Executed Queens: Anne Boleyn
“No English Queen has made more impact on the history of the nation than Anne Boleyn, and few have been so persistently maligned.”
- Joanna Denny “Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen”
Anne Boleyn has been the subject of much attention and fascination over the years. The facts are somewhat muddled, however, and we may never know the whole truth of her story. In fact, we don’t even know when (or where) she was born. Records of her official birth date have not survived - she could have been born anywhere between 1499 and 1512. The birth dates of her sister, Mary, and brother, George, have also been lost, but it is generally accepted that Mary was the oldest child and George the youngest.
As the daughter of the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, Anne was of noble, but not royal birth. Of Henry VIII’s four wives who were not royal (Anne, Jane Seymour, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr), Anne was of the highest noble rank.
As a child, she was taught reading, writing and arithmetic as well as “the basics” for girls of her time – music, household management, embroidery – but it was after she was sent to The Netherlands and then France as a lady in waiting that she became interested in the arts, literature and religion. Her time as lady in waiting to Queen Claude of France was especially useful to Anne, as she learned French language and customs. When she returned to England in 1522, her high fashion French clothing style was celebrated by many people at the court of Henry VIII.
Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII
Henry married Catherine of Aragon, who was his brother's widow, in 1509 and they had one living child - a girl who would become Mary I - but no sons. Until Mary's assumed the throne in 1553, no female had solely ruled England, with the exception of Matilda in 1114. The government and their subjects preferred a male ruler and, if Henry's wife could not provide one, his own children might never inherit the throne. Lack of a male heir to further the Tudor line was weighing heavily on Henry's mind. He'd had several mistresses, Anne's own sister, Mary and at least one other - a woman named Bessie Blount who had given him a son that could never inherit the throne because of his illegitimacy. Henry needed an heir.
By most accounts, Anne Boleyn made her debut at the court of Henry VIII in 1522. She had a role in a pageant alongside Henry's sister, Margaret Tudor, and several other notable ladies of the court. Because of her lively personality, Anne was popular at court and had several possible suitors. She was never considered exceptionally beautiful, though definitely not spoken of as having been ugly, but her personality and the grace with which she carried herself were admired. By 1526, Henry was in full pursuit of Miss Boleyn. The problem for him was that she refused to become his mistress.
The events which would come to be known as The King's Great Matter were simple and complex all at the same time. Henry wanted an annulment from Catherine so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. His marriage would have had to be invalidated by the Vatican, and the current pope was, unfortunately for Henry, the prisoner of Catherine's nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. No annulment was to be granted.
This brought about the beginning of the Great Reformation in England - the country officially split from the Catholic Church in 1534 and the Anglican Church was formed - with Henry as the official head of the religion. The was then able to obtain his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, through his own officials. He was also now able to legally marry Anne Boleyn, who was already pregnant. They had been married in secret on January 25, 1533 and, on May 23rd of that year, Thomas Cranmer officially invalidated the marriage of Henry and Catherine. Five days later, he declared the marriage between Henry and Anne to be valid.
Their daughter who would become Queen Elizabeth I, was born on September 7, 1533. Anne Boleyn would not live to see her daughter's third birthday.
The Fall of Anne Boleyn
After the birth of Elizabeth, both Henry and Anne hoped for a son to inherit the throne. In the summer of 1534, Anne suffered a miscarriage. In January of 1535, she lost another baby. This one was developed enough to be identified as a male child. Without a living male heir, Anne was in serious trouble.
Though many people consider her inability to have a male child to be Anne Boleyn's downfall, it certainly wasn't the only cause. She had plenty of enemies. Thomas Cromwell, the king's right hand man, did not see eye to eye with the headstrong Anne. Sometime in the spring of 1536, she and Cromwell argued, and some people believe this was when Cromwell may have set about removing the threat of Anne Boleyn. She was already very unpopular with the people - their allegiance lay with Catherine of Aragon - and they did not like the manner in which Henry had gotten rid of his first wife to marry Anne.
This was also an uncertain time for England. Because of The King's Great Matter, they were no longer part of the Catholic world. This caused clashes between Protestants and Catholics - aggression that some people blamed on "the king's whore" - Anne Boleyn.
Even Henry had issues with Anne's obstinate, opinionated and vibrant personality. Though these qualities had made her extremely attractive to him during his pursuit of her, they were not exactly the submissive traits that the wife of a king traditionally exhibited.
After the second miscarriage, it was seemingly obvious to those at court that Henry already had his eye on another woman. Jane Seymour had been a servant of Catherine of Aragon and had become a servant of Anne's household after her marriage to Henry. One could imagine that Anne Boleyn would have been desperate at this point. Henry had divorced his first wife because they could not have a son, she likely believed that the same could happen to her. Her fate, however, was to be much, much worse.
On April 30 of 1536, Mark Smeaton, a musician of Henry's court and a favorite of the queen, was arrested and likely tortured into giving a confession that he had been involved in a sexual relationship with Anne Boleyn. On May Day, the first of May, Sir Henry Norris was also arrested, though he could not be tortured because of his noble birth. On May 3rd, Sir William Brereton and Sir Francis Weston were also arrested. Anne Boleyn and her brother George had both been arrested the day before. They were all charged with treason and adultery and the brother and sister were charged with incest. Two others, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Richard Page were also accused of sleeping with the queen, but were released.
On the 12th, Brereton, Norris and Weston all plead innocent in court, however all were found guilty. Smeaton, who had likely been tortured, gave a guilty plea. All four were sentenced to death. Anne and George, in two separate trials, were also found guilty on the fifteenth. They were both condemned to die for their crimes.
It should be noted here that most modern historians believe that these trials were pretense only - a means to an end. Henry wanted rid of Anne Boleyn. It is also believed by some that Thomas Cromwell and his allies engineered the fall of Anne Boleyn. That she was going to be removed as Queen of England was almost a given, the only question was how to do it? Henry may have been fairly easy to convince - he wanted a son and Anne had been unable to give him one. He also moved his future fourth wife, Jane Seymour, into Anne's apartments before Anne was even executed.
Her execution itself was commuted from burning at the stake, as was the death sentence proclaimed for women by the Treason Act of Edward III, to beheading. She was given the slight respect of death by sword instead of the customary ax.
On the seventeenth, George Boleyn, Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston, Sir Henry Norris and Mark Smeaton were all executed at the Tower of London by beheading.
Quite a few people met their ends at the Tower of London - including Anne Boleyn.
Do you believe that Anne deserved to be executed?
The Execution of Anne Boleyn
May 19, 1536 was the last day of Anne Boleyn's life. Her marriage to Henry VIII had been invalidated the day before, and her daughter Elizabeth was now deemed a bastard and excluded from the line of succession to the throne.
Anne was reportedly disturbingly jovial the morning of her execution, considering she knew that her time was fleeting. Her execution had been scheduled for the day before, but the swordsman who had been specifically hired to kill her had not yet arrived to do his work.
At around 9:00 AM, Anne was led from her cell to her place of death. She did not require assistance to ascend the scaffold and gave a short speech imploring the people to pray for her. She then knelt and readied herself for death. While she knelt and prayed, her head was removed from her body with one expert stroke of the sword.
No burial preparations had been made for her. It is unknown whether Henry (or the surviving Boleyns, for that matter) chose not to do this on purpose, but her body lay on the scaffold until someone retrieved a wooden chest that had been made to hold arrows. She was placed inside the box and buried in an unmarked grave near her brother. Her body was one of those that were identified when the church, the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, was renovated in 1876 during the reign of Queen Victoria - as was George's. She is now buried near the altar, her final resting place marked by a tile that bears her name and the year of her death.
Regardless of Henry VIII's attempt to rid the world of Anne Boleyn, her legend has lived on. First during the spectacular reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I, who may have been one of the most significant rulers that England has ever had and secondly as being one of the most important queen consorts in history. Because of her, England broke with the Catholic Church. Even now, all these years later, we're still talking about her, some of us as if we've known her personally. Many of us believe that her death was tragic and uncalled for.
A lot of us hope that Thomas Cranmer's quote on the day of her execution rang true: "She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen in heaven."
Anne Boleyn's Prison and Execution Spot Video
© 2013 Georgianna Lowery