10 Fascinating Facts About Anne Boleyn


“I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.” – Anne Boleyn, before her execution

Anne Boleyn is a historical figure who fascinates. She was executed in May 1536 after being convicted of crimes she probably never committed.

Her marriage to tyrant, King Henry, led to her tragic demise. He accused her of witchcraft, incest, conspiracy against the King, and adultery. She was beheaded by a French swordsman. Henry felt that he was showing mercy by using the swordsman, rather than subjecting her to the rough blade of a guillotine.

Today, we’d like to share 10 fascinating facts about Anne Boleyn, who used sheer grit, intelligence and feminine wiles to win the love of King Henry VIII… and to usurp his lawful wife, Catherine of Aragon.

10. Anne’s Sister was Henry’s First Mistress

Anne wasn’t really Henry’s standard type. She represented a marked deviation from the norm. Before he met the charming and intelligent Anne, who had very dark hair and a slim build, he preferred buxom, golden-haired ladies.

Anne’s own sister, Mary, who didn’t have Anne’s book learning, vaulting ambition, progressive religious views and rapier wit, did fit Henry’s (initial) ideal of what a woman should look like… and she caught the eye of the King before Anne came to his court, by way of the more sophisticated French Court.

Anne and Mary were both lovely-looking, but very different from one another. The two sisters are often portrayed as rivals (this is surely an accurate portrayal in at least some respects!), most notably in the popular, beautifully-written and compelling Phillipa Gregory novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, which was adapted into a film. The movie starred Natalie Portman as brunette Anne and Scarlett Johansson as the honey-haired Mary.

9. Anne’s French Manners Enchanted Henry

Anne Boleyn spent seven years serving France’s Queen Claude, who was crowned in 1517. During this phase of young Anne’s life, she was likely a translator for Claude de France, who would have needed to understand what English guests who visited the various royal residences in France were saying.

Her duties as lady-in-waiting to the Queen (who reportedly had a sweet nature and suffered from scoliosis) exposed her to French ways, dress and manners. As she adopted French mannerisms and embraced a Gallic-inspired image, she honed her natural feminine wiles to a sharp point.

The decadence of the French court was the stuff of legend and Anne’s time there gave her a veneer of exoticism which allowed her to edge out her sister, Mary, as the King’s favorite.

Mary suffered great damage to her reputation due to her status as Henry’s mistress. Mary’s family encouraged her to enchant the King, just as Anne was later encouraged to replace her.

The Boleyns were pragmatic (cold-hearted?) in terms of pushing Anne forward and alternatively used her and her sister (sometimes, they used both at once) to secure riches, position and favor for the family, until they settled exclusively on Anne for this purpose.

At this stage in history, almost all women were mere pawns in the games of men. However, Anne distinguished herself as a stronger player than her sister, until her short, three-year reign ended and she met her tragic fate.

Anne was a notorious royal who played a very dangerous game. Her story calls to mind the words of the fictional Queen Cersei from Game of Thrones:

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

Lady Mary, who’d had a liaison with King Francis I of France prior to becoming the mistress of the English king, lacked Anne’s lust for power, but didn’t lose her life with one expert swipe of a Frenchman’s sword!

8. Anne Held a Grudge Against King Henry

Before she began a relationship with King Henry VIII, it’s certain that Anne was no fan of his. It’s also probable that she was no fan of his afterwards. She was a fan of power, money and social position and this was what the King offered to her, at the highest possible level, in the greatest possible abundance.

King Henry VIII had stepped in to break her betrothal to the man that she loved. By all reports, Anne had loved the young man, whose name was Henry Percy, quite fiercely.

Against her family’s wishes (the Boleyns surely knew that the king would disapprove, as Henry Percy had been promised to another, Lady Mary Talbot, by Percy’s father, and therefore Anne’s family very sensibly discouraged the match), she had secretly become engaged to the young man, who was the scion of one of England’s most powerful and established families.

Anne did hope to marry very well and the match would have been a coup for her.

Henry intervened. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey broke the betrothal upon Henry’s request, to Anne’s great rage and sadness.

Henry Percy, who was the 6th Earl of Northumberland, was later forced into a marriage with Lady Mary Talbot. The marriage was not a happy one.

Historians are not in agreement as to whether King Henry had a romantic interest in Anne when he arranged to have the betrothal broken. However, they all agree that Anne was very unhappy with the situation.

7. She Played Hard to Get

Anne worked hard to get what she wanted from Henry. Her goal was marriage. To be a mistress was never her ambition, as mistresses can’t enjoy the pleasures and prestige of being true royalty. She learned about the transient nature of being a king’s mistress from her own sister!

With her goal always in mind, she held him back by refusing to sleep with him (for a long time, anyway), while romancing him and encouraging him to do away with Catherine of Aragon (pictured above), who was his lawful wife.

King Henry VIII was under Anne’s spell. He was bewitched by her social acumen, brains and style. He went to extreme lengths to make her his wife. It was not an easy task to complete.

However, his acts against her, when she no longer pleased, were equally extreme.

6. She Sparked the English Reformation

One of the most important consequences of Anne’s dalliance with the King was the English Reformation. Henry made the decision to get rid of his wife Catherine, despite the disapproval of the Catholic Church, which was based in Rome.

With a mind to bypassing the Church and getting what he wanted, he made himself the head of a new Church (The Church of England). This change gave him the power to access a legal divorce.

The English people weren’t too upset about the English Reformation. They felt that Rome’s Catholic Church was using them all for financial gain.

5. She Failed to Hold the King’s Interest

Even Anne, with her considerable charms and her single-minded desire to hang onto power and position, could not hold the King’s interest forever. He was a difficult man and he become more cantankerous as he aged.

With Henry, love inevitably turned to hate.

During the marriage, the King became disillusioned as he mulled over the grand sacrifices that he had made for the sake of marrying Anne Boleyn. He’d broken from Rome, had “friends” executed, put aside his first wife (who loved him well!), hurt his daughter, Mary (by Catherine of Aragon) and then proceeded to experience the cooling-down of passion that often happens after the “honeymoon phase” of a marriage winds down.

As well, Anne had promised to give him a son, and she hadn’t delivered. Her failure to produce a male heir was likely the catalyst for her demise.

4. Anne Couldn’t Bear Henry a Son

Kings in Henry’s time needed male heirs. Anne gave birth to a daughter (and what a daughter she was!), but could not bear him a son, despite her repeated promises to do so. This likely caused the couple a lot of stress and pain.

Catherine of Aragon had also failed to give her regent a son. Catherine had borne him a baby boy who died in infancy. Then, she miscarried another son. Like Anne, she had produced one girl for her King.

Henry began to feel that God was telling him something. He considered his union with Anne and felt that it might be the reason why God was denying him a male heir. This line of thinking led to Anne’s execution. Henry would try again with Jane Seymour.

It was Jane Seymour who produced the much-desired, legitimate male heir (a mistress, Bessie Blount, had previously given him an illegitimate son named Henry Fitzroy). However, Henry paid a heavy price for his little prince.

Seymour perished due to post-natal complications (within two weeks of giving birth to the future, King Edward IV).

3. She Was Accused of Heinous Crimes

Anne was accused of the worst. Historians believe that she couldn’t have committed the crimes that she was accused of and convicted of, including incest with her own brother, since records demonstrate that she wasn’t in the right places at the right times on the dates in question.

The truth is that Anne had likely crossed Henry at a crucial juncture, when he’d become infatuated with her future replacement, Jane Seymour. The King had a nasty habit of turning on friends, family, and lovers when they no longer served a purpose… or when he perceived betrayal.

They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is perhaps why he chose to hurt Anne as much as possible by painting her as a witch, adulteress, participant in incest and conspirator against himself.

He may have hurt her because he could. No one could stop him because no one else’s power exceeded his own.

Another possibility is that smearing her in this manner meant that the problem of Anne could be solved rapidly. The drawn-out process of banishing his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, with a mind to replacing her with Anne, had surely taught him that expediency was preferable.

While it’s certain that Anne Boleyn was no angel, it’s safe to say that the trial against her was a bona fide Kangaroo Court.

2. Her Eleventh Finger is Likely a Myth

King Henry VIII had six wives. However, one of them, Anne Boleyn, probably did not have six fingers on her right hand! The story of the “eleventh finger” of the doomed Queen is most likely the product of a vicious smear campaign.

The “tale” of the eleventh finger was written by Nicholas Sander, who was a Catholic propagandist. He wrote about the Queen decades after she’d been executed.

In his writing, he referred to seeing a sixth finger on her right hand, as well as a tooth under her lower lip which projected most unattractively. As if these two imperfections weren’t enough, his ungentlemanly account included information about an “unsightly” cyst on her throat.

The problem is that Sander never actually saw the Queen in person. Also, Henry was not typically attracted to women who weren’t conventionally good-looking, whether blonde (Mary), brunette (Anne), or redheaded (Catherine of Aragon had red-gold hair).

With Henry’s tastes in mind, it’s very unlikely that Anne would have enchanted him (as she clearly did, and for quite a while, too!) if she had an extra finger, a tooth which stuck out, and a prominent cyst on her swanlike neck.

While the idea of Anne having the extra finger, which could be perceived as the mark of a witch, is certainly dramatic, it’s probably way off base. We’ll never know for sure, though.

1. Anne Gave Birth to the Virgin Queen

Anne failed to deliver a male hair. However, she produced something exquisite nonetheless. Her daughter, Elizabeth, was born on the seventh of September, 1533. Elizabeth underwent many trials and tribulations (including a year of imprisonment) before being crowned Queen Elizabeth I on the seventeenth of November, 1558. She reigned as the Virgin Queen until her passing in March of 1603.

What did the Virgin Queen do for England? Plenty. Notable achievements during her reign (and this just scratches the surface!) included the creation of a moderate religious policy, the writing of a Poor Law which benefited the needy, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the promotion of literacy and scientific thought.

Elizabeth was just eight years old when she announced that she would never marry. She stuck to her decision. Her desire to avoid matrimony was logical and understandable.

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  1. Anne was given the mercy of a quick death by Henry, and the last thing he did for her was arrange for a French swordsman to execute her. However the swordsman was journeying all the way from Calais, and there were incidents that managed to delay his arrival, pushing Anne’s execution back from the scheduled date May 18. This was NOT Henry’s fault. When she finally did get to the scaffold at 9:00 am on May 19th, Anne gave a speech that in short did not blame Henry, praised his kindness, subtly expressed her innocence, and all in all was regal and dignified. She paid her executioner and then kneeled before her audience as she was not given a block to put her head on. The executioner noticed that beneath Anne’s bravado she kept turning her head slightly out of nervousness, and it is debated whether or not he felt against what he was about to do. He called for his assistant to fetch him his sword when in fact he had his sword ready under a pile of hay, so when Anne turned to watch the assistant, his sword came down on her neck.
    The guillotine was a French invention over 3 centuries later, so in any case, any historian knows that it wouldn’t have been a guillotine.

    • Even better comment than my own. But, TODAY I LEARNED that a device similar to the guillotine was used earlier, but not widespread and not in England in that period.

  2. Apparently Henry was not concerned about Anne’s welfare, but his own reputation as (as he considered it) the heir of Camelot, and follower of the Code of Chivalry which influenced Henry most of his life. Accordingly, he was “required” by the code to treat women with special courtesy — the prescribed punishment for a woman guilty of Anne’s alleged crimes was burning alive. The axe was quicker, but gross and undignified (her male co-conspirators were axed rather than forced to undergo the prescribed horrors of drawing and quartering; again, a matter of style, not mercy — Henry had none). A sword was much more elegant.

    • The sword may have been more elegant but it was also swifter and cleaner a means of execution if an expery weilded it. Henry imported such an expert from France at Anne’s request. (This may have been a very early form of plea bargaining.)

      The axe was good enough for Catherine Howard. (Wife#4)

      In any case, although Guillotine-like devices were devloped in Scotland and Ireland, the Guillotine, as such, was developed by Dr. Guillotin, in France, as a humane way of executing criminals.

  3. I have always herd it was an ax. But recently, I heard she was beheaded quite unexpececded. She did not know it was about to happen when it occurred and that it did not occur as in the movies with being lead to an excutioner’s block and said a final farewell and then beheaded. If Henry really hated her as this article seems to suggest……I would imagine that he would have dragged out the whole execution as long as possible just to make her suffer. Would appreciate comments . Thanx

  4. Nansi Alexander on

    Great article, but Henry spared Anne being beheaded by ax, not the guillotine.