This is the third part in my series examining the lives of the women in Henry VIII’s life. Click here for previous essays from the series.
People who grow up to change the world don’t know they will, nor do the people who knew them beforehand. This means that we tend to know an awful lot about the childhood of royalty and commoners don’t begin to have their actions recorded until they become of interest to history. Because of Katherine of Aragon‘s pedigree, there are stories of her mother being pregnant with her, her birth, and the details of her childhood education. Conversely, we may never know the year of Anne Boleyn’s birth — generally agreed upon to have been sometime between 1501 and 1507, making her brother George (both 1504) either older or younger and her sister Mary… probably older? Her family was well-respected, possibly the most respected non-royal family in England, largely because her father Thomas was a favourite of King Henry VI. It was this family connection that sent both Mary and Anne from England to the continent to further their education, serving as ladies in waiting at the courts of monarchs friendly to English interests.
Anne wound up in the court of Margaret of Austria (the ruler of the Netherlands), upon the invitation of Margaret herself. So admired was Thomas and, who knows, maybe Anne herself, she was permitted to enter service prior to the customary age of thirteen. Margaret, who sounds like a really cool woman herself who I should really look into further, oversaw the training of Anne and her other wards, ensuring they were all trained in both academics as well as dancing, etiquette, card games, falconry (!!) and horseback riding. In a precursor to the charisma that would change the course of history, Margaret was so taken by this teen that she wrote to Thomas to thank him for sending her along. One year into her service, Anne was sent by her father to France for a new assignment — serving as lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor. (There are a lot of people named Mary in this story; I’m sorry there’s nothing I can really do other than use their last names whenever possible).
Anne remained in France for about seven years, serving under both Mary Tudor as well as Mary’s stepdaughter, Queen Claude, who was likely around Anne’s age. During this time, Anne added to her already impressive resume new skills and knowledge in the areas of art, fashion, literature, and religion, along with training in the ways of courtly love and flirtation. It wasn’t all falconry and batting eyelashes, of course; she most likely came into contact during this time with the French King’s sister, Marguerite de Navarre (a different Marguerite than I’ve already written about). Marguerite is known for her writings on Renaissance humanism, which outline her thoughts on the Christian faith and how she felt it should adapt to modern times. In later years, Anne’s own devotion to the Protestant faith seems to owe a debt to Marguerite’s influence. When Thomas arranged a marriage for Anne, she returned to England, arriving in 1522.
Now, this prospective husband was her Irish cousin James Butler, and the benefit of the marriage to Anne’s father was to allow him a claim to some contested family property. VERY INTERESTINGLY, the match had been approved and partly arranged by Anne’s future husband, Henry VIII. Thomas had been a valuable advisor to Henry’s father, and clearly was still very much a favourite of the new King. The benefit of a match between Anne and James would be, hopefully, to help avoid war between England and Ireland (these contested lands were a pretty big deal at the time).
Meanwhile, while Anne was being trained in cool things and shipped around by her father, her sister Mary Boleyn was in the midst of a whirlwind of scandal and drama. She, too, had been brought back from France — but not for a marriage, rather, because she had been sort of kicked out of French court for having been having too much fun. Upon her return, Mary Boleyn was quickly married to a man named Henry Carey, in a wedding attended by King Henry VIII as well. I don’t know if King Henry first met Mary Boleyn at her wedding or if they were already acquainted, but it was a pretty open secret that she was one of the King’s mistresses even as she was married to Carey. While all this was happening, the plans for Anne to marry James fell through for whatever reason and she was tasked with staying on at English court as a lady in waiting to the Queen, Katherine of Aragon.
The historical record of Anne’s movements becomes much more reliable after she came to English court. Her first documented appearance there was on March 4, 1522, when she was somewhere between 15-21 years old. There was a ball that day, during which Anne took part in a dance that also featured her former lady, the King’s sister Mary Tudor, along with her own sister Mary Boleyn. Although the King did not begin his pursuit of Anne at this point, it’s clear that he would have known who she was from this time onward — it would have been pretty hard not to, as she quickly became a star of English court.
Anne arrived equipped with French gowns and headdresses different from the English style, as well as French influences in everything from her style of flirting to how she held herself. She stood out in a good way, her charismatic personality, confident intelligence, and beauty separating her from all the other ladies at court. She also has been consistently described as having had dark hair and eyes and an olive complexion, different from the pale skin and light hair favoured by the women at court. She also carried herself differently from everyone else — while docile, subservient behaviour had been ingrained in the young women brought up in England, Anne was exuberant, outspoken, and athletic, enjoying dice and card games, gambling, and food and drink. Basically, she was a 16th century Jennifer Lawrence falling at the Oscars, and everyone’s idea of the ideal woman began shifting to her sort of outspoken, lively style.
Naturally, she attracted numerous suitors, most notably a nobleman named Henry Percy. She seems to have returned his affection, as the pair became betrothed — but in secret, as neither of them was permitted to choose their own spouse without the permission of both families and the king. The whole thing comes up again here of whether or not they consummated their betrothal, so just keep that in mind for later. However, the whole thing ended once Percy’s father found out and refused to support the match (mainly because Percy had been betrothed to another woman for several years). Another notable male relationship Anne had at this time was with the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, who was likely only a friend to her, although he did seem to have been in love with her, too. He was also, of course, married, though he separated from his wife in 1525, likely due to his feelings for Anne. And in one of those Sliding Doors moments, had she wound up with either of these two, perhaps this would be all we’d ever know about her and English history would have turned out very differently. But as we all know, she caught the eye of the King; as has been documented, in 1526, Henry VIII began to pursue her. Anne was in her early 20s at this time; the King in his late 30s.
Now, as you may recall from the movie The Other Boleyn Girl or from a few paragraphs above, Henry VIII had already had a sexual relationship with her sister Mary Boleyn. When a young woman from a noble family becomes the mistress of an important man, it can bring wealth and favours to her relatives, so of course, her father encouraged this relationship. There was no way anyone observing could have initially seen this as anything other than Henry pursuing yet another mistress; yet, within a year they became engaged. This engagement came as quite a surprise as a) she wasn’t royal, and Kings didn’t usually marry commoners even if they were wealthy, and b) Henry was still married to Katherine.
How did what seemed like just any other fling turn into something more? We can be fairly certain that Anne and Henry did not become intimate until after they were married — but was that Anne being cunning, holding out for marriage rather than allowing herself to be discarded like her sister? Or was that Henry, wanting to ensure any children they shared would be unquestionably his heirs and not bastards? For a woman to refuse the King anything was a dangerous game but somehow, Henry remained devoted to her. The other complicating factor here is, of course, that Henry was still married to Katherine. When he decided to marry Anne, both of them assumed that he would be able to quickly get either a divorce or an annulment from the Pope for his first marriage, and they could quickly get married. But it all turned out way more complicated than either of them could have known.
As discussed in part two of my Katherine of Aragon series, Henry argued that his first marriage should be annulled because Katherine had been first married to Henry’s brother Arthur. If she had consummated her union with Arthur, then she had married two brothers, which can be interpreted to be forbidden in the Bible. But Katherine was royal and well-connected and refused to go down without a fight; she also maintained her entire life that she and Arthur had not consummated their union. Henry, who was also incredibly intelligent and well-read, consulted with religious and legal scholars to try and sort this all out. Then, one year after they became engaged, a disease known as sweating sickness broke out across England. Henry left court to protect himself, and Anne went back to one of her family’s residences in the country. When Anne fell ill, Henry sent his personal physician out to help her, and she rallied. It seems that, following nearly losing her to illness, Henry’s drive to marry her became more determined.
In 1531, the King exiled Katherine from court and did everything he could to strip her of her title and power. Anne, still not his wife and not the Queen, was moved into Katherine’s rooms at court and took a place by his side. Yet, despite Henry having switched allegiance from Katherine to Anne, the people of England still adored Katherine and considered her their Queen. At one point, a crowd of angry women swarmed Anne while she was having dinner along the river Thames, and she had to escape on a boat to evade their rage. Even as she was referred by derogatory terms by many of the English population, Anne continued to hold an honoured position at court. She was far more than mere arm candy and wielded her savvy and intellect to help influence Henry’s political decision-making. She was also a well-spoken and well-read advocate for the Protestant faith, which Henry was becoming more and more ready to embrace, not only because it was perhaps his only way to get rid of his first wife to marry Anne.
Unable to make her the Queen, Henry elevated Anne’s position as much as he could by appointing her Marquessate of Pembroke, at the time the highest rank an unmarried, non-royal woman could hold. Ambassadors and other dignitaries quickly realized how much sway and power she held at court, and began coming to her to earn her approval before speaking with the King. The Boleyn family also prospered by her immense new power, with even her Irish cousin James and other relations gaining lands and money. She was acting and being treated as a Queen, or at the very least the wife of a King, but still the Pope refused to grant Henry permission to marry her.
So, the King took matters into his own hands. Anne and Henry married, in secret, on November 14, 1532, even as he was still technically married to Katherine. She became quickly pregnant and a second, official ceremony was held on January 25, 1533 — likely to ensure that their impending children would be absolutely legitimate. Four months later, in May, Henry’s marriage to Katherine was declared null and void by the newly created Protestant Church of England. Henry had officially switched the country’s religion from Catholicism to Protestantism for a myriad of reasons I won’t get into here, but part of it was absolutely because it was the only way he could marry Anne. The two things are so closely entwined it’s impossible to separate how much of this shift was due to his love for her, but the passion he felt seems too intense to have been faked. In fact, he was so in her thrall that later (spoiler?) people began to spread rumours that she had practiced witchcraft to trap him.
In any case, the annulment of Henry’s first marriage made his second absolutely valid (and also had the side effect of declaring his daughter Princess Mary illegitimate). Since she had never been technically married to him, Katherine was formally stripped of the title of Queen, which meant that Anne could be crowned consort. Henry wanted her to be both his wife and his Queen, the latter of which was not necessary but which, again, speaks to how much he adored her. Anne was a noblewoman but not a royal; as such, she would be only the second “commoner” to be eligible to be crowned Queen of England (the first was Elizabeth Woodville, the previous century; the next would be Anne Hyde a hundred years later, then not again until Elizabeth “The Queen Mother” Bowes-Lyon in the 20th century, followed by Camilla Parker Bowles and Kate Middleton in the 21st century).
Despite the country’s overwhelming feelings of meh towards Anne, Henry still adored her and wanted her to be unquestionably his wife, which meant making her Queen. Anne was crowned Queen of England on June 1 following a grand procession to which the people of England were said to have reacted in a “lukewarm” manner toward her. At the time of their marriage and her coronation, Henry was 41 and Anne was in her early 20s. By contrast, Henry had been 18 at the time of his first marriage. When he married Anne, he had been the King for more than two decades and was still, arguably, in the prime of his life.
The new royal couple set out to rebrand everything they could, to visually separate themselves from Henry’s first marriage, to aesthetically replace Katherine with Anne. The former Queen’s motto, “Humble and Loyal,” was replaced with Anne’s amazing new motto of, “The Most Happy.” Anne is recorded as having spent lavish amounts of money on her wardrobe and home decor, though it’s not like Henry didn’t want her to. Anne was about seven months pregnant at the time of her coronation and everyone — she and Henry included — was entirely convinced she’d give birth to a boy. The traditional “we just had a son” jousting tournament was arranged, letters already were written proclaiming the birth of a new Prince. It wasn’t entirely wishful thinking, as nearly all of the court physicians and astrologers confirmed that this child would absolutely, totally, without a doubt be a boy. And it kind of had to be.
When Henry had annulled his marriage to Katherine, their daughter Princess Mary was caught in the crossfire — going from heir to the throne to illegitimate inconvenience; from Princess Mary to Lady Mary. It had long been an issue to Henry that he did not have a son to inherit his throne — a woman had never successfully ruled over England, and despite Henry’s own lengthy reign, his family’s claim to the throne may be lost without a firm hand to succeed him. One of the reasons he’d been determined to rid himself of Katherine was that she had aged out of her childbearing years; Anne, twenty years younger, had plenty of time ahead of her to birth any number of sons. Lady Mary, along with her mother, remained popular among the English subjects, and only a new son could convince them to abandon her for a new dynasty. So when Anne delivered a baby girl, she and Henry were both understandably devastated. The jousting tournament was cancelled; the prepared letters had a hastily added -ess to the word Prince.
Princess Elizabeth was sent to live in the country, where it was thought the air was clearer and conditions more favourable to an infant’s health. Anne visited her often and was known to dote upon her, even as she and Henry doubled down on their obsession with having another child — a male child. Anne’s next pregnancy ended early with either a stillbirth of miscarriage; the echoes of Katherine’s troubles conceiving must have been ringing in both her and Henry’s ears. To Henry, this meant potentially divesting himself of his new Queen and seeking out another woman to birth him sons; to Anne, it would mean the risk of losing all of her power and influence, not to mention her marriage and, perhaps, her life.
Traits Henry had enjoyed in her at the advent of their relationship — her outspokenness, quickness to speak her mind, and passionate nature — were no longer endearing, but now annoyed him. He began secretly investigating legal and/or religious avenues to divorce Anne without having to return to Katherine; but his investigations ended when Anne became pregnant again. It was 1535, nearly ten years after he had first begun to pursue her, and the sex and survival of this next child — both entirely outside of Anne’s control — would go on to define the next part of her story… which you can read about here, in part two.
Anne Boleyn is by far the most written-about of Henry VIII’s wives, for lots of reasons. I suspect much of this is because her personality and actions feel much more contemporary than that of the other five; she was outspoken and passionate, feminist before that was a word or a concept, and then, of course, has the startling downfall we’ll look into next time. For a study on why she continues to captivate, The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen is a great read — it looks both at various writings about her, as well as how she’s been portrayed on TV and in film. Another cool book is Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession, which looks at Anne as, partly, a victim of that thing where a man puts a woman on a pedestal then hates her when he realizes she’s only human. And for a YA twist, I really liked Anne & Henry, a fictionalized retelling of their relationship as a sort of Gossip Girl-esque teen melodrama.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter