Anne Boleyn was born around 1501, in Norfolk, to Sir Thomas Boleyn and his wife, Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. She was the second of three surviving children.


Boleyn is known to history as the second wife and queen of King Henry VIII, who broke from Rome and created the Church of England in order to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Boleyn. They went on to marry in secret on 25 January 1533. Boleyn was the mother of Elizabeth I, the second daughter of the Tudor king.

A depiction of the first meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
A depiction of the first meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, 1835. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

She reigned between 1533-36, before being arrested for adultery and incest, taken to the Tower of London and later executed on 19 May 1536 at Tower Green. She was succeeded by Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife.

How did Anne Boleyn meet Henry VIII?

Anne Boleyn was educated in Brussels and Paris, before returning to England in 1522 to serve Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

She caused a stir at court, captivating both the heir to the earldom of Northumberland and the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, who called her ‘Fair Brunet’. By 1526 the king was also interested in the dark-haired young woman.

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Anne had no intention of becoming the king’s mistress. Undeterred, Henry VIII bombarded her with letters, professing himself “stricken with the dart of love”. In May 1527 he began his long attempt to secure a papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine.

Anne was soon queen in all but name. She was now a political figure, instrumental in the fall of Cardinal Wolsey in 1529. On 1 September 1532 she was created Lady Marquis of Pembroke, giving her sufficient status to accompany Henry on a visit to France the following month.

She fell pregnant shortly afterwards, with the couple marrying in secret on 25 January 1533. But although finally married, Henry still needed to disentangle himself from Catherine of Aragon.

King Henry VIII
Henry VIII bombarded Boleyn with letters, professing himself “stricken with the dart of love”. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Anne, understandably, was anti-papal. She brought Simon Fish’s anti-clerical The Supplication of Beggars to Henry’s attention. He put increasing pressure on the clergy, forcing them to accept him as ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’ in 1531.

In early 1533 Thomas Cranmer, a Boleyn family chaplain and the new Archbishop of Canterbury, repudiated his allegiance to the pope, before annulling Henry’s first marriage and crowning Anne.

How many children did Anne Boleyn have?

On 7 September 1533 Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.

Portrait of Elizabeth I
Anne Boleyn was the mother of Elizabeth, who became queen of England in 1558. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Within months of their wedding Henry was unfaithful, informing Anne that “she must shut her eyes, and endure as well as more worthy persons, and that she ought to know that it was in his power to humble her again in a moment more than he had exalted her”.

When Anne miscarried a son shortly after Catherine of Aragon’s death in January 1536, he declared ominously that “he would have no more boys by her”. He had already fallen in love with Jane Seymour, and was soon looking to end his marriage.

What did Elizabeth I think of her mother, Anne Boleyn? Tracy Borman explains

Why was Anne Boleyn arrested?

On 30 April 1536, under torture, a musician named Mark Smeaton confessed to a sexual relationship with Anne. Two days later the queen was arrested for adultery and incest, and taken to the Tower of London.

Anne, her brother, Smeaton and three other men were convicted on trumped-up charges, with the men executed on 17 May. That same day, the royal marriage was annulled.

A woodcut depiction of Anne Boleyn's execution
In May 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded by a French swordsman. (Photo by: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

On 19 May 1536, Anne Boleyn walked to a scaffold on Tower Green. After making a short speech, she knelt as a French swordsman – sent for as a small act of mercy by the king – stepped up behind her and severed her head with one blow.

The death of Anne Boleyn shocked her contemporaries. As well as her involvement in religious reform, her greatest legacy is her daughter, Elizabeth I, who became one of England’s greatest monarchs.

11 little-known facts about Anne Boleyn

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 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 Boleyn, was the king’s mistress, there were also contemporary rumours that their mother, Elizabeth Howard, had shared the king’s bed.

The real Mary Boleyn remains an elusive Tudor personality, flitting in and out of the sources, says historian Lauren Mackay. (Image by Alamy)
The real Mary Boleyn remains an elusive Tudor personality, flitting in and out of the sources, says historian Lauren Mackay. (Image by Alamy)

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.

Anne Boleyn 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.

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”.

Jane Seymour
Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII, was the second cousin of Anne Boleyn. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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 Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII's Obsession, both published by Amberley. You can visit Elizabeth’s website or follow her on X @ENortonHistory