Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Trials and Deaths of Anne Boleyn & Katherine Howard

Anne Boleyn's Ambitious Beginnings

The precise date of Anne Boleyn's birth is unknown and has been widely disputed. According to Weir, it had been generally accepted, until recently, that Anne was born in 1507. However, she wrotethat Lord Herbert of Cherbury's biography of Henry the VIII, written several hundred years ago presents a "more realistic date" of between 1501 or 1502. Anne was the middle child of three siblings born into an affluent family headed by Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard. Anne had a sister, Mary, one to two years her senior and a brother, George, who was one or two years younger.

Thomas Boleyn, Anne's father
Thomas Boleyn, Anne's father

The Boleyn family was believed to have lived in Norfolk, England, at the time of Anne's birth. It was there that she spent a great deal of her childhood. Anne's father must have noticed that his middle daughter seemed destined for greatness. She was different from the other children and seemed to excel in a variety of things such as dancing, music, embroidery, literature and verse. She also was an extremely charming and vivacious girl, who was as ambitious as she was elegant. Like her ancestors before her, it was believed that Anne would one day serve at court if not marry into a noble family.

Anne's ancestry was as complex as her emerging character. She descended from both nobility and the merchant class. Her royal pedigree would later propel her through the grander stations in life, eventually dominating and overshadowing her simpler roots.

Her "blue blood" came from her mother's side of the family, stemming from her distant relations, Margaret of France and her husband, King Edward I. The king and queen were Anne's great-grandparents, seven times removed. Anne's great-grandfather John Howard received the title Duke of Norfolk, which was then transferred to her grandfather.

The Boleyn ancestors from Anne's father's side were known to have been from the working middle class. For hundreds of years the Boleyn family worked as tenant farmers and tradesmen, selling their wares and cultivating the land in and around the area of Norfolk. Yet, the Boleyn family would not remain in the middle class forever. Fortune shined upon the family when Geoffrey Boleyn, one of Anne's great-great grandfathers, boosted the reputation and economic status of the family by becoming London 's alderman in the mid 1400s and several years later the Lord Mayor. Geoffrey's descendants further enhanced the family's standing by a series of high-profile marriages, of which Anne would also later contribute.

Sketch of Mary Tudor, Henry's daughter
Sketch of Mary Tudor, Henry's

Weir wrote that, throughout Anne's youth, her father upheld the family reputation, especially at court where he "figured prominently in the King's circle of intimates." Thomas was described as a sportsman and an intellectual with an astounding aptitude for languages. It was his talent for languages that propelled him to the heights of society and landed him a temporary position as England 's ambassador to France. Thomas recognized the same talent for linguistics in his daughter Anne, which led him to do something that would forever change his daughter's life.

During one of his first missions to mainland Europe as an ambassador, he befriended Archduchess Margaret in the Netherlands. Thomas talked often of his intelligent and ambitious daughter Anne to the Archduchess. She was impressed with what she heard and eventually invited the 12-year-old girl to her home to be educated with 18 other maids of honor. Anne was granted one of the best educations available for a young woman at the time.

Anne excelled in her lessons, particularly in the study of languages. She was especially proficient in French and was eventually able to speak it like a native. After approximately one and a half years, Anne was accepted as a maid of honor to the French court. She moved from England to France in the fall of 1514 to serve beneath the king's sister Mary Tudor, who was engaged at the time to King Louis XII. According to Fraser, she remained at court for approximately six years and eventually was allowed to stay on in the household following Mary's replacement by Queen Claude.

Sketch of Thomas Wyatt, poet
Sketch of Thomas Wyatt, poet

Anne returned to England in 1521, and by 1523 she had acquired a position as one of Queen Catherine's maids of honor. Anne was an instant success at court and was praised for her many attributes, including charm, sophistication, confidence, talent in languages and wittiness. Although Anne was by no means a raving beauty, she did have an air of intrigue about her, which was coupled with potent sexual appeal. Moreover, she was believed to have mastered the art of flirtation, often using her cunningness and dark eyes to seduce possible suitors. Eventually, she caught the attention of some of the gentlemen in King Henry's circle.

One of the men captivated by Anne was Lord Percy, who pursued her with great vigor. The two were believed to have had an intimate love relationship that many thought would end in marriage. However, Percy's powerful family blocked any further attempts at forming a union with Anne because of his engagement to another woman.

In 1525, the famous poet Sir Thomas Wyatt also wooed Anne. The relationship was more of a courtly romance and not as intimate as her previous affair. Wyatt wrote of his admiration for her in some of his later poems, further immortalizing the effects Anne had on men of that generation. After a time the romance began to die down, probably because Wyatt was married. Yet, Wyatt also distanced himself from Anne because he knew a grander, more powerful suitor was interested in her. The new suitor was King Henry VIII who would go on to capture Anne's heart and alter the course of history.

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