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When I thought of launching this new series of articles I had to make a big decision: who could I choose for the lead article? Who can represent the true spirit of what this new project is about? I must admit it was not the easiest thing; I had a few options but I really wanted to pick someone who is famous enough to be well-known in the history books, someone who was reckless, inspiring but not a saint either, someone who really shook the ground like an earthquake. And then it finally hit me: Anne Boleyn.
For those who are not that much into English history, you might be more familiar with the man she was the second wife to King Henry VIII. Yes, unfortunately, her life was determined and dramatically ended by that crazy fat dude who was famous for being a real looney. Under Henry’s kingdom, a lot of historical crucial facts took place, but what many of you might not know is that much happened because of Anne Boleyn. She was not just a queen, a wife or a witch as some chauvinist historians liked to portrait her, she was far more interesting than that and I will do my very best to tell you her story.
MOULDING A YOUNG LADY
It’s not certain whether Anne Boleyn was born in 1501 or 1507, apparently, this information was not considered crucial to note for the future generations because of course, even if she was noble, she was still a girl. What we do know is that Anne was born at Hever Castle in Kent, the Boleyn family home where she also spent her early years of life. The Boleyn family originally came from Norfolk and Anne’s ancestor Geoffrey Boleyn made his fortune as a hatter in London and became a member of the gentry. Also, both Anne’s parents (Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Boleyn) were descents of Edward I, so she was no commoner at all.
Thomas Boleyn, holding the title of Earl of Ormonde and Wiltshire, was a very well respected man at the English court and as soon as Anne was 12, he shipped her to the Habsbourg court at Mechelen in the Netherlands, the Mecca of the culture of that time, to be no less than a maid of honour of Regent Margaret of Austria. Thomas made this move so that Anne could receive the very best education and then come back to England to serve the queen Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. Anne was a brilliant young lady as she mastered French, music, dance, deportment and conversation skills.
On the 14th August 1514, Thomas Boleyn wrote to Margaret of Austria asking her to release Anne for she was chosen to attend the new queen of France due to her fluency in French. In 1515 Anne enters the household of Queen Claude, Francis I’s wife. During the 7 years of attendance at the French court, Anne had the company of her sister Mary who built herself up a bit of a reputation as an expert lover and therefore gaining the infamous nickname of “the English Mare”.
GETTING IN THE GAME
Anne’s duty at the French court ended in 1521 when she was summoned by her father to return to England and marry James Butler in order to solve a dispute over lands and the title of Earl of Ormond. We might think “yawn, this story isn’t that much fun” but this is where things begin to get interesting. The marriage, arranged by King Henry’s loyal Cardinal Wolsey, never actually took place because the King said no. Do we know why? Of course, we don’t, nobody ever dreamed of asking a king the meaning of his actions, especially if the king was a crackpot like Henry. So no wedding, no fake-happy bride, Thomas Boleyn went back to his original plan and managed to assure a spot for Anne as one of Queen Catherine’s ladies in waiting. Her first day of work happened to fall on Shrove Tuesday and she took part in a masquerade at court playing the part of “Perseverance”. And this was the day the king set his eyes on Anne, she caught his attention and things were about to change forever.
It’s funny to read people asking themselves “what did Henry see in Anne?” because “she was not beautiful”. Sorry, it just makes me giggle because obviously those who ask such questions don’t know a thing about seduction and for some reason, they just seem to ignore the fact that Henry was no cover model either. When looking into the past we must understand that taste is one of the most evolving things in human nature and what we find ugly today might have been considered beautiful 500 years ago. That said, Anne had many useful skills for a lady of her status at the time: she was a great dancer and singer, she followed the French fashion in clothing and she was very stylish, carrying herself around with the confidence of a queen. Now mix all these ingredients together and you’ll find Anne Boleyn was not a common gal at all.
Another point that seems quite ignored is if she even ever wanted Henry in the first place. But even if she did Henry was not only a king, but a married man, and Anne was not so easy to fool. Henry could be a real pain in the ass and spent years wooing Anne, so much that she stayed away from court for one year to keep that crazy stalker away. A series of letters dated from 1526 to 1527 was found, a proof which is very close to what today we call harassment, but which those who live in denial call “love letters”.
If being asked to be someone’s only mistress is what love is about, then maybe we need to rewrite all the soap operas on TV. However, Anne was determined not to give herself up without a ring on her finger and she definitely wanted to avoid her sister’s nickname. Do you know when they say “you only want what you can’t have”? Henry was obsessed with Anne, he was convinced she was the one who would give him a son and that was a matter of no little importance. In fact, Henry became king when his elder brother died and along with the crown, he also got Catherine of Aragon who failed to produce a male heir. Henry was a very superstitious man and he believed God had cursed him because he married his brother’s promised wife. This story about guilt trips and conscience was meticulously tailor-made to fool the Pope in order to get an annulment. Needless to say, this request caused a theological war and ultimately led Anne to realise she might have become queen for real. In 1528 Anne acquires and shows Henry a copy of “The Obedience of the Christian Man and How Christian Rulers Ought to Govern” published by William Tyndale. This book said that rulers were accountable to God, not the Pope and in 1530, Cardinal Wolsey, the n°1 enemy of Anne failed his negotiations for Henry’s divorce with the Roman Church and committed suicide for this after being arrested.
Anne was getting closer and closer to the greatest power she could ever imagine. In 1532 she was given the title of Marquess of Pembroke in her own right and when Henry took her to visit the French court she finally had sex with him, after keeping him on his toes for 10 years! Say what you want, but doing something like this really took talent even hundreds of years ago.
THE MARRIAGE A MILLION WOMEN COULDN’T GET
1533 is quite the crucial year in Anne Boleyn’s life. She and the King got married with great discretion and after a while she was pregnant. Taking a step this big changed the rules for women: never could a woman have dreamed of shifting from royal mistress to queen. And yet Anne did it, along with a religious reform she strongly believed in and pushed to make happen. Henry became Head of the Church of England with the Act of Supremacy and therefore his marriage to Catherine of Aragon declared invalid and Princess Mary declared a bastard.
But there is a hard life for the silver spoon too. Anne was not accepted nor perceived as queen by the people, she was seen as a golddigger and power seeker. Her efforts to protect the poor were not enough and the fact that she gave birth to a girl (better known later as Queen Elizabeth I) didn’t exactly help her get more supporters. She finally felt truly in charge when Catherine of Aragon died, just imagine she wore yellow on purpose and danced all day to show all the hate she bore her.
In just one year things changed drastically. Anne had two miscarriages and Henry began to question her ability to give him a living son. Because he was that sad he had multiple affairs with Anne’s maids including the biggest of all with Jane Seymour, second cousin of the queen and the woman who would be Henry’s third wife. This is where is obvious that somehow Anne learned to care about the king as she was raging jealous of Jane, so much that when she found out Henry gave Jane a locket with his portrait Anne snatched it from her rival’s neck so violently she hurt her hand. I dare to think there sure was a dose of feminine jealousy, but mostly Anne understood Henry was doing what she did with her all over again and this time she was on the wrong side of the relationship.
To add salt to the wounds Anne had frequent fights with the king’s chancellor Thomas Cromwell. She told him off in the king’s presence and he got so mad that he came up with a plan to remove her from power.
So imagine you are the queen of England in 1536. Imagine your husband is a prick and his chancellor wants to see you on your knees scrubbing the floor. Imagine you are the kind of person who speaks her mind and who spends her time tailoring laws and legislations instead of dresses. You are going to piss a lot of people. And that pissed people will push you aside, hide you behind a curtain and smash you like a roach.
On May 15th 1536 Anne was arrested and escorted to the Tower of London. She was accused of adultery with at least five different men including her brother George; high treason for conspiring against the king and last but not least: witchcraft. There was no way out, the king wanted to do some house cleaning and chose to use murder instead of brooms. What you might not know is that in Tudor law defendants were presumed guilty until proven innocent and they were often unaware of what they were accused of until the trial, so it was practically impossible to build a good defence. But even if they managed, there still was a king who could twist the truth however he pleased him to.
The suspect lovers of Anne were beheaded, while Anne was sentenced to burning or beheading “as the King’s pleasure shall be further known of the same”. For this occasion no less than the Hangman of Calais was summoned, the best at beheading people with a sword. George Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were all executed on Tower Hill on May 17th 1536. On the very same day, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared the annulment of the marriage of Anne and Henry VIII.
Anne’s execution was scheduled for May 18th, and as she prepared herself to die she made her last confession. She swore on her soul’s damnation that she had never offended the king with her body. That was a pretty serious statement and very likely to be true as the last confession was taken pretty much seriously at the time. The woman had been clearly framed, however, she thought the king had changed his mind when she was told her execution had to be postponed. Henry didn’t change his mind about sending Anne to the block, he told Cromwell to clear the Tower of “strangers” first, foreign diplomats who would include their accounts of the execution of a queen of England in dispatches to their masters and mistresses. God forbid Henry could be seen as a villain! Oh, and by the way, if your husband no longer wants a head on your shoulders, maybe love wasn’t involved to begin with.
That was really the end. On May 19th Anne was brought to the scaffold. She had taken care with her appearance: the ermine trim on her outfit confirmed her status; her kirtle was crimson, the colour of martyrdom; and her hood was the traditional English gable hood. Her speech was simple and concise:
The executioner did his job smoothly and Anne’s body and head were wrapped and brought to the nearby Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Nobody cared of providing her with a coffin to be buried in so a yeoman warder fetched an old elm chest from the Tower armoury.
In 1876 the Chapel had to be restored because of its sinking floor. While excavating the remains of Anne were found and after being examined she was reburied in an oak box with an emblem on it with her name, date of death, and the year of reinterment (1877). The box was buried in the spot where Anne had been found, at four inches below the surface, and the earth was filled in before a layer of concrete was spread over the top. A decorative memorial tile bearing “Queen Anne Boleyn” and year of death, was laid to mark the spot. Now every year on May 19th a basket of roses is delivered and laid on the queen memorial. It is not known exactly who the sender is and the card with it reads simply “Queen Anne Boleyn, 19th of May 1536”. At last, an attempt to a happy ending.