I thought I would give a review of the BBC2 documentary ‘The Last Days of Anne Boleyn’ which was shown last night. The programme was part narrative, with actors re-enacting scenes leading up to Anne’s death, and part debate giving historians and writers the opportunity to air their opinions and give their interpretation on the evidence of what caused Anne’s downfall. The circumstances surrounding Anne’s death have been the subject of historical debate for years caused, in part, by the lack of any real evidence to support any one theory conclusively. It was summed up perfectly on the programme by Suzannah Lipscomb who said “there’s just enough evidence to keep historians guessing but just enough gaps to make sure they can never finally get to the solution”. Other historians who featured on the show were David Starkey, G W Bernard and Greg Walker, they were also joined by writers Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel.
I summarise the four main theories below:
1. that Anne was guilty of adultery
2. that Thomas Cromwell plotted her downfall
3. that Henry VIII wanted her out of the way
4. that her words, rather than her actions, made her appear guilty to Henry
I’m going to give a run down of the opinions of the historians as best I can and will add my personal views at the end too.
Firstly, here are some facts we’re all agreed on that help to set the scene. On the 29th January 1536 Anne suffered a miscarriage and the baby was a boy. By spring 1536 Henry had a new passion at court in the form of Jane Seymour. Also that spring Anne’s chaplain, John Skip, led a sermon on the book of Esther about the sins of a wicked councillor which everyone at court knew was really about Cromwell. What we don’t know is how much of this sermon was influenced by Anne, more on that later. On 18th April the Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who was in England to discuss peace terms with Henry, was forced to acknowledge Anne as queen. Many see this as a victory for Anne and the miscarriage forgiven and forgotten. It was also a diplomatic coup for Henry because Chapuys had been a supporter of Katherine of Aragon’s and worked for her nephew, Charles V. Shortly after this, Chapuys, Henry and Cromwell met to discuss an alliance with Charles V but Henry was seen turning on Cromwell who walked away visibly upset. We don’t know what was said but we do know Cromwell had previously broken the alliance with Charles V, so it was suggested on the programme that perhaps he had fallen out with Henry over foreign policy.
After this Cromwell left court for a short while blaming illness and rumours about Anne started to circulate not long after. One incident concerned a lady in waiting, Lady Worcester, who was accused of inappropriate behaviour. In her defence she basically said that if you think my behaviour’s bad you should see how the queen behaves! A conversation is also overheard between Anne and Henry Norris, Henry VIII’s groom of the stool and member of his inner circle. Anne accuses Norris of wanting to marry her when the King is dead saying, “You look for dead mens shoes”, these are dangerous words in a time where just talking about the King’s death is a treasonable act.
On the 30th April Mark Smeaton, Anne’s musician, was arrested and questioned by Thomas Cromwell. Later that day he confessed to committing adultery with Anne. No-one knows for sure how the confession was obtained, many people believe he was tortured but there’s actually no hard evidence for this. When Henry hears of the confession he orders Anne to be arrested and Cromwell to launch an investigation. Charges of adultery were finally drawn up against Anne and 5 men, one of which was her own brother George! Anne was also accused of plotting the Kings death over the remarks made to Norris. Mark Smeaton, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston and William Brereton were all tried and found guilty on the 12th May 1536. Anne and her brother George Boleyn were put on trial on the 15th May and were also found guilty. Anne was finally executed on the 19th May.
Here’s what the experts have to say:
G W Bernard is very much the loan voice backing theory number 1, that Anne was guilty as charged of adultery. He’s even written a book on the subject and wonders why we are all so ready to assume her innocence! In his opinion there’s no hard evidence for any conspiracy theory, Mark Smeaton the musician confessed and there’s no evidence that this was obtained under torture plus we have Lady Worcester’s account of Anne’s behaviour and she had no reason to lie either. I totally disagree with these views as I will explain later.
Hilary Mantel believes it was Cromwell who was responsible for Anne’s downfall and that the heated exchange with Henry during the Chapuys meeting might have led to him finally turning on Anne. It was discussed during the programme that Anne wasn’t happy to fulfil the traditional role of an obedient and submissive wife. She was a passionate and intelligent woman who wanted to be an advisor to Henry, unfortunately Cromwell was chief minister and also wanted to be Henry’s main advisor, this was bound to cause tensions! It was noted that as early as 1534 Cromwell was saying that Anne wanted his head, so maybe his humiliation at being given a dressing down by Henry did finally push him over the edge.
Hilary also spoke about how Cromwell had confessed to Chapuys in a letter that he’d “dreamt the whole thing up”. She doesn’t believe he dreamt up the whole step by step process that eventually lead to Anne’s death but that he put people under pressure and waited to see what they did, she thinks even Cromwell may have been surprised at how quickly people turned on Anne. So, although Hilary believes Cromwell was responsible, she doesn’t see it as a complex conspiracy, just a series of events that Cromwell set in motion which then got out of control.
Alison Weir also thinks Thomas Cromwell was behind Anne’s fall and execution. She interprets Cromwell’s letter to Chapuys as proof that he made up the evidence against Anne. She believes they fell out over religion and because Cromwell felt she threatened his position because of her influence over Henry.
However, Suzannah Lipscomb goes on to explain that this letter to Chapuys is open to interpretation because in the line before Cromwell confesses to dreaming everything up he explains how Henry had told him to do it. Suzannah doesn’t really stand by the theory that Cromwell was responsible, she believes the evidence to suggest he fell out with Henry over foreign policy is very flimsy and there’s no evidence to suggest Anne’s chaplain John Skip was speaking for her when he attacked Cromwell in his sermon. Suzannah instead believes that Henry really did believe the rumours and it was Anne’s words and behaviour that implicated her. She pointed out how hard it was for women during this time, they had to appear alluring at court and engage in courtly love but at the same time they had to be seen to be chaste, they were forever walking on a tightrope. A couple of other important points Suzannah makes is that there is no evidence to suggest that Henry had been looking to get rid of Anne. There was the acknowledgement from Chapuys for one thing and although his head had been turned by Jane Seymour Henry had already had 3 mistresses that we know of so there’s no evidence to suggest Jane was to be anything more. She also points out that in Anne’s indictment which lists all the times/places when the adultery is supposed to have taken place about 3/4 of them can be disproved because either Anne or the men involved where not present at the places the indictment says they were. Suzannah believes it was made up to make sure Anne was executed.
The historian Greg Walker is also not convinced by the Cromwell theory. He believes there was much more holding Anne and Cromwell together than driving them apart. Cromwell was busy fighting for his own position, he wasn’t even involved in this until Henry asked him to investigate after Smeaton confessed and then he had no choice but to follow orders. He also believes Anne crossed the line when talking to Norris, her words were politically disastrous and they led to her downfall, not a grand conspiracy theory.
David Starkey believes it was Henry who was responsible for Anne’s downfall and is therefore a supporter of theory number 3. He believes Anne’s position would have been secure had she carried her baby to term and it had been a boy, but instead she miscarried. This coupled with the fact she was also seen as arrogant at court, stepped on toes and broke court etiquette meant Henry wanted rid of her. Starkey also points out that Henry had this ability to believe something if it was convenient to him, he would convince himself it was true and then persuade others around him. This, says Starkey, is what happened after Cromwell told him about Anne’s adultery.
Philippa Gregory made probably the most controversial comments in the programme which I totally disagree with! She discussed the rumours that Anne miscarried a deformed foetus in 1536 something Hilary Mantel points out we have no evidence for, apart from an account 40 years later from an unreliable source. She also thinks Anne was determined and ruthless and if she believed Henry would be unable to give a child there’s every chance she would have hatched a plot with her brother to get pregnant, pointing out that Anne and George were never brought up as brother and sister! Even G W Bernard rubbishes these claims. It just doesn’t ring true to me whatsoever, there is absolutely no evidence of incest and both Anne and George were deeply religious so would have seen this as a great sin. It’s true that in Tudor times a deformed foetus was believed to be evidence of the mothers wrong doing and in her book ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ both of these salacious theories are brought to life, the implication being the deformed foetus was born as a result of their incestuous liaison – complete unsubstantiated rubbish in my opinion! Phillipa also believes Henry is the one who ordered Anne’s death because he wanted rid of her, divorce simply wasn’t enough for him, she sees it as a purely evil act.
Apart from G W Bernard pretty much everyone else on the programme believes Anne was innocent of the charges and only disagree on the circumstances that led to her downfall. It’s important to note that before Anne’s execution she was given her final Eucharist and swore her innocence both before and after. This would have been very serious in Tudor England; Anne was deeply religious and would not have wanted to risk her soul’s eternal damnation after her death by not confessing her sins. For me, this is just one more piece of crucial evidence that proves her innocence along with the fact that the indictment charges don’t match up with where Anne or the men were at the said times.
With regards to Smeatons confession, I believe this must have been obtained under pressure whether that was by torture or threats. We may not have any evidence of torture but we also don’t have evidence that was none either and I just can’t see Anne committing adultery with a commoner like Mark. With Lady Worcester’s remarks on what the Queen was getting up to, I think this is equally unreliable, we just don’t know what was meant by it or how much pressure Lady Worcester was trying to divert from herself.
I think various factors came together to cause Anne’s death. I believe the relationship with Anne and Cromwell probably was strained. They both wanted to be the main advisor for Henry for a start and I know they also clashed about where the money was being spent from the dissolution of the monasteries. With regards to John Skip’s sermon against Cromwell, I wonder why he would have preached it had it not been on behalf of Anne. I can’t imagine her own chaplain would have made a speech against Cromwell if she hadn’t sanctioned it or at least been of the same opinion as that would have been a very dangerous game to play. Of course there is no evidence to support this but my gut feeling is there was tension between Anne and Cromwell. I also think Anne made many enemies at court. This was a highly charged environment full of political intrigue where everyone was looking to gain favour with the King and be on the winning side in court politics. Hilary Mantel points out that Anne was not a victim, she chose to step into a tough political court, played the winning hand for a while and but ultimately lost. In my opinion Anne certainly was a strong woman who did play her hands well for a time, such as by holding out for marriage with Henry, but she then failed to settle down into the more back seat role of wife and baby maker, involving herself instead in religion and politics which broke with court etiquette and made her many enemies
Then we have her failure to produce an heir and the miscarriage of the baby boy. We must remember that Henry was a very religious man and may have seen this as a sign that he was out of favour with god. After the miscarriage he was quoted as saying he was charmed into the marriage which Hilary Mantel points out may have been Henry looking for a way out, implying the marriage was null and void because there had been no consent. Anne refused to change her behaviour after marrying Henry, she continued to be the same spirited lady she always was but Henry was looking for a dutiful and obedient wife, which is possibly why his head was turned by the demure Jane, who was the complete opposite of Anne in temperament. So we have many reasons why Henry wasn’t happy being married to Anne anymore and why he may have, as Starkey suggests, been quick to believe the adultery charges against her. However, I don’t think that Henry was thinking of getting rid of Anne in April 1536 because of the way he forces Chapuys to publically acknowledge her. This leads me to believe that other forces must have a hand in engineering her downfall.
So to try and summarise my own thoughts on the subject, I think Henry did believe the charges against Anne as Suzannah suggests and it was her behaviour at court and comments to Norris that made the charges stick. I also think there is truth to Starkey’s theory that Henry made himself believe the charges because they were convenient to him, he was tiring of Anne and concerned about the lack of a male heir and this was a good way of getting rid of another wife whilst also saving face (especially after all the trouble he had gone to in order to marry her!) I can’t help thinking that Cromwell had a hand in things too, he may have only got involved because Henry wanted him to investigate but I believe he saw an opportunity to remove his rival and grabbed it with both hands. He was also responsible for the Mark Smeaton confession which I believe was coerced out of him either by torture or threats because I just cannot believe that Anne, the queen of England, would have had an affair with her musician!
I think I could continue to debate this subject forever and I will certainly be writing more articles on Anne Boleyn, her life and her downfall as I want to re-examine the evidence again in detail for myself. She was a fascinating woman and her death, whatever the reasons for it, was certainly cruel and unjust. I think the only thing left to say is how disappointing this programme wasn’t made last year so the late great Eric Ives could have taken part. He was an expert on Anne Boleyn and author of her brilliant autobiography ‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn’ so I would have loved to hear his views on the subject, I’ll just have contend myself with re-reading his book!
Don’t forget the Tudor Court Season continues tonight with a documentary on Thomas Cromwell on BBC2 at 9pm called ‘Henry VIII’s Enforcer: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell’.