Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and England’s future queen consort, is an avid tennis fan and the royal patron to the club that hosts Wimbledon. Every year, tournament spectators eagerly look forward to what Kate will wear, and who will join her. Nearly 500 years ago it was Queen Anne Boleyn who reigned supreme in royal boxes, though her tenure came to a dramatic end in 1536, when she was arrested and charged with adultery and treason while watching a match at Greenwich.
Today, Boleyn is mostly remembered as the English queen who was beheaded. “[She] was a controversial figure, and that stigma remains for her,” Elizabeth Norton, author of Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession, tells Vanity Fair.
Kate, on the other hand, “is immensely popular,” says Robert Lacey, historical consultant of Netflix’s The Crown and author of Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II. “She’s a pillar of the royal family [and] very much seen as a future queen consort.”
While it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever see Kate being hauled off in handcuffs while Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka are on the court, the duchess seemingly has a lot in common with the former queen. For starters, neither Anne nor Kate were born into royalty. Anne’s father, Thomas, steadily gained political power and influence throughout his life, beginning with his marriage to Anne’s mother, a member of the powerful Howard family. Kate’s father, Michael, inherited wealth in the form of an educational trust fund from his family of affluent solicitors and wealthy textile manufacturers, and her mother, Carole, founded a successful party-supply business. Both women received an excellent education, which was rare in Boleyn’s time. A student of music and art, the queen may have spoken and written several languages, and she attended the court of Margaret of Austria. Kate went to some of the U.K.’s best private schools, among them Marlborough College.
The Boleyn family encouraged Anne’s relationship with Henry VIII, and this ambition is well-documented. In The Six Wives of Henry VIII, author Alison Weir writes that for Thomas Boleyn, “the prospect of being the father of the next Queen of England, and possibly grandfather to a future monarch, was more than he had ever dreamed of.” During Anne’s ascension to power, her family received lucrative lands and esteemed titles. Thomas even worked as an ambassador for Henry VIII and helped bring about his divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. Historians also believe Anne’s powerful uncle, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, encouraged Anne’s relationship with Henry VIII, as he also encouraged King Henry’s marriage seven years later to Anne’s cousin Catherine Howard, who became Henry’s fifth wife in 1540. (In 1542, like her cousin Anne Boleyn, Queen Catherine Howard was also beheaded.) One could argue that the Middletons were just as strategic. Vanity Fair royal correspondent Katie Nicholl notes in her book Kate: The Future Queen, that Kate and Prince William met through a mutual friend in the summer of 1999, when Kate was 17. The next year, Kate was ecstatic when she was accepted to University of Edinburgh, where her best friends were also attending, and she planned to enroll in the prestigious art history program. Jasper Selwyn, Kate’s career adviser at school, tells Nicholl that Edinburgh was the first choice on her Universities and Colleges Admissions Service form: “As far as I am aware she had a place confirmed at Edinburgh.” However, Nicholl writes, “Kate had a dramatic and sudden change of heart. She decided to turn down her place at Edinburgh, take a gap year…and reapply for St. Andrews.” At the time, the palace had just announced that William would also take a gap year and attend St. Andrews as opposed to Edinburgh, which was originally his first choice. Society journalist Matthew Bell reported in The Spectator that “although at the time of making her application to universities it was unknown where the prince was intending to go, it has been suggested that her mother persuaded Kate to reject her first choice on hearing the news and take up her offer at St. Andrews instead.”
Growing up, the queen and the duchess both enjoyed stable households, each living alongside their parents, as well as a brother and a sister. “The evidence—such as it is—very much suggests that Anne had a happy childhood, just as we know Kate Middleton enjoyed,” says Norton. “The Boleyns certainly presented as a tight-knit unit during the 1520s and 1530s.” Thomas Boleyn labored incessantly during this period to secure educations, positions at court, and opportunistic marriages for his three children. Once Anne became Henry VIII’s mistress and eventual wife, both her siblings, as well as her parents, served in positions of honor in Anne’s household. (Anne was so close to her brother George, that sadly, the pair were falsely accused of incest during their trials in 1536.)
Similarly, Kate’s family has always maintained the appearance of a happy and supportive group. “[They] were an exceptionally close family,” Nicholl writes, “and Carole and Mike enjoyed the vibrancy of their children, the stories and noise and laughter. Every weeknight, they would eat a home-cooked supper together around the kitchen table.” Neither Henry VIII nor Prince William had the same upbringing. As was typical for a 16th-century royal prince, Henry is said to have spent his childhood living apart from his parents. English monarchs busily traveled with their court throughout the year, which was not optimal for their children. Henry’s parents also may have wanted to keep their children away from diseases which ran rampant throughout their courts. Furthermore, by the time Henry met Anne, both his mother and father were deceased. Prince William’s parents, Princess Diana and Prince Charles, separated in 1992 before finalizing their divorce in 1996, when William was 14. A year later, Diana died tragically in a car accident. In the documentary William and Harry: Brothers in Arms, NBC royal correspondent Ashley Pearson suggests that Kate’s mother filled a maternal void for William, and “feeling part of that close, tight-knit family was…entirely intoxicating for him…as much as William fell in love with Kate, he definitely fell in love with the Middleton family at the same time.”