Sure, you’ve heard tales of Anne Boleyn, the alluring woman who convinced King Henry VIII of England to give up his wife and child and break from the Catholic Church to marry her. Oh, and she was the mother of one of the most renowned monarchs in British history. But there’s a lot more to Anne than just her personal affairs, many of which were magnified or inaccurately portrayed by those with a political agenda after her death. But who was Anne Boleyn really?
The life of Anne Boleyn was anything but boring! In fact, during her lifetime, Anne was a brilliant, engaging young woman with the best education her family’s position at court could provide. She served under the most royal ladies in Europe, was a known wit, and loved all things French. And once she married King Henry VIII, Anne did anything – absolutely anything – to keep her marriage intact. Any Anne Boleyn biography might also mention her family’s affairs with her husband (more on that later), her religious fervor, and rumors that her ghosts still haunts people today. Keep read to learn more weird Anne Boleyn facts.
Anne’s Sister Hit It First… and Had Sex with Two Kings
As you may remember from Philippa Gregory’s bestseller-turned-motion picture The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne Boleyn’s only sister, Mary, was the mistress of Henry VIII before her sister entered the picture. While that story contained plenty of inaccuracies, this claim was, in fact, correct.
The two sisters worked together for years. Along with Anne, Mary Boleyn once served Henry’s sister, Mary, when she was Queen of France. Unlike Anne, Mary may have become the mistress of the new monarch of France, King Francis, who ascended to the throne once Louis XII died. Francis called her “my English mare” and a “great whore,” but some scholars think these nameswere actually meant for Anne and Mary might not have had sex with Francis.
But Mary did definitely have relations with her sister’s eventual husband, becoming Henry VIII’s mistress once she returned to England. She succeeded Bessie Blount, mother of Henry’s only acknowledged, legitimate child, in his bed, but their affair didn’t last beyond a year or so. And despite The Other Boleyn Girl’s claims, Mary’s two children were most likely not Henry’s, but those of her husband, whom she married around this time.
Mary’s past with Henry came back to haunt Anne when the king sought to marry Mistress Boleyn. Technically, by legal standards of the time, trying to marry a woman whose sister he’d seduced was incestuous, so Henry had to seek a papal dispensation. Ironic, considering one of the excuses Henry used to cast off his first wife was that Catherine had been his brother’s wife.
Anne May Have Encouraged Her Cousin to Have Sex with Her Husband
Once they got married, Henry didn’t remain fascinated with Anne for long, so he sought sexual healing elsewhere. Anne enlisted her own allies and relatives to spy on the king and be Henry’s mistresses so that he wouldn’t favor one of her enemies, who might turn Henry against her.
The ladies Anne convinced to seduce her own husband included one of her cousins, either Margaret or Mary Shelton (daughters of her father’s sister). Ultimately, witnessing a relative have an affair with her husband made Anne intensely jealous and didn’t really soften Henry up much.
Rumor Has It Her Mother Also Slept with Henry VIII
Anne’s fiercest opponents spread a rumor that her eventual husband slept with her mother, Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire. The Catholic confessor of the future Queen Mary I, who hated Anne for displacing her mother (and eventually her country’s faith), hinted that Henry had had sex with three Boleyn women: the mother and her two daughters. A goldsmith’s wife also suggested that Anne should be burned because Henry had slept with both her and her mother.
Henry definitely did sleep with both Boleyn sisters, Anne and Mary, but there’s little evidence to suggest he ravished Elizabeth, as well. According to an account by a Catholic priest, Nicholas Sander, who hated the pro-Reformation Queen Anne, Henry’s second wife was actually his own daughter by Elizabeth Boleyn! That claim was definitely as false as could be.
She Literally Danced on Her Rival’s Grave
The Spanish ambassador to England admittedly hated Anne with a passion, instead supporting Henry’s first wife, the aunt of the Spanish king-cum-Holy Roman Emperor. He reported that Anne plotted against Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, and her daughter. When Catherine finally died, in January 1536, the ambassador recalled, Anne was so happy that she wore yellow, a color of joy, not mourning. Henry shouted in glee that they were finally free of the threat of war from Catherine’s nephew. The day after Catherine’s death, the happy family – mother, father, and their daughter, Elizabeth – paraded to church, the legitimate royal clan of England.
Shockingly, for the Time, She Was Crowned Using a King’s Crown
Surprisingly for a consort (especially a non-royal one), when Anne was made Queen in 1533, she wore St. Edward’s Crown. That was one of England’s most ancient diadems, usually reserved for monarchs. When Catherine and Henry were crowned together years before, Henry got to wear St. Ed’s diadem, but Catherine only wore one that had belonged to his wife.
This crown emphasized that Anne and the child she was carrying at the time of her coronation were the real royal family (excluding Catherine and her daughter, Mary). To be fair, though, Anne later donned a crown made especially for her, which was probably a bit lighter, but still pretty regal.
Henry Gave Anne a Man’s Title
Before their marriage, Henry made Anne a peer (noble) in her own right in 1532, more than just a “lady” by virtue of her father’s title as an earl. He appointed her Marquess of Pembroke, a title that was actually meant for a man: The wife of a marquess would be a marchioness. Unlike the majority of female nobles, who attained their titles by virtue of their fathers or husbands, Anne would hold a title in her own right, just like a male lord.
It was also important to make Anne a noble in her own right because Henry was taking her on an official visit to his biggest frenemy, Francis I of France. So Anne needed to be of sufficient rank to merit meeting a foreign king and being a consort of the English monarch. She was thus on par with – and actually outranked – many of the male nobles in the kingdom. Henry gave her the most gorgeous jewels in town, even asking his first wife to send back the royal gems, but she refused.
Henry Ordered a Special Swordsman for Anne’s Execution
Once Henry had determined that Anne must die, he was kind of nice about it. He hired an expert swordsman from Calais, one of England’s last territories in France, to make Anne’s death was quick and (relatively) painless.
Anne herself was alternately happy and hysterical right before she was killed. One can imagine that facing death in that way could wreak havoc on anyone’s emotions! A letter from the constable of the Tower of London, where she was held, mentioned that Anne even joked that she might be remembered as “Queen Anne Lack-Head” after her death.
She Probably Didn’t Have an Extra Finger or Too Many Moles
Sure, Anne was cast in a witchy role late in life to justify her execution, but reports have lingered that she had a sixth finger on one hand and lots of moles all over her body, sorcerous features. Almost a century after Anne’s death, a manuscript supposedly written by Anne’s teenage sweetheart, the poet Thomas Wyatt, appeared. Wyatt’s nephew circulated the information published therein, hinting that Anne had the beginnings of a fingernail on one hand, indicating an extra finger, and she had a few moles. But a few unusual features hardly made her a monster.
Anne Was the First Cousin of the Other Wife Henry Killed
As you probably know, Henry VIII killed two out of his six wives: his second and fifth spouses, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, respectively. But did you know that Anne and Catherine had more than just a husband in common? They were actually first cousins!
Anne’s mother, Elizabeth Boleyn, was the daughter of one of the most important – and Catholic – nobles in England, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. From two marriages, the duke had tons of children, including Elizabeth and her brother Edmund, who fathered Catherine Howard; thus, Anne and Catherine were closely related, although the former was about fifteen years older than the latter.
Both Anne and Catherine were placed directly in Henry’s path by their uncle, a cunning politician and the third Duke of Norfolk, also named Thomas Howard (see a pattern here?). Eager to ally himself with the monarchy even further, Uncle Howard also married his own legitimate daughter to Henry’s only acknowledged illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy. But Grandpa Howard’s second wife, Agnes Tilney, was already married to the duke by the time Catherine hit her teenage years, so she was tasked with raising the young Howard ladies. Needless to say, when news of Catherine’s adolescent indiscretions hit the fan years later, Agnes came under heavy fire.
Anne Was Educated in the Most Brilliant Courts in Europe
Because of her family connections, especially her father’s diplomatic skills in Europe, Anne grew up at the greatest courts on the continent. In 1513, her father sent her to serve Margaret of Austria, who governed the Low Countries for her brother. Anne learned diplomatic savvy at Margaret’s knee.
Anne went on to serve her future sister-in-law, Mary Tudor, Queen of France, wife of Louis XII. While there, she became a lifelong Francophile, which was helpful when Mary went home to England after Louis’s death and Anne stayed in France to attend the next queen, Claude. The new king of France, Francis I, was a licentious man and Henry VIII’s lifelong rival.
But Francis’s sister, Marguerite of Angoulême, was one of the most brilliant women of her age, one whom Anne greatly admired. Herself an author, she patronized great writers and thinkers, and Anne once told a French ambassador that, next to giving birth to a son, her greatest desire was to see Marguerite again.
Anne Was Forced to Give Up Her One True Love
Anne always aimed high when it came to marriage. In the 1520s, she got engaged to Henry Percy, heir to one of the most important noble titles in the north of England, the earldom of Northumberland. Although she was just the daughter of a minor official at the time, Anne boasted important connections. She and Percy pledged themselves in front of witnesses, which was a near-legal bond in those days.
But Percy was already betrothed, and King Henry’s most powerful advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, discovered the young lovers’ affair. He put an end to Anne and Percy’s budding romance, saying that the lordling must marry as befit his station and with the permission of his family and monarch, implying that Anne wasn’t good enough for him.
Anne probably never forgave Wolsey for denying her her chance at happiness and high position, so she made it her mission to bring him down once she gained the king’s favor. Anne achieved that goal, but her liaison with Percy came to haunt her in the days when she herself was cast down.
She Once Worked for Her Future Sister-in-Law
Anne grew up in the various courts of Europe, serving some of the most royal ladies on the Continent… including her own future sister-in-law! Henry’s sister, Mary, was Queen of France for a short period of time, and her attendants included the Boleyn sisters, Anne and Mary, daughters of the English ambassador to the Low Countries (Netherlands, etc.). Of course, no one knew at that time that Anne would go on to marry Mary’s own brother!
After Mary’s husband, King Louis XII, died, Anne stayed on in France to serve the wife of his successor, Francis I. A charming woman, Anne was a skilled French speaker and a true Francophile, a fascination that lasted the rest of her life.
Elizabeth Rarely Spoke of Her Mother, but Kept Her Memory Close
Understandably, Elizabeth I, who was orphaned a very young age, didn’t talk a lot about the mother her father had condemned to death. In fact, Elizabeth often wore her long, red locks down, both to emphasize her virginity – only married women would wear their hair up – and her legitimacy as her father’s daughter, since Henry VIII was a famous redhead.
But evidence indicates that Elizabeth still cherished memories of her mother. She adopted one of her mother’s old mottos, Semper eadem (“always the same”), and her badge of a falcon with a crown holding a scepter. In the 1570s, Elizabeth wore a ring that contained miniature portraits of both herself and Anne.
She also kept her family close, cherishing her maternal first cousins by her aunt Mary. One of her favorite ladies-in-waiting was Mary’s daughter, Catherine Carey Knollys, and she greatly trustedCatherine’s brother, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. Henry eventually became his cousin’s Lord Chamberlain.
She Was Captivating, Not Classically Beautiful
A dark-haired woman, Anne was called “not one of the handsomest women in the world” by the Venetian ambassador to England. She wasn’t particularly short or tall, the ambassador wrote, having “a swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the King’s great appetite.”
But Anne knew how to play up her best features: Her eyes were “black and beautiful,” and she used them to great effect. A cleric admitted that Henry’s earlier mistress, Bessie Blount, was more attractive than Anne, but Mistress Boleyn was “more eloquent and graceful, really more handsome.”
Anne and Her Family Were Pro-Reforming the Church
Even if King Henry really broke from Rome to allow himself control over his own marital destiny, he was probably nudged along by Anne, who was very pro-Reformation. She sympathized with the Continental Protestant cause (which Henry dismissed as heretical, ironically, only seeing himself as taking his rightful role as Head of the Church). Henry liked most of the Catholic faith – except the parts about obedience to the Pope and religious institutions keeping wealth for themselves – but the Boleyns were staunchly anti-Catholic.
The Spanish ambassador to England, Eustace Chapuys, disdainfully called the Boleyns “more Lutheran than Luther himself.” Anne and her ally, Henry’s minister Thomas Cromwell, worked together to protect evangelicals and brought about the election of reformer bishops.
She Loved Lavish Gifts
Once she got her hands on Henry’s wealth, Anne spared no expense when it came to giving presents. For New Year’s in 1534, she gave her husband a giant, silver-gilt fountain, crafted by master artist and portrait painter Hans Holbein the Younger. Holbein probably also built a cradle for Anne’s short-lived son in 1533.
Anne also catered to Henry’s love of hunting (before he got too fat) later in life. In 1532, she gifted him with boar spears, perhaps hinting at his virility (and her promise to give him a son).
Anne’s Family Was a Mixture of Average Joes and the Highest Nobility
Anne’s family was a fascinating mix of up-and-coming people from the middle class and the most ancient nobility in England. Her dad’s family was hard-working; her great-grandfather, Sir Geoffrey, was once a merchant, but he rose by his own wits to become Lord Mayor of London, eventually purchasing multiple manors. Geoffrey married a lord’s daughter, while his own son, William, wed an heiress to an earldom.
But it was Anne’s father, Thomas, who truly upgraded. His wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of one of the foremost noblemen in the kingdom, the Duke of Norfolk, who boasted a very well-connected and powerful clan. A savvy diplomat, Thomas got some foreign appointments on his own merit but became an earl in his own right and father of a queen thanks to his daughter.
Her Ghost Might Haunt Her Childhood Home
Anne and her siblings grew up, in part, in the gorgeous Hever Castle, which still stands today. Rumor has it that the executed queen’s ghost haunts her childhood haunt. A photographer snapped a pic of a spectral hand floating in mid-air at Hever… perhaps Anne’s own? Other reports have Anne haunting palaces where she once lived or the Tower of London, where she died.