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Was the Trial of Anne Boleyn a Set-Up?

Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, UK

Henry VIII pursued his second wife, the young Anne Boleyn, for years while he was married to Catherine of Aragon. He and Anne married secretly in 1533 while Henry was still married to Catherine. What, then, motivated the trial of his beloved Anne?

A male heir – neither Catherine nor Anne had given him one. They both gave him daughters. Catherine gave him Mary, and Anne gave him Elizabeth. Henry needed a new wife to give him a son. Had he found the perfect solution to his problem?

Henry could not simply put Anne on trial. He needed others to investigate and indict. He was very strict about following correct process of law – at least to the outside observer. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, initiated action. Cromwell placed spies among Anne’s court and interrogated her servants. He was able to gather actionable information: A Lady Wingfield reportedly confessed on her deathbed that the Queen was not chaste. Another woman at court explained her light behavior to her husband as “following the Queen’s example. "

This hearsay was enough to begin the judicial process. Henry signed a royal commission on April 24, 1536, of “Oyer and Terminer” ("hear” and “determine”). The commission was made up of nobles, officers of the royal household and nine judges, and was to decide if there was enough evidence to indict the Queen. The commission was headed by Cromwell and the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle. Another member of the commission was Anne Boleyn’s father, Thomas, Earl of Wiltshire.

Evidence against the Queen grew. The wife of Anne’s brother George accused the pair of incest; a musician, Mark Smeeton, was arrested and confessed to having committed adultery with the Queen. Sir Henry Norris, one of the King’s most trusted servants, was accused but refused to admit adultery with the Queen and was arrested.

The Queen's Apartments in the Tower of London (A)

Anne was visited by Cromwell, the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley and the Constable of the Tower, Sir William Kingston. She refused to confess any wrongdoing and was taken to the Tower. Indictments would be forthcoming from Middlesex and Kent, where the crimes were to have taken place.

Sir Francis Weston, a gentleman of Henry’s Privy Chamber, was another arrested for adultery with the Queen. William Brereton was also arrested, but we do not know why.

The Queen’s Vice-Chamberlain, Sir Edward Baynton, was a member of the commission and believed there was not enough evidence for a trial. This was to prove to no avail.

“[t]here is much communication that no man will confess anything

against her, but only Marke [Smeton] of any actual thing. It would,

in my foolish conceit, much touch the King’s honor if it should no

further appear.”

Anne Boleyn in the Tower, 1835, now in the Musée Rolin in Autun

Image courtesy of

The prisoners were kept in secret confinement. On May 10, the Grand Jury issued indictments for all of the accused. The Queen and her brother, Lord Rochford, were to be tried in the Court of the Lord High Steward, where they would be tried by peers of the realm, members of the highest aristocratic social order.

On May 12, 1536, the Four prisoners accused of adultery with the Queen were brought before a jury at Westminster Hall and heard the specific charges against them for the first time. Norris, Brereton and Weston pleaded not guilty to all charges. The burden of proof was placed on the accused, and none could prove their innocence. They were found guilty on all counts and sentenced to death by being hanged, draw and quartered at Tyburn.

On May 15, Anne Boleyn was brought in for trial at the Tower. The Lord High Steward (Norfolk) presided with Lord Chancellor Audley charged with ensuring that the trial was conducted lawfully. There were 2,000 people in attendance.

Though all trial records are missing, we do have several eyewitness accounts. According to George Younghusband, Anne arrived in court wearing a black velvet gown, a scarlet damask petticoat and an elaborate feathered cap. Crispin de Milherve wrote that Ann:

“made an entry as though she were going to a great

triumph...She presented herself with the true dignity of a

queen, and curtseyed to her judges, looking round upon them

all, without any sign of fear...”

Anne was brought in to sit in a chair, and heard the indictments against her. She had not seen the indictments in advance. Anne was charged for conspiracy to cause the King’s death.

Anne raised her hand and pleaded “not guilty”. The Crown called no witnesses and offered no “live” evidence. The prosecution's constructed treason from words the Queen had spoken and that were embellished.

Anne Boleyn was unassisted in any defense. A simple majority would have sufficed to condemn the Queen, however, a verdict of “guilty” was unanimous. Many in the room were shocked. She was sentenced to be burned or beheaded at the King’s command.

“I believe you have reasons...upon which you have condemned

me; but they must be other, than those that have been produced

in court,...I have always been a faithful and loyal wife to the King...”

The Queen was taken back to her apartment in the Tower and her brother was brought in almost immediately. He pleaded “not guilty” and gave defense of himself. He was found unanimously guilty and sentenced to be drawn and quartered. His sentence, like that of Thomas More, was commuted to beheading. He was executed along with the other men on May 17.

Stripped of her titles and crown, Anne Boleyn was taken to the scaffold on May 19th. An expert swordsman from Calais was brought in by King Henry to make the Queen’s death easier. She spoke only kind words toward the King and asked for the spectators to pray for her. Her final words were, “To Christ I commend my soul.”

Anne Boleyn's final resting place at St Peter ad Vincula Royal Chapel,

the parish church of the Tower of London.

Image courtesy of

Do you think the evidence against Anne Boleyn was solid?

Do you think the trial of Anne Boleyn and the men was convincing and fair?

Why bother with a trial at all?

Was Anne Boleyn a well-liked Queen? What is your opinion of her?


Law Review, Volume 22, issue 1.

Schauer, Margery Stone and Schauer, Frederick. The Trial of Anne Boleyn. William and Mary

The Trial of Anne Boleyn. May 15, 2012,





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