Anne Boleyn: History, Facts & Execution

Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a Ph.D. in Progress, History and Culture as well as a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies. She has taught heritage of the western world and U.S. history.

As the second wife of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn was the catalyst for England's break with the Roman Catholic Church. In this lesson, learn about the early life, marriage to Henry, and execution of Anne Boleyn.


Anne Boleyn was the second wife of King Henry VIII. Significantly, it was Henry's desire to divorce his first wife and marry Anne that ultimately led him to break away from the Roman Catholic Church and form the Church of England. Anne was queen of England for only a short time (1533-1536). During that period, she attempted to give Henry the male heir he desired. Although she would never give birth to a son, her daughter Elizabeth would grow up to be one of England's most successful monarchs.

Early Life

A portrait of Anne Boleyn.
Anne Boleyn

Anne's exact birth date is not known. Most accounts place her birth between 1501 and 1507. Her parents were Thomas Boleyn, the Earl of Wiltshire, and Elizabeth Howard. Her family was both wealthy and well-respected among the English nobility and her education was typical of an aristocratic girl. She was instructed in mathematics, embroidery, music, and etiquette. She also learned hunting, archery, and horseback riding.

During this time, Anne's father was a diplomat for the English monarchy. His poise captured the attention of Archduchess Margaret of Austria, who ruled the Netherlands. The Archduchess allowed Anne to stay in her household at a young age. Anne soon became a maid of honor for Henry VIII's sister, Mary, who was residing in France in anticipation of her marriage to King Louis XII. While attending to Mary, Anne expanded her education to include French, religion, philosophy, and literature.

Marriage to Henry VIII

Portait of King Henry VIII.
King Henry VIII

Around 1522, Anne went to live in the English court as a lady-in-waiting for Queen Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife. Originally, Anne was betrothed to James Butler, a cousin. For reasons that remain unclear, the marriage never took place. At some point, Henry noticed Anne and they started an affair. Henry began to pursue an annulment of his first marriage on the grounds that their union was not legitimate. This claim was based on the fact that Catherine had been married to Henry's older brother Arthur for a short time. After Arthur died suddenly, Catherine married Henry.

According to Henry, Catherine had consummated her marriage to Arthur, making his marriage to her wrong in the eyes of God. To Henry, this was the reason she had not been able to produce a male heir. However, Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry an annulment. Henry then set in motion legislation that would sever ties from the Vatican and create a Church of England with Henry at the head.

Rule and Execution

Anne was given the title of Queen of England in 1533. However, she was only queen for three years. On September 7, 1533, Anne gave birth to Elizabeth. Anne had several miscarriages and failed to give Henry the son he so desperately wanted. In the meantime, Henry had started paying attention to another woman, Jane Seymour. On May 2, 1536, Anne was arrested and held in the Tower of London. The charges leveled against her were: adultery, incest with her brother, and treason for supposedly plotting to kill the king.

Anne and her brother were both put on trial on May 15, 1536. According to accounts of the trial, Anne remained calm and denied all the charges against her. Nevertheless, she and her brother were both found guilty. Before her execution, Anne made a short speech, stating, 'And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.' Anne was beheaded at the Tower of London on May 19, 1536.

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