Most Tudor historians will tell you that the 1536 execution of Anne Boleyn was a conspicuous miscarriage of justice.
Loading article content
There has been heated debate about who engineered Boleyn’s fall. It used to be assumed that Henry was the mastermind. He had grown weary of Boleyn’s inability to produce a male heir and was eager to move on to new marital pastures (the loving embrace of Jane Seymour). In recent years, however, it has become increasingly fashionable to portray Henry as the hapless victim of factionalism. Accordingly, the attack on Boleyn has been attributed either to Henry’s influential minister Thomas Cromwell (who had strategic reasons for wanting to dispose of the queen) or to a conservative group of courtiers who had neither forgiven nor forgotten Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
In all three scenarios there is a theme: the charges against Boleyn were trumped up out of political expediency.
This is as close to an orthodoxy as Tudor history ever gets and it takes a brave soul to challenge it. Enter GW Bernard, someone who has never shied away from upsetting the scholarly applecart. Bernard argues that we shouldn’t dismiss the idea of Boleyn’s guilt out of hand. The accusations were ludicrously exaggerated (it seems unlikely that she followed “daily her frail and carnal lust”) and the legal process she endured was disreputable (even by the standards of the time) but none of this logically leads to the conclusion that she was entirely innocent. We should keep an open mind as we sift through the fragmentary evidence. For his own part, Bernard believes that Boleyn may well have committed adultery with at least one (and possibly three) men but he concedes that this remains a “hunch”.
Bernard quite rightly takes other historians to task for erecting theories on shaky evidentiary foundations. Talk of a witless Henry VIII being pulled hither and thither by competing 1530s factions is, as often as not, an exercise in ingenious extrapolation from the facts. Bernard has spent a great deal of time over the past few years trying to convince us that Henry was a dynamic, intelligent person and master of his own destiny. His case, while overstated, represents an important corrective and (to focus on the fall of Boleyn) there is something suspicious about the image of dim Henry being railroaded into framing his wife.
Unfortunately, Bernard’s own argument also relies on its share of speculation and inconclusive evidence. There is a poem, written (most likely in the climacteric year of 1536) by someone in the entourage of the French ambassador to Henry’s court. It opens up the story of how news of Boleyn’s shenanigans first emerged following loose-lipped talk by one of the ladies of Boleyn’s chamber (identified as the countess of Worcester): the countess’s position, Bernard concludes, lends the allegations credibility. There are also the letters of Boleyn’s gaoler in the Tower, in which Boleyn’s pre-execution conversations are reported. The doomed queen did not admit to her guilt but she gave hefty hints that she was prone to flirtatious (one might even say inappropriate) conversations with men at court. Finally, Bernard opines that the alleged timetable of Boleyn’s dalliances and some of the alleged objects of her illicit affections at least have the ring of plausibility.
This is all circumstantial, but Bernard knows as much. His case is precarious, but no more precarious than the case that assumes Boleyn’s innocence. All he really asks is that we bring in “the Scottish verdict of not proven” when we adjudicate the story of Boleyn’s supposed infidelities. This is not an unreasonable expectation. I suspect Bernard is in for a roasting from some of his scholarly colleagues. In some particulars this will be warranted, but even Bernard’s most ardent critics ought to respect his courageous attempt to anatomise a historical supposition that has gone unchallenged.
On the balance of flimsy evidence (and that’s all we’ll ever have), I still suspect that Boleyn was thrown to the wolves. At the very least, her tendency to shine a seductive eye on Henrician courtiers was blown out of all proportion in the interests of political advantage (be it Henry’s or his attendees). What I’ll never do again, thanks to Bernard’s book, is treat that suspicion as an article of historical faith. Bernard is getting bolder as he gets older. He opines, tongue in cheek, that the serious historian “might envy the historical novelist” who can just invent things about the Tudor age. I’m fairly sure Bernard isn’t close to being envious. His path, and it’s a noble one, is to do painstaking research, consider feasible alternatives, and put cats among the historiographical pigeons.
For all her fame (or infamy) Boleyn remains resolutely enigmatic. No-one is sure of the date of her birth or of the moment when she first caught Henry’s eye, and some scholars challenge the authenticity of the various images that depict her. One thing is clear: she fascinates posterity as much as she intrigued contemporaries. Bernard’s brave book adds new twists to the mystery.