Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Boleyn Marriage and the Birth of Anne Boleyn

Was Anne Boleyn a 'thin old woman' of thirty-six years old when she was executed on sensational charges of adultery, incest, and attempted regicide in May 1536, or was she actually a 'fearful beauty' of only twenty-eight?

Portraits: The Nidd Hall portrait (left) is often used to support the argument that Anne was born c.1501, since she is depicted as looking tired and aged. By contrast, the National Portrait Gallery portrait of Anne (right) depicts her, in the words of Joanna Denny, as 'radiant' and a 'beauty'. Readers should note that neither of these portraits was painted from life - they were both done years after Anne's death.

When Sir Thomas Boleyn, a rising courtier, married the daughter of the second duke of Norfolk, Elizabeth Howard, sometime between 1498 and 1501, he could surely not have envisaged the momentous consequences for the nature of English history that his union with this prosperous gentlewoman would eventually lead to.[1] Between the date of that marriage and c. 1505, Elizabeth gave birth to no less than five children who survived, although it seems likely that she also suffered miscarriages and/or stillbirths, a tragic series of events her daughter, Anne, would one day also experience. These children included two daughters, Mary and Anne, and three sons, Thomas, Henry, and George, the only one of whom to survive was George, later beheaded for incest with his sister Anne.

Thomas Boleyn was later to inform Sir Thomas Cromwell, the Master Secretary and a decisive player in the fall of Queen Anne, that his wife Elizabeth brought him ‘every year a child'.[2] If one takes the view that the couple had wedded in 1498 at the earliest and 1501 in the latest, this surely indicates that their eldest child must have been born in 1501-2 at the latest and possibly as early as 1499. There is considerable controversy about which of the Boleyn children was the eldest, with historians usually focussing on it being either of the Boleyn daughters, Mary or Anne. Eric Ives, the principal biographer of Anne Boleyn, suggested that Mary Boleyn was the elder daughter after carefully considering surviving contemporary evidence. In 1597, during the reign of Mary’s niece Elizabeth I, Lord Hunsdon, grandson of Mary, petitioned the Queen for the Boleyn earldom of Ormonde which had reverted back into Boleyn hands on the grounds that the Queen’s aunt Mary was the elder of the two Boleyn sisters. As one would expect, he would surely not have contemplated this had he been aware that his grandmother was younger than the queen’s mother. Furthermore, Mary Boleyn actually married before her sister Anne, in February 1520 to William Carey, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber who later died of the sweating sickness in the summer of 1528. As Ives indicates, ‘nor was a marriage for Anne discussed in England until nearly two years after Mary was Mistress Carey’.[3]

Opposing this argument, Warnicke argues that Hunsdon made a mistake and that his daughter Elizabeth ‘later confirmed his error by having it engraved on her tombstone that Mary was younger than Anne’. She also draws attention to the fact that Hunsdon was actually unsuccessful in his attept to obtain the title of Ormonde via this method.[4] Furthermore, the contemporary John Weever in his work Ancient funerall monuments (1631) stated that Anne was the elder daughter, not her sister Mary. [5] However, Warnicke’s argument that Mary Boleyn was never a maid of honour at the French court, along with her sister Anne, can be disputed. The name ‘M. Boleyn’ was on a list of ladies in the period October-December 1514, which indicates that she became a maid of honour the year after Anne was sent to the court of Margaret of Austria in the early summer of 1513. [6]

In considering which Boleyn daughter was elder, one has to consider social, religious, and cultural values prominent in the early Tudor period which would have influenced marriage customs, appointments at court, and family politics. Although it is strange that Anne was appointed a maid-of-honour a year before her sister Mary – in Warnicke’s words, ‘by contemporary custom, the younger child would not have been favored with such a splendid opportunity to the detriment of her older sister...’[7] – it would make even less sense why the younger daughter would have been married before the elder, since according to Tudor family customs, the eldest child was almost invariably married before other siblings as a means of extending family influence and securing prestige. From Ives’ perspective, ‘the decision to leave Anne to make her career in France’ surely suggests ‘there was no place for her in Boleyn family plans’ and her ‘failure to marry while in France suggests that she was not much of a prize’.[8] As has been suggested, there may have been a completely reasonable explanation why Anne was appointed a maid-of-honour in 1513 before her elder sister Mary the year after – it has long been supposed that Anne was intellectually superior to her sister, or perhaps Mary was ill or incapacitated at this time, or perhaps their ambitious father was hoping to secure an appointment for his eldest daughter at court to serve Katherine of Aragon in 1513 while his youngest daughter was appointed a maid-of-honour in France. On a balance of probability, however, it does seem likelier that Mary was older than Anne.

So if Mary was older than Anne, then when was she born? Estimates for Mary’s birth usually run between 1498 and 1502. Warnicke’s suggestion that she was born in 1508 is not supported by contemporary evidence.[9] If Mary was born in 1508, she would have been only eleven years old  when she married William Carey – since she married in February 1520, and as Warnicke herself admits, she may only have been born after March 1508 – which seems totally implausible. As Ives argues, only landed heiresses were married at the young age of twelve, which was something that the Boleyn sisters were not. [10] Warnicke weakens this argument by conceding that most Tudor women married at the age of twenty. [11] Considering court customs and prevailing social and cultural views about women, it seems likely that Mary was born considerably earlier than 1508. If she was appointed a maid of honour to the French queen in the summer or autumn of 1514, she must have been thirteen or fourteen years old at the least. The Emperor Maximilian was later to write that this was the minimum age a European teenage girl should be in order to expect an opportunity of being appointed a maid of honour to an aristocratic noblewoman. Bearing this in mind, it seems likely that Mary was born in around 1500. She was to marry William Carey in the early spring of 1520, when she would likely have been nearing her twentieth birthday, which was the average age that Tudor gentlewomen married at. If her parents, moreover, had married between 1498 and 1501, and she was the eldest child as is here being suggested, a birthdate of 1500 seems plausible.

As Weir suggested, if Mary was older than Anne, then Anne cannot have been born before around 1501.[12] Since the nineteenth century, there have been two schools of thought – or divergences between Tudor scholars – in terms of when this most controversial queen was born, arguing a date of either c.1501 or 1507. As Ives recognised, 1507 was the most popular date well into the early twentieth century. This is supported by contemporary evidence from the late sixteenth century. The memoirs of Jane Dormer (1538-1612), duchess of Feria and maid of honour to Queen Mary I, Anne’s stepdaughter, have been frequently cited as providing evidence of a 1507 birth date. Referring to Anne Boleyn’s execution on 19 May 1936, the Duchess stated: ‘but to come to her death... she was convicted and condemned [and] she was not twenty-nine years of age’, ie. suggesting that Anne would have celebrated her twenty-ninth birthday in the summer of 1536.[13] If she was correct, the Queen was therefore born in 1507. This birth date has been supported by other existing evidence from the sixteenth century. William Camden, who wrote a life of Queen Elizabeth I which was subsequently published in 1615, stated that Anne was born in 1507 – MDVII. However, Russell’s argument that 'the fact that he stated 1507 quite specifically cannot be dismissed, anymore so than the Duchess of Feria's pronouncement in her memoirs' should be reconsidered in light of alternative evidence which decisively challenges this argument that Anne was born in 1501. [14] Camden actually expressed confusion about Anne's date of birth. Besides recalling that she had been born in 1507, he later opined that the king had fallen in love with her aged thirty-eight (1529), when Anne was supposedly 'in the twentieth year of her age', providing a birth date of c.1509. In the same breath, Camden reported that Henry had been married to his first queen for seventeen years (1526) when these events happened. According to Camden, Anne's birth could variously be placed in 1506, 1507, or 1509, which does not suggest that he is the most reliable of sources for the date of birth of Elizabeth I's mother.

As has been established earlier in this essay, Thomas Boleyn decided to grant his youngest daughter Anne the prestige of being appointed a maid of honour to the Archduchess Margaret of Austria in the early summer of 1513. With reference to Mary Boleyn, it has been established also that a maid of honour had to be aged thirteen at the very youngest in order to enjoy such a prestigious appointment – as Warnicke states, girls had to be at least thirteen since ‘on ceremonial occasions they were expected to serve as “decorative foils” to their mistress’.[15] Surely then it makes little sense why a young girl of only six or seven years of age would have been chosen to act as a maid of honour to the new French queen, Mary, sister of Henry VIII, when other girls were aged at least thirteen or fourteen. By contemporary custom, this seems an implausible conclusion to make. In 1981 Hugh Paget, the art historian, analysed a letter which Anne wrote to her father Thomas in the summer of 1514, and concluded that Anne must have been born in 1501 at the very latest. Readers should bear in mind that this early date had actually been suggested in the nineteenth century by the prominent Victorian historian of the queens of England, Agnes Strickland.

Some historians continue to advocate a birth date of 1507, despite its inherent improbability; most famously Warnicke. Yet in Ives’ words she ‘requires us to believe that Henry VIII summoned a now seven-year-old Anne from Brussels in order that his sister could converse in French with a beginner in the language who would today be in a primary school’. [16] When one actually looks at a copy of the letter Anne wrote in 1514, it is clear that it is written in ‘the formed hand of at least a teenager’, not a seven-year old, as G.W. Bernard makes clear. [17]

The actual nature of historical sources which describe Anne Boleyn as being born in 1507 need to be rigorously challenged. As Joanna Denny indicated, Jane Dormer's memoirs should be viewed only with considerable caution, since she was hostile to Anne and resented her daughter Elizabeth, by virtue of her extremely close relationship with Queen Mary. It is entirely possible that she chose to characterise Anne as being a young and foolish woman in order to belittle her or weaken her status; instead of portraying her as an independent, fiery woman (as the hostile Nicholas Sander does; more importantly, he presented Anne as being born in around 1500), she remembered Anne as a worthless younger woman. William Camden, despite his different religious beliefs to Dormer, may have read her memoirs published by Henry Clifford - it has never been proved that he did not.

The archduchess’ reference to Anne Boleyn in a letter to Thomas in 1514 as ‘so bright and pleasant for her young age’ has often been cited as evidence that Anne must have been born in 1507 – if she had been born in around 1501, and was therefore the usual age of a maid of honour in European courts, it would make little sense why her youth was emphasised, in Warnicke’s words: ‘had she been twelve or thirteen and thus old enough to be a maid of honor, these reporters would not have regarded her age as noteworthy’. [18] Yet this approach is problematic. If one follows the argument that Anne was sent to the archduchess’ court in the early summer of 1513, when she would not yet have been twelve years old, it does not seem wholly impossible that she would have been seen as rather younger than most other girls. Indeed, if she was still only eleven, she would not yet have reached the minimum age of thirteen that the Emperor expected most maids of honour to be. Furthermore, this was only a minimum – many girls at court would have been somewhat older than thirteen or fourteen. The fact that Thomas Boleyn described his daughter as 'le petite Boulaine' is also likely to have been because of her status as his younger daughter, rather than her age.

The argument that Anne Boleyn may have been born in 1507 because another girl at the Burgundian court, Anne Brandon, was born around 1506 and so there were other pre-pubescent girls serving the archduchess, makes little sense for several reasons. First, as Warnicke states, Brandon’s birth date is actually unknown. [19] She may have been born in 1503 and would therefore have been aged ten or eleven, rather than merely seven. The suggestion, therefore, that Anne Boleyn may have been close to her twelfth birthday when she arrived in spring 1513 becomes a great deal more compelling. Second, she was the daughter of future Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon, a considerably more influential nobleman than Thomas Boleyn was as yet, and so Charles may have been granted special privileges in allowing his relative to reside at court at a young age which the daughter of Thomas Boleyn would simply not have enjoyed. Finally, as Ives has pointed out, Anne Brandon’s status at court was actually unknown and so it is unhelpful to attempt comparisons between her status and that of Anne Boleyn. [20]

There is, indeed, other contemporary evidence to support an earlier birth date of 1507, somewhere around 1500-1501. Lord Herbert of Chadbury, who was a prominent historian in the late sixteenth century, wrote that Anne returned to England at the age of twenty. We know that Anne returned in January 1522 in order to contract a marriage with her father’s chosen man, James Butler, an Irish relative, in order to settle family disputes over the earldom of Ormonde. If one follows Herbert’s claim, she must have been nearing her twenty-first birthday and so would have been born around 1501. Warnicke’s attempts to reinterpret this to mean that Herbert was referring to 1527 – based on her suggestion that Anne only became Katherine of Aragon’s maid of honour that year – makes little sense. It seems apparent that Anne was appointed as a maid of honour to the English queen on her return to England in the winter of 1522, and not as late as 1527. Indeed, if Herbert had been referring to Anne's age when she was at court in 1527, he would more likely have stressed that this was when the king fell in love with her, for by 1527 their relationship were certainly well-known. An Italian observer writing in 1600, furthermore, believed that Anne had been born as early as 1499, while the Spanish ambassador’s comment in February 1536, the last year of Anne’s life, that Anne was ‘a thin old woman’ would seem to make little sense if she was still a ‘radiant’ beauty of only twenty-eight. Admittedly, he often made spiteful comments about Anne, who he hated and viewed as a she-devil, but the Nidd Hall portrait of Anne (albeit only painted at least fifty years after Anne’s death) can cautiously be seen to support this view.

One must also consider attitudes to marriage and family customs in early Tudor England as a means of establishing Anne’s birth date. Having returned to England in early 1522 in order to marry her relative James Butler, Anne would confidently have expected to have become a countess sometime that year aged twenty-one. However, the marriage negotiations, mysteriously, failed, and nothing came of the proposed marriage. Her father made no more moves to marry his youngest daughter, until famously in 1526 the king himself fell in love with ‘this fresh young damsel’. Supporters of 1507 have argued that it is totally implausible that a Tudor gentlewoman would have been left unmarried as ‘old’ as twenty-five or twenty-six, yet this view does not take into account the fact that, aged twenty-one, Anne had expected to marry some four years earlier. Contemporary social customs do not support the suggestion that ‘having reached the age of 25 without a husband, Anne would have been sailing dangerously close to the "unmarriageable age," something which it is almost impossible to believe her father would have allowed’.[21] Martin Ingram’s research, for instance, has indicated that the mean age of women who married in early modern England was usually twenty-four, while in some areas of England it was as late as twenty-seven. Following Warnicke’s argument that most Tudor women married aged twenty, it makes little sense why a young lady of twenty-five would have been regarded as at an ‘unmarriageable’ age in 1526-7. Indeed, Anne’s later supplanter, Jane Seymour, was consistently referred to by the Spanish ambassador as ‘a young lady’ in 1536, when she was actually aged twenty-eight.

Furthermore, Henry VIII proposed marriage to Anne in 1527. If one believes that she was born c1501, she would have been around twenty-six and confidently expecting to marry the king that year and perhaps bear his long-awaited heir the year after. There is no reason to suppose that she had to have been only nineteen or twenty in order to be regarded as having ‘apparent aptness to procreation of children’. Surely no one at court could have envisaged that the king’s mission for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon would take six long years – as Ives has pointed out, Anne and King Henry expected to marry immediately.
In 1529, Anne ‘worried aloud that her time and youth would all be spent for nothing’, famously railing at the king for his failure to bring about their marriage and, as a consequence, lessening the chances of her bearing a child.[22] It seems questionable why she would have made such an issue of this had she been aged only twenty-two; yet if she was closer to twenty-eight or twenty-nine, it becomes more apparent why Anne fretted about her diminishing chances of bearing a healthy male heir once she became queen. One writer has actually suggested that Anne made this comment in 1531, supposedly aged thirty, but Chapuys' dispatches make clear that she actually made the comment on St Andrew's Day, 1529.[23] A consideration of similar court ladies' experiences will justify a 1501 birth date in this context. Mary Boleyn, born in 1499-1500, married in 1520, aged 20-21; Jane Parker, born around 1505, was married in 1524-5, aged 19-20, and Elizabeth Howard, Anne's mother, born c.1480, had married in 1499-1500, aged 19-20. If Anne was only twenty-two in 1529, as supporters of 1507 believe, then it does not make any sense why she would have bewailed her lost youth, when she was actually at the perfect age for marriage in context of Tudor customs. Yet if she was 27 or 28, it becomes far more obvious.

There is other compelling evidence for Anne being born earlier than 1507, and around 1501. Gareth Russell, in his essay 'The Age of Anne Boleyn' writes:

'One question the 1501 side of the debate has never fully answered is the issue of Anne's suitability to be the mother of the King's children... Why did no-one highlight the fact that she was simply too old to be the mother of the next Heir to the Throne?' 

Russell then cites the letter to the Vatican in 1528-9 which stresses Anne's 'apparent aptness to procreation of children' which would seemingly indicate that she was a young woman of about 22, rather than an older court lady of 28 or 29.

However, reading evidence in a new light weakens this argument. Following Anne Boleyn's execution in 1536, her husband Henry VIII married her former lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour, and in the Parliament held in June 1536, Lord Chancellor Audley described the Queen Jane as such:

'that our excellent Prince... hath consented to accept that condition and has taken to himself a wife, who in age and form is deemed to be meet and apt for the procreation of children'.[24]

Jane Seymour's exact age is unknown, but if 29 women walked at her funeral only one year later, she must have been aged around 28 when Audley made this comment. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that Anne Boleyn, at about the exact same age, had been described as likely to bear children. 

To summarise, there is no reason to believe that a woman in her mid twenties was considered ‘old’ in context of early modern Tudor customs, nor is there any reason to suppose that her likely age of thirty-five at death is highly unlikely in view of the fact that Anne still became pregnant regularly during her queenship. It also seems tenuous to argue that Anne’s father and the archduchess would only regard Anne as being 'young’ if she was aged six or seven rather than being eleven or twelve, particularly in view of the sense that children this young were simply not appointed maids of honour in the first place. Although the discovery of the remains of a Tudor woman in the Tower of London aged between twenty-five and thirty was believed to have been Anne, this is not necessarily the case since Victorians commonly believed that Anne had been only twenty-nine at her execution and so this presupposition may have influenced their judgments. Furthermore, it is not certain that this woman was Anne – it may have been another, since, as has been recognised, there were four other decapitated females buried in the Tower: teenage queens Katherine Howard and Jane Grey, the Lady Jane Rochford, and Margaret, countess of Salisbury. All in all, a birth date of between 1500 and 1502, most likely 1501 has to be regarded as more likely than that of 1507.

Briefly, in view of Boleyn family history it seems apparent that George Boleyn was the youngest surviving Boleyn child and not, in Warnicke’s view, the eldest.[25] George took part in his first masque at court at Christmas 1514 and was later married in late 1524 to Jane Parker. It has been seen as significant that he was made his first grant in April 1522, perhaps when he was eighteen years of age. If one follows that Mary and Anne were older than George, being born in 1500 and 1501 respectively, and he married in 1524 perhaps aged twenty, a birth date of c1504 seems highly likely. His older brothers Thomas and Henry, who died aged young, were likely born in 1502 and 1503.

This article has refuted the notion that Anne Boleyn was born in 1507. It seems apparent that we should be regarding her birth date as likely to have been in the summer of 1501. Furthermore, it seems even less credible to claim that her sister Mary was younger and only eleven or twelve years old when she married in 1520. Surviving contemporary evidence and contemporary social and cultural customs indicate a birth date of 1499-1500, meaning that Mary was likely aged fourteen when she became a maid of honour to the French queen in 1514 and around twenty when she married Carey in 1520. Mary’s brother, George, was probably born in 1504 as the youngest surviving Boleyn child. This would, therefore, support Thomas Boleyn’s claim that Elizabeth Howard bore him every year a child, if the two married in around 1499 and their daughter Mary was born either that year or the next, followed by Anne, followed by Thomas and Henry, and lastly by George in 1504. It is also possible, of course, that Elizabeth suffered failures in pregnancy; her daughter Anne was to suffer at least two. If the Spanish ambassador’s depiction of Anne as a ‘thin old woman’ in the winter of 1536 can be regarded as spiteful, there is also a chance that it was, unfortunately, an accurate presentation of a queen whose miscarriage the month before had undoubtedly saddened and, plausibly, weakened her.

[1] The date of Thomas Boleyn’s marriage to Elizabeth Howard is unknown. Her jointure was settled on her in November 1501, which indicates that a marriage had taken place that year at the very latest; see Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2005), p. 17. As Ives conjectures, 1498 is probably the earliest possible date for the marriage. R. M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge, 1989), p. 9 suggests a marriage date of 1501, but no evidence is provided to substantiate this suggestion.
[2] Ives, p. 17.
[3] Ives, pp. 16-17. It also seems implausible that Queen Elizabeth would actually have allowed Hunsdon to obtain the earldom of Ormonde if she was aware that her mother Anne was older than Mary, since she would have obtained it otherwise.
[4] Warnicke, p. 258.
[5] R. M. Warnicke, ‘Anne Boleyn’s Childhood and Adolescence’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 28, No. 4, Dec., 1985, p. 940.
[6] Warnicke, ‘Childhood’, p. 951. See also A. Weir, Mary Boleyn: The ‘Great and Infamous Whore’ (Jonathan Cape, 2011), for an argument which refutes this view.
[7]Warnicke, Rise and fall, p. 9.
[8] Ives, Anne Boleyn, p. 17.
[9]Warnicke, Rise and fall, p. 9. See also ‘Anne Boleyn’s Childhood and Adolescence’, pp. 939-952.
[10] Ives, Anne Boleyn, p. 369.
[11] Warnicke, Rise and fall, p. 35.
[12] A. Weir Mary Boleyn, p. 16.
[13] G. Russell, ‘The Age of Anne Boleyn’ (April 2010), http:// (last accessed 24 Nov 2012)
[14] Ibid.
[15] Warnicke, Rise and fall, p. 10.
[16] E. W. Ives, ‘Stress, Faction and Ideology in Early-Tudor England,’ The Historical Journal, Vol. 34, No. 1, Mar., 1991, p. 195.
[17] G. W. Bernard, Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2010), Chapter 1.
[18] Warnicke, Rise and fall, p. 12.
[19] Warnicke, Rise and fall, p. 259.
[20] Ives, Anne Boleyn, p. 368.
[21] G. Russell, ‘The Age of Anne Boleyn’ (April 2010), http:// (last accessed 24 Nov 2012)
[22] Warnicke, Rise and fall, p. 95.
[23] G. Russell, 'Age'.
[24] J.A. Froude, The Reign of Henry the Eighth, ii. xi., p173. 
[25] Warnicke, Rise and fall, p. 9. 

No comments:

Post a Comment