Posted By Claire on March 20, 2009
Anne Boleyn, Queen Consort of England, was executed by a French Swordsman at the Tower of London on 19th May 1536, just 16 months after becoming Henry VIII’s second wife.
So, how did this 35 year old, spirited young woman fall so dramatically from favour? After all, she was the woman who held Henry’s interests the longest, having caught his eye in the early to mid 1520s. Henry VIII had been so besotted with her that he waited for 7 years for her and bombarded her with letters when she was removed from court, 18 of which remain today, and yet this was a man who hated writing his own letters! How can such a love and passion turn into a dark hatred which resulted in Henry ordering Anne to be executed?
Why was Anne Executed?
If you google “Why was Anne Boleyn executed?” or ask people, you’ll get all kinds of answers:-
- She committed treason, adultery and incest
- She was a witch
- She had three breasts and an extra finger on one hand
- Henry had fallen in love with Jane Seymour and wanted rid of Anne
- There was a conspiracy – Thomas Cromwell wanted to get rid of her
- Henry needed a son and she had only given him a daughter and had miscarried twice
- She had hinted at Henry VIII’s impotency
- Her sharp tongue had made her many enemies who trumped up the charges
- She slept with 5 men, including her own brother!
- She was wrecking Cromwell’s plans for foreign policy
But what’s the truth?
Cromwell the Conspirator
One argument put forward by Joanna Denny (Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen) is that Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Secretary of State, needed Anne out of the picture.
Cromwell had previously supported Anne Boleyn, sharing her Reformist views, but had argued with Anne over the dissolution of the monasteries (Anne didn’t agree with this) and felt threatened by her growing power and influence over the King. Anne seemed to be wrecking all of Cromwell’s plans and policies including an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, and Cromwell realised that it was either her or him and started to plan Anne’s undoing.
We know that Cromwell did indeed plot against the Queen from things he wrote to Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador. Cromwell and Chapuys worked together to bring down Anne and the Boleyn family and to replace her with meek Jane Seymour, who was no threat to them and an imperial alliance.
But, where was Henry in all of this?
Henry was aware of the plotting, and we can assume that his love for Anne was destroyed by Cromwell planting doubts in his mind. Hadn’t he sacrificed so much to marry Anne – the love of his people, his marriage to Catherine, his relationship with Rome? Yet she had failed in her duty as Queen.
To cut a very long story short, after Cromwell failed to prove that Anne and Henry’s marriage was invalid because of a former pre-contract with Henry Percy, which Percy denied, Cromwell arrested Mark Smeaton on 30th April 1536. What happened to Smeaton is not known, but it is thought that he was racked and tortured with an ever tightening knotted rope around his head. No wonder he confessed to sleeping with Anne!
Over the next few days, four other men – Henry’s so-called friend, Henry Norris, George Boleyn, Anne’s brother, William Brereton and Sir Francis Weston – were arrested and charged with treason and adultery (incest also for George Boleyn). Anne Boleyn, herself, was taken to the Tower by her uncle, the Earl of Norfolk. It is said that Anne laughed when Sir William Kingston, her jailer, informed her (lying) that Norris, Smeaton and Weston had confessed to committing adultery with her, so ludicrous was the idea.
We all know the result of Cromwell’s meddling – all 5 men were found guilty of all charges and were beheaded on 17th May, although some believe that Smeaton was hanged, drawn and quartered. Anne was also found guilty and was beheaded on the 19th May, after a day’s postponement.
While trials and executions were taking place, Henry spent time wooing a Jane Seymour, the pawn of the conspirators (Spain, Cromwell and the Catholic rebels) and holding banquets and parties. He even got betrothed to her on the day after Anne’s execution!
Was Anne Boleyn innocent?
It does seem so, when you think that members of the jury were all Anne’s enemies and the only evidence of incest was Anne dancing with her brother and him visiting her once in her room alone.
Rumours spread by Anne’s enemies suddenly became fact and the revelations of Jane Rochford (nee Parker), George Boleyn’s jealous and scheming wife, were believed. Jane Rochford later confessed to falsely accusing Anne and George, before her own execution in 1542.
Eric Ives, in “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, points out that investigations have shown that today, three quarters of the allegations against Anne and the 5 men can be disproved. There is compelling evidence in 12 cases, that Anne could not have been with the men, at the times that she was said to have been, because either she was somewhere else or they were. In other cases, Anne was with the King or recovering after childbirth!
If you are interested in finding out more about the case against Anne, you should read the books by Joanna Denny and Eric Ives.