Anne Boleyn was Henry VIII’s second wife. She married Henry in January 1533 – four months before his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was announced.
Anne was born in 1500 or 1501. She was considered beautiful with dark eyes, long dark hair and a lively personality. At the age of 13 she worked in the French court. Here she worked for Mary, Henry VIII’s sister, who had married the king of France. When the king, Louis, died, Mary returned to England. Anne stayed in France as maid-in-honour to the new queen.
Such an upbringing for a young girl from a noble English family was not unusual. It was felt that young girls would have the perfect education in France on how to become a ‘proper’ lady, which would, in turn, lead to her finding the ‘right’ man for marriage.
In 1522, aged 21 or 22, Anne returned to England and worked for Catherine of Aragon’s household. Anne fell for a young man who worked at the court called Henry Percy. She became secretly engaged to Percy – who was already engaged to someone else. The engagement was ended after an intervention by both Henry and Cardinal Wolsey, England’s most important government minister. Anne never forgave Wolsey for his involvement in the break-up nor for calling her a “foolish girl”. Percy was forbidden from ever seeing Anne again. Anne was banned from the Royal Court until 1524/25. However, she had already caught the eye of Henry who openly wanted her to be his mistress – something she refused to do.
Henry embarked on his plan to divorce Catherine and marry Anne. This proved to be successful when they married in the winter of 1533.
Anne was crowned queen in June 1533. She gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth and also to a stillborn boy. Henry and Anne swiftly fell out. He believed that she had been cursed and his ‘proof’ was the second thumb Anne had growing out of her main one. There were even rumours that she had a third breast. Anne, now in her early 30’s, had a sharp tongue on her and had made enemies at court. Henry had already befriended one of her maids of honour – Jane Seymour.
In May 1536, Anne was arrested and charged with treason. Anne was held in the Tower of London. The Constable of the Tower was William Kingston. He had four ladies stay with Anne at all times and they had to report directly to him anything said by the queen. Kingston’s diary does tell us that Anne was hysterical when she arrived at the Tower through Traitor’s Gate and had to be half-carried to her quarters.
Her actual ‘crime’ was that she had affairs with 5 men including her brother George. There was no proof of this but all six were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. In fact, Anne was unaware of what charges she faced until she actually arrived in the hall at the Tower of London where her trial was to take place. Her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, had to read out the court’s finding: guilty of adultery and plotting to kill Henry. The court sentenced her to be burned at the stake or decapitated – the choice lay with Henry.
It is said that while in the Tower, Anne wrote a poem about her impending execution:
However, there is no proof that Anne wrote this poem and it is almost certain that Kingston would have had some knowledge of it as Anne was constantly watched by her female ‘guards’.
Anne was executed on May 19th 1536. As a final gesture, Henry gave his permission for Anne to be beheaded by a sword. She was terrified of the axe. Two specialists were brought over from France as no one existed in England who had the necessary skill to carry out the execution cleanly. Her execution was swift and her body was laid to rest in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London.
Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour, on May 30th, 1536, just eleven days after the execution of Anne.