Late in the afternoon of 31 May 1533, in what would be a great procession through the streets of the city, England’s new Queen, Anne Boleyn, left her temporary residence in the Tower of London for the place of her coronation at the Palace of Westminster.
Only two of Henry VIII’s six wives would be afforded he honour of a formal coronation, the other was Catherine of Aragon, but that had not been his doing. With Anne already heavily pregnant, a fact artfully disguised where possible, the event could have been seen as an occasion for much mirth and mockery even if the Queen’s condition did lend proof of the King’s virility, he had earlier been stung by the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys casting doubt upon whether, at his age, the King could still sire a son, prompting him to respond angrily - Am I not a man like any other)
Given the mood of the country Henry had, perhaps wisely, chosen to stay away though he would be present for the celebrations. Even so, determined to make a statement, no expense had been spared on the spectacle.
The Tudor chronicler Edward Hall, who was present, provides us with an account of the scene as he would also of Anne’s coronation the following day:
“And on Saturday, the last day of May, she rode from the Tower of London through the city with a goodly company of lords, knights, and gentlemen, richly apparelled. She herself rode in a rich chariot covered with cloth of silver, and a rich canopy of cloth of silver borne over her head by the four Lords of the Ports, in gowns of scarlet, followed by four richly hung chariots of ladies, and also several other ladies and gentlewomen riding on horseback, all in gowns made of crimson velvet. And there were various pageant made on scaffolds in the city; and all the guilds were standing in their liveries, every- one in order, the mayor and aldermen standing in Cheapside. And when she came before them the Recorder of London made a goodly presentation to her, and then the mayor gave her a purse of cloth of gold with a thousand marks of angel nobles in it, as a present from the city; and so the lords brought her to the Palace of Westminster and left her there that night.”
The thousands of people who lined the route patiently waiting for the procession to pass eager to catch a glimpse of their new Queen were entertained by the many jugglers, acrobats, fire eaters and musicians present while young children, many in fancy dress, danced and made merry.
The procession paused briefly at St Martin’s Church on Ludgate Hill where prayers were said, recitations made, and a choir sang in the Queen’s honour but the carnival atmosphere, tempered by such moments of reverence and solemnity, was not all it seemed. The Queen’s reception was mixed at best, the crowds were enjoying the festivities no doubt but the cheers rang hollow often drowned out by reciprocal jeers and catcalls despite the many there who had been amply rewarded for their presence.
But the moments of discord did little to diminish the occasion and Anne took it all in good heart her countenance remaining pleasant to gaze upon throughout- she knew the people would love her well enough when she provided the King with a son and heir.
The following day Anne “was brought to St Peter’s Church at Westminster, and there sat in her high royal seat which was made on a high platform before the altar. And there she was anointed and crowned Queen of England by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York.”
Upon being crowned Queen, Anne was immediately taken to nearby Westminster Hall where the great and good of the land, with the notable exception of Sir Thomas More, had gathered for the lavish celebratory banquet in her honour. Sitting at high table accompanied only by the Archbishop of Canterbury while the King looked on, the clearly exhausted and heavily pregnant Anne did not wilt outperforming all present with her ease of presence, pleasant demeanour, eating heartily, and dancing late into the night with her new husband Henry, King of England.
The festivities continued for another two days with tournaments, further banquets, and other sundry entertainments. It was a triumph for both Henry and Anne, the cup of goodwill runneth over and was imbibed with great relish, but the sound of dissenting voices were never far away and as long as as Catherine of Aragon’s shadow loomed large over events and the King remained without a male heir an atmosphere of uncertainty would prevail
By now exiled to Kimbolton Castle in remote Huntingdonshire far removed from the Royal Court in London and the centre of power, Catherine refused to be cowed by the King’s bullying and not very subtle acts of intimidation insisting that she was still the “King’s only lawful wedded wife and England’s rightful Queen.” Moreover, and much to Henry’s chagrin, she demanded her servants refer to her as such and she could still count among her friends many influential people none more so than the Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester.
Since the annulment of the marriage Catherine had been relegated in status to Dowager, Princess of Wales, starved of funds, and seen her household reduced to the bare minimum required as Henry maintained the pressure on her to accept the divorce and his marriage to Anne Boleyn as the fait accompli it clearly was; but despite the promise of improved relations and conditions should she relent Catherine stubbornly refused to do so. As a result, she was denied permission to meet or even communicate with their daughter Mary – they were in fact never to see one another other again.
On 7 September 1533, Anne Boleyn gave birth to a healthy baby girl she named Elizabeth. Henry went through the formalities of recognising her as his daughter but he could barely disguise his disappointment. He had married Anne in the belief she would provide him with the son and heir he so craved now she had failed to deliver. She would soon be pregnant again Anne reassured him but he had divorced Catherine believing he had sinned in marrying his brother’s widow and so had been cursed to remain without male offspring. He was still without male offspring - had she deceived him? All celebrations were quietly put aside, the great joust that had been arranged in the baby prince’s honour was cancelled, and Henry did not call upon Anne again for some time.
Henry’s determination to divorce Catherine and marry Anne had also set in motion a series of events unforeseen and unimaginable just a few years before.
In order to secure the divorce denied him by the Vatican Henry had first to break with Rome, an issue that had acquired greater urgency since Pope Clement VII had declared his marriage to Catherine legal.
In May 1532, at the Convocation of Canterbury the clergy yielded to the King’s demand that it abandon its right to formulate Canon Law without his consent or in future seek instruction from or implement any policy emanating from Rome – the Pope’s jurisdiction would no longer run in England.
The Submission of the Clergy, as it became known, was not passed without opposition. John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, was particularly hostile urging fierce resistance but the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham, who despite it seeming lukewarm at times had been a long-time supporter of Catherine of Aragon was now old, ailing, and his resolve weak - he would carp and complain but not resist the King who had made it clear in a speech before parliament how any such opposition would be regarded:
“Well beloved subjects, we thought that the clergy of the realm had been our subjects wholly, but now we have well perceived that they be but half our subjects, yea, and scarce our subjects.”
This was soon followed by the Act of Supremacy which recognised King Henry VIII and his subsequent successors as Head of the Church in England. The Pope would in future be referred to as the Bishop of Rome.
Upon learning that the clergy had submitted to the will of the King and signed the Oath of Supremacy, Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor. He would not take the Oath but neither would he speak against it, and Henry, though disappointed appeared at first willing to let his old friend and mentor be. Thomas Cromwell, in effect the King’s Chief Minister and master manipulator in a variety of roles was not, he would not let sleeping dogs lie. As long as Sir Thomas refused to publicly submit as others had he remained a threat to the religious reforms he was so assiduously working to impose; time and again Sir Thomas was interrogated whether it be over accusations of bribery while in office or over his association with Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, who had prophesied against the King’s relationship with Anne Boleyn. There was little evidence of wrongdoing against the former Lord Chancellor as Cromwell knew full well but then it was about bringing pressure to bear, pressure to take the oath. If he did so then the King’s generosity would know no bounds, if he did not then intimidation would suffice – and so it would prove.
In March 1534, the Act of Succession declared the King’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, the Princess Mary, a bastard and removed her from the line of succession. At the same time Anne Boleyn’s daughter, the Princess Elizabeth was elevated to be next in line to the throne. Those required to take the Oath would in effect be recognising Anne Boleyn as the legitimate Queen while the Treason Act passed around the same time made not taking the Oath a crime punishable by death.
Despite the severity of the penalty imposed for not doing so Sir Thomas More could no more swear this Oath than he could the previous one. If there had been an opportunity for him to do so, if the wording of the text had been different, if a loophole had existed, he would have taken it for he had no desire to lose his life as he made plain many times, but he could not act in defiance of his conscience and perjure himself before God.
On 17 April 1534, Sir Thomas More was arrested on a charge of high treason and taken to the Tower of London where he would remain for over a year in the hope the reality of imprisonment and the prolonged separation from his family would in the eyes of most at least, bring him to his senses.
Soon after Sir Thomas’s incarceration his friend and fellow Oath resister Bishop John Fisher was likewise arrested and taken to the Tower. Both men had taken shelter behind the legal precedent that silence implies consent, if so their silence must have been the loudest in recorded history for it resounded throughout the Royal Courts of Europe. But whether spoken or otherwise, the wily Thomas Cromwell, acting on behalf of his master the King of England, had long ago decided that such dissent could not be tolerated.
In May 1535, the recently installed Pope Paul III made Bishop Fisher a Cardinal in the hope that his elevation to a Prince of the Church would, if not secure his freedom then at least save his life. Learning of this King Henry declared scornfully that should he receive his Cardinal’s hat in time he would gladly return it to Rome with the Primate’s head in it.
John Fisher was executed on 22 June 1535, not as a Cardinal or a Bishop but as a commoner and as a frightened, physically broken but stubborn old man.
Sir Thomas More could now be in no doubt as to his own fate and on 1 July was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death on the perjured evidence of a former acolyte, Richard Rich.
Returned to the Tower to await his execution it was even now hoped that there may be a last minute recantation and swearing of the Oath, anything that might allow the King to commute his sentence to something other than death; but he had already publicly condemned the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and his usurpation of power in matters spiritual at his trial and so there was no acceptance now which might ever be thought true and sincere.
A final visit from his family who he had earlier ordered to swear the Oath for their own safety and during which emotions ran high could not sway him from his conviction. Not even the succinct and passionately argued reasonableness of his daughter Margaret, to whom he was particularly close, could change his mind.
Sir Thomas More met his fate that warm 6 July morning with all the calm resolution people had come to expect from one of the leading humanist thinkers of his day, though perhaps his spirit surpassed his body as ascending the steps to the scaffold he asked:
“I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”
Before recompensing his executioner in assurance of a swift death, Sir Thomas addressed briefly those in attendance:
“I die the King’s faithful servant, but God’s first.”
Perhaps the man in greatest pain that fine July morning was the one responsible for the death of his former Lord Chancellor. Perhaps the person who should have been most nervous was the woman who had sealed his fate.
Henry, who cared little for Bishop Fisher was deeply conflicted over the execution of Sir Thomas More. He had been his guide and mentor, his close personal friend and confidante since boyhood, now he was dead, and he was dead as a result of Anne Boleyn. He expressed his regret in private often in tones of bitterness and recrimination - but at least Anne would soon be pregnant once more and he would be vindicated in the eyes of God.
On 8 January 1536, news reached the Royal Court at Greenwich that Catherine of Aragon had died and an overwhelming sense of relief swept through its environs as if caught in lightening and its dark corridors had been bathed in shafts of light. Both Henry and Anne were reportedly delighted though the proprieties of grief were respected and maintained even if some thought otherwise when the colour yellow (supposedly the colour of mourning in the late Queen’s native land) was ordered to be worn lending proceedings a more celebratory feel.
Aware that she was not long for this world Catherine had penned one final letter to her erstwhile husband:
My most dear lord, king, and husband
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer to all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that he will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also , on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants i solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katherine the Queen
Now Anne had all that she had ever wanted – she was married to the King, she was Queen, her daughter Elizabeth was in the line of succession, her opponents at Court and in the Church had been disposed of, and her great rival Catherine of Aragon was dead. All she had to do in return was provide her husband with a son and heir.
On the day of the former Queen’s funeral Anne’s pregnancy bore fruit in the form of a stillbirth – the child would have been a boy. The King’s ill-temper was evident, if his Queen expected sympathy she would get none from him. He now began to speak openly of being deceived and beguiled, bewitched even.
Henry and Anne’s love affair had rarely been less than tempestuous with the former driven by lust the latter by ambition. Anne’s natural vivacity, sharp intellect, independence of thought, and outspoken ways so admired in a mistress were less so in a Queen. The expected deference was not forthcoming, neither was the silence of a dutiful wife. Henry and Anne argued often, and loudly.
And she could never truly be Queen while Catherine lived, no matter how hard she tried, and she did try living ostentatiously with no expense spared and adopting the airs and graces of regality to the uttermost. Even so, she remained an interloper, the King’s prostitute, that goggle-eyed whore.
It made her spiteful towards her household, her husband, even her own sister but the primary target of her vindictiveness would always be Catherine. She demanded that her retinue be reduced, that she not be allowed visitors, that she hand-over her jewels, and that the minimum only be spent on her maintenance. The Princess Mary she made work in her infant daughter Elizabeth’s household ordering that she be closely watched and if heard make mention of the succession be severely beaten.
Now Catherine of Aragon was dead she was losing the King’s affections.
The Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who was no friend to Anne Boleyn referring to her in his correspondence as the King’s concubine remarked of the stillbirth – the Queen has miscarried of her saviour. He could say this with some confidence as it was increasingly apparent that she was no longer in the King’s favour. He had earlier written:
“It is heard in France that Anne Boleyn has in some way or other incurred the Royal displeasure and that she is in disgrace with the King who is paying his court to another lady, and other people are uttering words of much indignation against her.”
Anne had begun to fear for her safety and that of her daughter, Elizabeth. Already embroiled in a power struggle with Thomas Cromwell for influence over the King especially in the area of foreign affairs where she favoured an alliance with France rather than the closer ties with the Protestant States of northern Europe sought by the Chief Minister. She was also aware that one of her ladies-in-waiting Jane Seymour had caught the King’s eye. Indeed, upon discovering that she was wearing a locket given her by Henry she tore it from her neck with such force that the violence involved frightened others present. But such temper tantrums were becoming increasingly commonplace. She felt increasingly isolated with her only salvation being her ability to provide the King with a son, and this she had been unable to do.
Rumours had long been circulating regarding the Queen, that she was the ‘King’s Whore’ just as her sister had been, and as the saying went – once a whore always a whore. Whether the charges that would be brought against her were then, entirely the invention of Thomas Cromwell or that he was merely exploiting these rumours it is difficult to say, but that they were readily believed is not.
Henry had already decided he was a victim of her witchcraft, that he had been seduced with evil intent. He too had heard the rumours and he wanted Thomas Cromwell to investigate them.
In April 1536, a young musician in Anne’s service Mark Smeaton was arrested and charged with being the Queen’s lover. To commit adultery with the Queen carried a sentence of death and so he at first frantically denied the charges but put to the rack soon confessed and implicated others.
On 1 May, Henry Norris, an old friend and jousting partner of the King’s, was likewise arrested. He was said to have expressed an unhealthy interest in the Queen visiting her often in her chambers and other arrests soon followed, a courtier Sir Francis Weston, a groom William Brereton, and the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt but most damaging and hurtful was the detention of her brother George, Viscount Rochford on charges of committing incest with his sister.
Kept unaware of the details Anne was not heedless to the gossip and in desperation tried one last time to reconcile with her husband carrying the infant Elizabeth in her arms she pleaded her innocence and begged him not to forsake their daughter but Henry remained impassive, and unmoved dismissed her from his presence.
On 2 May, Anne Boleyn was arrested charged with adultery and high treason and taken by river to the Tower of London where she entered by the notorious Traitor’s Gate. She appeared frightened and a little disbelieving of the fate that had befallen her. She asked often for news and her mood it was said swung from a calm indifference to hysterical fits of tears.
On 6 May, she wrote what would prove a last letter to her husband, the King:
Your Grace's displeasure, and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, as what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send unto me (willing me to confess a truth, and so obtain your favour) by such an one, whom you know to be my ancient professed enemy. I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing a truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty perform your demand.
But let not your Grace ever imagine, that your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought thereof preceded. And to speak a truth, never prince had wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn: with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself, if God and your Grace's pleasure had been so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation or received Queenship, but that I always looked for such an alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your Grace's fancy, the least alteration I knew was fit and sufficient to draw that fancy to some other object. You have chosen me, from a low estate, to be your Queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire. If then you found me worthy of such honour, good your Grace let not any light fancy, or bad council of mine enemies, withdraw your princely favour from me; neither let that stain, that unworthy stain, of a disloyal heart toward your good grace, ever cast so foul a blot on your most dutiful wife, and the infant-princess your daughter. Try me, good king, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and judges; yea let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open flame; then shall you see either my innocence cleared, your suspicion and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatsoever God or you may determine of me, your grace may be freed of an open censure, and mine offense being so lawfully proved, your grace is at liberty, both before God and man, since have pointed unto, your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicion therein. But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander must bring you the enjoying of your desired happiness; then I desire of God, that he will pardon your great sin therein, and likewise mine enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strict account of your unprincely and cruel usage of me, at his general judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear, and in whose judgment I doubt not (whatsoever the world may think of me) mine innocence shall be openly known, and sufficiently cleared. My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of your Grace's displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. If ever I found favour in your sight, if ever the name of Anne Boleyn hath been pleasing in your ears, then let me obtain this request, and I will so leave to trouble your Grace any further, with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your Grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions. From my doleful prison in the Tower, this sixth of May;
Your most loyal and ever faithful wife, Anne Boleyn"
Yet, even now she could not bring herself to believe that the King would truly do her harm; surely he would pardon her or banish her from Court, perhaps exile her to another country. It wasn’t until her trial on 15 May before a tribunal of 27 of the most prominent peers of the realm one of whom was her old paramour Henry Percy now Duke of Northumberland, and presided over her own uncle the Duke of Norfolk that the implications of what was happening became truly apparent.
Anne defended herself as best she could knowing that the charges against herself and the others were false but there was little sympathy to be had and minds were closed and hearts cowed to judge other than the verdict predetermined:
“I am entirely innocent of all these accusations that I cannot ask pardon of God for them. I have always been a loyal and faithful wife to the King. I’ve not perhaps always shown him that humility and reverence that his goodness to me, and the honour to which he raised me, did deserve.
I confess I have had fancies and suspicions of him which I had not the strength, nor discretion to resist, and God knows and as my witness I have never failed otherwise towards him, and shall never confess any otherwise.”
It was an admission of sorts but of an entirely different guilt, perhaps.
The verdict was against her and unanimous as it could be no other and so found guilty of incest, adultery, and treason she was sentenced to death. Finally, informed that Archbishop Cranmer had the previous day declared her marriage to Henry null and void she realised that death awaited her and that there would be no reprieve.
The final few days of Anne’s confinement in the Tower were a torment to her, she was in deep mourning for the fate of her brother, feared for the safety of her remaining family in particular her daughter, and repented for the behaviour that had lost her the affection of her husband the King, doomed the lives of others likewise accused with her on trumped up charges, and had brought her to this.
On 17 May, she may have seen but would certainly have heard the execution of her brother George and the other accused. She was due to be executed herself the following day but now there was a delay.
Henry had relented a little, Anne would be spared the indignity of the axe and instead an expert swordsman had been brought from Calais to ensure that the decapitation would be as swift and painless as possible, but the journey to London had taken longer than anticipated.
Anne’s final hours were spent reading the Bible in quiet contemplation of her fate, though her eyes were reddened and her cheeks rarely dry of tears. The Constable of the Tower Sir William Kingston who had warmed to the condemned Queen during the period of her confinement wrote of her final hours:
“This morning she sent for me, that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocence always to be clear. And in the writing of this she sent for me, and in my coming she said: “Mr Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain.” I told her it should be no pain, it was so little. She said, “I heard say the executioner is very good and I have a little neck,” and then she put her hands around it, laughing heartily. I have seen so many men and women executed, and that they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady has much joy in death.”
Dressed in a dark grey fur trimmed gown and red petticoats and accompanied by two ladies-in-waiting it was said she went to the scaffold as a lady out for stroll, taking in the air and with a bounce in her step uncommon to those condemned to die. She then addressed those present in a clear and unhesitating voice:
“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I have come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the King and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never and to me he was ever a good, gentle, and sovereign lord. And if any person should meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world, and of you all, and I heartily desire you all pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”
Many of those in attendance were reduced to tears by her humble demeanour and generous words for a King who had in truth shown her no mercy and people knelt to pray and there were cries of God save the Queen as Anne, blindfolded and on her knees before her executioner, her head held high, mumbled the words over and over “O sweet Jesus receive my soul. O Lord God, have pity on my soul.”
Little could Anne have anticipated the fate that awaited her when she coaxed and teased her way into the royal marriage bed, Queen’s were not executed, they might be banished, exiled, sent to a nunnery even, but they were not put to death; but then a royal marriage was a political event that lay within the purview of the diplomats and dynasts. Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was one such arrangement; his relationship with Anne Boleyn however was not, she had little political cachet, rather it was driven by passion and desire and as is often the case when such affairs cool they lead to bitterness, resentment, and suspicions of betrayal.
Anne Boleyn’s generous words upon the scaffold might suggest otherwise but maybe she understood her role in turning the romantic, lovelorn prince of those early years into the monstrous tyrant of a decade later. After all, he had divorced a devoted wife, executed his friends, and imperilled his soul for her, and she had not delivered on the promises she had made. Perhaps, she was merely seeking to protect her daughter Elizabeth from any further retribution and secure her place in the line of succession. Then again, she may have meant every word she said.
The day after Anne Boleyn’s execution Henry became betrothed to Jane Seymour (that empty headed harlot, according to Anne) and nine days later they married. On 12 October 1537, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, the future Edward VI. On 27 October, Jane Seymour died from puerperal fever contracted during childbirth.
Henry was saddened by the loss but it mattered little – a Queen had done her duty, at last.