The execution of Anne Boleyn has been portrayed in so many books and films that it is easy to forget that she was once a real breathing human being and not just a character in a play. Unlike us, Anne did not know the end of her script until the cold morning of 19th May 1536 and for her it must have been a terrifying and shocking end.
Anne entered the tower not by traitor’s gate but by the Royal water gate. The first question she asked was if she would be held in a dungun? When she heard that she would be kept in the rooms that she had slept in before her coronation she said, ‘Jesus, they are too good for me.’ It was a strange thing for an innocent woman to say. Anne certainly said many things that it would have been wiser not to say during her incarceration some of her words condemned others but she was a woman on trial for her life and she was under great duress.
In the last few days of her life Anne, heard carpenters building the scaffold for her execution from the glass windows of her Royal rooms. When she climbed that newly built scaffold, on Tower Green, she was wearing Royal ermine signalling that the first queen consort in English history was to be executed on charges of adultery, incest and conspiring in the death of the King.
It is difficult to understand quite how shocking this moment was for her subject’s in 1536 because today in the UK and across the European Union execution is illegal and has been through many peoples lifetimes. We are saturated with crime dramas on TV and immune to the reality, sadness and the cruelty of a real murder. However if we think of a member of the modern British Royal family in Anne’s place on the scaffold we can get closer to the shock that Tudor England felt on that spring morning.
Anne’s marriage had been annulled in the days before her death but she kept her title of Queen of England. This could be because she had been crowned with St Edwards crown, which was more difficult to undo. Anne is the only English consort to have ever been given the honour of wearing the monarch’s crown and she was the last Queen Henry VIII gave a coronation to.
Anne was killed with one swing of an expensive French executioner’s sword, not out of kindness but, because the king did not want her hacked to death with an axe showing himself to be a ruthless man and a cruel husband.
The big question has always been, for me at least, why did Henry kill his wife at all? He had waited for years to be able marry a woman whose sister had once been the his long term mistress, Mary Boleyn. He divorced his popular queen Katherine of twenty four years with great expense to himself and risking war with her powerful Spanish nephew, the Emperor.
Henry killed many of his close companions when they disagreed with his new marriage even if they did so only privately, as Thomas More did. Henry, insisted on the nation calling the Pope ‘the bishop of Rome’ and made England a country of ‘Non pope Catholics’ and himself head of the Catholic church in England. All to marry Anne who was a mere Knights daughter and not a grand princess of Spain like, his first wife, Katherine of Aragon had been.
In Tudor terms the King had risked his immortal soul and the souls of his subjects for for a woman once described as having ‘moderate beauty and a bosom not much risen.’ And for a marriage that lasted only three years and after which it is said ‘Boleyn’ was a name never mentioned by or to the king again.
Often Anne’s death is blamed on her inability to give the king a male heir or because of a cunning plan of the Kings top minister Thomas Cromwell. Sometimes, Jane Seymour, the King’s mistress and Anne’s successor is blamed for Anne’s fall but could there be something more to it?
In the aftermath of the queen’s arrest, the King exhibited the behaviour of a man, who at the very least, wanted to believe his wife was guilty. He spent time being rowed up and down the river Thames on his Royal barge with loud music playing and surrounded by many giggling court ladies. He grew a manly beard shortly her arrest and was never seen without it again. The full faced, larger than life and intimidating portraits of Henry with his legs outstretched and eyes staring at the viewer were painted after Anne was dead.
On the day of Anne’s death Cranmer issued a dispensation allowing Henry and Jane Seymour to marry and they were betrothed on the same day that Anne died and they actually married only 10 days after that. Henry’s ridiculous codpieces grew in size as each year passed and in many paintings he draws attention to them with his hands or with a ribbon. These signs could perhaps show that Henry was expressing his manhood in the most public way he could because his masculinity may have taken a severe blow.
There are no portraits of Anne that we know are truly of the real woman. The ones we do have are copies of copies of long lost original paintings which suggests that Henry destroyed her images just as he burnt and hacked out her initials, coat of arms and personal emblems from his palaces. His workmen did so with such speed that a few were accidently missed leaving a few ‘H & A’s’ for us to spot in Henry’s palaces today. The trial documents do not survive could Henry have destroyed those too?
Recently, on close inspection of a portrait at Hampton Court of Anne and Henry’s daughter Elizabeth is seen wearing one of Anne’s distinctive initial necklaces. This proves that Henry knew and possibly approved of Elizabeth’s need to keep her mother’s memory close to her heart. In her portraits Elizabeth is shown as studious and virtuous because in Tudor times it was thought that a baby born from a ‘corrupted womb’ of a ‘strumpet’ would be infected with the mother’s morals. This theory chased Elizabeth for all of her life and today her virtue is still debated even in this time of supposed sexual equality.
Elizabeth kept a portrait of her mother hidden in a ring which she wore so often that when she died it was difficult to remove because her skin had grown over it in some parts. During Elizabeth’s long reign it became fashionable to write plays and poems which portrayed the Queen’s mother as an innocent victim.
At the time of her arrest the London populace thought Anne was guilty. It was only when she was condemned to die that that any pity began to be felt in the city. The English and Australians have a culture of supporting the underdog or a loser far more than they will ever cheer for a world class champion. It is called, ‘the tall poppy syndrome’ when a person becomes too tall or successful, the public and the press will cut them down to size.
Hence the cheering and clapping from British passengers when a rookie British pilot successfully lands his first plane on a runway. As an English adult in a posh restaurant I still internally struggle not to cheer if the waiter drops something and it smashes to make the poor man feel better. The tall poppy syndrome is why the British X Factor TV show often has the winner as someone who can’t sing a note but ‘tries’ hard and amuses the viewers in the process.
In this light it is easy to imagine an English crowd watching a newly appointed executioner struggle to decapitate someone with one blow of the axe and the London crowd roaring and cheering when he manages to do it on the third blow.
Anne Boleyn became the under dog on 19th March 1536 and the people supported this once most hated of queens as one of their own. The feelings of the people do not make Anne innocent of the charges but they did begin her status as a wronged heroine that has only grown as the time has passed.
The first arrest was on Sunday 30 April 1536 when Mark Smeaton, the queen’s musician was taken to Cromwell’s house for questioning in Stepney. It was on same day that the king postponed a trip with Anne to Calais which had been due to take place that May.
The next day was May day and Mark Smeaton was moved to the Tower after confessing that he had had sex with the queen three times. He never retracted his confession even if torture was applied which could be disputed either way. Could it be that Smeaton was promised a gentleman’s death of beheading if he confessed? Smeaton was not a gentleman and therefore by law he should have been hung, drawn and quartered but he never had this degrading and painful death. Instead he was beheaded with the other accused who were born gentlemen.
During the process of being hung drawn and quartered traitors were routinely castrated. Did the king not want Smeatons guilty penis to be on public display? This was after all a penis that his wife was accused of preferring to his own ‘yard’ and this exposure would surely humiliate the king far more than it’s victim. But by confessing his guilt Smeaton made the other accused men and his queen look equally guilty.
Henry and Anne attended the May Day jousts at Greenwich Palace but the king left abruptly leaving his wife stunned at his sudden departure on horseback. Amongst the small group of men he left with was Sir Henry Norris, a close friend and a body servant, who knew the king intimately. Norris had had an indiscreet conversation with the queen the day before which was so shocking that Anne had to confess it to her almoner John Skip. Norris wished that his head were off his shoulders if what Anne said was true. Was it a flirtation that went too far? Courtly love play that stepped over the mark? Anne said that Norris came to her rooms not to be with his fiancee Madge Sheldon but because he wanted Anne as his wife if the King died. She said, ‘he looked for dead mens shoes.’
Henry VIII’s questioned of Norris as they rode away from the joust on horseback. The king promised to pardon Norris if he told him the truth. Henry must have been convinced of Norris’s guilt because no matter what Norris said or refused to say, he was taken to the tower that day.
Why had Anne said such a foolish thing to Norris knowing it was treasonable? Had the pressure of her role become so great that Anne was verging on mental illness? Did she suspect a plot to bring her down? She was seen by Matthew Parker arguing with the king with their daughter in her arms from a window before her arrest.Was she showing him that her recent miscarriage was not because of a sin she had committed, as Tudors believed, but was simply bad luck? After all Elizabeth was perfect. Was she begging for another chance? Was she swearing that Henry was Elizabeth’s father? We will never know but Anne did ask Matthew Parker to take care of her daughter if something happened to her and he certainly kept his promise when he became Elizabeth I’s first Archbishop of Canterbury.
Anne and her brother George, were arrested as well as several key courtiers of the King’s privy chamber. Those held for trial were:William Brereton and Francis Weston. Those questioned but released were Thomas Wyatt, Francis Bryan and Richard Page. On 10 May, a grand jury indicted all of the accused who had been held for trial.
On 12 May, Smeaton, Brereton, Weston and Norris were tried and found guilty. On 15 May, Anne and her brother Lord Rochford were tried within the Tower presided over by their notorious uncle, the Duke of Norfolk and both were found guilty.
A theory, argued by the University lecturer and biographer of Anne, GW Bernard, suggests that it is possible that Anne was guilty as charged. Without the complete trial documents it is difficult to say if Bernard is correct or not. This also applies to the historian Eric Ives who points out that many of the charges against Anne would be impossible to commit on the dates suggested in the trial as she was else where at those times. It has been suggested that the times and dates were simply made up because it did not matter when or where because Smeaton had confessed and Anne had to confess what had happened between her and Norris to her almoner.
Anne claimed to be innocent and the night before her execution, she swore before and after receiving the Eucharist, that she was innocent. As a Catholic if she was lying then she was condemning her soul to hell. And of all the things said of Anne Boleyn of this we can be certain she died an evangelical reformer within the Catholic faith but without a Pope. It was Edward VI who began Englands journey to protestantism and Elizabeth who completed it.
In my mind it was not the queen’s guilt, Cromwell’s cunning plans, Henry’s need of a son or his dislike of his wife that led to her execution. I feel it was simply mixture of gossip and Anne’s foolish indiscretions during her incarceration and before it.
Historians do not agree why Anne had to die but personally, I think Anne simply overstepped the mark of moral decency but was not guilty as charged. Anne has always struck me as a woman who could be unpleasant and selfish at times but are we all not guilty of that on occasion especially under pressure. Anne was always under pressure as new members of the Royal family are if they were not born to be Royal. Anne certainly was not the evil woman depicted by the Spanish ambassador or by Christendom in general. She was just a woman who played the cards that were given to her at birth the best that she could. And lost.
Alison Weir makes clear that when Elizabeth Browne, one of Anne’s ladies, was accused of being an adulterous wife, she replied that it was nothing compared to the queen’s life. This could of course have been referring to Annes reputation as a home breaker after Henry’s first divorce. Cromwell soon learnt of the conversation Anne had with Norris and what Elizabeth Browne had said and told Henry. The king paled and asked him him to investigate.
According to the British historian Suzannah Lipscomb,
This certainly aligns with Cromwell’s own retelling of the events. De Carles adds a crucial, though unsubstantiated, clause, Henry telling Cromwell that “if it turns out that your report, which I do not wish to believe, is untrue, you will receive pain of death in place of [the accused]”. So Cromwell may have had reason to find evidence of Anne’s guilt.
So perhaps Cromwell’s plan was not a wicked one but a simply an act of self preservation.
Please note: I have modernised Annes quotes for ease of understanding.
http://www.historyextra.com :Suzannah Libscomb: ‘Why Anne Boleyn had to die.’