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Birthday Girl

August 8, 2012

Anne Boleyn may have fallen short of the Miss Manners standard in several key areas but in one she was faultless: she never revealed her true age. Or rather, if she did, that information has been irretrievably lost. Some remembered remarks written down long after her death placed her age at death as 29, thus suggesting a birth date of around 1507. More recently, Hugh Paget and Eric Ives have thrown considerable weight behind an argument for Anne’s having been born around 1501, based partially on the handwriting in the first surviving letter to her father, minimum age requirements for serving as a maid of honour in Margaret of Austria’s court, and several other factors. Paget first advanced this hypothesis in 1981 and it began to be popularized in the mid eighties and early nineties (Ives used it in his 1986 biography, and Antonia Fraser among others advocated for it in her 1993 The Wives of Henry VIII). It’s not universally accepted — Retha Warnicke, among the big historical names, advocates for 1507 — but it’s convinced enough historians that you would expect it to start turning up in the fictional world.

Which it has done, but rather slowly. This slowness isn’t terribly surprising — whenever a major new hypothesis about Anne appears, it’s usually a few years before it starts trickling down into fiction, so to speak. However, this one has been even slower than most — Retha Warnicke’s hypotheses about George Boleyn’s sexuality and Anne’s last miscarried child being malformed first took the fictional stage in The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) and the Ives hypothesis in regard to her downfall first appeared in 1986 but didn’t really seem to soak into the fictional consciousness until his book was revised and reissued in 2004. 2004 was also, to the best of my knowledge, the first year in which a fictional Anne appeared who was over thirty when she died. This was in Suzannah Dunn’s The Queen of Subtleties which in fact has the oldest Anne I’ve yet seen, since she’s described in January of 1536 as being thirty-six years old, giving her a birthdate of either January 1500 or some time in 1499. The other books I’ve read which give Anne an indisputably pre-1507 birth are both extremely recent: At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012), To Die For (2011) and The Boleyn Wife (2007). A few others are vague, with Robin Maxwell, notably, sticking to 1507 in Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007).

This shift in possible ages is an enormous potential boon to anyone interested in writing about Anne’s early life from the perspective of a girl born in 1501. None of the three novels I’ve mentioned spends any time with Anne in France — all of the novels which do so are ones which use the 1507 date, and so the young Anne who departs England in 1513 is very young indeed, about six or so. Invariably she ends up becoming the child of honour, young enough to be overlooked but not too young to learn a great deal by observation and overhear more than she’s supposed to. When she’s sent back to England, she’s about fifteen years old, and the episode with Henry Percy takes place when she’s sixteen. The preternaturally wise child will morph into the emotionally extravagant adolescent. But if she’s aged up six years, you could instead have a well-trained and observant girl of twelve or so — young, but not so young as to be more of a hindrance than a help — spending all of her adolescence in France, returning as a fully-fledged adult of twenty-one having learned, perhaps not how to control herself entirely, but how to use her temper to her advantage. Incidentally, the earlier birth date also lends a real urgency to Anne’s famous lament in 1529 wherein she bemoans “my time and youth spent to no purpose at all.” From a woman of twenty-two or three, even in Tudor times, a line like that tends to come across as a little overly dramatic — Anne exaggerating her despair and anger in order to keep Henry pushing ahead for the divorce. (Twenty-three was hardly a ridiculously late age for a first marriage. Plenty of women married at that age or later — Jane Seymour, for one). Coming from a woman on the edge of thirty, however, it has the potential to be much more sincere and possibly slightly desperate; Anne as much as anyone would be well aware that Catherine of Aragon’s last pregnancy had ended, disastrously, when Catherine was only thirty-three years old.

But while fiction-writers must choose an approximate birth year, very seldom do they take the next step and give her an actual birthday. Why should they? Birthdays weren’t the events that they are now, and unless something both dramatically interesting and plot-forwarding hangs on one of Anne’s birthdays, there would be no reason to mention it — though I suppose you could always have her be turning twenty-nine or thirty and feeling sour about it on the day of the famous “spent to no purpose” confrontation, in which case it would be November 30, St. Andrew’s Day. I only know of two specific birthdays which she’s been given, and both dates are at least mildly symbolic. In Margaret Heys’s Anne Boleyn (1967), her birthday is given as May 1, May Day. (The book was originally titled The May Queen). The narrator of the book, a foster sister of Anne’s, sees a vision of a strange man in the woods one May Day and thinks it may pertain to Anne’s future, it being her birthday. You won’t be surprised to learn that the vision was of Henry VIII, and the timing rendered more poignant when we realize that the last time Henry VIII ever spoke to Anne was on May 1, 1536 — he sat next to her for part of a May Day tournament and left it, and her, before it was finished. She was arrested the next day.

Visions are also briefly mentioned in Mollie Hardwick’s Blood Royal (1988) when Anne is born on a stormy All Souls Night — November 2 — and the midwife prophecies that she’ll be able to see spirits, which she does once in childhood and then never again. The symbolism of All Souls is hard to miss, and I have to say that Anne certainly sounds like a plausible Scorpio, but I can’t help wondering if Hardwick may have picked the date in part because November 2 was the birthday of another famous queen consort — Marie Antoinette. An honorable mention should also be given to John Banks’ 1682 play Vertue Betray’d which doesn’t give her a birthday or an age, but does take care to specify that Anne and George are twins, which possibility I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. Considering their famed closeness, I’m a little surprised that it hasn’t.

I’m very interested to see what will develop over the next few years if the 1501 date really is starting to gain traction. As for the day itself, at least birthdays are one of the few historical unknowns where if you make enough guesses, you’re eventually guaranteed to stumble across the right answer — the only hitch is that you’ll never know which one it is.

From → Essays

  1. Very interesting 🙂


  2. sonetka permalink

    Thanks, glad you liked it!

  3. Annalucia permalink

    If she absolutely has to be given a birthday for some reason, there’s always her name-day – July 26, feast day of Ss. Anne and Joachim. George could be April 23, and Mary – well, there are so many Marian feast-days, you can take your pick.

    • sonetka permalink

      Blood Royal gives George an April 23 birthday, appropriately enough! A complicating factor with Anne is that there were several other Boleyn women (including her aunt) also called Anne Boleyn, so there’s every likelihood she was named after one of them. But if a birthday has to be picked, might as well make it a name day as well.

  4. Mal permalink

    I know that they took astrology very seriously back then, but were people’s zodiac signs associated with different personality traits back then? Was there a pickup line like, “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” Did their signs say something about a person?

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