Meet the Wives Handbook: Anne Boleyn

"Goggle-eyed whore," concubine and harlot were all names Anne Boleyn's enemies bestowed on Henry's second queen. This smart, aggressive woman stirred passionate emotions in all who knew her -- no less so, Henry VIII, who first begged for her love and then condemned her to death.

Background: Overview

What was it that drew the king to Anne Boleyn and made him renounce his wife of 24 years? It was not her beauty, but her wit and grace that attracted the attention of the king and many other men. She was sophisticated, knowledgeable about the ways of court life, and knew how to manipulate a situation to get what she wanted. And she wanted to be queen.

Background: Looks & Personality

At a time when fair women were the apotheosis of beauty, brunette, dark-eyed and olive-skinned Anne Boleyn was not considered beautiful. Anne's eyes were sparkling and expressive and, according to her contemporary biographer Lancelot De Carles, she knew how to "use [them] with effect."

Anne was of medium height, not full-breasted nor full-figured but she did have a long elegant neck that was praised by her admirers. She had a few moles and was said to have had a sixth finger. George Wyatt, another biographer, called it an extra nail "upon the side of her nail upon one of her fingers," which she would carefully conceal.

Anne was witty, confident, and assertive -- not quiet, gentle or demure -- the admired qualities of a 16th century woman. She was charming and talkative, but also had a fiery temper that she never learned to control.

Background: Education

Anne's early education was typical of her class. She learned to play the lute and other musical instruments, to sing and to dance. Anne's father recognized his daughter's intelligence and managed to secure a spot for her in the court of Archduchess Margaret, Regent of the Netherlands in Brabant (in modern-day Belgium). At the age of 12 or 13, Anne was sent away to Brabant to learn French and other skills desirable in court life. Almost two years later, she would join the court of Henry's sister, Mary, now the Queen of France. By the time she returned to England eight years later, she was "so graceful that you would never have taken her for an Englishwoman, but for a Frenchwoman born," wrote her biographer De Carles.

Background: Religion

Though Anne was raised in the traditional Catholic faith, she advocated reform within the Church. She obtained banned anti-clerical books and supported reformists (see Role as Queen). Anne's reformist leanings would, however, alienate the people of England. Though they supported the king, they were still in favor of the ways of the old faith. Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador and fervent Catholic, insulted Anne by calling her "more Lutheran than Luther himself." Her biographers argued, however that she was not a Lutheran; she still held on to Catholic beliefs such as the doctrine of transubstantiation and owned many traditional books including "The Book of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary". But by the time her daughter, Elizabeth I became queen, writers of the period would extol Anne for her Protestant views and credited her with "banishing the beast of Rome with all his beggarly baggage."

Background: Family Ties

Anne had many siblings, but only two of them reached adulthood: her older sister Mary and younger brother George. Her brother George was ambitious like his father, Thomas Boleyn, but his close relationship with Anne would lead to his downfall. Mary's affairs with King Francis and others at the French court (where she was also a maid-of-honor to Queen Mary) had gained her the reputation of "the most infamous whore," according to contemporary chroniclers. She later enjoyed a passionate relationship with King Henry, too. Mary's experience served as a lesson for Anne -- her reputation was unsullied when she entered the English court and, when her affair with Henry VIII began, she was determined to become more than another royal mistress.

Background: Trouble Alert

In 1523, while serving in Queen Catherine's household, Anne met Henry, Lord Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland. Though already engaged to the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, Percy quickly fell for Anne and secretly put himself under contract to marry her. When Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the king's powerful factotum, heard of the precontract, he rushed to the king with the news. Henry, whose permission was required for all aristocratic marriages, was angered at not being consulted and asked Wolsey to break the engagement. Anne, who never knew of the king's involvement, never forgave Wolsey's interference and when she became Henry's mistress she would seek her revenge by ousting Wolsey from power.

Thirteen/WNET PBS