Above photograph: Actress Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn in the movie The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
"Beautiful she is, sir! Lovely! Sometimes like a great tree in flower, sometimes like a white daffadowndilly, small and slender like. Hard as di'monds, soft as moonlight. Warm as sunlight, cold as frost on the stars. Proud and far-off as a snow mountain, and as merry as any lass I ever saw with daisies in her hair in springtime."- Sam Gamgee from the novel The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkein (1892 - 1973)
As the embers died in the fireplace of his Privy apartments, Henry VIII watched as the nervous faces of his councillors and advisers were ushered into his presence. They had just been to the Tower to interrogate the Queen, with strict instructions to extract some kind of confession from her or at least make her accept a sentence of partial guilt without trial. There seems to be some confusion about what date this interview occurred on, since there is a gap in the records of the Queen's imprisonment, thanks to some of Sir William Kingston's letters being damaged by a fire in 1731. However, we do know that the King ordered the trials of the Queen's four common-born "lovers" to go ahead at Westminster for May 12th and the Council's visit has all the characteristics of a last-minute attempt at a plea bargain, which suggests to me that it took place on the evening of Thursday, May 11th, the ninth day of the Queen's imprisonment.
Bowing low, the councillors began by telling the King that their initial visits - to Sir Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton and Sir Francis Weston - had yielded nothing. They all refused to confess that they had been the Queen's lovers. Calling on Lord Rochford in the Martin Tower, the councillors reported that the viscount was in the grip of a strong religious zeal and that when they had asked him about the charges of incest and treason facing him, he had raised his eyes to Heaven and denied everything.
All that was probably no more than the King had expected and, in any case, the four men were small fish. What about the Queen? How had she reacted when faced with a government interrogation? Before leaving the palace earlier in the day, the King had told the councillors "to treat her with no respect or consideration", despite the fact that she still retained the royal title of queen consort. Amongst the party sent with this unenviable minefield of a task were the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Duke of Norfolk, Secretary of State Thomas Cromwell, and the Lord Chancellor, along with a dozen or so others, whose names are disputed.
Escorted into the imprisoned Queen's rooms by Sir William Kingston, the councillors perhaps expected to see her dishevelled, miserable or contrite after nine days of captivity. Instead, they were confronted by the sight of a waif-like brunette with cold, glittering eyes, regarding them with haughty disapproval. She had spent much of the day in prayer, but once told of the Council's impending visit, she had gone to get ready. The Queen knew the importance of appearances better than anyone and she had been waiting for the Council to come to her for over a week. Her would-be interrogators walked in to see Anne sitting on something very like a throne in her Audience Chamber, dressed immaculately, with some of her remaining jewels glistening from her fingers, wrists, ears and throat. "She did not give up her greatness," wrote an admiring chronicler, "and spoke to the lords as a mistress".
Having been ordered to try and wring a confession from her by bullying her and ignoring her royal status, the councillors were certainly wrong-footed and "astonished" by seeing her in this position of pre-assumed authority. As they arrived, she stood and extended her bejewelled hand for them to kneel and kiss, which must have galled those that it did not astonish. When this procession of subjugation was finished, the Queen sat back down and gestured for them to begin.
Stepping forward nervously, the Archbishop of Canterbury began in his role as the delegation's nominated spokesman. Archbishop Cranmer had a soft, easy manner and he was often able to get information out of people precisely because he seemed so reasonable in contrast to most of his colleagues; five years later, it was he who successfully extracted the full sordid tragedy of Catherine Howard's romantic misdeeds from the terrified girl. Today, however, he was not dealing with a sobbing teenager, but an imperious woman, who was outraged at the sight of this pious cleric whom she had helped create, now full of self-righteous horror at her alleged crimes.
"Madam," he began, "there is no one in the realm, after my lord the King, who is so distressed at your bad conduct as I am, for all these gentleman well know I owe my dignity to your good will..."
Anne held up her hand and cut him off, mid-sentence. She had been under the impression that she would be asked questions; instead, she was being lectured and she did not like it one bit. "My lord bishop, I know what is your errand," she interrupted icily. "Waste no more of my time. I have never wronged the King, but I know well that he is tired of me, as he was before of the Lady Katherine."
Outraged at such an attack on the King's integrity, the Archbishop told her that there was proof of her "evil" lusts and that if she wanted, they could show her Mark Smeaton's confession. Cranmer had blundered. Anne was now very angry indeed. She stood, quivering with rage and pointed to the door: "Go!" she snapped. "It has all been done as I say, because the King has fallen in love with Jane Seymour, and does not know how to get rid of me. Well, let him do as he likes, he will get nothing more out of me, and any confession that has been made is false."
The Archbishop's mouth snapped shut and the lords of the council decided to beat a hasty retreat. After all, there was technically nothing they could do once the Queen of England had ordered them from the room. The world may have turned upside down since May Day, but etiquette was still invioable as surely as there was a God in the Heavens.
Apparently, as he was leaving, the Duke of Norfolk was determined to once again show his colleagues whose side he was on and he said: "If it is true that your brother has shared your guilt, a great punishment indeed should be yours, and his as well." "My brother is blameless," his niece replied contemptuously, "and if he has been in my chamber to speak with me, surely he might do so without suspicion, being my brother, and they cannot accuse him for that. I know that the King has had him arrested so that there should be none left to take my part. You need not trouble to stop talking with me, for you will find out no more."
The news of this extraordinary exchange, which shows Anne at her reckless but magnificent best, seldom features in modern accounts of the Queen's downfall, but it was reported in two ultra-Catholic chronicles of the time which had no reason to fabricate it - on the contrary, suppressing details of the Queen's words would have suited their hostile anti-Boleyn narratives better.
Returning to Hampton Court, the Council informed the King that far from breaking the Queen into submission or persuading her to accept a plea-bargain, they had only succeeded in increasing her vigour for the fight. She had displayed shockingly indiscreet bravery in dropping the usual failure of courtiers to criticise the King for anything - instead, she had pointed the finger of blame directly and explicitly at him and no other. After hearing the councillors' report, the King looked away and grunted: "She hath a stout heart, but she shall pay for it."