Anne Boleyn was most likely born in Blickling in either 1501 or 1507. Eric Ives believes that the earlier date is correct. 1Her father Thomas was the son of Sir William Boleyn of Blickling and her mother Elizabeth was the daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, later Duke of Norfolk. In 1503, Thomas escorted Margaret Tudor to marry the King of Scotland. By the time of King Henry VII’s death in 1509, he held the rank of “squire of the body.” 2 From 1519 until 1523, he was Henry VIII’s ambassador to the court of France.
Anne was one of three siblings to survive to adulthood. The others were Mary and George. Mary was most likely the elder sister. In 1513, Anne left for the Habsburg court in Mechelen in present-day Belgium. There she would join the court of Margaret of Austria, who was the governor of the Netherlands and receive an excellent education. Margaret’s first impression of Anne was good and she wrote to Thomas, “I have received your letter by the Esquire (Claude) Bouton who has presented your daughter to me, who is very welcome, and I am confident of being to deal with her in a way which will give you satisfaction, so that on your return the two of us will need no intermediary other than she. I find her so bright and pleasant for her young age that I am more beholden to you for sending her to me than you are to me.” 3 She would learn to speak fluent French, though her first letter to her father in independent French was pretty much phonetic. 4
Sometime in 1515, Anne entered the service of the new Queen of France, Claude, though we do not know exactly how this came about. By then, Anne was probably fluent in French. She probably stayed in Claude’s service for about seven years, where she would witness the Queen in a succession of almost annual pregnancies at Blois and Amboise. 5 Anne and Claude made an appearance in 1518 at a state banquet at the Bastille in honour of the English mission, which had come to negotiate the marriage between Henry VIII’s daughter Mary and the Dauphin. Anne was certainly present at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, which was something of a family reunion. Her mother and father were both there, as was her newlywed sister Mary and maybe even her brother George. 6 Her career at the French court came to an abrupt end at the end of 1521 when she was summoned back to England. 7
Anne was recalled to England because she was to be married. Her father had a claim to the Earldom of Ormonde which was being challenged Piers Butler, styling himself Earl of Ormonde. No settlement could be reached, and it had been suggested that Anne marry Piers’ son to unite the warring claims. 8 Piers Butler was recognised as head of his family but then came silence. The marriage never took place. We next see Anne at the English court in March 1522 for the Chateau Vert pageant. Eight court ladies played Beauty (the King’s sister Mary), Honour (The Countess of Devonshire), Perseverance (Anne), Kindness (her sister Mary), Constancy (Jane Parker, who would marry George Boleyn), Bounty, Mercy and Pity. Eight men represented the male virtues – “Amoress[ness]”, Nobleness, Youth, Attendance, Loyalty, Pleasure, Gentleness and Liberty. 9 The ladies were protected by eight choristers who depicted contrary feminine vices. The whole performance cost over £20 and was a great success. 10 Anne had made her debut.
In the years between 1522 and 1527, Anne was involved with Henry Percy, heir to the Earldom of Northumberland but it was felt that Henry Percy could find a better match and the King (who approved the marriages of nobles) insisted on the ending of the relationship. 11 She may have had an attachment with the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, but we do not know the extent of their relationship for sure. 12
Henry VIII had been married to Catherine of Aragon since 1509, but they had just one surviving daughter, the future Queen Mary I. He may have been thinking of divorce as early as 1522. In 1525, he created his illegitimate son by Bessie Blount, Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond with precedence over everyone except a legitimate son. Catherine of Aragon had been deeply offended. 13 Ousting his legitimate daughter over his illegitimate son was a very dangerous business, and he probably turned his thoughts to a decree of nullity. He had married his brother’s wife (Catherine had previously been married to Arthur, Prince of Wales) and now they were without children (apparently a daughter didn’t count). 14 By April 1527, Henry had consulted his advisers and took the first formal steps to divorce his wife. In August 1527, Henry applied to the pope for a dispensation to allow him to marry again. Anne is not mentioned by name, but the dispensation also covered a woman who was related to the King in the “first degree of affinity…from…forbidden wedlock.” Henry had also previously slept with Anne’s sister Mary, and he had to cover his bases. 15 A unique series of 17 love letters from Henry to Anne has survived, but unfortunately her responses have not survived. The first letter dates from the autumn of 1526. In the beginning, Henry appeared to be offering Anne a recognised permanent liaison, but probably not marriage. 16
This changed at some point, and the offer of marriage also changed Anne’s somewhat muted response to Henry’s approach. 17 The following divorce proceedings against Catherine of Aragon would cause Henry to break with the pope and Rome. However, this probably dragged out a lot longer than Henry expected. Meanwhile, Anne, Catherine and Henry lived under the same roof. It was a precarious situation.
On 1 September 1532, Anne was granted the Marquessate of Pembroke, creating a high enough status for her to officially meet the King of France as the future Queen of England. 18 Their following visit to Calais was the first taste of Queenship for Anne. Sometime around this time, Anne and Henry had slept together for the first time. 19 Probably on 25 January 1533, Anne and Henry went through a wedding ceremony. 20 Anne probably realised that she was pregnant, but the marriage was kept secret. On the eve of Easter Day 1533, Anne attended mass as Queen for the first time. The secret was out.
- Eric Ives – The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn p.15 ↩
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- Eric Ives – The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn p. 162 ↩