It’s no secret that Henry VIII had a somewhat complicated dating history. From a schoolyard rhyme to their own Broadway musical: his wives have remained the legacy of the Tudor king’s dynasty. Perhaps one of his most divisive wives, Anne Boleyn’s story is still the topic of impassioned debate to this day. A tale of lust, love, scandal, and murder: despite the distance of history, Anne remains to this day the villain of the storied Tudor lineage. Found guilty of multiple crimes against her husband, Anne was beheaded at the Tower of London on 19 May, 1536. But what exactly did she do that led to her death?
Anne’s rise to infamy began long before her execution. When Henry declared his separation from the Vatican and his wife Catherine, the blame was most commonly laid at the feet of Anne. In fact the motivation for his break from the Catholic church was one more of legacy than lust. Desperate to have a male heir to inherit his throne, Henry believed that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was the reason behind his inability to sire a male heir.
As Catherine had originally been married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, Henry believed that this made their marriage illegitimate in the eyes of God. He petitioned the Vatican to annul his marriage to Catherine so that he could marry Anne who he believed would give him a son and legitimate heir. When refused, Henry put in motion the beginning of the English Reformation in order to legitimise his marriage to Anne and ensure that any male heirs she produced could inherit the throne without contestation.
Married in January of 1533 after seven long years of waiting for Henry’s divorce, Anne and Henry’s marriage was one of adoration and fiery passion. Shortly after their marriage they would conceive their daughter Elizabeth. Sadly what followed was a series of miscarriages, stillbirths, and heartache.
Trouble in paradise?
Severely injured in a jousting accident in January 1536, Henry came incredibly close to death. After being thrown from his horse in full armour, the horse (also fully armoured) fell on top of him leaving him unconscious for two hours. Many believed the accident would be fatal, and the stress of losing her husband and king caused Anne to miscarry. The child she was carrying was the long-anticipated son that both Henry and Anne had prayed for.
The fallout from Henry’s accident and suspected brain damage marked the beginning of the end for Henry and Anne, and she was executed after being found guilty of three separate crimes less than six months later.
So what misdeeds did Anne commit in those final months that would warrant her arrest, incarceration, and execution?
The most well known of Anne’s crimes was her alleged adultery with several different men of the Tudor court. Mark Smeaton was a Swedish musician who was one of the accused. Arrested in April, he eventually confessed to having had carnal knowledge of the queen. It is believed that this confession was the result of torture or emotional pressure, but it carried the same weight nonetheless. His confession led to the further arrest of Sir Henry Norris, the King’s own Groom of the Stool, Sir Francis Weston, and Sir William Brereton. Maintaining their innocence throughout, all were found guilty at trial. One of the jury that presided over the case was Thomas Boleyn - Anne’s own father.
Unfortunately, whilst being held in the Tower of London, the queen had recounted conversations and flirtations with various members of the court that implicated herself and the men in something more sinister. In a playful conversation between herself and Norris, Anne had implied that (were the king to die) Norris would be looking to step into his shoes as Anne’s husband. Not realising just how much danger she was in, she was unaware that all conversations were being reported back to her husband. What was recounted as an innocent joke had just implicated Anne in a crime far more sinister than adultery: Anne had just admitted to treason.
Treason in the Tudor court was one of the most feared crimes. Having gained the throne during the war of the roses, Henry’s father won the throne of England in battle and not through succession. The years before his reign had been tumultuous, and Henry was very aware of the fact that stronger claims to the throne could be out there. The fear of further war in the name of the throne meant that any criticism of the crown was met with swift justice. Treason was considered such a threat to the king that it encompassed everything from plotting against the crown to simply mentioning the mortality of the king or predicting his death.
The revelations of Anne’s conversations meant that Henry now had proof to charge her with conspiracy against the king. Had Henry had any hesitations before about whether moving to execute Anne was the right thing to do, now he had the proof to show that he had been betrayed.
Witchcraft and incest
Though already armed with reason enough to execute his queen, the charges Anne faced continued to dishonour and discredit her further. It wasn’t enough that she be executed: her enemies at court wanted to ensure no legacy remained after her death.
The rumour that Anne was a witch wasn’t a new one, but her incarceration and impending trial fuelled stories about her use of supernatural forces to secure her seat in court. From having an extra finger, to the rumoured deformities of stillborn children - the court revelled in stories of Anne’s debauchery; and whilst her charges didn’t include witchcraft, the long list of historic whisperings against the queen helped to pave the way for the final charge levied against Anne: something so heinous that it would discredit her not only in the eyes of her husband, but in the eyes of God. An unforgivable sin.
The last of the men arrested and accused of having committed adultery with Anne was George Boleyn: Anne’s brother. Having been found guilty in a trial whose jury included his own father, George was executed for conspiracy against the king and for incest. There was no evidence provided to suggest that Anne and George had maintained any kind of incestuous relationship other than the fact that they spent considerable time together and were seen to be close. However, in finding his son guilty along with the others accused of adultery, Thomas Boleyn had sealed his daughter's fate.
Despite no solid evidence against her Anne was executed on the 19th May 1536 (two days after her brother and the other accused). Henry commuted Anne’s sentence from burning to beheading, and hired a French swordsman renowned for his expertise in executions to ensure a swift execution. Anne gave a short speech upon the scaffold before kneeling to accept her sentence.
Henry waited on Tower Hill for the cannons to announce Anne’s death, before swiftly turning his horse and riding to Hampton Court for a game of tennis. He demanded that all paintings of Anne be removed and destroyed, and declared their marriage illegitimate (removing their daughter Elizabeth from the line of succession). This meant that when Henry married his third wife Jane Seymour 11 days later there was no question about the legitimacy of the match. It was as if Anne had never existed.