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The Death of Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn s marriage to Henry VIII was an obvious failure. The only thing that satisfied him was the birth of a male heir. Despite her efforts, Anne Boleyn failed to bear a son, thus resulting in her tragic execution. The story of events leading up to the execution of Anne Boleyn shows the ignorance of the times and the cruel nature of Henry VIII.
During Henry VIII s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, it was well known that he had many mistresses. He had grown tired of the marriage that failed to produce a male heir, and he was looking for a way out. One of his mistresses was Anne Boleyn, a beautiful young woman that happened to be in Catherine Aragon s court. From 1527, Henry VIII wanted one thing above all else from the Pope–a release from the marriage which could no longer give him an heir and freedom to marry his last mistress sister, the young Anne Boleyn (Bindoff 84). More important to the King was the fact that early in 1533 it was known that Anne was carrying his child. Delay could not be allowed. For the legitimacy of the hoped-for heir, it would not matter whether Henry and Anne had married before or after the conception of the child as long as their union had been regularized before the child was born. Therefore, events were hurried on (Woodward 11).
On May 23 the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer pronounced the marriage null from the beginning. Five days later its successor was declared lawful, and on June 1, 1533, Anne Boleyn was crowned Queen of England. After more than six years, during which he had thought of little else, Henry got his way (Bindoff 92).
Once the two were married, Henry could think of nothing but the son that he had hoped for. On September 7, 1533, Anne gave birth to a girl. This was her first and greatest failure. No one could then foresee the triumphant reign of the future Queen Elizabeth. Anne was not immediately discarded, but Henry made little attempt to conceal his disappointment; relations between he and his second queen steadily began to deteriorate (Woodward 11).
The support of Anne was dwindling at home and abroad. She drew her strength from desperate courage and pride. She was cacooned to a certain extent against harsh reality by the affection and flattery of her women and favorite courtiers. The ceaseless stream of suits for her favor protected her from the opinion of people who did not know her true situation (Bruce 270).
The chief source of moral strength for Queen Anne, however, as for many of her contemporaries, was her religion–the reformed religion in England that was still in the melting pot. It was possible for Anne to observe the Catholic sacraments of Mass and confession while being regarded by English Protestants as their patron (Bruce 270).
In the long summer days of 1535, the end was still mercifully hidden. Henry s anger and disgust with Anne became quite evident in the few months to come. He began to notice other women. Sensing the insecurity of her position, Anne became even more edgy and difficult. By 1535 it was obvious that Henry was getting tired of her attitude (Woodward 11). Hunting along the borders of Wales and into Wiltshire and taking time off to inspect a few monasteries ripe for pillage, Henry longed to replace his thin, nagging wife. He began to look at other women again. In September the court came to lodge for a few days in Wolf Hall where one of the daughters of the house, a modest little woman of just over twenty-five, had been maid of honor to Catherine. She was too pale and quiet to have drawn royal notice among the vivacious beauties at Court. Even here in the country Henry s small blue eyes would probably have glanced away quickly enough if something had not happened to fix her picture in his mind (Bruce 272).
A report came in the second week of September, 1535 stating that the Emperor had taken Tunis, crippling the sea power of the Ottoman Empire, securing the imperial frontiers against the Turkish menace, and freeing the Emperor s forces to fight if he so wished against England. To Henry, Anne, and Archbishop Cranmer the news was a terrible shock. After hearing the news, Chapius reported to his master that they appeared like dogs falling out of a window . The King looked around for something to cheer him up and saw the shy, demure face of a woman who was the complete opposite of the one who had caused him all this trouble. Her name was Jane Seymour. She brought King Henry visions of a relationship in which peace and tranquility would reign in place of turbulence and problems he had known with Anne (Bruce 273). This was the start of the King s pursuit of the woman who would be his third wife. She was the mother of Edward VI and, in Henry s terms, his only successful wife (Ives 336).
Anne Boleyn had not lived up to the King s expectations, and he was soon seeking diversion. Catherine of Aragon died in January, 1536 (Bindoff 108). Anne Boleyn wept when she heard the news of Catherine s death. She realized that Catherine s death had come too late to save her and that it actually put her in greater danger than ever. The sole reason Henry had not divorced her before was due to the fact that he would have to take back Catherine in order to get on good terms with the Emperor. Now if he divorced her he would be free to marry the woman of his choice (Bruce 279).
If he were to marry Jane Seymour, what would be Anne s fate? Anne was beginning to understand what her predecessor had suffered. She had begun to follow in Catherine s footsteps. She knew the pain and humiliation of being ousted from the King s favor by one of her own ladies. She did not know how much more of Catherine s sad path she would have to follow or if she would be deprived of her daughter s company. I am afraid, Anne prophetically told her ladies, they may do with me as with Catherine (Bruce 279).
On January 29, the day Catherine was to be buried with no more than the ceremony appropriate to a Princess Dowager, Anne was three and a half months pregnant. By an extraordinarily cruel coincidence, as Catherine s lead coffin was buried in Peterborough Abbey, Anne lay in premature childbed at Greenwich. The news was brought to Henry. The Queen had miscarried his child, the long-awaited son. Henry was overwhelmed by grief and anger (Bruce 282).
The Tudor family had turned out to be cursed in its perennial lack of male heirs (Fraser 202). It seemed also as if there was a curse upon the marriage. After all, there had been that time when Mary Boleyn had been his mistress, and marriage with a sister of one s mistress was perhaps as sinful in the eye of God as marriage with one s brother s widow (Woodward 11).
Princess Mary s prestige was roaring. After all, it could be said, as it was once said by her mother, that she was descended from great kings. She was the daughter of the king of Scotland and the cousin of the Emperor. With Catherine out of the picture, diplomatically speaking, Princess Mary came into stronger focus (Fraser 201). This was all the more reason that Henry was eager to get rid of Anne.
Henry was no longer spellbound by Anne s charms. Indeed, he had come quite heartily to detest the woman for whom he had once endured so much. Secondly, with Catherine dead, only Anne now stood between Henry and a third, perfectly regular, and undoubtedly valid marriage. It is hard to understand the totality of the King s rejection of Anne whom once he had loved so passionately (Woodward 11).
Henry had everything to gain from getting rid of Anne. He needed a son to be born soon so that he would be of age and prepared to rule by the time Henry died. The longer the barren marriage lasted, the less likely it would be that Henry s heir, Jane s son, would reach maturity in time. Divorcing Anne would redeem Henry, to an extent, in the eyes of his subjects and all of the country s Christians. Applying to his second marriage, the same blend of superstition and eccentric logic that had enabled him to justify walking away from the first marriage allowed Henry to arrive at the conclusion that he had never really been married to Anne (Erickson 244).
For Anne, the month of February, 1536 was the lull before the coming storm. For the Shrove Tuesday celebrations Henry rode off to London without her. She was left behind at Greenwich palace to speculate on her fate. She knew how brutally he could use those he once loved. A procession of his victims, More, Wolsey, Catherine, and his elder daughter Mary, must have passed and re-passed through her mind. She began to arm herself in an ecstasy of faith against anything that could happen to her. In one effort her brother, an increasingly ardent disciple of the Lutheran faith, doubtlessly supported her. It seemed that Anne had really begun to appreciate the true meaning of religion independent of its trappings (Bruce 285).
By this time, most of her friends had deserted her. Also, she lost little Purkoy that winter. The dog was so important to her that no one dared to tell her until the King himself undertook the task. Now her love centered on her daughter. This we can tell from the money and care she lavished of Elizabeth s clothes (Bruce 286).
Sir Thomas Cromwell began to plan Anne s disposal, but he did not quite know how to do it. Cromwell obviously had already discussed the question with Henry, who intended to use the old accusation of a pre-contract with the Earl of Northumberland as an excuse. This was proof that had begun to collect when Anne was in disgrace the previous year. Cromwell recognized that the scheme was a poor one. For a while the pre-contract might be true. In the days of his love for Anne, Henry had managed to persuade everyone that it was not true. The Earl had been examined upon oath before the Archbishops of Canterbury and York along with the Duke of Norfolk and the King s council. Henry s denial of a pre-contract had been accepted (Bruce 293).
As Cromwell lay surrounded by his art treasures in Thogmorton Street, the solution suddenly came to him–treason. There was a prophecy in Flanders of a plot against the King s life. Anne had reason to be accused of that; in truth she had cause. Anne s little group of friends in Henry s Privy Chamber could be accused at the same time. Thus, no one would be left to plead for her or pronounce her sentence unjust (Bruce 293).
For five days while the world believed Cromwell to be ill, he was working out the details of his plot. On April 23 he emerged from his house. At once, he drew up a secret commission empowering Henry s leading nobles, officers of the royal household, and one judge to enquire into a long list of treasonable acts by the one committed and to try the offenders. King Henry put his name to the commission the following day. It was virtually Anne s death warrant (Bruce 293).
From the accusations later advanced at her trail, it is easy to reconstruct what happened. The questions Cromwell put to Anne s ladies concerned occasions when Anne had been alone in conversation with her friends. Her friends were the gentlemen, whom the King had known for years, of the King s Privy Chamber. Anne had diced, danced, and flirted with them long before she was married. Only twice had Cromwell s informers remembered Anne alone with a particular group of courtiers. However, they could remember times when she had been alone with each in turn and moments when she had exchanged presents with them and indulged in suggestive conversation. On the basis of this information, Cromwell decided that Anne should be accused not only of a plot against the King s life but also of adultery (Bruce 294).
The problem of evidence still remained. None of Anne s traducers could produce any actual proof. Given the climate of opinion against Anne, the slenderest suggestions of adultery such as a suggestive word or a flirtatious look would suffice. With the insubstantial threads of evidence, Cromwell began to weave a web strong enough to entrap the Queen of England. The resourceful Cromwell set his omnipresent spies to watch her (Bruce 295).
For years, Anne had been on terms of friendship with the gentlemen of Henry s Privy Chamber. These men were well born, entertaining, cultivated young men who shared his leisure hours and favorite pastimes. Three of these now continued now continued to visit her in her Presence Chamber when the wiser men had deserted it for Jane Seymour s company. They were Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston and Sir William Bryerton. She had known them since her first arrival at the English court. Anne had hunted, and hawked, danced, and gambled with these men. In their company she had listened to the music of the King s minstrels and the witty remarks of his fools. Foreshadowing the habits of her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth, she also seemed to have encouraged them to take part in an elaborate charade of courtly love. It was a charade in which involved presents of money and jewels on her part and pledges and trinkets on their part. All of these events had been going on with the King s approval since her visit to Calais in 1532. These actions amounted to nothing more than flattery, flirtatious words, and the kind of social kisses that were conventionally acceptable at the English court (Bruce 296).
Anne, like Cranmer, had seen how Henry dealt with those who opposed him. She did not ask for mercy–merely justice. She asked to be given a fair trial and not be judged by her enemies. She also asked for mercy to be shown toward the poor innocent gentlemen accused with her (Lofts 156).
The four men went to trial and no one confessed or even weakened; they all denied the charges and went on stalwartly protesting their innocence. Therefore, the Queen s innocence was also protested. Since the offenses were said to have taken place in Middlesex and Kent, the jury of twelve honest men were called to meet at Westminster and Deptford. As the law then ran, a man was assumed guilty until proven innocent. The jurymen had to decide whether the evidence given justified the passing of the charge to a higher court ( Lofts 157).
Both assemblies of jurymen decided that a true bill had been presented. On March 12 the three commoners: Norris, Weston, and Bryerton, where marched through the streets to Westminster Hall to be tried. The three men denied all charges, and this time the jury considered its verdict under the eyes of some of the King s commissioners. One of these jurymen was, incredibly, the Earl of Wiltshire, Anne s father. He was anxious, over-anxious, to show that whatever happened to his son and daughter, he was loyal to the King. The verdict was inevitable; all three men were condemned to die, to be beheaded by the axe on Tower Green (Lofts 157).
Anne and her brother had to go to trial a little differently than the others because they were ennobled. Cromwell thought that it would be unwise to take them through the streets of Westminster for feat of riots or even an attempt at rescue. At her zenith Anne had been hated, now she was pitied, and the badly drawn indictment had predisposed people in her favor (Lofts 158).
The public strongly believed that George and his sister were innocent. It was not that incest was so rare and unnatural a thing as to be unbelievable; everybody knew that it happened. Usually with isolated brothers and sisters who were unattractive and shared the same bed. This was not the case with George and Anne, they were very attractive and married (Lofts 159).
The verdict, however, did not lie with the public. It lay with the twenty-six peers, including the Earl of Northumberland. When they had conferred together, the Duke of Norfolk turned and demanded their decision. One by one, beginning with the lowest in rank and including Northumberland, they gave the answer that they knew was required of them, the answer that would banish the fear of invasion and rebellion and enable England to be secure once more in alliance with the Emperor. Guilty Guilty Guilty twenty-six times the word echoed mercilessly through the great hall (Bruce 323).
They were now on their journey through London to the Tower of London. They came upon the Thymes River to Traitors Gate, where the constable, Sir William Kingston received her. Mr. Kingston, she cried, shall I go into a dungeon? No madam, he replied. You shall go into the lodging you lay in at your coronation. It is too good for me, she said. Jesus have mercy on me! Then she knelt down, weeping in a good pace, and in the same sorrow fell into a great laughing as she has done so many times after this (Collis 85).
During her stay at the Tower, the constable carefully reported her conversations. Her mood changed continually, one hour she was determined to die and the next hour she was determined to live. Sometimes she ate vigorously and sometimes she ate nothing at all. She caught at wild hopes; sometimes she told the constable that Henry was just playing with her. She comforted herself with the thought that, at the worst, she would go to heaven. She was confident that she had done many good deeds in her days, and that God would avenge her by sending plagues and droughts on the country. Always she asserted her innocence (Collis 85).
Two days before she died, the Archbishop of Canterbury pronounces the King s marriage to Anne invalid. Henry was once again a bachelor and his lovely Jane Seymour was very willing to be queen as soon as possible (The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England 102).
An expert swordsman specially brought from France beheaded her on Tower Green. It was reported that on the scaffold she was not merry, but seemed exhausted and amazed (Ross 69). Many of the spectators thought that she had never looked more queenly than now, as she approached the scaffold. On mounting the steps, she faltered slightly and seemed faint, but, recovering herself, she addressed them all, including the executioner, in a firm voice:
Good Christian people, I am come hether to dye, for according to the lawe and by the lawe I am judged to dye, and therefore I wyll speake nothing against it. I am come hether to accuse no man, nor to speake anything of that whereof I am accused and condemned to dye and if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my love of the worlde and of you all
Then as she knelt down she said, To Christ I commende my soule, Jesus receive my soule, divers tymes, till that her head stryken of with the sword. The next thing to be seen was Anne s head as it rolled beyond the scaffold. Her ladies gathered up her remains into an arrow chest, which was buried in the Chappell within the Tower of London (The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England 104).
Today many people believe in the innocence of the woman who catapulted England into the Reformation. Her innocence will never be proved due to the circumstantial evidence. In the end we are left with Anne s own cryptic plea to posterity as she stood on the scaffold: If any man will meddle with my cause, I require them to judge the best.
Bindoff, S.T. Tudor England, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1950.
Bruce, Mary Louise. Anne Boleyn, New York: Coward, McCann and Geohegan, Inc., 1972.
Collis, Louise. Seven in the Tower, New York: Roy Publishers, 1964.
Erickson, Carolly. Mistress Anne, New York: Summit Books, 1984.
Fraser, Antonia. The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Fraser, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Ives, Eric W. Anne Boleyn, New York: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986.
Lofts, Norah. Anne Boleyn, New York: Coward, McCann and Geohegan, Inc., 1979.
Ross, Josehine. The Tudors: England s Golden Age, New York: G.P. Putnam s Sons, 1979.
Woodward, GWO. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, London: Pitkin Pictorials Ltd., 1971.
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