Sunday, 2 May 2010

May 2nd, 1536: The Queen's Arrest

"And down the river's dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance --
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott."

- Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892), The Lady of Shalott

On the morning of May 2nd 1536, Anne Boleyn awoke as usual in her luxurious four-poster bed, with its silken sheets and golden tassels imported from Florence. Despite her husband's abrupt departure from the Mayday jousts the day before, there was no sign that this day was going to be different from any other.

The Queen's ladies of the bedchamber were already waiting to dress her in the morning’s preliminary outfit – a long robe, a bit like a dressing gown, was placed over a relatively simple linen dress and the Queen ate breakfast in the privacy of her rooms before a screen was erected in front of her for Mass. Since she was in her dishabille, it was customary for the Queen to hear the morning service from behind a screen on days which were not holy days or great festivals. So, with a mantilla draped over her head and her prayer book in her hands, Anne heard one of her chaplains celebrate the Mass, before she retired back to her bedchamber to be dressed properly.

Noted for her interest in fashion, as well as for her extravagance, Queen Anne usually spent about £12,000 ($18,000) on clothes in an average month – not counting expenditure for great events of State, when her outfits were famously breathtaking. Even on "normal" days, like this one, she was always immaculately coiffed and styled and even one of her most hostile critics described her as "the glass of fashion."

After being dressed, the usual routine in the Queen's Household was for Her Majesty to read any important letters or petitions which had arrived for her, which over the last few weeks had included another from Lady Lisle, the wife of the Governor of Calais, who had recently sent some gifts across the Channel for Her Majesty, in the hope of securing places for both of her daughters in Anne’s household.

With business out of the way and no audiences to grant, the Queen went downstairs with some of her ladies to watch a tennis match. One of her friends was competing and correctly predicting that he would win, the Queen remarked to her Mistress of the Wardrobe that she should have placed a bet at the beginning of the match. Just as the game finished, a messenger arrived with an “order of the King,” ordering Anne to present herself before the Privy Council at once. Anne Boleyn was not accustomed to being summoned anywhere, but despite her later reputation for being difficult, she was in fact always unfailingly polite to servants. She certainly wasn’t one to “shoot the messenger” and so she obediently left the tennis court to go to the palace’s Council Chamber.

Entering the Chamber, she perhaps expected to see either her husband or the entire Council there. Instead, only three of the King’s advisers were present – Anne’s 63 year-old uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, the King's imaginatively-named Master Treasurer, Sir William Fitzwilliam, and Sir William Paulet, a politician who would later serve in the government of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth. Anne later remembered that Paulet was the only "gentleman" amongst them - her resentment at how the duke and Fitzwilliam treated her was palpable to anyone who spoke to her over the next two weeks. It was one of the first things she complained about to her gaoler, once her nerves had calmed.

As the Queen entered their Chamber, all three men stood – but only Paulet bowed. The duke informed her that the King had granted the Council powers to investigate her "evil behaviour." As a result of these investigations, the Queen now stood accused of adultery with the courtier Sir Henry Norris, the musician Mark Smeaton and a mysterious third lover, whose identity they refused to reveal at this stage. The Queen, understandably, was both livid and terrified at her uncle's accusations and she furiously denied them, stating that the King was the only man who had ever touched her. Throughout her tirade, the Duke of Norfolk sanctimoniously tutted in disbelief, whilst Fitzwilliam stared at her with silent loathing - a long-time supporter of Anne's predecessor, Katherine of Aragon, and her daughter Mary, Fitzwilliam had been waiting for Anne's destruction for years and he was extracting every ounce of grim pleasure now that it was finally unfolding.

Due to the dramatic nature of their conversation, it is often assumed that Anne was arrested in the Council Chamber, immediately after she was accused but, incredibly, the Queen was actually allowed to return to her apartments for lunch, whilst Norfolk, Fitzwilliam and Paulet awaited further instructions from Westminster and Whitehall.

Lunch, as it transpired, can only be described as macabre - an event whose atmosphere sounds like a work of gothic melodrama. The first thing Anne did upon returning to her rooms was not to notify her household of what had just happened, but to get changed into a new dress. She chose a deliberately majestic outfit of crimson velvet, with a cloth of gold kirtle. However, trying to keep any form of secret at the Tudor Court was always a next-to impossible task and by the time Anne entered her chamber for lunch and took her usual place beneath a canopy of estate, the news that she had been accused of adultery had spread round the entire palace – a hundred soldiers had already been seen sailing up the Thames to apprehend her. Throughout the meal, the ladies-in-waiting sat picking at their food, ashen-faced and trembling, whilst the servants were actually sobbing as they continued to go through the ritual of serving the Queen’s luncheon. Sitting amidst this despair and muted hysteria, sat a sumptuously-dressed Anne, with jewels defiantly glistening from her ears, throat and fingers, trying to carry on as if nothing was wrong.

At two o’clock, as the last plate was cleared from the table, the Council entered the Queen's Apartments. The Queen's three original accusers now came accompanied by some of their colleagues on the Council – including the Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Oxford, Lord Sandys and Thomas Cromwell. Seeing them, Anne rose from her chair, demanding to know why they had come into her presence, although given their earlier argument, she must surely have known the answer. Norfolk produced a warrant for her arrest, signed by the King, and commanded her to come with them at once; she was to be lodged in the Tower of London. There was no time for her to pack any of her clothes or jewels and she was forbidden to bring any of her own ladies with her, or to contact any of her friends or relatives. Faced with a warrant and soldiers, Anne had no choice but to surrender with the best grace possible under the circumstances: “If it be His Majesty’s pleasure, I am ready to obey.”

Stepping out into the May sunshine, the councillors escorted their queen to a waiting barge, which pushed off from the red-brick palace where Anne had enjoyed so many of her successes and given birth to her daughter three years earlier. Still wearing the gown she had worn to lunch, Anne sat upright, staring ahead with a face frozen into an expression of superbly haughty calm, as her jewels and silks shimmered in the afternoon sun. She did not give any sign of hearing the jeers of various Londoners out on the river, nor did she deign to react to the Duke of Norfolk’s insufferable tutting, which resumed every time he looked at her. The tide was against them and so the journey from Greenwich to the Tower was an agonisingly long one, meaning that Anne had to put up with this kind of behaviour for over two hours. Reaching its destination in the early evening, the barge sailed through the Court Gate near Byward Tower, the Royal Family’s private entrance to the fortress.

As she sailed into captivity, the cannons of the Tower fired out a salvo to announce the incarceration of a great personage within its walls and it was this sound, coupled with seeing the imposing walls of the Tower rise up around her, which finally shattered Anne’s preternatural calm. Henry VI and Edward V had both vanished into the Tower, never to emerge - as had several of Anne's opponents in days gone-by. Alighting onto the wharf, the full, hideous reality of her situation finally seemed to hit her and her legs gave way beneath her. Falling onto the steps, the Queen began to pray. The councillors, having deposited her into her prison, returned to the barge without speaking a word to her. As a collective, they then journeyed to the Palace of Westminster, where the King had moved earlier in the morning, to inform him that his wife was now safely under lock and key.

After she had finished her prayers, Anne was helped to her feet by the Constable of the Tower - Sir William Kingston - a middle-aged knight. Sober and imposing, Kingston was a true Tudor loyalist who always publicly adhered to the official government position that Queen Anne was guilty as charged, but throughout her imprisonment, he treated her with chivalrous courtesy and he later went to great lengths to praise her courage. He took no pleasure in her misery and he would always maintain that of the many prisoners he had guarded over the years, Anne Boleyn was one of the bravest.

That famous bravery, however, was not on display in the first hour after she entered her prison. As they processed through the Tower, Anne’s mind began to race back to the last time she was here – during her Coronation week in 1533. Then, she had arrived to great pomp and ceremony, with Kingston bowing low before her and cannons firing to announce her triumph, not her imprisonment. Dressed in a gown shimmering with a King's ransom in jewels, she had been greeted with a kiss by her enraptured husband who led her by the hand to her new apartments, decorated especially for the Coronation festivities. Now, Anne was a prisoner of the monarchy she had once helped lead and, even in her wildest, most paranoid moments - of which there had been many over the past five months - she had never dreamed that she would face imprisonment on a charge of adultery. 

Suddenly, Kingston took a turn that Anne had not expected and she turned to him in a panic, saying, “Master Kingston, do I go into a dungeon?” “No, Madam,” he replied soothingly, “you shall go into your lodging that you lay in at your coronation.” Hearing that she was to be kept in the very rooms which had been decorated for her three years earlier, Anne collapsed once again.

Kneeling there on the cobbles of the Tower of London, in a dress of gold and crimson – the colours of wealth and blood – Anne Boleyn, Queen of England began “weeping a great pace, and in the same sorrow fell into a great laughing, and she hath done many times since”.


  1. A very grim and macabre story...

  2. Congratulations, Gareth--I think you express the astonishment of the Court and of Anne at this turn of events most vividly!
    Her uncle's "tutting" . . .

  3. Thank you, Stephanie - it's the little details that can make the whole astonishing episode so much more vivid.

    "Grim and macabre" is the perfect way to describe it Matterhorn!

  4. Thanks Gareth, beautifully written. Your account of these well doccumented events is fresh and vivid.

    In my thirst for more information I would love to follow up your leads - may I ask where did you learn that Anne changed her dress before lunch or that Kingston later said that she was the bravest of his prisoners? It's so frustrating that so much of the records of Anne's last days were destroyed!
    Anyway, thanks for casting a very sympathetic and humane light on her passage.

  5. Lucy, thanks so much for your kind comments. I'm so glad you liked it. Unfortunately, my study is being re-furbished at the moment so I can't check my books for the exact reference. I made a full list of the sources I used here: -

    But, in terms of Kingston's quote it comes from a letter to Cromwell in which he remarked on having seen many men and women expecting to death, but none with Anne's composure / bravery. The story of her changing her gown, I think, comes from the Letters and Papers, but I could be totally wrong. In any case, I'll check and get back to you!


  6. Hi Gareth, I love your account and I agree that details make the difference. I have done a lot of detailed reading about Anne as I am writing a novel about her; I am also trying to this book make as historically accurate as possible (it is called 'Le Temps Viendra'). I had never read about the change of dress either, or the screens being put up to allow her to hear mass, or the fact that Paulet bowed when the others didn't. I would be really interested to learn, like Lucy, where exactly is this information. I'd be grateful if you could share...Thanks, Sarah


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