On this day, 2nd May 1536, Anne Boleyn, second queen of King Henry VIII of England, was arrested for sexual crimes (adultery with five men) and plotting to conspire the death of her husband, an act of high treason. The previous day, the Queen had attended the traditional May Day jousts with her husband at Greenwich Palace, where ‘although Anne and Henry sat in their usual places, they had probably arrived separately at the tournament where two of her alleged lovers, Rochford and Norris, were to compete with each other, a public enactment of the charge that she had caused dissension and jealousy among them’. (Warnicke, p225) The Queen, most likely dressed in apple-green, was still an elegant and attractive woman of about thirty-four, even if the previous months had wearied, exhausted and depressed her. She cannot have failed to have been aware of the dark rumours swirling at court, the late-night meetings, the diplomatic difficulties, the mysterious behaviour of her husband, and her rapidly diminishing support, which must have inspired fear and apprehension in her. A quarrel with Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, over religious and political matters, and a very public row with her friend Henry Norris during the weekend did not help matters. But this was put to rest – briefly – by attending the jousts, where we are informed that the Queen smiled pleasingly and encouragingly at the jousters.
Much later, the hostile Nicholas Sander, writing in Elizabeth I’s reign (asserting, amongst other things, that Anne was monstrously deformed, gave birth to a shapeless child, and was in fact the daughter of Henry VIII), wrote that the Queen deliberately dropped a handkerchief at the joust as a public demonstration of her love for one of the jousters. But this story was later exposed as malicious fiction designed to blacken Anne’s name. Yet the joust came to an abrupt end when, in the middle of it, the King received a message, causing him to rise and leave the tournament, taking Henry Norris with him. Edward Hall, the court chronicler, reported that many individuals present ‘mused but most chiefely the quene’, who had been so humiliatingly deserted. She must have guessed that it related to something about herself (perhaps the sensational argument she had had with Norris two days earlier, in which she accused him of waiting for the king to die in order to marry her), but probably could not have foreseen that she would never see her husband again.
During their journey, the King accused Norris of committing adultery with his wife, Queen Anne. Norris, shocked and dumbfounded, protested that it was not true, but the King offered him a pardon, if he ‘wolde utter the trewth’ (George Constantine, who was present). Norris retorted, bravely and admirably, that ‘he would not accuse her of anything; and he would die a thousand times, rather than ruin an innocent person’. The King, obviously, was extremely dissatisfied with this answer, and Norris was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where another of Anne’s supposed lovers, the lowborn musician Mark Smeaton, had been incarcerated the previous day.
The next day, May 2, the Queen arose early and spent the morning at Mass, before journeying to watch a tennis match. Anne reportedly was in the midst of regretting she had not placed a bet on her favourite, as he was winning, when a messenger arrived from the King, ordering his wife to present herself before the Privy Council at once. The signs were ominous. According to Warnicke, her uncle the Duke of Norfolk, Sir William Paulet, and William Fitzwilliam (who had long detested her, being a supporter of the late queen Katherine of Aragon) accused her in front of her ladies-in-waiting of enjoying carnal relations with three men; only two of whom, Norris and Mark, were mentioned by name. Anne, plainly, was shocked, but later remarked that ‘to be a Quene, and cruely handled was never sene’. She believed that the king was doing it ‘to prove’ her.
That day, the Queen’s younger brother, George lord Rochford, was also taken to the Tower, accused of committing incest with his sister. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the Queen was publicly taken to the Tower of London, where crowds gathered on the sides of the river to jeer publicly at her (Anne Boleyn was never popular with the common people). Entering the Tower by the Court Gate, the Queen was met by Edward Walsingham, the Lieutenant of the Tower. She was then met by Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, where she dramatically questioned him as to whether she would be imprisoned in a dungeon. His reply was ‘No, Madam. You shall go into the lodging you lay in at your coronation’. Kingston reported that Anne then fell to her knees, laughing but at the same time weeping, crying out that ‘it is too good for me… Jesu have mercy on me’. When Kingston informed her of the arrests, the Queen showed understandable distress about the health of her mother, who ‘wilt die with sorrow’, and later laughed when Kingston assured her that every subject of the King would have justice.
According to Antonia Fraser, the Queen ‘began screaming’ during her imprisonment, but this is unlikely, as noted by Alison Weir, although clearly she was in a very delicate state. She later complained of her uncle Norfolk’s sanctimonious ‘tutting’ during the journey to the Tower. Charles Wriothesley, another Tudor chronicler, wrote that: ‘Anne Bolleine was brought to the Towre of London… entring in, she fell downe on her knees before the said lordes, beseeching God to helpe her as she was not giltie of her a accusement…’ Later that day, Henry VIII met with his illegitimate son by Bessie Blount, Henry Fitzroy, and embraced him intimately, breaking down in tears and warning him that both he and Princess Mary Tudor were lucky to have escaped the hands of Queen Anne, who had planned their deaths by poison, due to her ‘wicked intentions’.
So what led to the sensational downfall of Queen Anne in the early summer of 1536? Historians have debated it intensely and powerfully during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb explored the various theories as to why Anne was arrested, accused of adultery, incest, and plotting the King’s death, and later beheaded, dragging down 5 men with her. So what is the likely explanation? As someone who has read prominent works by Eric Ives, G. W. Bernard, Retha M. Warnicke, Joanna Denny, Antonia Fraser, Alison Weir, Karen Lindsey, and other noted historians, I believe that I have a clear perspective to offer in relation to this.
Contrary to traditional belief, Anne Boleyn had not been in a weak position over the last few months, when many believe that she had been living on ‘borrowed time’, which was only worsened by the King’s developing love for Jane Seymour in the early winter of 1536. Most traditionalists believe that the King’s once intense passion for Anne had quickly turned to hatred, which was significantly exacerbated by her second miscarriage in January 1536. J.J. Scarisbrick adheres to this traditional interpretation, as does Derek Wilson, who stress that the King’s role in ordering Anne’s downfall has been too often ignored or marginalised. They believe, essentially, that it was the sexual dynamics of the marriage which caused the downfall – having once been entranced and captivated by the radiant Anne, Henry became increasingly and, fatally, disillusioned with her sharp tongue, fiery temper and intelligent mind; coupled with her unsuccessful pregnancies and so ordered her arrest and execution in 1536 when evidence was presented to him by his Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell, on the basis of ‘proof’ brought by Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, that the Queen had committed adultery and was planning Henry’s death.
Is it perhaps as simple as that? Other historians believe no. Certainly, Anne Boleyn’s last miscarriage (as I explored in my earlier article) considerably weakened her and may have destroyed Henry VIII’s love and affection for her. George Wyatt offers a sinister interpretation of this event, writing how the King’s last words to his grieving wife were that ‘he would have no more boys by her’, a cruel remark given that Anne had just lost her child and may have suffered a seriously traumatic pregnancy. According to later rumours at court, the King informed a courtier that he had been bewitched by Anne, by means of ‘sortileges and charms’, thus denying his paternity of her lost children and blaming his marriage on witchcraft. The Queen was reported to have an ‘an utter inability to bear male children’, which means that we can perhaps infer that her earlier miscarriage or stillbirth was also of a male child.
Yet, according to Retha M. Warnicke, traditional historians have not attached due importance to this miscarriage as they should perhaps have done. Drawing links with rumours of witchcraft made following the pregnancy, Warnicke asserts that the ‘sole reason’ for Anne’s sudden and traumatic downfall was the fact that she miscarried a deformed male child in January, convincing Henry that this was ‘an evil omen… he [thus] had her accused of engaging in illicit sexual acts with five men and fostered rumors that she had afflicted him with impotence… all of these are activities his contemporaries associated with witchcraft’. According to Warnicke, contemporaries believed that God delivered deformed children upon parents guilty of sexual deviance, thus meaning that Henry believed that, since the child could not have been his, his wife had engaged in adultery; and in Warnicke’s opinion, these men (including her brother) were very probably sodomites. Warnicke suggests that further evidence is provided that the miscarriage was extraordinary because it was not kept secret, in comparison with other royal miscarriages. So the 5 men accused of sleeping with the Queen were ‘chosen’ because they were believed, basically, to engage in forbidden sexual encounters. Thus linking deformity, witchcraft, sorcery, adultery and social beliefs into an outrageous theory, Warnicke concludes that ‘the real story is… more mundane: [Anne] was a victim of her society’s mores and of human ignorance about conception and pregnancy’.
But Warnicke’s theory for Anne’s downfall has fallen apart, when subjected to critical scrutiny by fellow historians. For one thing, there is no evidence that the child was deformed in the first place – it was reported by contemporaries to be ‘beautiful’, while Anne’s earnest enemy, the Spanish ambassador, made no mention of deformity, when he surely would have. This emphasis on witchcraft is also misplaced, since Anne was never accused of witchcraft; she was accused of sexual crimes. Anne died because she was believed to be a whore, not a witch. Thus Warnicke’s version for Anne’s downfall can be discarded.
Another traditional – and for many, convincing – theory for Anne Boleyn’s rapid downfall and death in May 1536 has been put forward by Eric Ives and, later, Alison Weir. This suggests that it was not Henry VIII (who was still supporting his wife publicly a month before her death), but Master Secretary Cromwell, who engineered Anne’s death, in a factional conspiracy designed to replace her with Jane Seymour. Joanna Denny and Antonia Fraser agree, Fraser writing how ‘Cromwell took the lead in what became open season for the destruction of Anne Boleyn’ and, drawing on Ives’ argument, mentions how Cromwell actually told the Spanish ambassador how he ‘thought up and plotted’ Anne’s downfall. This version of Anne’s downfall is the most popular one: ‘Cromwell… set out in cold blood to eliminate five of his political enemies in the privy chamber’ (Warnicke, criticising it). But why did Cromwell turn against Anne? Had they not supported one another in Anne’s rise to power? Well, according to Ives and Weir, Cromwell and the Queen had a vicious argument about the dissolution of the monasteries about to commence in England; while Cromwell was eager to seize the profits for the King, the Queen furiously reprimanded him, believing that the goal of the dissolution should be to provide education and reform. Further conflict occurred between the two due to foreign policy; Anne was believed to favour the Protestant German beliefs, while Cromwell was desperate for an alliance with the Spanish Habsburgs. Believing, in a sense, that it was either her or him, Cromwell suddenly concocted a plot, with the aid of Anne’s enemies, to remove her, in order to save his own skin. Starkey believes that Cromwell had a very real fear of Queen Anne, as she was ‘a brutal and effective politician’ who could quite easily destroy him, if she chose. Ives concludes that it was politics, not sexuality, which destroyed Anne Boleyn.
The argument is fairly convincing. But others have strongly – and perhaps rightfully – criticised it. Some believe it is ‘too neat’. Warnicke questions the choice of men executed; believing that, if a Boleyn ‘faction’ really existed, then surely male individuals more closely associated with the Queen would have been eliminated. This is a fair point, since one of the accused, William Brereton, for instance, had little connections with her. Warnicke believes Ives is relying far too heavily on the dispatches of the Spanish ambassador, who was Anne’s enemy and deliberately misled by Cromwell. Others ask why Cromwell would have needed to have the Queen killed over matters as ‘trivial’ as the dissolution of the monasteries and foreign policy. Still others reckon that this marginalises the King excessively, and makes him look like a puppet in the hands of powerful men when it was he who was in control the whole time. The biggest drawback to this argument is the fact that the people Cromwell supposedly worked with to bring down Anne were, in fact, his own enemies. If they came to power, through Anne’s death, then Cromwell would also face his own downfall. So why would he have plotted with them?
This theory has remained popular however, particularly in Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies. Many respectable historians, including Ives, Starkey, and Fraser, believe that it is the closest we will ever get to understanding why Anne was executed, with 5 men. But others have disagreed. Most radically of all, G. W. Bernard, in his controversial book Fatal Attractions, suggests that the real answer is simple: Anne was guilty of the crimes alleged. He depicts her as a highly sexual woman who enjoyed flirtations and, perhaps terrified that the King would not be able to father a son, began sleeping around – though not with her own brother – in order to become pregnant and pass off a male heir as his. Yet is this true? Few historians agree with it. They criticise Bernard’s reliance on one source for this argument – the work of Lancelot de Carles to the French government. They assert that there is no evidence that Anne was stupid enough to take lovers behind the King’s back – in fact, she was extremely intelligent, even calculating. They also note that she would have needed the assistance of her ladies to help her – yet no woman was ever arrested. Furthermore, Anne swore on her soul before her death that she was innocent. Only one of the men admitted to the charges – Mark Smeaton – and many believe that this was because he was tortured and thus coerced into doing so. Yet Lacey Baldwin Smith, an American professor, in his recent book on Anne agrees, suggesting that she may have been guilty of adultery.
Others believe that it was the King’s love for Jane Seymour which led to Anne’s death; but why, then, would he have needed to have her arrested, convicted and beheaded? Could the marriage not just have been annulled and Anne sent to a nunnery, which Katherine of Aragon was threatened with? But on the other hand, Greg Walker, in an article published in 2002, suggested that theories for Anne’s downfall have been way too complex. He believes that: ‘Anne fell… not as a result of what she did, but of what she said during the May Day weekend of 1536, in a series of incautious conversations with the men who were to be tried and executed with her‘. On the face of it, this is a rational argument – as noted earlier, Anne had had a public row with Henry Norris three days before her arrest, in which she accused him of waiting for the King to die so that he could marry her, and a day later, warned Mark Smeaton that he should not expect Anne to talk to him, because he was an ‘inferior person’. Suzannah Lipscomb seems to agree with this version of events, terming it the ‘cock-up theory’: it was Anne’s own amazingly indiscreet and rash comments to other gentlemen, surely a result of her fear and confusion at court, which convinced the King that she was truly guilty of the crimes presented by Master Cromwell. Walker also emphasises ‘Henry’s own intense emotional investment in the matter‘, disagreeing with Ives who marginalised the King’s role. Walker concludes: ‘it was this personal sense of injury and dishonour that drove Henry to root out the whole story and pursue the offenders to the death’. Anne was convicted because of her own indiscreet and careless remarks: ‘to her brother, as they laughed about the king’s sexual inadequacies… to Mark Smeaton, when she snubbed him publicly less than twenty-four hours before he was arrested, and most obviously to Henry Norris when she foolishly joked about the sacrosanct subject of the king’s death’.
Perhaps Walker comes the closest. But even this theory does not take into account other things: why, then, were Sir Francis Weston and Sir William Brereton executed, when according to surviving sources Anne never had indiscreet conversations with them, as she supposedly had with the other men? Why were Thomas Wyatt and Richard Page arrested? Why, during her trial, did Anne voice the suspicion that she was being executed for other reasons than those mentioned in the official charges? If it was only a result of Anne’s behaviour during 29-30 April, then why have other scholars attributed Anne’s downfall as early as February or March 1536?
Both Walker, Bernard, Scarisbrick and Wilson are correct in emphasising the central role played by the King. It seems nonsensical to believe that Cromwell could ‘dupe’ the King into playing the part he wanted him to in his own factional conspiracy to get rid of the king’s wife – it was too high-risk and dangerous. The evidence does not support Warnicke’s deformed-foetus story, so that can be dismissed. Weir, Ives and Starkey are all arguably guilty of relying too heavily on the flawed and biased dispatches of a man who was Anne’s bitter enemy, Eustace Chapuys, and their version of Anne’s downfall is, perhaps, too ‘neat’.
A combination of factors probably explain Anne’s downfall. Still in a strong position in January 1536, improved by the death of Katherine of Aragon, Anne suffered a bitter blow when she gave birth to a dead son some weeks later, but this was not the ‘sole reason’ that she later died, as Warnicke believes. The King, bitterly disappointed, began a flirtation with Jane Seymour, which gathered increasing momentum during the spring. Anne’s enemies gathered together and plotted, but what this was related to cannot fully be adduced. Anne began to experience increasing fear and uncertainty about her future, but her husband publicly continued to support her, as late as four weeks before her death. A public quarrel with Cromwell worsened her position, and her own insecurity can be grasped with a furious argument with Henry Norris and irritation at Mark Smeaton’s behaviour.
Walker’s thesis can be coupled together with that of Scarisbrick and Wilson, with some of Ives’ ideas. Disillusioned, perhaps even beginning to loathe, his queen, the King was informed of Anne’s incredibly indiscreet behaviour at the end of April, in which she mentioned his death and marrying another man, and probably ordered Cromwell to get to the bottom of the matter. Cromwell, who was already hostile to Anne because of their religious and political disagreements, interrogated Anne’s ladies and servants – probably hinting that they should provide him with evidence to bring about Anne’s arrest – and discovered ‘evidence’ that she had been committing adultery and plotting the King’s death. Reporting back to the King, the King, already angered, upset and full of hatred towards his wife, ordered her arrest, and she was later executed. This theory brings Henry into the centre – it was him who discovered Anne’s indiscreet behaviour, became suspicious, and ordered an investigation. Cromwell did not plot Anne’s downfall – he assisted the processes willingly and eagerly, because of his own hostility towards the Queen. So he was a willing servant of the King. The reason the Spanish ambassador heard that it was Cromwell, not the King, who brought about Anne’s downfall, is because it could not be admitted that the King himself wanted his wife arrested and, presumably, killed. A scapegoat was needed, and Cromwell would look more powerful than he really was, thus bolstering his own position. In a sense, then, Anne was killed because of her own indiscreet behaviour, coupled with the King’s hatred towards her and strong belief that she was guilty.
This is my personal interpretation, brought about through reading all the major works on Anne and the primary evidence. It also supports my version of Katherine Howard’s downfall some 5 years later – there, too, the role of the King has been much played down, with historians telling us that a Protestant party at court plotted the Queen’s downfall when rumours of her childhood past were dug up. But it was the King who created a new law to ensure her death and who ordered her execution, without even granting her a trial. It seems clear, in conclusion, that he too was the central player in Queen Anne Boleyn’s downfall.
Bernard, G. W. Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2010).
Denny, Joanna, Anne Boleyn: a New History of England’s Tragic Queen (Piatkus, 2004).
Fraser, Antonia, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Phoenix, 1992).
Ives, E. W., The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2005).
Starkey, David, Six Queens: The Wives of Henry VIII (Vintage, 2004).
Walker, Greg, ‘Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn’, The Historical Journal 45 (2002), 1-29.
Warnicke, Retha M. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge, 1989).
Weir, Alison, The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (Jonathan Cape, 2009).