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Does Anne Boleyn Deserve Her Bad Reputation?

Anne Boelyn and King Henry VIII.
This painting depicts the first meeting of Anne Boelyn and King Henry VIII. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

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It was 1526. England's King Henry VIII was the midst of his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, when he first caught sight of Anne Boleyn. At the time, Anne was maid-of-honor to Catherine and living in Henry's court. Love — or something like it — immediately ensued.

Henry already had had several mistresses (including Anne's sister Mary) in his quest to have the son and heir that Catherine had been unable to give him. He was infatuated with Anne and wished to bed her too. But Anne didn't want to be a mere mistress — she wanted to become queen. So, she turned down Henry's repeated requests, which made Henry all the more obsessed with her. But how was he to legally divorce Catherine?

In the 16th century, England was part of the Roman Catholic Church, which forbade divorce. So Henry asked Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage. The reason? Catherine previously had been wed to Henry's brother, Arthur, who died shortly after the nuptials. According to a biblical passage in Leviticus, Henry said, he was prohibited from marrying his brother's wife. Thus, his marriage to Catherine was invalid. But the pope disagreed and refused to grant an annulment.

With no legal way out of his marriage, Henry conspired with his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who advised him to proclaim himself head of his own church and grant himself an annulment.

Although Anne refused Henry's advances for years while he worked to divorce Catherine, she began to worry that he was losing interest in her. So late in 1532, Anne slept with him — and became pregnant. The couple hastily married in a secret ceremony in January 1533 after which the new archbishop of Canterbury annulled Henry's marriage to Catherine. The pope excommunicated Henry and British Parliament passed a law declaring that the power of the Catholic church was effectively transferred to the king of England. Anne was crowned queen in June 1533, a mere nine days after he divorced Catherine of Aragon.

After the Wedding

Yet, despite all this maneuvering, and the couple's six-year-long courtship, things quickly unraveled once the two wed. Anne gave birth to one daughter, Elizabeth, then had at least two miscarriages. Henry blamed his wife for not giving him the all-important son.

Anne was an experienced courtier who had served in the French court in her teens, where she learned French and studied art, fashion, literature and religious philosophy. Yet despite this background, she was not well-liked when she subsequently served in the English court of Henry VIII. People deemed her difficult and haughty. This dislike intensified when she married Henry, as Catherine of Aragon was a popular queen. Thus, once Henry's passion for her eventually waned, she had little support.

Also, while Catherine was able to ignore Henry's adulterous relationships, Anne was not. In fact, she was furious with Henry's philandering and often questioned where he'd been, and with whom. To make matters worse, two of Anne's maids-of-honor, Jane Seymour and Madge Shelton, were mistresses of Henry VIII, as he began to look elsewhere for a son and heir.

Just three years after they were married, Anne was arrested, and accused of adultery, incest and conspiracy by Thomas Cromwell, charges most historians believe are false. But the charges were upheld and Anne was found guilty and sentenced to death on May 19, 1536. That same day, Anne was beheaded by a French swordsman at the Tower Green in London, then buried in an unmarked grave. Her accused "lovers" were also beheaded. A few days later, Henry married Jane Seymour, the third of his eventual six wives.

execution of Anne Boelyn
Anne was executed in 1536. Among her final words were, "The king has been good to me. He promoted me from a simple maid to a marchioness. Then he raised me to be a queen. Now he will raise me to be a martyr."
Bettmann/Getty Images

The Legacy of Anne Boleyn

Anne may have been snuffed out after just three years as queen, but her daughter, Elizabeth I, exacted sweet revenge with a lengthy reign. After Henry's death in 1547, his son with Jane Seymour, Prince Edward, took the throne. When Edward VI died in 1553 at age 16, the crown passed to Lady Jane Grey, a cousin.

Nine days later, she was deposed and Queen Mary grabbed the crown. Mary was Henry's daughter with Catherine of Aragon and half-sister to Edward VI. Mary ruled for five tumultuous years until her death from possibly ovarian cancer in 1558. Boleyn's daughter became Queen Elizabeth I; she reigned for 44 mostly peaceful years and was the last House of Tudor monarch.

For centuries, Anne was mainly seen as a schemer and adulteress. But newer historians want to revise that image. Just two months before her execution, Anne was involved in helping to pass the Poor Law, which advocated for local governments to find jobs for the unemployed. The law was originally attributed to Thomas Cromwell, but Boleyn's contribution was recognized by the British Parliament in 2019, reported Time.

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