A COUNTDOWN TO HER EXECUTION: PART 3/4 ARTICLES
Note: I have been making regular posts on a daily basis detailing every day of the fall of Anne Boleyn, but for my convenience have put together a full scale article of Anne's life in 1536, beginning to end. It is in two parts. Enjoy! -- K.C.
Historians are in agreement about one thing pertaining to Henry VIII’s life– 1536 was the year that altered it, perhaps forever. However much this can be accredited to Anne Boleyn, she spent very little of it with him – this year would see her life not only turned upside-down, but ended at the edge of a French blade before the end of May. She had been the queen of England for one thousand days; Henry had been the king of England for twenty-seven years.
There are many questions surrounding the great enigma of the year 1536: Why and how did Henry VIII become such a tyrant? Why did he have to order Anne Boleyn’s execution? If she wasn’t guilty of treason and adultery, how was she condemned? How long did it take for the queen to be brought down? What political factors influenced the fall of Anne Boleyn – why did she fall? What was England’s reaction and how did it change upon her disgrace and death? Lastly, perhaps most importantly as these articles are in tribute to her life, what was Anne Boleyn’s personal life like in this dramatic, treacherous and deadly year? Shockingly, it started out blissfully, beautifully, with victory.
After a golden summer on progress in which the queen had enjoyed both tremendous favor and tremendous influence with the king, she returned to London pregnant, and within months, in January 1536, she and Henry were to receive the best of news – her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, the shadow-queen who seemed to linger eternally over them, was finally dead. Of course, it was around this time, when they returned to London, that a pale and quiet and very simple lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, caught the king’s eye. Naturally, Anne had been irritated, but she was pregnant and this was the way of things; Jane would be the usual and very temporary royal diversion. She could never know at the time the role that Jane (or at least her supporters) would play in her oncoming destruction, and so she was contented enough, all the more so with her long-time adversary’s death and a male heir in her womb.
But this great happiness was not to last, and her victory – Catherine of Aragon’s death – was to transform into a key factor in her undoing. On January 24th, Henry VIII fell unconscious after being unhorsed; around five days later Anne would miscarry, and in a fatal confrontation in which the king dolefully declared God would give them no sons, she would credit his accident as the reason for the miscarriage. That, and the melancholy she experienced upon seeing him locked in an embrace with the “pure and virginal” Jane Seymour.
Historian Retha M. Warnicke credits this miscarriage of a male fetus as the whole reason for the queen’s fall, claiming that it was deformed and this made for strong evidence that she had led a sinful life. However, there is little unprejudiced evidence of any fetal problems, nor is there that a relationship between Henry and Seymour became serious until spring – thus, a quotation from Eric Ives’ The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn should clear up the common misconception that this miscarriage led to the tragedy of May 19: “The miscarriage of 29 January was neither Anne’s last chance nor the point at which Jane Seymour replaced Anne in Henry’s priorities. It did, nevertheless, make her vulnerable again.” She remained vulnerable, as she would always be without a son, but this was her third pregnancy and fertility was not the problem; Henry’s statement that God would not give them sons only proved that he did not hold her to blame for their misfortunes, but credited divine will. At the rate she took with child, there was no reason why she should get pregnant, again, soon, and then have a son within a year. Anne Boleyn’s actual undoing would be quite a bit more political.
And as the king of England, Henry VIII and his moods were, if not entirely, than largely, ‘politics’. His power was supreme, as he was both spiritual and governmental head of England after the split from Rome and Roman Catholicism, and in the months to come, his struggle to overcome the prying injuries of his jousting fall (which would never fully heal) made his mood inordinately foul. He was angry enough with Anne to leave her, while she recovered from her miscarriage (which had left her in too much pain to walk), and lead the court to Greenwich, in which Jane Seymour was roomed near to the king in apartments which Cromwell had so kindly given up for her. It was the first time since 1531, when he had left and never again seen Queen Catherine, that a queen of England had been separated from the court. He was angry, but it was not as if he had never been angry with her before, it is not as if he never told her he could bring her down quickly as he had raised her, blamed her for earning him so many enemies; it is my opinion that Henry VIII’s will and emotional sentiments had a very minimal role in her destruction, but that it was largely the doing of the adviser who had given up his apartments to Seymour – Thomas Cromwell. The rift between Queen Anne and the lawyer whose loyalty to her had been the source of his greatness would only grow and grow after this.
The queen recovered and joined the court at Greenwich, where Jane and Henry had been getting along so well that by March Chapuys recorded the affair, and Henry was sending her money. Jane, egged on by a family of politicians who knew that so much more could be squeezed out from a king than moneys if she paraded her virtue and refused, accepted neither the money nor the subtle invitation to the royal bed, and from there the attraction only heated and the Seymour family was on the rise.
Her husband’s affair pained Anne; all of his affairs did, as, having been his only love in the seven years of their courtship, she had never gotten used to him showing favor with another. It being Lent season, she could not even bed with Henry, and thus, could not hope to conceive her son and savior for many weeks. There was more bitter news yet with her most beloved lapdog Purkoy, who she was known to fawn over, taking a fall from her window, and her mother becoming deathly ill. 1536 was playing out like a tragedy for her, and the shifting political sands worsened it. The death of Catherine opened up potential for a Spanish alliance, and if Henry chose to swing in that way, he might then be of mind to restore England to Roman Catholicism. Since his marriage to Anne was invalid in the Vatican, their marriage would be null, and with Catherine dead he would be free to remarry. But the condition was the restoration of Lady Mary, and of course, cleaving to the Pope in all things once again and forfeiting his supremacy. Henry was not in love with Jane to the point that he would leave Anne for her; they were about the same age, anyway, and thus both equally fertile, if you take that the queen birth-year as 1507.
We can’t quite say that Anne had become politically useless because she was an Englishwoman and Henry was looking to a foreign alliance with either the Empire or France – Jane was an Englishwoman. However, what would have been her saving grace, aside from a son, was a secure betrothal between Princess Elizabeth and the French dauphin – yet, though the French had once been supported her, there was a question mark by the legitimacy of the princess and nothing ever came of the betrothals. Had a proxy marriage been secured, Elizabeth would have been acknowledged as legitimate, and thus, Anne, as queen. Yet it was not to be.
By April, the rift between Cromwell and Anne had become explosive. The rich Roman Catholic monasteries destroyed, Cromwell willed that the moneys and jewels go to the royal treasury – Anne disagreed. Heavily involved in charity and education, from offering poor scholars patronage to donating huge sums of money to impoverished families she had never even met, the queen stood in his way and endless wealth by staunchly arguing that the greater sum of the acquired money be focused on education for the poor. Years ago, Cromwell had been key to securing divorce between Catherine and Henry, and he and Anne being inclined toward the Reformation, she had always shown him favor. He had used this favor and was the king’s most powerful adviser, as once Wolsey had been – and as Wolsey and Anne had sparred, now history repeated itself. If history repeated itself further, and Cromwell indefinitely was aware of the parallels, then he could expect utter destruction, perhaps even execution, especially if Anne borne an heir male and thus permanent security and favor. With that understood, Cromwell saw that he had rid of Anne before she had a son and rid of him.
As Cromwell had publicly shown support of Jane Seymour in giving his rooms up to her, Anne now publicly declared herself his enemy; on 2nd April, she endorsed the sermon of her loyal and hot-headed almoner, John Skip – Who will convict me of sin? Essentially, it compared her to Esther, trying to save the king from his wicked adviser, Haman (‘Cromwell’) and heartily preached against the use of money from the monasteries for selfishness and personal gain. A month from that day she would be arrested.
The death of Catherine of Aragon some months ago was not to be her undoing. With Catherine dead, should Henry wish to be rid of Anne, he could marry whoever he wished, and that seemed to be Jane Seymour. She was very much the ‘right girl for the right time’, as it had only been a couple of months since her relationship with Henry heated up. There is some romantic legend, although the truth of it is highly debatable, that the day after their wedding, a couple of ‘pretty women’ caught Henry’s eye and he claimed that had he met them before, the marriage would have been delayed. At any rate, it seems that around now, Cromwell shrewd and politically-astute took advantage of the strife and coolness between king and queen, and favor shown to another woman, to convince him that Anne should be ridden of. Some believe that the fall of Anne should be blamed more on Henry, and they are right – no matter what we attribute to Cromwell, he signed the death warrants. However, after three years of marriage and ten years altogether of being with Anne, why should he so suddenly tire of her tantrums and intemperance? It does not appear that anything snapped between them; their relations were strained, true, since the miscarriage in January, but they had been after her 1534 miscarriage and they were reconciled soon enough. Nothing had snapped between Anne and Henry, but something had quite obviously snapped between Cromwell and Anne.
While the anger that had for ten years translated so smoothly to passionate love, was churning slowly to passionate hate as he fell more in love with Jane and was perhaps coaxed along by a threatened Cromwell, under my speculation, the key factor in Anne Boleyn’s destruction presents itself not as Henry but factional and may be even foreign politics. After all, Cromwell was visiting privately with Anne’s most absolutely declared foreign adversary, who had been and was staunchly loyal to Catherine of Aragon and Lady Mary; this man was Ambassador Chapuys, who referred to Anne in his chronicles as ‘the Concubine’. Thomas Cromwell also visited with Nicholas Carew, a close friend to the Seymours who bargained with him, promising that Jane would be his puppet if she was queen, and he would order her to do whatever Cromwell said – something Anne Boleyn, with her hothead and strong opinions, would never.
The fall of Anne Boleyn was brought about so quickly that in her The Wives of Henry VIII Antonia Fraser refers to construction of Anne’s crest being ordered to decorate some castles, as late as sometime between late April and early May. She was still referred to, in Henry VIII’s letter to foreign ambassadors, as his most entirely beloved wife, with some hope for male heirs expressed, on 25 April, exactly a week before her arrest. This is either a testament to how little he knew about Cromwell’s plot (and thus how little he had to do with it) or an act to make her trial more convincing – he could not be seen as trying intentionally to be rid of her, as nearly ten years earlier, he had to appear regretful that there was doubt to the legitimacy of his marriage to Queen Catherine. We can never know, but I postulate the former. On a side-note, it is a common misconception that Carew, instead of the queen’s brother George Boleyn, being named Knight of the Garter on 23rd April, 1536, was proof of Anne’s oncoming fall, and yet Eric Ives writes that a deal had been struck the year before that Carew would have the Garter that year, and thus, that this was not such a blow or public humiliation to the queen. By that point, Anne not being in ‘hot water’ around April 23rd, yet, is proof of the suddenness with which she fell.
Indeed, while this vengeance of a once loyal supporter was exacted upon her quickly and suddenly, it is possible that Anne was aware of her surroundings, however calm and lively she still appeared outwardly. She accused a very close friend of both her and the king, Henry Norris, of no longer courting Madge Shelton for her kinship with Anne, suggesting that he was aware of the queen’s oncoming destruction and no longer wished to connect himself with her. Anne proceeded to accuse Norris of being in love with her, but the next day she apologized for picking the fight and implored him to go to her almoner and swear she was a good woman – why, unless she was aware of the adultery rumors that were set swirling, would she make this demand? Some of these adultery rumors were perpetrated by the king himself, who, upon leaving Anne for Greenwich, months ago, as she had recovered from her miscarriage, swore that he had been transfixed by her witchcraft, and that she had engaged in relations with a cabinet of lovers. This is evidence either for Henry playing a lead role in the plot against his wife, or Cromwell’s manipulation of these jealous fantasies.
Anne’s intuition is also visible in her grave request on April 26th, 1536, to her chaplain, Matthew Parker, a champion of reform and future Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth, to watch over her child and care for her spiritually should anything befall the queen. She had some sense of the danger she was in and wanted to protect her daughter in the event that she was not alive to.
On April 30th, under dark means, Anne’s young musician Smeaton had confessed to adultery with her and probably named other men, who included Henry Norris. On May Day, the king and queen sat and watched the tournament, which his injuries from January prevented him from participating in, and all seemed normal enough between them – until, wordlessly, he took off and ordered Sir Norris, just finished jousting against the queen’s brother George, to leave with him. Along the way, he begged Norris, who had been among his best friends for nearly twenty years, to admit to adultery and be spared. However, a loyal friend to Anne as well, he refused, stating that his conscience would not allow him to lie and ruin a good and innocent woman.