Tag Archives: Henry VIII

Katherine Howard- Some Misconceptions

On 13 February 1542, Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, was beheaded in the grounds of the Tower of London. An Act of Attainder had been passed, convicting her of adultery and treason, without the formality of a trial. However, many of the well-known facts about Katherine are wrong.

Katherine Howard miniature

Miniature identified as Katherine Howard

A Frivolous Teenager

Well, probably not. We don’t know Katherine’s date of birth but scholars are increasingly in favour of an earlier date than was previously thought. Until recently, her year of birth was thought to be as late as 1525, making her only 17 years old at her execution. It seems more likely that it was 1520-1. This would mean that she was a mature, by Tudor standards, 21-22 years old at her death.

Of course, even 22 is horribly young to die, but in the sixteenth century, 22 was a lot more mature than it is now. By her early twenties, a Tudor woman could expect to be married and have had one or more children. Katherine’s youth is put more sharply into context by the relative age of her husband- Henry was 49 years old when they married. This too, though, was not unusual. Noblewomen in particular were likely to marry an older man. A woman would marry for the first time in her mid- to late teens, a man in his late twenties or early thirties. If it was the man’s second marriage, he would be older still. For example, Catherine Parr’s second marriage took place when she was 20 and her husband 40.

No Better Than She Ought To Be

Katherine Howard’s reputation suffers from a rather unjust assessment of her character. We are encouraged to believe that she was involved in a sexual relationship with Thomas Culpeper during her marriage because she admitted to a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham prior to it. Katherine’s past was laid out for all to see in a way which would make horrible modern gossip magazines rub their hands with glee. What is revealed is an unsupervised childhood during which she was involved in a relationship with her music tutor. It was the sort of “relationship” we would now call child abuse. She then became involved with Francis Dereham, a young man with far better breeding and prospects than her creepy music teacher. It is likely that she and Dereham intended to marry and this might indeed have come to pass had not the king shown an interest in her.

Katherine’s letter to Culpeper shows that she was indeed in love with him in 1541 but David Starkey’s research in his 2004 Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII demonstrates that the physicality of their relationship was far less certain. It appears from the detail of her confession that all the couple got up to was some hand-holding and earnest sighing.

This fact- the fact of Katherine Howard’s essential innocence- is often overlooked. She oddly, naïvely, believed that her husband was some sort of semi-divine being and she cautioned Culpeper not to speak of their relationship even in the confessional lest Henry find out that way. It may have been that she suspected the priest would inform Henry, but she may had simply believed that as Supreme Head of the Church, Henry would know the way that God knew.

Katherine Howard to Thomas Culpepper, 1541

Manuscript of Katherine Howard’s letter to Thomas Culpeper, 1541

“I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper.”

There is a romantic story that on the scaffold, Katherine announced that she would have been married to her supposed lover, Thomas Culpeper, than Henry, with the above words. However, the etiquette of execution made such a statement unthinkable. The victim was permitted to address the crowd gathered to see their end, but it was expected that they would speak of their regret, ask for forgiveness and the prayers of those who would survive them and generally be contrite and uncontroversial. Neither Anne Boleyn nor any of the men executed for adultery with her protested their innocence from the scaffold, although they were all almost certainly innocent. It just wasn’t done.

It’s therefore unthinkable that Katherine Howard would say such a thing. Her actual words are far more dignified than the romantic nonsense would give her credit for. This is a woman who was so keen to meet her maker with some grace that she asked for the executioner’s block to be brought to her room the night before so that she could practice placing her head on it.

The Afterlife of Katherine Howard

Visitors to the splendid Hampton Court Palace are often treated to the tale of poor Katherine’s ghost. It is said to linger in the Haunted Gallery. On her arrest, Katherine broke free from her guards and ran down the gallery looking for her husband in order to plead for her life. She was quickly recaptured by the guards and dragged screaming back down the gallery and into imprisonment. Or so the story goes.

Aside from the supernatural question, there are several holes in this story. Firstly, is it plausible that Katherine could have slipped her guards, even for a moment? She was a young woman held by one or two strong men. Royal guards were not in the habit of relaxing their grip on accused traitors. The story also ignores one rather pertinent fact: by the time of her arrest, Henry had already left Hampton Court. He was not in the habit of lingering once he had put his plan to be rid of a wife into action. Anne Boleyn, for example, never set eyes on Henry after the May Day joust, the day before her arrest. He was said to be so bitterly disappointed in Katherine that he could not stand to see her again and he fled the palace so as to avoid her.

Margaret Beaufort, Tudor Grande Dame

The second in a series of posts looking at formidable Tudor women.

30 October is an important date for the early Tudors. Aside from being the anniversary of Catherine de Valois’s son, Henry VI, retaking the English throne in 1470, it is also the anniversary of the coronation in 1485 of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch.

Henry VII was the grandson of Catherine de Valois and Owen Tudor. His parents were their elder son Edmund Tudor and Margaret Beaufort.

Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII

Edmund and Margaret married on 1 November 1455 when the bride was probably twelve years old. The Wars of the Roses had recently started and less than a year after the marriage, Edmund was captured by Yorkist forces. He died of plague in captivity on 3 November 1456, leaving his 13 year old widow seven months pregnant.

On 28 January 1457 Margaret gave birth to their son. Margaret was young and small and it was a particularly difficult labour and for a time it was feared that both mother and child would die. However, both survived, and she named her son Henry.

Henry VII

Although Margaret married twice more, she would have no more children, perhaps as a result of complications after this birth. Her second husband was her first cousin Henry Stafford. They married in 1462 and she was widowed in 1471. Her third marriage was to Thomas Stanley in 1472.

It was her son, though, who was the focus of Margaret’ attentions. She plotted with Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV and mother of the Princes in the Tower (by then both boys were presumed dead) against Richard III. The two women decided to marry Margaret’s son to Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, also named Elizabeth. This marriage would unite the twin claims to the English throne as Elizabeth, the daughter of Edward IV represented the Yorkists and Henry was the last Lancastrian claimant to the throne.

Elizabeth Woodville

On 22 August 1485, Henry’s forces met Richard’s at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Although Richard’s army was superior in numbers, Richard himself was killed in the battle and many of his supporters fled. When the dead king’s crown was found (according to legend, in a thorn bush), Henry was crowned with it.

On 18 January 1486, Henry followed his mother’s advice and married Elizabeth of York at Westminster. Margaret’s influence over her son, however, was not eclipsed by his new wife. She was given titles and, unusually for a married woman, allowed to own property in her own right. Technically, the royal pecking order places Margaret lower than her daughter in law Elizabeth of York, the new queen, and Elizabeth Woodville, who as Edward IV’s widow was the queen dowager. Perhaps at Margaret’s insistence, Elizabeth Woodville was banished from court in 1487. Margaret refused to walk further behind the queen than half a pace, indicating that she only grudgingly acknowledged the latter’s superiority.

Elizabeth of York

Margaret continued to be a dominant influence on the new king. She was known for her piety and good sense and when her son predeceased her on 21 April 1509, she was named regent for his son, Henry VIII. Her stint at direct power, rather than behind the scenes influence, was brief though. Henry VIII turned 18 on 27 June and his formidable grandmother died two days later.

Margaret Beaufort

Mary Tudor, the French Queen

On 9 October 1514, the 18-year-old English princess Mary married the 52-year-old king of France, Louis XII, at Abbeville in great pomp and ceremony.

Mary Tudor, Queen of France

Louis had been married twice before. First, to the pious Joan (later canonised by the Catholic church) and secondly to Anne of Brittany who had also been queen to Charles VIII of France. Anne had died in early 1514 leaving only two daughters after no less than 14 pregnancies. Neither of his daughters could inherit the French throne and so Louis sought a third wife to provide him with a male heir.

Mary Tudor was a renowned beauty and her youth made her an attractive marriage prospect for the European nobility. Prior to her marriage to Louis she had been betrothed to Charles of Ghent (later the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) but it was later repudiated. We know nothing of Mary’s feelings about her betrothal to the king of France. There are stories that she made a deal with her brother, Henry VIII, agreeing to marry Louis without complaint if, after his death, she could marry whomsoever she chose. However, there is no evidence of this bargain.

Mary Tudor and Louis XII

Mary’s tenure as queen of France was short lived. Rumour suggested that in his enthusiasm to sire an heir, Louis wore himself out with his new bride. He died on 1 January 1515 leaving Mary a widow at 18.

It was soon clear that Mary was not pregnant with Louis’s child and so several suggestions of a new husband were forthcoming, including the dukes of Savoy and Lorraine. Henry VIII had other ideas and wanted Mary back in England where he could make plans to marry her off to his own advantage. He sent his close friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, to accompany her back to England.

Mary had her own plans though. Concerned that she would be forced into another unsavoury political marriage or that her reputation would be tarnished by the attentions of the new French king, François I, a notorious womaniser, she decided to take her future into her own hands.

Charles Brandon was a good looking man, an accomplished soldier and prominent courtier. The couple had earlier asked Henry’s permission to marry but were fobbed off with assurances that the king would consider it after an appropriate time had passed since Louis’s death. Doubting her brother’s promises, Mary decided that she would marry Brandon then and there. Brandon was, not unduly, fearful of her brother’s reaction but the beautiful young widow soon prevailed upon him and the two married in France in mid-February. Later, Mary would take the blame for the secret marriage and Brandon apologised to the king, claiming that he had been helpless as he ‘newar sawe woman soo wyepe.’

Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon


The couple returned apprehensively to England in mid-April and met Henry on 3 May. By that time, the king had calmed down and was, if not pleased, accepting of the marriage. He even attended their public wedding in England on 13 May. Henry’s acceptance of their marriage, Mary was always known at court as “the French Queen” and never as the Duchess of Suffolk (her title as Brandon’s wife).

The couple went on to have four children (Henry, died in childhood; Frances, mother of Lady Jane Grey; Eleanor, who had one surviving child; another Henry who also died in childhood). Despite their reconciliation, Mary and her brother fell out once again, this time on the matter of his marriage. Mary strongly opposed his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. She did little to hide her dislike for his new mistress, Anne Boleyn, who had waited on Mary in France. Mary avoided attending Anne’s coronation feast due to ill health. She died shortly after on 25 June 1533 at the age of 37.

Mary’s actions in determining her own second marriage, in defiance of the king, give a glimpse of a defiant spirit and the desire for self-determination that relatively few women of the period were able to show. I can’t help but imagine that she would have been formidable in old age, and wonder what side she would have taken had she been alive to see her granddaughter, Jane Grey, claim the throne of her niece and Henry’s daughter, Mary I.

Mary Tudor (detail)

Early Modern Carnival!

This month, I’m proud to be hosting the Early Modern Carnivalesque here at Harlots, Harpies and Harridans. Nominations have been filtering in all month, with some really interesting posts for you.

As a huge bibliophile, I was pleased to see a number of bookish posts. Starting off with a pair of posts from Anchora on A1 pages (the page in an Early Modern book before the title page). The first post is fascinating and full of wonderful photographs of early books, including some beautiful engravings and illustrations. In a second post on the subject, Anchora-author Adam G. Hooks has some lovely owner’s marks in the form of notes and underscoring in an early seventeenth century book. The book was written by Robert Cecil (councillor to Elizabeth I and James VI & I) and was written in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot (1605). This post is also full of photographs, including some excellent examples of secretary hand from the period.

Elizabeth I's secretary hand signature

Over at Wynken de Worde, there’s a fascinating post about the arguments around digitising historic texts. There are some valuable contributions in the comments too so remember to read them! Despite my love for physical books (I am a hobby bookbinder after all), I am definitely on the side of digitisation, even if only for the accessibility. The Wynken de Worde post goes far beyond the accessibility argument and provides a highly convincing case for digitisation.

The next post, from the Folger Shakespeare Library is not only a great account of the wealth of new information old documents can provide but also features some excellent examples of digitised texts (in this case photographic reproductions), as if we needed to add further weight to the argument in favour. The deeds photographed are from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and feature some beautiful secretary hand writing.

Some of the submissions took a darker tone, in particular concerning one of the Early Modern period’s favourite forms of popular spectacle: executions. Executed Today has an interesting post on one of Henry VIII’s early executions in 1510 (before he really got into the swing of things!). Henry had acceded the previous year and won himself a big popularity boost by executing Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. Both men were prominent councillors to Henry’s father but were also focuses for popular discontent over the old king’s taxes. Dudley tried to win Henry’s favour by writing a treatise in favour of absolute monarchy, in the hope of a pardon, but was to be disappointed. His son John would go on to become the Duke of Northumberland before meeting the same fate as his father. John’s son Robert Dudley, who became the Earl of Leicester, was Elizabeth I’s Master of the Horse and life long favourite.

Execution of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

While poor old Edmund Dudley was beheaded on Tower Hill, our next post, over at The Chirurgeons Apprentice looks at hanging, the preferred method of execution towards the end of the Early Modern period. It features a fascinating account of a public hanging in England in 1726, written by a Frenchman and goes on to look at this rather gruesome method of execution in general.

Finally, we have a look at the Hapsbugs’ unwitting attempts to end their line through in-breeding in this post about Charles II of Spain. The Hasburgs, keen to preserve the purity of their bloodline, had an unfortunate habit of marrying their cousins. This was not immediately problematic but generation after generation, problems started to appear. Charles II (1661-1700) suffered from multiple physical and emotional disabilities which may well have been the result of centuries of inbreeding (Charles’s parents were uncle and niece which made Charles’s father also his great-uncle). His disabilities were obvious from birth and he was not expected to survive. He did and suceeded to the throne but was an ineffective king. He had no children of his own and his death in 1700, a few days short of his 39th birthday, sparked the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).

Charles II of Spain

I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection of recent Early Modern blogging. The next Carnival is the medieval edition and will be hosted by She-Wolf next month and the next Early Modern edition will be in November at Anchora which has been featured here. Huge thanks to Sharon of Carnivalesque for letting me host this month!

The Queen Who Survived

Portrait of Catherine Parr, 1545

Portrait of Catherine Parr, 1545

Yesterday marked the 463rd anniversary of Catherine Parr’s death. She was the last of Henry VIII’s wives, although he also predeceased Anne of Cleves. Catherine had been married twice before she became queen in 1542 and married for a fourth time, making her the most married queen of England, only six months after Henry’s death (considered indecently quick at the time).

Her fourth husband was Sir Thomas Seymour, brother to Henry’s third wife Jane. By 1547 she had been dutifully married and widowed three times and now, finally, married where she chose. She was pregnant less than a year after her marriage (although she had no children from previous marriages). Her joy was short-lived, though, as her ambitious husband pursued her step-daughter and charge, Lady Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I). Catherine caught the two in an embrace and banished Elizabeth from her house.

On 30 August 1548, Catherine gave birth to a daughter, named Mary, at Sudeley Castle, a property given to Thomas Seymour by hi nephew Edward VI. Catherine contracted puerpal fever and died only six days after the birth. Thomas was executed for treason a little over six months later, leaving their daughter an orphan. Sadly, Mary disappears from the historical record after her second birthday and it is likely that she too died not long after.

Catherine is buried in he chapel at Sudeley Castle.

Sudeley Chapel

Catherine Parr's tomb in the chapel at Sudeley

Tomb in the chapel at Sudeley

Catherine Parr's tomb at the chapel at Sudeley

Monument closer

More courses

Painted reputed to be of Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia

It’s that time again already. The University of Edinburgh’s Open Studies programme for 2011-12 is available and recruitig.

This year I am teaching Harlots, Harpies and Harridans, my course on infamous women. We’ll look at various women with bad reputations, such as Isabella of France and Marie Antoinette and consider why they have the reputations they do. This is always proved to be a fun class with lots of discussion and ideas, and a few laughs along the way.

In January, I’m teaching The Tudors. The course covers the end of the Wars of the Roses and goes right through to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. The Tudor monarchs and their intimates are always fascinating and they are particularly popular at the moment. The course will show my students that the truth is far more interesting than the Tudor fictions which abound at the moment.

Henry Fitzroy: The Boy Who Would Be King

On 15 June 1519, Henry VIII’s son was born. Unfortunately for the king, the boy’s mother, Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount, was his mistress and not his wife. The child was illegitimate and therefore barred from the succession to the English throne.

Henry’s wife at the time was the redoubtable Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Most Catholic Kings of Spain. Catherine’s royal pedigree was beyond reproach and she was popular in England. After numerous pregnancies since their marriage in 1507, the only child which had survived was a daughter, Mary, then 16 months old.

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Lucas Horen, 1534

Henry’s joy in his new born son was obvious, not least because it demonstrated once and for all that he could produce a boy, even if his wife couldn’t. The boy was named Henry Fitzroy (“son of the king”). It was a bitter blow to Catherine and it would not be the last. In 1525, Henry made his six year old son Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Richmond and Somerset and sparked rumours that he meant to make his son, rather than Princess Mary, his heir.

Fitzroy was raised in Yorkshire and bestowed with various other titles over the years (including Admiral of England, Ireland and Normandy; Warden of the Cinque Ports; Lieutenant of Ireland). The king took great interest in his son, and in 1533 arranged a good marriage for him. It was rumoured around this time that Fitzroy should marry Mary, his half-sister, in order to ensure the succession! Henry VIII was an adulterer, a serial philanderer and a bigamist but even he drew the line at forcing his children into an incestuous marriage. Fitzroy was instead married to Mary Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and Anne Boleyn’s cousin.

Mary Howard, Duchess Of Richmond and Somerset, sketch by Holbein

Fitzroy witnessed Anne Boleyn’s execution at the Tower of London on 19 Mary 1536. By that time, he was ill himself and within weeks he had succumbed to consumption, dying on 23 July at Richmond Palace.

At the time of his death, his father was putting a bill through Parliament which, if passed, would disinherit his daughter with Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth (Mary had already been disinherited) and permit him to designate a successor of his choice. It is not certain that Fitzroy would have been the designate, but it is very likely that he would have been the king’s first choice in want of a legitimate heir. Fitzroy’s premature death means that we can only guess at what the repercussions of such a move would have been. As it was, Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to the longed for, legitimate son fifteen months after Fitzroy’s death.

Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of AragonOn 7th January 1536, Catherine of Aragon died in Kimbolton Castle, near Peterborough (where she would be buried). She was 51 years old. Married first to Arthur Tudor and then his younger brother, Henry VIII, she was cast aside when Henry decided to marry Anne Boleyn. Although he had banished her from court, forbidden her from seeing their daughter and even from writing to him, she remained steadfast in her resolve never to acknowledge the dissolution of their marriage nor his new marriage to Anne.

Her last letter was to him, forgiving him everything.

My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for.

Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

Katharine the Quene

More Reading

Well, the end of Classical Greece is only a few pages away (more of that in another post soon). However, a good two weeks ahead of schedule, Amazon have sent me this.Anne Boleyn - Fatal Attractions I’ve had this on pre-order since January.

There have been numerous new books published in the last few years about the Tudors, Anne Boleyn in particular. With the popularity of the US t.v. show, a lot of authors seem to have leapt on the bandwagon and churned out a biography, few saying anything that hasn’t been said before (and better). Many of them have dug out old myths, discredited for years by more able historians, and regurgitated them for audiences who don’t know the field well enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some make grand, if misleading, promises to break new ground on the subject (for example, Alison Weir’s recent The Lady In The Tower may well be the first book focused solely on Anne Boleyn’s downfall; it is not, however, the first book to tackle it, or by far the best).

Bernard’s book is different. For one thing, the man’s actually studied history (which puts him in a minority for historical biographers, your history graduate author grumbles). For another, he’s genuinely got something controversial to say.

Bernard is unique among Anne’s recent biographers (the good and the less so) because not only does he claim that it was Henry, not Anne, who insisted on their long celibacy, but that the charges of adultery she faced in 1536 were not a vicious fabrication, the result of court faction, but were, at least in part, true.

He has written about this in the past, though in less detail. Part of his theory, as I understand it, relies on his interpretation of remarks in Henry’s love letters to Anne. Bernard believes that a line in which Henry tells his love that he hopes to soon be her lover physically as well as emotionally (I paraphrase) indicates that it is he who has decreed that there will be no premarital sex between the two of them and that this line is intended to pacify (the insatiable?) Anne with a promise that his injunction will soon be lifted.

To me this reads more as a frustrated lover trying to wheedle and persuade his mistress that their marriage is all but a done deal so what harm could there be to granting him those final favours?

Bernard suggests that Henry’s uncharacteristic moderation is due to his determination that his children with Anne will be of definite legitimacy and so refuses to sleep with her in order to avoid any inconvenient illegitimate pregnancies wrecking his plans. I’d almost buy this if Henry hadn’t made some provisions for their illegitimate children when he promoted Anne to Marquess of Pemboke: in the letters patent, it is stated that Anne’s children will inherit the lands and title but the clause “lawfully begotten” is notable by its absence. By 1532 he is considering the possibility that he may not have “lawfully begotten,” that is legitimate, children with her.

I haven’t delved into Bernard’s new book yet so have summarised his arguments in his book The King’s Reformation. He will have to come up with some pretty good evidence to convince me of his claims as Eric Ives has done a thorough job of demonstrating the improbability of Anne’s guilt. I will certainly be posting about this when I can get stuck into this book. It’s the first Anne Boleyn book I’ve looked forward to for a long time.

Anne Boleyn on the anniversary of her execution

Anne Boleyn, late sixteenth century copy of an earlier work

Anne Boleyn

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.

Anne's uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, by Holbein

Anne’s uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, by Holbein

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.

Petition sent to Clenment VII from the English Parliament urging him to grant Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon

Petition sent to Clenment VII from the English Parliament urging him to grant Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon

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.

Marriage

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.”

Downfall

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.

Thomas Cromwell, Holbein

Thomas Cromwell, Holbein

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.