Anne Boleyn was one of England’s most controversial queens. In 1533, King Henry VIII annulled his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) and was in the process of breaking with the Catholic Church to wed Anne. But their happiness was not to last: Just three years later, she was executed. It’s a story that’s been dramatized in plays, novels, movies, and TV shows. We’re setting the pop culture depictions aside to take a look at the real Anne Boleyn.
1. Anne Boleyn’s formative years were spent in France and Belgium.
Born in the early 16th century (possibly in 1501 or 1507), Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat. As a child, she went abroad to study in Margaret of Austria’s court, located in present-day Belgium, and later continued her education as a member of Mary Tudor’s household in Paris when the English princess wed King Louis XII of France. By the time she returned to England in the early 1520s, Boleyn had mastered French, and she carried herself like a Parisian, too. “No one,” wrote one of Boleyn’s contemporaries, “would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but [instead] a native-born Frenchwoman."
2. She played the lute.
Even Boleyn’s harshest critics had to admit that she was a good dancer. She was also fond of music, and reportedly played the lute quite well. A songbook that bears her inscription can be found at London’s Royal College of Music. It’s unclear if Boleyn ever owned this book, but its selection of tunes is historically significant.
3. Anne Boleyn almost married someone other than King Henry VIII.
In 1522, Thomas Boleyn and his cousin, Sir Piers Butler, were both trying to claim some Irish land holdings that had belonged to one of their mutual ancestors. To settle the dispute, Anne's uncle suggested marrying Anne to Butler’s son, James, so that the factions could be unified in the future. By the time Anne returned to England, the marriage was already in the works. King Henry VIII—whose mistress at that time was Anne's sister, Mary Boleyn—supported the match, but the marriage never went through. Anne also had a romantic relationship with Henry Percy, a future Earl of Northumberland who wound up marrying Lady Mary Talbot.
4. Anne Boleyn was also linked to poet Sir Thomas Wyatt.
Boleyn was harshly criticized by contemporaries for her relationship with Henry VIII, who was still married to Catherine of Aragon when he began courting Boleyn sometime around 1526. But Henry VIII wasn’t the only man rumored to have had an extramarital relationship with Boleyn. Although the status of their relationship has never been confirmed, she was also linked to poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, who met her sometime in the early- to mid-1520s while he was still married to Elizabeth Brooke, whom he later separated from in 1525, after accusing her of adultery (although no formal charges were made).
Boleyn is believed to have been the inspiration for several of the acclaimed poet’s works, including the sonnet “Whoso List To Hunt,” which was published posthumously in 1557 by Richard Tottel in a collection of songs and sonnets. (Most of Wyatt’s poems were not published during his lifetime; he mainly circulated handwritten copies around court.) Scholars speculate the poem is a veiled commentary on her relationship with the Tudor monarch because of this line: “Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am …,” which roughly translates to “Touch me not, for Caesar’s I am.”
5. She received love letters from Henry VIII during their courtship.
Before they were secretly married on January 25, 1533, Henry VIII wrote Anne Boleyn a series of love letters, some of which survive and are held (somewhat ironically) by the Vatican Library. The surviving letters, believed to have been written sometime between 1526 and 1528, lay bare the Tudor monarch’s feelings for his future wife: “The cause of my writing at this time, good sweetheart, is only to understand of your good health and prosperity,” he wrote in one letter, believed to have been written in 1528, at a time when the sweating sickness epidemic had prompted a separation between the pair. “Whereof to know I would be as glad as in mine own, praying God that (if it be His pleasure) to send us shortly together, for I promise you I long for it.”
6. Anne Boleyn was pregnant at her coronation.
King Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was formally annulled on May 23, 1533. He’d been courting Anne Boleyn for years by that time. As the king’s infatuation grew, so did his desire for a healthy male heir—whom Catherine never bore. But Pope Clement VII refused to dissolve the royal marriage, so the Archbishop of Canterbury went ahead and annulled it. Henry VIII would soon be declared “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” severing its ties with the Vatican. Boleyn was crowned queen on June 1, 1533. Her first child, Princess Elizabeth, was born a little over three months later.
7. Her emblem was a white falcon.
The Boleyns took a white falcon from the traditional Butler family crest. For Anne’s coronation ceremony, poet Nicholas Udall wrote a ballad that likened the new queen to this elegant bird of prey. “Behold and see the Falcon White!” declared one verse. “How she beginneth her wings to spread, and for our comfort to take her flight” [PDF]. The new queen also used a white falcon badge as her personal emblem; at some point, a graffitied version was carved into the Tower of London.
8. Anne Boleyn’s religious views are hard to pin down.
At a time when Latin-language Bibles were the norm in Catholic Europe, Boleyn consistently supported the publication of English translations—a controversial notion at the time. As queen, she and her husband arranged for the release of Nicholas Bourbon, a French humanist whose criticisms of saint-worship and other theological matters had landed him in jail. Bourbon went to England, where he tutored Boleyn’s nephew (at her request).
9. She was the first of Henry VIII’s queens to get beheaded.
Like Catherine before her, Anne failed to deliver Henry VIII’s long-sought male heir. In 1536, she was tried for high treason, adultery, and incest (rumors circulated that she was having an affair with her brother, George) though there was little evidence for the allegations. Boleyn was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Henry VIII wed his third wife, Jane Seymour, that same month. Two spouses later, history repeated itself when the king had wife number five, Catherine Howard, decapitated in 1542.
10. Boleyn was the first cousin of Henry VIII’s fifth wife.
Boleyn and Catherine Howard share more in common than just their marriage to the king (and the manner of their deaths). Howard, who was likely born sometime between 1521 and 1525, was the daughter of Lord Edmund Howard and the granddaughter of Thomas Howard, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk.
But Howard wasn’t the only one of his granddaughters to become Henry VIII's consort: Anne Boleyn was also his granddaughter through her mother, Elizabeth Howard (Lord Edmund’s younger sister). That means Catherine Howard and Boleyn were first cousins.
11. It has been claimed that Anne Boleyn had 11 fingers.
When you replace a popular figure and help spur a change in the religious fabric of an entire country, you're bound to make enemies. One of Boleyn’s detractors claimed that she had a “devilish spirit,” while another famously called her a “goggle-eyed whore.”
Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander wrote an unflattering description of the former queen many years after she died. According to him, Boleyn had “a large wen [wart or cyst] under her chin,” a “projecting tooth under the upper lip” and “six fingers” on her right hand. But his claims are highly suspect. There’s no proof that Sander ever laid eyes on Boleyn—plus, her contemporaries didn’t mention any of these physical traits in their own writings about the queen. At worst, she might have had a second nail on one finger.
12. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, ruled England for decades.
Coronated at age 25 on January 15, 1559, Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada, promoted exploration, and foiled multiple assassination plots during her 44-year reign. She held the throne right up until her death in 1603.
13. There’s only one surviving portrait of Anne Boleyn (that we know of).
When Henry VIII executed her, most Anne Boleyn likenesses were intentionally destroyed—and now, there's just one contemporary image of the queen known to exist: a lead disc—crafted in 1534—with Boleyn’s face etched on one side, which is held at the British Museum in London. It’s the only verified portrait of the former queen that was actually produced during her lifetime.
But there may be at least one more image of the queen out there: In 2015, facial recognition software was used to compare the image on the disc to a 16th-century painting currently housed at the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. The picture’s subject, a young woman, has never been identified, but according to the program, the figure looks an awful lot like Boleyn’s portrait in that lead disc—though the researchers cautioned that their results were inconclusive due to insufficient data.
This article was originally published in 2019; it has been updated for 2022.