On this day in 1536, Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, was executed on charges of incest, witchcraft, adultery and conspiracy against the King. The mother of Queen Elizabeth I, her reign and death made her a key figure in the political and religious upheaval that was the start of the English Reformation.
Anne Boleyn was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, who would later become Earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard. After living in France for a time during her youth, Anne returned to England in 1522 and soon established a residence at King Henry VIII’s court as maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s queen consort at the time.
By the mid-1520’s, Anne Boleyn had become one of the most admired ladies of the court, attracting the attention of many men, among them Henry Percy, the 6th Earl of Northumberland. Though secretly betrothed, Henry forbade the match to Percy, as he himself fell in love with the young maid. What is known is that Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn, one of the king’s mistresses, had introduced her to Henry VIII, and that the king wrote love letters to Anne circa 1525.
In one of the king’s letters, he wrote: “If you … give yourself up, heart, body and soul to me … I will take you for my only mistress, rejecting from thought and affection all others save yourself, to serve only you.” Following a six-year debate in Rome and London as to the disposition of Catherine (the wife), during which time Henry and Anne had courted with robustness and discretion, Anne discovered she was pregnant in early 1533. Without the blessing of the Pope, on January 25, 1533, Henry and Anne quickly married in a secret ceremony led by Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury. Rome split with London, and Henry split with Catherine.
While Queen Anne’s public persona was that of sexually promiscuous status seeker, and she never won the hearts and minds of her subjects, Anne’s efforts to play the traditional role of queen during her reign were both valid and sincere, focusing on improvements for the poor. The bleak aspect of her reign, though, came a year into their union; Henry pursued and engaged in sexual relationships with two of Anne’s maids-of-honor, Madge Shelton and Jane Seymour.
Anne, enraged by Henry’s promiscuity and increasingly jealous, faded in her King’s eyes as the union became permeated by resentment and hostility; the marriage was over. Anne was detained at the Tower of London on several false charges, among them adultery, incest and conspiracy. Anne Boleyn went to trial on May 15, 1536. In court, she remained levelheaded and articulate, calmly and clearly denying all of the charges against her. Four days later, Anne was unanimously convicted by a court of peers.
On the scaffolds of the Tower Green before a French swordsman know only as “Bonnette” (Frank P. Bonnette), Anne proclaimed “I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.” With one swift motion, she was beheaded, her head and body buried in an unmarked grave. Within 24 hours of Anne’s execution, Henry and Jane Seymour were formally wed. The daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, would later emerge as one of England’s most revered queens.
And with that, we Yanks send our congratulations and best wishes to Harry and Meghan on the blessed arrival of Little Prince Archie.
God Save the Queen.