16 May 1536 – Queen Anne Boleyn is in hope of life

On this day in history, Tuesday 16th May, Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, reported to Thomas Cromwell that “this day at dinner the queen said that she should go to a nunnery and is in hope of life.”

But the previous day, Anne Boleyn had been sentenced to death for high treason, so how could she now be “in hope of life” and talking about being sent to a convent? What had happened on 16th May to give her such hope.

All we know is that Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, had visited Anne Boleyn at the Tower that day, having been sent to act as her confessor and to obtain Anne’s consent to the annulment of her marriage to Henry VIII. Is it possible that Cranmer had been told to offer Anne the hope of life in exchange for her consent to the annulment? It is possible, but we just don’t know. Whatever did happen that day, it did give Anne hope, albeit false hope.

While Anne Boleyn was feeling more hopeful, her brother and the other four men were preparing for their executions which had been scheduled for the next day. Click here to read how the men prepared themselves for death.

Notes and Sources

  • Cavendish, George, edited by Samuel Weller Singer (1825) The Life of Cardinal Wolsey and Metrical Visions from the Original Autograph Manuscripts, Volume II, p. 228; Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume X, 890.

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13 thoughts on “16 May 1536 – Queen Anne Boleyn is in hope of life”
  1. It seems highly likely tthat poor Anne was offered false hope if she would agree to an anullment, why else should she agree that her marriage had never been valid and have the stain of bastardy slapped on her daughter? It’s obvious something had been said between her and Cranmer to get her to agree to this, Katherine had never given in calling herself Queen Of England to the end but she was never in a cell condemned to die, Anne would never agree either but her situation was very different to her predecessor, I doubt Cranmer enjoyed this service he performed for his King, he was a champion of Anne and had been the only one to defend her at her arrest, Henry must have said to him promise her a pardon to get her to sign, tell her she can go to a nunnery and I think that is so abhorrent to do that to a person who was going to die, to give them a chance of life then to cruelly take it away, we see Henrys true nature here, he was capable of great vindictiveness, so poor Anne must have felt so relieved when she thought she might live to see her daughter grow up, she would prefer the nunnery to death anyone would, at least she would still feel the sun on her face, so she agreed to the anullment and sacrificed that which she had fought so hard for, and her daughters right to the throne, she must have pondered how did it all come to this, she had once been Henrys darling, he had ripped the country apart for her, he had showered her with riches only to take it all away, in another part of the Tower in seperate cells were her brother and the three others, they knew they were about to die and spent their last days writing letters to their families, Weston’s letter is concern for his family, he was leaving behind a young wife and child and George was worried about his debts he had racked up, I doubt if that was at the forefront of Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyns minds, they must have been overcome with grief at having two children condemned to death and they must have spent a good deal of their time in prayer, praying they would have the strength to guide them when the time came, I doubt if both her parents knew of Annes visit from Cranmer, they all had a confessor even poor Smeaton whose confession had put them all there in the first place, at this moment in time however Anne must have been in quite high spirits as she sat down to dinner thinking she would soon be released, tragically that was not to be.

  2. li coulld be said that the journey she was refering to was the after death journey, Anne appeared to beshe could have been a yorkshire person very prargmatic and calledd a spade a spade, knowing full well she was about to be excecuted l do not think she was occupying he last hours on earth with fansifull ideas of a going to a convent, and in her case that would be the last thing should want !!

    1. But she told Kingston that she was in hope of life and spoke of going to a nunnery, she didn’t just say that she was going on a journey.

  3. Henry was an evil man. I have often tried to put myself in Anne’s shoes, but it is too horrific. The not-knowing, the hope given and then cruelly ripped away, the terror of knowing your child is going to grow up not only motherless but bastardized, the death itself. She was far braver than I!

  4. Perhaps it was simply a tragic case of wishful thinking. Anne, living in slim hope that the King still felt enough for her that he didn’t want to see her die. I think she lived in this hope right until the last moment as she was looking over her shoulder for a last minute reprive as she was lead to the scaffold. Perhaps in some kind of denial – quite understandable.

    1. If Anne was innocent, as most historians agree, then it is completely understandable why she might have been in denial until the very end. If you are accused of the most appalling crimes, and you know yourself to be innocent, the prospect of being publicly butchered must have been terrifying. What were Anne and the men guilty of? At the most, reckless speech. That in itself, however, was enough in view of the treason legislation. Even thinking something against the king was treason – Henry wanted to know everything his subjects thought about him.

      At this point, I’m not sure Anne was thinking of her daughter, or even her own future; I think she very probably was desperate to avoid the horrific fate of being burned at the stake. We may know today that Henry had ordered the executioner well in advance of her trial, but Anne herself did not know that, if she was to be executed, it would be with the sword rather than at the stake. Burning at the stake was an accepted form of punishment in sixteenth-century England, but even so, the thought of being incinerated must have been horrific.

      1. Yes that’s true I cannot think of a more dreadful death, she was sentenced to be burned or beheaded, it said that the King moved to pity was unwilling to condemn her to the flames, in this last act however the last thing he would confer on her he at least had the decency to be merciful, he may have been thinking of Elizabeth also, how would she feel knowing that her mother had died in such an horrific way, it was the proper sentance for women who had been convicted of treason but Anne was queen and the death was not dignified, for one thing the flames burnt the clothing and her body would have been on show, also Henry was aware of the grumbling of the people, he knew had he ordered her to be burnt there may have been a riot, she was not a peasant girl and although she had never been popular people always feel sympathy for the underdog, Henry had got what he wanted he was free of Anne and she herself had agreed they had never been married, he could afford to be generous, what I would love to know is who decided on the sword, the fact that the headsman was already on his way smacks of Henrys doing as before her trial Anne must have prayed she would not die, it was unprecedented as we know, no English queen had ever been on trial and condemned to die, therefore she probably thought at the beginning she would be divorced and forced to leave the court, even with the despicable charges against her she could never have dreamed she would actually die, after all Henry had the power over life and death, he could pardon someone as easily as he could condemn them, why should he not pardon his own wife with whom he had loved as he had never loved any other, they had a child and a history together, Henry could not afford to be sentimental over this, some historians have suggested that it was Henrys way of honouring Anne as she had lived in France, what a way to honour someone, ‘I’m about to have your head cut off but we will use the sleek more sophisticated sword instead of the rather clumsy English axe, as I think that will suit you better’ what a joke! And this act again seems to have a macabre feel to it, it’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland, a black comedy with the Queen Of Hearts running around saying incessantly ‘ off with his head off with her head’, in fact iv often wondered if Lewis Carroll did base his character on Henry V111, as with Anne herself requesting the sword well if I had a choice I would rather a skilled swordsman any day, the English executioners were well known for botching the job, tomorrow nearly 500 years ago five men were led out to the green and sacrificed, I can think of no other way to describe that sorry scene.

        1. I believe Henry still had some feelings for Anne, although he may no longer had loved her, at a deep down level, which is why he opted for a sword, swift and almost painless. However, there may be another reason which has its root in the Tudors and especially Henry Viii being obsessed with the Arthurian legends. An article in the Spectator by Leanne de Lisle recently asked the question why was Anne Boleyn beheaded with a sword? She believes that the answer lies in these legends. Henry is King Arthur, the wronged righteous King, betrayed by Anne as Geneviere, the Queen who betrayed him with Lancelot (which man is Lancelot you may guess). Geneviere was sentenced to be burnt at the stake but was sent to a convent after she was rescued by Lancelot, who was banished. De Lisle says Henry decided to use a sword because this was the symbol of Camelot, righteousness as King, and masculinity. In the trial of George Boleyn he had been accused of making a statement which mocked Henry’s masculinity, as had Anne, if reports that she confided to Jane Boleyn that Henry had problems in bed are true. According to this theory Henry chose a sword to behead Anne because in the eyes of a righteous King which Henry claimed to be, had humiliated his honour. Henry was the injured party in his imagination and the de Lisle theory says that Anne was beheaded with a sword as the instrument of his vengeance and restoration of his honour.

          Personally I think this is fanciful and that Henry chose a sword as he had a small amount of compassion for his wife and the mother of his child, a child Henry had doted on and maybe this would have been her wish. Therr is also the theory that it had something to do with her life in France and she had requested a French executioner, but Henry ordered the sword well before the trials, so that doesn’t make much sense. No Henry wanted to look benevolent and everyone to think he didn’t want Anne to suffer as he cared for her, thus the sword, not the axe. Henry created a legend alright, but it was that he had compassion for Anne, not that he was imitating King Arthur.

  5. Claire can I first of all thank you for the wonderful job you have done bringing us close to these men and Anne as they prepared for death. Sir Francis Weston’s letter to his wife and parents is very touching. How terrible the fate which awaited them and they didn’t learn of the King’s decision to commute their death to beheading until later that night. Anne herself will not die for 48 hours and had the agony of being told to agree to an annulment and declare her daughter a bastard, two delays and false hope.

    Cranmer may have promised her life if she agreed or as Conor says she was hoping for mercy due to the terror about being burnt at the stake. Anne does not yet know she will die by a French swordsman. It is very difficult to imagine what she went through but they were probably setting their estates and debts or asking family members to do so. Anne may have thought of Elizabeth or had memories of happier times or been in prayer, but nothing could have taken that terror of burning away or for the men, public butchery. Even the bravest person would be frightened by such a prospect. Conor is right in another thing, knowing you are innocent makes you try to hope that this nightmare is not real and something will turn up, you are in denial.

    Claire thanks again for sharing these letters and documents and insights with us and your hard work gathering these sources for us and these articles which take us into a sad world during these last two weeks and allow us to travel back to May 1536.

    1. Thank you, that’s kind of you to say. Thank you for all you do here too, I love that you, Christine and others enjoy discussing things here.

      1. I must admit I’m kind of addicted to the Anne Boleyn files, it’s the first thing I look at on my iPad.

      2. Very welcome. I enjoy debating and discussions on history. I can keep up with the latest scholarship here. Thanks for your kind words.

  6. I find the Tudor dynasty very interesting. Im sure it was hard for anne waiting for death in the tower but i dont really feel sorry for her. I feel sorry for Catherine. She was the righful queen and anne knowingly committed adultery with the king. I mean- did she think he wouldnt tire of her too and find a reason to get rid of her? Still, its all very fascinating.

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