Next month marks the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s death. The unfortunate Queen was condemned and executed on trumped-up charges of adultery and incest clearly meant to blacken her reputation forever. And yet few, then as now, believed she was guilty.
So what happened during that fateful May 1536? Who orchestrated the plot against her, and why? Due to the scarcity of primary sources that has survived to our day, it is impossible to say for certain, but theories, and suspects, abound. Let’s examine them one by one, shall we?
Suspect 1: Henry VIII
Although the King, in public, acted as if all was well, there were signs that he had already begun to tire of Anne. When Anne complained about Henry’s affairs, he simply told her to “shut her eyes and endure as more worthy persons had done” and that “she ought to know that he could at any time lower her as much as he had raised her.”¹ Anne had also failed in her promise, and duty, to give him a son. She had miscarried of “her saviour” in either late January or early February 1536. It’s around this time that Henry probably became convinced that this marriage too was cursed by God. But, having moved heaven and earth to marry Anne, Henry couldn’t easily dismiss her without losing face. He also knew that, like Catherine of Aragon, Anne wouldn’t go away quietly without a fight, and he didn’t want to waste anymore years trying to get another annulment or divorce. Therefore, Anne had to die.
- According to Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, Henry had told a courtier “that he had been seduced and forced into this second marriage by means of sortileges and charms, and that, owing to that, he held it as nul. God (he said) had well shown his displeasure at it by denying him male children. He, therefore, considered that he could take a third wife, which he said he wished much to do.”²
- Cromwell would never had dared to move against Anne without the King’s consent and, in a letter to Bishop Stephen Gardiner, he referred to the affair as “The King’s proceeding”.³
- Henry was happy that Anne had been arrested. During her imprisonment, he had “been going about banqueting with ladies, sometimes remaining after midnight, and returning by the river” and was in a joyous mood. A very different reaction to that he would have after learning of Catherine Howards’ affairs. Then, he would be inconsolable.
- There were many inconsistencies in the case against Anne. The dates on which Anne had supposedly committed adultery seem to have been picked at random as, on many of them, she was either pregnant, recovering from childbirth, or in a different place, away from her alleged lover. Henry also had had the marriage annulled, which should have absolved Anne from any crime she was supposed to have committed. After all, how can you cheat on a man you’re not married to? But she was condemned and executed anyway.
- Henry had told Jane Seymour not to meddle with his affairs, as that had caused the late Queen’s downfall. He also warned Archibshop Cranmer, when his enemies were hatching a plot to bring him down, that false knaves could easily be procured to witness against him and condemn him. Had he procured them to testify against Anne?
Suspect 2: Thomas Cromwell
Cromwell and Anne disagreed on how the money resulting from the dissolution of the monasteries should be spent. Anne wanted it to go to the poor, while Cromwell to the crown and the King. Fearing that Anne would persuade Henry to bring him down, he chose to strike first. So, he went to Henry claiming he had found information that Anne had been unfaithful to him. A suggestible, paranoid, and malleable man, Henry asked him to investigate. Evidence was made up and Anne condemned to death.
- Cromwell and Anne had disagreed on how to spend the wealth from the dissolution of the monasteries.
- Chapuys mentioned in a letter that Cromwell had told him he “had planned and brought about the whole affair.”²
- Cromwell took advantage of this opportunity to bring down men who, like Sir William Brereton, were standing in the way of his policies.
Suspect 3: The anti-Boleyn faction
Jealous of the Boleyns’ rise to power and their influence, especially in matters of religion, on the king, their enemies hatched a plot, which included supporting the cause of Jane Seymour, to bring the family down. The conspirators were the Seymours, the Marquis of Exeter, Sir Nicholas Carew, Baron Montagu and the Countess of Kildare. Cromwell was involved too. Therefore, as Eric Ives put it, “Anne’s fall was the consequence of a political coup and a classic example of Tudor faction in operation.”*
- Jane Seymour was groomed by her family on how to catch and keep Henry’s interest.
- All the plotters disliked the Boleyns, saw them as a threat to their influence and power at court, and had only to gain from their fall.
Suspect 4: Anne Boleyn
Anne was incapable of making the transition from feisty mistress to obedient wife. She had a temper, was nagging, and jealous of Henry, even going as far as to blame his affair with Jane Seymour as the reason for her miscarriage. She also indulged in courtly-love flirtations which, albeit innocent, could be construed as evidence for her alleged affairs. Worse, she had failed to give Henry a son and heir. So, Henry quickly tired of her. Her behaviour was then twisted to justify her trial and execution.
- Anne’s jealous personality.
- Anne’s failure to give birth to a son.
- Anne’s courtly love comments, such as “you look for dead men’s shoes, for if aught came to the King but good, you would look to have me”** when talking to Norris, gave her enemies the ammunition they needed to construe a case against her.
Personally, I believe there is some truth in all these theories. Henry had tired of Anne and wanted to get rid of her fairly quickly; the Boleyn’s enemies were willing and ready to exploit any problems between the royal couple for their own advantages; Cromwell had something to gain from Anne’s fall; and Anne certainly didn’t do herself any favours by not trying to curb her behaviour. But, ultimately, I believe that Henry is the real culprit. Whether he asked Cromwell to create false charges against Anne, decided to twist Anne’s innocent courtly love comments when they started to circulate around court to frame her, or went along with a plot hatched by her enemies, pretending to believe Anne was really guilty of what she was accused of, doesn’t matter much. What matter is that he was the one calling the shots, the only one who could stop a plot against Anne. And he didn’t. Instead, he let her die.
What about you? Who do you think was responsible for Anne’s death?
¹ LP vi.1069
² Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538,
³ LP x. 873
* Ives, Eric (1992) The Fall of Anne Boleyn Reconsidered
** LP x.793