Today marks the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s arrest for treason in 1536.
At the time of her arrest, everyone appears to have been willing to believe the absolute worst about her based on absolutely no evidence. As I wrote in The Jezebel Effect:
Seemingly convinced that Anne had slept with several men and had plotted to do away with him, Henry had her arrested on May 2. Other men were besides [Mark] Smeaton and [Henry] Norris were then accused of adultery with the queen, among them Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Anne’s own brother George Boleyn.
With a grand total of five presumed lovers, including the incestuous relationship with her sibling, all of Europe seemed prepared to believe any calumny of Anne. [Imperial ambassador] Chapuys recorded that “On the evening of the day on which the Concubine was sent to the Tower, the Duke of Richmond went to his father to ask his blessing, according to the English custom. The King said, in tears, that he, and his sister the Princess, ought to thank God for having escaped the hands of that woman, who had planned to poison them” (Froude, 1891). He also seemed to believe that Anne had betrayed him with more than a hundred men. The tales of Anne’s sexual excesses grew exponentially, and soon the Imperial ambassador to the French court reported that the king had actually caught Anne in bed with the royal organist.
On May 13, John Husee, a friend of Lord and Lady Lisle, wrote them with the latest news from London about Anne’s trial. To Lady Lisle he wrote: “Madame, I think verily if all the books and chronicles were totally revolved and to the uttermost persecuted and tried, which against women has been penned, contrived, and written since Adam and Eve, those same were, I think, verily nothing in comparison of that which hath been done and committed by Anne the Queen, which though I presume be not all things as it is now rumored, yet that which hath been by her confessed, and other offenders with her, by her own alluring, procurement, and instigation, is so abominable and detestable, that I am ashamed that any good woman should give ear thereunto. I pray God give her grace to repent while she now liveth. I think not the contrary but she and all they shall suffer.” Husee likewise sent a letter to Lord Lisle, declaring “Here are so many tales I cannot tell what to write. Some say young Weston shall scape, and some that none shall die but the Queen and her brother; others that Wyatt and Mr. Page are as like to suffer as the rest. If any escape, it will be young Weston, for whom importunate suit is made”.
A Spanish tale had Anne hiding Smeaton in the sweets closet of her antechamber, to be brought out for sexual dalliance by her attendant whenever she used the code of asking for marmalade. The French ambassador’s assistant claimed that when courtiers had to tell Henry that when he went to bed at night Anne already had “her toy boys [mignons] already lined up. Her brother is by no means last in the queue. Norris and [Smeaton] would not deny that they have spent many nights with her without having to persuade her, for she herself urged them on and invited them with presents and caresses”.
Why were the king and his court and the crowned heads of Europe so willing to believe such insane tales about Anne? It would have been almost impossible for Anne to find the time and privacy to have sex with one man, let alone dozens. Where did this drivel come from?
Part of the reason that so many people were willing to believe such blatant malarkey about Anne was because she was already decried for ‘unfeminine’ behavior. People were already mad at her for Henry’s decision to replace his first queen, for his cruelty toward his elder daughter Mary, and for his obvious enthrallment to Anne for the years of their engagement. On top of that, Anne had the audacity to usurp the many prerogative of having intelligence, strong opinions, and the ability to be strong willed and assertive. Anne was the opposite of the idealized meek womanly woman, and thus bad. As a bad women, she was de facto presumed to be a slut. The accusation that she had been promiscuous and adulterous provided her detractors the ‘evidence’ of her sexual immorality that they had believed in all along.
This drives me nuts.
Happily, even her greatest enemies became suspicious that she was innocent of the charges against her due to the fumbling and inadequate prosecution/persecution against her. She was supposed to have been committing adultery in two places at once while still recovering from childbirth? Unlikely, to say the least. The hasty marriage between Henry and Jane Seymour after Anne’s beheading was the icing on the cake for many people, who became as certain of Anne’s innocence as they had been of her guilt. Even Chapuys, who hated Anne as much as he had loved his friend Katherina of Aragon, had doubts about the guilt of those accused. He wrote:
“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 … 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 … The lady in whose keeping she [Anne Boleyn] 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 …
No doubt that was a “bad” woman, though; she was smart and determined and bold. At least she was guilty of those crimes.