Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Anne Boleyn - A Tudor Victim by Lynda Telford

Anne Boleyn’s rise to fame as Henry VIII’s second queen is often quoted as a case of a king raising up a commoner for love. The reality is far more complex. While Anne descended from a background of solidly noble maternal ancestors, and upwardly mobile courtiers on her father’s side, Henry’s own antecedents were shaky. His father and mother both had doubts cast on the legitimacy of their bloodlines, and the Tudor seat on the throne was won in battle, not by inheritance.

Henry’s marriage to the Spanish Katherine of Aragon had produced only a daughter, and his longing for a son to succeed him was becoming desperate. He saw in Anne, not merely an attractive companion, but a woman of strength and intelligence. One, moreover, who could give him the sons he needed, to give permanency to his line.

Unfortunately, ending his first marriage went through years of delays, during which time Anne’s reputation suffered. She proved fertile when their marriage was finally achieved, and as there was no evidence of her having a pregnancy during the waiting time, it is highly unlikely that their relationship was fully physical during the legal holdups. That Anne was able to keep Henry’s interest, yet keep his impatience in check throughout that time, is a credit to her character and considerable charm. Sadly, the long wait also saw the partners increase in age, and Anne was around 32, to Henry’s 42, when their marriage finally took place. Not old by modern standards, but not young by their own.

Anne produced their daughter without difficulty, but subsequent pregnancies resulted in miscarriage or stillbirth. Not merely disappointments, but these misadventures allowed detractors to claim that the long struggle had achieved nothing except political unrest.

The lack of a male heir, and the problems created by the abandonment of Katherine, would eventually damage the harmony of the marriage, with outside pressures proving too great. Although Anne remained a Catholic all her life, she was interested in the New Learning, and frequently imported books from Antwerp for her household to read. This also put the conservative factions against her, particularly as she had many friends among the more progressive courtiers.

Despite these problems, Henry held on. This was partly due to the alluring sunshine-and-shadow of Anne’s mercurial personality, but also because Katherine was still in the background and separating from Anne may have meant returning to her rival. Katherine was six years Henry’s senior, and any attractions she may once have possessed, had long since faded.

There was also a strong need, in Henry’s own character, to be seen to be in the right. Any separation from Anne would appear, to an avidly censorious Europe, as an admission that he had made a mistake. Also, he still retained the hope that she would produce the urgently needed son, to justify the earlier struggles.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The continuing lack of the male heir, that Henry believed he needed, gradually allowed Anne’s enemies to undermine the security of her position. Henry was not entirely faithful, and in the past his friends – notably Bryan and Carew – had arranged assignations for him with the wives of other gentlemen of his household. These regular adventures did not noticeably add to his known tally of bastards, so it may be assumed that his virility was rather less than he would have liked people to believe. This lack of potency, particularly as he aged, was probably the reason why his wives experienced difficulties in producing many healthy children.

A faction had been encouraging him to settle all his problems, both personal and political, with another marriage. This would end the prominence of the Boleyn’s, and allow a takeover. As another divorce might make Henry appear fickle, it was decided to charge Anne with adultery. Though this extreme action, which would result in a trial for treason, was ostensibly to defend the king’s honour, it was actually entirely motivated by a desire to replace the Boleyn’s at the centre of power.

Anne was arrested, not even knowing the full charges against her, which were still being formulated. Even so, a headsman from France (who used a sword) had been sent for, at a cost of £23.6s.8d.  before her travesty of a trial began.

The men accused of being her lovers, except her brother Lord Rochford, were tried first. The fact that their condemnation would seriously compromise her trial was of no concern. She defended herself with courage, proving at several points that the “incidents” did not take place, as she was elsewhere at the time. This also cast grave doubts on the veracity of other charges made against her. The Lord Mayor of London, present at her trial, said he “could see no evidence against her, except that they wanted an occasion to be rid of her.” However, the result was a foregone conclusion.

Her brother and the other condemned men were executed on the 17th May, leaving Anne to face alone the full horror of a public death, beheaded by a sword. To the very end, she appeared convinced that she would be reprieved, but she was executed within the precincts of the Tower, on Friday the 19th May 1536.

Henry’s many further marital adventures proved irrelevant. His son, by his third wife Jane Seymour, who had plotted with her family against Anne, did not live to adulthood. Katherine’s daughter Mary married a Spanish Prince, and embroiled England in Spain’s war in the Netherlands.

It was Anne’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, who restored England’s pride and made her a force to be reckoned with. With her splendidly successful reign, that Anne’s place in history was fully justified.

Ref: “Tudor Victims of the Reformation” by Lynda Telford.

Published: Pen and Sword. 2016.