19th May, 1536: Queen Anne gets up, gets ready, and gets her head cut off. Her execution was an unprecedented move, and we’re still talking about it and debating it over 480 years later. What turned Henry against his queen, and why did Anne Boleyn die? Her marriage to Henry VIII had collapsed, true, but Henry was no stranger to ending a marriage, and neither were various members of the Tudor nobility. Was it the result of a political struggle or the actions of a vengeful husband to choose execution over exile?
Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII: The Most Happy?
Anne and Henry had a long road to wedded bliss. The king had fallen in love with her around 1526 – potentially whilst still having an affair with her sister, Mary, what a guy – and by the following year he had decided to proceed with an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne.
Catherine of Aragon was horrified and furious: she refused to accept Henry’s wishes and for six years they battled it out in probably the most famous divorce case of all time. During this time Anne stayed with Henry, but refused to sleep with him, meaning everyone was very tetchy and impatient. Eventually, after realising he wasn’t going to get the divorce he wanted from Rome, Henry told the Catholic church essentially to suck it, and made himself Head of the Church of England, and married Anne anyway. This is obviously a gross oversimplification – but it’s not wrong.
Anne was already pregnant by this point, and in September 1533 gave birth to a bouncing baby girl, the future Queen Elizabeth I. This probably isn’t the moment that Henry thought Anne was finished, but it was a vision of the future. Anne was pregnant at least twice more, possibly three times, but didn’t have any more live children. By the time April 1536 rolled around, Anne was in a very dangerous position for three main reasons:
- She hadn’t given Henry an heir. Although Henry had fallen desperately in love with her, he did also desperately want a son to pass his throne to, and his desire for that and his desire for Anne must have got inextricably tangled.
- She was a political liability. While I can admire Anne from a 480+ year distance for being fierce and independent and smart, I didn’t have to work with her. Anne hadn’t made many allies at court, and she didn’t have any internationally either: the Spanish Emperor was Catherine’s nephew and unlikely to be a pal, and most others just didn’t accept that the marriage was valid. This left England pretty isolated on an international stage.
- Henry didn’t love her anymore. At some point, Henry stopped being obsessed with Anne. Then he started loving her a bit less, and the rows that were always quite hot became annoying, and then he fell in love with someone else. A certain Jane Seymour.
So, Anne was in a bad place. The king wanted out; and she didn’t have the political support behind her to help. So far, it’s all making sense. But that still leaves the question, why did Anne Boleyn die? Why was it seen as necessary to slice her head off, rather than just divorcing her and sending her packing to France or lock her up in a nunnery?
Well, first of all because Catherine of Aragon was dead. Ironically, even though Anne hated her rival with the power of a thousand suns and had once wished she was drowned, Catherine’s survival ensured Anne’s too. While Catherine was around, the king could hardly get rid of the second wife as well. Who wants two angry, argumentative ex-wives around? Not Henry, that’s for sure. However, Catherine had died in January 1536, meaning Henry would only have one ex-wife.
If Catherine had quietly accepted the end of her marriage, taken a settlement and died in peace with Henry, then maybe he would have been tempted to offer something similar to Anne Boleyn. But Catherine had stood up for herself, fought back and caused Henry a huge headache, casting doubt on the legitimacy of his second marriage. He couldn’t handle that again: Anne Boleyn needed to be out of the way. Permanently.
Secondly, her enemies needed to make sure that she, or her family, wouldn’t rise again. Henry could be sentimental, and the Boleyns themselves had learned this when they pulled Cardinal Wolsey down from his position of power, only for him to start creeping back into Henry’s affections. At the Tudor court, when taking someone down, you needed to go the whole way. Often a dead enemy is the safest.
And finally, the very nature of the accusations demanded death. People remember the accusations of adultery, incest, witchcraft/six fingers, but Anne Boleyn was put on trial for treason. Not many people get through a treason trial without getting executed. Add in the fact that she and her brother laughed at the king and his authority, and in some ways, it’s no wonder that her execution was a foregone conclusion (Henry had already booked in an executioner to come from Calais to decapitate Anne with a sword instead of an axe because he’s just such a good guy).
What do you think? Why did Anne Boleyn die – was it political or was it personal?
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