The historical record, as well as the testimonies of her friends and her enemies, overwhelmingly proves that Anne Boleyn was falsely accused of adultery. Her conviction was part of an elaborate character assassination engineered by her husband’s right-hand man Thomas Cromwell, her personal and political enemies, and the King himself, who gave his approval to the proceedings.
The day after her trial, May 17, Anne’s marriage to Henry was annulled, leaving him free to marry again. The annulment also made the 2 1/2-year old Princess Elizabeth legally illegitimate. For a few hours Anne cherished the hope that Henry would have mercy and send her and Elizabeth away, perhaps even to Antwerp, one of the Protestant hubs of Europe. That hope, however, was quickly dashed with news that her execution was still on the schedule.
Anne’s brother and the other men accused as her lovers were also killed on May 17. All but Mark Smeaton, the minstrel, maintained their innocence. Anne allegedly told her jailer,
“Alas! Has [Smeaton] not then cleared me of the public shame he has brought me to? Alas, I fear his soul suffers for his false accusations! But for my brother and those others, I doubt not but they are now in the presence of that Great King before whom I am to be tomorrow.”
London simmered with fury against King Henry and public opinion was high in Anne’s favor. Her jailer wrote of his fear that some of Anne’s supporters would attack the Tower and try to rescue her, but he also wrote of Anne’s courage in the face of death:
“I have seen men and also women executed and they have been in great sorrow; but to my knowledge this lady has much joy and pleasure in death.”
Finally the morning of May 19 dawned and Anne, dressed in black, ascended the scaffold “with an untroubled countenance.” The crowd in attendance fell silent as Anne made a short parting speech.
“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best.
“And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me.”
She took her place on her knees, praying aloud: “O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul. To Jesus Christ I commend my soul; Lord Jesus receive my soul.”
“Which words she spake with a smiling countenance,” an eyewitness reported, “and with that word suddenly the hangman of Calais smote off her head at one stroke with a sword.” The cannons fired, announcing the death of Anne Boleyn.
Not far away, Thomas Cranmer–the Archbishop of Canterbury who’d been too afraid to give more than a lukewarm defense of the Queen–reportedly looked to the sky as the cannon boomed. “She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen in Heaven,” he said, and then sank down on a bench and wept.
For the rest of Henry’s reign, the royal court avoided any mention of Anne Boleyn. Her emblems and banners were hidden away or destroyed. Even the most well-known portrait of her (featured several times on this blog) is probably only a copy of a lost masterpiece, likely destroyed after her death.
Her friends and admirers, however, quietly kept her memory alive. Protestants all over Europe mourned her death–Phillip Melancthon, one of Martin Luther’s disciples, called it a “catastrophe”–yet the Reformation continued with relentless speed, especially in England.
Henry would have four more wives after Anne. Jane Seymour died mere days after giving Henry a son, who later became Edward VI. Anne of Cleves, wife #4, was divorced after a few months because Henry didn’t like her looks. Wife #5, Catherine Howard, was executed after being found guilty of adultery–but this time, the charges were legitimate.
Wife #6 was an intelligent, kindly woman of strong Protestant convictions, who took Henry’s motherless children under her wing. Her name was Catherine Parr.
Ten-year-old Princess Elizabeth had a real mother again; the genuine affection between them lasted until Catherine’s death in 1548. The new Queen’s skillful rule of England while Henry was away at war in 1545, as well as her dignity and firm convictions, made an impression on the precocious redheaded princess.
The odds were against Elizabeth her entire childhood–yet by God’s grace she survived and through her we can see Anne Boleyn’s ultimate triumph. When her older sister “Bloody Mary” died childless in 1558, Elizabeth succeeded her as Queen, establishing Protestant rule once and for all and ushering in England’s “Golden Age.”
William Shakespeare wrote his plays during Elizabeth’s reign, while Sir Walter Raleigh explored a certain territory of North America, naming it “Virginia,” after the Virgin Queen. The Spanish Armada attempted to invade England but was beaten back, marking the end of Spain’s naval dominion. And while Elizabeth wasn’t particularly friendly towards the radical reforms of the Puritans, the imperfect but improved political situation did provide enough freedom for them to get a foothold. The foundations were thus laid for the Separatist “Pilgrims,” who came to America during the reign of Elizabeth’s successor, James I.
Elizabeth believed her mother had been innocent and surrounded herself with people who had either known or were related to Anne. She restored Anne’s legal title as Queen of England in Parliament. When she died in 1603, she was still wearing a ring that opened to reveal portraits of herself and her mother; this ring was brought to Elizabeth’s cousin James Stuart, as proof that he was now King of England.
In conclusion, I believe Anne Boleyn is an important historical figure for two reasons:
1) She was a woman of the Reformation. She knew from the Bible and the Christian ladies around her that God hadn’t created women to be chattel. This doesn’t mean Anne was a rip-roaring feminist; she wasn’t. But she did prove that a well-educated woman with strong convictions and Christian confidence could have a positive impact. Henry may have gotten rid of her in the end, but in the Providence of God, it was her influence on him that helped advance the English Reformation.
2) She was the mother of Elizabeth I–and Elizabeth’s impact on Western Civilization is HUGE! You could easily say that without Elizabeth, we wouldn’t have the Pilgrims. And without the Pilgrims, we wouldn’t have America. You and I might not even be here–and if we were, we’d probably be speaking Spanish. Elizabeth may not have been a born-again believer herself, but she did have a Christian worldview instilled in her by the memory of her mother, the love of Catherine Parr, and the numerous tutors, relatives, and friends who made a concerted effort to raise her as Anne Boleyn had wished.
An imperfect woman of courageous faith–a patroness of education and Reformation-era art and literature–a catalyst of Protestant Christianity in England–the mother of one of England’s most important monarchs–these qualities are why I’ve spent the last three weeks writing about Anne Boleyn. I hope these posts have sparked your interest and shed even a teeny bit of light on her true story!