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In The Tower

From The Creation of Anne Boleyn, forthcoming 2013 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, copyright Susan Bordo.

Edouard Cibot “Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London shortly after her Arrest” 1835

When Chapuys heard of Anne’s arrest on May 2, he could barely suppress his glee.  He marveled at “the sudden change from yesterday to this day” and declared that “the affair” had “come to a head much sooner and more satisfactorily than one could have thought, to the greater ignominy and shame of the lady herself.”[1] Anne and Smeaton, he reported, were charged with adultery, and Henry Norris and Lord Rochford (George Boleyn, Anne’s brother) for not having revealed what they knew of the “adulterous connexion” between spinet player Smeaton and the queen.[2]  Until the actual charges were formally made—and sometimes long after– reports of who was arrested and why were often inaccurate.  The Bishop of Faenza told Signor Protonotario Ambrogio that the Queen was arrested along with “her father, mother, brother, and an organist with whom she had been too intimate”[3]; Melancthon wrote to Justus Jonas that those arrested for adultery were “her father, brother, two bishops, and others.”[4] Hannaert wrote Charles that “the so-called Queen was found in bed with her organist, and taken to prison. It is proved that she had criminal intercourse with her brother and others, and that the daughter supposed to be hers was taken from a poor man.”[5] False gossip circulated throughout Europe concerning the arrests, with Chapuys, for once, getting it mostly right.  His intelligence was muddled with respect to the charges—for Norris was already under suspicion of adultery himself (although it’s possible that wasn’t yet revealed)—but accurate with respect to those arrested.  For Weston and Brereton were not arrested until May 4th.

Anne may have unwittingly contributed to those later arrests herself. “M. Kyngston,” she asked when brought to the tower, “do you know wher for I am here?”[6]  In a state of shock and disbelief, she searched her mind for the reasons for her arrest and shared her anxious musings with Kingston (who reported everything to Cromwell) and also to the ladies-in-waiting that Cromwell had chosen to spy on her.  In particular, Anne fretted about a possibly incriminating conversation she had with Norris, a long-time supporter of the Boleyns and the Groom of the Stool in the King’s Privy Council. Norris, who was honored to oversee Henry’s intimate bodily functions—Groom of the Stool, unbelievable as it may seem today, was a most privileged spot on the King’s council–was  closer to Henry than anyone else among his men, except for Charles Brandon. On May Day, when he left the jousts, he had asked Norris to go with him, and they had ridden together, discussing some serious matter.  That evening, Norris was in the Tower.

The serious matter may have had to do with an exchange Norris had with Anne late in April, which had made its way to Cromwell, undoubtedly in garbled form.  The actual details only came out when Anne, wondering why she had been arrested, speculated about it out loud with Kingston.  Anne had been verbally jousting with Norris about his constant presence in her apartments, and had chided him for “looking for dead men’s shoes, for if aught should come to the King but good, you would look to have me.”[7]  This particular statement must have alarmed Norris, who replied that “if he should have any such thought, he would his head were off.”[8]  There was good reason for his alarm:  In 1534, Cromwell had engineered an extension of the legal definition of treason, which was passed by parliament, and which had made it high treason to “maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing” bodily harm to the king.[9]  Under this new definition, Anne’s remark could be construed as referring to Norris’s desire for the King’s death. Anne apparently eventually “got it”, too, for after Norris made the comment about his head, she then told Norris that “she could undo him if she would.”[10]  What had (probably) begun as casual teasing ended with each ostentatiously declaring their horror at the thought that either entertained fantasies of Henry’s death.

But Anne worried that this wasn’t enough.  Later, realizing that their remarks may have been overheard, she asked Norris to go to her almoner, John Skip, and “swear for the queen that she was a good woman.”[11]  Unfortunately, this attempt at damage control only worked to make Skip suspicious.  He confided his suspicions to Sir Edward Baynton, who then went to Cromwell, who surely felt that gold from heaven had fallen into his lap. All this happened in late April.  So clearly, at the point of Anne’s arrest on May 2, Norris was suspected of more than simply withholding information about her purported affair with Smeaton.  However, the full details of the conversation may only have been revealed by Anne herself, in her rambling self-examination with Kingston, and this may be why Norris wasn’t arrested until May 4th.

Anne also told Kingston about how she had teased Francis Weston, then reprimanded him, for telling her that he, too, frequented her apartments out of love for her.  Under other circumstances, it would undoubtedly been regarded as innocent, courtly banter.  But Cromwell was on the hunt, attempting to assemble a case that would be overwhelming, if not in the evidence, than in the sheer magnitude and scope of the charges.  Both G.W. Bernard and Suzanne Lipscomb suggest, too, that Anne’s banter with Weston had “crossed the acceptable boundaries of courtly interchanges.”[12] But I suspect, too, that what was considered “courtly” and what was suspected to be something more had changed since Anne had learned the rules, and that Cromwell was able to take advantage of the different climate with regard to heterosexual behavior.

Anne was trained on traditions of courtly love within which flirtatiousness, far from being suspect, was a requirement of the court lady.  Of course, it must never go too far; the trick was to just go to the edge, and then back off (without, of course, hurting the gentleman’s feelings.).  Purity was required, but provocative banter was not just accepted, it was expected.  Especially in the French court, a relaxed atmosphere was the norm in conversations between men and women.  As the middle ages segued into the renaissance and then the reformation, however, conversations that would have been seen as entirely innocent may have begun to be viewed differently.  In an earlier chapter, I looked at the change from Capellanus’ version of courtly love, still rooted in Plato, which cautions young men to turn their backs on carnal pleasure and aim for spiritual transcendence of mere bodily love, to Castiglione, with his cynical advice for the most effective ways to overcome the resistance of their female prey.  If actual behavior followed ideology, then by the time Cromwell mounted his conspiracy against Anne, people may have been disposed to believe things, based on the exchanges with the men she was charged with, that would have been dismissed as ridiculous forty years earlier.[13]

[14]…[Anne’s moods in the Tower], according to 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?”[15] He replied, “The poorest subject the king hath, had justice.”[16]  Hearing this, despite her fear, Anne laughed. She was too sophisticated and savvy about the dispensing of royal power to swallow the official PR.  But she also seized on any glimmer of hope, and she had reason to believe that in the end, she might be spared.  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.

Until very near the end, she still harbored the belief that Henry might pardon her. It was not an unreasonable expectation. The last-minute rescue of the condemned queen was a centerpiece of the romance of chivalry, which was still being avidly consumed at court via Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  In the Arthurian legend, Guinevere is condemned to death twice for treason (the second time for adultery with Lancelot) and both times is saved from the stake by Lancelot—with King Arthur’s blessings.  Arthur had, in fact, suspected the queen’s infidelity for years, but because of his love for her and for Lancelot, had kept his suspicions a secret.  When Modred and Aggravane, plotting their own coup d’etat, told the King about it, he had no choice but to condemn his queen, while privately hoping she would be rescued.  It was a romantic fantasy—but one which Henry and Anne had grown up with, and which no doubt shaped their ideas about love. Henry had himself been an adroit and seductively tender courtier, who had pledged himself Anne’s “servant” and swore his constancy. The pledges may (or may not) have been made manipulatively, but his infatuation was real and the gestures were convincing. Why wouldn’t Anne, who Henry had in fact honored like Guinevere for six years, cherish the hope that she, too, would be rescued from death?

From the time she was taken to the Tower, then, a razor-thin edge separated hope and doom for Anne. She had been treated very gently and with great respect by Constable Kingston, and no doubt the fact that she was housed not in a dungeon but in the lodgings she had slept in before her coronation lent an ambiance of (mistaken) comfort to her stay in the Tower.  After a visit from Cranmer on May 16th, she appears to have been offered hints—or even proposed—some sort of “deal,” in which her admission of the illegitimacy of her marriage and Elizabeth might win her life in a nunnery instead of death. Cromwell had been working to find a way to annul the marriage and bastardize Elizabeth.  Two likely “impediments” to the lawfulness of the marriage were a possible precontract with her young love Percy and the “consanguinity” of the King’s affair with Mary Boleyn.  Percy denied the precontract, so Cranmer was sent to get Anne to admit that she knew of the relationship with Mary when she married Henry.  Weir speculates—accurately, I believe—that Cranmer may have suggested to Anne that if she admitted to the impediment, the King might spare her life.  After Cramner left, Kingston reports, she was in a “cheerful” mood and talked about her hopes of being spared death.  Instead, the only “mercy” Henry had planned was her death by a skilled French swordsman, who was already on his way, even before Anne’s trial.

Anne’s emotional vacillations—from terror to prayerful resignation to black humor (speculating, the night before her execution, that her enemies would remember her as “la Royne Anne Sans Tete”) suggest that the strangeness of what was happening to her was 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 reality.  Yet she managed, at her trial on May 15, after nearly two weeks in the Tower and the certain recognition, after the verdicts of the men accused with her, that she would be found guilty, to summon her renowned pride and dazzling confidence for the grim occasion.  Dressed in black velvet over a scarlet petticoat, her cap “sporting a black-and-white feather”, she “presented herself with the true dignity of a queen, and curtseyed to her judges, looking round upon them all, without any sign of fear…impatience, grief, or cowardice”[17] (Crispin de Milherve, an eyewitness at the trial.)  When it was time for her to speak, 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.”[18]  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.”[19]

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.[20] And then, as summarized by several onlookers but reported in the greatest detail by Crispin de Milherve, she delivered the extraordinary speech that I quoted from briefly in the previous chapter.  In full now:

“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.”[21]

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 theory, which many scholars have challenged, that a purported “last letter” to Henry, written by Anne on May 6th is indeed, authentic.  The letter was found, after his death, among Cromwell’s possessions, apparently undelivered to the King, in a handwriting that doesn’t correspond exactly (although not radically dissimilar) to Anne’s other  letters, but that could easily have been transcribed by someone else, or in Anne’s own hand, altered by the distress of her situation. On May 5, Anne did ask Kingston to him to “bear a letter from me to Master Secretary.”[22] Kingston then said to her: “Madam, tell it me by word of mouth and I will do it.”[23] She 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 the one found among Cromwell’s papers, dated May 6th, 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 ignonimy 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[24]

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.”[25] 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 the account of her speech at her trial, and it exhibits many of the same qualities as this letter.  In both, Anne stands her ground bravely and articulately, but more strikingly, goes beyond the conventions of the time to venture into deeper “psychological” and political territory: the insight into her lack of humility, the inference that this might have had something to do with her fall from grace, her reference to the “bewilderment” and “strangeness” of finding herself accused of adultery and treason.

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.”[26] 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] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: May 1536, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87960&strquery=”sudden change from yesterday”

[2] (Ibid.)

[3] James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: May 1536, 1-10,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=75429&strquery=”her father, mother, brother”

[4] James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: May 1536, 26-31,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=75433&strquery=Justus Jonas May

[5] (Ibid.)

[6] William Kingston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011,  245).

[7] (Ibid., 246) Modernized spelling applied

[8] (Ibid.) Modernized spelling applied

[9] (Wilson 2003, 375)

[10] Sir William Kingston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011, 246)

[11] (Lindsey 1995, 122)

[12] (Lipscomb 2009, 82)

[13] Besides his spies in the prison, Cromwell may have had some malicious female accomplices helping him out.  One could have been Jane Parker (George Boleyn’s wife), who many historians believe provided the incriminating “evidence” against her husband—that she had seen the two kissing on the mouth, and that she had told him first about her last pregnancy.  Both of these were completely appropriate behavior for a brother and a sister, but by the time they reached the point of formal indictments, tongues and other body parts had been added to raise the suspicion that the pregnancy was the result of George’s having “carnally” known Anne, “at Westminster [and] also did on divers days before and after at the same place, sometimes by his own procurement and sometimes by the Queen’s.”[13]  And although it did not rise to the level of treason, Jane is also said to have told Cromwell that the two had mocked the King for being unskilled and having “neither potency nor vigor” in bed.

Jane’s role has not been definitely confirmed, however. Her involvement is hinted at by Chapuys (not the most reliable source, admittedly), stated outright by George Wyatt, who calls George’s “wicked wife” her” accuser of her husband”, and accepted by later historians Bishop Burnett, Peter Heylin, and others, who attribute her turn against her brother and sister-in-law to jealousy of Anne’s close relationship with George.  Alison Weir, more plausibly I think, points to a possible self-protective switch of political allegiance, from the Boleyns to the Seymours.  Jane saw which way the wind was blowing, and followed its course. Howard Brenton, in his new play Anne Boleyn portrays Jane as actually a close ally of Anne’s.  She was, however, a weak person, and capitulated to Cromwell’s pressure on her. The latter two explanations–self-protection and pressure from Cromwell–rather than animosity toward Anne and George, seem most convincing to me.

Another accomplice appears to have been Lady Worcester, sister to two members of the Privy Council (half-brothers Sir Anthony Browne and Sir William Fitzwilliam), who accused Anne of relations with both Smeaton and George.  This accusation, as related in a poem by Lancelot de Carles written after Anne’s death, was produced by Lady Worchester after one of her brothers (which one is not made clear) had criticized his sister for her own “dishonorable love”, to which she replied that “it was little in her case in comparison with that of the Queen.” To my ears, this sounds very much like a desperate attempt to deflect attention from her own guilt, as a child will do when accused.  But this was the sort of stuff on which Cromwell’s case was built.   The tactic seems to have been to create as much smoke as possible, and count on people believing there must therefore be a fire.

And then, of course, there was the intimidation factor. Archbishop Cranmer, who shared Anne’s religious inclinations and had been a champion of hers since before the marriage, was in emotional turmoil on hearing of Anne’s arrest.  On May 3, he wrote to Henry, his soul clearly in struggle, wanting to defend Anne but fearing for his own safety: “I am clean amazed, for I had never better opinion of woman; but I think your Highness would not have gone so far if she had not been culpable.  I am most bound to her of all creatures living, and therefore beg that I may, with your Grace’s favor, wish and pray that she may declare herself innocent.” Still, he cautiously hedged his bets:  “Yet if she be found guilty, I repute him not a faithful subject who would not wish her punished without mercy.” The “if” evaporated after, in the middle of his letter-writing, Cranmer was called to the Star Chamber by Cromwell and his cronies.  When he returned to his desk, having “chatted” with Cromwell, Cranmer concludes his letter: “I am sorry such faults can be proved against the Queen as they report.”

[14] Omitted from this excerpt but discussed in the book: the trials and executions of the men with whom Anne was accused.

[15] Sir William Kingston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011, 246) Modernized spelling applied

[16] (Ibid.) Modernized spelling applied

[17] (Weir 2010, 223)

[18] (Ibid.) Eyewitness testimony of Crispin de Milherve

[19] (Weir 2010, 225)

[20] James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: May 1536, 16-20,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=75431&strquery=”preserved her composure”

[21] (Weir 2010, 230)

[22] Sir William Kyngston to Secretary Cromwell in (Norton 2011, 246)

[23] (Ibid.)

[24] (Norton 2011, 256-7)

[25] (Ives 2005, 58)

[26] (Ibid.)

[27] (Ellis 1824, 53)


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