Friday, May 19, 2017

The Fall and Execution of Anne Boleyn

The Fall and Execution of Anne Boleyn



      Today, May 19, marks the anniversary of the execution in 1536 of Anne Boleyn on spurious charges of adultery and therefore (by one argument) treason.  While she would be included in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a 16th century effort at Protestant hagiography, all indications are that Anne died a Catholic; it is difficult to otherwise understand her request that the Eucharist be placed in her chambers at the Tower of London in the days before her execution.

      It was a convoluted process that brought Anne to execution.

      Previously, Henry VIII had been married to Catherine of Aragon.  That marriage would ultimately sour on the fact that only one of the children of Henry and Catherine survived infancy, that being Mary.  England was not, it was feared, ready to be ruled by a queen.  The only example of it doing so, that being the reign of the Empress Matilda (daughter of King Henry I) was referred to as the “Anarchy.”  Seeking to perpetuate the dynasty and avoid the possibility of civil war after his death, Henry pursued the Divorce (it was actually what we would refer to today as an annulment) so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.

      The Divorce could not easily be had consequent to at least a pair of factors.  Initially, on theological grounds, the basis for the Divorce was weak.  Second, Eleanor’s nephew, Charles V, was King of both Spain and the Netherlands and as well Holy Roman Emperor.  He was able to delay any decision on the Divorce, thereby depriving Henry of the one thing he did not have, namely time.  Ultimately, Henry would schism the English church from Roman communion (an act which earned for Henry his very own bull of excommunication).  The marriage to Catherine of Aragon was then annulled by Thomas Cramer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Now “single,” Henry proceeded to marry Anne Boleyn.  She, already pregnant at the time of the marriage, would be the mother of Elizabeth.  Elizabeth would be their only child.  Henry was now in no better position than he was before; two potential female heirs to the throne did not address the perceived need for a male heir.  Anne’s fortunes would ultimately be destroyed consequent to a series of events whose genesis is still greatly debated, but it is clear that the charges of adultery and incest for which she was convicted and executed were entirely fabricated.  Regardless, by some means Thomas Cromwell (now famous consequent to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both by Hilary Mantel) was told to make it happen, and he did.

      On April 30, 1536 Mark Smeaton, a court musician and hanger-on, was arrested, this being the first overt step in Cromwell’s plan to bring down Anne Boleyn.  According to one source, Cromwell had Smeaton brought to his own house and there tortured him.  Eventually, Smeaton would be racked and confess to have committed adultery with Anne Boleyn.  Some five additional men would be arrested on similar grounds. One of them, Wyatt, was not ultimately charged.

      The first trial (albeit indirect) of Anne Boleyn took place on May 12, 1536.  Anne, however, was not a participant in the trial.  Rather, at this trial each of Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, William Brereton and Francis Weston were charged with multiple acts of adultery with the Queen.  Sadly, no transcript of the proceedings, if made (and that is doubtful), survives.  All were found guilty, thereby sealing Anne’s fate.  She did not attend the trial; rather, at that time she was confined in the Tower of London.  Her father, Thomas Boleyn, did sit on the jury – his vote in favor of their conviction sealed the fate of his children.

      On May 15, 1536, Anne Boleyn as well as her brother George were tried on allegations of adultery and incest.  As to Anne, the conclusion of this “trial” was a foregone conclusion.  Four of the men with whom Anne was accused of having engaged in adultery, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, William Brereton and Francis Weston, had already been convicted on May 12, and, so goes the adage, it does take two to tango.  George was convicted on the charges against him.

      Although some incomplete notes of this trial do survive, sadly no transcript is available; it would no doubt make interesting reading.  It is clear that both Anne and then George (George’s trial was separate and held after that of Anne) denied all charges against them.  Those denials (as well as the expected denials of the other men charged with having committed adultery with Anne) must be accepted at face value.  As has been demonstrated by several scholars, most conclusively Eric Ives, the author of the definitive biography of Anne, she and her various co-conspirators could not have been guilty of the charges made – even with the incomplete records available to us today, it can be demonstrated that in numerous instances Anne and a particular gentleman were charged with having committed adultery at a particular time and place when, in fact, either or both of them were at a different place or even two difference places.  The truth, however, was not the issue; the outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion before it ever started.  Henry was tired of Anne, and Cromwell had been charged to bring about her fall. End of story.

      On May 14, Cramner, Archbishop of Canterbury, had declared the marriage of Henry and Anne to have been invalid ab initio, possibly (the papers as to his determination have been lost) on the basis of her prior contract of marriage to Henry Percy the son of the then Fifth Earl of Northumberland (this Henry would be the Sixth Earl). An alternative basis was that Mary Boleyn, Anne's sister, had been Henry's mistress, and on that basis the marriage could have been invalid based upon consangruity. Regardless as to why, Anne would not die as the Queen of England, having never been validly married to Henry, and their daughter Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth I) was rendered illegitimate.

      All of Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, William Brereton and Francis Weston, along with George Boleyn, would be executed on May 17.  Anne’s death would not take place until May 19.

      Famously, Anne was executed not with the traditional English ax, but rather by a French swordsman. I have never found a satisfactory explanation as to why the swordsman was requested over the axeman; Friedmann (another biographer of Anne) suggested, and Ives admits it as a possibility, that it was at Anne’s request, she desiring the French manner of execution in light of her having been raised in the French court. There is, however, a problem of chronology. Anne was consigned to the Tower on May 2, her alleged partners in adultery (other than her brother George) were tried on May 12, and she was tried on May 15.  The swordsman, normally resident in Calais, may have been ordered to come to England before Anne’s trial. If so, there is further evidence that the trials were for show and the verdicts were pre-determined; even though her trial had not yet taken place, the manner of her dispatch may have already been selected.  Still she came out ahead (no pun intended); her sentence was commuted to beheading – the regular sentence for a woman convicted of treason was burning at the stake.

      Anne was buried in St. Peter ad Vincula, the church on the grounds of the Tower of London.  There she joined Sir (now Saint) Thomas More, another of Henry’s victims, executed in 1535.

      Henry would marry Jane Seymour, his third wife, on May 30. She shortly thereafter became pregnant, ultimately delivering a son who would survive infancy.  That child was Edward VI.  Jane would die of complications from childbirth. While Henry would go on to marry three more times, namely to Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, none of them would have children by him. Edward VI would die, probably of tuberculosis, in his mid-teens.  Mary and then Elizabeth, the girls Henry feared could not rule, would in turn rule England.  As observed by Peter W. Hogg, Succession to the Throne, 33 Nat'l J. Const. L. 83 (2014):

 [W]hile Henry VIII was engaged in his obsessive quest for a male heir he could not know that his daughter Elizabeth by Anne Boleyn (the second of his six wives) was destined to become the greatest monarch England had ever known.  She became Elizabeth I (Good Queen Bess, as she was known), and ruled for 45 years (1558-1603, England's “golden age”).  Henry should have stopped worrying and settled down with Anne Boleyn instead of beheading her.

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