Anne Boleyn, Queen of England: Retha Warnicke Unravels the Evidence on the Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's Second Wife. (Profiles in Power)

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On 2 May 1536 Anne Boleyn was accused of sexual crimes with men of the king's privy chamber, including her own brother, George, Lord Rochford, and Sir Francis Weston, Henry Norris, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton, who were all executed. According to the indictment, she had enticed or bewitched the men with French kisses to have sex with her ten times between October 1533 and December 1535. Disagreeing with most scholars who believe that Anne was innocent, George Bernard has recently claimed that she had indeed been guilty and that the charges could be validated. It can be proved, however, that she was not always at the place and time her accusers specified. For example, she was definitely with Henry at Windsor on 5 December 1535, the day she allegedly was committing incest with her brother at Westminster. Given Tudor travel conditions, she would have had to rely on flight by broomstick to complete and keep that rendezvous secret.

Similarly another scholar, Eric Ives, while affirming Anne's innocence of the charges, nevertheless presents her in a biography of 1986 as an avid religious reformer and courtly lover whose platonic flirtations with young courtiers could lead to intimate sexual relations. When she was not flirting with the men in her apartments, she was apparently praying with them in the chapel. Yet neither literary scholars nor social historians now maintain that courtly love, as defined by Ives, was an actual social practice at Renaissance courts.

Such misconceptions and errors abound in the life-history of Anne Boleyn. Many facts are about her are either unknown or are obscured in mystery. Her life is important, for her marriage ushered in the Reformation and resulted in the birth of Elizabeth, who as queen presided over England's conversion to Protestantism. Yet controversy surrounds her birth year and childhood, her appearance, her relationship with Henry VIII, her religious beliefs and her interaction with her husband's courtiers.

Early Life

Anne's origins are disputed. Scholars have assumed that, as the child of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard, Anne was born at the Boleyn manor of Blickling in Norfolk or perhaps at Hever Castle in Kent. Thomas Fuller, a seventeenth-century writer, heard, however, that her birthplace was London. It is possible that her mother, Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas, later second duke of Norfolk, established her lying-in chamber at the Howard home in Lambeth, just across the Thames from London. Later Elizabeth, then the countess of Wiltshire, was to be buried there.

When Anne was born is also controversial. William Camden, an Elizabethan antiquary, favoured the year 1507. In 1981, interpreting a letter she wrote from France to her father, Hugh Paget argued that she was born in 1501. Paget was the first to translate the sign-off place of the letter, which even by sixteenth-century standards had irregular spelling and handwriting, as La Veure in Malines, the court of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. Believing that Anne served the regent as a maiden of honour, Paget indicated that in 1513-14, when she wrote the letter, she must have been 12 or 13 years old. Ives accepted Paget's findings, for this earlier birth date supports his claim that she was a courtly lover, that is an older woman who flirted with younger men.

My own research has led me to disagree with Paget's conclusions and favour Camden's 1507 as her date of birth. The letter's spelling and handwriting indicate a young child, perhaps only seven years old, for children in royal nurseries began their education at an early age. A comparison of her handwriting with that of her 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth indicates just how elementary Anne's was. Her place at Malines was surely with the regent's nieces, one of whom, Mary, the future queen of Hungary, was born in 1505. It is noteworthy that Anne Brandon, a young daughter of Charles, duke of Suffolk, was also at Malines. …