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

  Effectively, unless Chapuys got it wrong, Rochford confessed that he was guilty as charged, and that his sister was guilty by implication. It would have been unusual for a man facing imminent divine judgment to confess an untruth, but Rochford perhaps made this declaration with a view to protecting the surviving members of his family, for on the scaffold he was to protest that he had never offended the King and, according to Chapuys himself, “disclaimed all that he was charged with.”93

  Plainly, people did believe him innocent. “By the common opinion of men of best understanding in those days,” George Wyatt later wrote, Rochford was “condemned only upon some point of a statute of words then in force.” Wyatt, like others, was clearly not impressed by Lady Rochford’s evidence. “I heard say he had escaped, had it not been for a letter,” Constantine recorded. He did not specify whether this was his wife’s letter detailing his crimes, or the letter produced at the Queen’s trial as evidence that he had fathered her child. Had Rochford not been so proud, the poet Wyatt wrote later, every man would have bemoaned his fate, if only for his great wit. But he had made so many enemies through his arrogance that there were few willing to speak up in his favor, however much they had admired his courage during his trial.

  “After this, the court broke up.”94 It had been one of the most momentous days in English judicial history.

  Afterward, news of the verdict was speedily conveyed to the King. On May 19, Chapuys reported that Henry had “supped lately with some ladies in the house of John Kite Bishop of Carlisle.”95 This would have been on one of the evenings after the trial, perhaps May 15 itself. The Bishop of Carlisle’s Inn (later Russell House) stood by Ivy Bridge in the Strand, next to the Savoy Hospital; part of this house was currently being leased to Sir Francis Bryan.

  Bishop Kite told Chapuys the next morning that Henry had “shown an extravagant joy” at dinner, and was “heard to say that he believed upward of a hundred men had had to do with [Anne], and said he had long expected the issues of these affairs, and that thereupon he had before composed a tragedy, which he carried with him; and so saying, the King drew from his bosom a little book written in his own hand; but the bishop did not read the contents,” probably because it was not the occasion for it. Chapuys gained the impression that the book may have contained “certain ballads that the King has composed, at which the Concubine and her brother laughed as foolish things, which was objected to them as a great crime.”96 Henry added that Anne only kept his love through practicing her spells and enchantments.97 His conviction that she had bewitched him was probably genuine, and would go a long way toward explaining his ill-advised passion for her, and prevent him from losing face in the light of recent events. Whether Henry really believed that Anne had been rampantly promiscuous with more than a hundred men is dubious: if he had long expected something of that nature, why had he not acted on his suspicions before? No, this was probably another blustering, face-saving remark.

  Chapuys sought out Henry that evening to offer his commiserations on the Queen’s treachery, upon which Henry observed complacently that “many great and good men, even emperors and kings, have suffered from the arts of wicked women.” He did not appear to be suffering very greatly. “You never saw a prince or husband make greater show or wear his horns more patiently and lightly than this one does,” Chapuys observed with irony to the Emperor. “I leave you to imagine why.”98

  The reason for Henry’s complacency was staying a mile or so along the river, at Chelsea, where Henry had himself rowed after dinner. That night, he stayed up late with Jane Seymour, enjoying a supper prepared by his own master cooks. The next day, May 16, Chapuys noticed that the courtiers were visiting Chelsea in increasing numbers to pay their respects to Jane, whom they expected would soon become their queen. The common people were aware of this too, and crowds were gathering outside the gates in the hope of catching a glimpse of her. Their mood was not entirely approving; at least one defamatory ballad about Jane was already circulating in London, much to the King’s annoyance.

  The cynical Chapuys was doubtful that Henry’s love for Jane would last. “He may well divorce her when he tires of her,” he opined, doubtless thinking of the King’s two failed marriages. But for now Henry was an amorous suitor, as is apparent in this, the only one of his letters to Jane Seymour to survive; it must have been sent around this time, and refers to one of the scurrilous ballads:

  My dear friend and mistress,

  The bearer of these few lines from thy entirely devoted servant will deliver into thy fair hands a token of my true affection for thee, hoping you will keep it for ever in your sincere love for me. Advertising you that there is a ballad made lately of great derision against us, which if it go abroad and is seen by you, I pray you pay no manner of regard to it. I am not at present informed who is the setter forth of this malignant writing, but if he is found out, he shall be straitly punished for it. For the things ye lacked, I have minded my Lord [Treasurer] to supply them to you as soon as he could buy them. Thus hoping shortly to receive you into these arms, I end for the present, your own loving servant and sovereign,



  Just, True, and Lawful Impediments

  At some point between May 15 and 17—Strickland asserts it was on May 16—Henry VIII signed the death warrants of the Queen and the men who were to perish on her account. Six years later, when his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, was condemned to death by Act of Attainder, a wooden stamp bearing his signature was impressed on the document, sparing him the pain of signing away the life of a woman he had once loved. But in the case of Anne Boleyn, he had personally to put pen to parchment. In so doing, he was merely obeying the law.1 There is no contemporary evidence that he took “a positive delight” in planning her execution, as one historian has written;2 on the contrary, as will be seen, he was anxious to get it over with, and moved by pity—and pragmatism—to commute the sentence.

  On the morning after the trials, Kingston went to York Place to see the King, one of the few privileged persons allowed to do so at this time. Later that day, back at the Tower, he wrote another letter to Cromwell: “This day I was with the King’s Grace, and declared the petitions of my lord of Rochford, wherein I was answered. Sir, the said lord much desireth to speak with you, which touched his conscience much, as he sayest, wherein I pray you I may know your pleasure, for because of my promise made unto my said lord to do the same.” Rochford was fretting about some debts of his that had not been settled, and Kingston had undertaken to raise the matter with Master Secretary.

  One of the prisoners was spending his final hours carving Anne’s falcon badge on the wall of his cell in the Beauchamp Tower. This carving, which still survives, must date to the days after her condemnation, as the falcon is without its customary crown.

  Although the King informed Kingston that the male prisoners were to die the next day, the Constable had not yet been given a date for Anne’s execution, nor been told if she was to be burned or beheaded, and had perhaps not liked to ask Henry face-to-face. Instead he raised the matter with Cromwell: “I shall desire you further to know the King’s pleasure touching the Queen, as well for her comfort as for the preparation of scaffolds and other necessaries concerning. The King’s Grace showed me that my lord of Canterbury should be her confessor, and [he] was here this day with the Queen, and not in that matter.”

  Appointing no less a personage than the Archbishop of Canterbury, who knew her well, to look after Anne’s spiritual needs was another kindness on the King’s part, but there was an ulterior motive involved. Cranmer, perhaps advised by Dr. Sampson, had now found grounds for annulling Anne’s marriage to the King, but there is no record of what they were, as the case papers documenting his deliberations have disappeared, which has given rise to much speculation. He certainly did not argue—as the Imperialists wanted—that Henry’s union with Katherine of Aragon had after all been lawful, not after all the trouble Henry had gone to in having it dissolved
and insisting he had been right to do so; moreover, to have acknowledged that union as valid would automatically have restored Lady Mary to the succession.

  Charles Wriothesley states that the archbishop declared Anne’s marriage invalid on the supposition of a precontract with her former suitor, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and initially Cranmer did consider those grounds. Bishop Burnet asserts—without citing his source—that Anne would willingly have confessed to such a precontract in the hope of saving her life or, if worse came to worst, suffering the kinder death. But Percy himself thwarted her.

  In the summer of 1523, according to the account of George Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman-usher, Henry Percy and Anne Boleyn, headstrong young lovers, had secretly contracted to wed in the presence of witnesses, which was sufficient to create an impediment to any subsequent marriage with other partners. But by law such a precontract per verba de praesenti would have been invalid because Percy had been betrothed since 1516 to Lady Mary Talbot, whom he married in September 1523 after being forced by Cardinal Wolsey, on the King’s orders, to part from Anne. In the summer of 1532 the Countess of Northumberland had applied to Parliament for a divorce on the grounds that her husband had been precontracted to Anne at the time of their marriage, but the earl had that July sworn on oath that he had not been (see his letter below), whereupon Parliament turned down his wife’s petition.3

  Undaunted, after Anne’s arrest Cranmer again approached Northumberland on the subject of the precontract, and again Percy denied its existence. A week later Cranmer was forced to admit to Cromwell that he had as yet found no grounds for the desired annulment, at which Cromwell sent Sir Reynold Carnaby, one of the King’s officers in the North and a man who would have known Percy well, to visit the earl at Brook House, his residence in Newington Green, Hackney, northeast of London, and put pressure on him to confess that he had indeed been precontracted to Anne. But Northumberland would not allow himself to be bullied, and on May 13, he sent an exasperated letter to Cromwell:

  Mr. Secretary,

  This shall be to signify unto you that I perceive by Sir Reynold Carnaby that there is a supposed precontract between the Queen and me; whereupon I was not only heretofore examined upon my oath before the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, but also received the Blessed Sacrament upon the same before the Duke of Norfolk and other the King’s Highness’s Council learned in the spiritual law; assuring you, Master Secretary, by the said oath and Blessed Body which afore I received, and hereafter intend to receive, that the same may be to my damnation if ever there were any contract or promise of marriage between her and me.4

  Cromwell knew when he was beaten, and he directed Cranmer to find other grounds for the annulment of the royal marriage. In the end, according to Chapuys, the archbishop found a solution that was somewhat embarrassing and damaging to the King’s honor, which may account for the proceedings being held in camera. He cited the impediment raised by Henry’s sexual liaison with Mary Boleyn, which had placed him within the forbidden degrees of affinity to her sister Anne.5 In January 1528 the Pope, anxious to do anything to please the King but grant him the annulment he so desperately desired, had dealt with this impediment in a dispensation permitting Henry to marry anyone within the forbidden degrees (so long as it were not his brother’s widow) as soon as he was free to do so; in 1533, after Henry had broken with Rome, an Act of Parliament was passed permitting marriage with the sister of a discarded mistress, but that was followed by the Dispensations Act of March 1534, which decreed that existing papal dispensations would not be held as valid if they were contrary to “Holy Scripture and the laws of God.”6 In the end, in declaring Anne’s marriage null and void, Cranmer chose to follow the old canon law.

  The preamble to a new Act of Succession that would be passed by Parliament in July 1536 was to be suitably discreet: the union had been dissolved because of “certain entirely just, true, and lawful impediments hitherto not publicly known” and “confessed by the Lady Anne before the most reverend father in God, Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury,”7 presumably when he visited her on May 16, and by the King, the other party, probably days before that, because at some stage the Archbishop had forwarded copies of articles of objection to the validity of the marriage to both Henry and Anne, “that it might be for the salvation of their souls,” and summoned them to appear before his ecclesiastical court at Lambeth Palace to show why a sentence of nullity should not be passed.8

  What exactly did Anne—and Henry—confess to Cranmer? It has been suggested that another possible ground for annulment was Anne’s having used witchcraft to render Henry impotent, recognized as an impediment since the twelfth century under canon law.9 Yet while this construction may be placed on the evidence produced at George Boleyn’s trial, it is clear that both Henry and Anne confessed to knowing of a bar to their union, and that both their souls were in peril as a result, not just Anne’s. Thus we should conclude that the true cause confessed to Cranmer was that Henry and Anne knew their union was incestuous and invalid due to the existence of the impediment created by Henry’s liaison with Mary Boleyn, and were aware that the Dispensations Act had rendered their marriage unlawful. What amounts effectively to confirmation of this can be found in the 1536 Act of Succession, which banned marriages between people who came within this particular degree of consanguinity.10

  Certainly the impediment of consanguinity was known by both Anne and Henry when they entered into their illicit union. But they had married in good faith, because in 1533 the Pope’s dispensation of 1528 could still have been cited. It was the Act of 1534 that rendered both the dispensation and the marriage invalid. Strictly speaking, the legitimacy of Princess Elizabeth, born before that date, of a marriage entered into in good faith, should never have been denied, but evidently Cranmer, Cromwell, and the King were not interested in such legal niceties.

  When Cranmer saw Anne at the Tower on May 16, the purpose of his visit was not—as Kingston’s letter makes clear—to provide spiritual consolation and administer the Holy Sacrament, but to obtain her admission of the impediment to her marriage, and her consent to the dissolution of that marriage and the disinheriting and bastardizing of her child; and also to apprise her of the proctors whom the King had appointed to act for her, and to seek her approval of them.11 It is more than likely, as will become apparent, that the archbishop had instructions to offer her the kinder death by decapitation by the sword (as historians have long suspected), or even the hope of mercy, in return for her cooperation. He certainly discussed the possibility of her being spared the extreme penalty, probably as an inducement, and probably without committing himself, for after he left, Anne was much more cheerful, and in his letter to Cromwell, Kingston reported that “this day at dinner, the Queen said she should go to a nunnery, and is in hope of life;”12 her entering religion would render her marriage null and void.13 It might be concluded, therefore, that she had agreed to the annulment without undue protest.

  But it was a cruel deception. There would be no question of Anne being banished to a nunnery, which would have had to be abroad anyway, since those in England were scheduled for dissolution. The only reward she would get for her cooperation was a mercifully quick end.

  Weston’s family were still making frantic efforts to save him, offering the King 100,000 marks (over £11 million) in return for his life,14 but Henry either was not told of this or remained impervious to bribery. Chapuys reported on May 19 that the French ambassadors—Antoine de Castelnau, Bishop of Tarbes, and Jean, Sieur de Dinteville—had done their best to plead for Weston.15 It is frustrating to discover that Jean de Dinteville’s correspondence is missing for the two months covering Anne Boleyn’s fall and its aftermath. Froude speculated that all his letters on that subject had been either set apart and lost, or destroyed. The latter is a distinct possibility, since Dinteville found Henry VIII so terrifying that he begged to be recalled after his first audience in 1533, from which he emerged visibly shaking.16 He would not have
wanted such sensitive letters falling into the wrong hands.

  “Notwithstanding [the ambassadors’] intercession on Weston’s behalf,”17 there was no hope of liberation for any of the condemned men. All were to be executed. It was after Kingston returned from seeing the King that he informed them they must prepare to die the next day, and that it would not be at Tyburn after all, or within the Tower, as John Husee had speculated, but on the public scaffold on Tower Hill; an anonymous account in the Vienna Archives confirms that they were executed “on a scaffold in front of the Tower.”18

  Kingston had been given very little notice to prepare for the coming executions. In his letter of May 16 (quoted above), he reminded Cromwell that:

  … the time is short, for the King supposeth the gentlemen to die tomorrow, and my lord of Rochford with the residue of gentlemen, and are yet without Dr. Allryge, which I look for [Dr. Allryge presumably being the chaplain who was to hear their final confessions and shrive them]; but I have told my lord of Rochford that he is to be in readiness tomorrow to suffer execution, and so he accepts it very well, and will do his best to be ready, notwithstanding he would have received his rights, which hath not been used, and in especial here.19

  It was traditional—and indeed was perceived as a right and a privilege—for royal or noble persons condemned to death for treason to have the customary brutal sentence commuted by the King to beheading, which was seen as a more honorable way to die. But Kingston had as yet received no such instructions. He urged Cromwell: “Sir, I shall desire you that we may know the King’s pleasure here as shortly as may be, that we here may prepare for the same which is necessary, for the same we here have now may for to do execution. Sir, I pray you have good remembrance in all this for us to do, for we shall be ready always to our knowledge.”

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