Anne Boleyn (c. 1501 – May 19, 1536) was Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as the second wife of King Henry VIII. Their marriage, and her execution for treason and other charges by beheading, made her a key figure in the political and religious upheaval that marked the start of the English Reformation.
Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, and was educated in the Netherlands and France, largely as a maid of honour to Queen Claude of France. Anne returned to England in early 1522, to marry her Irish cousin James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond; the marriage plans were broken off, and instead she secured a post at court as maid of honour to Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Anne, Queen Consort of England
Henry VIII and Anne formally married on January 25, 1533, after a secret wedding on November 14, 1532. On May 23, 1533, newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry and Catherine’s marriage null and void; five days later, he declared Henry and Anne’s marriage valid. Shortly afterwards, Pope Clement VII decreed sentences of excommunication against Henry and Cranmer.
As a result of this marriage and these excommunications, the first break between the Church of England and Rome took place, and the King took control of the Church of England. Anne was crowned Queen of England on June 1, 1533. On September 7, she gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I. Henry was disappointed to have a daughter rather than a son but hoped a son would follow and professed to love Elizabeth. Anne subsequently had three miscarriages and, by March 1536, Henry was courting Jane Seymour. In order to marry Seymour, Henry had to find reasons to end the marriage to Anne.
Henry VIII, King of England
Given Henry’s desperate desire for a son, the sequence of Anne’s pregnancies has attracted much interest. Author Mike Ashley speculated that Anne had two stillborn children after Elizabeth’s birth and before the male child she miscarried in 1536. Most sources attest only to the birth of Elizabeth in September 1533, a possible miscarriage in the summer of 1534, and the miscarriage of a male child, of almost four months gestation, in January 1536. As Anne recovered from her miscarriage, Henry declared that he had been seduced into the marriage by means of “sortilege”—a French term indicating either “deception” or “spells”. His new mistress, Jane Seymour, was quickly moved into royal quarters. This was followed by Anne’s brother George being refused a prestigious court honour, the Order of the Garter, given instead to Sir Nicholas Carew.
Anne’s biographer Eric Ives (and most other historians) believe that her fall and execution were primarily engineered by her former ally Thomas Cromwell. The conversations between Chapuys and Cromwell thereafter indicate Cromwell as the instigator of the plot to remove Anne; evidence of this is seen in the Spanish Chronicle and through letters written from Chapuys to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex
Anne argued with Cromwell over the redistribution of Church revenues and over foreign policy. She advocated that revenues be distributed to charitable and educational institutions; and she favoured a French alliance. Cromwell insisted on filling the King’s depleted coffers, while taking a cut for himself, and preferred an imperial alliance. For these reasons, Ives suggests, “Anne Boleyn had become a major threat to Thomas Cromwell.”
Cromwell’s biographer John Schofield, on the other hand, contends that no power struggle existed between Anne and Cromwell and that “not a trace can be found of a Cromwellian conspiracy against Anne… Cromwell became involved in the royal marital drama only when Henry ordered him onto the case.” Cromwell did not manufacture the accusations of adultery, though he and other officials used them to bolster Henry’s case against Anne. Historian Retha Warnicke questions whether Cromwell could have or wished to manipulate the king in such a matter. Such a bold attempt by Cromwell, given the limited evidence, could have risked his office, even his life.
Regardless of the role Cromwell played in Anne Boleyn’s fall, and his confessed animosity to her, Chapuys’s letter states that Cromwell claimed that he was acting with the King’s authority. Most historians, however, are convinced that her fall and execution were engineered by Cromwell.
Jane Seymour, Queen Consort of England
Henry himself issued the crucial instructions: his officials, including Cromwell, carried them out. The result was by modern standards a legal travesty, however the rules of the time were not bent in order to assure a conviction; there was no need to tamper with rules that guaranteed the desired result since law at the time was an engine of state, not a mechanism for justice.
Towards the end of April a Flemish musician in Anne’s service named Mark Smeaton was arrested. He initially denied being the Queen’s lover but later confessed, perhaps tortured or promised freedom. Another courtier, Sir Henry Norris, was arrested on May Day, but being an aristocrat, could not be tortured. Prior to his arrest, Norris was treated kindly by the King, who offered him his own horse to use on the May Day festivities. It seems likely that during the festivities, the King was notified of Smeaton’s confession and it was shortly thereafter the alleged conspirators were arrested upon his orders.
Norris denied his guilt and swore that Queen Anne was innocent; one of the most damaging pieces of evidence against Norris was an overheard conversation with Anne at the end of April, where she accused him of coming often to her chambers not to pay court to her lady-in-waiting Madge Shelton but to herself. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge, as was Sir William Brereton, a groom of the King’s Privy Chamber.
Sir Thomas Wyatt, a poet and friend of the Boleyns who was allegedly infatuated with her before her marriage to the king, was also imprisoned for the same charge but later released, most likely due to his or his family’s friendship with Cromwell. Sir Richard Page was also accused of having a sexual relationship with the Queen, but he was acquitted of all charges after further investigation could not implicate him with Anne. The final accused was Queen Anne’s own brother, George Boleyn, arrested on charges of incest and treason. He was accused of two incidents of incest: November 1535 at Whitehall and the following month at Eltham.
On May 2, 1536, Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London by barge. It is likely that Anne may have entered through the Court Gate in the Byward Tower rather than the Traitors’ Gate, according to historian and author of The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives. In the Tower, she collapsed, demanding to know the location of her father and “swete broder”, as well as the charges against her.
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury
On the very next day, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a letter to the king expressing his doubts about the queen’s guilt, highlighting his own esteem for Anne. After it was delivered, Cranmer was resigned to the fact that the end of Anne’s marriage was inevitable.
Four of the accused men were tried in Westminster on May 12, 1536. Weston, Brereton, and Norris publicly maintained their innocence and only the tortured Smeaton supported the Crown by pleading guilty. Three days later, Anne and George Boleyn were tried separately in the Tower of London, before a jury of 27 peers. She was accused of adultery, incest, and high treason.
By the Treason Act of Edward III, adultery on the part of a queen was a form of treason (because of the implications for the succession to the throne) for which the penalty was hanging, drawing and quartering for a man and burning alive for a woman, but the accusations, and especially that of incestuous adultery, were also designed to impugn her moral character. The other form of treason alleged against her was that of plotting the king’s death, with her “lovers”, so that she might later marry Henry Norris.
Anne’s one-time betrothed, Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland, sat on the jury that unanimously found Anne guilty. When the verdict was announced, he collapsed and had to be carried from the courtroom. He died childless eight months later and was succeeded by his nephew.
On May 16, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Archbishop of Canterbury saw Anne in the Tower and heard her confession and the following day, he pronounced the marriage null and void.