She might not be the royal on everyone’s lips nowadays, but with the sordid details of her legendary life—including her gruesome death—Anne Boleyn still manages to captivate historians, royalists, and even Hollywood and the runway. Case in point? Her famous secret “B” necklace remains one of history’s unsolved mysteries: What exactly happened to it?
To answer this question in the most basic terms: no one knows. This puzzle continues to baffle historians to this day.
But to understand the lore connected to this necklace, it’s best to place it within the context of Boleyn’s mythic story. The Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 was born circa 1501 and educated in the Netherlands and France. She returned to England with the intent to marry her Irish cousin, James Butler. This union didn’t happen and so Boleyn became a maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII’s first wife.
At the beginning, Boleyn had no interest in Henry VIII’s pursuits of her. After all, Anne’s sister, Mary, had already been the King’s mistress. Hollywood loosely portrayed this narrative with Natalie Portman as Anne and Scarlett Johansson as Mary in The Other Boleyn Girl. However, the main affair remained between Henry, Catherine, and Anne.
Since Catherine only gave birth to a girl, Mary, and failed to produce a son as heir to the throne, Boleyn became the persistent target of Henry’s love and affection. Eventually she succumbed to his persuasive powers of seduction as he desired her as his wife. However, Henry was still married to Catherine of Aragon, and Pope Clement VII would not annul the marriage. Boleyn and the King married in secret on November 14, 1532. Several months later, they had their official wedding on January 25, 1533, but it wasn’t until after the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer proclaimed Henry and Catherine’s marriage null and void in May of that year that Boleyn and the King’s marriage was recognized as valid. The annulment also began England’s historic separation from the Catholic Church.
As Boleyn gave birth to a girl, who would become the future Queen Elizabeth I, Henry became disenchanted with his current wife—like he was with his first—and began courting Jane Seymour, whom he wanted to marry. The only problem? He was still married to Boleyn. How could Henry find reasons to end his marriage to her? While many historians believe these counts to be questionable, Boleyn was found guilty of incest, adultery, and intent to kill the king. She was beheaded in 1536.
After her decapitation, Henry ordered all portraits of Boleyn to be destroyed. The 17th century painting that survived—based on an earlier portrait—is hanging on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery in London picturing a young woman decorated in pearls and a fitted bodice. The necklace she’s wearing is adorned with a “B” charm from which three additional tear-drop shaped pearls dangle from the bottom. This iconic piece is believed to be that secret necklace, which even this year, appeared to have inspired a necklace from Balenciaga’s accessories collection as a model walked down the runway with a “B” fastened to a chain-link necklace.
Jewelry played a major role in the courtship between Boleyn and King Henry VIII. One of his first love letters to Boleyn was enclosed with a gold bracelet. He showered her with jewels and it was even rumored that he took pieces from Catherine of Aragon—including a trove of rubies—to woo Boleyn. While no one to this day has uncovered the location of the “B” necklace, it is believed that loyalists to Boleyn kept her treasured jewelry for her daughter, Elizabeth. Most likely, as it was custom back then, the necklace was sold or melted down.
There is one enduring story behind the necklace’s fate that tie it to the royals today: some of the pearls are supposedly set amongst the stones of the Imperial State Crown. This headpiece was used during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Boleyn has been recognized as “the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had.” And in many ways, her dramatic course of life events stand out as the most mythical of any royal. The secrecy shrouding her necklace only adds to her lasting allure.
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