An article on Queen Anne Boleyn’s life, the way that society views her, and her famous relationship with King Henry VIII.
What is known of Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII comes from a combination of historical texts, myths, and popular culture portrayals.
King Henry VIII succeeded the throne after his father King Henry VII died in 1509. His brother, Prince Arthur had already passed at the young age of fifteen, leaving behind a wife of twenty six years, Catherine of Aragon. King Henry VII wanted to keep Catherine’s dowry; especially, since he had not yet received all of it. To do this, he had his other son marry Catherine.
Henry VIII married Catherine almost immediately after ascending to the throne. Together, they tried for years to produce not one but two sons for the Tudor dynasty; unfortunately, only a daughter, Mary I, came of their union.
King Henry came to believe that his bad luck was the result of marrying his brother’s wife. His suspicions were given more proof within a Leviticus passage of the Bible which explains the punishment of childlessness to any man who takes his brother’s wife. A priest elaborated that “childlessness” refers to a son; therefore, believing that he was being punished by God, he grew desperate:
“…If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless”Leviticus 20:21
It is unknown exactly when Henry noticed and/or met Anne Boleyn, other than that it was sometime after she returned from France to England in 1522. By 1526, he was actively persuing her. Anne was not the first Boleyn woman to have a romantic relationship with the King. Her sister, Mary had already been his mistress for a time.
When Henry asked Anne to be his official mistress, Anne refused. The only way that she would be with him was if she was his wife. Another year later, he proposed and she agreed. Expecting a rapid response in his favor, Henry requested that his marriage to Catherine be annulled; unfortunately, Pope Clement VII would never grant Henry’s wish to become a bachelor, again.
Henry and Anne would be together for seven years before they were married. Even though Henry was a lifelong Catholic, he parted with the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Church of England with himself as the head. In England, Catholicism was replaced with the Reformation. By doing this, he didn’t need the Pope’s approval; however, he still wanted a strong backing for his decision to make Anne his queen.
Eventually, Henry found someone of little experience, but great devotion to fill an empty role as Archbishop. It was at this time that Henry titled the chaplain of the Boleyn’s, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer was strongly behind Henry’s desire to marry Anne and rid his country of Catholicism. He worked with others, such as Thomas Cromwell, to find scholarly reason for why the King should have his annulment.
Throughout the courtship, Anne had promised Henry the son that he always wanted. On September 1st 1532, Henry held a ceremony to title Anne with Marques of Pembroke. This made Anne a noble and gave her land, as well. It would apply to any children she had with the King. Shortly after, she would be crowned Queen of England.
Amidst their struggle for an approval of marriage within society, they secretly married on November 14th 1532, a few months before the official ceremony on January 25th 1533. It was after the private ceremony that Anne became pregnant for the first time.
On May 28th 1533, Cranmer would declare the King’s marriage to Catherine to be void, and his marriage to Anne valid.
Queen Anne was crowned on June 1st 1533, which meant that Catherine of Aragon was no longer Queen. She became known as the Dowager Princess of Wales.
Although Anne had promised Henry a son, the marriage came with disappointing pregnancies. Queen Anne gave birth to her daughter, Princess Elizabeth I on September 15th 1533. At the time, it couldn’t have been known what a mark their daughter would come to make on the history of their country. Following Elizabeth, there is debate as to how many failed pregnancies Anne experienced in total, but at least two are known of for sure.
On January 7th 1536, Catherine passed away. King Henry and Queen Anne wore yellow that day, which was believed to mean that they were full of joy. This did not sit well with the people who were not thrilled with Queen Anne’s lack of a male heir; fortunately, Anne was pregnant again and felt there was reason to be optimistic.
As with Catherine, Henry’s eye would wander. This time, his attention went to Jane Seymour. She was previously a maid-of-honour to Catherine. Now, she was serving Anne. At the time, this was a daily employment filled by unmarried women.
By February 1536, King Henry began wooing Jane Seymour. Similarly to how Anne behaved when being courted, Jane refused his advances because she was waiting for marriage. This pleased Henry, who agreed to only be in her presence when her family was present. Cromwell had willingly given the Seymours his rooms, which allowed the King to see Jane with ease. At these times, Jane told Henry how his people were not happy with his current wife.
An important part of the Reformation was the Dissolution of the Monastaries. Thomas Cromwell was giving the money gained to the King. Queen Anne had thought they intended to use the money to help the people of England with education and charities. This argument caused a break in the once strong friendship between Queen Anne and Cromwell.
Meanwhile, Anne’s attempts for happiness by securing her marriage with an heir would not last long. Her current pregnancy resulted in a stillborn son. The proof that he had just missed out on the one thing he had been longing for, his disappointment in Anne was worse than before.
Once more, Henry’s interest in another was more serious. For the second time, he asked Cranmer to find an excuse for an annulment. Needing to please his King, Cranmer obliged, using Anne’s relation to Henry’s previous mistress, Mary Boleyn, as cause to annul the union.
Not long after, Anne was convicted of adultery, incest, and high treason on May 15th 1536. Although, there was nothing solid supporting any of these accusations, Anne and the men said to have been involved with her were executed at the Tower.
“Witch” was among the most common labels for Anne before she was executed. Rumors were spread by her enemies of a sixth finger on her right hand and being covered in moles. Had this been true, it would have made her less attractive; therefore, an obstacle in winning Henry’s affections in the first place. Thus, the claims are little more than an intellectually weak attempt to devalue her personal power, but managed to work on some of England’s ignorant people.
As a Pagan with a decent knowledge in the history of witch hunts, I am familiar with this tactic. Anne was a Christian Queen and, more importantly, King Henry’s wife. It would be absurd to speculate that Anne would seriously consider practicing witchcraft. It is my belief that she was called a “witch” for no other purpose than to convince the public that she wasn’t to be trusted. It distracts from the reality that her husband and their King was plain cruel.
In 2014, I published an article on the role of women in witch hunts, throughout history: “Witch Hunts: Women and the ‘Malleus Maleficarum.'” Research shows that women made up 78-80% of the hunts in Europe and North America. The names that Anne were called fits the outline of a woman accused of witchcraft, perfectly.
Anne was used as a scapegoat for Henry to end his unhappy marriage with Catherine. Rather than blame the one with power, the King, the fault goes on Anne. Once the marriage to Catherine was annulled and Anne was finally made Queen, society still wanted her to prove herself. No matter what drastic changes Henry made, the people saw it as Anne’s influence. Henry was never held responsible for his own actions:
“…the strong association of female sorcery with love affairs that have turned out badly for young women who have used their sexual wiles to entice a man into marriage but were ultimately rejected for a more suitable spouse.”Mackay, Christopher S. The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.
Both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were unable to give Henry the son that he longed for. These complications have caused historians to speculate if Henry had a medical condition. Of course, during the sixteenth century, the woman was always blamed. As a royal and a man, he was untouchable.
Anne being referred to as “the King’s whore” is ironic. While Henry had countless affairs, they each ended eventually because those women gave themselves to please the King, gain favor, or out of fear; however, Anne refused to be a conquest. Rather than be cast aside after the King had his fun, she demanded the ultimate respect. If Henry really wanted Anne, she had to be Queen. Unlike his previous affairs, their relationship went on for seven years before they were married.
Nothing exists to show a sway in Anne’s loyalty to Henry. At the same time, Henry was a known philanderer. Most likely, he had remained faithful to Anne before the marriage and during the beginning, as Anne tempted him with the promise a future son; however, once things were no longer going as planned, he remove her from the pedestal.
In the end, the King had the last word. When someone was charged and found guilty at Henry’s command, the people often believed it to be true. Some didn’t pause to remember the power that the King held to make the court rule in his favor; others were probably too afraid to disagree.
It wasn’t until modern studies that the accusations against Anne have been analyzed enough to be found unlikely. The witch hunts in Salem, Massachusetts went on for over a year before the court realized that they were sentencing people to death without proof. Superstition and blind faith is a dangerous mix in any century.
Previously, there was much debate as to who invented the accusations against Anne. Just last month, evidence was found detailing Anne’s future execution. According to a warrant book, Henry was calling the shots. Although, in the end there were some unavoidable setbacks and changes, this document makes it clear that Henry was in fact the terrifying and apathetic figure that many historians make him to be.
On May 17th 1536, the accused men, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, and Anne’s brother George Boleyn were executed. Thomas Wyatt and Sir Richard Page were arrested, but let go.
Anne was to be executed on May 18th, either by burning or beheading, according to the King’s pleasure. The King chose beheading as a final mercy. Also, instead of by axe, which could be unpredictable, he agreed to hire the famous swordsman from Calais.
On the 18th, Thomas Cranmer visited Anne in the Tower for Mass, to help her face her execution, and hear her last confession. During her confession, Anne hoped to use the opportunity to publicly swear her innocence twice. She did this in front of not only Cranmer, but also her jailer, Constable Sir William Kingston, and a scribe for Thomas Cromwell.
Before Anne could be executed, it was discovered that there were people at the scaffold from other countries, waiting to write down what they witnessed at Anne’s execution to take back to their countries. Cromwell didn’t like this. He had Kingston get rid of them, and for Anne’s execution to be delayed.
When the time for her planned execution had passed, Kingston did not tell Anne what was going on. Anne told him that she “thought to be dead by now and past my pain.” To comfort Anne, he told her that the sword’s blow would be “so subtle.” To this, Anne responded that she had “heard the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck,” with a laugh. After more time passed, Kingston finally told her that the execution was postponed until the following day. Anne attempted to beg for her execution to be done, but Kingston had no power to make it happen.
Anne was executed on May 19th 1536. Before Anne, there had never been an English Queen executed; therefore, it was quite the event. Many attended. Her execution speech has been quoted by many who witnessed it, but the words vary slightly with each retelling:
“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 Boleyn
Anne had supporters − including Cranmer − who remained loyal to Henry, but still saw Anne as Queen. Cranmer was among those who attended her execution. After her beheading, Cranmer was quoted:
“She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen in heaven.”
Today, most people agree that Anne was innocent, but some believe that she was an opportunist. My opinion is that Henry manipulated all six of his wives and made it easier for these women to turn against each other.
Still, I encourage that you, the reader, draw your own conclusions.
Side Note: I am aware that I left out many notable people such as Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, and so on. My goal was to make this article as concise as possible. Thank you!