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The Rise and Fall of the Boleyns

On a chilly morning on the 19th May 1536 at 8.00am, thirty-six-year-old Anne Boleyn walked a few steps from her confined chambers to Tower Green and into history as the first English Queen to be tried for treason and executed. After being blindfolded, she waited only a few seconds before a French swordsman from Calais, quietly removed his shoes so as not to alarm her and quickly severed her head. It was a swift blow that ended not only the tragic Queen’s turbulent life but also signalled the demise of her privileged family’s status which just three years before was in the ascendant at the Tudor Court and seen as the most influential in the land. 

The Boleyns’ fall from grace was as dramatic as Anne’s unannounced arrest, speedy trial and execution for crimes against King Henry VIII and the state. The scandal demolished the family’s social standing and sent the once envied relatives of Anne Boleyn into a downward spiral of misfortune and calamity. 

Before their association with King Henry, the Boleyns had been a successful merchant family with aristocratic links (via the mother Lady Elizabeth Boleyn nee Howard) to one of the most powerful families in the country, the Howards. Elevated both in rank and riches over a short period of time due to King Henry’s courting and marriage to Anne the Boleyn family could not have imagined their final fate as events unfolded at the start of 1536. Only three years earlier Anne had been crowned Queen of England after years of protracted struggles and political obstacles. Ironically her father Thomas Boleyn’s ruthless desire for power and manipulative efforts to see his youngest daughter on the throne was also to be his entire family's undoing when Anne spectacularly fell out of favour with the King.

Rising Fortunes

The Boleyn’s three children, George, Mary and Anne, were all well-educated and formed a major part of their father's master plan to attain greater power and status. Anne, believed to be the youngest of the sisters, was extremely close to her brother George but possibly had a more distant relationship with her sister Mary, made more complex and strained by the fact that Mary became a discarded mistress of Henry. Both sisters spent their teenage years in France as ladies-in-waiting to Henry's younger sister Mary who had married the French King Louis XII. 

As Anne's influence increased with the prospect of becoming Henry's consort, so her own star's ascendancy helped enrich her family's fortunes.

Anne’s dark looks were at the time unfashionable and although she was never recognised as a great beauty her charming manner and sexual magnetism captivated those around her. It was her 'difference' as well as her sharp wit and effervescence that attracted the King. As Anne's influence increased with the prospect of becoming Henry's consort, so her own star's ascendancy helped enrich her family's fortunes. Anne's father was created Earl of Wiltshire and her brother Lord George Rochford was appointed to the Royal Privy Chamber. Even brother-in-law William Carey (married to Anne’s sister Mary) benefited from his association with the Boleyns.

Henry secretly wed Anne on the 25th of January, 1533, and with that secured the Boleyns' status as one of the most powerful families in the land. What she and her family hadn’t counted on was the importance of her producing a son and heir for Henry, a gift not just to satisfy the King’s obsession to have legitimate male progeny but for Anne, as it soon transpired, the difference between life and death. 

Doomed Royal Marriage

Despite producing a healthy baby girl, Elizabeth, Anne's failure to provide a male heir, compacted by Henry’s own spasmodic health issues with virility, signalled the beginning of the end of her and her family's streak of good luck. 

Despite producing a healthy baby girl, Elizabeth, Anne's failure to provide a male heir, compacted by Henry’s own spasmodic health issues with virility, signalled the beginning of the end of her and her family's streak of good luck.

‘I see God will not give me male children’

The turning point for Henry came about when Anne miscarried a male foetus during her third pregnancy causing him to believe that he was cursed yet again with the prospect of being married to a woman who could not produce a male heir. ‘I see God will not give me male children’ he exclaimed as he convinced himself that he had been ‘bewitched’ by Anne Boleyn.

 Compounding his growing distrust and dislike of Anne was the fact that her once appealing fiery nature now irritated him and her interventions with religious and political affairs made her appear troublesome to her many critics and in particular an anti-Boleyn faction at court. There was a growing interest amongst Anne’s adversaries to exploit Henry’s interest in a possible new wife in the form of the plain but sweet-natured Jane Seymour who came from noble stock. 

At just twenty-six years of age, Jane represented promise regarding the King’s desperation for a male heir. A combination of politics – Rome was willing to forget Henry’s cruel treatment of his first wife the Catholic Queen Catherine if he got rid of ‘the Concubine’ (Anne) - and the King’s desperate need for a son played a major part in convincing Henry that the dark-eyed woman he had once lusted for and changed England’s religion for in order to marry, must now go. Henry’s trusted legal advisor Thomas Cromwell, who had masterminded Henry’s divorce from Queen Catherine, was called upon again for his Machiavellian tactics – this time to get rid of Anne and the Boleyn faction which threatened the body politic, forever. 

Accusations & Arrests

A secret commission instigated by the King to investigate unspecified activities of the Queen relating to potential acts of treason included assistance from Thomas Cromwell, Anne's father Thomas Boleyn and her uncle the Duke of Norfolk.  The goal for Cromwell was to find evidence no matter how flimsy that might result in charges of treason.    

Anne’s brother George was included in the fictitious conspiracy and accused of incest with her.

Five innocent men, including Anne's brother Lord Rochford, became the sacrificial lambs in Cromwell’s perfidious plot to relieve Henry of what had become to him a troublesome wife with a temperament that now agitated rather than entertained him. Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton and Sir Henry Norris, all popular courtiers, were arrested under suspicion of having sexual relations with the Queen while she was married to Henry. Anne’s brother George was included in the fictitious conspiracy and accused of incest with her. All the defendants were well known for their licentious and in some cases promiscuous behaviour and for this reason possibly became easy targets for incrimination by Cromwell.

When Anne heard about the allegations she laughed at the absurdity of such findings particularly when some of her supposed lovers, such as musician Mark Smeaton, had only met her briefly.

Anne's brother, George Rochford, was the most important suspect and to compound George’s position his wife, Lady Jane Parker - perhaps motivated by vengeance for her husband's rumoured affairs  - spoke ill of him and the Queen during court proceedings, intimating that her husband’s relations with Anne were more than brotherly with her comment that their relationship bore ‘undue familiarity’. 

Condemned

At Anne's trial, presided over by her uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, she was accused of acting the 'libertine' at court and said to have suggested to one alleged lover that he could replace her husband the King with the quip ‘You look to dead men’s shoes’. Such an accusation based on eavesdropping in the corridors of the Royal court was tantamount to treason. But it was Anne’s past words of indiscretion to her sister-in-law Jane Parker (Rochford) about the King’s impotence that when repeated by Parker during the trial damned Anne most effectively.  

So many factors worked against Anne and no-one was prepared to speak for her for fear of what may happen to them. Unlike her predecessor Queen Catherine, Anne had few powerful friends at court and abroad to support her. 

Mark Smeaton, a humble man of little consequence made a confession, most likely under torture. As all five men were tried days before Anne and found guilty the chances for the Queen to be treated to fair and impartial trial was remote. If the men were ‘guilty’ of having sexual relations with the Queen there was little point in Anne arguing her case for an innocent verdict. Even before she was condemned to death at trial on the 15th May 1536 in the Great Hall of the Tower of London, King Henry had already ordered a swordsman from Calais to dispatch her ‘humanely’ and with respect for her as a Queen.

Legacy

The incredible trajectory of the rise and fall of the Boleyn family reads like a Greek tragedy with some members accompanying Anne to the scaffold years later. Although not part of the Boleyn family circle, close relatives such as Anne’s younger cousin Catherine Howard also suffered a bloody fate. Catherine, who became King Henry VIII’s precocious and naive fifth wife was also tried for infidelity and beheaded in 1542 along with her lady-in-waiting Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, the sister-in-law of Anne whose damning testimonies a few years before at trial had condemned both Anne and her brother George.

Another twist in the saga of the family’s misfortunes being that Anne’s ambitious Uncle, Thomas Howard 3rd Duke of Norfolk  - who presided with prejudice over Anne’s trial - was himself later sentenced to death by Henry for treason and only saved by the unexpected death of the King on the 28th January 1547, just days before the Duke’s planned execution. In total, accompanying the controversial Queen Anne to the block, three other prominent members of the Boleyn/Howard clan met their ends by the executioner’s axe less than six years later. 

After her daughter Anne’s execution along with her much loved brother George, Lady Elizabeth was said to have become inconsolable at losing two of her children in the most tragic of circumstances. Elizabeth never recovered from the emotional turmoil and scandal that decimated the once powerful and respected family and she died less than 2 years later in 1538 from what some historians say was a ‘broken heart’. 

Somewhat bizarrely, despite his daughter Anne being accused of treason along with a litany of crimes including ‘witchcraft’ and incest, Thomas Boleyn continued to be employed at the Royal Court, associating with the very man, King Henry, who had authorised his daughter and son’s grisly ends on the block. Thomas, for whatever reason, possibly to survive, maintained a position close to the King’s council until his own death at 62, only one year after his wife in March 1539.

Ironically it is Mary, the much-maligned sister of Anne and the first to have an affair with King Henry - later abandoned and castigated as ‘spoilt goods’ - who survived the Boleyn family’s fate of doom. Having married one William Carey in 1520 and produced two children, a boy and girl, Mary, it is believed left the country, possibly for Ireland and went on to lead a low key and surprisingly contented life away from the toxic atmosphere of the Tudor Court that her father had ruthlessly tutored her for. She died in her forties of unknown causes in 1543. 

It is through Mary’s offspring that the Boleyn family line continued with Mary’s daughter and son, Catherine and Henry Carey. Catherine’s own issue can be traced to present day Elizabeth II, while Henry, who had children through his marriage to one Anne Morgan, became a personal favourite of his cousin Queen Elizabeth 1st – the ‘unwanted’ feisty daughter of Henry. It is Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen who became one of England’s greatest long-reigning monarchs who is the true legacy of the tragic Anne Boleyn.      

By Richard Bevan

Friday, July 27, 2018

Richard Bevan is an MA Screenwriter/playwright and freelance writer specialising in history and crime investigation writing.  He is currently contributing to History UK channel. Represented by MMB Creative agency.