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

  I dread my faults shall thy paper pierce,

  That thus have loved and been to God unkind;

  Vices preferring, setting virtue behind,

  Hateful to God, to most men contrary,

  Spotted with pride, viciousness and cruelty.

  Oh sorrowful woman, my body and my soul

  Shall ever be burdened with slander detestable!

  Fame in her register my defame will enrol,

  And to erase out the same no man shall be able.

  My life of late hath been so abominable:

  Therefore my frailty I may both curse and ban,

  Wishing to God I had never known man …

  My epitaph shall be, The vicious Queen

  Lyeth here, of late that justly lost her head,

  Because that she did spot the King’s bed.5

  By and by, all those who had known Anne Boleyn passed away and their memories of her were lost, and with them all sense of the real woman she had been.6 Such was her infamy that her name had all-but been erased from history, and it might have languished in obscurity if not for the fact that her daughter Elizabeth I became Queen of England in 1558. In the eyes of Catholic Europe, Elizabeth was a bastard, a heretic and a usurper, and the daughter of an infamous adulteress.7 It was after that date that Anne’s history became distorted by biased Protestant and Catholic writers to the point where it became just a series of myths.

  Anne Boleyn was especially notorious in Catholic countries, where scandalous tales about her proliferated, as did the details of her supposed promiscuousness and witchcraft. Even today, in Spain and Portugal, an evil, scheming woman can be called an “Ana-Bolena,” and Anne was until recently portrayed as a demon in carnivals; while in Sicily, up to around 1850, there was a legend that she had been holed up under Mount Etna as punishment for her crimes.8 It was in this climate that the slanders of Nicholas Sander and others—like Cardinal William Allen, who branded Anne “an infamous courtesan” who had indulged in “incestuous copulation with Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s “supposed father”—were written, and this legacy that was to blight the European reputation of Elizabeth I.

  But Anne’s fame was not to be forever “burdened with slander detestable.” As Cavendish’s editor, Samuel Singer, put it in the early nineteenth century, “Protestant writers have not been wanting in zeal to defend the Queen from all the unjust aspersions upon her character, and have almost considered her as a martyr to the cause of the reformed church.” This reversal took place after the accession of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, in 1558, when it suddenly became fashionable—and politic—to refer to the Queen’s mother in laudatory terms, and Anne was once more hailed as the champion of religious reform.

  “True religion in England had its commencement and its end with your mother,” Alexander Aless, the Scots reformist, told Elizabeth as early as 1559; elsewhere in his letter he referred to Anne as “that most holy Queen, your most pious mother.” He was convinced that she had died “in consequence of her love for the doctrine of the Gospel when it was in its infancy,” and because she had persuaded the King to befriend the Lutherans at Wittenberg. “If other arguments of the truth of this were wanting, a single one would be sufficient, namely that before the embassy had returned, the Queen had been executed.” But since then, God had declared her innocence “by the most indisputable miracles, proved by the testimonies of all godly men.” Of course, it was now permissible to talk up Anne’s links to the Lutherans, and Aless was on a mission, seeing it as his sacred duty “to write the history, or tragedy, of the death of your most holy mother, to afford consolation to the godly.” No one, as far as he knew, had yet published such a work, which indeed seems to have been the case, although it would not remain so for long.

  At Elizabeth’s coronation that year, the Gracechurch Street pageant showed that Anne Boleyn’s image was no longer to remain hidden or forgotten. It was now permissible to speak her name, and to speak it with honor.

  One of the first of Anne’s early defenders was an anonymous author who had known her and was writing a defense of her between 1563 and 1570; his work—if it were ever finished—does not survive, and is only known through a reference to it by John Foxe in the 1570 edition of his History of the Acts and Monuments of the Church (popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563, and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth). Foxe wrote of Anne: “Because more is also promised to be declared of her virtuous life (the Lord so permitting) by other who were then about her, I will cease in this matter further to proceed.”

  John Foxe himself, who once enjoyed the patronage of Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond, one of Anne’s ladies, was one of the first to refer to Anne as a “godly” woman, “for sundry respects, whatsoever the cause was or quarrel objected against her.” Numbering her among the English martyrs, he wrote that an impenetrable mystery surrounded her fall, but because he expected that to be examined in the work to which he had referred, he did not elaborate himself upon it.9

  First, her last words declared no less her faith in Christ than did her modesty utter forth the goodness of the cause, whatsoever it was. Besides that, this also may seem to give a great clearing unto her, that the King, [being] married in his whites [wedding clothes] unto another [so soon after her death] represented a great clearing of her. Certain this was, that for the singular gifts of her mind, so well instructed and given toward God, joined with like gentleness and pity towards men, there hath not been many such queens before her borne the crown of England. Principally, this commendation she left behind her, that during her life the religion of Christ had a right prosperous course. What a zealous defender she was of Christ’s Gospel all the world doth know, and her acts do and will declare to the world’s end. I marvel why Parliament, after the illegitimation of the marriage [was] enacted, should further proceed and charge her with such carnal desires as to misuse herself with her own natural brother, Lord Rochford, and others, being so contrary to all nature that no natural man will believe it.

  Nor did the Elizabethans believe it. To them, Anne was a virtual saint. Although she died in the orthodox Catholic faith, she had given impetus and encouragement to the cause of reform, and for this, succeeding generations brought up in the Anglican tradition were prepared to forgive her less endearing deeds. The Protestant scholar John Aylmer, famous as the tutor of Lady Jane Grey, was voicing the new received wisdom when he posed the question, “Was not Queen Anne, the mother of the blessed woman, the chief, first and only cause of banishing the Beast of Rome with all his beggarly baggage?”

  “She was a comforter and aider of all the professors of Christ’s Gospels,” George Wyatt wrote. Her charities, benefactions, good works, alms, and “the heavenly flame burning in her” became the chief things that were remembered of her, and he concluded that “this princely lady was elect of God.” It is not surprising, therefore, that Elizabethan chroniclers such as John Stow tended to omit the unpleasant details of Anne’s fall. Instead, she and Henry VIII were portrayed as the righteous victims of Fortune or of unscrupulous, malicious schemers. These views would prevail in England right through the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, a period during which Elizabeth I’s accession day was celebrated as a national holiday.

  William Shakespeare makes no mention of Anne’s fall in his play All is True, or Henry VIII (now thought to have been a collaboration with John Fletcher), which was written around 1613, in the reign of James I, Elizabeth’s successor, and focuses on Henry’s love for “Anne Bullen,” her “gentle mind and heavenly blessings,” her coronation and the triumphant birth of the future Queen Elizabeth. However, when Francis Bacon did touch on the controversial aspects of Anne’s life in The Tragedy of Anne Boleyn, a play that dates probably from the late 1580s, he thought it best to write in cipher. The first part of Bacon’s play is very like Shakespeare’s, but he goes boldly beyond the scope of Henry VIII, portraying Henry’s disappointment in Elizabeth’s sex, his fickle and changeable nature and how it prompte
d the false charges against Anne, the travesty of her trial, in which scene she is seen conducting herself nobly, and her cruel death.

  Bacon wrote several other works in code, but there can be no doubt that this play—which was not deciphered until 1901—was written in that manner because of its sensitive content, which might have offended Elizabeth I, and that it was never actually performed. Clearly, Bacon understood that the matters it dealt with were not to be spoken of. He wrote that such works would “perchance remain in hiding until a future people furnish wits keener than those of our own times to open this heavily barred entranceway and enter the house of treasure. Yet are we in hourly terror lest the Queen, our enemy at present, although likewise our mother, be cognizant of our invention.” All the same, Bacon’s depiction of Anne is sympathetic and in keeping with the Elizabethan tradition. “Every act and scene is a tender sacrifice,” he wrote, “and an incense to her sweet memory.”

  It was not until 1720 that modern historical research into the subject of Henry VIII’s wives began. That was when the antiquarian John Strype embarked on the vast task of collecting, collating, and preserving many important contemporary documents. This instituted a new tradition in historical study, which prompted independent analysis that was free—to a decreasing degree—of religious bias. From that time forward, public sympathy for Anne Boleyn began to burgeon, and one can detect in the works of eighteenth-century historians a certain antagonism toward Henry VIII, who was beginning to be regarded as an authoritarian bigot and a cruel lecher.

  In the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the developing romantic movement in literature and the arts saw Anne Boleyn elevated to the status of tragic, wronged heroine, as she appears in Gaetano Donizetti’s historically wildly inaccurate opera Anna Bolena (1830), in which she is portrayed as the tragic victim of treasonable intrigues at court and finally goes mad in the Tower. Jane Austen vilified Henry as a vile fornicator and sadist, and bitterly bewailed the fate of his unfortunate wives. Here again, a new, emotive, and subjective tradition emerged, and it was in such a climate that Agnes Strickland wrote her celebrated Lives of the Queens of England, a landmark work in itself and the product of much original research, but heavily influenced by Victorian moral and social codes. She too wrote of Anne Boleyn in the romantic tradition, and clearly viewed Henry VIII as unspeakably wicked. Nevertheless, her work, much enjoyed by Queen Victoria (to whom it was dedicated), heralded a revival of interest in the Tudor queens.

  From about 1850 on, we move into the great period of historical research, when a large number of documents were collated and published, many under the auspices of the Master of the Rolls. The monumental Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII was compiled, as were the foreign diplomatic calendars and the Tudor state papers, sources that are essential to our understanding of the period. This research prompted the publication of many history books with a fresh and analytical approach. The works of James Anthony Froude and Martin A. S. Hume achieved a more rational assessment of the history of Henry VIII’s wives, while Paul Friedmann’s Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English History (1884) debunked many of the romantic legends about its subject and portrayed her as a scheming adventuress.

  Froude felt that the unanimous verdict given by the peers and the grand juries proved that Anne must have committed at least some of the offenses with which she was charged. Friedmann was of the opinion that Cromwell was speaking the truth when he referred to Anne’s coaccused confessing to things “so abominable that a great part of them were never given in evidence, but clearly kept secret,”10 and was “by no means convinced that Anne did not commit offenses quite as grave as those of which she was accused.” He thought it possible that she was guilty “of crimes which it did not suit the convenience of the government to divulge.” He added that this was hinted at during her trial,11 “and although proof was not adduced, they were likely enough to have been true.” It is an interesting theory, and would explain why the evidence against Anne was destroyed, as Friedmann believed, and why the charges in the indictment seem so obviously contrived. It would also explain the odd remark Anne made when she was told by Kingston that she would not be held in a dungeon but in the Queen’s lodgings—“It is too good for me”—and her final confession, in which she declared she had never offended against the King with her body. Had she offended against him in some other way?

  Yet what abominable offense could Anne have committed that had at all costs to be kept secret? Could it have been something that touched not only her honor but the King’s too? Even if it had, Cromwell, that master of spin, could surely have turned it to Henry’s advantage. If it was not a sexual offense, as Anne’s last confession would appear to make clear, what other crime could her coaccused have disclosed? There is no evidence of any, and given that the charges against Anne were sensitive enough in their nature, and that Cromwell’s reference to secret abominations was probably meant to convey nothing more than unmentionable sexual depravity, we can only conclude that Friedmann’s theory does not bear close scrutiny.

  The twentieth century witnessed an ever more impartial approach to research and historical interpretation, and the growth of post-Freudian analysis, with the historian evolving into a psychologist rather than a judge, which in itself led to some new conclusions, such as the theory that because of the executions of her mother and Katherine Howard, Elizabeth I grew up equating marriage and sex with death, and consequently was too fearful to take a husband. Today, in the twenty-first century, a more rational and balanced approach prevails, yet it is rare to find a commentator who is devoid of all prejudice or preconception.

  Because of the extreme polarity of Catholic and Protestant views of Anne Boleyn, the bias with which her contemporaries wrote of her, the romantic tradition, and the frustrating gaps in the source material for her life, she remains a controversial subject to this day. Rarely are historians entirely impartial about her. She is either a saint, a sinner, a wronged heroine, the feisty temptress beloved by filmmakers, or—more recently—the prime cause and mover of the Reformation, a view that would have been unthinkable forty years ago, and can be sweepingly overstated. Modern biographers increasingly tend to buy into the Protestant hagiographic view of Anne, a view supported only to a degree by contemporary evidence, and even now a religious bias is occasionally evident, as in the late Joanna Denny’s anti-Catholic biography of her.

  For centuries Anne’s partisans have seen her as a wronged woman whose wicked husband had her murdered in order to marry her handmaiden. Of course, this is only half the picture, but it underpins many perceptions of Anne even today. In 2005 a former Battle of Britain veteran who had “fallen in love” with the Queen during history lessons at school, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Home Secretary either to pardon her or, preferably, declare her innocent.

  Serious historians are now fairly united in believing Anne guiltless of the crimes for which she died. John Scarisbrick found it “difficult to believe that she was ever guilty of adultery or incest.” Professor Ives wrote stridently that “to substantiate nymphomania, incest, and quadruple adultery, there is no evidence worth the name,”12 while Anne Somerset has called Anne the victim of “a deadly combination of court intrigue and royal disfavor.”13 Professor Loades is almost certainly correct in saying that she fell “because of the dynamics of court politics, and the fact that her power over the King was based on nothing more durable than sexual chemistry.”14

  There are few who have disagreed with this view. Back in 1902, A. F. Pollard felt that there must have been some “colorable justification” for the charges, but Professor Bernard is now virtually alone in suggesting that Anne was quite possibly guilty, yet perhaps not of all the crimes of which she was accused, and not with all the men alleged to have been her lovers. Ives, however, concedes that the case against her must have been plausible enough to convince those ninety-five jurors of her guilt.

  In assessing Anne’s character and impact on history, we should ask ourse
lves how she would be viewed today if she had not perished on the scaffold. Her end was one of the most dramatic and shocking episodes in English history, her last days the best documented period of her life, vividly described in the sources, while that powerful image of her on the scaffold, courageously facing a horrible death, has overlaid all previous conceptions of her.

  Had Anne survived into old age—setting aside all other ramifications of that “what if”—she might now be remembered merely as a ruthless “other woman” who got her man and proved to be a none too popular queen. Had she borne the King no son, and lived to see her daughter succeed—probably in the late 1540s, when Anne herself would have been in her own late forties—something approaching the hagiographic Protestant view of her, as the lauded Elizabeth’s mother, would certainly have prevailed, at least in England. But it is virtually certain that, dying in her bed, she would not have enjoyed the charismatic, romantic posthumous reputation that is hers today.

  Conversely, Henry VIII’s reputation has undoubtedly suffered as a result of his treatment of Anne Boleyn, and there is a popular misconception—even among some serious historians—that he had her “murdered,” even though she was executed in accordance with the law as it then stood. Sir Patrick Hastings, the former Attorney General, writing in 1950 about Anne Boleyn’s “appalling trial,” called Henry “one of the most unutterable blackguards who ever sat upon this or any other throne.” Jane Dunn sees him as a “grotesque failure as a husband and father;” Linda Porter calls him “a wife murderer,” and refers to the “obscene charade” of Anne’s fall. Karen Lindsey, in her overimaginative feminist perspective on Henry VIII’s wives, asserts that Henry needed to kill Anne simply because he loathed her.

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