the link to part 1 and part 2 of the series “A fatal love triangle: King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour” is here
May 1536 was the most dramatic and tragic episode in the life of Anne Boleyn.
The drama began on the traditional May Day joust at Greenwich Palace. Anne was aware that something had gone terribly wrong: Henry attended extended council meetings, their trip to Calais had been cancelled, and the tension in the air was so thick it must have been almost tangible. The May joust began as normal, Henry seemed to be in good spirits, talked to the participants in a friendly voice, and watched armored opponents charge on horseback.
Unexpectedly, Henry abandoned the joust, taking Henry Norris with him. Eric Ives writes about the fateful May Day joust :
“Indeed, if we may trust the French verse account of 2 June 1536, the king was very affable and offered his own mount when Sir Henry’s renowned charger began to play up. But suddenly, at the end of the joust, Henry left for Whitehall, travelling on horseback instead of by river and with only six attendants, one of them Norris whom, throughout the journey, he had ‘in examination and promised him his pardon in case he would utter the truth.”
The 2nd of May 1536 was the last day of Anne Boleyn’s freedom. By that time, Mark Smeaton was already in Thomas Cromwell’s clutches: he had been detained at Cromwell’s house on the 30th of April, accused of adultery with the queen and, most likely, had been tortured to get the confession out of him. Henry Norris was already incarcerated in the Tower. George Boleyn was at York Place, where he was arrested on the same afternoon.
In the morning, Anne received an order to present herself to the King’s council, presided over by her uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. She was informed that she was accused of committing adultery with several paramours, including Norris and Smeaton. She was notified that Smeaton and Norris had confessed to being her lovers. In response, the queen denounced the accusations, but of course nobody listened to her. Then she was ordered to stay in her chambers, waiting for the tide of the River Thames to turn so that she could have been taken to the Tower by barge.
According to Charles Wriothesley, Windsor Herald of Arms, Anne was escorted to the Tower by Sir Thomas Audley, the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Cromwell, and Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower. Wriothesley claimed that Anne’s barge arrived at 5pm and she entered the Tower through the Court Gate of the Byward Tower, the same place where Henry VIII greeted her at her coronation in 1533. There is a common misconception that Anne entered the Tower through Traitors’ Gate, which is not really true.
Anne seems to have been in an emotional turmoil that rocked the very being of who she was – a proud, arrogant, and well-mannered anointed queen who changed into a distraught woman unjustly accused of abominable things and abandoned by her husband.
Wriothesley claimed that the queen:
“She fell down on her knees before the said lords, beseeching God to help her as she was not guilty of her accusements, and also desired the said lords to beseech the King’s grace to be good unto her, and so they left her their prisoner.”
Kingston sent to Cromwell a letter, in which he described Anne’s behavior upon her arrival:
“On my lord of Norfolk and the King’s Council departing from the Tower, I went before the Queen into her lodging. She said unto me, “Mr. Kingston, shall I go into a dungeon?” I said, “No, Madam. You shall go into the lodging you lay in at your coronation.” “It is too good for me, she said; Jesu have mercy on me;” and kneeled down, weeping a good pace, and in the same sorrow fell into a great laughing, as she has done many times since.
She desired me to move the King’s highness that she might have the sacrament in the closet by her chamber, that she might pray for mercy, for I am as clear from the company of man as for sin as I am clear from you, and am the King’s true wedded wife. And then she said, Mr. Kingston, do you know where for I am here? and I said, Nay. And then she asked me, When saw you the King? and I said I saw him not since I saw [him in] the Tiltyard. And then, Mr. K., I pray you to tell me where my Lord my father is? And I told her I saw him afore dinner in the Court. O where is my sweet brother? I said I left him at York Place; and so I did.
I hear say, said she, that I should be accused with three men; and I can say no more but nay, without I should open my body. And there with opened her gown. O, Norris, hast thou accused me? Thou are in the Tower with me, and thou and I shall die together; and, Mark, thou art here to. O, my mother, thou wilt die with sorrow; and much lamented my lady of Worcester, for by cause that her child did not stir in her body. And my wife said, what should be the cause? And she said, for the sorrow she took for me. And then she said, Mr. Kyngston, shall I die without justice? And I said, the poorest subject the Kyng hath, hath justice. And there with she laughed.”
The decision to charge Anne with high treason was made by the 24th of April. Why wasn’t Anne detained on the same date? Henry was tired of his second wife, she already was Thomas Cromwell’s archenemy, and all postponements and delays smelled danger. The Tudor main rule was to apprehend first and then to interrogate and torture, but Anne still had her freedom for more than a week, and the arrests of her alleged lovers took place piecemeal.
Eric Ives makes his own conclusion:
“The resolution to these questions is often said to be that Henry willed the end but kept aloof from advance knowledge of the means. Yet to suppose this is to suppose that Cromwell chose a remarkably risky course.”
Alison Weir writes about Henry’s attitude to Anne’s arrest:
“By now Henry had convinced himself that Anne had been a monster of lechery. He remembered her ruthlessness in hounding Wolsey to his death, how she had more or less admitted her involvement in the plot to poison Fisher, and how she had urged him to have Katherine and Mary executed or murdered. Henry had heard the rumours that Katherine had died of poison, and was now convinced that Anne had been responsible.”
We don’t know what role Henry VIII played in the conspiracy against Anne. The king ordered Anne’s execution, but we cannot say for certain whether or not he believed in her multiple adulteries with several men, all of them courtiers and one of them the queen’s own brother.
Perhaps Cromwell, Anne’s sworn foe, fed Henry lies about her and fabricated charges against her; after all, he led the interrogation of all the witnesses, and it was easy for him to collect the necessary proof of her guilt. But it is difficult for me to believe that Henry was such an utter fool that he couldn’t differentiate between lies and truth, and I don’t rule out the possibility that he personally commanded Cromwell to get rid of Anne no matter the cost.
If Henry truly believed that she had betrayed him, then he considered her a traitor to England and personally to him – such a selfish and narcissistic man as Henry wouldn’t have forgiven her. If Henry assigned Cromwell the task of finding a way out of his marriage, and if he didn’t realize how far his chief minister would go to satisfy his liege’s whims, then Henry might have been shocked to learn about Anne’s adultery, but after her arrest he wouldn’t have changed anything because it was already too late, and he was so close to obtaining his freedom.
There is a fair chance that Henry knew about Anne’s innocence and patiently waited for her execution. Was Henry a spider weaving its web to capture his unwanted wife in the intricacy of this web? Was he play-acting during several weeks, patiently waiting for Cromwell to fabricate charges against Anne? Henry was an emotional man prone to anger and outbursts, and one might say that such a man couldn’t have played a game for weeks; yet, the king could have also been patient and calculative if circumstances demanded that.
After Anne’s death, Henry would be “betrayed” again, this time by young Catherine Howard, Anne’s cousin. Presented with the proof of Catherine’s multiple adulteries, Henry threatened to kill her with a sword himself. It must have been a lovely emotional outburst of the aging king cuckolded by his wanton wife! That outburst wasn’t theatrical – it was the expression of the king’s anger and fury. When Anne was arrested, Henry behaved differently: there were no emotional outbursts and threatens to take her life, and his coldness might prove either his utter shock with the results of Cromwell’s investigation or his knowledge of Anne’s innocence and, thus, his conscious choice to rid himself of Anne by murdering her.
Regardless of whether Henry believed the accusations, or whether he planned her downfall, Anne had no chance to survive – her failure to bear a healthy son doomed her. Anne was abandoned by everyone, left alone on a sinking ship. One of her few remaining supporters, Archbishop Cranmer, sent Henry a letter next day after her arrest, but it couldn’t save her.
More about interrogations and arrests in the next part (part 4) of the series.