Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Anne (1507-1537)
ANNE (1507–1536), the second queen of Henry VIII, was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, afterwards earl of Wiltshire and Ormond. He was the grandson of Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, a prosperous London merchant, who was lord mayor in 1457, and who purchased the manor of Blickling in Norfolk from the veteran Sir John Fastolf. Thrift seems to have prepared the way for the future greatness of the family. Sir Geoffrey married a daughter and coheir of Lord Hoo and Hastings. His son, Sir William Boleyn of Blickling, married Margaret, daughter and coheir of Thomas Butler, earl of Ormond; and their son, Sir Thomas, married Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey, who, for his services at the battle of Flodden, had his father's dukedom of Norfolk restored. These were the parents of Anne Boleyn, who, according to Camden (Introduction to Annals of Eliz.), was born in 1507. She had a brother named George, afterwards Viscount Rochford, and an elder sister named Mary, some parts of whose personal history appears to have been confounded with her own. Both sisters spent some of their early years in France, and it would seem that Anne, then seven years old, must have accompanied her elder sister Mary when she went thither in the suite of Henry VIII's sister Mary, who was married to Louis XII in 1514. Mary Boleyn was in England again in 1520 when she married William Carey; while Anne, who became, as Cavendish observes, ‘one of the French queen's women,’ remained in France till the end of 1521 or beginning of the year 1522, when, owing to the hostile intentions of England towards France, she was called home. She took part in one of the court revels in March 1522; and it is certain that she soon found more than one admirer besides the king. Sir Thomas Wyatt, the poet, paid her marked attention, though he was at the time a married man. Little respect was shown to conjugal ties by Henry VIII's courtiers. The king himself had before this time dishonoured Anne's sister Mary, whom he married to William Carey; and it is something to say for Anne in the midst of that exceedingly corrupt court that she did not yield in the same manner. A more honourable suitor appeared in the person of Lord Henry Percy, heir to the earldom of Northumberland; but when his attachment became manifest, Wolsey put a stop to it by the king's direction. He called the young lord before him in his gallery, reproved him for his indiscretion in entangling himself ‘with a foolish girl in the court,’ and informed him that the king had been arranging to marry her to some one else, finally sending for the earl, his father, who threatened to disinherit him for his presumption.
The king had in truth planned a marriage for her while she was still in France, and it was to this that Wolsey no doubt alluded, and not to any secret design of Henry to marry her himself; for the occurrence can be proved by the most conclusive evidence to have taken place as early as 1522, that is to say, within a year of her return from France. That Cavendish, from whom we derive our knowledge of the fact, should have interpreted it otherwise, is not wonderful, as he wrote many years afterwards, and knew nothing of the earlier project. The intended match was with the son of Sir Piers Butler, Earl of Ormond, and is frequently mentioned in the State Papers of 1520 and 1521 as a convenient project for reconciling two rival families in Ireland. It was, however, dropped not long after Anne's return from France. In April 1522, which was just after her first appearance at the English court, her father received two separate grants of lands and offices from the crown, and like favours continued to be bestowed upon him during the three following years, in the last of which (1525) he was created a peer by the title of Viscount Rochford. That this steady flow of honours marks the beginning of the king's attachment to his second daughter there can be little doubt; but the secret of Henry's intentions was well kept, and it was not till the year 1527 that he was known to contemplate so serious a step as a divorce from his first wife, Katharine of Arragon. Some of the love-letters that he addressed to Anne Boleyn during this period (which have by some unexplained means found their way into the Vatican at Rome, and have more than once been printed) give an extraordinary notion of the progress of this intrigue. In one or two the royal lover expresses himself like a young gallant languishing in despair, complaining that he has been wounded for more than a year with the dart of love, and is unable to bear her absence. In others he has grown bolder and more familiar, even passing the bounds of modesty and indulging in gross allusions. It is evident that though the lady at first gave him little encouragement in his suit, it was from no particular sense of delicacy on her part; and that as soon as the king had committed himself to the course of seeking a divorce in order to marry her, she allowed him to address her in a style which would have been an insult to a really modest woman.
In May 1527 certain secret proceedings were commenced before Wolsey as legate, the king being summoned (of course by his own desire) to defend himself on a charge of cohabiting with the wife of his deceased brother Arthur. By this shameful device was it at first proposed to set aside a marriage of eighteen years' standing. The object, however, was not found practicable after such a fashion, and the proceedings were discontinued. The affair was kept a profound secret, and nothing whatever was known of it till our own day, when the original record of the proceedings was discovered in the Record Office. But though this particular step was effectually concealed, Katharine immediately afterwards gained some knowledge of the king's intentions, and the rumour soon became pretty general that Henry was seeking a divorce. Next year Cardinal Campeggio was sent by the pope to England to try the cause along with Wolsey, and both the king and Anne Boleyn seem to have been sanguine of a favourable issue. Splendid apartments were fitted up for Anne at Greenwich, close by those of the king, and courtiers repaired to her every day in crowds, while the queen was comparatively neglected. It was evidently intended to accustom the people by degrees to her future position; but the people looked on in sullen silence (Le Grand's Hist. du Divorce, iii. 231–2). A few months later, in June 1529, the French ambassador strongly suspected that the couple had already anticipated marriage while the case was still before the legates (ib. 325). But the expected sentence was not pronounced, the cause was revoked to Rome, and four years more passed away before the king dared to take that step which, according to his own contention, he had all along been free to take on his own responsibility. During those four years, or at all events during some of them, the relations which subsisted between the king and Anne Boleyn could scarcely be matter of doubt. After Henry had finally parted with his wife in 1531, Anne went about with him from place to place, reviled and hated by the people. At Rome she was distinctly spoken of as the king's mistress, and even Simon Grynæus, who visited England in the year just mentioned and had every wish to cultivate Henry's good will, was not certain that she had not borne him children (Original Letters relating to the Reformation, Parker Society, ii. 552). In fact Henry's conduct in cohabiting with her, as well as in repudiating his lawful wife, is reproved in more than one papal brief issued in the year 1532; and it does not appear that the imputation was disavowed even by the king himself.
All this while the king's suit for a divorce was before the courts at Rome, but various subordinate issues had been raised by Henry's agents, really with the view of removing the cause once more and preventing an impartial decision. At length, at Easter in the year 1533, it was made known that the king had actually married Anne Boleyn on or about St. Paul's day (25 Jan.) preceding. No sentence had yet been given declaring the king's former marriage invalid; but some nuptial rite, it seems, had been performed in the strictest secrecy, and when the fact was announced Anne was already some months advanced in pregnancy. A sentence, however, was soon after obtained from Archbishop Cranmer pronouncing the marriage with Katharine null, and another sentence declaring Anne Boleyn the king's lawful wife, immediately after which Anne was crowned on Whitsunday at Westminster Hall with great magnificence.
She had now attained the summit of her ambition; but never was woman in exalted station less to be envied, even in the moment of her triumph. Her coronation excited no enthusiasm out of doors, and real love was absent within. The passion which had thus far blinded the king was already on the wane. Within three months of her coronation he gave her cause of jealousy, and, when she complained of his conduct, brutally told her to shut her eyes ‘as her betters had done,’ for he had the power to humble her even more than he had raised her. It was very shortly after this incident that she gave birth to her only daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth, on 7 Sept. 1533. The disappointment at court was great, for physicians, astrologers, and others had flattered the king's sanguine hopes that the child was to be a boy. Next year there was a worse disappointment still: Anne met with a miscarriage. All this gave evident satisfaction to the people, who were anxious to see the Princess Mary restored to her place in the succession. Anne moreover became more and more conscious that the king's regard for her was diminished. Indeed Henry told her flatly, when she complained, that she ought to be very well satisfied with what he had done for her already, for he would not do the same thing again if the matter were to begin anew. Then a third disappointment came, still greater than either of the others. On 29 Jan. 1536—little more than three weeks after the death of her rival Katharine of Arragon—she was delivered prematurely of a dead child.
The climax of her miseries was now at hand. On Mayday following a tournament was held at Greenwich, from which the king suddenly took his departure with only six attendants, leaving the spectators, and most of all (we are told) the queen, in perplexity as to the cause. If, however, we may believe the jesuit Sanders, who, though a little later, is scarcely a more one-sided authority than Hall, the king had seen her let fall a handkerchief that one of her supposed lovers in the lists might wipe his face with it. Such an act may have been the pretext for the king's departure, yet the thing itself was probably neither better nor worse than a thousand other trivialities which could hardly have escaped notice before. If Anne was really guilty, it was certainly not the first time she had shown undue familiarity towards others besides the king. The two indictments afterwards found against her, in Kent and in Middlesex, charge her with a number of acts of adultery and also of incest, extending over nearly the whole three years of her married life. These charges, even though untrue, must have been plausible, and it is scarcely conceivable that during all this period the king saw nothing in Anne's conduct that might have been construed amiss. His growing disgust no doubt led him to interpret her acts in a way that his own self-respect had hitherto forbidden him to do. But it was not in one day or one moment that his opinion of her was altogether changed. There is reason, indeed, to believe that even before the tournament commenced one of Anne's alleged paramours had confessed his guilt under torture, or at least under the dread of it (see the remarkable deposition of George Constantyne in Archæologia, xxiii. 64). In any case we can hardly imagine that the dropping of that handkerchief was the first thing that aroused the king's suspicions, supposing them to be real and well founded.
The day after the tournament, about five in the evening, Anne was conducted to the Tower by the lord chancellor, the Duke of Norfolk, and others. On entering the court-gate she fell on her knees and protested her innocence. Her brother Lord Rochford and her other alleged paramours seem to have been arrested at an earlier hour that same day and brought to the Tower before her. Lord Rochford was accused of the revolting crime of incest—a charge apparently supported by his own wife, but not more credible on that account; for of her it is sufficient to say that she afterwards suffered death for assisting Henry's fifth queen, Katharine Howard, in her intrigues. The untitled offenders, however, were first disposed of. On 12 May Sir Francis Weston, Mr. Henry Norris, and William Brereton, gentlemen of the privy chamber, with Mark Smeaton, a musician, were arraigned for criminal intercourse with the queen, and condemned of high treason. Anne's case was thus prejudged before she herself was put on her trial. She and her brother were tried before a body of six-and-twenty peers assembled for the purpose in the Tower on the 15th; and every peer from the lowest to the highest gave in a verdict of guilty. The Duke of Norfolk then, as lord high steward, gave sentence that she should either be burnt or beheaded at the king's pleasure, and that her brother should undergo the hideous punishment that was usual in cases of high treason. This was, however, commuted to simple decapitation, which he and the others suffered on the 17th, the queen's execution being deferred till the 19th.
Meanwhile on the 17th her marriage with the king was pronounced invalid by a court of ecclesiastical lawyers presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth. On what ground this judgment could have been given it is difficult to understand, unless it was that there had been a previous contract between her and the Earl of Northumberland; but the earl himself four days before had solemnly denied this, declaring that he had already attested his denial by receiving the sacrament, and was ready to do so again. We may, perhaps, suspect that this was just a little too much protesting, and that the earl, on cross-examination afterwards, confessed enough of his former intimacy with her to enable ecclesiastical lawyers to make out a case of precontract. On Friday, the 19th, Anne was brought to execution on Tower Green in presence of the principal nobility and of the mayor and aldermen of London. On the scaffold she made a brief address to the bystanders, not acknowledging the crimes with which she was charged, but expressing perfect submission to the law and declaring that she accused no one on account of her death. Her head was then smitten off with a sword by the executioner of Calais, whose services were engaged for the occasion, the manner of death being one at that time practised in France but wholly unknown in England.
The evidence on which she was condemned, however it may have satisfied public opinion at the time, would probably not have impressed men in our day even with a general belief in her guilt, much less have justified her execution. No one of her alleged accomplices except Smeaton appears to have made any confession; and the queen herself, even when desiring earnestly the consolations of religion to enable her to prepare for death, protested in the most emphatic terms to Kingston, the constable of the Tower, that she was innocent of criminal intercourse with any man whomsoever. The charges, we may presume, derived their plausibility from certain acts of indecorous familiarity which the loose conventionalities of the court must have for a long time condoned, and which in the case of her brother were positively not a little revolting. But her conduct in the days of her prosperity had been so arrogant and overbearing that few men in those days pitied her fate or doubted that it had been righteously decreed. Her own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, sat in judgment upon her and pronounced her sentence. Her own father even was one of the peers who found a verdict of guilty against her alleged paramours, thereby admitting by implication that he considered her guilty too. No one after her fall seems to have felt the smallest sympathy. Yet her conduct in prison, as described in the letters of Sir William Kingston, sadly mutilated as they are and illegible from the Cottonian fire, can hardly but be considered to afford strong presumption of her innocence. As for the often quoted letter supposed to have been written by herself from the Tower, it is a manifest fabrication of the time of Queen Elizabeth. But there is no doubt that she met her fate with singular cheerfulness and courage; insomuch that Sir William Kingston was moved to write of her, 'This lady has much joy and pleasure in death' (see also Meteren, f. 21, who follows a contemporary account). It is commonly held that the king's estrangement from her was due mainly, if not entirely, to a newly developed passion for another woman; and it is a fact that he married Jane Seymour with most indecent haste immediately after Anne's execution. But the revulsion of feeling which he manifested with regard to Anne seems to have been far more vehement than a man might be expected to show who had simply got tired of one mistress and taken up with another. His passion, in fact, had been declining from the very moment that he married her, and he only sought consolation in a new attachment for a bondage that was becoming more and more intolerable.
Of her personal beauty the opinion of the time was not altogether unanimous. 'Madame Anne,' says one writer, 'is not one of the handsomest women in the world. She is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the king's great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful' (Venetian Calendar, iv. No. 824). But besides her eyes her long flowing hair, which she allowed to fall down her shoulders, thick set with jewels, commanded general admiration (ib., Nos. 802, 912); and Cranmer himself was struck with her at her coronation, 'sitting in her hair upon a horse litter' (Ellis's Letters, 1st ser. ii. 37). That she knew how to make the most of her personal attractions we may very well believe. According to George Wyatt, the grandson of the poet, there was even a slight personal defect in one of her finger-nails, which she generally contrived to hide with the tip of another finger.