Published: 06:00, 17 May 2021
She grew up at Kent's Hever Castle and found her place in the history books by becoming Henry VIII's second wife, but things didn't go too well for Anne Boleyn, dying by execution in 1536 at the Tower of London.
In the fourth of our series looking at how things might have turned out differently, the University of Kent's Professor Kenneth Fincham predicts what may have happened if she'd lived.
The fate of Anne Boleyn is unpleasantly most recalled in the more unfavourable lines referring to the six wives of Henry VIII in the rhyme we learnt in school: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived."
It is perhaps wrong to reduce lives and grim deaths to such brevity, but it certainly is effective in reminding us their fates.
But what if the history and the rhyme were re-written: “Divorced,….survived?"
Let us imagine how this would look for that famous noble girl from Kent that became a Queen, to have remained with her beloved, to whom she swore loyalty even in her final moments. How would that look?
Picture this: Queen Anne, once Anne Boleyn, was the chief mourner at Henry VIII’s funeral at St George’s Chapel Windsor in February 1547.
The two had been happily married for 14 years, though their marriage had initially been rocky.
Henry VIII was desperate for a male heir to inherit his throne, which was why he had divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, since she was past child-bearing age, and to marry Anne he’d had to become Head of the Church of England and launch the Reformation.
Anne then failed at the first hurdle, giving birth to a child who was cute and clever, but ultimately female; Elizabeth.
Henry already had one of those from his first marriage, Mary, and one was more than enough.
But on May 19, 1536 Anne gave birth to a boy, a redhead called Harry in honour of his dad, sealing the marriage and securing Anne’s position.
The two were thereon inseparable. Queen Anne accompanied King Henry on his travels across the kingdom – including a visit to Canterbury in August 1538, to break up the shrine and burn the bones of the meddling medieval archbishop, Thomas Becket.
This gave Anne the chance to look over the ancient city, with her eye falling on the wealthy monastery of St Augustine’s and its extensive lands.
One passion that Henry and Anne shared was building. They had jointly planned the expansion of Hampton Court Palace, acquired in the late 1520s from another overmighty cleric, Cardinal Wolsey.
There on the ceilings and walls, were placed love-knots of ‘H’ and ‘A’.
In 1539 the monastery of St Augustine’s was closed down, the monks expelled, and at Anne’s request (for how could Henry refuse her anything after Harry’s birth?) the abbot’s lodgings turned into a palace fit for a queen. “Anne’s Abbey”, as Henry affectionately called it.
Anne’s Abbey in Canterbury remains to this day one of the greatest of Henry’s buildings, with red brick ranges, a long gallery, a garden of pleasures and a deer park; and everywhere, just everywhere, are the initials ‘H’ and ‘A’ intertwined.
After another visit to Canterbury, Henry showed Anne around his new defensive fort at Deal, built to repel a feared invasion from Francis I and Charles V, Henry’s great rivals abroad.
On journeys to and from Canterbury, Anne would often visit her childhood home of Hever Castle, which she owned after the death of her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, in 1539.
There her children Harry and Elizabeth learnt to hunt, and would sometimes ride over to the nearby hunting lodge of Penhurst Place, with its glorious medieval hall.
Little Elizabeth loved learning about its history, but Prince Harry was more interested in the suits of armour he found in the undercroft.
After Henry VIII’s death in 1547, the dowager queen retired to her childhood home of Hever Castle.
New King Henry IX was aged just 10 so the country was ruled by the Lord Protector, Anne’s brother George Boleyn.
As for Elizabeth: She was married off to the Duke of Savoy in 1558, and disappeared from the pages of English history.
The influence on Anne on the King was evident in Kent, with Henry naming the county the ‘Garden of England’.
His adoration for his heir-providing wife meant a far greater royal-presence in the county, with an increase in royal hospitality as new estates were created to home the royal court, in addition to Hever.
After Hampton Court, Canterbury, became akin to a second home to the couple and their children, providing a county capital from which Henry could rule when away from home and establishing Kent as the Queen’s county of the Kingdom.
Sadly, this was not the way history went, with Anne’s execution for lack of a male heir.
Had Anne provided a male heir, England may not have gained Queen Elizabeth I. Considering the role Elizabeth played in our real history, would this be the greatest queen England never had?
Without Elizabeth, would English forces have been inspired to withstand the terror of the Spanish Armada – perhaps the greatest threat to face England till the 20th Century?
Kenneth Fincham is Professor of History at the University of Kent, and specialises in 16-17th century British history.