In 1536, England’s King Henry VIII accused his second wife Anne Boleyn, who had been crowned queen in 1533, of charges including adultery, incest and conspiracy against the king. At her trial, she was found guilty, and on May 19, 1536 she was taken to Tower Green in London, where she was beheaded by a French swordsman, rather than the standard axe-wielding executioner.

Historians believe the charges against her were false, issued by Henry VIII to remove Boleyn as his wife and enable him to marry his third wife, Jane Seymour, in hopes of producing a male heir.

Who was Anne Boleyn before she became Queen?

Boleyn was a member of Henry VIII’s court, serving as a maid of honor to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to whom he was married from 1509 to 1533. The king became smitten with Boleyn and pursued her, but she refused to become his mistress.

Anne Boleyn, who came from an aristocratic family, had served in the courts of other European royals. She was educated and skilled at the diversions expected of a charming member of court, such as dancing, singing and the game-like art of flirting. But she also had political functions at court. Like her father, a diplomat, Anne played a role in greeting foreign dignitaries and had some influence on matters of international affairs. In that capacity, she engaged with political leaders, including Thomas Cromwell, a politician who rose to become Henry VIII’s chief minister in 1532.

Anne Boleyn (1507 - 1536). (Credit: Stock Montage/Getty Images)
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Anne Boleyn (1507 – 1536)

Anne Boleyn played an important part in English history and the creation of the Church of England.

In order for Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn, his marriage to Catherine of Aragon needed to end. The king had found a new favorite in Anne, who he hoped would provide a son. (Catherine had not.) But Anne refused to be his mistress and held out for marriage.

Though divorce was not allowed under the Catholic church, Henry VIII persisted in seeking one. First, he argued to Pope Clement VII that his marriage to Catherine could be annulled because she had been married to his brother Arthur, who died shortly after their marriage. Henry based this argument on a Biblical passage in Leviticus that condemns marriage between a man and his brother’s wife. Therefore, Henry claimed, the Pope who granted the marriage had been wrong do so in the first place.

When Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage, Henry VIII took a step that would change the course of world history and religion. With the help and maneuvering of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII broke ties with the Catholic church in Rome, affirming the king’s view that the church should not have power over England’s sovereignty.

The king and Anne Boleyn were secretly married in January 1533, causing Henry and the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Thomas Cranmer, to be excommunicated from the Catholic church. This in turn led to the establishment of the Church of England, a major step in the Reformation that added England to the list of Protestant nations.

Thomas Cromwell. (Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
Thomas Cromwell

Did Thomas Cromwell lead a conspiracy against Anne Boleyn?

Anne Boleyn fell from Henry VIII’s favor when she failed to give birth to a male heir. In 1533, she bore a female child, who would grow up to be Queen Elizabeth I. But Anne suffered miscarriages and her only male child was stillborn in January 1536.

At that point, Henry decided to make a change. He had been having adulterous relationships with two of the Queen’s maids-of-honor, Madge Shelton and Jane Seymour. The latter was fast gaining the king’s esteem.

Meanwhile, Boleyn and Cromwell were clashing on matters of foreign policy and the king’s finances. Historians are divided on the extent of Cromwell’s motives behind facilitating Boleyn’s demise, but in setting up the charges against her, he was certainly carrying out the king’s wishes.

Cromwell was part of a secret commission, one that included Boleyn’s father, to investigate her wrongdoing. Historians speculate that her father probably tried to warn her of the situation. But there was little she could do. Boleyn was accused of sexual affairs with male members of her court, who in some cases were tortured into making confessions. In addition, she was accused of incest with her own brother and of using sorcery to bewitch the king.

Boleyn was sent to confinement in the Tower of London and her trial took place on May 15, 1536. She was found guilty by a jury that included her own uncle and a former fiancé. By sending Anne to her death, Henry VIII cleared the way to marry Seymour, which he did on May 30, just a few days after Boleyn’s beheading.

HISTORY Vault: World History

Stream scores of videos about world history, from the Crusades to the Third Reich.