The Downfall of Anne Boleyn

By Kathie Pharo

Anne Boleyn is one of the most complex personalities in history, renowned for her arrogance yet appreciated for her generosity, charming and witty yet capable of incredible spite and malice, devoutly religious yet guilty of excessive cruelty, intelligent but irrationally irresponsible. And, with all that said, none of these virtues or sins were the cause of her downfall.

First, one has to understand Henry VIII’s obsession with producing a male heir. He wanted to make sure the line of succession was so secure and undeniable there would be no threat of civil war after his death like the War of the Roses his father fought to procure the throne. Besides, the Tudor claim to the throne was still a subject of controversy in Henry’s time and he was determined to make the claim more irrefutable with the birth of a robust son. In addition, there was the example of the destructive and crippling civil war between Maude and Stephen, still resounding hundreds of years later.

There is no question in my mind that if Anne had produced a healthy son she would have remained queen, just as if Katherine of Aragon had produced a male heir who survived, even with the advent of Anne Boleyn’s appearance at court, she would have been The Only Wife of Henry VIII instead of the first of six. It is true other factors played a part in her demise, factors that made it more palatable to dispose of her on what, most historians believe, were totally trumped up, false charges, i.e.: adultery with everyone at court but the milkman. Her well known vindictiveness, waspish temperament when crossed, propensity for making ill advised, sometimes dangerous statements when put on the defense, including accusing Henry of being at fault for her not producing a living son (with the inference he was often impotent) made her a hated and vulnerable target.

For a woman considered by most accounts to be unusually intelligent proclaiming a man and a king no less, with a massive ego like Henry’s unable to perform in bed was sure to give extraordinary advantage to the many wolves at court looking for any excuse to humiliate and destroy her. Apparently she could not keep her tongue when she was the subject of criticism, real or imagined, and her lashing out no matter who the offender, even the king, cost her dearly.

If Anne had done “her duty as a queen” and delivered on her promise to give Henry a healthy son, her battles with Cromwell probably would have amused Henry because he seemed to enjoy the abuse heaped on his right hand hatchet man, whom he considered a toad although a useful one. Instead he allowed Cromwell to launch a full blown witch hunt with Anne the quarry.

Mistress Jane Seymour would have remained just that, Henry’s mistress, in spite of her ambitious family’s machinations.

One of the most heartbreaking and reprehensible aspects of Anne’s fall from grace was the appalling way her family, i.e.: Father Thomas and Uncle Norfolk threw her to the dogs howling for her blood without any compunction. It is a very cruel and realistic example of how expendable human beings were as the price of power. Not only did Thomas Boleyn sacrifice his daughter to save his own skin, but his only surviving son George as well and with the stigma of incest as their legacy. Anne’s old enemy, the Spanish ambassador Chapuys, writes in a letter outlining the arrest of Anne and her accused lovers, “I am told the earl of Wiltshire (Thomas Boleyn) was quite as ready to assist at the judgment (of George) as he had done at the condemnation of the other four.” 

How different the outcome if Thomas was grandfather to a future king.

Anne never seemed to understand that Henry’s obsessive desire to possess her would ever fade, that after she “surrendered” he realized with all he had gone through to have her, she was still just another woman with all the faults and frailties of any other. The jealous tirades over his roving eye, the arrogance for which she was infamous, her unmitigated cruelty to Henry’s daughter Mary, the general dislike of her by Henry’s subjects, all of this negated the spell she had formerly had over him after three years of an essentially unproductive marriage. (Elizabeth, of course, did not count.)

If a healthy male heir had been born to her none of that would have mattered. She would have been a future king’s mother and, therefore, safe from her enemies under the all powerful protection of the king: perhaps not “the happiest of women” because there is no doubt Henry would have continued his liaisons with other women and she would have had to learn to accept that “as her betters had done before her” as Henry himself told her. But, for me, there is no doubt she would have kept her head.