Notes on Anne Boleyn’s Trial (Guest Post)

Notes on Anne Boleyn’s Trial

Guest post by Pat Deegan

Anne Boleyn’s fall took part in the first half of 1536. About two hundred years earlier, in 1314, the French King had imprisoned, in severe conditions, two wives of his sons. These women had definitely committed adultery and their lovers were cruelly killed but the women were not. In England, as far as I could find, Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II in the 14th century, had openly taken a lover (Mortimer) and was believed to be jointly responsible for the death of her deposed husband (though there are questions over the nature of his death). She had jointly ruled with Mortimer during her son’s minority but when Edward III took power, only Mortimer was tried for treason and executed whilst Isabella was simply held under house arrest for a while. Queens may have been neglected, set aside or even jailed (once for witchcraft) but none had ever been executed before 1536 in England.

As is well-known, Anne Boleyn attended the May Day (May 1st) jousts in 1536 as acknowledged queen but was arrested on May 2nd and taken to the Tower of London. The Tower of London at this point was both a royal palace and a prison. She was put on public trial on 15th May.

One crucial and very interesting point is considering what exactly were the charges laid against Anne in this trial. I had read that the trial records for Anne Boleyn, including statements and evidence, are either ‘missing’or destroyed. However, I found that there is a roll held at the National Archives in Kew (on the outskirts of London – you can get to their building by tube) and the description of the roll is

Roll and file of court of the Lord High Steward and peers. Principal defendants and charges: Queen Anne Boleyn, Sir George Boleyn Lord Rocheford, high treason, adultery and incest. The date is listed as 1536 Apr 22-1537 Apr 21.

It would be nice to actually transcribe the roll but it is handwritten and, unlike the 17th century, the secretary hand of this time is very difficult indeed to read (I have tried on a different document of the time and found it almost unintelligible – I could pick out one word in ten – as I haven’t studied paleography). But even if I had the necessary skills, I would need a reader’s ticket to the National Archives as even digital copies of the roll are not available without this.

There are also available some writings of her contemporaries about her trial and execution, one of which was Emperor Charles V’s ambassador to Henry VIII’s court, Chapuys. It should be noted though that Chapuys was extremely hostile to Anne and loyal to Charles’ aunt Katherine of Aragon who was also Henry VIII’s first wife who Anne supplanted in Chapuys’ view and his correspondence about her generally reflects that viewpoint.

In one of Chapuy’s despatches* he wrote on 2nd May 1536 that Anne had been brought from Greenwich ‘to this city’ (p.f. the city of London the Tower and not the city of Westminster) and he recorded that the rumour going round at that point was that it was because she has for a length of time lived in adultery with a spinet player of her chamber. He noted the ‘spinet-player’ had been confined to the tower ‘as well as Mr Norris’ for not having revealed what he knew of the said adulterous connexion, and that George Boleyn had also been sent to the Tower six hours before. Rather frustratingly he ends that particular dispatch saying that Charles can get the details about this verbally from the messenger he used to send the dispatch.

Chapuys wrote to Grenvelle (Chancellor to the Emperor) on 18th May, and referred to Anne as ‘Messalina’ and mentions his own recent illness but gives no details of the trial itself, possibly he had not at that point received information from his various sympathetic English contacts and was too sick to have attended the trial himself. In a later dispatch he noted that although Anne’s trial was held within the Tower it was not a secret trial for upwards of 2000 people attended it. It is interesting though that he uses the name Messalina on that date as Messalina had been the wife of a Roman emperor and she had been noted for her promiscuity and had plotted against her husband.

On the 19th May there is another dispatch, presumably to the Emperor himself, and he lists the charges made against Anne. Chapuys listed the chief charge against her as being her ‘connexion’ (i.e. sexual activity) with her brother and others. He also said that the charges included that she promised to marry Norris after the king’s death and had exchanged medals with Norris indicating that they were bound together and aimed at the king’s death. Also that she and her brother had ridiculed the king and shown that she did not love the king and was tired of married life with him. When I read that last charge it did occur to me that Henry, who was very involved with the manner of her execution, would have also been involved in the charges laid against her and had projected onto her what he himself was feeling about their marriage and his desire for her death. This turned into the charges that Anne was tired of their marriage and that she desired his death. Chapuys also claimed that charges laid included poisoning Katherine of Aragon and meditated doing the same with the Princess (i.e. Mary). However, there is no other indication in other sources that these charges were part of what was laid against Anne and may reflect Chapuys’ wishful thinking as he also claimed that George Boleyn had declared at his execution that although he was innocent of these charges, he deserved his death for his contamination by the new heresies. This is another claim that is not substantiated anywhere else.

Another contemporary source is the poem by Lancelot de Carles who was the Bishop of Riez and acting as a diplomat for the French ambassador in London in 1536. Apparently, the poem is 1000 lines long and is called ‘Poeme sur la mort d’Anne Boleyn’. However, I couldn’t even find the original poem, let alone an English translation, online.

From the National Archives description of the surviving roll, it can be inferred that the charges at her trial on 15th May appear to have been ‘high treason, adultery and incest’. The Duke of Norfolk, when pronouncing her sentence had said she had “offended our sovereign the King’s grace in committing treason against his person”.

When considering the charges against her, at least some of the adultery charges can be proved false even from a distance of 500 years but she was found guilty. This verdict probably says more about the jurors’ fear of Henry than their belief about Anne’s guilt though it is entirely possible some may indeed have believed her guilty of least some of what she was charged with. The Duke of Norfolk had pronounced the potential sentences, ‘to be burned or beheaded as shall please the King’, at the end of the trial but Henry decided that it should be beheading and that would be by a sword rather than an axe. The Spanish chronicle says that Henry had sent for the swordsman the week before his decision which would tie in with the practical logistics of a messenger travelling by fast horse from London to the coast, travelling by boat across the channel, travelling to St Omer and engaging the swordsman and bringing him back with him – Anne, of course, was actually executed a mere four days after her trial and the potential sentence was pronounced. Even the unsympathetic Chapuys noted that no witnesses were called against her, which was the custom at trials where the accused denied the charges levelled against them, and that some people ‘grumble at the manner in which the proceedings against her have been conducted and the condemnation of her and the rest, which generally thought strange enough’.

The one really difficult charge against Anne to interpret or consider the truth of is the treason one as insufficient evidence has survived from the period to see how the court framed the treason charge against her:

  1. In a newspaper review of his book in 2010, it was noted that Professor Bernard’s deduced from de Carles’ poem that Anne was accused of “despising her marriage” and “entertaining malice against the king”, also that ‘by base conversations and kisses, touchings, gifts, and other infamous incitations” she seduced men’. Another review of the book said that the Smeaton, Rochford, Norris, Weston and Brereton others were executed, after being charged with “carnal love of the queen”.
  2. The historian Eric Ives has interpreted the treason charge as being primarily based on the adultery ‘evidence’ and pointed out that this was stretching the treason law as it was not illegal technically for a lover to have intercourse with a queen who consented – even if it was considered immoral and damaging to her husband’s honour. It wasn’t until 1542, six years later, that a statute was put into the law, making adultery with the queen high treason.
  1. Alison Weir says that the trial of 15th May had used the 1534 Act of Succession to lay the treason charge on her as the trial had used the act’s wording that she had committed “slander, danger, detriment and derogation” of Henry’s heirs. Which is ironic when you consider that Henry had bastardised his eldest daughter and would do go on to do the same to his younger daughter after this trial and these girls were the only two live offspring born of his official marriages at that point.

Certainly, if the treason arose from her supposed adultery then that would tie in with Chapuys’ assertion that the chief charge against her was the sexual misbehaviour one. The only even vaguely threatening evidence, (aiming at the King’s death) that has survived over time, is the reported unwise courtly love remark Anne Boleyn had made to Henry Norris on 29th or 30th April that ‘You look for dead men’s shoes. For if aught came to the King but good, you would look to have me.’ Norris had immediately replied ‘If he should have any such thought, he would his head were off’ as he knew even imagining the King’s death was dangerous. Anne later asked (that day/the day after) Norris to go to her almoner (chaplain) John Skip to swear she was a ‘gud (good) woman’.

It should be noted though that since Henry then had their marriage annulled before her execution, it begs the question of how she could still be guilty of treason from her adultery or even how could she be charged with adultery at all? The ending of their marriage was by an annulment (i.e. it hadn’t ever been really existed as he had done to Katherine of Aragon) and not by a divorce. You can’t commit adultery if you aren’t married and the annulment declared that Anne hadn’t been married to Henry. Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury who had been appointed Anne’s spiritual adviser in the Tower, said on 17th May that the annulment was ‘in consequence of certain just and lawful impediments which, it was said, were unknown at the time of the union, but had lately been confessed to the Archbishop by the lady herself’.

Eric Ives mentioned that when kneeling in front of the executioner Anne looked behind her a couple of times before the executioner beheaded her and suggested that this was to ensure that the executioner did not strike too soon. I have thought that Anne, who was a noticeably clever woman and who must have known of the annulment of her marriage to Henry (or even agreed to it by confessing to the impediments) probably thought that this annulment would or should have negated the charges relating to illicit relations with the courtiers. Her marriage to Henry took place in January 1533 when the world, including Henry’s court, considered Henry to be married to Katherine of Aragon still. They never did marry a second time as the annulment of his marriage to Katherine in the spring of 1533 retroactively made Henry and Anne’s marriage in January legitimate (in England at least) so no further action was taken. She may have thought she would have to be released and that Henry had let the execution get so far simply to test her and ensure her obedience to his wishes and then he would grant her the ‘mercy’ of pardoning her due to the new circumstances.

Henry had done so much to get married to Anne and make her his queen: he had defined at least half of Christendom, ignored his favourite sister, bastardised his only surviving legitimate child and started a radical change in the Church in England. Yet at the end he seemed only to want her absolute destruction. Did he really hate her by then because at one point before he had loved her so much?


* Elizabeth Norton, 2011, The Anne Boleyn Papers, Amberley

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1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Not only was Anne no longer guilty by reason of annulment, the men executed were also innocent. The incest charge was not indicated so George was executed for mere words. I thought the official reason was plotting the kings death. In any case I think Henry was just as passionately enraged by Anne as he once was in love with her. Ordering her portraits destroyed, etc, trying to remove her from history. It had quite the opposite effect.

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