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Anne Boleyn and the fire in her chamber

Posted By on February 28, 2015

Anne Boleyn HeverThank you to Phillipa Vincent-Connolly for asking me about this event and for suggesting that I write a post about it. It is, of course, an event which was shown recently in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall.

In the series, just after the death of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, played by Claire Foy, escapes from a fire in her chambers caused, apparently, by an unattended candle setting her bed hangings alight. Lady Rochford tells Cromwell that the candle may have been left burning by a careless midnight vistor to the Queen’s chamber, suggesting, obviously, that Anne ‘entertained’ visitors there after dark. Anne is visibly shaken and mentions the prophecy that a queen of England would burn, adding that she didn’t think it meant like this. As viewers, we are left wondering whether someone meant to kill the queen. Cromwell is concerned, ordering Lady Rochford to make sure that water is always on hand, whereas the King seems more concerned with the damage, commenting on how they were nice hangings.

Did this fire really happen and what about the prophecy?

In July 1530, according to Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, when Henry VIII commented to Anne that “that she was under great obligation to him, since he was offending everyone and making enemies everywhere for her sake”, she replied to him: “That matters not, for it is foretold in ancient prophecies that at this time a Queen shall be burnt: but even if I were to suffer a thousand deaths, my love for you will not abate one jot.” In May 1536, Chapuys mentioned this prophecy again, writing: “The Concubine, before her marriage with the King, said, to increase his love, that there was a prophecy that about this time a queen of England would be burnt, but, to please the King, she did not care. After her marriage she boasted that the previous events mentioned in the prophecy had already been accomplished, and yet she was not condemned. But they might well have said to her, as was said to Cæsar, “the Ides have come, but not gone.”

Obviously Anne Boleyn was not burnt at the stake, but there is a source for her escaping from a fire in her chamber. Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador and author of Poeme sur la mort d’Anne Boleyn, a poem written in 1536 about Anne Boleyn’s life and execution, wrote:

“Thus it happened that by two or three signs
Marvelous and great that the Queen received,
She found herself greatly confused in spirit.
The first was by a furious flame
That suddenly surprised her in her chamber,
If there not been one there to warn her promptly
To escape and take her
To a place she could stay;
It was such that had she not left then,
She would not have been safe from the fire.”

It appears that this was in early/mid January 1536 because de Carles mentions it after Catherine of Aragon’s death (7 January) and before Henry VIII’s jousting accident (24 January) and Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage (29 January). It sounds like a serious fire and it appears that Anne only escaped because someone spotted it, perhaps one of her ladies who shared her chamber.

I find it interesting that there’s no mention of the fire in Chapuys’ letters or court documents in Letters & Papers (or I just haven’t found it!), yet news of the fire reached the French ambassador’s secretary. If it happened shortly before Anne’s miscarriage, perhaps the fright, combined with the shock of Henry’s jousting accident, had something to do with Anne losing the baby. It is, of course, impossible to know that and to know what actually happened.

Note: Chapuys refers to an ancient prophecy about a queen burning, but in 1533 the Abbot of Garadon was recorded as saying to John Bower that by 1539 “When the Tower is white and another place green, then shall be burned two or three bishops and a queen; and after all this be passed we shall have a merry world.”

Notes and Sources

  • Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 1, Henry VIII, 1529-1530, 373
  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10, January-June 1536, 909
  • Ascoli, Georges, La Grande-Bretagne Devant L’opinion Française Depuis La Guerre de Cent Ans Jusqu’à La Fin Du XVIe Siècle, 233–34, De la Royne d’Angleterre, Lancelot de Carles, lines 303-312. Translated by Susan Walters Schmid in “Anne Boleyn, Lancelot de Carle, and the Use of Documentary Evidence”, Dissertation, ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, December 2009. The original French reads:
    “Ainsi advint que par deux ou troys signes
    Que la Royne eut merveilleux et insignes,
    Se trouva fort en son esprit confuse.
    Le premier fut par flamme furieuse
    Qui soudain l’eust en sa chambre surprinse,
    Si ne fust ung qui promptement l’advise
    De s’exempter du feu qui se prenoit
    Desja au lieu ou elle se tenoit;
    Tellement que si lore [elle] ne fust partie,
    Jamais du feu ne se fust garantye.”
  • Wolf Hall, BBC Adapation, Episode 5: Crows, aired on BBC 2 on 18 February 2015
  • ‘Henry VIII: Appendix’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 6, 1533, document 10, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1882), pp. 681-685 viewed at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol6/pp681-685

19 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn and the fire in her chamber”

  1. It seems that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were never really happy after Katherine of Aragon’s death. Some would call it “Katherine’s Revenge” or Karma: Henry’s bad jousting accident soon after Catherine’s death, followed by Anne’s miscarriage soon after that. Henry was never the same robust man he was after that accident. Anne did not provide the son and heir that Henry needed so badly. Except for the birth of his son Edward VI by Jane Seymour, he was on a downward spiral (and even that didn’t work out for him). Unfortunate marriages, bad health and much disappointment followed him the rest of his life. Anne lost her head to him. I’m sure he had many moments in which to contemplate the grievous wrong he did to Katherine with Anne’s participation. So did Anne while she waited her execution.

    1. JudithRex says:

      Hello. I differ with you a bit in respect to Henry. I think he was thrilled that Katherine was dead because quite a few saw him now as a widower. He now had options he didn’t have before. He felt like a young man again,I would guess, hence the jousting at 45 years old. When he fell, he realized he really didn’t. He had been completely vulnerable and nearly left his country in a terrible position.

      I believe he wanted to see if he could annul or divorce Anne if she didn’t give him a son. I do not believe he intended to kill her until he was convinced that she betrayed and humiliated him in the most egregious ways.

      I do agree that Anne was worse off after Katherine died for sure.

      1. Alex says:

        It is pretty obvious that Henry was the person with most to gain from the death of Katherine of Aragon. Apart from his no longer having to pay for her keep and his ability to recover her jewels and plate (no one pointed out to him that since he had never been her husband he had no right to these things!), had he tried to rid himself of Anne with Katherine still alive he would have been under pressure to accept that he had been wrong all along, and take Katherine back as Queen. There would always have been those who said that any third marriage was as invalid as the second, and any child of it illegitimate, which could have set England up for a return to civil war on Henry’s death.
        Thus the stories that Anne wanted to kill Katherine and Mary have to be nonsense. She had nothing to gain by either death, and although she may have felt her position as Queen was more secure after Katherine’s death she really has no motive unless you believe her to be the unmitigatedly evil person she is sometimes portrayed as.
        I also think Henry did not originally think of executing her. There was plenty of precedent for setting aside a Queen who was infertile, and Anne would not have found the supprt Katherine of Aragon did to thwart him. Once Katherine was out of the way his road was clear. But I don’t think he had Katherine killed, I think she died of cancer, probably exxacerbated by lack of care.

        1. JudithRex says:

          Well, thank you for saying it is obvious he had more to gain.

          However, nothing you say precludes Anne from wanting to kill Katherine. There was always the risk that Anne could have been put aside and Katherine restated if Henry decided that breaking with Rome was too dangerous, or if Anne did not have a boy child. Killing Katherine and her daughter would have eliminated that option.

        2. Hannele says:

          We must remember that Anne did not know what effects Katherine’s death would have on her own fate n 1536. Earlier, she had cause to believe that after Katherine was dead, she would be Queen without doubt.

          That does not mean that she aimed to kill Katherine herself. She talked about it but if one is not quite stupid, one does not talk aloud but acts in secret. Arranging a public trial and execution when Henry was abroad would also have been stupid as it would have endangered her own position.

          However, that leaves the possibility that she tried to influence on Henry to get Katherine and Mary tried for treason. After all, they were a possible threat to her and Elizabeth.

          That threat would be most dangerous if Henry had died in January 1536. Then either Anne would have to kill Mary or she would have killed her and Elizabeth.

        3. Banditqueen says:

          Hi Alex, yes we know today that the growth described by Chapyus was mostly indicative of cancer, and in fact the autopsy was not by a qualified person and seemed to be cursory rather than a full investigation. A black growth was found around Katherine’s heart, which was assumed to be poison, but further knowledge now points to cancer. There are many factors as you rightly point out, General poor health, decline in her care, anxiety, lack of contact with her daughter, dampness at Kimbolton, harassment, all contributed to her decline and death. Anne Boleyn is believed to have wished both Katherine and Mary dead and in some wilder, less sane moments boasted that she could order their deaths if Henry went abroad. Her brother told her not to be so foolish. But we have to place these reckless statements in the context that they were made. Experts believe that Anne was under a lot of mental strain and paranoia gave rise to these statements. In any case it is a far cry from wishing someone dead to actually killing them. It’s highly unlikely that Anne killed Katherine, even though she and Henry rejoiced at her passing.

          Chapyus was with Katherine for three days before her passing, leaving the day prior to her death, mistakenly thinking she would recover. He had seen the way she was, her decline first hand and arrived back at court to the shock news of her death, and the inappropriate displays by the King and Queen. His letters are full of accusations, anger and distress. In was natural that given Anne’s remarks, he came to the conclusion that she may have poisoned Katherine, hearing the results of the examination from her doctor. Anne clearly had not killed Katherine, and we have to take the remarks by both her and Chapyus in the context of very distressing and stressful situations.

    2. Hannele says:

      There is no evidence that Henry ever regretted anything bad he did to others. His conscience was so elastic that he felt that he had always acted right.

      Oh well, he regretted killing Cromwell but even then he blamed others.

      As for Katherine, if Henry had had qualms of conscience, he would not have demanded the Oath from Mary. But with or without Anne, he was sure of his aim to have a son.

      As for being happy, that has nothing to do this matter. Bad people can be happy and good people unhappy, the world being what it is.

      Rather, one can say that after one had treated one person badly, without having any qualms because of it, it is easier to treat another person badly, and do on. Henry’s moral character certainly worsened steadily.

      1. JudithRex says:

        Hannele, I think once Henry experienced first the perceived treason of his wife and then the rebellion from the North, he changed. Hardened. But it is not knowable what he felt in his heart were the compromises of kingship. Certainly his daughters changed when they felt threatened.

        The only story I have heard of a Tudor feeling regret was Henry VII after the pointless execution of a mentally handicapped person. That was beyond vile.

        1. Banditqueen says:

          Edward of Warwick was not mentally handicapped. That’s a Tudor myth. Nor did Henry Tudor feel bad about executing him, he felt justified after he was used by Perkins Warbeck to escape. As the son of the Duke of Clearance, attainted or not he was a rival, a risk, a focal point for future Yorkist plots. Henry made a cruel but strategic decision to get rid of him. There is no evidence that he was regarded.

        2. JudithRex says:

          my source form y comment is Leanda de Lisle. I will stick with a professional over an anonymous poster, thanks.

        3. Banditqueen says:

          First everyone here posts using a nickname, many have various types of experience and expertise, slamming someone for being a fellow poster is disrespectful, especially from someone who claims to be intelligent, adult and well educated. Such a remark shows you to be the opposite, childish, unintelligent and disrespectful.

          Leande De Lisle is a fine writer, one greatly respected, but she does not argue that Edward of Warwick, now 24, was retarded, but citing from Hall, a chronicle not contemporary with the event, to conclude that he was niece and may have been under educated as he was kept in the Tower for several years. As you will know, Edward was placed within the royal palace part of the Tower in custody when he was fourteen. It was assumed that this may have affected his development, so De Lisle refers to the forensic psychologist Ian Stephen, who states that the child killer, Jon Venables, rightly imprisoned aged 11, saying he may have remained as a child. She does not say that this is a fact and provides no contemporary evidence that Warwick was in this category.

          The older source merely says he may have been under educated and is not evidence of mental retardation. Hazel Pierce, author of the biography of Edward’s sister, Margaret Pole refutes the claim that he was regarded or childish. He may have been easily led, but so have a number of well educated people. John Sandown Hill an expert in Edward of Warwick and his family, also do not credit this Tudor source as evidence of any mental handicap in this young man. No contemporary evidence suggests it, and not enough was known about the time he was away from public view to assert much about him at all. The belief is also disputed by Susan Higginbotham, and most tellingly by several Ricardian historians who could have made more of this error but don’t do so.

          This, however, does not excuse Henry’s decisions to try and execute Edward. In fact he had no intention of doing so until the failed escape influenced by Perkin Warbeck. Henry Tudor had in fact treated Edward well, even reinstated the deadline of Warwick in 1490. However he was housed in the Tower, then as much royal palace as prison, in state, from the age of fourteen, due to false claims of others to be him. When Warbeck attempted three invasions of England with the full support of Scotland and Margaret of York, and was finally captured, the last time, Henry Tudor needed to know who he really was. He was put in the rooms with Warwick in the hope he would talk. He persuaded Warwick to escape and later confessed the truth, but both were recaptured. Warbeck was trying to overthrow the King by claiming to be Richard of York, although some also claimed that he was the real Edward of Warwick. I recommend the Dublin King for more on this. Henry was persuaded, perhaps by the fact he was negotiating a marriage for Prince Arthur with Spain, although historians are divided over this, to settle the pretender question once and for all. Warbeck he had to reveal as a pretender, traitor and rebel, he had no choice but to try and hang him. Warwick was different, he was technically speaking innocent. However, the escape had sealed his own fate, sadly, and Henry here was ruthlessly without mercy. His death brought a lot of pity, he may not have been a retarded, innocent child, far from it, evidence suggests that he was using Warbeck to effectively escape, but he was not a traitor or a dynastic threat. Henry as I said previously, felt that with the risings of pretenders he could not take the chance of keeping him alive, and ironically, his escape attempt could point to guilt punishable by death. Henry acted out of fear, he was tried before the Earl of Oxford and beheaded a week later on Tower Hill in 1499.

          Edward was buried in the family vault in Bishcom Priory, his family did not show signs of hatred or blame towards the Tudors, rising to high positions and becoming close friends of the young Henry Viii, the future Queen Katherine and Princess Mary. It’s only after the divorce and the fall of Reginald Pole that Cromwell instigated the family in trumped up so called Exeter plots, having them imprisoned or executed on very little evidence, Margaret being executed as an elderly woman a year later without even a trial.

        4. Banditqueen says:

          Sorry, should read John Ashdown Hill, not Sandown Hill, kindle auto correct.

  2. JudithRex says:

    We haven’t seen the series here yet, but I recall the scene in the book differently in that Henry is quite solicitous of Anne and she finds him irritating. Cromwell comments that she seems bored by him. This of course plays into the accusations made against Anne and her brother in real life; that they mocked him and Anne was bored by him.

  3. Banditqueen says:

    The use of this incident, mainly unsubstantiated, save in this dubious source, is clearly a dramatic tool to show us Anne’s increased paranoia. She was growing fearful of Katherine and Princess Mary. Her only relief came after the death of Katherine, when she declared that she was now truly queen. I have not taken the incident as anything more than that, and I am not a bit surprised that it is not in the main sources. Lancelot de Carles is not a good source due to the rumours and gossip mentioned in the poem to do with conversations with Lady Worcester and her brother, were in response to him upbraiding her for infidelity she accused Anne Boleyn of even worse adultery. The poem has a number of fruity details and was used by Professor Bernard, the only scholar who believes Anne was guilty. Although I don’t doubt that a possible fire could have happened, one that surely would have been frightening for poor Anne, may be one of three or four things that led to her miscarriage, it is interesting that the official accounts or Chapyus don’t have it. A fire in the royal suit would be unusual but not impossible for there had been fires before, the risk was high. Sheen was burnt down in about 1496/7, being rebuilt as Richmond, York Place had a serious fire in 1530 and another 1532. Westminster has been seriously destroy by fire a number of times and most of Whitehall went in 1676. The old palace of Westminster and Parliament was completely destroyed in 1832, and we have all seen the damage to Windsor Castle and Hampton Court in the 1980s and 1990s. Hampton has also been damaged by fire a few times. Therefore the fire in the bedroom cannot be dismissed, but neither can we take it as anything else but an accident. Anne was naturally frightened and the prophecy certainly existed, many such did, but her main concern as would that of Henry would be for the unborn child. Anne was pregnant, her fears were heighten, waking up to find the bed on fire must have been terrifying. Henry and Cromwell were naturally concerned, Cromwell would suspect foul play, although this is unlikely. As I have said fires happen with candles and lots of fabrics. Anne was also paranoid, the incident is used to show this, because during the previous year and parts of 1534, many people have said she grew paranoid. However, of course, Hilary Mantel has to turn the fire into an opportunity for Jane Rochford to sneak of to ally Cromwell to make out that someone else has been in Anne’s room, who should not be, a man perhaps. And here, personally, I believe that history and fiction have parted company. Or perhaps Anne asked for her marmalade? Either way, the source should be read with caution as should the idea of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford constantly going to Cromwell with tittle tattle. I did love this fictional portrayal of her, found it rather amusing, but the historical evidence is suspect.

    1. Banditqueen says:

      Forgot to mention, the poem is now available for the first time in English at Amazon.

      1. Banditqueen says:

        Correction Whitehall went save Banqueting House in 1698, and Westminster had a serious fire which ended use as a royal palace 1512. I can’t find a fire in the private royal apartments in 1536, but the records of course may not be complete, and it is possible.

  4. Tara Bennett says:

    I thought this prophecy was made in 1533 by the Abbot of Garadon. “When the tower is white and another place green, there shall be burnt two or three bishops and a queen, and after all this be passed we shall have a merry world.” This says Anne refers to it as an ancient prophecy. Is 1533 not the correct year of the prophecy?

  5. JudithRex says:

    I saw the episode with the fire and Anne does indeed look a little irritated with Henry…asking him to let her drink her wine and relax. I don’t see Henry complaining about cost, just sad at the destroyed artwork as anyone would have been. The scene serves as a mother reminder of how may little poison darts are being dropped by jane Boleyn and also implies that someone is doing these things to Anne – the dog out the window, the drawing of her headless and the fire in the room on purpose.

    1. Banditqueen says:

      Jane Rochford being portrayed as a trouble maker, poisoning others against Henry is actually quite clever. However, these incidents are merely to show that Anne had enemies and was paranoid. The fire is more likely to be an accident, if in fact the source is correct, it’s still one that should be read with caution.

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