Anne Boleyn was one of those women in history who left an impression that still resonates, nearly 500 years after her death. She rose up to become queen of England, was beheaded for crimes that she did not commit, and has been exonerated by history. Keep reading to learn more about this fascinating, ambitious woman.
30. Anne Boleyn Was of Humble Origins
Meghan Markle is far from the first person of small stock to marry a royal. Anne Boleyn’s origins are obscure, but her ancestors were peasants (though more well-to-do than much of the peasantry). Her great-grandfather was a hatter, a respectable job but nothing close to nobility.
Historically, England has been denounced because the social classes are so rigid that there is little room for upward mobility. However, Anne Boleyn’s great-grandfather, though from a peasant background, served as Lord Mayor of London. He married the daughter of a baroness, which landed him a spot among the British nobility. He also bought a manor – Blicking – in Norfolk.
Thomas Becket, the 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, was a thorn in the side of the king, who had him executed. The Butler side of her family claimed lineage from one of Becket’s sisters, who married an Irishman. Apparently, her humble origins may not have been quite so modest after all.
One of Anne’s distant cousins on the Butler side, James Butler, was an Irish earl. In order to keep the noble title in the family, her parents arranged for them to get married. At some point, the marriage negotiations ran afoul, and both Anne and James found themselves at the royal court of King Henry the Eighth.
Anne Boleyn was also engaged to Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland. The two of them met and fell in love while she was Catherine of Aragon’s lady in waiting. When the king began his advances towards Anne, she resisted him because she was still in love with Henry. Henry, however, saw her resistance as a challenge. Having to pursue someone who opposed him made the king fall in love with her.
When Anne first arrived at court, allegedly quite a few men were taken over by her beauty and charm. According to her biographer, she was quite skilled in the art of courtly love. In addition to being flirtatious, she was an experienced musician and a huge gambler, both of which earned the admiration of the men around her.
When people protested her becoming queen, believing that only Catherine of Aragon should be the queen, she said, “Grumble all you like, this is how it’s going to be.” Rather than a statement of arrogance, it was a reflection of a sense of humor that she carried with her throughout her life.
Even though she had access to the royal treasury to use it for her own tastes, Anne Boleyn believed that charitable giving was an expression of her Christian faith. She donated as much as Â£15,000 pounds per year to charity, an outrageous sum in the sixteenth century. Though that number may be exaggerated, she engaged in other charitable acts, as well.
The ultimate scandal of the time was for an unmarried woman to become pregnant, and that’s precisely what happened. When she realized that she was pregnant, Anne and Henry were married in a private ceremony at Westminster Chapel, where she was crowned queen. Her daughter would become Queen Elizabeth.
When a king chose a queen, she wasn’t meant to rule with him. Instead, her job was merely to produce a male heir. Queen Anne’s child was a daughter. She became pregnant two more times but miscarried both. Her inability to provide him with a male heir was probably the leading factor in the king pursuing her distant cousin, Jane Seymour.
“Sweating sickness,” probably a form of the flu, was a dreaded disease that was particularly deadly before modern hygiene practices and medicine. In 1528, Anne contracted it. Fearful for her life, the king sent the best doctor available to tend to her. Miraculously, she survived, only to be beheaded at her husband’s orders later in life.
Anne knew that there was something brewing between her husband and Jane Seymour. Though related, they didn’t get along; one courtier noted that frequent quarrels broke out between the two women. When Henry gave Jane his picture in a locket, Anne snatched it away with such force that she hurt her hand.
While queen, Anne spent much time in France with her sister-in-law, Mary Tudor. She learned to speak French fluently and adopted many French mannerisms. In fact, some believed that Anne Boyle had more French cultural “isms” than English! She was one of the most cultured and intelligent queens of the time, possibly in history.
For several centuries, historians viewed Anne Boleyn’s story as a tragic tale of a powerless queen who was victimized by a womanizing king. However, scholars now believe that she was an ambitious, powerful woman who was very much in control of her situation. However, she was not able to produce an heir or control the king’s temper.
When Henry decided that he wanted to divorce Anne, he accused her of bewitching him to marry her. If somebody accused you of witchcraft during the Middle Ages, you were as good as dead. Any trial that might have occurred was a farce, and you would be executed. Henry also accused her of seducing her with love potions.
In Harry Potter, muggles believed that Anne was a witch. Wizards and witches in the know, however, knew that she was actually a squib, meaning that she had no magic powers but had magical parents. In the Harry Potter Universe, there is even a suggestion that she attempted to get Henry to take some love potions to get him to marry her.
After her execution, a Catholic biographer described the Protestant queen as having polydactyly, a condition in which someone has an extra finger. He also claimed that she had a protruding tooth and was quite unattractive. However, he never saw the queen, and his claims were probably anti-Protestant propaganda.
13. However, Anne Wasn’t Classically Beautiful, Either
The standard of beauty among British women was milky-white, ivory skin and pale hair. Anne, however, had darker skin and black hair. However, Henry was smitten with her, and he was not drawn to unattractive women. Her black eyes were striking and may have been what pulled him in.
12. Anne Boleyn’s Marriage Sparked the English Reformation
When Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, who had been unable to produce a male heir, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, the pope refused. So Henry did what any egotistical king with loads of power would do: he split from the Catholic church and formed the Anglican church, with himself at the head. Divorce granted.
Jane Seymour, Anne’s cousin, wasn’t her only relative who had caught the king’s eye. At the time that he began pursuing Anne, he was engaged in an affair with her older sister, Mary. To make matters worse, there were accusations that he had also been sleeping with Anne’s mother. Henry responded to these accusations by saying, “Never with the mother.” In other words, not the mama.
Anne had been engaged at least twice before marrying Henry. The first engagement was to the Earl of Ormond, but that one fell apart, probably because her father was unhappy with the plan. The second was to Henry Percy. The two were secretly engaged and planned to elope, but when the king began pursuing Anne, she couldn’t refuse. If she had, she could have been killed.
Henry had Anne arrested and executed on charges of committing adultery and conspiring to kill the king so that she could marry her alleged lover, Henry Norris, one of the king’s servants. The evidence was flimsy, and modern historians agree that she was executed because she didn’t produce a male heir for Henry.
When Anne was in prison at the tower of London on charges of adultery, she mentioned other men who had confessed their love for her as part of a testimony to try to prove her innocence. What ended up happening was all of the people were seen as co-conspirators and were also killed, even though they had nothing to do with the investigation.
On the chopping black she said, “Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law, I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king 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. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”
Anne’s sarcastic with had carried her through some difficult situations, and she held onto it until the very end. When she was waiting to be executed, she said, of the executioner who would behead her, “I hear he’s quite good. And I have a very small neck!” People sentenced to death by beheading often had to endure a painful experience in which the executioner had to whack at them multiple times before decapitating them.
Many called her “the king’s whore” because he was divorcing Catherine of Aragon and splitting from the Catholic church so that he could marry her. They blamed Anne, not Henry, for the dissolution of the royal marriage. When she was killed so that he could marry Jane Seymour, they had to put their feet in their mouths.
For all of Anne’s prominence, we don’t even know what year she was born. Maybe she came into the world in 1501, but she could have been born as late as 1507. She could have been as old as 35 – middle-aged by Medieval standards – when she was executed, which would change much of the narrative about her ill-fated marriage and death.
A songbook that many believe may have belonged to Anne Boleyn is in the custody of London’s Royal College of Music. In 2016, the orchestra performed a selection of songs in the book, some of which may have actually been written by the queen about her feelings towards death in the face of her upcoming execution.
2. She Was the First, But Not Last, Monarch to be Publicly Beheaded
Anne’s death was a notable first that most people probably would not be too keen to set. She was initially sentenced to burn at the stake, but Henry must have felt a twinge of sympathy when he changed the method of execution to beheading. He even had an expert swordsman brought in from France to do the deed, rather than leave it to a regular axeman (read: butcher).
After Anne gave birth to a daughter instead of a son, many of the traits that had previously drawn him to Anne repulsed him. It wasn’t at all unlike finding that someone isn’t who you actually thought they were and then seeing everything about them to be a complete disappointment. Hey, the guy was only human. He just had a little bit too much power for his own good.
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