Analysis of a Letter Supposedly from Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII from the Tower of London May 1536

“Sir, your Grace’s displeasure, and my Imprisonment are Things so strange unto me, as what to Write, or what to Excuse, I am altogether ignorant; whereas you sent unto me (willing me to confess a Truth, and so obtain your Favour) by such a one, whom you know to be my ancient and professed Enemy; I no sooner received the Message by him, than I rightly conceived your Meaning; and if, as you say, confessing Truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all Willingness and Duty perform your Command.

But let not your Grace ever imagine that your poor Wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a Fault, where not so much as Thought thereof proceeded. And to speak a truth, never Prince had Wife more Loyal in all Duty, and in all true Affection, than you have found in Anne Boleyn, with which Name and Place could willingly have contented my self, as if God, and your Grace’s Pleasure had been so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forge my self in my Exaltation, or received Queenship, but that I always looked for such an Alteration as now I find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer Foundation than your Grace’s Fancy, the least Alteration, I knew, was fit and sufficient to draw that Fancy to some other subject.

You have chosen me, from a 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 mine 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 your most Dutiful Wife, and 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 Judges; yes, let me receive an open Trial, for my Truth shall fear no open shame; then shall you see, either mine Innocency cleared, your Suspicion and Conscience satisfied, the Ignominy and Slander of the World stopped, or my Guilt openly declared. So that whatsoever God or you may determine of me, your Grace may be freed from an open Censure; and mine Offence being so lawfully proved, your Grace is at liberty, both before God and Man, not only to execute worthy Punishment on me as an unlawful 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 good while since have pointed unto: Your Grace being not ignorant of my Suspicion therein.

But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my Death, but an Infamous Slander must bring you the enjoying of your desired Happiness; then I desire of God, that he will pardon your great Sin therein, and likewise mine Enemies, the Instruments thereof; that he will not call you to a strict Account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me, at his General Judgement-Seat, where both you and my self must shortly appear, and in whose Judgement, I doubt not, (whatsover the World may think of me) mine Innocence shall be openly known, and sufficiently cleared.

My last and only Request shall be, That my self may only bear the Burthen of your Grace’s Displeasure, and that it may not touch the Innocent Souls of those poor Gentlemen, who (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 Boleyn hath been pleasing to your Ears, then let me obtain this Request; and I will so leave to trouble your Grace any further, with mine earnest Prayers to the Trinity to have your Grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your Actions.

Your most Loyal and ever Faithful Wife, Anne Boleyn

From my doleful Prison the Tower, this 6th of May.”

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

The authenticity of this letter is one of the most controversial things surrounding the last days of Anne Boleyn in May 1536 (along with the validity of the claims that she committed adultery and incest with five men, one of whom was her brother). It was found in the belongings of the King’s Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell, on his execution in 1540, four years after that of Anne herself. Why was the letter there? Did Cromwell simply keep it from Henry? Did Henry read it and throw it aside so Cromwell picked it up? Or was it a forgery by Cromwell for some unknown purpose? In all likelihood we will never know, but it does exist, so we shouldn’t completely ignore it or discount it. For simplicity’s sake, I will assume that Anne wrote the letter in order to fully analyse the contents.

In the first line of the letter, Anne straightaway admits that she doesn’t know why she has been imprisoned “I am altogether innocent”. The letter doesn’t specify what the charges against her were, so maybe at this point (6th May, she was arrested on the 2nd) Anne wasn’t fully aware of what she would be charged with, as it talks in a general manner. Towards the end of the first paragraph, it is implied that Anne has been visited probably by members of the Privy Council, who have promised her a pardon if she confesses everything she did wrong “confessing truth may indeed procure my safety”. It is known that this method was tried also with Henry Norris, one of those accused of committing adultery with Anne, although he refused to comply and was executed.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

Anne says to Henry that “let not Your Grace ever imagine that your poor Wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault”. She keeps reminding him that she is his wife, and that cannot be changed, but she also reasserts her innocence. What is unusual in this line is that Anne seems to be provoking Henry – a dangerous game to play when she is entirely at his mercy, and she is surely worried about the future of her daughter as well. Anne goes on to assert the qualities that she feels Henry will most appreciate; “never Prince had Wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have found in Anne Boleyn”. Subtly drawing a comparison with her predecessor, Katherine of Aragon, and hoping that Henry will see her as much better in loyalty, duty and affection. However, no doubt talk of duty would remind Henry that Anne had failed in the most important aspect – providing a son and heir to carry on the dynasty.

Anne admits that “the ground of my preferment [was] no surer foundation than Your Grace’s fancy” and reminds Henry that he moved Heaven and Earth to marry her, waiting around seven years from the proposal to the wedding, and in that time he separated the English Church from Rome, and made Anne a marquis in her own right. She also implies that Henry’s “fancy” has moved on, to one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, who would eventually give Henry a son before dying of childbed fever. Anne goes on to suggest that she didn’t really want to be Queen and didn’t really deserve it; “from a low Estate, to be your Queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire”. Anne was a commoner, and Kings were supposed to marry foreign princesses, as Henry did originally with Katherine of Aragon. Henry and Anne’s marriage was definitely a love match.

White Tower at the Tower of London
White Tower at the Tower of London

Anne then touches on what put her in the precarious position she finds herself in – “let not any light fancy, or bad counsel of mine enemies, withdraw your princely favour from me”. Anne knows her entire position, and life, depends on Henry’s favour. Unlike Katherine of Aragon, Anne didn’t have any powerful relatives to protect her (Katherine was aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V of Spain). Katherine couldn’t be executed without provoking a war with Spain, whereas most of Europe would be glad to see Anne dead. At the end of the paragraph, Anne leaves a poignant reminder of “the infant Princess, your daughter”, the future Elizabeth I. Not that this would likely influence Henry’s way of thinking, as he had already pushed aside one daughter (the future Mary I) in his quest for a son.

Anne requests that she “receive an open trial”, knowing that being tried by her peers would result in a certain death sentence, though she seems almost reconciled to the inevitable outcome of such a trial. Anne knows that Henry controls the peers and they would do nothing to anger him in case they end up in her place. Anne knows that, as much as the people dislike her, they would see through the evidence and realise that she was innocent, as many did in the aftermath of her trial and execution. Anne goes on to request that “either mine Innocency cleared, your Suspicion and Conscience satisfied, the Ignominy and Slander of the World stopped, or my Guilt openly declared”. Anne knows which way it will go – she is innocent of the charges against her. She also appears to be mocking Henry’s conscience, which was used as an excuse to push for a divorce from Katherine of Aragon so that Henry could marry Anne in the first place.

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein c.1536.
Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein c.1536.

Anne is well aware of Henry’s new love “follow your affection already settled on that party”, having seen Henry’s wooing of her at court. No doubt it echoed to Anne her own place of being the King’s prospective Queen serving the current Queen (Jane Seymour was a lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn as Anne was to Katherine of Aragon). It is possible that Anne was hoping to make Henry feel guilty for his callous treatment of her, although she should know that it wouldn’t work because Henry never faltered over his treatment of Katherine and Mary, so why should it be different with Anne and Elizabeth? She blames Jane for her position in the Tower “for whose sake I am now as I am”. Anne moves on to talk of God, and hopes that he will “pardon [Henry’s] great sin therein”. Anne declares herself clean of sin and turns it back on Henry – Anne is clean of sin, so what is he killing her for? Therefore, he must be guilty in killing an innocent woman.

Anne condemns Henry’s “unprincely and cruel usage” of her. It was certainly unprincely of Henry to condemn an innocent woman just because his fancy fell on another, but it seems reckless of Anne to bring it up, she really doesn’t seem to care about her own fate, but you would think she would also be thinking of her daughter’s future. It does seem cruel that Henry had loved Anne so much that he almost destroyed the country to have her, but then discards her when she fails to give him the son and heir he needs. “I doubt not, (whatsover the World may think of me) mine Innocence shall be openly known, and sufficiently cleared” suggests that Anne believes that the truth will out somehow. She will be declared innocent in the eyes of God, and even if the world that she leaves behind does condemn her, at sometime she truly appears to believe that someone will uncover her innocence.

Elizabeth I c.1546 by William Scrots
Elizabeth I c.1546 by William Scrots

Anne also pleads that she should take the burden of Henry’s anger and “that it may not touch the Innocent Souls of those poor Gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait Imprisonment for my sake”. Seven men were arrested along with Anne. Henry Norris, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton, Francis Weston and George Boleyn would all be executed. Only Richard Page and Thomas Wyatt would escape the axe, although it was doubtful from the beginning of why they were arrested. Right to the end, Anne signs herself “your most loyal and ever faithful wife”. To the last, she declared her innocence in every way that she could.

The letter seems to echo Anne as she is in the historical record, but some of the things attributed to her in this letter seem to be quite reckless, knowing that she would most likely be executed, and that her daughter, Elizabeth, would have to rely on Henry’s goodwill.

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