Thank 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