History Fact File: Anne Boleyn
On 19th May 1536 at the Tower of London in front of a watchful crowd, Anne Boleyn became the first Queen of England to be publically executed.
The charge was treason. Anne had been accused of having committed adultery with five men, including her own brother George to whom she had always been admittedly close.
A trial by her peers had found Anne guilty and she had been sentenced to death by either burning or beheading, with the choice being in the hands of her betrayed husband King Henry VIII.
Burning was a particularly gruesome form of punishment, so it was fortunate that Henry chose beheading instead. Not only that, but the sentence was further commuted when Henry agreed to Anne’s request for a French swordsman instead of an English axeman, to carry out the task.
Anne is believed to have been born in 1501 at the family home in Norfolk, although no records exist. She was the second of three surviving children, alongside her elder sister Mary and younger brother George.
The siblings were raised at Hever Castle in Kent, which Anne’s father Thomas inherited from his father in 1505. Thomas Boleyn was a politician and courtier who later became the Sheriff of Kent, Ambassador to the Low Countries and Knight of the both the Garter and Bath.
It was these connections, particularly in Europe, that in 1513 allowed Thomas to send Anne to the court of Margaret of Austria, to continue her formal education. In 1514 Anne was chosen to accompany Princess Mary of England (the younger sister of King Henry VIII) to France for her marriage to King Louis XII.
This marriage only lasted three months before Louis died, after which time Princess Mary returned to England. Anne however, stayed in the French court for a further six years, finally returning home as well educated, French-speaking, fashionably French-styled young woman in 1521.
King Henry VIII of England fell hopelessly in love with her, making her a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon, making visits to Kent to see her at Hever, sending gifts, writing songs and penning love letters and notes.
Throughout the 1520s and 30s, Henry’s preoccupation was the birth of a son. Having a male heir to follow in his footsteps was a point of both national importance and security but also one of personal pride. Catherine of Aragon, who had been Henry’s wife since 1509 had failed to produce a boy and as Henry’s infatuation with Anne grew deeper, he began to believe that his Boleyn mistress would.
There was a problem, however.
In order to divorce Queen Catherine and marry Anne, Henry needed the agreement of the Pope, who refused the request largely on the basis that Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor was busy laying siege to Rome and virtually holding him prisoner inside.
To get around this, in 1536, Henry passed the Act of Supremacy which granted himself authority over the church and essentially cut England out of the Catholic structure. With these new powers, Henry could grant himself a divorce, which, although it wasn’t recognised in mainland Europe, is what he did.
Henry and Anne were married in 1533, by which time Anne was already pregnant. But sadly, the son that Henry had longed for never materialised and instead the child was another girl, named Elizabeth after both of their mothers.
If Anne had been able to deliver a boy, then her safety would never have been in question. As the mother of the future king, she would have been protected from enemies, rumours and discontent. With a daughter, however, she was not and so when the rumours of her infidelity intensified, there was no net to save her from the dramatic fall from grace.
The irony, of course, is that of Henry’s three children, it was Anne’s daughter Elizabeth who would go on to leave the biggest mark, ruling over England for forty-four years and establishing a reign still known as ‘The Golden Age’.
Anne meanwhile, remains a powerful figure, as polarising as she is shadowy. Despite having only limited information about her life, her romance with Henry and her rise to power continues to captivate audiences around the world.