Anne Thériault | Longreads | May 2018 | 23 minutes (5,949 words)
From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.
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Some people believe that the Myers-Briggs questionnaire is the ultimate way to classify personality types. Others think that the Enneagram is the way to go. Even more people set their stock in astrology, hoping that the fixed position of the stars at the time of a person’s birth will explain everything about them. I, however, think that you can tell everything you need to know about someone based on which wife of Henry VIII’s is their favorite. Do you prefer Catherine (or Catherine, or Catherine)? Do either of the Annes do it for you? Or, god forbid, are you a fan of the insufferable Jane Fucking Seymour?
Personally, I’m Team Anne Boleyn. My reasons for this are multifold. As an Anne, I am naturally sympathetic to others of my name. I also can’t help rooting for an underdog, and if being beheaded because your crusty husband wants to marry Jane Fucking Seymour doesn’t make you an underdog, I don’t know what does. Finally, I respect a good hustle, and Anne’s hustle was iconic — my god, how she hustled! Even if you think Anne Boleyn was a king-seducing homewrecker extraordinaire, it’s impossible not to appreciate the sheer audacity of it all.
But who was Anne Boleyn, exactly? The mythology surrounding her improbable rise and sensational fall is pretty well-known, yet most of the information we have access to was either written by haters or produced decades after her death (or both). It’s hard to know much about Anne as a person (as opposed to Anne, Destroyer of Marriages and Churches). We’re not even sure what year she was born — 1501 and 1507 are the two most likely candidates, with arguments hinging on a letter Anne wrote to her father in 1514. Historians have endlessly debated what age Anne was when she composed that neat, measured handwriting (in her second language, no less), and while I am absolutely not an expert, I will say that as the mother of a 7-year-old, I feel 97.5% sure that a child of that age did not write that letter. Then again, maybe my low penmanship expectations are the product of my plebeian public-school education.
Anne was writing to her father because her educational circumstances were about to change drastically. Initially, Thomas Boleyn had managed to secure a spot for his young daughter in the Burgundian court in the Netherlands. There, she was educated alongside several royal children, including Charles of Castile, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It’s unknown how Thomas, a diplomat whose closest personal tie to royalty was his wife, a descendant of Edward I, managed to winkle this incredible opportunity for his daughter; some historians speculate that it may have had to do with a gambling debt owed to him by Margaret of Austria, regent of the court where Anne was staying. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the gift for aggressive upward social mobility was strong in the Boleyn blood.
Even if you think Anne Boleyn was a king-seducing homewrecker extraordinaire, it’s impossible not to appreciate the sheer audacity of it all.
Just a year after Anne’s arrival in the Netherlands, shifting international alliances caused her abrupt departure. Henry VIII’s 18-year-old sister, Mary, had initially been promised to Charles of Castile, forging strong ties between the Holy Roman Empire and the Tudors. Then, in August of 1514, Mary wed the aging French king, Louis XII, by proxy. This sudden and stunning rejection of the teenaged Charles in favor of the visibly infirm, 52-year-old Louis likely made Anne’s position in the Burgundian court very uncomfortable. Luckily, Thomas Boleyn was able to place his daughter as a maid of honor in Mary’s household (my god, how these Boleyns hustled).
The Burgundians certainly weren’t the only ones who were upset about Mary’s wedding. Mary herself was less than enthused about the whole situation — understandably so, since she was a) three and a half decades younger than her new husband and b) deeply in love with her brother’s BFF, Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk. Apparently she only agreed to marry Louis on the condition that after he died she would be allowed to marry whomever she wanted; the stars seem to have aligned in Mary’s favor, because Louis dropped dead just three months after they married. Henry sent Charles Brandon to France to collect his widowed sister, but with strict instructions:
HENRY VIII: Bro, whatever you do, DON’T propose to Mary when you get to France
Charles Brandon: LOL bro, I won’t!!
HENRY VIII: I’m serious, bro. Louis just died, like, five minutes ago
HENRY VIII: so be chill, ok?
Charles Brandon: Bro!! I promise I’ll be chill!!!
FIVE MINUTES LATER
Mary: We should secretly get married while we’re still in France
Charles Brandon: YOLO
To say that Henry was pissed would be an understatement. Not only had Charles Brandon directly disobeyed him, it’s also unlikely that Henry had ever intended to let his friend marry his sister. After all, the only value royal sisters and daughters had was to cement alliances through marriage; it’s unlikely Henry would have wasted the opportunity to marry his sister off to a foreign power (again) just because she was in love with a trifling Duke. Henry’s privy council wanted to imprison and/or execute Charles Brandon for treason, but in the end the king realized that would probably make family reunions super awkward, so Brandon just had to pay a stiff fine.
What was Anne Boleyn up to while this whole Charles Brandon foofaraw was happening in England? Still in France, she was now a maid of honor in the service of the new queen, Claude. At the French court, Anne learned all the skills necessary for being a good courtier — including (allegedly) the art of the blow job which was (again, allegedly) unknown in England at the time. While this last part is entirely apocryphal, it is my favorite rumor about Anne Boleyn. I have so many questions! What did it feel like to introduce la beej to an entire nation? Do you think she later demonstrated it to her own ladies-in-waiting so that they, too, could spread the gospel of buccal onanism? What were they even doing in England before Anne taught them the joys of fellatio? The mind boggles.
In 1521, Anne’s father recalled her from France with the hope that she would marry her Irish cousin James Butler and resolve a dispute over the Earldom of Ormond. It was one of those very boring succession situations that were always popping up among the gentry: Anne’s grandmother Margaret Boleyn was the daughter of the 7th Earl of Ormond and had been co-heiress to his estates, but now James, who was a descendant of the 3rd Earl of Ormond, was claiming the title for himself. Several of the parties invested in the outcome of this situation — including Henry VIII himself — thought that a union between Anne and James would settle the Ormond question. This probably wasn’t the marriage Anne was hoping for; at the very least, she would have known that she could do better than a discount wanna-be earl.
As you’ve no doubt already sussed out, the marriage between Anne and James never happened, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
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At this point it behooves me to mention Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn; she figures importantly in this story not only as Anne’s sibling, but also as one of Anne’s predecessors in Henry’s bed. As with Anne, Mary’s birthdate is unknown — actually, it’s not even clear which sister was born first. On the one hand, the fact that Thomas Boleyn chose Anne to be the daughter brought up in the Burgundian court indicates that she was older (it would have been extremely strange to pass over an eldest daughter in favor of a younger one when offered such an opportunity). On the other hand, Mary was wed before Anne, and it would also have been uncommon for a younger sister to be married first. There’s also some boring stuff about which of their descendants inherited which titles under which circumstances, but there’s evidence to support both birth orders, so basically: who even knows at this point?
Like Anne, Mary Boleyn accompanied Henry VIII’s sister Mary to France for her wedding. (As a side note: if you’re starting to think there are too many Marys and Catherines and Annes in this story, you’re right — Tudor England was desperately uncreative when it came to names.) Like Anne, Mary Boleyn also stayed in France after the widowed Queen Mary returned to England for some Hot Charles Brandon Action. Unlike Anne, Mary Boleyn allegedly had an affair with the new King of France, Francis, who apparently referred to her as “my English mare” and “a very great whore, the most infamous of all.” I’m sure he totally meant these things as compliments!
Mary Boleyn returned to England in 1519 to become one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting, at which point she almost definitely started sleeping with the English king. We know this because later, when he was trying to get with Anne, Henry requested a special dispensation that allowed him to marry the sister of his former mistress. During the period when she and Henry were Doing It, Mary Boleyn got married to a courtier named William Carey. Mary and William had two children together, but it’s speculated that Henry fathered one or even both of them. On the one hand: maybe not. On the other hand: just look at Mary’s granddaughter Lettice Knollys and tell me she doesn’t have Tudor blood. Lettice Knollys would later go on to wed noted Tudor fuckboy Robert Dudley, a favorite of Elizabeth I’s, and their marriage would earn them a banishment from court thanks to Elizabeth’s jealousy (of Lettice) and intolerance (of fuckboys).
Some people might regard Mary Boleyn as a classic example of “why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?” — after all, if she’d played her cards right, she could, in theory, have wound up as the king’s wife instead of his mistress. On the one hand, it’s likely that Anne viewed Mary as something of a cautionary tale, and that’s partly why she was so intent on keeping the king at arm’s length (literally, with hand jobs) until he finally put a ring on it. On the other hand, Mary was the only Boleyn sibling to come out of that whole situation with her head still attached to her body. It’s possible that Mary survived through sheer luck, but it’s also possible that she understood more keenly than Anne just how fickle the king was and how harshly this world punishes clever, ambitious women.
If Anne had been subdued by her banishment, it certainly didn’t show; if anything, she came back smarter, stronger, and even more committed to marrying up.
While Mary Boleyn and Henry VIII were making googly eyes (and other googly body parts) at each other, Anne had her own blossoming court romance. She and Lord Henry Percy, who belonged to one of the richest and noblest families in England, fell in love and became secretly engaged. Actually, they went even further than just an engagement — they were alleged to have entered into a “pre-contract,” which involved saying wedding vows in front of a witness. This distinction is important, because the church considered these de futuro vows to be binding if they were followed by sexual consummation of the union. Percy was a page in the service Henry VIII’s favorite cardinal, Thomas Wolsey, and when Wolsey found out about the betrothal, he was absolutely furious. It wasn’t so much that Anne wasn’t wealthy or titled enough for the Percys (although she wasn’t), or that Percy was already engaged to someone else (although he sort of was), or that Henry VIII was wildly jealous (Anne wasn’t even on his radar yet); the main problem was that Percy and Anne had taken something that was supposed to be a public business contract between two families and turned it into a private love-fest. Percy and Anne brought shame on their families by violating one of the most deep-seated rules in their culture: marriage between nobles wasn’t supposed to be based on love, and it certainly wasn’t supposed to happen in secret. They had to be punished.
Percy was immediately and unhappily married off to Lady Mary Talbot, the woman to whom he had been betrothed when he was a teenager. Anne was “rusticated,” which meant that she was removed from court and sent to live in her family’s country estate. The experience must have been not just heartbreaking, but also humiliating for both of them — in trying to behave like adults, they’d ended up being treated like naughty children. At any rate, Percy seems to have loved Anne for the rest of his life; several years later, when Thomas Cromwell wanted to use the pre-contract as a way to annul Anne’s marriage to the king, Percy repeatedly denied its existence. It’s possible that Percy did this because he was (rightfully) afraid that admitting to having a past sexual relationship with Anne would get him into hot water with the king, but it’s also likely that he was doing his best to save Anne’s life.
A few years after Anne was dishonorably discharged from the court, she was given the chance to return and join her sister as one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting. If Anne had been subdued by her banishment, it certainly didn’t show; if anything, she came back smarter, stronger, and even more committed to marrying up. This time, she would aim high — real high. And, for a while, it would seem as if she’d succeeded in her ambitions.
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By the time Henry VIII began to pursue Anne Boleyn in 1526, he’d been married to Catherine of Aragon for nearly two decades. In that time, they’d only managed to produce one living heir, Mary Tudor, the future Mary I of England. By the late 1520s, the subject of succession caused Henry a great deal of anxiety. As his father’s only surviving son, the burden of continuing the Tudor line was riding entirely on the king. A series of English civil wars, now commonly known as the Wars of the Roses, had ended only with the marriage of Henry’s parents; he knew that a succession crisis could plunge the country back into conflict. On top of all that, England had historically bucked under women’s rule, so even if Mary — by all accounts a sickly child — survived to adulthood, that was no guarantee of peace.
The big question is, of course, whether Anne was the cause or a symptom of Henry’s decision to dump Catherine. Was she a wily enchantress, luring the King away from his beloved Queen by casting dark spells on his dick? Or did she arrive back at court and catch Henry’s attention after he’d already started looking for a new wife? Catherine’s sympathizers preferred the dick-spells theory, with Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sanders writing half a century after Anne’s death that she had six fingers on one hand and a cyst under her chin, both of which were thought to be the markings of a witch. I guess it’s possible that, while in France, Anne learned not just blow-job skills but also black-magic skills. Who even knows what goes on in France? That being said, it’s absolutely no coincidence that Henry’s realization that Catherine would probably never bear him a son happened at roughly the same time as his burgeoning obsession with Anne. While it might be tempting to analyze their eventual marriage as the result of six years of cock-blocking, Henry was probably already looking for a new wife when his eye happened to wander in Anne’s direction. The fact that Henry began asking the Pope about annulling his first marriage less than a year after Anne’s return to court is evidence of this.
I guess it’s possible that, while in France, Anne learned not just blow-job skills but also black-magic skills. Who even knows what goes on in France?
That’s not to say that Anne never encouraged Henry’s pursuit of her. Did she flirt with him? Sure! Did she tell him she wanted to marry him? Totally! Did she promise him a billion legitimate sons once he finally ditched his pious snooze of a wife? Almost definitely! But there are two things we have to keep in mind when considering Anne’s role in the annulment of Henry and Catherine’s marriage. The first thing is that it’s very, very dangerous to refuse to give a king what he wants, especially if that king is a man who is only too happy to snuff out the lives of those who have disappointed him. The second thing to remember is that Anne literally had one job in life: to marry a rich, powerful man. This job was the only end-game of all her fancy education, all the years spent learning multiple languages, studying religious texts, and perfecting her dancing skills. Every opportunity Thomas Boleyn had secured for her was to serve the goal of her marrying well; to marry beneath her station or not marry at all would mean that Anne had failed to make good on her family’s extensive investment in her.
Some of you might be wondering: why Anne? Why, out of all the women available to him, did Henry fixate on her? Was she incredibly beautiful? No, not exactly; even the most flattering contemporary accounts describe her as being just average in the looks department (though the king did refer to her breasts as “pritty duckys,” thus confirming my suspicion that he was a boob man). But she was charming, witty, and apparently a lot of fun to be around. And she was patient. Boy, was she patient. Having watched her sister Mary be picked up and then later discarded by the king, Anne knew that sleeping with Henry during their long courtship would only undermine her chances of marrying him, so she dug in and played the long game — one that involved keeping her chastity technically intact while at the same time maintaining his sexual interest (which probably involved a lot of what is euphemistically referred to as “heavy petting”). It was a fine line, but one she managed to walk for six years as Henry tried to negotiate his annulment with Pope Clement VII.
HENRY VIII: Heyyyyyy bro
CLEMENT VII: Oh. Hey. It’s you again.
HENRY VIII: Remember how I’m the best Catholic?
CLEMENT VII: Not really
HENRY VIII: Sure you do! I wrote that book? About the sacraments?
CLEMENT VII: Doesn’t ring a bell, sorry
HENRY VIII: I’m officially a Defender Of The Faith!!
CLEMENT VII: I’ll take your word for it
HENRY VIII: Anyway. Since I’m really amazing at figuring out this God shit now, I’ve been thinking about my life
CLEMENT VII: Oh good
HENRY VIII: I’ve decided that I don’t have any surviving sons because I’m a horrible sinner
CLEMENT VII: So you’re going to stop having affairs? Give up drinking? Quit gambling?
HENRY VIII: Lol no, I’m going to leave my wife for a much younger woman
CLEMENT VII: …
HENRY VIII: Yeah, because in Leviticus? It says that if you marry your brother’s wife? You’ll be childless? And Catherine was totally my brother Arthur’s wife first
CLEMENT VII: That’s … ok, you’re completely misinterpreting that law
CLEMENT VII: And anyway, you were granted a papal dispensation to marry your brother’s wife
CLEMENT VII: This is a problem that has literally already been solved
HENRY VIII: Ok well I’m going to need you to cancel that dispensation lol
HENRY VIII: And also annul my marriage
HENRY VIII: Thanks in advance!!!
The Pope was not, in fact, interested in annulling Henry and Catherine’s marriage. This was at least in part because Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, had just sacked Rome in 1527 and was basically holding Clement VII hostage. Henry, never one to be deterred easily, followed up his request for an annulment with an inquiry into getting a papal dispensation for bigamy which, unsurprisingly, the Pope was not super enthused about either. There was a trial, and a lot of it involved some cold-case sleuthing over whether Arthur and Catherine had consummated their brief marriage. Catherine swore up and down that they hadn’t, but some of Arthur’s pals from back in the day said he’d emerged from his bedroom the morning after his wedding declaring that he’d “been to Spain” (because Catherine’s vagina was apparently a Spanish territory). Sadly, this A++ dick joke did not persuade the papal legate who was overseeing the trial and Henry was not granted his annulment.
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In late 1532, three very exciting things happened. Anne accompanied Henry to France, a move that legitimized her position as his partner. Then, when bad weather forced them to dawdle in Calais for two weeks while their Channel crossing was delayed, Anne and Henry took a Fornication Vacation and finally consummated their love. It was also around this time that Thomas Cromwell drafted the Act of Appeals, which, when passed in 1533, would make Henry the final legal authority on all English matters, meaning that he could finally get his annulment over and done with and also take his first official step away from the authority of Rome.
Henry and Anne (who was almost certainly already pregnant) were secretly married on January 25, 1533. On May 23rd, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine to be invalid (which meant that he’d technically been bigamous for four months, but since he was calling all the shots now that didn’t really matter); on May 28, the Archbishop declared Anne’s marriage to Henry to be good and valid. On June 1, Anne was crowned queen in an elaborate ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Six years of various jobs (hand, blow, and otherwise) had finally paid off!
Henry cancelled the jousting tournament he’d been planning to celebrate the birth of his son, because apparently men only pretend to murder each other on horseback for fun if a baby is a boy.
The three months that followed would later be seen as the apex of Anne’s upward trajectory. She chose “The Most Happy” as her royal motto, and certainly it must have been a very happy time for her: not only had she finally hustled her way into the highest office an English woman could occupy, but she was also pregnant with the king’s child, whose birth would hopefully secure Anne’s future. That is, if the child was a boy, of course — and everyone, including Henry, assumed that this would be the case. After all, now that he was no longer breaking Levitican law, surely God would see fit to shower him with all the sons he wanted?
On September 7, 1533, Anne gave birth to a healthy baby girl, whom she and Henry named Elizabeth. They had been so sure the child was going to be a boy that they had already commissioned letters announcing the birth of a prince; these had to be hastily corrected before being sent out. Henry cancelled the jousting tournament he’d been planning to celebrate the birth of his son, because apparently men only pretend to murder each other on horseback for fun if a baby is a boy. Still, it must have given both Anne and Henry some comfort that both mother and baby were healthy. The fact that Anne had survived giving birth was proof that God favored her, and although she wasn’t a boy, Elizabeth was still an heir — something Henry very much needed, since he was about to declare his daughter Mary illegitimate.
There’s a myth that the king’s interest in Anne began waning almost immediately after Elizabeth’s birth. Even today, Anne is often represented in popular media as a shrewish schemer who made Henry’s life miserable from the moment he put a crown on her head. Certainly she had her own ideas about how things should be done, and occasionally she and Henry were seen arguing over the course of their marriage. But her inability to produce a male heir notwithstanding, the two and a half years following Elizabeth’s birth were generally happy ones for Anne. She was finally able to put her fancy education to use and was instrumental in helping Henry reform the church in England, advocating for the availability of religious texts in vernacular instead of Latin. When her downfall came, it was swift, unexpected, and hinged on a series of life-changing events that occurred in January 1536.
In 1533, Henry had been certain that he’d solved his succession crisis by marrying Anne. Now, the old panic set in.
Anne became pregnant at least twice more after Elizabeth was born, but none of these pregnancies made it to term. She suffered from either a miscarriage or a stillbirth in late 1534 or early 1535; by late 1535 she was definitely pregnant again. This, along with the death of Catherine of Aragon on January 7, 1536, gave Anne and the king a good deal to celebrate, since now the persistent question of whether Henry was still legally married to Catherine was finally resolved. The day after her death, Henry and Anne dressed in yellow silk — a color of mourning in Catherine’s native Spain, but widely regarded as a symbol of joy and vitality in England. Henry, of course, could never resist the chance to be a tacky asshole.
Shortly after Catherine’s demise, on January 24, 1536, Henry fell from his horse. This accident caused the leg wound that would plague him for the rest of his life; he also suffered a head injury so severe that he spent two hours in a coma. Less than a week later — perhaps as a result of the stress from Henry’s near-death experience — Anne miscarried what appeared to be a male fetus. Around the same time, Henry began courting Jane Fucking Seymour, who was one of Anne’s maids of honor and also happened to be her second cousin. If romancing your wife’s employee-relative while she is either pregnant or has just suffered a miscarriage isn’t the definition of Tacky Asshole, I don’t know what is.
The fallout of this rapid succession of events was complex. According to some accounts, Henry was increasingly paranoid, moody, and volatile after his fall; coupled with the fact that he was unconscious for so long, these symptoms could point to a possible traumatic brain injury, which might explain the heightened violence and unpredictability he displayed for the rest of his life. The fact that Anne had miscarried his longed-for son only made things worse. As someone who believed that God rewarded the righteous, he would have seen this event as proof that he was still not in God’s favor (and that it was almost certainly Anne’s fault). In 1533, Henry had been certain that he’d solved his succession crisis by marrying Anne. Now, the old panic set in. It must have seemed to Henry that the only way forward was to marry someone new; into that void stepped Jane Fucking Seymour.
Here’s the thing about Jane Fucking Seymour: I actually have a grudging admiration for her. In many ways, she played the game just as skillfully as Anne. The things that had initially drawn Henry to Anne — her lively wit, her intelligence, her strong-willed nature — were the same things that made him tire of her. The fact that she tried to blame her miscarriage on Henry’s fall (as well as possibly implicating his nascent romance with Jane) only added to his fury towards Anne; everyone knew that reproductive issues were the woman’s fault, and were almost certainly a punishment from God. How dare she say that Henry was to blame instead of repenting whatever sin of hers had led to this? While Henry was trying to grapple with the idea of having lost a potential male heir, Jane cleverly presented herself as the anti-Anne: quiet, pious, and submissive to the king’s every whim. Although it’s tempting to view Jane as a bland, milk-fed virgin who just happened to trip and fall into Henry’s lap, the truth is that she had a few power moves up her (huge) sleeves.
* * *
Not long after Anne’s miscarriage, the king began to say that he had been tricked into marrying Anne by her use of “sortilege,” a French word for sorcery. It’s possible that he honestly believed this, or else his desire for Jane Fucking Seymour (and a male heir) meant he was beginning to build a false case against Anne. Whatever the truth is, Thomas Cromwell — who had earlier been a sometime-ally of Anne’s — now fully turned against the queen. At least part of this about-face can be traced to their disagreement over the redistribution of the church’s wealth; Anne wanted the money to go to charitable causes, and Cromwell preferred to use the money to line the royal coffers (while taking a cut for himself, naturally). Cromwell did not relish the idea of having someone undermining his authority in the king’s presence, especially if that someone was a combative and opinionated woman. It’s completely within the realm of possibility that he was the one who orchestrated Anne’s downfall, then helped pull the strings to get meek old Jane set up in her place.
HENRY VIII: Do you ever feel like Anne is, um …
CROMWELL: A total slut who’s sleeping with her own brother?
HENRY VIII: I was going to say “sometimes kind of a bitch,” but now that you mention it, yeah
CROMWELL: You should kill her
HENRY VIII: Isn’t that kind of drastic?
CROMWELL: Nah, you’re the king, you can kill whoever you want.
CROMWELL: And you need to get her out of the way if you want to shack up with Jane
CROMWELL: You don’t want a repeat of the Catherine situation where she’s still alive and people feel sorry for her
CROMWELL: So let’s just make some shit up and execute her for high treason
CROMWELL: Nice and clean, no loose ends
HENRY VIII: I do hate loose ends. Almost as much as I hate not having sons
The arrests began at the end of April: first Mark Smeaton, a musician in Anne’s employment, then a handful of noblemen and a poet named Sir Thomas Wyatt, and finally her brother George. Each was accused of having a sexual relationship with the queen; each of them denied this accusation, although Smeaton later confessed after being tortured on the rack. On May 2, Anne was arrested and brought to the Tower of London. Her charges were adultery, incest, and high treason. On May 14, the Archbishop of Canterbury — the same man who had annulled Henry’s first marriage and then validated his second one — declared Henry and Anne’s marriage to be null and void. On May 15, Anne was put on trial at the Tower of London. A jury of 27 peers found her unanimously guilty.
Because Henry was such a nice guy, he gave Anne the fanciest execution possible. She was the first English queen to be publicly executed, and Henry didn’t want to look like a thoughtless jerk on this special occasion.
When the verdict was announced, Henry Percy, now the Earl of Northumberland, collapsed and had to be carried out of the courtroom. He died eight months later, apparently having loved Anne until the end of his life.
Because Henry was such a nice guy, he gave Anne the fanciest execution possible. She was the first English queen to be publicly executed, and Henry didn’t want to look like a thoughtless jerk on this special occasion. He even brought in a swordsman from France who was skilled enough to kill a person kneeling upright with just one blow (as opposed to the traditional English executioner, a comparatively clumsier axeman — apparently France has a long-standing tradition of killing royalty with style). Historical writer Leanda de Lisle speculates that Henry preferred a sword because it was both more romantic (think King Arthur and Excalibur) and also more phallic; on the one hand, this might be a reach, but on the other hand, “killing my wife with a penis” seems extremely Henry. A true gentleman among princes!
HENRY VIII: Babe
HENRY VIII: I know things aren’t great right now, but I’m really trying
HENRY VIII: I got you the best executioner money can buy
HENRY VIII: Babe, look at me
HENRY VIII: Babe
HENRY VIII: You don’t like it, do you?
HENRY VIII: Just tell me if you don’t like it
HENRY VIII: We’ll get you whatever kind of execution you want
HENRY VIII: Do you want a swordsman from Italy instead? Is that it?
HENRY VIII: Because I can get you an Italian if you want
HENRY VIII: Lol, I mean, you still have to die
HENRY VIII: But you’ll die like a queen!
William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, reported that Anne was facing death in the most Anne-like fashion: with (almost literal) gallows humor. “And then she said, ‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck,’ and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily,” Kingston wrote. On some level, Anne might have seen death as an escape from the shame and misery of Henry’s wrath. At any rate, she would have known that her execution was inevitable, and, according to Kingston, wished to get it over with as soon as possible. One poem, widely attributed to Anne, begins with the lines:
O death! rock me asleep,
Bring me on quiet rest;
Yet pass my guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast
On May 19, Anne climbed the steps to a scaffold that had been built especially for the occasion and made a short speech to the crowd. In it, she maintained her innocence and described Henry as a gentle and merciful ruler; although she knew that she could not spare her own life, it’s likely that praising Henry was an attempt to make things easier for Elizabeth. She took off her headdress and tucked her hair up, then knelt on the scaffold. After asking the crowd to pray for her, she repeated “Jesu receive my soul; O Lord God have pity on my soul” over and over until death came. When it did, it happened in a single stroke of the sword, just as she had hoped.
The next day, Henry announced his betrothal to Jane Fucking Seymour, because these two couldn’t even wait until Anne’s half of the bed was cold before making it official. Jane would go on to give Henry the son he wanted, although she would give up her life in the process. The fact that she had died producing Henry’s only surviving male heir gave her a mythic near-martyr status in his eyes, and he would do creepy things like having her appear in a family portrait eight years after her death (and not even as a zombie or vampire, much to my dismay). She was the only one of his wives to be buried next to him.
I know I’ve made lots of jokes about how terrible Jane Seymour was, and while I do think she’s literally the worst, I want to say a brief word in defense of all of Henry VIII’s wives. It can be tempting to think of them as a succession of catty bitches, all intent on tearing down the reigning queen in hopes of taking her place — certainly that’s how they’re often portrayed in pop culture. But really, they were all Henry’s victims, each of them placed on a pedestal by him and then toppled by his violent, capricious will. If they competed with each other, it was because they lived in a culture where women were often forced to turn on other women in order to survive. That’s not to say that any of them were completely blameless in their behavior (other than Catherine of Aragon, of course, whose picture you would probably find in the dictionary if you looked up “blameless”), but they all deserve a certain amount of sympathy. Even Jane Seymour, as much as it pains me to say that.
Anne had the last laugh, of course. Jane’s son Edward was at best a useless boy-king, and at worst a divisive religious extremist who disinherited his sisters. It was Anne’s daughter Elizabeth who would go on to become one of the savviest and most popular rulers England has ever had, leading the country into a social and political golden age. From sparking a radical religious reform to giving birth to one of England’s most beloved monarchs, it’s possible that Anne shaped her country more than any queen before or since.
Long live the fucking queen!
Queens of Infamy: Eleanor of Aquitaine
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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.
Editor: Ben Huberman