On the 6th May 1536, it is said that Anne Boleyn wrote the following letter to her husband, King Henry VIII, from the Tower of London:-
“Sir, your Grace’s displeasure, and my Imprisonment are Things so strange unto me, as what to Write, or what to Excuse, I am altogether ignorant; whereas you sent unto me (willing me to confess a Truth, and so obtain your Favour) by such a one, whom you know to be my ancient and professed Enemy; I no sooner received the Message by him, than I rightly conceived your Meaning; and if, as you say, confessing Truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all Willingness and Duty perform your Command.
But let not your Grace ever imagine that your poor Wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a Fault, where not so much as Thought thereof proceeded. And to speak a truth, never Prince had Wife more Loyal in all Duty, and in all true Affection, than you have found in Anne Boleyn, with which Name and Place could willingly have contented my self, as if God, and your Grace’s Pleasure had been so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forge my self in my Exaltation, or received Queenship, but that I always looked for such an Alteration as now I find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer Foundation than your Grace’s Fancy, the least Alteration, I knew, was fit and sufficient to draw that Fancy to some other subject.
You have chosen me, from a low Estate, to be your Queen and Companion, far beyond my Desert or Desire. If then you found me worthy of such Honour, Good your Grace, let not any light Fancy, or bad Counsel of mine Enemies, withdraw your Princely Favour from me; neither let that Stain, that unworthy Stain of a Disloyal Heart towards your good Grace, ever cast so foul a Blot on your most Dutiful Wife, and the Infant Princess your Daughter:
Try me, good King, but let me have a Lawful Trial, and let not my sworn Enemies sit as my Accusers and Judges; yes, let me receive an open Trial, for my Truth shall fear no open shame; then shall you see, either mine Innocency cleared, your Suspicion and Conscience satisfied, the Ignominy and Slander of the World stopped, or my Guilt openly declared. So that whatsoever God or you may determine of me, your Grace may be freed from an open Censure; and mine Offence being so lawfully proved, your Grace is at liberty, both before God and Man, not only to execute worthy Punishment on me as an unlawful Wife, but to follow your Affection already settled on that party, for whose sake I am now as I am, whose Name I could some good while since have pointed unto: Your Grace being not ignorant of my Suspicion therein.
But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my Death, but an Infamous Slander must bring you the enjoying of your desired Happiness; then I desire of God, that he will pardon your great Sin therein, and likewise mine Enemies, the Instruments thereof; that he will not call you to a strict Account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me, at his General Judgement-Seat, where both you and my self must shortly appear, and in whose Judgement, I doubt not, (whatsover the World may think of me) mine Innocence shall be openly known, and sufficiently cleared.
My last and only Request shall be, That my self may only bear the Burthen of your Grace’s Displeasure, and that it may not touch the Innocent Souls of those poor Gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait Imprisonment for my sake. If ever I have found favour in your Sight; if ever the Name of Anne Boleyn hath been pleasing to your Ears, then let me obtain this Request; and I will so leave to trouble your Grace any further, with mine earnest Prayers to the Trinity to have your Grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your Actions.
Your most Loyal and ever Faithful Wife, Anne Bullen
From my doleful Prison the Tower, this 6th of May.”
( from The Life and Death of Anne Bullen, Queen Consort of England, printed by G. Smeeton, Charing Cross, Britain, 1820 and Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. J.S. Brewer, J. Gairdner & R.H. Brodie 1862-1932).
Anne’s Words or a Forgery?
Alison Weir considers this letter in her book “The Lady in the Tower”1 and writes of how it was first published by Lord Herbert in his 1649 “The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth” and then by Bishop Burnet in 1679. Burnet claimed to have found it, along with Sir William Kingston’s letters, “lying among Cromwell’s other papers. Like Kingston’s letters to Cromwell, it was damaged during a fire in 1731 but is still legible.
This letter has often been considered a forgery, mainly due to the handwriting which differs from other authenticated letters by Anne (from the 1520s), but it was claimed at the time of publication that it was a copy made by Cromwell of Anne’s letter to Henry, and so was not in Anne’s hand anyway. Although Burnet and Froude believed that the letter was authentic, Agnes Strickland and James Gairdner thought it to be a forgery, with Gairdner believing it to be written in an Elizabethan hand2. Other historians, like Friedmann and Sergeant, also thought it to be a forgery BUT, Weir points out Henry Savage’s view that this letter was written a decade later than Anne’s authenticated letters plus she was a woman imprisoned and living in fear of her life so this could explain the difference in handwriting. Weir cites Jasper Ridley as pointing out that the letter “bears all the marks of Anne’s character, of her spirit, her impudence and her recklessness.”3
Other anomalies which suggest that the letter is a forgery include:-
- The signature “Anne Bullen” rather than the usual “Anne Boleyn” or “Anne the Queen”
- The fact that Cromwell kept it rather than destroying it
- The heading at the top: “To the King from the Lady in the Tower” – wouldn’t Cromwell have referred to her as the Queen or as Anne Boleyn?
- The style, which is not consistent with Anne’s other letters
- The reproving tone and provocative content – The writer is claiming that the King instigated the plot so that he could marry Jane Seymour. Would Anne risk angering and insulting Henry in this way?
BUT these anomalies can be thrown out of the window:-
- If the letter was a copy then this could have been Cromwell referring to Anne
- It wasn’t discovered until the 17th century so it was obviously kept hidden and not made public
- Perhaps Cromwell no longer saw her as Queen and nicknamed her “The Lady in the Tower”
- Anne was not writing a normal letter, she had the shadow of the axe (or sword) hanging over her
- Anne could be provocative when she wanted to be. It may have been a huge risk to take but perhaps she wanted this one opportunity to tell the King what she thought of him and his plot.
The handwriting issue can also be explained away – it could have been a copy made by Cromwell, it could be an Elizabethan copy of the original, Anne may have been so distraught that she dictated it to one of her ladies… Ultimately, there is no way we can be certain one way or the other, but I hope that Anne did write it. Anne’s execution speech stuck to the usual rules, in that she accepted her sentence and praised the King, but I’d like to think that Anne had some opportunity to let the King know what she thought.
What do you think?
You can see a photograph of the original letter at http://images.imagestate.com/Watermark/1618800.jpg and compare it to another of Anne’s (1528 from Anne to Cardinal Wolsey) at http://images.imagestate.com/Watermark/1225634.jpg
More on the Letter
Gareth Russell has gone into more detail on the various theories regarding the letter over at his blog (we’re both counting down to the anniversary of the execution) – see http://garethrussellcidevant.blogspot.com/2010/05/may-6th-1536-mystery-of-queens-letter.html
Notes and Sources
1 – The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir, p173
2 – James Gairdner, editor of Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII – the letter can be found in LP x.808 and Gairdner has added “In an Elizabethan hand, mutilated”
3 – Love Letters of Henry VIII, ed. Ridley, cited in Weir p173 (see 1)