Anne Boleyn in BBC's The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) at her treason trial.
Anne clearly cared for Norris, a long-time friend, and his safety, being concerned that another accused lover who she was less close to, Francis Weston, would incriminate Norris while under questioning. Anne herself had accidentally incriminated the young and handsome Francis Weston by telling her ladies, who reported everything to the constable, who reported everything to Cromwell, that she worried for him, as Weston had told her, probably jokingly, that he was in love with her. In the days to come, George Boleyn, William Brereton, Richard Page, and Thomas Wyatt would be arrested. The proof is in the selections Anne’s alleged lovers that the plot was largely, if not entirely, orchestrated by Cromwell. Or at least that Henry had given him full command of it.
The Boleyns offered William Brereton patronage for the last few years, but he and Anne were not even like her and Norris, in the sense that they were not close friends (or even friends, for that matter) and had hardly ever interacted. However, wielding strong authority in the north and having a close relationship with the king’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Brereton stood several times in Cromwell’s way by vetoing various reforms he submit to be passed in the lands Brereton had power over. His downfall obviously had nothing to do with him and Anne potentially being lovers, but Cromwell’s ambition and ruthlessness. The same can be said, to some degree, of George Boleyn, the queen’s beloved brother. He was close with the king, and no matter how powerful an adviser Cromwell would ever rise to be, valued and intimate friends of the king in his privy would always make for competition. If Anne was brought down but George lived, there was no doubt that his every last breath would be used in fierce and reckless defense of his innocent sister; so the incest charge was conjured up, and given they were famously close and London preyed on juicy things to gossip of, it stuck. Four of the five men Anne was accused of adultery with were either tight rivals of his for favor and influence with the king, or, like Brereton, men who had somehow stood in his way.
There was more evidence yet that Cromwell was running the show. Thomas Wyatt and Anne notoriously had enjoyed a romantic relationship nearly ten years ago, which the Duke of Suffolk claimed had been sexual – Wyatt should have been the most suspicious, yet due to his and his father’s friendship with Cromwell, he was arrested and released unscathed. Cromwell even said to him, “Well, Master Wyatt, you must go to the Tower, and I promise you that I shall be your good friend.” It went the same, essentially, for Page. By May 8th, Cromwell was receiving dozens and dozens of letters from people, who included the governor of Calais, requesting shares of the fortunes of the lovers in the Tower, as if they were already dead. They were much like vultures, but more like selfish cowards abandoning a ship they had once flocked to when it was setting sail, and now fleeing it as it sunk – that ship was Anne Boleyn, who many had once supported. Among these turn-coats was Boleyn’s cousin, Francis Bryan, who would later be called the Vicar of Hell for this treachery. There was also Henry Fitzroy, who had always been on friendly terms with the queen, and upon hearing the news quickly rushed up to London to congratulate the king on ridding himself of such a vile whore.
Anne Boleyn was accommodated in the apartments of the Tower of London which had once been decorated for her 1533 coronation and waited on women, chosen by the king, who she especially despised, and who despised her right back. They included her aunts through her father – two Shelton ladies – as well as Lady Kingston, the constable’s wife commanded to spy on her like a hawk, and the only woman she was fond of, her childhood governess, Mrs. Orchard. None of the women were allowed to communicate with Anne unless Lady Kingston was in the room, so her every word could be reported to the constable. Anne constantly complained about the king’s unnecessary spiteful choices for her attendants, although, since legally she was still the queen of England, she was housed and treated with due respect, and waited on by an appropriate staff of at least nine. What troubled her deeply was that she could not have the Sacrament brought to her room, for, just as she was legally the queen of England, she was, too, legally a prisoner with a heinous treason charge to her name, and thus, by the law forbidden to have it in her rooms. Considering many Londoners were whispering against the justice of Anne’s incarceration, the last thing Cromwell would want was the image of her kneeling like a martyr before the Sacrament. She should have at least been allowed the confessor of her choice, who was the almoner John Skip, but this request was ignored by Cromwell, who probably had a distaste for skip after the indiscreet sermon of April 2nd.
Anne’s her moods swayed from extreme sadness – like when she had broken down in tears upon learning she was to live in her apartments from three years ago – to bizarre hysteria, anger and rebelliousness, and a grave, solemn quietness. These moods add to the mystery of the legitimacy of the reckless letter, allegedly written by her to the king, on May 6th, which reads:
Your Grace's displeasure and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, that what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send unto me (willing me to confess a truth and so obtain your favour), by such a one, whom you know to be mine ancient professed enemy, I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing a truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty, perform your duty. But let not Your Grace ever imagine that your poor wife will be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought ever proceeded. And to speak a truth, never a prince had wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Bulen - with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself, if God and your grace's pleasure had been so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation or received queenship, but that I always looked for such alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your Grace's fancy, the least alteration was fit and sufficient (I knew) to draw that fancy to some other subject.
You have chosen me from low estate to be your queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire; if, then, you found me worthy of such honour, good your Grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of my enemies withdraw your princely favour from me; neither let that stain - that unworthy stain - of a disloyal heart towards your good grace ever cast so foul a blot on me, and on the infant princess your daughter.
Try me, good King, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and as my judges; yea, let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open shame. Then you shall see either my innocency cleared, your suspicions and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that, whatever God and you may determine of, your Grace may be freed from an open censure; and my offense being so lawfully proved, your Grace may be at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me as an unfaithful wife but to follow your affection already settled on that party for whose sake I am now as I am, whose name I could some while since have pointed unto - your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicions therein.
But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander must bring your the joying of your desired happiness, then I desire of God that He will pardon your great sin herein, and likewise my enemies, the instruments thereof; and that He will not call you to a strait account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me at His general judgment seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear; and in whose just judgment, I doubt not (whatsoever the world may think of me), mine innocency shall be openly known and sufficiently cleared.
My last and only request shall be, that myself only bear the burden of your Grace's displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, whom, as I understand, are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. If ever I have found favour in your sight - if ever the name of Anne Bulen have been pleasing in your ears - then let me obtain this request; and so I will leave to trouble your grace any further, with mine earnest prayer to the Trinity to have your grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions.
From my doleful prison in the Tower, the 6th May.
Your most loyal and ever-faithful wife,
Evidence for the letter being a forgery include that Cromwell probably would not keep any letter written by Anne, slight differences between the penmanship of this letter versus the penmanship of her others, and the fact that she referred to herself not as ‘Anne the Queen’ but Anne Bullen and ‘the lady in the tower’, seems unlikely for a woman as proud as Anne. However, it is highly likely that Anne did write letters to Cromwell, trying to reach the king, and that in her famous recklessness she might have written letters bold as this. None of them, however, have survived, either destroyed by Cromwell or the library fire of 1731. There is some evidence for this letter being legitimate – the letter had been kept private until the 17th century, it could have been a copy in Cromwell’s hand (to explain the different penmanship), and Anne was capable of being hotheaded and had never been afraid, before, to tell Henry off.
th, the same day that enough ‘evidence’ had been collected to try Anne’s lovers and the same day, too, in which Percy wrote a letter formally denying any pre-conctract with the queen that would have made her marriage to the king null, by a Spanish chronicle, Anne was excited to be visited by the council, hoping for a chance to answer their questions and clear her name. However, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cromwell and Norfolk instead only began to recount the charges against her and, essentially, lecture her, she dismissed them as, being the queen of England, she still had the power to, imperiously saying, “Waste no more of my time. I have never wronged the King, but I know well that he is tired of me, as he was before of the Lady Katherine… It has all been done as I say, because the King has fallen in love with Jane Seymour, and does not know how to get rid of me. Well, let him do as he likes, he will get nothing more out of me, and any confession that has been made is false.” To the Duke of Norfolk, her own uncle who had contemptuously accused her of incest with George, she said, “My brother is blameless and if he has been in my chamber to speak with me, surely he might do so without suspicion, being my brother, and they cannot accuse him for that. I know that the King has had him arrested so that there should be none left to take my part. You need not trouble to [talk] with me, for you will find out no more."
On May 11
On May 11
The following day, Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston and Mark Smeaton were tried in the public London court, and since there was no defense at a treason trial, just a sentence and a couple days later, execution, they were found guilty, condemned to a traitor’s death. The king, in all his oh-so bountiful grace, showed them mercy and they were allowed regular beheading by the ax. After their trial, on 13th May, although herself she had not been tried and legally she was still Queen, Anne’s household was disbanded – this included cooks, maids and ladies-in-waiting (who would return within weeks to serve a new queen), tailors, and clerks. The sum of people she had in her employ surpassed two-hundred, and her rooms had been a center of not just unique French fashion and taste, but also art she commissioned, particularly by Holbein; language, and religious learning. Obviously, her guilt or innocence meant nothing – her household was gone, and soon, morality and justice thrown out the window, she would be, too.
Although Anne had generally been unpopular, called a whore and viewed as the supplanter of saintly Queen Catherine, the Protestants, and especially the theologians she had offered patronage to and the reformist bishops who she had used royal influence to appoint, adored Anne and viewed her as a martyr. Protestant Alexander Aless had nightmares of her death; Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, her reluctant accuser and the man who would annul her marriage and declare Elizabeth a bastard, had always admired and supported her, and upon hearing of her arrest nearly a week earlier on May 3rd, was sincerely regretful and wrote that he had never had higher opinion of any woman. On the day of her execution he would weep and say, "She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen in Heaven.” Even those who had hated Anne were upset by her fall – they saw it as Henry simply trying to rid of a woman he’d tired of for a mistress: and they were, in some ways, correct. Jane was the obvious choice for Henry’s next wife – he had her moved out of the city to keep her safe, and they enjoyed intimate but lavish feasts and parties while she was kept safe, far from the chaos and danger of London, in a quiet and inconspicuous house of Nicholas Carew.
On Showtime's The Tudors, Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn delivers this speech in the form of a 'last confession'.
On May 15th, Anne and her brother were to be tried not in the public courts, but before the Peers of the land who were led by her uncle, Norfolk. Onlookers heavily supported Anne who had shown surprising dignity, and in the face of the radical and bizarre accusations, remained calm and did not even flinch. At many of the dates and times of the charges she had been at different places, but truth to be told it made no difference – this was a treason trial and she could not defend herself. She was pronounced guilty by her weeping uncle, sentenced to burning or beheading at the stake; Mrs. Orchard screamed, the lover of her youth, Percy, fainted, and the Lord Mayor would recall the trial as a charade to rid of the queen at any price. Anne was allowed to speak after the sentence, and in a career-defining speech, she said: "My lords, I do not say that my opinion ought to be preferred to your judgment; but if you have reasons to justify it, they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am wholly innocent of all matters of which I have been accused, so that I cannot call upon God to pardon me.
“I have always been faithful to the King my lord; but perhaps I have not always shown to him such a perfect humility and reverence as his graciousness and courtesy deserved, and the honor he hath done me required. I confess that I have often had jealous fantasies against him which I had not wisdom or strength to repress. But God knows that I have not otherwise trespassed against him.
“Do not think I say this in the hope of prolonging my life, for He who saveth from death has taught me how to die, and will strengthen my faith. Think not, however, that I am so bewildered in mind that I do not care to vindicate my innocence. I knew that it would avail me little to defend it at the last moment if I had not maintained it all my life long, as much as ever Queen did. Still the last words out of my mouth shall justify my honor. As for my brother and the other gentlemen who are unjustly condemned, I would willingly die to save them; but as that is not the King's pleasure, I shall accompany them in death. And then Afterwards, I shall live in eternal peace and joy without end, where I shall pray to God for the King and for you, my lords.
“The judge of all the world, in whom abounds justice and truth knows all, and through His love I beseech that He will have compassion on those who have condemned me to this death."
Indeed, Anne had been different from all women who were born to cleave to their husbands – she had been rebellious, defiant, unafraid to express her opinions, and Henry had not only been her husband but her sovereign. Despite being hotheaded, reckless and intemperate, Anne had been pious and of strong faith, and this too was expressed in her speech. As for her brother, tried by that same court, he left a strong impression too and had the support of onlookers, brazenly implying the king’s impotence was likelier than Anne’s casting spells on him to prevent him from having sons. However, this confidence was followed by fear, depression and anxiety as his conscience ravaged him in the days leading up to his execution, and he sorted through his tremendous debts. His sadness won him the sympathy of even the constable, Kingston, and George asked money to be sent to two clerics who had been ever loyal to the Boleyns.
On May 17th, Rochford, Norris, Brereton, Weston and Smeaton were beheaded on Tower Hill – not, as the legend goes, under Anne’s window. George Boleyn’s speech addressed the vanities of life and the urgent need for a reformed Church free of corruption and said vanity; the rest of the speeches were traditional –praise to the best king of Christendom, prayer for mercy, et cetera. All of their executions were recorded by Thomas Wyatt, watching from his window in the Tower. It was on this same day that Anne learned her marriage to the king had always been null and void based on their first degree of affinity through his sexual relations with her sister Mary Boleyn. Percy had staunchly denied any contract between him and Anne, and so that could not have been used to annul the marriage. Thus, Elizabeth was declared a bastard, and though Anne was no longer the king’s wife, she would soon be executed for being unfaithful in a marriage that had never legally existed. That should further attest to the injustice and illogic of her trial and death.
The 18th of May was supposed to be the day of Anne’s execution; she enjoyed spiritual comfort in the morning, praying with her confessor John Skip as early as 2 AM. As early as possible she attended Mass with Constable Kingston at her side, and swore on the Body of Christ, her innocence. Her adrenaline high, expecting to die by before the day’s end, the news that it was to be postponed until the 19th must have been torment. Her French executioner was to be delayed, although as further proof to the fact that, he had to be summoned to England days before she was even found guilty at her trial.
Moving tribute using footage from Showtime's The Tudors, depicting Anne's whole life leading up to her execution.
The rest of the 18th was put to good use; she had four ladies-in-waiting who she actually liked, and asked Lady Kingston to extend her apologies to her stepdaughter, Lady Mary. It is a modern day stereotype that Anne was some sort of ‘evil stepmother’ to Mary, but whatever small cruelties she showed the girl, what must be kept in mind is that Anne initially showed her politeness. She offered to intercede with the king on Mary’s behalf if only her stepdaughter acknowledged her as queen – this was returned with rude obstinacy.
On the morning of the nineteenth, Anne dressed in silver and crimson with an ermine cloak, and gave to her close friend and lady-in-waiting, Margaret Lee (sister of Thomas Wyatt), a prayer book in which she wrote, Remember me when you do pray / that hope doth lead from day to day. Margaret was among the women who accompanied her to the scaffold, where there were only some hundreds of onlookers – no foreigners were allowed to view the execution for fear of the controversy that might be stirred when they reported back to their kingdoms. Anne addressed the people with a solemn beauty, and was described by some witnesses as having never looked more beautiful, to at last throw out the myth that she went to her death frail and broken. A contemporary, after all, gave her age as only 28.
Anne had been defiant all her life, but as Christians of her day must, she accepted death with grace and honor, and did not say anything that could put her family or her daughter in any legal trouble: Good Christian people, I am come hither to die according to the law and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I come here only to die and thus to yield myself humbly to the will of the King, my lord. And if, in my life, I did ever offend the King's Grace, surely with my death I do now atone. I come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that whereof I am accused, as I know full well that aught I say in my defense doth not appertain to you. I pray and beseech you all, good friends, to pray for the life of the King, my sovereign lord and yours, who is one of the best princes on the face of the earth, who has always treated me so well that better could not be, wherefore I submit to death with good will, humbly asking pardon of all the world. If any person will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best. Thus, I take my leave of the world and you and I heartily desire you all pray for me.
And thus she removed her jewelry, and her maids removed her English hood, her great ermine headdress, and she gracefully accepted the French executioner’s sincere regrets. The man was enchanted of her and struggled to find the means to perform his job; to position her head correctly without frightening her, he said, “Fetch my sword!” Anne looked to where his servant was, and in that fleeting moment, the sword came down. Her life was over, but she was destined to haunt the man who destroyed her – his name, his honor, his reign. He would forever be remember as a tyrant and a wife-murderer, and it all started with her; after Anne’s death came the bloody obliteration of the northern rebels, the judicial murder of everyone who shared some faint blood relation to the insecure tyrant, and the murder of another wife nearly forty years younger than him. Having destroyed a woman he had moved mountains to have, Henry at last came to understand the full magnitude of his power, and perhaps this was where his tyranny truly began.
Anne had struggled for seven years to become the queen, and through those seven years and her brief reign, the living Queen Catherine and the people’s love and reverence for her was like a permanent shadow. In turn, Jane patiently waited a number of weeks to become the queen of England, her two predecessors dead and one to be remembered as a traitor and a whore. She would reign for less than two years, and karma would work its dark but beautiful magic and destroy those who had destroyed Anne – Nicholas Carew and Cromwell would face the ax they had unjustly condemned so many to, by 1539 and 1540; the more sympathetic Archbishop of Canterbury would burn under Mary ‘Bloody Mary’ I; and the Duke of Norfolk would be arrested for treason and incarcerated in the Tower for years, escaping execution only upon the king’s death. And as for Henry – his wounds from his January 1536 jousting accident would never fully heal, but would turn to ulcers that condemned him to slow, painful death, an obese, bitter, perhaps a bit mad, and maybe even regretful 55-year-old.