemned unanimously by an assembly of twenty-six peers on the 15th. Her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, presided as lord steward, and gave sentence, weeping, that his niece was to be burned or beheaded as pleased the king. Her former lover, the earl of Northumberland, left the court seized with sudden illness. Her father, who was excused attendance, had, however, been present at the trial of the other offenders, and had there declared his conviction of his daughter's guilt.

On the 16th, hoping probably to save herself by these means, she informed Cranmer of a certain supposed impediment to her marriage with the king - according to some accounts a previous marriage with Northumberland, though the latter solemnly and positively denied it - which was never disclosed, but which, having been considered by the archbishop and a committee of ecclesiastical lawyers, was pronounced, on the 17th, sufficient to invalidate her marriage. The same day all her reputed lovers were executed; and on the 19th she herself suffered death on Tower Green, her head being struck off with a sword by the executioner of Calais brought to England for the purpose.7 She had regarded the prospect of death with courage and almost with levity, laughing heartily as she put her hands about her "little neck" and recalled the skill of the executioner. "I have seen many men" (wrote Sir William Kingston, governor of the Tower) "and also women executed, and all they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady has much joy and pleasure in death." On the following day Henry was betrothed to Jane Seymour.

Amidst the vituperations of the adherents of the papacy and the later Elizabethan eulogies, and in the absence of the records on which her sentence was pronounced, Anne Boleyn's guilt remains unproved. To Sir William Kingston she protested her entire innocence, and on the scaffold while expressing her submission she made no confession.8 Smeaton alone of her supposed lovers made a full confession, and it is possible that his statement was drawn from him by threats of torture or hopes of pardon. Norris, according to one account,9 also confessed, but subsequently declared that he had been betrayed into making his statement. The others were all said to have "confessed in a manner" on the scaffold, but much weight cannot be placed on these general confessions, which were, according to the custom of the time, a declaration of submission to the king's will and of general repentance rather than acknowledgment of the special crime. "I pray God save the king," Anne herself is reported to have said on the scaffold, "and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never; and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord."

A principal witness for the charge of incest was Rochford's own wife, a woman of infamous character, afterwards executed for complicity in the intrigues of Catherine Howard. The discovery of Anne's misdeeds coincided in an extraordinary manner with Henry's disappointment in not obtaining by her a male heir, while the king's despotic power and the universal unpopularity of Anne both tended to hinder the administration of pure justice. Nevertheless, though unproved, Anne's guilt is more than probable. It is almost incredible that two grand juries, a petty jury, and a tribunal consisting of nearly all the lay peers of England, with the evidence before them which we do not now possess, should have all unanimously passed a sentence of guilt contrary to the facts and their convictions, and that such a sentence should have been supported by Anne's own father and uncle.




1 See Anne Boleyn, by P. Friedman; The Early Life of Anne Boleyn, by J. H. Round; and J. Gairdner in Eng. Hist. Review, viii. 53, 2 99, and x. 104.

2 According to the Chronicle of King Henry VIII, tr. by M. A. S. Hume, p. 68, she was his mistress.

3 Of this there is no direct proof, but the statement rests upon contemporary belief and chiefly upon the extraordinary terms of the dispensation granted to Henry to marry Anne Boleyn, which included the suspension of all canons relating to impediments created by "affinity rising ex illicito coitu in any degree even in the first." Froude rejects the whole story, Divorce of Catherine of Aragon, p. 54; and see Friedman's Anne Boleyn, ii. 323.

4 Calendar of State Papers. England and Spain, iii. pt. ii. p. 327.

5 According to Cranmer, Letters and Papers of Henry VIII. vi. p. 300, the only authority; and Cranmer himself only knew of it a fortnight after. The marriage was commonly antedated to the 14th of November 1532.

6 Calendar of State Papers. England and Spain, v. 198.

7 Letters and Papers of Henry VIII. x. pp. 374, 381, 385.

8 According to the most trustworthy accounts, but see Letters and Papers, x. p. 382. The well-known letter to Henry VIII attributed to her is now recognized as an Elizabethan forgery.

9 Archaeologia, xxiii. 64.





Excerpted from:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., vol. IV.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 161-3.






Other Local Resources:




Books for further study: Erickson, Carolly. Mistress Anne.
           New York: St.Martin's Griffin, 1998.

Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn.
           Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Lindsey, Karen. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived:
           A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII .
           London: Addison Wesley, 1996.

Norton, Elizabeth. Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII's Obsession.
           Amberley Publishing, 2009.

Starkey, David. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII.
           New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.

Warnicke, Retha M. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn.
           Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Weir, Alison. The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn.
           New York: Ballantine Books, 2010.

Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
           New York: Grove Press, 1991.





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