Repeat after me: “Anne Boleyn was not charged with witchcraft” – well done!
This topic was one that came up recently when I asked for your questions about Anne Boleyn, and it’s one that reared its ugly head today on Facebook because one historic place (I won’t name them!) shared a Halloween fact today, stating that Anne Boleyn was accused of witchcraft at her fall in 1536. Erm, no she wasn’t!
To answer this question properly and to argue that this is a myth that really needs putting to bed, I’ll share with you an excerpt from my book The Anne Boleyn Collection II which is based on an article I wrote for author Susan Higginbotham’s wonderful website History Refreshed a few years ago.
Every year in the lead-up to the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution on 19th May, I notice a multitude of tweets and Facebook comments referring to Anne Boleyn being charged with witchcraft. This is in addition to her charges of treason, adultery and incest. I bite my tongue and sit on my hands, resisting the urge to point out the glaring error in these posts. In 2012, there was even an article by author Hilary Mantel in The Guardian newspaper entitled “Anne Boleyn: witch, bitch, temptress, feminist”.
Now, Mantel was not actually suggesting that Anne was a witch or that she had been charged with witchcraft. In fact, Mantel writes, “Anne was not charged with witchcraft, as some people believe. She was charged with treasonable conspiracy to procure the king’s death, a charge supported by details of adultery.”1 In this, Mantel is correct; Anne was not charged with witchcraft. But Anne Boleyn’s name is too often linked with witchcraft and many people, even Tudor history buffs, assume that she was indeed charged with it. It’s no wonder that people make that assumption; depictions of Anne as a witch are ubiquitous. Her portrait is on the wall at Hogwarts (not that this allusion should be taken seriously, though, of course). In addition, the 2009 Hampton Court Palace Flower Show had a Witch’s Garden to represent Anne Boleyn. Finally, Philippa Gregory’s famous novel The Other Boleyn Girl,2 depicted Anne Boleyn dabbling in witchcraft, taking a potion to bring on the miscarriage of a baby (which turns out to be monstrously deformed) and having a “witch taker” help to bring her down. You only have to Google “Anne Boleyn witchcraft” to find sites claiming that Anne was charged with and executed for witchcraft, or mentions of her having an extra finger and moles all over her body, which could have been seen as “witch’s teats” and the marks of a witch. Even an article on the BBC history website refers to her being accused of being “a disciple of witchcraft”.3
Some non-fiction authors and historians give credence to the witchcraft theory. In her biography of Anne Boleyn, Norah Lofts4 writes of Anne bearing a mole known as the “Devil’s Pawmark”, and of making a “typical witch’s threat” when she was in the Tower, claiming that there would be no rain in England for seven years. Lofts explains that seven was the magic number and that witches were thought to control the weather. What’s more, Anne had a dog named Urian, a name for Satan.5 In addition to this, she managed to cast a spell on Henry which eventually ran out in 1536, hence his violent reaction, “the passing from adoration to hatred”. Lofts goes even further when she writes about the story of Anne haunting Salle Church in Norfolk, where, according to legend, Anne’s body was really buried. Loft writes of meeting the sexton of the church; he told Lofts that he kept vigil one 19th May to see if Anne’s ghost appeared. He didn’t see a ghost, but he did see a huge hare “which seemed to come from nowhere”. It jumped around the church before vanishing into thin air. According to Lofts, “a hare was one of the shapes that a witch was supposed to be able to take at will”; she pondered if it was indeed Anne Boleyn.
That all sounds rather far-fetched, but reputable historian Retha Warnicke6 also mentions witchcraft in her book on Anne. Warnicke writes that sodomy and incest were associated with witchcraft. Warnicke believes that the men executed for adultery with Anne were “libertines” who practised “buggery”. In addition, of course, Anne and George were charged with incest. Warnicke also thinks that the rather lurid mentions in the indictments of Anne procuring the men and inciting them to have sexual relations with her was “consistent with the need to prove that she was a witch”. She continues, saying that “the licentious charges against the queen, even if the rumours of her attempted poisonings and of her causing her husband’s impotence were never introduced into any of the trials, indicate that Henry believed that she was a witch.”7 Now, Henry VIII may well have said that he had been “forced into this second marriage by sortilèges and charms”,8 but I don’t for one second believe that Henry was convinced that Anne was a witch. If he had believed it, then surely Cromwell would have used this claim to get Henry’s marriage to Anne annulled. If Anne was a witch, then it could have been said that Henry had been bewitched and tricked into the marriage, that the marriage was, therefore, invalid. Anne Boleyn was charged with adultery, with plotting the King’s death and with committing incest with her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. There was no mention or suggestion of witchcraft or sorcery in the Middlesex or Kent indictments. What’s more, at her trial, Anne was found guilty of committing treason against the King – again, no mention of witchcraft. Although witchcraft was not a felony or a crime punishable by death until the act of 1542, a suggestion of witchcraft could still have helped the Crown’s case and served as propaganda. I believe that the details of the indictments were simply there for shock value, rather than to prove that Anne was a witch.
So, where does the whole witchcraft charge come from if it was not mentioned in 1536? Well, I think we can put some of the blame on the Catholic recusant Nicholas Sander who in 1585 described Anne Boleyn as having “a projecting tooth”, six fingers on her right hand and “a large wen under her chin”9 – very witch-like! He also wrote that Anne miscarried “a shapeless mass of flesh” in January 1536. This “shapeless mass” was turned by historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory into “a monster”, “a baby horridly malformed, with a spine flayed open and a huge head, twice as large as the spindly little body”, and was used to back up the idea that Anne had committed incest and dabbled in witchcraft. However, Sander’s words have to be judged as Catholic propaganda, as an attempt to denigrate Elizabeth I by blackening the name of her mother. Sander was only about six years of age when Anne died, so he could hardly have known her, and he was a priest, not a courtier, so would not have been privy to court gossip about Anne. None of Anne’s contemporaries mention an extra finger, projecting tooth or wen; even Anne’s enemy, Eustace Chapuys, describes her miscarriage as the loss of “a male child which she had not borne 3½ months”. If the baby had been deformed, Chapuys would surely have mentioned this; he would also have recorded any physical deformities that Anne possessed. He nicknamed her “the concubine” and “the putain”, or whore, so he wasn’t afraid of saying what he thought.
While I cannot prove that Anne Boleyn was not a witch, I can cast doubt on this belief. Norah Lofts’ claims can easily be refuted. Anne’s mole was simply a mole. Anne’s dog wasn’t named Urian. Anne’s mention of the weather in the Tower was simply the ramblings of a terrified and hysterical woman. Finally, the hare was simply a hare! As for Retha Warnicke’s views, I have found no evidence to prove that the men executed in May 1536 were homosexual; and the only evidence for the deformed foetus is Nicholas Sander. Also, Henry’s words concerning “sortilèges and charms” were more likely to have been bluster than a serious accusation. He also said that Anne had had over a hundred lovers and that she had tried to poison his son, Fitzroy, and his daughter, Mary. I believe this to be the bluster of an angry and defensive man, rather than something to take seriously.
In conclusion, witchcraft was not something that was linked to Anne Boleyn in the sixteenth century, so I feel that it is about time that people stopped talking about Anne and witchcraft in the same breath. Let’s get the facts straight.
If you want to find out more about Halloween and how it was marked in the Tudor period, you can click here.
Notes and Sources
This article is an excerpt from The Anne Boleyn Collection II: Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn Family by Claire Ridgway, MadeGlobal Publishing, 2013 – click here to see it on your Amazon store..
- Mantel, “Anne Boleyn: Witch, Bitch, Temptress, Feminist.”
- Gregory, Philippa (2007), The Other Boleyn Girl, Harper.
- Bevan, “Anne Boleyn and the Downfall of her Family”, BBC History website – http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/tudors/anne_boleyn_01.shtml
- Lofts, Norah (1979) Anne Boleyn, Orbis Publishing.
- Although it is often said that her greyhound was called Urian and was given to her by Urian Brereton, brother of William Brereton, I have found no evidence of this. In Henry VIII’s Privy Purse Expenses, there is a record of a farmer being paid 10 shillings for a cow which had been killed by two greyhounds, one belonging to Urian Brereton and the other belonging to Anne: “Itm the same daye paied for A Cowe that Uryren a Breretons greyhounde and my ladye Annes killed – x s.” 25 September 1530. The Privy Purse Expenses of Henry VIII, p74.
- Warnicke, Retha (1989) The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII, Cambridge University Press.
- Ibid., 231.
- Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, 28.
- Sander, Nicholas, Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (1585), p25.