Anne Boleyn, 1st Marchioness of Pembroke (ca 1504–1536) was the second wife of king Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. King Henry’s marriage to Anne, and her subsequent execution, were part of the complex beginning of the considerable political and religious upheavals of the English Reformation; with Anne herself as an active player, promoting the cause of Church reform. She is remembered because she was beheaded on charges of adultery, incest and treason in 1536. Despite this, belief in her innocence was widespread and she was later celebrated as a martyr in English Protestant culture, particularly through the works of John Foxe.
As might be expected contemporary opinion was strongly divided on Anne. On one hand, she was described as ‘one common stewed whore’ (the abbot of Whitby) and ‘the scandal of Christendom’ (Catherine of Aragon); on the other, Foxe included her amongst his Protestant martyrs and Arcbishop Cranmer said of her: ‘I loved her not a little for the love which I judged her to bear towards God and His Gospel.’
Her recent biographers agree that ‘she was never described as a great beauty’ (Lady Antonia Fraser) and that her ‘charm lay not so much in her physical appearance as in her vivacious personality, her gracefulness, her quick wit and other accomplishments’ (Alison Weir). A Venetian ambassador described Anne, shortly before she became queen, as:
Not one of the handsomest women in the world. She is of middling stature, with a swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised, and in fact has nothing but the King’s great appetite, and her eyes, which are black and beautiful – and take great effect on those who served the Queen when she was on the throne. She lives like a queen, and the King accompanies her to Mass – and everywhere.
Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, wrote that on the morning of her execution: ‘And then she said, “I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck”, and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily.’
There is an academic debate about the date of Anne’s birth; estimates range from 1499 to 1512, with 1501 and 1507 generally being accepted as the most likely dates. So she was probably aged twenty-nine to thirty-five when she was executed, but could have been as young as twenty-four or as old as thirty-seven. Most of the actresses who have played Anne fall within this wider age range with the exception of Dorothy Tutin (who was forty, and looked too old for the part) and Merle Oberon (who was twenty-two).