Tag Archives: 1536

An Argument for the Authenticity of Anne’s May 6th Letter to Henry


By Susan Bordo, author of The Creation of Anne Boleyn

From the time she was taken to the Tower, Anne’s moods, according to Constable Kingston, vacillated wildly, from resignation to hope to anxiety. She had always had a wicked sense of humor, and no irony was ever lost on her. When taken to the Tower, she had asked, “Master Kingston, shall I die without justice?” He replied, “The poorest subject the king hath, had justice.” Hearing this, despite her fear, Anne laughed. She was too sophisticated and savvy about the dispensing of royal power to swallow the official PR.  Even the night before her execution, her sense of irony held as she wryly remarked that her enemies would remember her as “la Royne Anne Sans Tete” But until very near the end, she also seized on any glimmer of hope. She was the queen, after all, and no one in England had ever executed a queen.  Isabella of Angouleme and Isabella of France, both married to English kings, had been adulterous, but only their lovers were executed. Even those who had been involved in acts of treason—the most famous of all being Eleanor of Aquitaine, who almost succeeded in toppling Henry II from his throne—at most were put under house arrest.  It was almost unthinkable to Anne that Henry would have her put to death.  But so, too, was her imprisonment, which had come so suddenly, and seemingly without reason. The strangeness of what was happening to her must have been at times impossible for her to assimilate. Just a few short months before, she had been pregnant.  Just a few weeks before, Henry had been insisting that the Spanish Emperor acknowledge the legitimacy of their marriage. Now she was in the Tower, condemned to death.  Her fortunes had turned around so swiftly and extremely, it must have been difficult to keep a steady grip

On May 5, Anne asked Constable Kingston to “bear a letter from me to Master Secretary.” Kingston then said to her: “Madam, tell it me by word of mouth and I will do it.” Anne thanked him, and after that we hear no more of it in Kingston’s reports, so we don’t know if the letter was written, dictated, or even ever was composed.  But one was found among Cromwell’s papers, dated May 6th, apparently undelivered. The handwriting doesn’t correspond exactly (although it is not radically dissimilar) to Anne’s other letters, but it could easily have been transcribed by someone else or written in Anne’s own hand, which could have been altered by the distress of the situation. It begins with a statement that is so startlingly precise in its depiction of Anne’s state of mind at the time, that it’s hard to imagine anyone else, in the decades following her death, writing it:

Your Grace’s displeasure and my imprisonment are things so strange to me, that what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send to me (willing me to confess a truth and so obtain your favour), by such a one, whom you know to me mine ancient professed enemy [Cromwell]; I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if as you say, confessing a truth indeed my procure my safety, I shall, with willingness and duty, perform your command.

But let not your grace ever imagine your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought ever proceeded. And to speak a truth, never a prince had a wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Bolen – with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself if God and your grace’s pleasure had so been pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation, or received queenship, but I always looked for such alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your grace’s fancy, the least alteration was fit and sufficient (I knew) to draw that fancy to some other subject.

You have chosen me from a low estate to be your queen and companion, far beyond my just desert or desire; if then you found me worthy of such honour, good your grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of my enemies withdraw your princely favour from me, neither let that stain – that unworthy stain – of a disloyal heart toward your good grace ever cast so foul a blot on me and on the infant princess, your daughter [Elizabeth].

Try me, good king, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and as my judges; yea, let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open shames; then shall you see either mine innocency cleared, your suspicions and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatever God and you may determine of, your grace may be at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me, as an unfaithful wife, but to follow your affection already settled on that party [Anne knew of Henry’s affection for Jane Seymour], 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 suspicions therein.

But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander, must bring you to the joying of your desired happiness, then I desire of God that He will pardon your great sin herein, and, likewise, my enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strait account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me at his general judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear; and in whose just judgment, I doubt not (whatsoever the world think of me) mine innocency 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, whom, as I understand, are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake.
If ever I have found favour in your site – if ever the name of Anne Bulen have been pleasing in your ears – then let me obtain this request; and so I will leave to trouble your grace no further: with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions.

From my doleful prison in the Tower, the 6th of May.
Ann Bulen

Most of Anne’s modern biographers believe this letter to be a forgery, in part because it is so daringly accusatory of Henry and in part because the “style” is not like Anne’s.  “Its ‘elegance’,” writes Ives, “has always inspired suspicion.” Well, not always. Henry Ellis and other nineteenth-century commentators believed it was authentic.  And the “style” argument is an odd one, because we have so few existing letters of Anne’s and they are such business-like affairs, that it’s hard to see how anyone could determine a “style” from them.  If Henry had saved her responses to his love letters, we might have a better idea of what Anne was like as a writer, but they were destroyed.  As it stands, though, we do have accounts of her behavior and of her speech at her trial on May 15, and they exhibit many of the same qualities as this letter. In both, Anne stands her ground bravely and articulately, but more striking, goes beyond the conventions of the time to venture into deeper political territory, exhibiting unusual insight into her own lack of humility and the possibility that this might have had something to do with her fall from grace.
When it was time for her to speak at her trial, after hearing the full charges for the first time—including trivial, non-criminal but “atmospherically” damaging accusations that she had made fun of the King’s poetry and taste in clothing—she made such “wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her” that “had the peers given in their verdict according to the expectations of the assembly, she had been acquitted.”[1] But of course, the verdict was not dependent on the impression Anne made, or how convincing her defense was.  When she protested, against Smeaton’s confession, that “that one witness was not enough to convict a person of high treason”, she was simply informed, “that in her case it was sufficient.” Also “sufficient” were numerous bits of gossip that nowadays would be regarded as worse than hearsay, since they came from obviously prejudiced sources.  George Wyatt, writing about the trial later, says that he heard nothing that could be considered evidence.  Instead, as author Jane Dunn described the case, it was “a ragbag of gossip, innuendo, and misinterpreted courtliness.”

Anne almost certainly expected the guilty verdict that followed, which makes her calm, clear, and highly intelligent (according to numerous observers) responses to the charges all the more remarkable.  It is less likely that she expected the sentence that followed: “that thou shalt be burnt here within the Tower of London on the Green, else to have thy head smitten off, as the King’s pleasure shall be further known of the same.”  On hearing the verdict, several onlookers shrieked, took ill, and had to leave the hall. But Anne, as Chapuys observed, “preserved her composure, saying that she held herself ‘pour toute saluee de la mort’ [always ready to greet death], and that what she regretted most was that the above persons, who were innocent and loyal to the King, were to die for her. And then, as summarized by several onlookers, she delivered an extraordinary speech:


“My lords, I will not say your sentence is unjust, nor presume that my reasons can prevail against your convictions. I am willing to believe that you have sufficient reasons for what you have done; but then they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am clear of all the offences which you then laid to my charge. I have ever been a faithful wife to the King, though I do not say I have always shown him that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way. Think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life, for He who saveth from death hath taught me how to die, and He will strengthen my faith. Think not, however, that I am so bewildered in my mind as not to lay the honour of my chastity to heart now in mine extremity, when I have maintained it all my life long, much as ever queen did. I know these, my last words, will avail me nothing but for the justification of my chastity and honour. As for my brother and those others who are unjustly condemned, I would willingly suffer many deaths to deliver them, but since I see it so pleases the King, I shall willingly accompany them in death, with this assurance, that I shall lead an endless life with them in peace and joy, where I will pray to God for the King and for you, my lords.”


The clarity and confidence of Anne’s declaration here, her insight into her lack of humility, and her reference to “bewilderment” of mind are all, I believe, support for the authenticity of the May 6 letter. As to the letter’s bold attitude toward Henry, this was characteristic of Anne, and (as she acknowledged in her trial speech) she was aware that it overstepped the borders of what was acceptable.  Her refusal to contain herself safely within those borders was what had drawn Henry to her; she could not simply turn the switch off when it began to get her in trouble.  To do that would have been to relinquish the only thing left to her at this point: her selfhood. Ives says that it would “appear to be wholly improbable” for a Tudor prisoner to warn the king that he is in imminent danger from the judgment of God.” But Anne was no ordinary prisoner; she had shared Henry’s bed, advised and conspired with him in the divorce strategies, debated theology with him, given birth to his daughter, protested against his infidelities, dared to challenge Cromwell’s use of confiscated monastery money.  Arguably, it was her failure to be “appropriate” that contributed to her downfall.  Now, condemned to death by her own husband, to stop “being Anne” would have been to shatter the one constancy left in the terrible “strangeness” of her situation.

I don’t know for certain, of course, that this letter is authentic.  But I have to wonder whether skeptics have been influenced by Anne’s reputation as woman known for her “feminine” vivacity, emotionality, and sexuality.  19th century editor Henry Ellis called this letter “one of the finest compositions in the English Language.”[27] Ellis lived at a time when women writers had come into their own.  But perhaps not every historian has been as ready to acknowledge that someone like Anne could possibly have written “one of the finest compositions in the English language.”
[1] Cited by Alison Weir as Crispin de Milherve, but possibly Lancelot de Carles.


Filed under May 19th, 1536 Feature

Susan’s Interview with Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII

As many of you know, Susan has been interviewing several well-known authors for their views on Philippa Gregory, “The Tudors,” and the responsibility of fictional representations to historical fact.   Today, in celebration of reaching 1536 ‘likes’, we present Susan’s interview with Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII

We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts.  I take that as a given.  But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far?  If so, how would you describe the boundaries of what is acceptable and not?

Great question. Many people learn most of their history from fiction, which gives novelists and filmmakers something of a responsibility, even if they shrug it off.

Where I find historical fiction really works is when it fills in the gaps in the historical record imaginatively, sensitively and poignantly, and brings the past to life.

For example, one thing that historical fiction has to do is to imagine what historical figures thought and felt, because, especially for a period like the sixteenth century, there is often a dearth of ego-literature – there are rarely helpful diaries with our characters’ reflections in them. We have some letters, we have some recorded speech, but fiction has much to add in filling in the gaps about people’s motivations, feelings, and thoughts.

But going beyond that, I find that there are two ways in which historical fiction can sometimes go too far for me:

1) getting basic facts wrong – like having Anne Boleyn executed with an axe or making Mary Boleyn the younger sister – things that can be easily verified (though because of that, I don’t mind it nearly as much – because interested readers can check the facts for themselves – as…)

2) failing to recreate the mentality of the period, e.g. a common occurrence is making a character essentially atheistic at a period when that was very rare, or sexually liberated in a very 21st century way, or otherwise transposing modern day attitudes to a historical character. This is what bothers me most: the tendency to suggest that people in the past were exactly like us in all their thoughts and feelings, rather than focus on the mysterious difference, as well as the shared humanity.

Ultimately, the key is whether readers are able to distinguish between fact and fiction if they want to.

In an interview with me, Michael Hirst complained that while people were constantly criticizing “The Tudors” for its departures from historical record, “Wolf Hall” got nothing but praise for its almost entirely imaginative universe.  Care to comment on that?

Wolf Hall does what I suggest above – it fills in gaps in the historical record, but it impressively remains true to the sensitivities of the early 16th century (I remember, for example, Mantel commenting that novelty was a bad thing in the 16th century, which is absolutely true and contrasts with today’s sense of ‘brand new’ being good) and also stays pretty close to the known facts. The Tudors is a very different kettle of fish – it plays constantly fast and loose with established and basic facts about the period, it projects a 21st century mindset onto the past, it dresses its actors in non-historically accurate clothing (generally, making it far raunchier than the Tudor would have worn) etc: I think that’s why it has received greater criticism than Wolf Hall.

Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.” While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history.  She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer.  Care to comment?

Yes, this is interesting. Philippa Gregory, of course, has a doctorate in history[1], so is essentially trained as an historian and knows what she’s doing. But she does create alternative narratives, at times, which because of her standing have a tendency to stick. Also, I’m not sure I completely believe that everything she writes is based on ‘historical probability’: I can certainly think of exceptions in her writing. I think she does probably want to claim both roles.

I noticed that in the earliest novels, authors often had a section devoted to outlining for readers what was created and what is factual in their works.  We tend not to do that any more.  Why not?  And what do you think of such a practice?

I think it’s a really good idea, and really helps the readers distinguish fact and fiction. My father-in-law is a historical novelist, funnily enough, and in his last series of books, he put an Author’s Note at the end to explain the research on which he had based the book, and the controversial decisions that he had made in staging the events as he did. I think it’s really useful for novelists to do this; I imagine authors don’t because they don’t feel any sense of responsibility to do so, and because their own narrative has become firmly lodged in their head.

In our “post-Oliver Stone, post-O.J. Trial” era, in which (it seems to me), viewers/readers no longer have much ability to distinguish between different kinds of narratives, do you think the fact/fiction issue has become more problematic?

I think it’s also related to:
1) a general decrease in historical education, certainly here in the UK (even today, there’s an article about 156 schools in the country not offering history at GCSE, i.e. from 14 to 16 years old),
2) the influence of postmodernism (as Portman says below) – all things are seen as equally believable and therefore also equally valid or invalid.

Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.”  This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.”  Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond readed PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.”  Care to comment?

I remember reading this interview with Natalie Portman and was shocked by the cavalier attitude it reveals. Of course, it’s a very postmodern view, and historians do provide different interpretations on sources – there’s no ‘book of facts’ out there. Yet, there are still verifiably accurate and inaccurate understandings, facts and fictions. And The Other Boleyn Girl as a film is full of historical nonsense that any historian would have been able to point out.

It doesn’t necessarily matter that actors haven’t researched, though it helps – what matters is that the writers and directors have. I recently saw a play produced by theatre company Red Rose Chain called Fallen in Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn by Joanna Carrick, which managed to combine deep and accurate research with a dramatically moving, compelling story. It is possible – especially with the Tudors, whose stories are so incredible without fabrication.

In the end, I have mixed feelings. I strongly believe that people come to history through film and novels, and I’m very keen, as an historian, to meet people where they are at, and not create barriers to entry. If watching The Other Boleyn Girl makes them turn to a history book, or encourages them to visit Hampton Court, I’m all for it. But – I do think that the truth is often more interesting than the some of the fictions we are given.

[1] Note from SB:  Gregory’s doctorate is actually in literature.

Leave a comment

Filed under Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities