The Guilt of Anne Boleyn


Today in 1536 Anne Boleyn, Queen of England and second wife of Henry VIII, was charged with adultery, incest and high treason. Four days later she was beheaded at the Tower of London. During her life, Anne was a creature of fascination – a woman that seemingly appeared out of nowhere and inspired the King of England to turn Western Europe upside down. In death, she has continued to nag historians by posing as many questions as answers – did she love Henry? Was she motivated by ambition? Was she as chaste as she claimed? What were her methods for keeping him interested? Why couldn’t she deliver a son? Was she guilty? Who was the cause of her downfall?

A bit like Elizabeth Woodville before her – another commoner who scandalized the country by daring to marry the king – what Anne means to you likely depends on your opinion of her, if you have one. For some she is a villain, the archetype of the “second wife” who stole a woman’s husband, mistreated his daughter and tore down institutions and individuals as deemed necessary to further her own agenda. If you like her, then you may see her as some sort of modern-day feminist hero, a “strong” woman mistreated by an abusive tyrant or a religious martyr who championed Protestantism in a Catholic country.

But the fact remains, after a six or seven-year courtship Henry seemingly lost interest in the great love of his life mere months after their wedding. Their marriage would be brief – just three years – and it would end in violence. It begs the question, what exactly happened? Who was to blame? And what exactly had Anne “done” to garner such antipathy?

The answer to those questions also depends on how much agency you grant Henry. Seven months after publicly marrying Anne, their daughter, Elizabeth, was born. The following year Anne was crowned as though she was a queen regnant, the laws of succession were upended and the English made to swear to it, a measure which also reaffirmed Henry as the head of the Church of England, solidifying the country’s break from Rome.


He hadn’t done this alone – indeed, much of it was executed by the new superstar at the Tudor court, Thomas Cromwell, who had been a protege of the deceased Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell and Anne rose together, their alliance cemented in their support for the Reformed faith, though via different motivations. Cromwell was outside the establishment, without noble blood, a title or any inherited wealth. In that sense, he was a bit like Anne, who also garnered outrage for her relatively “lowly” birth in comparison to her rival, Katherine of Aragon.

By the autumn of 1535 it was becoming increasingly clear that Henry was losing interest in Anne. In addition to only providing a daughter in 1533, she had suffered a miscarriage and a stillbirth. She was still wildly unpopular with the English public, not to mention a large faction of the nobility. She was outspoken and challenged the King’s authority, even in public. And she seemed unable to turn a blind eye to his infidelity, which had at one point been trained on Anne’s cousin, Madge Shelton, thanks to manipulation of the Boleyn family, but was slowly turning towards Anne’s lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.

The question that still plagues historians today – many of whom wildly disagree with one another – when and how did a plan against Anne take form. There is one school of thought – the traditional one – which maintains Henry decided around this time he wanted out of his marriage. He told Cromwell and essentially handed off the ask to him. And Cromwell, tasked with the job of disposing of a wife and knowing his life may depend on it, went to any means necessary to carry out the orders.

There is another theory, however, that it was Cromwell who planted the seeds of dissatisfaction in Henry by parading Jane before him and bringing “rumors” of infidelity before his master. It was Cromwell who manipulated Henry into believing Anne should be discarded and he who orchestrated the legal strategy for her divorce and execution. This hypothesis hinges on Cromwell’s perceived motivation – his career depended on Boleyn favor, but a falling out with the Queen jeopardized his position and it behooved him to instead make an alliance with her enemies – the Duke of Norfolk, for one, and the rest of the old guard who had been sidelined by Anne’s rise.


As for the charges themselves – adultery, incest and high treason – well, they are nothing less than remarkable. Not only was Anne branded a whore, but Henry a cuckold. Not only was she to lose her marriage, like Katherine, but her life. Not only had she apparently taken lovers, but one of them was her brother.

There were two primary factors that kept Anne alive until May 1536. The first, ironically, was that Katherine of Aragon was still alive. While many believed Anne’s marriage to the King was invalid, it was premised on the fact they believed he was still legally married to Katherine. Setting Anne aside thus didn’t make Henry single, it pushed him more firmly towards Katherine. Had he simply annulled the marriage, he would have been the first King in European history (that I know of, at least) who was entering into a third marriage while his first two wives still lived. With both dead, it was impossible to claim Henry was tied to anyone. Katherine’s death in January 1536 thus made Anne more, not less, vulnerable – a fact she seemingly didn’t understand.

But that naivete was tied directly to the second factor that sustained her – a pregnancy. Anne announced she was pregnant for a fourth time in late autumn 1535 and had likely conceived right around October. She would miscarry at three-and-a-half months, on the day of Katherine’s funeral the following January. Further proof that she was incapable of producing healthy son in addition to Katherine’s death sealed her fate.

So, was Anne guilty of the charges laid against her? It’s highly unlikely that she took lovers during her marriage, though she did maintain a coterie of admiring men around her (which wasn’t an unusual courtly practice.) Logistically it would have been nearly impossible and psychologically, what did she have to gain from it? The woman had held out for more than half a decade to get herself on the throne – the idea that she would throw that out the window to satisfy her own desire is laughable. As, quite frankly, is the theory that she did so to increase her chances of conceiving a son.

Incest? Doubtful, and its inclusion in the list of charges is extreme and strange. But it follows the same trend as charging Anne as having taken five separate lovers – shock value. This was PR, pure and simple. Henry needed a good reason to seek an annulment or divorce, but this was doable, particularly since it didn’t need to be granted by the Vatican. What he really needed was to save face and the best way to do this was present a sympathetic tale of having been duped by the most reviled woman in England.

Five charges of adultery and incest were meant to tar Anne’s name so far as to be black. And while Henry clearly signed off on her indictment, this has all the hallmarks of Cromwell’s mentality and strategy. While who “started” this may very well be debatable, there is no doubt that it was Cromwell who ensured Anne’s death was a foregone conclusion after her trial.

The legality of all of this going down as it did is interesting. Technically, the law of the land was followed. Anne’s execution, based on her judgment, was legal. What wasn’t was the fact that the evidence on which it was based was fabricated, however since no one – not even Anne’s father, the Earl of Wiltshire – attempted to defend her, the jury could theoretically claim to have followed the case to its inevitable end. But that very inevitability was so closely tied to their own political standing as to be a joke. This was a miscarriage of justice, through and through, without a single broken law.

A curious layer of tragedy is also added by the fact that Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland was among the peers who sat in judgment of the Queen. Percy and Anne had had a brief romance back in 1523, during which time they were planning to marry. It would have been a lofty marriage for Anne, further highlighting the incredulity which the nobles of the court watched her rise to queen, but it was one vetoed by Percy’s father and Cardinal Wolsey. When the verdict was read out, Percy collapsed. He would die eight months later.

Anne was duly kept in the Tower and told she would die within days, a set of circumstances we’ll return to on Thursday.

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