Analysis of Anne Boleyn’s letter to Henry VIII 6 May 1536

Analysis of the letter Anne Boleyn supposedly sent to Henry VIII in the Tower during her imprisonment, found in Cromwell’s belongings after his execution[i]

Henry VIII c.1537.
Henry VIII c.1537.

A lot of historians have dismissed the letter Anne Boleyn supposedly wrote to Henry VIII while imprisoned in the Tower. The important part of the description for me is that the letter was found in Cromwell’s possessions after his execution. The letter was said to have been found alongside William Kingston’s letters to Cromwell regarding Anne’s imprisonment. This seems unusual if it was indeed written by Anne. From descriptions of Cromwell, he could have written it, intending to give to Henry, either to seal Anne’s fate judging by the tone, or to try and help her, appealing to Henry’s emotions. In my opinion, the more likely explanation was that Anne had asked to be allowed to write to Henry, which Cromwell allowed, although never handed the letter over. That would also account for the letter being in his possession, possibly kept for sentimental reasons as Anne and her family aided his rise to power.

The tone of the text itself seems like it is trying to aggravate Henry, but also trying to save her family – her parents, siblings and daughter. The aggravation is possibly unintentional, and seems to have been a trademark of Anne from all sources.

Closing the letter with “Your most Loyal and ever Faithful Wife, Anne Boleyn” asserts her innocence to the last. It is unlikely she was truly hoping for a reprieve, but hoped that if there was the slightest chance Henry believed her innocent, he might look favourably on her daughter. Anne also asks for mercy for the men accused with her “the Innocent Souls of those poor Gentlemen”, possibly praying that Henry would remember how good they had been to him and how much he had enjoyed spending time with them. This probably would not have had an effect, as Henry was so intent on being rid of Anne, that he probably saw accusing those she was close to (even if he was also close to them) as being the fastest way to do so.

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

Anne tries to appeal to Henry’s lost love and passion for her, reminding him that he was almost bewitched by her, and that he saw her as his perfect woman; she just failed to give him the son he so desperately wanted and needed. “Never Prince had Wife more Loyal in all Duty, and in all true Affection, than you have found in Anne Boleyn” was how Anne allegedly phrased it.  She asserted her rights to the last, proclaiming herself as Henry’s true wife and queen, and denying the charges against her. That seems to have been the major point of the letter – asserting her own innocence and trying to protect others she cared about as far as she could.

Claire Ridgway, over at The Anne Boleyn Files, has also written a little something on this letter, pointing out anomalies and trying to overcome them. From Claire’s article (thank you!):

There are, however, anomalies which suggest that the letter is a forgery:

  • The signature “Anne Bullen” rather than the usual “Anne Boleyn”, “Anne de Boulaine” or “Anne the Queen”.
  • The fact that Cromwell kept it rather than destroying it.
  • The heading at the top: “To the King from the Lady in the Tower” – wouldn’t Cromwell have referred to her as the Queen or as Anne Boleyn? “The Lady in the Tower” is rather poetic and romantic.
  • The style, which is not consistent with Anne’s other letters.
  • The reproving tone and provocative content – The writer is claiming that the King instigated the plot so that he could marry Jane Seymour. Would Anne risk angering and insulting Henry in this way?

BUT these anomalies can be thrown out of the window:

  • If the letter was a copy then this could have been Cromwell referring to Anne.
  • It wasn’t discovered until the 17th century so it was obviously kept hidden and not made public.
  • Perhaps Cromwell no longer saw her as Queen and nicknamed her “The Lady in the Tower”.
  • Anne was not writing a normal letter, she had the shadow of the axe (or rather, sword) hanging over her.
  • Anne could be provocative when she wanted to be. It may have been a huge risk to take but perhaps she wanted this one opportunity to tell the King what she thought of him and his plot.
  • The handwriting issue and the use of “Bullen” can also be explained away. The letter could have been a copy made by Cromwell. It could be, as argued by Jasper Ridley, a late 16th century copy of the earlier original, or Anne may have been so distraught that she dictated it to one of her ladies. [ii]

Ridgway answers criticisms of the letter very well, counteracting claims from historians like Alison Weir and Joanna Denny. Denny seems to merely accept that the letter was written by Anne but never reached Henry.[iii]

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein.

According to the Letters and Papers, it seems that the writing is Elizabethan, meaning it was composed in the reign of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I. However, as Claire Ridgway suggests, it could have been a copy. Weir claims that Anne had never been afraid to confront or upbraid Henry, and she could have let her tongue run away with her because of her fears for her life.[iv] Some of the phrases, like when she says she understands that others are also imprisoned with her, reflects the situation as she would have known it on 6 May. Given the carelessness with dates in the trial documents (the majority could be disproved) it seems unlikely that this would have rung true if it was indeed a forgery.

[i] A copy can be seen in Alison Weir’s The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009) pp. 171-3

It can also be seen at in the Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII, Volume 10, May 1536, 1-10

[iii] Joanna Denny, Anne Boleyn (London: Piatkus Books, 2008) p. 282

[iv] Weir, Lady in the Tower, p. 175

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