Article by Kathryn Robinson. Edited and Researched by Rob Russell.
At the moment, Anne Boleyn is everywhere. The BBC is currently airing a series of programmes which included ‘The Last Days of Anne Boleyn’ in which historians debated various issues surrounding her fall. She’s also been the subject of much media and literary attention. The Philippa Gregory novel ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ largely portrayed Anne as an ambitious, assertive, competitive character in control of her own destiny. In the television series ‘The Tudors’, she is portrayed as a strong character, yet trapped by the ambitions of her family to elevate their status. The BBC History magazine also recently conducted a poll on their website, asking visitors to the site ‘Was Anne Boleyn guilty of the charges against her?’ An overwhelming majority (82% at the time of my participation) believed she was not guilty. Anne Boleyn remains a mysterious figure but one question seems to re-occur: did Anne Boleyn really commit the crimes she was accused of? I believe that she didn’t.
Born between 1501 and 1507 (historians don’t agree on when), she spent her childhood and adolescence as part of a number of European courts, most notably the French court. When she returned to England, she was made lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon and from this position, she caught the king’s attention. After several years of being pursued by the besotted king whilst he wriggled out of his first marriage, Anne fell pregnant in 1533. This coming at the around the same time as she and the king were secretly married – before the birth of a girl who would become Elizabeth I. However, she was sentenced to death just three years later for allegedly committing adultery with five men including her brother and for treason.
More established historians than me have examined the reasons for her execution. That Anne’s downfall happened at a time which was extremely convenient to some strongly suggests she was a victim of a plot conspiring to remove her. The question is: who was responsible for her death?
Henry himself was an obvious culprit. He was growing disillusioned with his wife because of her failure to produce a son and heir to the Tudor dynasty and historians have argued that her final miscarriage in January 1536 accelerated her downfall. That the foetus had deformed qualities is particularly important, as many in the early modern period thought that this was symbolic of some committed sin. In addition to this, Henry had fallen for Jane Seymour who was notoriously less troublesome and outspoken than Anne who found herself consistently getting in trouble at court. If the king did mastermind this plot, it would have been a combination of these factors as the mere fact that Henry had fallen in love with someone else may not have been enough to make him pursue the death of Anne. After all, when he had fallen in love with Anne, he didn’t want Catherine of Aragon’s death but a divorce from her.
Another figure in the frame was Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister. Some historians have argued that his clever and ruthless nature make him the obvious cause of Anne’s death. Cromwell was an ally of Anne Boleyn but they had had a disagreement in Anne’s final years which some argue led to Cromwell drafting a conspiracy to remove Anne. This does seem quite a far-fetched explanation but when you consider Cromwell’s rapid rise to prominence and the king’s favour, it seems obvious that he would want to do what pleased the king. Therefore, some have argued – supported by a letter from Cromwell to the Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys – that Cromwell did make the accusations up but that he was instructed to do so by Henry. This does seem like a convincing argument and best summed up by David Starkey – it pains me to say – as he argued that it was convenient for Henry to believe Cromwell’s findings because of his growing dislike of Anne and that he had a startling aptitude for believing that lies and conspiracies were the truth. Clearly not a fan of Henry’s then.
So, we have established that it was a combination of the efforts of Henry and Cromwell which made Anne’s downfall possible. However, some believe that there may have been some truth in the charges brought against her, claiming that court gossip abounded of her promiscuous behaviour and that at court, you were expected to behave in a flirtatious and provocative manner. But when you consider all of the evidence, it seems to point convincingly towards Anne’s innocence. None of the accused confessed to committing adultery with Anne apart from Mark Smeaton and historians are still divided over whether he was subjected to torture in order to extract that confession. George Boleyn’s wife testified against him to seek revenge for his cruelty to her. Many of the incidences of adultery that Cromwell created couldn’t have happened because the people involved weren’t actually there at the time. When all this is considered, it seems obvious that the charges were works of fantasy.
So it seems perfectly logical and plausible that Anne Boleyn was innocent of the charges brought against her. I’m not suggesting that she was a totally innocent character: the Angel Gabriel she was not. But I am struck by a strong sense of injustice on her behalf that her death was only brought about by her overly-ambitious family, her tyrannical husband and his clever and obedient chief minister.
- Anne Boleyn was the second of Henry VIII’s infamous six wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr.
- Thomas Cromwell himself fell from grace after the failure of Henry’s Marriage to Anne of Cleves, he was subsequently tried for treason and heresy culminating in his execution in 1540.
- Famous Parliamentarian and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was the great-great-grandson of Thomas Cromwell’s sister Katherine.