Nothing seems to divide historians more than determining how old Anne Boleyn was when she died in 1536. For the most part, historians are split at putting her year of birth down as either 1501 or 1507. It may seem strange that a woman of such notoriety has no confirmed date of birth, but sadly 16th century England placed little to no consequence on writing down such mundane facts as when a child was born, especially if the baby in question was a girl. Even amongst the aristocracy as Anne undoubtedly was, birth's were only really recorded when a first born son came along, and sometimes not even then. Anne's own brother George Boleyn has no confirmed date of birth either. History is also none the wiser on exactly how old her equally ill-fated cousin Catherine Howard was at the time of her death, although most claim aged between 19 and 21.
Of the two Queens however, Anne Boleyn's age is more fiercely contested. There are several reasons for this - her impact on British history is obviously more considerable and we know a lot more about Anne's teenage and early adult years. Until Catherine Howard was plucked from obscurity there is little mention of her anywhere. For Anne Boleyn, most historians tend to go with the earlier date of 1501. Proponents of this year of birth believe that she was born in Norfolk at Blickling Hall, home of the Boleyn's. Hever Castle was already in the possession of the Boleyn family, but wasn't taken over by Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn until 1505 when Sir William Boleyn, Thomas' father died.
When assessing the 1501 date, the key pieces of evidence pointing to this include:
One of Anne Boleyn's private chaplains, Matthew Parker, stated that she came from Norfolk, not Kent, and he knew her from childhood.
Anne Boleyn left England in 1513 to serve as a Maid of Honour in the royal court at Brussels. Being born in 1507 would have made her six years old at the time. Many argue this would have been too young.
Due to a change in political alliances with Europe, Anne Boleyn was shifted from serving the Archduchess Margaret of Austria and instead placed in the household of King Henry VIII's younger sister, Mary Tudor, then Queen of France. The majority of Mary's English ladies were removed from her service but Anne Boleyn remained. Is it really feasible that a seven year old could have had such an impact on Queen Mary?
Eustace Chapuys, Spanish Ambassador to the Court of Henry VIII and long-term enemy of Anne Boleyn referred to her as "a thin, old woman". Was he just being unkind (as was his custom with Anne Boleyn) or did she now resemble the woman depicted in the Nidd Hall Portrait below, said to be of Anne Boleyn in her final days as Queen.
In 1649 Lord Herbert of Cherbury published a well documented biography of King Henry VIII, in which he clearly states that Anne Boleyn was twenty years old when she returned to England from France.
All of these points certainly seem to suggest that the earlier date makes sense, and until quite recently I belonged firmly to the 1501 camp. I have however since changed my mind, or at very least been convinced that 1507 is just as plausible as 1501. The primary reasons for this change of heart are as follows:
Regarding the argument that she was 13 when she arrived in the court of Margaret of Austria. We do not know for sure if she went straight in to service upon arriving in Austria. It is possible that she resided in the royal nursery and began serving once she came of an appropriate age.
Anne Boleyn's father attempted to broker a marriage betrothal between her and James Butler which fell through in 1523. In that same year the affair with Lord Henry Percy, heir to the Earldom of Northumberland came to light and was quickly squashed by Cardinal Wolsey. We then have four years of apparently no further marriage prospects for Anne Boleyn. Had she been born in 1501 she would have been between 22 and 26 in that time. Surely her father would have sought another advantageous marriage for his daughter at this point? Were she born in 1507 then she'd have been 16-20 in the years 1523-1527 and thus no real urgency to get her married.
Lord Herbert's account was written over 100 years after after Anne Boleyn died. His evidence is therefore questionable.
We need to consider the attitudes of the Tudor aristocracy when debating marriage and procreation. It was perfectly normal for noble women in the English court to be married by 20. Anne's own mother Elizabeth Boleyn was likely married by 19/20 and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford was also about 19 when she married George Boleyn, Anne's brother. Had Anne been born in 1501 then she would have been about 25 when Henry VIII fell in love with her and 32 when they eventually got married. 32 was very old to be married by sixteenth century standards. Given that Henry was utterly obsessed with siring a legitimate son with Anne Boleyn, would he have risked marrying a woman who's primary childbearing years were already behind her?
During the six agonising years of legal back and forth which would allow Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn her age is not mentioned once. Those trying to block the marriage would have leapt on any fact which may have damaged Anne's position as a credible Queen consort in waiting, and her being beyond typical childbearing years would surely have come up.
In The Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria by Henry Clifford it is stated by an attendant to Princess Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and stepdaughter to Anne Boleyn that the Queen had not reached her 29th year when she was executed. This is an incredibly specific statement which surely suggests some understanding of Anne Boleyn's age at her death.
Henry's three subsequent wives were all aged between 18/19 and 26/27 upon marriage. All three marriages were made to further solidify the Tudor line of succession by providing more male heirs. This suggests Henry chose women who were, by the convention of the day, the right age to bear children.
It's difficult to conclude my thoughts and findings here, because short of evidence coming to light which answers with absolute certainty when Anne was born, we will likely never know the truth. My aim with this post wasn't to throw away the arguments of the 1501 believers, but to highlight that much can also be said for 1507. The facts about Thomas Boleyn not attempting to renegotiate a marriage for his daughter and the comment by an attendant on Princess Mary for me are very enlightening. Maybe she really was born in 1507, and if so, it makes Anne Boleyn all the more remarkable, achieving all that she did before even turning 30.
Please feel free to add comments below! Nothing beats a good debate :)