Queen Anne Boleyn was arrested on 2 May 1536. She was told she was suspected of adultery (treason) with Henry Norris and Mark Smeaton and one other unidentified man, but given no other details of her “crimes”. When she had seen her husband, King Henry VIII, just the day before he had given her no hint she was no longer his beloved … or that he would have her legally murdered less than three weeks later.
She had no time to mentally prepare herself for the accusations, and her actions in the Tower speak of shock and bewilderment bordering on hysteria, rather than a woman trying to cover her tracks. As I explain in The Jezebel Effect:
Anne was shocked and devastated by her arrest. She was transported to the Tower from Greenwich in broad daylight so that everyone could witness her humiliation. When Henry’s counselors, some of who had been her friends, had brought her into the Tower and handed her over to her jailor, Master Kingston, she went to her knees before them swearing her innocence and begging them to plead with Henry on her behalf (Ives, 2004). History has a fairly good record of the things Anne said while she was in custody, since Kingston reported every word she said to Cromwell.
Anne, still somewhat composed, asked Kingston, “shall I go in to a dungeon?”, to which he replied that she would be given the rooms she had stayed in during her coronation. This appears to have broken Anne, who cried out, “It is too good for me. Jesu, have mercy on me!” Kingston said that Anne subsequently “kneeled down weeping a great pace, and in the same sorrow fell into great laughing”. He told Cromwell that Anne fell prey to that same combination of laughter and weeping “many times” during the time she was incarcerated (Ives, 2004).
Many people have interpreted Anne’s laughter as hysteria, a manifestation of her emotional trauma. Susan Bordo, however, argues that Anne’s laughter had an additional component: “Anne also laughed – in the same conversation with Kingston – when he told her that “even the King’s poorest subject hath justice”. It’s hard to read that laughter as anything other than mocking Kingston’s naivety about the king’s “justice”. Similarly, Anne’s laughter over being housed in her coronation room can be read as a reaction to the bizarre, bitter irony of her situation” (Bordo, 2013).
Unlike the lute player Mark Smeaton, the other men with whom Anne was accused of adultery were of too noble lineage to be tortured. Without torture, no more “confessions” were forthcoming. Edward Baynton, who had served as Anne’s vice-chamberlain and had now turned firmly against her in her hour of need, was so worried that the lack of evidence would “touch the King’s honour” that he “recommended a trawl through Anne’s ladies” for information (Starkey, 2003).
Anne 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 [regarding his wanton dissolution of the monasteries for personal gain] 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 … Cunning is perhaps not the best word to describe her.
Anne Boleyn was arrested for adultery and treason against her husband the king, but her true crime was breaking the rules of gender conformity by refusing to subjugate herself as a meek little woman and let men control her (or at least to think that they did). She fought like a man, and was given the greatest punishment possible for it.