Anne Boleyn’s swift and dramatic fall of 1536 is a subject that causes much debate. Why did the woman the King gave up so much for and waited seven years to possess, last less than three years as his Queen? What could change the King’s apparent obsession with her to a hatred which would lead to her death? It is an intriguing subject because we have no sure answers.
When I saw the article in April’s BBC History magazine by Suzannah Lipscomb about the reasons for Anne’s death and stating a BBC programme was to follow I couldn’t wait to see what they would do. And I was not disappointed. The BBC produced a fascinating programme by bringing together historians and writers of historical fiction, all of whom have extremely different views on the events leading to Anne’s death. These were Philipa Gregory, David Starkey, Hillary Mantel, Alison Weir, Greg Walker, George Bernard and Suzannah Lipscomb.
I found it interesting that such a large part of the programme was given over to historical novelists, with Hillary Mantel appearing to keep the narrative going with the other contributors coming in to give their opinions. I have to admit to a bias here, as I really loved her books Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies and think they demonstrate the careful research that she has done. I enjoyed her contribution to this programme too, however I do think the danger with the use of historical novelists in a factual programme like this is that they have had to create characters and motives for actions. Where a historian can say ‘We think this is the case’, or ‘We really don’t know the answer’ a novelist will have to have made a decision and not only one that makes the most sense of historical fact, but one that makes the best story. Mantel herself has commented that ‘all historical fiction is really contemporary fiction; you write out your own time’. Whilst I enjoyed Mantel’s opinions, I do wish the BBC had been clearer in specifying each contributors’ expertise.
Where Mantel clearly gave her opinions sticking to as much fact as was available, albeit with her own interpretation, the other historical novelist, Philippa Gregory continued to hold to the more fanciful rumours about Anne. Her contribution was to talk about Anne’s miscarriage of a ‘shapeless mass of flesh’ and the likelihood that she did sleep with her own brother in order to produce the son that Henry wanted. This did lead to one of my favourite moments of the programme when she was followed up by Walker who almost laughingly puts forward the proposal: ‘My husband is only occasionally potent I’d better have sex with my own brother to produce a son that he can believe is his!’ – it doesn’t really work as an argument. Hillary Mantel also previously points out that the rumours about Anne’s miscarried baby being abnormal do not appear in contemporary accounts – its first appearance is forty years later in the writings of a catholic propagandist.
The main areas of conflict (outside of Gregory’s assertions) were the role of Jane Seymour, the meaning of the sermon by Anne’s chaplain John Skip and who was responsible for Anne’s death.
Mantel does see Jane Seymour as a threat to Anne from the King’s first flirtation with her. She is the complete opposite of Anne and she sees Henry as now thinking of ways of getting out of his marriage to Anne. Starkey describes Jane as ‘so pale she hardly exists’ and as the opposite of Anne, Henry, ‘like a pendulum’ swings between the two. Lipscomb does not agree that Jane Seymour was a real threat to Anne at this stage – it is her belief that Henry only wanted her as a mistress, stating there is no evidence that he is ready to give up Anne after working so hard for her.
On 2 April 1536 John Skip made a sermon to Court in front of the King, nobility and council where he spoke about religious reform and the dissolution of the monasteries. It has been argued that this was directed at the congregation, and particularly Cromwell, and that Skip was instructed by Anne after a falling out with Cromwell over the use of monastery funds following the dissolution. Walker describes this as a ‘wonderful piece of political theatre’ where he ‘criticises everyone’. Mantel states that there had been a falling out between Anne and Cromwell dating back to 1534 and that it was ready to explode. Starkey sees this as an extraordinary sermon and a declaration of war. Whereas Bernard believes that it was unlikely that Anne and Cromwell fell out, as he was only Henry’s servant and he cannot see what he would have done to concern Anne. Lipscomb argues that we can’t see Skip as Anne’s ‘mouthpiece’. Leading to Starkey looking quite harassed saying ‘If this isn’t evidence I don’t know what is!’
Regarding the reasons for Anne’s fall, Walker does not think that the argument that Cromwell orchestrated Anne’s fall stand up, that in fact there was much more holding Cromwell together then pulling them apart. He puts the responsibility for Anne’s downfall at her own door – in a discussion with Henry Norris it is reported she asked him why he was not married and then stated ‘You wait for deadman’s shoes’ – implying that he wanted to marry her after the King was dead. To speak of the King’s death was treason – and he sees Henry as an egotistical monster who would want to act decisively to this and therefore, destroys Anne. Lipscomb agrees with Walker’s analysis stating there is not much evidence of a breach between Cromwell and Anne and that she believes this was a game of Courtly love gone wrong, again siting her conversation with Henry Norris. She believes that Henry was convinced by the rumours of his wife’s adultery and that this would have damaged his ability as King as how could he rule a country when he could not even govern his own household. Anne was walking the tightrope expected of women at court of appearing chaste and appearing available at the same time.
Mantel believes that there was a rift between Anne and Cromwell and that Cromwell took advantage of the events to reach his own end. Weir lays the blame for Anne’s fall with Cromwell labelling it the ‘most shocking and audacious plot in English History’. She believes there was a real rivalry between Anne and Cromwell with both striving for power with the King. Starkey blames Henry for Anne’s downfalls, with another of my favourite lines ‘Oh dear people don’t understand Henry do they?’ He then explains that Henry had an amazing ability to believe whatever was convenient and to believe fully in his own lies.
Bernard on the other hand reaches a completely different conclusion. He is the only one who believes that she was guilty – and that she specifically slept with Mark Smeaton and Henry Norris. One of his arguments is that Mark Smeaton confessed (and although it has been argued this was under torture there is no evidence) and that he never retracted this confession. Both Lipscomb and Weir argue that her last confession is key evidence here – as in the religious age she would not have risked her eternal soul by swearing her innocence both before and after taking the Eucharist if it were not true.
I think Suzannah Lipscomb summed up the debate perfectly when she said– ‘When it comes to the fall of Anne Boleyn there is just enough evidence to keep historians guessing and just enough gaps to mean they can never reach the solution.’ It is indeed a mystery which keeps us all guessing.
If you missed this I would highly recommend catching it on i-player. The BBC have done a fantastic job of bringing together historians with very different opinions and opening up the debate. Having always been convinced by Eric Ives’ arguments concerning Cromwell’s responsibility for Anne’s fall, it made me reconsider some of the arguments …. And order some new books ……
 P231 Bordo, Susan The Creation of Anne Boleyn (2013, Houhjton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston)