Anne Boleyn. Even those with no interest whatsoever in history know that name. The woman who tempted Henry VIII away from Catherine of Aragon, his wife of 20 years; the mother of arguably our greatest monarch, Elizabeth I. And the woman whose downfall is the most dramatic – and controversial – in English history.
As you know, I’m fascinated by the Tudors – and none of them intrigue me more than Anne Boleyn. I’ve never believed the accusations against her, and am in awe of the dignified way in which she met her death; how she managed to deliver such a moving speech just moments before her execution is beyond me. Yet, I acknowledge she was no saint; her constant attempts to persuade Henry to execute Catherine – and their daughter Mary – are a case in point.
Whatever your opinion of this most divisive of characters, I challenge you not to accept an invitation to hear Alison Weir, one of the UK’s foremost historians, give a talk about Anne at the Tower of London. I love this imposing, historic building: terrible things have happened there, I know (including Anne’s execution), but it remains at the heart of English history.
Alison Weir’s talk took place in the Chapel Royal of St Peter Ad Vincula, where Anne rests in an unmarked grave – and which celebrates its 500th birthday this year. Weir admits to being fascinated by Anne Boleyn and is the only author to have dedicated a whole book to the Concubine’s dramatic fall from grace.
Admitting that, even in these more enlightened times, not everyone is sympathetic to Anne Boleyn, Weir painted a vivid picture of the 21 year old woman who arrived at the English court having spent her teenage years living in France. Not conventionally beautiful, her wit, charm and French manners nonetheless had an immediate impact upon her peers. It did not take Henry long to fall passionately in love with Anne and he would spend six years in torment as the Pope prevaricated over whether to permit an annulment of Henry and Catherine’s marriage.
We all know what happened next. In 1533, Henry broke away from the Catholic Church and married an already-pregnant Anne. Their longed-for child was, however, a girl: Elizabeth. Anne’s failure to bear a son, Alison Weir told us, weakened her power – and the country never grew to love the woman known as ‘The King’s Whore’. In January 1536, to Henry’s deep disappointment, Anne miscarried a son and was left vulnerable, her enemies galvanising against her.
Chief among these enemies was the “ruthless and hard-headed” Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Chief Minister. Anne had once called him “her man”, but Cromwell grew to resent – and hate – her. By the time of her miscarriage, the pair were enemies – with Anne boasting that she would live to see Cromwell lose his head. Cromwell did indeed lose his head, but four years after Anne lost hers.
Despite miscarrying Henry’s son, Anne did manage to regain her husband’s favour – much to Cromwell’s alarm. Having himself fallen out with the king, he became the prime mover in Anne Boleyn’s fall, instigating an audacious political coup whilst away from court on sick leave.
Cromwell knew that, thanks to Anne’s unpopularity, charges of immorality would stick – because people would believe them and because, unlike Catherine, she had no powerful friends in Europe. Having identified people willing to testify against Anne, he presented his “findings” to Henry – who was initially reluctant to believe them. Cromwell had done his job thoroughly, however – and the “evidence” was overwhelming.
On 2 May 1536, Anne was arrested and brought by barge to the Tower of London, the same place where she’d awaited her coronation. Terrified – and aware that few prisoners ever left the Tower alive – she fell to her knees, proclaiming her innocence.
Expecting to be housed in a dungeon Anne was, bizarrely, taken to the same lodgings where she’d awaited her coronation and allocated servants (or spies, depending on your point of view). This was a unique situation: no queen of England had ever faced formal charges of treason. During her imprisonment she was treated well, with the Archbishop of Canterbury acting as her confessor.
Just one week later, Anne was charged with having committed adultery with her brother, George (Viscount Rochford), Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton and court musician Mark Smeaton. On 12 May 1536, all the defendants except George were tried at Westminster Hall, with only Smeaton (who had been tortured, due to being a commoner) pleading guilty. All, however, were found guilty – and sentenced to death.
Anne faced her own trial, in the King’s Hall at the Tower of London, on 15 May and put up a spirited defence – but the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion. It was her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who proclaimed the jury’s finding and who sentenced Anne to death by fire or beheading. Anne maintained her composure, but appealed to God as to whether the sentence was just.
The condemnation of Anne’s brother, George, followed later that day and on 17 May he and his four male defendants were executed on Tower Hill, with Anne forced to watch. Henry and Anne’s marriage was annulled and their daughter, Elizabeth, declared a bastard. Anne agreed to both acts – to avoid being burned at the stake, some historians believe. I’m not so sure; callous Henry undoubtedly was, but I find it difficult to believe that he would have inflicted that death upon his wife. It seems more likely that Anne agreed to Elizabeth being removed from the line of succession in the hope that she would have a happier life than her mother.
Anne’s execution was delayed so that Cromwell could find enough witnesses to the event. During this time, Anne remained incredibly stoic and prepared for death. “No person ever showed greater willingness to die”, reported Eustace Chapuys, Charles V’s imperial ambassador to England although, even on the brink of death, Anne proclaimed her innocence.
There would be no last-minute reprieve. On 19 May, accompanied by four ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn walked to the scaffold. Watched by over 1,000 spectators she remained calm – cheerful, even, witnesses reported. It’s not hard to imagine why. She had been betrayed by her husband, servants, family and friends: what did Anne have to live for?
Prior to dying, Anne gave an incredibly poignant speech:
“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”
Brute he may have been, but Henry committed one good deed when he summoned a swordsman from Calais to act as Anne’s executioner, knowing he would provide a kinder and more precise death than an English executioner wielding an axe. The swordsman assured Anne he would wait until she declared she was ready to die – and then his assistant distracted her on purpose. A blindfolded Anne turned her head – and the executioner struck.
Anne Boleyn left behind her a never-to-be-solved mystery: was she guilty, or not? She remains an enigma: brave upon the scaffold, her marriage to Henry had nonetheless polarised the country. Over the centuries she has become a figure of romantic mythology, with sightings of her ghost reported in at least five locations.
Anne’s name remained taboo at court until Elizabeth came to the throne and made efforts to restore her mother’s reputation. Anne’s good works were lauded in a way they’d never been during her lifetime. However, Europe’s Catholics continued to hate her, conveniently forgetting that Anne died an orthodox Catholic.
As Alison Weir reminded us tonight, Anne Boleyn’s story is so dramatic that you could not make it up. Beginning with exquisite love letters, it concludes with 17 terrible days in the Tower of London. Anne gave England arguably its greatest monarch, who so very nearly met the same fate as her mother and was even imprisoned in the same lodgings during Bloody Mary’s reign. Would that Anne could have seen Elizabeth’s eventual triumph; she surely would have revelled in it.
Elizabeth, Alison Weir believes (and as Helen Castor also argues), was traumatised by the events of her childhood, during which her mother and one of her stepmothers were executed and two of her stepmothers died in childbirth. Her ‘Virgin Queen’ moniker was a political tactic; Elizabeth played the marriage game with “consummate statesmanship” for 25 years. But she never overcame the psychological barrier that she had against marriage – and who, frankly, can blame her?