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


  Eric Ives rightly draws attention to the oft-stated—and simplistic—view that if Anne was innocent, then Henry VIII, Cromwell, and many members of the Tudor establishment “contrived or connived at coldblooded murder.”15 We have to remember that she was executed according to the due process of the law as it then stood. Virtually the whole of the establishment—the King, the Privy Council, the two grand juries, the twenty-six peers who sat in judgment at the trial, and the judges—not forgetting Parliament itself—all played their proper parts, and it may even be that the law was allowed to take its course without undue influence being brought to bear upon it. Certainly care was taken that the case be heard in public, and that some records of it were preserved for posterity to see. Because the depositions are missing, the Crown’s case looks weak and contrived to modern eyes, but we can be certain there was more to it than the surviving sources reveal. According to Cromwell, some of the evidence was so “abominable” that it did not bear repetition in court, doubtless for the sake of the King’s honor; he may have been exaggerating, but we just do not know. It is this lack of documentation that hampers our understanding of why Anne Boleyn was condemned. Above all, there is no evidence that Henry VIII did not believe in Anne’s guilt, and it is barely credible that he sent six victims unnecessarily to the scaffold merely to satisfy “a lust for superfluous butchery,” as N. Brysson Morrison put it.

  David Loades believes that Henry was able to deceive himself into believing the charges, and that in the momentous events of 1536, he demonstrated for the first—and certainly not the last—time that his self-deception was “capable of taking the form of a monstrous and amoral cruelty.”16 Yet if one accepts the case for self-deception, one also has to accept the populist modern view of Henry as Starkey’s “great puppet” who was easily manipulated by clever advisers, a view effectively demolished more than thirty years ago by Lacey Baldwin Smith.17 It is also worth remembering that Henry did not immediately accept at face value what his councillors told him about Anne’s conduct, but insisted that they investigate further.

  Yet Professor Loades makes a valid point in response to Henry’s detractors who accuse him simplistically of sending Anne to the scaffold on trumped-up charges merely because she no longer pleased him: had this been the case, why hadn’t he meted out the same punishment to Katherine of Aragon, who defied him and was a constant thorn in his side for nine aggravating years?18 His life would have been far less complicated with Katherine safely dead. Of course, she had powerful relations abroad, while Anne had no one to fight for her. Nevertheless, Katherine could legitimately have been accused of inciting the King’s subjects to rebellion, or her nephew—the Emperor—to make war on him, and charges of high treason could easily have been made to stick. No one could have complained about that, given that Katherine was betraying the man whom she staunchly insisted was her husband and her sovereign lord. This argues that Henry VIII did not lightly stoop to subverting the law to follow his own desires, and also that whatever evidence about Anne was laid before him, it must have been convincing.

  Modern historians tend to view Cromwell’s role in Anne’s fall as “hideously corrupt,” as Hester Chapman has noted, yet she makes the point that he was operating in a period when justice yielded to expediency, and, as the principal Secretary of State, saw his duty as cutting away “a malignant growth from the body politic.” Taking this line of argument to its logical conclusion, those cooperating in Anne’s destruction acted as loyal subjects, putting the needs of the kingdom first.

  Helen Miller has said that if the King believed the charges against Anne, few others did. Yet, as has been demonstrated, the evidence shows that many at the time unquestioningly believed them. Had Elizabeth never succeeded to the throne, people might have continued to do so, and it might have been left to modern scholarship to rehabilitate Anne’s reputation.

  Notwithstanding all this, it is almost certain that there was a grievous miscarriage of justice. The circumstances of Anne’s fall strongly suggest that she was framed; even her enemy Chapuys thought so. Nowadays, many historians would agree with David Loades that she was “the victim of a political coup of great skill and ruthlessness,” which also destroyed her faction.19 Henry VIII virtually admitted as much when he told Jane Seymour that Anne had died “in consequence of meddling too much in state affairs.”20

  In assessing the surviving evidence for and against her guilt, the truth becomes staggeringly clear. Against Anne, we have merely her own account of compromising conversations and familiarity with Norris, Weston, and Smeaton; reports of adverse testimony against her, with barely any details; and that odd remark—“It is too good for me”—about being lodged in the Queen’s apartments, rather than in a dungeon, made when she was in great distress.

  In her favor, there are a multitude of compelling factors: the fact that she was involved in a life-or-death power struggle with Cromwell; his admission to Chapuys that he “thought up and plotted” her fall; the incongruity of the charges, particularly that of plotting the King’s death; the alteration of the dates in the Kent indictment; the discrepancies and illogicalities in both indictments; the striking absence of any evidence of Anne indulging in extramarital affairs during the three years of her queenship, and of any real proofs of infidelity; the fact that no female attendants (without whose cooperation Anne could not have contrived any illicit meetings with her “lovers”) were arrested with her; the fact that four of her coaccused were convicted first, thus prejudicing her own trial; that crucial documents are missing from the case records in the Baga de Secretis; the superficial nature of the surviving evidence; the disbanding of Anne’s household and the summoning of the executioner before her condemnation; the King telling Jane Seymour in advance that Anne would be condemned; Anne and others voicing the suspicion that there was some other reason for her fall than the crimes of which she was accused; her repeated denials of her guilt, and—above all—her last confession, in which, both before and after receiving the Holy Sacrament, she maintained her innocence.

  In weighing up the evidence for and against her, the historian cannot but conclude that Anne Boleyn was the victim of a dreadful miscarriage of justice: and not only Anne and the men accused with her, but also the King himself, the Boleyn faction, and—saddest of all—Elizabeth, who was to bear the scars of it all her life. In the absence of any real proof of Anne’s guilt, and with her conviction only on suspicious evidence, there must be a very strong presumption that she went to her death an innocent woman.

  Norfolk legend claimed that Anne Boleyn’s body was removed from the Tower at some stage and reburied near her ancestors beneath a plain black marble tombstone in Salle Church near Blickling Hall, where she was born.21 That was debunked, however, when the stone was lifted a few years ago and no remains were found beneath it. Early nineteenth-century tradition had it that a much smaller black slab in the ancient churchyard of the parish church at Horndon-on-the-Hill in Essex marked the place where her heart or her head had been buried, or that this was where her corpse rested overnight on its way to Salle.22 A similar legend is connected with an altar tomb in the churchyard of the disused Tudor church at East Horndon, Essex.23

  There are other legends that Anne’s heart was stolen and hidden in a church near Thetford, Norfolk,24 or at Erwarton Church in Suffolk, where a heart-shaped tin casket was discovered in the chancel wall in 1836 or 1837, and reburied under the organ, beneath the Cornwallis memorial slab; even today, there is a notice in the church stating that it is on record that Anne’s heart was buried in there by her uncle, Sir Philip Parker of Erwarton Hall. This is all highly unlikely, since heart burial had gone out of fashion in England by the end of the fourteenth century, while the uncle in question was in fact Sir Philip Calthorpe of Erwarton, who was married to Anne’s aunt, Amata (or Amy) Boleyn, and died in 1549. Nevertheless, the legend is commemorated in the name of the local inn, the Queen’s Head.

  George Abbott, the Yeoman Warder who has written many books on
the Tower of London, but does not in this instance quote his source, states that the vault in St. Peter ad Vincula, in which Anne had indisputably been buried, was opened, and its contents viewed, in the reign of her daughter Elizabeth I. However, there was no vault, because the executed persons who were laid to rest before the altar were all buried in the earth beneath the chancel pavement, as later excavations would prove. Thus the anonymous Tudor observer could not have described what he saw, only what he was told, probably by Tower officials. But since the burials had all taken place within living memory, the information he recorded is likely to have been fairly accurate: “The coffin of the Duke of Northumberland [executed for treason in 1554] rests besides that of the Duke of Somerset [executed 1552], between the coffins of the queens, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, and next unto these last is the coffin of Lady Jane Grey [executed 1554]. Then comes the coffins of Thomas Seymour, Lord of Sudeley [executed 1549], and of the Lady Rochford; and lastly that of George Boleyn, that was brother to Queen Anne—all beheaded.”25 This suggests that Anne and her brother were buried at opposite ends of the vault, and that Lady Rochford was interred beside her husband. In the same period, the chronicler John Stow famously recorded, “There lieth before the high altar in St. Peter’s Church two dukes between two queens.”

  In 1876, Queen Victoria approved the restoration of the dilapidated royal chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower, but only on condition that any disturbed remains be treated with the utmost reverence and that a careful record should be kept of any evidence that might aid identification. Before work began, it was noted that there was no memorial to mark the place where Anne Boleyn was buried.26

  In November of that year, excavations beneath the sunken altar pavement commenced, revealing the remains of most of the executed persons, some apparently still in the places they occupied three centuries earlier. The excavation committee did not know for certain where the bodies of the Tudor victims had actually been interred. One of its six members, Doyne Bell, drew up a plan “showing the relative positions in which it was believed that these persons had originally been buried.” He did this “after consulting various historical authorities,” although he did not specify which ones. In fact, apart from Stow, there was no other reliable source he could have consulted, aside from the Elizabethan observer, and Bell’s plan27 shows that he did not see that. Hence it was highly speculative, and inaccurate.

  Worthy attempts were made to identify the remains. A heap of bones carefully arranged and assumed to be Anne Boleyn’s, and found only two feet below the chancel floor “in the place where [she] is said to have been buried,” were thought to have been disturbed and disarrayed in 1750, when the lead coffin of one Hannah Beresford was buried two feet beneath them.28 The skeleton assumed to be Anne Boleyn’s was examined by a surgeon on the committee, Dr. Frederic Mouat, and described by Bell, both of whom were present at the exhumation. It comprised the bones of “a female of between twenty-five and thirty years of age, of a delicate frame of body, and who had been of slender and perfect proportions; the forehead and lower jaw were especially well-formed. The vertebrae were particularly small.” The committee thought that this bore witness to Anne Boleyn’s “little neck.”29 This female had “a well-formed round skull, intellectual forehead, straight orbital ridge, large eyes, oval face, and rather square, full chin. The remains of the vertebrae and the bones of the lower limbs indicate a well-formed woman of middle height, with a short and slender neck. The hand and feet bones indicate delicate and well-shaped hands and feet, with tapering fingers and a narrow foot.” There was no evidence of a sixth fingernail, as described by George Wyatt. Judging from the vertebrae, Dr. Mouat estimated the woman’s height to have been “five feet, or five feet three inches, not more.”

  Dr. Mouat confidently opined that the bones all belonged to the same person, and had lain in the earth for upward of three hundred years, and voiced his opinion that these remains were “all consistent with the published descriptions of Queen Anne Boleyn, and the bones of the skull might well belong to the person portrayed in the painting by Holbein in the collection of the Earl of Warwick.”30

  Setting aside for a moment the question of age, Anne’s authenticated portraits all show her as having a pointed chin, not a square one, while—as has been noted—no painting of her by Holbein is known to have survived. The portrait of Anne at Warwick Castle is an eighteenth-century copy in oils of Holbein’s sketch of a lady who was not identified as Anne until 1649, which is discussed in the Appendix; other versions of the Warwick portrait are at Hever Castle and Hatfield House. Even today these are still believed to portray Anne Boleyn.

  We do not know how tall Anne Boleyn was. The hostile Nicholas Sander, writing fifty years after her death, called her “rather tall of stature,” but his account is in many ways suspect. Only one eyewitness description of the Queen survives, that of Francesco Sanuto, a Venetian diplomat, who described her as being “of middling height,”31 which, in Tudor times as in the Victorian age, might have meant rather shorter than we would interpret “middling height” today. But Sanuto also refers to her having a “long neck,” whereas the neck of the skeleton in the Tower was described as short.

  More to the point, four other decapitated females were buried in the chancel in Tudor times: Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, age between sixteen and twenty-three, depending on which evidence for her age one accepts; Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, aged sixty-eight; Lady Jane Grey, age probably seventeen; and Lady Rochford, whose age at death is unknown, but who was of marriageable age (twelve or over) in 1524, and was thus born in 1512 at the latest. Forensic science was not exact in the Victorian age, and Dr. Mouat’s estimates of the ages of the deceased could have been inaccurate. It is just possible that the bones thought to be Anne Boleyn’s—the diminutive slender female with a square jaw—actually belonged to Katherine Howard, miniatures of whom by Holbein show her with what could be a jutting square jaw.

  It is interesting to note that close by the remains of the Duke of Northumberland, in the place where Katherine Howard was thought to have been laid to rest—and whose remains were supposedly not found at all (and were thought either to have dissolved in the quicklime found in the graves or to have decomposed into dust)—parts of the disarrayed skeletons of two woman were found. It was thought that they were moved there in the eighteenth century to make room for other burials.

  One female, much advanced in years, was almost certainly Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who was beheaded in 1541 at the age of sixty-seven. The other skeleton was thought by Dr. Mouat to have been that of a woman of “rather delicate proportions,” of “about thirty to forty years of age, [but] probably forty years of age.” This female was “of larger frame” than Katherine, who had been “a very little girl,” according to one French ambassador. Surely these bones belonged to Anne Boleyn, whose age at death has now been credibly established as thirty-five, not twenty-nine, as the Victorians believed. It therefore follows that the two dukes, Somerset and Northumberland, were indeed buried between two queens, but that the queens were in opposite positions to the ones in which they were thought by the committee to have been laid to rest.

  In April 1877 all the skeletons and bones—except the remains of Lord Rochford, Thomas Seymour and Lady Jane Grey, which had not been disturbed32—were reverently laid in individual leaden coffers, which were screwed down and placed inside oaken outer coffins one inch thick, these being sealed with copper screws. A lead plaque bearing the name and arms of the person thought to be inside was affixed to the lid of each coffin, and all were decently reburied in the place where they were found, just four inches beneath the altar pavement. This was then concreted over and laid with decorative octagonal memorial slabs of green, red, and white marble in a mosaic design, each having a border of yellow Sienna marble and the names and armorial crests of the deceased.33

  The remains in the chancel were replaced in the order in which they were found, with the t
wo dukes between the two queens, although these burials do not correspond to the memorial slabs. Presumably a space was left beneath the place where Katherine Howard’s “vanished” remains were supposed to lie. However, the partial skeleton of the woman that had been found there, and which—given the fact that other bones were mistakenly identified as Anne Boleyn’s in 1876—no one thought to be of great significance, was buried as Lady Rochford.34 Thus, we can be almost certain that Anne’s memorial stone does not mark the last resting place of her actual remains, and that she lies beneath Lady Rochford’s memorial.

  The Victorian historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, referring to the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, famously wrote:

  There is no sadder spot on Earth. Death is there associated, not, as in Westminster and St. Paul’s, with genius and virtue, with public veneration and imperishable renown; not, as in our humblest churches and churchyards, with everything that is most endearing in social and domestic charities: but with whatever is darkest in human nature and in human destiny; with the savage triumph of implacable enemies, with the inconstancy, the ingratitude, the cowardice of friends, with all the miseries of fallen greatness and of blighted fame. Thither have been carried through successive ages, by the rude hands of gaolers, without one mourner following, the bleeding relics of the captains of armies, the leaders of parties, and the ornaments of courts.

  Each year, since at least the 1960s, on the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution, a bunch of red roses—such as appear on her coat of arms—has been delivered anonymously to the Tower, with a request that it be placed on her memorial. The flowers, sent by a shop in London on the instructions of an undisclosed firm of trustees, are always accompanied by a card bearing only the dedication Queen Anne Boleyn 1536. This request is complied with by the Yeoman Warders, who lay the flowers on Anne’s grave and only remove them when they have withered.35

 
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