Saturday 15 May 2010

May 15th, 1536: The Trial of Anne Boleyn

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

- From Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll (1832 - 1898)

Above photograph: Actress Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in the television series The Tudors (2007 - 2010)


May 15th saw the trials of both Anne Boleyn, Queen of England and of George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. However, the trial of the viscount will be dealt with on tomorrow's post, rather than today, in order to avoid the post becoming overly-long. An excellent analysis of the second Boleyn trial can be read on Claire Ridgeway's The Anne Boleyn Files.



On May 15th 1536, twenty-six peers of the realm congregated in the King’s Hall of the Tower of London to serve as judges in the trial of Anne Boleyn, Queen of England. Presiding, in his role as Lord High Steward, was the Duke of Norfolk, representing the King, who had chosen to absent himself. Perched at the Duke’s feet was his son, the 19 year-old Earl of Surrey, holding the golden staffs of the Earl Marshal of England, another of his father’s many offices. To his left was the King’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Suffolk, and to his right, Sir Thomas Audley, the current Lord Chancellor. Audley was there solely to offer legal advice since, as a commoner, he was legally ineligible to pass sentence upon a queen.

Those whose aristocratic birth entitled them to sit in judgment were ranged around the presiding duke and made an impressive show, but despite the appearance of a three-line whip having been imposed by the Secretary of State, less than half of the entire peerage in England and almost none of those in Ireland were present. The excused included the three independent peeresses (one of whom was the Queen herself, another the governess to her daughter), the King’s bastard son, the Duke of Richmond, who was considered either too young or too ill to attend, the Earl of Kent, who was too poor to finance a trip to London with the expected show of pomp, and those aristocrats who were stationed on government duty in Ireland, Calais or the Marches and could not feasibly be excused. A few lords had managed to wriggle out of serving on the panel with suitably inventive excuses, which perhaps implied that had they been forced to serve they would not have helped with the intended display of political unity in the face of the Queen’s audacious crimes. For the most part, however, the nobility who did turn up served the Crown’s purposes well – they included fourteen barons, the King’s cousin, the Marquess of Exeter and the earls of Arundel, Huntingdon, Northumberland, Oxford, Rutland, Sussex, Westmorland and Worcester.

In the centre of the Hall, a chair had been placed on a raised platform before a bar. Nearby, glistening in the light was the Queen’s crown – probably the one made of gold and decorated with sapphires, rubies and pearls with crosses and fleurs-de-lis around the rim, which the Queen had ordered for her coronation three years earlier. In the specially constructed stands placed all around the Hall, two thousand of the citizenry of London had gathered to watch. Their hubbub died away as the Crown’s commission was read aloud and the Duke of Norfolk announced, "Gentleman Gaoler of the Tower, bring in your prisoner."

The Queen entered the room, accompanied by the Yeoman Gaoler of the Tower, carrying his axe, with its blade turned away from her face to signify that she had not yet been condemned. Dressed elegantly in a gown of black velvet with a crimson damask petticoat, and small cap with black and white feathers, the Queen bore all the hallmarks of her education as an honorary member of the French nobility – elegant, sophisticated, imperious and very grand. Behind her followed her remaining ladies-in-waiting, headed by the wife of the Constable of the Tower, Lady Kingston, and the Queen’s estranged aunt, Lady Boleyn, who led four young women of the Queen’s own disbanded Household who had, finally, been allowed to join her in captivity. Watching this procession, the French Bishop of Riez, ensconced in the viewing gallery above, was impressed by the Queen’s behaviour: "She walked forth in fearful beauty," he wrote later, "and seemed unmoved. She came not as one who had to defend her cause, but with the bearing of one coming to great honour."

At any point, Anne Boleyn might justifiably have made the claim that the court was invalid and that, aristocratic or not, as an anointed queen, she could not be tried by any earthly power – an argument made by Mary, Queen of Scots at her trial in 1586 and Charles I at his in 1648. But such a claim would not have influenced the proceedings’ outcome in any way and it would also have robbed her of any opportunity to answer the accusations against her, since logic dictated that one could not argue with a body that did not exist. Instead, she swept forward towards her seat "with the true dignity of a queen" and curtsied to the judges, "with her accustomed politeness." With a rustle of her skirts, she took her seat, "looking round upon them all, without any sign of fear." The trial began as the indictment was read out to her in full, for the first time.

During the course of her three year marriage to the King, Anne Boleyn was accused of having committed incest with her brother, Lord Rochford, adultery with Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton and, most seriously, adultery with one of the King’s favourites, Sir Henry Norris, who she had allegedly slept with during the autumn of 1533 shortly after the birth of her first child and two years after that had agreed to marry once she was a widow. Hoping to speed this eventuality along, the Queen had allegedly conspired to assassinate her husband, meeting with her lovers to plot the details of the coup at Westminster in November 1535 and again at Greenwich three months later. The official charges levied against her were thus incest, adultery and High Treason. Contrary to popular belief, witchcraft was never included in the indictments, nor was it implied that Lord Rochford had been the biological father of the prince his royal sister had miscarried earlier that year. Neither was the allegation that the Queen had poisoned the King’s first wife and attempted to poison his two children, Lady Mary and the Duke of Richmond, although both were widely reported by the Queen's enemies at the time, after three years of rumour-mongering by the Spanish ambassador on the subject. The expected charges of adultery with Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Richard Page had been dropped, very possibly due to Thomas Cromwell's friendships with the two men.

Throughout the reading of the indictment, in all its lurid and excruciating detail, the Queen did not "exhibit any token of impatience, or grief, or cowardice," according to another eyewitness. As each separate charge was put to her, she entered a plea of not guilty. Denied a defence counsel since she was accused of treason, the Queen then had a chance at rebuttal. Her answers were generally short, sober and, according to the Spanish ambassador, "plausible."

The Attorney General then rose to make the case for the prosecution. No witnesses were brought against her, nor was she permitted to call any in her own defence. After a relatively short period, the aristocratic judges were asked to reach a decision. To a man, they returned a verdict of guilty on all charges and with the verdict returned, the process of sentencing could begin. Firstly, she was stripped of all her titles - barring that of queen - and she was asked to relinquish the crown into the hands of her judges, which she did so with apparent alacrity. With or without the actual crown, Anne’s boast a few days earlier that nothing and no-one could stop her dying a queen was to be fulfilled. Then, it fell upon the Duke of Norfolk to pass the death penalty upon her and she was sentenced to be burned or beheaded, depending on the King’s pleasure.

The Queen heard this ruling without any sign of distress, but this was not a reaction echoed in the rest of the courtroom. Norfolk himself had been unexpectedly weeping as he delivered the sentence and from the gallery the Queen’s childhood governess, Mrs. Orchard, "shrieked out dreadfully" and became hysterical; one of the judges, the Earl of Northumberland, collapsed and had to be carried from the hall. Some of the jury were unhappy at the sentence being handed down in the disjunctive and the Lord Mayor of London broke rank by subsequently asserting that the whole thing had been a charade to "get rid of the Queen at any price." In this melee, the Queen raised her eyes heaven-ward and offered a quick prayer, before turning to address her judges: -

"My lords, I do not say that my opinion ought to be preferred to your judgement; but if you have reasons to justify it, they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am wholly innocent of all matters of which I have been accused, so that I cannot call upon God to pardon me. 
I have always been faithful to the King my lord; but perhaps I have not always shown to him such a perfect humility and reverence as his graciousness and courtesy deserved, and the honour he hath done me required. I confess that I have often had jealous fantasies against him which I had not wisdom or strength to repress. But God knows that I have not otherwise trespassed against him. 
Do not think I say this in the hope of prolonging my life, for He who saveth from death has taught me how to die, and will strengthen my faith. 
Think not, however, that I am so bewildered in mind that I do not care to vindicate my innocence. I knew that it would avail me little to defend it at the last moment if I had not maintained it all my life long, as much as ever Queen did. Still the last words out of my mouth shall justify my honour. 
As for my brother and the other gentlemen who are unjustly condemned, I would willingly die to save them; but as that is not the King's pleasure, I shall accompany them in death. And then Afterwards, I shall live in eternal peace and joy without end, where I shall pray to God for the King and for you, my lords. 
The judge of all the world, in whom abounds justice and truth knows all, and through His love I beseech that He will have compassion on those who have condemned me to this death."

With that, she rose from her seat and left the room, accompanied by the same delegation with which she had entered. This time, the Yeoman’s axe was turned towards her and she left the Hall, before an audience of thousands, a condemned Queen.

1 comment:

  1. A very brave woman, I don't think anyone could deny.


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