anne boleyn catherine howard

I’m obsessed with Anne Boleyn.

Obsessed with her. Just gonna stare at her for a while:

Staring! This sketch is by Hans Holbein.

I’m obsessed in the same way I’m obsessed with Brooke Astor, or Madame Pompadour. I think she’s a lady, basically. I think she handled an extremely difficult situation really well.

Catherine Howard may be the more interesting of the two but – in my opinion –  Anne was the one you should emulate. King Henry VIII, who had been contemplating divorcing his first wife and remarrying for ten years by the time he took up with Anne, pursued her relentlessly. She politely demurred.

Which is surprising, as Anne is generally made out to be a wily seductress. To be fair she was a lively member of the English court (when she was made queen she adopted the motto “the most happy” which stood in marked contrast to Henry’s first wife’s motto “humble and loyal.”) Anne was 19 by the time she started seeing King Henry, and she almost certainly had premarital relations with Henry Percy.

Henry Percy's head is in this position in every single portrait


The pair were engaged in Anne’s youth.  When Percy mentioned this arrangement to Cardinal Wolsey (to whom he was an aide at the time), Wolsey protested, according to George Cavendish:

“I am amazed at your foolishness in getting entangled, even engaged, to this silly girl at court – I mean Anne Boleyn. Have you not considered your position? After the death of your noble father you stand to inherit one of the greatest earldoms in the country. It would thus have been more proper if you had sought the consent of your father in this affair and to have made his Highness the King privy to it, requesting his royal blessing. Had you done so, he would not only have welcomed your request but would, I can assure you, have promoted you to a position more suited to your noble estate. And thence you might have gained the King’s favor by your conduct and wise council and and thus risen further still in his estimation.

But now look what you have done by your thoughtlessness. You have not only offended your own father but also your sovereign and pledged yourself to someone whom neither would agree to be suitable. And do not doubt that I shall send for your father and when he comes he will break off this engagement or disinherit you forever. The King himself will make a complaint to your father and demand no less an action than I have suggested. Indeed, I happen to know that the King has already promised this lady to someone else and that though she is not yet aware of it, the arrangements are already far advanced. The King however, being a man of great prudence and diplomacy, is confident that, once she is aware of the situation, she will agree to the union gladly.”

The person that Anne was promised to was Henry VIII. When the King thought she would have no objection, he was taking a pretty big leap of faith, there.

When you look at Anne’s responses to most of King Henry’s letters, they are the replies you would send to a guy with a girlfriend who kept Facebook-messaging you to say he loved you; namely “I’m flattered, but you have a girlfriend, with a subtext of please, please stop messaging me”. Here is one Anne sent to Henry after he started sending her extravagant gifts, which, to my mind, reads “Please stop sending me gifts; I realize you’re the King of England, but we’ve talked, like, one time, so this is weird. Also you slept with my sister.” (Henry had slept with Anne’s sister and – FUN FACT YOU WON’T FIND IN The Other Boleyn Girl – also Anne’s mother.)

It belongs only to the august mind of a great king, to whom Nature has given a heart full of generosity towards the sex, to repay by favors so extraordinary an artless and short conversation with a girl. Inexhaustible as is the treasury of your majesty’s bounties, I pray you to consider that it cannot be sufficient to your generosity; for, if you recompense so slight a conversation by gifts so great, what will you be able to do for those who are ready to consecrate their entire obedience to your desires?”


Bitches do love turbans, though

So, whatever. Henry breaks down Anne Boleyn’s defenses. He divorces his wife, not at Anne’s behest really, but by that point, Anne pretty understandably thought, “I think now that he has severed ties with the Catholic Church I am going to look like an asshole if I don’t marry him.”

Anne marries Henry VIII. No one liked her, what with her presence believed to have caused Henry to remove himself AND THE COUNTRY from the Catholic Church. He, weirdly, kept the title “Defender of the Faith” which had been granted to him by the Church, because, why not? Then she miscarries a few times (after giving birth to Elizabeth) which is blamed on her being a witch, and not Henry possibly having syphilis, which is a more plausible explanation.

Both of these theories, incidentally, are likely wrong. Henry VII probably didn’t have syphilis, and witches can have children, because look at Samantha on Bewitched.


That pretty much sums up Henry VIII’s and Anne Boleyn’s relationship.

So, Anne is Queen for approximately 1,000 days (somewhere in the vicinity of three years for people who are not good at math) during which time outrageous rumors are spread about her. Not just the witchcraft stuff, but accusations that she was having an incestuous relationship with her brother (she was not) and another member of the court (who was almost certainly gay).

The only person it seems possible she might have had an affair with was Thomas Wyatt. He was certainly in love with her, because he got into a very public fight with the King about her over a game of bowls. However, the affair is in doubt, given Wyatt’s poem Whoso List To Hunt, which is commonly thought to be about Anne. It runs:

“WHOSO list to hunt ? I know where is an
hind !
But as for me, alas ! I may no more,
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore ;
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer ; but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow ; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt
As well as I, may spend his time in vain !
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about ;
‘ Noli me tangere ; for Cæsar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”

He spends his time in vain. He does not say, “I am totally banging that deer, and it is the best. Deers are great.”

That would be a nice poem to write to someone you love, gentlemen readers.

Oh, Anne was the deer.

anne boleyn

It has taken a few years, but I really think I'm getting the hang of Microsoft Paint

Rumors flying, Henry VIII has Anne tried and convicted of treason and sentenced to be beheaded. Again, I want to reiterate that modern historians who are not Philippa Gregory have found nothing to suggest that Anne was, at any point, unfaithful.

This is basically the same thing that happens to anyone who ultimately agrees to go out with the guy who keeps Facebook-messaging her. He will eventually reveal himself to be utterly insane. I mean, he’ll be toss-a-bowl-of-soup-at-a-waiter insane, not gonna-behead-you insane, but still.

So. Anne is sentenced to die for a crime she almost certainly didn’t commit. Most of us would freak out at this point, and be really, really angry about that “unjustly having to die situation.” However, Anne very respectfully requested that she be beheaded with a sword, rather than a common axe. She also asked that none of the men who stood accused with her be punished; that did not work out. She wrote this very polite letter to King Henry:

Your Grace’s displeasure, and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, as what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send unto me (willing me to confess a truth, and so obtain your favour) by such an one, whom you know to be my ancient professed enemy. I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing a truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty perform your demand.

But let not your Grace ever imagine, that your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought thereof preceded. And to speak a truth, never prince had wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn: with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself, if God and your Grace’s pleasure had been so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation or received Queenship, but that I always looked for such an alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your Grace’s fancy, the least alteration I knew was fit and sufficient to draw that fancy to some other object. You have chosen me, from a low estate, to be your Queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire. If then you found me worthy of such honour, good your Grace let not any light fancy, or bad council of mine enemies, withdraw your princely favour from me; neither let that stain, that unworthy stain, of a disloyal heart toward your good grace, ever cast so foul a blot on your most dutiful wife, and the infant-princess your daughter. Try me, good king, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and judges; yea let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open flame; then shall you see either my innocence cleared, your suspicion and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatsoever God or you may determine of me, your grace may be freed of an open censure, and mine offense being so lawfully proved, your grace is at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me as an unlawful wife, but to follow your affection, already settled on that party, for whose sake I am now as I am, whose name I could some good while since have pointed unto, your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicion therein. But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander must bring you the enjoying of your desired happiness; then I desire of God, that he will pardon your great sin therein, and likewise mine enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strict account of your unprincely and cruel usage of me, at his general judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear, and in whose judgment I doubt not (whatsoever the world may think of me) mine innocence shall be openly known, and sufficiently cleared. My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of your Grace’s displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. If ever I found favour in your sight, if ever the name of Anne Boleyn hath been pleasing in your ears, then let me obtain this request, and I will so leave to trouble your Grace any further, with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your Grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions. From my doleful prison in the Tower, this sixth of May;
Your most loyal and ever faithful wife,
Anne Boleyn”

Henry did not grant that (bold print) request.The only admirer who survived was Thomas Wyatt, who was in prison already. (Thomas Wyatt is imprisoned pretty much every few years.) Supposedly he was able to see Anne’s execution from his cell, and proceeded to write poems discussing how heartbreaking it was.

thomas wyatt

Thomas Wyatt was sad

Anne kept her composure to the end. The day of her execution, the Constable of the Tower of London met with her, and wrote that:

“This morning she sent for me, that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to the intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocency alway to be clear. And in the writing of this she sent for me, and at my coming she said, ‘Mr. Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain.’ I told her it should be no pain, it was so little. And then she said, ‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.”

Way to keep it together, lady. In spite of the fact that her execution kept being postponed, which really would have made the whole situation infinitely more agonizing for . . . everyone, when she was finally brought to the scaffold, she gave what I think of as being the most dignified speech ever. Her last words were:

“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. 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.”

I mean, compare that to Madame du Barry shrieking, “One more moment, Mr. Executioner, one more little minute!”

Oh, who am I kidding? I love Madame du Barry, too.

But gosh, Anne Boleyn, wow, she was able to keep it together. As Ashley pointed out, “looking down the guillotine [or at a swordsman] with your dignity intact is basically the opposite of sitting at your laptop sobbing into a handful of tiramisu while documenting [your break-up] for the internet.”

While beautiful, not the same as dignity

But, of course, you already knew that.

Anne Boleyn, in part likely because she died so very, very well, lives on in the minds of a great many people. If you talk to people who can only name one of Henry VIII’s wives (who are those people? Lots of people, I guess. People vaguely familiar with The Tudors) they will almost certainly remember Anne Boleyn. Look at Natalie Portman playing her:

natalie portman anne boleynAnd Natalie Dormer:

Anne boleyn the tudors

And Helena Bonham Carter, who frankly looks really skeptical about the whole business:

helena bonham carter anne boleyn

Now – who plays Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, also beheaded?

Well, this chick, Tamzin Merchant, on The Tudors, did.

And rather more prettily than the Holbein portrait of Catherine would suggest.

At the time, though, Catherine was considered to be Henry’s most beautiful Queen. The historian Lacey Baldwin Smith writes:

“Sparkling eyes set far apart, with whitened skin unmarred by freckles and tinted with a high and contrasting colouring, were regarded as the epitome of feminine loveliness. Both Katherine and her cousin, Anne Boleyn, had these characteristics, and although the Venetian Ambassador was not captivated by Anne s charms, he admitted that her eyes were black and beautiful and that these more than anything else pleased the King. Katherine Howard was not unlike her cousin, and legend has it that she was Henry’s most beautiful queen. What ever the truth, all her critics agree that she had auburn hair, was small, plump and vivacious overflowing with so much vitality that Marillac could write that he had nothing to report except a continuous round of banqueting and dancing at court .”


She was certainly Henry’s youngest Queen. She was a teenager (historians differ on the exact age) when he married her. However, she had been sexually active since she was 13, and had a long affair with her music teacher, Henry Mannox. This wasn’t entirely surprising, given that she grew up in the household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. This lady took in many well-born children to educate them in the ways of court life. However, she was known for being lax, and at Court most of the time, and also pretty much deaf by the time Catherine arrived. So, while she had the girls locked in their dormitory each night, the girls would open the windows, allowing young men  from town to climb in. Catherine supposedly had sex with Henry Mannox in  front of an entire room of people.

Then she told Henry VIII that she was a virgin.

To be fair, Henry VIII was completely infatuated with her during that period. Unlike her cousin Anne, Catherine was not at all hesitant about returning Henry’s affections. God knows why. They say she wasn’t very bright, though she could read and write, which meant she was more educated than most women of the time. You would think  given that Henry had already killed her cousin, and divorced his previous wife (Anne of Cleves) because he didn’t like her looks, she might have been more hesitant. (Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, who gave him his only male heir and died in childbirth, is completely boring.)

But she wasn’t! In spite of the fact that at that time she considered her lover Francis Dereham her “husband.”

That isn’t like some sort of Ginnifer Goodwin in He’s Not That Into You thing where she starts referring to someone as her “fiance” in the hopes that it might come true. Francis may or may not have been her husband depending upon how much they talked about him being her husband. The rules on marriage during the 16th century were a little peculiar. For instance, if a couple said they intended to marry, and then had sexual intercourse, they were considered married in the eyes of the Church. That was true even if they only said that to one another. The question really arose on how many people they mentioned their intention to, because if they only talked about it themselves, one or both parties might claim that they hadn’t had that discussion. While this practice no doubt saved everyone a ton of money on wedding costs, it did make determining whether or not someone was “married” more complicated.

Again, it was not a great idea for Catherine to tell Henry she was a virgin, but she couldn’t marry him otherwise. Remember – it is not a great idea to start your marriage to a known wife-beheader with a lie that would really upset him.

Catherine's is zero!

For a while, after marrying Henry, life was pretty smooth for Catherine, in spite of the fact that Henry, at this point, weighed 300 pounds and had a festering ulcer on his leg that needed to be drained daily. Henry called her his “rose without thorns” and lavished gifts upon her. Her motto was “No Other Will but His” supposedly in reference to Henry, which would have been a pretty good phrase to live by, considering.

The only time she really got into trouble was when she sent a prisoner in the tower – Princess Mary’s former governess – warm clothes during the winter. She also petitioned for the release of Thomas Wyatt, Anne Boleyn’s old admirer, who was imprisoned for treason during her time as Queen. In that, she was more successful, and Thomas was released.

(Henry, incidentally, disliked Thomas after he started writing poems about how tragic Anne’s execution was, and was continually imprisoning him and then releasing him. They say that after Catherine’s beheading, he attempted to marry Thomas Wyatt’s wife, unsuccessfully.)

However, after a while, people from the Duchess’s house came to her saying, “Remember when you had sex in front of a room full of people?” No, I’m sure they said it in a more 16th century fashion. Put that in iambic pentameter.

In any event, she gave them all positions at court. Henry Mannox was made one of her musicians, Francis Dereham was appointed her personal secretary. Since they were there, she supposedly continued sleeping with them. I mean, it’s not like they hadn’t already done that. And she might still have gotten away with it, because Henry was so wildly infatuated with her.  She almost got away with everything if not for Thomas Culpeper. 

Thomas Culpeper was Henry’s favorite courtier at the time. I take that as an indication that he was charming, but people generally like those who are similar to themselves, and Henry was crazy as a bedbug, so maybe Thomas was just odd. I don’t know! But Catherine was supposedly infatuated with him since she had first seen him at court, two years before she married Henry.

I cannot find a picture of him. I think we should assume he was good looking.

He and Catherine soon began sleeping together. Their rendezvous were arranged by Lady Rochford, the widow of George Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s brother.

Why, why, why would Lady Rochford have thought this was a good idea? She must have known what Henry did to Queens who even maybe cheated on him, let alone those who definitely did. She must not have liked Catherine all that much.

Still, this might have worked out (by worked out I mean “nobody had to die”) if Catherine had not written Culpeper a letter. She did. It ran:

“Master Culpeper,
I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do. It was showed me that you was sick, the which thing troubled me very much till such time that I hear from you praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for a thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now. That which doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company. It my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me, and in that hope I trust upon still, praying you that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment, thanking you for that you have promised me to be so good unto that poor fellow my man which is one of the griefs that I do feel to depart from him for then I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you, and therefore I pray you take him to be with you that I may sometime hear from you one thing. I pray you to give me a horse for my man for I had much ado to get one and therefore I pray send me one by him and in so doing I am as I said afor, and thus I take my leave of you, trusting to see you shortly again and I would you was with me now that you might see what pain I take in writing to you.
Yours as long as life endures,
One thing I had forgotten and that is to instruct my man to tarry here with me still for he says whatsomever you bid him he will do it.”

Her disjointed, fragmented letter, which reads like one of Lorelei Lee’s diary entries in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, seems to stand in such a contrast to Anne’s eloquent style that you can’t help remembering that she was just a teenager.

That was not enough to save her.

Allegations about her affair with Culpeper came to light, and that letter was used as evidence against her. Culpeper and Dereham were both tortured and confessed to sleeping with her.  She was charged with treason.

Unlike Anne, who bore her sentence so gracefully, Catherine managed to escape her captors and tried to break into the chapel where Henry was praying, supposedly banging on the doors and screaming his name repeatedly. The doors were not opened for her.

She was somewhere between 17 to 24 when she was executed.

And what were her last words?

“I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper!”

I mean, that’s much more succinct than Anne’s speech.

Anne of Cleves, Henry’s divorced wife, said, “She was too much a child to deny herself any sweet thing she wanted.”

To me, Anne’s speech is always that of a dignified woman, and Catherine’s speech is that of a very angry little girl. But, in a way, I think this makes her death more tragic. She doesn’t respond in the queenly fashion that Anne Boleyn was able, she responds like a person. The way you or I might. This is totally a girl who would blog her breakup while burying her face in tiramisu were she alive today. I admire Anne, but my heart goes out to poor Catherine.

So, now, I will turn the question over to you. Who do you prefer, Catherine or Anne?

[b5poll id=”e7ff010d901fa9f3921e4bfc4560f558″].


Additional reading:

A Tudor Tragedy: The Life and Times of Catherine Howard by Lacey Baldwin Smith

A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance by William Manchester Anne Boleyn Catherine Howard

The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey by George Cavendish