Anne Boleyn: A Cautionary Tale For Modern Times?

This essay is part of “(There is Nothing New) Under the Sun A monthly column of random, historical vignettes demonstrating that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

May 19 is the 488th anniversary of the execution of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII of England, who lost her head because her husband needed a son and Anne wasn’t making that happen in a timely fashion. Her story is remarkable and the influence of her relationship with the King on world history has long tentacles that reach into today. Their love affair began during a time of plague, the relationship between church and state was in crisis, the minority imposed essential life decisions on the majority, war was a constant, international tariffs and embargoes influenced the operations of entire countries, women were valued mainly as vessels for successful childbearing and/or as diplomatic pawns, and the relentlessly ambitious boogie monster of tyranny was scratching at the door. Nothing new here.

Portrait of Anne Boleyn - Image credit photos.com
Portrait of Anne Boleyn – Image credit photos.com

An Affair of The Heart? Or Heartless Affair?

Unhappy with his first wife, Katherine of Aragon (another incredible woman, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain!) because she, too, wasn’t providing a male heir to the throne, Henry cast his eyes on Anne, newly returned from the French court in which she was raised, making her quite an exotic flower. It’s hard to get an accurate bead on Anne, as none of her letters to Henry survive, although many of his passionate, pining letters to her do, and her brief experience at the Tudor court comes down to us in history through the extant writings of the people who outlived her, people who might have altered their own memories to show solidarity with and placate a king whose will was law, to salvage their own futures by repudiating Anne. I would suggest that much of her reputation as a villainous seductress is largely due to the post-Boleyn body politic. The Queen is dead. Long live The Queen!!!

Henry Invents Capitalism

After numerous miscarriages and stillbirths, Henry only had a daughter with his first wife, but girls couldn’t inherit the crown (first born royal daughters were passed over for first born royal little brothers until 2011!!!!!!). The Church of Rome wouldn’t give Henry a divorce from Katherine, so Henry quit the Church and founded the Church of England, with himself as head. This was SO radical at that time, that there isn’t language strong enough to characterize the act. At a time when the Pope could (and did) sell passes to get into Heaven, turning one’s back on the Holy Roman Church was blasphemy and meant certain damnation. But Henry would have Anne, and damn (tee hee) the consequences. In the process of abolishing the Catholic Church, Henry dissolved the roughly 825 Catholic Monasteries, murdered and tortured Monks and seized their land, wealth, buildings, livestock, and treasures and then, (ingeniously) sold the real estate off as parcels, swelling the royal coffers, creating a landed gentry (or middle class), and then charging them taxes for his largesse — essentially, inventing Capitalism.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Observed by Queen Catherine, by Marcus Stone⁠- Photo Credit Photos.com
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Observed by Queen Catherine, by Marcus Stone⁠- Photo Credit Photos.com

The Kell Antigen

So, Henry rearranged the world, banished his first wife to die of cancer alone, in agony and in such poverty that she couldn’t even pay her nurse, exiled their daughter (later, Queen Mary I, after the death of her little brother Edward) and prevented her from ever seeing her beloved mother again, and married Anne, who is said to have promised Henry a son, but there is no evidence of this. Suffice it to say that like her predecessor, Anne had a daughter (later, after the death of her big sister Mary I, Elizabeth I), and then a series of miscarriages and stillbirths. Megalomaniacs can’t blame themselves for anything, although evidence does exist that his wives’ surviving firstborn children, followed by their inability to carry babies to term might have been a result of Henry’s rare blood disorder called a Kell Antigen, in which a Kell positive cannot successfully reproduce with a Kell negative person after the first pregnancy because of antibodies left in their wake that are inhospitable to future embryos developing successfully. Henry is also thought to have suffered from diabetes and/or syphilis.

Anne was the last of his Queens to have the best of Henry; when they met he was still handsome and fit and fun, and he loved to dance and joust, and hunt. After Anne’s death, Henry began his rapid descent into obesity, gout, oozing leg ulcers that reeked, paranoia, sexual dysfunction, and migraine headaches, all borne, in varying degrees, by the four wives who followed.

Anne Boleyn before her execution. Image credit Photos.com
Anne Boleyn before her execution. Image credit Photos.com

Anne’s Demise

So, with a new young lady (Jane Seymour) in his sights, Henry and his minions’ trumped-up charges that Anne was a wanton woman, “The Concubine,” sleeping her way through the court and not sparing even her brother in her maniacal lust. Based upon Henry’s own behavior in shedding his first wife and only child, it is no wonder that the realm could be convinced that Anne was a nefarious tramp whose end must needs be so spectacular. No evidence of incest or infidelity exists, but Anne was convicted of high treason and spent her last days fretting in her cell in the Tower of London, receiving word of her brother and the other men accused of being her lovers’ beheading, a very real torture for a woman who knew that her own end was looming.

Anne was executed by an expert brought over from France in a gesture of “kindness” from Henry, as English executioners didn’t always make a tidy job of it. The time had been set, and Anne prepared herself to meet her maker, but the Swordsman of Calais was twice delayed en route, so Anne had to psyche herself back up to face her end with courage and composure, which, according to witnesses, she did.

Have a kind thought for Anne Boleyn today, a scapegoat discredited to free a fickle husband, a woman accused of using chicanery to gain power and then vilified for being a powerful woman, nevertheless a Queen and the mother of a Queen.


  • Diane Gager Hesler

    Diane Gager Hesler is a virulent history buff, writer, and elementary school educator who lives in a 100-year-old Arts & Crafts Bungalow in the suburbs of Philadelphia with her exceptional husband, her beloved cats, an herb garden, her books, and an excessively large collection of cast iron frying pans.

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