I made notes from last night’s programme for those of you who were unable to watch it. Apologies if I’ve missed anything out but I have no way of pausing it so had to scribble rather quickly!
The programme opened by taking the viewer back to 31st May 1533. Suzannah Lipscomb explained that Henry was the King of England, Catherine of Aragon had been banished from court and Anne was in the royal apartments of the Tower of London preparing for her coronation procession. This was the climax of a love affair which had seen the King divorce his wife. As Anne left the Tower, thousands of spectators cheered. Suzannah explained that Henry had gambled the country’s future and had set England on a collision course with the rest of Europe to be with Anne, yet three years later Anne would be back in the Tower as a prisoner. She was Queen for only a thousand days.
After that introduction, we were then taken back to 7th September 1533 and the birth of Elizabeth. Her birth was a disappointment because she was not the promised son. We were reminded that Henry had abandoned Catherine of Aragon because of her failure to give him a son, a failure that Henry had seen as “a stain on his image”, and “image was everything”. Suzannah showed viewers the cartoon of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein which gives us an insight into how the King wanted to be seen. He was depicted as being taller than he was in real life and the triangle made by his broad shoulders and tapered waist, and the other triangle made by his feet being wide apart, focuses our gaze on his huge codpiece. This image is all about masculinity and virility, that’s the message. Suzannah explained that there are so many copies of this image because courtiers had copies made to show that they were on board with this message.
The future of England rested on Henry and Anne providing the country with an heir. Suzannah talked about Anne’s coronation song, “The White Falcon”, which emphasised Anne’s fertility and her duty. In March 1534, there were rumours that Anne was pregnant but there are no records of Anne suffering a miscarriage or experiencing a stillbirth. Suzannah pondered whether this was a phantom pregnancy caused by the pressure and stress that Anne was under.
We were then taken forward in time to April 1535. Suzannah explained that new laws had been passed to reduce papal authority in England – the Acts of Supremacy and Succession in 1534. Henry needed loyal subjects and he was prepared to be brutal to make them loyal. The Acts required his subjects to swear an oath and those who refused were seen as traitors and punished as such. Suzannah visited the London Charterhouse which had been a monastery of Carthusian monks in Henry’s reign, headed by Prior John Houghton. These monks refused to swear and ten of them were brutally executed. There is a very graphic account of their executions, which Suzannah read. Henry was blamed for these executions and it was imperative that he and Anne have a son to justify his brutal actions.
Suzannah then visited Thornbury Castle to remind us that Anne and Henry were, at this time, still very much in love. They spent ten days at Thornbury in the summer of 1535, and Suzannah stayed in the room they stayed in. The couple was described as “merry” more times than the word was used to describe Henry and any of his other wives, and it was a relationship of “sunshine and storms” – arguments followed by passionate making up.
All seemed well as 1535 came to an end and 1536 was full of hope because Anne was pregnant and Henry was the supreme head of the Church. On 7th January 1536, Catherine of Aragon died, and this was good news for Henry because Catherine had still been seen as his wife and Queen by Rome and the Empire. He celebrated her death. Suzannah visited Catherine’s tomb at Peterborough Cathedral and spoke of how Catherine was the true victim of the story, having been married to Henry for over 20 years and her only crime being her failure to provide him with a son. Her grave was decorated with cards, flowers and pomegranates, so she is still remembered today. Henry and Anne treated her with contempt.
Suzannah explained that it was Henry’s desire to maintain honour that destroyed his marriage. Honour was linked to masculinity and it was vital that the King excelled over all others. We were taken to 24th January 1536, the day of Henry’s jousting accident. He suffered a major blow to the head when he fell from his horse and was reported to be unconscious for two hours. Suzannah talked to Dr Suzy Lishman, from the Royal College of Pathologists, who said that the frontal lobe of Henry’s brain could have been damaged by the blow to his head and that it is the frontal lobe which controls our behaviour and personality. It is what makes us who we are. Damage to the frontal lobe can exacerbate personality traits that we already have, and can even completely change us. Suzannah is of the opinion that Henry became more brutal and cruel after this jousting accident, and Dr Lishman also talked about how Henry’s leg ulcer, which was also opened up by the fall, was treated with hot irons, which would have been very painful.
On 29th January 1536, Anne miscarried a baby boy and she blamed the miscarriage on the shock of the news of the King’s fall. Suzannah talked about how the success of Anne and Henry’s marriage depended on Anne having a son. She quoted one ambassador as saying that Anne had miscarried her saviour and that she had sealed her fate, and Henry as saying “’I see God will not give me male children”. He saw Anne’s miscarriage as a sign that his second marriage didn’t have God’s backing either.
We were then taken to 1st April 1536. Suzannah spoke of how rumours were circulating that Henry had lost interest in Anne and that he was seeing another woman. Suzannah mentioned how Chapuys had never disguised his hatred of Anne, referring to her as “the concubine”, and he reported that Anne was in disgrace with Henry and that Henry was interested in another woman: Jane Seymour. Henry had written a letter to Jane and sent it to her with a purse of sovereigns. She explained how this letter was probably a summons to his bedroom. Jane didn’t open the letter, she sent it back to the King with the purse. Chapuys reported that Jane told the messenger to tell Henry that “she was a gentlewoman of good and honorable parents, without reproach, and that she had no greater riches in the world than her honor, which she would not injure for a thousand deaths, and that if he wished to make her some present in money she begged it might be when God enabled her to make some honorable match.” Suzannah commented that Jane was playing hard to get.
Suzannah believes that Henry had no intention of marrying Jane at this point and that there was no evidence that he had fallen out of love with Anne. He was still trying to get Charles V to recognise Anne as Queen. However, according to Suzannah, there were scandalous rumours going around that Anne was having sexual relations with other men, although it is unknown who was responsible for these rumours. Suzannah pondered whether it was this careless talk that cost lives in 1536, whether it was court gossip that brought Anne down. She feels that it is “extremely doubtful” that Anne did commit adultery, and she spoke to Patrick Jephson, who was Princess Diana’s private secretary, to get his insight. He spoke of how people have tried to paint Diana as a loose cannon with many lovers, yet she was, in fact, a dutiful princess. Suzannah commented on how one way to bring down a powerful woman is to paint her as a sexual predator. Scandal is used to bring down such a woman and when there is no scandal then it can be created.
Suzannah is of the opinion that Henry believed that Anne was guilty. According to one account, Henry was shocked at the news and his colour changed. He ordered an investigation. Suzannah then spoke of Henry Norris, who was Henry’s Groom of the Stool and one of his closest and trusted friends. Anne had had a recent conversation with Norris in which she had accused him of looking for “dead men’s shoes”, i.e. wanting to marry her after her husband’s death. It was treason to speak of the King’s death and Norris’s panicked response to her shows that he realised that she had committed a “faux pas”.
We were then taken to 1st May 1536 and Suzannah explained just how swift and sudden Anne’s downfall was. At the May Day tournament at Greenwich, Henry received unwelcome news, news that Smeaton had confessed to sleeping with the Queen. Suzannah believes that Henry believed this and that he valued his honour over his love for Anne. He left Greenwich abruptly, taking Norris with him and whatever Norris told him on that journey led to the King believing Norris was guilty. Henry never saw Anne again after that tournament, so Anne had no opportunity to protest her innocence.
On 2nd May 1536, early in the morning, Anne was taken from Greenwich to the Tower of London by barge. According to Suzannah, she entered by Traitors Gate. She was accused of a long list of sexual crimes and treason. While Anne was in the Tower, “Henry simply disappeared from public life”. Anne was taken to the royal apartments, the same apartments she had stayed in before her coronation. Suzannah stood on the spot by the White Tower where the apartments and Great Hall had been. Anne was tried in the Great Hall on 15th May 1536 in front of 2000 spectators by a jury of her peers led by her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Suzannah then looked at the document detailing the crimes she was charged with, the indictment. It was full of salacious and lurid details, particularly regarding the incest charge: “alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth, and the said George’s tongue in hers. Anne was painted as a sexual predator. Suzannah commented that no man could be expected to keep control of a wife with such a sexual appetite, but Henry stayed away from court, from the humiliation. Anne’s adultery suggested his lack of sexual prowess and dominance. When it came to George’s trial, George was handed a piece of paper and told not to read it out, but he read it out. It was the charge that he and Anne had laughed at the King’s dress sense, his poetry and that they had spoken about the King’s impotence.
Suzannah commented that the outcome of the trial was never in any doubt. After Anne had been sentenced, when she had nothing to lose, she spoke of her innocence. Suzannah explained that although her speech seems quite straightforward, and she is affirming her innocence, Anne does admit to being feisty and not always having been the wife Henry wanted and expected her to be. Anne went on to swear her innocence both before and after receiving Holy Communion.
Suzannah believes that what happened in 1536 was “all a terrible mishap”, that Anne looked guilty even though she wasn’t. Suzannah spoke of how what had “beguiled” Henry about Anne “made her look guilty as sin”.
We were then taken to 16th May 1536 and a shot of Anne looking out of her window. There must have been a typo here as Suzannah explained that Anne may have heard a commotion outside as the men were led out of the Tower and taken to Tower Hill for their executions. The men were actually executed on 17th May, not 16th.
Suzannah then examined a prayer book which she believes that Anne may have had with her in the Tower. Anne wrote in it ““remember me when you do pray, that hope doth lead from day to day – anne Boleyn”.
On 19th May 1536, just before 8am, Anne was led to a scaffold within the walls of the Tower and away from the public. She was beheaded with one stroke of the sword of an expert French swordsman. As Suzannah said this, a falcon was shown flying away and Henry was pictured with Jane Seymour. Suzannah then visited the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower, explaining how Anne’s body was taken there, but, if she was treated like other traitors, that her head may have been boiled and put on a spike for all to see.
The programme then ended by giving us the following facts:
- 11 days after Anne’s execution Henry married Jane Seymour
- Jane gave birth to a son, Edward, who died six years into his reign
- Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, reigned for 45 years
It was an interesting programme and Suzannah’s passion for the topic shone through, and was very infectious. However, there were various points I didn’t agree with:
- I believe that Anne would have entered the Tower at her arrest via the Court Gate of the Byward Tower, and that she was taken there in the afternoon of 2nd May, after having appeared in front of a royal commission at Greenwich. Chronicler Charles Wriothesley writes, “And the seconde daie of Maie, Mr. Norris and my Lorde of
Rochforde were brought to the Towre of London as prisonners; and the same daie, about five of the clocke at night, the Queene Anne Bolleine was brought to the Towre of London by my Lord Chauncelor, the Duke of Norfolke, Mr. Secretarie, and Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower; and when she came to the court gate, entring in, she fell downe on her knees before the said lordes, beseeching God to helpe her as she was not giltie of her accusement.” (p36)
- Primary source documents show that the men were executed on 17th May 1536, rather than 16th. I’m sure the writing on screen said the 16th, so it must have been a typo or my eyes going completely screwy!
- I have never seen mention of Anne’s head being displayed on a spike and I am of the opinion that her head was wrapped up with her body in a white cloth and taken for burial at the chapel. Charles Wriothesley writes, “her bodye with the head was buried in the Chappell within the Tower of London.” (p42) Also, when remains were exhumed in 1876 from the spot recorded as her burial spot, they found a skull. See Anne Boleyn’s Remains.
- I haven’t see any evidence that rumours were circulating around the court about Anne having lovers prior to her arrest.
I did enjoy the programme though and liked the way that Suzannah visited key places and shared documents and objects from the time with us.
There are various theories regarding Anne’s downfall and who was responsible and you can read them in my article “The Fall of Anne Boleyn – The Various Theories”. Personally, I believe that Henry VIII knew that Anne was innocent and instructed Cromwell to find a way out of his marriage so that he could move on to Jane and have the hope of a son. What do you think?
The content of this article is obviously based on the programme and Suzannah’s voice-overs and parts to camera.