19 May 1536 – Anne Boleyn

Anne BoleynAdultery, incest and treason – if you want to get shot of your wife, those are pretty reasonable grounds for divorce. But when you’re the king of England (after another bit of skirt) more desperate measures may be in order.

At least, that’s what Henry VIII thought when trying to ditch his second wife Anne Boleyn. So, instead of the newly allowed divorce, Henry opted to chop off her head. For Henry was sick of her. She was a bit of a shrew by all accounts – a sharp tongue and an even sharper temper.

Home wrecker

Couple that with the fact that the nation had vilified her as a home wrecker, and it all meant that the new Queen was not a popular person. The public believed she’d ruined Henry’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who they loved.

Cue the insults – six fingers, warts, a third nipple, a goitre on her neck – given all that, it’s hard to believe what Henry saw in the little minx at all.

Before she’d even met Henry, Boleyn had gained a bit of a racy reputation. She’d been engaged to a man, but sadly that fell through and he was soon followed by Henry Percy – who became the next subject of speculation. But Cardinal Wolsey was tasked with removing Percy from temptation’s way to pave the way for the big man.

In doing so, ironically that sealed the cardinal’s fate. Boleyn was to be his sworn enemy and ‘just how dangerous he could not have imagined’ as Sir David Starkey put it. For it was Boleyn that ultimately and ironically prompted his own fall from grace.

Rex Luther

Back to the job in hand, Henry, keen to get his heir and a spare in the bag, had been busy.

Indeed Henry was oh so keen – he lavished Boleyn with gifts and wore her down until resistance was impossible. Some say he bedded her and assert that by December 1532, Boleyn was up the duff.

As a result of his sharking he’d also started to pave the way to marry Boleyn, and that meant divorce. But divorce was a big no-no in Catholic terms – Catherine of Aragon had done nothing wrong and she was popular to boot, so he couldn’t just lop off her head.

So, which other options were open to him? By happy coincidence there was a breakaway religious order developing in Germany. Lutheranism was to provide the get-out clause Henry desperately craved. Based loosely on the teachings of Luther, whose doctrines went on to be a key driver, the Protestant Reformation had really kicked in all over Europe. And Henry took advantage of the fact that France was at odds with the Roman Catholics.

A canny Henry jumped on the back of this shift away from the Catholic Church to implement the English version. The Church of England, as we know it today was aimed at centralising the church around the country, the people and most importantly it set the monarch at the head of the church rather than the pope. Suddenly the monarch was the true master of his own destiny.


Now, Henry couldn’t have planned this better and he had the backing of close advisors in the shape of his archbishop Thomas Cranmer and politician Thomas Cromwell (a great uncle of Oliver, who was later to bring down the monarchy).

They cited Henry’s get-out clause in the ‘Bible’ itself – ‘Livitcus’ to be exact. They called for the marriage to Catherine to be annulled on the grounds that the Bible says ‘if a man should take his brother’s wife, it is an uncleaness…’ and indeed, Catherine had been married to Henry’s brother alebit for a short while until he’d died.

They helped smooth things over so Henry was able to have his previous marriage annulled. This would enable him to hone in on his new wife-to-be like a rampant heat-seeking missile without having to pussy-foot around.

However with a bun in Boleyn’s oven, he had to act quickly to prevent people branding the unborn baby illegitimate. So, despite still technically being married to Catherine, he married Boleyn in January 1533.

Boy trouble

Elizabeth was born on 7 September 1533 – there was every chance the baby could have been early but, hey, you do the maths… Not that it mattered – Elizabeth was not the son Henry had been hoping for.

Pregnancies followed, but sadly none of them full-term – so much for the longed-for sons Henry had envisaged. ‘I see God will not give me male children’ said the king.

Besides, his testosterone-fuelled eyes were beginning to wander. A young lady-in-waiting to his wife (as Anne had been to Catherine), by the name of Jane Seymour, had already caught his lascivious gaze.

Boleyn was rightly worried – not least because, as we mentioned before, she was unpopular. There was a heavy anti-Boleyn contingent at court and inevitably the plots to oust her emerged.


It turned out she was right to worry. Cromwell, who’d helped pave the way for her to marry Henry, was, in turn, to become her most vehement enemy. And he really stuck the knife in with trumped-up charges of incest with her own brother George, coupled with charges of treason and adultery. They even dredged up a minstrel by the name of Smeaton, who was tortured until he confessed to an affair with the queen.

Just four years into the marriage, Boleyn was arrested along with her brother and three other men. George’s wife actually testified against her husband and that sealed their fates. George was beheaded and the other three men had been due to be hanged drawn and quartered at Tyburn, but this was commuted ‘just’ to beheading.

Clean cut

Boleyn was also sentenced to die aged around 32. Just before she was due to be relieved of her head, her marriage to Henry was annulled. So, the adultery and treason charges would have been negated, which meant that she would have been executed in vain. But all involved in her sentencing glossed over that fact.

No, they executed her anyway and, unlike others, hers was a clean cut.

As a special favour to his ex-wife, Henry had shipped in a master swordsman from France to do the job…he was all heart.

Also on this day

19 May 2005 – Richard Cartwright

Stuff you may have missed over the weekend

John Bellingham
Kelsey Patterson
Dalton Prejean
Joseph “Mad Dog” Taborsky
Girvies Davis
Leslie Hilton

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One Response to “19 May 1536 – Anne Boleyn”

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