I edited a source book on Anne Boleyn a few years ago, which is being published in paperback on 28 August 2013. The hardback was called ‘Anne Boleyn: In her Own Words and the Words of those who Knew Her’, which made it very clear what the book contained but was not very catchy! I’ve just discovered that the new paperback is being called ‘The Anne Boleyn Papers’. Please do note that they are the same book.
Anyway, I always find it fascinating to read the original sources relating to a person. It’s often too easy to rely on secondary sources, which sometimes leads almost to Chinese whispers – the first historian’s reasoned argument becoming absolute fact in the second historian’s work. A good example of this is in my biography of Bessie Blount. Bessie’s childhood home is unrecorded. From my study of the original documents, I suggested that she might have lived at Bewdley. I have seen this recorded as fact in later works that mention Bessie where, actually, a reading of the primary sources shows that it is not quite so clear-cut. What we understand about major historical figures, such as Anne Boleyn, is often based on layers of interpretation – some helpful, some not.
On 2 May 1536 Anne Boleyn was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. She never left the ancient fortress, being subjected to a trial there before being executed on 19 May 1536. The arrest, condemnation and execution of the queen was a major news item at the time and many contemporaries recorded information and their own take on what was happening. Whenever I am researching Anne Boleyn, I always look at the despatches of the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, who, although highly biased against Anne, records a lot of detail of real interest. He wrote three despatches during Anne’s time in the Tower, which I have abridged below to mark the anniversary of Anne’s imprisonment.
2 May 1536
Your Majesty recollects no doubt what I wrote at the beginning of last month, in reference to my conversation with Master Cromwell on this king's divorce from his concubine. Having since heard the Princess's opinion and pleasure on this particular matter, which is that I should watch the proceedings, and if possible help to accomplish the said divorce, were it for no other purpose than for the King's honour and the relief of his conscience, as she (the Princess) did not care a straw (said the message) whether the King, her father, had or had not from a new and legitimate marriage male children who might take away from her the succession to the Crown. Nor did she wish for the King's divorce out of revenge for the many injuries inflicted on her mother, the late Queen, and on herself. Those she had willingly forgiven and forgotten for the honour of God, and she now bore no ill-will to any one whomsoever.
In consequence of this message from the Princess, I have since employed various means for the accomplishment of the said affair, sometimes talking about it to Master Cromwell, and to such others as seemed to me most fit for the purpose. I have not written sooner to Your Majesty on this particular subject, because I was naturally waiting for the issue of the affair one way or other; but it has since come to a head much sooner and more satisfactorily than one could have thought, to the greater ignominy and shame of the lady herself, who has actually been brought from Greenwich to this city under the escort of the duke of Norfolk, and of the two chamberlains—that of the Kingdom, and that of the Royal Chamber—and allowed only four maid-servants in attendance. The reason for all this, as the rumour goes, is, that she has for a length of time lived in adultery with a spinet-player of her chamber, who has this very morning been confined to the Tower, as well as Mr. Norris, this king's principal and most favoured groom-in-waiting, for not having revealed what he knew of the said adulterous connexion. Rochefort, the brother, was likewise sent to the Tower six hours before. I hear, moreover, from certain authentic quarters, that before the discovery of the lady's criminal connexion, the King had already resolved to abandon her, for there were many witnesses ready to testify and to prove that more than nine years ago a marriage had been contracted and consummated between the said Anne Boleyn and the earl of Nortambellan (Northumberland), and that the King would have declared himself much sooner, had not one of his Privy Councillors hinted that he could not divorce himself from Anne without tacitly acknowledging the validity of his first marriage, and thus falling under the authority of the Pope, whom he fears.
The above is certainly a most astounding piece of intelligence, and yet if we consider the sudden change from yesterday to this day, and the King's sudden departure from Greenwich to come here, there must still be a great cause for wonder. Not to delay, however, the departure of the express bearer of this my despatch—from whose lips Your Majesty may learn the details of the affair—I will abstain from further particulars. Such are its greatness and importance under present circumstances that I considered it my duty to despatch the express messenger at once without waiting for the catastrophe. Should this be such as to warrant my despatching another messenger, I shall not fail to do so...
18 May 1536 (addressed to de Granvelle)
I could not, if I wished, write to you more news of this country than those contained in my despatch to the Emperor. I hope, however, to be able to make up for the shortness of this letter by sending you in my next the faithful account and true chronicle of the mien and language which the English Messalina, or Agrippina , held during her imprisonment, in which account you will, no doubt, find very remarkable things, as the lady under whose custody and keeping she was has not concealed a single thing from me.
From the very beginning of her incarceration the lady I allude to sent to communicate to me certain facts concerning the Messalina, apart, among others, that she heard her say that she could not imagine who could have made her lose the King's favour and love save me, for she pretends that from the very moment of my arrival at this court, the King no longer looked upon her with the same eyes as before. I confess that I was rather flattered by the compliment, and consider myself very lucky at having escaped her vengeance; for kind-hearted and merciful as she is, she would without remorse have cast me to the dogs. Two other English gentlemen have been imprisoned along with her, and it is suspected that a good many more will share the same fate; for the King has been heard to say that he believes that upwards of 100 gentlemen have had criminal connexion with her. You never saw a prince or husband show or wear his horns more patiently and lightly than this one does . I leave you to guess the cause of it.
Owing to my last illness, and also because I am waiting for the extremum actum fabulœ, and presume that George, the courier, must have told you my prognostications with regard to the Messalina's fate, I will not write more for the present.—London, 18 May 1536.
I have just heard that yesterday, the 18th, the archbishop of Canterbury (Cranmer) declared and pronounced by way of sentence the lady's daughter (Elizabeth) to be a bastard, and begotten by master Norris, not by the King, which is equivalent to remove a cog from the Princess's eyes. I hope, therefore, that whatever difficulties the King may have hitherto made to have her declared true heir to the kingdom will now be removed, and that he will now have her declared and sworn to as such, and as his legitimate daughter born of a marriage legitimated propter bonam fidem parentum . I have also been informed that the said archbishop of Canterbury had pronounced the marriage of the King and of his mistress to have been unlawful and null in consequence of the King himself having had connexion with Anne's sister, and that both he and she being aware and well acquainted with such an impediment, the good faith of the parents could not possibly legitimize the daughter.
Though what I am about to say on this subject may have no sufficient foundation, yet I feel bound to inform you that many people here imagine that most of the newly-created bishops will soon have their desert; for there is a report that, by persuading the King's mistress that there was no necessity for the confession [of her sins], they have encouraged her and made her more audacious and licentious in the prosecution of her detestable and abominable vices; and what is still more blameable on the part of the said bishops, they have taught her that, according to their sect, it was allowable for a woman to ask for aid and help in other quarters, even among her own relatives, whenever the husband was not considered idoneous  or sufficiently able to satisfy her wishes.
Before her marriage to the King, and in order to enhance the love she bore him, the Royal concubine used to say that there existed a prophecy that about this time a queen of England was to be burnt alive; but that, to please the King, she cared not if she was that queen. After the marriage she often said in jest that part of the prophecies had already been fulfilled, and yet she had not been condemned to death by fire. One could very well repeat to her what was once said to Caesar: Venere idus, sed nondum prœterire, the days have commenced, but have not yet ended.
I have not the least doubt that if His Majesty intends to treat and come to some sort of arrangement with these people, some personage of authority and rank ought now to be sent, and if he could but come before the closing of this Parliament, the affairs of the Princess and other matters might be satisfactorily adjusted. Should the said personage come before St. John's Day, he might assist, as I believe, at the King's approaching marriage and the coronation of the new queen, which is to be celebrated with great solemnity and pomp, the King intending, as I am told, to perform wonders, for he has already ordered a large ship to be built, like the Bucentaur of Venice, to bring the lady from Greenwich to this city, and commanded other things for the occasion.
19 May 1536
...I cannot well describe the great joy the inhabitants of this city have lately experienced and manifested, not only at the fall and ruin of the concubine, but at the hope that the Princess will be soon reinstated in her rights. I must say, however, that as yet the King has shown no intention of bringing about the said reinstatement, but has on the contrary obstinately refused to contemplate it, on the two different occasions that his Privy Council has spoken about it. I hear, nevertheless, from many authentic quarters, that even before the arrest of the concubine, and when speaking to mistress Jane Seymour about their future marriage, the lady proposed to him to replace the Princess in her former position; and on the King telling her that she must be out of her senses to think of such a thing, and that she ought to study the welfare and exaltation of her own children, if she had any by him, instead of looking out for the good of others, the said Jane Seymour replied that in soliciting the Princess's reinstatement she thought she was asking for the good, the repose, and tranquillity of himself, of the children they themselves might have, and of the kingdom in general, inasmuch as should the reinstatement not take place, neither Your Majesty nor the English people would be satisfied, and the ruin and desolation of the country would inevitably ensue.
Such a wish on the part of the said lady is very commendable indeed, and I purpose using all means in my power in keeping her to her good intentions. I also mean to go to the King about it, two or three days hence, and visit one by one the members of his Privy Council, and if I can personally, or by means of my friends, influence some of the lords and gentlemen who have been summoned for the next Parliament—which is to meet on the 8th of next month—I shall not fail to do so, for I really believe there will be a question of excluding the little bastard from the succession to the Crown, and praying this King to marry again. 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. Many messages, moreover, have I already received from various members to the effect that at the meeting of Parliament theby will uphold, at the peril of their lives, the Princess' rights.
On the afternoon of the very day on which the concubine was lodged in the Tower, as the duke of Richmond went to his father, the King, to ask for his blessing, according to the English custom, the latter said with tears, that both he and his sister, meaning the Princess, ought to thank God for having escaped from the hands of that woman, who had planned their death by poison, from which I conclude that the King knew something of her wicked intentions.
On the 12th inst. Master Norris, first chamberlain to this king, Master Obouston (Weston) who used to sleep in the King's chamber, Master Bruton (Brereton), the gentleman in waiting, about whom I wrote to Your Majesty by my secretary, were condemned as traitors, and sentenced to death. Of these, only the last-named confessed having slept with the concubine on three different occasions; all the others were sentenced on mere presumption or on very slight grounds, without legal proof or valid confession. On the 15th the concubine herself and her brother (George), were tried by a tribunal composed of the principal lords of the kingdom, and convicted of treason, the duke of Norfolk presiding over it and reading the sentence to the culprits. I am told that the earl of Wiltshire wished also to be present at the trial [of his daughter and son], as he had been at that of the other four. Neither the concubine nor her brother were taken to Westminster as the other criminals had been; they were tried within the Tower, and yet the trial was far from being kept secret, for upwards of 2,000 people were present.
The chief charge against the concubine was her having had connexion with her own brother (George) and other accomplices; having actually promised, to marry Norris after the King's demise, her having received from, and given to, the said Norris certain medals indicative that both were bound together and aimed at the King's death; that she had poisoned the late Queen, and meditated doing the same with the Princess. These charges she obstinately denied; others she answered satisfactorily enough, though she confessed having given money to Ubaiston (Weaston) and to several other gentlemen. She was likewise charged, as was her brother, with having ridiculed the King, and laughed at his manner of dressing, showing in many ways that she did not love him, and was tired of married life with him.
The brother, as I say, was charged with having had connexion with her; no proof of his guilt was produced except that of his having once passed many hours in her company, and other little follies. He answered so well that many who were present at the trial, and heard what he said, had no difficulty in waging two to one that he would be acquitted, the more so that no witnesses were called to give evidence against him or against her, as is customary in such cases, when the accused denies the charge brought against him. I cannot omit another charge in the indictment, namely, that the concubine, his sister, had said to his wife that the King was impotent. This, however, was not read in public; it was given to him in writing, under protest that he was only to say yes or no, without reading aloud the accusation; but to the great annoyance of Cromwell and others, he (George Boleyn) read it aloud and said that he was unwilling to engender or create suspicion in a matter likely to prejudice the issue the King might have from another marriage. He was likewise charged with having spread the rumour or expressed a doubt as to Anne's daughter (Elizabeth) being the King’s, to which charge, however, he made no answer.
Both were tried separately without seeing each other. The concubine was sentenced first to be burnt alive, or beheaded at the King's pleasure. When the sentence was read to her, she received it quite calmly, and said that she was prepared to die, but was extremely sorry to hear that others, who were innocent and the King's loyal subjects, should share her fate and die through her. She ended by begging that some time should be allowed for her to prepare her soul for death.
After reading the sentence to him, the brother said to his judges that since die he must he would no longer plead "not guilty," but would own that he deserved death. His last prayer to the King was that certain debts, which he named, should be paid out of his personal estate.
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 handy 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.
Three days after the concubine's arrest the Princess was removed to other quarters, most honorably attended and escorted on the way, not only by all the officers of the little bastard's household, but by several gentlemen and ladies, who had formerly been in her mother's service and in her own, and who, on hearing the news, went thither to congratulate her. Though the governess herself had no objection to their remaining in the house, the Princess, following my advice, has declined their services, and will retain no one near her person that is not previously accepted and appointed by her father, the King. Indeed, my great fear is, among others, that when the moment comes for the Estates to ask for the reinstatement of the Princess in her rights and titles, the King is likely to answer that it cannot be done unless she previously swears to, and conforms with, the irritating statutes concerning the King's second marriage as well as against Papal authority; which act of acquiescence, in my opinion, it will be extremely difficult to obtain from the Princess, though my advice is that she ought to agree to the whole of it so long as her conscience is not aggrieved, nor her rights and titles impaired through it. Please Your Majesty to instruct me what your wishes and intentions on this point are, that I may act accordingly.
Today lord Rocheford, and the other four gentlemen above-named, were all beheaded in front of the Tower. Notwithstanding the great efforts made by the resident French ambassador, the bishop of Tarbes, and by another one, called the sieur de Vintemille (Vintimiglia), who arrived the day before yesterday, to save the life of Vaston (Weston), he suffered death like the rest. To make matters worse for the concubine it was arranged that she should witness their execution from the windows of her prison. Rochefort before dying declared himself to be innocent of all the charges brought against him, though he owned that he deserved death for having been contaminated with the new heresies, and having caused many others to be infected with them. He had no doubt, said he on the scaffold, that God had punished him for that, and, therefore, he recommended all to forsake heretical doctrines and practices, and return to true faith and religion. Which words on the mouth of such a man as lord Rochefort will be the cause of innumerable people here making amends for their sins, and being converted.
The concubine herself is to be beheaded without fail tomorrow, or on Friday, at the latest, and I have my reasons for saying that the King is very impatient, and would have liked the execution to have already taken place; for the day before Anne's condemnation he sent the Grand Squire and many others in quest of Mistress Seymour, and made her come to within one mile of his own residence, where she is being splendidly entertained and served by cooks and officers of the royal household. And I have been told by one of her female relatives, who dined with her on the morning of the very day of Anne's condemnation, that the King sent her a message to say, that at three, in the afternoon of that day, she would receive news of the sentence, and so it was, for he despatched Master Briant [Sir Francis Bryan] in all haste to give her the intelligence. So that to all appearances there cannot be the least doubt that the King will soon take the said Seymour to wife, some people believing, and even asserting, that the marriage settlements have already been drawn up...
...After writing to Your Majesty as above, I thought I might delay the departure of this courier for 24 hours, in order to report the execution of the concubine, who was beheaded this very morning at 9 o'clock within the Tower, in the presence of the King's Chancellor, of Master Cromwell, and of many other members of the King's Privy Council, besides a considerable number of other people, though no foreigners were allowed to witness the execution. I hear that, although the heads and bodies of those executed the day before yesterday have been buried, the head of the concubine will be exposed on the bridge, at least for some time. She confessed, and took the Sacrament yesterday. No one ever shewed more courage or greater readiness to meet death than she did, having, as the report goes, begged and solicited those under whose keeping she was to hasten the execution. When orders came from the King to have it delayed until today, she seemed sorry, and begged and entreated the governor of the Tower (Sir William Kingston), for God's sake, to go to the King, and beg of him that, since she was well disposed and prepared for death, she should be dispatched immediately. The lady in whose keeping she has been sends me word, in great secrecy, that before and after her receiving the Holy Sacrament, she affirmed, on peril of her soul's damnation, that she had not misconducted herself so far as her husband the King was concerned...
Every year flowers are delivered to the Tower of London to be placed on Anne's grave. A small token by which the sudden and violent death of one of the most vivid figures of the Tudor period is remembered.