Over the next couple of weeks I intend to write about Anne Boleyn’s early life, her life leading up to her arrival at the English Court in 1521/1522, and today I want to start with her birth and family background.
There are many myths surrounding Anne, and things we don’t know, but at least we know who her parents were, unless you believe the myth that Elizabeth Boleyn had an affair with Henry VIII! Anne Boleyn was the daughter (I believe second daughter) of Thomas Boleyn, a rising star at the Tudor court, and his wife Elizabeth Boleyn (Lady Elizabeth Howard), daughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk. Anne had royal blood, being descended from Edward I through both of her parents, so she was no commoner. Hugh Paget comments that her royal descent combined with “the exceptional gifts with which she was endowed… developed to the full in two of the most highly cultivated courts in Europe” made her “a not unworthy consort” for Henry VIII.
Her father, Thomas Boleyn, was born in 1477, the son of Sir William Boleyn, High Sheriff of Kent, and Lady Margaret Butler. His paternal grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn, was Lord Mayor of London and a successful mercer. In around 1498/1499, Thomas Boleyn married Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and Elizabeth Tilney, a woman who had served as lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth Woodville and as Lady of the Bedchamber to Elizabeth of York. Although it is often said that Elizabeth was marrying beneath her by marrying Thomas, we have to remember that Elizabeth’s father was not restored to his father’s title of Duke of Norfolk until 1514. He had fought on Richard III’s side at the Battle of Bosworth and so was stripped of his lands and titles, and imprisoned, after Henry VII’s victory, he was punished for being a traitor.
Anne Boleyn had four siblings: Mary, George and two brothers who died in childhood, Thomas and Henry. I believe, like many historians, that Mary was the eldest daughter, being born around 1499/1500. This theory is based on a letter from George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon and Mary Boleyn’s grandson, to Lord Burghley in 1597, in which he asks for advice regarding petitioning Elizabeth I about claiming the earldom of Ormonde. The earldom had once been held by Thomas Boleyn, his great-grandfather, and Hunsdon’s claim to it rested on the belief that the title “should have passed to his father and then on to himself by virtue of their descent from Sir Thomas Boleyn’s eldest daughter, Mary.” Baron Hunsdon, therefore, believed that Mary was the eldest of the Boleyn girls. Anne’s only surviving brother, George Boleyn, was most likely born around 1504 and this is backed up by the fact that he did not receive his first royal grant until 1524 and comments made by Jean du Bellay, a French cardinal and diplomat, who considered George to be too young to act as the ambassador to France in 1529.
But when was Anne Boleyn born?
I wish I knew! It would be so wonderful to start this article with “Anne Boleyn was born in 15– at … “, obviously with the blanks filled in, but I can’t because we just don’t know for sure and all we can do is hypothesise based on primary sources and secondary sources from 17th century historians.
The Birth of Anne Boleyn
As I have mentioned before, there are two main dates given for Anne Boleyn’s birth – 1501 and 1507 – and there are valid arguments for each year, which I’ll discuss in a minute. Not only is her place of birth is dependent on the year of her birth – if you take 1501 as her birth date then it is likely that Anne was born at Blicking Hall in Norfolk, if you take 1507 as her birth date then it is likely that she was born at Hever Castle in the Kent countryside – but so is the way we view her life and her fall. As Gareth Russell points out in his article, “The Age of Anne Boleyn”:-
“If she was 28, as one of her stepdaughter’s ladies-in-waiting claimed, then the reasons behind her execution become infinitely more sinister – at 28, Anne Boleyn was still undeniably in her childbearing years. Yes, she would have been at the tail-end of them by Tudor standards, but she would have had at least four or five more years before she was considered infertile, and so the idea that it was just her “failure” to produce a son which led to her death in 1536 suddenly becomes a good deal less convincing and the idea that it was her husband who orchestrated her monstrously unfair death becomes infinitely more likely. However, if she was 35, then she was already practically middle-aged by Tudor standards and it becomes far more likely that the entire reason for her destruction was politics pure and simple, with Anne – and to some extent, perhaps, maybe even her husband – being victims of a savagely brilliant process of character assassination, lies, manufactured hysteria and a ruthless palace coup organised by the King’s chief adviser, Thomas Cromwell.”
I apologise for revisiting this subject, when I have written before on Anne’s date of birth, but I thought it was appropriate to start my series with a look at the arguments for 1501 and 1507 as potential dates of birth for Anne Boleyn.
- Thomas Boleyn’s letter to Cromwell, dated July 1536 – In it, Thomas Boleyn refers to the financial hardship of the early years of his marriage, writing that his wife “brought me every year a child” LP xi.17 If we consider that the Boleyns married c1498/1499 then surely all five Boleyn children (Mary, Anne, George, Thomas and Henry) were born before 1505. Also, Thomas Boleyn became a wealthy man on the death of his father in 1505, so he must have been referring to Elizabeth’s pregnancies pre-1505.
- Anne Boleyn’s letter – Art historian Hugh Paget examined an early letter from Anne Boleyn to her father, Thomas, and concluded that it was written from La Vure, the royal park in Brussels which was the location of Margaret of Austria’s summer palace and hunting lodge, in 1513. Paget also writes of how we know from correspondence between the Emperor and Margaret that the appropriate age for a “demoiselle d’honneur” at Margaret’s court was around 13 or 14. A 1507 birth date would make Anne 6 in 1513 so Paget concludes that Anne was born in 1501, making her a year younger than the usual age. Historians such as Eric Ives note that the “formed hand” of the letter belongs to a 12 year old, rather than a 6 year old.
- Anne Boleyn’s fall – A birth date of 1501 would make Anne around 35 years of age at her execution and it may explain why Henry VIII was worried that Anne could not give him a male heir and why he was so ready to replace her with the younger Jane Seymour. At 35, Anne was past her prime. Jane Seymour is thought to have been born around 1508, so if Anne was born in 1507, why would Henry replace her with someone just a year or so younger?
- Lord Herbert of Cherbury – In “The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth”, published in 1649, Lord Herbert wrote of how Anne returned to England in when she was about twenty, and Anne returned in 1521/22.
- Nicholas Sander – In 1585, Sander recorded that Anne Boleyn was in her 15th year when she travelled to France in 1514.
- Anne’s appointment as a lady-in-waiting to Mary Tudor, Queen of France – We know that in 1514 Thomas Boleyn asked Margaret of Austria to release Anne from her care so that Anne could return to England to accompany Henry VIII’s sister on her journey to France to marry Louis XII. We don’t know whether Anne did travel to England or whether she ended up going directly to France, but we do know that she was one of the ladies that Louis allowed Mary to keep with her in France and not one of the ones sent back to England. Surely, a 7 year old would not be chosen to serve a Queen of France!
- W.Camden’s marginal note in his Annales Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum, regnante Elizabetha ad annum salutis M.D. LXXXIX(1615) – This says “Anne Bolena nata M.D. VII.”, i.e. 1507. Gareth Russell, in his article “The Age of Anne Boleyn”, states that Camden started writing his account of Anne Boleyn’s life in the late 16th century “with the backing of the English government” and that he had access to William Cecil’s personal papers and state archives.
- Thomas Boleyn referring to Anne as “la petite Boulaine” in a letter to Margaret of Austria in 1514 – Retha Warnicke, in her article “Anne Boleyn’s Childhood and Adolescence”, argues that Thomas would not refer to a 13 year old girl in this way.
- Margaret of Austria’s comment in a letter to Thomas Boleyn – Margaret writes that Anne is “so pleasant for her young age that I am more beholden to you for sending her, than you are to me.”
- John Weever’s “Ancient funerall monuments”, published in 1631 – Warnicke writes of how Weever recorded that Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII had fallen in love when she was 22 and he was 38. Henry VIII was 38 in 1529 so if Anne was 22 in 1529 then she must have been born in 1507.
- The birth of Elizabeth I in 1533 – Retha Warnicke comments that if we take 1501 as Anne’s date of birth then it would make her a rather old, by Tudor standards, 32 at Elizabeth’s birth and believes that this would have been commented on by 17th century historians.
- The evidence of Jane Dormer, the Duchess of Feria – In his biography of Jane Dormer, her chaplain Henry Clifford wrote of how Anne Boleyn had not turned 29 when she was executed in May 1536. Jane Dormer was one of Mary I’s ladies so some historians argue that although Jane was not born until 1538 she would have known from Mary how old Anne was.
- Anne being a resident at Margaret of Austria’s palace, not a maid-of-honour – Retha Warnicke argues that Anne was sent to Margaret of Austria, not to serve her but to be educated with Margaret’s nephews and nieces. Warnicke backs this up with Anne’s words in the letter to her father when she refers to the teaching techniques of of her tutor: “Semmonet dictates the letter to me and leaves me to write it myself”.
- Anne’s chaperone – Gareth Russell points out that Anne was escorted from Hever to Brussels by a man, Claude Bouton, and not a female chaperone which would surely have been more appropriate if Anne was 12.
- The fact that Anne was still unmarried in 1526 – Gareth Russell points out that a birth date of 1501 would have made Anne 25 in 1526, close to an “unmarriageable age” by Tudor standards.
- Anne’s suitability as queen – Gareth Russell comments that in all of the objections cited during Henry’s struggle for divorce and his quest to marry Anne, nobody mentioned that Anne might possibly be too old to give Henry a son and heir and surely they would have if she was in her late 20s or early 30s.
Although the arguments of Retha Warnicke and Gareth Russell did sway me for a while towards 1507, I still believe in the 1501 birth date. The main reason for me believing in 1501 is that I cannot believe that a 7 year old would have been chosen to accompany Mary Tudor to France, it just does not make sense, never mind a 6 year old being sent to Margaret of Austria’s court. I realise that one of the main arguments for 1507 is the evidence of Jane Dormer, who may have heard of Anne’s age from Mary I, but then Mary I also stated on a few occasions that Mark Smeaton fathered Elizabeth! As far as Thomas Boleyn’s “la petite Boulain” comment, that could just be his pet name for his youngest daughter, I know my father’s pet name for me has no bearing on who I am! Gut feeling tells me 1501 and I’m sticking to that for now.
- The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives
- The Age of Anne Boleyn, article by Gareth Russell
- The Youth of Anne Boleyn, article by Hugh Paget, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research , LIV (1981)
- Anne Boleyn’s Childhood and Adolescence, article by Retha Warnicke, The Historical Journal, Vol.28, No. 4, Dec. 1985