Modern history



When Anne Boleyn had written so harshly about Princess Mary she had been full of hope: her rival, Catherine of Aragon, had died and she confidently expected the birth of a son. In January 1536 she and the other members of her family present at court had no reason to believe that the end of their political dominance was coming, and that it would come with extreme suddenness.

It took Anne over a year to conceive following the end of her second pregnancy, something which must have been deeply worrying for her. Given the claims that emerged at her trial, that Anne had complained that Henry was impotent, it would appear that the difficulty lay with him. However, in the sixteenth century, a failure to produce a child was always the woman’s fault and Anne was therefore jubilant when, in the last months of 1535, she realised that she was pregnant once again. Sadly for Anne, this pregnancy proved no more successful than its predecessor and, in January 1536, on the very day of Catherine of Aragon’s funeral, she went into premature labour, miscarrying a son at only around three and a half months of pregnancy.1

For Anne, the loss of her son was a disaster and she wept bitterly as she lay in her chamber, allowing herself to be attended only by her sister. Henry was also grief-stricken, taking out his anger on Anne by storming into her chamber to confront her angrily and ‘bewailing and complaining unto her the loss of his boy’ before saying that he could see that ‘he would have no more boys by her’ before stalking from the room. Anne had heard these kind of threats before from Henry, such as in their angry confrontations over his infidelity. Soon rumours were flying around court that Henry was claiming that ‘he had made this marriage, seduced by witchcraft, and for this reason he considered it null; and that this was evident because God did not permit them to have any male issue and that he believed that he might take another wife, which he gave to understand that he had some wish to do’.2

This caused Anne to go on the offensive, trying to shift the blame for the miscarriage to others. On 24 January, Henry had fallen heavily from his horse and had been knocked unconscious. At the time, there was some fear for his life and the Duke of Norfolk was sent to inform Anne of the calamity.3 Since Henry’s death would have resulted in civil war between his two rival daughters, it is easy to see why Anne would have been terrified. According to Chapuys, Anne saw this as one of the principal causes of her miscarriage and ‘she wished to lay the blame on the Duke of Norfolk, whom she hates, saying he frightened her by bringing the news of the fall the king had six days before’. However, this argument was largely dismissed as ‘it is well known that this is not the cause, for it was told her in a way that she should not be alarmed or attach much importance to it’.

Anne then claimed that her miscarriage had been caused by coming upon Henry sitting with his new mistress upon his knee, with the queen remonstrating with Henry ‘that the love she bore him was far greater than that of the late queen, so that her heart broke when she saw he loved others’ and she lost her child.4 For once, Henry was lost for words and, for a few days at least, did feel remorse, leaving his mistress behind at Greenwich when the court moved. Henry’s mistress, who was a second cousin of Anne’s named Jane Seymour, quickly proved to resemble the queen more closely than anyone would have thought, refusing absolutely to consummate any relationship with the king other than marriage. In the early months of 1536 Anne was still the established queen and she remained in a relatively strong position. Her enemies were, however, beginning to gather around her.

Anne and Henry’s relationship continued to be troubled for some time after her miscarriage. According to Chapuys in February 1536 ‘for more than three months this king has not spoken ten times to the Concubine, and that when she miscarried he scarcely said anything to her’.5 While this is likely to have been an exaggeration, Henry’s relationship with Jane Seymour certainly troubled the queen, with Anne snatching a locket containing Henry’s picture from around Jane’s neck. Jane Seymour, who was no beauty, captivated Henry with her virtue and the seeming contrast that she presented to Anne. He became devoted to her after sending her a purse full of sovereigns and a letter which she refused to accept, declaring that ‘she was a gentlewoman of good and honourable parents, without reproach, and that she had no greater riches in the world than her honour, which she would not injure for a thousand deaths, and that if he wished to make her some present in money she begged it might be when God enabled her to make some honourable marriage’.6 Jane’s message had the desired effect and Henry’s ‘love and desire towards the said lady was wonderfully increased’.

Jane Seymour was as ambitious as Anne had been and built a strong party around herself, headed by her brother, Edward Seymour, who was made a member of the king’s Privy Chamber in March 1536. Anne had made many enemies as queen, with a number of disparate groups falling in together behind her rival. Princess Mary and Chapuys both signalled their support for a new marriage to Jane, with Mary considering that she ‘would be very happy, even if she were excluded from her inheritance by male issue’.7 The addition of Mary’s and Imperial support for Jane was dangerous to Anne and worse was to come when Thomas Cromwell also set himself behind Jane.8 Cromwell had been a member of Wolsey’s household and well remembered Anne’s animosity towards the cardinal and her role in his downfall: his decision to desert Anne, following a quarrel with her in which she declared that ‘she would like to see his head cut off’, was therefore unsurprising.

Anne could never have foreseen that such an alliance would ever be possible, with the only common ground of the various parties being their hatred of her. The only main participant in the plot who remained undecided in the early part of 1536 was Henry himself, who had still not entirely decided to abandon his sonless marriage. The death of Catherine of Aragon had allowed both Anne and Henry to hope for a reconciliation with the Emperor and Henry was determined to finally be the victor in their dispute, with Catherine’s nephew recognising the legitimacy of his second marriage, regardless of his own bitter feelings towards Anne. In spite of writing to Chapuys that he should not ‘treat anything to the prejudice of the late queen’s honour, or her [Mary’s] legitimacy or right to the succession’, Charles had also recognised that Catherine’s death largely cleared the obstacles to peace and was prepared to discuss an alliance with Henry.9 Interestingly, in his instructions to Chapuys Charles also asked his ambassador to find out what Anne herself wanted in order to secure an alliance. Her price was imperial recognition of her marriage and status.

On Easter Sunday 1536, Anne finally received the recognition that she craved from Catherine’s own family.10 Chapuys, who had earlier refused a request from Cromwell to visit her and publicly kiss her, was escorted to Mass by George Boleyn. He must have been aware of what was planned for him since, in his own report, he acknowledged that a great crowd of people were in attendance ‘to see how the Concubine and I behaved to each other’. Anne deliberately waited to make her entrance until her brother had manoeuvred the ambassador behind a door, ensuring that Chapuys could not escape until he had done Anne reverence as queen. This was Anne’s moment of triumph and secured for her the final acknowledgement of her royal status. It was also her final triumph. While the Emperor had instructed Chapuys to deal with Anne if necessary, he also asked his ambassador to assure the king of his support if he chose to remarry. Charles, like many in Europe, considered that Catherine’s death left Henry a widower.

Catherine’s presence had, in fact, protected Anne, in spite of the fact that she, like Henry, wore celebratory yellow at her death. If Henry abandoned Anne during Catherine’s lifetime he knew that he would be under pressure to return to his former wife, something that held him to his second bride. On 29 April 1536 Henry finally showed his displeasure in Anne openly by appointing Sir Nicholas Carew, a supporter of Jane Seymour, as a Knight of the Garter, in preference to George Boleyn. Chapuys gleefully reported that ‘the Concubine has not had sufficient influence to get it for her brother’. This was probably the moment that Henry decided to commit himself to Jane and abandon Anne; there was no point in going to the expense of commissioning a garter stall for a man he intended to sacrifice.

By 30 April 1536, Cromwell was ready to strike against Anne, inviting Mark Smeaton, a young musician in Anne’s household, to dine with him that day.11 This was a flattering invitation for the low-born Smeaton, and he went gladly, hoping for patronage from the king’s minister. He was completely unsuspecting when he arrived at Cromwell’s house at Stepney and, rather than being offered a meal, found himself arrested and taken to the Tower for interrogation. Smeaton must have been terrified and there were rumours that he had been racked or subjected to some other torture. In the face of threats, or worse, he admitted to adultery with Anne.

Anne is unlikely to have noticed Smeaton’s disappearance and attended the May Day jousts at Greenwich the following day. These were a great affair, attended by the entire court, with Henry sitting close to his queen. Anne may have hoped to speak to her husband and her mood was lighter than it had been for several weeks as she watched her brother and other gentlemen, including Henry Norris, a favourite of the king, and her old favourite, Sir Thomas Wyatt, participate. During the tournament Anne dropped her handkerchief to one of the jousters to allow him to wipe his face, a typical action in the chaste game of courtly love. She noticed nothing amiss and was horrified when, midway through the jousts, Henry suddenly rose to his feet and stalked away without saying a word. This was to be the last time that Anne saw her husband as he swiftly rode away to Westminster Palace, accompanied by only six attendants. On the journey Henry closely questioned Henry Norris, offering him a pardon if he would only confess a crime to the king. Norris was completely taken by surprise and did not give the king the answer that he required; the following morning Norris, like Smeaton before him, was committed to the Tower on a charge of adultery with the queen.

Anne spent an anxious night at Greenwich. The following morning her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, with several other members of the king’s council, came to arrest her. When Anne was told that she was accused of adultery, she immediately exclaimed that she was wronged and begged to see the king, something that was not permitted. She spent much of the day being interrogated, before being taken by water to the Tower of London at 5 p.m. that evening. There is no doubt that Anne was terrified and, on her arrival, she fell to her knees before her interrogators, ‘beseeching God to help her as she was not guilty of her accusement, and also desired the said lords to beseech the king’s grace to be good unto her’.12 When Anne asked, ‘Shall I go in a dungeon?’ she was reassured that she would be staying in the royal apartments which were familiar to her. Nonetheless, she was still very much aware that she was a prisoner and her composure entirely left her for a time.

When Anne arrived at the Tower, she was disconcerted to find that her aunt, ‘Lady Boleyn’, had been sent to attend her, along with a Mistress Coffin. This Lady Boleyn is usually identified as Anne Tempest Boleyn, the wife of Thomas Boleyn’s brother, Edward. As previously discussed, Anne Tempest Boleyn had been a favoured attendant of Catherine of Aragon and she does therefore seem to be a likely candidate for Queen Anne Boleyn’s attendant in the Tower, who was far from favourable to her niece.

The alternative candidate would be Elizabeth Wood Boleyn, the wife of Sir James Boleyn. Elizabeth Wood Boleyn had served her niece during her time as queen, something that suggests that the two women enjoyed a friendly relationship.13 She was reputed to be close enough to her niece for Lady Lisle, the wife of Henry VIII’s controller of Calais, to send a token to her in July 1535 in an attempt to obtain a place for her daughter in the queen’s household.14 Elizabeth was evidently not particularly taken with her gift, sending a reciprocal token which Lady Lisle’s agent referred to as of little worth. Anne was in the habit of lending sums of money to those with whom she was friendly, such as the Countess of Worcester. At the time of her death, Elizabeth’s husband, Sir James Boleyn, owed her £50, a sum that was substantial enough to suggest a friendship: this again does not suggest that his wife can have been the Lady Boleyn at the Tower.15 Another piece of evidence which counts against her presence in the Tower is that the will of her husband, Sir James Boleyn, which was written in 1561, makes it clear that he died an adherent of the reformed faith, commending his soul to the Holy Trinity, rather than, as had earlier been the custom, to a specific saint or saints.16 This does not prove that James, or his wife, had earlier been followers of the religious reform which Anne Boleyn certainly adhered to, but it is possible, particularly since James was appointed as his niece’s chancellor when she became queen.

The Lady Boleyn who awaited her niece at the Tower was there to spy on the queen and report on her conversation. Queen Anne fully recognised this, complaining to the Lieutenant of the Tower that ‘I think much unkindness in the king to put such about me as I never loved’.17 She was unconvinced by Kingston’s answer ‘that the king took them to be honest and good women’. Anne replied that ‘I would have had of my own Privy Chamber which I favour most’, something which again strongly indicates that it was Anne Tempest, who was not one of the queen’s attendants, rather than Elizabeth Wood, who was present at the Tower. Lady Boleyn’s hostile role was stated by Gilbert Burnet, who wrote in the seventeenth century and appears to have used a lost contemporary account of the fall of Anne Boleyn, written by one Anthony Anthony, who was a Surveyor of the Ordnance at the Tower. He recorded the hostile relationship between the two women, due to the fact that they had long been on ‘very ill terms’ and that Lady Boleyn went out of her way to obtain evidence against her niece: ‘she engaged her into much discourse, and studied to draw confessions from her. Whatsoever she said was presently sent to the court.’18

Lady Boleyn and Mistress Coffin were deputed to sleep on a pallet bed in the queen’s own chamber: a proximity that cannot have been welcomed by either aunt or niece.19 To further emphasise the fact that she was under observation, the Lieutenant of the Tower, William Kingston, and his wife slept outside the door. While there was little love lost between the queen and her aunt, it is possible to suggest that Anne Tempest Boleyn had some sympathy for her niece. While Kingston wrote to Thomas Cromwell to inform him that ‘I have everything told me by Mistress Coffin that she thinks meet for me to know’ he did not record any information actually provided by Lady Boleyn. It was Mrs Coffin who rushed to tell Kingston that Anne had spoken of Henry Norris and his professions of love for her. A few days later Kingston recorded that he had sent specifically for Mistress Coffin and his wife for an update on Anne’s conduct, with no mention of Lady Boleyn.20

The surviving evidence for Lady Boleyn’s conduct in the Tower suggests disapproval of her niece rather than hatred. According to Kingston in one of his reports, Anne complained one evening that ‘the king wist what he did when he put such two about her as my Lady Boleyn and Mistress Coffin, for they could tell her nothing of my lord her father nor nothing else, but she defied them all’.21 In response, Lady Boleyn declared that ‘such desire as you have had to such tales has brought you to this’. Clearly Anne could expect little sympathy from an aunt who thought that she had brought her fall upon herself, although Lady Boleyn may not have been quite the enemy the queen believed her to be. Lady Shelton, whom Anne remained estranged from, was also one of the ladies employed as a potential informer on the queen.22

Lady Boleyn and Lady Shelton were not the only Boleyn ladies to play a potentially hostile role in the fall of Anne Boleyn. Jane Parker Boleyn, Lady Rochford, is usually assigned a great role in the fall of her husband and his sister. Gilbert Burnet believed that Jane played a major role in providing evidence against her husband and sister-in-law due to the fact that she was jealous of her husband’s close relationship with his sister and was ‘a woman of no sort of virtue’.23 Burnet claimed that Jane

carried many stories to the king, or some about him, to persuade, that there was a familiarity between the queen and her brother, beyond what so near a relation could justify. All that could be said for it was only this; that he was once seen leaning upon her bed, which bred great suspicion.24

While Jane was indeed involved in a love affair in the last year of her life, her role was that of a procuress rather than a lover. In spite of William Cavendish’s claim that Jane had not been a ‘chaste wife’ and that she was ‘in every matter, both early and late, called the woman of vice insatiate’ and that she had followed her ‘lust and filthy pleasure’, there is not actually any evidence that Jane ever took a lover or even contemplated remarrying. If anything, the evidence suggests that she at least outwardly remained loyal to George’s memory after his death. Cavendish, who knew her, described her as ‘a widow in black’.25 The evidence of Jane’s possessions also suggests that she habitually wore black, something which, given that her widowhood lasted for nearly six years, was far above what was required by convention. In the inventory of some of her goods prepared at the time of George’s death, the list of Jane’s clothes were colourful and rich, such as sleeves of yellow satin and of cloth of silver.26 Her clothes listed in inventories carried out at her death were entirely black, such as a kirtle of black velvet and one of black satin. She possessed a gown of black damask and one of black satin and a nightgown of black taffeta.27 Even the gift of cloth made by Princess Mary in 1537 was black satin. In public, Jane appeared as a grieving widow for the rest of her life. She also appeared publicly as a dutiful wife during George’s imprisonment, with the Lieutenant of the Tower recording that Sir Nicholas Carew and Sir Francis Bryan came with a message to George from Jane to ‘see how he did’ and also to declare that she would ‘humbly suit unto the king’s highness’ on George’s behalf.28 Unfortunately, the letter in which this message was noted was damaged in a fire and the exact nature of Jane’s petition is unclear, although it was ‘for her husband’ and such as that George ‘gave her thanks’, something which does imply that she offered to speak to the king for his release. This does not suggest hostility between husband and wife.

It is commonly suggested that George and Jane had always had an unhappy marriage. No representation survives of George but he appears to have been a handsome and accomplished man, reputed both as a patron of the religious reform and as a poet, although, unfortunately, no examples of his work survive. There is no surviving record that Jane was ever pregnant or produced any child, something that could suggest that the couple did not commonly live together as man and wife. Equally, one party to the marriage could have been infertile. A George Boleyn, Dean of Lichfield, who identified himself as a kinswoman of Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, was active later in the sixteenth century, suggesting that he could, perhaps, have been an illegitimate son of Lord Rochford’s. No other potential illegitimate children have been linked to George, and the Dean of Lichfield could have been a more distant relative. Infertility therefore cannot be ruled out for either party, particularly as it is clear that Jane was well aware of what relations between a husband and wife consisted of, indicating that the marriage would have been consummated. In 1540 Jane, with two other court ladies, gave evidence against the king’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, to show that Henry’s marriage remained unconsummated and to allow him to annul his marriage. According to the ladies, they spoke to the queen, telling her that they wished she was pregnant. A conversation ensued with the ladies declaring ‘Madam, I think your Grace is a maid still, indeed’. Anne protested, asking, ‘How can I be a maid and sleep every night with the king?’, to which Jane replied knowingly, ‘There must be more than that,’ before agreeing with her companions that if all the king did was kiss his wife goodnight it would be a long time before the queen bore a son.29

While the couple’s marriage was likely to have been consummated, this is not, in itself, an indication that it was happy. In his Metrical Visions, William Cavendish presented a highly unflattering picture of George, putting words into his mouth to declare that:

My life not chaste, my living bestial;
I forced widows, maidens I did deflower.
All was one to me, I spared none at all,
My appetite was all women to devour,
My study was both day and hour,
My unlawful lechery how I might it fulfil.
Sparing no woman to have on her my will.30

It was hardly unusual for an aristocratic husband to take mistresses and it was generally considered that a wife should ignore any illicit conduct on her husband’s part. However, Cavendish’s emphasis on George’s licentiousness does suggest that he may have gone further than most, something that would have embarrassed his wife, who, as the daughter of Henry VII’s first cousin, probably expected better treatment. Cavendish may, of course, have exaggerated but he does present a reasonably fair picture of Anne Boleyn’s brother, stating that George was endowed ‘with gifts of natural qualities’ among other accomplishments.

The claim, first made by Retha Warnicke in the 1980s, that George was homosexual can probably be discounted.31 Dr Warnicke based this claim largely on a surviving French manuscript, containing a satirical poem attacking the institution of marriage, which certainly belonged to George and also bears the signature of a ‘Marc S’. This Mark was identified as Mark Smeaton, with the argument being that he and George had been involved in a love affair, with Smeaton confessing to adultery with the queen because it was a less shameful death than that which would be inflicted on a homosexual in the period. The identification of ‘Marc S’ as Smeaton must be fairly contentious as it is highly unlikely that he could have afforded to purchase a work of this quality. However, he did move in the same circles as the Boleyns and so it is possible that he is indeed the Mark in question. It is quite a leap from this to assume that he and the queen’s brother were involved in a love affair however, particularly as there is no contemporary evidence to even hint at this. Cavendish also makes it clear that George’s licentiousness was directed at women, although he was apparently not particularly discerning as to his sexual partners. It is very possible that George’s adultery served to turn his wife away from him, but the evidence does not suggest any noticeable estrangement between the couple; the marriage was consummated, and Jane apparently mourned her husband and tried to intercede with the king on his behalf. None of this suggests any great passion between the couple, but it certainly does not indicate separation or hatred.

As has been pointed out, if Jane was indeed a willing government informer, she was not highly regarded by the king or his council.32 Following George’s conviction for treason, his property was seized, leaving Jane in considerable financial difficulty. The fact that a bed that had belonged to George was in her possession at her death suggests that she did succeed in recovering some of her late husband’s property, however the timing and the extent of this recovery is unclear; she may even have purchased the bed for sentimental reasons. Shortly after George’s death, Jane wrote to Thomas Cromwell as a ‘poor desolate widow without comfort’, soliciting his aid in relation to securing a better financial settlement from her father-in-law. Jane wrote,

Praying you, after your accustomed gentle manner to all them that be in such lamentable case as I am in, to be a mean to the king’s gracious highness for me for such poor stuff and plate as my husband had, whom God pardon; for that of his gracious and mere liberality I may have it to help me to my poor living, which to his Highness is nothing to be regarded, and to me should be a most high help and succour. And farther more, where that the king’s highness and my lord my father paid great sums of money for my jointure to the Earl of Wiltshire to the sum of two thousand marks, and I not assured of no more during the said Earl’s natural life than one hundred marks; which is very hard for me to shift the world withal. That you will specially tender me in this behalf as to inform the king’s highness of these premises; whereby I may the more tenderly be regarded of his gracious person, your word in this shall be to me a sure help: and God shall be to you therefore a sure reward, which doth promise good to them that doth help poor forsaken widows.33

Cromwell did indeed speak of Jane to the king, with both men writing on her behalf to Thomas Boleyn. Royal pressure persuaded Jane’s father-in-law to increase her entitlement by a further 50 marks a year, with a reiteration of the promise that she would receive a full 300 marks a year following his death.34 However, it is highly likely that Thomas’s concession was far below what she was hoping for and an indication that she enjoyed no great favour with the king. Shortly after the letter was written she took a post in the household of Queen Jane Seymour, suggesting that she may have been driven to do so due to financial necessity.

There is very little evidence to indicate that Jane and George were estranged at the time of his death, aside from persistent rumours that she had provided information that was used in the case against him and Anne. It may be that the couple’s relationship was not happy, particularly if Jane had blamed her banishment from court on George’s sister and had then made a public show of support for Princess Mary. The evidence suggests that Jane may have been responsible for some of the accusations levied against Anne and George, but this does not, in itself, suggest that she was vindictive. Such information could have been obtained from the interrogation of a woman who had already spent time in the Tower and was terrified of returning there, particularly if she was already somewhat estranged from her royal sister-in-law. George did not publicly blame his wife for his predicament. Jane is the most likely source of the claims that Anne and George had laughed at the king’s clothes and discussed Anne’s concerns that he was impotent. She may also have told Cromwell that George had jokingly questioned Elizabeth’s legitimacy, something that was treason after the terms of the first Act of Succession.

Jane’s role in the fall of Anne Boleyn will always be unclear. Little evidence survives concerning the charges brought against Anne or any of the men with which she was accused. The judge, Sir John Spelman, who sat on the bench during Anne’s trial, noted that Anne had originally been accused by Lady Wingfield.35 Lady Wingfield, who was an old friend of Anne’s, had died in either 1533 or 1534, leaving a deathbed statement in which she apparently accused the queen of being morally lax. Although this statement does not survive, it may have related to a premarital affair given the subservient tone which Anne used when she wrote to Lady Wingfield before she became queen. It is not impossible that this related to Anne’s relationship with Henry Percy, as suggested by the government’s interest in him during Anne’s trial. A lack of premarital chastity was a ground for divorce, but it was not treason. Anne was instead the subject of a far more damning allegation by the Countess of Worcester.36

According to a letter written by a gentleman present at court during the events of May 1536, ‘the first accusers, the Lady Worcester, and Nan Cobham, with one maid more. But Lady Worcester was the first ground.’37 Nan Cobham has never been identified successfully, but Lady Worcester was a member of the queen’s household and noted for her loose conduct. According to a letter written by Lady Worcester to Cromwell in March 1537, Anne had lent her £100, a vast sum, and one in which the countess was ‘very loath it should come to my lord my husband’s knowledge thereof, I am in doubt how he will take it’. Lady Worcester had a lover and in early 1536, her brother, Sir Anthony Browne, berated her for her immoral conduct. In her anger, the noblewoman blurted out that she was not the worst and that her brother should look to the conduct of the queen herself. This was enough for Cromwell’s agents to begin an investigation in Anne’s household and, according to Alexander Ales, who was at court during the last weeks of Anne’s life, the minister’s agents ‘tempt her porter and serving men with bribes, there is nothing which they do not promise the ladies of her bedchamber. They affirm that the king hated the queen, because she hath not presented him with an heir to the realm, nor was there any prospect of her doing so.’38

Lady Rochford, Lady Wingfield and Lady Worcester were, in fact, not the only women to offer evidence against the queen, with Anne’s own terrified words, in which she alternated between weeping and laughing, proving explosive. On her arrival in the Tower, Anne asked Kingston why she was in the Tower and he replied that he did not know. She then asked about her brother, who she had heard had also been arrested, pleading, ‘Oh where is my sweet brother?’ She then said that she thought that she would be accused with three men, presumably referring to her brother, Norris and Smeaton, who were all prisoners in the ancient fortress. She was still the old Anne, and, while bewailing the thought that Norris and Smeaton had accused her, asked Kingston, ‘Shall I die without justice?’ When Kingston replied that ‘the poorest subject the king hath had justice’, Anne burst out laughing.

Anne had always prided herself on her intelligence and self-possession, but in her first few days at the Tower she was a piteous sight, desperately turning over any incident in her mind that could have led suspicion to fall on her. According to Kingston, soon after her arrival,

the queen spoke of Weston that she had spoken to him because he did love her kinswoman Mrs Shelton and that she said he loves not his wife and he made answer to her again that he loved one in her house better than them both; she asked him who is that? To which he answered that it is your self: and then she defied him.

Francis Weston, who was a popular young man at court, and, like Norris, a member of the king’s household, had not previously been the subject of royal enquiry. Anne’s words damned him and before nightfall he found himself a prisoner in the Tower. She also discussed her interactions with Smeaton, saying that she had once found him looking sorrowful standing by the window in her chamber. He refused to answer when she asked why he was sad and, annoyed, Anne had declared that ‘you may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a nobleman, because you be an inferior person’. Smeaton then replied, ‘No, no, madam, a look sufficed me, and thus fair you well.’ While it appears that Smeaton may have had a crush on Anne, this is not evidence of adultery. Anne spoke innocently enough of her brother, saying when it was confirmed that he was also present in the Tower that ‘I am glad that we both be so nigh together’. This again could be misconstrued. Anne made no mention of the remaining three men arrested during the investigations: William Brereton, Sir Richard Page and Thomas Wyatt. Page and Wyatt were never brought to trial but Brereton was tried and suffered alongside the rest.

Anne herself was particularly concerned about her mother’s reaction to events, lamenting to William Kingston, ‘O my mother, thou will die for sorrow.’39 Given their close relationship, Elizabeth must have been distraught at the arrest of her children although there is no evidence that either she or her husband attempted to intercede on their behalf. It may be that both Elizabeth and Thomas had their own more immediate troubles as, immediately following the arrests, rumours spread throughout Europe that they too had been arrested for a role in Anne’s adultery.40 The couple may well have been fearful of imprisonment, which was a very real threat: five years later Henry would imprison several members of the family of his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, for her lack of chastity at the time of her marriage. It may however have been this threat which caused Thomas to agree to sit in judgement against his children at their trials, a decision which must have been devastating for him.41

Many people in England were prepared to believe the worst against Anne, who had never been popular. However, according to Alexander Ales, even Anne’s enemies recognised the evidence as circumstantial, admitting that

it is no new thing, they said, 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, especially if that person was one of the royal chamberlains. For 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 honourable person, even in public.

In spite of the flimsy evidence Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton were tried and convicted of adultery with Anne on 12 May. Anne and her brother, due to their status, were tried separately within the Tower itself on 15 May. Lady Boleyn and Lady Kingston accompanied the queen to her trial and sat through proceedings before returning with her to her prison.42 Anne sat on a special scaffold which had been built for the occasion, facing her peers, who were led by her own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Anne’s own father and her former love, Henry Percy, sat in judgement on her, something that can have been easy for none of them, even Norfolk, who disliked his niece. Few details survive of Anne’s trial although she defended herself vehemently. Sir John Spelman, who was present, claimed that ‘all the evidence was of bawdery and lechery, so that there was no such whore in the realm’, something which is suggestive of the preconceived view that many present had of her. The list of official charges makes scurrilous reading, with claims that she, ‘depising her marriage, entertaining malice against the king, and following daily her frail and carnal lust, did falsely and traitorously procure by base conversation and kisses, touching gifts, and other infamous incitations, divers of the king’s daily and familiar servants to be her adulterers and concubines’.43 She was supposed to have ‘allured’ her brother ‘with her tongue in the said George’s mouth’, as well as plotting the death of the king so that she would be free to marry a lover. The charges against Anne were outrageous, but the result of the trial was a foregone conclusion. As he pronounced sentence that his sister’s daughter should be burned or beheaded ‘at the king’s pleasure’, there were tears in Norfolk’s eyes. Henry Percy was suddenly taken ill and unable to participate in George’s trial, which followed and in which he was also found guilty.

Anne’s five ‘lovers’ were beheaded together on 17 May. As was customary, the condemned men were permitted to make a speech, with George declaring,

Christian men, I am born under the law, and judged under the law, and die under the law, and the law hath condemned me. Masters all, I am not come hither for to preach, but for to die, for I have deserved to die if I had twenty lives, more shamefully than can be devised for I am a wretched sinner, and I have sinned shamefully, I have known no man so evil, and to rehearse my sins openly it were no pleasure to you to hear them, nor yet for me to rehearse them, for God knoweth all; therefore, masters all, I pray you take heed by me, and especially my lords and gentlemen of the court, the which I have been among, take heed by me, and beware of such a fall, and I pray to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three persons and one God, that my death may be an example unto you all, and beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court.44

George continued in a similar vein, recognising, as was expected, his worthiness to die, but significantly, not admitting any guilt in the offences for which he died. On the scaffold, none of the men admitted any guilt, with Brereton going so far as to deny any wrongdoing with Anne, declaring, ‘I have deserved to die if it were a thousand deaths, but the cause wherefore I die judge not: But if ye judge, judge the best.’45 The deaths of the five men would have caused Anne to realise that her death was now a certainty. That same day she received word that her marriage had been annulled, either due to her relationship with Henry Percy, or the king’s earlier affair with Mary Boleyn. Either way, it cannot have escaped Anne that she was to die for committing adultery when, legally, she had never been married at all.

Such legal niceties were irrelevant for Henry who was already planning his wedding to Jane Seymour. Anne spent the last few days left to her preparing herself for death. She took steps to show the world her innocence of the crimes of which she was convicted, swearing on the sacrament on 18 May before Kingston that she was innocent. After the sentence was passed, Anne was calmer, even making little jokes such as declaring on the evening before her death that she would be known to posterity as ‘Queen Anne Lack-Head’. Her execution was slightly delayed by the king making one small concession to the woman that he had previously loved by sending for an expert swordsman from the Continent to carry out her execution. This was a relief to Anne, who declared to Kingston that ‘I heard say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck’ before putting her hands around her neck and laughing.

On the morning of 19 May Anne stepped out of her lodgings and made her way to Tower Green, where a crowd of grandees had assembled. Once she was standing on the scaffold, a composed Anne turned to face the crowd, declaring,

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.46

Lady Boleyn was probably one of the four ladies permitted to accompany Anne to the scaffold.47 One of these ladies, weeping, then stepped forward to cover Anne’s eyes with a cloth before the executioner stepped forward.48 There was no need for a block and, instead, Anne knelt on the straw of the scaffold. While she was praying the headsman stepped up behind her, severing her head with one stroke of the sword.

According to a contemporary account by Lancelot de Carles, following Anne’s death her ladies, who were half-dead themselves with grief, but unwilling to let anyone else touch the corpse, wrapped the body in a white covering and carried her to be buried in the nearby chapel within the Tower, laying her next to her brother. If, as seems likely, Anne Tempest Boleyn was indeed one of these ladies, she may have warmed to her niece in the days that they spent in the Tower, at least, as Sir William Kingston did, admiring the queen for the bravery that she showed in the face of her death.

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