Fatal Conspiracies The Trial of Queen Anne Boleyn May 19, 1536




Anne's final months were nerve-wracking. Although Anne was present for public ceremonies, it was clear that she was out of favour. Her life-long affinity with France and also her leanings to the new religion made her a threat, both politically as well as personally, to many enemies at court. Henry was looking to seek an alliance with Spain, and Anne was definitely still a thorn in the Spanish king's side. Thomas Cromwell, the man who most benefited from Anne's rise and patronage, saw that she was now more of a liability, and saw his chance to strike. He didn't need to look too far for allies, for he had the Seymours, Anne's sister-in-law, Jane Boleyn, her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, and the king himself. How involved Henry was in Anne's downfall is uncertain, but Henry clearly wanted to be rid of her, otherwise no one would have dared to slander the queen so blatantly. Henry's chief concern was for an heir, and he was now convinced Anne would not provide him with a living son. The Seymours were known for their many male children; perhaps this was the main reason for his attraction to Jane.

Jane is curiously unlike Anne in many respects. She was seemingly placid and meek, and rather unattractive, which probably explains why she was still unmarried in her thirties. It is thought that Henry was drawn to someone who wouldn't oppose him, and certainly the tempestuous relationship with Anne may have been wearisome as well as exciting. Henry was around 45 at the time of Anne's death, certainly considered middle-aged in his day. His health was starting to deteriorate, and he had an ulceration on his leg that increasingly caused him much pain. It is also rumoured that he suffered from occasional bouts of impotency. He was going to have to act quickly if he wanted a son.

That Anne knew she was in trouble is certain, but can she have known what was going to happen to her? It probably entered her head that she may be cast aside and forced to stay in a nunnery; indeed she said as much during her stay in the Tower. But Henry wasn't about to have yet another stubborn, clever ex-wife making claims to the throne. He just, after all, got rid of Katherine. So, it took the world by surprise that Henry was now allowing his once beloved wife to be sentenced for adultery, incest and treason. It is hard to imagine that he would risk ridicule by saying he was cuckolded by the woman whom he had moved heaven and earth for, but such was his desperation to be rid of her.

On May 2, 1536, Anne was arrested by her uncle, the great Duke of Norfolk. He never liked his "over proud" niece, calling her a "black crow" and probably took some satisfaction in taking part in her demise. He was also to be the official overseeing her trial, and was obviously cold towards her. When Anne was told why she was to be arrested, she denied the charges vehemently and never admitted to them, even when facing the judgement of God in heaven. Anne was treated rudely by her uncle, and only one voice was raised to support her when Anne asked to at least be able to change her apparel. She was taken by boat down the Thames to the Tower of London at around 5 o'clock. It was only three short years ago that Anne made a similar journey for an altogether different reason, her coronation. She was greeted at the Tower by the constable, Sir William Kingston. She asked him if she was to go into a dungeon, to which he replied that she would stay in the same lodgings she stayed in for her coronation. To this she replied, "It is too good for me. Jesu, have mercy on me!" Anne's nerves were always high-strung, and it seems that she went from extremes of piteous weeping to uncontrollable laughter. When she asked Kingston "shall I die without justice?", he replied, "Madam, the poorest subject the king hath, had justice." after which Anne fell into a fit of laughter.

Anne was accused of illicit intercourse with five men, including her own brother, and of conspiring the death of the king. That Anne could have been guilty is highly unlikely, and modern historians have found enough information that prove that the charges were falsified, and poorly done too, for there are several accusations that never could have happened. In Retha M. Warnicke's fascinating book, "The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn", she theorizes that Anne's "lovers" may in fact have been homosexual, an interesting theory, but only that. It is known that Anne's brother George had a disastrous marriage, and the rumours of incest with Anne came from his own wife, Jane Boleyn. It is possible that the marriage was a failure because George was more interested in men than his wife, and that she deeply resented this. Yet Anne was doomed because she was without a friend; she had no lawyer and could only deny charges that everyone wanted to believe. She was forced to be served in the Tower by four women, all of who were hostile to her, and who recorded her every word so that they might be used against her. Anne's state of mind was understandably shaken, and she seems to have told these women about some of her past misgivings, none of which amounted to proof, but could be twisted and used against her. One "lover" was interrogated by Cromwell; Mark Smeaton, Anne's musician. The fact that he was of low birth meant that he was able to be tortured, and this seems likely since he confessed to adultery and implicated the other men as well. In a Tudor court where justice was, as Anne knew, laughable, this was all that was required to seal Anne's fate.




Four of Anne alleged lovers were put on trial on the 12th of May, 1536. Only Smeaton confessed, yet predictably all four were condemned to die, by the axe on Tower Green. If these men were guilty, than it was only logical that Anne was as well. The trial of Anne Boleyn must have been extremely difficult for her, but she had regained her composure and bravely faced the charges. She clearly and succinctly denied all of them, and even her strongest enemies admitted that she "made so wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her, excusing herself with her words so clearly as though she had never been faulty to the same." However Anne could not prove her innocence when it was merely her word against the charges, and she was found guilty. Everyone knew that this would be the outcome, since the king's will must be obeyed. Anne's brother George was the last to be tried, and he too behaved with the "look" of innocence, and it was thought that he may be acquitted. At one point in the trial, however, he made a reference to the rumours that Henry might be impotent, and it was this outward act of defiance that sealed his fate. He too was found guilty.

Anne was to either die by beheading or burning, to be decided at the "King's pleasure." The thought of a death by fire was an especially frightening one, and was probably suggested as a reference to the rumours that she practiced witchcraft. (After Anne's death, Henry was to say that he was enticed into marrying her by witchcraft.) Curiously, the public began to, for the first time, sympathize with Anne and began to see that it was perhaps Henry, and not Anne after all, who was to blame for the bulk of Katherine's sufferings. It was later decided that Anne be killed inside the Tower walls, to prevent a possible uprising or demonstration. At last Anne had the support of her people, but of course it came too late.

Anne Boleyn was to suffer one more indignity before her death. Her marriage to Henry was declared invalid and Elizabeth, like Mary before her, was called a bastard. The reasons for this seem to be that Mary Boleyn had been Henry's mistress and therefore the affinity between Anne and Henry was unlawful. Of course, this was the most ridiculous statement of all. It only dawned on Henry after three years of marriage and another seven years of "engagement" that he was with his mistress' sister? And how was this any of Anne's fault? More interestingly, if Anne was never married to Henry, how then did she commit adultery? Logic wasn't necessary, however. More important was to ensure that children born of Jane would be first in line to the throne, so Elizabeth needed to be out of the way. And so Anne was to die a commoner instead of a Queen.




Anne's execution was set for the 18th of May. In her last days, she made two significant requests. Firstly, she asked to have her confession heard by Cranmer. That he did so was admirable, since he was clearly torn at the death of his patroness, and with the loyalty he owed the king. At Anne's arrest, he alone of men wrote to the king, declaring that he was amazed at the charges, thinking he "never had better opinion in women that I had in her, which maketh me think she should not be culpable. And again, I think Your Highness would not have gone so far, except she had surely been culpable." He was very upset after the confession, likely because he now knew her to be innocent, yet was powerless to do anything about it. Anne's deepest regret at this time was her treatment of the Lady Mary, and she begged one of her ladies to ask for Mary's forgiveness. Mary, however, was unmoved by this plea, and held her grudge against Anne through her daughter Elizabeth for the rest of her life.

Her other request was the rather macabre suggestion that she be beheaded by a swordsman from France instead of an English axe. Perhaps she had heard that this was a swifter and more reliable method of beheading. Indeed, when Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury, was beheaded, it took several strokes of the axe to sever her head from her body. Anne was merely trying to prevent such excruciating agony in death. Worse yet was the threat of fire, but Anne was spared this and a Frenchman was sent for to perform the execution. It is most likely for this reason that her death was delayed for another day, the 19th of May. At the news, Anne was said to be sorry, for she had hoped to be past her pain. Then she said the now famous words, "I have heard say that the executioner is very good. And I have a little neck." She then put her hand to her neck and laughed heartily, making Kingston exclaim that "this lady hath much joy and pleasure in death."

On Anne's last night, it seems she had the strength to compose a few verses of a song. The first of these verses is as follows,

"Oh death rock me asleep,
Bring on my quiet rest,
Let pass my very guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast.
Ring out the doleful knell,
Let it sound my death tell;
For I must die,
There is no remedy,
For I must die..."

On the 19th, Anne was ready to face her death with courage, and one observer remarked that she had never looked more beautiful. Anne wore a mantle of ermine over a loose gown of dark grey damask, trimmed with fur, and a crimson petticoat. She had a white linen coif to hold up her famously thick and long black hair beneath her headdress. She spoke clearly and "with a good, smiling countenance" that she submitted to the law and accused no man of her death, and prayed for God to have mercy upon her soul. She then rather ironically called on Jesus Christ to "save my sovereign and master the King, the most godly, noble and gentle Prince that is, and long to reign over you." Perhaps this was a wink in the face of death against her husband, even though she could never openly discredit him. She was after all leaving behind a daughter with a very uncertain future. Then Anne knelt down.

Some argument is made as to whether Anne was blindfolded or not, but it does seem that no block was used. The sword was hidden amongst the straw on the scaffold, and as Anne looked instinctively towards the swordsman, he called "Bring me the sword" to someone on the steps nearby. Before anyone knew what had happened, Anne's head was smote off. The ladies who were to remove the body soon realized that no coffin had been provided for, and they had to place Anne's body in an empty arrow box; too small for a normal woman, but fine for a decapitated one. She was presently buried in the nearby Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula.

Henry heard of the news whilst hunting and was hardly a grieving widower. Instead, he rushed to Jane Seymour's side and they were betrothed the following day. On the 30th, just 11 days after Anne's death, they were married at Whitehall Palace. Soon, most every trace and reminder of Anne Boleyn was destroyed. It was as if she never existed.


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