Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, was beheaded in the Tower of London on May 19, 1536. Only three years had passed during her reign as monarch.
Author Claire Ridgway of The Anne Boleyn Files discusses the courageous queen’s final hours and how she was rumored to have found “much joy and pleasure in death.”
After a trial in the King’s Hall in the Tower on May 15, 1536, a jury of her peers found Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, guilty of high treason. She was around 35 years old when she was executed on May 19, 1536, by having her head severed.
Five courtiers, including her brother George Boleyn (aka Lord Rochford) and the king’s close friend and groom of the stool, Sir Henry Norris, were accused of having sexual relations with Queen Anne.
The indictments allege that she not only conspired with these men to murder her husband, the king but also slept with them (due to her “frail and carnal appetites”).
Anne was accused of crimes between October 1533 and January 1536; however, as noted by the late historian Eric Ives, three-quarters of the dates listed in the indictments do not make sense for either Anne or the accused man, as Anne was not present at the places at the times stated.
Anne was still confined to her chambers at Greenwich after the birth of her daughter, the future Elizabeth I, in October 1533, when she was accused of “procuring” Sir Henry Norris to “violate” her at Westminster.
While everyone thought she was seducing Mark Smeaton at Greenwich in 1535, the queen was actually hiding out in Richmond. The charges were illogical, but the addition of “divers [diverse] days before and since” and “several times before and after” to the indictments made up for any possible doubts about the accuracy of those dates.
Who Was Anne Boleyn?
The future Queen Elizabeth I of England was born to Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife.
She was a child who grew up in Hever Castle in Kent and was born there around the year 1501.
The year 1526 saw King Henry’s interest in Boleyn rise dramatically. Only one child, a daughter named Princess Mary, had resulted from his long marriage to Katherine of Aragon. In the 1520s, King Henry realized he needed a son to continue the Tudor line.
Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) explains that during the Tudor era, “not even a King could simply decide to get a divorce.”
In 1527, King Henry VIII began looking into ways to end his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, going so far as to claim to Pope Julius II that the union was never valid because “he had sinned in taking his brother’s widow, which some scholars believed to be prohibited in the Bible,” as recounted by HRP.
Even though the Pope refused to give in to King Henry’s demands, William Tyndale wrote a book called Obedience of a Christian Man in which he argued that the Bible, and not the Pope, is the ultimate authority.
King Henry, disregarded the Pope and banished Katherine in 1531; he married Anne Boleyn in January 1533; and on June 1, 1533, she was crowned queen at Westminster Hall.
Why Was Anne Boleyn Executed?
Most modern historians agree that Anne Boleyn was innocent until proven guilty and that she was framed either by her husband Henry VIII, who wanted to move on to a new wife with whom he could have a male heir, or by his loyal servant Thomas Cromwell,
who fabricated the case against Anne to eliminate a threat and an obstacle to his plans. When Cromwell wanted to form an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire,
Anne’s pro-French stance on diplomacy presented a problem. In a sermon delivered right in front of the king, Anne’s almoner criticized Cromwell and the counsel he was giving.
Defendants in trials under Tudor law were often left in the dark about the nature of the charges against them and the evidence that would be used against them because
they were presumed guilty until proven innocent (the burden of proof was on the accused to prove their innocence) before trial.
The jury was well-aware of their duties in a case of high treason involving a plot to assassinate the divinely appointed ruler. Anne Boleyn,
her brother George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, Sir Henry Norris, groom of the stool,
courtiers Sir Francis Weston and William Brereton, and musician Mark Smeaton had little hope of obtaining justice.
It was reported that four of the men “were condemned upon presumption and certain indications, without valid proof or confession,
” according to a dispatch written by Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire.
There were no witnesses presented against Anne and her brother, and they both did an excellent job of defending themselves.
In fact, George defended himself “so well” that “several of those presents wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted.” It was useless, though. Everyone was found responsible and sentenced to death.
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How Did Anne Boleyn Die?
The men had their death sentences reduced from hanging, drawing, and quartering to beheading due to the king’s “mercy.” Anne’s punishment will be carried out “as the King’s pleasure shall be further known of the same,” which could mean either burning or beheading.
Anne may not have even been found guilty before they called for the Hangman of Calais, who was famous for his proficiency with a beheading sword.
On May 17, 1536, George Boleyn, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, and Mark Smeaton were all put to death on Tower Hill. In his poem “That in my head sticks day and night,
” imprisoned poet Sir Thomas Wyatt describes watching their executions from the Bell Tower. His heart was broken, he wrote, by those “bloody days,” and he learned a lesson about Tudor justice: “By proof, I say, there did I learn: Wit helpeth not defense too yarn, Of innocency to plead or prate.”
Who knows What Mysterious Writings Are Hidden Here?
Kate McCafferty’s research has solved the mystery of what happened to Boleyn’s prayer book after her execution.
Hever Castle in Kent, where she grew up, has displayed the book, which is thought to have been passed down through generations of family and friends.
There was intense pressure to get rid of anything associated with the former queen after she was executed, but the prayer book she is thought to have taken with her remains has miraculously survived to this day.
McCafferty discovered the names Gage, West, and Shirley written in the book using ultraviolet light and photo editing software (from Sundridge, near Sevenoaks). The fourth identifier is the Guildford family of Cranbrook, Kent, around whom the other three revolve.
This investigation uncovered that the book was passed from woman to woman within families that were both geographically close to the Boleyns at Hever and genetically related to them.
According to McCafferty, “It is clear that this book was passed between a network of trusted connections, from daughter to mother, from sister to niece.
The simple act of marking this hour and keeping the secret of its most famous user was one small way to generate a sense of community and expression in a world where women had few opportunities to engage with religion and literature.
McCafferty elaborated, “It was incredibly exciting and surreal to uncover these erased inscriptions, and it has been an absolute privilege to restore the names of their authors and recover the stories. The fact that these inscriptions have remained undiscovered and unstudied for so long is astonishing.
Anne’s remains were placed in an oak box with a leaden escutcheon [emblem] that bore her name, date of death, and year of reinterment after a thorough examination (1877).
The container was placed four inches below ground level at the site where Anne was discovered, and the area was then backfilled and concrete was poured on top. To mark the spot, a memorial tile with Anne’s coat of arms, her name and title as “Queen Anne Boleyn,” and the year of her death was set into the ground.
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