The Last Days of Anne Boleyn – A Review and Rundown

Posted By on May 24, 2013

Last Days of Anne BoleynI thought I’d write a review (well, more of a rundown) of the BBC2 programme The Last Days of Anne Boleyn for those of you who missed it or are unable to see it. I sat scribbling notes as fast as I could and I hope this makes sense!

The programme flitted between a narrator telling Anne’s story (her fall apparently happened 600 years ago???), while actors acted out various scenes from Anne Boleyn’s last days, and historians and authors sharing their views. The historians included David Starkey, Suzannah Lipscomb, Greg Walker and G W Bernard, and the authors included Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel. I have to admit to sighing deeply (and nearly throwing my pad at the TV) in the first five minutes as Philippa Gregory described Anne Boleyn as a “she-wolf” and “ravenously ambitious” – why are strong historical women always labelled “she-wolves”? The narrator then went to talk about how the reasons for Anne’s fall are the subject of fierce historical debate and that her family were “notorious for their scheming ambitions” (*sigh*).

The authors and historians then shared their views on Anne. Philippa Gregory talked of Anne being quick-witted, having a genuine interest in theology and being the “sexiest girl at court”, and Suzannah Lipscomb described Anne as sophisticated, cosmopolitan, charismatic and “a cut above”. Hilary Mantel spoke about how we don’t know how Anne felt about Henry, whether she loved him or whether their relationship was simply down to her “cold ambition”. She concluded that Anne was too intelligent to stake anything on love. The narrator then cut in, saying that Anne told Henry that she would settle for nothing less than being Queen, and that this led to Henry deciding to divorce Catherine and breaking with Rome. Did Anne ever actually say that? We do not have Anne’s replies to Henry’s love letter, but we know from Henry’s letters that Anne refused to be Henry’s mistress and that she consented to be his wife, but that’s not quite the same. David Starkey pointed out that no other woman had ever done what Anne did. She moved from royal mistress to Queen, moving another Queen out of the way, and she changed all the rules.

The programme then moved on to Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage on the day of Catherine of Aragon’s funeral. Starkey spoke of how the idea of not having an heir was unthinkable and that Henry only having two daughters (legitimately) was a failure for a King because the future of the dynasty was at stake. Mantel talked of how the deeply religious Henry VIII saw the “deathly pattern reasserting itself” and that the miscarriage would have led to him having doubts about whether he was on the right side of God. She went on to talk about Henry’s words to a courtier soon afterwards about how he’d been bewitched into the marriage and that this shows that he had decided to get rid of Anne, that he was thinking that his marriage had always been null and void.

Then came a “throwing my pad at the TV bit” as Philippa Gregory told viewers that a midwife examined the baby that Anne had miscarried and declared that it was “malformed”. She spoke of how a malformed foetus was seen as evidence that the woman had committed an awful sin, such as gross adultery, incest or witchcraft, and that Henry would have believed that his marriage was not blessed by God and that he may have thought Anne was a witch. I was so glad when Hilary Mantel then said that there is NO evidence that Anne miscarried a shapeless mass and that the story is down to Nicholas Sander’s propaganda. She commented that the story is sensational and so is therefore “attractive to novelists”. What annoyed me about Gregory’s statements is that she presented them as fact, as if there is a midwife’s statement in the records, which there isn’t.

We then had a section on Jane Seymour, Henry’s new flame. Mantel pointed out that Jane was the direct opposite to Anne, she was demure, obedient and self-effacing, while Starkey described her as “so pale, she virtually doesn’t exist.” Mantel went on to talk of Jane teasing Henry by reading his letter on 30th March 1536, kissing it and then giving it back. Suzannah Lipscomb spoke of how there was no evidence at that time that Henry was trying to get rid of Anne or that he was seeing Jane as anything other than a potential mistress. The historians and authors then shared their views on Henry’s feelings for Anne at this time. Mantel spoke of how Henry wanted another Catherine of Aragon, a woman who was intelligent but knew her place; Greg Walker mentioned how being involved in matters of religion and politics, as Anne was, was not the conventional role of a wife, and Mantel stated that Anne saw herself as a player and adviser, but that Henry didn’t want an adviser as a wife.

The discussion then moved on to the Passion Sunday sermon by John Skip, Anne Boleyn’s almoner. Its theme was religious reform and the dissolution of the monasteries, but historians and authors disagree over what the aim of the sermon was. G W Bernard saw it as “political theatre”, as Skip “laying into” the King and his council. But was Skip’s target Thomas Cromwell? Had the relationship between Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell reached crisis point? Mantel described Cromwell as “clever as a bag of snakes”, “the supreme master of the political game” and spoke of how Anne had hoped to be Henry’s key adviser but that Cromwell had taken that position. Starkey described the sermon as “extraordinary” and said that Skip’s reference to Haman must have been directed at Cromwell and that it was “a declaration of war”. Mantel then stated that Cromwell had complained about Anne as early as 1534 when Anne had threatened that she’d have his head and Alison Weir spoke of the power rivalry between Cromwell and Anne, how Anne felt her influence was waning and how they felt threatened by each other. However, G W Bernard felt that the idea that Anne was campaigning against Cromwell is far-fetched because Cromwell was simply the King’s servant. Suzannah Lipscomb also felt that the idea was “too much of a leap” and that we should not necessarily view Skip as Anne’s “mouthpiece”. Starkey disagreed with Bernard and Lipscomb, saying that if Skip’s sermon wasn’t evidence of trouble between Cromwell and Anne, then what was?

There was then a discussion of Henry’s trick on Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, on 18th April when Chapuys, who had always refused to meet Anne Boleyn, was forced to meet her face-to-face and acknowledge her as Queen. Lipscomb spoke of this “little piece of etiquette” being “a diplomatic coup” and Bernard saw it as a coup for Anne and evidence that her miscarriage in January was not a problem. Bernard questioned why Henry would have made Chapuys acknowledge Anne as Queen if he knew that Anne would be falling in just two weeks’ time.

On the same day that Chapuys acknowledged Anne, he met with the King, in Cromwell’s presence, to discuss foreign policy. Hilary Mantel described how Henry seemed to turn on Cromwell, accusing him of making up his own foreign policy, and that it was a definite row which left Cromwell distressed. She felt that it was possible that this was the turning point for Cromwell and that this dressing down from Henry caused Cromwell to act. Lipscomb, however, felt that there was no real evidence for this and that it was all speculation. We do know, though, that Cromwell left court at this point, excusing himself by way of illness.

This is the point, according to the narrator, when rumours started. Discussion moved on to Lady Worcester and how, in an argument with her brother, she justified her own bad behaviour by saying that it was nothing compared to the Queen’s. Lipscomb described how Lady Worcester implicated Smeaton, and Mantel spoke of how the situation exploded and everything changed. Smeaton was then interrogated by Cromwell and Greg Walker spoke of how we do not know whether Smeaton was tortured but that he confessed to sleeping with the Queen three times. His confession, Walker said, could be the result of torture or it could be fantasy. Bernard described Smeaton’s confession as a bombshell to Henry VIII and Lipscomb spoke of how Henry’s worst fears had been realised and that he felt betrayed. David Starkey was incredulous at this view. He spoke of how people just don’t understand Henry VIII and explained that the most convincing liars believe their own lies and that Henry believed his own lies because it was convenient.

Smeaton’s confession resulted in an atmosphere of paranoia and panic at court. Starkey described a “court of terror” where everyone was playing with fire and was a whisker away from execution. Walker spoke of how, after her arrest, Anne alternated between the belief that Henry was testing her and the knowledge that she couldn’t be saved, but that she was also desperately trying to figure out what she’d done. Starkey explained how the charges against Anne were “deliberately pornographic” and that their sheer magnitude made them believable, particularly when Anne had “inverted the religious universe”. Lipscomb explained the Henry Norris incident as Anne accusing Norris of wanting to marry her when her husband was dead, and Mantel spoke of how it was a short step from mentioning the King’s death to wishing it to accelerating it, so Anne was coming close to treason in what she said. Lipscomb went on to explain that a wife’s adultery suggested a man’s lack of sexual dominance and the idea that if you cannot govern your own household then how can you govern a country.

The programme then moved on to a discussion of who was ultimately behind the coup against Anne. Mantel spoke of how Cromwell told Chapuys that he had dreamt it all up, but that there’s no way he could have planned it step-by-step. Mantel believes that Cromwell put people under pressure by asking them questions and then saw what happened. She doesn’t believe that it was a pre-arranged, highly intricate conspiracy, but rather a series of events that spiralled out of control. Walker believes that there was more holding Anne and Cromwell together than dividing them and that Cromwell would not have been happy to be investigating Anne because it could lead to his own ruin. Alison Weir believes that Cromwell “masterminded” the whole coup and that this is proved by Cromwell telling Chapuys that he had plotted it. Walker countered by saying that Cromwell would have said that anyway and that the evidence shows that Cromwell only came into it when the King told him to. Suzannah Lipscomb commented that historians often ignore the line before, in Chapuys’ report, in which Cromwell states that he was commissioned by the King and admits that the King told him to do it. David Starkey spoke of how the final drive of everything under Henry was Henry and that he was driven by his desire to get rid of Anne. Anne would have been safe if she had not miscarried, but she miscarried, her arrogance broke etiquette, she trod on toes and her relationship with Henry became “fraught”; she had to go.

Suzannah Lipscomb then spoke of how Henry believed the charges but that it was courtly love gone wrong. Men were expected to pay court to their queen and Anne had to be chaste but also been seen as “available” at the same time. Greg Walker, explained that Anne had to behave flirtatiously, as part of the courtly love convention, but that she crossed the line with Norris and that that moment destroyed her. She was an innocent woman displaying “patterns of guilt.” Alison Weir then spoke of Anne’s remarkable courage, her admirable composure at her trial and how she was already reconciled to her death. G W Bernard asked why we assume that Anne was innocent and said that we should ponder whether there was actually something in the charges because Henry was committed to the marriage and then suddenly something happened to call it into question. Bernard went on to say that the Countess of Worcester was in a position to know about the Queen’s behaviour and there would have been no reason for her to make it up. He also made the point that Smeaton confessed and never withdrew his confession, and that Anne’s comments hinted at an intimate relationship. He went on to say that Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, had described Anne as a “great whore”. Bernard then stated that he had a “hunch” that Anne had slept with Smeaton and Norris.

The subject of incest then came up. Philippa Gregory spoke of how Anne and George had not been brought up together, so when they met it was like meeting a stranger. She described Anne as “very ruthless indeed” and explained how it is possible to imagine Anne committing incest with her brother if Henry was unable to get her pregnant. Greg Walker then stated the obvious (I so wanted him to say “Duh” at this point), i.e. that if Henry was impotent that Anne committing incest in order to provide Henry with an heir wouldn’t really work. Lipscomb pointed out that 3/4 of the dates in the indictments can be disproved and that they were made up in order to achieve an end: that Anne wouldn’t come out of it alive.

The programme cut to the Anne Boleyn actress receiving the sacrament and making her final confession on 18th May at dawn, the day she thought she was going to die. Lipscomb explained how Anne swore twice, before and after receiving the sacrament, that she was innocent. She “swore on peril of her soul’s damnation” and Lipscomb explained how serious this act was to a person who knew they were just about to meet their maker, Anne would not have risked her soul. Alison Weir pointed out that Anne swore that she had not offended the King with her body, and pondered whether she had with her heart, but we don’t know.

Suzannah Lipscomb concluded that with Anne’s fall “there’s just enough evidence to keep historians guessing but just enough gaps to make sure they can never finally get to the solution.” Alison Weir spoke of Anne being framed and described it as “judicial murder” with Cromwell as the “guilty party”. Philippa Gregory spoke of Anne as the victim of a husband who wanted to kill her but Hilary Mantel said that it doesn’t do Anne any favours to cast her as a victim when she chose to step into the tough political game.

Thanks to Ashley Rene for giving me this link to the YouTube video of the programme – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXxjEVM7bIU. Please share your thoughts on the programme in the comments section below.

You can see my timeline of Anne Boleyn’s fall at www.thefallofanneboleyn.com and obviously my book, The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown is all about Anne’s last days.

The following articles also cover some of the topics raised in the programme:

Next week, I’ll be sharing with you my thoughts on who was ultimately responsible for Anne Boleyn’s fall.

Do remember to watch the Cromwell programme tonight on BBC2 at 9pm.

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