In May I watched and reviewed the BBC’s excellent documentary on The Last Days of Anne Boleyn. If you have read my review you will know that I enjoyed it very much. However, it has left me with one problem and that is the conflict between the image of Anne Boleyn I have created in my own mind and the persuasiveness of Suzannah Lipscomb’s argument. In essence Lipscomb argues that Anne was responsible for her own downfall – not through infidelity, but by a lack of caution. And this is an Anne that does not reconcile with the shrewd, independent and intelligent Anne of my imagination.
Immediately after watching the programme I ordered Lipscomb’s book 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII – since then it has sat on my book-shelf taunting me with its promise of destroying my image of Anne. The fact that I have as yet not read this book says a lot about the investment I have made in this historical character. Is this the book that is going to undermine the ideas I have held of Anne for many years?
My favourite biography of Anne has always been the excellently researched and written The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives. This has recently been joined by Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn, which looks at how we have created Anne’s character through history and why she means so much to people today. For me, these two books work perfectly together and it was Bordo’s book that made me start to examine my own image of Anne – how much of what I believe about her is of my own creation? This is the reason I have decided, finally, to open Lipscomb’s book and challenge my own perceptions.
Before beginning the book, I am revisiting my understanding of the story of Anne Boleyn’s death – which is largely derived from Ives’ book. Anne’s destruction begins almost a year before her death, at Wolf Hall. This is the title Hillary Mantel chose for the title of her very popular novel, which begins the examination of the fall of Anne Boleyn from Thomas Cromwell’s viewpoint, highlighting the legend that has built up around this place. I loved this book and the sequel – it was brilliantly written and also presented a Cromwell that made sense of what I believe about this period of history. Being written from Cromwell’s perspective his actions all appear perfectly reasonable – but what really comes across is his complete devotion to his own success and survival. Wolf Hall was the home of the Seymours and legend would have it that it was here that Henry met and became infatuated with Jane Seymour. Mantel’s novel plays out this meeting between the King and Jane beautifully - but in all likelihood, it is a total fiction.
Henry VIII would have already been familiar with Jane Seymour as she had acted as one of Katherine’s lady-in-waitings and later became part of Anne’s household. Also Anne was on progress with the King when he stopped at Wolf Hall to sign important legislative documents- she actually returned from the progress pregnant, although she would have been unaware of this at the time. Also, there is no evidence that Jane was even present at this meeting – she may well have been at court. The real significance of this, for Anne’s future, was the rise of the Seymour family, through Jane’s brother Edward. It has also been made part of the legend that it is because Henry became entranced with Jane at this meeting that she became part of Anne’s household; in fact if she was not already a part of it at this time, her family were powerful enough to gain her a position without her being picked out by the King.
There is much evidence that Anne was still very much in the King’s favour at this time, and that she was in no way being overshadowed by Jane. Not only was she pregnant – and the King must have been praying for his longed for son – the news of Katherine’s death on 7 January 1536 was met by great rejoicing at the court. This gave rise to even more support for the Boleyn faction.
Another part of the legend that has grown around the death of Anne Boleyn was that when she miscarried her baby on 29 January it was so badly deformed that she was accused of witchcraft. However, there are no records of any deformity of the child – infact some sources state the estimated justation and that the child was a boy – hardly calculable if the deformity had been so pronounced. Also this is not mentioned in her trial, or immediately following her death. Surely if such accusations had been made they would have been made good use of.
It is also suggested that Anne fell out of favour with Henry following the miscarriage as he seems to have blamed her for it. However, it would be more true to say it made him question the rightfulness of his marriage, after all, he had convinced himself that God had punished him for his wrongful marriage to Katherine, by not providing him with any sons – what could this mean for his marriage to Anne?
The other turning point for Anne at this time was the collapse of her relationship with Cromwell. Theirs had previously been a relationship of mutual advantage and they had much in common, being self-made at court and holding the same ideals and beliefs. The disagreement was over the new Dissolution Bill which was going through Parliament, regarding the dissolution of the monasteries. Anne had believed that the dissolved properties would be put to use for the good of the country, for example the creation of educational facilities. However, she seems to have discovered that it was being used instead for profit and personal gain. Anne used her influence with the clergy, including the country’s premier preacher Hugh Latimer to preach for dissolved properties to be put to better use. As the act included a provision that Henry may reprieve selected properties, it must have worried Cromwell that Anne would use her influence to make substantial exemptions, costing the Crown and himself highly. Along with other matter relating to foreign policy, this made Anne a very real threat to Thomas Cromwell. He had already witnessed her destroying his former employer, Wolsey.
The first step Cromwell took in protecting his own position was to win the support of both Jane and Mary’s supporters. By this point it seems that the Seymours had set their sights on the King and were encouraging Jane in maintaining her flirtation with him. She had been told to win the King by undermining Anne at every opportunity and to emphasis the differences between herself and the current Queen. Like Anne, Jane refused to become the King’s mistress
Once Cromwell turned his attention to disposing of Anne, the process was amazingly swift. The first arrest was made on 30 April 1536, and 18 days later Anne and five men were dead. The first arrest was of Mark Smeton a musician, and as he was not a gentleman, a relatively unimportant part of Anne’s household. Smeton was not much more than 20, and it may have been the ease of intimidation that made him a target. After 24 hours in Cromwell’s house, Smeton confessed and was taken to the tower.
On the same day Smeton was taken to the Tower, the King held a May Day joust. There are no reports of the King giving any sign of what was to come. However, he decided to return from the joust on horseback with only six attendants, including Henry Norris. Norris was the closest thing that Henry VIII had to a friend and was an important and influential member of the Boleyn faction. During this journey it is reported that Henry examined Norris and promised him a pardon if he confessed. Norris denied everything. The following day he too was taken to the tower. The evidence against Norris seems to have started from a loud argument he had with Anne. Although this was explained as Anne confronting him over delaying marriage to her kins-woman; their accusers put a much more suspicious slant on it.
The following day saw both Anne herself and her brother George sent to the Tower. It appears George had recently arrived at London prior to his arrest and it is possible that he was planning to speak with the King in his sister’s defence. George, Lord Rochford was also a very influential man at court and therefore, deposing of him alongside his sister made sound political sense. Much of the ‘evidence’ regarding the supposed incest came from his wife, Lady Rochford. It is said that on her way to the Tower, Anne Boleyn fell to pieces and in her babblings gave her capturers much to use against her. However, she never directly confessed to any adultery and as an independent and free-speaking woman it is unsurprising that she may have felt her words and actions were not always considered an appropriate way to treat a King. It says much for Anne that her sense of humour never totally deserted her. She is recorded as saying there would be no difficulty in finding a nickname for her: ‘I shall be known as Anne the Headless.’
Francis Weston, another member of the Boleyn faction, was also arrested at this time. Followed sometime later, by William Brereton, his connection to Anne is not confirmed. He did, however, have an earlier altercation with Cromwell, and it has been argued his involvement was purely an act of revenge on Cromwell’s part.
During Anne’s imprisonment, Henry showed very little concern – and in fact visited Jane by river at night. This actually created a real sympathy for Anne and a dislike for the King and his now mistress.
On 12 May Smeton, Norris, Weston And Brereton were tried at Westminister Hall, with a most hostile panel. They were all charged with adultery with the Queen and treason. Smeton pleaded guilty to adultery, but innocent to the other charges. The others all pleaded not guilty. They were unaminously declared guilty and sentenced to the death metted out to those guilty of treason – hanging, drawing and quartering.
The following day both Anne and her brother George were tried – Anne first. Their uncle Lord Norfolk acted as Judge at both trials. It is reported that sister and brother handled themselves with great eloquence and self-possession. Knowing the outcome of the previous trials, both must have known the likely outcome of their own trails – and both were found guilty, despite protesting their innocence.
Of the 20 specific cases of adultery listed, Eric Ives argues that of these 12 can be disproved even now as either the Queen or one of the men were in a different place at the time. To me and to many others the only crime Anne was guilty of was having too much power at court, and being too involved in political matters.
All five men had their sentences reduced to beheading and therefore, did not have to endure the horrors of a traitor death. Anne too was executed by beheading.
To date, this has always been the story that makes the most sense to me. Cromwell found Anne too powerful an adversary and decided to ensure his own place at court by destroying her. The King, looking for a way out of a marriage that had not only divided his county and left him estranged from the Church of Rome, but also not produced the promised male heir, blindly believed the charged levied against Anne. But now I am intrigued – will Lipscomb’s book make me reconsider? Will it not only rewrite the story I have held true of Anne’s demise, but actually challenge the image I have of her? I start the book with trepidation …