Mary Boleyn was not the only Boleyn woman to attract amorous attention at court in the 1520s, with her sister, Anne, arriving home from France in 1522 after she was recalled to England to marry James Butler and settle the Ormond inheritance. Anne, like her father, had no enthusiasm for this solution and she soon set about arranging her own higher-status marriage.
Anne Boleyn had been absent from England for nearly a decade by 1522. With her French grace and manners she immediately caused a stir at court, with one favourable sixteenth-century biographer, George Wyatt, commenting:
In this noble imp, the graces of nature graced by gracious education, seemed even at the first to have promised bliss unto her aftertimes. She was taken at that time to have a beauty not so whitely as clear and fresh above all we may esteem, which appeared much more excellent by her favour passing sweet and cheerful, and these, both also increased by her noble presence of shape and fashion, representing both mildness and majesty more than can be expressed.1
Unlike her sister, Anne did not conform to contemporary ideals of beauty, with dark hair and skin and dark eyes. Even those commentators hostile to her agree that there was something unusual and compelling about her which made up for any defects in her appearance. The later sixteenth-century writer, Nicholas Sander, after slandering Anne with claims of a number of monstrous deformities, admitted that ‘she was handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth, amusing in her ways, playing well on the lute, and was a good dancer. She was the model and mirror of those who were at court. For she was always well dressed, and every day made some change in the fashion of her garments.’2 Anne seemed more French than English in her homeland and became one of the leaders of fashion at court, with George Wyatt commenting that she artfully hid a minor defect on the tip of one of her fingers with stylish, long hanging sleeves which were soon copied by the women of the court.3
Although Anne was nominally promised to James Butler, no steps were taken to bring matters to a conclusion, and within a few months of her arrival she had acquired a considerably more prominent suitor in the shape of Henry Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland.4 Percy, a young man of a similar age to Anne, was a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s household. It was soon noted that, whenever Wolsey came to court, his young attendant would visit the queen’s chamber to ‘fall in dalliance among the queen’s maidens’. He soon turned his attention solely to Anne herself and, according to William Cavendish, who was a contemporary of Percy’s in Wolsey’s household, ‘there grew such a secret love between them that at length they were engaged together, intending to marry’.
There is some doubt as to the extent that matters reached between Anne and Percy as they conversed privately in the queen’s apartments. Wolsey, although a regular visitor to the court, was not usually resident there and so meetings between the couple must have been fairly snatched in nature, particularly as Percy or Anne would have been called away by their respective employers when service was required. In 1532 Percy’s wife, Mary Talbot, claimed that her marriage was invalid due to her husband’s earlier binding betrothal to Anne, something which would have made her own marriage invalid. This corroborates Cavendish’s account and, while a somewhat desperate attempt to end her own unhappy marriage, is likely to have some truth to it, particularly as by 1532 Anne was the king’s own fiancée and, as such, any claim that she was effectively already married would have been a very dangerous one to make. A letter survives from Percy, written at the time of Anne’s fall to the king’s then chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, which refutes any betrothal, with Percy claiming that
this shall be to signify unto you that I perceive by Sir Raynold Carnaby, that there is supposed a precontract between the queen and me; whereupon I was not only heretofore examined upon my oath before the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, but also received the blessed sacrament upon the same before the Duke of Norfolk, and other the king’s highness’ council learned in the spiritual law; assuring you Mr Secretary by the said oath, and blessed body which afore I received, and hereafter intend to receive that the same may be to my damnation, if ever there were any contract or promise of marriage between her and me.5
This letter, which was written the day before Anne’s death when five men had already been executed for their perceived romantic associations with her, must be taken with some caution. Even Percy’s oath on the sacrament is not conclusive, in spite of the highly religious time he lived in. He was in fear of his life at the time: if he admitted to a betrothal with Anne then he was confessing to failing to inform the king that the woman he had married was actually unavailable, something that jeopardised the succession and was treason under the first Act of Succession passed in 1533. Another of Anne’s early suitors, Thomas Wyatt, was arrested at the time of her fall and, although not charged, Percy probably watched his fate with alarm. Henry VIII annulled his marriage to Anne in the days before her execution, although the pretext for this annulment is not certain, with sources variously claiming that it was due to Anne’s earlier betrothal to Percy or, alternatively, due to the king’s own relationship with Mary Boleyn.6 The relationship between Anne and Percy probably did extend to a formal promise to marry, something which, when made by two adults, was as binding as marriage itself.
Percy’s love for Anne is clear, particularly as, socially, she was far beneath him. Anne’s feelings are less certain. She had a high view of her own worth and the idea of becoming Countess of Northumberland must have appealed to her. Percy was of a similar age to Anne and there is evidence that she did indeed have feelings for him. The roots of her enmity towards Cardinal Wolsey lie in the Cardinal’s role in breaking the relationship and, while this could have been due more to Anne’s disappointment at the loss of Percy’s status rather than his person, the evidence suggests that there was more to it than this. Anne was deeply involved in the fall from power of Cardinal Wolsey in 1529 and when Henry finally gave the order for him to be arrested in 1530, it was Percy who was sent to take him into custody, with Cavendish commenting significantly that Anne sent ‘her ancient suitor’ to do the deed. This vindictiveness suggests that she was still angry over the loss of Percy, in spite of the fact that, by 1530, she knew that she was to become queen. It therefore seems highly likely that the couple were indeed in love. Percy was one of the peers who sat in judgement on Anne at her trial in 1536, but it proved too much for him. He was taken ill before the trial of Anne’s brother which followed.
Anne and Percy were unable to keep their relationship secret, with news of it soon reaching the king. Although Henry, at that stage, had no interest in Anne, he was angered by the proposed match, perhaps due to the disparity in their status or the fact that it jeopardised the Ormond settlement. Henry instructed Wolsey to break the engagement, with the cardinal immediately sending for Percy and rebuking him for his presumption. The young man, who burst into tears, gallantly attempted to defend his fiancée, declaring that
I considered that I was of good years, and thought myself sufficient to provide myself with a convenient wife whereas my fancy served me best, not doubting but that my lord my father would have been right well persuaded. And, though she be a simple maid, and has but a knight to her father, yet she is descended of right noble parentage. For by her mother she is near to the Norfolk blood: and on her father’s side lineally descended from the Earl of Ormond, he being one of the earl’s heirs general.
Although the Boleyns had come far since their humble origins at Salle, by the early sixteenth century they had not come far enough to please Percy’s father, the sixth Earl of Northumberland. On receiving a message from Wolsey, Northumberland hurried south, whisking his son away to marry Mary Talbot, the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Anne was sent home to Hever in disgrace, vowing that ‘if it lay ever in her power she would work the Cardinal as much displeasure as he had done her’.
Anne Boleyn was finally able to return to court in 1525 when she resumed her position in the queen’s household. She soon found another admirer. The courtier and poet Sir Thomas Wyatt came from an old Kentish family. His father, Sir Henry Wyatt, was associated with Sir Thomas Boleyn, with them both being created knights of the Bath at Henry VIII’s Coronation in 1509 and receiving the joint appointment of constable of Norwich castle in 1511. Given the similarity of Christian names, it is not impossible that Boleyn was Thomas Wyatt’s godfather: the honour could have been returned with Boleyn’s second son, Henry, who did not survive infancy, who shared a Christian name with Sir Henry Wyatt.
By 1525, Thomas Wyatt was a prominent figure at court, with a firm friendship with the king.7 Although he had, by then, been unhappily married for some years, he and Anne engaged in a flirtation, with Wyatt finding himself attracted to her appearance and intrigued by her ‘witty and graceful speech, his ear also had him chained unto her, so as finally his heart seemed to say, I would gladly yield to be tied for ever with the knot of love’. Anne was well aware that there was no future in her relationship with Wyatt but she may well have been attracted to him and saw little harm in engaging in a little courtly love with him.
The evidence for Wyatt’s interest in Anne survives both in a biography of Anne written by his grandson, George Wyatt, as well as in Thomas Wyatt’s own poems. To Wyatt, Anne was the exotic ‘Brunet’ who featured in some of his surviving poems. In one poem, written some time after the end of their relationship, Wyatt declared that
Be sign of love. Then do I love again,
If thou ask whom, sure since I did refrain
Brunet that set my wealth in such a roar
The unfeigned cheer of Phyllis hath the place
That Brunet had: she hath and ever shall8
That this poem refers to Anne is evident from the fact that the third line quoted above originally read ‘Her that did set our country in a roar’. Given that she later refused absolutely to become the king’s mistress, it seems highly unlikely that she would have consented to become the mistress of Sir Thomas Wyatt, regardless of how attractive he was.
According to George Wyatt, it was Anne’s relationship with Wyatt which first led to her coming to the attention of the king, with the two men competing for her affections.9 While the couple were conversing one day, Wyatt playfully stole a small jewel from Anne, which she kept hanging on a lace from her pocket. Aware that the jewel would be recognised and that it would be presumed that she had given it to him, she immediately requested that it be returned, but Wyatt refused. Shortly afterwards, Henry VIII, who, after the end of his affair with Mary Boleyn, was looking for a new mistress, was flirting with Anne when he took a ring from her to wear on his little finger. He was still wearing it a few days later when he became engaged in a game of bowls with Wyatt. Henry, who had by then determined to make Anne his mistress, declared that he had won a game when it was clear to all present that he had not. Pointing with the finger on which he wore the ring, he declared, ‘Wyatt, I tell thee it is mine,’ a reference that his opponent knew full well was to Anne Boleyn rather than the game of bowls. Wyatt, determined not to be beaten, replied, ‘If it may like your majesty to give me leave to measure it, I hope it will be mine.’ He then took Anne’s jewel from around his neck, making a great show of using it to measure the distance between the balls. Henry recognised the jewel at once and declared, ‘It may be so, but then am I deceived,’ before stalking away in anger.
Anne must have had a job excusing herself to the king following this incident and it marks the end of her flirtation with Wyatt. The poet was well aware that he could not compete with the king, with one of his most famous poems, in which he referred to the pursuit of Anne as that of a deer in the chase, making his decision to abandon her clear:
Whoso list to hunt: I know where is an hind
But as for me, alas I may no more;
The vain trevail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh 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,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list to 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 [i.e. touch me not], for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’10
While Wyatt and other nameless suitors quickly abandoned their pursuit when the king made his own interest plain, Anne was far from willing to abandon herself to the king’s love.
By 1526, Henry VIII was still only in his mid-thirties and in his prime. The evidence of Anne’s relationship with Thomas Wyatt indicates that she had an eye for a handsome man and she must have been flattered by the king’s interest in her, as well as likely being attracted to him herself. In spite of this, Anne had seen how the king had treated her sister, abandoning her when he had tired of her with very little reward for the loss of her reputation and honour. Anne valued herself too highly to consent to become any man’s mistress, even the king’s. While Henry VIII made a public show of his affection for her in February 1526 by arriving at a joust wearing the motto ‘Declare I dare not’, she rebuffed his attempts to persuade her to consummate their relationship, eventually retreating home to Hever when the pressure became too great. If Anne hoped that this would lead to Henry forgetting her, she was mistaken, with the king’s ardour only increased by her aloofness. Once at Hever, she found herself pursued by letters from the king, which she cannot but have found flattering with their declarations of his ardent love for her.
Seventeen of Henry’s letters to Anne survive and, while her replies do not, it is clear that she was not uninterested in his suit although she always refused to become his mistress. In one early letter, Henry wrote,
My Mistress and friend, my heart and I surrender ourselves into your hands, beseeching you to hold us commended to your favour, and that by absence your affection to us may not be lessened: for it would be a great pity to increase our pain, of which absence produces enough and more than I could ever have thought could be felt, reminding us of a point in astronomy which is this: the longer the days are, the more distant is the sun, and nevertheless the hotter; so is it with our love, for by absence we are kept a distance from one another, and yet it retains its fervour, at least on my side.11
At the same time, he sent Anne his portrait set into a bracelet so that he would remain constantly in her thoughts.
Henry was desperate for Anne to return to him, remonstrating with her in one letter for the fact that he had been told ‘that you would not come to court either with your mother, if you could, or in any other manner’. He found her aloofness, which contrasted with the other women he had desired, baffling, declaring hurt that
which report, if true, I cannot sufficiently marvel at, because I am sure that I have since never done anything to offend you, and it seems a very poor return for the great love which I bear you to keep me at a distance both from speech and the person of the woman that I esteem most in the world; and if you love me with as much affection as I hope you do, I am sure that the distance of our two persons would be a little irksome to you.
Henry, aware that Anne was determined to safeguard her honour, was looking for ways to persuade her back into his presence. His suggestion that she come to court chaperoned by her mother demonstrates that claims that Elizabeth Boleyn had a poor reputation are misguided. Elizabeth was not always present at Hever, as her visit in 1526 to her friend, Lady Lestrange, at Hunstanton in Norfolk shows. Kent was certainly her base, however, as a letter from the French ambassador from October 1528 shows. The ambassador commented that he did not think that Anne, who was then acknowledged as the king’s fiancée, would ‘yet leave her mother in Kent’.12 Thomas Boleyn’s accounts for the last two months of 1526 record that he purchased three hogsheads of wine for the house at Hever, as well as paying for carriage to the castle, demonstrating the presence of the family there.13
Anne also had other potential chaperones at court since, in January 1526, ‘Mr Boleyn’ and his wife, along with Mr Carey and his wife, Mary Boleyn, were listed as being entitled to lodgings at court when they were present, due to the men’s attendance on the king.14 ‘Mr Boleyn’ is probably Anne’s brother, George, since the same document also refers to ‘young Boleyn’. Henry would later rely on Jane Seymour’s brother and sister-in-law to chaperone her during their courtship and it is therefore clear that there were suitable members of her family present at court to protect her honour if Anne so wished.
For Anne, Henry’s suggestion of a chaperone was not enough to ensure that she retained her good reputation, particularly since his letters are full of frustrated sexual desire. In one, he wrote that ‘I wish you between my arms’. In another, it appears that it was only after Henry finally offered Anne marriage that she consented to some kind of physical relationship, with the king writing in a later letter, after he had begun his attempts to divorce his wife, that ‘I would you were in mine arms, or I in yours, for I think it long since I kissed you’. In another letter after the divorce had begun, Henry declared that he was ‘wishing myself (especially of an evening) in my sweetheart’s arms, whose pretty dukkys [breasts] I trust shortly to kiss’. There is no evidence that the pair actually consummated their relationship until late in 1532, when it was finally clear that their wedding was imminent.
With Anne’s refusal to yield to him, Henry continued to cast around for a proposal that she would accept, finally writing with the unprecedented offer that
if it pleases you to give yourself body and heart to me, who have been, and will be, your very loyal servant (if your rigour does not forbid me), I promise you that not only the name will be done to you, but also to take you as my sole mistress, casting off all others than yourself out of mind and affection, and to serve you only.
This was highly significant. In effect, the king was offering to make her his official mistress, in the same model as often employed by the French kings. If Anne had accepted, she would have had some status at court, with Henry’s assurances that he would remain faithful to her. For Anne, however, this could not be enough and, with the example of her sister, she was well aware of how quickly the king’s interest could wane when he had achieved what he wanted, regardless of any promises made. She indignantly refused, leaving Henry with only one other option if he wanted to consummate his relationship with Anne: marriage.
Henry’s letters to Anne make it clear that he was deeply in love with her and he could not bear to live without her. At some point early in 1527 he finally capitulated, offering her marriage. Henry did not put this offer in writing, instead waiting until he was able to speak to her in person. According to George Wyatt, Anne insisted on time to consider her answer – a prudent decision given the fact that the offer was almost unprecedented, with only Henry’s grandfather, Edward IV, alone among the Kings of England marrying a woman who had refused to become his mistress. George Wyatt claims that Anne was reluctant to marry Henry as she loved Queen Catherine.15 It is more likely that she wanted time to discuss the matter with her parents and to consider the seriousness of the king’s offer, which was fraught with difficulties. For Sir Thomas Boleyn and his wife, news of the proposal must have filled them both with surprise, although Thomas was apparently ‘not a little joyful’ at the news, something which may have helped Anne in her decision.16 Anne was probably attracted to Henry as a man, as well as enticed by the possibility of becoming a queen and, eventually, and apprehensively, she sent him her assent, along with the present of a jewel shaped like a maiden in a storm-tossed ship to signify her turmoil. For Henry, this was the answer to his prayers and he replied happily, saying,
I thank you very cordially, not only for the handsome diamond and the ship in which the lonely damsel is tossed about, but chiefly for the fine interpretation and the humble submission which your kindness has made of it; thinking well that it could be very difficult for me to find occasion to merit it if I were not aided by your great indulgency and favour, for which I have sought, seek, and will ever seek, by everything in my power.
Henry then continued, declaring that
the demonstrations of your affections are such, the beautiful words of the letter so cordially couched, as to oblige me ever truly to love, honour and serve you, begging you to continue in the same firm and constant purpose, assuring you that so far from merely returning your devotion I will out-do you in loyalty of heart were that possible, and you, with no bitterness in yours, can further that end; praying also that if at any time I have offended you, you will give me the same absolution as you yourself demand; again assuring you that henceforward my heart shall be dedicated to you alone, with a strong desire that my body could also be thus dedicated, which God can do if he pleases.
Henry signed his letter ‘H seeks AB no other’, with Anne’s initial enclosed in the drawing of a heart. For the first time in his life, he was deeply in love and it is difficult to see how Anne could not have returned at least some of this fervour.
With the exception of one doubtful letter written at the time of her fall, there is only one surviving letter which purports to have been from Anne to Henry VIII. This letter, which exists as an Italian translation of a supposedly lost original, is highly doubtful but, if genuine, does indeed suggest that Anne returned the king’s love and was as eager to marry Henry the man as Henry the king:
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 favours 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? How great soever may be the bounties I have received, the joy that I feel in being loved by a king who I adore, and to whom I would with pleasure make a sacrifice of my heart, if fortune had rendered it worthy of being offered to him, will ever be infinitely greater.
The warrant of maid of honour to the queen induces me to think that your majesty has some regard for me, since it gives me the means of seeing you oftener, and of assuring you by your own lips (which I shall do at the first opportunity) that I am, Your majesty’s most obliged and very obedient servant, without any reserve, Anne Boleyn.17
This letter should be treated with caution but may, perhaps, be accurate, albeit with its tone altered by translation into Italian and then back into English.
It is clear that Anne fully committed herself and her future to the king from the early months of 1527. Both she and Henry hoped that they would be able to quickly marry and consummate their relationship and, on 5 May 1527, Henry gave a banquet at court in honour of the French ambassadors and publicly led Anne out as his dancing partner for the first time. Twelve days later a secret ecclesiastical court opened in London to try the validity of the king’s marriage, based on the fact that Catherine of Aragon had been the widow of Henry’s elder brother.