Anne Boleyn: a woman wronged

Anne Boleyn might have been a flirt, with the dark eyes to mesmerise any man, but she didn't deserve execution after falling victim to a Machiavellian power-play.

Steven Russell

Anne Boleyn might have been a flirt, with the dark eyes to mesmerise any man, but she didn't deserve execution after falling victim to a Machiavellian power-play. Steven Russell speaks to an expert enthralled by a compelling few months and 17 days in the history of England

WE might moan at a programme like EastEnders and tut that the level of internecine plotting, violence and treachery is fanciful, but we have only to leaf through the pages of history to see it's been a facet of English life for hundreds of years. Take the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, who in less than three years went from a glorious Westminster Abbey coronation as queen consort to a shocking beheading at the Tower of London. It's a story that's captured the imagination of historians, writers, dramatists and schoolchildren who relish a gory outcome. Forty years ago, for instance, was the film Anne of the Thousand Days, starring Genevieve Bujold as the ill-fated queen and Richard Burton as Henry. “It's a dramatic event, the queen of England being beheaded for treason!” explains author Alison Weir. “It was a huge scandal in its day: you've got sex, you've got trials, you've got an execution. You've got everything!”

Alison's new book, The Lady in the Tower, is said to be the first devoted to the fall of Anne Boleyn. Many volumes have been written about the reign of Henry VIII, but they tend to talk about all of his sixth wives, rather than focusing on a brief but pivotal few months in the life of a single one - in this case the mother of Elizabeth I.

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The king's initial love for Anne and his divorce from Katherine of Aragon - which triggered the split with Rome - changed the course of English history. And then Henry fell out of love with his queen. Anne was accused of plotting the monarch's death, as well as adultery with five men, including her own brother. On May 19, 1536, the executioner's sword swung and the queen was dead.

Alison Weir is convinced she went to her death a wronged woman - the victim of a systematic plot and a show trial whose result was never in doubt.

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Mystery has surrounded the circumstances leading up to her arrest at the start of that month. Alison points the finger firmly at Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell, the king's chief minister, for playing on Henry's fears and “spinning” existing rumours of sexual indiscretion to preserve his position as a royal favourite. It wasn't, she believes, the king who prompted his queen's fatal descent.

Cromwell had once been a staunch supporter of Anne, but relations had cooled. When the queen initiated a sermon in which it was suggested wicked ministers ought to be executed, he started getting nervous - particularly as Anne appeared to be getting on better with her husband. “It was his neck or hers,” says Alison.

The king's long-standing anxiety about treason gave Cromwell one powerful lever. The queen's nature - she hadn't been a meek and submissive wife, and was known to enjoy the admiration of men - presented other material with which he could work.

So the planets aligned against Anne. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London on May 2, found guilty of high treason on the 15th, and was executed four days later.

How did Alison come to her conclusions? Well, mainly by conducting an almost forensic examination of original documents kept in places such as The British Library and The National Archives and reassessing the evidence.

It was a true labour of love, for this was where her passion for history arose as a teenager. By the time Alison was 15, she had written a three-volume work on the Tudor dynasty and a biography of Anne Boleyn!

“When you go back to the original sources, you maybe find there's much more than anyone's actually looked at - and that's what happened with this book. Or perhaps the sources have been dismissed by most historians and you think again: why?”

Eric Ives wrote a brilliant biography of Boleyn some years ago, she says, and was the first to push the theory that Thomas Cromwell was prime mover.

In the context of the Machiavellian politics of the age, the minister, “a brilliant administrator and financial genius responsible largely for our modern civil service, was pragmatic. This was a 'him or her' situation, and I think this hasn't been brought into focus as much as it should”.

More weight needs to be made of the impact of that sermon, she argues. “The general perception is that after the miscarriage” - at the end of the January, and apparently a boy - “that was it between Anne and Henry. It wasn't.” There was a feeling she was still influential in determining the king's patronage.

A month after Anne's execution, Cromwell admitted to the Spanish ambassador he had plotted the downfall of the queen. The evidence comes mostly from diplomatic sources, says Alison. “Go back and you can find Cromwell dropped hints about what might happen and how he fears falling from favour with Henry.

“There's a cataclysmic occasion over Easter where it becomes very clear to Cromwell that Anne is recovering her ascendancy; and it's immediately after that he retires from court, pleading illness. It's at that point, on that very date, he decided to take out the queen. He told the Spanish ambassador.”

Anne Boleyn - most probably born at Blickling Hall in Norfolk in about 1501 - was an intriguing character, “though she's hard to know, because it's hard to get beyond that very tragic figure on the scaffold - that very courageous figure - and see this woman who'd been the scandal of Christendom, the catalyst for the Reformation, and in some ways a total bitch!

“I do see her as that in some ways. I never used to; I used to have a very romantic view of her. She was quite vicious towards Katherine of Aragon and her daughter, and she alienated so many people that it must be true! There were people who were loyal to her. But it dwindled, as she alienated people by the lash of her tongue and histrionics.

“What attracted the king was that she had that indefinable quality we call sex appeal - charisma, charm - which shows itself in one or two of her portraits. We're told her eyes were 'black and beautiful' and 'invited to conversation'. A damn good flirt, I think! And Henry was intrigued because she kept him at arm's length for six, seven years. Which is no mean feat!”

Alison's convinced the queen didn't have physical affairs while married. “I think the evidence is so overwhelmingly in favour of her innocence that I think it's very unlikely she did.”

Her detailed research, she reports, demolished many misapprehensions:

Proving the executioner was summoned before Anne's trial

Establishing she was not executed on Tower Green, as so many people suppose, but on a scaffold on a tournament ground in front of the House of Ordnance. “I wasn't the first person to say that, but I found more evidence to support it.”

Showing she was never imprisoned in Queen's House at the Tower of London

While we're about it, what about the legend that Anne's heart was stolen and hidden at the church in Erwarton, outside Ipswich? Almost certainly false, suggests Alison.

She writes in her book about the discovery in the chancel wall, in 1836 or 1837, of a heart-shaped tin casket. It was reburied under the organ.

The historian points out that “even today there is a notice in the church stating that it is on record that Anne's heart was buried in there by her uncle, Sir Philip Parker of Erwarton Hall.

“This is all highly unlikely, since heart burial had gone out of fashion in England by the end of the fourteenth century, while the uncle in question was in fact Sir Philip Calthorpe of Erwarton, who was married to Anne's aunt, Amata (or Amy) Boleyn, and died in 1549. Nevertheless, the legend is commemorated in the name of the local inn, the Queen's Head.”

The Lady in the Tower - The Fall of Anne Boleyn is published by Jonathan Cape at �20.

Some odd vibes . . . and the myth of Anne Boleyn's heart

ALISON Weir is coming to the inaugural Lavenham Literary Festival, which runs from November 20 to 22. (Sadly - or happily, if you're an organiser! - her talk is sold out.) She's no stranger to the ancient town . . . and reports an odd experience from more than 30 years ago.

“There's a hall-house on the Market Place.” She doesn't know the name, but her description of the location suggests Little Hall, which dates back to the 1390s and more recently came under the umbrella of the Suffolk Building Preservation Trust as a museum.

“I went round on a very hot day in the summer of 1976. I went upstairs and took two steps into this very brilliantly-lit raftered room at the top of the hall and had to walk out. I couldn't stay there. I don't know why. I've never had anything like that happen anywhere else, but it was a really creepy feeling.

“I've been back since, in the '90s, and didn't feel the same, and I did mention it, but they said no-one else had had the same experience. I can't explain it.”

Not just a historian

Alison Weir is a born and bred Londoner

Became interested in history at 14 when she read her first adult novel, “a rather lurid book called Henry's Golden Queen, about Katherine of Aragon”

She and husband Rankin have two children: John (born 1982) and Kate (1984)

Alison was a civil servant in the Department of Health and Social Security for nine years

In 1989 she had a spell in the Cabinet Office, helping to run its in-house magazine

From 1991 to 1997, she ran her own school for children with learning difficulties

Her published titles include The Princes in the Tower, Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, and Isabella: She Wolf of France, Queen of England

She's now working on a biography of Mary Boleyn, Anne's sister and briefly Henry VIII's mistress

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