Anne Boleyn: Pushed to the Edge or Devious Witch?

As the second wife to Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn is one of the most controversial women of her time.

Mar 4, 2022By Lucy Soaft, BA History w/ Medical Ethics and Military History concentration

anne boleyn holbein with boudoir gardner


Anne Boleyn’s marriage to the King of England had an unprecedented impact on Tudor history, from the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to the charges brought against her for treason, incest, and adultery.


Anne Boleyn’s Early Life

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An idealized portrait of Anne Boleyn, via National Geographic


Anne’s early life was one of privilege as the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, a respected courtier, and Elizabeth Howard, the daughter of Sir Thomas Howard, one of the most powerful men in the country. Anne grew up in Hever, Kent, with her two siblings, George and Mary. By 1513 at the age of around 12, Anne was sent to Europe to gain an education, as was the norm in the Tudor Era. This involved becoming a Lady’s maid, and by 1515, Anne entered the Court of Queen Claude of France.


During this time, it was known that Anne’s sister Mary was involved in an affair with King Henry VIII. However, this relationship was shoehorned by Anne’s return. Anne was summoned back to England to marry James Butler, son of Sir Pierce Butler, to settle a dispute over land and the title of Earl of Ormonde. However, this did not come to pass. But Anne’s presence at the English court caused quite a stir. Through her quick wit, unusual beauty, and intelligence, she soon caught the attention of the King. The events that unfolded changed the course of Tudor history. During her time, Anne was labeled a witch and a concubine who seduced the king; and she paid the price with her head. But how much of Anne’s life was ruled by external influences, both familial and political, or just her own ambition?


The Boleyn’s: Did Anne’s Family Push Her Towards the King for Power?


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Women in Tudor History mainly had two purposes: to marry and birth children. For a noblewoman, this was augmented by the need to marry well, and so the male relatives of noblewomen tended to arrange their marriages. In this instance, it was no different, as Anne Boleyn had not risen in the world as a solitary star; she trailed an ambitious family with her.


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Sir Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s father, via Spartacus Educational


Anne’s family can be best characterized through the words of historian TL Kington Oliphant: “In no country but England, could a race of merchants have risen in the feudal times to the highest rank under the crown.” Accusations of the Boleyn family pushing Anne towards the king were first leveled at Thomas during his own lifetime, put about by supporters of Henry VIII’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon, who despised Anne. And those accusations stuck.


Towards the beginning of Henry’s reign, the Boleyn’s were in the favor of the monarchy. Being part of Henry VII’s court, Thomas Boleyn had established his position and charmed the young king with his sporting skill and good humor. This favor granted Thomas the role of an ambassador for the King, which led him to Margaret of Austria, the Holy Roman Emperor’s daughter, in Mechelen, modern-day Belgium. This was where Anne would end up for her first courtly education. The fact that Margaret would allow Anne a spot demonstrates Thomas’s influence. In Margaret, he also saw a role model for his daughter: powerful in her own right, intelligent and respected.


However, Thomas’s intention for Anne was to marry well, not become a mistress, even to a King.  Henry’s interest in Anne was a detriment for at least the first year. However, Mary – Anne’s sister – was not given an advantageous marriage, as many of the nobility deemed her impure due to her very public affair with the King. When Anne became the focal point of Henry’s attention, Thomas intentionally removed Anne back to Kent for rest. Whether this was a diplomatic poly (as absence makes the heart grow fonder) or whether he was unhappy with his daughter’s attention is unclear. Additionally, what can be argued in favor of Thomas was that he was already highly well-connected, positioned, and born into wealth.


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Thomas Howard, Third Duke of Norfolk (1473-1554) by Hans Holbein, c. 1539, via Totally Timelines


But the father is not where the family stops. Anne’s uncle, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, was also a crucial character in her life. An ambitious man from birth, Thomas brought Anne into court as Catherine of Aragon’s (Henry’s first wife) lady-in-waiting, hoping that Henry would desire for Anne to be his next mistress. While Anne becoming Queen was never an explicit goal, his ambition to benefit from her position in court was clear. Once the Great Matter was made public, Howard openly campaigned at court for Anne to have more power and titles.


Furthermore, he was quick to whisper in the King’s ear against Cardinal Wolsey – the only other who could rival Boleyn’s favor – that he was intentionally delaying the proceedings of the Great Matter. However, Howard’s allegiance was not to his family but to ambition. This allegiance became even more apparent when, once convicted, he was quick to abandon Anne and his nephew George and even went as far as to lead the trial which sent them to their deaths.


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Sir George Boleyn 2nd Viscount Rochford, via Totally Timelines


Another example of familial influence was Anne’s brother George. Throughout history, George Boleyn remains elusive through the distant mirror of the centuries, often pushed to the sidelines. However, he remains a centralized fixture in the life and court of Queen Anne. Both shared similar intelligence, wit, and a theology inspired by the Renaissance. While Anne was losing her control over the King, George became a most trusted companion and courtier and even went as far as to be guarded with her sometimes imprudent comments. While Anne was pitted against her sister in a near rivalry for the King’s affections, George remained a constant at Anne’s side. Their relationship was so strong he was even used against her in her trial, with charges of incest brought against them both. While George did benefit from Anne’s favor, it seems unlikely that he would push a narrative that would end in her death.


Politics & Ambition: Rising Station In Tudor History


Either driven by her own virtue, ambition, or by her scheming relatives, and aware of the King’s dynastic dilemma, Anne held out for the possibility of marriage. With the King married to Queen Catherine, only an annulment or the death of the Queen would allow this. Anne was raised Catholic, but due to Renaissance influences and new critical thinking, she was open to challenging her faith. As a result, Anne may have suggested a solution. Driven perhaps by her reformist faith, she gave Henry a copy of William Tyndale’s “Obedience of a Christian Man.”


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The Queen’s Boudoir by William Nelson Gardiner, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


Tyndale argued that supreme authority was not held by the Pope but by the words of God enshrined in the Bible. Given that Henry was quoting Leviticus 20:21, “if a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless,” this was bad news for the Queen. The Queen had only birthed a daughter, Mary, and had miscarried sons. Henry viewed them as cursed by God, resulting in the lack of a male heir.


However, Anne introduced several policies in her short time as Queen. While she contributed to the ideas of the Church of England and consequently the dissolution of the monasteries, she was active in promoting new educational identities for monasteries no longer under the protection of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, she also laid the foundation for what would soon be her daughter Elizabeth’s law. The Poor Law was first introduced to suggest that local officials should find work for the unemployed. This paints a very different picture of Anne than “the Concubine,” the usual portrayal.


But with ambition and power come enemies, and Anne had many. The common people were outraged at Henry’s treatment of his wife Catherine, some of whom had watched the young couple grow up. The dislike of Anne Boleyn can be seen through one such enormous protest: when dining along the river one evening, Anne’s daughter was approached by “a mob of seven to eight thousand women of London, who went out of the town to seize Boleyn’s daughter… the women had intended to kill her.”


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Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, via Henry VIII, the Reign


Another of Anne’s early enemies was a product of the court. Time sat idly for the young ladies and gentlemen in the court of a busy monarch, which meant that a lot of flirting was the norm in this mixed company. Henry Percy, the future Duke of Northumberland, was a frequent visitor at court. Percy’s station made it unlikely to make a match with Lady Anne. This did not, however, stop a romance from blossoming between them. Whether this was another of Anne’s attempts to advance her station or genuine affection, in the end, it was not meant to be. Cardinal Wolsey was pivotal in extending the hand of influence and ending the arrangement quietly. While this appeared to be a smooth transition on the surface, Anne vowed her revenge. “If it lay ever in her power she would work the Cardinal as much displeasure” as he had her.


During Anne’s rise to power, Cardinal Wolsey was essential to the King in negotiating the Great Matter with Rome. However, the consistent pushback led Anne to believe that Wolsey had a personal vendetta against her. This was magnified when, as a result of Wolsey’s efforts,  a papal edict was sent to Henry in October 1530, ordering him to leave Anne. Anne’s rage was palpable, and the only way that the King could calm Anne and keep her was by agreeing that he would move against Wolsey.


Wolsey was dismissed from office in 1529 and blamed Anne, who he called “the night Crow,” always in a position to “caw into the king’s private ear.” Whether fortunately or unfortunately, Wolsey died on his way to be sentenced, where he might have been executed for treason.


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Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein, c. 1532, via World History Encyclopaedia


One instrumental enemy in orchestrating Anne Boleyn’s inevitable downfall was Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell served the King from 1534-1540 as Chief Minister to the King. Rising from the ashes of Wolsey’s demise, Cromwell rose to significance and gained the King’s favor. His initial support of Anne Boleyn was tempered by a realistic understanding of Henry VIII’s temperament; however, he soon came to realize that while they may possess similar ideologies, their methodology could not be more different.


While both supported the dissolution of the monasteries, the distribution of the funds was a cause for argument. Anne’s support for the redeployment of monastic resources directly contradicted Cromwell’s intention to put the proceeds of the dissolution into the king’s coffers. While the legislation regarding the dissolution was being finalized, including the allocation of funds, Anne campaigned through sermons via her Chaplains. Cromwell was pilloried before the whole council as an evil and greedy royal adviser from the Old Testament and specifically identified as the queen’s enemy.


The dissolution of the monasteries took place between 1536-1541, and consequently, Anne Boleyn lost her life early in the battle. Many historians have contemplated that the charges against Boleyn were at least exaggerated and at worst wholly fabricated by Thomas Cromwell as a result of their power struggle. During her trial, Anne fervently denied all the claims brought against her. While it seems highly unlikely she would have endangered her position by committing adultery or conspiring to harm the king, whose favor she depended upon so greatly, King Henry was putting pressure onto Thomas Cromwell to find a solution to end his marriage, much like Cardinal Wolsey. Failure to meet the King’s demands, as previously proven, would likely end in charges of treason and death.


Love, Lust, or an Unwelcome Pursuit From the King of England? Courting Anne Boleyn

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King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, via The Anne Boleyn Files


Love and lust had played a large role in Tudor History. Henry’s numerous wives prove testament to that. However, Anne was the first of Henry’s mistresses who dared to reach for something that other women would only dream about. She has been commonly and repeatedly represented in history as a seductress, power-hungry, and even a witch with six fingers who enchanted the king. While King Henry VIII was notorious for his womanizing, his one saving grace was his continued adoration for his wife, Catherine. As the center of court and in the sights of Europe, he valued discretion and deniability. His mistresses, whoever they were, faded back into private life. But the pattern broke with Anne Boleyn.


Whether love between Henry and Anne was present during their relationship can never be known. We only know what is proven. However, infatuation cannot be fabricated. Love letters from Henry to Anne have survived, in which his doting, almost pathetic infatuation with her is evident. While Anne has left behind virtually nothing of her own voice, we can see from Henry’s letters that she was not one of the women that Henry usually conquered. In one of his early letters, Henry writes:


 “In turning over in my mind the contents of your last letters, I have put myself into great agony, not knowing how to interpret them, whether to my disadvantage, as you show in some places, or to my advantage, as I understand them in some others, beseeching you earnestly to let me know expressly your whole mind as to the love between us two.”


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Henry VIII marries Anne Boleyn, via Time Magazine


This would have been a first for the King, who was not used to rejection or even hesitation at his advances. Anne’s continuous refusal to become the King’s mistress was what enticed the King for such a long period of time. In most of Henry’s courtships, we find that he tended towards infatuation with women, a state that cooled all too soon once the conquest was made. However, this was not the case with Anne, whose constant refusal seems only to excite the King. Combined with her intelligent and courageous character, it is not impossible to believe the original lust morphed into love.


Nevertheless, after six years of the Great Matter, things were becoming strained for Anne. The King could only be kept at arm’s length for so long, and with many new young ladies arriving in court to vie for favor, Anne Boleyn’s position became precarious. In October 1532, Henry brought Anne to visit the King of France. During this time, Anne was presented to the French court, where she once grew up, as Queen of England in everything but name. This was the point in Tudor History where Anne has been said to have finally surrendered to the King’s advances, and they were married in a secret albeit bigamous ceremony in France. By February, it was hinted that she was pregnant.


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Anne’s Coronation procession, via The Tudor Travel Guide


Once Anne Boleyn had been officially crowned as Queen of England on the 1st of June 1533, Henry became intent on turning the tide against the popular opinion that Anne was a devious woman. By 1534, the Treason Act was passed in Parliament. The act stated that it was high treason to maliciously wish or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king’s most royal person, the queen’s or the heirs’ apparent. Whether this was an act of love to protect his wife and queen, or a covert attempt to ensure that his decision to break from the Church wouldn’t result in uprisings, is uncertain.


Anne’s pregnancy ensured her almost complete protection from all who would speak against her. Henry had wasted no time using his new power, and abandoned a most loyal wife and queen in the hope that a new wife would surely give him the son he so desperately wanted. The quickness of the pregnancy led Henry to believe that God had finally forgiven him for marrying Catherine, and that his next legitimate child would indeed be a son.


Unfortunately, it was not Anne’s destiny to provide a male heir. It is believed that Anne miscarried three times in a row. Henry’s head thus turned towards younger women of the court. Combined with the accusations that Anne was unable to bear a son due to crimes against God, Henry soon sought comfort elsewhere. Jane Seymour was a mild-mannered, sweet, and pious young lady, a far cry from Anne’s quick wit and sharp temper. As her power began to slip, Anne became more and more demanding and petulant to the point that many courtiers began trying to avoid her. As a result, this change in behavior eroded Henry’s love for Anne.


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Anne Boleyn in the Tower by Edouard Cibot, 1835, via On the Tudor Trail; and Anne Boleyn arrive at the Tower of London via Traitor’s gate by John Millar Watt, 1965, via Tudor Faces


Anne was soon hauled in front of a jury to answer to charges of treason, adultery, incest, and even conspiring to kill the King with her lovers. All five “lovers,” her brother George included, were hanged on 17th May 1536. On the morning of 19th May 1536, Sir William Kingston escorted Anne Boleyn from her apartments in the Tower’s royal palace – the same apartments where she had stayed before her coronation in 1533 – to the scaffold. A French swordsman from Calais removed her head in one swing and thus ended her reign. Less than 24 hours later, Henry was formally betrothed to Jane Seymour, whom he married not two weeks after Anne’s execution.


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The execution of Anne Boleyn, print made by Jan Luyken, c.1664-1712, via Scalar, University of Southern California


It would be unfair to suggest that Henry did not love Anne at all. The lengths to which Henry went to protect Anne from those who wished to overthrow her suggest a certain level of devotion. On the other hand, the speed at which the King’s affection turned to hatred towards Anne may indicate that lust and promises of an heir enticed the King to make such radical decisions in her name. With Jane Seymour now on the scene, some agree that Henry wanted to remarry because Anne would not provide him with a son, and that he was the main instigator. Whether it was a consequence of this, or of personal, political, and/or familiar influences has been much debated. Still, what can be agreed upon is that Henry was still waiting for his heir, and he wouldn’t wait long for the next attempt.


In conclusion, so much remains unknown about the life of Queen Anne Boleyn. Her short reign and lack of surviving evidence leave much to be desired. Much of her personal property, including images of the queen, mainly were destroyed after she was executed. However, it can be concluded that Anne Boleyn was a pivotal figure in Tudor History. Her relationship with King Henry VIII led to mass socio-political and religious changes which impacted the course of Tudor history forever. The Boleyn family was one of ambition and would not hesitate to push their daughters into the King’s path. However, it is also evident that they did not expect such a drastic rise in society. While Anne Boleyn also had a certain level of ambition herself, it seems unlikely that she would have wanted this outcome.

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By Lucy SoaftBA History w/ Medical Ethics and Military History concentrationLucy is pursuing an MSc in Military and Medical history with the aspiration of becoming a museum curator. She holds a BA in History with a focus on medical ethics and Military history from the University of Kent (UKC). Topics of interest also include Tudor History, Human Experimentation, and Gothic Architecture. Lucy volunteers at various museums including the Huntarian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in England.