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 to 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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