All Anne lovers! Buy The April version of the BBC History magazine. It’s a Tudor special, with a big article on our beloved Queen.
The example, below, is the handwriting of Anne Boleyn in 1514. It can be considered to be the most valid physical evidence available to argue that Anne Boleyn was older than some scholars claim.
Most of Anne’s biographies lean toward a birth year of either 1501 or 1507. Some speculate that she might have been born as early as 1499. If Anne had been born in 1507, she would have been seven years old at the time she wrote this letter. She did not have the advantage of lined notebook paper, yet herhandwriting is small and consistent, and her lines are remarkably evenly spaced. This is not an ability enjoyed by most, if any, seven year olds.
This sample (in French, her SECOND language) contains sentences that are lengthy and complex, words that are long, and handwriting that is confident and smooth. If she were copying the longer words, the handwriting would show hesitancy. Instead, the errors she makes (see where she corrects words above the line - these corrections are not at all clumsy) appear to be from speed or afterthought rather than inexperience in writing.
While some people argue that children in the 1500s received more training than modern children, and therefore could achieve more advanced results at an earlier age, studies of modern parents who aggressively train their children, even from infancy (including some who begin audio stimulation in the womb), reveal that such children do not demonstrate advanced capabilities by the third grade.
A conclusion based on this comparison, can be that Anne Boleyn was an adolescent at the time she wrote that letter in 1514, and therefore was born between 1499 and 1502.
Sir Thomas Wyatt, who wrote about his love for Anne Boleyn in several poems (see “Whoso List to Hunt”), is credited with making the sonnet popular in England (some
sources said he “invented” it). He was imprisoned under suspicion of having committed adultery with Anne, witnessed her execution from his prison cell window, and wrote a poem “The Death of Anne Boleyn” about that as well. His family’s bribes later freed him.
Sir Thomas Wyatt *
Anne Boleyn fell in love with, and was secretly betrothed to Lord Henry Percy, whose bloodline was superior to hers. The love affair ended when they were forbidden to marry because of Anne’s “inferior” lineage (her mother’s line was impressive, but her father’s family was in trade). Henry VIII did not allow them to say goodbye, in fact, Alison Weir mentions that Anne’s parents locked her in her room to prevent her from trying to contact Percy, as she was frantic to do.
Percy did send a note to Anne begging her to never love anyone else, and history suggests she gamely made the effort, as Henry soon found out. How soon is another matter open to conjecture. Some references suggest that he did not
openly pursue Anne for as long as one to four years after her betrothal to Percy was broken.
Henry Percy, sixth earl of Northumberland *
Others mention that they had had a courtly flirtation for years, and that it may have grown serious from Henry’s perspective even as he kept Anne’s sister Mary as his mistress years before he openly pursued Anne. However, exact dates are unknown.
Either way, Henry VIII found Anne initially unresponsive to his advances - she was the first woman ever to tell the king “no” - and he pursued her insistently for years before finally winning her. It was precisely this independent, outspoken, willful spirit that both attracted him in the beginning, and was an affront to him after they married.
According to Karen Lindsey, only one person suggested that the betrothal of Percy and Anne Boleyn was broken at Henry’s command rather than Cardinal Wolsey’s (he was the one who officially opposed their marriage). However, that one person was George Cavendish, a close and trusted servant of Wolsey, and a reliable source. Lindsey states it would have been in keeping with Henry’s personality to take measures to shift the blame to Wolsey in order to deflect Anne’s resulting anger. See The Romance Between Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy for the Cavendish recount.
After his betrothal to Anne was broken, Lord Percy was immediately forced to marry a woman who had been betrothed to him in childhood. The marriage was a disaster. Percy left no children, suffered from stomach problems, and died only months after Anne’s execution.
Anne was said to have been an impressive musician and songwriter, and some sources suggested her melodies may have borrowed characteristics from Spanish music (Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was Spanish, and her court probably lent that influence). Anne played several instruments, including the lute, harp and virginals. She probably also played the harmonica, which was very popular during her lifetime. She was known for her beautiful singing voice as well.
To the best of anyone’s knowledge, none of Anne’s songs survive, except for one, “O Death, Rock Me Asleepe”, with music written by her chaplain after her death (I’ve posted this poem-turned-song in a previous post). However, the source of both the lyrics and the music is in question. It is only known that the poem was found in the Tower immediately after Anne’s death, and that it was later put to music, and that Anne did probably write it.
Anne distributed a fortune in charity among the English people. George Wyatt (grandson of Thomas Wyatt) estimated that she distributed more than £1500 per year to the poor alone. By the reign of Elizabeth I, a family’s acceptable wage was two pounds ten shillings per year. Acceptable wages were less than this during Anne’s lifetime because, from Anne’s reign to the Elizabethan period, food prices rose by 120%. £1500 per year went quite far in 1532 to 1536.
So based on this, we can estimate that thousands and thousands of people received assistance of some sort from Anne throughout her reign. She also sewed clothing with her own hands for distribution to the poor, and was known on at least one occasion to have personally tended to the ill on her travels. Few of her biographies mention her charitable acts at any length, and these were also not much publicized during her own lifetime.
That Henry forced Anne’s former lover, Henry Percy, to sit on the jury that found Anne guilty of adultery? Since Percy was one of those accused of having committed adultery with Anne, he had to also submit to interrogation. When the verdict was announced, Percy collapsed and had to be carried from the courtroom.
Sixteenth century Jesuit historian, Nicholas Sanders, wrote that Anne Boleyn was raped by one of her father’s officials at Hever when she was seven. Only Alison Weir even mentions this, but she then dismisses the rumor as untrue and states that Sanders was responsible for “some of the wilder inaccuracies that gained currency about Anne Boleyn,” including that one. What is interesting is that the rumor was specific as to her age, the location, and the identity of the perpetrator, which makes the question if it may actually have been based on fact. If so, her presence in England at age seven would conclusively eliminate 1507 as a possible birth year because she wrote aletter from the Netherlands in 1514, where she had been since 1513. Even without proof that the rape actually took place, the details of the rumor indicate that the historian presumed or knew that Anne was born earlier than 1507.
There has never been any hard evidence, even in the midst of rampant speculation and very close scrutiny, that Anne was ever intimate with anyone but her husband. Considering the times, premarital chastity was highly improbable. What is known about Anne is that she a) was not a virgin when she married (only Karen Lindsey suggested she was), b) conceived immediately after commencing relations with Henry, perhaps even with their first encounter and, c) was regularly pregnant thereafter. Her obvious fertility would not have allowed for much illicit premarital sex leaving the child molestation theory still open to explain her lost virginity, particularly for a work of fiction. The two men she was most likely to have been with, Lord Henry Percy and Sir Thomas Wyatt, both survived the accusations and the interrogation prior to her execution for adultery. Whether this is because they were innocent or useful to the Crown is unknown.
The legend of Anne Boleyn always includes a sixth finger and a large mole or goiter on her neck. However, one would have to wonder if a woman with these oddities (not to mention the numerous other moles and warts she was said to have) would be so captivating to the king. She may have had some small moles, as most people do, but they would be more like the attractive ‘beauty marks’.
A quote from the Venetian Ambassador said she was ‘not one of the handsomest women in the world…’. She was considered moderately pretty. But, one must consider what ‘pretty’ was in the 16th century. Anne was the opposite of the pale, blonde-haired, blue-eyed image of beauty. She had dark, olive-colored skin, thick dark brown hair and dark brown eyes which often appeared black. Those large dark eyes were often singled out in descriptions of Anne. She clearly used them, and the fascination they aroused, to her advantage whenever possible.
She was of average height, had small breasts and a long, elegant neck. The argument continues as to whether or not she really had an extra finger on one of her hands, but it seems to be unlikely.