On May 19 1536, Anne Boleyn knelt down on a bed of straw and her head was struck from her body by a French swordsman at the Tower. I’ve stood at the spot where she died and it’s a powerful experience with the ravens cawing. It didn’t matter that I was surrounded by other tourists. There’s something palpable in the air where she and so many others lost their lives at the pleasure of their monarch.
Nearly five hundred years ago this week, Anne’s reign as the shining jewel of Henry’s extreme ardor came to a brutal end. Anne Boleyn/Tudor is renowned for her seductive abilities and what a dance she must have lead. It took seven long years from the time Henry first fancied her to the time they finally married in secret. Yes. SEVEN. Seven long years of keeping him on a string, of ensuring he didn’t find someone else, or of not being killed/brought down by the many who were infuriated by the political and religious consequences of the King’s obsession for her.
The “naughty prostitute”, as she has been known, actually had one heck of a back ground. Dukes and lords were abound in her family history, both in Ireland and England. Yes, there was a merchant too, but Anne had the highest pedigree out of all Henry’s English wives and she certainly had the training to maneuver court life. As a very young girl she went to the court of the Archduchess Margaret of Austria. She was a star there before she was twelve. Margaret loved the little Anne, making it clear she felt that the a petite Boulin brought her much joy.
Anne was then sent to France to serve two queens of France, one of them Henry’s sister Mary. After learning to maneuver the sexy France court, Anne somehow managed to avoid the reputation that her sister Mary acquired. Mary Tudor was a favorite of the King of France who did indeed call her his English Mare. I guess there was a lot of riding going on, eh? Poor Mary was later known as the great whore, having also been the mistress of Henry VIII. Mary may have slept around but she certainly slept with the most powerful men around her. Anne on the other hand didn’t sleep with anyone. Or least not Henry. Not at first. When she came back to England, there were some failed attempts on her part and her family’s part to get her married off. Her great love, Henry Percy, unfortunately had already been engaged, good as marriage in Tudor times. That hoped for union to Percy was ended by the most powerful man in England at the time, a man she would bring down, Cardinal Wolsey.
So many people have a tendency to think Anne was also sleeping around, honing her bedroom skills. She may have. There are certainly a lot of fun things a woman can do and keep her virginity, but as opposed to her sister, there actually isn’t any evidence to really suggest she did. Even the legendary love between herself and poet Thomas Wyatt can’t be confirmed and was first inferred by Wyatt’s grandson. So, what made Anne capture Henry’s eye? We’ll probably never know, but she did meet him in a pageant where Henry and other male courtiers did storm a castle and Anne did play Perseverance just as in The Tudor’s HBO show.
What I adore about Anne was her intelligence and political savvy. She was often at Henry’s side before she became Queen. Now, somehow, she did convince Henry to abandon the Catholic Church, annul his first wife, and completely reconstruct the power structure of England by putting forward Thomas Cromwell and Bishop Cranmer. What I don't love was Anne's vicious streak. The day after Catherine of Aragon died, Henry and Anne paraded about in bright yellow and hosted a feast. In Spain, yellow is a color of mourning, but I highly doubt the King and Queen were paying homage to the deceased older woman.
Still, she must have been something. Do I believe that Henry would have gotten rid of Catherine of Aragon if he hadn’t met Anne? Yes. His arrogance was colossal and his only goal was to have a son. And that arrogance and core goal to have a boy is also why Anne plummeted so swiftly from his good graces. She was only married to Henry for THREE years, half the time she led him on that wild, dangerous dance, when she went to her death. She gave birth to one daughter, the future Elizabeth and possibly the greatest Tudor monarch, then proceeded to miscarry three fetuses. Perhaps the last miscarriage, a boy who was apparently horribly malformed, was truly the end for Anne. She was not the wife Henry wished, still determined to be a part of politics which was something Henry could tolerate in a mistress but not in a wife, and she could not give the king the son he had been so certain she would.
Anne was no passive person during her short three years as queen, lobbying for herself, her family, and her daughter. In fact, her work may have also driven her down. Two of England’s most popular men, Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More, lost their heads as she climbed to power. The country might have forgiven her the tear from the only religion they’d ever known, and the destruction of the men who refused to abandon Holy Mother Church, but they, like Henry, couldn’t forgive her the inability to supply an heir.
The last months of Anne’s reign must have been terrifying for her. She knew Henry no longer loved her, but could she have guessed that she would be accused of incest, adultery, and witchcraft? She maintained her innocence until the end. Perhaps, Anne was guilty of simply trying to play a man’s part in a man’s world. It is largely agreed, she disputed with the very man she had and her family had helped to rise in power, Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Chancellor at the time. Their argument is a surprising one considering Anne’s reputation. They fought over the distribution of wealth acquired from the dissolved monasteries. Our wicked seductress believed that the money should be given to charitable and education organization. Cromwell wanted the money to go straight into Henry’s purse and there is conjecture that Cromwell orchestrated Anne’s downfall to maintain his own power. Cromwell would see his own bloody end within a few years.
Something I find romantic and tragic in all this is that Lord Percy, the young man she’d so longed to marry, sat at the court that condemned Anne. When the verdict was given, Percy had to be carried out of the chamber. He died eight months later with no heir himself. Had he pined for Anne, heartbroken over the bloody end of the woman he too had loved? I choose to believe, yes. It would be wonderful to believe someone had loved Anne for herself, and not just what she could do for them.
Though condemned of ignominious things, including incest with her own brother, she died a dignified death, without malice on her lips.
My absolute favorite film is Anne of The Thousand Days. What would you like to remember about Anne in this memorial of her execution this May? Do you have a favorite film or book depicting her life?