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"The scandal of Christendom."

"I have never had better opinions of woman than I had of her."
Thomas Cranmer

Anne Boleyn (c. 1501note  – 19 May 1536) was Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as the second wife of King Henry VIII, and was mother of Elizabeth I. There are few people in history who were and are as polarizing as Anne Boleyn. During her lifetime she was both much maligned and much admired. To Protestants she was the equivalent of a Saint, while Catholics detested her. Nowadays lines are drawn again, although now her supporters and detractors look more at her personality and deeds as Queen - or as a fictionalized character.

Anne grew up as the (probably younger) daughter of the ambitious diplomat and courtier Thomas Boleyn, who when she was around 12note  secured for her a post as maid of honour to Archduchess Margaret of Austria, regent of the Low Countries. From there, she traveled to France to attend Princess Mary of England as she married the French King. After his death and Mary's departure Anne became a member of the court of Queen Claude of France. Heavily influenced by French culture and fashion, she made a splash at the English court when she returned in 1521. Five years later she came to the notice of the very married (and very Catholic) King Henry VIII — and what happened after that has been hotly debated for centuries.

There are currently two common narratives. The traditional story, popular with Whig historians desperate to justify Henry VIII's actions, is that Henry would never have left poor innocent Katherine had that crafty, ambitious Jezebel Anne not seduced him. In this view Anne set out to marry the poor besotted Henry from the very beginning, using her feminine wiles (teasing him, leading him on, refusing to be his mistress and instead 'holding out for marriage') to break up a happy family specifically so she could be Queen. Unfortunately this comfortable and smug tale must contest with the fact that Henry was known to have had doubts about his marriage as early as 1515, or six years before Anne Boleyn even returned to England and a good ten before he fell in love with her. This leads to the second common narrative: that Anne, ambitious but not foolhardy, was at the start a victim of what was basically workplace sexual harassment. She didn't hold out for marriage as much as she refused to become Henry's mistress and was stunned when he went further and all but ordered her to become his Queen. This narrative has Anne making the best out of a bad bargain.

Whichever story one believes, the result is that Henry decided he would marry Anne and to that effect petitioned the Pope to annul his marriage to Katherine on the basis of consanguinity (she having previously been married to his brother). Ten years earlier he might have succeeded... but with the troops of Charles V (Katherine's nephew) threatening Rome again and with Martin Luther standing on the sidelines taunting the Church over its immorality, Pope Clement VII was hardly going to accede to Henry's wishes. But nor could he reject them entirely, as Henry just happened to be one of his few political allies. So he stalled, and hemmed, and hawed, and probably prayed one of the parties would just die before he was forced to make a decision — until Henry, tired of waiting, took matters into his own hands and broke with Rome, had his marriage to Katherine annulled in England, and married Anne in either November 1532 or January 1533.

Was Henry influenced by Anne's reformist ideas? It's a good question. The Whigs, desperate to discover a whiff of Protestantism in the hitherto stridently ultra-Catholic Henry, believed she managed to turn his heart toward the new faith, but the evidence we have suggests that Henry only cherry-picked what he could use from reformist thought to get what he wanted - which was all Henry ever really cared about, stories of heirs and England's future notwithstanding.

Henry's expectations that the world would go his way at long last were dashed when instead of the hoped-for son Anne gave birth to a 'worthless' daughter (the future Elizabeth I). This must naturally have been a blow to the King, but what eventually led to him falling out of love with Anne is debatable; certainly the numerous miscarriages Anne suffered after Elizabeth's birth had something to do with it, but a factor not taken into consideration by Whig historians is that Anne basically organized the early Church of England on her own, taking much of the work off Henry's shoulders and gaining a great deal of political power in the process. Henry, a lazy man who loathed the minutiae of governing, was prone to lifting men up to do the work and then banishing or killing them when that work led them to become too powerful. This trait of his may have influenced Anne Boleyn's fate as much as it did the fates of Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

As Queen Anne may have thought she had some amount of protection, but in truth she was far more vulnerable than Katherine had ever been. The general population seems to have disliked her and blamed her for the treatment of the former/'true' queen and Henry's break with Rome; she had no powerful foreign relatives willing to declare war if she was deposed or worse; her abrasive, brittle temperament alienated many members of the court not in her clique (including Henry's close friends Charles Brandon and Francis Bryan, and her own uncle the Duke of Norfolk); and, when Henry started getting up to his old tricks and taking mistresses, Anne didn't look the other way as Katherine had done but made her displeasure very evident, which only served to turn Henry even further against her. Katherine's death in January 1536 made her even more vulnerable, as the Catholic world now saw Henry as unmarried; if only the 'concubine', as she was known, could be gotten rid of, Henry could contract a legal marriage and be returned to the fold.

Matters came to a head in the spring of 1536. Nobody now knows who was behind the decision to get rid of Anne, but by the end of April the court was as tense as a bowstring. Loose words by Anne — asking if courtier Henry Norris was waiting for the King to die so he could marry her — set the plot in motion. Two days later Anne was arrested along with five men, including Norris and Anne's own brother George, and charged with adultery, incest, and treason. Many writers have had Anne charged with witchcraft as well, but this is incorrect; although Henry did say after her arrest that he thought Anne had bewitched him, the lawyers who drew up the warrants knew that such a charge would never fly with the hard-headed Kentish jurors who would first hear the case. The whole 'charged as a witch' belief came later with 19th century historians.

Anne defended herself well in court, as well she should have; modern scholarship has found that most of the charges of adultery were logistically impossible, Anne not even being in the same county as her supposed paramours on most of the dates given in the warrants. Nevertheless she and her codefendants were still convicted and sentenced to death, because that's what Henry wanted. The men were beheaded on Tower Hill on May 17, but Henry paid the exceptionally talented Executioner of Calais to travel to London and behead Anne two days later on Tower Green with a sword - a seeming gesture of mercy, until you realize that for him to reach England on time Henry must have sent for him before the trial. That Henry, always the gentleman.

Once Anne was dead Henry had her letters and other writings destroyed, her portraits burned, her jewels reworked, and even her plate melted down. We consequently know less about Anne than we should, especially given her influence on the Church of England.

Given her popularity with writers who fancy themselves historians, there are probably more myths and urban legends surrounding Anne Boleyn and her downfall than about any other figure in English history. No, she did not have six fingers on one hand or a mole on her chest or, as the Book of Lists invented, a third breast - since we don't have contemporary images, it's not easy to reconstruct what she looked like, but contemporary accounts seem to attest that she was of average appearance. No, she was not accused or convicted of witchcraft. No, her sister-in-law Lady Rochford did not testify against her husband (it was Lady Worcester). No, she did not commit adultery. No, there is no evidence her sister Mary Boleyn had children by Henry VIII during the time that Mary was his mistress, and quite a bit of evidence against it. And on, and on, and on. Suffice to say that the reader who believes pop "historians" like Alison Weir might be better off reading something by a real, trained historian.

Tropes associated with Anne Boleyn as portrayed in fiction:

  • Aloof Dark-Haired Girl: Anne was known for being rather abrasive and short-tempered and during her first pregnancy, was prone to throwing things at her servants. If the narrative isn't sympathetic, these traits get played up. That said, there's a reason that most well-known portrayals have at least some of these traits: even sympathetic historical accounts admit them.
  • Ambition Is Evil: If Anne is shown wanting to be Queen, she's usually some kind of villain, since becoming Queen breaks up a marriage and results in a princess being disinherited.
  • Blue Blood: She may have been a step down from an Infanta of Spain in the marriage sweepstakes, but she was descended from prominent members of the English (and Irish) aristocracy on both sides of her family; her maternal grandfather was the 2nd Duke of Norfolk. His son, the 3rd Duke, was therefore her maternal uncle, a relationship he took full advantage of to advance his own political career.
  • Brainy Brunette: If she's portrayed as a manipulator, then it's The Chessmaster sort of brains. If it's a more sympathetic narrative, she's instead a match for Henry's bluster and temper.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: As mentioned above, one of the men Anne was tried and convicted of committing adultery with was her own brother George Boleyn. Most scholars agree there was no truth to this charge, but fictional portrayals vary on whether there was anything to it.
  • Historical Beauty Update: Anne is often depicted as an alluring beauty, despite the fact that she reportedly wasn't anything special in real life. She was reportedly very much the opposite of the standards of beauty at the time - when it was fashionable to be fair, she was sallow. Likewise she had small breasts when voluptuous figures were in. In fact Henry was largely attracted to her for her personality and intellect. It should be noted, however, that only one contemporary image of Anne has survived; a defaced prototype medallion that only shows the rough outlines of her face. The portrait at the top of this page was painted sixty years after her death by an artist who'd never seen her. As a result, in the present we don't really know what she looked like. There are even those who think she had red hair. Contemporary accounts seem to agree on one thing; in looks, she was about average.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The first interpretation of Anne as a scheming manipulator.
  • Petite Pride: At a time when having a voluptuous figure was in fashion, Anne was quite small breasted. Sometimes this is played up.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: As the portrait shows, Anne was known for black hair and olive skin. Writers called her sallow, but none of them mentioned her hair colour. The 1576 ring locket portrait worn by Queen Elizabeth I has her with red hair and pale skin. Of course, it’s most likely Anne was olive-skinned and had black hair.
  • Signature Headgear: Over the centuries Anne became associated with the French hood (as shown in the portrait above), while Katherine of Aragon became associated with the gable hood. In truth both women wore both hoods; the most famous portrait of Katherine as a young widow has her wearing an early French hood, and Anne wore a gable hood to her execution.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Anne gets far and away the most individual attention out of Henry VIII's wives in pop culture. Being the catalyst for England's split from the Roman Catholic church and the mother of an equally influential English monarch will do that.
  • The Vamp: The first interpretation paints her as such.
  • Values Dissonance: She ordered thumbscrews for the toddler Elizabeth in order to straighten her fingers.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Whatever she was like as a person, Princess Mary was not treated well by Anne at all, and was forced to act as a nursemaid to the newborn Elizabeth. To be fair, while she did threaten Mary with violence, parents (fathers and mothers) did that with recalcitrant children all the time in 16th century England.

Portrayals of Anne Boleyn in fiction:

  • The Hollywood classic Young Bess features a flashback to after Elizabeth's birth, where Anne is played by Elaine Stuart.
  • Natalie Dormer in The Tudors. She's depicted as a very flawed woman, being ruthlessly ambitious, entitled and quick-tempered, but overall this is one of the more sympathetic portrayals of her character, especially towards the end of her arc; she has an abusive father who pushes her to seduce the king, she genuinely loves her siblings, truly falls in love with Henry and tries to be a good queen, only for her to be set up as a treasonous adulterer and beheaded.
  • Dame Dorothy Tutin in The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
  • Charlotte Rampling in Henry VIII and his Six Wives.
  • Genevičve Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days.
  • Merle Oberon in The Private Life of Henry VIII.
  • Helena Bonham Carter in Henry VIII.
  • A young Vanessa Redgrave cameos as Anne in A Man For All Seasons for a scene after her and Henry's marriage.
  • Appears as a character in the Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel. In the 2015 television adaptation, she was portrayed by Claire Foy, who portrays her as both very irritating but then very sympathetic when Henry turns on her.
  • Appears in Philippa Gregory's novel The Other Boleyn Girl and The Film of the Book of the same name. Here Anne is portrayed as a cruel, irreligious hypocrite and a coward. She is played in the film by Natalie Portman; although still retains many of her flaws from the book her nastier traits are toned down in the film and she comes off more sympathetically. Notably in this version, the charges of adultery are based off a misunderstanding rather than being completely trumped up.note 
  • Is a minor character in Henry VIII.
  • Howard Brenton's historical play Anne Boleyn depicts her as a committed Protestant reformer whose downfall comes when the hardline Protestants also decide that her marriage to Henry is illegitimate, and Thomas Cromwell decides to destroy her when she threatens to expose his embezzlement of the proceeds of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
  • Anne is mostly an offscreen character in Carolyn Meyer's Mary Bloody Mary - a Historical Fiction on Mary Tudor's childhood. Anne is only seen from a distance whenever Mary is at court, but Mary's narrative naturally doesn't describe her favourably. Most information about her comes from Mary's spies at court, and she only properly appears for the scene of Elizabeth's birth.
  • A book concerning Anne appears in the My Story series - fictional diaries of people who lived alongside historical events. Anne Boleyn & Me concerns a young girl called Elinor Valjean whose mother is a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon, and she becomes a servant to Anne as she rises through the ranks. Anne's character is left vague though Elinor sometimes notes in her diary that Anne seems to be nicer than the gossip about her lets on. There's one very sobering moment shortly before the charges are announced where Anne tells Elinor privately how lucky she is to have a loving family - implying she genuinely loved Henry too.
  • A Sabrina the Teenage Witch novelisation featured a brief sequence of Sabrina going back in time to Elizabeth I's coronation, where the young queen gives her a locket that belonged to Anne. Elizabeth also whispers the rumour that Anne was a witch - implying it to be true in this universe.
  • An episode of The Simpsons has Marge briefly narrating the story of Henry VIII and his wives. Anne Boleyn appears, portrayed by Lindsay Nagle. She gives Henry (played by Homer) a business card that reads "A Son'll Come Out Tomorrow".
  • The The Tudors fanfic Handmaid is an Alternate History where Anne is chosen by Henry (publicly) and Katherine (secretly) to be a handmaid, who bears Henry's children on Katherine's behalf. Katherine chose to ask Anne to be her handmaid in order to avoid a divorce and because she knew Anne would be loyal enough to not try to usurp her position. (What she doesn't know is that's because Anne's in love with Katherine.) Anne ends up pregnant four times. The first resulted in daughter Cecily, the second was miscarried when Thomas Seymour pushed her down the stairs trying to kill her so Jane Seymour could take her place, the third resulted in twins Elizabeth and Edmund, finally providing England with an heir, and the last resulted in Owen. She dies about a year after Henry and Katherine do, from what Cecily suspects is a broken heart.
  • Anne was a suspect in three murder cases in Criminal Case: Travel in Time.
    • She first appeared in Case #11, where the victim was Catherine of Aragon, who had been murdered in 1515, eighteen years before her actual death, thanks to disturbances in time. She at first claimed mourning over Catherine's death, insisting that the late Queen was like a mother to her. She was later confronted about the victim's claims of Anne being a harlot. Anne revealed that Catherine suspected her of trying to seduce Henry VIII, which at the time was not true, and expressed fury of being accused of adultery. She was later proved innocent.
    • She appeared again when the player went to France, explaining that she was being re-trained in the court of Francis I. When questioned about the victim, the court jester Triboulet, Anne showed no sympathy or caring for such a lowly man. It was later revealed that Triboulet had humiliated her in front of King Francis by spanking her as part of his comedy routine, to which she returned his mockery by biting him and hitting him with his own juggling club. Anne was later found innocent again.
    • Her final appearance was at King Henry VIII's wedding to Lady Fiore de Medici, who was actually a childhood friend of Anne's. However, after the player found a letter from Anne calling Fiore SCUM, Anne revealed that Lady Fiore had not invited her to her wedding, which infuriated Anne, making her believe Fiore thought herself to be above Anne now that she was marrying a King. Anne forced her way into the wedding to give herself a chance to shine and embarrass Fiore for her snub. Once again, Anne was proven innocent of the murder. She then explains that during the investigation, she and Henry got close and sparks flew between them, and he proposed to her. The wedding went on, with Anne taking the place as Henry's bride.
  • In Six (a West End musical reimagining the wives of Henry VIII as pop stars), she was portrayed by Millie O'Connell on the first UK tour and in the first West End production.
  • Jodie Turner-Smith portrays a Race Lifted version of her in the 2021 Channel 5 Mini Series Anne Boleyn.
  • Chilling Adventures of Sabrina references Anne in season one, when Sabrina and her aunts invoke the names of various Spellman witches in order to exorcise a demon. This implies that Anne was not only a witch, but a distant relative of Sabrina's.
  • The song "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm", originally sung by Stanley Holloway, but since covered by many other artists. It's a Black Comedy-filled tune about the ghost of Anne Boleyn haunting the London Tower and trying to get revenge on King Henry for beheading her. Unfortunately, King Henry, portrayed as a clueless hedonist, doesn't take her very seriously.
  • In Spencer, Princess Diana at one point hallucinates the ghost of Anne Boleyn, portrayed here by Amy Manson.
  • In the film version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, a portrait of Anne Boleyn is briefly seen alongside the Hogwarts Grand Staircase, suggesting that she may have been a real witch in the Potterverse.