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Anne Boleyn: The Most Important Queen Consort England Has Ever Had
Sunday, 26 October 2008

Anne Boleyn was the second wife of King Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. Her date of birth used to be considered to be in 1507, but most modern historians believe it was in 1501 (– 19 May 1536). Henry's marriage to Anne, and her subsequent execution, were part of the complex beginning of the considerable political and religious upheaval which was the English Reformation, with Anne herself actively promoting the cause of Church reform. She has been called "the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had". Her life has been adapted for numerous novels, plays, songs, operas, television dramas and motion pictures, including Anne of the Thousand Days, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Tudors, The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Doomed Queen Anne.



Childhood and family

At the time of Anne’s birth, the Boleyn family was considered one of the most respectable families in the English aristocracy. Anne's father was a respected diplomat with a gift for languages; he was also a favorite of Henry VII, who sent him on many diplomatic missions abroad. He continued his career under Henry VIII, who came to the throne in 1509.

Anne started her education in the Netherlands in the household of Archduchess Margaret of Austria who was ruling the country. She made a good impression in The Netherlands with her manners and studiousness and lived there from the spring of 1513 until her father arranged for her to continue her education in Paris in the winter of 1514. In France, she was a favoured lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude of France and also acted as an interpreter whenever any high-ranking English visitors came to the French court. In the queen's household, she completed her study of French and acquired a thorough knowledge of French culture and etiquette. She also developed an interest in fashion and religious philosophy that called for reform of the Church. Her European education ended in the winter of 1521 when she was summoned back to England on her father's orders.

Appearance and personality

Anne Boleyn was not conventionally beautiful for her time. She was thin and her colouring was considered by some to be too dark. However, many observers were impressed by her dark eyes and long, dark hair, which she wore loose down her back.One historian has compiled all the descriptions and concludes thus:

"She was never described as a great beauty, but even those who loathed her admitted that she had a dramatic allure. Her dark complexion and black hair gave her an exotic aura in a culture that saw milk-white paleness as essential to beauty. Her eyes were especially striking: 'black and beautiful' wrote one contemporary, while another averred they were 'always most attractive', and that she 'well knew how to use them with effect'."

Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn in the film 'The Private Life of Henry VIII’, 1933

People seemed primarily attracted by Anne's charisma. She made a good impression with her fashion sense, inspiring many new trends amongst the court ladies. In hindsight, she was probably the biggest English fashion icon of the early 16th century.

"Anne’s charm lay not so much in her physical appearance as in her vivacious personality, her gracefulness, her quick wit and other accomplishments. She was petite in stature, and had an appealing fragility about her… she shone at singing, making music, dancing and conversation… Not surprisingly, the young men of the court swarmed around her."

Anne Boleyn in wax at Madame Tussaud's in London

She was a devout Christian in the new tradition of Renaissance humanism (calling her a Protestant would be an overstatement). She also gave generously to charity and sewed shirts for the poor. In her youth she was "sweet and cheerful" and enjoyed gambling, drinking wine, and gossiping. She was also brave and emotional. Yet, according to her enemies, Anne could also be extravagant, neurotic, vindictive and bad-tempered.

"To us she appears inconsistent—religious yet aggressive, calculating yet emotional, with the light touch of the courtier yet the strong grip of the politician … A woman in her own right—taken on her own terms in a man’s world; a woman who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex; of only moderate good looks, but taking a court and a king by storm. Perhaps, in the end, it is Thomas Cromwell’s assessment that comes nearest: intelligence, spirit and courage."

Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn, 1969

A royal love affair

At the time Anne Boleyn came to court, Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon. All her sons by Henry had died young and Henry was anxious for a male heir to his throne in order to preserve the monarchy and prevent civil war.

Boleyn made her court début at a masquerade ball in March 1522, where she performed an elaborate dance accompanying the king's younger sister, several other great ladies of the court and his mistress—Anne’s sister, Mary. Within a few weeks of this performance, Boleyn was known as the most fashionable and accomplished woman at the court and she has been referred to as a "glass of fashion".

Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn in the film "The Other Boleyn Girl."

During this time, she was being courted by Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland, around 1522. The exact nature of their relationship is unclear. The romance was broken off in 1523 when Lord Henry's father refused to support the engagement. One theory is that the liaison was secretly broken up by Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s chief minister, because King Henry desired Anne for himself. It is impossible to say if this is true, and historians are divided on the issue. The evidence, from grants made to Anne's sister, Mary, and her husband Sir William Carey, indicate that at this time Henry was involved in an affair with Mary Boleyn.

In 1525, Henry VIII became enamoured with Anne and began his pursuit. She resisted his attempts to seduce her and she refused to become his mistress. She rejected the king’s initial advances by saying, "I beseech your highness most earnestly to desist, and to this my answer in good part. I would rather lose my life than my honesty." The king was more attracted to her because of this refusal. Eventually, he proposed and she accepted.

Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Eric Bana as Henry VIII in the film "The Other Boleyn Girl."

Henry and his ministers applied for his current marriage annulment from the Vatican in 1527. At first, Boleyn was kept in the background, but by 1528 it was common knowledge that Henry intended to marry her.

In 1529 Anne Boleyn became the most powerful person at court. She had considerable power over government appointments and political matters. Henry bestowed upon Anne the Marquessate of Pembroke, making her the first English female commoner known to become a noble in her own right by creation, rather than through inheritance.

Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Eric Bana as Henry VIII in the film "The Other Boleyn Girl."

Her exasperation with the Vatican’s refusal to make her queen also persuaded her to promote a new alternative to Henry. She suggested that he should follow the advice of religious radicals like William Tyndale, who denied Papal authority and believed that the monarch should lead the church. During this period, Boleyn also played an enormous role in England's international position by solidifying an alliance with France. In 1533, the English Church was declared to be was under Henry’s control, not Rome's. This was the famous "Break with Rome", which signalled the end of England's history as a Roman Catholic country. Queen Anne was delighted at this development—although she retained the outward, Catholic trappings, she believed the Papacy was a corrupting influence on Christianity.

They were married on 25 January 1533. Seven years after her relationship with Henry had begun, Anne was finally legally his wife and Queen of England.

After her coronation, she settled into a quiet routine to prepare for the birth of her child. She was deeply distressed when Henry was infatuated with a lady of the court, which provoked their first serious fight. The affair was brief, since Henry wanted nothing to jeopardize his wife's pregnancy.

Henry and Anne's child was born slightly prematurely on 7 September 1533. The child was a girl who was christened Elizabeth, in honor of Henry's mother, Elizabeth of York. Anne was a very affectionate mother.

Queen Elizabeth I

Life as queen

Her reputation as a religious reformer spread through Europe, and she was hailed as a heroine by Protestant figures; even Martin Luther viewed her rise to the throne as a good sign. She also saved the life of the French reformer Nicolas Bourbon. She appealed to the French royal family, who spared Bourbon’s life as a favour to the English queen. Bourbon would later refer to her as "the queen whom God loves".

She championed religious reform, especially translating the Bible into English. As her husband opposed most of the Lutheran doctrinal reforms, Anne had to tread carefully with regard to pushing England toward what was often called "the New Learning". She was also a generous patron of charity, distributing alms to poor relief and funds to educational foundations.

Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn in the film 'The Private Life of Henry VIII’, 1933

As queen, she presided over a magnificent court. In the 16th century, royals were expected to be extravagant in order to convey the strength of the monarchy. Anne spent huge sums on gowns, jewels, head-dresses, ostrich-feather fans, riding equipment, and the finest furniture and upholstery from across the world. Numerous palaces were renovated to suit her extravagant tastes.

Anne's married life was stormy; the royal couple enjoyed periods of calm and affection, but Henry's frequent infidelities greatly upset his new wife, who reacted with tears and rage to each new mistress. For his part, Henry found Anne’s strident opinions about religion and politics irritating, and he saw her failure to give him a son as a betrayal. Her second pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage in the summer of 1534. Some estimate that she had as many as three pregnancies, all of which ended in miscarriages.

The French ambassador reported on the frosty atmosphere between the royal couple at a banquet in 1535. When he asked Anne about it later in the evening, she told him that she felt utterly lonely and that she could feel the eyes of the entire court spying on her.


In the last few days of April, a Flemish musician in Anne's service named Mark Smeaton was arrested and tortured by Thomas Cromwell. He initially denied that he was the queen’s lover, but under torture he confessed. Three other men were tried and they denied their guilt and swore that Boleyn was also innocent.

On 2 May 1536, Anne was arrested at luncheon and taken to the Tower of London. She was accused of adultery, incest and high treason. Popular suspicion against Henry and his mistress, Jane Seymour, both of whom were seen banqueting on the Thames, was widespread. Several pamphlets circulated in London mocking the trials and supporting the queen. It’s the traditional theory that Anne was the victim of her husband's cruelty and that her failure to produce a son meant that Henry would stop at nothing to get rid of her. Today the most popular theory is that Anne was removed by a palace plot orchestrated by her enemies.

They came for Anne on the morning of May 19 to take her to the Tower Green, where she was to be afforded the dignity of a private execution.

Anne Boleyn is wearing her Famous pearl 'B' necklace in many of the portraits of her.


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