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. 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.
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.
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'.
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.