“The king has been very good to me. He promoted me from a simple maid to be a marchioness. Then he raised me to be a queen. Now he will raise me to be a martyr.”—Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn was the second wife of King Henry VIII and Queen of England until 1536, when she was executed on charges of conspiracy against the king, adultery, and incest. Below are tragic facts about the iconic queen and her violent end.
1. A Nice, Cosy Castle
In many ways, Anne Boleyn’s childhood was idyllic. Her father, Thomas Boleyn, was a court favorite of King Henry VII, and the Boleyns were widely considered one of Britain’s top families at the time. Anne and her siblings were given all the luxuries of their station, and grew up comfortably in the quaint Hever Castle in Kent.
2. More Than a Pretty Face
Boleyn was slim and dark, with long black hair and brown eyes. Men thought she was utterly captivating—but not just for her looks alone. Her friends and confidantes knew her as a lively, quick-witted, and charming girl who loved a game of cards and was often the smartest person in the room, even if no one else knew it.
3. What Lies Beneath
Boleyn also had a dark side. Beneath her jovial attitude, she was moody, sharp-tongued, and extremely quick to anger.
4. Humble Origins
The Boleyns weren’t always so well-to-do, and Anne wasn’t of royal stock from her birth. Her early ancestors were actually hard-working (though successful) peasants, and even her great-grandfather was a humble hatter. Still, he was well-respected and smart with his money, growing his wealth and establishing the Boleyns as the family to beat.
5. A Woman Never Tells Her Age
To this day, historians aren’t certain when Anne Boleyn was born, and so we don’t even know old she was when she went to her infamous death. However, at a best guess, they believe she was born some time between 1501 and 1507. She also may have been the middle child: her sister Mary was certainly older, and her brother George was possibly younger.
6. Can’t Please Everyone
Not everyone agreed that Anne Boleyn was a hottie. Though many people praised her beauty, others were less effusive: Italian diarist Marino Sanuto glimpsed Boleyn once and found himself thoroughly unimpressed. She was “not one of the handsomest women in the world,” he said, sniping at her short height and “swarthy complexion.”
7. Fit for a Princess
Even as a young girl, Anne made a bewitching impression. While travelling in the Netherlands with her father, she caught the eye of the powerful and wealthy Princess Margaret of Austria. The ruler was so impressed with her “little Boleyn” that she made her a ward of her own personal household, and started teaching Anne courtly manners.
8. That Je Ne Sais Quois
Anne would only go up from there: in 1514, when she was barely a teen or younger, she became the maid to the new French Queen Mary, and then to Mary’s stepdaughter Claude. Anne stayed in France for nearly seven years, soaking in its cosmopolitan, liberal culture at the most formative stages of her life. When she emerged, she was no longer a girl but a full-blown woman.
9. Cut a Rug
Boleyn was famous for her dancing. “Here,” one of her admirers wrote jubilantly, “was [a] fresh young damsel, that could trip and go.”
10. Kissing Cousins
Once Boleyn was properly introduced to society, her father called her home and tried to push her into a marriage with a distant, much older cousin so they could settle a family dispute. When negotiations for that sure-fire love match fizzled out, Anne found herself in the English court, serving King Henry VIII’s queen Catherine of Aragon.
11. New Girl in Town
When she made her debut at court, Boleyn vibrated with magnetic new girl energy. She shone in an elaborate choreographed dance with the other ladies of the court, looking resplendent in a white gown with exquisite gold embroidery. After this, the name “Anne Boleyn” became synonymous with class, style—and a hefty amount of jealousy.
12. French Connection
People went particularly wild for Boleyn’s very exotic, “French” way of moving and dressing, and her continental style even inspired several fashions at court.
13. A Secret Engagement
Unsurprisingly, the beautiful Anne attracted a lot of male attention while she served the Queen, particularly a dashing man named Henry Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland. The young, inexperienced girl quickly fell head over heels for him, and they were secretly betrothed. Tragically, it was doomed to a heartbreaking end.
You see, King Henry VIII also had his eye on the Boleyn girl, and many historians argue that he put the kibosh on their relationship, ordering his cardinal Thomas Wolsey to forbid their marriage and sever their engagement.
14. The Lovers Cried and the Poets Dreamed
One of Anne’s other admirers was the famed English poet Thomas Wyatt, who had been pretty obsessed with the bewitching Boleyn girl for quite some time. He had unhappily married another woman in 1520, but then quickly divorced her five years later and started trying to rebound with Anne instead. It was never to be—which was sad for Wyatt, but probably great for his poetry.
15. Let’s Play a Game
With all these rivals out of the way, Henry VIII began pursuing Boleyn in earnest in 1526. During this era in England, horny couples often participated in games of courtly love: playing hard to get, exchanging looks and coded letters, and generally sizing up potential love interests. Anne was reportedly an expert player of the game, which may have been why Henry was drawn to her.
16. He’s Got a Type
King Henry VIII’s interest in Anne Boleyn was controversial, and not just because he was already married. Henry was actually already having an affair with Anne’s older sister, Mary Boleyn—but it gets even worse. There were also rumors that Henry had bedded Anne and Mary’s mother, Elizabeth. When accused of this one, Henry protested, “Never with the mother.”
17. Hard to Get
Boleyn wasn’t immediately taken with Henry, King of England or not. When he first started wooing her, she refused his advances, When he promised he’d promote her from just a regular old “other woman” and make her his chief mistress instead, she still turned him down. Some say Boleyn was heartbroken over Percy, while others say she had a much loftier title than “mistress” in mind…
18. An Indecent Proposal
After nearly a year of trying to seduce Anne to become his mistress, Henry finally gave up and asked her to be his bride. There was just one big problem: his wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon. Henry was (obviously) very unhappy in the royal union, particularly about the fact that he still had no male heirs after decades of marriage.
Even so, both Boleyn and the King assumed the marriage could be easily annulled. Anne, finally won over with dreams of the crown jewels, said yes.
19. The Seven-Year Itch
Of course, we all know now that the annulment from Queen Catherine was not so easy to get, and it caused the lovesick Henry to eventually split from the Catholic Church, install himself as head of the Protestant religion, and marry Anne Boleyn on his own terms. It was seven long years before he could crown her his Queen—all while Anne still stubbornly refused to visit his bed.
20. Tough Cookie
Anne Boleyn was known to have a rather twisted and droll sense of humor, and in reaction to the many vehement protests against King Henry VIII choosing her as his Queen, she temporarily took the phrase “Ainsi sera, groigne qui groigne,” as her motto, which translates into “Grumble all you like, this is how it’s going to be.”
Many biographers interpreted this as a little arrogant, but it may have just been her idea of a joke.
21. Love Sick
In 1528, Anne nearly died of the sweating sickness (likely a type of influenza). The disease was notable because of how rapidly it could kill an otherwise young and healthy victim. Henry VIII, a known germaphobe, was terrified of the disease, and when it killed one of Anne’s ladies, he sent her home to Kent.
It turned out his fears were well-founded, as Anne later proved to have been infected. Henry sent one of his best doctors to treat her, praying she survived. When she did, he was all the more determined to make her his queen.
22. Burn Her!
Public opinion was not on Anne and Henry’s side, and Boleyn was definitely not the “People’s Princess.” The common people absolutely adored Queen Catherine and blamed Boleyn for splitting apart the marriage, referring to her cruelly as the “King’s Whore” and accusing her of beguiling the king with dark witchcraft.
One evening while dining at an estate on the Thames river, Boleyn was even attacked by a mob of angry women, and had to narrowly escape on a boat.
23. Behind Every Great Man…
During her time waiting in the wings to become queen, Anne didn’t sit around idly. She started taking control of matters of state, and became one of Henry VIII’s most trusted and influential advisors. King Henry even named her the “Marquess of Pembroke,” a title that placed her above all other men and women at court.
24. That’s “Queen Anne” to You
In 1533, it finally happened: after many machinations and even more years, Anne Boleyn became Queen Consort of England, ruling beside Henry like she always wanted. Of course, the power couple had already married each other in two private, very confidential ceremonies before Anne Boleyn’s extravagant coronation.
25. Baby Blues
After being crowned Queen, a now-pregnant Anne settled into royal life and prepared to give King Henry his long-desired son. All signs pointed to a boy. Almost all the king’s astrologers said the stars mapped out a male heir, and Anne and Henry were also confident they were about to welcome a son. It was not. Anne gave birth to a little girl, sending the court into a tailspin.
26. The Virgin Queen
Anne Boleyn’s first and only daughter would grow up to be the famous Queen Elizabeth I.
27. Hold Your Tongue
As Queen, Boleyn’s temper became legendary. One time, she was so disgusted and angry with her uncle that she yelled at him with words that “shouldn’t be used to a dog,” according to one observer. Henry was no fan either: He began to resent her sharp intelligence and her even sharper tongue, demanding that she submit to him as his wife, not as his equal.
28. Contrary Anne
King Henry VIII and Boleyn’s relationship was extremely volatile, and some characterized it as “storm followed sunshine, sunshine followed storm.”
29. Citizen Jane
King Henry VIII always had a wandering eye, and when his marriage with Anne started fraying, he turned his attentions to the pretty, sweet, and comparatively submissive Jane Seymour, who would eventually become his third wife. Just like with Anne’s sister Mary, Henry liked keeping it in the family: Seymour was also Boleyn’s second cousin.
30. Try, Try Again
By 1536, Boleyn was on thin ice with Henry. She had suffered a miscarriage (or possibly two) after Elizabeth, but was pregnant again and hoping to give her king a son at last.
31. Hands off My Husband
Despite their family ties, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour weren’t exactly close. The pregnant Anne knew that a relationship was growing between Henry and Jane under her nose, and one day she walked into a room only to find the treasonous Jane sitting prettily on her husband’s lap. Anne reportedly flew into a very public rage at the sight.
32. An Open and Shut Case
In another incident, Boleyn discovered that her King Henry had given Seymour his picture to wear around a locket on her neck; Jane had been brazenly opening and shutting the locket right in front of Anne. It’s said that once she realized what was going on, Boleyn furiously tore the locket from the chain so violently that she cut her fingers open.
33. Goodnight, Sweet Prince
Amidst all this drama and stress, Boleyn tragically lost her baby. It was three and a half months old—and worst of all, it was reportedly a baby boy. Many historians agree that this was the beginning of the end for Queen Anne Boleyn.
34. Charitable Giving
Despite her reputation as a conniving witch, Boleyn had a very charitable soul, and she donated to her favorite causes often and generously. In addition to monetary donations, she also had her servants purchase large quantities of canvas and make them into smocks and sheets for those people who couldn’t afford them.
35. End of the Road
In May 1536, Anne’s luck finally ran out. King Henry VIII claimed he had been seduced and enchanted into a marriage with Anne, and ordered her locked up in the infamous Tower of London to await her fate.
36. False Charges
Boleyn was accused of adultery with a handful of men, including her brother George. She was also charged with plotting to murder the king so she could marry one of her lovers. Modern historians agree that the charges brought against Anne Boleyn that led to her execution were false and unconvincing, and that Henry had her killed just because she didn’t give him any male children.
37. Hanging at Hogwarts
In the Harry Potter films, Anne Boleyn’s portrait can be seen hanging along the staircases at Hogwarts. In the Potter Universe, muggles (non-wizards) accuse Boleyn of being a witch, but she was actually a squib—a non-magical person born to a magical parent. The books also suggest that she may have given Henry one or two love potions to get him to marry her.
38. Eleven-Fingered Woman
According to an infamous myth, Anne Boleyn had an extra finger on one hand. The tales of a bewitching, eleven-fingered Queen are alluring, but they’re almost certainly untrue. The myth came from Catholic Propagandist Nicholas Sanders, who had every reason to discredit Boleyn. He also claimed she had a snaggle tooth and an unsightly cyst on her throat.
In reality, he never saw the Queen in person, and the King didn’t generally like women who weren’t attractive.
39. A Notable First
Boleyn is notable for being the first Queen of England to be publicly executed. Once the King’s men found her guilty, she was originally sentenced to burn, but Henry ever-so graciously changed it from burning to beheading. He even called in an expert swordsman to carry out the execution instead of using the average axeman.
40. Mystery Girl
Because Henry VIII had all likenesses of Boleyn destroyed after her death, there are no known contemporary paintings of Anne Boleyn still in existence. The only confirmed object we have is a lead disc made in her image in 1534.
41. Condemned for Not Shipping It
In the days when King Henry was still trying to marry Anne Boleyn, one woman turned to prophecy to stop him. In 1532, a Catholic nun and mystic named Elizabeth Barton prophesied that if the King married Boleyn, he would die and go to Hell. She was promptly arrested by the next year and forced to admit that she’d made it all up (which, let’s be fair, she probably did).
Barton was beheaded for her treason and her head was put on a spike on London Bridge. She remains the only woman in history to have her head decorate the bridge.
42. Do Not Go Gentle
We may know what Anne Boleyn was thinking and feeling in her final, desperate days in the Tower. The poem “O Death Rock Me Asleep” is usually attributed to Boleyn, and it was composed during her very last hours on earth. In it, Boleyn writes about how death will release her from her sorrows.”O death! rock me asleep,” the poem says, “Bring me on quiet rest.”
43. Famous Words
Anne Boleyn’s most famous quote was spoken right before she died. She reportedly was chatting with a guard about her executioner and, in an attempt to reassure him, said, “I hear he’s quite good. And I have a very small neck!”
44. Dressed to Impress
On May 19th 1536, Anne Boleyn walked to her own execution. She wore a dark grey damask gown for the occasion with a red petticoat.
45. Hail Mary
After four days in the tower, Boleyn bundled up a package and gave it to her jailer to deliver to the king. It was a letter; her very last to Henry. In it, she plead for mercy, writing that “never prince had wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn.” She also begged him to think of their daughter Elizabeth—and made one final heartbreaking request.
She humbly asked that Henry, if she was found guilty, would still spare the lives of her brother and the other men accused of being her lovers. It’s a gut-wrenching revelation: at her core, Boleyn was truly selfless.
46. A Wish Denied
Tragically, her plea didn’t work. On May 17, Boleyn’s brother George and the other accused men were executed.
47. The End Is Near
When Anne Boleyn was brought to the block, she begged to address the crowd. Her last words were poignant. She said, “Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law, I am judged to die…thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”
As she awaited the executioner’s blade, kneeling on the block, she repeated the phrase, “To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesu receive my soul.”
48. Mellow Yellow
In January 1536, King Henry and Queen Anne got word that Henry’s ex-wife Catherine of Aragon had tragically died. Their reaction was so disturbing, it’s impossible to forget. The royal couple was overjoyed at the news, and the next day they even dressed up in jubilant yellow clothing, as if celebrating the event.
However, keep in mind that yellow was also the color of mourning in Catherine’s native Spain, so there’s a slim chance Henry and Anne were merely giving her a respectful homage.
49. Secret Ceremony
As noted above, King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were married in a secret ceremony months before she was officially coronated the Queen of England. But as she stood beside Henry at the altar, resplendent in finery fit for a queen, Boleyn hid a dark secret: she was pregnant. She had remained chaste throughout their long engagement, but finally gave into Henry’s bedroom demands at the very end. Conception was quick on its heels.
50. Changing Views
Boleyn is truly one of the most fascinating and enigmatic women in history, and our understanding of her legacy has changed in the centuries since her death. Over the years, she has gone from enchanting witch, to powerless victim, to empowered woman in her own right. Now we know her as one of the most driven and intelligent monarchs of her time.