92: The Other Boleyn Girl
2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl gives us a peek into what it could’ve been like roaming the English court during King Henry VIII’s reign. But how much of what we saw of the relationship between King Henry VIII, Anne and her sister Mary Boleyn was true? That’s what we’ll find out as we compare history with The Other Boleyn Girl.
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- The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) – IMDb
- The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) – Plot Summary – IMDb
- The Other Boleyn Girl – Wikipedia
- The Other Boleyn Girl (2008 film) – Wikipedia
- The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) – Rotten Tomatoes
- The Other Boleyn Girl – Philippa Gregory
- The Other Boleyn Girl | Film | The Guardian
- Royal Affairs and Notorious Royal Marriages: The Other Boleyn Girl’s Story: The Real One
- Philippa Gregory – Wikipedia
- Amazon.com: The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: ‘The Most Happy’ eBook: Eric Ives: Kindle Store
- BBC – History – The Other Boleyn Girl
- The Other Boleyn Girl – Movies – Review – The New York Times
- Henry VIII – Philippa Gregory
- Mary Boleyn: Biography, Portrait, Facts & Information
- Mary Boleyn – Wikipedia
- The Other Boleyn Girl (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels Book 1) – Kindle edition by Philippa Gregory. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
- Historian Alex von Tunzelmann on The Other Boleyn Girl | Film | The Guardian
- Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII’s Favourite Mistress – Josephine Wilkinson – Google Books
- The Mistresses of Henry VIII – Kelly Hart – Google Books
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- The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: Eric Ives: 8601404529603: Amazon.com: Books
- The Other Boleyn Girl – Wikipedia
- Guilty or not guilty: why did Anne Boleyn have to die? | History Extra
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- Execution & Death of Anne Boleyn, 1536 – Primary Sources
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- Amazon.com: The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn eBook: Alison Weir: Books
- Amazon.com: The Six Wives of Henry VIII eBook: Alison Weir: Books
- Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire – Wikipedia
- The Youth of Anne Boleyn – Paget – 1981 – Historical Research – Wiley Online Library)
- Mary Tudor, Queen of France – Wikipedia
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About The Other Boleyn Girl
Peter Morgan has written two films we’ve looked at on this podcast. Those would be Rush, which tells the tale of the rivalry of Formula One racers Niki Lauda and James Hunt, and then the other being Frost/Nixon, the story of David Frost’s interview with former President Richard Nixon soon after he resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Today we’re going to be looking at another of Peter Morgan’s films. This time it’s a film he adapted from a book by the historical novelist Philippa Gregory called The Other Boleyn Girl.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not talking about the made-for-TV film also called The Other Boleyn Girl that was released on BBC and also based on Philippa’s book. That version of Philippa Gregory’s book was adapted by Philippa Lowthorpe.
Now Philippa Lowthorpe’s small screen interpretation of Philippa Gregory’s book was released in 2003, long before the former Philippa directed a couple episodes of the Netflix original series about Queen Elizabeth II called The Crown. The only reason I mention that is because The Crown’s creator is none other than Peter Morgan—the man who directed the 2008 feature film version of The Other Boleyn Girl.
Releasing to 1,212 theaters, Peter’s version of the film attracted an all-star cast including Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne. And considering it was made with about a $35 million budget, it did pretty well raking in over twice that at the box office.
So let’s dive into England’s royal courts in the 16th century as we compare history with The Other Boleyn Girl.
Learn the true story of The Other Boleyn Girl
The movie opens with a shot of a field in the English countryside. Laughing and running through the tall grass are three children, who we see playing as we hear voiceover from Sir Thomas Boleyn. After this introductory shot we then see Sir Thomas walking with his wife, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn, as Thomas explains to her that he received a request for marriage for one of their children, Anne, to William Carey. He goes on to say he turned down the request, instead suggesting Mary.
Sir Thomas Boleyn is played by Mark Rylance while Lady Elizabeth Boleyn is played by Kristin Scott Thomas.
So let’s start with these characters. They’re all real. Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn had three children, two girls and one boy.
Well, technically, they had five children. So I suppose we could say that during this shot there should’ve been five kids playing in the field, but only three of the Boleyn children survived childhood.
The two girls were mentioned in the movie here, Anne and Mary. And although the movie doesn’t mention his name at this point, the third child playing in the field was George.
Perhaps another reason we only see three kids instead of the five they had was because we don’t really know when the movie begins. The movie doesn’t really mention a timeline here, and perhaps part of that is because we really don’t know exactly when any of the Boleyn children were born. It’s not like they had birth certificates or that most children were born in centralized areas of medicine like the hospitals of today. With a lack of written documentation proving their birth dates, the best we’ve been able to do is piece together clues as to when they might’ve been born.
Let’s start with Anne, because she’s the oldest.
Or is she?
In the movie we clearly see Natalie Portman’s version of Anne Boleyn mention that Mary is the younger and prettier and yet she’s to be married first.
But we don’t really know for sure who was the eldest Boleyn child. Most historians agree, though, that Anne was probably born either around 1501 or around 1507.
In a book lauded by many to be the most complete biography of Anne Boleyn we have to date called The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, historian and author Eric Ives breaks down some of the best evidence we have for figuring out their birth days. He does this through letters and dates we do know—I’d really recommend picking up his book to dig into that in more depth—but just as a quick example of the type of detective work Ives does, he mentions a letter that Anne wrote when she did something the movie never shows—went to the court in Brussels in modern-day Belgium to be a maid of honor there. That letter was dated by historian Hugh Paget in a 1981 publication as being written in 1513. And since that position was for 12 or 13-year-old girls, we can surmise Anne’s birthdate as being 1501.
Meanwhile, for Mary, Ives suggests that her date of birth was probably 1499, something surmised through her marriage to William Carey.
Not to get too far ahead of our story right off the bat here, but it’d seem that there were rumors of King Henry VIII having an affair with both Mary and Elizabeth, Mary’s mother. He denied these, saying that he never slept with the mother—thereby suggesting he did have Mary as a mistress.
But that was something he said before Mary’s marriage to William Carey in February of 1520, which would suggest Mary was Henry’s mistress before her marriage. To add a layer of complexity to it all, we also know around the time of Mary’s marriage to William in 1520, Henry VIII’s mistress was a woman named Elizabeth Blount.
Or as historian Eric Ives suggests in his book, perhaps the fact that Mary’s mother’s name was Elizabeth and the king went from Mary to an Elizabeth, maybe that caused some confusion and hence the rumors of an affair with both daughter and mother.
But…none of that can be conclusively proven without a shadow of a doubt. So, of course, that means there will probably never be an end to the debates and various theories of not only the birth dates of the Boleyn children but really just about everything we’re learning about today.
Oh, and as a quick side note, even though we don’t really see him right away, William Carey is the guy who Mary is going to marry early on in the film. He’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
So anyway, all of that is to suggest that Mary must’ve been Henry VIII’s mistress before marrying William Carey, something that we do actually have dates for…and by extension, that would likely push Mary’s birth date to the year 1499.
Now I know we covered Anne and Mary, but we didn’t mention their brother George. Like his sisters there’s no solid date of birth. And we did for his sisters, we must again use similar means of deduction to gather a best-guess which would wind up being somewhere around 1504.
And just for the educational aspect of it, that brings us to some children that the movie doesn’t even mention. Namely, Thomas the younger and Henry, two potential other children that Sir Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth had but, unlike Mary, Anne and George, didn’t make it through childhood. Since we don’t even know the three more famous children’s birth dates, you can probably guess how much information we have on the children who didn’t survive, but Thomas the younger was likely born after Mary but before Anne around the year 1500 and likely passing away around the same year. As for Henry, he was probably born after Anne but before George, somewhere around the 1502 or 1503—and he, too, didn’t survive more than a year or two before passing.
Going back to the movie, there’s a very brief scene where we see King Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, deliver a baby only to hear the physician inform the king that the baby, a boy, was stillborn. Without a male heir, there’s a plot afoot by Sir Thomas and the Duke of Norfolk, who’s played by David Morrissey, to introduce the king to a new mistress—Anne.
To do that, according to the movie at least, they invite Eric Bana’s version of King Henry VIII to the Boleyn home for a hunt. Just before the hunt, Henry is introduced to Anne who, as we find out later, ends up pushing the hunt a little too far causing Henry to fall down a deep ravine and hurting himself much to the despair of Sir Thomas and the Duke of Norfolk.
While there’s bits of truth in there, unfortunately, I just couldn’t find anything to suggest the scene with the hunt and Anne meeting the king this early on was true.
Let’s learn some of the facts we do know to help set the scene, though.
It is true that Catherine of Aragon was the first wife of King Henry VIII. They were married in June of 1509, just a couple of months after King Henry VII died, leaving Henry VIII to succeed him. At that time, Henry VIII was 17 while Catherine was 23.
The movie is correct in showing that Catherine had a stillborn baby. That was on January 31st, 1510 but, unlike the movie, it was a baby girl.
And unlike the movie, it wasn’t after this one stillborn child that Henry VIII was all of a sudden desperate to have a male heir.
After the first stillborn baby girl, Catherine got pregnant again and about a year later, Catherine had another baby. That was in 1511—January 1st, actually. This time it was a boy they named Henry and the king and queen rejoiced with their new heir.
Joy turned to sadness when the baby boy passed away suddenly just 52 days later.
I can’t imagine what sort of pain that must’ve caused to lose two children so close in succession like that…but sadly, it didn’t stop there.
Two years later, in 1513, Catherine had another boy—also stillborn. Then two years later, another stillborn baby boy.
In 1516, Catherine gave birth to another child. This time the baby survived, but being a girl, they named her Mary, it wasn’t a male heir.
There would be two more failed pregnancies. Another miscarriage in 1517 followed by a girl who died just a few hours after birth in 1518.
In all, Catherine was pregnant seven times. One of them, Mary, survived.
The untold amount of heartache and grief that must’ve caused…even with a baby girl to help brighten the hallways, the one surviving child was overshadowed with the loss of so many—Henry and Catherine’s relationship was on the rocks.
Oh, and as a side note, in the movie we’re introduced to David Morrissey’s version of the Duke of Norfolk, but throughout the movie we never really learn his real name. He’s just the Duke of Norfolk, and for the most part the movie makes it seem like he is the connection between the Boleyn family and King Henry VIII.
Let’s start with his name. Probably one of the reasons why the movie doesn’t really mention his name is because his real name was the same as Anne’s father—Thomas.
The real Duke of Norfolk was Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk and the brother of Elizabeth Howard—the woman that Sir Thomas Boleyn married.
Oh, and from everything I read, it wasn’t really the Duke of Norfolk who was behind the politically-motivated moves for the Boleyn family. The movie makes Anne’s father seem like a rather meek person who goes along with the Duke’s suggestions, but from my research it seems like most of the politically-motivated negotiations to use Anne and Mary to increase their family’s power and position was actually instigated by Sir Thomas Boleyn himself.
Back in the movie, despite the failed hunt it seems like Scarlett Johansson’s version of Mary made an impression on the king, so the two sisters are invited to court while Mary’s husband, William Carey, is invited to the Privy Council—basically the king’s private council—the inner circle for the king.
While we don’t really know the details of how it happened, the basic gist of that is true.
As we learned earlier, Mary and William Carey were married in 1520. We don’t know exact dates, but by 1522 both Boleyn girls were at court and Mary was Henry VIII’s mistress. Meanwhile, for as long as Henry VIII had Mary as his mistress, Mary’s husband, William Carey, profited by receiving land and titles from the king.
We know that Mary had a couple children around this time. Catherine Carey was born in 1524 while Henry Carey was born in 1526, but it’s impossible to know if they were her husband’s children or if they were King Henry VIII’s children.
That brings us to another moment back in the film, when Natalie Portman’s version of Anne Boleyn secretly marries a man named Henry Percy. He’s played by Oliver Coleman in the film.
In the movie this secret marriage between Henry and Anne really upsets the Duke of Norfolk, who insists that Henry will return to Northumberland where he’ll marry the girl he was precontracted to wed, Mary Talbot, while Anne is to be sent to France to stay in the queen’s court there until she’s learned her lesson.
Again, there’s truth in these events, just not quite in the order the movie portrays them and, in fact, there’s quite a bit more that the movie leaves out.
Do you remember earlier when we learned about the historian Hugh Paget dating a letter from Anne to 1513? She was in Brussels then as a maid of honor in the court there. She was sent away from England not because she secretly married Henry Percy, but rather because Sir Thomas wanted his daughter to receive a great education so she could go far in the courts of England.
At that point, Anne was almost or just barely a teenager at about 12 or 13 years old and she stayed with Margaret of Austria while she attended one of Europe’s best finishing schools at the time. Sir Thomas had secured this placement in one of the known world’s best schools thanks to himself being posted in Margaret’s court as a diplomat to England a couple years earlier.
So he’d made connections and used those to help Anne’s education. There’s some mystery as to the exact whereabouts of the Boleyn sisters, but it’d seem that Anne wasn’t the only one who left England.
In 1514, both Anne and her sister Mary were most likely a part of Mary Tudor’s entourage when the latter married King Louis XII of France.
That’s a lot of “Mary”, so let’s break that down a bit.
Mary Tudor was the sister of King Henry VIII, and in an attempt to form some sort of peace between England and France, the two were wed when Mary was only 18. On the other hand, King Louis XII of France was 52. The marriage lasted for 82 days until Louis XII died on January 1st, 1515.
So King Henry VIII sent the Duke of Suffolk, a man named Charles Brandon, to France to retrieve his sister. That would also mean the entourage including, we can assume, the two Boleyn girls.
Things didn’t quite go as planned and instead Charles ended up sleeping with Mary Tudor before the two were married. That didn’t really make Henry too happy, but that’s a story for another day. For our purposes, we know Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon returned to England in April of 1515. Some historians think perhaps Mary Boleyn returned to England with them while Anne stayed in France.
She stayed there until returning to England in 1522 at the request of her father, who set her up to marry a man named James Butler.
So from 1513 until 1522—that’s about nine years away from England getting an education. That’s quite different than the movie makes it seem.
Not only that, but it’s also before the events we see in the movie. Remember when Mary Boleyn was married to William Carey in 1520? Well, that happened after Mary returned to England. Anne may not have been back yet, though, which means she probably wouldn’t have been helping her sister get ready for the wedding.
Oh, and it’d seem while Mary was in France she had a bit of an affair with King Francis I of France. In fact, some historians suggest that this relationship with Francis could’ve really been a catalyst for Mary’s eventually being sent back to England in disgrace—something that horrified her parents. It’d seem that Mary wasn’t quite the shy girl that Scarlett Johansson portrayed on screen.
As for Anne, the marriage to James Butler didn’t happen. Although the movie’s plotline of a secret marriage to Henry Percy is true. At least, a lot of historians believe that was rumored to have happened. It was in secret, after all, so we don’t know for sure. But it’d seem that the rumor also insisted the marriage was not consummated like the movie shows. But Henry Percy did end up returning to Northumberland where he married the girl he had been betrothed to, Mary Talbot.
As for Anne, we already learned this was after her time in France so this wasn’t the catalyst for her being sent away from England, but she was sent to the Boleyn family’s countryside estate away from the court. Then at some point, we don’t really know how much later, she returned to court.
Back in the movie, Anne catches the eye of King Henry VIII who insists on doing whatever it takes to bed her. That includes annulling his marriage to Catherine. Unfortunately for the king, though, there’s not really a good reason for annulling the marriage so the Catholic Church won’t approve of his plan. Not deterred, Henry goes so far as to break off England’s relationship with the Catholic Church so he can dismiss Catherine and marry Anne.
As we’ve learned so far, there’s a lot of details we just don’t know so while it’s not likely to have happened the way the movie shows, the basic framework of the story is accurate.
We already learned about the difficulties that Henry and Catherine had to have children, and that put a massive strain on the marriage. By 1524, most historians believe Henry and Catherine had stopped having sexual relations. Basically, if Henry was to have an heir—it wasn’t going to be with Catherine.
Unfortunately we just don’t know the specifics of how Anne caught King Henry’s eye…after all, that’s why stories like The Other Boleyn Girl are so great, because they help us fill in some of the gaps in a creative way to see how things might’ve been.
It’s very likely that it was the great education Anne received abroad that had made her stand out from the other women in court.
What we do know, though, is that Anne used what she’d learned during her time away from England to charm men in the court. That included Henry VIII, who was smitten with her. Historians have debated about exactly when Henry started to pursue Anne, but it was probably either in late 1525 or early 1526.
Just like the movie shows, Anne played hard to get and that only made Henry pursue her even more. And again, like the movie shows, Henry showered Anne with gifts. It was a sort of cat and mouse game, where Anne’s virginity was the prize for Henry.
Now in the movie, Anne’s playing hard to get is so that Henry will marry her before sleeping with her, making her the queen. We don’t really know if this was Anne’s true reasons, but regardless it’d seem that the reason for Henry and Anne wanting to wait until they were married was because Henry wanted to ensure any child he had with Anne would hold a legitimate claim to the throne. Since he wasn’t going to have an heir with Catherine, he was hoping he’d have an heir with Anne. For that to happen, Anne would have to be his wife. For that to happen, he would have to get rid of Catherine. For that to happen, he couldn’t just divorce Catherine—that would go against both the law of the time and the Church. The Church, of course, weighing heavily on the law of the land in those days.
Henry had to find a way to legally pretend like the marriage to Catherine wasn’t legal to begin with—to annul the marriage. The movie implies these things correctly, but it doesn’t really go into much depth on what exactly happened.
So basically, before Catherine married Henry, she was married to a man named Arthur. He was the Prince of Wales and the older brother of King Henry VIII.
Soon after their marriage, both Arthur and Catherine came down with what many historians consider to be the sweating sickness. We don’t know much about what this was exactly, other than to know it was a highly contagious disease where people would start sweating and often die within hours.
Catherine managed to survive the sickness, but Arthur did not. He succumbed, passing away just five months after marrying Catherine.
Had the sickness kept Catherine and Arthur from consummating their marriage? Catherine insisted that it did, and that when she married King Henry VIII seven years later on June 11th, 1509 that she went to Henry’s bed a virgin.
If that’s true, we’ll never know.
But it’d seem that for years, Henry apparently never complained about whether or not Catherine was a virgin. Then, after being smitten with Anne, he used this as a way of legally getting out of the marriage with Catherine. If she wasn’t a virgin, then that would mean her marriage to Henry was illegal in the eyes of both God and the law. In particular, some historians believe Henry thought his marriage to Catherine was cursed by God.
In Leviticus 20:21, the Bible says, “And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”
So Henry tried to get his marriage to Catherine annulled on the grounds that she had actually consummated her marriage to Arthur, Henry’s brother, making her marriage to Henry a sin against God. Henry used the verse from Leviticus as proof, along with the fact that Catherine had yet to produce a male heir.
Never mind the fact that Henry and Catherine did have a child together…remember the girl? Mary? Apparently, since she was a girl and not the male heir to the throne Henry wanted, she didn’t count.
In all honesty, we don’t really know if Henry truly believed this or if he was just using this as an excuse.
But it does seem very convenient that, after so many years and failed pregnancies, Henry all of a sudden was calling into question the validity of his marriage due to Catherine’s former marriage.
The Catholic Church in Rome didn’t buy it. Henry’s own sister, Mary Tudor, didn’t buy it.
Well, in truth it was a little more complex than that with the Pope being the prisoner of Catherine’s nephew at the time, but quite honestly this story could be an entire podcast series in and of itself.
So, just like the movie shows, King Henry VIII did something that must’ve sent shockwaves through the world at the time—he separated England from the Catholic Church.
Now we haven’t talked about him yet, and he’s not in the movie at all, but one of the major players in all of this was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. As basically the voice of the Catholic Church in England, he was King Henry VIII’s right-hand man. So when the king wanted to get an annulment from the Church for his marriage to Catherine, it was Cardinal Wolsey who tried to get it from the Pope for the king.
Well, technically the king tried to go around Wolsey at first, but that failed and he had to go through Wolsey. Again, this whole story could be an entire podcast series—haha!
Cardinal Wolsey failed to get the annulment for the king and in October of 1529, he suddenly fell out of favor with the king, being charged with praemunire, which is basically a law that forbids papal jurisdiction against the English monarch. Basically, after years of working side-by-side, all of a sudden King Henry VIII turned on Cardinal Wolsey. That didn’t last for long, though, and Henry pardoned Wolsey in 1530.
But then in November of 1530, Henry again turned on Wolsey and charged him with treason, this time condemning him to die. Wolsey died before the charges went to trial.
With Wolsey out of the way, King Henry VIII took on all matters of state that were previously overseen by Wolsey, and it cleared the way for him to continue with the annulment. Rome still refused to back the annulment, though, and no doubt was growing even more suspicious of Henry’s tactics after Wolsey fell from grace so quickly.
Toward the end of 1532, King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were married in a secret service with another public wedding in early 1533 with Anne being crowned queen on June 1st, 1533.
It didn’t take long for Anne to get pregnant.
But the Catholic Church still didn’t recognize the marriage, which could still put into question the legitimacy of any children between Henry and Anne.
So between the years of 1532 and 1534, the English Parliament passed laws that enacted the English Reformation. Essentially, the Church of England broke off from the Catholic Church and instituted Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
All of a sudden, England was no longer a part of the Catholic Church. They were their own Church…albeit with pretty much the same beliefs. The English Reformation could, again, be an entire podcast in and of itself, and there’s plenty of theological differentiations between the Church of England and the Catholic Church that came out of this, but most historians agree that, at least initially, the break was very political.
No longer beholden to Rome, King Henry VIII didn’t need the Catholic Church’s permission to annul his own marriage or to make his marriage to Anne legitimate. He could do all that himself.
Meanwhile, the acts passed by Parliament both gave Henry the power over the Church of England while simultaneously making Mary, the daughter of Henry and Catherine, an illegitimate child. She was no longer an heir.
As a result of this, the Catholic Church rather unsurprisingly excommunicated Henry.
Back in the movie, after finally getting what she’s wanted—being the Queen of England—things start to turn sour for Anne. The story in the movie suggests that it began when Anne got pregnant, but herself had a miscarriage.
Like most of the things we’ve learned about today, the framework of the story is accurate but there’s a lot more that the movie leaves out.
The very same education that led to Anne’s standing out from the other women in court that many historians believe led Henry to noticing her to begin with might’ve been her downfall. It’s probably not too surprising to learn that women of the day were expected to be obedient to their husbands. Perhaps never was that more true than the queen of the king.
But Anne was a strong, independent woman who wasn’t too keen on playing the obedient wife role. She wanted to be more involved in the politics of the day instead of basically doing Henry’s bidding. As you can probably expect, Henry didn’t like that, and while we don’t know the details I’m going to guess there were plenty of fights that ensued.
There was one thing that Anne knew she had to do, though, and as the movie correctly implies everyone would’ve known that Henry wanted a male heir. Anne was expected to deliver one.
Soon after their marriage, whether by the secret wedding at the end of 1532 or the public one in 1533, Anne got pregnant and on September 7th, 1533, she gave birth to their first child.
Henry was so certain it’d be a boy—after all, the curse that Catherine had caused was the reason he couldn’t have a boy, right? They even went so far as to write out letters announcing the new prince and plan a massive joust in celebration of the new heir to the throne!
Well, they had a healthy baby. But it wasn’t the boy Henry wanted. It was a girl. Elizabeth.
Some historians suggest that Henry wasn’t only displeased with this, but he went so far as to assume Anne’s delivering a girl was an insult from Anne—she was refusing to be the obedient wife she was supposed to be, and now she was refusing to give him the boy he wanted.
As if she could control it, right?
We don’t know the specific dates, but by December of 1534, we know of documents that suggest Henry was trying to find a way out of the marriage with Anne.
Like he did with Catherine, Henry seemed to have moved on from Anne. This time it was for a woman named Jane Seymour, who moved into new quarters the king could access—basically, everyone knew she was the king’s new mistress.
But legally, Anne was still Henry’s wife, so he had to do something about that.
Now in the movie, after losing the baby and knowing that’s the reason why Henry ridded himself of Catherine, Natalie Portman’s version of Anne panics and tries to get her brother, George, to sleep with her in an attempt to get pregnant again and pretend like she never lost the baby.
They don’t actually sleep together, but that doesn’t matter. No one believes her, and ultimately Anne is beheaded for incest and treason—the latter being the charge for a queen to sleep with someone other than the king.
We don’t really know if that’s what happened. There’s been a lot of controversy, debates and theories among historians over the centuries. There’s a good number of historians who believe the plot to get rid of Anne was orchestrated by Thomas Cromwell. We haven’t talked much about him, but after Cardinal Wolsey was done away with when England parted from the Catholic Church, Thomas Cromwell was sort of put in his place.
I say sort of because it’s not like the Catholic Church had a replacement Cardinal for Wolsey—after all, England broke from the Church. But with Henry taking over as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Thomas Cromwell rose to power. He was initially an ally of Anne’s, but somewhere along the way they lost that friendship.
Some historians point to a sermon delivered on April 2nd, 1536 by Anne’s chaplain who preached—on Anne’s instruction—a rather damning sermon against Thomas Cromwell.
Perhaps this was the real reason Anne Boleyn was eventually killed. If Thomas Cromwell wanted to avoid having Henry and/or Anne turn on him like they did to Wolsey, so instead he turned on Anne and orchestrated a plot to do away with both her and her brother, who was in the king’s court. Single-handedly shifted the Boleyn family from one of the most influential families on the crown to one in disgrace. Of course, these sort of things are hard to prove one way or another.
Anyway, the charges the movie shows are correct, although there’s more to the story.
What we do know is that it all came crashing down for Anne Boleyn between April 30th and May 2nd of 1536 when a total of five men, including George, were arrested for sleeping with her. Since she was the queen, that was treason and punishable by death. On the other side, Anne was punished for both incest, since one of the men arrested for sleeping with her was her brother, and treason as well—sleeping with someone other than the king.
And so it was that on May 2nd, Anne Boleyn, the Queen of England, was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The very last letter from Anne Boleyn was one she wrote to Henry after being imprisoned. That’s actually part of the bonus episode for Producers, if you’re curious to hear it.
There really wasn’t much evidence to prove anything, but that didn’t really matter.
Unlike the prolonged and political affair that Henry had to go through to annul his marriage to Catherine, he no longer had to answer to the Catholic Church. He had his own Church now.
The trial was a short one.
On May 14th, Henry’s marriage to Anne was declared null and void.
On May 17th, 1536, George Boleyn and the four other men arrested for sleeping with the queen were executed.
Two days later, it was Anne’s turn. To the very end, Anne swore she had never been unfaithful to the king.
If there’s a difference in the movie with what really happened, it’s that up until the end the movie makes it seem like there might be a chance for Anne.
We see Natalie Portman’s version of Anne Boleyn give a speech on the wooden platform just before we realize what’s going to happen. Then, with Mary in the crowd, she gets a letter from King Henry that explains he let Mary live but, “may God have mercy on Anne’s soul.”
In truth, there couldn’t have been much hope at that point. Still, reports from the time suggest that Anne maintained her spirit and didn’t look like someone who was about to die.
At about 8:00 AM on the morning of May 19th, 1536, Anne Boleyn, wearing a red petticoat atop a dark grey gown trimmed in fur, climbed up the scaffold aided by two women and gave this speech:
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.
Then, she bade farewell to her attendants, who were weeping, and kneeling down, Anne kept repeating:
Jesu receive my soul; O Lord God have pity on my soul.
Just like the movie shows, with a single swing of the sword, it was done.
Two weeks after her death, the French poet Lancelot de Carle wrote a poem which captured the moment of her execution with these words:
She gracefully addressed the people from the scaffold with a voice somewhat overcome by weakness, but which gathered strength as she went on. She begged her hearers to forgive her if she had not used them all with becoming gentleness, and asked for their prayers. It was needless, she said, to relate why she was there, but she prayed the Judge of all the world to have compassion on those who had condemned her, and she begged them to pray for the King, in whom she had always found great kindness, fear of God, and love of his subjects. The spectators could not refrain from tears.