5 surprising Tudor facts

5 surprising Tudor facts

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1) The Tudors wore spectacles

In 1541, the grandmother of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, under suspicion for her knowledge of the queen’s pre-marital sexual affairs, broke into coffers belonging to two of the men involved and sent for her spectacles to read the letters that she found. Since she was doing this by candlelight in the middle of the night, it’s not surprising she needed a little help to read – and then burn – these incriminating documents.

Spectacles at this time were usually armless, designed to sit on the bridge of the nose or to be handheld. Although they were useful for reading, they wouldn’t have been particularly helpful for people who needed to wear them all the time. Poor eyesight was common in Tudor England and there was little that could be done about it. The many remedies for eye conditions that can be found in early modern medical recipe books show that people certainly tried to cure themselves – but the vast array of remedies suggests none of them were very effective!

 

2) The official penalty for brawling within the royal court was the loss of a hand

With a court full of young and rowdy men, Henry VIII felt that a deterrent was necessary to control his courtiers, and he chose to make the punishment fit the crime. In 1541 Sir Edmund Knyvett [the eldest son of distinguished courtier and sea captain Sir Thomas Knyvet] had a fight on the tennis court with one of the Earl of Surrey’s servants, Thomas Clere, and landed a punch on Clere’s nose. Knyvett was arraigned for this later in the year and sentenced to lose his hand.

Apparently the royal surgeon would be the one to sever the hand; the king’s mastercook supplied the knife; and the sergeant farrier [the person in charge of providing horses with shoes] the hot iron to sear the wound, while the sergeant of the cellar [the person in charge of the court’s alcohol] supplied alcohol (for the spectators, not the victim).

Knyvett is said to have pleaded that his left hand be cut off, so that he could continue to serve the king with his right. Happily for Knyvett, in the end he was pardoned, but the king put out a proclamation then and there that in future, anyone found brawling within the precincts of the court would definitely lose a hand.

 

3) Elizabeth I could be violent

She may not have borne arms or led an army, but Elizabeth I could be quite violent in a domestic setting. When in a rage, she swore like a trooper and could apparently be heard several rooms away.

Elizabeth was not above abusing her ladies-in-waiting; in 1576, when she discovered that Mary Shelton had secretly married courtier Sir John Scudamore two years previously, she flew into a rage and rained blows on the unfortunate Mary, and according to some sources may have broken her finger.

Elizabeth I wasn’t above throwing things either; there is a story that she once threw a slipper at her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Elizabeth also had no toleration for lack of respect: one day in 1598, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, turned his back on the queen during a heated argument. For this unthinkable breach of court etiquette, Elizabeth promptly boxed his ears, at which point Essex placed his hand on his sword hilt [handle]. Shocked courtiers scrambled to put themselves between him and the queen, and Essex stormed out of the room.

 

4) Tudor aristocrats gave each another some interesting presents

Gift-giving was a key element of the patronage system; if you wanted something done, you gave the relevant person a gift, since this would in theory force them to reciprocate by doing whatever it was that you wanted. Gifts could be very personal, such as jewellery worn by the giver, or clothing.

Food items could also be given as gifts; for example, noblewoman Lady Honor Lisle prided herself on her homemade quince marmalade [quince is a fruit similar in appearance to a pear]. Some food items were rather more exotic, and letters testify to attempts to transport seal and porpoise before they went bad.

Sometimes even live animals were given as gifts. Lady Lisle sought advice on a gift for Anne Boleyn in the 1530s and was told that the queen hated monkeys, but liked spaniels. Plus, Princess Mary (later Mary I) was given a parrot by the Countess of Derby in 1538.

New Year’s Day, rather than Christmas, was the biggest gift-giving day for the Tudors, and nobles competed to give the king or queen the best present. Such gifts usually involved vast quantities of gold and jewels, but were sometimes more inventive: the Duke of Norfolk gave Henry VIII a chess set in 1532, and in 1557 Mary I and her husband, Philip II of Spain, were given “a Map of England, stayned upon cloth of silver in a frame of wood”. It is also said that Elizabeth I’s courtiers indulged her love of clothes with gifts of gowns and fabric.

 

5) All Tudor monarchs, and many aristocrats, adopted or inherited mottos that would be used alongside their personal symbol or ‘badge’ on their servants’ livery [uniform]

These mottos could change to reflect important events or occasions, such as a marriage, and temporary mottos were worn during tournaments.

Some of these mottos are well known: Henry VIII’s ‘Coeur Loyale’ (Loyal Heart) in 1511 after the birth of Prince Henry; ‘Declare, I Dare Not’ in 1526, which is thought to relate to Anne Boleyn; and the royal motto still used by our queen today, ‘Dieu et mon droit’ (God and my right)’. Some mottos are less well known – for example, Mary I’s was ‘Truth, the daughter of time’.

Some Tudor mottos have a peculiarly modern feel. Philip II’s motto when king of Spain was ‘The world is not enough’ – apt for a man who controlled Spain, the Netherlands, parts of Italy, and swathes of Germany! Anne Boleyn used the motto ‘Ainsi sera, groigne qui groigne’, during the Christmas period in 1530, which in modern idiom is more or less ‘Haters gonna hate’ – a clear reference to her intention to marry Henry VIII.

Dr Nicola Clark is an early modern historian specialising in gender and court history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the University of Chichester. Her book, Gender, Family and Politics: The Howard Women, 1485–1558 is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

On this day in the midst of Tudor time…

  

On This Day 28th November 1489

On 28th November 1489, Elizabeth of York, Queen of England, gave birth to her second child, a daughter named Margaret, presumably for her grandmother, (who was also her godmother) Lady Margaret Beaufort. Margaret was married to James IV, King of Scots at the age of fourteen, as part of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace, which, unfortunately, did not live up to its name. With her husband killed at the Battle of Flodden, Margaret, aged twenty-four, became Governor of Scotland for her son, the infant James V. She quickly married again, and thereby forfeited the Regency.

Her second marriage, to the Earl of Angus, was less successful than her first, and she finally obtained a divorce, remarrying a third time to Henry Stewart, Lord Methven. Margaret spent much of her life trying to encourage her son to follow a pro-English policy, but the heavy-handed tactics of Angus, and Margaret’s brother, Henry VIII, inculcated a deep resentment of them both in James V. Margaret was the grandmother of both Mary, Queen of Scots, and Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley, and it is thus from Margaret that the British Royal Family is descended.

Tudor tidbits 

  

On This Day 8th November 1576
On 8th November 1576, the provinces of the Netherlands, regardless of their religious affiliations, signed an agreement whereby the whole of the Netherlands agreed to mutiny against the rule of Philip II of Spain, their hereditary duke. Philip’s great-grandmother, Mary of Burgundy, had inherited the lands from her father, Charles the Bold (or Rash, as he was sometimes termed). Mary had died young, falling from a horse, to be succeeded by her son, Philip, then her grandson, the Emperor Charles V. Charles had been brought up largely in Ghent and was therefore accepted as overlord, even though the day to day running of the Netherlands had been left first to his aunt, Marguerite, daughter of Mary, and then to his sister, Mary of Hungary. By the time Philip, born and brought up in Spain, succeeded, the familial link seemed very tenuous. By the 1570s around half the territories had converted to the Calvinist Reformed faith, whilst the southern areas remained largely Catholic. Whilst Philip came to terms with the leaders of the various provinces, peace did not last long.

On this day, 2nd November in Tudor time…

  In the picture, Anne is shown third from left, her older sister Mary, having died before the window was made for Canterbury Cathedral

This Day 2nd November 1475

On 2nd November 1475, a daughter named Anne was born to Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. She was their sixth child, and fourth daughter. During her childhood, Anne was betrothed to Philip of Burgundy, son of the Emperor Maximilian and his wife, Mary of Burgundy, but her father died before the marriage could take place. Anne was just eight when Edward IV died, and her brother, who was never crowned, disappeared to be replaced by her uncle, Richard III. Anne remained in the sanctuary of Westminster with her mother and sisters, until they were persuaded to emerge on receiving promises that, despite having been branded as illegitimate, they would be treated honourably by their uncle.

Richard III arranged a marriage for Anne with Thomas Howard, the grandson of Richard’s close supporter, John Howard, Duke of Norfolk. The marriage had not taken place by the time of Richard’s death at Bosworth in 1485, but was eventually solemnised in 1495 when Anne was twenty, and her husband a couple of years older. Anne and Thomas had several children, but none survived childhood. Anne was frequently in attendance on her sister, Elizabeth of York, and took part in the christenings of Elizabeth’s children. Anne died in 1511, and was buried in the Howard chapel at Thetford Priory, although, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries implemented by her nephew, Henry VIII, her remains were moved to the church at Framlingham.

On this day 30th October in Tudor times…

  

On This Day 30th October 1600
On 30th October, 1600 Elizabeth I refused to renew Essex’s monopoly on sweet wine with the words ‘an unruly horse must be abated of is provender that he may be the better brought to managing’. Monopolies were a common way for the Crown to give grants to favored courtiers. As the name suggests, all imports and exports of the product in question were routed through the monopolist’s hands, who was then free to take a percentage of the profits. During the 1590s, the practice of granting monopolies was heavily criticised by the House of Commons as being in restraint of trade. In Elizabeth’s last Parliament she promised to look into the matter, but no changes were made. For Essex, the loss of the monopoly effectively bankrupted him and was a contributing factor in his descent into open rebellion.

On this day, 24th October in Tudor time…

  
Picture is of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, where Jane is buried

On This Day 24th October 1537

On 24th October 1537, Jane Seymour died at Hampton Court, twelve days after an excruciating labour had brought forth Henry VIII’s heir. The exact cause of her death is uncertain – she did not (despite rumours) have a caesarean section. If she had, she certainly would not have made the immediate progress she did after the birth, being able to sit up in bed and receive visitors after the christening of the baby Edward. Modern research suggests that some of the placenta was left behind, leading to septicaemia. Attended by male doctors, rather than midwives, they may well not have understood that all of the necessary matter had not been expelled and thus did not treat her as more experienced midwives would have done.

  
Henry mourned his wife sincerely, as did the whole court. The King organised a splendid funeral for her. It was not customary for kings to attend funerals (other than their own!) so he withdrew to mourn in private. The role of Chief Mourner was taken by Jane’s step-daughter Mary, who was originally so upset that the Marchioness of Exeter had to undertake the initial duties. Mary and the other ladies, including Lady Frances Brandon, Marchioness of Dorset, rode slowly behind Jane’s coffin to its burial place at Windsor, where she still lies, Henry by her side.

On this day in Tudor Time…

The-south-face-of-Bolton-Castle-©-Tudor-Times-2015

On This Day 14th October 1536

On 14th October 1536, Lady Katherine Scrope, nee Clifford, wrote to her father, Henry, Earl of Cumberland, to inform him that the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace were in the vicinity of her home at Bolton Castle and were ‘persuading’ the local nobles and gentry to join them. The tone of Katherine’s letter is rather ambivalent – she implies that her husband, John, 8th Baron Scrope of Bolton, would follow his father-in-law’s lead on whether to join with the rebels or not. Whilst the Earl of Cumberland stayed staunchly loyal, Lord Scrope became embroiled and Bolton suffered some reprisals by the king’s troops.

Lady Katherine was well-connected – her grandmother, Anne St John, was half-cousin to Henry VII, and her own half-brother, another Henry, was married in June 1537 to the king’s niece, Eleanor Brandon – perhaps as reward for the Cliffords not joining the rebels.

Which of Henry VIII’s wives was his best match?

Which of Henry VIII’s wives was his best match?

  Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived – but which wife was Henry’s best match? | © Georgios Kollidas

Henry ended his three-year marriage to Anne Boleyn by having her beheaded, but she is still the most compatible match for the infamous king, according to the findings from relationship website eHarmony.

Tudor historian Elizabeth Norton carried out psychological studies of Henry and all six of his wives and this data was used by eHarmony to score each marriage’s compatibility. Factors considered included emotional temperament, social style and relationship skills.

Few could claim any of his marriages were particularly successful anyway, but the results show Henry was incompatible with all six women. His aggressive personality, neuroticism and lack of compassion all made him less than a perfect match.

ANNE IS AT THE HEAD

But Anne tops the list due to their “similar libidos and high levels of energy and ambition” as well as their openness with each other. Despite the passion of the relationship, the suspicious and neurotic Henry had her head chopped off.

Henry called his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, a “Flanders mare” and they divorced within a year, but she proved the second most compatible. Next on the list was Catherine of Aragon, who was married to Henry for 23 years before he split with the Roman Catholic Church to divorce her. According to her profiling, their relationship may have been strained by her lack of interest in appearance and athleticism.

Today, Jane Seymour is commonly regarded as Henry’s favourite wife – not least because she finally bore him a son – but she’s down in fourth place. It is likely Henry would disagree with the findings that she was not bold and outgoing enough, as she is the only wife buried with him.

Catherine Howard’s “mismatched libido” makes her the fifth most compatible wife and Catherine Parr, for being too intellectual for Henry’s tastes, comes in last.

Norton says, “The results of the study have been fascinating. Henry VIII was a complex character and found lasting love difficult to achieve. It was with Anne Boleyn that he enjoyed his most passionate relationship, with him even writing love letters to her – despite not being a fan of letter writing. The results of the study suggest that he should have given their relationship longer!”

“It’s a shame”, says eHarmony’s Jemima Wade, “that there was no eHarmony back in the 16th century, as we’re confident we could have saved Henry a lot of time and heartache by helping him find long-lasting love with a truly compatible partner who shared his beliefs and outlook on life.”

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