Why was Anne Boleyn Executed?

Posted By 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:-

  • Anne Boleyn 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.

Thomas CromwellCromwell 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.

The Fall

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.

Comments on
"Why was Anne Boleyn Executed?"

30 Responses to “Why was Anne Boleyn Executed?”

  1. AnneWasFramed says:

    I think we can safely say that Anne Boleyn did not have three breasts! In one of King Henry’s letters mentions that he is looking forward “kissing her dukkys” – so, I suspect that it must have been one of the “conspiracy theories” that was the end of her!

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  2. Yes, I think he would have noticed the 3 breasts (or dukkys!), extra finger and goitre and have been put off her!

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  3. Sherri says:

    I’d like to share some of my thoughts on why Henry actually killed Anne.

    The obvious one of course is that she promised him a son and only produced a daughter with several miscarriages after.

    The most important one I think is that Henry and Anne were competitors. What I mean by that is that they were both musical, creative,extremely intelligent and intellectual, had outgoing personalties. Henry got to the point where he couldn’t afford the competition. He and only he needed to stand alone as the brightest star in the court. The leader. He could not have as a Queen one who shone as bright as him. He needed a back drop not an equal. Henry had become very narcisstic.

    Anne’s usefulness was over. Henry used her to achieve the break from the Church and declare himself Supreme Head of the the Church of England. The history books say that Henry declared that he the break from Rome, ransacking of the monasteries etc., to marry Anne. She was used as the scape goat and the reason why so Henry could have a clear conscience. Henry also used Anne’s counsel and intelligence to achieve the Reformation.

    Anne had a following inside the court and outside in foreign countries that Henry could not afford to keep her alive.

    Henry was obsessed with Anne and as long as she lived he would never be free to wed another. Love and hate go hand in hand.

    The last reason is that Henry had syphillis and had had for years. The disease was slowly turning him into the tyrant that he would become. He was becoming mentally unstable. This could have also been caused by a Narcisstic personality which give him visions of himself being the all powerful. As Wolesley or was it More that said ” Do not tell him what he can do but tell him what he should do.”

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  4. admin says:

    Hi Sherri,

    Thanks for your great comment and I agree with the majority of what you’ve said. Anne was rather too inteliigent and feisty for her own good wasn’t she?! And yes, she made a good scapegoat.

    As far as syphilis is concerned, that theory is no longer put forward as most modern historians no longer believe that Henry suffered with it. There’s just no real evidence. It is not in his medical records and mercury, the standard treatment for syphilis, is not mentioned in his list of medicines and in any accounts. Also, although Catherine of Aragon did suffer miscarriages and deaths of babies within weeks of birth, and Anne too suffered miscarriages, Henry’s mistresses and Jane Seymour gave birth to babies who were healthy, who went on to be intelligent and who were not in any way retarded or suffering from seizures.

    I guess we’ll never know for sure about the syphilis, but there’s no conclusive evidence either way.

    Thanks again, Sherri!

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  5. Bassania says:

    Henry had Anne executed because he was afraid of she could become, while he put on the facade of her being a witch, an adulterer, his main reason was that they were rivals, she was everything he was.

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  6. admin says:

    Hi Bassania,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment! Yes, you’re right, Anne was very much his equal, something that had attracted Henry at first but also something that he probably tired of!

    Claire x

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  7. Tricia says:

    Why Anne was executed is a loaded question. If you could put aside the usual cadre of stories, one thought might just be that her family had become too powerful.

    The Norfolks owned more land that Henry, the Duke even had his own ‘army’ identified by its own distinctive livery. Perhaps Henry sought to ally himself with Norfolk in order to remove the threat from within of a possible alliance between Norfolk and the Poles – the last of the Plantagenet line.

    This is not an entirely far flung proposition given that Henry VIII probably never forgot that the first Duke of Norfolk had sided at Bosworth with Richard III and thus did not trust them. Plus Henry made himself very unpopular through his mistreatment of Catherine of Aragon, his daughter Mary and the dissolution of the monastaries. England was still essentially Catholic and the people were very unhappy with the turn of events they were witnessing.

    Plus, the Tudors were considered of mongrel lineage begat in the bed of a lady of Peerage(Katherine of Valois) and her squire Owen Tudor. So even though Henry VII won the battle of Bosworth (1485) – (ostensibly by picking up the crown on the ground next to the severed head of his enemy, putting it on his head and declaring himself King a generation before), the Tudor reign was still shaky.

    Anne was the necessary link between Henry and the Norfolk clan. The birth of a male child by Anne would forever link the Tudors and Norfolks and remove the possibility of Norfolk support for Reginald Pole ever trying for the throne. Why would they when they
    were the family of the future King of England?

    When Anne failed to produce the ‘heir’, it is notable that she was tried by her own Uncle the Duke of Norfolk; but only in that it demonstrated that Norfolk did what ever it took to deflect any undue attention upon him by the King, even if it meant quietly supporting that a Seymour would be raised to majesty – in unusually quick time too. Could it be than Henry was trying to secure the succession before Norfolk had a chance to recoup?

    It might be argued that the birth of his son Edward in 1537 went some way in reassuring Henry of the succession but the first real organised uprising of revolt in the form of the Pilgrimage of Grace also in1537 reminded him of the Norfolk Lancastrian connection.

    Perhaps the execution of Lord Montegue (brother of Reginald Pole) in 1538 and that of their mother Margaret in 1541 was calculated to send a clear message and prevent any new fomentation of an alliance between the Norfolks/Boleyns and the Poles. Norfolk certainly had the military might, Reginald as a Cardinal of Rome had the support of Spain and possibly France and the people of England were certainly willing to assist.

    Henry had not long been King(relatively) when Anne came onto the scene and although it cannot be denied that Henry demonstrated some significant feelings for Anne – it is interesting that very few of her responses to his letters survive, in fact, all that we can glean from material available is that Anne resisted the King.

    I propose that Anne was simply a pawn. The argument that the king had had her sister (and some say ‘the mother’) and tired of her and that is why Anne resisted must be taken with some salt – the king had the right to bed any woman in the land by force if necessary whether virgin, married, single – what ever. In fact it was not unheard of for earlier kings to deflower a young maiden the night before her wedding – any maiden in his kingdom. I propose that Anne resisted because she was never truly considered by Henry until it became absolutely necessary to the survival of his monarchy – in more ways than one.

    Why did Henry behead Anne? She simply became expendable. Henry may have loved her, but he loved power more. Anne simply became expendable.

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  8. anna says:

    IMO Catherine of Aragon was the real queen. Through her mother, Queen Isabella of Castile, she was of the house of Lancaster. Queen Isabella had more a claim to the throne of England than did Henry himself.

    This marriage with Catherine of Aragon legitimized the Tudor dynasty. Plus Catherine’s nephew was the Holy Roman Emporer and would have kicked Henry’s behind. The Pope was not under Henry’s control, so Henry created his own national church under KIng control. Henry made church and state one. No separation of church and state under Henry. Henry wanted a male heir to avoid any contention when he died. Henry wanted a continued Tudor dynasty.

    Anne Boleyn did not have anyone outside England to champion her cause. She had no blood right to the throne. So the daughter she had could have married a Howard and then the dynasty would change to another line. So Henry had to get rid of them and/or put fear into them.

    IMO Henry collaborated in this whole scheme, and shoved it off on his underlings to avoid guilt.

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  9. Laura says:

    Jane Seymour’s baby was not healthy…i wouldnt call king edward healthy would you?
    also henry fitzroy was a weak boy and died young. mary also tended to be sick. only elizabeth seemed to be robust.
    the doctors may not have known he had syphilis…i wouldn’t exactly trust their education or accuracy when they treated people by bleeding them.
    in any case he didnt need syphilis to become mentally unstable…he was psychologically screwed with all the people planting ideas into his head, trying to keep his authority, etc
    BUT
    we need to look at this from the mind of a person coming from that time…a lot of things he did were considered normal, executions of people who threatened his power, witchcraft was highly believed in and he could easily be convinced that after so many people betrayed him that Anne could have bewitched him. but he was obviously deluded even for that time syphilis or no syphilis…people constantly playing mind games with him

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    Emma Reply:

    I do agree with much of what you have said but I think the fact that Anne’s daughter Elizabeth whilst declared iilegitimate as was her sister Mary was never recognised by Henry as not being his daughter too. The very fact she was included in the act of succession gives the lie to the suggestion that he believed that Anne was unfaithful because if he believed that how could he be sure his heir was of his blood? The very reason why Queens committing adultery is treason in the first place.

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    Bev Reply:

    I think we also are overlooking the effects of the significant head injury Henry suffered which would have had an effect on his personality and perhaps made him more susceptible to the things whispered by Cromwell and his other advisors

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  10. Tamara says:

    Dear Claire,

    i love this site! It’s great to know that so many others are interested in the Tudors, specifically Anne Boleyn.
    I was wondering, i’m doing a historiographical task on her, so it’s all about what historians believed etc., do you think you’d be able to help me ?
    you seem to be quite an expert yourself, that’s why i’m seeking your help.
    see firstly, i’m having trouble deciding what to question about Anne ? Her execution is ideal but are there any other really controversial things about her that are constantly argued by historians ?

    keep up the great site !
    awaiting the possbility of a reply =)
    byeee

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  11. Claire says:

    Hi Tamara,
    Controversial issues that people argue about include:-

    Whether Anne was innocent or guilty – Although most historians believe she was innocent, historian G W Bernard is bringing a book out in the new year and he believes that there may be grounds for finding Anne guilty of adultery.
    Whether Anne and Henry Percy did consummate their betrothal
    What caused Anne’s miscarriages and how many she actually had
    What Anne looked like – six fingers? A goitre on her neck etc.
    Whether Anne was responsible for the cruel treatment of Catherine of A and Mary
    What the five men were like – Warnicke talks of them as sexual deviants, libertines and people who practised unnatural sexual behaviour.
    Whether Anne was a victim of sexual harassment or whether she was the seductress. Did she scheme to trap Henry and become queen?
    Her date of birth

    Those are just a few off the top of my head! Hope they help.

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  12. Mary Benedict says:

    I’ve concluded, after all of the reading I’ve done, that Henry had Anne executed because he was a killer. Maybe that sounds simplistic, but I don’t mean it to be, as the reasons why he was a killer are no doubt quite complex. But here is my case that Henry was a killer: he is the only British king ever to execute his queen, and he executed “two.” Some people (including, unfortunately, Jonathan Rhys Meyers) may think Kathryn Howard had it coming, but does anyone believe she was the only British queen to that point who had ever committed adultery? He also nearly had his last wife killed for being too Protestant. Since he was happily married for some years to Katherine of Aragon before pushing her aside, I think his killer tendencies emerged later due to degenerative mental illness, whether it was paranoid schizophrenia as The Tudors seems to imply, or bipolar disorder, insanity caused by syphilis, or whatever. The fact is that Henry didn’t have to execute his wives, even to look tough, whether they were guilty or not; he chose to. In contrast, Elizabeth, his daughter, did not execute her ex lover despite his having committed treason, and that human normalcy — not wanting to off someone you used to love — didn’t destroy her reign.

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    julia Reply:

    While I agree that Henry was a natural killer, we cannot exclude Elizabeth as being mentally healthy. She did kill Sir Walter Raliegh and her own cousin, Mary of Scots, who had come to her for refuge. This indicates a brutal nature.

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    Bev Reply:

    Raleigh was executed by James I in 1618. And if everything I’ve read is true, she did not want to execute Mary but was left with no option due to the maouvering of her closest advisors who felt that Mary and her constant plotting was a real danger to Elizabeth’s rule

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  13. Emilia Casaluce says:

    What a fascinating site! I’ve read all the interesting entries, but noticed that there was one aspect that was not discussed about Anne Boleyn. With Anne being intelligent and influential, it can be argued that she was a “protofeminist”. She had very liberal ideals and did not necessarily see herself as King Henry’s inferior, but his equal. Anyone else consider that perhaps her views placed a great deal of fear in the men in power in her time? During that time and subsequent centuries, any woman that had opinions would be considered to be a “witch”. Wasn’t Anne accused of being involved in witchcraft and sorcery? The theory that Cromwell found Anne to be a threat is beginning to make more sense to me.

    The King had great admiration for Cromwell and left him in charge of a lot of “kingly business” — and Cromwell knew this and took advantage of it. King Henry was very easily manipulated and not just by Cromwell. Henry was very happy to just go along with other people’s ideas as long as it benefitted him , stroked his ego and fed his narcissism. The trick, however, was to make the King believe that the ideas were his brain child. It didn’t take long for others to realize how easily influenced the King can be, for example, how many fathers were able to get their riches by prostituting their daughters to the King? They obviously knew the king had a weakness for women.

    We get a good sense that King Henry would rather leave major decision making up to others. Which finally brings me back to Cromwell. Could it be possible that Cromwell was in fact the puppet master behind Henry’s decision to get rid of Queen Boleyn?

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    wendy Reply:

    At long last someone has correctly identified Anne Boleyn as a protofeminist! She seemsto have been admirably intelligent, spirited and proud in a dignified way. She could
    Not o
    T

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    wendy Reply:

    We should remember that Anne was genuine in her initial rejection of Henry. She did not wish to end up pregnant and unmarried like her sister and Henry’s other conquests. She wanted to secure a decent life for herself via marriage to a man of similar status to her own. In fact Anne reminded Henry of this in her final letter to him. Her initial rejection of Henry was very brave indeed and based on sound reasoning. Somehow, however, the charming Henry convinced her otherwise and the rest is history!

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  14. Juanita says:

    It has since been shown that Henry V111 did not have syphilis. He would have infected most of his oman partners if that was the case.

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  15. Whit says:

    I think this article should also mention that, as per David Starkey, Anne’s aprtments were emptied out before she was found guilty, and her executioner was ordered before she was found guilty. I think these two occurances definitely prove that Anne’s trial was a complete joke and only for show. Couple this with there being no actual evidence against her save for confessions obtained through torture and I think we can all rationally agree that Anne was completely innocent. We can even throw in the fact that she was devoutly religious, a true believer, and yet did not confess guilt even after being found guilty and about to be executed as the cherry on top of the sundae. She would have believed her soul to be damned had she not confessed before dying. I don’t see how there can be any shadow of a doubt. Sure it’s a minute possibility that she was guilty, but it’s at about the same level of possibility as Henry having secretly been a hermaphrodite. It’s easy to say that it’s possible, because nearly anything is, but there’s absolutely NOTHING to back it up. It blows my mind that the issue of her guilt is generally considered “not known one way or the other”. Yeah, just like we don’t know if Elvis is alive and living on an island somewhere right?

    I do, however, think it may very well have been possible that Henry BELIEVED she was guilty, due to his infamous obsession with loyalty, deep-seeded paranoia, insecurity, and theatrical tendencies towards self-pity. I think all that would have made him an easy target to go to and whisper in his ear and have someone you don’t like removed from favor, simply by ensuring that that doubt is planted. Add this to Anne’s “tiring personality”, her not having bore him an heir, and Jane being dangled in front of him as a ready alternative, and I think it becomes quite easy to explain Anne’s rapid fall from grace.

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  16. Ryan says:

    Very helpful to me for my school project.

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  17. Yovania says:

    What comes around surely goes around as old as that saying is, its what I feel happened to Anne & her family (except her sister who was also used by their father to gain stature, power & wealth) All that work she did manipulating her way to the crown. Of course with her Daddy’s Help and her brother because of their greed and ambition not caring how it happened, at what expense or who it hurt in the process. Eliminating all obstacle’s that got in their way to accomplish their goal and secure their positions with the King. Catherine’s & Mary’s suffering & humiliation because of Anne and her Father doings, so many other people who died & where also falsely accused by the Queen in order for her to gain & hold on to that crown. She was also very cunning,, manipulating, greedy, cold, ruthless & a Narcissist. So later on Life, Life turned on her , the tables have flipped on her & her daddy dearest.

    All that work to end up Accused of things that I do believe she was Innocent off but never the less got a taste of her own medicine that cost her her life, she didn’t even get to enjoy being Queen that long after so many years of lying to the King about her past, manipulating and scheming w/her father only to end costing them their life’s.

    King Henry found another Lady to replace her bc she could not give him a Heir a son , Just the same way he replaced Catherine with her because Catherine couldn’t bare him a son either. So What comes around goes around.

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    Anita Reply:

    I totally agree with Yovania, what goes around sure does come around. Life has a way of balancing itself out in the end, and she sure did get what was coming to her. I also believe that she was innocent of the charges laid against her, but she was not an entirely honest woman. Her years of scheming finally caught up with her.
    What does history about her having three breasts? If that were true, then why would the king have pursued her so tirelessly? She must have surely been a woman of great beauty and intellect, but even that lethal combo of beauty and brains was not enough to save her from her very dismal fate.
    Lesson learnt: Life eventually catches up with you

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  18. Yovania says:

    Its like History repeat it self again and bit her & her family in the a**.

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  19. Cindy says:

    I once knewA family in PA whose family history said they received their wealth from signing t he agreement to behead Anne Boleyn. Do you have records showing the names of the signers?

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  20. Hannakate says:

    For some reason. ANNE BOLEYN has always been my favourite queen. I feel her death was caused by a variety of factors. Henry being a womaniser, just loosing interest when a son wasnt appearing as he planned. Anne being very outspoken and what not, prob lead to people mistaken her behaviour as suspicious etc etc..The tudors makes it out that she hid her past from henry, and was all her father and brothers doing. Everyone was out to get everyone, like her family did to catherine and mary. Its kind of a what goes around…thing. But the specifc accusations I believe were faulse no doubt. However back then people were very supersticious, and henry prob genuienly believed she had tricked him as she promised him a son, which didnt come to pass and then she had miscarriages. So that prob made him come to the conclusion to allow the arrests. He could of just divorced her if he wanted too, other influences at court prob had alot to do with her complete downfall. Poor woman!

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  21. Susan says:

    That’s the first iv heard that lady Rockford confessed to lying about Ann and George ? I have read so many different accounts of what happened its difficult to know what to believe !! Will we ever know the truth we can only speculate about what happened ! There is just enough missing to keep us from knowing what really happened something that will be topic of debate for many yrs to come !!!!

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  22. Mayur says:

    i think that its the truth of life.. i mean the life itself says that whatever you do comes back to you.. so i think what she did to the previous queen came back to her and that is what happened to other 5 wives.. WELL I MUST SAY I LOVE I AM INDIAN AND NON OF THESE NONSENSE COMES HERE

    [Reply]

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