After the loss of another baby in January 1536, Anne Boleyn’s hold over Henry VIII was desperately weakened. He had his sights on one of her ladies; Jane Seymour. Whilst the tempestuous nature of Anne Boleyn made her a beguiling and captivating mistress, this very nature did not lend itself to the requirements of a sixteenth-century wife. Duty, modesty and obedience ranked higher within Jane’s skill range. She was the very model of calm domesticity, gentle and fully aware of her ‘place’.
The Cruel Plot
Anne was not short of enemies at court. She had a close ring of male supporters, that included her beloved brother George, but otherwise she was disliked for her ousting of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, her religious beliefs and her sharp tongue. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, who had since replaced Cardinal Wolsey in the King’s favour, also wanted the fiery Queen discredited. He saw the King’s waning desire and engineered a cruel plot.
Cromwell began to gather evidence to prove that Anne had committed adultery with several men, one of whom was her own brother George Boleyn. This was High Treason, punishable by death. On April 30, 1536 the Queen’s musician and friend Mark Seaton was arrested along with George and other male courtiers loyal to Anne. On May 2, Anne herself was arrested and charged not only with adultery and incest but also for plotting to murder Henry. Smeaton, under torture, confessed.
On May 12, all the men, with the exception of George, were put on trial; they were not allowed to defend themselves as was customary in cases of treason. With the exception of Smeaton all pleaded their innocence but were found guilty and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.
The Trial of Anne and George Boleyn
Anne and George were tried on May 15 and allowed to put a defence case together. But the court believed Anne capable of anything, particularly depravity. They were shocked at the crime of incest but not surprised that Anne should be accused of it. Despite significantly weak evidence the charges were taken seriously, particularly in light of the especially damning evidence from George’s wife, Jane Boleyn, who, in her testimony, confirmed the incest. A guilty verdict was passed by Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Uncle to Anne and George. The crime befitted a punishment of death either by burning or beheading.
The Execution of Anne Boleyn
On May 17 all the men were executed, having had their sentence reduced from hanging and disembowelling to beheading. Anne was to meet her fate two days later, May 19th. She had not been sentenced to burn but an expert French swordsman had been hired from Calais to exact a swift end. She was led to the scaffold, and made a speech, in which she said, “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.”
Then, having removed her headdress, she knelt down and one of her ladies tied on her blindfold. Before she was aware of anything else the swordsman sliced her head off in one smooth, quick sweep.
Anne’s head and body were wrapped in cloth, put in an arrow chest and immediately buried in the nearby Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, the parish church of the Tower of London. Anne Boleyn was the first English queen to be executed.
Eleven days later Henry married Jane Seymour.