by Victoria Begin
“Your majesty’s very obliged and very obedient servant, without any reserve, Anne Boleyn”
Like stars in the night sky, royal figures throughout history are known individually for their rise to power, the golden days of their reign, and unfortunately on occasion, their downfalls. One historical figure in particular, Anne Boleyn, can be likened to a shooting star, appearing and flashing by quickly – too quickly – leaving a tremendous legacy in her wake. An obedient Queen Consort to the tyrannical King Henry VIII, Anne gave birth to a daughter in 1533, but three unfortunate miscarriages followed, and although they were through no fault of her own, they completely diminished Henry’s hope that Anne would ever bear him a son. Soon, his heart began to harden towards Anne, his eye began to wander, and Anne, who had only wanted to please her husband, fell out of favour. Henry, known to all as being a cold-blooded and cruel King, made several outrageous accusations against his wife, such as incest and witchcraft, in order to dispose of her. She was astonishingly enough found guilty of the false charges and sentenced to beheading in 1536, a death she bravely accepted, all at the hands of King Henry VIII. Innocent Anne, although murdered by her husband, has left a legacy that to this day paints a portrait of her as a victim, an unforgettable Queen whose downfall was caused by external factors beyond her control.
Although the year in which Anne Boleyn was born is widely debated, believed to be either 1501 or 1507, she is known to have been the youngest of three children born to Sir Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Boleyn. In her teenage years, she served as a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of France, and at twenty she returned to England where she became a maid serving Queen Catherine of Aragon, wife of Henry VIII (Anne Boleyn and the Downfall of Her Family). Having been well-educated and well-bred by her father and mother, Anne’s arrival at the English court was met with a great deal of attention, as she was unlike any other young lady present. Unconventionally beautiful, Anne was known for her expressively large, dark eyes and mane of glossy black hair. Along with these intoxicating physical features, she possessed a great deal of confidence and poise, which can be attributed to the many formative years she spent at the French Court, learning music, dance and poetry (Before the Glory). Looking at her most famous portrait, painted in the 16th century by an unknown artist, her eyes are mesmerizing, her mouth set in a way that brings to mind Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, an element of mystery present in her face. At the time that Anne Boleyn arrived at the English court, King Henry VIII had been married to the Spanish Catherine of Aragon for fourteen years, having taken her as his wife after the death of his young brother, and her husband, Prince Arthur. Their union had produced a daughter, Mary, but had also resulted in several stillborn children, and Henry was discouraged and very clearly not in love with the Queen. In order to understand Anne Boleyn’s downfall, it is imperative that Henry be understood as a ruthless dictator of a King, a reality that history has illustrated very clearly, as one biographical website states: he held unquestionable and absolute power of life and death over every man, woman, and child in England. He merely had to mention a word, raise a finger or nod and that would signify the arrest, torture and execution of anyone of whom he thought offered the slightest bit of trouble (The Tyrannical Henry VIII). Accustomed to getting his way, it was crystal clear to anyone in his realm that Henry did not tolerate any disagreement, and his greatest dream was to have a son who would rule just like his father, a dream he would pursue relentlessly at the expense of everyone he knew.
When the King met young Anne Boleyn at court, history has described him as being almost immediately besotted, and rightly so, with Anne being nothing like the ladies he was used to. Along with her unusual and exotic appearance which no doubt caught the King’s eye, Anne was confident enough to hold her own opinions and speak against Henry’s, which no other person, let alone woman, dared to do. As Richard Bevan states in his article, Anne Boleyn and the Downfall of her Family, the King tolerated his lover’s feisty demeanour and her witty repartee excited him at the time. Although Anne spoke boldly and enjoyed lively discussions with the King, she also was intelligent enough to know what he was capable of as a ruler with absolute power, and therefore she did tread somewhat carefully in her arguments. She was a challenge, and he began to pursue her, lavishing her with expensive gifts and titles for herself, her father, and her brother, George. In accounts of their early relationship, it is clear that Anne was very fond of Henry, as at this time he would have been a very easy man to love, even without the additional dazzle and splendour of being King (Before the Glory: Anne Boleyn Before Henry VIII). Henry had an easy manner and a flirtatious charm about him when it came to women, one that he was known for, even though he was a callous King. After several letters were exchanged between the two, and because Anne had managed to hold Henry at arm’s length until she was both his wife and Queen, it came as no surprise that Henry wanted to marry her, which he did secretly in 1533 after a lengthy battle with the Archbishop and the Vatican to obtain an annulment from Catherine of Aragon. Anne’s coronation day was met with disdain and upset by the English people, who had loved Catherine of Aragon, and they cried out ‘HA! HA!’ mockingly as tapestries decorated with Henry and Anne’s entwined initials passed by (Before the Glory). Any woman in this position would be hurt by the accusations and general consensus among her people that she was a home-wrecker and a harlot, but Anne held her head high, keeping her wits about her. Not only was she a new wife, she was also a new Queen of England, and although she had persevered and saved herself up until this point in order to keep Henry’s attention, she now had a great responsibility before her. She was required to fulfill Henry’s dreams, giving him a living, legitimate heir.
Shortly after their marriage, Anne dutifully became pregnant, and both she and Henry were understandably overjoyed and hopeful that she could be carrying a son. Their hopes were dashed, however, when Anne gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Elizabeth. Henry was disappointed, and did not hide this from his wife, which no doubt was incentive for her to conceive again as soon as she could. Unfortunately, this future heir was not to be. What followed the birth of Princess Elizabeth were several miscarriages and two still-born sons, the latter being especially heartbreaking for Anne, as they were of the correct gender, but would never grow up to be kings. This undoubtedly caused Anne an immense amount of grief and pain, as she wanted to be a good, obedient wife to Henry, and wished to keep his attention focused on her. She must have known at this point in time, a year or two after their marriage, that Henry was unhappy with her and was having affairs and liaisons around court, being the womanizer that he was. Out of fear and anxiety, Anne now tried to get pregnant in vain, and it was this desperation which caused dozens of rumours to abound following Anne’s final miscarriage, which happened in 1536, at 15 weeks of gestation (The Downfall of Anne Boleyn). Rumours swirled through the court that this miscarried child had been demonic and monster-like, as it was only partially developed, and this type of fetus was often thought to be the result of incest. One terrible rumour in particular was gaining strength, which was that Anne’s brother, George Boleyn, and the Queen had conspired out of desperation to produce a male heir (Anne Boleyn and the Downfall of her Family), thus the delivery of a demon-like fetus that was not only the result of incest between a brother and sister, but also the work of the Devil. In reality, however, there only would have been a handful of people who had seen this undeveloped child, probably the doctors who delivered it and Anne herself, and therefore this fabricated accusation of incest had no real basis. As horrendous as these lies were, they served as confirmation to the people of England and Henry himself that Anne Boleyn was guilty of practicing witchcraft and dealing with the devil.
Anne’s inability to provide Henry with an heir over three years of marriage had caused him intense frustration and anger. Terribly impatient and also growing older at this point, Henry had completely lost interest in his wife and had already set his sights on one of Anne’s young ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. At the time of his wife’s final miscarriage of a deformed fetus, and upon hearing the rumours of incest and witchcraft that were now rife at court, Henry’s heart became even colder towards Anne. As to be expected from a ruler such as Henry who merely eliminated those whom he felt insulted and bothered him, he set in motion the necessary steps in order to get rid of this witch, this incestuous wife of his who he felt was now a nuisance. From a historical point of view, Henry would have been humiliated at the fact that his second wife, on whom he had placed his every hope for a legitimate son, was not only unable to provide him with an heir, but was also engaging in sexual relations with her own brother, a man whom Henry had placed at his court as a Lord only years earlier. This embarrassment only demonstrates further the kind of selfish pride that Henry maintained for himself, as he was so quickly able to dismiss the passion and love that had burned in his heart for Anne in previous years. It is almost as if he brainwashed himself into believing the lies of sorcery, incest, and adultery about Anne, in order to rid himself of her, and save his own reputation and pride.
To dispose of Anne for good, Henry needed what he believed to be a real trial, and so he created an accusation of his own, claiming that Anne had committed adultery with several men at court, including her brother George. Five men were arrested, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris and Anne’s brother Lord Rochford, under suspicion of having relations with the Queen (Anne Boleyn and the Downfall of her Family). Henry knew that these men were known for their affairs and liaisons around court, and therefore it would not come as a surprise that they had also bedded Anne. Upon hearing of these accusations, Anne laughed at the absurdity of such findings when some of her accused lovers such as the musician and possibly homosexual Mark Smeaton had only met her briefly (Anne Boleyn and the Downfall of her Family). Unstoppable in his quest to destroy Anne, Henry put forth a secret interrogation involving his statesman Thomas Cromwell, as well as Anne’s father and her uncle, in order to investigate the possibility of Anne being an adulteress and a witch. This interrogation involved the torture of these men until a confession was given, and Henry knew full well that one of them would surely confess in order to decrease the pain of torture. Anne herself, undoubtedly in total disbelief at what had transpired and how unbelievable the accusations were, found herself arrested and taken to the Tower of London on May 2, 1536. A short trial was held, with a result likely already pre-determined by Henry himself with no mercy on poor Anne’s soul, and it is easy to imagine a very stunned and emotionally numb Anne being read the allegations against her as she stood before her accusers. Witchcraft seemed like a reality to many who conspired against Anne, as she is rumoured to have had six fingers on one hand, as well as a mole on her neck, a lie that surely came out of the false charges laid against her, not rooted in any reality. Shockingly found guilty on all charges, one can imagine the devastation that was felt as Anne received the death sentence from the Duke of Norfolk, her own uncle, and he is said to have had tears in his eyes as he delivered her sentence of beheading (Anne Boleyn and the Downfall of her Family). Graceful to the end, Anne accepted this sentence and maintained her composure in the days leading up to her execution on May 19th, breathing a slight breath of relief when she was informed she would be executed by a sharp, swift French sword instead of having her neck hacked with an axe, like other unfortunate souls sent to the block.
What King Henry desired, King Henry received, and so his merciless, heartless will was done. On May 19th, 1536, Anne made her final journey from the Tower of London to the scaffold, and gave a memorable, gracious speech to all those in attendance. Historians will never know exactly how Anne felt towards King Henry during the time she spent in the Tower, but from a human perspective, one can only assume she was angry and felt completely powerless against his will. In her speech, Anne, although a victim dying an unfair death, praised the King and encouraged those listening to pray for him. Anne’s execution was over in a matter of seconds, but little did she know that her red-haired toddler of a daughter, Elizabeth, whose arrival into the world had been met with disappointment, would grow up to be Queen, ruling England in a way never seen before by its people. Little did Anne know the profound effect she had had on those who were fortunate to know her during her short life, who would go on to record the kind of woman she was, their words cemented in books and poetry for all eternity. Little did Anne know the legacy she was leaving behind her that morning in May of 1536, the kind of legacy that lingers and produces theories and ideas even five hundred years later. Anne’s downfall was very quick, like a shooting star bolting across the sky, but still staring out at us from her most famous portrait today, she continues to possess a sense of intrigue and mystery that place her among England’s most fascinating, unforgettable women.
Bevan, Richard. “Anne Boleyn and the Downfall of her Family”. BBC: British History In-Depth. Originally published November 5, 2009. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/tudors/anne_boleyn_01.shtml)
Bingham, John. “Salacious claims of Anne Boleyn’s incest in Henry VIII documents placed online”
The Telegraph. Published April 7, 2009. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/theroyalfamily/5120633/Salacious-claims-of-Anne-Boleyns-incest-in-Henry-VIII-documents-placed-online.html)
Hastings, Chris. “Henry VIII’s Love for Anne Boleyn Revealed”. The Telegraph. Published November 15, 2008. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/3463838/Henry-VIIIs-love-for-Anne-Boleyn-revealed.html)
Lewis, Vince. “The Tyrannical Henry VIII”. Henry VIII. Published April 10, 2009.
McDaniel-Weissler, Ellen. “Before the Glory: Anne Boleyn Before Henry VIII”. Suite101.com. Published September 28, 1999. (http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/tudor_england/20682)
St. Cyr, Linda. “The Downfall of Anne Boleyn”. Associated Content. Published December 16, 2009.