Geoffrey Boleyn, Anne’s great-grandfather, came from an ancestry of fairly successful peasants in a small Norfolk village. He was sent to London by his father to make the family’s fortune as a merchant. He grew increasingly wealthy and eventually became the Lord Mayor of London in 1457. On his retirement, he bought the manor of Blickling in Norfolk, where Anne was born years later, and became a member of the gentry. This was an unusually humble background for a Queen of England.
Anne spent a year in the household of Margaret of Austria when she was only about 12 years old. She was then sent to France to be a part of the wedding retinue of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, who was marrying King Louis XII. After Louis died the following year and Mary returned to England, Anne stayed in France and became a maid of honour to the next Queen of France, Claude, with whom she stayed for seven years. This international education made her stand out when she finally did return to the English court.
If you look at portraits of Anne and her family, you will often see the spelling ‘Bullen’, not ‘Boleyn’ in the description. ‘Bullen’ is the traditional English spelling of Anne’s surname, and the family crest had three bulls on it. However, Anne chose to adopt the French styling of the word after her time spent in the French court, finding the style ‘Boleyn’ more elegant. This is how we remember her name, and the name of her family, today.
On her return to English court, Anne fell in love with a young man named Henry Percy, the heir of the earl of Northumberland and one of the most powerful men in the country. Knowing there would be objections to their marriage on the grounds of her comparatively low birth, Anne and Percy were secretly betrothed but were discovered and forced apart by Henry VIII’s chief advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Ironically, Anne eventually rose much higher than the station of a countess, and, when she did, she watched as Wolsey was stripped of his influence, property, and offices. Anne had finally gotten her revenge.
This fact may be surprising, considering how coldly and quickly he turned on her in the end. Henry was well known to loathe writing letters, preferring to leave that job to his secretaries whilst he was off hunting. However, he personally wrote a large collection of love letters to Anne, many of which still survive and are housed in the Vatican Library. Henry wrote to her: ‘My heart and I surrender ourselves into your hands’, adding he was ‘stricken by the dart of love’. For a man who hated writing letters, these are poetically romantic.
It was customary for queens to choose a personal motto upon their marriage to the king. Anne chose ‘the most happy’ for her own motto. Married and already pregnant at the time of her coronation, it seemed as if nothing could go wrong. This is poignant when you consider that, only three years later, she had spectacularly fallen from grace and was facing her own execution.
Anne wrote personal inscriptions in her prayer books, called Books of Hours, that turned out to be scarily predictive. In one, she wrote ‘le temps viendra’, meaning ‘the time will come’. In another, the one she supposedly brought with her when imprisoned in the Tower of London, she wrote ‘Remember me, when you do pray, that hope doth lead from day to day’. The original Books of Hours and their inscriptions are now displayed at Hever Castle in Kent.
In her trial, Anne was accused of adultery with five men, including her own brother. These accusations were shocking, but five hundred years later Anne’s innocence is almost universally accepted. In fact, nearly all of the details in the accusations against her have since been proven to be logistically impossible. With the case against her this shaky, it seems Anne’s fate had already been decided, and the trial was just for show.
Although this was never a formal accusation at her trial, many people suspected Anne had used witchcraft to ensnare the king. Henry himself was reported of complaining to a friend after Anne’s arrest that he had been ‘seduced’ unwillingly into his marriage. In one of her several miscarriages, Anne also supposedly gave birth to a deformed baby, seen at the time as a demon and a sign of the devil. This story, however, came from a notorious propagandist 50 years later and has since been discredited by historians.
Before her marriage, Anne had watched endless court ladies become Henry’s mistresses, including her own sister, and were thus showered with affection and then cast out with a ruined reputation. Determined not to suffer the same fate, Anne boldly refused Henry’s initial advances, claiming she would never be his mistress. Driven mad with desire, Henry changed the course of history by breaking with the Roman Catholic Church in order to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne instead. This was unprecedented but, unfortunately for Anne, was a tactic replicated by her successor, Jane Seymour. Jane similarly refused Henry’s advances until he promised marriage and got rid of Anne.
Although one of the reasons Henry had Anne executed was for failing to give him a son, it was Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, who went on to become one of England’s most famous and well-loved monarchs. Elizabeth was barely three years old when her mother was beheaded, but she always honoured her memory. Forced to publicly distance herself from her disgraced mother in order to survive in a politically ruthless climate, Elizabeth never forgot Anne. In fact, on Elizabeth’s deathbed nearly 70 years later, a ring was removed from her finger that was found to have a secret locket. When opened, it showed a dual miniature portrait of herself and her mother.
Traditionally, beheadings were carried out with an axe. This axe was often blunt and took several attempts to completely sever the head from the body. In order to ensure one clean swipe and minimise her pain, Henry granted Anne the privilege of being beheaded by a sword instead. He even ordered an especially skilled swordsman from Calais to carry out the task. Interestingly enough, Henry summoned the executioner before Anne had even been trialled. In Henry’s mind, there was only one ending for Anne, and it did not involve her freedom.
This article was written in association with The Boar, a student publication based at the University of Warwick.