Over the next couple of weeks, I will be exploring three very different opinions of Anne Boleyn – the Witch, the wh*re and the Martyr – and trying to understand why people have these incredibly different views of her. We’ll start today with the view that Anne Boleyn was a witch and that that is the reason why she was executed and the reason why Henry VIII did not seem to feel any remorse at her death.

(See video below for why David Starkey believes that Anne Boleyn was executed, and it has nothing to do with witchcraft or sexual heresy.)

The idea that Anne Boleyn was a witch was a myth spread and popularized by her opponents and by people like Nicholas Sander, who probably never even met the queen but who described her as having a sixth finger, a wen under her chin and a protruding tooth – all things that could be associated with witchcraft. Sander also wrote of how Anne’s father, Thomas Boleyn, had sent her away to France because she had committed sexual acts as a child with his chaplain and butler.

But where did this view or myth come from? Why was Anne Boleyn ever accused of being a witch?

Evidence for Anne Committing Witchcraft

However preposterous we feel that this charge against Anne was and is, we have to understand what Tudor England was like. In the sixteenth century, it was believed that witchcraft was a real and credible problem and that Satan used women to do his work on Earth. According to widely held beliefs, witches were lustful, they used “sortileges” (spells and sorcery) to entice men into marriage, they committed unnatural sexual acts, they had “union” with the Devil and gave birth to deformed children, they committed incest and they could afflict men with impotence.

With all that in mind, we can understand why some people believed that Anne was a witch, after all:-

  • It was alleged that she gave miscarried a deformed or “monstrous” foetus.
  • Henry VIII started to suffer with impotency – a fact that came out at Lord Rochord’s trial when Rochford was accused of discussing it with Anne.
  • Anne was said to have enticed her brother into committing incest with her.
  • Anne was accused of committing adultery with known “libertines”, men linked with sexual immorality and buggery.
  • Deformities in babies were God’s punishment for the sexual sins of the parents.
  • Henry VIII had apparently admitted to one of his “principal courtiers” that he had been “seduced and forced into his second marriage by means of sortileges and charms” (Chapuys).
  • Anne’s alleged sexual enticements were discussed in court – It was said that she had thrust her tongue into the men’s mouths and that they had done the same to her, and that she was the initiator. This backed up the view that witches enticed men into sexual immorality.
  • Anne had managed to commit incest with her brother, Lord Rochford, at Westminster when she was actually with the King at Windsor – There was the belief that witches could fly.
  • The dates that Anne Boleyn was accused of committing adultery and incest coincided with times of pagan eroticism.
  • Evidence from the late Lady Bridget Wingfield implied that Anne had been a “libertine” who had committed sexual acts (as the mistress of the King) before marriage.
  • Henry VIII was alleged to have confided in his son, the Duke of Richmond, that Anne had planned to murder him (Richmond) and the Lady Mary.
  • Henry VIII did not try to save his wife from execution but, instead, concentrated on preparations for his marriage to Jane Seymour.

These are the reasons that historian Retha Warnicke believes that people of the time could well believe that Anne Boleyn was a witch. Warnicke also puts forward the view that Henry VIII actually believed that his second wife was a witch. Warnicke says:

“The licentious charges against the queen, even if the rumours of her attempted poisonings and of her causing her husband’s impotence were never introduced into any of the trials, indicate that Henry believed that she was a witch.”


“All of his actions, including the marriage to Jane Seymour on 30 May 1536, indicate that Henry genuinely believed that Anne was guilty of the crimes for which she had died.”

That would explain how Henry VIII’s obvious passion and love for Anne Boleyn, which had involved him breaking with his beloved Church, could sour to the extent that he could execute her without any remorse or guilt.

The Witchcraft Theory Debunked

Although Warnicke’s view that Henry’s belief in Anne committing witchcraft and “sexual heresy” was the key to Anne Boleyn’s fall, many historians do not agree.

Eric Ives, in his biography of Anne Boleyn, disputes the claim that Anne miscarried a deformed foetus, saying that the only evidence of this is from Nicholas Sander, who was only about 6 at the time! Ives points out that a deformed foetus was never mentioned in 1536, or even after Anne’s death, that it was not brought up at her trial and that it was never even mentioned during Mary I’s reign when Mary could have used it to blacken Anne’s reputation. When we consider Sander’s physical description of Anne, his suggestion that Anne had been fathered by Henry VIII (!) and his age at the time of Anne’s miscarriage, we cannot really give any credence to his story of a deformed foetus.

Eric Ives discounts the whole story of the deformed foetus because if it was true then surely it would have been used as evidence in court of Anne’s guilt, and the guilt of the 5 men, because a deformed foetus was said to be God’s punishment for sexual sin. The only comment that we know Henry VIII made on Anne’s miscarriage was “I see that God will not give me male children” and that suggests that he blamed God, not Anne, for the miscarriage.

Henry’s comments about Anne’s use of “sortilege” do not necessarily mean that he believed that Anne was a witch. “Sortilege” could mean no more than “bewitched” or enchanted and, as Ives says, could be put down to bluster on Henry’s part and have no real truth in it. Henry VIII was known for his bluster and his exaggerations, after all, he also said that Anne had slept with a hundred men!

In my blog on “Why Was Anne Boleyn Executed?”, I discuss why I think this Queen Consort of England was executed and the answer is not witchcraft! Although Warnicke believes that:

“It was not a coalition of factions that brought down Anne but Henry’s disaffection caused by her miscarriage of a defective child, the one act, besides adultery, that would certainly destroy his trust in her.”

and that Henry blamed Anne Boleyn for God making her carry a deformed son, I believe that her downfall CAN be attributed to “a coalition of factions”.

I believe that Cromwell conspired with Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, and the Catholic faction to get rid of a queen who was having so much influence on the King that she was adversely affecting foreign policy plans. I also believe that Henry had started to believe that his marriage was “cursed”, not in a witchcraft way, but because of what he had had to do to marry Anne (and the fact that he had previously slept with Mary Boleyn), and that Anne had let him down by not giving him a son. Henry was vulnerable and “raw” after Anne’s miscarriage and so was open to having doubts about Anne planted in his mind by Cromwell.

To me, the fact that witchcraft was hinted at, rather than actually being used as a charge against Anne, means that no one really believed that Anne Boleyn was a witch. Witchcraft was just a “suggestion” that was used to blacken Anne’s name, not a serious charge. Archbishop Cranmer’s words to Henry VIII, after Anne’s arrest:

“If it be true that is openly reported of the Queen’s Grace… I am in such perplexity that my mind is clean amazed; for I never had better opinion in woman than I had in her; which maketh me to think that she should not be culpable…  Next to Your Grace, I was most bound to her of all creatures living… I wish and pray for her that she may declare herself inculpable and innocent… I loved her not a little for the love which I judged her to bear towards God and His Gospel.”

and the fact that, after he found out that she had been executed, he said: “She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen in Heaven”

do not sit comfortably with the idea of Anne being accused of witchcraft. Cranmer was close to the Queen and would have known what was going on, surely it would have been dangerous for him to defend a woman accused of witchcraft!

Still, whatever Warnicke, Ives and you or I believe, we probably will never know the real truth about why Anne Boleyn was executed and why Henry’s love turned to hate or indifference. There really are no right answers!

What do you think? Please take the time to comment below and let me know your thoughts about Anne Boleyn and witchcraft.

(Sources: Eric Ives’ “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, Retha M Warnicke’s “The Fall and Rise of Anne Boleyn” and David Starkey’s “Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII”. See our Anne Boleyn Books page for more details.

P.S. The British Library have added another David Starkey lecture to their podcast page. It is entitled “The Change 1509-1533” and looks at Henry VIII’s personality change, from virtuous prince to tyrannical adult. Click here for details.

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