Was Anne Boleyn a commoner?

Posted By on January 8, 2021

Anne Boleyn became King Henry VIII’s official queen consort following their marriage in 1533, and it’s often said that she was a commoner and even an ambitious social climber. But what class of society did Anne Boleyn fit into really?

Was Anne Boleyn an aristocrat? A noble? Or was she a commoner?

In this edition of my series “Questions about Anne Boleyn”, I explain (with the help of Boni the dog) the social class that Anne was a member of and how it fit in with the other classes.

I mentioned Gareth Russell’s course “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” which can be found at https://medievalcourses.com/overview/six-wives-henry-viii-monarchy-matrimony-tudor-england-mc05/. It’s completely online.

8 thoughts on “Was Anne Boleyn a commoner?”

  1. Banditqueen says:

    Anne Boleyn was a commoner, her entire family were commonners, if one measures it by the modern meaning, anyone not of the highest noble families or the ruling royal family. Until her elevation to the nobility as Marques of Pembroke and again as Queen. Her father was elevated to the Earldom of Wiltshire.

    However, he was a Knight before that and of the merchant class, not the nobility. He was the gentry class, the highest rank and income range, his wife was a noble woman and their ancestors also held important ranks at Court and in Ireland. Some of the women in the family had barons blood, but that still makes them a commoner. They were not one in the sense of the fact they held land and privilege and favour and could dress well, had a good home, had royal ranks and offices and lived well, held office in the county as gentry did, but yes, as they were not yet noble or royal.

  2. Christine says:

    Anne was a Howard on her maternal side and thus connected to the aristocracy, through them she could claim descent from Edward 1st, also on her paternal grandmothers side she was descended from the Irish Earls of Ormond, but the Boleyn’s were as Claire explains of the merchant class, her great grandfather Geoffrey Boleyn became a hatter by profession in London and eventually was knighted and became her Lord Mayor, so he did well in his career but there is evidence that Anne Boleyn was embarrassed by her humble origins, no doubt brought on by the intense snobbery she endured at court when Henry V111 was determined to make her his queen, she claimed descent from the French Earls of Boulogne, a claim her aunt the Duchess of Norfolk scoffed at, but really, she was not alone in her aim to produce more noble ancestors in her tree, many a gentleman at court like to invent a Norman nobleman as a distant ancestor if they did not have Plantagenet blood in their veins, as there were many new families at court who were aware of the older noble families, Cromwell himself was said to be disliked more because of his humble origins, being but the son of a mere blacksmith he truly was of the peasant class, but the landed gentry were different, they lived in fine dwellings, they had servants their children would go to court and if they were lucky, become a member of the king or queens household, the Seymours themselves were of the landed gentry and yet like the Boleyn’s, they too could claim a royal lineage, near the royal family there were the noble families of England, the highest of these were the Percys, the Stafford’s and the Howard’s, Anne when as a young girl had captured the heart of the son of the Earl of Northumberland, she was considered not good enough for him, being but the daughter of a mere knight, however there was more to it than that, many historians think it was because the king became jealous as he had a fancy for her himself, others say it was because Percy was already engaged being a member of the nobility, and he could not break it of without seeking permission of the king and his father, marriages of the nobility were decided by the king, when becoming official mistress of Henry V111 she was elevated to Marquess
    Of Pembroke in her own right, a singular honour and her father was bestowed with an earldom, thus making them of the noble class, this was in preparation for when she became married to Henry V111 and was then crowned and anointed, her sister Mary married a William Stafford, a minor branch of the Stafford family, of who the late Duke Of Buckingham was a member, unfortunately he lost his head, some say more for his royal blood than because he had committed treason, Anne may have been born the daughter of a mere knight, but she rose high and eventually became Queen of England, her story is parallel in many ways to Elizabeth Woodville who also was not nobly born, but was beautiful and charismatic enough to make a king fall in love with her, Queen consorts were not chosen for love, they were usually foreign princesse’s and their marriage was a negotiated union between both countries usually when both parties were children or babies, yet Edward 1V married her in sheer defiance of Parliament and his own mother, no wonder she was thought of as being a witch, I must add it was a delight to see Boni Claire, he appears a bit camera shy though, unlike Teasel who loves to laps up all the attention!

    1. Banditqueen says:

      BONI is very beautiful. She knows she was born from royal blood and a very good age as well.
      Merchants actually often wed into the aristocracy because they had the money. If a noble fell into financial trouble as they often appeared to during the fifteenth century because of constant fighting or lending the King money, they might marry a daughter of a wealthy merchant in order to avoid further debt. Chaucer married into the aristocracy as did his sisters and they lived at the heart of things. Social climbing gentry did marry an heiress or two thus expanding their sphere of influence and moving up a rather rigid social class. Let’s face it, if you went back far enough all of their ancestors started by farming sheep and taking land over. The biggest and strongest who pinched the most land and killed the most people became King. That’s how all Kings began as thugs and war lords.

      1. Christine says:

        Yes the nobility had their proud lineage but not necessarily the money they needed to pay for their lavish lifestyle, so they would often marry someone of the merchant class or the landed gentry simply because they were very rich, for their part the merchant class/ landed gentry benefited through marrying into the nobility they had a title, very good for opening the doors into London and European society.

      2. Christine says:

        My sixth times grandfather was a gentleman farmer and he married the illegitimate daughter of the Egerton/ Bridgewater family, and they can trace their lineage back to Princess Mary Tudor, I doubt my grandfather would have married a low born woman born out of wedlock, but he was certainly happy enough to marry an illegitimate daughter of the Bridgewater family, on her birth document there is no mention of her parents, however the word spurious is there, which means the origins are unknown, yet she was allowed to call herself an Egerton, and on her daughters obituary it states she was maternally related to the Bridgewater family, so she was obviously acknowledged by them but that is all I have to go on.

        1. Banditqueen says:

          Hi Christine, you have really dug into your family.
          I must read the letter I have from a long time ago from South Africa about what they found out about our Irish branch of the McMahon family. Typically they are living the other side of the equator and they know far more about our family beyond great grandparents than we do. I think if I was called Trump right now I would be changing it. Spurious could mean hidden or illegitimate origins because illegitimate children were often hidden within the family as “cousins” and not merely out of shame or scandal but because they couldn’t legally inherit property until the 20th century. An illegitimate child could be adopted and made legitimate but for most people they were just absorbed into the family and brought up with their siblings.

          The nobility used to sometimes invent a more illustrious genealogy than really existed to raise their status in the marriage market. However, they also had a good reason to hide or downplay their status. The Pole and de la Pole families under Henry Viii downplayed their royal status because they were related more closely to the House of York. They kept a low profile and accepted the Tudors without much reservation. However that changed in 1538 when they were accused of being involved in the fictitious Exeter Plot and the entire Pole and Courtney family, another branch of the same line, were arrested and flung in the Tower, Matriarch, sons and grandsons. Henry Courtney and Henry Pole were executed on the 9th January 1539 because they were accused of hiding heraldic cloths and imagining the death of the King. Margaret Pole, the elderly Matriarch, daughter of George, Duke of Clarence and niece to Edward iv and Richard iii, was imprisoned until her brutal execution in May 1541. Her two sons, Henry and Geoffrey and ten years old grandson Henry were all imprisoned in the Tower of London. With them were the descendents of Edward iv from his daughter Catherine, Henry Courtney, the young Edward Courtney and their cousin Edward Neville. Gertrude Courtney, their Matriarch was arrested but not imprisoned. The real reason for all this was Reginald Pole, out of reach but still writing to his brother and mother. These families had long maintained good relationships with King Henry and his father but in 1538 it all went wrong. Suddenly their low profile didn’t matter anymore.

  3. Christine says:

    Yes in Henry V111’s reign those of the Plantagenet blood had to tread very softly, in his daughter Elizabeth’s reign she kept a close eye on the two Grey sisters, Catherine and Mary, they also were aware of the queens paranoia regarding their claim to the throne, because they were born legitimate no doubt about that, and Elizabeth all her life knew many thought she was just Anne Boleyn’s bastard, it must have been a scary time living so close to the throne with two suspicious monarchs, I have heard of the Exeter plot, it must have been the result of malicious rumours spread by their enemies to bring them down, it was disgusting that poor lady Margaret Pole suffered death merely because her son was on the continent and out of reach, it suited Henry V111 to slap the title of treason on her head and have her executed, it seems to me a very petty act of revenge, like when he allowed Dereham to suffer the full horror of his death, just because he had known his queen in her youth, and had taken her virginity, an act most unworthy of a king.

    1. Banditqueen says:

      Margaret Dodd who wrote about the Exeter Plot as an extension of her classic work on the Pilgrimage of Grace made the case that the alleged conspiracy didn’t exist. It was based on a few very silly and obscure remarks by Henry Pole to his brother Reginald and an old banner with the family arms on from years earlier kept in an old trunk. It’s like the cops finding a banner in a house today from an anti nuclear protest from the 1970s, you probably didn’t even know it was there. Reginald had been close to Henry, the King sponsored his education and his tuition on the continent but Reginald was upset over the way Queen Katherine was treated. His treastise was written more in grief than anger.

      Henry sent men to bring him back for trial and probably execution or to assassinate his cousin. Henry Courtenay was very close to the King for many years and the families had conforned to the new order after the Supremacy, albeit somewhat reluctantly. However, Margaret Pole got involved with Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent and had to ask for a pardon. The family now obviously survived on a tight rope, keeping as much out of things as possible. Then things suddenly deteriorated and it was clear that Henry Pole had some sympathy for his troublesome brother. Henry was outraged by the words of Reginald, with some justification. More writing from him and his support for the Northern and other rebellions put an unwanted spotlight on these fiercely Catholic and traditional families and their claims to the crown. Its believed that Cromwell put the case together from virtually nothing. After almost three decades of loyalty the Courtney and Pole families were targeted and rounded up on fake treason charges. Practically the entire family suffered. The execution of Margaret Pole was outrageous and came out of the blue because she had been fairly well treated by King Henry as a prisoner at the behest of Queen Katherine Howard who gave her clothing and other items of kindness. She was executed without much warning almost two and a half years after her son. Her execution was horrendous because she was hacked to pieces. It was a disgrace.

      Her grandson, Henry Pole also was arrested aged between 8 and ten years old and he later vanished. He was imprisoned in the Tower and he was either starved or poisoned it is believed but in truth his fate is unknown. Maybe he was killed, maybe he died, but somehow he disappeared and wasn’t seen again.

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