As part of our new Kings and Queens series, historian Elizabeth Norton tells you everything you need to know about Anne Boleyn, queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as the second wife of Henry VIII
Born: around 1501, in Norfolk
Died: 19 May 1536, at Tower Green (executed)
Family: born to Sir Thomas Boleyn and his wife, Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. The second of three surviving children
Successor: Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s next wife
Remembered for: being arrested for adultery and incest, taken to the Tower of London, and later executed
Life: Anne Boleyn was educated in Brussels and Paris, before returning to England in 1522 to serve Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
She caused a stir at court, captivating both the heir to the earldom of Northumberland and the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, who called her ‘Fair Brunet’. By 1526 the king was also interested in the dark-haired young woman.
Anne had no intention of becoming the king’s mistress. Undeterred, Henry VIII bombarded her with letters, professing himself “stricken with the dart of love”. In May 1527 he began his long attempt to secure a papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine.
Anne was soon queen in all but name. She was now a political figure, instrumental in the fall of Cardinal Wolsey in 1529. On 1 September 1532 she was created Lady Marquis of Pembroke, giving her sufficient status to accompany Henry on a visit to France the following month.
She fell pregnant shortly afterwards, with the couple marrying in secret on 25 January 1533. But although finally married, Henry still needed to disentangle himself from Catherine of Aragon.
Anne, understandably, was anti-papal. She brought Simon Fish’s anti-clerical The Supplication of Beggars to Henry’s attention. He put increasing pressure on the clergy, forcing them to accept him as ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’ in 1531.
In early 1533 Thomas Cranmer, a Boleyn family chaplain and the new Archbishop of Canterbury, repudiated his allegiance to the pope, before annulling Henry’s first marriage and crowning Anne.
On 7 September 1533 Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.
Within months of their wedding Henry was unfaithful, informing Anne that “she must shut her eyes, and endure as well as more worthy persons, and that she ought to know that it was in his power to humble her again in a moment more than he had exalted her”.
When Anne miscarried a son shortly after Catherine of Aragon’s death in January 1536, he declared ominously that “he would have no more boys by her”. He had already fallen in love with Jane Seymour, and was soon looking to end his marriage.
On 30 April 1536, under torture, a musician named Mark Smeaton confessed to a sexual relationship with Anne. Two days later the queen was arrested for adultery and incest, and taken to the Tower of London.
Anne, her brother, Smeaton and three other men were convicted on trumped-up charges, with the men executed on 17 May. That same day, the royal marriage was annulled.
On 19 May 1536, Anne Boleyn walked to a scaffold on Tower Green. After making a short speech, she knelt as a French swordsman – sent for as a small act of mercy by the king – stepped up behind her and severed her head with one blow.
The death of Anne Boleyn shocked her contemporaries. As well as her involvement in religious reform, her greatest legacy is her daughter, Elizabeth I, who became one of England’s greatest monarchs.