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


  The writing was on the wall, and Anne had known it for some time. It fueled her insecurity. When she attempted in September 1534, unsuccessfully, to banish from court “a handsome young lady” on whom Henry’s eye had lighted, he had crushingly told her that “she had good reason to be content with what he had done for her, for were he to begin again, he would certainly not do as much, and that she ought to consider where she came from.”34 In February 1535 she had become distracted and near-hysterical when, conversing with the Admiral of France at a banquet, she watched Henry flirting with a lady of the court; and that same month, she even went so far as to maneuver her husband into seducing one of her cousins, “Madge” (Mary) Shelton, in the hope that Madge would at least be sympathetic to her and unlikely to ally herself with Chapuys and his friends against her.35

  Yet still the Queen was racked with jealousy. Her mood ricocheted between anger, despair, hope, and grief, and these were often ill-concealed beneath a facade of gaiety. She argued with the King in public, was said to have ridiculed his clothes and his poetry in private, and sometimes appeared bored in his company.36 But she was treading a dangerous course: before the former Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, was executed for treason in 1535, he is said to have spoken of Anne—believed by many to have been the cause of his death—to his daughter, Margaret Roper, who visited him in the Tower of London with bitter tales of the Queen’s “dancing and sporting.” “Alas,” More sighed, “it pitieth me to think into what misery she will shortly come. Those dances of hers might spurn off our heads like footballs, but it will not be long ere her head will dance the like dance.”37

  His grim prophecy may have been made up by his biographer—William Roper, his son-in-law—with the benefit of hindsight, but it was soon to be fulfilled.

  It was perhaps during a royal progress to the West Country in the autumn of 1535 that Henry’s amorous eye lighted upon Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s maids-of-honor, possibly when, without the Queen, he visited the Seymours’ family home, Wulfhall in Somerset, in early September. He had known Jane for some years, for she was at court in the service of both his wives38 and received New Year’s gifts; it may be that he had fancied her for some time already, or their affair began prior to the progress, although there is no evidence for that. In early October the Bishop of Tarbes, having heard gossip or observed Henry and Jane together, observed that the King’s love for Anne “diminishes every day because he has new amours.”39

  Jane Seymour was then about twenty-eight, and still unwed because her father had not the means to provide her with a rich dower. According to Chapuys’s later description, “she is of middle stature and no great beauty, so fair that one would call her rather pale than otherwise.”40 She was Anne’s opposite in nearly every way.41 Where Anne was slender and dark, Jane was plump and insipidly fair;42 where Anne was witty and feisty, Jane was studiedly humble and demure; and where Anne was flirtatious by nature, Jane made a great show of her meekness and virtue.

  Jane’s kinsman, Sir Francis Bryan, no friend to Anne, had some time since secured her placement at court as maid-of-honor to the Queen,43 and it has been suggested that this was arranged in the autumn of 1535 in order to capitalize on the King’s interest,44 but that cannot be correct, because Jane must have been in post by January 1534, when, alongside other ladies of Anne’s household, she received a New Year’s gift from the King.45

  Jane Seymour was to make no secret of the fact that she was sympathetic to the cause of the former Queen Katherine and bore “great good will and respect” to the Lady Mary.46 As a maid-of-honor to Katherine, she would have been a witness to the trials that courageous lady suffered; she had probably been dismayed when the King exiled Katherine and Mary from court in 1531, and could only have deplored his refusal to allow them to see each other thereafter.

  If George Wyatt is to be believed, Anne’s enemies seized every opportunity to thrust Jane in Henry’s path: “She waxing great again and not so fit for dalliance, the time was taken to steal the King’s affection from her, when most of all she was to have been cherished. And he once showing to bend from her, many that least ought shrank from her also, and some leant on the other side.” By the time Anne realized that she was pregnant with her fourth child, probably in December 1535, the King, while outwardly solicitous, “shrank from her” in private.

  By January his affair with Jane was well established, and Anne had become so violently jealous that the royal couple were barely communicating. In late February 1536, Chapuys was to state—perhaps with some exaggeration—that Henry had not spoken to her ten times in the past three months.47 “Unkindness grew,” observed George Wyatt, who believed that this led to Anne being “brought abed before her time.” He was certainly correct in asserting that, from the first signs of Henry’s amorous intentions, Anne’s enemies saw Jane as a means of discountenancing or dislodging her.

  The King of France, Francis I, had always been a friend to Anne, but by 1535, Henry’s relations with the French had grown cool, especially after Francis refused to consider Princess Elizabeth as a bride for his son. In December 1535, Henry learned that Katherine of Aragon was dying; aware that her death would remove a significant barrier to a rapprochement with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, both of which were ruled by the Emperor Charles V—Katherine’s nephew and advocate and Francis’s great rival—he had made a point of receiving Chapuys at Greenwich with calculated courtesy, clapping an arm about the ambassador’s neck and walking up and down with him thus for some time “in the presence of all the courtiers.” In January, Chapuys reported that the King was “praising him to the skies.”48 It seemed obvious which way the political wind might be blowing.

  But Henry was keeping his options open. In one sphere above all others, Anne Boleyn still had the power to influence him, and that was in the cause of Church reform. Anne was a passionate and sincere evangelical, the owner of a library of radical reformist literature, and she was sympathetic to radical and even Lutheran ideas; Chapuys believed her to be “the cause and principal nurse” of all heresy in England.49 Perhaps seeing herself as a Renaissance Queen Esther, she had encouraged Henry to read controversial anticlerical books like Simon Fish’s Supplication for the Beggars (1531), and reportedly introduced him to William Tyndale’s heretical The Obedience of a Christian Man.50 She herself possessed a copy of Tyndale’s illegal translation of the New Testament. During her years of ascendancy, not a single heretic had been burned in England, and no fewer than ten evangelical bishops were appointed to vacant seats. Her radical stance had earned her many enemies, but while Chapuys accused her of being “more Lutheran than Luther himself,” Anne was a reformist, not a convert to the Protestant faith—that would have been a step too far for Henry—and she was to die a devout Catholic.

  Henry VIII’s assumption of the royal supremacy over the Church had left him politically isolated in a Europe dominated by those two mighty rival Catholic powers, France and the Empire. He was therefore toying with the idea of an alliance with the Lutheran princes of Germany. According to Alexander Aless, a Scots Protestant theologian and doctor of medicine, who, in August 1535, had taken up residence in London and won the friendship of Archbishop Cranmer and the King’s Principal Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, it was Anne who persuaded Henry, late in 1535, to send a delegation to Wittenberg in Saxony. There, in 1517, Martin Luther had set in motion the Reformation by pinning his ninety-five theses against indulgences and other doctrines to the door of the Schlosskirche. The purpose of the delegation was to seek the friendship and support of the German princes, although the reformer Philip Melanchthon, summoned to Wittenberg by no less a person than Martin Luther himself, was to report on January 22: “The English have not begun to deliberate with our party about anything. They are too fond of quibbling.” However, they were willing, in their official capacity, to show courtesy to Luther, who “received them affectionately.”51

  Thus it was by no means certain at this time that the King was ready to forge a more conse
rvative alliance with the Emperor. In France, it was being said that Henry even “wished to join the Lutherans, binding himself to live in his kingdom according to their usages, and to defend them against everyone, if they would have bound themselves equally to defend him.” But the King had no intention of going that far. In fact, the discussions at Wittenberg seem to have centered on the rights and wrongs of the divorce.52

  Katherine of Aragon died, professing her love for Henry and styling herself queen to the last, on January 7, 1536, in her lonely exile at Kimbolton Castle in Huntingdonshire. “Now I am indeed a queen!” Anne crowed in triumph, on hearing of her rival’s passing, and she had “worn yellow for the mourning.”53 It is a misconception that yellow was the color of Spanish royal mourning: Anne’s choice of garb was no less than a calculated insult to the memory of the woman she had supplanted.

  Although Katherine’s last letter made him weep,54 the King was “like one transported with joy” and expressed relief at her death, praising God for freeing his realm from the threat of war with the Emperor. Also provocatively resplendent in yellow, he was seen jubilantly parading the two-year-old Elizabeth about the court and into chapel “with trumpets and other great triumphs.”55

  Anne joined in the celebrations, but her rejoicing perhaps masked anxiety. Chapuys did not give much credence to whoever told him, some days prior to January 29, “that notwithstanding the joy shown by the Concubine at the news of the good Queen’s death, she had frequently wept, fearing that they might do with her as with the good Queen.”56 The ambassador was right to be skeptical, as Henry would hardly have contemplated ridding himself of Anne when he was hoping that she would soon deliver a son. But Anne must have realized that with Katherine dead, the legions of people who had never recognized her own marriage to Henry now regarded him as a widower who was free to take another wife. And Henry was highly suggestible, as she well knew; his passion had cooled, and she had failed so far to bear that vital male heir, despite all he’d done, and the great upheavals he had initiated, to marry her. She must have been aware that much depended on the embryonic life in her womb. She could not fail Henry another time.

  While Katherine lived, he would not have contemplated putting Anne away, for that would have been tantamount to admitting that he was wrong to marry her and that Katherine was his true wife, to whom the greater part of Christendom would press him to return. As far back as early 1535 he had privately inquired if his second marriage were annulled, whether his first would thereby be considered valid, and he’d asked Master Secretary Cromwell whether it would be possible to set Anne aside without returning to Katherine.57 His rejoicing at Katherine’s death may thus have been for more than one reason,58 although that is unlikely, given that Anne was then pregnant. But now, with Katherine dead, all that stood between the Queen and disaster was her unborn child.

  Days later Anne “met with diverse ominous occurrences that presaged evil.” First, there was “a fire in her chamber.”59 This may have called to mind the uncannily prescient prophecy of the Abbot of Garadon, made in 1533, that by 1539:

  When the Tower is white, and another place green,

  Then shall be burned two or three bishops and a queen,

  And after all this be passed we shall have a merry world.60

  This prediction had been publicly recited by her detractors, while Anne herself voiced the hope that Katherine was the Queen in question, not herself61—and it had now so nearly come true. She was unharmed, but probably badly shaken. It was Katherine who had been meant to suffer martyrdom, not herself. Anne may also have remembered a book containing another prophecy, left in her apartments for her to find in 1532, open at a page bearing an illustration of her with her head cut off. She can have been in no doubt that there were those who sought her downfall, and that only the King’s protection stood between her and her enemies, who would not hesitate to move in on her and destroy her, given the chance.

  Then, as if Anne’s ever-present fears were not enough to contend with, she received a nasty shock. She was not present when, on January 24, “the King, being mounted on a great horse to run at the lists” at Greenwich, “fell so heavily that everyone thought it a miracle he was not killed.” Chapuys, who was at court at the time, adds only that he “sustained no injury.”62 and therefore the report written on February 12 by the Bishop of Faenza, the Papal Nuncio in France, that Henry “was thought to be dead for two hours,”63 and that of Dr. Pedro Ortiz, the Emperor’s ambassador in Rome (March 6), that “the French King said that the King of England had fallen from his horse and had been two hours without speaking”64 are both probably unfounded and perhaps reflect European gossip. Otherwise, Chapuys, who was close to events, would surely have mentioned these details. Nevertheless, according to Lancelot de Carles, it was thought at the time that the King’s fall “would prove fatal.”

  Anne was informed of what had happened by her maternal uncle, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Chapuys says he broke the news gently so as not to alarm her, and that she received it with composure,65 yet it may be that her dawning realization that the King could have been killed forcibly brought home to her the fearful prospect of a future without him there to protect her from her many enemies in a hostile world, in which the specter of dynastic war loomed large. It was said that she “took such a fright withal that it caused her to fall in travail, and so was delivered afore her full time” five days later.66

  This latest calamity—“a great discomfort to all this realm”—left Henry understandably devastated and unable to hide his “great distress,”67 and Anne in “greater and most extreme grief.” George Wyatt, who says that she had become “a woman full of sorrow,” wrote that when “the King came to her, bewailing and complaining to her the loss of his boy, some words were heard [to] break out of the inward feeling of her heart’s dolors, laying the fault upon unkindness, which the King more than was cause (her case at this time considered) took more hardly than otherwise he would if he had not been somewhat too much overcome with grief, or not so much alienate.”

  Plainly, Anne’s accusation of unkindness had stung. Wyatt says that “wise men” judged at the time that if she had kept quiet and borne with Henry’s “defect of love, she might have fallen into less danger” and tied him closer to her “when he had seen his error;” instead, she had railed at him, and in consequence “the harm still more increased.” Yet she perhaps had good cause to complain. That very morning—according to the account of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria, who got her information years later from her mistress, the King’s daughter Mary—Anne had come upon Henry with Jane Seymour on his knee, and became hysterical.68 Abashed at being caught in flagrante, and aware of the need to appease his gravid wife, Henry hastened to calm Anne. “Peace be sweetheart, and all shall go well with thee,” he soothed.69 But it was too late: the damage had been done, and Anne, “for anger and disdain, miscarried.”70

  Now, having lost her baby, Anne reportedly was “attributing her misfortune to two causes.”71 She “wished to lay the blame on the Duke of Norfolk, whom she hates, saying he frightened her by bringing the news of the fall the King had five days before;” that, she asserted, had triggered her premature labor and miscarriage.72 “But it is well-known that this is not the cause,” Chapuys wrote, “for it was told her in a way that she should not be too alarmed nor attach much importance to it.”73 Nevertheless, the tale gained currency, and on February 12, in France, the Bishop of Faenza would report that the Queen “miscarried in consequence” of being told of the King’s fall, while the same would be claimed in Rome by Dr. Ortiz, who asserted on March 6 that Anne “was so upset that she miscarried of a son.”74

  Anne also told Henry “that he had no one to blame but himself for this latest disappointment, which had been caused by her distress of mind about that wench Seymour.”75 Chapuys says she averred that “because the love she bore him was greater than the late Queen’s, her heart broke when she saw that he loved others. At this remark the King was much grieved.??
?76 According to Jane Dormer, though, he softened and “willed her to pardon him, and [said] he would not displease her in that kind thereafter;” but that is at variance with what George Wyatt heard, which was that Henry angrily told Anne “he would have no more boys by her.” This is more in keeping with Chapuys’s account of the conversation, in which he states that the King “scarcely said anything to her, except that he saw clearly that God did not wish to give him male children, and in leaving her, he told her, as if for spite, that he would speak to her after she was up.” Then, “with much ill grace,” he left her.77

  These parting shots sounded ominous, and we can only imagine how Anne felt, but Chapuys was “credibly informed that, after her abortion,” she put on a brave face and told her weeping attendants that it was all for the best “because she would be the sooner with child again, and that the son she bore would not be doubtful like this one, which had been conceived during the life of the [late] Queen, thereby acknowledging a doubt about the bastardy of her daughter,”78 and also her awareness that some people still regarded Katherine as Henry’s only lawful wife, and did not recognize her own marriage.

  One of those people was undoubtedly Jane Seymour, who may not only have felt genuine grief at Katherine of Aragon’s death, but must also have realized that, in the eyes of many people like herself—and indeed of most of Europe—Henry VIII was now a free man. And suddenly, in the light of the Queen’s miscarriage, Anne’s enemies saw in this pallid young woman, who up till now probably had been of no more significance than any other of the King’s passing fancies, an opportunity to bring her down.79

  CHAPTER 2

  The Scandal of Christendom

  Henry’s fall had no doubt brought forcibly home to him the fact that he was without an heir; had he died in the Greenwich tiltyard, the realm would have been plunged into dynastic chaos. During those five days between his fall and Anne’s miscarriage, he must have brooded often on his urgent need for a living son. Hence the understandably bitter remarks that he flung at her in the pain of his unbearable disappointment, and his need to apportion blame. He had been through all this before with Katherine’s fruitless pregnancies, and it seemed that he was fated to lose his sons by Anne as well—his reaction is further proof that the infant Anne lost in 1534 had been a boy. But now time was no longer on his side: he was forty-four, too old to wait much longer for an heir, and he was evidently beginning to believe that God would never grant him a son while he remained married to Anne.

 
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