Posted By Claire on May 21, 2012
As you know, I was counting down, day by day, to Anne Boleyn’s execution on The Fall of Anne Boleyn timeline. Well, by this time in 1536 Anne was dead and gone and was about to be replaced by a new queen. I do have more articles to add to The Fall site, but I wanted to write here about the impact that researching Anne’s fall has had on me personally and to share my thoughts…
I have read the primary source accounts of Anne Boleyn’s fall many times over the past three years, so many times that I know speeches and letters almost by heart, but my horror at those bloody events and the awful miscarriage of justice never fades, not one jot.
My husband, Tim, will tell you that I hate injustice and have always had a strong sense of ‘fairness’, so perhaps part of my horror is down to that, a need to fight for the underdogs, the victims of injustice, and to clear their names. I am chilled to the bone by the speed of events that April and May, and angered by how completely innocent conversations and examples of the great chivalric tradition, courtly love, were used to bring down a Queen and kill six innocent people. I am convinced of the innocence of Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton, and agree with the imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, who wrote that the men “were condemned upon presumption and certain indications, without valid proof or confession”. They were not saints, they were not martyrs, but they were victims of a brutal coup.
Yes, there are historians who believe that Anne Boleyn may have been partially guilty and that there’s no smoke without a fire, but we all know that there can be plenty of smoke without a fire, and that its easy to blacken someone’s name and bring them down with rumours and gossip. I have gone over and over the documents from 1536 and cannot find one piece of solid evidence that Anne or the men were guilty of any crime. Anne Boleyn was a victim of her own success and her vulnerable position, as a queen without a son, and the men were simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong friends.
Today, Anne and the men would have been acquitted, but in Tudor times the onus was on the accused to prove their innocence, rather than the Crown proving their guilt. Defendants did not have counsel, they were not aware of what evidence was being presented against them, they could not prepare their defence case and all they could do was react to what was said in court. They were at a serious disadvantage and when you combine all that with a hostile jury and a jury who knew very well what Cromwell and the King expected of them, then you realise that Anne and the men were ‘dead men walking’.
We know that Anne and George defended themselves admirably. As I said in my article about their trials, the chronicler Charles Wriothesley wrote that Anne “made so wise and discreet aunsweres to all thinges layde against her, excusing herselfe with her wordes so clearlie, as thoughe she had never bene faultie to the same” and that George “made answer so prudently and wisely to all articles laid against him, that marvel it was to hear, but never would confess anything, but made himself as clear as though he had never offended”. So eloquent was George in his defence that “several of those present wagered 10 to 1”, but it made no difference to the outcome. He, like Anne, Norris, Smeaton, Brereton and Weston before him, was found guilty and sentenced to death. Contrary to Hilary Mantel’s fictional account of his trial, George did not weep as his sentence was pronounced, he confessed that he deserved death and begged the King to pay his debts out of his estate. This noble and courageous man was worried about those he owed money to, rather than dying.
Then we have Anne Boleyn’s remarkable composure. She was due to die on the 18th and spent the night of the 17th/18th in prayer. She prepared herself by making a final confession to Archbishop Cranmer and then celebrated the Mass, swearing on it twice that she was innocent of the charges laid against her. After making arrangements for alms to be distributed, she waited for Sir William Kingston’s footsteps, for him to collect her and walk her to her death. But her execution was cruelly postponed. I cannot imagine how Anne must have felt. We’ve all psyched ourselves up for something and then had it postponed and had to go through the worry all over again, how much worse must it have been to have one’s death postponed? Yet, Anne was strong and courageous, even joking about her “little neck”. Another day to wait and another night in prayer…
Although I am struck with the injustice, the cruelty, the horror and the immorality of it all, the courage and dignity of those who died in those ‘bloody days’ is what makes a bigger impression on me. These people are not fictional characters, they were real people who were good and loyal servants to their King. They did not deserve to die as traitors in 1536 and they do not deserve to have their stories twisted to entertain readers today. They deserved to be respected and admired.
I certainly don’t want to have a dig at Hilary Mantel because her book, Bring Up the Bodies, is fiction and it is very well written. It may be based on Anne’s story, or rather Cromwell’s, but she is clear in her author’s notes that it is a fictional re-telling of the story and that we cannot know what exactly happened because evidence is lacking, documents are missing and we have to deal with the bias of those recording the events. Mantel is also writing from Cromwell’s point of view, how he saw things. However, I did worry as I read it that another generation of readers was going to come away from it with very warped views of Anne and the men, plus, of course, Jane Boleyn. None of them are likeable characters in the book. If I hadn’t researched George and Jane Boleyn then I think I would have been quite happy for them to get their come-uppances, and don’t get me started on Anne! “Will readers have any empathy for these people?”, I kept asking myself, “Or will they be baying for their blood?” It will be interesting to see how people react to the book. What do you think?
Thank you to all those who spread the news of The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown promotion over the weekend. The book got to No. 2 in the Top 100 Kindle Free Titles and over 26,000 people downloaded it. A huge thank you!
I mentioned last week that we had tickets for a private after-hours evening tour of the Tower of London plus Ceremony of the Keys for sale for the 23rd June. Well, due to popular demand, we’re now selling them as single tickets rather than as group tickets – see Exclusive Tower of London Evening Tour and Ceremony of the Keys Tickets for Sale for more information.