Anne Boleyn was Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as the second wife of King Henry VIII. Henry‘s marriage to her, and her execution by beheading, made her a key figure in the political and religious upheaval that was the start of the English Reformation. Anne was educated in the Netherlands and France, largely as a maid of honour to Queen Claude of France. Anne returned to England in early 1522, but after her marriage plans were broken off, she secured a post at court as maid of honour to Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon.
In February or March 1526, Henry VIII began his pursuit of Anne. She resisted his attempts to seduce her, refusing to become his mistress, which her sister Mary had been. It soon became the one absorbing object of Henry’s desires to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he would be free to marry Anne. When it became clear that Pope Clement VII would not annul the marriage, the breaking of the Catholic Church‘s power in England began. In 1532, Henry granted Anne the Marquessate of Pembroke.
Henry and Anne formally married on 25 January 1533, after a secret wedding in November 1532. On 23 May 1533, newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry and Catherine’s marriage null and void; five days later, he declared Henry and Anne’s marriage valid. Shortly afterwards, the Pope decreed sentences of excommunication against Henry and Cranmer. As a result of this marriage and these excommunications, the first break between the Church of England and Rome took place and the Church of England was brought under the King’s control. Anne was crowned Queen of England. On 7 September, she gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I. Henry was disappointed to have a daughter rather than a son but hoped a son would follow and professed to love Elizabeth. Anne subsequently had three miscarriages, and by March 1536, Henry was courting Jane Seymour. In order to marry Jane Seymour, Henry had to find reasons to end the marriage to Anne.
As Anne recovered from her last miscarriage, Henry declared that he had been seduced into the marriage by means of “sortilege“—a French term indicating either “deception” or “spells”. His new mistress, Jane Seymour, was quickly moved into royal quarters. This was followed by Anne’s brother George being refused a prestigious court honour, the Order of the Garter.
Most historians believe that her fall and execution were primarily engineered by her former ally Thomas Cromwell. The conversations between Chapuys and Cromwell thereafter indicate Cromwell as the instigator of the plot to remove Anne; evidence of this is seen in the Spanish Chronicle and through letters written from Chapuys to Charles V. Anne argued with Cromwell over the redistribution of Church revenues and over foreign policy.
Towards the end of April a musician in Anne’s service named Mark Smeaton was arrested. He initially denied being the Queen’s lover but later confessed, perhaps tortured or promised freedom. After this, other courtiers and noblemen were accused of having sexual relationships with the queen, though none were evidenced.
The final accused was Queen Anne’s own brother, George Boleyn, arrested on charges of incest and treason. He was accused of two incidents of incest: November 1535 at Whitehall and the following month at Eltham.
On 2 May 1536, Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London by barge.
In what is reputed to be her last letter to Henry, dated 6 May, she wrote:
Your Grace’s displeasure, and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, as what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send unto me (willing me to confess a truth, and so obtain your favour) by such an one, whom you know to be my ancient professed enemy. I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing a truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty perform your demand.
But let not your Grace ever imagine, that your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought thereof preceded. And to speak a truth, never prince had wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn: with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself, if God and your Grace’s pleasure had been so pleased. (…)
So that whatsoever God or you may determine of me, your grace may be freed of an open censure, and mine offense being so lawfully proved, your grace is at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me as an unlawful wife, but to follow your affection, already settled on that party, for whose sake I am now as I am, whose name I could some good while since have pointed unto, your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicion therein. But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander must bring you the enjoying of your desired happiness; then I desire of God, that he will pardon your great sin therein, and likewise mine enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strict account of your unprincely and cruel usage of me, at his general judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear, and in whose judgment I doubt not (whatsoever the world may think of me) mine innocence shall be openly known, and sufficiently cleared. My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of your Grace’s displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. (…)
Your most loyal and ever faithful wife,
Four of the accused men were tried in Westminster on 12 May 1536. Weston, Brereton, and Norris publicly maintained their innocence and only the tortured Smeaton supported the Crown by pleading guilty. Three days later, Anne and George Boleyn were tried separately in the Tower of London, before a jury of 27 peers. She was accused of adultery, incest, and high treason. The jury unanimously found Anne guilty.
On 14 May, Cranmer declared Anne’s marriage to Henry null and void.
Although the evidence against them was unconvincing, the accused were found guilty and condemned to death. George Boleyn and the other accused men were executed on 17 May 1536. The Constable of the Tower, reported Anne seemed very happy and ready to be done with life. Henry commuted Anne’s sentence from burning to beheading, and rather than have a queen beheaded with the common axe, he brought an expert swordsman from France, to perform the execution.
Lancelot de Carle, a secretary to the French Ambassador, Antoine de Castelnau, was in London in May 1536, and was an eyewitness to her trial and execution. He provides a moving account of her last words and their effect on the crowd:
She gracefully addressed the people from the scaffold with a voice somewhat overcome by weakness, but which gathered strength as she went on. She begged her hearers to forgive her if she had not used them all with becoming gentleness, and asked for their prayers. It was needless, she said, to relate why she was there, but she prayed the Judge of all the world to have compassion on those who had condemned her, and she begged them to pray for the King, in whom she had always found great kindness, fear of God, and love of his subjects. The spectators could not refrain from tears.
All the accounts are similar. It is thought that Anne avoided criticising Henry to save her daughter Elizabeth and the rest of her family from further consequences, but even under such extreme pressure Anne did not confess guilt, and indeed subtly implied her innocence.
View Related Coins