On April 12, 1533, Anne Boleyn appeared before Henry VIII’s court for the first time as queen. She was four months pregnant after a calculated gamble she and Henry took the previous autumn to secretly marry and consummate their relationship. For Henry this meant a frantic winter and early spring finalizing his divorce from Katherine of Aragon and solidifying the legality of his second marriage. For Anne, the quick conception was nothing short of a complete victory. Henry moved heaven and earth to make Anne his wife – her half of the deal was to deliver the son and heir he so desperately wanted.
Her “introduction” was followed by a coronation on June 1, at which it was reported that the crowds of London refused to cheer or remove their hats when Anne passed. Notable absences such as Henry’s younger sister, Mary Tudor, and that of Anne’s aunt, the Duchess of Norfolk were seen as pointed insults to the new queen. In reality, Mary was fatally ill and the Duchess of Norfolk was estranged from her husband, but even so, it was also widely known that both women detested Anne and supported her predecessor.
A modern comparison could likely be made to the debate over crowd size at inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which may seem a bit strange in light of Anne’s relative popularity today. In her own time, however, Anne was hated, her critics were loud and any chance her enemies could take to discredit her or underline her unfitness for her position was taken. So, were the crowds disrespectful? The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. At the end of the day, a coronation was a great way to imbibe on free drinks and celebrate, and that likely drew enough people who didn’t really care which woman sat beside Henry. And among them were certainly those who genuinely wished Anne ill and felt her presence sinful, offensive and inappropriate.
We don’t know how much Anne cared – there was no 16th century equivalent of Sean Spicer at her disposal. Her “win” was her pregnancy and she may very well have taken the approach that the people would come around once her son was born. And a son she was certain she was having – as was Henry. In the last days of August, Anne entered her confinement, sealed off from men and the rest of court in the apartments that would become her birthing chamber. Usually this took place during the final month of a pregnancy, however just 10 days later, Anne went into labor, indicating the baby may have been premature.
Anne delivered a daughter at three in the afternoon on Sunday, September 7, 1533. We don’t know exactly how Henry or Anne responded to this news privately, except that we can say with confidence both were disappointed. Whether this was the beginning of the end of a short marriage is a matter of debate among Henry’s and Anne’s biographers, but the truth of the matter is, we have no real way of knowing. Henry put on a brave face, clinging to the knowledge that Anne had easily conceived and produced a healthy child. All things told, there was no reason to think she couldn’t repeat the performance with a son.
My personal belief is that this was the first real crack in their relationship. I believe that Henry genuinely loved Anne. I also believe that that love was initially based in respect and admiration. That said, their relationship was about potential – Anne’s ability to deliver him from a marriage of which he had grown tired, Anne’s ability to be young, fertile and interesting, Anne’s ability to validate Henry’s fragile sense of masculinity via male heirs. When Anne failed to follow through, yes, I think it was the first foundational crack in their relationship. It wasn’t the fatal blow and had a son been born the next year, the point would have been moot, but she didn’t.
And so that brings us to Anne’s subsequent pregnancies. The new princess was christened Elizabeth after Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York, and Anne’s mother, Elizabeth Howard. She was duly set up in her own household that kept her apart from her parents most of the time, as was custom. Henry and Anne together, and sometimes Anne by herself, made visits to their daughter with regularity. On occasion, Elizabeth would also join the royal court where she could be seen in public.
Around December 1533 or January 1534, Anne was pregnant again. Her condition was visible that spring and it was reported by Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, that Henry was confident this child would be the son he was waiting for. An ornate silver cradle was commissioned and expensive baby clothes and linens ordered. All was for naught: at some point in late summer, Anne miscarried.
For Henry this was too reminiscent of the years he spent with Katherine as she miscarried or went through stillbirths every few years. Even if the birth of Elizabeth hadn’t damaged the relationship, the 1534 miscarriage certainly did and we are given our first real reports of a rift between Henry and Anne. The marriage wasn’t over and a linear path can’t be drawn from any one event to their eventual divorce and Anne’s execution less than two years later. Henry and Anne had a fiery relationship even before their marriage and while reports of friction and infidelity were pounced upon by Anne’s enemies, it’s too clear cut to say definitively that x = y when attempting to wrap your heard around how it came to be that Henry sent Anne to her death.
But each failed attempt at a son was the slow drip of water torture, particularly for a man like Henry Tudor. By October 1535, Anne was pregnant again after a whirlwind summer progress and bout of hunting with Henry. Towards the end of the season spent outside London, Henry and Anne visited Wolf Hall, the family seat of the Seymours where he likely encountered a young woman who not only served Anne as a lady-in-waiting, but had served Katherine as well – Jane Seymour.
Whether the visit inspired an actual romance between Henry and Jane is anyone’s guess – for that matter, we don’t have complete certainty she was home at the time. But whatever the logistics of it all were, by the early winter of 1536, Henry was actively pursuing Jane. We know, of course, that Jane became Henry’s third wife, but the early stages of their relationship shouldn’t be given any weighted significance for the simple reason that Anne was pregnant. Had she delivered a son, or even a healthy child, her tenure would likely have continued. Instead, any interest Henry had in Jane was likely that of a bored husband waiting out his wife’s pregnancy. Even Jane’s play at Anne’s own game – refusing to become Henry’s mistress – was likely nothing more than a blip on the King’s radar.
At the dawn of 1536, Anne had every reason to celebrate. She was in her second trimester and on January 7, her long-time rival, Katherine of Aragon, finally died. For a superstitious court, it was fortuitous that the child Anne carried would be born free and clear of Katherine’s shadow – even those who didn’t believe Anne was Henry’s true wife couldn’t argue he was still technically married to Katherine.
But euphoria quickly gave way to panic. On January 24, Henry fell from his horse on the tiltyard near Greenwich, knocking him unconscious for two hours. For two hours, then, his court prepared for his death which would have been nothing short of anarchy. While Anne was Henry’s legal wife, England would have had to wait out the rest of her pregnancy to learn whether or not her child was a son, leaving the country without an actual monarch for the first time in history.
If the child was a girl (assuming it lived), the choice would have come down to Anne’s two-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, or Katherine’s 20-year-old daughter, Mary. But the choice would not have been so simple as adult or child, because Mary was a Catholic and Elizabeth was of the reformed faith. It would have become an all out war of religion, but the Reformation was in its infancy and Elizabeth’s claim would have been dragged down by the unpopularity of her mother.
In other words, while Mary might have still loved her father, had he died in 1536, she and her rule would have had the best chance of success and England would likely have reverted back to Catholicism for at least another generation.
But Henry woke up, though he was permanently damaged by the injuries. A particular wound on his leg would plague him for the rest of his life and meant that he spent the next 11 years of his life in near-constant pain. As for Anne, she went through such a trauma that she miscarried her child five days later. According to Chapuys’ reports, the child appeared to be male and about three and a half months along. Very possibly, had Henry not jousted that day, he and Anne would have finally had their son.
That is not quite how Henry saw it. When he finally visited his wife after the miscarriage he said, “I see that God will not give me male children. When you are up I will speak to you.” Anne, for her part, retorted that she had miscarried because of shock over his fall and the fact that he insisted on paying attention to other women, namely Jane Seymour.
But Henry was no longer in a mood for lovers’ quarrels and his accident underlined his own sense of mortality. If Anne would not give him sons, then Anne was what needed to be removed.
Less than four months later, he did just that.
As for Elizabeth, with her Tudor red hair and long Boleyn face, she was immediately declared a bastard in the wake of her mother’s execution. In October 1537 she played a ceremonial role in the christening of her younger half-brother, Edward, and was absorbed within his household. Later on in her father’s reign she would be added back into the succession after Edward and Mary, and it would be through the mediation of her father’s fifth and sixth wives, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr, that she was brought back into his good graces.
But Elizabeth was extraordinary from a young age, perhaps unsurprising given the nature of her parents. Unbelievably well-educated and remarkably smart, she was a savant of language, music and political reality. She ascended the throne against all odds at the age of 25, but unlike her mother she never gambled on a marriage or motherhood. The Tudor line ended with her and when she died, the throne passed to her Stuart cousin, King James VI of Scotland.