On 19th May 1536 Anne Boleyn made her last journey, from the rooms in the Tower of London in which she had been held since her arrest, to her place of execution, which was also within the Tower. She was due to be executed for treason, and it was also alleged that she had committed incest with her brother George and adultery with five other men. Now, almost five hundred years later, most historians now believe that she was not guilty of the crimes for which she was executed. In that case, why did she die?
To answer this question, it is essential to first look at the aesthetic of England at that time. Henry VIII had inherited the throne from his father, Henry VII, who came to power after he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. The nature of Henry’s seizure of power meant that he was wary of any who may have been a threat to his authority, and who would possibly try to usurp the throne. His son would have grown up with a father who was wary of even his close friends at times and the young Henry would have learnt to be suspicious of those around him by observing his father’s behaviour.
When Henry VIII tired of Catherine of Aragon and no longer wanted her to be his wife, the most obvious reason for this was that she had not produced a son and heir for him. In Henry’s mind, a son was the most important thing. Henry was well known for his roving eye, but this did not explain why he was eager to divorce Catherine, as he could take yet another mistress as he had done throughout his marriage. Although Henry already had an illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, any further sons born had to be legitimate in order to carry on the Tudor line. The role of women at this time comes in to play as well. Women were generally seen as little more than chattels and their goal in life was to achieve a good marriage. Of course, there were powerful women, but they were mainly the consorts of kings and did not have any power in their own right. For a woman to be sovereign of Britain would have been unthinkable.
It was essential for Henry to have a son to safeguard England’s future. His attention was soon drawn to Anne Boleyn, who was one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting. After seven years of wrangling with the Catholic church, Henry finally broke the link with the Church of Rome and was granted an annulment by the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Anne fell pregnant soon after the wedding and a daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was born in 1533. Both Henry and Anne hoped that a son would be born to them, but sadly, in January 1536, Anne miscarried a boy.
This miscarriage was the catalyst for Anne’s downfall. Thomas Cromwell had recently clashed with Anne, and feared for his position, and his life. Cromwell came up with evidence that Anne had committed adultery and incest, and Henry was only too eager to believe it, as he had grown tired of Anne and his favour had fallen on one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. On 2nd May 1536 Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London.
Anne’s failure to produce a son may have been a factor in her downfall although the main protagonist was Thomas Cromwell. He was in fear of his own life and would sacrifice Anne if his own well-being would be assured.
‘House of Treason : The Rise and Fall of a Tudor Dynasty’ Robert Hutchinson.
‘Traitors of the Tower’ Alison Weir.
‘Henry VIII’ Eric Ives.