The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir


  “I never spake with him since but upon Saturday before May Day [April 29, 1536],” Anne went on, “and then I found him standing in the round window in my chamber of presence; and I asked why he was so sad, and he answered and said it was no matter. And then I said, ‘You may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a noble man because you be an inferior person.’ ‘No, no,’ said he, ‘a look sufficed me; and thus fare you well.’”4 This brief conversation may have been witnessed and seen as suspicious, for it was only the next day that Smeaton was apprehended and taken to Cromwell’s house for questioning.

  These accounts of the Queen’s might suggest that Smeaton entertained romantic or lustful thoughts of Anne, but John Strype—who saw the undamaged letters of Kingston—inferred from the exchange that Smeaton was a haughty person—which is borne out by other evidence—who thought that Anne did not accord him enough respect, as their conversation perhaps bears out. Smeaton was excluded by virtue of his humble status from the play of courtly love indulged in by her circle.5 Strype thought that Smeaton perhaps pursued Anne in order to humble her and show her that he was as worthy as any other man of her notice—for, of course, sex is sometimes a manifestation of control as much as lust. If so, the poor fool little realized that his egotistical power games would cost him his life.

  Anne’s thoughts were still with the men who had been imprisoned on her account. She asked Lady Kingston “whether anybody makes their beds.”

  “Nay, I warrant you,” that lady answered.

  “They might make ballads well now,” Anne suggested, attempting a pun on pallet,6 “but there is none but Lord Rochford that can do it.”

  “Yes!” disagreed Lady Kingston. “Master Wyatt.”

  “By my faith, thou hast said true,” Anne concurred, but moments later her spirits had sunk again. “My lord my brother will die!” she wailed. She knew that he was in as great peril as she was.

  Anne’s conversations in the Tower reveal her to have been indiscreet, both before and after her arrest, and show her entertaining a suspicious interest in the men accused with her. It was also becoming clear, through her own revelations, that she had not kept a proper regal distance between herself and her courtiers, and thus had made herself—and them—vulnerable to accusations of impropriety.7

  Kingston’s letter is charred, so what follows—“ne I am sure this was as … tt down to dinner this day”—is hard to decipher. He begins by saying that at dinner that day he sent a plateful of food to Norris along with “a knave to his priest that waited upon him in the [Tower?],” but then there is a mutilated account of a conversation, probably with Norris, which may perhaps partly be construed as follows: either the knave or the priest referred to the confession he made to FitzWilliam, and “[put i]t unto him, and he answered him again … “[If any man wishes to make?] any thing of my confession he is worthy to have [his opinion?… But if he believes/accepts?] hyt [it] I defy him;” and also he desireth to have … favor if it may be the King’s pleasure.”8

  The writer of the “Spanish Chronicle” claims that, on May 6, the day after Wyatt’s arrest, “they had the old woman, Margaret [the lady who allegedly brought Smeaton to the Queen’s bed] tortured, and she confessed how Mark and Master Norris and Brereton slept with the Queen, and that she contrived it so that none knew about the others. She was asked about Master Wyatt, and she said that she never saw him speak privately with the Queen, but only in public. And Secretary Cromwell was glad, because he loved Master Wyatt dearly.” That much alone is true, but there is no other evidence of a royal servant called Margaret being tortured at this time; had Margery Horsman been subject to such treatment, people would have known about it. The first recorded instance of a woman being tortured dates from 1546, when a heretic, Anne Askew, was racked in the Tower. And had Margaret been afterward burned at the stake in the Tower,9 people would have known about that too. The authorities could not stage a burning, even at night in the Tower, and escape people’s notice. The Tower, then as now, was a community in itself, well-populated, and people came and went at will.

  In the Cotton manuscripts in the British Library, there exists a letter headed, “To the King from the Lady in the Tower.” First published by Lord Herbert in his The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth in 1649, then by Bishop Burnet in 1679, and called by one nineteenth-century editor, Henry Ellis, “one of the finest compositions in the English language,” it is said to be a copy, in Cromwell’s handwriting—although the similarities are purely superficial—of an original letter sent by Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII on May 6 from the Tower. Burnet says he himself found it with Sir William Kingston’s letters, “lying among Cromwell’s other papers,” which were collected after his death in 1540. This letter was damaged in 1731 in the fire that ravaged the Cottonian Library, and its edges remain charred, with the writing worn away in places, but the text is quite legible, and reads:

  Your Grace’s displeasure and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me that what to write or what to excuse I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send unto me (willing me to confess a truth and so to obtain your favour) by such a one whom you know to be mine ancient professed enemy, I no sooner received this message by him than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing a truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty perform your command. But let not your Grace imagine that your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault where not so much as a thought ever proceeded. And, to speak a truth, never a prince had wife more loyal in all duty and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Bulen [sic.]; with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself, if God and your Grace’s pleasure had so been pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation, or received queenship, but that I always looked for such alteration as I now find. For the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your Grace’s fancy, the least alteration was fit and sufficient (I knew) to draw that fancy to some other subject.

  You have chosen me from a low estate to be your queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire; if then you found me worthy of such honour, good your Grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of my enemies withdraw your princely favour from me; neither let that stain, that unworthy stain, of a disloyal heart towards your good Grace ever cast so foul a blot on me, and on the infant Princess, your daughter.

  Try me, good King, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and as my judges; yea, let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open shames. Then shall you see either my innocency cleared, your suspicions and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that, whatever God and you may determine of, your Grace may be freed from an open censure; and, mine offence being so lawfully proved, your Grace may be at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me as an unfaithful wife, but to follow your affection already settled on that party, for whose sake I am now as I am, whose name I could some good while since have pointed to, your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicion therein.

  But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death but an infamous slander must bring you the joying of your desired happiness, then I desire of God that He pardon your great sin herein, and likewise my enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strait account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me at His general judgement seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear, and in Whose just judgement I doubt not (whatsoever the world may think of me) mine innocency shall be openly known and sufficiently cleared.

  My last and only request shall be that myself only may bear the burden of your Grace’s displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen whom, as I understand, are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. If ever I have found favour in your sight, if ever the name of Anne Bulen have been pleasing in yo
ur ears, then let me obtain this request; and so I will leave to trouble your Grace any further, with mine earnest prayer to the Trinity to have your Grace in His good keeping and to direct you in all your actions.

  From my doleful prison in the Tower, the 6th May,

  Your most loyal and ever-faithful wife,

  Anne Bulen.10

  Although Herbert was skeptical, both Burnet and the magisterial Froude were convinced of this letter’s authenticity, yet many historians over the years have expressed doubts. Agnes Strickland noticed that the handwriting differed from Anne’s. James Gairdner, the Edwardian editor of the encyclopedic Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII, who studied the original document, was of the opinion that “the handwriting and style alike indicate beyond reasonable doubt” that “this letter was not really written or composed by Anne Boleyn.” In his view, it was written decades later, in an Elizabethan hand.11 Friedmann recorded that it “is now generally admitted to be a forgery,” while Sergeant dismissively wrote that “all evidence for its authenticity is lacking, neither the handwriting nor the style being Anne’s.”

  In regard to the handwriting, which is not too dissimilar from Anne’s, Henry Savage makes the point that her authenticated letters date from the late 1520s, while this was supposedly written several years later when she was under enormous stress and in great fear of her life. Jasper Ridley, while saying that no one can challenge Gairdner’s opinion that the handwriting was not Anne’s, thinks that the letter “bears all the marks of Anne’s character, of her spirit, her impudence and her recklessness.”12 It is just possible that on May 6, four days after her arrest, she was too agitated to write it herself and dictated it to someone else.13

  The language used in the letter certainly shows it to have been contemporaneous to the sixteenth century, but it is certainly not very consistent with the style of Anne’s authenticated letters, and the fact that it was kept by Cromwell is suspicious, for why would Cromwell think it desirable to keep a letter from Anne protesting her innocence? He would surely have preferred to suppress or destroy it. And he would not have referred to her in the heading as “the Lady in the Tower” but as the Queen. It is possible that Henry had sent a message to Anne urging her to confess and so merit leniency, and that Cromwell—her “ancient professed enemy”—had conveyed this message when he visited the Tower, although there is no evidence for this in Kingston’s reports or anywhere else.

  Anne’s injured, pious, and reproving tone would surely have outraged Henry. “Every word is a sting, envenomed by the sense of intolerable wrong.”14 In asserting that her enemies were the instruments of his great sin, and that she was in the Tower on Jane Seymour’s account, Anne was effectively saying that he had instigated this plot against her with the sole purpose of marrying Jane. Her provocative remarks about his changeable fancy might have been true, but they were tantamount to accusing him of fickleness and, along with her implication that he might not proceed against her strictly according to law nor allow her an open hearing, her accusation that he’d had her imprisoned merely because his affections were set on Jane Seymour—as well as her suggestion that he had already determined that she must die—were an insult to royal justice and guaranteed to arouse his anger, which was surely the last thing Anne would have risked doing at such a time. She was to praise him fulsomely on the scaffold, when she was in far greater extremity than this, so one would expect that, had she indeed written to him from her prison, she would have reined in her sharp tongue in the interests of ameliorating his displeasure.

  But Anne had never been afraid to speak her mind, nor even to upbraid or ridicule Henry; she was his wife and had grown used to speaking openly to him. Driven by her fears, her anger, and her sense of injury, might she not yet again have let her tongue run away with her, as she already had during her confinement? She may have felt she had nothing left to lose and could freely let Henry know what she thought of him. But there was her child’s future to think of, and the threat of repercussions on her family. Would Anne truly have dared to be so provocative at this crucial time? Jasper Ridley is of the opinion that she did so dare, and that this was why an outraged Henry showed her little mercy.

  Yet the writer’s claim that she had never desired to be queen is certainly untrue. And the signature is odd, as well as the repeated use of the name Anne Boleyn, for Anne would surely have signed herself, as she customarily did, “Anne the Queen.”15 However, the final paragraph, in which she says that she understands that others are in prison for her sake, rings true, and reflects her perception of the situation as it would have been on May 6. The question must be, if Anne did not write this letter, then who did? It must have been a person with some detailed knowledge of her imprisonment, someone who had an interest in showing her to be innocent. It may be that one of her Elizabethan apologists, overzealous in her cause, resorted to forgery. Or, if Jasper Ridley is correct, this letter is indeed a copy—kept for reasons of state—of a letter that Anne wrote herself. But that does not explain its other anomalies, which strongly suggest that it was indeed a forgery.

  Just to complicate matters, the antiquarian John Strype, who wrote his Annals of the Reformation in England in the early eighteenth century, claimed to have seen another letter written by Anne in the Tower, apparently on a later date than the one referred to above; Strype recorded that, in this second letter, she responded to an invitation to make a full confession of her crimes by saying that she could confess no more than she had already spoken. That rings true, and may refer to the accounts of her conversations with Norris, Weston, and Smeaton that she had given to her attendants.

  Kingston’s third letter to Cromwell is undated, but was written no earlier than Sunday, May 7, since he refers to “yesterday after your departing,” and it is clear from his previous report that Cromwell had not been at the Tower on May 5.

  Kingston began by reminding Master Secretary that “the Queen hath much desired to have here in the closet the sacraments, and also her almoner [John Skip], who she supposeth to be devout, for one hour she is determined to die, and the next hour much contrary to that. Yesterday, after your departing, I sent for my wife and also for Mrs. Coffin, to know how they had done that day”—presumably Kingston had been closeted with Cromwell and not had a chance to see the Queen—and “they said she had been very merry and made a great dinner, and yet soon after she called for her supper, having marvel where I was all day; and after supper she sent for me.”

  “Where have you been all day?” she asked him. “I made answer I had been with prisoners,” he told her.

  “So,” she said, “I thought I heard Master Treasurer.” She was referring to FitzWilliam. Kingston told her—perhaps untruthfully—that “he was not here.” Then Anne began to talk; it was now that she recalled the way in which the King’s councillors had treated her at Greenwich on the day of her arrest, “shaking her head three or four times.” “But I to be a Queen and cruelly handled as was never seen!” she lamented. “But I think the King does it to prove me.” And she “did laugh withal, and was very merry.” Then her mood suddenly changed.

  “I shall have justice,” she declared.

  “Have no doubt therein,” Kingston assured her.

  “If any man accuse me, I can say but nay, and they can bring no witness,” she replied.

  Anne then “talked with the gentlewomen.” It was in this conversation that she revealed she had known, that first evening in the Tower, of the imprisonment of Smeaton and Norris. She wished she could have made some statement of her innocence: “If it had been laid [before the Council] she had won.” She then added, “I would to God I had my bishops”—the ten prelates who owed their sees to her patronage—“for they would all go to the King for me.” In fact, their silence had been deafening.

  Anne went on, somewhat extravagantly, “I think the most part of England prays for me, and if I die you shall see the greatest punishment for me within this seven years that ever came to England. And then shall I be i
n Heaven, for I have done many good deeds in my days.” This reveals that Anne was, at heart, true to the faith of her childhood, for had she been secretly of the Lutheran persuasion, she would have hoped to attain Heaven through faith alone rather than good works.

  She harked back once more to the subject of her attendants: “I think [it] much unkindness in the King to put such about me as I never loved.” Kingston reminded her “that the King took them to be honest and good women,” a judgment with which he himself agreed.

  “But I would have had of mine own privy chamber, which I favor most,” Anne said plaintively, but in vain. Kingston remained impervious to her complaints.16

  News of the arrests took several days to reach the outlying shires of the realm. That Sunday, May 7, Rowland Lee, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, and his associates in the Council of the Marches on the Welsh border, acknowledged receipt of letters from the Privy Council and expressed their shock: “As the news in this letter is very doleful to this council and all the liege people of the realm, God forbid it should be true.”17

  That same day, the aging Sir Henry Wyatt, who had clearly not yet learned of his son Thomas’s arrest, wrote him a letter from Allington Castle. He considered himself “most unfortunate that he could neither go nor ride without danger to his life, or do his duty to the King in this dangerous time that His Grace has suffered by false traitors” and “desired his son to give the King due attendance night and day,” adding: “I trust that ye have so declared yourself that ye are found true to His Grace. His Highness is most bounden to God that He hath given him such grace that this false treason is brought so wisely out. I pray to God give him grace long enough to be with him, and about him that hath found out this matter, which hath been given him of God, and the false traitors to be punished according to justice, to the example of others.”18 The unwitting Sir Henry’s acceptance of the guilt of the as yet untried prisoners reflects the view expressed—and probably held—by the majority of people at that time.

 
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