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How Could Henry Do It? Six Perspectives

Henry Eats the SwanDuring the episode of The Tudors in which Anne Boleyn is executed, scenes of her suffering in the Tower are punctuated with the image of Henry, gazing contemplatively at two beautiful swans nuzzling in the pond outside the palace.  His mood and thoughts are left deliberately ambiguous; perhaps, the viewer imagines, he is thinking back over his love for Anne and the life they shared together, perhaps he is having regrets, feeling sorrow for the beauty that is about to be lost?  No.  After the execution scene, we are immediately taken to the King at his table, looking forward to his breakfast, which is being brought to him in a large gilt tureen on a silver platter.  The lid is lifted, and the servants and nobles surrounding Henry gasp and applaud in delight.  There on the platter is one of the swans, roasted and decorated with its own beautiful wings, posed as gracefully as if it were still swimming in a lake.  Henry, referencing Charles Laughton’s famous eating scene but giving Henry’s voraciousness a menace missing from Laughton’s comic depiction, tears off a wing, plunges his hand into the body of the swan, and begins eating, oblivious to the greasy drool spilling from his mouth.

Had Henry become the monster depicted in this scene?

The execution of a queen was unprecedented, extreme and shocking, even to Anne’s enemies. Henry had invested six years of time, energy, intellect, money, and blood in making the marriage happen. They were married less than three years. There is no evidence of an unbridgeable emotional estrangement between them. His earlier love letters to her, admittedly written in the bloom of fresh passion, portray a solicitous, tender suitor whom it is impossible to imagine coldly ordering a wife’s death. There are plenty of explanations for Henry’s desire for a new marriage–Anne’s failure to provide a male heir, Jane Seymour, waiting in the wings, fresh and fertile, Henry’s recognition that Anne was creating problems with his image. In the end, however, it still takes a leap of incomprehension to find any of them sufficient to explain Henry’s willingness—in fact, seeming eagerness—to sign the order for Anne’s execution.  We are still left asking ourselves: How could he do it?  What follows are six different “answers,” not all of them incompatible with each other, but all offering a slightly (and in one case radically) different “take” on one of the most notorious death decrees in history:

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  1. Suzannah Lipscomb:  After a year of physical and emotional disasters, the wound to Henry’s masculine honor and the need to restore patriarchal authority was all-important:

“Two contemporary comments provide a clue [to Henry’s behavior]. Cranmer, in his letter to the king concerning his disbelief at Anne’s guilt, wrote that he could not ‘deny but your grace hath great causes…of lamentable heaviness; and also, that…your grace’s honour of every part is so highly touched’, before rushing on to undo these words by disingenuously assuring Henry, ‘if the reports of the Queen be true, they are only to her dishonor, not yours’. A similar sentiment was expressed by a European observer, the reformer Philipp Melancthon, when he wrote, ‘see how dreadfully this calamity will dishonor the King’. Honour, as we have seen, was chiefly a measure of one’s ability to conform to the ideals demanded of one’s gender. For a man, it meant exerting masculinity, imposing patriarchy, controlling the women in one’s household, maintaining a good reputation and demonstrating physical and sexual prowess. Chiefly, it meant controlling the morality of the women under his care and, specifically, their sexual morality. That henry had been unable to do this denoted two things: it was evidence of Henry’s inability as a man and as a monarch. Contemporary thought made a clear link between a man’s sexual potency and his wife’s fidelity – men who were cuckolded were those whose ‘lack of sexual dominance led their wives to adultery’. ‘To be a man’, writes Lyndal Roper, ‘was to have the power to take a woman.’ Anne’s very behavior, if assumed to be true, testified to the king’s lack of manliness, and as if this weren’t enough, Anne and Rochford’s ridicule of the king on this very matter drove the point home. It was not something that went unnoticed in the kingdom. Sir Nicholas Porter, the parson of Freshwater, was reported to have said in 1538, ‘Lo, while the King and his Council were busy to put down abbeys and pull away the right of Holy Church, he was made cuckold at home.’ There was also a strong connection in the popular mind betw4en impotency and old age – the image of ‘Old Adam’ whose feeble old body could not satisfy his vigorous young wife was a constant refrain in the ballads found in contemporary broadsides. There were huge repercussions if such a failure were found in a king. Early modern thinking linked the governance of a house with the governance of a realm; as John Dod and Robert Cleaver wrote in 1612, ‘it is impossible for a man to understand how to govern the commonwealth, that doth not know how to rule his own house’. Any woman’s adultery, but especially that of a queen, upset the social order and gender hierarchy upon which society was based. Cranmer was right the first time – Henry’s honour was ‘highly touched’ by Anne’s apparent adultery. This also explains why Henry felt the need to cavort himself with ladies and increase the pace of his relationship with Jane Seymour, marrying her so quickly. It wasn’t just, as Alesius later hypothesized, that he was ‘openly insulting’ Anne: in the light of Anne’s devastating assault on his masculinity, Henry did it to restore the patriarchal order and to prove his manhood.”

(From 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, p. 88-89)

 

  1.   Alison Weir: Henry VIII, ready to believe anything about a woman he had come to see as a monster, found the charges against Anne entirely credible:

 

“From the time of Anne’s committal to the Tower, Henry VIII’s behavior was typical of a man confronted with appalling evidence of his wife’s infidelity, and whose masculine pride has been deeply wounded. He avoided parading his humiliation in public, and remained incommunicado until all was over. Henry was apparently ready to believe anything of Anne. He would shortly manifest the conviction that she was a monster not only of lechery but also of cruelty. The latter was, to him, probably entirely credible. She had hounded Wolsey night until death; repeatedly urged henry to send Katherine of Aragon and Mary, his own daughter, to the scaffold; been ruthless against her enemies. Five years earlier, rumor had placed her faction behind an attempt to poison John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and out-spoken and upright opponent of the Boleyns; and only a couple of months ago it was bruited that Katherine of Aragon had been poisoned, and that Anne was the culprit. Now it appeared she had plotted to do away with the King himself, her own husband. That certainly gave Henry a jolt, and his imagination began to run riot. When his bastard son, the seventeen-year-old Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, came on the evening of May 2 to receive his father’s blessing before retiring for the night, “the King began to weep, saying that he and his sister {Lady Mary} were greatly bound to God for having escaped the hands of that accursed whore, who had determined to poison them. These tears were the only ones Henry is known to have shed in connection with Anne Boleyn’s fall, while his tirade betrayed his conviction that she was guilty of far worse than adultery, and the sharp-minded Chapuys picked upon this: “From these words, it would appear the King knows something about it.”

(From The Lady in the Tower, pgs. 150-151)

 

  1. G. W. Bernard: Lancelot de Carles’ poetic account of remarks by the Duchess of Worcester, combined with Anne’s outrageously flirtatious behavior, strongly suggest that Anne was indeed guilty of at least one adultery:

 

“Also just possible, of course, is that everything we have considered was no more than a series of misunderstandings in response to ‘unguarded speech and gossip’, ‘a lot of smoke but precious little fire’. After Anne, in the Tower, told Kingston about Mark Smeaton, her mother rebuked her: ‘such desire as you have had to such tales has brought you to this’. It is just about possible that the countess of Worcester had herself read too much into what she thought she had seen, not just in the case of Anne’s brother, but of all she spoke of. It is also just about possible that Anne’s burblings in the Tower could be innocently explained away – but, crucially, that what henry learned was amply sufficient to make him, reluctantly but reasonably, conclude that, alas, it was all true and then seek furiously to deal with those who had wronged him. Was it that, although there was no evidence that Anne was guilty, enough had been said to make Henry understandably and sincerely believe that she was? Yet the countess of Worcester was in absolutely no doubt about Anne’s behavior – and she was in a very good position to know the truth. If what she said was wholly wrong, we should have to believe either that she deliberately invented the charges she brought against Anne or that she utterly mistook what Anne was, and was not, doing in her chamber. It is far more plausible that the countess was not totally wrong and that if, perhaps, she read too much into George Boleyn’s visits to his sister’s chamber, there was still a good deal of truth in what she declared about Anne’s behaviour. And so it remains my own hunch that Anne had indeed committed adultery with Norris, probably with Smeaton, possibly with Weston, and was then the victim of the most appalling bad luck when the countess of Worcester, one of her trusted ladies, contrived in a moment of irritation with her brother to trigger the devastating chain of events that led inexorably to Anne’s downfall.”

(From Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, pgs. 191-192)

 

4. Michael Hirst (creator of The Tudors):  Anne’s failure to produce an heir was not just a blow to the security of the Tudor line but a sign that the hope that Henry had built his entire life around was based on an illusion- that he had spent years of his life, shed the blood of friends, and broken with the church of his childhood, only to be proved mistaken in the supposition that this was what God wanted of him:

“He had attacked the church on the basis of a love affair, largely.  But he felt sure of what he was doing at the time, and Anne had mistaken promised him a son. After she’d given him a daughter and had the miscarriages, it began to seem to him as though he’d gone horribly wrong.  He was plunged back into reality, which is messy and not perfect. And I think that as he confronted the huge seriousness of it, he began to think in weird ways, that she was a witch and so forth.  This of course, shows how juvenile he still was.  And he did have an absolutely ruthless streak which his father, too, had possessed.  But beyond that, he did suffer a severe psychological crisis, knowing he had been so deluded. He came out of that crisis a much worse person, a complete tyrant and monster, who killed off the best part of himself in the attempt to reconcile his psychological issues.”

(From a personal interview with Susan Bordo)

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  1. Kyra Kramer:  Henry was suffering from a genetic disorder that radically altered his mental state as he grew older, resulting in more and more erratic and irrational behavior.

“Who in their right mind would stalk a woman until she gave in and dated him, wait several years to marry her and be allowed to consummate the relationship, rip a country apart and declare his own daughter a bastard in order to keep his new bride, and then kill that same beloved woman just a few years after saying “I do”? No one, that’s who.

Well, no one in his or her right mind that is.

According to a theory put forth by Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley and myself, Henry VIII was not actually in his right mind when he had Anne Boleyn legally murdered. The theory postulates that Henry had a Kell positive blood type concurrent with McLeod syndrome, resulting in reproductive losses and an altered mental state in his forties.

McLeod syndrome can only be manifested in people, who are thus far always men, with a Kell positive blood type. (Before the medical specialists comment – yes, one can have K(K1) effecting pregnancies and the father still express McLeod syndrome because of variant Kell antigen expression: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6879675 ) Usually the symptoms of McLeod syndrome begin to appear near the patient’s fortieth birthday and grow progressively worse over time. Those symptoms can include physical issues, such as muscle and nerve deterioration, facial tics, malformed blood cells, and damage of the internal organs like the liver and the heart. The disease is also often expressed by an erosion of mental stability, wherein the patient becomes more and more irrational and erratic.

There is a plethora of evidence to show how Henry’s personality and mental processes changed in the 1530s, which I have room to explicate more fully in my book, Blood Will Tell, but you’ll have to trust me on for now. The kinds of psychopathology exhibited by patients with McLeod syndrome include, but are not limited to, deterioration of memory and executive functions, paranoia, depression, socially inappropriate conduct, and can even get so bad that it mimics schizophrenia-like behaviors. In severe cases, “schizophrenia-like symptoms” of personality changes can be the “prominent initial clinical manifestation” of McLeod syndrome. This abrupt mental change would explain why Henry started his reign as a puissant prince but ended it as a pestilent putz.

Moreover, the timing fits McLeod syndrome like a glove. Henry turned forty in the summer of 1531, and shortly thereafter his treatment of Queen Katherina turned much harsher. For the first couple of years she was the only victim. By the time he was forty-four the King’s personality alterations were becoming clearer in the most disturbing ways. In spite of his enduring reputation for tyranny, he only started wantonly killing people who disagreed with him in 1535, the year he beheaded Thomas More. Before that, getting him to agree to an execution was like pulling teeth. Cardinal Wolsey had a devil of a time getting him to execute even the Duke of Buckingham, who was blatantly gunning for Henry’s throne.

(While most people remember 1536 as the watershed year for Henry’s new fondness for the axe, because that is the year he beheaded Anne Boleyn, he actually started his killing spree in 1535. Incidentally, the bloodbath began several months before he fell and was knocked unconscious during a tournament in January of 1536. That means that the blow to the head may have exacerbated his symptoms, but the alteration in his personality had already started more than a year before. )

Henry’s relationship with Anne Boleyn neatly straddles the manifestation of his mental symptoms. The King started pursuing Anne in 1525 (maybe as early as 1524) and beheaded her in 1536. Prior to his fortieth birthday he is clearly her besotted swain, yet he was still trying to please everyone and let Katherina down gently (good luck with that, bub). After his fortieth birthday he becomes increasingly cruel to Katherina, and then murderous to anyone who disagrees with him, and then turns abruptly and viciously on the woman he had loved so dearly.

Personally, I happen to agree with Walker, and think Anne’s death was not caused by her miscarriage in January of 1536, but rather because she told a courtier that he wished for “dead men’s shoes” in April. That statement could be constructed as imagining the death of the King, which was treason. Her enemies, under Cromwell’s management, pounced on her slip of the tongue and convinced Henry she was plotting his death. A little torture of Mark Smeaton and his confession of adultery — voila, she is a whore and Cromwell can conveniently rid himself of some of her supporters.

Henry, having become paranoid and irrational due to McLeod syndrome, was easy prey to manipulation by Anne’s foes. Once he had signed off on his wife’s beheading, his imagination ran wild. Soon the King had convinced himself that Anne had been plotting to poison his older children and that she had slept with more than one hundred men. Rational people do not suspect a woman under the constant lack of privacy Anne faced to have had sex with one hundred men.

The man who killed Anne Boleyn was clearly not the same kind and gentle knight of his youth, and he would grow steadily worse after her death. Nowadays, most people only remember the villainous brutality of the last fifteen years of his reign, and have very little idea of the gentle and intelligent man the King was until the 1530’s. I really hope that one day his remains can be exhumed for DNA analysis. If he did have McLeod syndrome, perhaps people will forgive him for the crimes he committed as a result of an uncontrollable mental illness. If nothing else, I hope the evidence I present in my book will at least encourage people to see Henry VIII as the complex monarch he was, rather than an unmitigated monster.”

(Based on the arguments of Blood Will Tell.)

6.  Susan Bordo:  Henry’s resilience, emotional balance, and temper may indeed have degenerated as he got older, possibly exacerbated by genetic factors as well as the challenging events of 1536, but he was always a dangerously capricious personality:

 

“Henry was always a man of many faces, a “baffling composite of shifting silhouettes” (Lacey Baldwin Smith) who could be good-natured, generous and charming one moment and dangerously cold as stone the next, highly emotional yet rigidly stubborn, a genuine searcher of his conscience for “God’s will” yet able to subordinate all moral scruples and guilt to solidifying his own authority or satisfying his own desires.  The combination of informal warmth and lethal self-interest meant that even the closest relationships with him were never on solid ground, always skating on thin ice.  Thomas More, of all of Henry’s contemporaries, was most perceptive about the inherent danger of making too much of the King’s outward gestures of affection. He told Fisher that “the king has a way of making every man feel that he is enjoying his special favor.”  It may have been a compliment, but it was also a warning.  He told a young courtier—and this was in 1520, before any “crisis” had occurred in Henry’s reign—that having fun with the king was like “having fun with tamed lions—often it is harmless, but just as often there is the fear of harm.  Often he roars in rage for no known reason, and suddenly the roar becomes fatal.  The pleasure you get is not safe enough to relieve you of anxiety.  For you it is a great pleasure.  As for me, let my pleasure be less great—and safe” (Lion’s Court, p. 217).

But even More couldn’t remain safe.  He realized, as he told his son in law Roper, that even when he was favored by the King “more singularly” than any subject in the realm, “I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go.” (Ridley, 188)   In the end, Henry was just that cavalier with More’s life, although not over a castle in France. Henry had promised, years before, that he would always allow More to avoid any declarations or actions that went against his conscience.  But when Henry’s own supremacy was at issue, More’s conscience—and his head—proved to be easily dispensed with.  On the day of More’s execution, Henry went hunting in Reading.  This was the way Henry dealt with all his executions of old friends and lovers: go hunting, have a party, be merry. Move on. He was shockingly capable of decisively and irrevocably turning off the switch of affection, love, tender feeling and shared memories, severing all ties, and refusing to look back.

In fact, those whom he loved the most—Wolsey, More, Anne, Cromwell–were most at risk.  Because he loved them, they had the most power to disappoint him—and for Henry, disappointment could never be “slight.”  All wounds to his authority, his manhood, his trust, were bloody gashes that he could only repair by annihilating (psychologically or literally) the one who inflicted the wound.  This, perhaps, is what distinguishes Henry’s pattern from “ordinary” royal imperiousness.  Kings execute people.  Kings have grandiose ambitions.  Kings are threatened by challenges to their authority.  Kings can become drunk on power, and often do.   But Henry may be unique among famous authoritarian kings in that his close relationships only had two switches: on and off.  As Howard Brenton, author of the play Anne Boleyn, put it in an interview with me, “With Henry, you were either totally in or you were dead.  He would have someone close to him, he’d elevate them, and they’d be terrific and virtually run everything on his behalf, and then when something went wrong, or a wind came his way, he would turn 180 degrees against them and they would be out.  It happened to Wolsey, it happened to More, it happened to Anne, it happened to Cromwell.”  It almost happened to Mary, who so enraged Henry when she refused, even after Anne was dead, to take the oath recognizing her father as Supreme Head of the Church of England, that Cranmer , at the last minute, had to talk him out of ordering her execution (Ridley, 274).  Mary was Henry’s daughter.

And his will was capricious. The letters of ambassadors, even from the early years of his reign, describe sudden, explosive angers, “tears and tantrums.”  In 1535, the king’s fool almost lost his life over a joke about Anne Boleyn; a year later, Henry was weeping uncontrollably while hugging his illegitimate son, relieved that he was now safe from  “that accursed whore” who had slept with over a hundred men.  A hundred?  That would have meant a new man every ten days of her Queenship.  Yet it’s possible that Henry believed something near to this, for his emotional switch, for whatever reasons, had turned against her, and she was now as wholly evil in his eyes as she once was wholly virtuous.

Whatever the origins of Henry’s personality, his problems were vastly exacerbated by the fact that he was, after all, king.  As such, he was continually flattered and pampered, his every whim indulged, his grandiosity rarely challenged, his illusions carefully maintained.  All of this encouraged his sense of omnipotence, which in turn made it all the riskier for those around him to show anything less than absolute allegiance.  In proving this, even obedience, ironically, put one at risk, for Henry wasn’t a fool; he knew those around him were afraid, and so never fully trusted anyone.  When he was young, he sought out people like More, and encouraged them to be honest with him, seeking some solid ground on which to base a relationship.  But it was a zero sum game; when More ran up against Henry’s need to be the center of the universe, More’s once-cherished independence of mind became worse than “nothing” in Henry’s “all or nothing” demands on relationships.

It’s hard to know exactly what threw the switch with Anne.  Her final miscarriage may have convinced him that God was not on the side of their relationship.  He may have believed in the charges of adultery—although his exaggerated estimates of her infidelities make me less rather than more likely to believe that; if he truly believed she had slept with five men, including her own brother, surely that would have been enough to “justify” his outrage without dragging half the men in court into her bed.  Or the humiliation of hearing that Anne gossiped about his lack of sexual performance may have been all that was needed.  We will never know, and it really doesn’t matter.  It was sufficient, whatever it was, to shut off any currents of empathy, memory, attachment that Henry felt for Anne.  This is where “Anne of the Thousand Days” has it so wrong.  The play and movie both open with Henry tormented by the decision whether or not to order Anne’s execution.  In Maxwell Anderson’s play, which is written in verse, Henry muses:

“This is hard to do
when you come to put pen to paper.
You say to yourself:
She must die.  And she must—
If thing are to go as planned.
Yes, if they are to go at all.
If I am to rule
And keep my sanity and hold my England off the rocks…
Go back to it, Henry, go back to it.
Keep your mind
On this parchment you must sign.
Dip the pen in the ink write your name…

It’s only that a woman you’ve held in your arms
And longer for when she was away,
And suffered with her—no, but she promised you an heir.
Write it down—
Write Henry Rex, and it’s done.
And then the headsman
Will cry out suddenly, “Look, look there!’
And point to the first flash of sunrise,
And she’ll look,
Not knowing what he means, and his sword will flash
In the flick of sun, through the little bones of her neck
As she looks away,
And it will be done.
It will be done.”

It’s romantic and moving, and beautifully written.  But it is not, I believe, the poetry of Henry’s reality.  In that reality, they handed him the parchment.  He dipped the pen in the ink.  He signed his name: Henry Rex.  And it was done.

 

Based on material from The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look of England’s Most Notorious Queen, available in a US edition or a UK edition.

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Anne’s Final Hours

     images-5Based on material from The Creation of Anne Boleyn, by Susan Bordo

Expecting to die on the 18th, Anne took the sacrament at 2 a.m. By now all who were in contact with her must have been convinced of her innocence. Even her old enemy Chapuys was impressed by the fact that Anne, before and after receiving the Sacrament, affirmed to those who had charge of her “on damnation of her soul, that she had never offended with her body against the King.”  In the 16th century, to speak anything other than the truth at such a time would be to invite the utter condemnation of God. Anne had nothing to gain and her salvation to lose by lying.

As Anne prepared for her death, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding.  Chapuys describes the king as showing “extravagant joy” at Anne’s arrest.  Convinced (or making a great show for posterity) that Anne was an “accursed whore” who had slept with hundreds of men, he was “very impatient” and wishing to have the thing done with “already.”

Anne Boleyn's interview with the Lieutenant of the TowerAnne too wished to have the thing done. Yet, cruelly, the execution was delayed twice, once in order to clear the Tower of possible sympathetic observers, the second time because the executioner had been delayed. The first delay dismayed Anne, who thought that at the newly appointed hour she would already “be dead and past my pain.”  Kingston, who seems to have been an absurdly literal man, took her to be referring to the physical pain of the execution itself, and reassured her that “there would be no pain, it was so subtle.” Anne replied with her most famous line: “I have heard say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck.”  And then, according to Kingston, “she put her hand around [her neck], laughing heartily.”  Kingston flat-footedly interpreted this to mean that Anne had “much joy and pleasure in death.”  He apparently did not “get” Anne’s irony. At the news of the second delay, she was distraught.  But “It was not that she desired death,” as she told Kingston (or perhaps one of the ladies, who then told him) “but she had thought herself prepared to die, and feared that the delay would weaken her resolve. “  So much for Kingston’s theory that Anne felt “joy and pleasure” at the prospect of death.

images-1(1)What she may have felt was something closer to what James Hillman describes as the state of mind that often precedes an attempt at suicide:  a desperate desire to shed an old self whose suffering had become unbearable, and thus be “reborn” in the act of dying.  This imagined rebirth, for Hillman, has nothing to do with belief in reincarnation, or even in heaven, but the perception, ironically, that the soul cannot survive under existing conditions. What Anne had been through was certainly enough to shatter any hold her previous life may have exerted on her.  She had been discarded by the man who had pursued her for six years, fathered her daughter, and seemingly adored her for much of their time together.  The person she was closest to in the world—her brother George—had been executed on the most hideous and shameful of charges.   The rest of her family, as far as we can tell, had either abandoned her or—as Anne believed of her mother–was awash with despair and grief over what was happening.  Still recovering from a miscarriage, her body and mind undoubtedly assaulted by hormonal changes and unstable moods, she had been sent to prison on absurd, concocted charges, and “cared for” there by women who were hostile spies.  She knew she would never see her daughter Elizabeth again, and—unlike the fictional Anne of Anne of the Thousand Days, who predicts that “Elizabeth will be queen!”—had no hope, after Cranmer’s visit, that her child would ever be anything more than she had seen Mary reduced to: a bastardized ex-princess forced to bow down to any children the new wife might produce for Henry.  She had been given reason to hope that she would be allowed to live, only to have those hopes crushed at her sentencing. In a sense, she had already been through dozens of dyings.   Nothing was left but the withered skin of her old life, which she was ready to shed.

images-2(1)As she mounted the scaffold, wearing a role of dark damask (black in some reports, grey in others) trimmed with white fur, with a red kirtle (petticoat) underneath—red being the liturgical color of Catholic martyrdom—political and national affiliations continued, as they had through her reign and would for centuries to come–to shape the descriptions of her appearance and behavior. To an author of the Spanish Chronicle, she exhibited “a devilish spirit.” A Portuguese witness who had snuck in despite the ban on “strangers”, wrote that “never had she looked so beautiful.” An imperialist observer described her as “feeble and stupefied” (which would be understandable, and not incompatible with her looking beautiful as well.)  Wriothesley says she showed “a goodly smiling countenance.”  French de Carles commented on the beauty of her complexion, pure and clear as though cleansed by all the suffering.  For all, the spectacle of a queen, wearing the white ermine of her role, mounting the stairs to the scaffold, was unnerving.

imagesUnlike her trial speech and her “last letter,” Anne’s remarks on the scaffold made the more conventional bows to the goodness and mercy of the King—in this highly public context, it was virtually required, if only to prevent any retribution against surviving relatives—and asked the people to pray for her.  She did not admit to guilt for the offenses with which she was charged or accuse the judges of malice, but did make reference to the “cruel law of the land by which I die.” By now, the four young ladies who had accompanied her to the scaffold (clearly not the hostile spies that had lived with her in the Tower, but others, more intimate with her, who she had been allowed to have with her in these last moments) were weeping.  Anne, having helped them take off her robe—an act that in itself must have demanded great composure and courage—“appeared dazed” as he kneeled down, modestly covering her feet with her dress, and asked the executioner to remove her coif, lest it interfere with his stroke.  The executioner realized that she was afraid of the pain of an impeded blow; she kept looking around her, her hand on her coif, anticipating the moment.   Clearly “distressed” at the task he was to perform, he told her that he would wait until she gave the signal.  “With a fervent spirit” she began to pray, and the Portuguese contingent, unable to bear it, huddled together and knelt down against the scaffold, wailing loudly.

anne-boleyn-executed-223x300-2Anne gave the signal.  But either the executioner or someone else in charge had devised a scheme to distract Anne at the last moment, so the fatal blow would come when she wasn’t expecting it; he turned toward the scaffold steps and called for the sword, and when Anne blindly turned her head in that direction, he brought the sword down from the other side and swiftly “divided her neck at a blow.”   As these things went—others had died only after multiple clumsy hackings—it was an easy death: if the naturalist Lewis Thomas has it right, it was far easier than her weeks of suffering in the Tower:  “Pain, “ he writes, is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time to get away, but when it is end game, and no way back, pain is likely to be turned off, and the mechanisms for this are wonderfully precise and quick.  If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensable part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.”   He quotes Montaigne, who nearly died in a riding accident and later described the “letting go” that he experienced at what could have easily been the very end:

“It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who have let themselves slide into sleep. I believe this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting in the agony of death, and maintain that we pity them without cause…If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care with it”

Anne’s preparations for dying, facing the inevitability of her execution, may have been filled with internal good-byes to those she loved, relief at the shedding of a suffering self, or imaginings of meeting her God.  I like to think of her final hours as immensely rich, in a way that I cannot comprehend but that were sustaining to her, even beyond her more conventional—but extremely deep, for Anne—religious faith.  And then, at the end, I hope that nature or God (it makes no difference), gave her no more to figure out, no more to regret, no more to say good-bye to, no more work to do, and took care of her dying.

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Filed under May 19th, 1536 Feature

May 17th, 1536. In tribute to George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, William Brereton, and Francis Weston: Two Poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt

It is often assumed, on the basis of various allusions in his love poetry, anecdotes relayed by his grandson George, and later fictional accounts, that the poet Thomas Wyatt had been in love with Anne at one time, and that his famous poetic lament over the terrible “sight” he had seen from the Bell Tower expressed his heartbreak over Anne’s execution. Undoubtedly, Anne’s death was shattering to him, whatever the nature of his affections for her. But, as a less famous poem,“In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase,” shows, “these bloody days” referred as well (or perhaps chiefly) to the executions of the men with whom Anne was accused. Anne is not mentioned in either poem—probably out of caution—but they are quite explicit about Wyatt’s despair over the fate of the others.

Wyatt’s poems—both these two, and many later ones–make it very clear that the experience was life-changing for him, creating complete and bitter disillusionment with court life, which raised his friends “aloft” only to bring them to such a horrible end. For no matter how pleasant and enticing life was at court, “circa Regna tonat”: Thunder Rolls Around the Throne. The “thunder”: Henry’s whims, which could turn the sun of fortune into a perfect—and fatal—storm.

As you read the poems, notice how prominent the theme of the precarious nature of court life is in them. In fact, after his release Wyatt spent only a short time at court, returning to his father’s castle in Allington, where he wrote the second poem. He ultimately did return to court in 1537, knighted by Henry for his service in suppressing the Pilgrimage of Grace. But nearly all his poems continue to express alienation and disdain for the artifice, vanity, and illusions of court life.

 

I

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

 

 

 

 

 II.

IN MOURNING WISE SINCE DAILY I INCREASE

In Mourning wise since daily I increase,

Thus should I cloak the cause of all my grief;

So pensive mind with tongue to hold his peace’

My reason sayeth there can be no relief:

Wherefore give ear, I humbly you require,

The affect to know that thus doth make me moan.

The cause is great of all my doleful cheer

For those that were, and now be dead and gone.

What thought to death desert be now their call.

As by their faults it doth appear right plain?

Of force I must lament that such a fall should light on those so wealthily did reign,

Though some perchance will say, of cruel heart,

A traitor’s death why should we thus bemoan?

But I alas, set this offence apart,

Must needs bewail the death of some be gone.

As for them all I do not thus lament,

But as of right my reason doth me bind;

But as the most doth all their deaths repent,

Even so do I by force of mourning mind.

Some say, ‘Rochford, haddest thou been not so proud,

For thy great wit each man would thee bemoan,

Since as it is so, many cry aloud

It is great loss that thou art dead and gone.’

Ah! Norris, Norris, my tears begin to run

To think what hap did thee so lead or guide

Whereby thou hast both thee and thine undone

That is bewailed in court of every side;

In place also where thou hast never been

Both man and child doth piteously thee moan.

They say, ‘Alas, thou art far overseen

By thine offences to be thus deat and gone.’

Ah! Weston, Weston, that pleasant was and young,

In active things who might with thee compare?

All words accept that thou diddest speak with tongue,

So well esteemed with each where thou diddest fare.

And we that now in court doth lead our life

Most part in mind doth thee lament and moan;

But that thy faults we daily hear so rife,

All we should weep that thou are dead and gone.

Brereton farewell, as one that least I knew.

Great was thy love with divers as I hear,

But common voice doth not so sore thee rue

As other twain that doth before appear;

But yet no doubt but they friends thee lament

And other hear their piteous cry and moan.

So doth eah heart for thee likewise relent

That thou givest cause thus to be dead and gone.

Ah! Mark, what moan should I for thee make more,

Since that thy death thou hast deserved best,

Save only that mine eye is forced sore

With piteous plaint to moan thee with the rest?

A time thou haddest above thy poor degree,

The fall whereof thy friends may well bemoan:

A rotten twig upon so high a tree

Hath slipped thy hold, and thou art dead and gone.

And thus farewell each one in hearty wise!

The axe is home, your heads be in the street;

The trickling tears doth fall so from my eyes

I scarce may write, my paper is so wet.

But what can hope when death hath played his part,

Though nature’s course will thus lament and moan?

Leave sobs therefore, and every Christian heart

Pray for the souls of those be dead and gone.

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Filed under May 19th, 1536 Feature

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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Anne as a Piece on the Chessboard of Politics

By 1536, Henry was well aware that public opinion, especially after the executions of Bishop Fisher and Thomas More (for refusing to take the oath declaring Henry Supreme Head of the Church of England) was not exactly riding in his favor.

Besides anger over Fisher and More, who were generally admired, there was a growing public sentiment over the mistreatment of Katherine and Princess Mary, who Henry kept separated from each other, and treated like discarded limbs.  The abuse of Mary was especially acute, as she was forced to wait on her younger sister Elizabeth, and allowed no audience with the King, who had formerly been an affectionate father, so long as she refused to acknowledge Anne as Queen.  This she would not do, not even after Anne had personally offered her friendship and a home at court, on that one condition.  Despite a huge amount of evidence that Henry was in a rage over his daughter’s “obstinacy” and hardly required any goading to punish and humiliate her, Chapuys blamed her mistreatment entirely on Anne, whom he believed turned the King against Mary, and did all that he could to insure that every other person who would listen to him saw it that way. 

Even those who knew better, like Thomas Cromwell, realized that blaming the King for Mary’s mistreatment could create a huge public relations disaster and encouraged Chapuys in his Anne-blaming.  As early as October of 1534, Chapuys had met with Cromwell, who reassured Chapuys of Henry’s “paternal affection” for Mary and claimed that “he loved her 100 times more than his last born” and that he and Chapuys should do all that they could to “soften and mend all matter relating to her,” for “in time everything would be set to rights.”[1] Although I am often skeptical of Chapuys’ second and third-hand “intelligence,” the manipulative, self-serving speech he attributes to Cromwell has, to my ears, the ring of truth:

“True it was, “ (Cromwell said) that the King, his master, had occasionally complained of the suit which Your Majesty had instituted against him at Rome, but he [Cromwell] had fully shown that Your Majesty could not help stirring in favour of Queen Katherine, bound as she was to you by the bonds of consanguinity and royal rank; and that, considering the King, his master, if in your Majesty’s place, might have acted as you did there was no fear of his now taking in bad part your interference in the affairs of so close a relative.  He himself had so strongly and so often inculcated that reasoning upon the King, that, in his opinion, no cause now remained for disagreement between Your Majesty and his master, save perhaps the affair of these two good ladies [Katherine and Mary]; to remedy which, as he had signified to me, it was needful that we both should agree upon a satisfactory settlement of all complaints, and the knitting of that lasting friendship which might otherwise be endangered.  Cromwell ended by saying in passing that it was perfectly true that great union and friendship existed now between France and England, but that I could guess the cause of it. He did not say more on this subject.  Your Majesty, by your great wisdom, will be able to judge what Cromwell’s last words meant.”[2]

Of course, the “cause” that was implied here was Anne—who now was “hinted” by Cromwell as standing between the repair of relations between England and Spain, and in a double way:  First, because she was known to be a Francophile, but more important, because she was the obstacle standing in the way of reaching a “satisfactory settlement of all complaints” by Katherine and Mary.[3]  Chapuys also took Cromwell as hinting “that there was some appearance of the King changing his love.”[4]  He wasn’t sure whether to take this seriously—for Cromwell was quite capable of dissembling when it suited his purposes—but what seems crystal clear is that Cromwell was buttering Chapuys up, in the interests of Henry’s PR and future good relations with Charles, and that Anne was already being used by him to take the heat off Henry.

Why would Cromwell, who shared Anne’s religious proclivities, want to stir up the anti-Anne pot with Chapuys and Charles? After all, he had been chief engineer of the break with Rome and, as a reformist himself, had been Anne’s strongest ally at the start of her relationship with Henry.  At one point, it was generally believed that Anne, as Chapuys later put it, was “Anne’s right hand.”[5]) What had happened?  At this point, nothing of grave significance. But Cromwell was a man who was ever alert to the slightest changes in the weather of power-politics, and Anne had just had a miscarriage in July of 1535.  It was not publicly reported, but can be inferred from comments made about her “goodly belly” in April and Henry’s postponement of a trip to France that summer “on account of her condition.”[6] Then, in July: silence.  There now had been two unsuccessful pregnancies, as far as the issue of a male heir was concerned.  Moreover, although Elizabeth was born healthy and beautiful, this child had not even gone to term—a far more ominous sign for superstitious Henry.  Was he already wondering whether God disapproved of this marriage?  And did he share his misgivings with his “most beloved” Cromwell?

Cromwell and Anne, moreover, although they inveighed against Rome and fought for the divorce together, had a serious break brewing.  For although they may have shared the same “theory” of reform (although we don’t know for sure, as what became English Protestantism was only just evolving) they disagreed sharply on what should be done with the spoils of disbanded churches and monasteries.  From the beginning of his ascent to power—and among the reasons why he was able to keep the favor of the nobility, even after Wolsey was deposed—Cromwell “actively assisted the King in diverting revenues from the suppressed monasteries, originally granted to Wolsey’s two colleges, to the purses of Henry’s cronies at court.”[7] Anne, in contrast, favored using the funds to set up educational and charitable institutions, and was shocked to learn that the money was being diverted for private use.  This difference between them would not explode until April of 1536, but it seems that in sidling up to Chapuys, Cromwell was already preparing for the possibility that it might come to a show-down resulting in his own fall from favor, and he was seeking alliance with Chapuys to prepare for the need for a strike against Anne.

Cromwell was aware that developing a friendship with Chapuys was risky, but assessing the situation at the time, he wasn’t overly concerned. In June of 1535 he told Chapuys that if Anne knew how close he and Chapuys were, she would see Cromwell’s head off his shoulders.  At the time, Cromwell shrugged it off, telling Chapuys that “I trust so much on my master, that I fancy she cannot do me any harm.”[8] But the differences between Anne and Cromwell were escalating—not just over the use of confiscated money but also over international alliances (Anne favored France, while Cromwell was beginning to lean toward some kind of accommodation with Charles) and the mere fact that Cromwell, in 1535, was already assessing his security relative to Anne’s displeasure with him suggests that he was aware that she could, under the right circumstances, be a danger to him—and was making preparations. 

Cromwell also undoubtedly became aware, in the fall of that year, that a new family was rising in the king’s favor:  The Seymours.  Edward Seymour, who had hosted a visit from Henry to Wolf Hall in September, was becoming a special favorite.  Henry had always enjoyed the company of vital, masculine, young men (“thrusting, acquisitive and ambitous” is how Wilson describes them[9]) and as his own athleticism and sense of masculine potency declined, hobbled by leg ulcers and increasing obesity, he may have begun to live vicariously through them, “unconsciously sucking new life from their physical and mental vigor.”[10] By 1535, Seymour’s circle—John Dudley, Thomas Wriosthesley, Ralph Sadler—had come to serve this function for Henry.  They were also courting Cromwell, who they rightly saw as having the king’s ear and who was seemingly, at this point, the architect of England’s future.  They hated the Boleyns. And Edward Seymour had a sister.

The Other Women: Katherine and Jane

On January 7, 1536, Katherine of Aragon died, most likely of cancer of the heart (a real illness, but an apt bodily metaphor as well.) It was an enormous relief to both Anne and Henry.  For Anne, it meant that at last she was the only Queen of England.  And both of them hoped that Katherine’s death, removing the chief reason for the Emperor’s breach with Henry, would repair relations with Charles and tip the balance in England’s favor vis a vis Francis (who now would have to court Henry, in order to be sure England did not ally him with Charles.) “The next day”, Ives reports, “the king and queen appeared in joyful yellow from top to toe, and Elizabeth was triumphantly paraded to church. After dinner Henry went down to the Great Hall, where the ladies of the court were dancing, with his sixteen month old daughter in his arms, showing her off to one and another.”[11]  Whether or not their yellow clothing was to mark their joy, as Ives says, or a sign of respect for the dead has been much debated.  But whatever the meaning of the color of their clothing, at this point, neither had a political reason to mourn Katherine’s death—and Henry, over the years of battle with Katherine, seems to have lost any trace of affection for her.

Chapuys was horrified by their reaction, grief-stricken at having lost his longtime friend, whom he had comforted and championed over the years, and quickly began spreading rumors that Katherine had been poisoned by Anne.  But good news was to come a bit later that month, when Chapuys reported, third-hand as usual, that one of the King’s “principal courtiers” said that the King had confessed to another lady and her husband “that he had been seduced and forced into this second marriage by means of sortileges and charms, and that, owing to that, he held it as null.  God (he said) had well shown his displeasure at it by denying him male children.  He, therefore, considered that he could take a third wife, which he said he wished much to do.”[12]  Even Chapuys, ever alert to promising signs that Anne would be supplanted, finds this report “incredible.”  Anne was in her final month of what was to be her last pregnancy; how could the King be sure that God would not bless the marriage with a male heir this time around?  Was someone whispering in Henry’s ear, planting suggestions about Anne?

It seems that this is exactly what was happening.  By April 1st, Chapuys was writing to the Emperor, informing him that the king was “paying court” to Edward Seymour’s sister Jane, and that he had “heard” (from the Marchioness of Exeter) that Jane had been “well tutored and warned by those among this King’s couriers who hate the concubine, telling her not in any wise to give in to the King’s fancy unless he makes her his Queen, upon which the damsel is quite resolved.  She has likewise been advised to tell the King frankly, and without reserve, how much his subjects abominate the marriage contracted with the concubine, and that not one considers it legitimate.”[13]  The Marchioness also requested, at this time, that Chapuys himself aid in whatever way he can in the “meritorious work” of removing Anne and thus, not only protecting Princess Mary from Anne’s evil plotting and ridding the country of the “heretical doctrines and practices” of “Lutheranism,” but “clearing the King from the taint of a most abominable and adulterous marriage.”[14]

In the four months between Katherine’s death and Henry’s open courting of Jane, two momentous events had occurred. On January 24, Henry had a bad jousting accident, which left him unconscious for two hours, and undoubtedly stirred up his anxiety about his own diminishing physical competence and reminded him of his mortality—something he had been trying to avoid all his life through a hypochondria bordering on obsession.  Then, on January 29th, Anne miscarried.   Although it was probably too early in the pregnancy for attendants to determine the sex of the child, which was later described by Nicholas Sander as a “shapeless mass of flesh,” it was reported by both Chapuys and Wriosthesley that it had been a male. This was a “huge psychological blow” to Henry.[15]  We only have Chapuys to rely on for details—“I see that God will not give me male children” he reports Henry as saying, and then ominously telling Anne that he would “speak to her” when she was up—but whether the quote is accurate or not, it makes sense that the loss of a potential heir, especially after at least one other miscarriage and his own recent brush with death, would have affected Henry deeply.[16]  Anne, on her part, was distraught.  She appealed to Henry, telling him that the miscarriage was the result of shock over his accident, which is not improbable, although Chapuys dismissed it.  In a letter of February 17, he wrote to Charles that Anne’s inability to bear male children was due to her “defective constitution,” that “the real cause” of this particular miscarriage may have been the King’s “behavior toward a damsel of the Court, named Miss Seymour, to whom he has latterly made very valuable presents.”[17]

Jane was a startling contrast to Anne: “fair, not dark; younger by seven or eight years; gentle rather than abrasive; of no great wit, against a mistress of repartee; a model of female self-effacement against a self-made woman.”[18]  Plus, whether through coaching or inspiration of her own, she refused the king’s gifts, saying that her greatest treasure was her honor, and that she would accept sovereigns from him in “such a time as God would be pleased to send her some advantageous marriage.”[19]  She may have not been of “great wit” but she (or her brother) knew that this would increase Henry’s ardour.  The refusal of sovereigns happened after Anne’s miscarriage, an event which undoubtedly emboldened Jane and her supporters.  For if Anne had produced a living son, all the rumblings about Anne, both at court and among the people, all the conniving of the Seymours, would have crashed against a brick wall.   But it was Anne’s disastrous luck that not only did she miscarry, but that it happened after Katherine died.  Initially, it had been a cause for celebration.  What Anne did not take into account (or perhaps did, but had no reason to consider probable at this point) was that with Katherine’s death, Henry could have his marriage to Anne annulled, or invalidated in some other way, without having to deal with Katherine’s claims to the throne.  Disastrously and without precedent, it was “the some other way” that prevailed.


[1] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87907&strquery=”than his last born”

[2] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87907&strquery=”what Cromwell’s last words”

[3] (de Carles 1927, 234); Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87907&strquery=”satisfactory settlement of all”

[4] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: October 1534, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87907&strquery=”changing his love”

[5] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: June 1535, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87920&strquery=”Anne’s right hand”

[6] (Fraser 1993, 219)

[7] (Hutchinson 2007, 42)

[8] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: June 1535, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 1: 1534-1535, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87920&strquery=”I fancy she cannot do me any harm”

[9] (Wilson 2003, 386)

[10] (Ibid., 385)

[11] (Ives 2005, 295)

[12] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: January 1536, 21-31,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87953&strquery=”sortileges and charms”

[13] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: April 1536, 1-20,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87958&strquery=”subjects abominate”

[14] (Ibid.)

[15] (Ives 2005, 298)

[16] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: February 1536, 21-29,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87956&strquery=”God will not give me male children”

[17] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: February 1536, 16-20,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87955&strquery=”defective constitution”

[18] (Ives 2005, 302)

[19] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: April 1536, 1-20,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87958&strquery=sovereigns 1536

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Why the “1000 Days’” Tower Speech Rang True in 1969—and Still Does Today

Do note cite, quote, copy, or distribute without consent of author: Bordo@uky.edu.

Genevieve Bujold’s performance, and a few key changes in the play, were to make quite a dramatic transformation in the Maxwell Anderson original.  Anderson’s play, despite it’s fireball Anne, was really Henry’s story, and, like Hackett’s biography, was intent on exorcising the ghost of Bluff King Hal, described in Hacket’s biography  as “the  sort of man who cuts off his wife’s heads, ha-ha, out of a big, jovial, exuberant good humor.  Off with her head!  Off with the next one’s head!  The more, the merrier.” (248) Charles Laughton, in Private Life, played precisely this kind of Henry, and with such gusto and ingenuity that many viewers (and reviewers) believed that they were seeing the “real” Henry. John Gamme, in Film Weekly, described Laughton as “drawing a full-blooded portrait of the gross, sensual monarch in whom lust and the satisfaction of vanity are the ruling passions.”[1]

Hacket and Anderson, however, considered this kind of portrait to be a caricature.  Their respective Henrys are not piggy old souls, but tortured monarchs.   Hackett’s was a “man of open manner and gracious fellowship” who, due to an inability to imagine himself and his personal needs as anything other than orchestrated by God, had  “managed to plunge himself and his country in the thick of an inextricable jungle.” Anderson’s Henry is an even more tragic figure than Hackett’s. He truly loves Anne, but gets caught in the net of his own obsession with an heir, masculine pride, and self-indulgence.  Ultimately, he comes to see that he has paid an enormous price, but that “nothing can ever be put back the way it was.”  In the final speech of the play, Henry muses on the magnitude of what has changed for his country (“the limb that was cut from Rome won’t graft to that trunk again”) and, with Anne’s ghost hovering in the background, begins to realize that “all other women will be shadows” and that he will seek Anne “forever down the long corridors of air, finding them empty, hearing only echoes.”  “It would have been easier,” he now recognizes, “to forget you living than to forget you dead.”

In Anderson’s play, it’s Henry, then, who has the final word, who makes the final pronouncements about history, whose torments we are left to imagine. The film, however, ends very differently.  The screenplay, adapted from the play by Brigid Boland, John Hale, and Richard Sokolove, has Henry, in our last glimpse of him, listening for the signal sounding Anne’s death, then galloping off to see Jane Seymour with nary a second thought.  In place of his sober, sad reflections at the end of the play, in the film we see little Elizabeth, a sprig of flowers in her hand, toddling down the path towards greatness (actually in the gardens of Penshurst Castle) while her mother’s voice in the background predicts her daughter’s glorious future.  The voice-over is a repeat of part of an earlier speech, one that has viewers cheering for Anne to this day.  As in the play, Henry visits Anne in the Tower, and as in the play, she lies to him about her fidelity to him.  In the movie, however, she embellishes her lie with more detail–“I was untrue to half your court.  With soldiers of your guard, with grooms, with stablehands.  Look for the rest of your life at every man that ever knew me and wonder if I didn’t find him a better man than you!”–and Henry, rattled and enraged, shouts, “You whore!”  Anne, who knows she has hit the mark of his manhood but has even sharper arrows in her quiver, goes on:

“Yes. But Elizabeth is yours. Watch her as she grows; she’s yours. She’s a Tudor! Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can – and hope that he will live! But Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth – child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher – shall be Queen! And remember this: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours! She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built! Yes – MY Elizabeth SHALL BE QUEEN! And my blood will have been well spent!”

Yes, it’s overblown.  And it’s utterly without historical foundation.  Henry never visited Anne in her room in the Tower, and Anne never delivered a speech like this; indeed, at this point, Anne knew the chances of Elizabeth ever becoming queen were extremely slim.  Two days before her execution, her marriage to Henry was declared null and void by Henry’s lawyers, and Elizabeth bastardized.  In the movie, she is given a choice that the real Anne never had: to live, if she will willingly end the marriage, freeing Henry to marry Jane Seymour and making Elizabeth illegitimate in the bargain.  Or to die, with Elizabeth still a rightful heir.  She turns Henry down flat.

It was all invention, but of a particularly potent and timely sort for 1969. This was a period of convention-smashing in film: Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, and Easy Rider.  But with the exception of Bonnie Parker and Mrs. Robinson (but strikingly not her daughter Elaine), the female characters in the New American Cinema played by the rules.  It was the men who challenged the “status quo,” and the men who paid heroically for it.[2]  Hale and Boland’s Anne, long before Thelma and Louise, is the first female heroine to ride off the cliff, in full consciousness of what she is doing, to preserve her own integrity (and in this case, the future of her daughter and of England).

It struck a chord, even with me. In 1969, I was a pretty cynical movie-goer.  The anti-sentimentalist Pauline Kael, who did movie reviews for The New Yorker,  was my idol, and I hated anything that smacked of pretention or high-mindedness.  I was not a feminist in anything but the most inchoate sense of the word.  While friends of mine were joining consciousness-raising groups and attending demonstrations, I scorned and was made anxious by what I thought of as “groupthink.”  My own personal rebellion was to drop out of school, have a lot of mindless sex, marry someone I didn’t love, and then suffer a nervous breakdown which made me unable to leave him.  But I did manage to make it to the movies—and Anne of the Thousand Days was one of them. It was my first introduction, since the boring, sexless Tudor history I’d read in high school, to the story of Henry and Anne.  I had no idea what was invented and what was historically documented, but it made no difference. I loved fiery, rebellious Anne.  I loved the way she bossed Richard Burton’s Henry around like a surly, 20th-century teenager.  I loved the fact that Genevieve Bujold’s hair was messy as she delivered that speech to Henry, loved her intensity, loved her less-than-perfectly symmetrical beauty, loved the fact that someone that small could pack such a wallop.

Anne’s speech in the Tower might have seemed melodramatic if it had been played by a young Bette Davis—or, heaven forfend, an Elizabeth Taylor!  But Bujold’s fire, issuing from her petite frame and elfin face, her hair disheveled, her dark eyes glittering with pride, desperation, hurt, and vengeance, transformed the potentially hokey into an indelible, iconic moment. Even at a recent festival of Burton’s films, held by the British Film Institute, the audience was stirred, crying out “Go, Anne, go, you tell him!”[3] “After watching this,” writes one contemporary Tudorphile,  “you come away with the feeling that if that ain’t the way it really happened then it should’ve. I love the pride she displays even after Henry slaps her. She’s right, he’s wrong and they both know it. As she goes on talking down to him you can see him shriveling little by little and he nevermore was the man he’d once been. Seems she got the last laugh in more ways than one.”

Bujold also did something with Anne’s famous—and famously ambiguous—comments in the Tower that no other actress before or since has done, and that contributed to the believability of that final speech.   Anne’s behavior in the Tower, as she awaited her sentencing and then her death, provides some of  the most intriguing clues to her personality.  Unfortunately, it was recorded by Constable Kingston, a man who seems to have been tone-deaf to her sense of irony.  When Anne delivered her best-known line—“I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck”—then put her hands around her neck and “laughed heartily” (as Kingston described it), he took her to be showing “much joy and pleasure in death.” The actresses who have played Anne have been too smart to accept that interpretation, but then have been left with the task of figuring out just what was going on.  Merle Oberon and Dorothy Tutin, who played Anne in the 1971 BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, eliminate the laughter entirely, and have Anne say the line wistfully, as if in resigned acceptance (and in the case of Oberon, with a touch of narcissism) over the reality of the coming confrontation between steel and flesh.  Natalie Dormer, who played Anne in Showtime’s The Tudors, plays the “little neck” speech as a moment when the unimaginable stress that Anne is enduring breaks through her composure, and both the absurdity and the terror of her situation erupt in a crazy joke and then, hysterical laughter—an interpretation that fits well with the evidence that Anne’s  behavior in the tower was frequently unhinged.  But Bujold chooses to emphasize Anne’s intelligence and pride rather than her emotional instability, and plays the line as a sardonic response to Kingston’s lame reasurrances that the blow would be so “subtle” there would be no pain. Her Anne recognizes cowardly, self-serving bull when it’s thrown at her, and will have none of it.

In another iconic moment, Anne had said to Kingston, upon arrival at the Tower and being told that she would be housed in the apartment she stayed in before her coronation, that it was “too good for her.”  Kingston reports that she then “kneeled down weeping, and in the same sorrow fell into a great laughing.” One can interpret the weeping as relief and the laughter as hysterical, but Anne also laughed—in the same conversation with Kingston–when he told her that “even the King’s poorest subject hath justice.” It’s hard to read that laughter as anything other than mocking Kingston’s naivete about the King’s “justice,” and Bujold, emphasizing this mockery, which stems from Anne’s uncompromising realism, makes the “it is too good for me” comment drip with sarcasm rather than relief.  For a queen, of course the apartments would hardly be “too good.” By saying the line “It is too good for me” with bitter irony rather than tearful gratitude, Bujold’s Anne is actually pointing out to the clueless, uncomfortable Kingston that she is still, after all, the Queen of England.  Her Anne was, and probably always will be, the proudest of the Annes.

…..Bujold’s own history had prepared her well to play a young woman breaking through the confinements of convention.  She had grown up in a devout French-Canadian Catholic household, and spent her first twelve school years in a convent; in an online biography, she is quoted as saying that at the time she felt “as if I were in a long, dark tunnel, trying to convince myself that if I could ever get out, there was light ahead.” But something about her religious training made its way into her attitude toward acting.  When asked in 2007 how she prepared for her roles, she answered, “You pray for grace.  If you’ve done your homework and, most of all, are open to receive, you go forward…Preparation for me is sacred.”  But going forward with her own life required rebellion as well as grace; she finally “got out’ of the tunnel by being caught reading a forbidden book.  Liberated to pursue her own designs for her life, she enrolled in Montreal’s free Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique.”  While on tour in Paris with the company, she was discovered by director Alain Resnais, who cast her with Yves Montand in the acclaimed La Guerre est Finie.

Resnais taught her an acting lesson that “still is in me, will always be with me. ‘Always go to the end of your movement,’ he told me”–don’t short-circuit the emotion, the bodily expression, the commitments of the personality you are playing, allow them to fully unfold. That’s something that Genevieve saw in Anne as well. “You can’t put something into a character,” she said, “that you haven’t got within you. Every little thing in life is fed into the character…A word, a thought.  I had read something on Anne Boleyn that Hal gave me and I could look at her with joy and energy; Anne brought a smile to my face.” I asked her what elicited that smile. “Independence. A healthy sense of justice. And she knew herself and was well with herself.  She obviously had such profound integrity in that respect.  She was willing to lose her head to go to the end of her movement.”  That’s what we see, too, in her portrayal of Anne, especially in that final speech, and it’s why “My Elizabeth shall be queen!” still has audiences cheering for her, unconcerned with the historical liberties.

Most movies of the late nine-sixties have not worn exceptionally well, particularly with today’s generation of viewers, for whom many of the lifestyle protests of the times seem dated and silly.   My students snoozed through Easy Rider.  With Anne of the Thousand Days, the passing years and changing culture have had the opposite effect; my students adored it, and especially an Anne that seems to become “truer” as the generations have become less patient with passive heroines and perhaps a bit tired by the cutesy, man-focused femininity of many current female stars.: “Everything I imagine Anne really was”; “How I always picture Anne—as a strong woman not a sniveling girl”; “The gold standard of Annes”; “When I imagine Anne, it is her that I see”; “One of the best Annes ever — all fire and grace.” “The definitive Anne Boleyn for me”; “Pitch-perfect”; “So powerful that she turned a big, touch guy like myself into a wimpering fool”; “A remarkable actress.  I will never forget the scene where she and Henry go riding from Hever…Purely from her body language, she radiates suppressed hatred towards Henry—just by sitting on a horse!  And who can forget her in the blue gown, with jewels in her hair, looking devastatingly beautiful and in total command of herself and the situation.” [4]

Before I said good-by to Genevieve in our interview, I asked her who she would pick to play Anne today.  She admitted that she hadn’t seen either Natalie Portman or Natalie Dormer; she lives a fairly reclusive life in Malibu, and rarely sees movies or watches television.  “But is there anyone who you think would do the part justice?”  She was silent for awhile, then asked me if she could be honest.  Of course, I said.  “Maybe it’s selfish, but…the way I feel….” Genevieve had been so warm and generous throughout the interview, praising all her mentors and influences in her life, she was clearly a bit uncomfortable with what she wanted to say.  So, I pressed a bit more, and she responded, with an intensity that recalled her performance and made me smile with delight.

“No-one,” she replied, “Anne is mine.”


[1] Laughton himself maintained, incredibly, that the film, whose liberties with history run rampant (and rollicking) was true to historical fact.  When the film was lambasted by some of the British press for presenting a “disrespectful” view of imperial history, Laughton insisted on its authenticity: “Most of the dialogue was copied straight from contemporary records of Henry’s actual words,” he claimed, a bald faced lie that mattered little to viewers or most critics, most of whom were swept away not by the film’s accuracy, but the entertaining life it breathed into Henry as a personality.

[2] Although nowadays, pop culture tends to call the shots on “reality,” it used to be that it took awhile for movies to catch up with events in the real world. In 1969, Women’s Liberation groups were forming all over the country.  But it would be another five years or so before films like Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Her Anymore and Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman would bow, gently, in the direction of a “new woman.”  It wouldn’t be until Thelma and Louise (1991) that the deepest gender conventions would be challenged.  In Alice and Unmarried Woman, the heroines’ (Ellen Burstyn and Jill Clayburgh) independence is tempered by the presence of two gorgeous, really nice guys (Kris Kristofferson and Alan Bates, each at the height of his appeal) who, it is implied, will remain in the women’s lives, providing support and great sex while the heroines pursue their careers.  In Thelma and Louise, in contrast, even the nicest of the male characters are impotent; despite every attempt,  they cannot alter the tragic course of events.  The women have chosen, and they—like the rebel-males of the 1968-9 films—will have to pay the price.

[3] Bujold admits that she was also “telling off” Elizabeth Taylor when she filmed that scene.  After hearing rumors about Burton’s interest in Bujold, Liz had unexpectedly shown up on the set that day.  “It was all rubbish,” Burton told his biographer Michael Nunn, but it was a “problem for Gin, because she had Elizabeth training her sights on her.”  When Taylor showed up on the set, Bujold, as Wallis relates in his autobiography, “was fighting mad,” and “flung herself into the scene with a display of acting skill I have seldom seen equaled in my career.  Then she stormed off the set.”

[4] Comments from readers of my FB page.

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Filed under Anne Through the Ages, Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

How Could He Do It?: New Excerpt from Susan’s Book

Note: The Following is excerpted from a draft chapter of Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming 2012.  Do not cite or quote without attribution.

How Could He Do It?

When the guns sounded Anne’s death, Henry “immediately boarded a barge and went to Mistress Seymour.” Later that night he returned to Hampton Court, the magnificent palace that Henry had appropriated from his long-time mentor and Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, and refurbished for Anne.  Jane Seymour followed Henry at six the next morning.  They were betrothed at nine o’clock.   The palace had been divested of all the emblems and other evidence of Anne’s queenship (except for those missed by the furiously scrambling revisionist carpenters and stonemasons.)  Soon it would be renovated, once again, to accommodate Prince Edward, the long prayed-for male heir.

The execution of a queen was unprecedented, extreme and shocking, even to Anne’s enemies. Henry had invested six years of time, energy, intellect, money, and blood in making the marriage happen. They were married less than three years. There is no evidence of an unbridgeable emotional estrangement between them. His earlier love letters to her, admittedly written in the bloom of fresh passion, portray a solicitous, tender suitor whom it is impossible to imagine coldly ordering a wife’s death. There are plenty of explanations for Henry’s desire for a new marriage–Anne’s failure to provide a male heir, Jane Seymour, waiting in the wings, fresh and fertile, Henry’s recognition that Anne was creating problems with his image, and perhaps the need to reaffirm his declining masculinity with a new, more pliant bride. […..] In the end, whichever account you find most convincing, it still takes a leap of incomprehension to find any of them sufficient to explain Henry’s willingness—in fact, seeming eagerness—to sign the order for Anne’s execution.  We are still left asking ourselves: How could he do it?

The answer to that question requires going deeper into Henry’s psychology, both as a man and as a King, in search of precisely that piece of his being that made the order to execute Anne possible for him. [………….] Ideas about this fall into one of two categories.  There are those that see the young Henry and the older Henry as two very different men.  Lipscomb’s and Starkey’s theories falls into this category, and so does Michael Hirst’s.  Hirst, creator of The Tudors, described in an interview with me what he views as a shattering of Henry’s psyche, brought on by the recognition that he had spent years of his life, shed the blood of friends, and broken with the church of his childhood, only to be proved mistaken in the supposition that this was what God wanted of him.  On this interpretation, Anne’s failure to produce an heir was not just a blow to the security of the Tudor line but a sign that the hope that he had built his entire life around was based on an illusion:

“He had attacked the church on the basis of a love affair, largely.  But he felt sure of what he was doing at the time, and Anne had mistaken promised him a son. After she’d given him a daughter and had the miscarriages, it began to seem to him as though he’d gone horribly wrong.  He was plunged back into reality, which is messy and not perfect. And I think that as he confronted the huge seriousness of it, he began to think in weird ways, that she was a witch and so forth.  This of course, shows how juvenile he still was.  And he did have an absolutely ruthless streak which his father, too, had possessed.  But beyond that, he did suffer a severe psychological crisis, knowing he had been so deluded. He came out of that crisis a much worse person, a complete tyrant and monster, who killed off the best part of himself in the attempt to reconcile his psychological issues.”

Hirst dramatized this transformation with a chilling last scene in the final episode of the second season of The Tudors.  This was the episode in which Anne is executed, and throughout, scenes of her suffering in the Tower were punctuated with the image of Henry, gazing contemplatively at two beautiful swans nuzzling in the pond outside the palace.  His mood and thoughts are left deliberately ambiguous; perhaps, the viewer imagines, he is thinking back over his love for Anne and the life they shared together, perhaps he is having regrets, feeling sorrow for the beauty that is about to be lost?  No.  After the execution scene, we are immediately taken to the King at his table, looking forward to his breakfast, which is being brought to him in a large gilt tureen on a silver platter.  The lid is lifted, and the servants and nobles surrounding Henry gasp and applaud in delight.  There on the platter is one of the swans, roasted and decorated with its own beautiful wings, posed as gracefully as if it were still swimming in a lake.  Henry, referencing Charles Laughton’s famous eating scene but giving Henry’s voraciousness a menace missing from Laughton’s comic depiction, tears off a wing, plunges his hand into the body of the swan, and begins eating, oblivious to the greasy drool spilling from his mouth.

But there are those who argue that although Henry’s resilience, emotional balance, and temper may have degenerated—and his waistline expanded[1]–as he got older, his personality and character were essentially the same from the beginning of his reign to the end.  Those who argue in this way generally believe, like Lacey Baldwin Smith, that Henry was always a man of many faces, a “baffling composite of shifting silhouettes” who could be good-natured, generous and charming one moment and dangerously cold as stone the next, highly emotional yet rigidly stubborn, a genuine searcher of his conscience for “God’s will” yet able to subordinate all moral scruples and guilt to solidifying his own authority or satisfying his own desires.  The combination of informal warmth and lethal self-interest meant that even the closest relationships with him were never on solid ground, always skating on thin ice.  Thomas More, of all of Henry’s contemporaries, was most perceptive about the inherent danger of making too much of the King’s outward gestures of affection. He told Fisher  that “the king has a way of making every man feel that he is enjoying his special favor.”  It may have been a compliment, but it was also a warning.  He told a young courtier—and this was in 1520, before any “crisis” had occurred in Henry’s reign—that having fun with the king was like “having fun with tamed lions—often it is harmless, but just as often there is the fear of harm.  Often he roars in rage for no known reason, and suddenly the roar becomes fatal.  The pleasure you get is not safe enough to relieve you of anxiety.  For you it is a great pleasure.  As for me, let my pleasure be less great—and safe” (Lion’s Court, p. 217).

But even More couldn’t remain safe.  He realized, as he told his son in law Roper, that even when he was favored by the King “more singularly” than any subject in the realm, “I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go.” (Ridley, 188)   In the end, Henry was just that cavalier with More’s life, although not over a castle in France. Henry had promised, years before, that he would always allow More to avoid any declarations or actions that went against his conscience.  But when Henry’s own supremacy was at issue, More’s conscience—and his head—proved to be easily dispensed with.  On the day of More’s execution, Henry went hunting in Reading.  This was the way Henry dealt with all his executions of old friends and lovers: go hunting, have a party, be merry. Move on.  It may have been a survival mechanism, whose aim was to defend him against normal human feelings of regret or grief.

Despite their many insights—I particularly value Suzanne Lipscomb’s work–the problem with theories that postulate a crisis or set of crises that turned Henry from a virtuous prince into the sort of man who could order the execution of a wife is that Henry was always capable of decisively and irrevocably turning off the switch of affection, love, tender feeling and shared memories, severing all ties, and refusing to look back.  In fact, those whom he loved the most—Wolsey, More, Anne, Cromwell–were most at risk.  Because he loved them, they had the most power to disappoint him—and for Henry, disappointment could never be “slight.”  All wounds to his authority, his manhood, his trust, were bloody gashes that he could only repair by annihilating (psychologically or literally) the one who inflicted the wound.  This, perhaps, is what distinguishes Henry’s pattern from “ordinary” royal imperiousness.  Kings execute people.  Kings have grandiose ambitions.  Kings are threatened by challenges to their authority.  Kings can become drunk on power, and often do.   But Henry may be unique among famous authoritarian kings in that his close relationships only had two switches: on and off.  As Howard Brenton, author of the play Anne Boleyn, put it in an interview with me, “With Henry, you were either totally in or you were dead.  He would have someone close to him, he’d elevate them, and they’d be terrific and virtually run everything on his behalf, and then when something went wrong, or a wind came his way, he would turn 180 degrees against them and they would be out.  It happened to Wolsey, it happened to More, it happened to Anne, it happened to Cromwell.”  It almost happened to Mary, who so enraged Henry when she refused, even after Anne was dead, to take the oath recognizing her father as Supreme Head of the Church of England, that Cranmer , at the last minute, had to talk him out of ordering her execution (Ridley, 274).  Mary was Henry’s daughter.

In 2011, this kind of personality would probably be diagnosed as indicating that Henry was a borderline or narcissistic personality type.  Phenomenologically—that is, without attempting to put a medical label on Henry, but simply looking at his patterns of behavior—he certainly exemplifies the phenomenon therapists call “splitting”:

“The world of a borderline, like that of a child, is split into heroes and villains.  A child emotionally, the borderline cannot tolerate human inconsistencies and ambiguities; he cannot reconcile another’s good and bad qualities into a constant coherent understanding of that person.  At any particular moment, one is either ‘good’ or ‘evil’; there is no in-between, no gray area.  Nuances and shadows are grasped with great difficulty, if at all.  Lovers and mates, mothers and father, siblings…and friends may be idolized one day, totally devalued and dismissed the next” (10, ‘I hate you’).

In a certain sense, of course, the medieval world view was itself a “split” universe, in which God and Satan, the saved and the fallen, were at starkly opposite poles, and “history was an extended moral homily upon the actions of men behaving rightly or wrongly.” (Mask of royalty, 75) It wasn’t until the psychological turn of the 19th century that human beings began to be seen as mixtures of good and evil, ego and id, light side and dark side.  But a dualistic ideology and a personality for whom others are either “for you” or “against you” are two very different things.  In philosophical or religious dualism it is God (or the universe) that assigns the categories of good and bad, which are relatively stable; for Henry, his own shifting needs were the measure of all things. “He is a prince of a royal disposition, and hath a princely heart, “ Wolsey told Kingston in 1529, long before Kingston became Anne’s warder in the Tower, but “rather than he will either miss or want any part of his will or appetite, he will put the loss of one half of his realm in danger.” (p. 256, Lion’s Court) But Henry’s “will” was not always easy to discern, for it was capricious.  In the screenplay of “A Man for All Seasons,” Robert Bolt brilliantly captures, in one brief action, not only the trembling uncertainty this produced in those around him, but Henry’s delight in it.  Henry’s boat has just arrived at Chelsea, More’s home, and the king (Robert Shaw), robust and athletic has jumped off the deck and into, unexpectedly, into a pool of mud.  He glares menacingly at the rowmen, who quake appropriately.  Henry then bursts into a hearty, howling laugh, and the tense atmosphere among the men is transformed into playtime, as they take their turn jumping into the mud.

There’s no evidence that Henry took such childish pleasure in manipulating the emotions of his subjects—although there are plenty of occasions when he used his ability to make people cower in order to show his magnanimity (e.g. staged last-minute pardons) or assert his authority.  Those tactics were pretty standard for kings, whose image was essential to maintaining power.  It was also judicious for royalty to develop a strong shell of mistrust, for the reality is that Henry’s life and line of descent were in constant danger.  He was not “paranoid” to be watchful for signs of betrayal.  But Henry’s turnabouts do not seem to have been always under his control.  The letters of ambassadors, even from the early years of his reign, describe sudden, explosive angers, “tears and tantrums.”   1535, the king’s fool almost lost his life over a joke about Anne Boleyn; a year later, Henry was weeping uncontrollably while hugging his illegitimate son, relieved that he was now safe from  “that accursed whore” who had slept with over a hundred men.  A hundred?  That would have meant a new man every ten days of her Queenship.  Yet it’s possible that Henry believed something near to this, for his emotional switch, for whatever reasons, had turned against her, and she was now as wholly evil in his eyes as she once was wholly virtuous.

If we want to go beyond the phenomenology of Henry’s “splitting” to causal explanation, we could find it in his childhood, which was itself split between the “cosy feminine world” of his mother and sisters and the cold indifference, then hostile domination, of his father.  “As the only boy in the royal nursery,” writes  Robert Hutchinson, Henry “was thoroughly spoilt and tenderly protected from the hard knocks and bruises of childhood misfortune.  The toddler prince was cosseted, his grumpiness and tears sweetly cooed away, and his every whim swiftly fulfilled by the doting matronly ladies who cared for him.” (15)  It’s not clear, however, that naturally energetic Henry was entirely happy with all this “doting,” which after Arthur’s death kept him “as locked away as a woman” out of fear that the precious spare heir would also be lost.  As soon as he was free to, he was non-stop jousting, wrestling, and showing off with his boy-pals. But the masculine attentions of his father came with a high price, too.  Until Arthur’s death, his father had virtually ignored Henry, leaving him to the care of the women; after Arthur died, however, he became obsessively focused on preparing him for the throne, and in the process, Henry became subject to his father’s famous rages when he didn’t do exactly as required.  He was so strict with the child that he gave the impression to Reginald Pole, Henry’s contemporary, that he had “no affection or fancy unto him.” (Erickson, 51)

You don’t need to venture into psychoanalytic territory, or engage in anachronistic psychologizing, to imagine Henry growing up with the belief that relationships were an either/or business, largely defined by gender:  You could be extravagantly loved but smothered by women (perhaps part of the reason why he was initially drawn to both Katherine and Anne, and later Katherine Parr, all of whom were strong-minded women whose strengths he came to resent.)  Or: you could excel in the competitive world of men, where you might exercise power and command fear but never achieve the unconditional adoration you crave.  Perhaps this intense desire for male love, and not only freedom from the restrictions of his childhood, helps to explain both his attraction to a father figure like Wolsey, and also why Henry was at his happiest, most generous, most exuberant, among the young men he hunted and cavorted with.   But in the end, everyone—with the exception of Charles Brandon and Katherine Parr, the two “survivors” of life with Henry—was bound to fail him, for he expected the impossible.

Whatever the origins of Henry’s personality, his problems were vastly exacerbated by the fact that he was, after all, king.  As such, he was continually flattered and pampered, his every whim indulged, his grandiosity rarely challenged, his illusions carefully maintained.  All of this encouraged his sense of omnipotence, which in turn made it all the riskier for those around him to show anything less than absolute allegiance.  In proving this, even obedience, ironically, put one at risk, for Henry wasn’t a fool; he knew those around him were afraid, and so never fully trusted anyone.  When he was young, he sought out people like More, and encouraged them to be honest with him, seeking some solid ground on which to base a relationship.  But it was a zero sum game; when More ran up against Henry’s need to be the center of the universe, More’s once-cherished independence of mind became worse than “nothing” in Henry’s “all or nothing” demands on relationships.

It’s hard to know exactly what threw the switch with Anne.  Her final miscarriage may have convinced him that God was not on the side of their relationship.  He may have believed in the charges of adultery—although his exaggerated estimates of her infidelities make me less rather than more likely to believe that; if he truly believed she had slept with five men, including her own brother, surely that would have been enough to “justify” his outrage without dragging half the men in court into her bed.  Or the humiliation of hearing that Anne gossiped about his lack of sexual performance may have been all that was needed.  We will never know, and it really doesn’t matter.  It was sufficient, whatever it was, to shut off any currents of empathy, memory, attachment that Henry felt for Anne.  This is where “Anne of the Thousand Days” has it so wrong.  The play and movie both open with Henry tormented by the decision whether or not to order Anne’s execution.  In Maxwell Anderson’s play, which is written in verse, Henry muses:

“This is hard to do

when you come to put pen to paper.

You say to yourself:

She must die.  And she must—

If thing are to go as planned.

Yes, if they are to go at all.

If I am to rule

And keep my sanity and hold my England off the rocks…

Go back to it, Henry, go back to it.

Keep your mind

On this parchment you must sign.

Dip the pen in the ink write your name…

It’s only that a woman you’ve held in your arms

And longer for when she was away,

And suffered with her—no, but she promised you an heir.

Write it down—

Write Henry Rex, and it’s done.

And then the headsman

Will cry out suddenly, “Look, look there!’

And point to the first flash of sunrise,

And she’ll look,

Not knowing what he means, and his sword will flash

In the flick of sun, through the little bones of her neck

As she looks away,

And it will be done.

It will be done.”

It’s romantic and moving, and beautifully written.  But it is not, I believe, the poetry of Henry’s reality.  In that reality, they handed him the parchment.  He dipped the pen in the ink.  He signed his name: Henry Rex.  And it was done.

[1] Something The Tudors never shows, in part due to the vanity of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

Hans Holbein, Henry VIII

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Filed under Anne and Gender, Book Excerpts

At the Scaffold

The following entry should not be sited, reproduced, or quoted without attribution to me and my book:  Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

At the Scaffold.

Despite her proclaimed readiness to die, until very near the end Anne still harbored the belief that Henry might pardon her. It was not an unreasonable expectation.  Not only had no British queen up until then been executed, but 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.  The Arthurian romance, even today, has the power to move us.  And in 1536, many of the outward trappings and habits of courtly love still existed.  Henry was himself an adroit and seductively tender courtier, who at the beginning of his courtship of Anne had written seventeen letters in which he pledged himself her “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?

Henry had no such plans in mind, however. As Anne prepared for her death, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding.  Chapuys describes the king as showing “extravagant joy” at Anne’s arrest.  Convinced (or making a great show for posterity) that Anne was an “accursed whore” who had slept with hundreds of men, he was “very impatient” and wishing to have the thing done with “already.”  Ironically, Anne, on her part, felt the same way. Expecting to die on the 18th, she took the sacrament at 2 a.m., having prepared her soul for many hours.  By now all who were in close contact with her must have been convinced of her innocence, whatever their politics. She had insisted that Kingston be present when she took confession, so her assertion of innocence of the charges would be public record. Even her old enemy Chapuys was impressed by the fact that Anne, before and after receiving the Sacrament, affirmed to those who had charge of her “on damnation of her soul, that she had never offended with her body against the King.”  In the 16th century, to speak anything other than the truth at such a time would be to invite the utter condemnation of God. Anne had nothing to gain and her salvation to lose by lying.

She was prepared to die.  Yet, cruelly, the execution was delayed twice, once in order to clear the Tower of possible sympathetic observers, the second time because the executioner had been delayed. The first delay dismayed Anne, who thought that at the newly appointed hour she would already “be dead and past my pain.”  Kingston, who seems to have been an absurdly literal man, took her to be referring to the physical pain of the execution itself, and reassured her that “there would be no pain, it was so subtle.” Anne replied with her most famous line: “I have heard say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck.”  And then, according to Kingston, “she put her hand around [her neck], laughing heartily.”  Kingston flat-footedly interpreted this to mean that Anne had “much joy and pleasure in death.”  He apparently did not “get” Anne’s irony, or the fact that at this point, she was probably becoming a bit unhinged.  At the news of the second delay, she was distraught.  But “It was not that she desired death,” as she told Kingston (or perhaps one of the ladies, who then told him) “but she had thought herself prepared to die, and feared that the delay would weaken her resolve. “  So much for Kingston’s theory that Anne felt “joy and pleasure” at the prospect of death.

What she may have felt was something closer to what James Hillman describes as the state of mind that often precedes an attempt at suicide:  a desperate desire to shed an old self whose suffering had become unbearable, and thus be “reborn” in the act of dying.  This imagined rebirth, for Hillman, has nothing to do with belief in reincarnation, or even in heaven, but the perception, ironically, that the soul cannot survive under existing conditions. What Anne had been through was certainly enough to shatter any hold her previous life may have exerted on her.  She had been discarded by the man who had pursued her for six years, fathered her daughter, and seemingly adored her for much of their time together.  The person she was closest to in the world—her brother George—had been executed on the most hideous and shameful of charges.   The rest of her family, as far as we can tell, had either abandoned her or—as Anne believed of her mother–was awash with despair and grief over what was happening.  Still recovering from a miscarriage, her body and mind undoubtedly assaulted by hormonal changes and unstable moods, she had been sent to prison on absurd, concocted charges, and “cared for” there by women who were hostile spies.  She knew she would never see her daughter Elizabeth again, and—unlike the fictional Anne of Anne of the Thousand Days, who predicts that “Elizabeth will be queen!”—had no hope, after Cranmer’s visit, that her child would ever be anything more than she had seen Mary reduced to: a bastardized ex-princess forced to bow down to any children the new wife might produce for Henry.  She had been given reason to hope that she would be allowed to live, only to have those hopes crushed at her sentencing. In a sense, she had already been through dozens of dyings.   Nothing was left but the withered skin of her old life, which she was ready to shed.

As she mounted the scaffold, wearing a role of dark damask (black in some reports, grey in others) trimmed with white fur, with a red kirtle (petticote) underneath—red being the liturgical color of Catholic martyrdom—political and national affiliations continued, as they had through her reign and would for centuries to come–to shape the descriptions of her appearance and behavior. To an author of the Spanish Chronicle, she exhibited “a devilish spirit.” A Portugese witness who had snuck in despite the ban on “strangers”, wrote that “never had she looked so beautiful.” An imperialist observer described her as “feeble and stupefied” (which would be understandable, and not incompatible with her looking beautiful as well.)  Wriothesley says she showed “a goodly smiling countenance.”  French de Carles commented on the beauty of her complexion, pure and clear as though cleansed by all the suffering.  For all, the spectacle of a queen, wearing the white ermine of her role, mounting the stairs to the scaffold, was unnerving.

Unlike her trial speech and her “last letter,” Anne’s remarks on the scaffold made the more conventional bows to the goodness and mercy of the King—in this highly public context, it was virtually required, if only to prevent any retribution against surviving relatives—and asked the people to pray for her.  She did not admit to guilt for the offenses with which she was charged or accuse the judges of malice, but did make reference to the “cruel law of the land by which I die.” By now, the four young ladies who had accompanied her to the scaffold (clearly not the hostile spies that had lived with her in the Tower, but others, more intimate with her, who she had been allowed to have with her in these last moments) were weeping.  Anne, having helped them take off her robe—an act that in itself must have demanded great composure and courage—“appeared dazed” as he kneeled down, modestly covering her feet with her dress, and asked the executioner to remove her coif, lest it interfere with his stroke.  The executioner realized that she was afraid of the pain of an impeded blow; she kept looking around her, her hand on her coif, anticipating the moment.   Clearly “distressed” at the task he was to perform, he told her that he would wait until she gave the signal.  “With a fervent spirit” she began to pray, and the Portuguese contingent, unable to bear it, huddled together and knelt down against the scaffold, wailing loudly.

Anne gave the signal.  But either the executioner or someone else in charge had devised a scheme to distract Anne at the last moment, so the fatal blow would come when she wasn’t expecting it; he turned toward the scaffold steps and called for the sword, and when Anne blindly turned her head in that direction, he brought the sword down from the other side and swiftly “divided her neck at a blow.”   As these things went—others had died only after multiple clumsy hackings—it was an easy death: if the naturalist Lewis Thomas has it right, it was far easier than her weeks of suffering in the Tower:  “Pain, “ he writes, “is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time to get away, but when it is end game, and no way back, pain is likely to be turned off, and the mechanisms for this are wonderfully precise and quick.  If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensible part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.”   He quotes Montaigne, who nearly died in a riding accident and later described the “letting go” that he experienced at what could have easily been the very end:

“It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who have let themselves slide into sleep. I believe this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting in the agony of death, and maintain that we pity them without cause…If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care with it” (Lewis, 104-5).

While I was in London, conducting interviews for this book and visiting sites of importance, I had an experience that reminded me of Lewis’s essay. Returning to my hotel from a day-long visit to the Tower, I was obediently following the crowd across a busy intersection when I heard a voice call out “Watch Out!” and, struck on my lower back, was knocked to the ground. The impact was forceful and disorienting; I had no idea what had happened.  Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw the red of a London bus. “I’m about to be run over by a bus!” I thought, disbelieving but sure; it seemed impossible, on my innocent little research trip, that I should die in this arbitrary, unexpected way, but that was clearly what was about to happen.  I tried to lift myself up, and realized that although I was hurt, I wasn’t about to be crushed, for I’d been hit not by the bus I’d seen out of the corner of my eye, but by an impatient bicyclist; the bus had slowed to a stop by the time I was on the ground.

I was bleeding from a bad scrape on my arm, and sharp darts of pain in my back and side accompanied every breath, in a way that I recognized from a hair-line rib fracture I’d once received in an auto accident. I suppose I ought to have gone to the hospital just to be sure everything was okay, but I didn’t.  And eventually, everything did heal.  The only injury that remained was existential: the memory of that moment when I was sure that I was about to be extinguished, just like that, without warning.  I had felt terror, yes, but then, when the fatal blow seemed inevitable, an eerie calm overcame me.  It seemed useless to struggle—a feeling that I had never before experienced, in a life devoted to making things happen, protecting myself and those I love, and constantly moving forward.  For a moment, when I thought I was about to be struck by that bus, I relaxed into the unfamiliar sense of “letting go.” It was only for an instant, and then, when I realized that the bus had stopped and escape from the traffic was still possible, the self-protective fear returned and I scrambled to my feet, and hobbled across the street to the sidewalk where my husband was standing, looking alarmed.

Dostoevsky, too, had experienced a close brush with death—by the Czar’s firing squad, a sentence from which he was reprieved at the last moment—and fictionalizes his experience through a character in The Idiot.  His account, though very different from Montaigne’s or mine, nonetheless describes a radically altered state of consciousness, not characterized by pain but a sense of the infinity of time, stretching his final moments into an extended reflection culminating in the sense of impending re-birth into the “new self” that James Hillman describes:

“About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals (of whom there were several). The first three criminals were taken to the posts, dressed in long white tunics, with white caps drawn over their faces, so that they could not see the rifles pointed at them. Then a group of soldiers took their stand opposite to each post. My friend was the eighth on the list, and therefore he would have been among the third lot to go up. A priest went about among them with a cross: and there was about five minutes of time left for him to live.

He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions–one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good- bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer. Then having bade farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them.”

Anne’s preparations for dying, facing the inevitability of her execution, may also have been filled with internal good-byes, existential confrontation with the mystery of “being” and “nothingness”, and imaginings of becoming one with nature.  I like to think of her final hours as immensely rich, in a way that I cannot comprehend but that was sustaining to her, even beyond her more conventional—but extremely deep, for Anne—religious faith.  And then, at the end, I hope that nature or God (it makes no difference), gave her no more to figure out, no more to regret, no more to say good-bye to, no more work to do, and took care of her dying.

Sir William Russell Flint – Queen Guinevere rescued from the stake by Sir Lancelot, from ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, Book XX, Chapter VIII

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Famous Thinkers on the Approach of Death

Something to consider when thinking about Anne in prison and at the scaffold. From Dostoevsky, with many thanks to Lisa Tecoulesco for sending it to us:

“As to life in a prison, of course there may be two opinions,” said the prince. “I once heard the story of a man who lived twelve years in a prison–I heard it from the man himself. He was one of the persons under treatment with my professor; he had fits, and attacks of melancholy, then he would weep, and once he tried to commit suicide. His life in prison was sad enough; his only acquaintances were spiders and a tree that grew outside his grating-but I think I had better tell you of another man I met last year. There was a very strange feature in this case, strange because of its extremely rare occurrence. This man had once been brought to the scaffold in company with several others, and had had the sentence of death by shooting passed upon him for some political crime. Twenty minutes later he had been reprieved and some other punishment substituted; but the interval between the two sentences, twenty minutes, or at least a quarter of an hour, had been passed in the certainty that within a few minutes he must die. I was very anxious to hear him speak of his impressions during that dreadful time, and I several times inquired of him as to what he thought and felt. He remembered everything with the most accurate and extraordinary distinctness, and declared that he would never forget a single iota of the experience.

“About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals (of whom there were several). The first three criminals were taken to the posts, dressed in long white tunics, with white caps drawn over their faces, so that they could not see the rifles pointed at them. Then a group of soldiers took their stand opposite to each post. My friend was the eighth on the list, and therefore he would have been among the third lot to go up. A priest went about among them with a cross: and there was about five minutes of time left for him to live.

“He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions–one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good- bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer. Then having bade farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them.

“The repugnance to what must ensue almost immediately, and the uncertainty, were dreadful, he said; but worst of all was the idea, ‘What should I do if I were not to die now? What if I were to return to life again? What an eternity of days, and all mine! How I should grudge and count up every minute of it, so as to waste not a single instant!’ He said that this thought weighed so upon him and became such a terrible burden upon his brain that he could not bear it, and wished they would shoot him quickly and have done with it.”

 

A photo of Fyodor Dostoevsky

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May 18th, 1536: Anne’s Final Sunset

I’m sure that the sad and grim events that transpired today are well-known to followers of this page. Expecting to die on the 18th, Anne took the sacrament at 2 a.m., and by now all who were in contact with her must have been convinced of her innocence. Even her old enemy Chapuys was impressed by the fact that Anne, before and after receiving the Sacrament, affirmed to those who had charge of her “on damnation of her soul, that she had never offended with her body against the King.”  In the 16th century, to speak anything other than the truth at such a time would be to invite the utter condemnation of God. Anne had nothing to gain and her salvation to lose by lying.  She was prepared, “and no person ever showed greater willingness” to die.  Yet, cruelly, the execution was delayed twice.  In the hours that passed between the morning of the 18th and the 19th Anne said many things that have inscribed themselves powerfully in our collective “memory” of her story.  Undoubtedly the most famous: When being assured by Kingston that “there would be no pain, it was so subtle” Anne replied, “I have heard say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck.”  And then, according to Kingston, “she put her hand around [her neck], laughing heartily.”  Kingston interpreted this to mean that Anne had “much joy and pleasure in death.”  This has always struck me as a strange interpretation. What do you think?

 

A later depiction of Anne at prayer, “the last sunset of Anne’s earthly life.”

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