Anne Boleyn Lived Dangerously and Died with Courage
Henry VIII’s break with Rome and his formation of a national church were of major significance in the unfolding history of Europe and the modern world. A new book about the father of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, describes the fortunes of the Bolyen family during the turbulent rule of Henry. (Among the Wolves of Court: The Untold Story of Thomas and George Boleyn: Lauren MacKay) Thomas Boleyn had become an important official at the royal court of Henry VIII, obviously well able to survive in that nest of vipers where intrigue, rivalry and deadly backstabbing were the order of the day. He was also the father of Anne, a beautiful young woman who was a member of Queen Catherine of Aragon’s household.
When the Henry’s relationship with Catherine fractured over the lack of the all-important male heir, Thomas soon became aware that the king had become enamored with his daughter, and that one day she might become the Queen of England. In 1526 Anne, always a strong-willed woman resisted the king’s efforts to seduce her and become his mistress. Henry’s amorous pursuits were common knowledge in the court but Anne had higher ambitions, and had no wish to follow her sister Mary’s example to become one of the king’s mistresses. Henry’s infatuation added to his efforts to obtain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. In 1527 he secretly proposed marriage to Anne. The king’s official reason for seeking an annulment of his marriage with Catherine was convincing to many of the leading figures in the kingdom. To die without leaving a son, capable of heading the government, would be a disaster for England after the War of Roses when various claimants to the throne of England fought each other until Henry Tudor defeated and killed Richard
III in 1485 and became Henry VII.
The memory of that bitter and bloody civil war was still fresh when Henry married Anne Boleyn secretly in 1532, and then publically in 1533. Crowned Queen of England, she took Catherine’s place, even as Pope Clement VII excommunicated the King and Archbishop Cranmer of Canterbury. Henry then proclaimed himself Head of the English Church and ordered his archbishop to declare
his marriage to Catherine “null and void”, which of course Cranmer did without delay.
The highly educated Anne unfortunately was not the submissive wife that the royal convention of the time demanded, and the marital life of the royal couple was far from harmonious. She had no hesitation in disagreeing with Henry’s decisions, or quarreling with his all-powerful chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, and even was reported to have doubted the king’s virility. By 1536 the king had lost interest in his sharp-tongued wife. It was clear that the main purpose of the marriage—to supply a male heir—was not going to happen; Anne had given birth to Elizabeth in 1533, the future queen, but since then had suffered two miscarriages. Adding to her woes, Henry began to fancy Jane Seymour, a maid-of-honour in Anne’s household, and spoke about been seduced into marrying Anne by a demonic spell, suggesting that she made use of sorcery. Encouraged by Thomas Cromwell and her other enemies at the court, the King believed the allegations of infidelity and worse, and decided on a final solution.
The year 1536 was the annus horribilis for Anne Boleyn. Queen Catherine died, the King was badly injured at a tournament, she miscarried a baby boy, Henry showered gifts on her successor Jane Seymour, and then Anne was arrested, charged with high treason and adultery and incest with her brother, George Bolyen, and executed on Tower Hill on May 19, 1536.
Henry’s spite showed no lessening as he planned Anne’s execution in detail to ensure she would receive no comfort in her last hours. She had to witness the execution of her brother and the fellow “conspirators” on May 17th. After she had prepared spending the night in prayer and assisting at an early Mass, the governor of the Tower of London announced at the last moment that her execution
was postponed for a day.
On May 19th, the scaffold was draped in black, the ladies-in-waiting were chosen for their known dislike of the queen, and a French executioner, the famous Sword of Calais, was specially hired for the event. After her death, nothing had been prepared for her burial. An old elm box designed for shipping armaments that happened to be empty served as a casket, and later that day she was buried without any religious rites in a shallow grave in the grounds of the Tower of London. Her father made no protest at the king’s cruel and unjust treatment of his daughter and son, both condemned to die on trumped-up charges. No doubt, had he done so, he would have shared their fate. As it was, he lost the office of Privy Seal, retired in disgrace to his country residence where he
died in 1539.
There is evidence that both Anne and her father supported Martin Luther’s reform programme for the Church, and this made her a strong supporter of Henry’s break with Rome and the construction of the new state-ruled, national church. Yet, on the eve of her announced execution, she assisted at a Mass, still unchanged at the time, and received the Holy Sacrament, and went to herdeath with dignity and bravery.