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Anne Boleyn. Portrait is at Hever Castle, Kent, England.





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Anne Boleyn's Birth Year

There has always been discussion and disagreement about Anne Boleyn's year of birth. Guesstimates range from 1499 to 1507, but most scholars choose between either 1501 or 1507 with the understanding that neither may be correct.

Read the information below, and see if you agree with my speculation on how old Anne Boleyn was when she died...

In favor of 1499-1502...

Biographers Alison Weir and Eric W. Ives more or less favor a birth year of 1501 based on Anne's appointment as maid of honor to Margaret of Austria in 1513. One had to be at least 11 to be a maid of honor so, based on this, the very latest possible birth year would be 1502.

This is further supported by an example of Anne’s handwriting in 1514 (click here to view). If Anne had been born in 1507, she would have written the letter when she was seven years old. However, the handwriting is unmistakably that of a young adult because it has small, tightly controlled and evenly formed letters.  A child of seven, no matter how intelligent, would only have the mechanical ability to write in a large, uneven scrawl.

In addition, the letter is written in French, her second language. The sentences are lengthy, which suggests her thought processes were mature enough to enable her communicate complex concepts, something a seven-year-old is unlikely to do in her first language, much less her second. If she were copying text written for her by an adult, the handwriting would show hesitation, which it does not. And while she does make corrections, these are infrequent and are skillfully inserted between lines (which are very evenly spaced) rather than messily, as one might expect of a child. 

Furthermore, a biography of Henry VIII written by Lord Herbert of Cherbury in the 1600's quoted a number of Anne's contemporaries - people who actually knew her - and stated Anne was "20 years old" in 1522 when she returned from France, where she had been a member of the French court for several years.

Finally, 16th century historian, Nicholas Sanders (1530-1581), wrote that Anne was raped by one of her father's officials at Hever Castle when she was seven years old. The information is considered questionable by biographer Alison Weir, but if it were to ever be proven true, a birth year of 1507 would place Anne in England in 1514 - the year she wrote that letter from the Netherlands, where she was known to have been since 1513. Even without proof that the rape ever took place, the details of the rumor indicate that the historian presumed or knew that Anne was born earlier than 1507.

Biographers frequently speculate that Henry VIII would not have been attracted to someone as old as Anne, were she born from 1499 to 1502, and would not have considered her to be of any worth for child bearing. However, the king's first wife was born in 1485, making her 14 years older than Anne with a birth year of 1499. Henry VIII very likely found Anne to be very youthful by comparison, no matter which year she was born. Furthermore, we realistically cannot place limitations on who is, or is not a likely candidate for someone else to fall in love with. We do know that Henry rationalized things to justify getting his way, and after falling in love was certain he would get at least one son out of Anne before she could no longer bear children. So, speculating that Anne was "too old" at 27 for Henry's tastes is purely subjective.

In favor of 1507...

The birth year "1507" came from a note by William Camden jotted in the margin of his manuscript copy of the biography of Elizabeth 1, printed in 1615. However, the number "1" can be written with a hook or a tag at the top, and a "2", if written carelessly, could have an angular upper curve and a shortened bottom line. Either number could appear to be a "7" if Camden's handwriting was poor or his quill pen ran low on ink - and a note jotted in a margin might not have been written in his most careful hand! Without seeing the actual sample (and I have not) I can only wonder if perhaps his handwriting was misread. Either way, he was not even born when Anne died, his source for the information is unknown, cannot be verified, and could have been misinformed. Conceivably, it could, in fact, only be the information source mentioned next...

Also supporting a birth year of 1507 were the late-in-life reminiscences of a maid of honor to Henry VIII's sister, Mary Tudor, as told to her secretary. She was quoted as saying that Anne was "not 29 years of age" when she was executed. The source of the information was  someone from the "enemy faction" who very likely did not know Anne well, if at all, because Mary Tudor refused to appear at court when Anne was present, according to Alison Weir. Mary Tudor's entourage would most often be with her, giving them few opportunities to commiserate with Anne and learn much about her firsthand (And even if they were in the same location, it is unlikely that they socialized for political reasons). Furthermore, these reminiscences were published by Henry Clifford in 1645 - 109 years after her death and three persons removed from Anne. 

Retha Warnicke insists upon the later date citing an examination in 1876 of the beheaded remains of a female thought to be Anne. Examiners concluded she was in her mid- to-late twenties, which Anne would have been at her death in 1536, had she been born in 1507. However, other sources note that the examination techniques for determining age were very new in 1876, and were subject to a wider margin of error than they would be today. Examiners were not even 100% certain that the body was Anne Boleyn's (Anne's family was rumored to have taken her body out of the Tower compound for burial elsewhere. If this rumor was true, hers would not have been the body unearthed and examined in 1876). They just mentioned that, true to Anne's famous quote, the skeleton had a "very small neck".

Warnicke also quotes Margaret of Austria, who wrote to Anne's father, complimenting Anne as being "so perfect an address for a lady of her years". Warnicke presumes that Margaret of Austria would not have found Anne's age worthy of mention unless she was much younger than usual. However, this suggests that a child of 11 is too old to be considered "young", which is a completely subjective observation. Most people would still consider an 11-year-old to be a child, and young enough to warrant a compliment if she conducted herself well. 

Drawing conclusions...

The data conflicts, so is it possible to determine Anne's year of birth from the little that we know?

Novelists are always forced to make good guesses on the basis of vague and conflicting facts when they tackle historical fiction. There is very little verifiable data about Anne Boleyn - there is much more speculation. So, while writing Threads, I employed a strategy to help me select one conclusion out of several possibilities when situations such as this one arose. 

I first examined each information source to see if it was MORE likely to be trustworthy or LESS likely. Then I considered each individual "fact" to see if it was MORE likely to be valid or LESS likely based on its information source.

In this instance, the sources that suggest a later birth year are either questionable, purely speculative, are second or third hand,  are noted 80 to 100 years after Anne's death, and/or have no verifiable source for the information. The facts that support an earlier birth year (the known age requirements of a maid of honor, for instance, without any documentation to state they were relaxed for Anne), appear to be more sound. 

In addition, I study the methods that a researcher, biographer or writer seemed to be using to draw a conclusion, and consider his or her approach. Are the methods objective? Do they weigh all the facts? Do they rely heavily on unproven supposition and speculation? Do they quote a clearly prejudiced or uninformed source? Do they interpret the evidence in a manner that contradicts the obvious? (For example, one biographer asks us to agree that the handwriting in the example is "obviously juvenile" when it clearly is not!) 

Biographers and others who argue in favor of 1507 presume (and require) that the following unproven and unlikely conditions ALL are true. Omitting any one of them invalidates the position and weakens or nullifies the argument in favor of a birth year of 1507:

  • Margaret of Austria must have accepted Anne into her employment at age five or six, even though it is both unlikely and undocumented that she would bend the rules to accept a non-royal child. Plus, a pampered upper-class child of that age undoubtedly required more care and supervision than she could offer in service and responsibility. 

  • Anne must have been completely fluent and literate in her second language by the time she was seven, an age at which most children are struggling with their first language. 

  • She had to have had unparalleled mechanical ability and matured thought processes for a child of seven in order to compose the letter she wrote in 1514. 

It is possible that children in the 1500s received training and tutoring that could make them substantially advanced by comparison to modern children. If so, it opens a further line of questions: How were these techniques developed at a time when most of the population was illiterate, and why was education in the 1500s so substantially superior to modern education? What specifically were their techniques? Why have we never been able to replicate these results so that modern children are fluent in two languages, and have adult handwriting at age seven? If we can do it, why don't we?

It is not for lack of desire. In the 1980s, some parents deliberately and tirelessly tried to create "super children" by exposing them to Mozart in the womb, showing them flash cards of artistic masterpieces in the crib, and teaching them Chinese before they could crawl. Some then enrolled them in the finest, most expensive private schools. This might be comparable in intensity and value to the private tutors Renaissance royalty and upper classes enjoyed. But...the final results indicated that these children were no further advanced than their less "enhanced" peers by the third grade. (Whether or not it helped them later in life is not pertinent to this discussion.)

It could be that Anne Boleyn was exceptionally intelligent. If that is the case, exceptionally intelligent people should deliver the same results today. However, if you poll Mensans (geniuses whose IQ is in the upper 2%), as I did, you will find (as I did) that they claim their handwriting was childish when they were seven. In fact, the modern handwriting example comes from a seven-year old whose IQ was later found to be within that range. 

Even taking into account the variances in children's abilities and offering arguments that some children are brighter than others, the fact that some children CAN perform tasks over and above their age does not mean that all children MUST (or we would all be Mozart!), or that Anne Boleyn DID. You or I may know, or know of, someone who was fluent in two languages and at the same time had adult handwriting at age seven (I don't, actually), but that kind of argument is merely personal anecdotal evidence and provides no substantiated proof of Anne Boleyn's abilities as a child. Anecdotal evidence can only be used to bolster a more solidly grounded argument, and none has been forthcoming thus far, to the best of my knowledge.

There is no documented proof of a birth year of 1507, or solid logic to support it, other than the items mentioned above. None of the arguments is conclusive or indisputable, in fact, they all require plausibility stretching in order to make them fit. 

As a result, the people who argue that position give the impression that they are bending the facts to support a conclusion they've already drawn, rather than drawing a conclusion on the basis of the evidence. When I see this, my inclination is to dismiss the conclusion in favor of one that is better substantiated and relies less on speculative conditions.

However, you can still make a case for a 1507 birth year by replicating these results in a modern child. Simply find a seven year old child who can write in adult handwriting while demonstrating fluency in any two languages - and tell us how they did it!

Where the birth year 1507 may have come from...

So where might the later birth date have come from if it wasn't true?

Anne remained single for a very long time and, if born in 1499 to 1502, would have married in her 30's - middle-aged by the standards of the time. Since a woman's sole purpose in the 1500s was to marry and breed (and do it young!), her advancing age would likely have been an embarrassment or a problem for her. 

Nevertheless, she was vivacious, slender and petite, and retained a youthful bearing and appearance until the years just before her death when she was described as "that thin old woman". Portraits confirm that Anne Boleyn had significantly aged by the end of her reign. 

It is possible, though not entirely likely, that a 27 or 28-year-old could be described as an "old woman". 

On the other hand, Anne could simply have lied about her age (people do) and had the younger age quoted as truth by people who were not close to her and didn't know differently (this is a speculative conclusion drawn from observing human nature, spoken as a novelist rather than a scholar). Or, people she was not close to might have guessed her age on the basis of her appearance and stated the younger age as fact, or had their speculation and guesswork about her age repeated as fact (and Anne never stepped in to correct them for obvious reasons). At the same time, her contemporaries claimed she was older. 

Under the stress of her marriage to Henry VIII and her tumultuous reign, the years may finally have caught up with her,  so her age, which she may have previously successfully disguised, finally showed. This seems to me to be more likely than presuming that stress could age a young woman in her 20's to such a degree that she could be described as "old", and be depicted in portraits - which artists invariably made flattering - as having aged beyond her years.

Anne's handwriting is the only indisputable physical evidence, carries (in my opinion) the most weight, and supports other documentation that states she would have had to be in her mid-thirties when she died. For this reason, I would argue that she was born around 1500.

In summary, no one knows with absolute certainty when Anne was born, but the most persuasive evidence supports the earlier rather than the later date(s).

Also see Hever Castle for photos and information about her childhood home.