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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.
[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.
[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is the start of another mini-series on queens.
[00:00:27] But not just any queens, we are going to look at three remarkable women who became queen against all the odds, unlikely queens.
[00:00:37] Women who fought against misogyny and manipulative men, men who were often far less capable than the brave and intelligent female subjects of this mini-series.
[00:00:47] So, who are these women then?
[00:00:50] First up, in today’s episode, it’s Anne Boleyn, the unfortunate second wife to the English King, Henry VIII.
[00:00:58] In part two, we'll talk about her daughter, Elizabeth I of England.
[00:01:03] And then in part three we’ll move over to Russia and talk about Catherine the Great.
[00:01:09] But first, Anne Boleyn.
[00:01:11] There are few women in British history who have a more divisive reputation.
[00:01:16] To some, she was a scheming, manipulative power-hungry temptress who bears responsibility for Britain breaking with the Catholic Church.
[00:01:26] To others, she was an innocent victim of powerful men, someone whose only crime was her beauty, wit and intellect.
[00:01:35] And in this episode, we’ll tell her story and you can decide for yourself.
[00:01:40] OK then, Anne Boleyn.
[00:01:45] On the 19th of May 1536, a young woman was led to Tower Green, in the grounds of the famous Tower of London.
[00:01:55] She wore a red dress, a symbol of martyrdom and innocence.
[00:02:01] She spoke, her voice strong and proud: “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 pray God save the King … for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never.”
[00:02:24] She knelt down on two knees.
[00:02:27] Moments later, the French swordsman standing behind her brought his blade swinging through the air, the cold steel detaching the young woman’s head from her body.
[00:02:39] The “king”, the merciful prince, the woman had prayed for was no stranger to her.
[00:02:46] Not only was this king the man who had ordered her execution, but he had also been her husband.
[00:02:54] The King’s name was Henry, Henry VIII, and the young woman’s name was, of course, Anne Boleyn.
[00:03:02] So, how did it come to this?
[00:03:05] What could possibly cause a man to order his wife’s public execution, and how much responsibility, if any, does Anne Boleyn have for her own fate?
[00:03:18] Let’s start by digging into her early life.
[00:03:21] She was born sometime between 1500 and 1507, and by 1513, following the tradition for noble families at the time, she was sent overseas to complete her education and turn her into an eligible wife for a nobleman.
[00:03:41] Originally, Anne was destined for Austria, the most celebrated court in Europe, but she was quickly moved to France, where she became good friends with the French Queen, who was a similar age to her.
[00:03:54] After almost 10 years of learning languages, mathematics, fashion, dance and how to play the lute, and turning her into a young woman with a wide array of enviable talents, in 1522 Anne returned to England, and joined the royal court.
[00:04:13] At court, she became an attendant, a so-called lady-in-waiting, to Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
[00:04:22] From the historical records that do exist, it seems that Anne Boleyn was an intelligent, funny and witty young woman.
[00:04:32] Clearly, she was someone that people liked to be around, she was not only fun and entertaining, but she had all of the qualities that a nobleman might look for in a wife.
[00:04:44] As you might expect, she turned heads at court, there were plenty of young men who took note of her, thinking that she was indeed, high quality marriage material.
[00:04:56] Initially, though, these did not include the King, Henry.
[00:05:00] In fact, at this time Henry had a romantic relationship with Anne’s older sister Mary, “the - so called - other Boleyn girl”.
[00:05:10] Mary, as far as historians believe, was a very different person to her sister.
[00:05:17] She was more beautiful, or so the theory goes, but she wasn’t as smart as Anne, her sister.
[00:05:25] As such, some historians hypothesise that Mary had quickly fallen into bed with Henry without fully understanding the ramifications, the consequences, of doing so.
[00:05:37] Anne wouldn't make the same mistake. Or at least, she wouldn't make the same mistake as quickly as her sister.
[00:05:45] In any case, she had plenty of potential suitors at court, plenty of other men who were interested in her, but only one really caught her eye.
[00:05:56] His name was Henry Percy.
[00:05:59] Going against tradition, which would have meant that their parents and the king had to give their permission and blessing, Anne and Henry Percy secretly got engaged without asking anyone.
[00:06:12] When Henry VIII found out about their secret engagement he ordered his trusted statesman Thomas Wolsey to put an end to it.
[00:06:21] Some have speculated that Henry may have stopped the marriage as he began to see Anne as another potential mistress, yet another girl at court to add to his list of lovers.
[00:06:34] And sometime in around 1526, after he had lost interest in Mary Boleyn, historians believe that Henry started to become infatuated with, obsessed with, her sister, Anne.
[00:06:50] Now, was this true love, or did he simply wanted to take her to his bed and add her to his long list of mistresses?
[00:06:59] He certainly declared undying love for her, writing love letters and sending her expensive gifts.
[00:07:07] But Anne wasn’t like her sister, and she wasn’t like the other women at court.
[00:07:13] She said “no”, or at least, “not until we’re married”.
[00:07:18] Anne would not become the King’s lover.
[00:07:21] As you might imagine, this came as quite a shock to Henry; he was king of England, he was not a man used to rejection.
[00:07:31] And, resolving this for Henry wasn’t quite as easy as simply marrying Anne.
[00:07:37] In case you had forgotten, during this very public declaration of love for Anne and affair with Anne's sister, Henry was still married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Anne’s boss, essentially.
[00:07:52] But he had grown tired of this marriage.
[00:07:55] Catherine had borne him a daughter, Mary, but had failed to produce a son.
[00:08:01] A son was crucial for Henry, as a male heir would secure the future of England and prevent future wars over the succession – the type of war that had won his father the crown but left him in a dangerous position.
[00:08:17] So, Henry needed a son, and for that to happen, he needed a wife capable of giving him one.
[00:08:25] Catherine, so Henry believed, was not the woman to do so.
[00:08:30] So he needed a new one, a new mother to this dreamed-of son.
[00:08:35] Of course, back in the 16th century, at least before 1534, England was Catholic, you couldn’t simply divorce someone if you’d grown tired of them.
[00:08:46] Henry might have been the King of England, the most powerful man in the country and therefore one of the most powerful men in the world, but there was something even more powerful: the Catholic church.
[00:09:01] For a marriage to be annulled, an annulment, a nullification, needed to be given by the Pope himself.
[00:09:10] Henry wrote to the pope, protesting that his marriage to Catherine was wrong in the eyes of God because she had been married to Henry’s brother.
[00:09:20] But the pope did not accept, telling Henry that he would be excommunicated, he would be kicked out, of the Catholic Church if he remarried.
[00:09:31] Now, this process, of Henry and his advisors trying to find theological reasons for him to get out of the marriage, went on for almost a decade, with no hope in sight.
[00:09:44] Suffice it to say that,
[00:09:46] By the starts of start of 1533, 9 years after Henry had first lost interest in his wife, something important had happened.
[00:09:56] Anne was pregnant, but the pair still weren’t married.
[00:10:02] Some historians think that Anne must have got nervous about Henry losing interest in her, others that this was her way of speeding up the process.
[00:10:12] In any case, pregnant she was, there was no going back now.
[00:10:17] The clock was ticking, and Henry needed to move fast to make sure that the child she was carrying would become his legal son and heir.
[00:10:27] And there was no doubt in Henry’s mind that this was a son.
[00:10:32] After all, God had cursed him for marrying Catherine, God would now reward him with a son from his new wife.
[00:10:40] That was the way things worked, at least in Henry’s mind.
[00:10:45] But, first things first, Anne needed to become his wife, so the pair married in a secret ceremony in January of 1533.
[00:10:56] There was, however, the complication over what to do with his current wife. He had been effectively separated from Catherine for several years, but she was still legally his wife in the eyes of the law and the church.
[00:11:12] Fortunately, in the almost decade since Henry had grown tired of her, he had started the process of separating from Rome, from the Catholic Church, and Henry was the head of his own church by now, the Church of England.
[00:11:28] So, in May of 1533, he ordered his own archbishop to declare his first marriage to be null and void.
[00:11:37] Ta-da, Anne was his wife, Catherine was not, so Anne could become his queen, their child would be his heir, everything was all lining up very nicely.
[00:11:49] Except…it wasn’t.
[00:11:51] On June the 1st, 1533, the pregnant Anne was crowned queen.
[00:11:57] She might have been happy, Henry too might have finally been happy, but the crowd at her coronation was not cheering but deadly silent.
[00:12:08] It was not only the Pope and Catherine that were against Henry’s new marriage.
[00:12:13] Catherine had been a popular queen, and many people saw Anne as snatching the King away, and what’s more, forcing a break with Rome in the process.
[00:12:25] As a result, Anne Boleyn was a deeply unpopular queen.
[00:12:31] And it would not be long before Henry himself would become even more disappointed than his subjects.
[00:12:39] In September Anne gave birth to a baby.
[00:12:43] No doubt Henry was waiting outside with bated breath, ready to announce the birth of a baby boy, a prince, the heir he had craved so desperately.
[00:12:55] This child would grow up to be an intelligent, brave and powerful leader, and indeed one of the greatest monarchs in British history.
[00:13:05] But the child was not the son he was hoping for.
[00:13:09] It was a baby girl.
[00:13:11] Her name was Elizabeth, she would go on to become Elizabeth the First, but Henry wouldn’t know the queen she would become.
[00:13:20] For him, her gender alone was disappointment enough.
[00:13:25] Henry had been so sure he was having a son that all the proclamations, the royal announcements, had already been written to announce the arrival of the ‘prince’.
[00:13:37] Two s’s had to be quickly added to all the documents so they would correctly inform the country of the ‘princess’ instead.
[00:13:46] Now, Anne was still young when Elizabeth was born, likely in her late 20s or early 30s, so there was plenty of time for her to try to have another child, the illusive male heir.
[00:14:00] But the birth of Elizabeth was only the first of a series of disappointments.
[00:14:06] Indeed, some historians have suggested that, although this didn’t seal her tragic fate, it was the beginning of the end for Anne.
[00:14:16] Once Henry had got what he couldn’t have, once he had finally made Anne Boleyn his wife, taken her to his bed, and she had only provided him with a disappointing daughter, his eyes began to wander.
[00:14:32] Within a year of their marriage, Henry had begun affairs with not one but two of Anne’s servants.
[00:14:40] For Henry, this was nothing new. Indeed, he had done exactly the same thing with Catherine when he started his affair with Anne.
[00:14:49] And what's more, Catherine, his first wife, had turned a blind eye to it, she had accepted that he was going to have mistresses and there was little she could do about it.
[00:15:01] But Anne Boleyn wasn’t like Catherine.
[00:15:05] She was furious with Henry, and grew jealous and insecure. She wasn't happy to be embarrassed like that in front of everyone at Court.
[00:15:15] Now, clearly this to us probably seems like perfectly reasonable behaviour - if your husband is having a poorly-hidden affair, it seems pretty acceptable to be angry with him.
[00:15:29] But 500 years ago, to state the obvious, men held the power.
[00:15:35] A woman, even the wife of the king, was expected to tolerate this kind of behaviour.
[00:15:42] Now, why wasn’t Anne?
[00:15:44] Some have suggested that it was because she was strong, independent and forward-thinking.
[00:15:51] She knew this wasn’t right, and despite the uneven power dynamic, she did what she could to stop her husband’s infidelity.
[00:15:59] Others have suggested that it was because of her strong religious faith; when they married, Henry had made a promise in front of God to be loyal, so Henry shouldn’t do it.
[00:16:12] And others have suggested that she didn’t want to lose her position and Henry’s favour - she knew all too well what had happened to Henry’s first wife, and she didn’t want to meet the same fate.
[00:16:26] Whatever the true reason, or combination of reasons, looking back on it, it’s hard to deny that it reflects well on her character.
[00:16:36] And clearly, it reflects very badly on Henry, who tried to justify his affairs by blaming his wife for not giving him a son.
[00:16:46] But shortly after, good news, a ray of hope!
[00:16:49] Anne was pregnant again, and in fact it's thought that she got pregnant again at least three times.
[00:16:57] But in two cases she had late-term miscarriages, she lost two babies.
[00:17:03] And in 1536, Anne fell pregnant again.
[00:17:07] She gave birth, miraculously, to a boy.
[00:17:11] But tragically, the boy was stillborn, he was dead on arrival.
[00:17:18] Now, these miscarriages and the birth of a stillborn baby must not only have been hugely traumatic on an emotional level, but they would also be the nail in the coffin for her fortune.
[00:17:32] Within five months she would be dead.
[00:17:35] Henry believed that the reason for Anne’s failure to give him a son was because God was unhappy with their marriage and so, much like he had with Catherine, he decided that this marriage too was a mistake.
[00:17:50] It’s said that every time Anne lost a baby, Henry loved her less and less, and he finally convinced himself that she was physically unable to provide him with the son he so desperately wanted.
[00:18:04] He kicked Anne out of Court and moved in with his new love interest, Jane Seymour.
[00:18:11] By now, she had truly fallen from grace.
[00:18:15] She not only had to fight against those who despised her because of Henry’s divorce and saw her responsible for the break with Rome, but also against Henry, who was plotting to remove all trace of her.
[00:18:29] But how would he get rid of her?
[00:18:32] There was no real grounds for divorce, so he had to try something more sneaky.
[00:18:38] And it’s here that I need to introduce you to another character, a minister of Henry’s called Thomas Cromwell.
[00:18:46] He was more than a minister, really, he was Lord Chancellor, a man Henry relied on to do his dirty work.
[00:18:54] Cromwell had been an old enemy of Anne's several years beforehand, as they had clashed over what to do with the money from the monasteries that Henry had dissolved.
[00:19:05] In another episode that reflects well on Anne, she had suggested that the money go to the poor, and Cromwell had suggested that it go to the King.
[00:19:16] She also disagreed with Cromwell’s foreign policy and she wanted to create peace with France, which was the opposite of his plans.
[00:19:25] Henry asked Cromwell to try to find some kind of crime that he could charge his wife with, and Cromwell, being both cunning and ruthless, got to work.
[00:19:37] He instructed his network of spies to find anything incriminating about Anne that he could use to bring her down.
[00:19:46] It did not take long to gather some information.
[00:19:49] Apparently, someone had overheard Anne speaking in a way that hinted at the king’s death.
[00:19:57] Reportedly, she had imagined herself with another man if Henry happened to die.
[00:20:03] And this was highly illegal, it was a criminal offence to speak of, to even think of, the king’s death.
[00:20:13] As a result, Cromwell arrested Anne’s musician and brought him in for questioning.
[00:20:20] Except it wasn’t questioning, it was torture.
[00:20:24] Cromwell accused the musician of having sex with Anne and tortured him until he confessed.
[00:20:31] Cromwell then asked him to give him names of other men who had had affairs with Anne. He even accused Anne of plotting Henry’s death with those men.
[00:20:41] Exhausted and in agony, the tortured musician gave Cromwell a list of men who had reportedly slept with Anne.
[00:20:50] All five of these men, which even included her own brother George, just so happened to be serious political enemies of Cromwell’s, which certainly suggests that Cromwell used this as an opportunity to advance his own political interests.
[00:21:07] Now, armed with this information, Cromwell began to put together evidence that he could use at a trial. This evidence was weak at best, it made little sense, and historians now believe it was all a conspiracy, a set-up to provide an excuse to get rid of Anne.
[00:21:29] But 500 years ago, justice consisted of whatever the King wanted, really.
[00:21:35] Anne was arrested on the 2nd of May 1536 and taken to the Tower of London.
[00:21:42] The charges against her were for adultery, incest and treason.
[00:21:48] Although she put up an admirable battle, it was a show-trial in effect, there was no way she would win.
[00:21:57] The jury, which even included her own uncle, could never go against the wishes of the king.
[00:22:03] Unsurprisingly, Anne was found guilty of all charges, and she was sentenced to death, along with all the men who were also accused.
[00:22:14] She was distraught and terrified.
[00:22:17] So terrified that she asked to be executed with a sword, rather than an axe, because she was afraid the axe would not be quick enough.
[00:22:26] Henry did grant her this one wish.
[00:22:30] An expert executioner was brought over from France.
[00:22:35] As you heard at the start of the episode, the Frenchman was accurate, and the sword was quick.
[00:22:42] He picked up her head and declared ‘God save the king!’ before the crowd reportedly gasped in horror as Anne’s eyes were still moving.
[00:22:53] It was a truly gruesome and inglorious end for a woman who Henry had once claimed to have been so in love with, so much so that he had caused the biggest religious split in his country’s history.
[00:23:07] And without anyone left to defend her reputation after her execution, she increasingly was portrayed and described as an evil, manipulative woman.
[00:23:20] People began to spread rumours that Anne had been a witch, and one even claimed that she had eleven fingers and was covered in warts.
[00:23:31] People proposed that she had used spells and magic to get Henry to fall so deeply in love with her, and that he killed her because the spells had worn off.
[00:23:42] Her charges of adultery and incest, even though they were completely fake, were also taken as proof that she was a witch, as witches were believed to be overly sexual and have no self-control.
[00:23:57] And one of the reasons that our knowledge of the real Anne Boleyn is so unclear is that after her death her critics did as much as they could to erase all trace of her very existence.
[00:24:12] Her writing was destroyed, as were portraits of her.
[00:24:16] Her detractors wanted to make her as silent as the crowd at her coronation…and they succeeded.
[00:24:23] And as you’ll have seen, the story of Anne Boleyn is principally told through the people around her, the men who tricked and conspired against her.
[00:24:35] Clearly, in this respect there is only one person who must bear responsibility for the tragically short life of his former lover and wife: Henry VIII, the king.
[00:24:47] For some commentators, her fate was sealed the moment he set eyes on her and decided that he must make her his lover.
[00:24:56] Perhaps, you could say, her story would have been very different if she had flat-out refused him, if she had said no. Perhaps it would, but in that case she would never have been queen.
[00:25:10] Or if she had given him a son, not a daughter. Now, to state the obvious, clearly she isn't at fault here. In fact, if we are to assign fault about the gender of the child, it's Henry's, as the gender comes from the father’s chromosomes.
[00:25:26] In any case, if Elizabeth had been a boy, the fate of Anne Boleyn, and the country, would have been very different.
[00:25:34] Perhaps Anne would have been able to write and control her own legacy in a way that she wasn't able to after her untimely death.
[00:25:43] Given her unpopularity during her life, the history books after her death were not kind to Anne Boleyn.
[00:25:51] She is, by many, remembered as an ambitious, power-seeking young woman who would stop at nothing to become queen, seducing her boss’ husband and persuading him to break with the Catholic Church.
[00:26:06] If this is your view, perhaps it’s hard to have a huge amount of sympathy for her when things came crashing down.
[00:26:14] But to others, and especially in more recent readings of her story, she is an innocent victim of a misogynistic world, someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, someone whose only crime was failing to produce a male heir, a victim of a cruel male-dominated society and an sociopathic male ruler.
[00:26:38] Whatever your opinion of Anne Boleyn, perhaps her greatest legacy is in its literal sense, the greatest thing she left behind, was to be the baby girl that Henry didn’t want.
[00:26:52] That baby girl would go on to become queen, and not just any queen.
[00:26:58] This would be Elizabeth the First, one of the most loved and influential monarchs in British history.
[00:27:06] And most importantly, this queen would manage to survive and thrive in this male-dominated world, without a man by her side.
[00:27:18] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on Anne Boleyn.
[00:27:22] As a reminder, this is part one of this three-part mini-series on queens.
[00:27:28] Next up will be that baby girl Elizabeth the First, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, and then in our final part it will be Catherine the Great of Russia.
[00:27:38] As always I would love to know what you thought about this episode.
[00:27:41] What do you think of Anne Boleyn?
[00:27:43] Ruthless power-seeking maniac or innocent young victim?
[00:27:48] How might her life have been different had Elizabeth been born a boy?
[00:27:52] Do you think she could have refused Henry's advances?
[00:27:55] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.
[00:27:59] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.
[00:28:07] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.
[00:28:12] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.
[END OF EPISODE]