Learning and engagement assistant and blue badge guide Harriet Waldron writes about Anne Boleyn and Hever Castle:
Despite some healthy debate on the issue, of Anne Boleyn and Hever Castle, she was likely born in Norfolk in 1501, the second daughter of Thomas Boleyn and his wife Elizabeth (nee Howard), who had married in around 1498.
Although the couple had five children in total, only three survived the perils of Tudor infancy. These were Mary (born in around 1499), Anne herself, and their brother George (who was born in around 1504).
For Anne and her siblings, their earliest years would have been spent at the Boleyn estate of Blickling in Norfolk, but in 1505, upon the death of his father William Boleyn, Thomas moved the family here to Hever Castle in Kent, which provided greater proximity to London and the prestige of the Tudor royal court.
While the specifics of Anne’s formative years are not documented, we believe that Anne Boleyn and Hever Castle were closely connected and she would have spent a great deal of time at Hever between 1505 and 1513, at which point she was sent to the court of Margaret of Austria in the Low Countries (modern day Holland and Belgium) to continue her formal education.
In the Tudor era, it was common for daughters of the nobility to be sent to other households from the age of 8 or 9 in order to be taught the finer points of music, dancing, conversation, and the successful running of a household among other skills. But for Anne (and her parents) being sent to one of the most modern and vibrant courts in Europe would have presented an amazing opportunity to mix among not only amongst future continental rulers, but also some of the most influential thinkers of the time. It also seems that Margaret herself took a keen liking to the then 12 year old Anne, writing to Thomas (with whom she had become friendly the previous year while Thomas had been English envoy to the Low Countries) ‘I find her so bright and pleasant for her young age that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me than you are to me.’
Not only that, but Anne was assigned her very own French tutor, a move that was uncommon for daughters in England at the time (except for when it came to the daughters of kings) and also possibly made her a fitting candidate to attend the social event of 1514, when Princess Mary, younger sister of King Henry VIII, married the aging and childless King Louis XII of France.
We believe that both Anne and her elder sister Mary Boleyn were present at the wedding as attendants to the Princess, and that both stayed on in France thereafter. While Mary returned to England in 1519 however (which some believe was a result of having had numerous, unsubstantiated affairs) Anne remained on the continent until 1522, whereupon she returned to the English court as an accomplished, striking looking, fully matured 21 year old, with a love of fine art, music and poetry, and fashionable continental attire. Given which, it is perhaps no surprise that Anne began to attract admirers.
Although initially recalled to London to marry her cousin James Butler and thus settle a family dispute over use of the title The Earl of Ormonde, it was Henry Percy, eldest son of the illustrious Earl of Northumberland that had caught Anne’s eye, and she his in return. So much so in fact, that by the summer of 1523 they became engaged to a chorus of dissent, not least of which came from the Earl of Northumberland himself, who did not want to see his eldest son and heir married to the daughter of a lowly knight.
As a result, Anne was sent back to Hever to keep her apart from Henry, who was quickly and unhappily married to Mary Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury.
Frustratingly, the next few years of Anne’s life are not documented, but we know that by 1526, Anne had attracted the attention of another, far more important Henry; King Henry VIII of England.
On the 7th February 1526, at the Shrovetide joust, King Henry’s team wore outfits emblazoned with the motto, ‘Declare I dare not,’ in reference to an unrequited love. Famously, Anne initially attempted to rebuff Henry’s advances, and given her return to court in 1527 and the gifts that were lavished upon her thereafter, it is tempting (if not entirely probable) to believe that Anne was the secret woman for whom he was declaring his love.
It was also in 1527 that Henry decided to ask the Pope for dispensation to divorce Catherine of Aragon, his queen of over 20 years, who had (crucially at that time) only given birth to one surviving child; a daughter, named Mary after his beloved younger sister.
This dispensation was titled ‘The King’s Great Matter,’ and was sent to Rome in 1528, the same year that Anne Boleyn caught the dreaded Tudor ‘sweating sickness’ and returned to Hever to recuperate. While she was here, Henry sent his second best court physician to tend to her personally and, despite its high mortality rate, Anne was able to regain her health.
Anne Boleyn and Hever Castle were a strong connection once more and she remained at Hever for much of the rest of the year, particularly in November, when a delegation arrived from Rome to assess Henry’s claims that, as the former wife of his deceased elder brother Arthur (who had died in 1515), Catherine should never have legally been his queen and that their lack of a male heir was God’s punishment for this. In order to help convince the delegation that he was a good upstanding Catholic therefore, it was decided that his mistress (and likely intended) should best keep her distance from court for a while.
It is in 1529 however, that Henry’s true intentions became abundantly clear, particularly after the Pope decided to rule in favour of Catherine’s legitimacy in the autumn (thanks in no small part to Catherine’s familial ties to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose sway over the Catholic Church at the time was sizeable).
In response, Henry (who was more determined than ever to make Anne his bride) instructed lawyer and minister Thomas Cromwell to find a way of obtaining his divorce from Catherine, while at the same time promoting Anne to the role of Queen in all but name, which included bestowing her with an official title in 1531 (The Marquess of Pembroke) and having her accompany him to meet the French king in 1532.
Meanwhile, Henry’s ministers were gathering the required support to have him declared the legal head of the church in England and defender of the faith against foreign usurpation. This was finalised by the 1534 Act of Supremacy, but Henry and Anne didn’t waste time waiting for it to be made official.
On the 25th January 1533, Henry and Anne were married in a secret ceremony at Whitehall Palace. From there, the changes came thick and fast. In March, Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. On 1st June, Anne was crowned Queen of England at Westminster Abbey, and on 7th September, Henry and Anne’s daughter Elizabeth was born.
It was only to take another year however, for cracks to appear in the new royal union. In the summer of 1534, Anne miscarried a baby. Another child was lost in early 1536. This time, a boy—Henry’s much longed for son and heir. At the same time, forces in the English court (including Thomas Cromwell, who had been so instrumental in helping to obtain Henry’s divorce from Catherine) began to turn against the new Queen.
Anne’s eventual fall was swift. In April 1536 a committee was set up to investigate possible treasonable offences by a group of people including Anne. Six days later, musician Mark Smeaton was arrested for having committed adultery with the Queen. On 2nd May, three more men (Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston and William Brereton) and Anne’s own brother George Boleyn were arrested on the same charges.
Anne and George were tried on 15th May. Despite pleading innocent, both were found guilty of all charges, as were Smeaton, Norris, Weston and Brereford.
On 17th May, all five men were beheaded on Tower Green.
Anne’s own execution (originally due to take place on 18th May but postponed in order to allow for a French executioner to arrive from Calais) took place two days later on 19th May. Rather than being beheaded with an axe, as was the custom in England, Anne was executed by sword as a ‘concession’ by Henry.
Anne’s life therefore, short though it was, left an indelible mark on the history of England, both through her daughter (the future Queen Elizabeth I), and with the religious break from Rome. More enduring than that however, is the story of a woman who fell in love with a king and paid the ultimate price in the cut and thrust of the Tudor world.
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