Rethinking the fall of Anne Boleyn

Rethinking the fall of Anne Boleyn

By Greg Walker

The Historical Journal, Vol. 45, No. 1 (2002)

Abstract: The lurid story of the fall of Anne Boleyn, her trial and condemnation on charges of multiple (and in one case incestuous) adultery has been used to support many different interpretations of the political and religious history of the reign of Henry VIII. This article argues that the fate of the queen and those accused with her was not the result of wider factional battles or a cynical sacrifice, either to appease a jaded king or to enable a shift in religious or diplomatic policy. Nor was it a case of justice catching up with a libidinous woman who was guilty as charged. In fact Anne’s fall was far swifter and more dramatic than previous accounts have suggested, the result essentially of just two days of hectic activity at court and their aftermath. Anne fell, it is argued here, not as a result of what she did, but of what she said during the May Day weekend of 1536, in a series of incautious conversations with the men who were to be tried and executed with her.

Introduction: n his timely address to the Royal Historical Society, published in 1995, Steven Gunn likened the current state of early-Tudor studies to trench warfare, with the subject of Anne Boleyn providing its most heavily contested salient. The analogy was an apt one. Fiercely defended positions, aggressive attempts to assault or undermine them, and rebarbative rates of attrition seemed the order of the day as scholars sought to partition the post-Elton empire, and nowhere more obviously than over the life and reputation of Henry VIII’s second queen. Was Henry a murderous tyrant, firmly in command of events, or a plaything of faction? Was he the driving force behind the religious changes of the early 1530s, or did he get his religious policy second hand from those around him? Aspects of Anne’s life have been cited as supporting evidence for each of these claims. In the past two decades her spectacular fall in May 1536 has been attributed to factional intrigue, diplomatic manoeuvring, theological battles, and supernatural paranoia, each claim carrying with it differing assumptions about the nature of Henrician political culture and the dynamics of English Reformation history.

While there has been something of lull from the big guns since the early 1990s, no one has, as yet, proposed an armistice, or even an amicable game of soccer in no-man’s-land. It might thus seem somewhat foolhardy to venture over the parapet for another foray into the vexed question of Anne’s fall. But the circumstances do seem to warrant it. As Gunn suggested, entrenched positions can only be shifted by the discovery of new evidence or the application of new assumptions, and both of these criteria seem to apply, or at least, as I will suggest, the known evidence needs to be substantially rethought, and a less rigid approach to its implications adopted. Only then can the field be cleared for a more substantial reassessment of the political and religious history of the reign.

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