She was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine of Aragon when she caught the notorious King Henry VIII's eye. It was for the dark, alluring beauty of Anne Boleyn that the English Reformation was set into motion. While she only got to sit on her throne for a mere three years, Anne Boleyn is arguably one of the most famous queens in English history. But who was the doomed queen?
Sent away to France at a young age, Anne grew up the darling of the French court. Under the watchful eye of the pious Queen Claude, Anne received an exemplary education - academically as well as artistically; she was a particularly skilled singer and dancer. Anne's sharp wit endeared her to the lascivious French court and she learned much of the art of flirtation during her time there.
When war broke out between England and France, Anne was sent back to England to join the court. Her sister Mary had already been cast aside as the king's mistress and left court with a less than desirable marriage and quite possibly, the king's bastard son.
Much as she had at the French court, Anne charmed the young men of the English court with her wit, dancing and exotic French style. She soon became sweet with Henry Percy, heir to the earl of Northumberland, and the two were secretly engaged. However, unbeknownst to her, she was already an object of desire to the jealous king and Henry directed Cardinal Wolsey, his most trusted adviser, to break up the union. From that day, Anne harbored an intense hatred for the Cardinal.
With Percy gone, Henry began his pursuit. Anne was coy and teasing, qualities which endeared her even more to the headstrong king. Her first love gone and having had a taste of power, Anne decided to play Henry's game. Their dance went on for seven years as Henry tried to obtain an annulment of his marriage to Katherine from the pope.
Anne had many enemies at court - she was powerful and hot tempered. Most of the information we have about Anne comes from letters written by her enemies, particularly the Spanish ambassador and confidant to Katherine, Chapuys. She was described as plain and possessive. Her most remarked upon physical attributes were her dark eyes and long black hair.
It came as a surprise to most that Henry was steadfast in his loyalty to Anne during the time of the King's Great Matter. Anne aligned herself with Wolsey's protege Thomas Cromwell, a fellow church reform sympathizer, and actively worked to undermine Wolsey in the king's eyes.
While the farce of Henry's marriage to Katherine continued on, Anne became more prominent. Katherine was ignored while Anne sat with the king at all events and banquets. Courtiers endeared themselves to her and she was soon the most powerful woman at court. In 1532 she was elevated to the peerage with the title Marquess of Pembroke. It is believed, though not certain, that this gift was evidence of a secret wedding and physical consummation of their relationship.
After years of leading on the king, the pope denied Henry his annulment. Enraged, Henry broke with the Catholic Church and had Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, annul the marriage. He and Anne soon after had a legitimate wedding.
Anne's position was finally secure and she chose the motto "The Most Happy." To her great victory, Anne soon became pregnant. She gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I in 1533. Contrary to popular opinion, Elizabeth was not a huge disappointment to Henry. He was a doting father and at this point had every reason to believe that sons were on the way. Henry immediately made Elizabeth his heir, passing over his first child Mary, then a teenager.
However, Anne's troubles soon began. She miscarried two sons and was (obviously) an enemy to Mary. The people, who derisively called her Nan Bullen, hated the queen and blamed her for every unpopular edict administered by the king. Most were still loyal to Katherine and Mary and saw Anne as a homewrecker. With the miscarriages, Henry became more disillusioned with her, and as he had done with Katherine, began questioning the validity of their marriage. When he began to take mistresses, Anne grew increasingly paranoid and temperamental.
Soon after Katherine's death, Anne miscarried another son. This prompted Henry to action - with both wives out of the way he'd be free to marry a third woman and fulfill his desperate desire for a son. He was hot and cold with Anne and during the time he plotted against her - she was unaware of the depth of his hatred.
Anne was arrested and charged with witchcraft, incest and adultery along with her brother George and three of their friends. Even Anne's enemies such as the Spanish ambassador Chapuys believed the charges were false. Nevertheless, after damning testimony, confessions solicited under torture and a sentence passed down by her own uncle, Anne was sentenced to die by beheading.
Due to her rank, she was afforded the right to die by the hand of an experienced swordsmen. Upon hearing this, she replied, "I have heard that the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck."
She met her end with grace and honor on May 19, 1536 at the Tower. Because her coffin was too small, her head was placed beside her and years later she would be joined by her cousin Catherine Howard, Henry's fifth wife.
Because history is written by the victors, we don't have much information directly from Anne. If you're interested in reading more from her perspective check out my review of Alison Weir's book, Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession. For an alternative history in which Anne does not die(!) one of my very own customers has written a book called, The Most Happy: An Alternate History of Anne Boleyn.
My perfume oil, Boleyn, was inspired by the mysterious, doomed queen. I found an ancient, yellow-paged book that mentioned her affinity for champagne and violets and paired that with a vegan civet (civet was a status symbol at the time) and incense-y dragon's blood. The atmosphere of the blend is opulent with an undercurrent of tragedy.