I mentioned that Henry began to take mistresses fairly early in his marriage to Katherine of Aragon even though that marriage was initially a happy one. The sixteenth century was not a time noted for strict rules of moral behavior and it was not unusual for kings and noblemen—or bishops and popes—to take a mistress or a male lover according to their particular tastes. The popes of Henry’s early years—Julius II and Leo X—were men of the world. Julius had both male and female lovers, fathering several illegitimate children by his lady loves. Leo was gay and had several lovers before and during his papacy. Adrian VI who was pope briefly from 1522-1523 was noted—and somewhat despised—for his personal integrity, but his successor, to whom Henry would appeal for an annulment, Clement VII, was a man of relaxed morals and, as we shall see, valued the marital alliances of his children over the good of the Church. But that story is a bit down the line yet.
Katherine made no objection, at least as far as we know, to Henry’s dalliances. She did not see them as a threat to her position as his wife and Queen. She loved Henry and was slow to recognize his falling out of love with her, but more to the point, her own royal blood kept her secure—she thought—from replacement as wife and Queen by any of the commoners Henry was indulging himself in. Katherine realized that men of Henry’s stature commonly took mistresses and his dalliances relieved her of too frequent obligations of her “wifely duties.” And indeed Henry’s fancy for Elizabeth Blount, his only acknowledged mistress, and his relationship with Mary Boleyn, a married woman of aristocratic but not noble birth, were no threat to Katherine’s position.
But as Henry tired of Mary Boleyn, Mary’s younger sister, Anne, came to his notice. Anne was of a different stripe than Mary. Mary was a practical sort and understood her duty was to relieve the King’s sexual needs. She loved Henry but she had no illusions about the social gulf that separated them. The Boleyn family could not exactly be held up for noble virtue. Mary Boleyn had been a lady-in-waiting to Henry’s Sister, Mary Tudor when the princess was sent to France to marry the King, Louis XII. Louis died not long after the marriage and the widowed princess Mary Tudor returned to England, but Mary Boleyn remained behind as a lady-in-waiting to the new Queen, Claude, wife of Francis I. She earned a bit of a reputation, having affairs with several different men and possibly with King Francis himself. She returned to England in 1519 and became a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon. It was then that she was noticed by Henry. She shortly after married William Carey, a knight in the King’s service, and her relationship with Henry commenced under the guise of her marriage and her accommodating husband.
Just as her husband was willing to share her favors with the King in hopes of advancement at court, her father realized that his daughter’s royal intimacy could advance his position as well. These were not highly moral people. The father, Thomas Boleyn, was married to a woman far above his station, Lady Elizabeth Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and both husband and wife were anxious, even desperate, for his advancement. Thomas Boleyn had no noble title of his own though through his mother he had a remote hope of someday claiming the Irish title of Earl of Ormond. Lack of a noble title does not mean that Boleyn was insignificant however. He had served both Henry VII and Henry VIII well in diplomatic posts and had been named a Knight of the Bath by Henry VIII. He was Henry’s ambassador to the court of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands in 1512, as ambassador to France from 1518 to 1521, and as Henry’s ambassador to the Emperor Charles V from 1521-1523. Indeed for a man of common birth, he held very important positions at Court.
When Henry lost interest in Mary Boleyn around 1526, Thomas Boleyn panicked. He saw this liaison amoureuse as his ticket to better things and he was much relieved when Henry, looking for his next fling, looked not far but to the second daughter Anne. Anne, as a young girl, had been a lady-in-waiting to Margaret of Austria and then, like her sister Mary, to Mary Tudor during her marriage to Louis XII of France, to Queen Claude, the wife of Francis I, successor to Louis XII.
Catholic polemicists in the past were quick to project on Anne the promiscuity of her sister Mary. Indeed the court of Claude of France was not known for its high moral standards and Anne could not afford to be naïve. It would have been expected of her to be somewhat generous with her “favors” to the flirtatious young men around Queen Claude. Yet at the court Anne became friends, and to some degree, a protégée of the King’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre. Marguerite was a highly educated woman and much respected in humanist circles. Like many of the humanist circle, she was anxious for religious reform and embraced the new theology coming from Germany and Switzerland where Luther, Zwingli, and others were embracing evangelical ideals. Anne seems to have become devoutly religious though skeptical about papal Catholicism in this period. Part of that developing anti-papalism—both for Anne and for her patron, Marguerite of Navarre—was the close ties between the papacy and the Court of the emperor Charles V. Navarre, on the border with Charles’ Spain, was particularly vulnerable. France was the Empire’s chief rival in Europe both for control of the Netherlands and for influence in the Italian peninsula. That dependency of the papacy on Charles and his empire would have terrible consequences for the Church of England.
Despite the stories later circulated about her by the religious conservatives of her day and subsequent years, Anne probably retained her virginity through this period. Virgin she may have been, but Anne was in every other way a high-spirited lady of the French Court. She was a remarkably intelligent woman to whom languages came easily and she spoke French and read Latin. She possibly knew some Italian as well. She was used to the intelligent conversations of humanist circles and had a more than rudimentary knowledge of philosophy and theology. In addition she was accomplished at dancing, cards, hunting, archery, falconry, lawn tennis, and lawn bowling. She had very fine taste in clothing, art, and music. The liveliness and culture of the French court had made its impression on her and when Henry met her, he was smitten. This was no mere roll-in-the-royal-hay—Anne was entertaining to be with, a match for Henry who was himself highly gifted and inclined to be bored with most of his more mundane companions. But Anne had noted how Henry had “loved and left” her sister and she was not to be trifled with in that same way. Soon after Anne’s return to England from France in 1522 Henry made his suit; Anne refused him, leaving court to return to the family home at Hever Castle.
Anne was coy. Moreover, her father and her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, knew that they could exploit the situation for their own advancement. Anne was named a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Katherine which kept her at Court and she used her position to charm the King but at the same time to frustrate his desires. But Henry had more matters on his mind than Anne. He needed an heir to secure the dynasty and prevent the struggles over the throne that had led to the Wars of the Roses. He had, of course, a daughter, Mary, his daughter with Katherine of Aragon. But could a woman rule? There was no good historical precedent. Katherine was beyond the years when she could bear a new heir. But a new Queen could bear a child.