She is the most famous of Henry VIII’s six wives, but here Elizabeth Norton reveals some facts that might surprise you about Anne Boleyn, the mother of Elizabeth I…
This article was first published in September 2014
1) Her great-grandfather was a hatter
The Boleyn family had humble origins in the Norfolk village of Salle. Early ancestors were relatively prosperous peasants, with Anne’s great-great-grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn, several times finding himself hauled before the manorial court for trespassing on his lord’s land, ploughing through field boundaries and taking water from the manor without payment.
He was affluent enough to set up his younger son, another Geoffrey Boleyn, as a hatter in London in the 1430s. This second Geoffrey made a success of his career, joining the prestigious Mercer’s Company in 1435 and growing wealthy.
In 1457 he served as Lord Mayor of London while his second wife, Anne Hoo, was the daughter of a baron. He also purchased the manor of Blickling in Norfolk, becoming a solid member of the gentry by the time of his death.
2) Anne was related to St Thomas à Becket
Although Anne is remembered for the role she played in the English Reformation, her family claimed to have a family connection to Thomas à Becket, the saintly 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury.
Anne’s great-grandfather, Thomas Butler, seventh Earl of Ormond, who died in 1515, was buried in the church of St Thomas Acon in London. The church was reputed to have been built on the site of Becket’s birthplace by one of the archbishop’s sisters. The Butlers claimed descent from another of Becket’s sisters, who had married an Irish gentleman.
They were proud of this illustrious ancestor, with the 7th Earl bequeathing his soul to the “glorious martyr Saint Thomas” in his will. He also possessed a treasured family heirloom – a white ivory horn, garnished with gold, and which was claimed to have been the cup from which Becket drank.
The 7th Earl bequeathed the horn to his grandson, Sir Thomas Boleyn, instructing him to pass it on to his own male heirs.
3) Anne was nearly an Irish countess instead of a queen
Anne originally returned from France early in 1522 to marry her cousin, James Butler. Both her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, and James’s father, Piers, claimed the Earldom of Ormond, which had belonged to her great-grandfather.
Anne’s uncle, the Earl of Surrey, suggested to the king that the dispute be settled by a marriage between Anne and James. The Boleyns were unenthusiastic, however, and the proposal was eventually dropped. Thanks to Anne’s relationship with the king, an agreement was finally reached in 1528 with Thomas Boleyn becoming Earl of Ormond and Piers Butler Earl of Ossory.
4) She was nearly an English countess instead of a queen
When Anne returned to England in 1522, she joined the queen’s household. It was soon noticed that Henry Percy, the young heir to the Earl of Northumberland, began to seek out Anne when he came to court. According to William Cavendish, a contemporary of Percy’s who was also in the service of Cardinal Wolsey, “a secret love” grew between the couple and they planned to marry.
When Wolsey discovered the relationship, he berated Percy for seeking to marry beneath him and sent for his father. Anne was banished from court for a time.
5) Anne’s mother was rumoured to have been Henry VIII’s mistress
While it is well known that Anne’s sister, Mary, was the king’s mistress, there were also contemporary rumours that their mother, Elizabeth Howard, had shared the king’s bed. In 1533 Elizabeth Amadas, who was the wife of a London goldsmith, declared publicly that Thomas Boleyn “was bawd both to his wife and his two daughters”, while Sir George Throckmorton told Henry to his face that “it is thought you have meddled both with the mother and sister”.
Later in the 16th century it was claimed by the Jesuit Nicholas Sander that Anne was Henry VIII’s own daughter. Elizabeth was some years older than Henry, and it is improbable that she actually was his mistress, particularly since he denied it to Throckmorton, declaring “never with the mother” when challenged.
Unknown Lady (believed to be Anne Boleyn), 1536. Found in the collection of the Royal Collection, London. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
6) Anne nearly died of the sweating sickness
The sweating sickness, which may have been a type of influenza, plagued Tudor England, and was notable for the speed in which it could kill an otherwise young and healthy victim. As Cardinal du Bellay, the French ambassador, put it, “it is the easiest in the world to die of”.
Henry VIII was terrified of the disease and when, in June 1528, one of Anne’s ladies succumbed to the sweat, he fled 12 miles away, before ordering Anne home to Kent. Henry’s precautions, although unchivalrous, were sensible, since Anne did indeed prove to have been infected.
Both she and her father became ill at Hever, with Henry sending his second-best doctor (since his first was unavailable) to treat her. Given the dangerous nature of the disease, Anne and her father were both lucky to survive – her brother-in-law, William Carey, died in the outbreak, as did many other members of the court.
7) She was not the only Anne Boleyn at court
Anne was a popular name in the Boleyn family, with her great-grandmother, Anne Hoo, being one of the first Anne Boleyns. Queen Anne Boleyn also had an aunt called Anne Boleyn, who married Sir John Shelton.
She was close to her niece and with her sister Alice Boleyn, Lady Clere, was appointed to the household of Princess Elizabeth. As part of her role, Lady Shelton was also placed in charge of her niece’s stepdaughter, Princess Mary, who refused to recognise the royal marriage.
In February 1534 Anne wrote to Lady Shelton to ensure that Mary no longer used her title of princess, telling her to “slap her face as the cursed bastard that she was” if she persisted. Lady Shelton lived in terror that people would think she had poisoned the elder princess if she fell ill, and she gradually began to befriend her charge.
She and Anne had become estranged by the time of the queen’s arrest in May 1536.
8) Jane Seymour was Anne’s second cousin
Surprisingly, Anne’s mother, Elizabeth Howard, was the first cousin of Jane’s mother, Margery Wentworth. The cousins were raised together at Sheriff Hutton Castle in Yorkshire, under the governance of Elizabeth Howard’s mother, Elizabeth Tylney, Countess of Surrey, who was the half-sister of Margery’s mother.
While there, both Elizabeth Howard and Margery Wentworth attracted the attention of the poet John Skelton. He called Elizabeth “lusty to look on, pleasant, demure and sage”, while Margery was “benign, courteous, and meek”.
There is little evidence for a relationship between Anne and Jane, although both were close to their mutual cousin, Sir Francis Bryan, who was responsible for first securing a court post for Jane.
9) She came to blows with Jane Seymour early in 1536
Anne Boleyn was uncomfortably aware of the growing relationship between Henry and her maid, Jane Seymour, in the early months of 1536. As he had done early in his relationship with Anne, Henry gave Jane his picture, which she wore around her neck.
When the queen saw this, she snatched it from her rival so violently that she hurt her hand. Jane Dormer, who later served Princess Mary, also claimed that there was often scratching and blows between Anne and Jane.
10) Anne unwittingly caused the arrest of Sir Francis Weston
Mark Smeaton, a musician in Anne’s household, was arrested on 30 April 1536 and interrogated. A series of arrests followed, with Anne taken to the Tower on 2 May, accused of adultery and incest. While there, she spoke unguardedly, mentioning conversations that she had had with Mark Smeaton and another of the accused men, Henry Norris – all of which was noted down and reported to Henry by the lieutenant of the Tower.
Anne unwittingly also brought Sir Francis Weston into the investigation, when she claimed that he had once professed his love for her. Weston, who was a popular young man at court, had not previously been included in the investigation, but this was enough to ensure that he, and four other men, were executed on 17 May 1536. Anne was beheaded two days later.
Elizabeth Norton is the author of The Anne Boleyn Papers and The Boleyn Women. To visit her website, click here.
If you enjoyed this article, why not subscribe to the print edition of BBC History Magazine? Alternatively, subscribe to the magazine digitally – on iPad and iPhone, Kindle and Kindle Fire, Google Play and Zinio.