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The Fall of Anne Boleyn

Today, high-profile divorces are reported as breaking news. There have been many epic divorces throughout history. Divorces among famous and influential people can cause a stir amongst the general public. One man who was very well-known for his divorces was King Henry VIII (1491-1547). Not only was he the King of England, highest ruler in all the land, he, in trying to work out his marital problems, would become the Supreme Head of the Church. Married six times, Henry was only divorced twice—and they were the lucky queens. One wife died shortly after the birth of his son and Henry had his two other wives executed for alleged affairs and treasonous acts. One escaped with her life and her reputation intact. However, of all the wives, it is the story of Henry’s second marriage, to Anne Boleyn, with its passionate love and violent execution that attracts the most attention.


Anne Boleyn is an infamous figure in England’s history. After years of waiting and “playing” Henry VIII, Anne became Queen of England in 1533 and gave birth to a future Queen of England, her daughter Elizabeth, in September of that year. Anne and Henry had secretly married twice, once in November 1532 and then again in January 1533, but their relationship had begun as early as 1523, when Anne was as young as 16 years old. Her reign only lasted three years, about 1,000 days, and her fall from power was spectacular and quick.


Not much is known about Anne’s childhood and adolescence—her exact birth-date is unknown and various historians claim she was born anywhere from 1499-1507. She was one of three living children of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, and his wife, Elizabeth (who was thought to have participated in extra-marital affairs of her own as well as dabble in witchcraft.) Where, exactly, Anne grew up is also questioned. She spent time at Hever Castle, her family’s ancestral home, but she also spent much of her adolescence in the royal courts of the Netherlands and France, returning to England when animosities arose between England and France in the 1520s. Anne arrived at court as a beautiful, worldly young woman, and it wasn’t long before she caught the king’s attention. (Check that fact) A decade passed before the lovers could wed. Then, after only three years of marriage, the queen’s final fall from grace and execution took less than three weeks. This post focuses on those last 19 days of Anne’s life.


While plans were made in advance, the wheels for her execution were set in motion on April 30, 1536, when Mark Smeaton, a court musician, was interrogated at the home of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex and chief minister to Henry VIII. Smeaton was accused of committing adultery with Queen Anne. Under torture, he confessed to the charges and was immediately taken to the Tower of London. That same day, witnesses saw Henry and Anne argue. Although this was a common occurrence throughout their tempestuous relationship, this argument had serious consequences. The fall of Anne Boleyn had begun.


The next day, May 1st, a May Day joust was held, after which Henry VIII interrogated his close friend and Groom of the Stool, Sir Henry Norris, about a conversation Norris had had with Anne in which the two allegedly joked about Henry VIII’s death. This type of talk amounted to treason. King Henry also questioned Norris about a supposed affair between Norris and Anne. (While there is no evidence of an affair between the two, it is important to note that Norris and Anne had been secretly engaged in 1523 before she became involved with the king.) It is uncertain whether Norris admitted to the charges and later redacted his statements or if he denied all charges from the outset, but regardless, he was sent to be imprisoned at the Tower of London.


On May 2nd, 1536, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford and Anne’s brother, was imprisoned at the Tower of London, charged with incest and treason. That morning, Anne was asked to present herself to the Privy Council where she was formally charged with adultery, incest, and treason. She was arrested and taken to the Tower later that afternoon. According to witnesses, she seemed blindsided by the charges and was seemingly in a state of shock. Four more men were quickly arrested and brought to the Tower for imprisonment: Sir Francis Weston, Sir William Brereton, Thomas Wyatt, and Sir Richard Page. Wyatt and Page were question and released, and, oddly enough, Wyatt would be knighted by Henry just a year later. Why these men? For one, they all had access to Anne at Court. Perhaps it was a case of courtly love gone wrong. Had those who accused these men, nameless people long forgotten by history, misheard things or misinterpreted the things they did hear? Or were the nameless witnesses coerced by Thomas Cromwell or other advisors of the king? Whatever the case may be, four men and one Queen all denied the charges lodged against them. Smeaton, though he confessed under duress, never recanted his statement.


Two Grand Juries were assembled because of the location of the palaces where the supposed occurrences of treason and infidelity between the accused had taken place were in two different jurisdictions. On May 10th, all defendants were brought before the Grand Jury of Middlesex on charges of treason and adultery. The Grand Jury felt there was enough evidence to push the case forward, and on the next day, a Grand Jury in Kent came to the same conclusion.


The commoners (Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton) were tried on May 12th before a special court of oyer and terminer. All were tried on charges of high treason and adultery. They all had little chance of a fair hearing at this point, and, not surprisingly, all were found guilty of the charges. They were each sentenced to death by hanging, then being drawn and quartered. This was the usual traitor’s death. Each sentence was later commuted to *just* beheading, a quicker and less painful way to die.


On May 15th, Anne and George were tried by a jury of their peers, a luxury afforded them by their station in life. This jury was presided over by the Duke of Norfolk, their uncle. Many spectators came to watch as Anne denied all charges, but the Queen was found guilty of all. She was immediately stripped of all her titles and lands and sentenced to be beheaded. George Boleyn’s trial immediately followed Anne’s, and there was hope that he would be acquitted of his charges. He plead not guilty and he may have been declared innocent if he had followed instructions and not read out his charges out loud. He and Anne had supposedly joked about King Henry being impotent and that was tantamount to treason. Also, they purportedly had an affair. George was found guilty and sentenced to death as well.


May 17, 1536 was execution day for everyone but Anne. It was quite a spectacle on Tower Hill, with people bringing their families and picnics to watch the event which was akin to sport such as bear-baiting or dogfights. Each man gave a formulaic speech before being beheaded and then was quickly buried on the Tower grounds. This was also the day that Anne and Henry’s marriage was declared null and void. This step knocked their daughter, Elizabeth, out of the line of succession, as she was now considered illegitimate.


Anne’s execution took place on May 19th. She dressed well, gave a speech that would keep Elizabeth out of trouble, and paid her executioner. After her beheading, her ladies took her head and body and buried them in an elm chest in the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London. Rumor has it that grave robbers came the night of the 19th and took her body away to be buried at a more appropriate location—the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, in Salle, Norfolk, closer to her home.


As soon as Anne was dead, Henry took a barge up the river to the house where Jane Seymour was staying. They married less than two weeks later on May 30, 1536.


There is no single obvious reason as to why Anne fell from grace in such a spectacular manner. Scholars have debated the topic for centuries. It is generally believed that Thomas Cromwell wanted her gone because she was bending the King’s ear on certain topics, and he did not appreciate her influence on the king. Cromwell could have easily orchestrated all of this to get rid of Anne and place someone easier to control in her place as queen (Jane Seymour was indeed a much more docile queen, but she died shortly after giving birth to Henry’s son, Prince Edward, so no one can tell how she would have turned out as Queen). Did Henry just not love Anne anymore and thought it would be easier to concoct a conspiracy theory against her than to go through another divorce? After multiple miscarriages and no male heir, maybe Anne’s fiery personality finally wore him out? Or, as a more recent theory suggests, was Henry suffering from a mental illness of some sort—perhaps from his multiple jousting accidents or as the result of some sort of degenerative disease? As Henry aged, (he died in 1547 at the age of 56) his temperament became tough for others to bear, and his actions became more of those of someone suffering some kind of paranoia. Or had Anne, as Henry and other claimed, bewitched him, and was her downfall the result of him being released from her spell? So many different theories, but no real answers.

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