Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 06 February 2023

Anne [Anne Boleyn]free

(c. 1500–1536)

Anne [Anne Boleyn]free

(c. 1500–1536)
  • E. W. Ives

Anne (c. 1500–1536)

by unknown artist, late 16th cent. [original, c.1533–6]

Anne [Anne Boleyn] (c. 1500–1536), queen of England, second consort of Henry VIII, was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, earl of Ormond and of Wiltshire (1476/7–1539), and Elizabeth (d. 1538), daughter of Thomas Howard, second duke of Norfolk (1443–1524), and his first wife, Elizabeth Tilney (d. 1497). The second of three surviving children, Anne Boleyn was born in Norfolk, probably at Blickling, about 1500. This date is established by Anne's securing in 1513 the position of a maid of honour to Margaret, archduchess of Austria, ruler of the Habsburg Low Countries, an appointment for an early teenager. William Camden gives the date as 1507, but attempts to reinstate this on the conjecture that Anne was sent to the Low Countries as a child fail on the evidence of the mature orthography of an extant letter written by her from Terveuren, near Brussels, in 1513. A year or so younger than her sister, Mary [see Stafford, Mary (c. 1499-1543)], Anne was perhaps four years older than her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford (c. 1504–1536). Boleyn wealth had initially come from a London alderman half a century earlier, but the family had subsequently risen to be able to claim the title of the Irish earldom of Ormond. In no sense did Anne smell of the shop, nor was she in any way a commoner.

Education and early career

Thomas Boleyn was a successful courtier and diplomat and in due course secured places for both Mary and George at the English court. However, a glorious opportunity to place his second daughter abroad presented itself when in 1512 he was appointed ambassador to Margaret of Austria; Margaret's court was the most prestigious in Europe, offering the best possible training to any young aristocrat of the right age who could secure a place there. Thomas made a good impression on Margaret and the archduchess agreed to take Anne, who arrived at Brussels in the summer of 1513; soon after, Margaret wrote saying how 'bright and pleasant for her young age' she found her (Paget, 164–5). At the archduchess's court Anne began to learn all the skills of the court lady but a particular attainment which Thomas Boleyn looked for was fluency in French. As her letter from Terveuren states, this was with the intention of securing a place in the household of Katherine of Aragon, the French-speaking wife of Henry VIII (1491–1547). However, the diplomatic situation quickly changed, and in August 1513 Anne was moved to France to attend on Henry's sister Mary, who was to marry the aged Louis XII. Soon widowed, Mary then secretly and scandalously married Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, and returned to England in April 1515, but Anne remained behind and joined the household of Claude, the queen of France. All thought of Katherine of Aragon was forgotten as she stayed with Claude for nearly seven years and became close to a queen very much her own age. However, a further spin of the diplomatic wheel brought England and France to the brink of war and interrupted this promising career at the French court, and at the end of 1521 Anne was forced to return home, much to Claude's annoyance.

An English marriage was now the obvious next step for Anne but her uncle Thomas Howard, later third duke of Norfolk (d. 1554), saw her as the answer to problems he was facing in the hated post of the king's lieutenant in Ireland. The English-based Boleyns might have the better title to the earldom of Ormond, but the rival Irish claimant Piers Butler seemed to Howard a convenient person to recommend as his own replacement. What better way to buttress English power than to give Butler the lieutenancy and the disputed earldom while marrying his heir, James, to Anne Boleyn? James was a hostage in England and conveniently available but the match fell through, possibly because Thomas Boleyn was too greedy. Anne, however, was not in want of other admirers. The most eligible was Henry Percy, later sixth earl of Northumberland, who wanted to break a prior engagement and marry Anne. According to George Cavendish, he was prevented by the combined opposition of Cardinal Wolsey and his father, the fifth earl. Another of Anne's admirers was the poet Thomas Wyatt (d. 1542). Subsequent gossip and speculation has suggested that Wyatt's interest was reciprocated, but there is no substance in this. Many attempts have been made to interpret particular Wyatt poems by reference to Anne, but reliable evidence for any relationship is found in, at most, four of those where authorship is uncontested. They suggest that the poet became one of a number of Anne's acknowledged suitors within the convention of courtly love only to find himself becoming emotionally involved, but that he received no serious reciprocation. Anne's career indicates that she was well aware of realities, and there was no future in becoming entangled with a married man, however engaging.

Anne was not a conventional beauty. No contemporary portrait has survived, but a portrait medal shows that she had a long face, very much as her daughter Elizabeth would have; the standard likeness of Anne, as in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG, no. 668), ultimately derives from this image. Her complexion was sallow and she was noted only for her magnificent dark hair, her expressive eyes, and her elegant neck. A friend's description was 'good looking enough' (BL, Add. MS 28585, fol. 45). The reason why she was such a sensation was not looks but personality and education. Having been brought up in the two leading courts in Europe she had a continental polish which was unique in the provincial court of Henry VIII. She could sing, play instruments, and dance and she led female fashion. An informed contemporary later said of her that 'no one would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but a native-born Frenchwoman' (Ascoli, 63). It was also probably her foreign training which gave her the taste for Renaissance art which later came to fruition in her patronage of Hans Holbein the younger (d. 1543).

Courtship, politics, and marriage

Anne's first notice at the English court was when she played the part of Perseverance in the Shrove Tuesday pageant of 1522. However it was probably not until 1526 that Henry VIII showed any interest in her, a date suggested by his referring in a letter to Anne, probably dated 1527, to 'having been now above one whole year struck with the dart of love' (Stemmler, iii). More specifically, the start of the affair can be connected with the appearance Henry made at the Shrove Tuesday jousting of 1526 in the guise of a lover tortured, because 'Declare I dare not' (Hall, 707). That a king who was notorious for his dislike of writing should write no fewer than the seventeen letters Henry sent to Anne over 1527 and 1528 certainly demonstrates the strength of what he told her was 'his so great folly' (Savage, 29–30). At first, however, Henry had no thought of marriage. He saw Anne as someone to replace her sister, Mary (wife of one of the privy chamber staff, William Carey), who had just ceased to be the royal mistress. Certainly the physical side of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon was already over and, with no male heir, Henry decided by the spring of 1527 that he had never validly been married and that his first marriage must be annulled. But Cardinal Wolsey and possibly Henry expected Katherine's replacement to be chosen from France. However, Anne continued to refuse his advances, and the king realized that by marrying her he could kill two birds with one stone, possess Anne and gain a new wife. His offer of marriage changed Anne's response entirely and, accepting Henry's own conviction that he was in law free to marry, she agreed in the summer of 1527 to be his wife. A papal dispensation was applied for in August.

In the event the marriage did not take place until January 1533, thanks to obstruction by a pope whose priority was not to offend Katherine's nephew, the emperor Charles V. Eventually Henry was forced to break with the Holy See and take the settlement of his affairs into his own hands. During this period Anne and Henry grew closer (Henry finally dismissed Katherine in July 1531), but despite the gossip, Anne was not his 'concubine'. Henry no less than Anne was determined that any child must be legitimate. Nevertheless, awareness of the passing of time, growing sexual frustration, and the stress of persuading Henry to keep his nerve readily explain Anne's occasional outbursts of temper during these years and her increasingly radical attitudes.

At first Anne was content to rely on Wolsey's attempts to secure a papal annulment of the marriage to Katherine but she then became convinced that the cardinal was half-hearted about her marrying Henry. In 1529, therefore, she threw her decisive influence behind the aristocratic group plotting to get rid of the minister and once he had lost office she blocked all Henry's hankering to return to the efficiency of his old minister. Wolsey called her 'the nyght Crowe', always in a position to caw into the king's private ear (Cavendish, 137). As the nobles who replaced the cardinal proved no more successful than he Anne began to espouse more iconoclastic ideas. She fed Henry with selected passages from the Obedience of a Christian Man in which William Tyndale argued that kings had authority over the church, a concept which came as a bolt from the blue to a king who had earlier gone into print on England's subjection to the authority of Rome. She also patronized scholars like Edward Fox and Thomas Cranmer who were researching into the subject—Fox's gratitude can be seen in the riot of Boleyn iconography which adorns the chapel of King's College, Cambridge, where he became provost. In 1531 the Boleyns helped to lead in the first attack on the church (the pardon of the clergy) and in May the following year the triumph of radical ideas in the submission of the clergy was masterminded by Anne's ally Thomas Cromwell.

Henry remained doubtful about the validity of any annulment in defiance of Rome, and when in September 1532 Anne was created marchioness of Pembroke, the remainder was to her offspring, legitimate or not. But late in 1532 (probably in Calais in November where François I may have promised support, or on the leisurely journey home) Anne grew confident that if she became pregnant the king would now commit himself, and she thus began to sleep with him. So it transpired. She was pregnant by December, the couple were married in January, possibly on the 25th, and Anne was recognized as queen on Holy Saturday (12 April) 1533. Her coronation ceremonies followed six weeks later and lasted for four days, culminating on 1 June in the crowning ceremony in Westminster Abbey and a subsequent magnificent banquet in Westminster Hall. The occasion was not only designed to give status to the daughter of an English aristocrat—only the second such queen in post-conquest history—but was also exploited as a test of the loyalty of the court, the city, and the governing classes. Thomas More helped to seal his own fate by being the only notable who refused to attend. Three months later, on 7 September, Anne's daughter, Elizabeth, was born.

Anne and Henry

There is no evidence for the common assumption that having a daughter as her first child was disastrous for Anne's relationship with Henry; within a few months she was pregnant again. It was, however, a disaster when in August 1534 Anne miscarried. His failure to have sons had convinced Henry that his marriage to Katherine had been invalid, and now the same thing appeared to be happening again. It was the psychological pressure of this which probably explains Henry's sexual inadequacy—Anne's comments on this have survived—and not until the autumn of 1535 did she conceive for the third time.

Despite her delay in fulfilling what contemporaries saw as a wife's first duty, Henry's commitment to Anne remained firm. Since it was her challenging personality which had attracted the king in the first place, their marriage was at times stormy. Anne was no pale reflection of her husband. Nevertheless, on the personal level the relationship flourished until almost the end. What it lacked was the independent support which would have come from having a son: Anne had always to be aware that rivals might challenge for Henry's affections. Many of the stories about his supposed amours can be dismissed as rumour, often the wishful thinking of hostile critics, but there is no doubt that having begun as a relationship of passion, Henry's marriage to Anne was different in character from the arranged match with a foreign princess which was the norm for English monarchs. She knew that she had to hold Henry's affections.

The periodic tensions in Anne's marriage were undoubtedly exacerbated by the behaviour of Katherine of Aragon's daughter, Mary. Not only did she fiercely (and understandably) resent ‘the other woman’, but she loathed being labelled a bastard and having to give precedence to Elizabeth. Mary also blamed Anne for the steady pressure Henry put on her to accept that the marriage with her mother had been null and void, and the exclusion from his favour which her obstinate refusal brought. For her part Anne could not help but see Mary not as a disobedient child but as a living challenge to her own identity and integrity. As long as Mary resisted, she was in effect crying out that Anne was a whore. Hence Anne's supposed remark, 'She is my death and I am hers' (CSP Spain, 1534–5, 573), and at times Anne's rages went far beyond this, as plausible reports show. Nevertheless, on at least three separate occasions she put out feelers to Mary, only for the teenager to reject them with studied rudeness.

Anne was not a popular queen. Katherine was widely respected, and women in particular resented Henry's treatment of a faithful wife. As for Mary, even people who accepted that the king's first marriage was invalid believed that she had been begotten ‘in good faith’ and therefore was entirely legitimate under church law. Much of the hostility to Anne was, however, associated with dislike of recent royal policies, particularly the king's interference with the church. The abbot of Whitby declared that 'the king's grace was ruled by one common stewed [professional] whore, Anne Bullan, who made all the spirituality to be beggared and the temporalty too' (LP Henry VIII, 5, no. 907). There was also plenty of concealed resentment among churchmen at court and Anne was seen as the reason for the draconian legislation which Cromwell brought in to suppress dissent. The unprecedented horrors of the deaths of the Carthusian fathers and John Fisher were directly attributed to her, as also was the execution of Sir Thomas More. It was only after Anne's death that, along with Princess Mary, the nation realized where responsibility really lay.

Anne and religious reform

As queen Anne Boleyn was a substantial landholder, with all the responsibilities and influence which that implied. However, the distinctive intimacy of her relationship with Henry VIII meant that both before and after her coronation she exercised an unusual degree of public influence. As well as Cromwell and Cranmer, her clients included Thomas Audley, who became lord chancellor in 1533, and Henry Norris, groom of the stool, chief gentleman (that is head) of the privy chamber and the king's right-hand man; her brother, George, held one of the two posts of nobleman in the privy chamber. In foreign affairs, not only did she embody Francophilia, but she was often personally involved in Anglo-French relations and was close to several of François I's ambassadors, notably religious moderates like Jean du Bellay and Jean de Dinteville. Dinteville was the ranking celebrity in her coronation procession.

Anne's influence was especially evident in religion. While abroad she had encountered early evangelical reform at the French royal court, typified by the king's sister Marguerite d'Angoulême. Anne embraced this reformist spirit for herself, possibly even experiencing some kind of spiritual crisis. Her faith focused on Bible-reading and, as she is known to have made a special study of the epistles of St Paul, she was familiar with the doctrine of justification by faith. That the inspiration for such thinking was France is plain. The Bible text Anne used was a French translation by Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples. She sent out collectors to bring back French evangelical texts for her, a number of which survive in the royal library. Some copies were specially commissioned. In at least two cases her brother produced for Anne hybrid versions of reformist works, having the Bible text in French (as was legal) but translating the far more subversive commentary into English; one of these was again by Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples. Anne was also in touch with French reformers such as Clément Marot and offered England as a refuge from persecution, most notably to Nicholas Bourbon. Anne was nevertheless not backward in promoting the vernacular English Bible. A lectern Bible was available for her household to use, and she herself owned a specially illuminated copy of Tyndale's illegal translation of the New Testament. Both before and after becoming queen, Anne protected the importers of illegal English scriptures, and George Joye knew enough of this to send her a sample sheet of the book of Genesis translated into English.

Anne used her position to advance evangelically minded clergy within the church. Not only was this so where she had the presentation—for example, she secured the rich London living of St Mary Aldermary for Edward Crome—but she was also influential in helping to place reformers in the episcopal hierarchy. As well as Cranmer, Anne patronized Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Shaxton, Edward Fox, Thomas Goodrich, and William Barlow. She must not be given the sole credit for this. John Foxe had the right of it when he wrote of Henry VIII that 'so long as Queen Anne, Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer, Master Denny, Doctor Butts with such like were about him and could prevail with him, what organ of Christ's glory did more good in the church than he?' (Acts and Monuments, 5.605). Nevertheless it is doubtful whether, without her, the group of reformers would have been ensconced on the bench of bishops for the remainder of Henry's reign and so in position to make advances in the next. Nor did Anne neglect up-and-coming reformers. Her links were particularly strong with Cambridge scholars such as William Bill of St John's and Matthew Parker of Corpus Christi. Parker in particular acknowledged his enormous debt to her and believed that she had passed on to him a sacred responsibility for the care of her daughter. Through men such as Parker, Bill, and Barlow, Anne's influence fed into the Elizabethan church settlement.

A particular and, it would turn out, fatal interest of Anne was in the future of the monasteries. She intervened in the internal affairs of several religious houses. In 1535 she had the famous relic of ‘the blood of Hailes’ investigated and later that same year took an active part in the campaign to get the nuns of Syon to accept the royal supremacy. In common with most reformers Anne did not want to abolish the religious houses but to see them converted to educational purposes. She even established a pilot for this by appointing Matthew Parker to the post of dean of a refounded collegiate church of Stoke by Clare, in Suffolk, which as well as providing regular religious instruction taught in English and Latin and prepared boys to take up bursaries at Cambridge. University education was another of Anne's particular concerns and as well as supporting individual scholars such as William Barker and Wolsey's son, Thomas Wynter, she made subventions to both Oxford and Cambridge and interceded with Henry to secure them tax exemptions. There is evidence too of her interest in the problem of poverty. She was remembered later not only for the extent of her personal charity but also for her involvement in attempts to alleviate distress by providing opportunities for work. When in 1535 William Marshall drew up for Cromwell plans for poor relief, he supported these by dedicating to Anne (whom he already knew) an account of the way poor relief was set up at Ypres, and inviting her to persuade Henry to set up a similar system in England.

One caveat has to be entered when recording the important part Anne Boleyn played in the early Reformation. She was not a protestant. Such a label would be wholly anachronistic in the confusion of religious ideas in Henrician England. Despite traditionalists' hatred of her, Anne's evangelical position was not heretical. In particular she was wholly orthodox on what Henry VIII saw as the test of sound belief, the issue of transubstantiation. The last night of her life was spent praying before the sacrament. Nevertheless traditionalists were correct when they later blamed her for opening the door to heresy in England. Her focus on personal response to the Bible was deeply subversive of much in the thinking and practice of late medieval Christianity. What was more, her position in society helped to make thoughts previously confined largely to academics in their studies respectable in polite society.

Anne as queen

It is unfortunate that the vindictiveness let loose against Anne's memory has robbed future observers of much evidence about her lifestyle; a particular loss is her substantial collection of jewellery. Similarly, only surviving lists of clothing can support her reputation for dressing elegantly, something she was equally careful should be true of her daughter. That Anne showed this interest in fashion, appearance, and the ephemera of court life has sometimes been used to deny her any real religious feeling. The argument is, however, an anachronism. Anne was only reflecting the contemporary view that magnificence was a virtue and that a status given by God had to be respected.

Despite what has been lost, enough of Anne has survived to show that she was a person of considerable culture. Her coronation procession was heavily classical in theme and her taste for the antique was evident in the decoration of her rooms at Hampton Court as much as in King's College chapel or in her furniture and plate (one example of which has survived). The medal prepared for the expected birth of a son in 1534 is one of the earliest English examples of a humanist portrait medal, though not yet in the purest classical style. Alongside this interest in the latest artistic fashion, Anne retained an appreciation of the Low Countries art she had encountered in her youth. Her one music book to have survived consists of vocal works of Burgundian and French origin. The style of illumination in some of her books derived ultimately from Bruges, probably via Flemish artists resident in London; other illuminations were done for her in northern France. There is also some evidence that Anne exploited the symbolism which was so important a component of her daughter's public image. Her badge was the falcon on the tree stump: a crowned white falcon alighting on a dead tree which then burst into Tudor roses. A working device on this hardly subtle theme featured in the coronation procession. Anne also exploited classical legends such as the judgment of Paris, and like Elizabeth she was identified with the goddess Astraea and with the Virgin Mary.

Anne's greatest contribution to English culture was the early patronage she gave to Hans Holbein the younger. No authenticated portrait of Anne by Holbein has survived, but she and not Henry was the artist's first royal patron when he returned to England from Basel in 1532. Not only did Holbein design an arch for Anne's coronation procession (paid for by the Hanse merchants) but in 1534 he produced an elaborate rose-water fountain for Anne to present as Henry's new year gift. Another of his designs was for a standing cup and cover engraved with Anne's badge and he also painted figures of Adam and Eve for an elaborate coral setting produced by the royal goldsmith Cornelius Hayes. Two of the artist's finest pieces can also conjecturally be linked with Anne. The Ambassadors (now in the National Gallery, London) portrays the Jean de Dinteville who took part in Anne's coronation and his episcopal friend, Georges de Selve. The painting was being done over the time of the coronation and the pavement on which the subjects were placed is a specific allusion to the sanctuary floor of Westminster Abbey where Anne was crowned. The symbolism in the painting closely reflects Anne's known religious views and contains a reference to the date of her recognition as queen. Another possible link between Holbein the younger and Anne Boleyn is the miniature Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Royal Collection). The syllabus of the piece suggests very strongly that it was commissioned by Anne for presentation to Henry.

The fall of Anne Boleyn

Throughout her marriage Anne Boleyn was the target of religious conservatives and others committed to re-establishing Katherine of Aragon and the now bastardized Princess Mary. Their position eased when Katherine's death on 8 January 1536 freed them from the impossible task of forcing Henry to eat his words. Then at the end of that month Anne miscarried again. The child was reported to be a fifteen-week male, but there is no evidence to support Nicholas Sander's claim of forty years later that the queen was delivered of 'a shapeless mass of flesh'—indeed all the indications are that Sander invented the story (Sander, 132). Theories based on the assumption that the foetus was deformed are sometimes heard but have no validity.

Anne's second miscarriage intensified Henry's fear that God's hand could be against his union with her, but it did not, as is commonly supposed, spell her doom. Her position at court remained strong and she still had the support of Henry's chief minister, the evangelical Thomas Cromwell. Her enemies did organize a claque to try to persuade the king to divorce Anne in favour of another woman, this time Jane Seymour, but there was no sign of Henry's seriously contemplating ending the marriage to Anne. Indeed, as late as the middle of April 1536 the king made a major effort to force Charles V, the Habsburg emperor and Mary's cousin, to recognize Anne as queen.

All this changed dramatically after a split between Anne and Cromwell. The fundamental reason for this was disagreement over the assets of the monasteries: Anne's support for the redeployment of monastic resources directly contradicted Cromwell's intention to put the proceeds of the dissolution into the king's coffers. The bill dissolving the smaller monasteries had passed both houses of parliament in mid-March, but before the royal assent was given Anne launched her chaplains on a dramatic preaching campaign to modify royal policy. In a notorious sermon preached by her almoner, John Skip, in the royal chapel on Passion Sunday, Cromwell was pilloried before the whole council and the court as 'Haaman', an evil and greedy royal adviser from the Old Testament, and specifically identified as the queen's enemy. Nor could the minister shrug off this declaration of war, even though, in spite of Anne's efforts, the dissolution act became law. There remained the danger that her influence over Henry might result in significant parts of the former church assets being diverted into new charitable purposes. It is significant that when Henry warned Jane Seymour to 'attend to other things, reminding her that the last Queen had died in consequence of meddling too much in state affairs', the occasion was an attempt by Jane to reprieve certain monasteries (LP Henry VIII, 11, no. 1250).

Soon after Anne's attack on the secularization policy Cromwell was made aware of a further problem. In the early months of 1536 both the conservative and the Boleyn factions had united to support the minister's wish to switch foreign policy from a reliance on France to a rapprochement with the Habsburg empire. Everything and everybody (including Anne) was in place, ready for Henry to endorse the change at a meeting with the imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, on 18 April. However, to Cromwell's chagrin, the king used the meeting to press for imperial recognition of the Boleyn marriage and so of Henry's new definition of kingship in England. Judging by what the minister said later to Chapuys, this was the last straw. While Anne remained by his side, Henry's obstinate determination to have her recognized would block an essential diplomatic realignment. Opposition over the monasteries had been bad enough. Now the queen had to go.

Freeing England from Anne Boleyn was easier to propose than to achieve, and the risk involved indicates how worried Cromwell was becoming. Furthermore, if Jane Seymour with her conservative backers replaced Anne, Cromwell—given his previous anti-clerical and anti-papal activities—could easily find himself stepping out of the frying pan into the fire. His first step, therefore, was to make his peace with Jane's supporters but with the private intention of ditching them when the time was right. Not that he thought much of their proposal to lure Henry into a second divorce by using Jane as a bait, even though the appointment of her brother Edward Seymour to the privy chamber had strengthened her supporters there. There was no safety in any plan which did not remove Anne permanently. Moreover it would not be enough to take out Anne. Her supporters must be blocked or got rid of, from the archbishop of Canterbury to her powerful allies in the privy chamber, a move which would have the added advantage of removing some whose influence stood in the way of Cromwell's own exercise of power. The minister therefore deliberately set out to destroy Henry's trust in Anne and with it in Henry Norris and her brother, George.

Anne Boleyn's entourage was lively, flirtatious, and probably less formal than would have been the court of a queen of foreign origin; many courtiers had been close acquaintances of Anne for years. It may be too that the atmosphere in her chamber had become somewhat fevered as Anne set out to shine down Jane Seymour. Cromwell therefore calculated that if he could penetrate the secrets of the court circle, the language of courtly love and dalliance would provide stories which could be twisted into indications of adultery. In the event he was handed one such story on a plate when in the last days of April Anne had a very public spat with Henry Norris, Cromwell's principal rival at court. With this bonus to hand, on 30 April Cromwell arrested and interrogated Mark Smeaton, a court musician whom he judged vulnerable. Armed with suitable fictions, Cromwell went the next day to the king at Greenwich, who had very probably been kept in the dark until then. Henry, a man notoriously prone to suspicion, immediately broke up the May day joust, charged Norris with adultery, and sent him to the Tower. Anne and her brother followed the next day and later in the week four other courtiers, Francis Weston, William Brereton, Thomas Wyatt, and Richard Page, were ‘towered’. Anne's other allies, including notably Thomas Cranmer, were barred from the royal presence until it was too late to intercede for her.

That Anne was innocent, and so too the others, is clear. Only Smeaton confessed and he was certainly subjected to pressure and possibly torture. Norris refused the king's offer to pardon him if he would admit to adultery with Anne. Weston was no Boleyn supporter and was accidentally dragged in because of some remarks made by Anne in the Tower. Brereton seems to have been included for a reason which had nothing to do with her. Wyatt and Page were known to be Boleyn associates but were arrested for verisimilitude and never intended for the scaffold. Indictments were found by grand juries in Middlesex and in Kent, but they were grossly defective. They implied that adultery by and with a queen was a treasonable offence whereas, in law, it was a moral offence triable only in the church courts; the statute which declared such adultery treason was not passed until six years later. The crown also twisted a statutory treason into relevance, claiming that the legitimacy of the royal issue had been called in question. As for the basic test in treason—intending the destruction of the king—the indictment claimed that the behaviour of Anne and the others showed that they really intended Henry's death and the news of this had actually put his life at risk. The reality was that the king was being kept feverishly amused by Jane Seymour and her allies in order to prevent any royal second thoughts.

The grand juries which accepted the indictments and the petty jury which tried the commoners had all been hand-picked by Cromwell. Most of the specific charges against Anne and her 'lovers' can be shown to be false and against vague accusations of misconduct she had no defence. In defiance of logic and justice, the commoners, Norris, Weston, Brereton, and Smeaton, were tried first and found guilty of high treason on 12 May, thus making a nonsense of the trials of Anne and George which were held before a jury of peers in the Tower of London on the 15th. There was in consequence no need to manipulate this jury since its only possible option was to rubber-stamp judgments already recorded. Nevertheless, like her brother, the queen firmly rejected the charges put to her, and 'made so wise and discreet aunsweres to all thinges layde against her, excusinge herselfe with her wordes so clearlie as thoughe she had never bene faultie to the same' (Wriothesley, 1.37–8). Nor, as death approached, did Anne cease to assert her innocence. On the last night of her life she twice swore on the sacrament that she was innocent. She also died 'boldly', refusing to confess her guilt in defiance of the convention that anyone about to die should admit their fault and so go to God with honesty on their lips. Perhaps the most striking of all the indications of innocence is that Anne's alleged behaviour would have been impossible in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a Tudor court without one or more female accomplices. Yet none of her ladies was ever accused and they were retained at court to serve the next queen.

Anne's alleged paramours were executed on 17 May (all but Smeaton refusing to admit his guilt), and in the afternoon of the same day Cranmer declared her marriage with Henry null and void—a ruling which, ironically, made nonsense of the accusations of adultery. An attempt to find grounds for annulment in a pre-contract with the earl of Northumberland had failed when Henry Percy swore to the contrary, so the justification advanced to Cranmer seems to have been Mary Boleyn's prior relations with Henry which were construed as creating an impropriety analogous to Katherine of Aragon's alleged intercourse with Prince Arthur. On the morning of Friday 19 May Anne was executed on the scaffold of Tower Green. She was beheaded by the executioner of Calais, brought over on purpose to use a sword in the French fashion, not an axe—a 'mercy' allowed her by Henry. She was buried the same day in the Tower chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.

The executions of May 1536 let loose the usual scramble for loot. Cromwell ousted Anne's father from his major office, that of lord privy seal, and Jane's brother secured a viscountcy. Mary and her friends, however, were left with dust and ashes. As Cromwell had known perfectly well, Henry's repudiation of Katherine of Aragon had not been a consequence of his infatuation with Anne Boleyn. The king's conviction that his first marriage had been incestuous was unshakeable and Mary's disappointment, coupled with a calculated persecution of her friends, broke the princess and forced from her the admission her father wanted on 22 June, five weeks after Anne's death.

Anne's reputation

The principle 'least said soonest mended' ensured that for the rest of Henry's reign and the reign of his son Anne Boleyn was a non-person. This silence ended under Mary, when traditionalists united to blacken Anne as the heretical seductress who had corrupted Henry and let loose all the evils which had then befallen the faith. This was, after all, the only way in which Mary herself could reconcile lifelong fidelity to Rome with respect for her father's memory. The Catholic propaganda effort reached the peak of biliousness in The Origins and Progress of the Anglican Schism, by the Elizabethan exile Nicholas Sander, printed posthumously in 1585. This claimed that Anne's mother had been Henry VIII's mistress, that Anne was Henry's daughter, that she was physically deformed (paralleling her moral deformity), and that she was responsible for the destruction and the cruelties which had befallen the Catholic church. Sander also wanted to present Anne as a 'temptress', so he added, somewhat incongruously, that 'she was handsome to look at' (Sander, 25).

Although French reformers immediately hailed her as a martyr, reformers in England were initially concerned lest the queen should take reform down with her, or by her offences fatally discredit the cause. A mid-century protestant defence of Henry VIII therefore presented Anne as a consummate hypocrite, highly accomplished and 'with such an outward profession of gravity as was to be marvelled at', but underneath a sexual predator who corrupted the king's close servants and even her own brother (Thomas, 70). When Anne's own daughter succeeded, there was little attempt at rehabilitation. Elizabeth I adopted her mother's badge, but took refuge in silence from choosing between a mother who was a nymphomaniac and a father who was a dupe, or worse, a murderer. English protestant apologists therefore concentrated one-sidedly on Anne's godliness and her contribution to reform in England.

Trench warfare on confessional lines continued until the nineteenth century with protestants continuing to find Anne a considerable embarrassment and Catholic historians such as John Lingard able to exploit an Anne who 'artfully kept her lover in suspense, but tempered her resistance with so many blandishments, that his hopes, though repeatedly disappointed were never totally extinguished' (Lingard, 4.121). Alignments changed with the advent of secular but anti-Catholic historians who were convinced of the national significance of Henry VIII's reign. Here J. A. Froude and A. F. Pollard set the tone for much twentieth-century scholarship by marginalizing the king's private life. Anne's role in history was reduced to her appeal 'to the less refined part of Henry's nature' and her guilt accepted on the argument that such a king would only have acted on 'some colourable justification' (Pollard, 154, 276). The first scholarly study of Anne in her own right was by Paul Friedmann in 1884. He concluded the work by saying, with undue modesty, that his object had been 'to show that very little is known of the events of those times, and that the history of Henry's first divorce and of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn' had still to be written (Friedmann, 2.312). Nevertheless his was a seminal text because based on the hitherto little-known correspondence of Chapuys, which, while requiring the cautious reading demanded of all diplomatic material, represents the only continuous commentary on events in England between 1529 and 1545. Where Friedmann has been modified and qualified, particularly since 1970, is not in detail but in emphasizing Anne's importance and placing her career in the context of early Tudor politics. Historians now see her as a woman of importance in her own right and her destruction as an example of cynical realpolitik.

Anne Boleyn's fortune and fate rapidly became a European commonplace for infamy or tragedy. Shakespeare and Fletcher dared not exploit either in their 1613 play Henry VIII, and chose instead to concentrate on Katherine and end with the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth. Abroad, however, accounts, novellos, and poems appeared freely and Sander became a best-seller, translated into six languages. In Spain, ‘Anna Bolena’ even became an established term of abuse, and in other Latin countries too. On the other hand, using French sources, Felice Romani portrayed a more sympathetic Anne for the libretto of Donizetti's opera Anna Bolena (1830). There her offence is 'preferring a throne to a noble heart like Percy' (act ii, scene ii) and Henry VIII is portrayed as a monstrous egoist. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries also saw the various interpretations recycled in stage plays, novels, and popular biographies, more or less embroidered. In film and television, directors have been drawn to Anne's story, telling it as in a novelette, portraying Anne as a coquette or as a victim, and exploiting her execution for horror and even black humour. Above all, the fascination which Tower Green has for visitors has ensured that what is most remembered of Anne's life is the way it was taken from her.

Measuring Anne by the drama of her destruction is, however, grossly to misjudge her historical importance. Although not the cause of the breach between Henry and Katherine, Anne had a measurable influence on the direction of the divorce campaign, while the faction which gathered round her put in place the constitutional revolution of royal supremacy. At a personal level her presence both encouraged Henry and countered his frequent bouts of indecision. Her marriage also made necessary the first in a series of statutes which gave parliament an effective voice in the succession and ultimately brought her brilliant but bastardized daughter to the throne. As for religion, Anne Boleyn was effectively the first patron of reform among the English élite and, thanks in large measure to her, a fifth column of reformers became firmly established among the English clergy. Henry VIII's orthodox consorts left no mark on English religion; Anne, as John Aylmer somewhat exuberantly wrote in 1559, was 'the chief, first, and only cause of banyshing the beast of Rome, with all his beggerly baggage' (Aylmer, sig. F iv). As well as the image of the portrait medal and the paintings which depend on it, an alternative Elizabethan image of Anne Boleyn survives in a portrait in private hands; an engraving of this was published in Henry Holland's Baziliwlogia (1618). From the seventeenth century other images, including one of St Barbara, have been (and still are) falsely cited as of Anne, while in the nineteenth century, scenes from her life became a common subject for artistic invention.


  • E. W. Ives, Anne Boleyn (1986)
  • R. Warnicke, The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn (1989)
  • E. W. Ives, ‘Anne Boleyn and the “Entente Évangelique”’, François 1er et Henri VIII (Lille), 83–102
  • E. W. Ives, ‘Anne Boleyn and the early Reformation in England: the contemporary evidence’, HJ, 37 (1994), 389–400
  • E. W. Ives, ‘The queen and the painters’, Apollo, 140 (1994), 36–45
  • BL, Add. MS 28585
  • LP Henry VIII, vols. 3–11
  • CSP Spain, 1509–38
  • E. Hall, The union of the two noble and illustre famelies of York and Lancaster, ed. H. Ellis (1809)
  • N. Sander, The rise and growth of the Anglican schism, ed. D. Lewis (1877)
  • The acts and monuments of John Foxe, ed. S. R. Cattley, 8 vols. (1837–41), vol. 5
  • G. Cavendish, The life and death of Cardinal Wolsey, ed. R. S. Sylvester, EETS, original ser., 243 (1959)
  • T. Stemmler, ed., Die Liebesbriefe Heinrichs VIII an Anna Boleyn (Zürich, 1988)
  • H. Savage, ed., Love letters of Henry VIII (1949)
  • G. Ascoli, La Grande Bretagne devant l'opinion française (Paris, 1927)
  • W. Thomas, The pilgrim: a dialogue of the life and actions of King Henry the Eighth, ed. J. A. Froude (1861)
  • [J. Aylmer], An harborowe for faithfull and trewe subjectes [1559]
  • T. Wyatt, Collected poems, ed. J. Daalder (1975)
  • J. Lingard, The history of England, 4 (1820)
  • J. A. Froude, History of England, 2nd edn, 12 vols. (1858–66)
  • P. Friedmann, Anne Boleyn: a chapter of English history, 1527–1536, 2 vols. (1884)
  • A. F. Pollard, Henry VIII (1951)
  • H. Paget, ‘The youth of Anne Boleyn’, BIHR, 54 (1981), 162–70


  • oils, 1560–99, NPG [see illus.]
  • oils, other versions, 1560–99, NPG, Royal Collection
  • R. Elstrack, print, 1618, BM
  • medal, BM
  • portrait, Hever Castle, Kent
  • portrait, repro. in R. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean portraits, 2 vols. (1969), pl. 10; priv. coll.
  • ring, Trustees of Chequers
Page of
J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner, & R. H. Brodie, eds., , 23 vols. in 38 (1862–1932); repr. (1965)
Page of
G. A. Bergenroth, P. De Gayangos, & others, eds., , 13 vols., PRO (1862–1954); M. A. S. Hume, ed., , 4 vols., PRO (1892–9); repr. (1971)
Page of
Historical Journal
Page of
National Portrait Gallery, London
Page of
Camden Society
Page of
British Library, London
Page of
British Museum, London
Page of
Early English Text Society
Page of
Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research