After the arrests of Anne and George Boleyn, and Anne’s other alleged paramours, tension was rising in the air, and Henry VIII’s court froze in anticipation of the outcome for Anne and the Boleyns. Few people expected Anne and other prisoners to leave the Tower of London alive.
The pinnacle was very close, and it was clear that the resolution of the fatal love triangle was a matter of days.
As of the 5th of May 1536, not only Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn, Henry Norris, and Mark Smeaton were imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Several other men were also languishing in the dungeons: Sir Richard Page, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Vice-Chamberlain in the household of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry FitzRoy, and a former favourite of Thomas Cromwell; Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, a Tudor poet and courtier, as well as an admirer of Anne Boleyn; Sir Francis Weston, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber and one of the Boleyn supporters; and Sir William Brereton, a Groom of the Privy Chamber to the king.
During the first two days she spent in the Tower, Anne was despondent and almost hysterical, and her ramblings led to the mention of Sir Francis Weston, whom she claimed was in love with her. As a result, Weston was arrested on the 4th of May as her lover. Sir William Brereton was apprehended on the same day as Weston, but the cause of his arrest is a bit unclear. In Showtime’s “The Tudors”, Brereton is a devout Catholic who works for the pope and tries to assassinate Anne Boleyn, but he always fails and in the end confesses to being Anne’s lover, but that is just a product of fiction.
Sir Richard Page and Sir Thomas Wyatt would survive Anne’s downfall and would be released later. Sir Francis Weston and Sir William Brereton would be executed together with several other men.
Thomas Cromwell ordered another man – Sir Francis Bryan, an English courtier and diplomat who was related to both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – to arrive in London for interrogation. Unlike Wyatt and Page, he wasn’t arrested and survived the downfall untouched. We don’t know why he was summoned to London by the king’s chief minister, for whom it might have been a tactical move to secure additional evidence against Anne if necessity arose.
Whose testimony was the critical one in bringing Anne Boleyn down?
Many of us assume that the testimony of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford and George Boleyn’s wife, about Anne’s alleged incestuous relationship with her brother George delivered the Boleyn siblings in the hands of their enemies and helped Cromwell condemn them to death. However, there is no real evidence that Jane wanted to find the way out of her marriage to George, that their marriage was of a forced nature and that she loathed and hated George.
Therefore, there is no credible proof in contemporary sources that Jane was the principal witness against Anne and George Boleyn.
When many historians, including Lacey Baldwin, Alison Weir, and Eric Ives, as well as readers and fans, reflect on their knowledge about the downfall of Anne Boleyn and her family, their sympathies lie with Anne and George, two unjustly executed people and two victims of Jane Boleyn’s jealousy. The same people believe that Jane got her retribution in the end – she died on the scaffold for being implicated in Catherine Howard’s alleged affair with Thomas Culpeper.
One of the modern historians, Julia Fox, creates a sympathetic portrayal of Jane Boleyn. She writes about Jane’s friendship with Anne and states that Jane once helped her queen have one of Henry’s mistresses dismissed from court. According to Fox, Eustace Chapuys mentioned that Jane “joined a conspiracy” to that effect the family machine was obviously involved too. Jane was supposedly exiled from the court for helping Anne. In Fox’s opinion, Jane never plotted the downfall of the Boleyns.
On the 4th of May 1536, Jane Boleyn sent a message to George. She couldn’t send him a personal letter and visit him in the Tower, and so she sent him a formal message for Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, to hand it to George; Kingston reported the receipt of this letter to Cromwell. In her letter, Jane asked how her husband was doing and pledged that she would “humbly suit onto the King’s highness” for him. Whether Jane appealed to the king or not, we just don’t know.
Julia Fox writes about Jane Boleyn’s role in the conspiracy against Anne:
“Thus, Jane Rochford found herself dragged into a maelstrom of intrigue, innuendo, and speculation. For when Cromwell sent for her, he already had much of what he needed not only to bring down Anne and her circle but also to make possible Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour, the woman Henry was positive was his ideal bride. A few more details were all that was required. The questions to Jane would have come thick and fast.
Faced with such relentless, incessant questions, which she had no choice but to answer, Jane would have searched her memory for every tiny incident she could think of. This was not the moment for bravado and anyway the arrests had been so sudden and unexpected that there was no time to separate out what testimony might be damaging, what could be twisted to become so, or what could only be innocuous no matter what the interpretation. By the end of the various sessions, Cromwell had what he wanted.”
Eric Ives has the opposite opinion and writes about Jane Boleyn:
“Why Jane Boleyn provided information is another question. We can dismiss out of hand the nonsense that she felt insulted because George was a homosexual, a fiction for which there is not a scintilla of evidence, indeed, quite the reverse Burnet’s suggestion that Jane was motivated by jealousy of Anne’s closeness to her brother could be correct. Alternatively, she could have been influenced by her own family’s long association with the Princess Mary.
Jane did, it is true, send to ask after her husband in the Tower and promised to intercede with the king, apparently to get him a hearing before the council. However we may, if we choose, smell malice, for the message was brought with Henry’s express permission and by Carewe and Bryan in his newly turned coat. It is also the case that Lady Rochford’s interests as a widow were carefully looked after by Cromwell.”
Perhaps Julia Fox is right that Cromwell twisted her words about Anne and George’s relationship because, by doing this, he saw his chance to strike a final blow at the disgrace queen. Maybe Eric Ives is correct in his conclusions, and Jane betrayed George and the Boleyns out of jealousy. I mean no disrespect to any of the afore-mentioned historians and other historians whose books I love a lot; I only want to say that there is no evidence of Jane being Cromwell’s main willing informant.
Sir John Spelman, judge of the king’s bench, in his report against Anne Boleyn named Lady Wingfeilde as one of the witnesses against Anne. This woman posthumously provided compromising information about the queen’s shameful behaviour. Lady Bridget Wingfield (née Wiltshire) was a neighbor, close friend, and lady-in-waiting to Anne; she supposedly died in January 1534.
Here we have an excerpt from John Spelman’s report:
“And all the evidence was of bawdery and lechery, so that there was no such whore in the realm. Note that this matter was disclosed by a woman called Lady Wingfeilde, who had been a servant to the said queen and of the same qualities; and suddenly the said Wingfeilde became sick and a short time before her death showed this matter to one of her…”
As Lady Wingfeilde had died before Anne’s arrest, she couldn’t confirm or refute the interpretation the prosecution placed on the queen’s words, and nobody of the accused could have challenged her words. Lady Wingfeilde was conveniently dead, and it was exactly what Cromwell needed.
Eric Ives writes about Cromwell’s other informants:
“Three other court ladies – Anne Cobham, ‘my LadyWorcester’ and‘one maid more’ – were also believed to be sources of information against Anne. John Hussey listed them in a letter to his employer, Lord Lisle. The significance of what Mrs Cobham said we do not know, but the anonymous lady was almost certainly Margery Horsman, who was well known and useful to Hussey, and whose identity he therefore had reason to keep close.”
Lady Elizabeth Somerset, Countess of Worcester, might have been the main informant against Anne Boleyn. She a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne Boleyn, often spent time in the queen’s chambers, and was close to her.
According to one reliable source, Elizabeth secretly borrowed 100 pounds from Anne, suggesting the real closeness between them; she didn’t repay that debt by the time as Anne was imprisoned in the Tower. This closeness lent credibility to the woman’s accusations against the queen.
It seems that she did indeed testify against Anne, claiming that the queen had committed multiple adulteries with a handful of men, including Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, and George Boleyn. Her accusations are described in Lancelot de Carle’s poem “A letter containing the criminal charges laid against Queen Anne Boleyn of England”.
Lancelot de Carles also recorded an argument between the Countess of Worcester, and her brother, Sir Anthony Browne: once her brother accused her of leading or appearing promiscuous, she responded that she was not “the worst sinner in regards to promiscuous behavior”, manoeuvring their argument from herself towards Anne Boleyn.
The Countess of Worcester supposedly told her brother:
“But you see a small fault in me, while overlooking a much higher fault that is much more damaging. If you do not believe me, find out from Mark Smeaton. I must not forget to tell you what seems to me to be the worst thing, which that often her brother has carnal knowledge of her in bed”.
Maybe the above-mentioned argument between the Countess of Worcester, and her brother, Sir Anthony Browne, brought the Boleyns down. Therefore, maybe somewhere along the line, historians and researches simply confused Lady Rochford with Lady Worcester over the incest accusation.
More about the fatal love triangle in part 5 of the series “A fatal love triangle: King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour.”