A fatal love triangle: King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour (part 2)

the link to part 1 of the series “A fatal love triangle: King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour” is here 


The fatal love triangle of Henry VIII, Anne, and Jane Seymour was at the centre of the grisly murder of Queen Anne Boleyn.  In April 1536, stormy clouds were thickening above Anne’s head, rolling and twisting into new shapes – various plans of her sworn enemies for their future without Anne on the throne.  The pinnacle – Anne’s unjust death – was swiftly approaching.

                     King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

The exact role of King Henry VIII in the conspiracy against Anne is not known.  Maybe the monarch knew about Anne’s innocence and sanctioned her murder to be free and marry Jane Seymour. Yet, some historians think that Henry might have been fed with lies about Anne’s adultery and believed that she was guilty.  It is also possible that he could have persuaded himself that she had betrayed him because it was more convenient for him to accept her alleged guilt.

At the end of April of 1536, there were three April ‘boiling points’ in Anne’s tragedy, and each of them was an important sign that the fatal love triangle would be untangled soon.

The 28th of April, 1536, was exactly such a day.  The ambitions of George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford and Anne’s brother, to gain an appointment to the Order of the Garter were shipwrecked when Sir Nicholas Carew received this appointment.  It is interesting that Carew was already quite close to Mary Tudor, Jane Seymour and her relatives, plotting against Anne and the Boleyns.

In his letter to Emperor Charles V regarding Carew’s appointment, Eustace Chapuys claimed that Carew continuously counselled Jane Seymour (Mrs. Semel) and Mary Tudor:

“The Grand Ecuyer, Mr. Caro, had on St. George’s day the Order of the Garter in the place of the deceased M. de Burgain (lord Abergavenny), to the great disappointment of Rochford, who was seeking for it, and all the more because the Concubine has not had sufficient influence to get it for her brother; and it will not be the fault of the said Ecuyer if the Concubine, although his cousin (quelque, qu. quoique? cousine) be not dismounted. He continually counsels Mrs. Semel and other conspirators “pour luy faire une venue,” and only four days ago he and some persons of the chamber sent to tell the Princess to be of good cheer, for shortly the opposite party would put water in their wine, for the King was already as sick and tired of the concubine as could be[…]”

On the same day, Anne urgently met with her chaplain, Matthew Parker.  We don’t know for a certainty what they discussed in privacy, but it seems that, understanding her rather precarious predicament, Anne was worried about the future of her dear daughter – the two-and-a-half Princess Elizabeth.  Parker’s letters, written later in his lifetime, support the hypothesis that the quickly-falling-from-favor queen spoke to him about the care of her daughter.

Already after her death, Mathew Parker would be appointed chaplain to Henry VIII. Eric Eves writes about Anne’s meeting with her chaplain and his attitude to the queen’s request:

“As we have seen, less than six days before her arrest, Anne seems to have laid a particular responsibility on him to watch over her daughter. That charge, and the debt he felt he owed to Anne, stayed with him for the rest of his life.”

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There was another ominous sign for Anne on the same day.  The Bishop of London was consulted regarding whether King Henry could have discarded Anne.  Writs of summons were sent out to the members of Parliament, even though the previous Parliament session had just been dissolved. The above might be considered as the indication of conspiracy against Anne.

Eric Eves writes about the afore-mentioned events:

The decision to charge her [Anne] with high treason was made, so the story goes, by 24 April, when the king approved the setting up of a commission of oyer and terminer to investigate and dispose of a catch-all selection of treasons and other offences in Middlesex and Kent. On the 27th, writs went out to summon a parliament. This was an emergency measure – the Reformation Parliament had been dissolved only a fortnight before – and, when Lords and Commons met on 8 June, the summons was explained by the need to settle the succession and to repeal statutes favoring Anne.” 

Anne was an intensely religious woman, and in many ways her court resembled the court of the pious Queen Claude of France.  Yet, she encouraged the courtly love, treading on dangerous grounds.  Having grown up in the Low Countries and France, in the splendor of magnificent and extravagant royal courts, Anne was a queen of courtly love and a lovely dark-eyed, dark-haired creature possessing every feature of grace, wit, and intelligence.  She and her ladies read the Bible and prayed, but there was also another side of their lives – relaxed and entertaining one.  There was dancing, flirting, gossiping, and witty duels, and Anne herself revived the courtly love ideal to encourage courtiers to woo and flatter her.  She didn’t think that would become her downfall.

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On the 29th April of 1536, clouds became as dark as a hundred midnights: the events of the day were another boiling point in Anne’s tragedy. Anne was involved in two verbal encounters with two people who would be named her paramours and would end up dead in a few weeks.

Mrs Stonor (her name was Margaret or Anne Foliot), wife of Sir Walter Stonor and one of the ladies who would attend Anne at the Tower, gave an account of Anne’s meeting with Mark Smeaton.  According to Stonor, Anne entered the queen’s presence chamber or the throne room, where she discovered Mark Smeaton, a favorite young musician of the king’s Privy Chamber, standing near the window. Anne’s conversation with Mark was a sheer drama: the musician behaved too eccentrically in the queen’s presence, like an enamored young knight with the lady of his dreams, so Anne’s patience snapped and her usual courtesy was overridden by anger.

According to Mrs Stonor, Anne said about the encounter:

“I never spake with him since, but upon Saturday before May-day [the 29 of April 1536], and then I found him standing in the round window in my chamber of presence; and I asked why he was so sad? And he answered and said it was no matter. And then I said, You may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a noble man, because ye be an inferior personNo, no, said he, a look sufficeth me; and thus fare you well.”

Mark Smeaton never was Anne’s lover, but he could have been smitten with Anne.  She felt that she needed to remind him of his station – he was inferior to her and other nobles as he was not even a nobleman. That was the end of Smeaton’s dreams about the queen, if he had any, because he was arrested and taken to Cromwell the next day after the incident.

                              Mark Smeaton from the Showtime’s the Tudors

Sir Henry Norris, the Groom of the Stool and Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, was in the centre of another encounter that delivered Anne into the grasp of her foes. He was close to Anne, personally and politically, and his presence in her entourage was usual.  Despite spending most of the spring of 1536 in his estates in Oxfordshire, he returned to court in April 1536.

Norris was between marriages.  His first wife, Lady Mary Fiennes, had died in 1531, and he didn’t remarry during the next few years.  It was quite unusual that a rich nobleman, an owner of lands and the king’s close servant, was becoming “an old stock” in the marriage market.  Norris supposedly had some kind of romantic entanglement with Anne’s cousin, Lady Margaret Shelton, the daughter of Mary’s custodians, Sir John and Lady Shelton; but he did not propose to her.

         Anne Boleyn and Henry Norris from the Showtime’s the Tudors

David Starkey writes about Anne’s famous conversation with Henry Norris:

“Anne, however, was determined to force the issue. ‘I asked him’, she recalled later, ‘why he went not through with his marriage?’ He replied ‘he would tarry a time’. Irritated by his prevarication Anne snapped back: ‘You look for dead men’s shoes. For if aught came to the King but good, you would look to have me.’ Norris was appalled. ‘If he should have any such thought’, he said, ‘he would his head were off.’ Anne then became openly threatening: ‘She could undo him if she would.’ And the two had a violent quarrel.”

  The shock of Henry Norris after his verbal encounter with Anne from the Tudors

Anne felt that she needed to broach the subject of why Norris did not propose to Margaret Shelton.  Probably she asked Norris about it out of mere curiosity.  Perhaps, Anne felt obliged to propel the subject of her cousin’s marriage to the man.  Maybe it all started as a game of courtly love: Norris was supposed to pose as a knight who was in love with the queen, but it stopped being a game and became a tragicomedy that could have been easily interpreted as high treason.

On the 30th of April 1536, the third boiling point in Anne Boleyn’s tragedy happened.

Alexander Alesius, the Scottish theologian, described that Anne and Henry were embroiled in a heated argument in the gardens at Greenwich Palace.  Alesius claimed that he had seen Anne carrying little Elizabeth in her arms and talking to His Majesty in most suppliant tones.  Henry was angry with Anne who was using Elizabeth in her desperate attempts to soften him towards her.

                Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – their last meeting in the Tudors

Later, Alexander Alesius gave a detailed tale about the events to Queen Elizabeth:

“Never shall I forget the sorrow which I felt when I saw the most serene queen, your most religious mother, carrying you, still a baby, in her arms and entreating the most serene king your father, in Greenwich Palace, from the open window of which he was looking into the courtyard, when she brought you to him. I did not perfectly understand what had been going on, but the faces and gestures of the speakers plainly showed that the king was angry, although he could conceal his anger wonderfully well. Yet from the protracted conference of the council (for whom the crowd was waiting until it was quite dark, expecting that they would return to London), it was most obvious to everyone that some deep and difficult question was being discussed.”

Alesius and none of Anne’s contemporaries knew for a certainty why the royal couple had quarreled.  In the evening of the same day, the visit of the king and queen to Calais for the next meeting with King François I of France was cancelled; instead, arrangements were made for the monarch to travel to France alone. Anne still had her freedom, but she must have been feeling terrible, knowing that invisible evil forces were working against her every minute.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – their last meeting in the Tudors

However, it is very possible that Alesius’ account is wrongly dated or is imperfect in some other way because there is no historical proof that Elizabeth was at Greenwich Palace at the end of April 1536.  Elizabeth had been a royal princess before Anne’s marriage to Henry was declared null and void, and her visits to court were properly recorded.  Even if we assume that there is a chance that Elizabeth’s short visit was not recorded, we have to take into account that Bess was a little girl, and her visit to court for two or three days seems not very probable.

A fog of fatality enshrouded Anne, who still lived in the dark and could not imagine that she would be arrested just in a couple of days and would never leave Tower alive.  Her former allies became her enemies, abandoning her like rats desert a sinking ship, and Anne was out of her depth.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville