Anne Boleyn, was the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard. Anne’s mother, Lady Elizabeth, was the daughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, trusted advisor to both Henry VII and Henry VIII. The actual date of Anne’s birth is not known.
Most sources place it somewhere between 1501 and 1507; while others have placed it as early as 1499, or as late as 1512. Those scholars placing the date as 1501, cite a letter from 1514. This letter, written while she was still in the Netherlands, is in French, and addressed to her father, in England. At this time, Anne was a maid-of-honor to the Archduchess Margaret, of Austria; and since a girl had to be at least thirteen to serve in this position, the letter seems to give support to a birth date, not later than 1501.
After serving the Archduchess, Anne was sent to France to join her sister, Mary, in the retinue of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, who had recently been married to Louis XII. On the death of Louis, Mary Tudor returned to England, and she took Mary Boleyn with her.
Anne, however, remained in France for several years as lady-in-waiting to the new Queen Claude. This stay at the French court, gave Anne her taste for French fashion, music, and art. The clothes that she brought home to England, would prove to be a great influence upon the style of Renaissance clothing adopted by the ladies of the English court. It was also while in France, that Anne became a devoted follower of Renaissance humanism, which she continued to study and practice for the rest of her life. By the time she returned to England, Anne had spent so many of her formative years under French influence, that for all intents and purposes, she was essentially, a French girl.
There has been much disagreement on the subject of Anne’s beauty. Accounts describing her as having numerous warts and moles, a goiter on her neck, and six fingers on one hand, can generally be attributed to her enemies at court. More often it is said, that although not beautiful, she had a lovely olive complexion, silky straight auburn-brown hair, and large dark unusual eyes, so brown, that they seemed black. Some contemporary accounts describe her as medium height, with small breasts, and the feature most noted, next to her eyes, being her long, graceful neck.
Anne’s darker skin and hair, and her decidedly French airs, would have set her apart from the other ladies of the court; most of whom had the pale, fair-skinned looks, thought beautiful, at that time. Whatever the truth about her looks may have been, one thing is certain, that drawing upon the experience of her years spent at the French court, whatever charms she had, Anne knew how to use them to their full advantage.
Anne returned to England in late 1521, or early 1522; the earliest known mention of her at court, is in the roles of a masque ball, held March 1, 1522. At this time, she was in the service of Queen Katherine of Aragon, and was expecting to be married to a distant Irish cousin, James Butler. This arrangement was an attempt to secure the title and estates of the Earldom of Ormonde for the Boleyn family. Anne’s paternal grandmother, Mary Boleyn, and her great-aunt, Anne St. Leger were co-heiresses under the will of their late father, the 7th Earl of Ormonde.
This was now being challenged by James Butler’s father, Piers. Fearing a dispute such as this could lead to civil war in Ireland, Anne’s grandfather, the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, along with Henry VIII, had proposed the marriage as a way to keep the peace. Anne’s father, Thomas Boleyn, possibly hoping for an even more advantageous union, never really worked to promote this match. This may have been one reason that negotiations fell through, and the wedding never took place.
Later that same year, Anne met and was courted by Lord Henry Percy, whom some believe was the true love of Anne’s life. Whether there was anything of a sexual nature in the relationship between Anne and Percy, is a subject of much controversy. What is known, is that the two quickly became almost inseparable, spending much time together, laughing, talking, playing music and games. For some reason, when Cardinal Wolsey became aware of the depth of their attachment, he persuaded Percy’s father, the Earl of Northumberland, against the suitability of the match. In 1523, their relationship was ended when Percy’s father refused to accept their engagement. Anne never forgave Wolsey for his interference.
While suffering the heartbreak of her broken romance with Percy, Anne was comforted by the attentions of the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt. Several of his poems were written for, or about Anne. It appears that Wyatt, who was separated from his wife, was genuinely smitten with Anne, and would have like to have married her, had that been possible. Anne’s feelings for him though, seem to have always been more platonic in nature.
By 1525, Anne was firmly established at court. She had a large circle of male and female friends, who enjoyed the same pursuits as herself. With her wit and intelligence, she was often the center of attention for discussions and debates. She would share her views on Humanism, and tried to encourage this type of enlightened Renaissance thinking. She appeared content with her role at court, and the minor flirtations being carried out. She seemed unconcerned that she was neither married, nor being seriously pursued. All of this, of course, was about to change. Once noticed by Henry VIII, she was soon to become the object of his obsession, and life for Anne Boleyn would never be the same.