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


  The Concubine’s Little Bastard

  Anne’s daughter Elizabeth was just two years and eight months old when her mother was put to death; she had been left at Greenwich during those dark days. Sarah Gristwood and Maria Perry have both raised the question of just how closely Elizabeth bonded with her mother: nourished by a wet nurse from birth, she was only three months old when she was removed from Anne’s care and assigned her own household at Hatfield, away from the court, which the little girl was rarely to attend during her infancy. Thereafter she lived under the constant care of her Lady Mistress, the capable and aristocratic Margaret Bourchier, Lady Bryan, whom Henry VIII made a baroness in her own right; and Anne had been merely an occasional visitor and a sender of costly gifts, never a constant presence in her child’s life. So there could not have been a close relationship between them, and in later life Elizabeth, using the royal plural, was to write that she was “more indebted to them that bringeth us up well than to our parents”—for her father was a similarly distant figure.

  Yet that was the norm for royal and aristocratic children in the sixteenth century, and the Queen’s words should not be interpreted as a criticism. Thus it may well have been that Elizabeth’s “emotional life was unaffected by her mother’s misfortunes.”1 The loss of her mother—that remote figure—may have had less impact on her than we imagine, its most vivid consequences perhaps the change in her status and the cessation of pretty gifts. What counted most was that Lady Bryan, now a venerable sixty-eight, remained at the center of the child’s world, an ever-constant, stable, and reassuring presence,2 while Katherine Champernowne (later Astley), who was to replace her as the mother figure in Elizabeth’s life, was already installed as one of her gentlewomen.3

  During the weekend immediately following Anne’s execution, when the King moved to Hampton Court, he gave orders for his daughter to be taken from Greenwich to the nursery palace at Hunsdon in the care of Lady Bryan. There is often an assumption that Elizabeth was spurned by her father in the weeks after her mother’s death—indeed, it has been conjectured that he could not at that time bear to set eyes on her,4 and even that he grossly neglected her,5 for in August 1536, Lady Bryan had to beg Cromwell for new clothes to replace those that her charge had outgrown, revealing in the process that no one in Elizabeth’s household had received instructions as to her changed status:

  My Lady Elizabeth is put from that degree she was afore, and what degree she is of now I know not but by hearsay. Therefore I know not how to order her, nor myself, nor none of hers that I have the rule of, that is, her women and grooms; beseeching you that she may have some raiment. For she hath neither gown, nor kirtle, nor petticoat, nor no manner of linen, nor forsmocks [aprons?], nor kerchiefs, nor rails [nightgowns], nor body-stitchets [binding cloths or corsets], nor handkerchiefs, nor sleeves, nor mufflers, nor biggins [close caps in the style of Flemish beguines worn by very young children for the purpose of aiding the closure of the fontanelle].

  Lady Bryan also mentioned disapprovingly that Elizabeth’s governor, Sir John Shelton, allowed the young child “to dine and sup every day at the board of estate,” from which it is clear that the little girl was still being treated as befit the daughter of a king. It is also clear that the recently widowed Lady Bryan feared that her own authority was being undermined. “A succorless and redeless [without advice] creature,” as she described herself, she was obviously concerned that she might be dismissed in the wake of her former mistress’s fall and the radical change in her charge’s status, and begged Cromwell to “be good to my little lady and all hers.”6

  Because it is evident that Elizabeth was still being treated as a princess, this wardrobe crisis probably resulted from a mere administrative lapse, the King (to whom all decisions relating to Elizabeth had been referred since her infancy) being away on his nuptial progress in August, or followed an unexpected growth spurt. It did not necessarily mean that Anne Boleyn’s fall had undermined Henry’s affection for their daughter,7 and there is no evidence that she was out of favor. At the end of June he gave orders for her household to be reorganized, allocating her thirty-two servants. Lady Bryan had told Cromwell she was sure the King would have much cause for pride in his daughter, “for she is as toward a child and as gentle of conditions as ever I knew any in my life, Jesu preserve Her Grace.”8 And on July 21, Lady Mary (now restored to favor through the good offices of Cromwell and Jane Seymour) had no compunction about writing to Henry from Hunsdon: “My sister Elizabeth is in good health, and such a child toward as I doubt not but Your Highness shall have cause to rejoice of in time coming.”9

  When the King visited Mary at Hunsdon in August, he was probably reunited with Elizabeth too, and she was soon to be seen again at court, where the French Cardinal du Bellay observed that “the King is very affectionate to her [and] loves her very much.”10 Even so, that summer she was the subject of much conjecture in a court that was still seething with gossip and speculation about Anne Boleyn’s “abominable and detestable” crimes.11 Some of those tales undoubtedly concerned Elizabeth’s paternity.

  Chapuys himself reported—with more relish than truth—that “the Archbishop of Canterbury declared by sentence that the Concubine’s daughter was the bastard of Mr. Norris, and not the King’s daughter,”12 as the indictment had implied. This mistaken assumption reflects the gossip to which the secret proceedings at Lambeth undoubtedly gave rise, suggesting that the true grounds for Cranmer’s annulment of Anne’s marriage to the King were never openly divulged, and were the subject of much speculation. Dr. Ortiz, the Emperor’s ambassador in Rome, had already predicted—prematurely, as it turned out: “It is intended to declare the child not to be the King’s.”13

  It was claimed in the anonymous Portuguese letter written on June 10, 1536, that after Anne’s execution, “the council declared that the Queen’s daughter was the child of her brother, and that she should be removed from her place [in the succession],”14 while in the Low Countries rumor even had it that Elizabeth was the result of a casual encounter between her mother and a peasant: “It is now said,” wrote Jean Hannaert of Lyons on June 2, “that her pretended daughter was taken from a poor man.”15 In England there was similar covert speculation.16 If Elizabeth were not the King’s daughter, then even the debased status of a royal bastard was not rightfully hers.17 It was almost certainly because of the gossip that Lady Bryan was informed in August that “it was the King’s pleasure that my Lady Elizabeth shall keep her chamber and not come abroad.”18

  There is evidence that Lady Mary herself would take with her to the grave the belief that Mark Smeaton was Elizabeth’s real father. When her half sister was little, Mary played a mother’s part to her and clearly cherished her dearly, but as Elizabeth grew more like Anne Boleyn, Mary’s affections cooled, for every time she looked at her, she was reminded of the injuries, insults, and ignominy she and her mother had suffered at Anne Boleyn’s hands.19

  As queen, when any sympathy for her half sister had soured and there remained only suspicion and resentment, Mary was heard to remark several times on the resemblance between Elizabeth and Mark Smeaton,20 and to say that Elizabeth’s morals were no more admirable than her mother’s had been. Shortly before her death, she confided to Bernardo de Fresneda, the confessor of her husband, King Philip II of Spain, that Elizabeth had “the face and countenance of Mark Smeaton, who was a very handsome man,” and thus “was neither her sister nor the daughter of King Henry.”21 Mary once sarcastically told Simon Renard, the Imperial ambassador, that Elizabeth was merely “the offspring of one of whose good fame he might have heard, and who had received her punishment.”22

  It would have been anathema to Mary “to see the illegitimate child of a criminal who was punished as a public strumpet” inheriting the throne23—a child, moreover, who had “a bewitching personality” and deplorable “characteristics in which she resembled her mother.”24 Thus Mary was perhaps deluding herself, since there is no evi
dence that Henry VIII ever doubted that Elizabeth was his daughter. As Alexander Aless told Elizabeth in 1559, citing it as proof of Anne Boleyn’s innocence, “Your father always acknowledged you as legitimate.” Doubtless she resembled him too greatly for there to be any doubt, something several people would remark upon during the course of her life, among them those who observed that she looked more like him than Mary did; and one only has to look at the many portraits of Elizabeth I to see that she was her father’s daughter, in coloring and in profile. Moreover, he was to restore her to the succession in 1544, something he would never have done had he any doubts about her paternity.

  We might wonder if Mary was truly able to recall what Smeaton had looked like. Prior to 1529 he was an obscure member of Cardinal Wolsey’s household, and even after he was preferred to the Privy Chamber that year, he was apparently regarded as relatively lowly and insignificant. Mary herself had been sent away from court in 1531, and did not return until some months after Smeaton’s execution, so even if she could remember him, she would not have laid eyes on him for five years. Possibly she was basing her assertions on the rumors circulating at that time, the speculation of others, or—which is most likely—malicious lies spread later by Elizabeth’s enemies in the hope of impugning her claim to the throne. Or perhaps it just was wishful thinking on Mary’s part, born of the vain hope of excluding Elizabeth from the succession.

  There are some indications that Henry VIII was concerned lest Elizabeth showed signs of inheriting her mother’s coquettish character and morals, which in itself is further evidence that he believed in Anne’s guilt. He insisted that her household be staffed by “ancient and sad [i.e., sober, serious] persons,” and once turned down the application of a young gentlewoman in favor of that of one “of elder years,” grumbling that there were already too many young people around his daughter.25 He was perhaps remembering the youthful crowd who had laughed and flirted with Anne Boleyn in her privy chamber, with disastrous consequences. He saw to it too that Elizabeth’s rigorous education was framed so as to constrain her to the narrow paths of virtue, as well as to erudition, although this was by no means unusual at that time, women being universally regarded as morally weaker than men; yet this child, the daughter of so notorious a mother, would have been perceived as having more need of such instruction than most. It would be no exaggeration to say that in this respect Elizabeth would always bear the stigma of being Anne Boleyn’s child.

  Yet that stain, and the taint of bastardy, would have been far outweighed by her being the daughter of the King. And there was little shame, in that period, in having a mother who had perished on the scaffold. A Mantuan visitor to England was surprised to discover that “many persons, members of whose families have been hanged and quartered, are accustomed to boast of it.” It was, he learned, the mark of a gentleman to own such relations.26

  We do not know when or how Elizabeth, a highly precocious little girl, discovered that her mother had “suffered by sword,”27 but that she immediately noticed the change in her status is apparent in her sharp comment, made very soon after Anne’s death, to Sir John Shelton, her governor and great-uncle: “Why Governor, how hath it, yesterday my Lady Princess, and today but my Lady Elizabeth?” As Tracy Borman has pointed out, this suggests that Elizabeth was not given any information to prepare her for her mother’s death or even informed of it, but found out what had happened only gradually; for surely the grim truth was too harrowing to be disclosed in graphic detail to such a young child. She was at Hunsdon with Mary when Lady Kingston visited on May 26, 1536, and presumably gave a firsthand account of Anne’s execution to the princess, but it is doubtful Elizabeth was allowed to overhear it. Most likely, she learned of the death of her mother in gradual stages from her kindly governesses, Lady Bryan and Katherine Champernowne.

  But the subject seems to have remained taboo. The shocking details of Anne’s crimes—adultery, incest, murder, and the suspicion of witchcraft—were perhaps seen as too shameful to be openly discussed, let alone with her child. And given the dearth of surviving comments on her fate, it is possible that some people felt it was too dangerous or politically compromising to express an opinion. As has been demonstrated, the evidence we have suggests that most accepted the official line. So Elizabeth may have grown up to an awareness that there was a dark and dreadful mystery about her mother’s fate that needed to be unraveled.

  It would appear that Henry VIII himself, in giving orders that the child keep to her chamber when rumors about her paternity were rife, was determined to keep her in innocence as to what happened to her mother for as long as possible, and spare her the gruesome details. Tellingly, when in 1549 her stepfather, Admiral Thomas Seymour (who had tried to seduce her when she was a mere adolescent), informed one of Elizabeth’s servants that he was going to Boulogne, which the English pronounced “Boleyn,” he added, “No word of Boleyn!”28 This is all at variance with the assertion that the child Elizabeth was probably subjected to a barrage of propaganda about her bastardy and the wickedness of her mother;29 given the way in which Anne Boleyn’s name, initials, and images had been speedily and thoroughly obliterated, and that the King was rarely heard to refer to her again, the theory that after 1536 she was a subject best avoided seems more credible.

  For all the silence, however, Anne’s terrible end, and the awareness that her father had ordered her mother’s execution, however justified, must have overshadowed Elizabeth’s childhood. Over the years, guarded revelations, gossip, rumor and innuendo, picked up from any number of sources, and the growing awareness of her bastard status, must have caused the maturing Elizabeth recurring distress and enduring insecurities, and certainly affected her emotional development. Her painful awareness of her mother’s fate was probably one of the factors that prompted her decision never to marry. Another was almost certainly the execution of her father’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, in 1542, on charges of immorality that must have awakened painful thoughts of Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was only eight then, but it was around this time that she announced to young Robert Dudley (who would recall this many years later, when he was Earl of Leicester and hoping to marry her himself), “I will never marry.” Thomas Seymour’s shocking, and ultimately fatal, attempts to seduce the adolescent Elizabeth would have left their mark; he too may have seen her as easy game, her mother’s daughter.

  Elizabeth herself tried more than once to explain her aversion to marriage, an aversion she made clear to Archbishop Parker in 1559 when “she took occasion to speak in bitterness of the holy estate of matrimony;” indeed, she spoke so vehemently that Parker afterward told her minister, William Cecil, he “was in a horror to hear her.”30 In 1561 she would tell a Scots envoy that the marital conflicts and disasters within her own family—she did not mention Anne Boleyn specifically—had led to her conviction that wedlock was an insecure state: “Some say that this marriage was unlawful, some that one was a bastard, some other, to and fro, as they favored or misliked. So many doubts of marriage was in all hands that I stand [in] awe myself to enter into marriage fearing the controversy.”31 She was referring no doubt to her father’s matrimonial career and to the disputed marriages of both his sisters. Four years later, in conversation with a French diplomat, Elizabeth expressed the fear that, were she to marry, her husband might “carry out some evil wish, if he had one,”32 and later still she once burst out that she “hated the idea of marriage every day more, for reasons which she would not divulge to a twin soul, if she had one, much less to a living creature.”33

  There were doubtless other repercussions too. Her tendency, in later life, to shy away from unpalatable facts and to fence around them—witness her prevarication over the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots—may also have had its roots in the traumas of her early childhood. She cannot have failed to draw comparisons between Anne Boleyn and the condemned Mary, and with others sentenced to beheading, including her cousin, Thomas Howard, the fourth Duke of Norfolk; and her reluctance to send Mary and
Norfolk to the block may have had a lot to do with her awareness of what happened to her mother, as well as to her own near brush with the headsman in 1554.

  It cannot have been easy for the twenty-year-old Elizabeth, imprisoned in 1554 in the Tower by Mary I on suspicion of treason, and expecting daily to be summoned to the scaffold, to be incarcerated for three months in those same rooms in the Queen’s lodgings that Anne Boleyn had occupied prior to her condemnation in 1536; in fact, we might conclude that Mary, who must have known where Anne had been held, deliberately intended that Elizabeth should suffer this added refinement to her punishment. And Elizabeth’s permitted perambulations took her along the wall walk, which overlooked the scaffold before the House of Ordnance, a scaffold built for the deposed nine-days queen, Lady Jane Grey, on the exact place where Anne Boleyn had perished, and on which Anne’s daughter might yet meet her end. Years later, when she was queen, Elizabeth revealed to a French nobleman that the prospect of the axe cleaving into her neck had been so terrible to her during those anxious days that she resolved to ask that a French swordsman be sent for, to dispatch her as her mother had been dispatched.34

  Elizabeth cannot but have thought of Anne when she came to the Tower in triumph, prior to her coronation in January 1559,35 and again when she passed through a triumphal arch in Gracechurch Street during her state progress through the City of London to Westminster, for above her, as part of one of the pageants mounted in her honor, the “Pageant of the Roses,” the citizens had erected life-sized figures, seated together for the first time in twenty-three years, of “King Henry the Eighth with a white and red rose in front of him, with the pomegranate [the symbol of their fortuitous fertility] between them, and Queen Anne Boleyn, mother of the present Queen, with a gold crown on the head and a gilt scepter, and in front of her small branches of little roses [and] the coat of arms and device of the same Queen.”36 Above them both was the figure of Elizabeth, “seen in majesty.” The lightweight crown that Elizabeth wore after her coronation may have been the one made for Anne Boleyn in 1533.37 There must have been many such reminders of her mother.

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