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Today in 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded on charges of adultery and treason. She was King Henry VIII’s second wife and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. It can be argued that the decisions she took and her effect on Henry’s decisions changed the course of not just English history, but the history of the entire Western world.
There is some uncertainty about Anne Boleyn’s actual birth date. What is almost certain is that she was born between 1501 and 1507 to parents who held royal titles but who were not high nobility. Her father served as a diplomat during the reigns of both Henry VII and Henry VIII, which meant that he and his family traveled often. During a stay in the Netherlands, young Anne came to the attention of Archduchess Margaret of Austria, who was ruling the nation on behalf of her father, who was Holy Roman Emporer. The Archduchess liked Anne’s father so much that she offered Anne a position in her household, an offer that was accepted. She remained in that position until 1514, when she moved to France and became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude. It was most likely here that she first came to believe that reform was needed in the Catholic Church.
Anne returned to England in 1522 with a European education and new outlook on Catholicism. She soon became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, who was from Spain. The couple had endured the death of at least two sons during infancy and a number of miscarriages. Their only surviving child was Mary, who would one day become Queen Mary I. By the time Anne came to the court, Henry and Catherine had been married for 13 years, with Henry becoming ever more desperate for a male heir. During this time, there was no precedent for a female ruler on England’s throne.
Henry began his pursuit of Anne in 1525. It was the not the first time he had pursued someone from the Boleyn family---Anne’s sister Mary had been a mistress of the King from 1519 until her marriage in 1521. Although it was well-known by 1528 that Henry wanted to annul his marriage and marry Anne, their relationship remained a platonic one because of Anne’s fear of bearing any illegitimate children.
It is believed that Henry had desire to have his marriage to Catherine annulled for some time, possibly even before he fell in love with Anne. As mentioned earlier, he had a strong desire for a male heir to secure his line of succession. Regardless of this, Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry’s request for an annulment. As it became increasingly certain that the Church would not grant Henry wish, Anne suggested that Henry follow the advice of those who recommended that England break with Rome and form a separate church with ultimate authority resting with the crown.
Henry and Anne were married in a secret ceremony in early 1533. That June, Anne had a public coronation and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared that the English Church was no longer under the control of the Vatican. The severity of this break was not fully appreciated at the time, but it would lead to much internal strife and would eventually lead to a standoff with one of the most powerful nations in Europe, Spain.
In September, 1533, Anne gave birth of a daughter who was named Elizabeth. Like Henry’s other daughter, she would one day lead the nation as Elizabeth I. She suffered a miscarriage in 1534; like his first wife, Henry saw this failure to produce a male heir as a betrayal. Anne was less than pleased with Henry’s seemingly unending line of mistresses and their relationship began to spiral downward until even casual observers began to see the strain between them.
It was not unusual for Queens of the 16th century to be surrounded by not only ladies-in-waiting, but by various men as well. One of these men was a Flemish musician named Mark Smeaton, who Henry’s advisor Thomas Cromwell had arrested and tortured in the spring of 1536 until he confessed to being Anne Boleyn’s lover. Eventually, five men would be arrested on charges of treason for having had affairs with the Queen. One of those charged was her brother.
The five men were all tried and beheaded. Anne’s trial was so biased and unfair that it was said even citizens who disliked her protested the guilty finding. She was stripped of her title on May 17th and her daughter Elizabeth was declared illegitimate. On the morning of her execution, May 19th, 1536, she gave a short speech to the officials who had gathered to watch her execution. She maintained her innocence to the end. She was beheaded and buried later that day in the Chapel of Saint Peter-ad-Vincula.
Anne Boleyn’s reputation suffered greatly in the following years, with some writers claiming that she had the features of a witch or that she had many lovers. None of these claims has ever been proven but have, nonetheless, been included in many textbooks. In 2005, an appeal was made to the British government to pardon Anne of her crimes. However, since most of the original evidence is long gone, the government said it was unable to prove her innocence.
Although it is pure conjecture, it is conceivable that had Henry VIII not met Anne Boleyn, he would never have broken with the Catholic Church since up to that point, Henry had been a staunch defender of the papacy. If England (and later the United Kingdom) remained Catholic, it is also conceivable that a conflict with Spain and the fight with the Spanish Armada would never have taken place. Without the threat of the armada, it is possible that England would not have made its navy such a high priority. Without a strong Royal Navy, it is questionable as to whether England would have become a colonial power or would have been able to withstand the threats of Napolean in the early 19th century.
But, of course, we’ll never know.