by Anne Barnhill
When Anne Boleyn fell from grace, the fall was sudden, swift and vicious. For when she fell, five innocent men died with her. What could have toppled an anointed queen of England? What could have been so heinous as to do away with almost all those men who supported her? What, exactly, was her crime?
The trumped-up charges were adultery, incest and speaking of the King’s death–treason, in other words. However, most historians no longer give credence to those accusations. But the whole story is still not completed, the final pieces of the puzzle remain missing, almost five hundred years after Queen Anne’s execution.
Several factors must be considered. First, Anne was never popular with the people of England. Queen Catherine of Aragon had won their hearts in her years as Henry VIII’s queen and they did not accept Henry’s ‘concubine’ as a legitimate royal. After all, she was an Englishwoman from a family of wool merchants who had risen through advantageous marriages and various services to the King. Her sister, Mary, gave great service to his majesty and her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, gained a great deal from Mary’s liaison with His Majesty.
Anne and her faction preferred the New Religion and, after Henry’s break with Rome, those who wished to keep the old ways of worship had a target for their unhappiness. Though most signed Henry’s oath declaring him Head of the Church, many did so under duress. It was safer to speak out against Anne than the King himself.
Another reason contributing to Anne’s fall was her inability to bear a son for the King. Henry was desperate to provide the realm with a male heir so that stability could be preserved. The memory of the War of the Roses was fresh enough to make the thought of civil war intolerable to the King and the people. As women were not considered suited for leadership roles, Henry’s two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, simply would not do. A son was necessary as rain. Anne had failed to bring two pregnancies to fruition and to Henry’s mind, this brought back the memory of Catherine and her many miscarriages. He began to wonder if this, his second marriage, was also cursed. And, Anne was no longer the young, vivacious woman he had fallen in love with. She was in her thirties in an age when no one lived long, according our standards. Her most fertile years were behind her.
Henry’s eye roved and, though he loved Anne enough to change the world so he could marry her, when she was pregnant or in her confinement, Henry sought his pleasures elsewhere. Because she had grown to love him and because she recognized she was totally dependent upon him, Anne could not tolerate his indiscretions. This caused much arguing between them, bitter quarrels which must have done lasting damage. By the beginning of 1536, it was clear the King had interest in Lady Jane Seymour and was considering ways to do away with Anne. However, it is not clear what method he wanted to use to discard his queen.
Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief minister and the man responsible for Henry’s marriage to Anne, was a reformer as was his patron, Queen Anne. He believed in the New Religion and he also wanted to reform the way things were run in Henry’s houses. A workaholic, Cromwell made himself indispensable to the King, especially as the person responsible for the dissolution of the monasteries. In his desire to please his master, Cromwell explained to the King how much wealth would come to the crown if all the monasteries and nunneries were dismantled and their lands turned over to the King. Together, they did just as Cromwell had advised.
Queen Anne did not agree with the total dissolution of all monasteries and nunneries. She wanted reform, not complete destruction. The queen understood that many of the poor and sick, orphans and widows, indeed, all those in need, flocked to the open doors of the monasteries for help in time of trouble. Not only did they provide a help to these unfortunates, they also kept the country in better shape, with fewer beggars on the streets and fewer ruffians who had been forced to turn to crime to survive. The Queen wished to rid these religious houses of their ‘superstitions’ but she did not wish to see them destroyed. This put her in direct conflict with Master Cromwell.
To express her discontent, she had her chaplain, John Skip, preach a sermon about Queen Esther and King Xerxes, whose evil counselor, Haman, who desired the destruction of the Jews and the whole kingdom. The point of this sermon could not be missed: the Queen was accusing Cromwell of giving the King bad advice; indeed, of trying to destroy England. In other words, the Queen had declared war.
All these factors converged as the King and Cromwell plotted to rid themselves of this intelligent, strong woman who had become a thorn in both their sides. Perhaps the King left the dirty details of the plan in Cromwell’s capable hands, not wishing to dirty the royal fingers with innocent blood. Cromwell held no such compunctions. He was willing to do whatever it took to please his King and to place himself on firmer ground. But to do it, he had to devise a way to rid himself not only of Anne, but of her friends as well.
Those friends were powerful men within the kingdom, members of the King’s Privy Council and also his chamber. However, if such influential men were allowed to live after the Queen’s death, they could have made much trouble by challenging the charges brought against her, combining their efforts to bring down Cromwell, and questioned the entire enterprise to get rid of the Queen. They, too, had to disappear.
Anne, herself, gave Cromwell the evidence he needed to charge her with treason. In her terror, she babbled to her women in the Tower, spies who reported her every word to Master Cromwell. When he arrested her, it is unlikely he had any idea of what his charges would consist. But Anne’s comments about Norris and Weston gave Cromwell the ammunition he needed to round up the whole group. Norris and the Queen had quarreled about why Norris dawdled in marrying the Queen’s cousin, Lady Margaret Shelton. When he replied that he would “tarry a while,” Anne accused him of wanting her, that if “ought happened to the King, you would wish to have me.” Such a scandalous breech of protocol was enough for Anne to send Norris to her almoner to swear she was a “good woman.” Weston had been flirting with the Queen’s ladies and when she stopped him, he replied that there was one whom he loved more than these, implying the Queen. These comments, though they sound flirtatious to us, were part of the game of courtly love, a practice where a young man “serves” a woman, usually of higher rank, usually married and therefore unavailable. He does honor to her, dances with her, declares his undying devotion to her, but rarely does the relationship go beyond this accustomed dance. However, where Cromwell was concerned, the Queen was rightly worried that these harmless comments could be quite dangerous.
But, though Cromwell had the King’s ear and he had motive to rid himself of Queen Anne, the final guilt must be laid across the broad shoulders of the King himself. Nothing happened in the English Court without the King’s consent and approval. Henry’s behavior after Anne’s death points the finger of guilt directly at his fickle heart. Within two weeks, he was married again to Jane Seymour.
Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen by Joanna Denny (De Capo Press).
The Challenge of Anne Boleyn by Hester W. Chapman (Coward, McGann&Geoghegan, NY, NY.
The Live and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives (Blackwell Publishing)
The Queen of Subtleties by Suzanna Dunn (William Morrow)
The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn by Retha M. Warnicke (Cambridge University Press)