Anne Boleyn, a temptress; a seductress; a woman destined to hold power over men; hungry for attention. Anne Boleyn, a mother, leader of reform and a woman intelligent beyond compare. Two different representations, but how far do these representations merge into one another? Is Anne a figure of rebellion, striving for freedom, equality and knowledge? Or is she the six fingered witch capable of casting a spell over all mankind? It is hard to separate the myths from the facts, when contemporary accounts from the time outlandishly described her sexual and incestuous exploits. If every account puts forward the same argument does it mean they speak the truth? Or is it propaganda against a woman that rejected feminine norms and expectations, refusing to bow down to male patriarchy? Epic, intelligent, provocative and hugely entertaining, Anne Boleyn presents a compelling case for a much-maligned woman ahead of her time.

The exact date of Anne Boleyn’s birth has not been recorded, but is estimated around 1501 to Thomas Boleyn, first Earl of Wiltshire, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard. The Howards/Boleyns were highly prestigious at the time of Anne’s birth (and of course their star rose further with Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII), which allowed them to provide for their children. As a young girl, Anne was sent to the French court as a Lady in Waiting to Queen Claude, whom she served for seven years. She stayed at the French court until 1522, when she was deemed ready for marriage, initially she was betrothed to her cousin James Butler. Sadly the betrothal ended in failure and once again Anne was an eligible marriage prize ready for the taking. Yet Anne took matters into her own hands, seeking a marriage that would bring her family more wealth and power than they could ever dream of.

Certainly Anne was no ordinary woman and as a result forged her marriage to Henry VIII with a cunning and a resilience that we can only admire, not revile.  Yet others did not see it that way. What was a strumpet and low born commoner like Anne Boleyn doing entertaining the king, when their beloved Catherine of Aragon (of noble birth!) was far more worthy of the role as Henry’s Queen consort? They did not for one minute blame Henry VIII, did not believe that a man was so capable of cold blooded treachery. It was all her fault they claimed; she led him into temptation and in turn the whole of England and Rome, is on their knees begging for redemption. ‘Cleanse us of this sin’ they cried. Yet Henry VIII was obsessed with his young mistress, who made him feel virile and strong again. She was his happiness, his strength, a reminder of his youth. She excited him with her passion and resilience for life, her revitalizing inability to be acquiescent to his wishes. How refreshing from the dull, subservient Catherine, seven years his senior.

It is unclear as to why and how he became attached to Anne Boleyn but her sister Mary Boleyn was his mistress first. It is possible that Anne chaperoned their visits and in turn he realized Anne’s glittering potential; that she was the true Boleyn mistress and in 1526 he began his pursuit of her. Yet she would not become his mistress physically; it was against her beliefs she claimed. He could not take her maidenhead out of wedlock; she was no fragile flower to be crushed and disused after intercourse. No, she was a woman in her own right and only upon marriage would she fulfil his desires. Yet getting Henry’s marriage annulled was proving far more difficult than expected. When it became clear that Pope Clement VII would not annul the marriage, the break from the Catholic Church in England began.

In 1532, Henry granted her the Marquessate of Pembroke. Henry and Anne married on 25 January 1533. On 23 May 1533, Thomas Cranmer declared Henry and Catherine’s marriage null and void; five days later, he declared Henry and Anne’s marriage to be good and valid. Shortly afterwards, the Pope decreed sentences of excommunication against Henry and Cranmer. As a result of this marriage and these excommunications, the first break between the Church of England and Rome took place and the Church of England was brought under the King’s control. Anne was crowned Queen of England on 1 June 1533. Only 3 short years later , would Anne Boleyn be condemned to die, to suffer at a Frenchman’s sword, reviled by the treacherous plot against her that Henry had cooked up, to rid himself of this wife who gave him no male heir.

During Anne’s short reign, her most notable achievements centered on religion. Although not quite the Protestant queen that her daughter Elizabeth I would become, she was a stealthy reformer, dedicated to providing religion for the ‘common people’. The Catholic Church had previously believed that services should be held in Latin, despite the high illiteracy rate in England at the time. Yet the reformed religion believed that the word of God should appeal to the masses and with the sobriety and solemnity expected of religious faith. Unlike the Catholics, she believed (to an extent) that opulence was sinful and should be eradicated. As a result solemn colours such as black were used. She was also an avid Bible reader, who told the women in her household to dress and behave soberly; cultured, she was a patron of scholars, and keenly interested in the reform doctrines that Henry himself would not embrace. Her intelligence, wit and non-conformity were to be her undoing.

In April 1536, Henry had Anne investigated for high treason. On 2 May she was arrested and sent to the Tower of London, where she was tried before a jury of peers – which included Henry Percy, her former betrothed, and her own uncle, Thomas Howard – and found guilty on 15 May. She was beheaded four days later. Modern historians view the charges against her, which included adultery, incest, and witchcraft, as unconvincing.

Following the coronation of her daughter, Elizabeth, as queen, Anne was venerated as a martyr and heroine of the English Reformation, particularly through the works of John Foxe. [6] Over the centuries, she has inspired or been mentioned in numerous artistic and cultural works. As a result, she has retained her hold on the popular imagination.

Anne has been called ‘the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had’, since she provided the occasion for Henry VIII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and declare his independence from the corrupted Rome.