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

  As the spectators began to disperse, the Portuguese stayed and watched as “one of the four ladies” took up the severed head, still covered with the white cloth, “and carried it away. The other three lifted the bleeding body of the dead woman, which had for so long been the object of the King’s ardent desire, and, having reverently “wrapped [it] in a white covering,”126 placed the remains “in a chest which stood here ready, and carried them to the chapel that is within the Tower”;127 Spelman says this was an old elm chest that had been used for storing bow staves, and it would have been just long enough to take a headless corpse; no provision had been made for a proper coffin, so this chest had probably been fetched at the last minute from the Tower armories, and left lying ready beside the scaffold.128

  “The head and body were taken up by the ladies, whom you would have thought bereft of their souls, so languid and weak were they with anguish, but, fearing that their mistress might be handled unworthily by inhuman men, they forced themselves to do this duty.”129

  Jean Hannaert of Lyons also reported that “the Queen’s head and body were taken to a church in the Tower, accompanied by four ladies.”130 That church was the royal chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, where Anne Boleyn was buried in the earth beneath the chancel pavement “the same day at afternoon,”131 in the presence of her ladies, who were “sobbing woefully;” as it was gone noon, after which time mass could not be celebrated, one of Anne’s chaplains, Father Thirlwall, merely pronounced a blessing over the chest before it was interred.132

  Since the execution was over by nine o’clock in the morning, and Anne’s body was taken immediately into the chapel, we might wonder why there was at least a three-hour delay before it was buried. Perhaps Kingston had been expected to attend but was busy all morning in the aftermath of the execution. What is most likely is that someone had to be found to lift the paving stones in the chancel and dig a shallow grave; Kingston, being very busy with his state prisoners and the arrangements for their executions, may have neglected to make provision for this earlier, just as he neglected to provide Anne with a proper coffin.

  What is certain is that Anne’s attendants were made to strip the body of its expensive—and probably bloodstained—garments and jewelry, which were then distributed to the Tower officials as perquisites, as was customary after executions.133 Later, these items would be redeemed by the King for a substantial sum. Possibly Henry did not want people cherishing mementoes of his dead wife. The sumptuary laws banned the lower orders from wearing such attire anyway—rich materials, furs, and embroideries being reserved for those of high rank—so cash was probably very welcome in exchange.

  Lancelot de Carles states that Anne was buried beside her brother; his evidence may not be entirely accurate, as will be seen, and the authorities surely would not have thought it fitting for an incestuous brother and sister to lie together in death. Other evidence suggests they were buried some distance apart, before the altar, and as theirs were the first bodies to be buried in the chancel, there was plenty of space. “God provided for her corpse sacred burial, even in [a] place as it were consecrate to innocence,” pronounced George Wyatt.

  After the burial, observed Lancelot de Carles, Anne’s ladies “were as sheep without a shepherd,” but they would not be left in that state for long because “already the King has taken a fancy to a choice lady. Other great things are predicted, of which the people are assured. If I see them take place, I will let you know, for never were such news. People say it is the year of marvels.”

  “The Queen,” Husee reported only hours afterward, “suffered with sword this day … and died boldly.”134 Referring to all who had died, he added, “Jesu take them to His mercy.” Even Cromwell was impressed by Anne’s bravery, and that of Rochford, and “greatly praised the intelligence, wit, and courage of the Concubine and her brother.”135 “She had reigned as queen three years lacking fourteen days, from her coronation to her death,” Wriothesley observed. The Imperialist witness believed that he had “seen the prophecy of Merlin fulfilled.”136

  Sometime after Anne’s execution, in his prison in the Byward Tower, a distressed Thomas Wyatt again put pen to paper to write of the woman he had once passionately courted, his verses an outpouring of woe at the unforeseen twists of fortune to which all human beings were subject, Anne more dramatically than most. It was a popular contemporary theme, and Wyatt—who had been so closely caught up in this tragedy—expressed it very movingly, and captured the horror of Anne’s situation:

  So freely wooed, so dearly bought,

  So soon a queen, so soon low brought,

  Hath not been seen, could not be thought.

  O! What is Fortune?

  As slipper as ice, as fading as snow,

  Like unto dice that a man doth throw,

  Until it arises he shall not know

  What shall be his fortune!

  They did her conduct to a tower of stone,

  Wherein she would wail and lament her alone,

  And condemned be, for help there was none.

  Lo! Such was her fortune.137

  Writing on the day of her execution, Anne’s chaplain, Matthew Parker, was in no doubt that her soul was in “blessed felicity with God.” Her body, however, had been consigned to oblivion, for no provision was made for any stone or memorial tablet to mark the place where she lay.138


  When Death Hath Played His Part

  As Anne’s head fell in the straw, with her body tumbling beside it, a signal was given and the guns on the Tower wharf were fired, announcing her end to the world. She had been one of the most powerful women ever to occupy the consort’s throne, yet her rapid and cataclysmic overthrow illustrates just how fragile was the balance of power at the English court.

  There had been no precedent for the trial and execution of an English queen, and Anne Boleyn’s fall, with its attendant purge of the Privy Chamber, had been nothing less than sensational. At a stroke, Cromwell had eliminated or neutralized a whole faction, and many were touched by the tragedy.

  Anne had never been popular; the common people always disliked her. Just hours after her execution, Chapuys wrote from London, “I cannot well describe the great joy the inhabitants of this city have lately experienced and manifested at the fall and ruin of the Concubine.” He added that many were elated at the prospect of Lady Mary—whom they still regarded as the King’s lawful heiress—being restored to favor,1 for Anne’s enmity toward her had been well known.

  It is evident from Chapuys’s dispatch that, at the time of Anne’s beheading, people were ready to believe anything of her. The parson of Freshwater, Dorset, who was hostile to Henry VIII, was nevertheless in no doubt of her guilt: “Lo, whilst the King and his council were busy to put down abbeys and pull away the right of Holy Church, he was made a cuckold at home.”2 Nicholas Shaxton Bishop of Salisbury, spoke for many when he wrote to Cromwell on May 23 of “the late Queen,” declaring that she had “sore slandered” the cause of reform, while “that vice that she was found faulty of hath not the like in Christendom.” The bishop did, in charity, pray that God would have mercy on her soul and pardon all her offenses.3

  It was a credulous and superstitious age. One of Cromwell’s agents, John de Ponti, reported that the Master of Maison Dieu at Dover was telling people “that the day before the Lady Anne Boleyn was beheaded, the tapers that stood about Queen Katherine’s sepulcher kindled of themselves; and after Matins were done to Deo gratias, the said tapers quenched of themselves.” The King is said to have “sent thirty men to [Peterborough] abbey,” and they could see for themselves that “it was true of this light continuing from day to day.”4

  The ignorant folk who observed this phenomenon would have regarded it as a sign that the Deity approved of the King’s punishment of the evil woman who had supplanted his true wife—Katherine of Aragon’s cause had not been so soon forgotten.

  In Catholic Europe, most people shared the view of the Emperor that, in dest
roying Anne, God had revealed His will. Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, one of Charles V’s chief advisers, wrote rather callously to Chapuys that the news was good music to his ears, and a subject for joyful mirth.5 The papal nuncio in Lyons believed the Queen’s fate to be the judgment of the Almighty. At the court of James V in Edinburgh, Lord William Howard, Anne’s uncle, was shocked to see everyone so jubilant, and wrote urging Cromwell to tell him “the truth” so he should know how to deal with this.6 A week after the execution, the merchant and diplomat, Edmund Harvel, wrote from Venice to Dr. Thomas Starkey:

  The news of the Queen’s case made a great tragedy, which was celebrated by all men’s voices with admiration and great infamy to that woman to have betrayed that noble prince after such manner, who had exalted her so high and put himself to peril, not without perturbation of all the world, for her cause. God showed Himself a rightful judge to discover such high treason and iniquity. But all is for the best, and I reckon this the King’s great fortune, that God would give him grace to see and touch with the hand what enemies and traitors he lived withal, of the which inconvenience his Grace is fair delivered, for with time there might have followed damage to his Grace inestimable.7

  These were comparatively conservative reactions, for ever wilder rumors were now proliferating. Even Chapuys, the archdetractor of reform, did not swallow whole all he heard: “Although the matter is not much to be relied on, many think that most of the new bishops ont d’avoir leur Sainte Martin [meaning, perhaps, that there was a globe of fire suspended above their heads, as appeared in popular representations of the saint], because, having persuaded the Concubine that she had no need to confess, she grew more audacious in vice; and moreover, they persuaded her that, according to the said [Lutheran] sect, it was lawful to seek aid elsewhere, even from her own relations, when her husband was not capable of satisfying her.” Reflecting on Anne’s fate, the ambassador recalled how “the Concubine, before her marriage with the King, said, to increase his love, that there was a prophecy that about this time, a queen of England would be burnt, but, to please the King, she [said she] did not care. After her marriage she boasted that the events mentioned in the prophecy had already been accomplished, and yet she was not condemned. But they might well have said to her, as was said to Caesar, ‘The ides have come, but not gone.’”8 In the Privy Chamber, Sir Francis Bryan and his “fellows” rejoiced at Anne’s fall.9

  Yet after her execution, increasingly, there emerged a strong sense that justice had been subverted, while reports of her dignity and courage on the scaffold gradually won her the latent admiration and sympathy of some who had previously reviled her. Even the unsympathetic George Constantine had “never heard of queens that they should be thus handled, but I promise you there was much muttering of Queen Anne’s death.” Alexander Aless, whose landlord had witnessed her execution, wrote that she had “exhibited such constancy, patience, and faith toward God that all the spectators, even her enemies and those persons who had previously rejoiced at her misfortune, testified and proclaimed her innocence and chastity.”

  Aless’s landlord invited some of those spectators to dinner a day or so later, and when these guests “were thus talking at table in my hearing, without being questioned, they themselves answered the accusations brought against the Queen. It is no new thing, said they, that the King’s chamberlains should dance with the ladies in the bedchamber. Nor can any proof of adultery be collected from the fact that the Queen’s brother took her by the hand and led her into the dance among the other ladies, or handed her to another. It is a usual custom throughout the whole of Britain that ladies married and unmarried, even the most coy, kiss not only a brother, but any honorable person, even in public. It is also the custom with young women to write to their near relatives when they become pregnant, in order to receive their congratulations. The King also was most anxious for an heir, and longed for nothing more than to know that the Queen was pregnant.” Some of these views must have been those of people associated with the court, who knew how things were conducted there.

  “From such arguments as these, they affirmed that no probable suspicion of adultery could be collected, and that therefore there must have been some other reason which moved the King.” Aless thought it could have been “the desire for an heir” and his being “further strengthened in his desire for a new marriage by perceiving that all the male children to which the Queen gave birth came into this world dead. And further, the King was angry with the Queen because of the want of success which attended the embassy, which, at her instigation, he had dispatched into Germany.” People were also speculating that Henry had gotten rid of Anne out of fear that the Emperor, the Pope, and the Catholic princes of Europe would band together against him, and because he was “in danger from them on account of the change in religion.” There followed much speculation on what would happen to religion in England now that Anne was gone.

  While Aless and his landlord’s guests were talking, “a servant of Cromwell’s arrived from the court and, sitting down at the table, asked the landlord if he could let him have something to eat, for he was exceedingly hungry. While the food was being got ready, the other guests asked him what were his news? Where was the King? What was he doing? Was he sorry for the Queen? He answered by asking why should he be sorry for her? She had already betrayed him in secrecy, so now was he openly insulting her. For just as she, while the King was oppressed with the heavy cares of state, was enjoying herself with others, so he, while the Queen was being beheaded, was enjoying himself with another woman.”

  His words provoked outrage. “While we were all astonished and ordered him to hold his tongue, for he was saying what no one would believe, and he would bring himself into peril if others heard him talking thus, he answered, ‘You yourselves will speedily learn from other persons the truth of what I have been saying.’” He was referring to the fact that the King was already betrothed to Jane Seymour. The landlord intervened, saying it was not fitting to discuss such things, and that he himself would “go carefully into these matters” when he next went to court. Cromwell’s servant retorted that “he had the King’s orders that none but that the councillors and secretaries should be admitted, and that the gate of the country house in which the King had secluded himself should be kept shut.” Undeterred, the landlord did go to court, and on his return he was able to tell Aless that the King would shortly afterward be married.

  Aless, a Protestant recounting these events for Elizabeth I, was biased and probably exaggerating public opinion, yet his is not the only evidence for the small but growing swell of sympathy for Anne Boleyn. “Although everybody rejoices at the execution of the Concubine,” Chapuys reported, “there are some who murmur at the mode of procedure against her and the others, and people speak variously of the King, and it will not pacify the world when it is known what has passed, and is passing, between him and Mistress Jane Seymour. Already it sounds ill, in the ears of the people, that the King, having received such ignominy, has shown himself more glad than ever since the arrest of the Concubine.”10 So soon, a legend was in the making.

  As the murmuring spread, Anne began to be seen as a victim done away with on a flimsy pretext, particularly in the wake of Henry marrying Jane ten days after her beheading. That view was openly expressed in England just over a month after Anne Boleyn’s execution, when an Oxfordshire man, John Hill of Eynsham, was brought before the local justices for saying that “the King caused Mr. Norris, Mr. Weston, and such as were put of late unto execution to be put to death only of pleasure,” and that “the King, for a fraud and a guile, caused Master Norris, Master Weston, and the Queen to be put to death because he was made sure unto the Queen’s Grace that now is half a year before.” Master Hill pleaded guilty and was thrown into prison. Another man, William Saunders, who had said much the same thing, was examined with him.11

  It would surely have occurred to those who privately thought the same as John Hill that it could well have been the King, and not Cro
mwell, who resolved to be rid not only of Anne but also of her powerful faction in the Privy Chamber, in order to clear the way for the rising stars, the Seymours.12

  Although Chapuys famously referred to Anne in 1536 as “the English Messalina or Agrippina,” and Reginald Pole, Henry VIII’s cousin and a stern Catholic, that same year called her “a Jezebel and a sorceress,” the reformer Philip Melanchthon was horrified at news of her death and its disastrous implications for any Protestant alliance with England: “The reports from England are more than tragic. The Queen, accused rather than convicted of adultery, has suffered the penalty of death, and that catastrophe has wrought great changes in our plans. How dreadfully this calamity will dishonor the King. What a great change has suddenly been made.” As a Protestant, he was in no doubt “that blow came from Rome. In Rome, all these tricks and plots are contrived.”13 In France, poems were written honoring Anne’s memory,14 while one French reformist, Étienne Dolet, raged that Anne had been condemned “on a false charge of adultery.”15

  Even the Emperor’s sister, the politically acute Mary of Hungary, did not believe in Anne’s guilt and was dismayed to hear of her fate: As none but the organist confessed, nor herself either, people think [the King] invented this device to get rid of her. Anyhow, no great wrong can be done to her, even in being suspected as wicked, for she is known to have been a worthless person. It is to be hoped, if hope be a right thing to entertain about such acts, that when he is tired of this one, he will find some occasion of getting rid of her. I think wives will hardly be well-contented if such customs become general,” she added dryly. “Although I have no desire to put myself in this danger, yet, being of the feminine gender, I will pray with the others that God may keep us from it.”16 By 1538 the young Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, a niece of Charles V—who, when Henry VIII later sued for her hand, was pertly to reply that if she had two heads, one would be at His Majesty’s disposal—was voicing the kinder view that Anne Boleyn had been “innocently put to death”;17 later still, in 1544, Jean de Luxembourg, Abbot of Ivry, asserted that Henry VIII had “murdered” her.18

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