Anne Boleyn’s rapid downfall from one of the most powerful people at court to the Tower of London spans just five months, and includes her miscarriage, the rise of her rival Jane Seymour (and Henry VIII’s third wife), and the arrests of Anne’s alleged lovers.
In May 1536 the ill-fated Tudor queen was found guilty by a jury of her peers of having extramarital affairs with five men, including her own brother.
But was Anne Boleyn guilty of treason and adultery in real life, and how exactly did she die?
Did Anne Boleyn commit treason and adultery in real life?
Anne Boleyn was found guilty of treason on the 15th May 1536, accused of having extramarital affairs with five men, including her younger brother: George Boleyn, Lord Rochford.
The other four men accused were the king’s friend Sir Henry Norris, the groom of the stool; court musician Mark Smeaton; and courtiers Sir Francis Weston and William Brereton. All five men (including George) were executed for treason.
However, most modern historians believe that Anne and the five men were innocent, and that the charges were trumped-up for two purposes: first, to allow Henry to remarry and hopefully sire a male heir; and secondly, because Anne had proved an obstacle to Thomas Cromwell’s interests in, for example, the dissolution of the monasteries.
Out of the five men, only Smeaton confessed to an alleged affair, and there’s speculation that he was subjected to torture.
What’s more, many of the dates when Anne was alleged to have conducted these affairs simply didn’t match up (for example, she was still at Greenwich shortly after her daughter’s birth when she supposedly met with Norris at Westminster).
Anne’s entourage was flirtatious, with many using the language of courtly love – and it seems Cromwell seized upon a public incident in April 1535, when Anne apparently joked with Henry Norris about how he would prefer to have Anne for himself should the king die.
That moment is dramatised in the Channel 5 series, Anne Boleyn. In the series, Henry Norris (played by Turlough Convery) ominously states that if ever a thought about supplanting Henry VIII entered his head, he would prefer his head be chopped off (and of course, that latter part comes true).
How did Anne Boleyn die?
Anne Boleyn’s execution was originally scheduled for 18th May 1536, and with that in mind Anne made her last confession, when she reaffirmed her innocence.
Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys reported “that before and after her receiving the Holy Sacrament, she affirmed, on peril of her soul’s damnation, that she had not misconducted herself so far as her husband the King was concerned”.
Anne Boleyn also made jokes about her impending death to her female attendants, describing her “little neck” (a line which is famously used in the series Wolf Hall, when Anne (played by Claire Foy) addresses Thomas Cromwell).
However, her execution was delayed until the following day on the orders of Thomas Cromwell, who was concerned about the numbers of foreign diplomats who were on hand to dispatch potentially sympathetic accounts of Anne’s death.
Anny Boleyn was beheaded on the scaffold of Tower Green on the morning of Friday 19th May 1536, two days after her alleged lovers (including her younger brother George Boleyn) were executed.
On the scaffold, Anne made the following speech:
“Good Christian people, I have not come here to preach a sermon; I have come here to die. For according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak of that whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the King and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never, and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me.”
A French executioner from Calais was hired for the beheading of Anne Boleyn, using a sword instead of an axe.
Anne was killed with a single stroke of the sword, and her remains were later buried that same day in the Tower chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.
Speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com, screenwriter Eve Hedderwick Turner said that she was feeling the “pressure” ahead of her reimagining of the ill-fated queen, and that she hoped her scripts had done Anne Boleyn “justice”.
“I think you’re totally right about the pressure,” she said. “I actually live in Deptford, which is just up the road from Greenwich and sort of the site where Greenwich Palace was, and I quite often go for runs or walk along the river there and think about the moment where she would have been loaded onto the barge and taken to the Tower [of London]. And I do, yeah, I feel sort of quite moved whenever I think about [her] and think, ‘God, I hope I’m doing you [Anne Boleyn] justice’.”
Want more show content? Check out our location guide to where Anne Boleyn was filmed, read our spoiler-free Anne Boleyn review, our breakdown of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s marriage or see our character profile for Madge Shelton.