The Lady in the Tower
BY ALISON WEIR JONATHAN CAPE, £20
Alison Weir’s new book, subtitled The Fall of Anne Boleyn, is an in-depth study of the last month of the tragic Queen’s life. The outline is well known. In late January 1536, Anne miscarried a son, on the very day of the funeral of her great rival, Katharine of Aragon.
On May 1, the King suddenly left the jousts at Greenwich, giving Anne, who was sitting beside him, no explanation and no farewell. By the evening of the next day, Anne and four gentlemen of her circle, along with the musician Mark Smeaton, were in the Tower. By the morning of May 19, Anne was dead: the path from Queen to headless corpse had taken a mere 17 days.
This thrilling reversal of fortune remains one of the most fascinating and macabre episodes in English history, and, as Weir makes clear, must have seemed even more so to a contemporary audience. And audience there certainly was. The crowds gathered along the river to watch the Queen being conveyed to the Tower in her barge; 2000 people crowded into the Tower for her trial, and a similar number for her execution; at the latter, there was an effort to exclude foreigners. The Queen’s fall was a public drama, deliberately staged, a piece of political theatre. Other queens had committed adultery and earned no more than a ticking off. No queen had ever been executed.
The nearest previous parallel in English history had been the Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, imprisoned for life on the Isle of Man for witchcraft. Thus, by the standards of the age, the execution of Anne Boleyn was most unusual.
One revelation in a book full of them is that the famous executioner from Calais was summoned to do his job before the Queen’s trial had even begun. Indeed, from her arrest onwards Anne was doomed, as she seems to have realised, asking on her arrival at the Tower: “Am I to go to a dungeon?” and “Shall I have justice?” suggesting she expected a quiet rather than a public death. Henry needed Anne out of the way to ensure that his next marriage would be of unquestioned validity; but Weir finds convincing evidence that the execution of Anne was primarily the work of Thomas Cromwell.
On Passion Sunday, April 2, a month before her arrest, Anne had her almoner preach to the court against “evil counsellors, who suggested alteration in established customs”, which was, with its pointed references to the story of Queen Esther and Haman, taken as an attack on Cromwell. They had already quarrelled about the way the property of the despoiled monasteries should be used; now it seemed that Anne was seeking to have Cromwell dismissed and executed; she had, after all, been instrumental in the fall of Wolsey, and the executions of More and Fisher. Cromwell, in attacking Anne and her closest friends, was in fact making a pre-emptive strike to save his career and his life.
If this is true, and Weir’s argument is persuasive, it largely exonerates Henry VIII from the charge of wife murder. While no one else believed in the charges brought against Anne, and Weir proves them to be incoherent and bordering on the farcical, Henry certainly did believe them; presumably Cromwell framed just the sort of charges that his master would believe. The two that created the greatest frisson were those of incest with her brother and adultery with Smeaton, who was not a gentleman. But would Anne have conspired the King’s death? It seems impossible, given the fact that the King was her only friend. For, as Cromwell surely knew, and events proved, Anne had no friends – neither in the court, nor among the common people. She was hated by those who held Queen Katharine and Princess Mary dear (both of whom Anne had pestered Henry to execute, without success, though she was credited with poisoning the former and trying to poison the latter); the Imperialist party loathed her too, and the Francophile element who might have sympathised with her, kept quiet, as did the 10 bishops she had appointed.
Her own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, loathed her, as did her aunt, Lady Boleyn, both of whom made her final days as unpleasant as they could. Only Philip Melanchthon, the German reformer, mourned her passing.
She had, in short, the gift (never a good one in a politician) of alienating people, yet she made a dignified end. Having played the game, she was a good loser, and she did what was expected of her, dying bravely, with a speech about the King’s kindness on her lips. And, despite what Melanchthon may have thought of her, she died a Catholic; indeed, Weir’s book deals a blow to the idea of Anne as a promoter of Protestant reform. The sermon of April 2 indicates that she wished the monastic wealth to be used for educational and charitable works (something many Catholics had long wished for) rather than to enrich the Crown; one of her remarks in the Tower suggests she believed in the doctrine of merit, rather than justification by faith; she heard Mass on the morning of her death (celebrated by the almoner who had preached the sermon), and the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in her apartments in the Tower.
Nowadays we are accustomed to seeing politicians voted out of office, rather than making their farewell speeches from the scaffold. Weir’s tremendously readable book reveals Anne more as a politician than a wife; as such she was a political failure; but so too was Cromwell, who was to follow her to the scaffold four years later, and to die with less courage and dignity.
Weir tells us that Elizabeth I wore a ring containing her mother’s portrait. She died in her bed, an old woman, perhaps having learned from her mother’s mistakes. But, as Weir points out, had Anne lived to be old, she would not be the object of such fascination.
This book, by one of our best historical writers, does this strangely compelling woman justice.