2 May 1536 – Anne Boleyn’s arrest

On this day in history, Tuesday 2nd May, Queen Anne Boleyn was informed that the king’s council required her presence in the council chamber of Greenwich Palace. When she got there, the council informed her that she was being accused of having sexual relations with three men: Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris and an unnamed man. She was informed that Smeaton and Norris had confessed.

Anne denied the charges but it was no good. The council ordered her arrest and later that afternoon she was rowed to the Tower of London and escorted to the royal apartments, which would act as her prison.

Her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, was also arrested on 2nd May 1536 and taken to the Tower.

Here is an excerpt from the audio version of my book The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, giving more details on what happened on this day in 1536.

Picture: The Tower of London, copyright Tim Ridgway.

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13 thoughts on “2 May 1536 – Anne Boleyn’s arrest”
  1. Although Anne knew something was going on around her she must’ve been shocked at her arrest and appalled at what she was being accused of. And then to hear Smeaton and Norris confessed to things that never happened, she probably held out hope that this would be cleared up but soon realized that this was going to end very badly for all involved.

  2. Anne arose that day to what must have seemed to her to be perfectly normal yet there was the strange departure of her husband the day before at the joust, maybe she tried to convince herself that she was letting an over active imagination run away with her, but for days storm clouds had been gathering and by now they had reached a crescendo, nevertheless she was watching a game of tennis when a messenger arrived to inform her she was required to see some members of the Kings council, this was odd because queens are not normally summoned to appear before a council and with dread in her heart she must have surmised that it had something to do with the Kings hasty exit the previous day, there she was told by a group of sombre looking men that Smeaton and Norris had both confessed to adultery with her, this is the oldest trick in the book – tell a person their alleged partner in crime has confessed and with a bit of luck they will to, but they were lying, Smeaton had confessed to a pack of lies by Cromwell but Norris had done nothing of the sort, he had vigorously defended his honour and the queens, Anne was known for her spirit and Cromwell knew she would never confess but that did not matter, he now had enough evidence to bring to trial and had her exactly where he wanted her, out of harms way where she could wreck no vengeance on him, during those dreadful moments when she realised she was in very grave danger she must have felt desperation mingled with very real fear and anxiety and mounting hysteria, never far from her temperamental nature was boiling up, her uncle a grim faced man who she had often argued with in the past was one of them, no doubt he was gloating at her and Anne later said he kept saying tut tut in a sarcastic manner when she tried to speak, I do not understand Norfolk at this point as she was his neice albeit a rather disliked one but she was his sisters daughter, and he must have known her arrest would cause much distress to her mother and father, maybe he was in the dark about Henrys intention to execute her and just thought she was being placed there to teach her a lesson whilst Henry sought to divorce or have her marriage annulled, she was dismissed like a servant girl and told then to wait until the tide had turned so they could take her to that dreaded fortress – The Tower, her head must have been in turmoil and as the little barge past the green banks of the Thames, now dotted with buttercups and daisies she must have felt like she was in a horrible nightmare, a nightmare from which she was slowly realising she would never awake, it was said that those who entered the Tower rarely left, above the infamous traitors gate there are the words ‘ all hope abandon ye who enter here’, many a sad soul had passed under that ominous entrance but Anne was Queen of England and was treated as such, she did not languish in a dank cell where hardly any light ever visited, and where the velvet of her gowns would have become a victim to the yellow toothed rats, but to her beautiful apartments where she had stayed in during her finest hour – her coronation, she must have compared that long ago wonderful day to her present one and where there had been laughter and excitement now there was gloom and the awful feeling of not knowing what is going to happen to one, according to Kingston she was laughing and crying and he must have felt uncomfortable standing in front of her, no man likes to see a woman cry and he must have tried his best to soothe her, he was not used to dealing with weeping queens and he must have pitied her greatly, wether he liked her or not, Anne knew something was about to happen to her, she had known it for weeks but never in her wildest imaginings could she have thought that she would be arrested for adultery and thrown in the Tower, all the pent up anxiety she had been feeling for months broke out in a torrent of hysteria, she asked Kingston if she would die without justice proof of the Towers grim reputation, she must have felt the blade strike her neck, her reply was the poorest subject in the realm has justice, as we all know she never received it.

    1. You mention Anne’s uncle Northumberland. He was always a bit of a weasel. In ‘Young & Damned & Fair’ it talks about when Katherine Howard was arrested he wrote to the King to plead that he knew nothing about what she was doing. In another book ‘House of Treason’ by Robert Hutchinson that covers the Howard family it really points out how he would throw anybody including family members under the bus to protect himself.

    1. Yes Norfolk was trying to dissociate himself from his neice when her frolics came out in the open, he was quite rightly terrified of retribution for the King could extend his anger to his wife’s family, and they were all rounded up and placed in the Tower, after some questioning, after Anne and her brother’s death their father lost one of his major posts at court, Norfolk had many a row with Anne even calling her a wh*re on one occasion and he complained to Henry that she used words to him like he was a dog, why they did not get on baffles me, his mistress was in her service, maybe she resented her presence there as she had just been a laundry woman in his household and Anne thought no doubt she was not suitable enough, after her trial though he was quite shaken up as he pronounced the death sentance, it was noted he had tears in his eyes, his portrait shows a morose looking man as if he was overburdened with his duties as Earl Marshal and he did tragically lose his bright young son to the block, films and tv drama series portray him as a devious bully who harangued his sisters family for self advancement, he is shown advising Anne how to act with the King and the same with Catherine but that may not be true, if ones relation married the King one would expect honours but he was England’s premier Duke and his daughter was married to Fitzroy, the Kings bastard son so why should he particurlaly care if his neices were married to the King or not, of course the shame that followed with Annes arrest and Catherine was enough to worry him considerably it brought shame on those who were related to her as well, he was said to have derided both his neices considerably to Henry but with Anne he must have known or at least had a suspicion that she was being stitched up, with Catherine it was different and the King was genuinely hurt by what he saw as her betrayal, which must have made Norfolk feel very ashamed and anxious indeed.

      1. Catherine couldn’t stand her uncle and he was not too fond of her.I don’t think he was particularly likeable. Just my opinion. I certainly wouldn’t want to have worked with him.

  3. Gosh! A lot going on today. Anne was called to the Council Chamber from her morning watching a game of tennis, then she faces charges of sleeping with three men, Norris, Smeaton and one other, as yet unnamed, but as her brother was arrested later that day we can safely guess it was George Boleyn who stood accused. Anne, of course denied the charges but those few members of the Council who speak with her, including Norfolk are having none of it and Anne is shipped of to the Tower by the afternoon. Norfolk was the Head of the Council, Earl Marshall, the Uncle of the Queen, so it was his duty to inform Anne that she was under arrest. What happened next is described in conflicting accounts.

    According to one source Anne complained that she was treated roughly by the Councillors, not allowed to speak with the full council and that when she denied the charges, her uncle tut tutted her and called her a wh*re. Another account, however, says that she denied the charges and was merely told that she would be escorted to the Tower and everything done for her needs there. Norfolk was doing his duty but I am guessing, going by his reaction as he read the statement of condemnation to his niece, at her trial, that he was inwardly distressed at having to arrest Anne. We don’t really know if he believed the charges or not, but I don’t believe this was an easy thing for him to do. Norfolk could certainly be cold when it came to duty and was ambitious but I don’t believe he was here.

    We have a long and rather detailed account of what happened when Anne came to the Tower. She was frightened and confused and took fright at the fact that the steps went down and asked if she went to a dungeon, to which she was informed that she went to the same apartments that she had been given for her coronation, three years earlier. Anne then dropped to her knees and begged the mercy of Jesus and said she was not worthy. She then regained her composure and declared she was free from sin and the touch of man and the King’s true wedded wife. Anne also asked for the Blessed Sacrament to be placed in her room so as she could pray.

    It is in her rooms that it all becomes too much and Anne shows signs of distress and hysteria. Her actions are rather bazaar as she opened her gown and started to ramble about the men she was accused with. She asks if Mark is there in the Tower, had has he accused her, then, hearing that Norris has also confessed, she remarks the same thing. Having realised that Kingston has not mentioned who else she is accused of, Anne is concerned about her brother as she has not seen him. Where is her brother? Kingston does his duty also and lies, saying he was last seen at the tournament. George has in fact just been arrested.

    Again, calming down Anne’s concern is for her mother who will be deeply affected by all this. Anne was very close to her mother and spent much time with Elizabeth Boleyn. Her mother had shared apartments with Anne when she courted the King and acted as her chaperone. Elizabeth may even have already been suffering the ill health which would kill her within less than two years of the execution of two of her adult children. Now Anne showed great unselfish concern for her and was upset about how this would affect her. Anne was rightly confused, frightened and concerned for herself and her family.

    Finally we are told that that evening Henry called his son, Henry Fitzroy to him and tried to console himself by claiming all sorts of bad stuff about Anne. Some historians believe Anne had a good relationship with this young man who had married into her Howard side of her family and Henry was trying to convince him that he had good reason for fearing the worst in Anne and to justify her arrest. Henry tried to say that his son and daughter, Mary had a narrow escape as Anne had planned to poison both of them. He also declared that Anne had slept with over 100 men, although of course she was only accused with five. Henry was either trying to convince or console himself and was genuinely in shock at what Cromwell had revealed or he was trying to convince himself that his actions were justified. Henry may have ordered this investigation, but Cromwell came up with the goods and invented much of the evidence. He had made a case which showed Anne up in as poor a light as possible to prove that she was capable of anything. Whether or not Henry had agreed to these charges in advance or most had caught him by surprise, he had to appear as the wronged husband, the victim, the King who had been made to look a fool, who had been deceived by an evil and calculating woman. We are meant to feel sympathy for the King, horror at Anne’s crimes and not, as we do feel, sorrow and horror at a woman being so cruelly set up and executed on false charges.

    1. BQ…could you kindly explain a bit more about the Blessed Sacrament and it’s significance for those of us not in the know.

      1. Hello, yes, when Jesus had his last meal with his friends, he took bread and blessed it and said: This is my body given for you, do this in memory of me. He did the same with the wine: This is my blood, given for you. Do this in memory of me. This was just before his crucifixion. It represents the sacrifice for all people.

        Catholic people believe quite literally that when the priest at mass blesses the bread at communion or Mass that it becomes the Body of Christ, that he is truly present. This is called the Real Presence and that the Mass is the continuing of the Sacrifice of Jesus. Another name for the Consecrated Host is the Blessed Sacrament as Jesus is present. In Tudor times most people still believed this quite literally as Catholics do today.

        The Host (consecrated leaven bread or wafer) could be blessed and placed in a special holy display holder called a monstrance. This is held upright with the Host in the centre and elevated for the faithful to see at Mass. The Monstrance will be left for people to pray before and to adore the Lord afterwards and then it is kept in a special cupboard or sanctuary, covered up. We use two terms to refer to this special Presence of Jesus, Sacrament of the Alter or more commonly the Blessed Sacrament.

        Anne was asking for a blessed Host to be placed in this way in her room on the Alter so she could focus on Jesus during her days of misery and torment. She could pray for mercy or aid or strength or just take comfort from knowing He was with her. Anne was interested in reform but she still believed in the Presence in the Holy Sacrament at Communion and when a Host was blessed. Most Protestants today don’t believe Jesus to be literally present but that the bread and wine represent the body and blood and are a memorial. Ironically Luther continued to teach about the Real Presence and Catholic belief is still closest to the Lutherans on this main point, although we still disagree on other things, the number of Sacraments, for example.

        A Sacrament is an outward sign of an inner, spiritual belief which is holy because we believe it was instituted by Jesus himself in the New Testament of the Holy Bible. Incidentally there are some ideas in the sacrifice of Jesus which are very similar to the sacrifice made in the Hebrew Bible in Judaism. An especially important thing is the idea that Jesus became the Lamb of God, the Sacrifice for all, because a spotless lamb was sacrificed at Passover for the redemption of Israel in the Temple and this was the last meal they ate that Passover.

        I hope I have been helpful as I have tried to explain as fully and simply as possible.

        Thank you for asking. God bless. Anne must have been really frightened but I hope she found strength and her request was granted.

    2. The trouble with Henry was most knew he was fed up with Anne, they would have blazing rows then go for days without talking and they both were left to their own devices, Anne must have put on a good show of indifference in her apartments were there was merrymaking, singing and dancing and light banter, Henry was visiting Jane a lot and Chapyus wrote to his master then the King was heartily sick of the concubine, and paying court to Jane, so when she and Smeaton and the others were arrested he did put on an act of shocked fury, we do not know if it was just an act or he believed the charges, but this is very telling, in the weeks leading up to the trial and death of his wife he seemed indifferent to the fact that he was looked on as the betrayed husband and was quite cheerful, he would dine with Jane most evenings where she was esconced in private dwellings up the river and rumours were flying about that he would soon have a new wife, his callous indifference to his captive queen has done Henry V111’s character no good, and it is this very behaviour that in his own time, made people believe that Anne was the victim of a plot to destroy her, and like the fictional Bluebeard of old, he had one wife residing not far from where his next wife was, instead of in secret chambers, Jane was in luxurious apartments and her family were riding on the back of their good fortunes, good fortune was transitory in Henrys court, but the Seymour’s like most family’s hoped that their Jane would succeed where Anne and Katherine had not, and they were ready to take a gamble on that, their gamble paid of and Jane was a successful queen giving the King his much desired son, but it cost her her life, meanwhile Kingston was reporting back to Cromwell Annes reckless gabbling and Cromwell no doubt was very pleased that his plot was going well, he needed more names and soon Brereton and Weston were added, Anne was just talking out loud sometimes maybe to her woman who hovered around her like black crows, each in their turn reporting back snippets that they knew Kingston would report to Cromwell, Henrys remark about his wife sleeping with a hundred men is not worthy of him, as more than any man he knew she had always guarded her virtue, in the early days she had frustrated but must also have impressed upon him her desire to only sleep with the man she would marry, she was not a wh*re and never had been and he knew, such confessions made under torture or the threat of it, is not worth the paper it’s written on, he must have guessed that Smeaton had been subject to a lot of pressure to make him confess, which means deep down he must have known she was innocent as the facts do not add up, but here was a king who chose to believe what was convenient to him at the time, and it is an almost immature way of thinking and very dangerous to but it was convenient for him at that moment in time, to believe the worst of his second wife.

  4. The mention of Henry’s declaration that Anne had slept with 100 men, though only 5 men were named, reminds me of Poem 11 by Catullus, entitled ‘Bitter notice of divorce to Lesbia,
    (Clodia Metelli), which reads….
    “Pass on these none too pleasant/ words to my girl.
    Let her live and flourish with her adulterers/ whom she embraces 300 AT A TIME,
    Breaking their manhood/ And let her not look to my love, as before/ Which has fallen by her fault like the flower/ On the edge of the field, touched / by the passing plough.”
    In point of fact, this aristocratic married lady (whose husband died in suspicious circumstances, maybe poisoned) had 5 other lovers, besides Catullus.
    Both in the minds of Henry and Catullus, 5 inflated to account for their rejection by a woman with whom they had been infatuated. It was not their fault, they seem to be saying, for the woman turned out to have insatiable lusts She was a moral monster. Catullus had no power over Clodia’s rampant desiring – but Henry did.

  5. Henry Viii is supposed to have wept over Anne’s arrest and the calamity of it all, of how hurt and badly done to he was by Anne’s numerous infidelities, which is why he was consoling himself with his son. 100 men of course is a great exaggeration, meant to paint as dramatic a picture as possible, to say the Queen is capable of anything. Anne can’t just be accused with one person, she has to have many lovers, have committed the most outrageous sexual acts and plotted to kill the King with all of those lovers, individually and together. Anne must be painted as a demon, wh*re, wicked and heartless, capable of every evil and salacious act imaginable. The magnitude of the charges against her, charges which are just the tip of the iceberg if Cromwell is correct, which made the lies set against her seem plausible. It was the hypocrisy of Henry in his pretended grief that makes this whole episode sickening. We are meant to feel sorry for the King, whose beloved wife has betrayed him, after the world has been turned upside down to make her Queen, but history has a way of balancing stuff out and it is Anne who now has our sympathy.

    This was all part of the dark conspiracy, to ensure her legacy and reputation are also destroyed as well as her memory erased. Unfortunately for Henry, Anne had sympathisers, who wrote in protest of her guilt and proclaimed her innocent and who were outraged. Mary of Burgundy was one such witness who wrote in shock at the news of Anne’s trial and execution. The person who most of all exclaimed his disbelief at these charges and did not believe them, ironically was Chapuys. He was her enemy but even he thought the charges against Anne and the five men were groundless. Henry couldn’t force people to accept Anne’s guilt and he would have to accept that, whether he liked it or not because much of that criticism came from abroad.

  6. I don’t have words when I try to articulate what Anne must have been feeling when the full knowledge of what was to be her horrifying fate,hit her. The indignet anger with sheer terror and probly waves of disbelief to dreadful realization and back again..aternating. Poor Anne. She handled the situation with courage and dignity.

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