Her great-grandfather Geoffrey Boleyn 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.

Anne Boleyn: a biography

Born: around 1501, in Norfolk

Died: 19 May 1536, at Tower Green (executed)

Reigned: 1533–36

Coronation: 1 June 1533

Parents: born to Sir Thomas Boleyn and his wife, Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. The second of three surviving children

Spouse: Henry VIII

Children: Elizabeth I

Succeeded by: Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife

Remembered for: being arrested for adultery and incest, taken to the Tower of London and later executed

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Anne nearly married her Irish cousin, James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond

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.

Anne’s mother, Elizabeth Howard, 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)
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)

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.

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.

A 19th-century artist's depiction of the first meeting between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
A 19th-century artist's depiction of the first meeting between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

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.

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Jane Seymour was Anne’s second cousin

Surprisingly, Anne’s mother, Elizabeth Howard, was the first cousin of Jane Seymour’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.

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.

A portrait of Jane Seymour, the third wife of Tudor king Henry VIII. Seymour was a second cousin to Anne Boleyn. (Photo By DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini/Getty Images)
A portrait of Jane Seymour, the third wife of Tudor king Henry VIII. Seymour was a second cousin to Anne Boleyn. (Photo By DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, may have given birth to a daughter of Henry VIII

Relatively little is known about Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, though she was at the heart of the Tudor court. But we do know, explains Tudor historian Suzannah Lipscomb, that while married to William Carey Mary conducted a discreet affair with Henry VIII, and that years later, when her sister, Anne, was queen, she married a lowly man 12 years her junior for love, writing about him, rather pointedly, “I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest queen christened”.

Reviewing Alison Weir’s 2011 book Mary Boleyn: 'The Great and Infamous Whore’, Lipscomb told HistoryExtra: “Arguably the greatest question about Mary is whether she bore Henry VIII’s children. Weir argues decisively that Henry Carey was not Henry VIII’s son, pointing out that this is based on just one fragment of malicious gossip from John Hale, vicar of Isleworth. Weir provocatively, though, asserts the ‘strong possibility’ that Katherine Carey was Henry’s daughter, although the evidence she provides confirms that it is quite simply that – a possibility.”

Elizabeth Norton is the author of The Anne Boleyn Papers and The Boleyn Women. To visit her website, click here.


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2014