The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn

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The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn

  • Was she a tool of faction?
  • Was she able to manipulate Henry against his favourite councillors?
  • Was she manipulative?
  • Was she the driving force behind the Reformation?
  • Why did she fall: adultery?
  • Henry's wish to marry again? Faction?

Anne Boleyn

She was born in to the nobility - along the Norfolk line. At age 12 (in 1513), she was sent off to the Netherlands to learn French language and manners. From here she went on to become a lady-in-waiting to Margaret Tudor, who was married to the King of France. By education and etiquette she was completely French, and she returned to England, and consequently to Henry's court when these manners where the height of fashion.

She was introduced to Henry's court in 1522, through her sister, Mary, once time lover of the king, now married to William Carey.

For five years she was courted by a number of men at court. The poet Thomas Wyatt wrote that the men of court followed her around like puppy dogs. When the Earl of Northumberland took a fancy to her he was warned off by Wolsey.

It was about this time that Henry started to write letters to her. Letters which said things like:


(These letters have, incidentally, ended up in the Vatican library!)

Henry pestered her for a long time to become his mistress. But she had more ambition than that. She held out. It paid off. In 1527 Henry started divorce proceedings against Catherine in an attempt to make Anne his wife, to have her at last.

Anne was able to influence Henry in to filling the Privy Council with supporters (or was it the other way round - Anne was a godsend for the reformers in council?) By 1528 the Privy Council had been repoliticised in favour of the reformists, who wished to see changes in the church.

Wolsey seemed to be getting in the way of everything. He failed to secure a divorce from the papacy, he appointed an opponent of the Boleyn faction as an abbess. He had to go. In 1529 he did.

Henry became absolutely determined to marry her when it was discovered that she was pregnant. Cranmer marries them in secret in early 1533.

Sixteenth century women were supposed to be silent and demure. Anne was 'brilliant, talkative and assertive' (Starkey). She had enormous influence at court. Some historians maintain that she replaced Wolsey in 1529, not Thomas More. This, if true, implies an incredible amount of power on her part.

She had plenty of followers at court: her brother, William Carew, Exeter, Sir Francis Bryan, William Brereton, Henry Norris, and the likes. She also had support in parliament, 'The Queen's Head Group' (ironic in hindsight), named after a pub the MPs would meet in. She had the support of the lower House of Convocation, and the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, her dear friend, Thomas Cranmer. Importantly, she was admired by Cromwell.

She was a religious reformer, and was determined, like many at the time, that the church was in dire need of reform to stamp out clerical abuses. She also wanted to see the Bible translated, and used as the basis of belief. Henry was influenced by her ideas to an extent. She certainly was responsible for introducing Henry to the writings of Simon Fish.

There are three basic theories for the fall of Anne Boleyn:

She had committed adultery with members of the court, and as the Queen this was an act of treason.

Henry had his eye on Jane Seymour, and was sick of Anne's assertive, headstrong ways, and wanted a more subservient wife.

Jane Seymour

There was a swing in the council in favour of the conservatives who wished to be rid of Anne, and place their own Queen in her place (Jane).

On Sunday 30th April 1536 Mark Smeaton, a court musician was secretly arrested. On the 1st May Henry Norris, the chief gentleman of the Privy Council was sent to the Tower, William Brereton, Anne and her brother soon followed.

Anne was accused of adultery, incest, witchcraft and plotting the king's death.

David Starkey is a bit of a fan of Anne Boleyn.

E. W. Ives maintains that she is an attractive figure from a modern perspective, "A woman in her own right - taken on her own terms in a man's world; a woman who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex; of only moderate looks, but taking a court and a king by storm."

Further Reading

Bernard G., 'The Fall of Anne Boleyn' , English Historical Review (1991)

Ives E.W., Anne Boleyn (1987)

Loades D., Chronicles of the Tudor Kings (1990; Bramley Books)

Starkey D., 'The Beginnings of Faction' in The Reign of Henry VIII (1985)