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

  “On Monday, the fifteenth of May 1536, there was arraigned within the Tower of London Queen Anne, for treason against the King’s own person.” The court being assembled, the proceedings opened with the Crown’s commission being read aloud.1 Then silence was called for and the Duke of Norfolk cried, “Gentleman Gaoler of the Tower, bring in your prisoner.”2

  “Summoned by an usher,”3 the Queen was brought forward, having been escorted through the waiting crowds in the Tower precincts and into the great hall by Sir William Kingston and Sir Edmund Walsingham.4 “She walked forth in fearful beauty” and “seemed unmoved as a stock, not as one who had to defend her cause, but with the bearing of one coming to great honor.”5 Wearing a gown of black velvet over a petticoat of scarlet damask, and a small cap sporting a black and white feather,6 she advanced attended by Lady Kingston, Lady Boleyn, and “her young ladies.”7 It would appear that these young ladies, probably four in number, had served as maids-of-honor in the Queen’s household, and retained to attend her at her trial and afterward.

  Beside Anne, according to custom, walked the Gentleman (or Yeoman) Gaoler of the Tower carrying his ceremonial axe,8 its blade turned away from the prisoner, to signify that she was as yet uncondemned. This was not Sir William Kingston, the constable, but the Tower officer who had overall supervision of the prisoners and their warders and occupied the house on Tower Green that lay between the Lieutenant’s Lodging and the Beauchamp Tower.

  The Queen “made an entry as though she were going to a great triumph,” carrying herself with calm poise as she was brought to the bar. “She presented herself with the true dignity of a queen, and curtsied to her judges, looking round upon them all, without any sign of fear,” wrote Crispin de Milherve, an eyewitness at the trial. “She returned the salutations of the lords with her accustomed politeness,”9 and even when she saw her father among them, “she stood undismayed, nor did ever exhibit any token of impatience, or grief, or cowardice.”10

  Anne’s composure was clearly admirable: there was no hint of the hysteria she had shown earlier. Cromwell, by contrast, was tense, concerned lest “the sense, wit, and courage of Anne would go against him”11 and secure an acquittal—with goodness knew what dire consequences for himself.

  A chair had been placed before the bar on the raised platform in the center of the hall, and Anne now “took her seat” with notable elegance.12 Common prisoners stood to hear the charges read, but this was after all the Queen of England, and due ceremony was observed.

  “Then her indictment was read before her”13 in all its embarrassing detail by Sir Christopher Hales, the Attorney General, but Anne’s face betrayed no shame as she heard it alleged against her “that she had procured her brother and the other four to defile her and have carnal notice of her, which they had done often; and that they conspired the death of the King, for she had said to them that she had never loved the King in her heart, and had said to every one of them by themselves that she loved them more than the others, which was to the slander of the issue that was begotten between the King and her, which is made treason by the statute of the twenty-sixth year of the King that now is.”14

  Anne sat patiently, listening to the indictment. “Her face said more than words, for she said little; but no one looking at her would have thought her guilty. She defended herself soberly against the charges,”15 and as each was put to her, she put up her hand, pleaded, “Not guilty,”16 and “firmly denied” them all, giving to each what Chapuys felt to be “a plausible answer.”17

  The Attorney General then argued the case for the Crown, ably assisted by Cromwell, who was acting as counsel for the King. The substance of their accusations, which were not all grounded in the indictment, was reported by Chapuys on May 19: “What she was principally charged with was having cohabited with her brother and other accomplices; that there was a promise between her and Norris to marry after the King’s death, which it thus appeared they hoped for; and that she had received and given to Norris certain metals,18 which might be interpreted to mean she had poisoned the late Queen and intrigued to do the same to the princess”19—although this was probably the construction that Chapuys himself placed upon that last charge. Dr. Ortiz, in far-off Rome, later noted, “It is said that the process against her states that she poisoned the Queen.”20 However, there is no charge to that effect in the indictment, and Ortiz may have gotten his information from Chapuys.

  It would appear from Chapuys’s report that less emphasis was laid on the more serious charge that Anne had “conspired the King’s death,” possibly because the evidence to support it was shaky. Specifying that she had promised to marry Norris, rather than each of her coaccused, as was alleged in the indictment, suggests that a sinister meaning deliberately had been construed from Anne’s compromising conversation with Norris on April 30. It seems the Crown was implying that Anne’s relationship with Norris was far more serious than the casual affairs she supposedly had with the other accused, and that the latter were to be merely accessories to regicide.21

  Aless reported further details of the evidence, such as it was. “The Queen was accused of having danced in the bedroom with the gentlemen of the King’s Privy Chamber, and of having kissed her brother, Lord Rochford. When she made no answer to these accusations, the King’s syndic or proctor, Master Polwarck [Sir Richard Pollard], produced certain letters and bawled out that she could not deny she had written to her brother, informing him that she was pregnant.” The implication, of course, was that Rochford was the father of the child. “Still she continued silent.”

  Chapuys also states that Anne, ludicrously, “was also charged, and her brother likewise, with having laughed at the King and his dress” and making fun of his poetry, “which was objected to them as a great crime;” in sum, “she showed in various ways she did not love the King but was tired of him.”22 This, of course, was not a crime either, but it was portrayed as shocking in a woman whom the King had honored with marriage. Dr. Ortiz later reported that “it was proved at the trial that she had behaved in this way before the conception of the child which the King thought to be his.”23

  Anne put up a spirited defense, and “made so wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her, excusing herself with her words so clearly, as though she had never been guilty of the same.”24 “She positively denied that she had ever been false to the King, but being told that Norris, Weston, Brereton, and Smeaton had accused her”—which was substantially untrue, except in the case of Smeaton—“she said she ought not to conceal certain things which had passed between her and them,”25 which would explain why the Crown had jumped to false conclusions. Among them, probably, were the flirtatious interchanges that Anne had described only days before. She also “confessed she had given money to Weston, as she had often done to other young gentlemen,”26 but she insisted she had maintained her honor and her chastity all her life long, “as much as ever queen did.”27 The case against her, it would seem, consisted of what has been described as “a ragbag of gossip, innuendo, and misinterpreted courtliness.”28

  By all accounts Anne defended herself with such clarity and good sense that her innocence, which she protested vehemently, seemed manifest to many who heard her, and some began to have doubts and suspicions in regard to the prosecution’s case. “The Queen, sitting in her chair, having an excellent, quick wit, and being a ready speaker, did so answer to all objections that, had the peers given in their verdict according to the expectation of the assembly, she had been acquitted.”29 Strickland, without identifying the source, claims that Anne, referring to Smeaton’s confession, protested “that one witness was not enough to convict a person of high treason,” but was informed “that in her case it was sufficient.”

  The account of the trial in the Harleian manuscripts states that, after “the accusers had given in their evidence, the witnesses were produced.” This cannot be accurate, because Chapuys was to state on May 20 that “no witnesses were produced against her, as it is usual to do,
particularly when the accused denies the charge.”30 What were probably produced were the statements made under examination by those who had testified against Anne, which, as has been noted, do not survive.

  Sir John Spelman, a member of the jury and a justice of the King’s Bench, later recorded that “all the evidence was of bawdery and lechery, so that there was never such a whore in the realm” as the Queen. Yet if Anne’s conduct had indeed been so blatant as to give rise to such comments, it is strange that there is no abundance of evidence—or, in fact, no evidence at all—for it in other sources.

  The Crown certainly stooped to relying on hearsay. Spelman wrote skeptically: “Note that this matter was disclosed by a woman called the Lady Wingfield, who had been a servant to the Queen and shared the same tendencies; and suddenly the said Wingfield became ill, and a little time before her death she showed the matter to one of those, etc.;” as we have seen, this word “etc.,” which has often been incorrectly thought to have been inserted because the page was (perhaps deliberately) torn off here, in fact refers to the witnesses. Lady Wingfield, of course, was the person whose dying words had been repeated to Cromwell by an unidentified informant. Unfortunately, she was now dead and could not confirm her testimony, nor do we know what it was;31 given that she probably died by 1534, it perhaps related to offenses allegedly committed by Norris and Brereton in 1533, or it could even have had something happened years before, the importance of which had been deliberately exaggerated.32 In the absence of other witness testimony, it would appear that such evidence as this, along with that of Lady Worcester, Nan Cobham, and another maid-of-honor, as well as the Queen’s own indiscreet utterings in the Tower, constituted the case for the Crown.

  “For the evidence,” wrote George Wyatt, “as I never could hear of any, small I believe it was. The accusers must have doubted whether their proofs would not prove their reproofs.” That would appear to be corroborated by other evidence.

  Following sixteenth-century legal practice, the Queen was not allowed to question any of the Crown’s witnesses (had there been any), summon any to speak for her, or give evidence on her own behalf, nor, having been indicted for treason, was she permitted to have any legal counsel for her defense. As her cousin, the fourth Duke of Norfolk, would complain at his trial in 1572, “I am brought to fight without a weapon.”33 Nevertheless, Anne had spoken out boldly, stoutly pleading that everything alleged against her was untrue and that she had committed no offense.34 Yet when it came to the point where she was “put to the trial of the peers of the realm,” the judgment of her peers was unanimous. “After they had communed together, the youngest lord [the Earl of Surrey] was called first to give verdict, who said Guilty, and every lord and earl after their degrees said Guilty to the last, and so condemned her.”35 Against each name on the list of peers appears the abbreviation Cul for “culpable,” meaning guilty.36 “Had the peers given their verdict according to the expectation of the assembly, she had been acquitted; but they, amongst whom the Duke of Suffolk was chief, and wholly applying himself to the King’s humor, pronounced her guilty.”37 It was “a purely political verdict.”38

  Standing to receive judgment, Anne betrayed no emotion; she appeared “unmoved as a stone, and carried herself as if she was receiving some great honor.” Excited murmurs were rippling through the assembled spectators at this sensational development, and in the general hubbub, some were unable to tell whether the Queen had been found innocent or guilty. Covertly, some of the peers who had condemned her “did not forbear to deliver out voices that caused everywhere to be muttered abroad that that spotless Queen in her defense had cleared herself with a most wise and noble speech,” and this “was reported without the doors” to the waiting crowds.39

  Nevertheless, those same peers now told Anne “she must resign her crown to their hands, which she did at once, without resistance.”40 This implies either that she was actually wearing a crown at her trial, which is highly unlikely, or that it had been placed at hand in the hall, probably on a cushion. Her being ceremonially divested of it would prove dramatically symbolic of her disgrace. Burnet says that as she formally gave it up, she protested that she was innocent of having offended against the King.

  In Tudor times, crowns were customarily worn at coronations and on the great festivals of the Church. The crown made for Anne Boleyn’s coronation in 1533 was of gold studded with sapphires, balas rubies, and pearls, with crosses of gold and fleurs-de-lis around the rim;41 probably it had been brought from the Jewel House across the courtyard for her trial, for although queens also wore smaller crowns and coronets on top of their headdresses, as appears in many portraits of the period, Anne is recorded as wearing a cap with a feather for her trial.

  “She was then degraded from all her titles, countess [sic.], marchioness, and princess, which she said she gave up willingly to the King who had conferred them.”42 Dr. Ortiz and the Bishop of Faenza also reported that Anne was sentenced first to be degraded.43

  Significantly, the title of Queen was not mentioned. Wriothesley asserted that after that symbolic act, and the dissolution of her marriage two days later, Anne “was never lawful Queen of England,” and many historians still accept that. Yet though she had been ceremonially stripped of her royal insignia, she was never officially deprived of the title of Queen, which was hers under the Act of Succession of March 1534, which made her queen by statutory right, and not by right of marriage to the King. This act was not repealed, only superseded by the 1536 Act of Succession, passed after Anne’s death, which just ratified the annulment of her marriage,44 and left her in the unusual position of being Queen without ever having been the King’s lawful wife.

  That Anne remained Queen of England after her condemnation is clear from the wording of the 1536 act, in which she is referred to as the “late Queen Anne,” as compared with Katherine of Aragon, who is called merely the “late Princess Dowager,”45 while Cranmer, when annulling her marriage, called her “Queen Anne,”46 and Sir William Kingston certainly did so in his letters. People generally would continue to refer to her as Queen, and it was as a queen that Anne Boleyn would go to the scaffold.

  It was reported that throughout her trial Anne thought herself “safe from death”;47 her mood had perhaps swung again from pessimism to optimism, and given the precedents, and the humor of the court, she may have been justified in thinking that, at the very worst, divorce and imprisonment would be her fate. She was the Queen of England, and no Queen of England before her had been put to death. But now she was forced to suspend that belief.

  A hush descended as the Duke of Norfolk, “bound to proceed according to the verdict of the peers,”48 pronounced the dread sentence. He and his niece had been estranged for months, but Constantine noted that tears ran down his cheeks as he addressed her, his own sister’s child, although of course his tears could have been for his family’s lost honor and status, and the jeopardizing of his own career, rather than for Anne.49 He told her gravely: “Because thou hast offended against our sovereign the King’s Grace in committing treason against his person, the law of the realm is this, that thou hast deserved death, and thy judgment is this: that thou shalt be burnt here within the Tower of London on the Green, else to have thy head smitten off, as the King’s pleasure shall be further known of the same.”50 As Spelman noted, burning at the stake was “the judgment against women in treason, but because she was Queen, the steward gave judgment that she should be burned or beheaded at the King’s pleasure.”51

  On hearing the terrible words spoken by Norfolk, Anne’s old nurse, Mrs. Orchard, watching from the gallery, “shrieked out dreadfully.” The ailing Earl of Northumberland “was suddenly taken ill,”52 and had to be assisted from the hall. Traditionally, it has been assumed that he was overcome by grief for the woman he had once loved, but—as has been shown—that is unlikely. On May 19, John Husee informed Lord Lisle: “It is said my lord of Northumberland is dead, but I cannot certify it.”53 The earl was in fact mortally ill, and
was to die just over a year later.

  Chapuys reported that “when the sentence was read to [Anne], she preserved her composure, saying that she held herself always ready to greet death, but was extremely sorry to hear that others, who were innocent and the King’s loyal subjects, should share her fate and die through her. She asked only for a short space for the disposing of her conscience.”54

  Aless stated that “when the sentence of death was pronounced, the Queen raised her eyes to Heaven, nor did she condescend to look at her judges.” Lancelot de Carles wrote that, on hearing her fate, “her face did not change, but she appealed to God whether the sentence was deserved; then, turning to the judges, she said she would not dispute with them, but believed there was some other reason for which she was condemned than the cause alleged, of which her conscience acquitted her, as she had always been faithful to the King. But she did not say this to preserve her life, for she was quite prepared to die.”

  Crispin de Milherve gave a more detailed version of this speech, and his account also shows that Anne believed she was being done away with for reasons other than the crimes alleged against her, and that she knew others were bent on her death.

  He too referred to her raising her eyes to Heaven as she declared, “O Father, O Creator, Thou who art the way, the life and the truth, knowest whether I have deserved this death.” Then she turned to her judges:

  My lords, I will not say your sentence is unjust, nor presume that my reasons can prevail against your convictions. I am willing to believe that you have sufficient reasons for what you have done; but then they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am clear of all the offences which you then laid to my charge. I have ever been a faithful wife to the King, though I do not say I have always shown him that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way. Think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life, for He who saveth from death hath taught me how to die, and He will strengthen my faith. Think not, however, that I am so bewildered in my mind as not to lay the honour of my chastity to heart now in mine extremity, when I have maintained it all my life long, as much as ever queen did. I know these, my last words, will avail me nothing but for the justification of my chastity and honour. As for my brother and those others who are unjustly condemned, I would willingly suffer many deaths to deliver them, but since I see it so pleases the King, I shall willingly accompany them in death, with this assurance, that I shall lead an endless life with them in peace and joy, where I will pray to God for the King and for you, my lords.

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