This is the part four in my series examining the lives of the women in Henry VIII’s life. Click here for previous essays from the series.
Previously on… Anne Boleyn is amazing: Anne takes French court by storm, then English court by storm, then the King by storm, then the country by storm. Has a daughter, who will grow up to be Queen Elizabeth I, but nobody knows that yet, so the tides begin to turn against her. But then she becomes pregnant again! Will it be a son??? (spoiler: no) Basically, make sure you read part one before you get to this next part.
Anne Boleyn is by far the best-known of Henry VIII’s wives, not only for what her relationship meant for the history of England and the Anglican Church, but for the cruelty with which her marriage was ended. In the schoolchildren’s rhyme about these women, “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived,” she is the first beheading, her name becoming synonymous with the way she was killed. It took seven years for her to finally marry Henry, and just five months between her miscarriage to her beheading. Once the King tired of her, he moved efficiently, leaving her no way to fight back or turn the tides of history. While she was never as popular with the English people as she may have wanted, once the King began to hate her, so did everyone else — writers began recording falsehoods like her having had six fingers on one hand, or having huge disfiguring moles, or having been a witch. If she had been a disfigured witch, Henry — not the sort of guy who thinks beauty is just skin deep — likely would not have spent seven years fighting to be with her. And far from being a practicing witch, her devout Protestantism was a defining feature of her character.
So, last time we left off with Anne newly pregnant, which had begun to repair her unsteady relationship with her husband. In January of 1536, her rival and predecessor, Katherine of Aragon died. Katherine, you will recall, was Henry VIII’s first wife and although that marriage was annulled, her continued existence allowed many to consider Anne (Henry’s second wife) little more than a mistress. Her death was momentous, promising to change things somehow — whether in Anne’s favour or not remained to be seen. Shortly after receiving word of Katherine’s death, Anne and Henry both wore yellow to a celebration — it is not known if they intended this colour to communicate its English meaning of joy, or its Spanish meaning of mourning. Many assumed it was the former, that the pair were celebrating the removal of a woman who had stood in their way for so long. This alleged joy, combined with the discovery of a mysterious mass in Katherine’s body, led to a rumour that Anne and/or Henry had poisoned her to death. And maybe they did? Who knows. The mass was later identified as cancer of the heart, but the rumour of complicity in her death stuck to both of them.
What did Katherine’s death mean to the royal couple? Although it left Anne as the only remaining Queen of England, many still considered her merely Henry’s mistress — Katherine never accepted the annulment, and neither did her many supporters. And it also meant that Henry was now completely extricated from his first marriage, so for instance if he married again, the new coupling would not be tainted by Katherine’s continued existence. So wouldn’t you know, it was during this pregnancy of Anne’s that the King began courting one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting by the name of Jane Seymour in a sort of turnabout-is-fair-play scenario, given that Anne had been Katherine’s lady-in-waiting when Henry began paying attention to her. It was recorded that, in the presence of Anne, Henry gave Jane a locket containing portraits of him and Jane. Anne allegedly ripped the locket off of Jane’s neck with such force her (Anne’s) fingers bled. Girl was not messing around.
Shortly after the yellow party, on the same day that Katherine was laid to rest, Anne miscarried. Whatever hope there had been for her to continue in her role as Queen was quashed; if she had delivered of a healthy baby boy, perhaps things would have ended differently. But even as she convalesced from the miscarriage, Henry went on the attack — alleging that he had only married her because of sortilege (a French word that means something somewhere between deception and sorcery). Anne was removed from her rooms in the palace, and Jane Seymour was moved in.
Henry did not merely cast Anne aside; he began a prolonged campaign of character assassination, ensuring that nobody would support her in her downfall. The same characteristics that had drawn him to her in the first place — her charisma, beauty, and extroverted nature — were used against her as Henry accused her of multiple counts of adultery. In April 1536, just three months after Katherine’s death and the yellow party, one of Anne’s musicians, Mark Smeaton, was arrested on suspicion of having an affair with the Queen. The next month brought another arrest of another courtier. Smeaton confessed to the affair after being tortured, and more men were arrested. These included Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, and Sir Thomas Wyatt (REMEMBER HIM FROM PART ONE???), Sir Richard Page, and — most disturbingly –Anne’s brother, George Boleyn. George was likely brought in because the charge of incest would taint both Anne and the entire Boleyn family, showing her to be not only sexually insatiable but also ethically perverse. Henry was not content with abandoning her; her was intent on fully destroying not only her present but retroactively her past and, clearly, how she would be remembered by future generations.
This situation has often been understood in a linear, straightforward sort of way: Anne didn’t birth a boy, so Henry moved on. But the situation was far more complex than that, perhaps best explained in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which explores this sequence of events from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry’s most trusted advisors. Anne and Cromwell had clashed for a long time, Cromwell irritated by the influence Anne had on the King; Anne irritated with the way Cromwell would dismiss her. Anne was, remember, both canny and outspoken, and confident to share her view with the King and his advisors. One of the main issues she clashed against Cromwell upon was her feeling that church revenues should be used toward charity and education; Cromwell wanted to keep these monies for the kingdom itself, giving himself a cut of the profits.
But like… why? Why any of this? Henry had previously extricated himself from an inconvenient marriage by making use of a Biblical loophole. He smeared Katherine of Aragon’s reputation by alleging that she lied about consummating her first marriage, but he didn’t put her on trial or frame her for crimes she didn’t commit. What was it about Anne that brought out such a venomous, spiteful, vindictive response? He not only arranged (or approved) plans to have her accused of multiple counts of adultery and incest, but he also retroactively swore he had never loved or, that she had tricked him into marrying her in the first place. He was embarrassed by her, perhaps of the failure of another marriage. For a King to annul one multi-decade marriage was a huge scandal; he clearly wouldn’t want to do the same thing again, to appear like a man who took marriage so lightly. But he was also a highly religious man, one who believed he had been placed on the throne by God; much as he had suspected the lack of a male heir being delivered to his first wife was because of their sin, perhaps he now suspected that his marriage to Anne was against God’s laws as well. But whatever. Fuck that guy.
The thing that strikes me is how Anne abruptly found herself in a purely defensive role, following years of being actively involved in Henry’s reign. She not only lost her rooms and belongings, but was swiftly deserted by her powerful allies and less powerful friends. She had raised herself through sheer force of personality, and now the very traits that had made her special were now being used against her — she was suddenly too outspoken, too brazen, too opinionated. To become passive at this point would be to admit defeat, but to continue to fight would only prove the accusations that she was dangerously outspoken. She was arrested on May 2nd on charges of adultery, incest, and high treason. The treason bit comes by virtue of her being the King’s wife; to have relations with another man was considered a betrayal of the country.
Following her arrest, a number of significant things happened in quick succession: on May 12th, the four accused men (other than George) stood trial for adultery and treason — treason, because for both Anne and for these men, having intimate relations with one another was a direct betrayal of the King and, subsequently, England itself. The penalty for incest at this time was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered (for men), and to be burned alive (for women).The only evidence for any of these charges were the testimony of Mark Smeaton, the first of Anne’s alleged lovers to be arrested, who had confessed after torture that he had been intimate with the Queen, along with a few most-likely-paid-off-or-blackmailed courtiers who claimed to have witnessed Anne and/or some of the men acting suspiciously. One of the star witnesses was George Boleyn’s wife, Lady Rockford, who was fascinating in a despicable sort of way, and who maybe I’ll write about some other time. The men were all found guilty.
On May 14th, Anne’s marriage to Henry was declared null and void — not a divorce, but a declaration that it had never been a true marriage. This meant that her beloved daughter Elizabeth was, like her older half-sister Mary, considered a bastard. On May 15, Anne and her brother George faced trial for the incest charge as well as an additional charge of treason for the accusation that Anne had schemed, along with her alleged harem of lovers, to murder the King. As fate would have it, one of her 27 jurors was her past maybe-lover Henry Percy. When he, along with the jury, found her guilty on all counts, Percy is said to have fainted and had to be carried from the courtroom. Like: poor him. Boo. On May 17th, the convicted men were all put to death. Somewhere in here, Henry personally commuted Anne’s punishment from being burned alive to being beheaded like oh how thoughtful, you asshole. Then, in a gesture as full of weirdness as the whole yellow party scenario, Henry arranged for an expert French swordsman to be brought to England as her executioner, rather than the axe provided to English prisoners.
This was an incredibly tragic series of events, all of which Anne spent imprisoned in the Tower of London. There is a truism that we all show our true colours when put in stressful situations, and this horror show found Anne to draw heavily from her strong sense of religious faith. She spent much of her time writing, and the poem O! Death Rock Me Asleep is widely believed to have been written by her during this time. It reads, in part:
Cease now the passing bell,
Rung is my doleful knell,
For the sound my death doth tell,
Death doth draw nigh,
Sound my end dolefully,
For now I die.
On May 19th, Anne emerged from the Tower for her 9:00 am execution. She wore a red petticoat under a dark grey gown, trimmed in fur, and an ermine mantle (which is a sleeveless, hoodless cloak sort of thing). Similar to the descriptions of her behaviour while imprisoned, she was said to have looked in high spirits as she walked across the yard and up the stairs to the scaffold. She made a speech, in which she accepted the inevitability of her death, and spoke highly of the King, saying: “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.”
Her ladies in waiting removed her mantle and headdress, and Anne bid them farewell, asking them to pray for her. After she knelt, her ladies tied a blindfold over her eyes. She remained kneeling upright, as was the custom for a French execution (in England, the condemned would lower their head). Her final prayer consisted of her repeating continually, “Jesu receive my soul; O Lord God have pity on my soul.” She was beheaded with a single stroke of the French sword.
Her four ladies in waiting moved her body and prepared her for burial. One lady carried Anne’s head, covered in a white cloth; the others undressed her body and wrapped it in a white covering. As no provision had been arranged for her to have a coffin, her body was placed in an old elm chest. The plan was for her to be buried beneath chancel stones outside of the royal chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula; but, again, no plans had been made for this to happen, so her burial was delayed several hours as workers removed the stones and dug her grave. When it was finally prepared, her ladies carried Anne’s remains past the recently interred graves of Anne’s four alleged lovers, and lay her to rest in an unmarked grave at the chapel. As her birthdate remains unknown, so too does the precise location of her burial. Some evidence suggests she was buried next to her brother George, while other records suggest they were buried separately.
The chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula was restored in 1876 on order of Queen Victoria, at which time the remains of those buried underneath were excavated to be examined and identified. At this time, remains alleged to be those of Anne Boleyn were laid in a coffin upon which a plaque bearing her name was attached. Concrete was then poured and memorial stones re-placed, bearing the names of those whose bodies were thought to have been buried there, including both George Boleyn and his widow, the duplicitous Lady Rochford.
Anne’s brief reign as Queen lasted for three years and thirty-seven days. Even before she was beheaded, most evidence of her existence was removed from the palaces — portraits destroyed, engravings re-done. Most of the portraits commonly thought to represent Anne were painted years after her passing; this post gets into the veracity of the best-known of these portraits. We don’t know when she was born; we can’t verify for sure where she was buried; and we don’t know what she looked like. Henry may have declared their marriage never occurred and worked to erase her existence from the world, but Anne Boleyn remains one of the most studied and beloved women in Western history. Yet, Anne Boleyn remains one of the most studied and beloved women in Western history.
Much as there are way more Anne Boleyn books than on any other of Henry’s wives (see the end of this post for my list of suggested reading), there are far more film and TV adaptations of her story than any of the others. I consider Natalie Dormer’s portrayal on The Tudors to be absolutely seminal; there’s a whole chapter in the book The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen where Dormer explains her passionate feelings about the real-life woman. Claire Foy’s performance in Wolf Hall also really highlights Anne’s cleverness and intelligence.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter