Thursday 6 May 2010

May 6th, 1536: The Mystery of the Queen's Letter

“At the close of life, thoughts hitherto unthinkable rise into the mind of one who meets his fate with resignation; they are like good spirits that diffuse their radiance upon the summits of the past.”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

On the fourth day of her imprisonment, legend has it that Anne Boleyn wrote a letter to her estranged husband, King Henry VIII, in which she asked for a fair trial, mercy for her fellow prisoners and hinted at Jane Seymour being the reason for her downfall. This letter was allegedly found amongst the papers of Thomas Cromwell, after he was executed for treason in 1540 – which implies that if the letter is in fact genuine, it was intercepted by Cromwell and never reached the King. Scrawled across the top in what seems to be Cromwell’s handwriting: “To the King from the Lady in the Tower”.

In his The Reformation in England, J.H. Merle d’Aubigny wrote admiringly of the letter, “We see Anne thoroughly in this letter, one of the most touching that was ever written. Injured in her honour, she speaks without fear, as one on the threshold of eternity. If there were no other proofs of her innocence, this document alone would suffice to gain her cause in the eyes of an impartial and intelligent posterity.”

It begins without the usual lavish titles the King might have expected, or any term of endearment from Anne herself: -

Your Grace's displeasure and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, that what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send unto me (willing me to confess a truth and so obtain your favour), by such a one, whom you know to be mine ancient professed enemy, I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing a truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty, perform your duty. But let not Your Grace ever imagine that your poor wife will be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought ever proceeded. And to speak a truth, never a prince had wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Bulen - with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself, if God and your grace's pleasure had been so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation or received queenship, but that I always looked for such alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your Grace's fancy, the least alteration was fit and sufficient (I knew) to draw that fancy to some other subject. 
You have chosen me from low estate to be your queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire; if, then, you found me worthy of such honour, good your Grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of my enemies withdraw your princely favour from me; neither let that stain - that unworthy stain - of a disloyal heart towards your good grace ever cast so foul a blot on me, and on the infant princess your daughter. 
Try me, good King, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and as my judges; yea, let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open shame. Then you shall see either my innocency cleared, your suspicions and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that, whatever God and you may determine of, your Grace may be freed from an open censure; and my offense being so lawfully proved, your Grace may be at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me as an unfaithful wife but to follow your affection already settled on that party for whose sake I am now as I am, whose name I could some while since have pointed unto - your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicions therein. 
But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander must bring your the joying of your desired happiness, then I desire of God that He will pardon your great sin herein, and likewise my enemies, the instruments thereof; and that He will not call you to a strait account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me at His general judgment seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear; and in whose just judgment, I doubt not (whatsoever the world may think of me), mine innocency shall be openly known and sufficiently cleared. 
My last and only request shall be, that myself only bear the burden of your Grace's displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, whom, as I understand, are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. If ever I have found favour in your sight - if ever the name of Anne Bulen have been pleasing in your ears - then let me obtain this request; and so I will leave to trouble your grace any further, with mine earnest prayer to the Trinity to have your grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions. 
From my doleful prison in the Tower, the 6th May.
Your most loyal and ever-faithful wife,
Anne Bulen

There are, however, several anomalies within the letter that suggest it might not be genuine. The first is the handwriting – as both James Gairdner and Agnes Strickland pointed out back in the 19th century, it is simply not neat enough to be Anne Boleyn’s. From a very early age, Anne’s style was extraordinarily neat in comparison to many of her contemporaries, something which any historian studying her should be eternally grateful for. Believe me.

Secondly, she refers to herself as “Anne Bulen.” When she used her maiden name, it was always as “Boleyn” or the Gallicised “de Boulaine.” The Boleyns had not used the earlier Anglo-Saxon variant of their surname, “Bullen,” for quite some time before Anne’s birth and for her to inexplicably revert to it here seems highly improbable. Moreover, since 1533, she had always signed herself as “Anne the Queen” and as the coming weeks would show, she was very keen to continue doing just that.

Thirdly, there are also some psychological inconsistencies, chief amongst them being the claim in the second paragraph that Henry had “chosen me from low estate to be your queen”. Although some historians with more flair than sense are used to characterising Anne and the Boleyns as practically middle-class prior to her ascent to power, it is not a picture that either she or her contemporaries would have recognised. At the time of Anne's birth, her father was heir-presumptive to the earldom of Ormonde, the most prestigious title of the Anglo-Irish nobility and through him and her paternal grandmother, Anne could claim descent from the ancient kings of Ulster. Anne’s mother, Elizabeth Howard, was a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, sister-in-law of a daughter of King Edward IV and a descendant of Queen Adeliza of Louvain, King Edward I of England, his queen, Marguerite, King Edward III, Queen Philippa of Hainault, King Philippe III of France and Queen Maria of Brabant. Born into an enormously wealthy and well-connected family, it is difficult to see how Anne could have described herself as “from low estate.” However, it is possible that she was simply being exaggeratedly self-deprecating; one of her biographers, Marie Louise Bruce, correctly states that Anne “expressed herself in hyperboles – an idiosyncrasy which merely made the future Court butterfly yet more pleasing”. 

There is also the problematic declaration that Anne’s queenship had “no surer foundation than your Grace’s fancy”, which is something we know Anne did not believe. As early as 1530, the Venetian ambassador to London was reporting that Anne believed passionately that God had chosen her to be queen of England instead of Katherine, just as in Biblical times He had chosen Esther to replace Queen Vashti. Again, however, when it came to this letter, she could have been flattering Henry’s ego or once again expressing herself in her beloved hyperbole.

The letter's authenticity has been the subject of debate therefore since the earliest days of Tudor historiography. Writing his biography of Henry VIII in 1649, Lord Edward Herbert believed it was probably a forgery, perhaps penned by a pious devotee of Anne’s sometime in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; on the other hand, Gilbert, Bishop of Salisbury, writing his 7-volumed History of the Reformation of the Church of England thirty years later was convinced that it was genuine. Having spent a lifetime compiling the Original Letters of Henry VIII’s reign in the mid-19th century, the archivist Henry Ellis positively gushed about the letter’s style, panache and validity and pointed out that there were always some alterations in Anne Boleyn’s handwriting depending on her mood. There are, for instance, considerable differences between the letter she wrote to her father from the Hapsburg Empire in 1514, that penned to Cardinal Wolsey after the plague epidemic of 1528 and one she dispatched to her friend, Lady Wingfield, in the summer of 1532. The unsentimental and sombre giant of Victorian historians, J.A. Froude in his The Divorce of Catherine of Aragon and History of England, accepted Ellis’s arguments and believed that all clear documentary evidence pointed to the letter being authentic.

In recent times, as we have seen, J.H. Merle d’Aubigny in his The Reformation in England (1962) accepts the letter as genuine, as does Joanna Denny in Anne Boleyn: A new life of England’s tragic Queen (2004). Although, as with so much in Joanna Denny’s arguments, it is difficult to tell if the letter is simply being accepted as truth because that is what the late Miss Denny wished had happened.

Perhaps the most convincing argument for the letter’s authenticity comes from the best-selling writer Jasper Ridley. Having rejected the letter as “a forgery, written in the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth,” in his 1984 biography Henry VIII, he later changed his mind in The Love Letters of Henry VIII (1987), in which he claimed every element of the letter fits with what we know of Anne’s psychology at this stage in her imprisonment. In terms of the handwriting discrepancies, Ridley argued that the letter we have now is not the original – it is a copy, dating from later in the 16th century. This suggestion may explain the spelling mistake over “Boleyn/Bulen.” An alternative theory in a similar vein is that the Queen was so agitated that she dictated the letter to one of her ladies-in-waiting in the Tower, which again explains the anomalies of spelling and handwriting.

The majority of historians, however, remain sceptical. James Gairdner in his article ‘Mary and Anne Boleyn’ for the English Historical Review, Paul Friedmann in Anne Boleyn (1884) and Agnes Strickland in her 8-volume Lives of the Queens of England all argued that neither the penmanship nor the tone matched Queen Anne’s; in her 1972 bestseller Anne Boleyn, Marie Louise Bruce went a step further and simply refused to discuss the letter, except in her footnotes where she wrote: “So dramatic was Anne Boleyn’s life that it has inspired a great quantity of colourful apocrypha, founded on nothing more substantial than the imaginations of our predecessors ... Such also, almost certainly, is the poignant letter supposedly written by Anne to Henry from the Tower. None of those has found a place in this biography”. David Starkey in Six Wives (2003), Lady Antonia Fraser in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992), David Loades in The Politics of Marriage: Henry VIII and his Queens (1994)and Karen Lindsey in Divorced Beheaded Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the wives of Henry VIII (1995) all fail to discuss the letter at all, feeling that the debate about it being a forgery has been proved beyond reasonable doubt. Professor Eric W. Ives in his two biographies, Anne Boleyn (1986) and The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The Most Happy (2004) and Professor R.M. Warnicke in The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family politics at the court of Henry VIII (1989) move past it in less than a sentence, dismissing it as an emotional forgery. Alison Weir in her thorough The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn (2009), accepts that Ridley’s arguments in favour of the letter being real are worthy of consideration, but that, in the end, all the inconsistencies “strongly suggest that it was indeed a forgery.”

My own personal belief is that the letter of May 6th, 1536, is probably not authentic – based namely on the strange repetition of “Bulen” and the writer’s belief that her queenship had no “surer foundation” than Henry’s “fancy” for her. On the other hand, I do not believe it is necessarily a complete forgery or that the Queen never attempted to contact her husband at the time the letter was allegedly written. In the early eighteenth century, before the 1731 fire in the Cottonian Library partially damaged them, the English historian, John Strype, saw the full records concerning Anne Boleyn’s imprisonment. Although we have many of the sources, we do not have them all, thanks to the 1731 fire. In his Annals of the Reformation in England, Strype claims that he read a letter written to Henry, by Anne, a few days after May 6th, in which the Queen was even more inflammatory than in the May 6th copy and refused a plea-bargain, which required her to admit guilt on at least some of the charges which the government intended to execute her for. In that now-vanished letter, allegedly, Anne vowed to stand by the truth (her innocence) even unto death.

As far as we can tell, I think the surviving letter we have of “the Lady in the Tower’s” is perhaps based on a genuine epistle written by the Queen during her imprisonment and that it contains some authentic phrases or notes that the real Anne would have recognised – but, I do not believe it is entirely genuine or that it is in Anne Boleyn’s hand. The real letter – and I firmly believe there was one – was probably destroyed by fire in 1731. Or perhaps, like the letter she wrote as a child to her father, it is still out there, undiscovered in a private collection, just waiting to be unearthed once again? Who knows?


  1. Hi Gareth,
    Brilliant article and I've linked to it from my article on the letter as you've gone into more detail on it.
    Like you, I think it's unlikely that Anne did write it as she did not sign it Anne Boleyn or Anne the Queen, but I so wish she had written it!

  2. Thanks, Claire! I agree on all counts - especially wishing she had written it!

  3. Great article! I really don't think that Anne would sign as "Bullen", but yet it coul be hers..

  4. So I was lead here by another Tudor blogger, and I have to say--your posts are fabulous! And also, content-wise, they are just so impressive ... so I have to ask--you've got to be a historian, right? As a history student myself who's starting her M.A. in the fall, (I plan to study early modern England) I'm really curious as to what you do!

    Anyway, this Anne Boleyn series is awesome--keep up the good work! :)

  5. Hi ... I've just finished reading this, together with all the other blogs since 1 May and I am mightily impressed :-)

    You are obviously a Boleyn devotee, but your blogs remain informative and non-partisan (in the main :-))

    Good stuff :thumbs up:

  6. Very interesting post!

    Gareth, what do you think of Warnicke’s argument, made in the article ‘Reshaping Tudor Biography: Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves’, that the letter, which she argues to be a forgery, may have been the product of a schoolroom exercise. As she states,

    ‘The Elizabethan transcript could have been a product of education practice in the premodern world. It was the custom, as can be seen from Lady Grace Mildmay’s youthful experience, for tutors to require their pupils to compose letters to improve their writing skills. It was also one of the three usual domestic activities, the other two being needlework and Scripture reading, that their guardians assigned to girls to prevent them from falling into the idleness that bred wicked thoughts and deeds. Some students could have composed letters that they believed famous people, such as Anne Boleyn, might have written. B. A. Lees has determined, for example, that the letters allegedly written by Eleanor of Aquitaine to Pope Celestine III were instead created in a schoolroom’. (p. 62).

    A credible argument, or farfetched?

  7. Professor Warnicke's argument is certainly intriguing, as are the examples of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Pope Celestine, but, I would say it's a matter of pure speculation - as so much with the debate about this letter. Unlike certain other arguments that she has advanced, I don't think this one is too far-fetched, but it does rely on too many unsubstantiated variables to be anything other than a very tentative "maybe." It's biggest flaw - I would say - is that it doesn't explain the legend concerning it being found in Thomas Cromwell's papers although, as M.L. Bruce would say, that might just be part of the "colourful apocrypha" associated with the Boleyn legend. I VERY much enjoyed your posting on Mary Tudor's fashion sense, by the way. Very enjoyable!

    Sharon, thank you so much. Yes, I am "an Anne fan," but hopefully the posts have been fair enough - I don't think we need to demonise her opponents to make her seem better. I hope I haven't done that!

    Melissa, you're very, very kind. I'm not a professional historian, no. I read Modern History at Saint Peter's College, Oxford, from 2004 to 2007 and my first novel is being published by Penguin in February 2011. However, it's a modern novel, rather than a historical one. On and off, I am researching my own biography of Anne Boleyn and plan to keep doing so for the next few years!

    I am planning to go back to do my MA at some point in London, now that the publishing is underway and I have time to do it! Good luck with your MA - I obviously very much approve of the subject matter! :)


  8. Well, you say the handwriting is not as neat as her later handwriting, but you have to put reality into the matter. If you were sitting in a tower, and your head was going to be chopped off any hour from now, I doubt your going to be cool, calm and collected as you are writing that letter, like it's just some ordinary day. Uh, no. Your hand is going to be shaking uncontrollably knowing this is the last letter that could possibly save your life. So, if it's a little messy, then gee, I wonder why. Jena Wilcox-Gonzalez

  9. And the reason why she didn't sign it Anne Boleyn or Anne the Queen, is probably because she wanted Henry to see her again as she was long ago when they met, when she was innocent. Not the present time when all he thought of her was a heretic, murderer and whore. I think she was fighting with everything she had to get into his mind to remind him of what she use to be, not what she was now. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Jena Wilcox-Gonzalez. P.S. I think she wrote the letter.


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