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


  In Chapuys’s report of this speech, Anne ended with these words: “The Judge of all the world, in Whom abounds justice and truth, knows all, and through His love I beseech that He will have compassion on those who have condemned me to this death.” “Her speech made even her bitterest enemies pity her.”55

  Various versions of the sentence would be circulated in Europe; on May 24 the Bishop of Faenza wrote from Paris: “On the fifteenth instant, the Queen was degraded, and the following day was to be executed, either burnt or beheaded. But first, her brother, four gentleman [sic] and an organist, with whom she had misconducted herself, were to be quartered in her presence.” In June, Dr. Ortiz, writing from Rome, informed the Empress that Anne was condemned to be “beheaded and burnt, seeing the others suffer the same death, with the exception of the one who revealed the crime.”56

  Spelman and his fellow justices were clearly unhappy about the sentence, and “murmured at this judgment against the Queen, for such a judgment in the disjunctive,” meaning that it was unfair to sentence a prisoner to either burning or beheading.57 However, as would soon become clear, the form of sentence, and the method of execution, had been decided upon beforehand, for the King needed a means of persuading Anne to agree to the annulment of her marriage. All that Norfolk would say to her, in the face of the judges’ mutterings, was that “according to the old customs of the land, she should be burned, but nevertheless it should stand in the King’s commandment.”58

  “The sentence being denounced, the court arose.” Anne curtsied to the peers, then was escorted by Sir William Kingston from the hall, with Lady Kingston and Lady Boleyn following.59 The Gentleman Gaoler walked alongside, his ceremonial axe now turned toward the prisoner, to show the waiting crowds that she had been condemned to death. Although Lord Rochford’s trial was to follow almost at once, Anne and her brother “did not see each other” as she made her departure.60

  After the condemned woman left the court, it erupted in a buzz of conversation as the observers expressed their views on the trial. The Lord Mayor of London openly declared, “I could not observe anything in the proceedings against her, but that they were resolved to make an occasion to get rid of her at any price.” Even Anne’s old enemy Chapuys thought she had answered the charges “satisfactorily enough” and believed that, like her coaccused before her, she had been “condemned upon presumption [of guilt] and certain indications, without valid proof or confession.” Norris’s servant, George Constantine, later wrote to Cromwell: “I never heard [that] queens should be thus handled … I never suspected, but I promise you there was much muttering of Queen Anne’s [being sentenced to] death.” Chapuys reported that Londoners “spoke strangely” of her trial and the speed of her fall. In a book of hours associated with Anne, next to a picture of Christ before Caiaphas, someone wrote, “Even so will you be accused by false witnesses.” William Camden, whose life of Elizabeth I was published in 1615, wrote, “The spectators deemed Anne innocent, and merely circumvented.” It is a view that persists to this day, and with good reason.

  It is true that there is no evidence that the Crown had brought pressure to bear to secure a conviction. On the contrary, the letter of the law, as it stood then, was scrupulously adhered to, and the trial had been superficially fair. Ninety-five jurors, including the commissioners, found the Queen and her alleged lovers guilty of treason. Yet the composition of the juries had been bound to prejudice the verdicts, and also an awareness of the King’s will in the matter. As we have seen, Henry was expecting a guilty verdict. As soon as news of it came, he sent Sir Francis Bryan “in all haste” to Chelsea to inform Jane Seymour.61 “To judge by appearances,” Chapuys wrote, “there is no doubt that he will take the said Seymour to wife; and some think the agreements and promises are already made.”62

  After her condemnation, Anne was “conveyed back to her chamber,” attended by Lady Kingston, Lady Boleyn,63 and her four young ladies. Tradition has long had it that, as an adjudged traitor, she was now moved from the Queen’s apartments in the Tower palace to the “Lieutenant’s Lodging,” as the Queen’s House was called until around 1880; it is now the official residence of the Governor of the Tower and known as the Queen’s House or the King’s House, depending on the gender of the reigning monarch.

  The Lieutenant’s Lodging was a half-timbered building that was still in the early stages of reconstruction. Replacing a medieval house that stood between the Garden (later known as the Bloody) Tower and the Bell Tower, it was begun—or rather the first payments for it had been made—in 1533, and would not be completed until the 1540s. It faced Tower Green (or East Smithfield Green, as it was then known) and the royal chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. The house has since been much restored and altered, but two linenfold-oak-paneled first-floor rooms said to have been occupied by Anne Boleyn have been preserved; one, a bedroom fourteen feet square, with a ceiling just eight feet high, boasts a handsome four-poster bed. A rough carving of the name ANNE survives in the stonework of the large fireplace. Originally, the house also boasted a spacious hall two stories high, the upper part of which later became the Council Chamber.

  That carving is probably not contemporary, and there is no other evidence in primary sources that Anne was moved here. Elizabeth Benger, in her Memoirs of the Life of Anne Boleyn, published in 1821, incorrectly inferred from Kingston’s letters that since his wife was attending the Queen, the latter was accommodated in the Lieutenant’s Lodging, regardless of the fact that Kingston was the constable, not the lieutenant; prior to 1821, as Benger states, an unsupported tradition had it that Anne was held in the Beauchamp Tower, where a carving of her falcon badge can still be seen. Benger’s misconception was enshrined in William Harrison Ainsworth’s enormously popular book, The Tower of London, in 1840, and was soon widely accepted as fact. Only gradually are historians rejecting the tradition of Anne being imprisoned in the Lieutenant’s Lodging,64 while it is still believed by the public at large. It is now thought that the rooms alleged to be hers were only built in 1540. Given that Kingston expected Anne to be executed within a day or so of her trial, it was hardly worth the effort to move her and her attendants, while the lieutenant’s half-built house was in no fit state for housing the woman who was still Queen of England: in 1539, among Cromwell’s “remembrances,” is a note to himself about the Lieutenant’s Lodging, “which will fall down.”65 Since Anne was conveyed “back to her chamber,” she must have returned to the Queen’s lodgings after her trial.

  “And so she was brought to ward again, and two ladies waited on her, which came in with her at the first, and waited still on her, the Lady Kingston and the Lady Boleyn, her aunt.”66 At least Anne was now spared the company of the tart and perhaps resentful Lady Shelton, and Mrs. Coffin, who had also been dismissed.

  “Immediately” after Anne Boleyn’s trial,67 “the Lord of Rochford, her brother, was arraigned for high treason, which was for knowing the Queen his sister carnally, most detestable against the law of God and nature also, and treason to his prince; and also for conspiracy of the King’s death.” Having stood at the bar, held up his hand and pleaded not guilty, “he made answer so prudently and wisely to all articles laid against him, that marvel it was to hear, but never would confess anything, but made himself as clear as though he had never offended.”68 Lancelot de Carles speaks of “his calm behavior and good defense. [Sir Thomas] More himself did not reply better.”

  With regard to the main charge—that of treasonable incest—the Crown’s case appears to have rested solely on the deposition of Rochford’s wife, Jane,69 and to have related chiefly to an occasion when he was alone in private with Anne.70 Burnet says that in making a request to her, he was said by bystanders to have leaned over her bed and kissed her, but this cannot have been on the occasion when they were alone, so either Burnet’s information is apocryphal, or he had access to sources now lost to us. Even so, this was an age in which queens and great ladies would receive guests as they lay on their beds, attired in ric
h nightgowns in heavy fabrics, and the custom of kissing ladies on the mouth on greeting was widespread in England among all classes, as the humanist Erasmus delightedly noted on his first visit. So Anne’s conduct would hardly have been remarkable. The author of the “Spanish Chronicle,” never reliable and inclined to embroider or make up details, claims that Rochford had been espied leaving her bedchamber in his night robe on several occasions.

  Spelman and Anthony do not refer to any of this testimony, but their accounts survive only in part. Chapuys reported that Rochford “was charged with having cohabited with her upon presumption, because he had once been found a long time with her, and with certain other follies.” He states that Lady Rochford had divulged their “accursed secret” in a letter.71 The “Spanish Chronicle” states that George Boleyn “had been seen on several occasions going in and out of the Queen’s room dressed only in his night clothes,” but it is not a reliable source, and is here probably only repeating gossip. George Wyatt, writing six decades later, refers to this testimony of Rochford’s “wicked wife,” but states that she was “brought forth” to accuse him, a common misconception, for there is no record of her actually being in court, and Chapuys says that, again, no witnesses were called.72 But Jane’s deposition was sufficient, and when it became clear that no one else was to testify, Rochford protested to his judges, “On the evidence of only one woman, you are prepared to believe this great evil of me!”73 The anonymous Portuguese observer, whose account was written in May 1536, felt that Lady Rochford, in betraying “this accursed secret and together with it the names of those who had joined in the evil doings of the unchaste Queen,” had acted “more out of envy and jealousy than out of love toward the King.”74

  It has been argued that had Rochford been suspected of homosexual conduct, as Warnicke suggests, political capital would have been made of it at his trial, at which the details would have come out.75 Yet that argument fails to take into account the fact that a charge of homosexuality would have undermined the main accusation of incest with his sister. Even if Rochford was known to have indulged in homosexual acts, it would not have been in the Crown’s interest to draw attention to the fact.

  But there were more explosive revelations to come. Chapuys wrote circumspectly to the Emperor:

  I would not wish to omit that, among other things that were charged against [Rochford] as a crime, it was also objected against him that his sister the Concubine had told his wife that the King has not the ability to copulate with a woman, for he has neither potency nor vigour. This he was not openly charged with, but it was shown him in writing, with a warning not to repeat it. But he immediately declared the matter, in great contempt of Cromwell and some others, saying he would not in this point arouse any suspicion which might prejudice the King’s issue. He was also charged with having spread reports which called in question whether his sister’s daughter was the King’s child, to which he made no reply.76

  Why should Rochford have wished to impugn the legitimacy of a royal heir with Boleyn blood?77 It would not have been in his, or his family’s, interests to do so. But that was beside the point. His accusers seem only to have been concerned with crediting him with treachery, for to say such things of the sovereign was not only shocking, but also—under the provisions of the 1534 act—high treason, in that they impugned the King’s issue.78

  There was an accepted medieval belief, still widely prevalent in the sixteenth century—that impotence, temporary or otherwise, was often caused by magic, as was alleged in many requests for marriages to be annulled. This might explain the discreet assertion in the indictment that certain harms and perils had befallen the King’s body,79 which implied that the harm done to the man imperiled both his dynasty and his kingdom. So entrenched in society was the assumption—and awareness—that most cases of impotence were brought about by witchcraft,80 that the fact did not even need to be stated in the indictment. And although this was a far cry from Henry’s reported belief that he had been seduced into this marriage by witchcraft, which was why it was barren of sons, it was but a short step from that suspicion to the conviction that Anne had taken things a stage further and used magic to prevent her husband from impregnating her. It did not matter that the Queen, in confiding this matter to her sister-in-law—if she ever did so—had perhaps been expressing her fears about not being able to conceive, nor that her very future depended on her bearing Henry an heir. Once she was suspected of witchcraft, people would have been ready to believe anything of her, however irrational; and such a charge would have made sense in the light of her alleged plot to murder the King, marry one of her lovers, and rule in Elizabeth’s name.

  However, it is unlikely that Anne ever made that unguarded remark to Lady Rochford. By the summer of 1535 they had almost certainly fallen out, and Jane had switched her allegiance to Katherine and Mary. If Anne had confided in Jane prior to that date, and her assertions about the King were true, his incapacity must have been temporary, for he had begotten a son on her in October that year. It is highly implausible that Anne would have trusted Jane with such sensitive information after their estrangement, and therefore unwise to accept this evidence for Henry VIII’s supposed impotency at face value.

  It has been suggested that Henry’s embarrassment about his poor sexual performance, and his suspicion—or awareness—that Anne despised him for it, may have been a fundamental cause of her fall.81 Yet there is little evidence to support the widely discussed modern theory that Henry VIII suffered from erectile problems. In 1532, lamenting the fact that he had waited so long to marry Anne Boleyn and still did not have a son to succeed him, Henry himself told Parliament, “I am forty-one years old, at which age the lust of man is not so quick as in lusty youth.”82 This was a strange remark from the man who had been waiting for more than six years to marry Anne, and was supposedly desperate to bed her, but it was probably made to justify the speedy putting away of Katherine of Aragon.83 Eight years after the King uttered it, even when he had become ill, incapacitated, and grossly obese, he was to tell his doctor that he was still having wet dreams twice nightly; at that time—1540—he insisted that he was unable to consummate his marriage to Anne of Cleves, who revolted him in various ways, but that because of his “nightly emissions,” he felt himself capable of intercourse with other ladies. It would therefore appear that the King’s remark to Parliament in 1532 was merely made to curry sympathy and emphasize the urgency of the situation.

  Then there was that touchy response made to Chapuys in 1533, “Am I not a man like other men? Am I not? Am I not?”84 though perhaps we should not attach too much significance to that, for it was made in response to the ambassador’s suggestion that the King might never have sons. The fact that Anne Boleyn conceived four times in three years, and that Jane Seymour was to become pregnant after only six months of marriage, is proof that Henry VIII functioned sexually as normally as any man of his age.

  Whether Anne actually complained of Henry’s impotence to Lady Rochford is immaterial, for the real purpose of this evidence was probably to reinforce the implication in the indictment that Henry VIII had not fathered the child of which Anne miscarried.85 What is strange, though, is why the Crown was being so coy about this, and did not openly accuse Anne of impugning the royal succession by foisting a bastard on the King; and why it took a gamble that Rochford would not disobey orders and read out loud what was supposed to be kept secret.

  Rochford’s answer, followed by his silence, made plain to everyone listening the thrust of the evidence, and its effect was to create a sensation, while every foreign ambassador was to report it in gleeful detail.86 Too late, Rochford protested, “I did not say it!” No one was willing to listen.

  He responded better to the other charges, replying “so well that several of those present naively wagered ten to one that he would be acquitted, especially as no witnesses were produced against him.”87 George Constantine told Cromwell that “there were [those] that said that much money would have been laid
that day, and that at great odds, that the Lord Rochford should have been quit.”

  Even “the judges at first were of different opinions, but at last one view overturned the other” and the twenty-six peers (Northumberland being absent) came to a unanimous decision: when Norfolk “asked them if he was guilty or not, one (speaking for them all) replied, ‘Guilty.’”88 The duke then had to sentence his nephew to the full horrors of a traitor’s death: “That he should go again to prison in the Tower from whence he came, and to be drawn from the said Tower of London through the City of London to the place of execution called Tyburn,89 and there to be hanged, being alive cut down, and then his members [genitals] cut off and his bowels taken out of his body and burnt before him, and then his head cut off, and his body to be divided in quarter pieces, and his head and body to be set at such places as the King should assign.”90 Hearing these dread words, Rochford observed that every man was a sinner and that all deserved death.91 According to Chapuys, he “said that, since he must die, he would no longer maintain his innocence, but confessed that he had deserved death.” He only “requested the judges that they would beg the King that his debts, which he recounted, might be paid out of his goods.”92

 
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