Was Anne Boleyn Guilty of Adultery and Incest?

On May 15, 1536, Anne Boleyn and her brother, George, were tried on charges of adultery, incest, and treason.

The verdict was a foregone conclusion. The swordsman of Calais had already been summoned to execute the queen, even before her trial. The jury was loaded with the enemies of her family, and the property of the accused was already being divided up between them to ensure they had a financial incentive to render a guilty verdict.

Did Anne know she was already condemned before she stepped into the courtroom? It seems likely. But she walked in before the court, head held high, with a pleasant smile on her face, welcoming this chance to clear her name.

The Bishop of Riez, a witness to the trial, wrote:

She walked forth in fearful beauty, and seemed unmoved. She came not as one who had to defend her cause, but with the bearing of one coming to great honour.

The indictment was read, sparing no salacious detail. Henry Norris ... Mark Smeaton ... Francis Weston ... William Brereton ... A parade of names and dates, with Anne as the aggressor, seducing the men with gifts, luring them into sin.

And then the most shocking allegation of all, that Anne had seduced her own brother, George Boleyn.

... at Westminster, procured and incited her own natural brother, George Boleyn, lord Rochford, gentleman of the privy chamber, to violate her, alluring him with her tongue in the said George's mouth, and the said George's tongue in hers, and also with kisses, presents, and jewels; whereby he, despising the commands of God, and all human laws, violated and carnally knew the said Queen, his own sister, at Westminster; which he also did on divers other days before and after at the same place, sometimes by his own procurement and sometimes by the Queen's.

Anne could be no mere adulteress who simply preferred another man to the king, for then people might laugh at him. She had to be a depraved monster, so twisted by lust that she would seduce her own brother. She had to be an English Messalina (another powerful woman against whom unlikely sexual charges were levied.) Henry himself made the wildly exaggerated and impossible claim Anne had slept with a hundred men.

Modern historians are divided as to whether the person who made the terrible accusation of incest was George's wife, Jane Parker, or the Countess of Worcester (who owed Anne money, unbeknownst to her husband.) George was incredulous at the charges.

On the basis of only one woman you are willing to believe this great evil of me, and on the basis of her allegations you are deciding my judgment?

Mark Smeaton was the only one of the accused men who confessed. He was also, coincidentally, the only one of them who was a commoner, permitted by law to be tortured to extract a confession. A servant of Henry Norris wrote he heard Mark “... was first grievously racked, which I never could know of a truth.” Norris himself was offered clemency if he confessed, but he refused. He told his chaplain in the Tower, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than be guilty of such a falsehood.”

The indictment continued with the allegation that Anne and her lovers plotted to kill the king and she promised to marry one of them after he was dead. It mentioned that she and her "concubines" had also mocked the king's clothing and songwriting, and the whole thing had been so distressing for his majesty that "certain perils" had befallen his royal body. Fortunately for him, they weren't severe enough to curtail his nightly partying with Jane Seymour.

What are we to make of these charges? Was Anne really an adulteress?

The indictment was a clumsy frame-up. Had anyone been interested in the facts, Anne could easily have been proven innocent. As historian Eric Ives put it:

Investigation, furthermore, shows that even after nearly 500 years, three-quarters of these specific allegations can be disproved. In twelve cases Anne was elsewhere or else the man was.

Why were those tasked with putting together the charges against the queen so slipshod with establishing the allegations? Why didn't they look at their own records and make sure Anne was actually staying in the palaces mentioned on those dates? Why did no one consider that on one of the dates, Anne was still in seclusion, recovering from childbirth? Historians, who have only a tiny surviving portion of the records of the day, are able to reconstruct her whereabouts. Why didn't they?

The answer can only be that they thought it wouldn't matter. The verdict was already decided before they even wrote up the charges. No one would be interested in proving the facts, one way or the other.

Had Anne been permitted to know the charges against her in advance, or allowed to gather evidence for a defense, she could have easily shown she could not have committed the crimes of which she was accused. But criminal defendants in the Tudor era were not given such opportunities.

On only eight occasions do the whereabouts of Anne and the accused coincide. But even then, would adultery have been possible?

At court, Tudor queens were surrounded by servants at all times. Even during her most intimate moments, Anne would have had a servant with her, or at least standing outside the door. Servants even slept in the queen's room, the favored ones sometimes sharing her bed. Getting away from all of those watching eyes to have sex, without creating a storm of gossip, would have been nearly impossible.*

One of fanciful chronicles relating the charges against queen tacitly acknowledged this lack of privacy by claiming the queen's servant ushered all of her other ladies out of the room, and when the queen was ready for her lover, she would request a dish of marmalade jelly, demonstrating that if the queen had so much as said aloud to bring a man into her room, her servants would have heard it. Significantly, none of her ladies were charged with assisting her, as Jane Parker was charged with helping Katheryn Howard.

Anne's enemies watched her closely for any hint of impropriety on which to attack her, which was one of the reasons why Anne insisted her court be so circumspect. Her court was a place of dancing, music, poetry, and flirtation, but she was strict about moral behavior. It was why she had to send her sister, Mary Boleyn, away from court when Mary wed a minor courtier without permission.

Anne was an intensely religious woman, an evangelical with reformist zeal. That's often forgotten in depictions of Anne. She had a deep interest in theology; most of her books were centered on this topic. She believed that God had brought her to the throne to reform His church. She worked very hard to install reformist clerics in important positions within the church, and tried to divert the money from the dissolution of the monasteries to schools, so poor children could learn to read the Bible she was working on getting translated into English. By ignoring her faith, some writers have stripped away what Anne considered her most important work as queen.

Anne's faith provides us with a major piece of evidence regarding her innocence. While in the Tower, Anne called her servants and the constable of the Tower, William Kingston, to witness as she swore twice on the communion host that she had never committed adultery. A person of that era, expecting to see their Maker within a few hours, would never falsely swear on the host and condemn their soul to hell in the process.

As a practical gesture, Anne's oath was pointless. She was still condemned to die. But she knew that if word of it spread, it would help restore her reputation, just as she believed her words at the trial would help to clear her name.

Anne was wrong about the trial. All of the records were destroyed, and no word-for-word witness accounts have ever surfaced. The "intelligent and plausible" defense she gave is lost to us. All that remains in the records is the indictment, and Kingston's written accounts of her behavior in the Tower. Those, too, were almost lost in a 1731 library fire. According to a historian who saw the papers before the fire, the records contained a letter from Anne, angrily rejecting a plea deal which would require her to "confess." She said she would stand on her innocence unto death.

Who destroyed the trial records, and why? Was it simply the indifferent hand of Time causing their loss, or did someone deliberately cull them from the records?  That only the indictment survives is suspiciously thorough for it to be simple accident or decay. But if they were destroyed, why would that be necessary? If it was truly an "open and honest" trial, why the need for secrecy?


It may be for the same reason that it may be that none of Anne's contemporary portraits survive. Henry wanted all record of Anne Boleyn erased, leaving behind nothing that would show her in a positive light. He hoped history would view her as a traitorous whore, best forgotten.

But even with the scant records that have come down to us, Anne's innocence is obvious, just as it was obvious to the Lord Mayor of London after attending the trial, when he said,

I could not observe anything in the proceedings against her, but that they were resolved to make an occasion to get rid of her at any price.

The last clue is Henry's own behavior. He spent the time between Anne's fall and execution partying with his court, and making nightly trips to visit Jane Seymour. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who was no fan of Anne Boleyn, wrote about it in his dispatches to the Emperor:


It should be observed that in the meantime, and in order to conceal from the public his love for Jane Seymour, the King has made her reside seven miles from this city, at the house of the Grand Squire [Sir Nicholas Carew], a rumour having been previously spread among the public that the King has not the least wish of marrying again unless he be actually urged to it by his subjects.


A few days after putting out word that the king didn't want to marry again unless his people asked him to, Henry's council obligingly "pleaded" with the king to remarry for the "good of the realm." Henry replied that coincidentally enough, he just happened to know a young woman who might be suitable...

Chapuys continued:

Although the generality of people here are glad of the execution of the said concubine, still a few find fault and grumble at the manner in which the proceedings against her have been conducted, and the condemnation of her and the rest, which is generally thought strange enough. People speak variously about the King, and certainly the slander will not cease when they hear of what passed and is passing between him and his new mistress, Jane Seymour. 

Already it sounds badly in the ears of the public that the King, after such ignominy and discredit as the concubine has brought on his head, should manifest more joy and pleasure now, since her arrest and trial, than he has ever done on other occasions, for he has daily gone out to dine here and there with ladies, and sometimes has remained with them till after midnight.

I hear that on one occasion, returning by the river to Greenwich, the royal barge was actually filled with minstrels and musicians of his chamber, playing on all sorts of instruments or singing; which state of things was by many a one compared to the joy and pleasure a man feels in getting rid of a thin, old, and vicious hack in the hope of getting soon a fine horse to ride—a very peculiarly agreeable task for this king.
 The other night, whilst supping with several ladies at the house of the bishop of Carlion [Carlisle], he [the King] manifested incredible joy at the arrest of Anne, as the Bishop himself came and told me the day after. Indeed, he related to me that, among other topics of conversation, the King touched on that of the concubine; telling him: "For a long time back had I predicted what would be the end of this affair, so much so that I have written a tragedy, which I have here by me." Saying which, he took out of his breast pocket a small book all written in his own hand and handed it over to the Bishop, who, however, did not examine its contents. 
Perhaps these were certain ballads, which the King himself is known to have composed once, and of which the concubine and her brother had made fun, as of productions entirely worthless, which circumstance was one of the principal charges brought against them at the trial.

Chapuys noted that the king was the most cheerful cuckold he had ever heard of. He showed no sorrow over the end of his marriage to this woman he had once loved enough to destroy a thousand years of religious tradition and set Europe in a roar. 

It's a chilling contrast with his behavior when Katheryn Howard was accused, accusations that the king had not engineered. Cranmer was so concerned about the king's reaction that he told him by passing him a note at mass. Henry initially doubted the allegations could be true and demanded an investigation. When it was found Katheryn had lovers before her marriage, Henry screamed and wept, and delayed for months, deciding what to do with her.

The conclusion is undeniable: Anne Boleyn was an innocent woman who died to make room for her replacement, Jane Seymour. Henry was complicit in her fall. Cromwell would have never dared to move against her without Henry's agreement.

Historian Joanna Denny said:

Henry’s hand in the whole sordid business is clearly seen: the real blood-guilt lies with the King. The source of all the horror and brutality was Henry. The whole world revolved around him and his ego.”

~.~




* Please see my article on Katheryn Howard, explaining the circumstances surrounding the allegations against her, and why I believe she, too, could not have committed actual adultery.


4 comments:

  1. I have never been a fan of Anne Boleyn's. Was she guilty of adultery? Probably not. Did she get what was coming to her in the end? I think she did. When you play with matches, sometimes you get burned, as they say. Anne Boleyn was no young, innocent girl being led around by her family. She was a grown woman when she met the king and she was 32 years old at her wedding to Henry. She knew very well what she was doing when she had her 7 year emotional affair with Henry. It's completely accurate to call her what she is, a home wrecker. Do I feel sorry for her? No. She wanted to be Henry's queen. Never mind that he had a queen and a daughter. She had no regard for Katherine or Mary. She actually plotted to have them poisoned. Anne was a cunning, intelligent, manipulative woman that by the end, had few friends. I feel sure that if any of us knew Anne personally, we would hate her just as the English people of her time hated her. I just don't understand why everyone is so fond of saying how Anne was this innocent victim and oh it's so sad blah blah blah. She never would have ended up where she did had she not been a homewrecker.
    Just my opinion.

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    Replies
    1. Hi, Charlotte! Thanks for commenting.

      I think fictional portrayals of Anne as some sort of predatory, bitchy creature has seeped into our perception of her, but the records of the time don't support that assessment of her character.

      First, there is no evidence whatsoever that Anne ever plotted to have Mary or Katharine poisoned. (I wrote about this extensively in the article here: http://under-these-restless-skies.blogspot.com/2014/01/anne-boleyn-murderer.html )

      Secondly, there is no evidence that Anne was the "aggressor" in her relationship with the king. Anne spent the first year of her involvement with Henry trying to gently dissuade him from pursuing her. She left court, refused to answer his letters, and told him flatly that she wanted to keep her virtue so she could make a good marriage. No one (including Anne) could ever have imagined Henry would try to set aside Katharine so he could marry a mere gentlewoman of his court. Such a thing just didn't happen, so it can't be attributed to some "master plan" of Anne's to lure Henry away from his wife and make herself queen. During the first year, Anne was trying to get him to leave her alone because no other man would ask for her hand if the king was interested in her. His interest was actually harmful for her.

      Modern fiction has turned Anne into some kind of predatory creature who had amazing powers of foresight, as though she knew that ignoring the king and turning him down would make him wild with lust for her and make him decide to turn her into a queen. (Even though he had always moved on when women turned him down in the past.)

      The Imperial ambassador believed this - he blamed Anne for everything Henry did, including the cruelty he inflicted on Katharine and his daughter, Mary. Never mind that the cruelty only increased after Anne died. But Chapuys believed every bit of this was Anne's doing, and it's his viewpoint that's survived because of his correspondence. We know he was biased. We know he believed any bad rumor he heard about Anne and exaggerated second-hand stories... yet many modern histories are based on his spiteful comments, as though they were factual.

      Modern authors have turned Anne into an unpleasant person based on the accounts of her enemies, but her contemporaries described her as polite and sweet-natured. The worst her enemies could say about her was that her manners were "French." And she had many friends. Margaret Wyatt, for example, treasured her memory and a small prayer book that Anne had given her.

      After her arrest, the king chose women who were known to dislike Anne to serve her in the Tower, yet these same women are described as weeping as though "bereft of souls" on the scaffold when she died. They must have come to care for her during those two weeks they spent with her in the Tower. Would that have happened if Anne was as unpleasant as some writers have described her as being?

      God knows, Anne wasn't perfect. She had a temper and was unusual in her era that she was bold enough to express it. But "bold" in Tudor terms is not the same as "bold" in our day. I've spent over three years now studying the sources of the era, and Anne comes across as an intelligent, charming woman, intensely religious, and strong-willed. But not the termagant some fiction writers have turned her into.

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  2. I honestly do not believe that she had done any of those horrific sordid stories that was painted on her. Anne's problem was the fact that she could not deliver the King a son, an heir to the throne. Her attitude also was not seemly enough to be royal at least in Henry's opinion, by her shrill angry remarks when she had found out that he was still having affairs after he had claimed his undying love for her. Anne should have ignored the extra marital affairs as "her betters have done before her." As a mistress, her personality was sensual, intriguing but as a wife, she was no better than a shrew. Henry did love her, I firmly believe but he was probably in over his head by the many changes of the realm that he had made by his own choice. Nobody held a sword (gun) to his head making him do this, King Henry was the type of man who made his own choices which he had firmly believed was the right thing to do. Once he realized that it was more difficult than he had been lead to believe, he needed a scape goat. Cromwell was too valuable to lose, for he dispatched Henry's wishes admirably, without compunction. This intelligent man he needed in his realm. Gee, who can the scapegoat be? Maybe his wife? Katherine was dying, or already dead. She was no longer making his life difficult. But Anne Boelyn, she was at the heart of it all. She was the part of the reason for the changes. Why not blame her? As it was stated before, how else could Cromwell could have gotten away with everything that had happened?

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  3. I honestly do not believe that she had done any of those horrific sordid stories that was painted on her. Anne's problem was the fact that she could not deliver the King a son, an heir to the throne. Her attitude also was not seemly enough to be royal at least in Henry's opinion, by her shrill angry remarks when she had found out that he was still having affairs after he had claimed his undying love for her. Anne should have ignored the extra marital affairs as "her betters have done before her." As a mistress, her personality was sensual, intriguing but as a wife, she was no better than a shrew. Henry did love her, I firmly believe but he was probably in over his head by the many changes of the realm that he had made by his own choice. Nobody held a sword (gun) to his head making him do this, King Henry was the type of man who made his own choices which he had firmly believed was the right thing to do. Once he realized that it was more difficult than he had been lead to believe, he needed a scape goat. Cromwell was too valuable to lose, for he dispatched Henry's wishes admirably, without compunction. This intelligent man he needed in his realm. Gee, who can the scapegoat be? Maybe his wife? Katherine was dying, or already dead. She was no longer making his life difficult. But Anne Boelyn, she was at the heart of it all. She was the part of the reason for the changes. Why not blame her? As it was stated before, how else could Cromwell could have gotten away with everything that had happened?

    ReplyDelete