500 years on, Anne Boleyn is still causing controversy.
While most historians accept that her execution was the result of one of history’s most notorious fit up jobs, academics are still engaged in debate about the facts of her life. Not too long ago, the late Eric Ives and Retha Warnicke conducted a fierce argument about the year of Anne’s birth through the pages of History journal. Several articles were produced on both sides: Ives maintaining 1501 as the likely date and Warnicke countering with 1507 as her preferred year. With such basic information as the year the future queen was born still in debate, what hope is there to establish the more gauzy aspects of Anne’s life?
Perhaps more than might be thought. Warnicke’s argument for 1507 as Anne’s birth year is unconvincing and crumbles in the face of Ives’s academic rigour, as do Warnicke’s other revisionist theories which were adopted (and further adulterated) by Philippa Gregory in The Other Boleyn Girl, her bestselling novel which was in turn made into a film, the plot of which deviated so far from the truth as to be almost unrecognisable.
Anne Boleyn in Fiction
There are, in fact, countless novels about Anne Boleyn. In recent years, the market for historical fiction seems to have exploded with new novels published and older ones, by Jean Plaidy, for example, repackaged with fashionable covers. Anne has been a popular subject and, I suspect, has made more appearances in these books than any other queen of England.
There is something fascinating about this woman. It cannot simply be the tragedy of her death for if that were the case, her cousin Catherine Howard would be equally popular. No, there is something fascinating about Anne that her contemporaries discovered and her husband failed to destroy even when he destroyed her.
Life and Untimely Death
Anne was the youngest daughter of Thomas Boleyn, a diplomat in the service of Henry VII and later Henry VIII, and his wife, Elizabeth Howard, the daughter of the first Duke of Norfolk. Her enemies liked to trivialise Anne’s ancestry as being ignominiously low but she was, in fact, of perfectly noble stock. She was related not only to the powerful Dukes of Norfolk, but to other noble families like the Butlers and Ormondes. Anne also benefited from a particularly good education and spend some years at the court of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands and then at the sophisticated court of France. When she returned to England in her early twenties, Anne Boleyn was not the merchant’s daughter her detractors would have us believe. Rather, a witness described her as “a right fine French lady.” In fact, Anne caused quite a stir with her arrival at Henry VIII’s court.
Anne Boleyn seems to have returned to England because her father had entered into negotiations with their Irish relatives to marry her to James Butler, who would become the Earl of Ormonde. For reasons now unknown, the negotiations floundered and Anne remained at court, unmarried, as a lady in waiting to the queen, Catherine of Aragon. It wasn’t long before the striking young woman had won the attentions of Henry Percy, heir to the dukedom of Northumberland- one of the most powerful and richest peerages in England. Anne and Percy intended to marry and Percy went so far as to publicly announce their engagement, which could be as legally binding as if they had been married. The King’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, and Percy’s father the Duke of Northumberland were furious on discovering the young couple’s intentions and soon broke the engagement.
Percy was not the only man at court to be fascinated by Anne Boleyn. Thomas Wyatt, poet and relation of the Boleyns, paid a great deal of attention to Anne. It is difficult to tell if Wyatt’s feelings for Anne were more serious than the game of courtly love but Anne herself seems never to have taken them too seriously. His most famous poem, Whoso List to Hunt, is about her.
Whoso List to Hunt
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
The King’s Great Matter
By the mid 1520s, however, the King had noticed Anne. Henry initially planned to simply install her as a mistress. He had previously had an affair with her sister and assumed Anne would be just as compliant as Mary. Henry was wrong. Anne refused his advances, declined to be his mistress, telling him that her virtue was more important to her. Henry, not used to being refused anything, was fascinated and redoubled his attempts to woo her.
Anne maintained that she would not become his mistress. She removed herself from court until he demanded that she return. She told him that she would consent only to being his wife. Was this a calculated move on Anne’s part? Was she aware of the breakdown of the king’s marriage and hoping to replace Catherine? Or was she simply trying to end Henry’s attentions? While Henry pursued her, she had no hope of making a marriage with anyone else. Who would be foolish enough to cross the king? It may have been that in demanding marriage, Anne hoped Henry would give up his pursuit. If that is what she hoped, Anne was to be disappointed.
At the end of 1526, Anne finally relented and agreed to become Henry’s mistress with the proviso that she would not sleep with him until they were married. Henry, who had previously toyed with the idea of divorcing Catherine, with whom he had failed to have sons. With Anne’s promise secured, he returned to the plan with gusto.
Henry expected that the divorce, although unpopular, could be secured quickly. The Pope had the authority to dissolve marriages and in cases such as this, where the king sought to divorce a wife who had failed to give him male heirs and marry a new bride, the Pope often agreed. Unfortunately, the army of the Emperor Charles V sacked Rome before Pope Clement VII passed judgement. Charles was Catherine’s nephew and bitterly opposed Henry’s plan which would humiliate his aunt. The result was to draw out what had been expected to be a process of a few weeks into a bitter, seven year long struggle. In order to secure his divorce and marry Anne, Henry broke away from the Catholic Church, alienated many of his closest friends and his own daughter.
After years of struggle, Anne and Henry were married in secret at the end of 1532. Anne was crowned on the 1st of July 1533, five months pregnant with the child everyone expected to be Henry’s longed-for son. On the 7th September, Anne gave birth to a daughter. She was named Elizabeth, after Henry’s mother. The disappointment at Elizabeth’s gender has often been overstated. While it was a blow, it was not a serious one. The baby was health and the couple had high hopes that sons would follow.
Anne was pregnant again soon after Elizabeth’s birth and Henry was sure that this time it would be a son. However she miscarried at the beginning of July 1534. In October 1535, she was pregnant again but in late January, on the day of Catherine of Aragon’s funeral, she miscarried. It was reported that the foetus was identifiable as male. The imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, reported that “She has miscarried of her saviour.”
In April 1536, Thomas Cromwell set about removing the queen in order to replace her with one who suited his designs better. He planned Anne’s downfall methodically, looking for any pretext on which she could be accused. He worked quickly and the first arrest was made on 30th April.
Mark Smeaton was a musician at court. He was arrested and taken to Cromwell’s house where is was interrogated and threatened with torture. Smeaton was accused of adultery with the queen. He was then taken to the Tower where he was most likely tortured into confessing. Anne did not know of Cromwell’s machinations and attended the May Day jousts unsuspecting. Henry left the jousts abruptly and Anne was never to see him again.
On the journey back to London, the king questioned one of his men, Henry Norris, about his involvement with Anne. Norris admitted no wrong doing. Henry even promised him pardon if he would admit his guilt. Norris refused and was sent to the Tower the following day. The same day Anne herself was taken to the Tower and interrogated by her uncle and others. She also denied any wrong doing. At the same time, her brother, Francis Weston and Francis Brereton were arrested for adultery with the queen. On the 8th May, Francis Bryan and Thomas Wyatt were sent to the Tower.
Four of the men accused with Anne were tried on 12th May. Smeaton, Weston, Brereton and Norris were all found guilty. Only Smeaton ever admitted guilt, more likely the consequence of torture and the threat of more, than a genuine confession. The other men, as nobles, were not tortured. The queen’s trial was held on 14th May 1536. Despite putting up a convincing defence, Anne was nonetheless found guilty of adultery and treason. Her brother George’s trial was held afterwards although he too was a convincing defendant, he was convicted.
The men were executed on Tower Hill on 17th May. The king, as a last mercy to the woman he had turned his country upside down to have, ordered the executioner of Calais to behead Anne with a sword rather than the traditional axe. The sword was both quicker and more dignified as the condemned knelt upright rather than lay prostrate on the block. It was also less likely than an axe to miss its mark.
On the 19th May 1536, at 7am, Anne Boleyn mounted the scaffold and made a short speech. The executioner was as good as had been promised and her head was severed in a single stroke. Her ladies were left to bundle her body into an arrow chest. It was then hastily buried in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula. Anne entered the Tower on 2nd May 1536 and never left, even in death.
On the 20th May, the king announced his betrothal to one of Anne’s maids, a mouse of a woman and stark contrast to her former mistress.