Monday 3 May 2010

May 3rd, 1536: The Lady in the Tower

“She hath wept bitterly in the night, and her tears are upon her cheeks: there is none to comfort her among all them that were dear to her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, and are become her enemies.”
- The Book of Lamentations, Chapter 1, verse 2

Unlike poor Marie-Antoinette two centuries later, Anne Boleyn did not spend her final days in deprivation. In fact, by most normal standards she spent them in great luxury. Whilst Marie-Antoinette would shiver in a dank cell in the Conciergerie prison, with holes in her shoes and the revolutionary guards shouting obscene comments at her as she changed her menstrual linen, Anne Boleyn was housed in rooms which, only three years earlier, had been re-decorated for her Coronation week to the equivalent of £1.28 million ($2 million.) Furthermore, almost £9,000 ($13,700) was soon forwarded to the Tower by the government to finance the Queen’s food and clothes during her imprisonment. 

The last time she had frequented these palatial Tower rooms, Anne had been on the cusp of her greatest triumph and the rooms had played host to a series of elaborate parties to celebrate. The Queen’s audience chamber, her dining room, her bedroom, her bathroom and her private oratory were all as she remembered them – the last word in luxury and style. However, this time there were no flashing jewels and smiling faces as the Queen entered the apartments, instead only the grimly disapproving faces of those who had been assigned to watch over her throughout her captivity.

Again in contrast to Marie-Antoinette or the Empress Alexandra, Anne Boleyn was granted a fairly extensive household to attend to her during her imprisonment. Whatever her alleged crimes, she was still the Queen of England and the mystique of monarchy was such that it was unthinkable that Anne should be left with only one maid to attend to her. Whilst it was admittedly quite the reduction from the two hundred and fifty servants Anne was used to, the nine retainers attached to look after her in the Tower was still a fairly substantial establishment – and there were also guards and cooks not included in that number. The problem with the servants, however, did not lie in the size of their company, but in their composition.

The only member of her new staff the Queen actually liked was one of her maids, Mrs. Mary Orchard, who, years ago, had been the governess to the Boleyn children, in their happier childhood days at Hever Castle. The Queen also raised no objection to the other domestic servant, Mrs. Stonor, who seems to have been a fairly innocuous and conscientious person, who later went on to serve Queen Catherine Howard and Queen Katherine Parr. Equally, she apparently had no problem with the young messenger boy or two grooms the Tower had provided for her (the former being pointless since she was forbidden to send or receive messages); what really infuriated the Queen were her four ladies-in-waiting, every last one of whom she strongly disliked.

They consisted of her gaoler’s "pious and disapproving" wife, Lady Kingston, a former lady-in-waiting of Katherine of Aragon, the ominously-named Mrs. Coffin and the Queen’s two estranged aunts – Lady Amata Boleyn and Lady Anne Shelton. Having been denied the company of her own ladies, Anne was angry with her husband for forcing her to endure the company of four women she was known to dislike. Infuriated at this humiliation, the Queen mused aloud to an embarrassed Kingston what things had come to in England when a queen could be treated so cruelly and she asked him what His Majesty’s motives were for this latest act of unnecessary spite.

The reason for the four ladies’ presence was, of course, spiteful but not exactly unnecessary. They had been assigned to spy on Anne's every waking moment and make reports to the Lieutenant of the Tower. Sir William Kingston was under strict instruction to write down everything that Anne said and did in daily reports for Thomas Cromwell, the King's chief adviser, who was overseeing the case against her. For this reason, the other servants were forbidden to speak to Anne unless Lady Kingston was in the room, for she and she alone – it was felt – could be trusted to give her husband a trustworthy account of what happened in the Queen's rooms. On the subject of what to discuss with the Queen, Cromwell strongly advised that the servants were to talk to her as little as possible. Knowing Anne as he did, Cromwell expected that she would continue to behave with the clever self-restraint she ordinarily showed in moments of crisis. Moreover, he knew better than most that she was not actually guilty and the less she advertised this awkward fact to anyone – even trusted government informers – the better.

Initially, the Queen’s conversations were much as Cromwell had expected. After conveying her disappointment about her living arrangements, she requested that the Sacrament be brought for her Oratory, since Anne wished to have the Host near her for comfort. She questioned Kingston about the whereabouts of her husband, her father, the Earl of Ormonde, and her brother, Lord Rochford. With Kingston giving fairly short and unhelpful answers, Anne began to worry about what the news of her arrest would do to the health of her already-ailing mother. “Oh my mother!” she cried. “Thou wilt die of sorrow!” She was also worried that her friend, the Countess of Worcester, might miscarry out of shock when she heard the terrible news of the Queen’s imprisonment.

These moments of relative calm, however, were punctuated by understandable moments of hysteria. Upon entering her rooms and seeing who she was confined with, Anne apparently feared that she would be poisoned or murdered whilst she slept – after all, given the events of the last twenty-four hours, it was difficult to imagine what remained beyond the realms of possibility. “Master Kingston,” she has asked her gaoler, “shall I die without justice?” Horrified at the very idea that the rule of law would not triumph in England, Kingston replied: “Madam, the poorest subject the king hath, has justice.” Hearing this answer, Anne began to laugh – whether it was at Kingston’s naïveté or the idea that whilst a peasant might have justice, the queen would not, is hard to say.

The wild laughter then gave way to a disturbing memory. During her arrest, Anne had been told by the Duke of Norfolk that she was accused of adultery with three men - Sir Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton and an un-named third party. “I heard say that I should be accused with three men and I can say no more but nay...” Despite this categorical denial of her guilt – which Cromwell had expected of her – Anne was now beginning to panic about the fates of Norris and “poor Mark,” as well as to obsess about who the third “lover” was. And it was this obsession which handed the government an unexpected victory, shortly before lunch on May 3rd.

One of her unwelcome ladies-in-waiting mentioned that Sir Francis Weston was being interrogated by the Council as part of the investigations into the Queen's private life. Hearing this, Anne was suddenly seized with fear and became very agitated. For some, this reaction suggested that at some point she had indeed committed adultery with Sir Francis, a 25 year-old courtier gifted with astonishing good-looks and well-known for his skill both as a sportsman and as a lover. If this theory is followed then it seems perfectly logical that when she heard he was being questioned, Queen Anne was afraid that her lover would reveal the details of their affair in the hope of sparing his own life. However, there is no real evidence prior to 1536 that the Queen and Weston were particularly close – even as friends, let alone as lovers - and this has led to various alternative theories about why Anne felt such panic at the idea of what Weston might say about her.

Several historians have hypothesised that Francis Weston was bisexual and that for some time he had been conducting a love affair with the Queen’s brother, Lord Rochford. Or that he knew the identity of George Boleyn's male lover (or lovers) and the Queen was terrified that he would reveal this information under pressure from her enemies. The last thing Anne needed at a time when she was facing the greatest challenge of her life was a revelation about her brother which could lead to his imprisonment and death or the characterisation of her Court as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah.

The other reason, which is both more mundane and (I think) more probable, is that Weston had, for some time, harboured precisely the same suspicion as Anne – that Henry Norris was in love with her. This, I believe, is the most likely interpretation of Anne’s fears when she heard the news of his detention. Apparently, during the celebrations held a year earlier for Whitsunday, Anne had teased Weston about the fact that he spent far more time in her rooms flirting with her ladies-in-waiting than he did visiting his new wife. Weston jokingly replied that it was all a clever ruse to conceal his undying love for the Queen herself. At the time, Anne had apparently laughed at this exchange, but Weston had also impudently needled the Queen that Henry Norris haunted her apartments for exactly the same reason. As with most jokes, the latter was funny because it contained more than a kernel of truth.

Leaving aside any speculation about George Boleyn’s sexuality, I think it is the Whitsunday conversation of 1535 which reveals why Anne was struck with a fit of nerves when she heard that Francis Weston was being questioned. With Norris already in the Tower, under suspicion of treasonous adultery with her, if Weston said that he had long suspected Norris of being in love with the Queen, then it could prove catastrophic to her defence and Norris's life.

The details of the Queen's panic at hearing news of Weston's interrogation were reported to Cromwell in the early afternoon. Tragically, it was not the Norris jibe part of his exchange with the Queen which the government chose to focus on; instead, it was the playful jest that Weston himself was in love with her. The prosecution now had what could potentially be spun as a “confession” from the Queen’s own lips and by nightfall Francis Weston was imprisoned in the Tower.

Anne, still alternating between moments of regal lucidity and fits of melancholia, went to bed with the hated Mrs. Coffin sleeping in the same room as her, having absolutely no idea of the damage her words had unintentionally caused to an innocent man. Perhaps mercifully for her mental health, this news was spared her for some time, as was the hideous fact that, within days, seven men would have been arrested on suspicion of being her lovers - amongst them her own brother.


  1. I wrote a poem about Anne Boleyn because it was the only way I could cohesively let out my passion. Do tell me how it is. :D

    Anne Boleyn:

    Her ivory skin lay bare,
    Her soul was aflare,
    My hand reached out, like a hand from the grave.
    I pulled her closer to my heart, but my heart was subject to change.
    Her rosy lips were slave to my desire,
    My vacant heart was a slave to a woman's fire.

    Her ebony hair hath fallen,
    The darkest thing about her,
    Like a raven's feathers,
    Like a raven's tether,
    It swayed against the naked cold,
    She made me touch the warmth she could hold.
    Her wonderful lust,
    To it, I was unfortunately unjust.
    She was trapped in a tower of stone
    I was trapped in a tower of bone.

    They called her names,
    Famed her for things which should best remain unnamed.
    Taught her to tiptoe like a beggar, like a thief.
    She was my Qheen
    She was supposed to gleam.
    To seem like Royalty,
    But she had none to show her loyalty.
    I put upon her head a Crown
    A crown of jewels and gold?
    A crown of thorns, things born forlorn.

    Betrayal was common and I had betrayed myself.
    A nest I had layered with honey, a nest that had caught another.
    A bethrothal was in order,
    A grave misfortune was in order.
    She bruised her knees praying,
    They lost their heads playing.
    A game in which they were not present, a game in which their lives were mere things of pleasure.

    I had discarded her and death refused to take her.
    My fist was filled with power,
    Her head was the only thing I desired,
    Guilt was somehow an attribute I had never come to acquire.
    To the scaffold she went,
    Stood where the others had
    Stood where their heads were hacked.
    A thousand eyes staring at her
    Only the Grim being seen by her.
    Flinching in fear, her eyes black as smoke.
    The small jewels wide, frightened and frantic.
    "Why were they so calm?" she thought.
    Still a fool, even with the lies around her,
    Unfound were the lies that bound her.

    A scapegoat among stallions
    A crime, the victim forever in an evil dalliance.
    Bright pinks and bright greens,
    The gowns were lovely as can be.
    A memory of a ball, a memory of when she had it all.
    The many colours in front of her, the colour red catching up with her.
    Twenty pounds, the payment of her death.
    Twenty pounds, the weight of her head!
    The irony, how delightful?
    The rest, well no doubt she felt spiteful!
    "Bring me my sword!" the executioner yells
    A twist of my neck, a final picture before my death.

    1. Wonderful! I thoroughly enjoyed this! I particularly liked the idea of the disjointed memories flooding back to her.

    2. Hahaha I just saw this post, I must have submitted it when I was in the seventh grade or something! Looking back I was such an excited little history nerd. Glad you liked it though, mean't a lot to a younger me who was new to writing. Cheers xx.

  2. Thanks for this wonderful blog, Gareth! Do you know if during her imprisonment Anne was ever allowed to walk outdoors? After all, she spent around 17 days in the Tower....I would be really interested to know - thanks so much!

    1. Hello!

      Unfortunately, we don't know for certain. Much of the paperwork concerning her imprisonment was destroyed in an accidental fire in the Cottonian Library in the 18th century, but it would have been highly unusual if she hadn't been!


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