The Downfall of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1533-1536.
Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1533-1536.

Anne Boleyn is remembered as Henry VIII’s second wife after his infamous annulment from his first, Katherine of Aragon. In addition, she is known for her shocking and grisly execution. Some believe that the main factor for this was her failure to produce a male heir. Yet evidence suggests that Henry was not intent on eliminating her even after her miscarriage in 1536. A few years prior to this, Henry famously rejected papal authority and split from the Catholic Church in Rome. This was a result of the pope’s refusal to annul Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. By 1527, Katherine was too old to bear a child, and Henry had become enamored with Anne, who was one of Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting. Historians describe Anne as being confident, sophisticated, and charming.[1] Henry was clearly attracted to her, as he sent her numerous love letters throughout 1527 and 1528, despite his dislike of writing. However, Henry did not immediately see Anne as a prospective wife and instead wanted her as his mistress.[2] Yet Anne aspired to become queen, and rejected Henry’s advances until he proposed marriage. Thus, as Peter Marshall writes, “her determination not to become a royal mistress and to hold out for the prize of being queen was an important element in pushing forward the divorce campaign”.[3] Anne remained emboldened during time as queen consort. She had a crucial role in the Henrician Reformation, and was to prove a powerful patron of English reformers.[4] Her involvement in one particular reform, the dissolution of monasteries, would contribute to her downfall. Anne Boleyn was executed because she participated too much in state matters. In Tudor society, this was not the role of a queen consort. Anne wanted to be more than a wife to Henry; she wanted to be his advisor. For Henry and his chancellors, this was too much.

Though Anne had suffered miscarriages before, and the child was male, Henry was still determined to have her recognized as queen by Emperor Charles V, who was Katherine of Aragon’s nephew. This desire was obvious in April 1536, when Charles’ ambassador Eustace Chapuys came to Henry’s court. Chapuys had come to negotiate peace terms with Henry, as Charles had threatened war with England over Henry’s divorce from Katherine. Before such discussions took place, Chapuys would have to come face to face with Anne. For the past seven years, he had refused to meet her. [5] Now he was forced to bow to her after a service in the royal chapel. This bow was not just a piece of etiquette, but a diplomatic achievement for Henry.[6] As Chapuys was the imperial ambassador, Charles V was in effect accepting Anne as Queen of England. Interestingly enough, this happened two weeks before Anne was arrested on charges of treason and adultery.

Another factor that could have contributed to Anne’s death was her interest in religious reform. She had become familiar with Scripture and certain reformers during her time at the French royal court. Yet some historians question whether Anne’s passion for religious reform in England was genuine. Like Henry, Anne “distributed patronage because [she] sought support more than enlightenment.”[7] Indeed, one belief that many reformers shared was that the pope had no spiritual authority. It was therefore in Anne’s best interest to patronize evangelicals such as Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Edward Fox.[8] The break with Rome, which had made Anne’s marriage to Henry possible, had to be explained and defended.[9] Therefore, using her position to help place reformers in the episcopal hierarchy would make sense; more distinguished sympathizers buttress her position as queen. [10] Whatever her motives were, Anne still supported certain changes such as the printing of English Bibles. She also championed the termination of church abuses, such as corruption within the monasteries. When monasteries were dissolved in 1536, Anne advocated the redistribution of their resources. On the other hand, Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, wanted to transfer these funds to the king’s coffers. Anne expressed criticism of Cromwell through her almoner John Skip, who gave a famous sermon in the king’s chapel in front of the entire royal council and court. Skip recounted a story from the Old Testament about Haaman, a greedy adviser to the Persian king, whose plot to kill all the Jews and confiscate their property was foiled by the king’s Jewish wife Esther. Cromwell knew that Skip was alluding to himself and Anne, and took this as a threat. Cromwell feared that her influence over Henry might result in significant parts of the former church assets being diverted into new charitable purposes.[11] In addition, the emphasis on imperial recognition of Anne during Eustace Chapuys’ visit angered Cromwell, as he wished to focus more on a reconciliation with the Holy Roman Empire. Thus in Cromwell’s view, Anne was gaining too much influence over the king. He therefore took advantage of accounts of Anne’s flirtations with members of her court, and used them as the basis for charges of adultery and treason. Henry accepted these allegations as truth, as he was also tiring of Anne’s presumptuous behavior. This is evident in his warning to his next wife Jane Seymour when she tried to save some monasteries from dissolution. He reportedly told her to “attend to other things, reminding her that the last Queen had died in consequence of meddling too much in state affairs.”[12] Thus Anne was a victim of a power structure that saw women more as child-bearing vessels than active decision-makers.

While Anne’s miscarriage may not have benefited her marriage, it does not explain the charges that were ultimately brought against her. Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that Anne was guilty of adultery. Only one of the men who were accused of sleeping with Anne actually confessed, and he was most likely coerced.[13] Anne Boleyn did not lose her life simply because she failed to produce a male heir, but because she dared to expand her role as queen consort. She chose to be active in bringing change to England.

-Pauline McHugh


[1] The Last Days of Anne Boleyn, directed by Rob Coldstream (2013; London, UK: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2013), Web.

[2] E. W. Ives, ‘Anne (c.1500–1536)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004): accessed 8 Oct 2015, doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/557.

[3] Peter Marshall, Reformation England 1480-1642(New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), 40.

[4] Marshall, Reformation England 1480-1642, 40.

[5] Coldstream, The Last Days of Anne Boleyn.

[6] Ibid.

[7] G.W. Bernard, “Anne Boleyn’s Religion,” The Historical Journal (1993): 20.

[8] Ives, ‘Anne (c.1500–1536)’.

[9] Bernard, “Anne Boleyn’s Religion,”20.

[10] Ives, ‘Anne (c.1500–1536)’.

[11] Ives, ‘Anne (c.1500–1536)’.

[12] Ives, ‘Anne (c.1500–1536)’.

[13] Ives, ‘Anne (c.1500–1536)’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s