Anne Boleyn: The Beginning of the End

Anne Boleyn: The Beginning of the End

Guest Article written by: Samia Chebbah

The Trial

anne-boleynOn May 15th, 1536,  because Anne Boleyn was supported in that trial, the only thing she could do, was to keep a low profile. She had to face the twenty-six peers who were there on that day to judge her. Among them, her own uncle Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland to whom Anne Boleyn had supposedly been betrothed.[1]

On May 16th, 1536, Sir William Kingston, her Guardian in the Tower of London said to Thomas Cromwell that “yet to this day at dinner, the Queen said she would go to a nunnery and is in hope of life”.[2] The date of the letter is problematical as on May 15th, Thomas Howard enunciated the verdict to Anne Boleyn: ” that you shall be burnt here within the Tower of London on the Green, else to have your head smitten off, as the king’s pleasure shall be further known”[3] If Anne Boleyn was as malevolent as she was described, she would have surely fought to remain Queen of England. Why didn’t she stand up for herself ? The fact that she accepted the situation did not mean that she was guilty but proved on the contrary that since the king was not on her side anymore, there was no reason for going over what could be decided about her fate. And since the king must have known about what happened during the trial and everything that she declared when being a prisoner in the Tower of London, did he need to put her on the scaffold ? In fact, as being the Supreme Head of the Church of England, he could have   surely be content with only getting an annulment like he did with his first wife, Katherine of Aragon.

Actually, Anne Boleyn herself admitted that she was not blue-blooded when at the end of her trial since “she was degraded from all of her titles – countess, marchioness and princess – which she said she gave up willingly to the king who had conferred them”.[4] She submitted herself to the king’s decision and by doing so, emphasized the fact that only the king had the power to ennoble someone as well as to deprive them. And if we take a close look at those reports, Anne Boleyn did not either rebel when she was taken to the Tower, nor did she when she was declared guilty of everything she was accused of. On June 2nd, 1536 a report of the trial said “in the end, the judges said she must resign her crown to their hands, which she did at once without resistance”[5].

The Defendants

AnneBoleynCornelliAlong with Anne Boleyn, the defendants were her brother George Boleyn, titled Lord Rochford, Mark Smeaton, a musician, Francis Weston, Steward of the King’s Chamber, William Brereton, Steward of the King’s Privy Chamber and Henry Norris, Groom of the Stool[6]. William Brereton was thrown in prison on April 27th, 1536 whereas George Boleyn and Mark Smeaton were imprisoned on April 30th, 1536. A joust organized on May 1st, 1536 marked the obvious reason why Anne Boleyn was not faithful to King Henry VIII as the king along with his advisers had to find a reason why they should imprison them. In fact, Henry Norris picked up Anne Boleyn’s handkerchief[7] as would have done a lover during a tournament to claim that the lady was his in front of everyone.  Was it an act of arrogance on the part of Henry Norris to assert that Anne Boleyn and him were involved in a love affair knowing that the tournament would be attended by a large audience and by the king himself? Or was it a way for Henry Norris to leave Anne Boleyn with no choice but to reveal their commitment to each other? Those hypotheses seem to be far-fetched if one considers that the lady implied was the king’s wife. As a matter of fact, nobody would want to risk their life acting so boldly. Nonetheless, that was enough for the authorities to justify the other men’s imprisonment a few days before as far as Anne Boleyn’s supposed seductive behaviour was concerned. On May 12th, 1536, the men where tried.”Smeaton pleaded guilty of violation and carnal knowledge of the queen. […] Norris, Brereton and Weston pleaded not guilty.”[8] It is interesting that Norris pleaded not guilty since we know that his accusation was based on the fact that he was seen picking up the queen’s handkerchief. In my opinion, that episode did not imply any affair. Actually, like I said above, Norris was also accused of having suggested the king’s death through his reported conversation with Anne Boleyn. It seemed like Norris was largely blamed. He knew that being tried and accused of treason meant that he was doomed to be executed. Was it worth lying? As far as Mark Smeaton was concerned, my theory is that unlike the others, he was not a member of the king’s privy circle. Was he more impressionable as to claim that he did the horrible crime that he is accused of when he did not? On May 18th, 1536, when Anne Boleyn was still in prison and approaching death, she reportedly said that as soon as ”the king [had] a mind to divorce her, he [would] find enough of witnesses.”[9] That suggested that the defendants had to undergo a lot of pressure that would lead them to the needed confession. To that extent, Mark Smeaton might have thought that he had no choice but to say otherwise. Eventually, on May 12th, 1536, ”the jury returned a verdict of guilty and the men had no lands, no goods, or chattels.”[10] Being deprived of all their goods, the king was also depriving their families. That supposed that the family of the defendants were also held responsible for the crime supposedly committed by thosemen. To top it up, a sentence of death was decided. Actually, ”Mr Norris, Weston and Brereton [had been] arraigned and judged to be drawn, hanged and quartered.”[11] On May 16th 1536, their death sentence was commuted. Actually Lord Rochford,  Francis Weston and Henry Norris were beheaded. William Brereton and Mark Smeaton were beheaded and quartered.[12]

A Story Based on Hearsay

© National Portrait Gallery, London

When she was in prison, Anne Boleyn supposedly reported a conversation that occurred on April, 30th 1536 between herself and Henry Norris, Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool to Mistress Coffin, one of the two ladies along with Lady Boleyn, Anne’s  cousin, who were appointed to supervise Anne Boleyn, held in the Tower of London.[13] The queen apparently said to Norris “then you would look for dead men’s shoes. If aught come to the king but good. You would look to have me.” To which Norris replied “if I should have any such thought, I would my head were cut off.”[14] This conversation was reported to the king and Henry Norris was arrested. That comment cannot be proved to be true. Actually, that report was considered serious at the time since the king had signed a commission to incriminate Anne Boleyn. In addition to that, Anne Boleyn was already in prison when the conversation came out, and even though not tried yet, she was already regarded as guilty. It was then easy to manipulate Anne Boleyn’s mind and make up new stories in order to corroborate the charges pressed against her. It would give the king another justification to the fact that she was not a good woman and that she had to be tried. What is more, one can note that it is based on hearsay as even though that conversation was said to be told by Anne Boleyn, Mistress Coffin was the one who related it.

Now if we pay attention to the date, namely April 30th, 1536, it is the very same date Henry Norris was sent to prison. If we pay attention to the statement, one wonders why Henry Norris was arrested since in his reported answer, he made it clear that he knew that imagining the king’s death was an act of high treason for which he would surely risk torture and face an execution.

It is clear that even though Anne Boleyn was in prison, which should be enough in order to try her and find her guilty, Henry VIII’s men, especially Thomas Cromwell, looked for more evidence of her guilt. One could wonder why the king did appoint one of Anne Boleyn’s family to attend her while she was in prison. In fact, Lady Boleyn and Anne Boleyn did not get on well. For that matter, one can wonder if all the reported confessions are true but also if it was not biased by the fact that both women did not like each other as Lady Boleyn ”engaged her [cousin] into much discourse and studied to draw confession from her.”[15] Of course, that was the expected strategy and who else  could take that despicable duty at heart more that an enemy of Anne Boleyn?

However, one should not take all the rumours for granted. As Eustache Chapuis put it in his letter on January 29th, 1536, “I heard some days ago from various quarters, though I must say none sufficiently reliable” and then saying “though coming from sufficiently authentic quarters”[16] when respectively talking about Anne Boleyn’s reaction to the death of Catherine of Aragon and then about the king’s request for a divorce from Anne. As the report was based on hearsay, it is not obvious whether the facts were accurate. Moreover, it is interesting to note that the envoy asserted that the rumours about the king’s request for a divorce were “sufficiently authentic” since Chapuis never recognized that marriage and was only content to learn the news of a divorce.

The End of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn

In April 1536, the king wanted Anne Boleyn to be recognized as queen of England and more especially as his lawfully wife. Then, why did Henry VIII request a marriage annulment which would be granted by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer a month later, on May 17th, 1536?[17] That annulment put a definite end to their marriage. What is more, Eustache Chapuis wrote that the day after, ”the Archbishop of Canterbury declared by sentence that the Concubine’s daughter was the bastard of Mr Norris, and not of the king.”[18] That made Elisabeth another bastard, just like her half-sister Mary, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter. As history would prove it, Elisabeth would become queen in 1558. Would she have been restored in the succession if she had been the daughter of a commoner? The real reason for that declaration was to insist on the fact that Anne Boleyn was not a lawful wife and that neither she, nor her descendants should have the privilege to have a role in the royal lineage. In that case, was Anne Boleyn’s death justified? What was the message behind her beheading? After all, the king had put his first wife to exile until her death at Kimbolton Castle on January 7th, 1536.[19] As I said before, Anne Boleyn herself thought that she would go to a nunnery. Unfortunately, according to the Bill of Attainder, she was accused of having committed high treason and had to be sentenced to death. In fact, that Bill was used ”to punish those who had incurred the king’s displeasure”.[20] Again, here one can note that Henry VIII’s wishes had to be fulfilled whether the fact that the subject was guilty or not.

Her uncle, Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk, announced her sentence, which would be either being burned or beheaded according to the king’s will.[21] As she had been stripped of all of her titles, she was not to be considered a noble and yet the king decided to have her beheaded. Actually, ”beheading was confined to those of noble births” and ”was less dishonourable”.[22] By signing the Royal Commission that would prove her unfaithful, the king had already dishonoured her. This is not intelligible as Anne Boleyn had been convicted of high treason and should not have been spared. Did all of a sudden, the king feel any regret? Why show mercy? What is more, Anne Boleyn was a woman and burning was the capital punishment for women accused of treason.[23] Was it another strategy of the king to show his subjects that he could act like God on Earth? Or did he want to bypass the old prophecy of Merlin that claimed that around that time, there would be a queen who would be burned at the stake?[24] It was Anne Boleyn herself who mentioned it to the king before their marriage. This is a far-fetched hypothesis but again, the king’s ultimate desire was to be considered as the Supreme Head of his country. As a matter of fact, he wished that his subjects saw that he was in control of any action. By doing so, Henry VIII might have wanted Anne Boleyn to see that the prophecy had nothing to do with her death.


[2]Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Vol 10: January-June 1536.
[3]Robert Hutchinson House of Treason The Rise and Fall of a Tudor Dynasty (London: Phoenix, 2007) 81.
[4]Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536.
[5]Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536.
[6] G. W. Bernard,  Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (Yale: Yale University Press Publications, 2010) 147-150.
[8] Letter and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536.
[9] Letter and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536.
[10] Letter and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536.
[11] Letter and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536.
[12] Letter and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536.
[13] Alison Weir, The Lady in the Tower (London: Vintage, 2010) 189.
[14] G.W. Bernard,  Anne Boleyn, Fatal Attractions (Hampshire: Yale University Press, 2011) 163.
[15] T. B. Howell, A Complete Collection of State Trial and Procceding for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period to the Year 1783 (London: 1816) 414.
[16] Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume5, part 2: 1536-1538.
[17] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536.
[18] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VII, Volume 10: January-June 1536.
[19] Calendar of State Papers, Spain,Volume 5, Part 2: 1536-1538.
[21] Robert Hutchinson, House of Treason; The Rise and Fall of a Tudor Dynasty (London: Phoenix, 2007)   81.
[24] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic Henry VIII January-June 1536.

About the Author: Samia Chebbah

SnHLuCicI live in France and french is my mother tongue. I am in love with the History of England ! Whenever I go there, visiting castles is my top priority ! My favourite period is the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. So it came as no surprise that when I had to decide the dissertation topic for my Master’s Degree, the English monarchy was my first choice. And so I talked about the ennoblement of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII’s race for supremacy. I am very curious and always have to make some researches when I learn about a new historical event! I have found it to be very enriching to do so because it always leads to another fact. This is the magic of history I guess!

Anne Boleyn Henry VIII History

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Excellent post and analysis. Anne Boleyn was innocent of these charges but she was set up because Henry wanted a new wife and couldn’t risk Anne still being around to cause trouble.

  2. Thank you for this look at what was going on for Anne Boleyn, a woman used by the men around her to further their own ends.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *