Undergraduate Dissertation Chapter – Anne Boleyn’s Fall From Power


Anne Boleyn’s Fall From Power

“And thunder rolls about the throne” – Thomas Wyatt

Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.
Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery.

Lacey Baldwin Smith said that ‘the closer the proximity to the crown, the greater the danger’, and this definitely proved true in the case of Anne Boleyn.[i] Anne was executed for adultery, incest and treason, ‘despising her marriage and entertaining malice against the King’.[ii] However, Henry VIII’s motives behind Anne’s execution remain unclear.

The reasons for Anne Boleyn’s fall from power can affect our view of her public image. Was her fall her own fault? Henry’s? Cromwell’s? These questions tend to be the focal point in the secondary literature, which questions, not only whose fault it was, but also the motives for bringing Anne down. Anne failed to give birth to a son and Henry had fallen in love with Jane Seymour. Did Cromwell see Anne as a threat so plotted to bring her down? Or was her fall the result of an accusation of misconduct by one of her ladies? All of these possible reasons will be discussed in this chapter.

A lot of what we know about Anne Boleyn, particularly in connection with her fall, is speculation, as evidence is missing. This lack of evidence has caused issues with the historical record. However, it has also allowed historians to use their imaginations and has opened up a world of intrigue and debate, particularly with her public image, which is largely based on rumour rather than evidence.

This chapter will argue that Anne was innocent of the charges against her: Henry fell in love with Jane Seymour and was desperate for a son to carry on the Tudor dynasty, as Anne had failed him. So when an accusation was made by one of Anne’s ladies, Henry and Cromwell saw their chance to bring her down. The ‘bloody days’ of May 1536 demonstrate that Anne Boleyn was careless and overly flirtatious, but her fall was not her fault.[iii] She was a victim of a mean and suspicious all-powerful king and her public image suffered because of this.

Innocent or Guilty?

The majority of historians believe that Anne Boleyn and the men accused with her were innocent of the charges against them. For example, it seems unlikely that Anne could have been having multiple affairs, and no one knew, because, as Queen of England, Anne would have been constantly attended. The exception is G.W. Bernard who thinks that, because not everyone who was arrested was tried and punished, it seems that some attention was paid to the reliability of the evidence against them. Anne and those others who were executed with her were therefore likely to be guilty.[iv] This belief is technically flawed because we cannot be sure how much attention was paid to the evidence. Alison Weir has suggested a theory which is more likely than Bernard’s. Weir says that Page and Wyatt were arrested, but Cromwell had always intended that they would be released, in order to ‘prove’ the guilt of the rest.[v] However, Weir gives no evidence for this, only citing Joanna Denny as the evidence for Wyatt’s and Page’s families petitioning successfully for their release. Weir’s citations do seem to be very questionable; they are vague and do not give page numbers. This is a more likely theory because Cromwell needed a foolproof case against Anne, and releasing two of the accused suggested indirectly that the evidence had been examined and that the others were guilty. In this way, Anne’s public image suffered, and she could do nothing to repair it. The very fact that the evidence does not survive is, in itself, suspicious.[vi] Official documents should not just vanish, which implies that they were purposefully hidden or destroyed, most likely either by Henry himself or Cromwell. These missing documents go some way to rehabilitating Anne’s public image, as it suggests there was something unusual about her death.

There are several versions of Anne Boleyn’s execution speech, but they are substantially the same. For the purposes of this dissertation, the version of the speech quoted by Eric Ives, also largely the one quoted by Retha Warnicke, will be used. In her execution speech, Anne asked that if anyone in the future studied her life that they would ‘judge the best’.[vii] This suggests her innocence as she would have been unlikely to have made the point if she was in fact guilty. It was as close as she dared to come to declaring her innocence for fear of the consequences for her daughter, Elizabeth. This does seem to match with well-documented accounts of Anne’s spirit and unpredictability, judging by some of the wilder claims she made while imprisoned in the Tower; for example, that it would not rain until she was released.[viii] Throughout her courtship and marriage, Anne had shown herself to be bold, ambitious and unafraid of the consequences. She died in the same way. This is the public image that she left behind.

Cromwell’s Conspiracy

The most popular conception on Anne Boleyn’s fall is that it was a conspiracy by Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s first minister, as he felt threatened by Anne’s position. Eric Ives says that a ‘political coup’ by Cromwell was the

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.

only ‘satisfying’ explanation for Anne’s fall due to a lack of concrete evidence against her.[ix] Cromwell may well have thought Anne to be enough of a threat to consider removing her, but the idea that this would have been strong enough to eliminate a Queen and her faction is almost laughable. Cromwell could have been complicit in a plan to remove Anne, but he was not the originator. He may have planted the idea in Henry’s mind but, in the end, it would have been Henry who authorised the plan and put it into action.

In a letter supposedly written by Anne Boleyn in the Tower, and found in Cromwell’s possessions after his execution, she blamed ‘bad Counsel of [her] Enemies’ and begged Henry not to let it ruin her.[x] Anne obviously knew that Cromwell had something to do with her arrest. However, this does seem to put the authenticity of the letter in doubt, because she would not have aggravated Henry when her own life, and her daughter’s future, hung in the balance. Anne still had hope, as late as 16th May 1536, of life. She believed she would be sent to a nunnery.[xi] Talking to the King in such a bold and provocative tone would certainly have ruined this chance. When Anne supposedly wrote the letter on 6th May, she had not yet been put on trial, so it would have been foolish in the extreme to irritate Henry. Denny suggests that Anne realised Cromwell had sacrificed her in order to save himself.[xii] We cannot know this for sure, but it does make sense, because Anne and Cromwell had conflicting views on many policy ideas, and were moving in different directions on religious issues; Anne had begun to attack Cromwell publicly.[xiii] This letter demonstrates a lot of what Anne possibly felt at this time; fluctuating between hope and fear. Anne knew this because Cromwell had orchestrated her downfall, just as she had been trying to orchestrate his. It was kill or be killed.

Alison Weir was one of the historians who put forward this view, and she says that the reason the most powerful men of Anne’s faction were brought down with her was that, if Cromwell had moved against Anne alone, the others in her faction would have spoken up for her.[xiv] Most were close to the King and could probably have persuaded Henry to give Anne another chance. Denny and Ives seem to agree with Weir, saying that Cromwell did not have a choice other than to bring Anne down, because her position and power was a threat to his own. Ives describes how Anne’s power had become a ‘major threat’ to Cromwell.[xv] Cromwell knew that, if Anne recovered the influence that she had at the time of her marriage, she could bring him down. Denny agrees and says that, while Anne was alive, Cromwell’s career and probably his life were at risk.[xvi] Cromwell’s motive for Anne’s destruction was self-preservation – Anne was too involved in the politics of the state to exist alongside Cromwell. In this, Anne’s image can be seen in two ways: a powerful, self-made woman or as a woman grasping for power above her poor degree.

Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein.
Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein.

The fact that Henry married Jane Seymour so soon after Anne Boleyn was executed has given rise to suggestions that Jane was the sole reason for Anne’s execution. This view was put forward by John Foxe in his sixteenth century Book of Martyrs. Foxe said that on the day after Anne’s death, Henry married Jane which effectively vindicated Anne, but he also said that Jane Seymour was fortunate that ‘she did not outlive his love to her’.[xvii] This illusion to Anne probably summed up the general feeling at this time. However, Foxe has his dates wrong; Henry and Jane only became betrothed the day after Anne’s execution, not married.[xviii] It seems unlikely that Foxe would intentionally have this wrong. He wanted to portray Anne Boleyn in a positive light, as a Protestant martyr, so it would have been to his benefit to exaggerate the urgency. But Anne herself acknowledged that Henry had drawn his ‘Fancy to some other subject’, meaning Jane Seymour, and acknowledged that her position was based entirely on his love for her.[xix] Anne knew that Henry did not want to go through the same thing he went through with Katherine of Aragon, so a worse fate than an annulment of her marriage awaited Anne Boleyn. This crass portrayal of Anne has improved her public image, as the only way she could have avoided disaster was by having a son.

In a letter on 1st April 1536, Eustace Chapuys, Imperial ambassador to the Emperor Charles V, said that ‘the King’s love and desire towards [Jane Seymour] was wonderfully increased’ and that Henry was acting ‘honourably’ towards her.[xx] It was ironic that Jane was using Anne’s own methods against her, just as Katherine of Aragon also had an influence on Anne’s fall. However, it can still be seen that Anne had made her own fate because she had failed to give birth to a son, and had been careless in her speech and actions. Although, in reality, this tragedy was not Anne’s fault, Henry saw it that way, though the public did not.

Chapuys wrote a letter on the day of Anne’s execution, speaking about how Henry had planned to marry ‘Jane Semel’ (Jane Seymour) even before Anne was arrested. Even though people were happy about the fact that Anne was no longer Queen, Henry moving on from her so quickly sounded ‘ill in the ears of the people’.[xxi] After Anne’s execution people began to doubt the ‘official’ story of her trial and execution, particularly after Henry married Jane only ten days later. Chapuys also mentioned that Jane was already being treated like a Queen before Anne’s death as she was ‘splendidly served’ and ‘richly dressed’.[xxii] In contemporary eyes, it made Anne’s trial look like a setup, a conspiracy. Like Anne’s trial was specifically designed to end in her death. This has vindicated Anne and improved her public image in modern eyes, though her contemporaries were too scared at the time to say anything in her defence.

Other historians have also written about Jane’s importance in Anne’s downfall. Just because we know that Henry married Jane after Anne’s execution does not mean that Henry was already considering leaving Anne as early as February 1536.[xxiii] Henry’s relationship with Jane Seymour took on a new significance after the death of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn’s January 1536 miscarriage. People who never recognised Henry and Anne’s marriage saw Henry as a widower and free to marry again.[xxiv] Jane Seymour is often seen as a timid young woman, but she had a calculated approach to the end of Anne’s life. Jane was planning her wedding while Anne was awaiting her execution. In this way, Anne’s image has been redeemed slightly.

Lady Worchester’s Allegation

An allegation by Elizabeth Browne, Countess of Worchester, was possibly the evidence the prosecution was reliant upon, but it is unclear, because the majority of the trial documents are missing. She is also never directly

Padraic Delaney as George Boleyn and Jamie Thomas King as Thomas Wyatt in 'The Tudors' (2008).
Padraic Delaney as George Boleyn and Jamie Thomas King as Thomas Wyatt in ‘The Tudors’ (2008).

named in accounts. We know that Lady Worchester was close to Anne and acted as one of her ladies in waiting and, as such, would have been privy to many of Anne Boleyn’s private conversations, and her sister-in-law was married to one of the accused, William Brereton. It seems that Lady Worchester had been berated by her brother for loose conduct, to which she said that the Queen (meaning Anne) was worse, and that she had offended with both Mark Smeaton and her brother, George.[xxv] Hence, Cromwell and the other interrogators already had the names of Rochford and Smeaton, if it was Lady Worchester’s comments that were used as the basis for interrogation. Anne had lost control of her public image as fear took hold.

There is only one historian who sees Lady Worchester’s allegation of misconduct as central to Anne Boleyn’s fall from power: G.W. Bernard. His faith in the allegations of Lady Worchester has led him to believe that Anne was at least partially guilty and that it was just a matter of time until her indiscretions were found out.[xxvi] However, Bernard also acknowledges that there is not enough evidence to conclude for sure that Anne and the others were in fact guilty.[xxvii] In this way, Bernard undermines his whole argument as it is based on the fact that Anne is guilty. But there is also not enough evidence to prove their innocence, which is where Anne Boleyn’s public image is contested.

Bernard’s conviction that the charges of misconduct levelled at Anne by Lady Worchester led to her downfall cannot be accepted as fact. He bases his assumption on the fact that she was guilty, and so he thinks that the Worchester accusation is the only possible reason for her fall.[xxviii] Bernard gives this allegation by just one of the Queen’s ladies too much credit when there are more reliable reasons. Retha Warnicke gives an alternative view – she says that the accused were those with a questionable reputation. Lady Worchester was the most likely person with inside information on Brereton, as she was his sister-in-law, and she would have been able to recall any conversations with Anne as she was one of Anne’s ladies.[xxix] An allegation by Lady Worchester would not have unseated Anne in 1533 because Henry was still too devoted to her, but by 1536, he had become disillusioned with her because she had failed to present him with a male heir to carry on the Tudor dynasty, so she lost control of her image.

Quest for a Male Heir

Katherine of Aragon in later life, miniature by Lucas Hornebolte.
Katherine of Aragon in later life, miniature by Lucas Hornebolte.

Anne Boleyn’s final miscarriage happened on the day of Katherine of Aragon’s funeral and, to Chapuys, the baby was a ‘male child which she had not borne 3 ½ months’.[xxx] Anne had been pregnant four times in three years which shows how fertile she was, but the fact that she only carried one child, and that a daughter, to full term counted against her. It reminded Henry of Katherine’s failure. If Henry believed that God had not blessed he and Katherine with sons because their marriage was wrong, the same could be applied to his marriage to Anne. This affected her public image negatively because it meant that the seven tumultuous years of their courtship was all for nothing. It was ironic that, even in death, Katherine of Aragon pulled down the woman who had supplanted her.[xxxi] After Anne’s last miscarriage, Chapuys reported rumours, which were very important to Anne’s public image, to the Emperor Charles V, that some people at court thought that Anne could not bear any more children. Whether he thought that Anne had something medically wrong with her is not clear. There were also reports of Anne’s fear that Henry would treat her like he did Katherine of Aragon because he wished to take another wife in her place. What would have compounded her fear would have been that Henry was courting Jane Seymour openly.[xxxii] Henry had divorced Katherine of Aragon to marry her lady-in-waiting, Anne, and now Anne was worried that Henry would divorce her (or worse) to marry her lady-in-waiting, Jane. It turned out that Anne’s fears were entirely legitimate, but we have to admire her for fighting until the end, to attempt to control her image and help her daughter, even when she knew she was doomed.

Retha Warnicke says that Henry had not grown tired of Anne, but that the problems they had were due to ‘her inability to give birth to a surviving male child’.[xxxiii] Warnicke puts more emphasis on this last miscarriage than anyone else. Warnicke argues that it was the fact that Anne gave birth to a deformed foetus that solely led to her downfall. Witches supposedly had deformed children, engaged in illicit sexual behaviour, committed incest and made their husbands impotent.[xxxiv] These were all things which Anne was accused of, although witchcraft was never a charge levied against her. Possibly it sounded too far-fetched. However, in Chapuys’ letter detailing Katherine of Aragon’s funeral and Anne’s last miscarriage, there was no mention of any deformity, which surely there would have been if there were any rumours circulating about it at court.[xxxv] This does not necessarily mean that there was not something unusual about the foetus, as Henry and his advisors could have covered it up. But Henry would likely have started proceedings against Anne straight after the miscarriage, if the foetus was deformed. Rumours can tell us as much as facts can, because a negative perception of a person may not be mentioned in an official report, but personal letters can tell us perceptions, which are important when it leads to ruin, as it did for Anne.

Anne Boleyn’s only child, Elizabeth, was her legacy. Elizabeth was not the longed-for son that Henry VIII had wanted, but she remains one of our strongest monarchs. However, in a letter just after Elizabeth’s birth to Charles V, Chapuys wrote that with the birth of a daughter it showed ‘God [had] forgotten him entirely’ and wanted to ‘punish and ruin him’.[xxxvi] In the Tudor period, there was a great belief in divine intervention and the birth of a daughter rather than a son was indicative that God did not approve of the marriage. Perhaps this is what Henry came to believe when he became disillusioned with Anne. This, coupled with a third miscarriage, probably was a major part of the reason why Henry decided to replace Anne.

So why did Anne fall from power?

Lacey Baldwin Smith has said that the case of Anne Boleyn was ‘far from unique’, but she fails to give any examples of where a similar case exists.[xxxvii] Anne Boleyn was the first English Queen to go on trial for treason, and the first to be executed. Anne was often careless and overly flirtatious. This contributed to her death, but she died primarily because she failed to give a King a son to carry on the dynasty, so when an accusation was made by one of Anne’s ladies, Henry and Cromwell saw their chance to bring her down. Anne was innocent of the charges against her, but she had to die so that Henry could have an undisputed third marriage to Jane. The impact from her fall was the only part of her public image that it was not possible for Anne Boleyn to have any control over.


[i] Lacey Baldwin Smith, ‘English Treason Trials and Confessions in the Sixteenth Century’, JHI, 15, 4 (1954) p. 472

[ii] Trial Documents for Anne and George Boleyn,LP

[iii] Thomas Wyatt, Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei in Greg Walker, Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) p. 290

[iv] G.W. Bernard, ‘The Fall of Anne Boleyn’, EHR, 106, 420 (1991) p. 606

[v] Alison Weir, The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009) p. 166

[vi] Trial Documents for the Boleyns, LP

[vii] Anne Boleyn, Execution Speech 19th May 1536 quoted in Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) pp. 357 – 358

[viii] Undated letter from Kingston to Cromwell, LP

[ix] Eric Ives, ‘The Fall of Anne Boleyn Reconsidered’, EHR, 107, 424 (1992) p. 659

[x] Letter from Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII from the Tower, LP

[xi] Letter from Kingston to Cromwell 16th May 1536, LP

[xii] Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn (London: Piatkus Books Ltd, 2004) p. 310

[xiii] Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) p. 310

[xiv] Weir, Lady in the Tower, p. 68

[xv] Ives, Life and Death, pp. 315 – 316

[xvi] Denny, Anne Boleyn, p. 265

[xvii] John Foxe, The Book of Martyrs (Philemon Canfield, 1830), p. 226

[xviii] Letter from Chapuys to Granvelle 20th May 1536, LP

[xix] Letter from Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII from the Tower, LP

[xx] Letter from Chapuys to Charles V 1st April 1536, LP

[xxi] Letter from Chapuys to Charles V 19th May 1536, LP

[xxii] Ibid

[xxiii] Bernard, ‘Fall of Anne Boleyn’, p. 589

[xxiv] Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (London: Phoenix Press, 2002) p. 286

[xxv] Ives, Life and Death, pp. 333 – 334

[xxvi] Bernard, ‘Fall of Anne Boleyn’, p. 609

[xxvii] G.W. Bernard, Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (London: Yale University Press, 2011) p. 183

[xxviii] Ibid

[xxix] Retha Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 223

[xxx] Letter from Chapuys to Charles V 10th February 1536, LP

[xxxi] Fraser, Six Wives, p. 302

[xxxii] Letter from Chapuys to Charles V 10th February 1536, LP

[xxxiii] Warnicke, Rise and Fall, p. 187

[xxxiv] Ibid, pp. 191 – 192

[xxxv] Letter from Chapuys to Charles V 10th February 1536, LP

[xxxvi] Letter from Chapuys to Charles V 10th September 1533, LP

[xxxvii] Baldwin Smith, ‘English Treason Trials’, p. 472

5 thoughts on “Undergraduate Dissertation Chapter – Anne Boleyn’s Fall From Power

  1. I think it’s fair to say that Cromwell wasn’t Anne’s only enemy (seeing as the entire country loathed her). You say that Henry and Cromwell “saw their chance to bring Anne down”. Don’t you think the people doing the gossiping were doing that, too? Why do people like you always lay 100% of the blame at Cromwell’s feet? He was one part of a huge investigation, not at it’s head nor it’s heart. Several others were involved in drawing up the charges and bringing the case to fruition. Yet, it’s only ever poor old Cromwell who gets to act as whipping boy. Thank heavens there are now several of us working towards restoring his reputation and revising the way in which he is studied.

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    1. The section on Cromwell is only a part of my thesis. I believe that the main reason why Anne fell was because of a lack of a male heir and Henry and Cromwell acted together, covering each other, to bring her down. Cromwell had more to lose than Henry which is why he played such an active role in her demise.

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      1. I think we misunderstand each other. I really recommend reading John Schofield’s biography of Thomas Cromwell. It debunks a lot of myths about him, and sets his role in Anne Boleyn’s downfall in context. It would be a lot better than churning out the same old myths about him,

        Let me explain further: Most historians assume Cromwell’s culpability because of one line in one letter written by Chapuys (in which Cromwell claims to have “plotted” Anne’s demise). It’s been mistranslated several times.

        Also, you cite a letter written by Anne Boleyn from the Tower. This is a fake. It wasn’t found among Cromwell’s possessions in 1540, it was found in the in the 17th century with some cock and bull story that it came from Cromwell’;s possessions.

        Please, please do some research on Cromwell. He was England’s greatest statesman and deserves so much better than to have his name dragged through the mud like this.

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        1. Thanks for the recommendation! I’m just starting out really and I do realise that opinions change as you read more, and I’m looking forward to reading more and (hopefully!) writing more in the future, so take it easy on me hahah! Any other book recommendations would be much appreciated. Thanks.

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