Murder, conspiracy and execution: 6 centuries of scandalous royal deaths!

From mysterious hunting ‘accidents’ to the public execution of Charles I, dozens of British royals died in suspicious or shocking circumstances. Historian Nicola Tallis investigates…

The execution of Charles I, 1649. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Royal status brings with it privilege and power – but also danger, particularly the risk of assassination by those craving that power. From the Norman conquest to Charles’s execution in 1649, many British men, women and children of royal blood died in extraordinary circumstances. Deaths early in that period were often shrouded in mystery, but by the 17th century circumstances had changed to an extraordinary extent – for the first time an executioner severed the head of a king of England: Charles I, condemned by his own people…

William II meets his fate in the forest

On 2 August 1100 King William II, third son of William the Conqueror, was hunting in the New Forest. The chronicler William of Malmesbury reported that after dinner the king, nicknamed ‘Rufus’, went into the forest “attended by few persons”, notably a gentleman named Walter Tirel. While most of the king’s party “employed in the chase, were dispersed as chance directed,” Tirel remained with the king. As the sun began to set, William spotted a stag and “drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded” it.

In his excitement the king began to run towards the injured target, and at that point Tirel, “conceiving a noble exploit” in that the king’s attention was occupied elsewhere, “pierced his breast with a fatal arrow”. William fell to the ground and Tirel, seeing that the king was dead, immediately “leaped swiftly upon his horse, and escaped by spurring him to his utmost speed”.

Upon discovering William’s body, the rest of his party fled and, in an attempt to protect their own interests, readied themselves to declare their allegiance to the next king. It was left to a few countrymen to convey the dead king’s corpse to Winchester Cathedral by cart, “the blood dripping from it all the way”.

Was William’s death an accident, or was it murder? An accident was possible, but there were many who believed otherwise. William’s younger brother immediately assumed the throne and swiftly had himself crowned Henry I. Henry had much to gain from his brother’s death, and Tirel may have been in his employ. William had, however, been an unpopular king, and his death was “lamented by few”.

King William II of England, aka William Rufus, c1100. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Lionheart and eyeless Art

Almost 100 years later, Henry I’s great-grandson, Richard I, also met a violent end at the point of an arrow, but in very different circumstances. Richard had spent the majority of his 10-year reign fighting abroad on crusade; he was a brave solider who inspired loyalty in his men. In 1199, while he was besieging the Château de Châlus-Chabrol, a crossbow bolt struck him in the shoulder. Though the shot did not kill him, it penetrated deep into his body. Though removal of the bolt by a surgeon was a painful ordeal, Richard survived – but before long the wound became infected and gangrene set in. It became clear that the king’s days were numbered, and on 6 April, 11 days after he was shot, “the man devoted to martial deeds, breathed his last.”

Richard was succeeded by his younger brother, John. However, though John was accepted as king of England he had a rival for his French lands: Arthur of Brittany, son of John’s brother, Geoffrey, who had died over a decade earlier. In 1202, John’s forces captured Arthur at Mirebeau, where the latter had been attempting to besiege the castle in which his grandmother (John’s mother), Eleanor of Aquitaine, was sheltering. Arthur was taken to Falaise, where – it was later claimed – John gave orders for his 16-year-old nephew to be “deprived of his eyes and genitals”, but the jailer refused to obey such a cruel command. Shortly afterwards, the boy was moved to Rouen where, on the evening of 3 April 1203, it seems that John himself, “drunk with wine and possessed of the Devil”, killed Arthur personally. The young boy’s lifeless body was reputedly weighed down with a heavy stone and thrown into the river Seine.

In the two centuries after the murder of Arthur of Brittany, both Edward II and Richard II were deposed. The latter was almost certainly starved to death in Pontefract Castle, but controversy still surrounds the end of Edward II – he may have been murdered in Berkeley Castle, but several modern historians are of the opinion that he escaped abroad.

Richard I, aka ‘Richard the Lionheart’, depicted plunging his fist into a lion’s throat, c1180. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The bloody Wars of the Roses

In the middle of the 15th century, the Wars of the Roses broke out, causing a profusion of bloodshed that did not exclude royal or noble families. After a struggle that saw the Lancastrian King Henry VI deposed in favour of the Yorkist Edward IV, and a brief period of restoration for Henry VI (commonly referred to as the readeption), on 4 May 1471 the armies of Lancaster and York met at Tewkesbury, where Edward IV won “a famous victory”. It was a fierce battle during which around 2,000 Lancastrians were slain, and the battlefield is still referred to as ‘Bloody Meadow.’

For Henry’s son and heir, the 18-year-old Prince Edward of Lancaster, Tewkesbury had been his first experience of war, and one that he would not survive. Reports of the precise manner of the prince’s death vary: most sources state that the he was killed in the field, whereas the Yorkist author of the Arrivall of Edward IV, who claimed to be a servant of Edward IV’s and a witness to many of the events about which he wrote, asserts that Edward “was taken fleeing to the townwards, and slain in the field”. Later Tudor historians, however, implied that the prince had been murdered “by the avenging hands of certain persons,” on the orders of Edward IV. Whatever the circumstances, the Lancastrian heir had been removed; now all that remained was for his father to be eliminated.

While the battle of Tewkesbury raged, Henry VI was a prisoner in the Tower of London. Following his victory, Edward IV travelled to London in triumph, arriving on 21 May. That same evening, Henry VI was reportedly praying in his oratory within the Wakefield Tower when he “was put to death”. Though the author of the Arrivall stated that Henry died of “pure displeasure and melancholy” as a result of being told of the death of his son, there is little doubt that he died violently. The examination of his skull in 1911 revealed that to one piece “there was still attached some of the hair, which was brown in colour, save in one place, where it was much darker and apparently matted with blood,” consistent with a blow to the head. Many believed that Henry had been murdered at the hands of the king’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, but though Richard may have been present, the order undoubtedly came from Edward IV.

Henry VI , c1450. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The slaughter also extended to Edward’s own family. The relationship Edward shared with his younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, was tumultuous, to say the least. After several estrangements and reconciliations, in 1477 Clarence finally went too far. Convinced that his brother was conspiring against him, Edward had Clarence arrested; at the beginning of February 1478, he was tried and condemned to death. On 18 February Clarence was executed within the confines of the Tower of London. According to several contemporary sources, at his own request the duke was drowned after being “plunged into a jar of sweet wine” in the Bowyer Tower. Clarence’s daughter, Margaret Pole, was later painted wearing a bracelet with a barrel charm, which appears to support this story. The duke’s death orphaned both Margaret and her younger brother Edward, Earl of Warwick. Like their father, both would meet violent ends.

The princes in the Tower

Edward IV died unexpectedly on 9 April 1483, leaving as successor his 12-year-old son, also Edward, at that time staying at Ludlow Castle. After his father’s death, the young Prince Edward set out for London but was intercepted en route by his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who lodged Edward and his brother Prince Richard in the Tower of London. Having been declared illegitimate, on 26 June Edward was deposed in favour of his uncle, who took the throne as Richard III.

Rumours about the fate of the ‘princes in the Tower’ soon began to circulate. Many believe that they were murdered “lying in their beds” on the orders of Richard III, and the skeletons of two youths discovered in the Tower in 1674 seems to support this theory. Some, however, insist that the boys did not die in the Tower but managed to escape. Though their ultimate fate is still obscure, one thing is certain: after the coronation of Richard III on 6 July, neither boy was seen alive again.

‘The Young Princes in the Tower’, 1831. After a painting by Hippolyte De La Roche (1797–1856), commonly known as Paul Delaroche. From the Connoisseur VOL XXVII, 1910. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Richard III did not hold his throne for long. In 1485 his army was confronted by the forces of the Lancastrian Henry Tudor at Bosworth in Leicestershire. Richard fought bravely in his attempt to defend his crown, but was “pierced with many mortal wounds”, and became the last king of England to be killed on the battlefield. Thanks to the discovery of his skeleton in Leicester, we now know that a blow to the head killed Richard, and that his body was subjected to a number of “humiliation” wounds after his death.

Richard’s successor, Henry VII, ordered the execution of the Duke of Clarence’s son, the Earl of Warwick, beheaded In 1499 for conspiring with the pretender Perkin Warbeck to overthrow the king. Warwick’s sister, Margaret Pole, was executed in 1541 by command of Henry VIII on charges of treason. In her late sixties and condemned on evidence that was almost certainly falsified, Margaret’s death shocked her contemporaries, one of whom observed that her execution was conducted by “a wretched and blundering youth” who “literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner” so that she bled to death.

Henry VIII’s wives

Henry VIII also notoriously executed two of his wives. Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard were both condemned on charges of adultery, treason, and, in Anne’s case, incest with her own brother. Anne was almost certainly innocent of the crimes of which she was accused; nevertheless, on the morning of 19 May 1536 she became the first queen of England to be executed. Although her death within the confines of the Tower of London was intended to be a private affair, conducted away from the eyes of curious Londoners, around 1,000 people watched as her head was struck from her body with one strike of a French executioner’s sword.

In 1554 Lady Jane Grey also met her fate at the headsman’s axe. So, too, did Mary, Queen of Scots, executed in February 1587 on the orders of Elizabeth I. The first queen regnant to be beheaded, Mary was decapitated at Fotheringhay Castle in a bloody scene: it took three strokes of the axe to remove her head.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 1587. From ‘The Island Race’, a book written by Sir Winston Churchill and published in 1964 that covers the history of the British Isles from pre-Roman times to the Victorian era. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Mary’s grandson was to suffer a similar ignominious end the following century. Having been defeated in the Civil War, in January 1649 Charles I became the first English monarch to be tried and condemned for treason – there was no precedent for the lawful killing of a king. On the date of his execution, 30 January, Charles stepped out of Banqueting House in Whitehall on to a public scaffold. His head was removed amid a great groan from the crowd, and it was observed that many of those who attended dipped their handkerchiefs in the late king’s blood as a memento.

Charles’s death signalled the abolition of the monarchy, and the establishment of a republic in England. In a public display of contempt for the monarchy, he became the only king of England to be murdered by his subjects. It was a far cry from the dark and mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of William ‘Rufus’ and those other ill-fated royals who came before.

Nicola Tallis is a British historian and author. Her new book Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey is published by Michael O’Mara Books on 3 November 2016.

To find out more about Nicola, visit nicolatallis.com

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Henry VIII’s Love Life

Not such a prude after all: the secrets of Henry VIII’s love life
Despite having married six women and seduced countless more, Henry VIII is often depicted as something of a prude. But, as historian and author Amy Licence reveals, the story may have been quite different for the women who shared his bed…

Henry and Anne Boleyn
Henry VIII courting Anne Boleyn. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 
When it comes to Henry VIII’s love life, the biographical focus usually falls on Henry’s wives and is dominated by his quest for a son. This is no surprise given its dynastic importance and the comparative paucity of material surviving on Henry’s mistresses. Indeed, Henry is often compared to his lusty and syphilitic contemporary, Francis I of France, whose antics leave the English king in the shade. Henry certainly had no official mistress in the French style, although he did offer this title to Anne Boleyn, who refused it. There is also the question of Henry’s health, as when considering his personal life images of his obesity and injuries can easily eclipse those of his handsome youth. It may be, though, that tradition has him all wrong.

Henry wasn’t so much a prude as a very private man. While Francis paraded his mistresses in public, Henry preferred to keep his extramarital liaisons known only to a small circle of loyal intimates: his chief minister, his gentlemen of the chamber and his closest friends, many of whom went to the block for treason in the 1530s, contributing to the silence over the king’s private affairs. Henry valued secrecy and discretion when it came to his personal relationships and although he was at the centre of a busy court, he had the means to achieve this.

Henry’s success in this regard becomes clearer when we consider the two mistresses that are known to have shared his bed, and the processes of history by which they were recorded. Elizabeth (or ‘Bessie’) Blount’s name is remembered today because she was an unmarried mother who bore a surviving son, which the king chose to acknowledge. Usually kings favoured affairs with married women, whose pregnancies could be officially attributed to their husbands, even if the court gossips suspected otherwise.

Bessie was quickly married off and her subsequent children, born soon after her son Henry FitzRoy, were given the surname of her pliant husband. Had Bessie’s marriage taken place sooner, or her child been female or not survived, we would not know about her relations with Henry VIII. Likewise, our information about Henry’s affair with Mary Boleyn derives from Henry’s reluctant admission of affinity when he desired to marry her younger sister, Anne. Without these chance survivals, these accidents of history, the image we have of Henry today would be as a shining example of marital fidelity, and we know that was not the case.

There is also a wealth of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Henry had a number of affairs or casual encounters. These are more than mere court rumours: cumulatively they offer a convincing picture. In 1513, when Henry stayed in Lille before the siege of Tournai, he stayed up all night dancing with a mysterious “Madame the Bastard,” barefoot and in his shirtsleeves. After returning to England, he received a letter from a maid of honour by the name of Etiennette de la Baume, in the Lille household of Margaret of Savoy. She asked for his assistance for her forthcoming marriage, reminding Henry of a promise he had made her “when we parted” and that he had called her his page.

Another letter, dating from 1514, implicated the king in a flirtation being enjoyed by his friend Charles Brandon with two ladies of the English court, to whom Brandon had sent “tokens”; during his friend’s absence abroad, Henry was to act as go-between and pass on his warm words. There was also Jane Popincourt, a maid of Henry’s sister Mary, who was refused entry to France in 1514 by King Louis XII on account of her immorality. This, coupled with Henry’s choice of her as a dance partner the following spring and his generous gift of £100 to allow her to leave, have led to speculation that Jane had shared his bed.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the entry in the Privy Papers for 1537, when a William Webbe claimed Henry had stolen away his mistress and enjoyed her favours in “avowtry” (aka advowtry) – that is, adultery. The names of various other women have been proposed as mistresses of Henry, or as the mothers of his reputed illegitimate children Thomas Stukley, John Perrot and Ethelreda Malte, but these were never acknowledged by Henry and there is no evidence to connect him with them.

Henry Fitzroy
Henry Fitzroy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII and his mistress, Elizabeth Blount. Fitzroy was the only one of his illegitimate children that Henry acknowledged. He died of consumption. (The Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

While the church advocated regular but moderate sex within marriage – for mutual comfort and procreation – Tudor medicine stated the importance of sex for health. Without it, fluids and vapours were thought to build up in the body and cause fits, fever and illness. Aristocratic wives were expected to be models of chastity in order to produce heirs but their husbands might seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere, typically with women of the lower classes. Couples were supposed to refrain from sleeping together during part, if not all, of the wife’s pregnancies, and it was during Catherine of Aragon’s first confinement that Henry’s court was rocked by a scandal that implicated him with one of his wife’s waiting women, Anne Hastings.

Hastings may have been involved with both Henry and his closest friend, William Compton, with whom she certainly had an affair in later years. The Spanish ambassador Luis Caroz believed it was the king who had turned the newlywed’s head, writing in 1510 that Anne was “much liked by the king, who went after her”. Anne’s sister was concerned enough about her behaviour to interfere, which resulted in her banishment from court for “tale-bearing” and “insidiously spying out every unwatched moment”. This was what brought the matter to Catherine’s attention, and the royal couple had their first serious argument as a result.

Despite living at the heart of a busy court, Henry did not lack opportunities for romance. He drew on the discretion of friends such as William Compton, whose house in Thames Street provided a convenient location for liaisons, accessible by barge, and Thomas Wolsey, who oversaw the arrangements for Bessie Blount’s lying-in, acted as godfather to her son. Although there might be prying eyes at court, when Henry visited the homes of his friends in the town or country, or stopped at a hunting lodge with a small retinue, leaving his wife at court, there was a greater degree of privacy to facilitate meeting women. Wherever he travelled, Henry took his own personal lock to guarantee secrecy.

And yet, even under the scrutiny of his courtiers, Henry found the perfect vehicle for flirtation. His love of masques and dancing gave him a degree of licence for intimacy; under the guise of planning entertainments, he might ‘borrow’ maids of honour in order to rehearse elaborate pageants that required dancing, costumes and song. Writers Juan Luis Vives in the 1520s and John Heywood in the 1530s both drew the connection between dancing and sex, with the lines of contemporary plays full of bawdy and suggestive lyrics. Characters in Heywood’s 1533 The Play of the Weather joke about “meddling” with each other, about literal and metaphoric dirty linen, dallying “with your simper de cocker” and kissing a woman’s behind.

 

Dancing at the royal court 2

The Dancing Picture’ from around 1530, attributed to Hans Holbein (male figures) and Janet Clouet (female figures). The two figures on the left have been identified as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 
The arrangements of Henry’s household would have facilitated affairs too. The Eltham Ordinances, published in January 1526, help us understand how. When it came to sleeping with his wife, the king followed a ritual involving a large amount of staff, including an elaborate procession through the corridors that needed to be cleared and guarded, followed by a ceremony of disrobing. This visible display provided a foil for the occasions when Henry desired privacy, at night amid the chambers “reserved secret, at the pleasure of his grace, without [the] repair of any great multitude”. Henry’s grooms were charged to remain “humble, reverent, secret and lowly” about all tasks, with two sleeping on pallets outside his door and Sir Henry Norris charged with preventing all other gentlemen from entering. With Norris’s assistance, it would not have been difficult for Henry to admit whomever he pleased. Whatever secrets he may have known, Norris took to the grave a decade later, when he became one of the scapegoats in Anne Boleyn’s fall.

When it comes to Henry’s relationship with Anne, a further mystery arises. Traditionally, the story has been told that it was Anne’s refusal that maintained Henry’s interest, and that for the seven years before their secret marriage Anne kept herself aloof, denying Henry consummation. Catherine had gone through the menopause in around 1525 and Anne did not conceive until the end of 1532: Catherine’s menopause coincided with Henry’s thirties, at a time when he was keen to father a son. Is it really realistic that the king was celibate throughout this time? And if not, who exactly was he sleeping with?

Did he continue to share a bed with Catherine, intermittently, up to the day in July 1531 when Henry rode away from her at Windsor and she was never to see him again? Perhaps Anne permitted Henry some liberties with her person after she had agreed to his proposal in around 1527. In one letter Henry refers to kissing her breasts or “pretty duckies,” and they may have enjoyed a certain degree of intimacy, stopping short of full penetration.

The fact that Anne did not fall pregnant until December 1532 suggests they were restrained, or else practised some form of contraception. Early condoms were available, known as the ‘Venus Glove’ and manufactured by glovers. They were expensive, but Henry could have afforded them. Yet Anne’s allure lay in her promise and her desire not to be discarded as her sister had been. Nor did Henry wish to risk the arrival of a child before he was in a position to be able to marry her. It is far more in keeping with the mores of the time that Henry resorted to the occasional casual encounter, discreetly arranged by his gentlemen, and considered to be an essential bodily function, just as eating or sleeping. The needs of the king’s body must be met.

 

First meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

A depiction of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s first meeting, from 1835. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

 

In later years, Henry’s ulcerous leg and increasing girth rendered him less able to play the nimble lover. Yet this really only applies to the final decade of his life. The young Henry was accustomed to having his own way and with the facilities and staff to ensure his own pleasure. The notion of a prudish, restrained king may be more the result of a paucity of evidence rather than a true reflection of Henry’s character. Although he was not quite, as Francis I was described, “of such slight morals that he slips readily into the gardens of other and drinks from the water of many fountains”, the surviving shreds of evidence suggest Henry VIII enjoyed a full and active love life. This also provides an important reflection upon the nature of evidence and its survival. As late as 1817, when John Lingard cited the letter in which Henry admitted to having slept with Mary Boleyn, his fellow rejected the claims as a deliberate slur upon the reputation of her sister, Anne.

When it comes to the sexual secrets of such a secretive Tudor monarch, it is imperative to consider the holes in the evidence as much as the evidence itself. Here was a man who married five out of his six wives in private, in a departure from the example set by his parents. Henry didn’t want the details of his love life to be made public: five centuries later, he has largely succeeded.

Did Anne Boleyn Crave the Crown?

Did Anne Boleyn crave the crown?

For years we’ve been told that Anne refused to sleep with Henry VIII until he made her his queen. Yet, says George Bernard, the argument that she demanded a crown on her head simply doesn’t stack up…

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Thursday 24th September 2015
Submitted by: BBC History Magazine

This portrait of Anne Boleyn is probably an Elizabethan copy of a lost original painted when Anne was queen. © Bridgeman

Henry VIII’s passion for Anne Boleyn has never been in doubt. In one of his love letters to Anne, Henry lamented her absence, “wishing myself specially an evening in my sweetheart’s arms whose pretty dukkys [breasts] I trust shortly to kiss”, noting that the missive was “written with the hand of him that was, is and shall be yours”. But while his desire isn’t in question, other aspects of the beginnings of their relationship need to be reassessed.

It is widely held that Anne, with whom Henry fell in love in the mid-1520s, was prepared to accept his advances only if he married her and made her his queen. By then Henry had been married to Catherine of Aragon for nearly 20 years and she had borne him a child, Mary, though no surviving son. Could it be true that Anne suggested to Henry that his marriage to Catherine, widow of his elder brother Arthur, had always been invalid – that it was against divine law? And did she steadfastly refuse to yield to Henry until his marriage to Catherine was annulled, leaving him free to marry Anne?

For centuries, historians have reiterated this theory. Yet, when you look at it closely, it does not make sense. Imagine Anne as a lady of the court who was wanted by the king as his mistress. In a world in which divorce on the grounds of the irretrievable breakdown of a relationship did not exist, could such a lady realistically hope to persuade Henry to abandon his wife in order to marry her?

Catherine of Aragon is depicted in a 16th-century portrait. Henry worked to have their union annulled, claiming that her previous marriage to his brother invalidated their own. © Bridgeman

If Anne did make such demands, would she not be taking the risk that Henry would simply laugh at her and look elsewhere? After all, Catherine was not one of Henry’s native subjects but the aunt of Charles V – the powerful Holy Roman Emperor. Such a rejection of Catherine would risk serious diplomatic and dynastic consequences.

It’s much more likely that Anne asked that she should be the king’s only mistress. That at least was fully in Henry’s power – as several of Henry’s love letters to Anne discussed.

The king’s pleasure

Those who have suggested that Anne was holding out to be queen may have simply misinterpreted her initial reluctance to yield to Henry. What Anne feared was an all-too-common fate of royal mistresses: to be used and discarded at the king’s pleasure – as had happened to her sister, Mary. Henry’s love letters suggest that Anne was won over by his promise to make her his exclusive mistress.

One of the letters confirms that Anne did not at first commit herself unreservedly. For a year, Henry lamented, he had been stricken by the dart of love but unsure whether he would find a place in her heart. And so he offered to make her his sole mistress, banishing all others from his thoughts and affection.

10 THINGS YOU (PROBABLY) DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT ANNE BOLEYN

Once Anne had accepted Henry’s promises, they probably enjoyed full sexual relations for a while – at least, such is suggested by the details of a mission entrusted to one of the king’s secretaries, William Knight, in the summer of 1527. Knight was charged with securing a dispensation from the pope permitting the king to remarry if Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was first annulled.

A copy of a letter that Henry wrote to Anne in 1527. The king’s missives in this period suggest that he was the one holding back from full sexual relations. © Bridgeman

It has long been noted that this draft dispensation allowed the king to marry someone with whom he was already related in the eyes of canon law – in particular, a woman with whose sister he had had sexual relations. By this time, Henry had already enjoyed an affair with Mary Boleyn; it’s quite likely that he was the father of her two eldest children. With the papal dispensation, Henry was anticipating and attempting to deal with a potential obstacle to a marriage to Anne.

Less often noticed, and then usually dismissed, is the provision in the draft dispensation for Henry to marry a woman with whom he had already had sexual intercourse. Why should Henry have bothered to include that provision unless it were true? This strongly suggests that, after convincing Anne that she would be his only mistress, he did indeed sleep with her.

WHY DID ANNE BOLEYN HAVE TO DIE? 

But only for a brief period. It was probably at this point that Henry came to the conclusion that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had never been valid in the eyes of God. If that marriage were annulled, Henry realised, he would be free to marry Anne as his first wife. Any child born would be of unquestioned legitimacy. But in order to make his case for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine, Henry needed to hold the moral high ground.

Throughout the proceedings leading to his divorce, Henry claimed not that his marriage to Catherine had broken down but that it had always been against divine law. If Henry had publicly admitted that he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, it would have cast doubt on the sincerity of his concern not to break divine law. In an age without reliable methods of contraception, there was also an obvious risk of pregnancy – and nothing would be more damaging to the king’s moral credibility. Jean du Bellay, the French ambassador, vividly outlined the problem in June 1529: “I very much fear that for some time past this king has come very near Mme Anne,” adding: “If the belly grows, all will be spoilt.”

A portrait of Henry VIII from c1525–30. Once Anne accepted the king’s promise to make her his sole mistress, it is implausible to think that she could have prevented him enjoying full sexual relations. © Bridgeman

What’s more, Henry was determined that any child he might have with Anne should be indisputably legitimate, not the controversial offspring of a relationship not yet validated. Anne never did become pregnant during the long years in which Henry and his advisors worked towards the end of his marriage to Catherine. That does not prove that it was Anne who was holding Henry back, but is consistent with the suggestion that it was Henry, not Anne, who refrained from full sexual relations.

“Our desired end”

Henry’s love letters support this theory. In one he informed “darling” Anne that the letter-bearer was being sent with “as many things to compass our matter and to bring it to pass as our wits could imagine or devise”. Once brought to pass, “you and I shall have our desired end, which should be more to my heart’s ease and more quietness to my mind than any other thing in this world”.

Henry’s subscription – “written with the hand of him which desireth as much to be yours as you do to have him” – hints that it was Anne who needed reassurance of Henry’s desire, and Henry who was holding back.

On another occasion Henry wrote to Anne: “What joy it is to me to understand of your conformableness to reason and of the suppressing of your inutile and vain thoughts and fantasies with the bridle of reason.” Continue, Henry urged, “for thereby shall come, both to you and to me the greatest quietness that may be in this world”. Here Henry was urging patience – “conformableness to reason” – on Anne until the church found in his favour.

ANNE BOLEYN IN PROFILE

In a letter most likely written soon after Anne agreed to become his mistress, Henry assured her that “henceforth my heart will be devoted to you only, greatly wanting that my body also could be”. Daily he begged God to intervene and help him achieve his goal, hoping that at length his prayer would be heard. Yet, in doing so, Henry was not berating Anne for holding back, for refusing to sleep with him. Instead it was Henry who refrained, and what he regretted were the complexities and the delays imposed by the laws and procedures of the church.

The love letters also reveal that theirs became an intimate relationship. As we have already seen, Henry longed to hold Anne in his arms and kiss her breasts.

Resorting to force

Henry’s armour shows that he was a big man, and we know that he was forceful in emotion: in 1535, he came close to killing his court fool in a rage. If he had wanted to go further with Anne, it is implausible to think that she could have prevented him.

From where, then, did the story arise that Anne was refusing Henry’s advances until she was made queen? Perhaps the source was the scholar and cleric Reginald Pole who had gone abroad to study rather than become implicated in the king’s divorce. In 1536, Pole attacked Henry fiercely, calling on the king to repent and return to the fold of the church. He berated Henry for the many terrible things the king had done for the love of Anne Boleyn; she was presented as a femme fatale who convinced Henry that, as long as he maintained Catherine as his wife, he was living in mortal sin. In doing so Pole was offering Henry a way out – an excuse that he could use if he repented and ended the schism with the Catholic church.

DID ANNE BOLEYN HAVE SIX FINGERS ON ONE HAND?

In many ways, it was a characteristic of Henry’s rule that he placed responsibility for unpopular policies on others. Here, Pole was offering him scope to do that again. But even though Anne Boleyn was by then dead, Henry did not take the opportunity offered by Pole’s comments – and we should not treat Pole’s remarks as the truth. Nothing in the surviving sources from the late 1520s points to Anne being involved in making the case for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine.

Henry’s writing box (c1525–27) bears the heraldic badges of both the king and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry may have kept the  pens he used to write his love letters to Anne in this box. © Bridgeman

On the contrary, many of the sources suggest that the opposite was true. In one of his love letters, Henry told Anne that he had spent four hours that day working on the book in support of his case for an annulment – collecting and elaborating on biblical examples that justified his stand – but he made no attempt to involve Anne in this. Henry sent Francis Bryan, a trusted courtier, to Italy to report on how things stood in the papal courts. Bryan took care to write to the king only, giving Henry the opportunity to tell Anne just how much, or how little, he pleased. She was not directing Henry’s marital diplomacy.

The suggestion that Anne Boleyn did not refuse to sleep with Henry until they could be married may diminish her in some people’s eyes – unfairly, in my view. If Anne insisted that Henry enjoy her as his sole mistress before she agreed to any relationship, it showed she was no doormat – rather, a woman who stood up for her interests as she understood them. Demanding to be Henry’s queen, though, would have been a step too far – and there is nothing to show that she did.

Timeline: The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn

c1525-26

Henry falls in love with Anne. He pursues her for a year before she agrees to become his mistress, though their sexual relationship continues for only a limited time – perhaps a year.

May 1527

Henry is convinced that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon contravenes divine law and is invalid. With Thomas Wolsey, lord chancellor, cardinal and legate, and many churchmen and lawyers, Henry tries to persuade the pope to grant an annulment.

Thomas Wolsey was cardinal and lord chancellor from 1515. © Bridgeman

Autumn/winter 1527

Henry requests a papal dispensation to permit him to marry a woman with whose sister he had enjoyed sexual relations, and with whom he had already had sexual relations.

11 July 1531

Henry sees Catherine of Aragon for the last time. She is forced to leave court, dying at Kimbolton Castle (in what’s now Cambridgeshire) in 1536.

Winter 1532/33

Henry sees Catherine of Aragon for the last time. She is forced to leave court, dying at Kimbolton Castle (in what’s now Cambridgeshire) in 1536.

May 1533

Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, pronounces Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon invalid.

Thomas Cranmer. © Bridgeman

1 June 1533

Anne is crowned queen in Westminster Abbey.

September 1533

Anne gives birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. This was a disappointment to the king.

May 1536

Anne is charged with and convicted of treason. She is alleged to have committed adultery with five men, including an incestuous liaison with her brother, George.

19 May 1536

Anne Boleyn is beheaded with a single sword strike at the Tower of London.

An 18th-century illustration depicts Anne’s execution. © Getty

George Bernard is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton, and author of Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2011)

Did Anne Boleyn Have to Die?

Why did Anne Boleyn have to die?Was she ensnared by a conspiracy, the victim of her own loose tongue, or simply guilty as charged? Suzannah Lipscomb tries to unearth the real reason why Henry VIII sent his second wife, Anne Boleyn, to the block.

This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Monday 27th July 2015 Submitted by Emma McFarnon 

  
On the morning of 19 May 1536, Anne Boleyn climbed the scaffold erected on Tower Green, within the walls of the Tower of London. She gave a speech praising the goodness and mercy of the king, and asked those gathered to pray for her. Then she removed her fine, ermine-trimmed gown, and knelt down – and the expensive French executioner that Henry VIII had ordered swung his sword and “divided her neck at a blow”.

Her death is so familiar to us that it is hard to imagine how shocking it would have been: the queen of England executed on charges of adultery, incest and conspiring the king’s death. And not just any queen: this was the woman for whom Henry VIII had abandoned his wife of nearly 24 years, waited seven long years to wed, and even revolutionised his country’s church. Yet just three years later her head was off – and the reason for her death remains one of the great mysteries of English history.

To this day, historians cannot agree why she had to die. Had Henry and Anne’s relationship gone into terminal decline, prompting Henry to invent the charges against his wife? Was Thomas Cromwell responsible for Anne’s demise? Or was she indeed guilty of the charges laid against her? Evidence is limited – but there is enough to appear to support several very different conclusions.

There are a number of undisputed facts relating to Anne’s fall. On Sunday 30 April 1536 Mark Smeaton, a musician from the queen’s household, was arrested; he was then interrogated at Cromwell’s house in Stepney. On the same evening the king postponed a trip with Anne to Calais, planned for 2 May.

The next day, 1 May, Smeaton was moved to the Tower. Henry attended the May Day jousts at Greenwich but left abruptly on horseback with a small group of intimates. These included Sir Henry Norris, a personal body servant and one of his closest friends, whom he questioned throughout the journey. At dawn the next day Norris was taken to the Tower. Anne and her brother George, Lord Rochford, were also arrested.

On 4 and 5 May, more courtiers from the king’s privy chamber – William Brereton, Richard Page, Francis Weston, Thomas Wyatt and Francis Bryan – were arrested. The latter was questioned and released, but the others were imprisoned in the Tower. On 10 May, a grand jury indicted all of the accused, apart from Page and Wyatt.

On 12 May, Smeaton, Brereton, Weston and Norris were tried and found guilty of adultery with the queen, and of conspiring the king’s death. On 15 May, Anne and Rochford were tried within the Tower by a court of 26 peers presided over by their uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Both were found guilty of high treason. On 17 May Archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared the marriage of Henry and Anne null, and by 19 May, all six convicted had been executed. Later that day, Cranmer issued a dispensation allowing Henry and Jane Seymour to marry; they were betrothed on 20 May and married 10 days later.

What could explain this rapid and surprising turn of events? The first theory, argued by Boleyn biographer and scholar GW Bernard, is simply that Anne was guilty of the charges against her. Yet even he is equivocal, suggesting the Scottish legal verdict of ‘not proven’ – he concludes that, though the evidence is insufficient to prove definitively that Anne and those accused with her were guilty, neither does it prove their innocence.

Anne’s guilt was, naturally, the official line. Writing to the bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, Cromwell stated with certainty – before Anne’s trial – that “the queen’s incontinent living was so rank and common that the ladies of her privy chamber could not conceal it.”

The key piece of evidence was undoubtedly the confession by the first man accused, Smeaton, that he had had sexual intercourse with the queen three times. Though it was probably obtained under torture (the accounts vary), he never retracted his confession. Unlikely as it was to be true, it catapulted the investigation to a different, far more serious level. All subsequent evidence was tainted with a presumption of guilt. Henry VIII’s intimate questioning of Norris, and his promise of “pardon in case he would utter the truth”, must be understood in this light: whatever Norris said, or refused to say, it reinforced Henry’s conviction of his guilt.

Other evidence for Anne’s guilt is unclear – the trial documents do not survive. Her indictment, however, states that Anne “did falsely and traitoroysly procure by base conversations and kisses, touchings, gifts and other infamous incitations, divers of the king’s daily and familiar servants to be her adulterers and concubines, so that several… yielded to her vile provocations”. She even, it charges, “procured and incited her own natural brother… to violate her, alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth, and the said George’s tongue in hers”. Yet, as another Boleyn biographer Eric Ives noted, three-quarters of the specific accusations of adulterous liaisons made in the indictment can be discredited, even 500 years later.

True wedded wife

Certainly, Anne maintained her innocence. During her imprisonment Sir William Kingston, constable of the Tower, reported Anne’s remarks to Cromwell. His first letter details Anne’s ardent declaration of innocence: “I am as clear from the company of man, as for sin… as I am clear from you, and the king’s true wedded wife.”

A few days later, Anne comforted herself that she would have justice: “She said if any man accuse me I can say but nay, and they can bring no witness.” Crucially, the night before her execution, she swore “on peril of her soul’s damnation”, before and after receiving the Eucharist, that she was innocent – a serious act in that religious age.

  
Anne was not alone in professing her innocence. As Sir Edward Baynton put it: “No man will confess any thing against her, but only Mark of any actual thing.” And even Eustace Chapuys, ambassador for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Anne’s arch-enemy, would finally conclude that everyone besides Smeaton was “condemned upon presumption and certain indications, without valid proof or confession”.

Another set of historians have favoured the explanation that Anne was the victim of a conspiracy by Thomas Cromwell and a court faction involving the Seymours. This rests upon a view of Henry as a pliable king whose courtiers could “bounce” him into action and tip him “by a crisis” into rejecting Anne. But why should Anne and Cromwell, erstwhile allies of a reformist bent, fall out? Differences of opinion are thought to have arisen over the use of funds from the dissolution of the monasteries, as well as matters of foreign policy – seemingly slender motives for destroying a queen.

It has been suggested that Cromwell’s court faction intended to replace Anne with Jane Seymour. Chapuys mentioned Jane in a letter of 10 February 1536, reporting that Henry had sent her a gift of a purse full of sovereigns, accompanied by a letter. She did not open the letter, which – Ives speculated – contained a summons to the royal bed. Instead, she kissed it and returned it, asking the messenger to tell the king that “there was no treasure in this world that she valued as much as her honour,” and that if the king wanted to give her a present, she begged it might be at “such a time as God would be pleased to send her some advantageous marriage”.

Such a calculated reply is reminiscent of Anne during the days of her courtship with Henry. In response to Jane’s coyness, Henry’s love for her was said to have “marvellously increased”. Yet she was described as a lady whom the king “serves” – a telling word implying that he sought her as his ‘courtly love’ mistress. There is little evidence that, before Anne was accused of adultery, Henry had planned to make Jane his wife. Marriage to Jane was, surely, a symptom and a product of Anne’s downfall, not a cause.

The pivotal piece of evidence for a conspiracy is a remark made by Cromwell to Chapuys after Anne’s death. In a letter to Charles V, Chapuys wrote that Cromwell had told him “il se mist a fantasier et conspirer le dict affaire,” which has been translated as “he set himself to devise and conspire the said affair,” suggesting that Cromwell plotted against Anne.

Crucially, however, this phrase is often used out of context. The previous sentence states that “he himself [Cromwell] had been authorised and commissioned by the king to prosecute and bring to an end the mistress’s trial, to do which he had taken considerable trouble.” If we accept this account, it is impossible to dismiss Henry VIII from the picture – Cromwell claimed not to be acting alone.

It has been proposed, therefore, that Henry asked Cromwell to get rid of Anne. David Starkey suggested that “Anne’s proud and abrasive character soon became intolerable to her husband”. JJ Scarisbrick, author of the authoritative volume Henry VIII, agreed: “What had once been devastating infatuation turned into bloodthirsty loathing, for reasons we will never completely know.”

Lovers’ quarrels

Evidence for this view is taken from the writings of the ever-hopeful Chapuys. As a Catholic and a supporter of Catherine of Aragon, he referred to Anne as “the concubine” or “the she-devil”, and had made bitter assertions about the doomed state of Henry and Anne’s relationship even at the height of their happiness in late summer 1533. But Chapuys himself recognised that Henry and Anne had always been prone to “lovers’ quarrels”, and that the king’s character was very “changeable”.

True, Henry and Anne were direct with each other: they got angry, shouted and became jealous. But they were also frequently described as being “merry” together; it was an epithet still being applied to them during the autumn of 1535 – and one that was appended to their marriage more often than to any of Henry’s other unions. Bernard has described theirs as a “tumultuous relationship of sunshine and storms”.

Some have proposed that the miscarriage of a male foetus suffered by Anne in January 1536 led inexorably to her downfall. Did it cause Henry to believe that Anne would never be able to bear him an heir, and thus to consider the marriage doomed? Certainly, the king was reported to have shown “great disappointment and sorrow”. Chapuys wrote that Henry, during his visit to Anne’s chamber after the tragedy, said very little except: “I see that God will not give me male children.”

Henry then left Anne at Greenwich to convalesce while he went to Whitehall to mark the feast day of St Matthew. Chapuys, rather maliciously, interpreted this as showing that Henry had abandoned Anne, “whereas in former times he could hardly be one hour without her”. Clearly, the miscarriage was a great blow to both Henry and Anne – yet another four months were to pass before Anne’s death, so demonstrating a direct link between the events would be problematic.

Another story, reported third-hand by Chapuys, quotes Henry as telling an unidentified courtier that he had married Anne “seduced and constrained by sortilèges”. That last word translates as ‘sorcery, spells, charms’, and has given rise to the suggestion that Anne Boleyn dabbled in witchcraft. Though this is regularly cited as one of the charges of which she was found guilty, it is not mentioned in the indictment.

Ives, though, pointed out that the primary English meaning of sortilèges at this time was ‘divination’, a translation that changes the meaning of Henry’s comment. It could imply that he was induced to marry Anne by premarital prophecies that she would bear sons, or could refer simply to Henry’s earlier infatuation or ‘bewitchment’ by Anne.

The idea that Henry had been “seduced by witchcraft” has become attached to another theory, which holds that the real reason for Anne’s ruin was that the foetus miscarried in January 1536 was deformed. According to Tudor specialist Retha Warnicke, the delivery of a “shapeless mass of flesh” proved in Henry’s mind that Anne was both a witch and adulterously promiscuous. But this description comes from a Catholic propagandist, Nicholas Sander, writing 50 years later; there is no contemporary evidence to sustain this salacious theory.

  
Diplomatic coup

An event in April 1536 suggests that, just weeks before Anne was executed, Henry was still committed to his marriage. In the early months of 1536, Henry was increasing the pressure on Charles V to recognise Anne as his wife. On 18 April he invited Chapuys to the court. Events that day were very deliberately staged: the ambassador attended mass and, as Henry and Anne descended from the royal pew to the chapel, she stopped and bowed to Chapuys.

Etiquette dictated that he return the gesture – a significant diplomatic coup, because it implied recognition by the ambassador and, by extension, his emperor. It would, as Bernard has argued, have been extraordinarily capricious of Henry to seek to have Anne recognised as his wife if he already harboured intentions of ridding himself of her soon after.

So was it not guilt, nor a court coup, nor Henry’s hatred of Anne that led to her downfall but, rather, a terrible combination of malicious gossip and her own indiscretions?

A poetic account written in June 1536 by Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador, relates that one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Browne, was accused of loose living. She made light of her own guilt by stating that “it was little in her case in comparison with that of the queen”. These words reached Cromwell who, according to de Carles, reported them to Henry; the king blanched and, very reluctantly, ordered him to investigate.

This certainly aligns with Cromwell’s own retelling of the events. De Carles adds a crucial, though unsubstantiated, clause, Henry telling Cromwell that “if it turns out that your report, which I do not wish to believe, is untrue, you will receive pain of death in place of [the accused]”. So Cromwell may have had reason to find evidence of Anne’s guilt.

Given that Anne was accused of conspiring the king’s death (the only charge that actually constituted treason – consensual adultery was not covered by the treason law of 1352), it seems likely that the evidence used to demonstrate her guilt was a conversation she recalled – and William Kingston reported – with Norris.

Anne had asked Norris why he did not go through with his marriage. He had replied that “he wold tary a time,” leading her to taunt him with the fateful words “you loke for ded men’s showys; for yf owth cam to the King but good, you would loke to have me.” Norris’s flustered response – that “yf he should have any such thought, he wold hys hed war of” – provoked her to retort that “she could undo him if she would,” and “ther with thay felle yowt” (“there with they fell out”.)

It might seem that this overstepped the normal boundaries of ‘courtly love’ talk only a little. But the Treasons Act of 1534 held that even imagining the death of the king was treasonous, so Anne’s conversation with Norris was charged, reckless and, arguably, fatal – useful ammunition if Cromwell were looking for dirt. Was it, as Greg Walker (author of Writing Under Tyranny) has suggested, not what Anne did but what she said that made her appear guilty?

When it comes to Anne Boleyn’s fall, historians give their ‘best guess’ answers on the basis of the available evidence – which is too sparse to be conclusive. For my part, it is the final ‘cock-up theory’ that convinces me. I believe that Anne was innocent, but caught out by her careless words. Henry was convinced by the charges against her; it was a devastating blow from which he never recovered. For Anne, of course, the consequences were far more terrible. 

 

Timeline: The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn

  • 1501 (or possibly 1507): The birth

Anne is born at Blickling, Norfolk, to Thomas Boleyn and his wife, Elizabeth (daughter of Thomas Howard, later second Duke of Norfolk). Historians debate whether Anne was born in 1501 or 1507; the former is more plausible

  • 1513: The first post

Anne is appointed a maid-of-honour at the court of Margaret, archduchess of Austria; she later leaves to serve Mary, queen of France, wife of Louis XIII (and Henry VIII’s sister). After Louis’ death, Anne remains at the court of the new French queen, Claude, for seven years

  • 1521: The repatriation

Anne is recalled to England by her father

1 March 1522: The court appearance

Anne makes her first recorded appearance at Henry VIII’s court, playing the part of Perseverance in a Shrove Tuesday pageant. At that time, Henry was having an affair with Anne’s sister, Mary

  • c1526: The object of love

Henry VIII falls in love with Anne. A letter from him, dated to 1527, states that for more than one year Henry had been “struck by the dart of love” and asks Anne to “give herself body and heart to him”

  • 1532/33: The royal wedding

Anne marries Henry. The official wedding is held in January 1533, but they are probably married secretly at Dover in October 1532. Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon is not annulled until May 1533

  • 7 September 1533: The birth

Anne gives birth to a daughter, Elizabeth

  • 29 January 1536: The miscarriage

Anne miscarries a male foetus

  • 2 May 1536: The accusations

Anne is arrested and taken to the Tower, along with her brother George Boleyn, Lord Rochford

  • 19 May 1536: The execution

Anne is beheaded on Tower Green within the Tower of London