Thomas Cromwell assigned a handful of ladies to watch over – and spy on – Anne Boleyn while she was imprisoned in the Tower. Four of them — Mary Scrope (Lady Kingston), Margaret Dymoke (Lady Coffin or Cosyn), Elizabeth Wood Boleyn (Anne’s aunt by marriage but no friend to her), and Elizabeth Chambers, (Lady Stonor and the Mother of the Maids) – were actively hostile to Anne and the queen knew it. Anne complained to her jailor, Sir William Kingston (Mary Scrope’s husband), that she had “such about me that I never loved” and she wanted the women “of mine own privy chamber, which I favor most”. This request was not granted of course, and Anne had to make due with the comfortless comfort of spies who actively disliked her.
Anne knew full well that they were with her so they could to report anything she said Cromwell, and thus to the king. William Kingston wrote to Cromwell that, “The Que[ne said unto me that same] nyght that the Kyng wyst what he dyd w[hen he put such] ij. abowt hyr as my lady Boleyn and Mestres [Cofyn; for] thay cowd tell her now thynge of my [Lord her father, nor] nothynge ellys, bot she defyed them alle.” While such spirit is lauded in modern times, it just marked her as more of an ‘unladylike’ target for the women who disliked her. Her aunt replied to her,” Seche desyre as you have h[ad to such tales] hase browthe you to thys.” Lady Stonor piled on by making a snide reference to Mark Smeaton, but Anne retorted that, “he wase never in [my chamber but at Winchester, and there] [unless] she sent for hym to pl[ay on the virginals, for there my] logynge wa[s above the King’s] * * for I never spake with hym syns bot upon Saterday before Mayday.”
In spite of her bravado as she “defyed them alle” and defended herself, Anne was in an extremely fragile state. Not only was she facing her own execution, she had to do it surrounded by the jeers of those who had knelt to her not long before. It wouldn’t be long until she would wonder aloud about what could have made the king accuse her of such horrors, and those musings would (duly recorded by her spy-ladies) would be used as ‘proof’ of her guilt.
As I mentioned in my book, The Jezebel Effect, Anne’s excessive lack of caution around women she knew were out to get her is the opposite of the manipulative man-trap she too often portrayed as:
Boleyn has frequently been portrayed as cunning, as befitting a temptress who played Henry VIII like a cheap fiddle in order to snag a crown. In contrast, her actual behavior was often not the kind indicating a duplicitous ability to manipulate people to her best advantage. Anne was often too frank for her own good. That was unquestionably the case when she was imprisoned in the Tower. She went over, out loud and at length and in front of hostile witnesses, any possible thing she might have said or done to cause Henry’s suspicions. It was Anne, the supposed wily serpent in the Tudor garden, who gave Cromwell most of his paltry ammunition against her by her stupidly forthright comments.
In all honesty, Anne’s entire career had been a long series of telling truths when she should have been lying, flattering, or conniving. Did she soft-soap and bribe her powerful relatives, so they would be at least semi-loyal? No, she allegedly treated the duke of Norfolk “worse than a dog” (Mackay, 2014); she was apparently more affected by the fact he was a horrible man than she was by his title and potential usefulness. Did she toady up to Cromwell, and keep him in the dark about her plans with sweet-talk? No. She challenged him openly and it cost her dearly. During her incarceration, Cromwell “took care to block access to the King” (Starkey, 2003), barring anyone of power who was sympathetic to the queen.
While she was queen, did she devote herself to fawning over the king and buttering him up for even more advantages? No. She was the only person in all of England who would call him on his shenanigans.
Cunning is perhaps not the best word to describe her.
I wonder how the ladies who were attending her felt when the queen went to her death, in part because of their efforts? Henry never evinced regret for Anne, but even Cromwell praised her after her execution in a fit of remorse (or a clever pretense of it). Did the ladies who sat with her while she ate her last meal and prepared her for the beheading ever feel guilty that they had spied on her and tried to turn every phrase she uttered into possible fodder for Cromwell’s trumped up charges?