Anne Boleyn’s Background and Birth

Posted By on July 15, 2014

Hever Castle, the place Anne knew as home.

Hever Castle, the place Anne knew as home.

I’m kicking off our series about Anne Boleyn’s life with a look at her background and birth…

Anne Boleyn was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard, who had married in around 1499. Her mother Elizabeth was the daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey and later, from 1514, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. The Howards were an ancient noble family who could trace their roots back to Edward I and who had served English monarchs for generations. Anne’s father Thomas was descended, on his mother’s side, from Theobald Walter, 1st Baron Butler (d. 1205), who was of Norman origin and who served Prince John as the first Chief Butler of Ireland. The title was passed down the family and the surname changed from Walter to “Butler” (Thomas’s mother was Lady Margaret Butler). Thomas’s maternal grandfather was Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond. Interestingly, the Butlers also descended from Edward I.

Although the Boleyns are often seen as “social upstarts” or “nouveaux riches”, because Thomas’s grandfather Geoffrey Boleyn rose from humble beginnings to be a wealthy merchant, knight and Lord Mayor of London, many regard them as an ancient French family who may have been descended from the Norman Counts of Boulogne. You can read more about this in my article Anne Boleyn’s family Tree. Whatever the truth of the Boleyns’ origins, by the time the Boleyn children were born Thomas Boleyn was a well-respected courtier.

Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn had at least five children: Mary, Anne, Thomas, Henry and George. Thomas and Henry, named after their father and the King respectively, died in childhood and their graves in the parish churches of Penshurst and Hever are marked with simple brass memorial crosses which can still be seen today. There is a long-standing dispute as to the ages of the three surviving Boleyn children and their order of birth. Although people like to speculate about Anne’s date of birth, some even going as far as drawing up an astrological natal chart, we just don’t know when she was born, not even what year. She may have been named Anne because she was born on the feast day of St Anne (26th July) or because she was named after her paternal aunt (the Anne Boleyn who married Sir John Shelton), and historians argue over whether she was the oldest daughter and whether she was born in 1501, 1507, or some year between those dates. It is frustrating that we don’t know her birth-date, but it is a common problem when researching Tudor personalities. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it became compulsory to officially register births and deaths, and it wasn’t until 1538 that parish priests were ordered to record baptisms, marriages and burials, and even then many priests ignored the order.

There are valid arguments for 1501 and 1507 as years of birth for Anne Boleyn – you can read the arguments and evidence given in my article The Early Life of Anne Boleyn Part One – Beginnings – but I personally believe that Anne was born in 1501 because she was sent to the court of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen in the spring of 1513 as a maid of honour, a position usually only open to a girl of 12 or 13 years of age, and in 1514 she was recalled from there to serve Mary Tudor, Queen of France. When Mary returned to England, following the death of her husband Louis XII, Anne went on to serve the new queen consort of France, Queen Claude. I do not believe that a girl of 6/7 would have been chosen to serve these important women. However, unless more evidence comes to light we will never know for sure when Anne was born and the subject does make for a great debate.

We also don’t know where Anne Boleyn was born, but it is likely that she was born at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. The property had been in the Boleyn family since its purchase by Geoffrey Boleyn in 1452, and it passed to Thomas Boleyn when he married. Thomas formally inherited the property upon his father’s death in 1505. He and Elizabeth lived there from the date of their marriage until 1505-6, when they moved to Hever Castle in Kent. Unfortunately, the Blickling Hall the Boleyns knew no longer exists; the current property, which occupies the grounds of the original, was built during the reign of James I. Anne would have spent the years between 1505/6 and her departure for Margaret of Austria’s court in 1513 at Hever Castle. Geoffrey Boleyn had bought the property in 1462 and had set about building a comfortable home – a manor house – within the existing structure of the original walled bailey. Thomas Boleyn also made significant improvements to the house when he inherited it, including the long gallery. Hever would have been the place Anne called home and it is well worth a visit – see Hever Castle – A Magical Place for more information. Don’t forget to visit St Peter’s Church, which is on the green just outside the castle entrance, and pay your respects to Thomas Boleyn and view his beautiful brass memorial. You’ll find Anne’s brother Henry’s little brass memorial cross on the floor near Thomas’s tomb too.

Hever CastleThomas Boleyn is often seen as a man who rose at the Tudor court because of his daughters’ relationships with the King, but this idea is a myth. In 1501, Thomas was a guest at Catherine of Aragon’s marriage to Arthur Prince of Wales; in 1503, Thomas was chosen as a member of the party escorting Margaret Tudor, Henry VII’s daughter, to Scotland to marry King James IV; he served Henry VII as an Esquire of the Body and carried on in this role when Henry VIII acceded to the throne; he was knighted in 1509 by Henry VIII and his wife served as one of the “baronesses” of the Queen’s Chamber at the coronation of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1509; he received a number of grants and offices in 1509, 1511, 1512 and 1514; he was a chief mourner and one of the knight bearers at Prince Henry’s funeral on the 27th February 1511; he was sent to Margaret of Austria’s court to act as an envoy in 1512; he was a member of the Privy Council by 1518 and a respected ambassador; he sponsored Francis I’s baby son, Henry, Duke of Orleans, in the name of Henry VIII in 1519; he was appointed Comptroller of the Household in 1520 and Treasurer of the Household in 1521… And those are just some of his career highlights. His rise had everything to do with hard work and talents such as his gift for languages, which made him an ideal diplomat, and nothing to do with his daughters being involved with the King.

Anne was born into a family on the rise and to a father who was a Renaissance man. No-one could have had any inkling that this little girl would one day be a queen consort, but she was given opportunities that many girls could only dream of. I’ll be talking about her education and upbringing in a future post.

Other articles that may be of interest:

16 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn’s Background and Birth”

  1. Dennis says:

    I’m very fortunate to live reasonably near to Hever Castel – it is indeed a magical place.

  2. Tina says:

    I diligently read your posts everyday! I just love them! I was wondering if you had written anything about what happened to her belongings and the famous B necklace after her death. Does anything of her personal belongings exist today?

      1. Tina says:

        Thank you for replying. I enjoyed the article but am sorry they’re lost. May I ask about her dresses? What might have happened to them?

        1. Dawn 1st says:

          From what I have read about clothing from these times, because of the expensive fabrics, furs and jewels that made up these garments, there taken apart and were re-fashioned. As they belonged to the royal wardrobe it’s quite possible one of his other wives may have worn something made up from Anne’s clothes. Also many parts of the clothing were made up of separate pieces, sleeves used with different gowns and kirtles etc, a mix an’ match.
          There is a great post on here about tudor clothes by expert Bess Chilver.

  3. Esther says:

    Great post. BTW, is anything known about the ages of the other ladies in waiting to Margaret of Austria? The letter from Margaret to Thomas Boleyn stating that Anne is “so pleasant for her young age” is unlikely if Anne was the same age as the others. So, if the others were the minimum age, then this letter does point to a 1507 birth date, but if the others were older, this evidence is rendered irrelevant. Also, I don’t think Anne’s age had any bearing on her fall. The daughter plus miscarriage (or miscarriages) would still convince Henry that G-d did not favor the marriage with Anne; he still wanted to marry Jane Seymour; and his own jousting accident would have convinced him that he didn’t have the time to give Anne any more chances.

    1. Claire says:

      There is a list of eighteen “filles d’honneur” in “Chronique métrique de Chastellain et de Molinet: avec des notices sur ces auteurs et des remarques sur le texte corrigé”:

      “Aultre plat pour les filles d’honneur et aultres femmes ordonnés par Madame de manger avec elles que sont XVIII, assavoir:-
      Mesdames de Verneul, Waldich, Reynenebourg, Bréderode, d’Aultroy, Hallewyn, Rosimbos, Longueval, Bullan, les II filles Neufville, Saillant, Middelbourg, Cerf, Barbe Lallemand et la mère.

      Fille d’honneur shows that Anne was serving as a maid of honour, rather than being a member of the nursery, so would be in keeping with an age of 12/13 and the comment about her age could just mean that she was mature for her age.

      I didn’t get very far in tracking these names down but gives alternative spellings, such as d’Aulnoy instead of Aultroy and Waldeek instead of Waldich. With Aulnoy, I just found François de la Motte, Baron d’Aulnoy, but that was later than the period in question. I found a Jeanne de Neufville, but she was born in 1478 and a Marguerite Marie de Neufville who died in 1547 but I couldn’t find a birthdate. I kept hitting brick walls!

      1. Leslie says:

        I used to agree with the 1501 birth date as well, not being able to figure how a 12/13 year old girl could serve as Fille d’honneur at such important courts in Europe.

        However, a number of factors have convinced me on the 1507 date:

        1. Her father had powerful connections in European courts, which would allow Anne these opportunities.
        2. Didn’t she have a male escort when she left England? Normally, a 12/13 young Tudor girl would have had a female escort, is this correct?
        3. The Tudor standard of age is very different from present day. Some girls were married by the age of 7, and certainly, they were considered women by 13 (and ready for reproduction). Let us also not forget that Elizabeth I translated an entire manuscript from French to English for Catherine Parr when she was just 11 years old!
        4. As Esther points out above, the reference to Margaret of Austria saying Anne was “so pleasant for her young age” makes me believe she was indeed younger than the other girls.
        5. Gareth Russell convinced me! 🙂

        I love this site, Claire, thanks as always for your hard work and research!

        1. Leslie says:

          “I used to agree with the 1501 birth date as well, not being able to figure how a 12/13 year old girl could serve as Fille d’honneur at such important courts in Europe.”

          *I meant 6/7 year old girl 🙂

        2. Banditqueen says:

          Anne may have been very clever but would be far too young to be sent to a foreign court as a companion to a royal princess or maid of honour to the most sophisticated lady in Europe. I don’t believe Thomas Boleyn was influential enough to have a seven year old in such an advanced position. While your case is good it makes more sense and internal evidence from Anne’s own letter to her father point to a teenager, a girl 14 or 15 when she came to France to attend Princess Mary Rose and then Queen Claude.

  4. Karen says:

    Hi Claire I daily read your posts and look forward to them very much and appreciate all the work and effort that you put into them, I see in your post that the Butler family were descended from Edward I

    “Thomas’s maternal grandfather was Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond. Interestingly, the Butlers also descended from Edward I.”

    I wondered if you could let me know of a family tree somewhere detailing the lineage from Thomas Butler to Edward I.



    1. Claire says:

      Hi Karen,
      Here is the list from Thomas Boleyn back to Edward I:
      Sir Thomas Boleyn, son of Lady Margaret Butler
      Lady Margaret Butler, daughter of Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormonde
      Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormonde, son of James Butler, 4th Earl of Ormonde
      James Butler, 4th Earl of Ormonde, son of James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde
      James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde, son of James Butler, 2nd Earl of Ormonde
      James Butler, 2nd Earl of Ormonde, son of Eleanor de Bohun
      Eleanor de Bohun, daughter of Elizabeth Plantagenet
      Elizabeth Plantagenet, daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile

      1. Karen says:

        Hi Claire,

        Thank you very much for replying back to me and this information.

        Thanks again


  5. BanditQueen says:

    Anne Mary and George must have loved running around the gardens of Hever Castle. It really does seem a magical place. Do you think that Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn where affectionate parents or just strict ones who provided a place of warmth and safety and did what was best for their children, but may only have shown a small amount of affection? I actually think they did love and care for and cherish all their children and I love that scene at the end of Anne’s life in the Tudors when she is thinking back to when she was a little girl and her father was waiting for them as they played hide and seek and as Anne comes out Thomas Boleyn sweeps her into his arms. He must have been strict and demanded moral behaviour from them but he must also have loved and shown his affection as well.

  6. Wendy says:

    If Anne were born in 1501, then she would have been 32 when she married Henry. If having a son was his mission in life would he have risked marrying Anne at that age? It doesn’t have to be either 1501 or 1507, it’s most likely a date in between.

    1. Dawn 1st says:

      That’s always been a niggle in my mind too Wendy, a first baby at 33 was old then I would have thought and more risky too perhaps, then miscarriages, didn’t leave a lot of time for the sons to arrive before the menopause would be upon her in those times…it’s a conundrum, the facts above lay out the logic perfectly why she was born circa 1501, but…that niggle is still there.

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