Anne Boleyn In The TowerThank you so much to Tamise from The Lady Jane Grey Reference Guide for inspiring this post. Tamise emailed me and asked me if I’d consider writing a post outlining the differing views regarding Anne Boleyn’s fall and I thought it was an excellent idea.

The responsibility for Anne’s fall is something I discuss towards the end of my book, The Fall of Anne Boleyn, but in this article I will examine which historians/authors believe which theory. I’m not going to go into full detail here, but you can obviously read the authors’/historians’ views for yourselves by reading their books or articles.

By the way, my list of authors/historians is not exhaustive, so please feel free to comment below with authors’/historians’ views you’ve come across too.

Thomas Cromwell as instigator of a plot against Anne

Eric Ives – When I grilled Eric Ives on Anne’s fall, Ives commented that dominant men like Henry are often very malleable and that Cromwell could prey on the King’s already paranoid and suspicious nature to make him believe that Anne had betrayed him1.

Alison Weir – “Weir goes as far as to paint Henry VIII as a victim of the coup, alongside Anne, the men and little Elizabeth”2 and agrees with Ives that “Henry was suggestible.” She believes that Cromwell told the King that he had information claiming that Anne had committed adultery and Henry asked him to investigate and find evidence3.

Joanna Denny writes of Anne’s power threatening Cromwell’s influence and “now it seemed that unless he could strike first, she would be his ruin.” She goes on to say, “It was either Anne or him. It was not personal, it was business.”4

Paul Friedmann concludes that Cromwell “resolved to plot for the ruin of Anne” and that “difficulties and dangers were to be invented, that Cromwell might save the king from them.”5

Arguments given for this theory:

  • There was a disagreement between Cromwell and Anne over the dissolution of the monasteries and how the resulting wealth was spent.
  • Cromwell was feeling threatened by Anne.
  • Cromwell took responsibility for Anne’s fall – Chapuys recorded Cromwell saying he “had planned and brought about the whole affair.”6
  • Cromwell’s desire to remove powerful and influential men who were affecting his own standing with the King and his future plans and policies.
  • Cromwell plotting with a group of Catholic conservatives which included the Seymours, Sir Nicholas Carew, the Marquis and Marchioness of Exeter, the Countess of Kildare and Baron Montagu.

Henry VIII as the prime mover

Derek Wilson – Wilson writes of the illegal and “extremely cumbersome” means used to bring Anne down, which included extending the treason law in a rather “unwarranted” manner, and concludes that Cromwell would only have gone ahead with such a complicated plot because it was the King’s will.7

John Schofield – Schofield agrees with Wilson, painting Cromwell as the King’s loyal servant whose duty was to obey his King.8 Robert Hutchinson also agrees, writing that it was natural for the King to turn to his minister for help in removing his unwanted wife.9

Claire Ridgway (me!) – In my book, I write that I believe that the buck has to stop with Henry because he was the one in control. I believe that he had convinced himself that his marriage to Anne, like his previous marriage, was contrary to God’s laws and that God was showing him this by not blessing him with a son.

Norah Lofts writes of Henry VIII being “in connivance with Thomas Cromwell” and wanting rid of Anne “with the least possible waste of time.”10

Lacey Baldwin Smith describes dismisses the idea that Henry VIII was malleable and used by Cromwell, saying that the picture we have of Henry “is neither of a man easily persuaded nor a king before whom Cromwell, a sensible man, would want to propose a plot based on lies, hearsay and falsification.” He believes that Henry saw Anne’s fall as “divine judgement”, as God having “spoken”.11

Arguments given for this theory:

  • Cromwell wouldn’t have dared move against the Queen without the King’s blessing.
  • In a letter to Stephen Gardiner and John Wallop, Cromwell referred to “the King’s proceeding”.12
  • The King had spoken of replacing Anne – Chapuys recorded that Henry VIII had told one of his courtiers “that he had been seduced and forced into this second marriage by means of sortileges and charms, and that, owing to that, he held it as nul. God (he said) had well shown his displeasure at it by denying him male children. He, therefore, considered that he could take a third wife, which he said he wished much to do.”13
  • The King’s behaviour after Anne’s arrest – Chapuys recorded that “the King has shown himself more glad than ever since the arrest of the Concubine, for he has been going about banqueting with ladies, sometimes remaining after midnight, and returning by the river” and that he “showed an extravagant joy” while supping with ladies.14 This behaviour was very different to the grief he showed in 1541 when learning of Catherine Howard’s behaviour.
  • The speed of his marriage to Jane Seymour – The couple were betrothed on 20th May 1536, the day after Anne Boleyn’s execution, and got married on 30th May.
  • The lack of logic in the case against Anne – The blackening of Anne’s name, the complexity of the case and the lack of logic in Anne being condemned for adultery even though the marriage was annulled, bear the stamp, John Schofield believes, of Henry’s involvement. The plot was down to Henry VIII’s emotions rather than Cromwell’s rational and logical brain.
  • The King’s involvement – He personally questioned Henry Norris and offered him a pardon in return for a confession.
  • Revenge – The incest charge against Anne and George could be seen as revenge for their discussion of the King’s sexual problems.
  • The gossip that spread around the country regarding the King getting rid of Anne so that he could replace her with Jane.
  • Henry’s own words – Henry warned Jane Seymour not to get involved in matters to do with the kingdom. It was reported that “he had often told her not to meddle with his affairs, referring to the late Queen, which was enough to frighten a woman who is not very secure.”15 Henry’s warning to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, when the Conservatives were plotting against him in 1546, that “false knaves” could be “procured” to stand as witnesses against him.16

Anne Boleyn

Some believe that Anne herself played a part in her fall.

David Starkey – In his TV series “Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant”, Starkey spoke about how Anne’s forthright character and ability to say “no” to the King were attractive in a mistress but not acceptable in a consort.

The documentary “Days that Shook the World: Execution of Anne Boleyn” goes as far as to say that there were two reasons for Anne’s fall: her refusal to “curb” her “bold manners and her inability to provide Henry with a son and heir.

Greg Walker writes of how it was “unguarded speech and gossip” that condemned Anne.17

Retha Warnicke believes that “the sole reason”18 for the King turning against Anne was her miscarriage in January 1536 of a monstrously deformed foetus, which Warnicke believes could be taken as evidence of witchcraft and unnatural sexual acts.

Elizabeth Ogilvy Benger believes that Anne blaming Henry, and his relationship with Jane Seymour, for her miscarriage “sealed her fate” because the King was “unused to reproof”.19 She goes on to argue that Henry decided that Anne must die because “if she survived, she might interfere with the claims of his posterity by Jane Seymour.”

Arguments for this theory:

  • Anne’s personality – Her ‘nagging’, her volatile nature and jealousy over Henry’s wandering eye.
  • Her inability to provide the King with a son.
  • The climate of courtly love, flirtation and loose talk in her household which got out of hand – Smeaton mooning over her and Anne’s reckless words to Norris about him looking for “dead men’s shoes”. While Anne was in the Tower in May 1536, her aunt, Lady Boleyn, said to her, “such desire as you have had to such tales has brought you to this.”20
  • Anne and George making fun of the King’s ballads, dress and sexual problems.

Anne’s enemies hatched the plot

Antonia Fraser writes of a “project to substitute Jane Seymour for Anne Boleyn” being “hatched among Anne’s political enemies (and the enemies of her family)” and an “anti-Boleyn faction” advancing the cause of Jane Seymour.21 She also writes of the discussions between Cromwell and Chapuys regarding Chapuys’ message that “the Emperor’s friendship was not in fact Henry VIII’s submission to Rome, but getting rid of ‘the Concubine’.”22 Although Fraser sees Anne’s fall as being orchestrated by her “enemies”, she believes that “Cromwell took the lead in what became open season for the destruction of Anne Boleyn.”23

Marie Louise Bruce argues that although Henry VIII wanted to get rid of Anne, he was hesitating and so her enemies needed to convince him “that it would be a popular move.” She explains how Anne’s enemies met “behind Sir Edward Seymour’s closed doors” and that Cromwell was involved because Anne “would not fit in with the policy he had in mind.”24

Although Eric Ives believes that Cromwell was the instigator of the plot, he explains that “Anne’s fall was the consequence of a political coup and a classic example of Tudor faction in operation.”25

Anne Boleyn was guilty

This was obviously the verdict given at Anne’s trial on 17th May 1536 and although the majority of historians believe that Anne was framed and was innocent of all the charges, G W Bernard concludes, in his book Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions that “everything can be considered as a “series of misunderstandings” due to “unguarded speech and gossip” but that “it remains my own hunch that Anne had indeed committed adultery with Norris, probably with Smeaton, possibly with Weston, and was then the victim of the most appalling bad luck when the countess of Worcester, one of her trusted ladies, contrived in a moment of irritation with her brother to trigger the devastating chain of events that led inexorably to Anne’s downfall.”26

The “cock-up theory”

In her recent article for BBC History Magazine,27 Suzannah Lipscomb writes that “it is the final ‘cock-up theory’ that convinces me. I believe that Anne was innocent, but caught out by her careless words. Henry was convinced by the charges against her.” In her book 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, Lipscomb concludes “that neither Cromwell, nor Henry, nor Anne was guilty, but that she appeared so.”28

Lacey Baldwin Smith29 writes that “God had revealed the queen’s sins, and she and all her paramours were guilty as charged” and explains that “all the government needed to do was to prove that Anne possessed the character of an adulterer and traitor” and that “the evidence was plentiful” because of her words about “dead men’s shoes”, Elizabeth being conceived out of wedlock etc.


As you can see, different historians/authors have different theories and each can back up their arguments with convincing evidence; it is up to the reader to decide what to believe. Unless new evidence comes to light regarding Anne’s fall, we will have to stick to hypothesising and debating the subject.

Notes and Sources

  1. Ridgway, Claire (2012) The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, MadeGlobal Publishing, p231
  2. Ibid.
  3. Weir, Alison (2010) The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, New York, Ballantine Books, p72
  4. Denny, Joanna (2004) Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen, UK, Piatkus, p265-266
  5. Friedmann, P. (2010, first published 1884) Anne Boleyn, UK, Amberley Publishing, p226-227
  6. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, note 61
  7. Wilson, Derek (2009) A Brief History of Henry VIII: Reformer and Tyrant, Robinson
  8. Schofield, John (2008) The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, UK, The History Press
  9. Hutchinson, Robert (2007) Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
  10. Lofts, Norah (1979) Anne Boleyn, London, Orbis, p141
  11. Baldwin Smith, Lacey (2013) Anne Boleyn: The Queen of Controversy, UK, Amberley Publishing, Chapter 8 “The King’s Mind”
  12. LP x. 873
  13. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, note 59
  14. LP x. 908
  15. LP xi. 860
  16. Narratives of the Days of the Reformation, Chiefly from the Manuscripts of John Foxe the Martyrologist; with Two Contemporary Biographies of Archbishop Cranmer, p255
  17. Walker, Greg (2002) Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn, The Historical Journal, no. 45 p1-29
  18. Warnicke, Retha (1989) The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII, Cambridge University Press, p191
  19. Benger, Elizabeth (1821) Memoirs of Anne Boleyn, p292-293
  20. Cavendish, George (1825) The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, Volume II, Samuel Weller Singer, p454
  21. Fraser, Antonia (1992) The Six Wives of Henry VIII, London, Phoenix Press, p291-292
  22. Ibid., p294
  23. Ibid., p297
  24. Bruce, Marie Louise (1972) Anne Boleyn, Glasgow, William Collins, p287-288
  25. Ives, Eric (1992) The Fall of Anne Boleyn Reconsidered, English Historical Review, p659. Also See Ives’ “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” book.
  26. Bernard, G W (2010) Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, Yale University Press, Chapter 12
  27. Lipscomb, Suzannah (2013) Why Did Anne Boleyn Have to Die?, BBC History Magazine, April 2013, p24
  28. Lipscomb, Suzannah (2009) 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, Lion UK, p75
  29. Baldwin Smith (2013), Chapter 8 “The King’s Mind”

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