Historical Biography: Anne Boleyn

Information on the life of Anne Boleyn, what she represents in English culture and the role she had in the life of Henry VIII.

Anne Boleyn (b. 1501?; d. 1536) was the younger daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard, whose father was Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk. Anne's father was a member of King Henry VIII's Privy Council, and often served as the king's envoy to various courts in Europe. When Anne was about twelve, her father arranged for her to enter the service of the Archduchess Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands and aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

After about eighteen months in Margaret's service, Anne and her elder sister Mary became ladies-in-waiting to Mary Tudor, King Henry's younger sister, when she married King Louis XII of France. After King Louis died, Mary and Anne remained in his widow's service until she returned to England and married the Earl of Suffolk. The two Boleyn girls then joined the household of Queen Claude, the wife of the new French king Francis I.

The French court under Francis was notoriously licentious, and young girls seldom stayed there long with their virtue intact. Mary became for awhile the king's mistress, just as she would later become King Henry's mistress at the English court. Anne was more discreet. She may or may not have retained her virginity, but she almost certainly experimented sexually, as Henry later remarked when he commented that she had been "corrupted" at the French court. But she was markedly more discreet than Mary, and she was thus able to plausibly resist Henry's advances on the basis of her virtue when he wished her to become his mistress. At the French court Anne was much admired for her wit, style and vivacity. Apparently she even set fashion trends for the French court, as she would later at the English court.

When Anne returned to England in 1522, she entered the service of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's queen. In 1523 Anne became seriously involved with Lord James Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland. When the two secretly betrothed themselves before witnesses, the Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, who did not consider Anne a suitable match for the heir to one of the greatest earldom's in England, took steps to prevent their union. Aristocrats could not marry without the king's approval, and when Wolsey informed Henry of the betrothal, Henry was angry that they had undertaken to contract a marriage without his permission. He was also upset for another reason. He had become interested in Anne himself, and he wanted no young lords in his way. Henry ordered Wolsey to break the contract. Percy's father, the Earl of Northumberland, was called in to correct his son, and Percy was forced to marry Mary Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. (In fact, a legally binding pre-contract between him and Mary Talbot had been arranged when he was fourteen.)

Cardinal Wolsey, without realizing it, had earned an implacable enemy. Anne would never forgive him for interfering with her marriage plans, or for saying that she was not fit to marry Percy. Though neither knew it at the time, the day would come when she would be in a position to take revenge.

After the betrothal with Percy was broken, Anne left the court and spent a year at her father's castle in Hever. She returned to the queen's household in 1525, where once again she became the object of King Henry's intense interest. Her flirtation at that time with the married poet Sir Thomas Wyatt was probably not serious on her part, but Wyatt took it seriously enough to write a number of poems about her, the most famous of which is "Whoso List to Hunt." Henry's ardor seems to have been inflamed by jealousy over her attentions to Wyatt.

Henry was both surprised and intrigued when Anne refused to become his mistress. Anne was well aware that the king quickly lost interest in his conquests, and so she withheld herself, insisting she would not be his mistress, and that since he already had a queen, she could not be his wife. She knew he was beginning to question the validity of his marriage to Catherine and to consider an annulment, and the ambitious young woman saw untold possibilities in the king's domestic dissatisfaction. Rather than be his mistress, Anne hoped to be his wife""and thus queen of England.

Anne led Henry a merry chase. After some time she probably began to grant him certain intimacies, and such intimacies probably progressed over time; yet she also withdrew from court when his ardor became too importunate, and probably did not actually have full intercourse with him before 1532. She manipulated his emotions for years, using all the skills she had learned during her years at the French court.

Soon Anne became the center of a faction at court, consisting of her powerful uncle, the third Duke of Norfolk, her father, now Viscount Rochford, and others. Like Anne, they all despised Cardinal Wolsey, as much for his low birth as for his bullying arrogance and his influence over the king. Anne used her own influence with the king to persuade him that Wolsey was not actually serving his interests, and the king withdrew his favor from the man who had been his chief minister for so many years. If Wolsey had not died of illness, it is likely that he would have been found guilty of some offense against the crown and arrested, as would happen to so many of Henry's closest advisers.

When Henry decided to petition Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine, it became Wolsey's task as Lord Chancellor and as Papal Legate to handle the matter for the king. Henry wanted to marry Anne not just because of his passion for her, but also because he was hoping she could give him the sons that his first wife could not. Catherine was by this time past menopause, and after several pregnancies, she had given Henry only one surviving daughter, the Princess Mary.

When Anne knew that Henry was taking the steps necessary to repudiate Catherine and to marry her, she finally surrendered completely to him. In January of 1533 Henry learned that Anne was pregnant. His petition for an annulment had languished in Rome for over six years, and he was determined that his son, which he presumed his new child would be, would not be born out of wedlock. He married Anne secretly in January of 1533, and less than four months later Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, declared his marriage to Catherine "null and absolutely void" and his marriage to Anne "good and lawful." To accomplish this swift resolution, Henry, with the aid and guidance of his Machiavellian chief councilor Thomas Cromwell, had pushed through Parliament several laws that made Henry supreme head of the English Church, confirmed the succession through the children of Anne Boleyn, and denied papal supremacy. Anne Boleyn was a major factor in the break between the English Church and the Roman Catholic Church, thus furthering the cause of the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

Queen Catherine was much loved by the English people, and Anne was equally hated, both because she had usurped Catherine's position and because she was haughty and vindictive. During the new queen's coronation parade, the English people maintained a sullen silence, and Anne probably realized then that they would never accept her.

Anne's child was not the son Henry expected but a daughter, Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth I. Though disappointed, Henry still hoped he might father more children. Anne became an implacable enemy of Catherine and her daughter Mary. The two women refused to take the oath acknowledging that Catherine had not been Henry's true wife and that Mary was illegitimate. And because of their deep piety, neither woman would deny the supremacy of the pope. Neither Anne nor Henry could bear to be crossed. They persecuted Catherine mercilessly, separating her from her daughter and refusing to allow her to go to her when Mary was so ill she was expected to die. Nor would they allow Mary to go to her mother as Catherine's health deteriorated. Catherine was deliberately housed in chilly, comfortless castles in cold, damp climates, so that she might grow even weaker and perhaps die. Catherine never did see her beloved daughter again before dying at age fifty, probably of breast cancer.

Anne wanted Henry to have his daughter Mary executed, and for some time Mary's life was in genuine danger. But Anne's influence with the king waned as he lost interest in her and turned his attentions to Jane Seymour, one of Anne's ladies in waiting. Anne's later pregnancies ended in a miscarriage, and in a stillborn son. Henry blamed Anne, and complained that he would never have married her if she had not bewitched him. Before long, Cromwell had arranged for false charges of treasonous adultery, including incest with her brother George, to be brought against Anne. Her brother and four other men were tortured into confessing to adultery with her. The five men were executed on 18 May 1536. Anne was tried on 17 May 1536 and beheaded on 19 May. Her executioner, a French swordsman, had been hired even before her trial, for its outcome was a foregone conclusion.

When the guns were fired to signal Anne's execution, Henry hurried to join Jane Seymour at the Strand. The next day found them at Wulfhall in Wiltshire, the Seymour home. Their betrothal was celebrated at Wulfhall the day after Anne's execution, and ten days later, Jane Seymour became King Henry's third wife. The Princess Elizabeth, Anne's daughter, would, like Princess Mary, be declared a bastard because her father now denied the validity of his marriage to his second wife, Anne Boleyn, as he had denied the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

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