The Mystery of Anne Boleyn’s Message to Henry VIII

Aug10,2012 #Anne Boleyn letter

I’ve recently been corresponding with a reader of my book on the fall of Anne Boleyn regarding a message that Anne Boleyn was said to have sent Henry VIII on 19th May 1536. The reader had seen the words of this message on a few websites and wanted to know the source of them and why I had made no mention of them in my book. An interesting query and one I thought would be interesting to share in an article.

According to the chronicler Richard Baker, Anne Boleyn called a gentleman of the King’s privy chamber to her as she was led out to the scaffold and said to him:

“Commend me to the king, and tell him, that he hath been ever constant in his course of advancing me: from a private gentlewoman he made me a marchioness, and from a marchioness a queen; and now, that he hath left no higher degree of earthly honour, he intends to crown my innocency with the glory of martyrdom.”

This story and these words were repeated by Sir Francis Bacon, in his works, and historian John Strype recorded:

“The King sending a Message to the Queen Anne, being Prisoner in the Tower; willing her to confess the Truth, she said, ‘She could confess no more, then she had already spoken. And she said, she must conceal nothing from the King, to whom she did acknowledge her self so much bound for many Favours: for raising her first from a ‘mean Woman to be a Marquess; next to be his Queen. And now, seeing he could bestow no further Honour upon her on Earth, for purposing to make her, by Martrydom, a Saint in Heaven.”

In his book, “The History of the Reformation of the Church of England”, Gilbert Burnet, wrote:

“For that same night [18th May] she sent her last message to the King, and acknowledged her self much obliged to him,
that had continued still to advance her. She said, he had, from a private Gentlewoman, first made her a Marchioness, and then a Queen; and now, since he could raise her no higher, was sending her to be a Saint in Heaven : She protested her Innocence, and recommended her Daughter to his care.”

Agnes Strickland also had Anne saying these words in her book on the queens of England, writing that they were Anne’s “last message to the King”.

So, lots of sources to back these words up, but I actually don’t put any store in these words.

Why?

Well, for the following reasons:

  • None of the sources for this message are contemporary – Richard Baker’s “A chronicle of the Kings of England” was first published in 1643, Sir Francis Bacon wasn’t born until 1561, Burnet’s book was published in 1679, Strype’s work was published in 1721 and Agnes Strickland published her volumes on the queens in the 1840s.
  • None of the contemporary reports of Anne Boleyn’s execution record her pausing and sending a message to the King. There is also no record of Henry VIII sending Anne a message asking her to confess.
  • The sources corroborate each other because they are actually based on the same source, they all cite each other!

I assume, and it is only an assumption, that these words are actually based on the letter said to have been sent to Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn during her imprisonment in the Tower. This letter is mentioned by Strype and he suggests that her words are actually the last passage in that letter and that it was not transcribed in full before:

“Another Letter of hers to the King, beginning, Sir, your Grace’s displeasure, etc. is published in the said History. But this Passage following wrote at the End of her Letter, I think worthy to be transcribed, and set here, the Reverend Author of that Book relating it imperfectly.”

He is referring to Burnet who, in turn, cites Lord Herbert as his source. Herbert did indeed transcribe the letter in his “Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth” (1649), but he cast doubt on its authenticity and does not include the paragraph about martyrdom. It is not known whether this letter is authentic – it could well be a forgery – but in it Anne writes:

“Sir, your Grace’s displeasure, and my Imprisonment are Things so strange unto me, as what to Write, or what to Excuse, I am altogether ignorant; whereas you sent unto me (willing me to confess a Truth, and so obtain your Favour) by such a one, whom you know to be my ancient and professed Enemy; I no sooner received the Message by him, than I rightly conceived your Meaning; and if, as you say, confessing Truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all Willingness and Duty perform your Command.”

Anne is referring to a message she has received from her husband “willing” her to confess. She goes on to say:

“You have chosen me, from a low Estate, to be your Queen and Companion, far beyond my Desert or Desire. If then you found me worthy of such Honour, Good your Grace, let not any light Fancy, or bad Counsel of mine Enemies, withdraw your Princely Favour from me; neither let that Stain, that unworthy Stain of a Disloyal Heart towards your good Grace, ever cast so foul a Blot on your most Dutiful Wife, and the Infant Princess your Daughter.”

This passage is similar to the words in the message Baker has Anne sending Henry on 19th May 1536 regarding him raising her up.

Anne does not refer to martyrdom in this letter but does emphasise her innocence:

“But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my Death, but an Infamous Slander must bring you the enjoying of your desired Happiness; then I desire of God, that he will pardon your great Sin therein, and likewise mine Enemies, the Instruments thereof; that he will not call you to a strict Account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me, at his General Judgement-Seat, where both you and my self must shortly appear, and in whose Judgement, I doubt not, (whatsover the World may think of me) mine Innocence shall be openly known, and sufficiently cleared.”

You can read the full letter in my article “Anne Boleyn’s Letter to Henry VIII”.

Contemporary Accounts of Anne Boleyn’s Execution

Here are a few contemporary accounts of Anne’s execution, none of which mention her sending a message on the 19th May 1536. I have made them into links so that you can read them yourself.

Did Anne Boleyn Consider Herself a Martyr?

One of the questions I was asked by the reader was whether I felt that these words were in keeping with Anne and whether she considered herself to be a martyr.

This is impossible to answer. Martyrologist John Foxe made Anne out to be a Protestant martyr, but I would argue that Anne did not die for her faith. She was not assassinated by the papacy, she did not die as a woman condemned for heresy, she died as a result of a plot against her. I believe that Anne was innocent of the charges laid against her but the definition of “martyr” is “a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce his or her religion” and that just does not apply to Anne Boleyn’s death.

I know some of you will point out that Anne wore a crimson kirtle and that crimson was the colour of martyrdom, but red was a popular colour and none of her contemporaries made comment on it being a sign of martyrdom. I believe that it would be reading far too much into it to suggest that Anne purposely wore red to symbolise martyrdom.

So the reason I did not include a discussion of this message in my book “The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown” was because I was concentrating on primary sources and the real events which led up to Anne’s execution in May 1536.

This article is only my opinion on this message and you may disagree, so please do feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

Notes and Sources

  • Chronicle of the Kings of England from the Time of the Romans’ Government unto the Death of King James, Richard Baker, 1643, p284
  • Ecclesiastical Memorials; Relating chiefly to Religion and the Reformation of it, Volume I, John Strype, 1721, p283
  • The History of the Reformation of the Church of England, Gilbert Burnet, 1679, p204
  • Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth, Edward Herbert, Lord Cherbury, 1649, p382-384
  • The Queens of England Volume 1, Agnes Strickland, p400-402
  • The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, Claire Ridgway (me!)

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