Anne Boleyn: A Murderer?

Recently, a book posited that Anne Boleyn was guilty of at least one murder, though no evidence was given to support this assertion.

There is no evidence to support it, save for a handful of rumors reported by biased sources.

During the Great Matter and Anne Boleyn's short reign as queen, Ambassador Chapuys was obsessed with the idea that Anne would have Katharine of Aragon or Princess Mary poisoned. It certainly would have made things much more easy for Anne and Henry, but there was never any evidence that an attempt was made on the lives of Katharine or the princess. Chapuys reported every rumor that Anne had spoken out against Katharine or Mary as a threat on their lives.

Those rumors have wound their way into the narrative of Anne's reign. Some historians believe that Anne at least verbally threatened to poison them, and possibly even had a plan to do so. One of her early biographers, Paul Friedmann wrote:

There was a chance that Anne herself might be able to do that from which Henry shrank; for she hoped that if he went to France she would be entrusted with the direction of the government during his absence. She had been overheard to say to her brother that, when the king was away and she was regent, she would have Mary executed for her disobedience.
Rochford warned her of the king's anger if she took so bold a step without his command, but Anne vehemently answered that she did not care and that she would do it even if she was burned or skinned alive for it. Chapuis, who tells the story, may have exaggerated a little, but there can be no doubt that his account is substantially true.

Substantially true? On what basis? Chapuys credits the rumor to an anonymous "trustworthy gentleman." It seems he had a network of informants who brought him every shred of negative gossip about Anne, which he faithfully reported as fact in his dispatches.

 But if Anne really intended to murder someone, why would she say it out loud, in public, so it could be reported to her intended victims or the king?

As Susan Bordo says in her The Creation of Anne Boleyn:

It's virtually standard operating procedure for historians to warn the reader, in an introduction or the beginning of a chapter, about Chapuys' biases and tendencies to believe the most vicious court gossip about Anne, and then go on to use him liberally and without qualification all the same. 

Henry cherished his children as proof of his fertility, which is why he claimed his bastard and enriched him with noble titles. (Had he had any other illegitimate children, he undoubtedly would have claimed them as well, which puts the idea Mary Boleyn's children were his at rest.)

Despite his anger at Princess Mary and her exile from court, Henry monitored her well-being. When she was ill, he sent his personal physicians to check on her, though afterwards dismissed her illness as hysterical malingering - which some of it may have been. But had she been in real danger, he would have done all he could to save her.

Henry would not have tolerated Anne trying to kill his daughter, no matter how angry he was at Mary for her defiance. He considered Mary a bastard, but she was still the daughter of a king and a royal Spanish princess.

Though Chapuys saw Anne as an immoral harlot, Anne was a deeply religious woman. In her own way, she was as intense in her faith as Katharine was in hers. She dedicated her reign to promoting the reformed religion in England, charitable works, and education. Writers sometimes (perhaps intentionally) overlook the fervent religious faith of Anne, but it was an important part of her character, and is crucial to our understanding of her as a historical figure. Would such a woman have poisoned her enemies when she believed God was elevating her to this position to reform the Church of England?

Even if she had been willing to, Anne would have had a difficult time poisoning Mary or Katharine and not getting caught. Katharine and Mary were both wary because of the rumors. At one point, it's said Katharine began having her most trusted servants cook her food in her rooms from fear of being poisoned.

To poison Mary of Katharine, Anne would have had to find a willing servant, someone close enough to Anne that she could trust they would remain absolutely loyal, even unto death, who was highly-ranked enough to get close to Katharine or the princess, but wasn't instantly identifiable as being close to Anne, and thus cause suspicion or be barred from the ladies' presence.

This servant would have to have a working knowledge of poisons ... knowing where to get them, and how much to use, which wasn't exactly common knowledge. Poisons were a tricky thing in that era. They didn't have the chemically-derived substances we do, and had to rely on plant extracts, and there was a lot of guesswork as to the strength of the poison and necessary dosage. Otherwise, they would have had to consult with an outsider, bringing in someone else on the plan and risking exposure.

The poisoner then would have had to work their way into Katharine or the princess's household and get access to their food. Poisoning a whole batch of a meal would be easier, but the poison could be diluted too much to be effective. Again, plant extracts were tricky, with no way to test how strong a particular batch was. Poisoning a single person might go undetected, especially if that person had health problems, but poisoning a whole household was a sure way to get caught.

Getting access to the food itself would have been somewhat difficult. Despite what we consider to be very lax standards of hygiene, great care was taken with the food of noble persons to keep it wholesome, as they understood it. Secondly, Tudor noble kitchens were filled with dozens of people. It would have been very difficult to get a moment alone with the food. Once it left the kitchens, it was in the hands of her trusted household officers, people who served the exiled Katharine and Mary from love, rather than status. Attempting to bribe one of them would have been foolhardy.

And for what? At that point, Anne had already 'won.' Katharine was no threat to her. Indeed, as it was later proved, while Katharine was alive, Anne was safe, and her death substantially weakened Anne's position.

The other person Anne was alleged to have tried to have was the Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher. The Bishop and his household fell ill after a meal, and after an investigation, it was found that the food had been poisoned by a cook, Richard Roose. Roose allegedly claimed he only intended to make the dinner guests sick with a purgative as a joke, but two people died. Plant extracts, a tricky thing ...

Roose was sentenced to be boiled to death, a hideously painful method of execution which entailed him being dipped over and over into a pot of boiling water until he died. If he had been able to bargain a lighter sentence with the name of someone who paid him to poison the Bishop, he would have.

From The Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London:
This yere was a coke boylyd in a cauderne in Smythfeld for he wolde a powsyned the bishop of Rochester Fycher with dyvers of hys servanttes, and he was lockyd in a chayne and pullyd up and downe with a gybbyt at dyvers tymes tyll he was dede.

It's said that even the hardened English - who attended executions for fun - were sickened by his screams of agony. Reports are that people fainted while watching it.

Roose never named any accomplices, even in the extremity of his agony. Every man has his breaking point, and Roose undoubtedly passed his several times before he died. But he never cried out any names in a plea for mercy. It's almost certain that Roose acted alone, and he was being honest in his confession.

People were apparently quick to blame Anne for the poisoning, even though Roose never pointed to her. Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria, believed that Anne was guilty. (She was best friends with Princess Mary, but never met Anne in person.) She wrote in her autobiography:

From the time that Queen Catharine was defended so stoutly and learnedly by the Bishop of Rochester [Anne] did seek by all means his destruction. One Richard Rice, a cook, was suborned to poison him, and he knew no other way to do it than to poison the common pot, which was for the whole household of the bishop. It chanced that that day according to his custom the bishop came not to dine in the parlour, but most of his family that dined there were poisoned and died thereof. Rice the cook being discovered did confess it and was publicly put to death for it. 

Roose did indeed confess, but not to Anne's involvement. The Duchess was also incorrect about most of the Bishop's family dying. One of the two victims was a poor widow who died after eating scraps given out by the kitchen, and the other was a gentleman of his household.

Interestingly, the Bishop's biography reports right after the poisoning incident a shot being fired into his study from the direction of Anne's father's house across the river, but for some reason, this hasn't been widely attributed to Anne. Probably because poisoning is seen more as a "women's crime," and suited to the sly, malicious character some writers have attributed to Anne, and a gunshot is more forthright and "manly."

Chapuys was allowed to visit Katharine of Aragon during her final illness. She seemed to be recovering at one point, and so he departed. Back to biographer Paul Friedmann for the story, using Chapuys' words from a dispatch:

The horses, therefore, were saddled and the mules loaded, but before mounting horse Chapuis had some serious talk with [Katharine's doctor] de Lasco. He asked the doctor whether he had any suspicion of poison. De Lasco shook his head, and said he feared something of the kind, for after the queen had drunk of a certain Welsh beer she had never been well. "It must be," he added, "some slow and cleverly-composed drug, for I do not perceive the symptoms of ordinary poison." 

After Katharine died, her embalmers found a black growth on her heart. Today, we know that to be evidence of cancer, but at the time, it was thought to be the marker of poison. Anne, of course, was the primary suspect in the minds of those who believed it. Friedmann erroneously reports it was one of the charges at Anne's trial.

Anne did not long survive the death of her rival. Only a few months after Katharine was buried, Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower.

After Anne's arrest, Henry summoned Henry Fitzroy and Princess Mary and wept as he hugged them, saying they should praise God they had escaped being poisoned by that "accursed whore." Henry, it seems, decided to echo the rumors, to show Anne in the most evil light possible at the time of her fall. But as with the accusations of adultery and incest, it doesn't appear Henry even believed it himself, because he never ordered an investigation into the servants who would have had to assist her.

There was no allegation of poison or murder at Anne's trial. Henry accused her of adultery, incest, treason, laughing at Henry's songwriting, making fun of his clothes ... He threw everything but the kitchen sink at her. Had there been anything to support the rumors that Anne had killed anyone, Henry would have used it at her trial.


  1. Excellent post! Would you like to do a guest post/excerpt from the book for my web page? Susan

    1. Email me and we can discuss possibilities:

  2. And here I am, three years later, with the observation that there actually was one hypchondriac lord of note at the English court who had considerable expertise in producing medicines and tinctures and who would have been more than capable of distilling poisons without having to ask for help.

    His name: Henry VIII.