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01 Mar 2015
Women's History Month - Anne Boleyn

Women's History Month - Anne Boleyn

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We’re always up for a bit of discussion at Historical Trips, and in honour of Women’s History Month we’ve been discussing the women we find most memorable. One of the most divisive woman in British history has come up more than once… Anne Boleyn.

Anne Boleyn was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, a courtier and diplomat. She spent her childhood and teenage years in Europe - firstly as the lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Margaret of the Netherlands and then as lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII's younger sister Queen Mary in 1514. She returned to England in 1522 as the lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII's wife Catherine of Aragon.'

The love affair between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn remains a fiercely debated topic by historians. Many people believe that Anne’s beauty drove Henry from Catherine’s arms, but this simply isn’t true. Anne earned many admirers during her first year at court, but wasn’t immediately pursued by Henry VIII. He was at first besotted by her sister Mary Boleyn, who he was engaged in a heavy affair. The situation pleased Anne’s ambitious father who was gifted with the title Earl of Wiltshire. It would take another four years for Henry to fall under the spell of his ‘other Boleyn girl’. Anne was never considered a great beauty. Venetian diplomat, Francesco Sanuto, described her as;

“…not one of the handsomest women in the world; of middling stature, a swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised.”

It was her strong character, intelligence and wit, which bewitched Henry. The King had tired of his marriage to his ‘second-hand wife’, Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his elder brother. The same problem that would plague all his subsequent marriages had arisen for the first time: a male heir had not been born, so Catherine had to go. Unfortunately for Henry, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was Catherine’s nephew. Not wishing to anger Charles V, Pope Clement VII refused to annul their marriage. Despite an initially chaste courtship between the couple – apparently a large portion of their courtship consisted of him kissing her breasts, or ‘pretty duckies’ as he called them - Anne found herself pregnant in 1533. Henry passed the Act of Supremacy, breaking away from Rome and declaring himself the Head of the English Church. Henry and the six month pregnant Anne were immediately married and she was crowned Queen of England shortly after, at a lavish coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, in September 1533. Initially, Henry was unconcerned about the birth of a daughter, convinced that this would leave the way clear for a son to be born. Anne’s next two more pregnancies ended in miscarriage. Just as Catherine before her, she could not give Henry the son and heir he craved. He placed all the blame for the situation at Anne ‘s feet and took comfort in her lady-in-waiting, his soon-to-be third wife Jane Seymour. She was arrested along with five men, including her brother Lord Rochford, in April 1536. After 1,000 days of marriage, Henry had ordered his wife’s execution. She was charged with adultery, incest and conspiring to murder the king. The secret commission who investigated the charges against her consisted of Thomas Cromwell, and quite surprisingly her father and uncle. She was found guilty nonetheless, and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Anne was the first English queen to be publicly executed and she drew quite a crowd. Instead of using her final moments to express her innocence, or pray to God, she instead delivered an impassioned speech to the crowd before her, praising her husband;

"…a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord."

She no doubt believed he would spare her life, but the “good and gentle” Henry would not offer his pardon to her. She was spared the ‘indignity’ of an axe, instead the executioner’s sword fell, separating Anne’s head from her body with a single swipe. Her life was taken from her because she failed to produce a male heir for Henry - in a bittersweet turn of events, the child of their union would become one of Britain’s most successful monarchs. Elizabeth I’s 44 year reign stabilised the Tudor kingdom and forged a sense of national identity. Of course, Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, would never produce an heir, and the Tudor dynasty ended with her death.