The death of Anne Boleyn: a correspondent writes to Elizabeth I

Anne Boleyn (there are no authenticated contemporary portraits of Anne)

It is impossible to know what Elizabeth I thought or felt about the fact that her father, Henry VIII, had executed her mother, Anne Boleyn, on charges of adultery with, among others, Elizabeth’s uncle and Anne’s brother. It is entirely possible, given that she was not yet three when her mother died, that she had no real memory of Anne at all. But it is hard to conceive that such a family history would not be the cause of at least a little emotional unquiet.

There would of course have been many around Elizabeth who could have attested to her infant relationship with Anne Boleyn and described to her many maternal intimacies and acts of tenderness and care that we might imagine, from our own experiences as parents and children, but which we cannot recreate from the evidence that now survives.

In fact, the only meaningful description of Anne Boleyn together with her daughter that we have comes from a letter written to Elizabeth I after her accession in 1559.


The letter came from a protestant Scottish theologian named Alexander Ales, then living in exile in Leipzig. I have referenced it in The Favourite when discussing Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother, but I thought it worth reproducing here at length, if not in full – the letter has its longueurs – because it offers a fascinating insight into the religious politics that swirled around Anne, as well as the aforementioned touching tribute to her in the almost forgotten role of her as mother.

Moreover, Ales also shares with Elizabeth a vivid dream he had about Anne on the eve of her execution, which is startling in its intensity and brutal imagery. It is difficult to imagine Elizabeth could have read of it with any equanimity, and one wonders at Ales motive for including it. It is, in some respects, almost cruel to make a daughter read such things – even when couched in a dream – about her mother.

It has often occurred to me that it was a duty which I owed the church, to write the history, or tragedy, of the death of your most holy mother, in order to illustrate the glory of God and to afford consolation to the godly. No one, as far as I know, has as yet published such a work; I have been admonished from heaven by a vision or dream, which I shall presently narrate, to make it known to the world. I will therefore recount, with brevity and simplicity, the events as they occurred, introducing no ornaments of doctrine, as is done by some historical writers thereby to recommend themselves to their readers and to obtain credence for their narrative.

Shortly after the Bishop of Hereford had been sent into Germany by the most serene king along with Dr. Nicolas Heath, now Archbishop of York, it happened that Dr. Stephen Gardener, Bishop of Winchester, then ambassador with the King of France, (a most violent persecutor of all the godly, on account of the true doctrine of the gospel, who afterwards caused Dr Ridley, Bishop of London, Hopper, of Norwich, Latimer, of Worcester, and three others to be put to death,) wrote to those friends whom he had in the court of the king of England, conspirators like himself, to the effect that certain reports were being circulated in the court of the King of France, and certain letters had been discovered, according to which the queen was accused of adultery.

Thomas Wriothesley, first earl of Southampton

These letters were delivered by the steward of the Bishop of Winchester, the king’s secretary, Thomas Wrothisley, who afterwards was created Earl of Southampton, whom Dr Stephen had placed in the court to watch over his interests. They were next shown to the Lord Cromwell, the king’s ear and mind, to whom he had entrusted the entire government of the kingdom.

As Cromwell attended at the court daily, along with Wrothisley, the affair thus became known to the king himself. He was furious, but, dissembling his wrath, he summoned Cromwell, Wrothisley, and certain others, who, as report says, hated the queen, because she had sharply rebuked them and threatened to inform the king that under the guise of the gospel and religion they were advancing their own interests, that they had put everything up for sale and had received bribes to confer ecclesiastical benefices upon unworthy persons, the enemies of the true doctrine, permitting the godly to be oppressed and deprived of their just rewards. To them he intrusted the investigation of the whole business.

These spies, (because they greatly feared the queen) watch her private apartments night and day. They tempt her porter and serving man with bribes; there is nothing which they do not promise the ladies of her bedchamber. They affirm also that the king hates the queen, because she has not presented him with an heir to the realm, nor was there any prospect of her so doing.

Not long after this the persons returned who had been charged with the investigation of the rumours which had been circulated, everything having been arranged according to their entire satisfaction. They assure the king that the affair is beyond doubt; that they had seen the queen dancing with the gentlemen of the king’s chamber, that they can produce witnesses who will vouch to the queen having kissed her own brother, and that they have in their possession letters in which she informs him that she is pregnant.

Thereupon it was decided and concluded that the queen was an adulteress, and deserved to be burnt alive. The councillors were summoned to meet at the king’s palace at Greenwich, opposite London, on the other side of the river Thames, on April 30.

Thomas Cromwell

At this time I was in attendance upon Cromwell at the court, soliciting the payment of a stipend awarded to me by the most serene king. I was known to the evangelical bishops, whom your most holy mother had appointed from among those schoolmasters who favoured the purer doctrine of the gospel, and to whom she had intrusted the care of it. I was also upon intimate terms with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Latimer, to whom your most holy mother was in the habit of confessing when she went to the Lord’s Table. He it was for whom she sent when she was in prison and knew that she should shortly die. Although this most holy queen, your very pious mother, had never spoken with me, nor had I ever received ought from anyone in her name, nor do I ever expect any such thing, (for all royal courts have hitherto been opposed to me,) yet in consequence of what I had shortly before heard respecting as well her modesty, prudence, and gravity, as her desire to promote the pure doctrine of the gospel and her kindness to the poor, from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Latimer, and even from Cromwell himself, I was deeply grieved in my heart at that tragedy about to be enacted by the emperor, the Pope, and the other enemies of the gospel, whose intention it was, along with her, to bury true religion in England and thus to restore impiety and idolatry.

Never shall I forget the sorrow which I felt when I saw the most serene queen, your most religious mother, carrying you, still a little baby, in her arms and entreating the most serene king, your father, in Greenwich Palace, from the open window of which he was looking into the courtyard, when she brought you to him.

I did not perfectly understand what had been going on, but the faces and gestures of the speakers plainly showed that the king was angry, although he could conceal his anger wonderfully well. Yet from the protracted conference of the council, (for whom the crowd was waiting until it was quite dark, expecting that they would return to London,) it was most obvious to everyone that some deep and difficult question was being discussed.

Nor was this opinion incorrect. Scarcely had we crossed the River Thames and reached London, when the cannon thundered out, by which we understood that some persons of high rank had been committed to prison within the Tower of London. For such is the custom when any of the nobility of the realm are conveyed to that fortress, which is commonly called the Tower of London, there to be imprisoned.

Those who were present (of whom, by God’s mercy, many are still alive, and have now returned into England from banishment) well know how deep was the grief of all the godly, how loud the joy of the hypocrites, the enemies of the gospel, when the report spread in the morning that the queen had been thrown in the Tower. They will remember the tears and lamentations of the faithful who were lamenting over the snare laid for the queen, and the boastful triumphing of the foes of the true doctrine. I remained a sorrowful man at home, waiting for the result; for it was easy to perceive that in the event of the queen’s death, a change of religion was inevitable.

I take to witness Christ, Who shall judge the quick and the dead, that I am about to speak the truth. On the day upon which the queen was beheaded, at sunrise, between two and three o’clock, there was revealed to me (whether I was asleep or awake I know not) the queen’s neck, after her head had been cut off, and this so plainly that I could count the nerves, the veins, and the arteries.

Terrified by this dream, or vision, I immediately arose, and crossing the river Thames I came to Lambeth, (this is the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace,) and I entered the garden in which he was walking.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

When the Archbishop saw me he inquired why I had come so early, for the clock had not yet struck four. I answered that I had been horrified in my sleep, and I told him the whole occurrence. He continued in silence wonder for awhile, and at length broke out into these words, “Do not you know what is to happen to-day?” and when I answered that I had remained at home since the date of the queen’s imprisonment and knew nothing of what was going on, the Archbishop then raised his eyes to heaven and said, “She who has been the Queen of England upon earth will to-day become a queen in heaven.” So great was his grief that he could say nothing more, and then he burst into tears.

Terrified at this announcement I return to London sorrowing. Although my lodging was not far distant from the place of execution, yet I could not become an eye witness of the butchery of such an illustrious lady, and of the exalted personages who were beheaded along with her.

Those persons, however, who were present, (one of whom was my landlord,) and others, told me at noon, that the Earl of Wiltshire (the queen’s father) had been commanded to be an assessor along with the judges, in order that his daughter might be the more confounded, and that her grief might be the deeper. Yet she stood undismayed; nor did she ever exhibit any token of impatience, or grief, or cowardice.

The queen was accused of having danced in the bedroom with the gentlemen of the king’s chamber and of having kissed her brother, Lord Rochfort. When she made no answer to these accusations, the king’s syndic or proctor, Master Polwarck, produced certain letters and bawled out that she could not deny she had written to her brother, informing him that she was pregnant. Still she continued silent.

When the sentence of death was pronounced, the queen raised her eyes to heaven, nor did she condescend to look at her judges, but went to the place of execution. Kneeling down, she asked that time for prayer should be granted her. When she had ceased praying, she herself arranged her hair, covered her eyes, and commanded the executioner to strike.

The queen exhibited such constancy, patience, and faith towards God that all the spectators, even her enemies, and those persons who previously had rejoiced at her misfortune out of their hatred to the doctrine of the religion which she had introduced into England, testified and proclaimed her innocence and chastity.

Ales then discusses the conversations he had in his lodging about the execution of Anne and Henry’s motives for bringing the charges. The range of opinions are not necessarily surprising, but there are precious few accounts of conversations about such subjects in the period, particularly outside of the court, so it is fascinating to hear the king’s behaviour being picked over so thoroughly by his subjects.

Without being questioned they themselves answered the accusations brought against the queen. It is no new thing, said they, that the king’s chamberlains should dance with the ladies in the bedchamber. Nor can any proof of adultery be collected from the fact that the queen’s brother took her by the hand and led her into the dance among the other ladies, or handed her to another, especially if that person was one of the royal chamberlains. For it is a usual custom thoughout the whole of Britain that ladies married and unmarried, even the most coy, kiss not only a brother, but any honourable person, even in public. It is the custom also with young women to write to their near relatives when they have become pregnant, in order to receive their congratulations. The king also was most anxious for an heir, and longed for nothing more than to know that the queen was pregnant.

From such arguments as those which were advanced against the queen they affirmed that no probable suspicion of adultery could be collected; and that therefore there must have been some other reason which moved the king. Possibly it might be the same as that which induced him to seek for a cause of divorce from his former queen, namely, the desire of having an heir.

He was still further strengthened in his desire for a new marriage by perceiving that all the male children to which the queen gave birth came into the world dead, and that for some years past she had not conceived. For the king was apprehensive that after his own decease civil wars would break out, and that the crown would again be transferred to the family of the White Rose if he left no heir behind him.

[…]

How the matter actually stood would, however, they said, speedily be made known; whether he had executed the queen for having broken her marriage vows, or for fear of the war which was about to break out in consequence of the changes in religion, and the divorce of the Emperor’s aunt. For if he executed the queen only on account of the suspicion of adultery, no change in religion would follow; but if out of fear of the war about religion and the divorce, then Lutheranism would be driven out of England and sent back into Germany, to those Princes who would not make a treaty with the king in the matter of the divorce.

If, however, he was already in love with some other woman out of his anxiety for an heir, neither could this long be kept a secret. For so ardent was he when he had begun to form an attachment, that he could give himself no rest; so much so that when he was raving about Queen Anne and some of his friends were dissuading him from the divorce, he said that he preferred the love of the queen to half his realm.

It was in vain that his councillors, and among the number Thomas More, the chancellor, opposed this measure; for he sent agents to all the more renowned cities in France, Italy, and Germany, to collect the suffrages of the doctors in the matter of the divorce, not without the expenditure of an immense sum of money, concerning which he also consulted Luther and Philip [Melancthon].

While the guests were thus talking at table in my hearing it so happened that a servant of Cromwell’s came from the court and sitting down at the table, asked the landlord to let him have something to eat, for he was exceedingly hungry.

In the meantime, while the food was being got ready, the other guests asked him what were his news? Where was the king? What was he doing? Was he sorry for the queen? He answered by asking why should he be sorry for her? As she had already betrayed him in secrecy, so now was he openly insulting her. For just as she, while the king was oppressed with the heavy cares of state, was enjoying herself with others, so he, when the queen was being beheaded, was enjoying himself with another woman.

While all were astonished and ordered him to hold his tongue, for he was saying what no one would believe, and that he would bring himself into peril if others heard him talking thus, he answered, “You yourselves will speedily learn from other persons the truth of what I have been saying.”

The landlord, who was a servant of Cromwell’s, hearing this, said, “It is not fitting for us to dispute about such affairs. If they are true they will be no secret. And when I go to court I will inquire carefully into these matters.”

The person, however, who had first spoken, answered that he had the king’s orders that none but the councillors and secretaries should be admitted, and that the gate of the country house should be kept shut in which the king had secluded himself.

Some days afterwards, when the landlord returned from the court, before anyone asked him a question he called out with a loud voice, “I have news to tell you.” The guests anxiously waited to know what he had to say, whereupon he added, that within a few days the king would be betrothed and shortly afterwards would be married, but without any state, in the presence of the councillors only; for he wished to delay the coronation of his new spouse until he should see whether she would give birth to a boy.

The issue of events proved that this was the truth, for the Lady Jane was crowned queen when she was upon the eve of the confinement in which she died.

Ales goes on to describe the circumstances in which he fled England in the summer of 1539. As he makes clear, almost no-one felt safe in the climate of despotism and arbitrary fear that now reigned in Henry’s England.

I came to the court, and asked for my dismissal by means of Cromwell. But he retained me for about three years, with empty hopes, until it was decreed and confirmed by law that married priests should be separated from their wives and punished at the king’s pleasure. But before this law was published, the Bishop of Canterbury sent Lord Pachet [Paget] from Lambeth to me at London. (I understand that he afterwards attained a high position in the court of your sister, Queen Mary.)

He directed me to call upon the Archbishop early in the morning. When I called upon him, “Happy man that you are,” said he, “you can escape! I wish that I might do the same; truly my see would be no hindrance to me. You must make haste to escape before the island is blocked up, unless you are willing to sign the decree, as I have, compelled by fear. I repent of what I have done. And if I had known that my only punishment would have been deposition from the archbishopric, (as I hear that my Lord Latimer is deposed,) of a truth I would not have subscribed.

“I am grieved, however, that you have been deprived of your salary for three years by Cromwell; that you have no funds for your travelling expenses, and that I have no ready money. Nor dare I mention this to my friends, lest the king should become aware that warning had been given by me for you to escape, and that I have provided you with the means of travelling. I give you, however, this ring as a token of my friendship. It once belonged to Thomas Wolsey, and it was presented to me by the king when he gave me the archbishopric.”

When I heard what the bishop had to say, I immediately caused my property to be sold, and I concealed myself in the house of a German sailor until the ship was ready, in which I embarked, dressed as a soldier, along with other German troops, that I might not be detected. When I had escaped a company of searchers, I wrote to Cromwell (although he had not behaved well towards me) and warned him of the danger in which he stood at that time, and about certain other matters.

For this I can vouch the testimony of John Ales, Gregory, and the Secretary, and Pachet himself. But Christopher Mount said that Cromwell did not dare to speak to me when I was going away and soliciting my dismissal, nor could he venture to give me anything, lest he should be accused to the king, but that he would send the sum that he owed me into Germany.

The next intelligence, however, which I heard of him was that he had undergone capital punishment by order of the king; to whom he had written, when in prison, saying that he was punished by the just judgment of God, because he had loved the king more than God; and that out of deference to his Sovereign he had caused many innocent persons to be put to death, not sparing your most holy mother, nor had he obeyed her directions in promoting the doctrine of the gospel.

May Christ preserve Your Highness from the snares of the devil, and warm your heart to love the true religion, by which His Name may be sanctified and the kingdom of His Son may again reach the English nation under your sway.

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12 thoughts on “The death of Anne Boleyn: a correspondent writes to Elizabeth I

  1. The document is a real find that kind of makes a mockery of ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. King Henry VIII’s womanising is rightly blamed for Anne’s death. Furthermore, I don’t think Queen Elizabeth I would have been upset by Ales’s grotesque image of her headless mother. She was a remarkably strong woman. Also, burnings, beheadings, disembowlments and plagues were so common, Elizabethan’s no doubt saw more of the body’s insides than its outer beauty. Certainly the literature of the period was far from squeamish.

  2. I have not in all the years that I have read about Ann Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell read anything as fascinating as this. It certainly makes a mockery of The Other Boleyn Girl which I refer to in my academic thesis. What a find this is. I wonder does Hilary Mantel know the document. Writers of fiction are doing a different thing but we do like to think that they don’t over sensationalise for commercial effect. I look forward to Mantel’s book on Ann Boleyn’s execiution because she strikes a fair note in her equation of history and fiction.

  3. Many thanks to you both for your generous comments! I haven’t read The Other Boleyn Girl, but maybe I will now. One of the reasons I’ve posted the bulk of the letter on the blog is that although I’ve seen the description of Anne carrying the infant Elizabeth quoted or referenced in a few places, I felt there was much more of interest that was being overlooked. It will certainly be interesting to see what Hilary Mantel does with the Anne Boleyn execution: I agree that she uses her sources with incredible subtlety and deftness.

    • I hope you never bothered reading The Other Boleyn Girl. I read it years ago but remember almost nothing of it because it was so obviously a work of fiction. For fear of clouding my knowledge of the Boleyn family and their relationship with Henry, I purposefully didn’t commit anything from the book to memory. I did the same with the series, The Tudors, except I only watched a couple of episodes of it before abandoning the show. It was such a disappointment; however, it irritated me rather a lot that viewers of the show seemed to think of themselves as experts on the subject after watching a series containing only an occasional morsel of fact. I’m sure there are plenty of “experts” on Mary Queen of Scots running around these days because of the TV show based extremely loosely (UNDERSTATEMENT! ) on her life, Reign. Anyway, I appreciate your posting this letter. I definitely will try to commit it to memory. 🙂

  4. Amazing…I’ve never read anything like it. It is such a heartfelt account and he appears so genuine in everything he exposes. I enjoyed this very much.

  5. Thankfully, I stumbled over this blog!

    ‘tho currently reading “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, by Eric Ives, I thoroughly enjoyed the first two instalments of Ms Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell.

    The above communication,of Ales’, to ERI, brings the fear, the colour, the sounds and scents of that period sharply alive. The image of a daughter reading of her mothers’ brutal death-at the behest of her father, did her hands shake? Did she shed a tear, or two? Did she cover her mouth to silence a cry? Questions, evermore questions.

    Thank you for sharing this letter.

  6. Right here is the perfect webpage for anyone who would like to find out about this topic.
    You know so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I really will need to…HaHa).
    You certainly put a brand new spin on a subject that has been discussed for ages.
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  8. Absolutely intriguing! I have been fascinated by Anne’s story – not to mention her utter “ahead-of-her-time-ness” since I learned that I am descended from her sister, Mary. What happened to her is tragic, and shows alarmingly clearly how expendable women were in her time…. and still are in many ways. Amazing read….. poor Elizabeth….

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