Wednesday, 6 May 2015

'The Lady in the Tower': Anne Boleyn's Letter to Henry VIII

On 2 May 1536, Henry VIII's second wife, Queen Anne Boleyn, was imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of treasonable adultery and conspiracy to murder the king. Four days later, on 6 May, she is said to have written her husband a letter. This letter, which is headed 'To the King from the Lady in the Tower', has proved controversial. Historians debate whether the letter was genuinely written by the Queen, or whether it is an Elizabethan forgery. Henry Ellis referred to the letter as 'one of the finest compositions in the English language'. The letter reads as follows:

Your Grace's displeasure and my imprisonment are things so strange to me, that what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send to me (willing me to confess a truth and so obtain your favour), by such a one, whom you know to be mine ancient professed enemy; I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if as you say, confessing a truth may procure my safety, I shall, with willingness and duty, perform your command.

But let not your grace ever imagine your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought ever proceeded. And to speak a truth, never a prince had a wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Bulen - with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself if God and your grace's pleasure had so been pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation, or received queenship, but I always looked for such alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your grace's fancy, the least alteration was fit and sufficient (I knew) to draw that fancy to some other subject.

You have chosen me from a low estate to be your queen and companion, far beyond my just desert or desire; if then you found me worthy of such honour, good your grace, let not any light fancy or bad counsel of my enemies withdraw your princely favour from me, neither let that stain - that unworthy stain - of a disloyal heart toward your good grace ever cast so foul a blot on me and on the infant princess, your daughter.

Try me, good king, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and as my judges; yea, let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open shames; then shall you see either mine innocency cleared, your suspicions and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that wherever God and you may determine of, your grace may be at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me, as an unfaithful wife, but to follow your affection already settled on that party, for whose sake I am now as I am; whose name I could some good while since, have pointed unto: Your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicions therein.

But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander, must bring you to the enjoying of your desired happiness, then I desire of God that He will pardon your great sin herein, and likewise, my enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strait account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me at his general judgement-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear; and in whose just judgement, I doubt not (whatsoever the world think of me) mine innocency shall be openly known and sufficiently cleared.

My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of your grace's displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, whom, as I understand, are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake.

If ever I have found favour in your sight - if ever the name of Anne Bulen have been pleasing in your ears - then let me obtain this request; and so I will leave to trouble your grace no further: with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions.

From my doleful prison in the Tower, the 6th of May.
Ann Bulen

The letter is haunting, emotional and powerful: it bristles with indignation and is dominated by the writer's pleas of innocence. Most striking of all is the writer's dignified tone. Yet was the letter actually written by Queen Anne while imprisoned in the Tower? The majority of modern historians are convinced that it is a forgery. Eric Ives, Retha Warnicke and G.W. Bernard, the three most respected biographers of Anne, all dismiss the letter. Ives notes: 'its elegance has always inspired suspicion'. Professor David Starkey, Antonia Fraser and David Loades failed to even discuss the letter in their histories of Anne, almost certainly because they too subscribed to the view that it is a forgery, and was not genuinely written by the Queen.

The letter was first published in Lord Herbert's The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth (1649), and then by Bishop Burnet thirty years later. In his The History of the Reformation of the Church of England (1679), Burnet noted that the imprisoned Queen made 'deep protestations of her innocence, and begged to see the King, but that was not to be expected'. Burnet found the letter with Sir William Kingston's letters among the papers of Cromwell. Other early modern historians included references to the letter in their works, including John Strype, Bishop White Kennett, and Sir Henry Ellis. As Sandra Vasoli notes, several versions of the letter survive. Yet none of them are written in Anne's handwriting as recognised from her extant letters.

This is, in fact, the main argument in favour of the letter being a forgery. Against that it can be noted that one's handwriting changes over the course of one's lifetime; the letters we have written by Anne were written in her youth. Secondly, the letter may have been dictated by the Queen to a servant or maid. James Gairdner, however, believed that the letter was written in an Elizabethan hand. Alternatively, Jasper Ridley dismissed this argument by noting that the letter 'bears all the marks of Anne's character, of her spirit, her impudence and her recklessness'.

Alison Weir, concluding that the letter is most likely a forgery, referred to other anomalies which call into question the view that the letter was genuinely penned by Anne: the writer signs herself as 'Ann Bulen' rather than 'Anne the Queen' or 'Anne Boleyn'; Cromwell kept the letter, rather than destroying it; the heading at the top is unusual ('To the King from the Lady in the Tower' - why not refer to Anne as 'the Queen' or 'Anne'?); and, perhaps most importantly, the reproving tone and bold attitude towards the king, in which the writer admonishes him for instigating a plot in order to be free of her to wed Jane Seymour. 

Other writers have doubted the genuineness of the letter. Gareth Russell noted the 'psychological inconsistencies' in the letter, in which the writer refers to herself as being chosen from 'a low estate to be your queen': yet Anne was hardly from 'a low estate', she was well-connected. While it is a myth that she was the most noble of Henry VIII's English-born wives, she was related to the Howard dukes of Norfolk (her mother was a Howard), her father was heir presumptive to the earldom of Ormond at the time of her birth, and she could trace her descent from King Edward III. 

Another difficulty is the writer's claim that Anne's rise to queenship had 'no surer foundation than your grace's fancy', which is problematic when other evidence is considered. As Warnicke notes, the Queen genuinely believed that God had selected her to become Henry's wife, and she was fond of informing visitors at court of this. Alternatively, as Marie Louise Bruce stated in her biography of Anne, she had a tendency to express herself in hyperbole and it is therefore possible that she was resorting to the use of hyperbole or, alternatively, was flattering her husband's ego at a time of danger. Interestingly, there is but one reference to Anne's daughter Elizabeth: however, this is consistent with Anne's silence about her daughter while imprisoned in the Tower, perhaps because she was hoping not to worsen the consequences of her fall for Elizabeth that were, already, looking bleak. 

One way or another, it will never be known with certainty whether the letter from 'The Lady in the Tower' was genuinely written by Anne Boleyn or not. I personally believe that she may have written it. Although it is strange that Anne refers to herself as 'Ann Bulen' and there are problematic assertions in relation to her relationship with the king and her rise to queenship, I believe the emotional tone of the letter, which wavers between desperation, dignity, resolution and indignation, is consistent with what we know of the Queen's behaviour in the Tower. Her moods oscillated between despair and joy, sorrow and hysteria, panic and calmness, resignation and hope. It is entirely possible that the Queen either wrote - or dictated to someone serving her - this passionate, dignified letter. 

As Vasoli notes, however, the letter never reached Henry VIII. He was not to be swayed in his decision to be rid of Anne. Nine days after the letter was supposedly written, the Queen was found guilty of the crimes with which she was charged, and four days later she went to the scaffold. Anne refused to admit her guilt on the scaffold. She admitted that she had been condemned by the law, but she did not admit to betraying the king. During her trial she pleaded her innocence and sought mercy. Her pleas of innocence are consistent with those that recur in the letter of May 6. 

1 comment:

  1. I don't believe Anne wrote the letter. She wasn't allowed writing materials while in the Tower. (Kingston mentions at one point in his dispatches that Anne had asked to send a letter, and he told her to tell him the message verbally and he would see it was delivered.) However, I included it in my novel, because it's what Anne SHOULD have said to Henry. He was killing her to make room for Jane Seymour, and Anne would have believed he'd have to answer for it before the seat of Judgment one day.

    The only possible way the letter could be authentic is if it was a copy of a lost original. Copyists were not necessarily concerned with retaining the spelling of the original author (hence "Bullen"), but since Kingston never mentions her writing or dictating a letter, it seems it has to be a forgery. Perhaps it should be seen in the light of a tribute, like 'O Death Rock Me Asleep.'