George Cavendish has argued that Henry VIII was "casting amorous eyes" towards Anne Boleyn as early as 1523. The historian, Alison Weir, suggests that this is likely to have been true: "Cavendish's information was probably correct; he he was an eyewitness of the events of the period who was often taken into Wolsey's confidence, and Wolsey, of course, knew nearly all his master's secrets and made it his business to learn about the private intrigues of the court." (1)
Hilary Mantel has pointed out that Henry had already had a relationship with her sister, Mary Boleyn: "We don't know exactly when he fell for Anne Boleyn. Her sister Mary had already been his mistress. Perhaps Henry simply didn't have much imagination. The court's erotic life seems knotted, intertwined, almost incestuous; the same faces, the same limbs and organs in different combinations. The king did not have many affairs, or many that we know about. He recognised only one illegitimate child. He valued discretion, deniability. His mistresses, whoever they were, faded back into private life. But the pattern broke with Anne Boleyn." (2)
For several years Henry had been planning to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Now he knew who he wanted to marry - Anne Boleyn. At the age of thirty-six he fell deeply in love with a woman some sixteen years his junior. (3) Henry wrote Anne a series of passionate love letters. In 1526 he told her: "Seeing I cannot be present in person with you, I send you the nearest thing to that possible, that is, my picture set in bracelets ... wishing myself in their place, when it shall please you." Soon afterwards he wrote during a hunting exhibition: "I send you this letter begging you to give me an account of the state you are in... I send you by this bearer a buck killed late last night by my hand, hoping, when you eat it, you will think of the hunter." (4)
Henry VIII sent a message to the Pope Clement VII arguing that his marriage to Catherine had been invalid as she had previously been married to his brother Arthur. Henry relied on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to sort the situation out. During negotiations the Pope forbade Henry to contract a new marriage until a decision was reached in Rome. With the encouragement of Anne, Henry became convinced that Wolsey's loyalties lay with the Pope, not England, and in 1529 he was dismissed from office. (5) Wolsey blamed Anne for his situation and he called her "the night Crow" who was always in a position to "caw into the king's private ear". (6) Had it not been for his death from illness the following year, Wolsey would probably have been executed for treason.
Rumours soon began circulating about Henry's plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. It was reported by Cardinal Jean du Bellay in May 1529 that Catherine had the support of the majority of women living in England at the time. "If the matter were to be decided by women, he (Henry VIII) would lose the battle, for they did not fail to encourage the queen (Catherine of Aragon) at her entrance and departure by their cries, telling her to care for nothing, and other such words." (7)
Lodovico Falier reported to King Charles V on 24th November, 1531, that an attempt had been made to kill Anne Boleyn: "It is said that more than seven weeks ago a mob of from seven to eight thousand women of London went out of the town to seize Boleyn's daughter, the sweetheart of the king of England, who was supping at a villa on a river, the king not being with her; and having received notice of this, she escaped by crossing the river in a boat. The women had intended to kill her; and amongst the mob were many men, disguised as women. Nor has any great demonstration been made about this, because it was a thing done by women." (8)
The following year there was "a great riot and unlawful assembly of women" at Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. Sir Thomas Audley, a senior figure in Henry VIII's household was asked to investigate. He later reported that the women had apparently rioted to show their opposition to Anne Boleyn. Audley suggested that their protests were downplayed, because it was thought that the riot "could not have been held without the connivance of their husbands." (9)
George Cavendish, who was a member of Cardinal Wolsey's household later wrote that "the world began to be full of wonderful rumours not heard of before in this realm". This mainly concerned "the long hid and secret love between the king and Mistress Anne Boleyn" and this "began to break out into every man's ears". (10) The chronicler, Edward Hall, confirmed this and commented that there was growing hostility towards a "gentlewoman in the court called Anne Boleyn". (11)
At the end of 1532 Henry discovered that Anne Boleyn was pregnant. He realised he could not afford to wait for the Pope's permission. As it was important that the child should not be classed as illegitimate, arrangements were made for Henry and Anne to get married. King Charles V of Spain threatened to invade England if the marriage took place, but Henry ignored his threats and the marriage went ahead on 25th January, 1533. It was very important to Henry that his wife should give birth to a male child. Without a son to take over from him when he died, Henry feared that the Tudor family would lose control of England. Elizabeth was born on 7th September, 1533. (12)
Retha M. Warnicke, the author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) has attempted to explain why Queen Anne was so unpopular. "Although Anne had been crowned queen of England, many of the king's subjects continued to describe her as an adulteress. Numerous individuals, especially women, who felt personally threatened by her marriage to Henry because it was perceived as an assault on traditional family values, denounced the liaison of the royal couple. After they were wed, in fact, the protests seemed to have increased in number, for as long as the ex-queen was still living at least a part of the populace was more willing to accept Anne as the king's mistress than as his consort." (13)
Sharon L. Jansen, the author of Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) argues that people found guilty of spreading these rumours were severely punished. "The possibility of the king's divorce disturbed his subjects deeply, and his choice of a new queen appalled many of them. Displays of royal power and authority could not stop people from saying what they thought. Nor, it seems, could the threat of legal action." (14) On 23rd August, 1532, it was reported that in London two women were beaten "naked from the waist upwards with rods and their ears nailed to the standard" for claiming that Catherine of Aragon "was the true queen of England". (15)
Nicholas Harpsfield, who was a strong opponent of Anne Boleyn, later commented: "Then was there nothing so common and frequent and so tossed in every man's mouth, in all talks and at all tables, in all taverns, alehouses, and barbers' shops, yea, and in pulpits too, as was this matter, some well liking and allowing the divorce, some others highly detesting the same." (16)
Eustace Chapuys reported that Henry VIII took Anne Boleyn on a tour of his kingdom but was forced to return as a result of the reaction of the people on his route. "The king was on his way to the northern counties where he intended to hunt ... when he suddenly changed his purpose and came back to town. The causes of his return are variously explained. Some say that for the last three or four days after he started on his journey, wherever he went accompanied by the lady, the people on the road so earnestly requested him to recall the queen, his wife, and the women especially so insulted the royal mistress, hooting and hissing on her passage, that he was actually obliged to retrace his steps." (17)
Thomas Cromwell suggested the main person responsible for spreading rumours against Anne Boleyn was Elizabeth Barton. According to Barton's biographer, Diane Watt, she had been making predictions about the future for over five years. "In the course of this period of sickness and delirium she began to demonstrate supernatural abilities, predicting the death of a child being nursed in a neighbouring bed. In the following weeks and months the condition from which she suffered, which may have been a form of epilepsy, manifested itself in seizures (both her body and her face became contorted), alternating with periods of paralysis. During her death-like trances she made various pronouncements on matters of religion, such as the seven deadly sins, the ten commandments, and the nature of heaven, hell, and purgatory. She spoke about the importance of the mass, pilgrimage, confession to priests, and prayer to the Virgin and the saints." (18)
One of Barton's followers, Edward Thwaites, pointed out: "Elizabeth Barton advanced, from the condition of a base servant to the estate of a glorious nun." Thwaites claimed a crowd of about 3,000 people attended one of the meetings where she told of her visions. (19) Other sources say it was 2,000 people. Sharon L. Jansen points out: "In either case there was a sizable gathering at the chapel, indicating something of how quickly and widely reports of her visions had spread." (20)
Elizabeth Barton had meetings with senior figures including Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Bishop John Fisher and Thomas More. She suggested that they should tell Henry VIII to burn English translations of the Bible and to remain loyal to the Pope. Elizabeth then warned the King that if he married Anne Boleyn he would die within a month and that within six months the people would be struck down by a great plague. He was disturbed by her prophesies and ordered that she be kept under observation. Archbishop Cranmer commented later that Henry put off his marriage to Anne because "of her visions". (21) William Tyndale, a leading religious reformer, was less convinced by her predictions and claimed that her visions were either feigned or the work of the devil. (22)
In October 1532 Henry VIII agreed to meet Elizabeth Barton. According to the official record of this meeting: "She (Elizabeth Barton) had knowledge by revelation from God that God was highly displeased with our said Sovereign Lord (Henry VIII)... and in case he desisted not from his proceedings in the said divorce and separation but pursued the same and married again, that then within one month after such marriage he should no longer be king of this realm, and in the reputation of Almighty God should not be king one day nor one hour, and that he should die a villain's death." (23)
During this period Edward Bocking produced a book detailing Barton's revelations. In 1533 a copy of Bocking's manuscript was made by Thomas Laurence of Canterbury, and 700 copies of the book were issued by the printer John Skot, who supplied 500 copies to Bocking. Thomas Cromwell discovered what was happening and ordered that all copies were seized and destroyed. This operation was successful and no copies of the book exists today. (24)
In the summer of 1533 Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote to the prioress of St Sepulchre's Nunnery asking her to bring Elizabeth Barton to his manor at Otford. On 11th August she was questioned, but was released without charge. Thomas Cromwell then questioned her and, towards the end of September, Edward Bocking was arrested and his premises were searched. Bocking was accused of writing a book about Barton's predictions and having 500 copies published. (25) Father Hugh Rich was also taken into custody. In early November, following a full scale investigation, Barton was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (26)
Elizabeth Barton was examined by Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Bishop Hugh Latimer. During this period she had one final vision "in which God willed her, by his heavenly messenger, that she should say that she never had revelation of God". In December 1533, Cranmer reported "she confessed all, and uttered the very truth, which is this: that she never had visions in all her life, but all that ever she said was feigned of her own imagination, only to satisfy the minds of them the which resorted unto her, and to obtain worldly praise." (27)
Peter Ackroyd, the author of Tudors (2012) has suggested that Barton had been tortured: "It may be that she was put on the rack. In any case it was declared that she had confessed that all her visions and revelations had been impostures... It was then determined that the nun should be taken throughout the kingdom, and that she should in various places confess her fraudulence." (28) Barton secretly sent messages to her adherents that she had retracted only at the command of God, but when she was made to recant publicly, her supporters quickly began to lose faith in her. (29)
Eustace Chapuys, reported to King Charles V on 12th November, 1533, on the trial of Elizabeth Barton: "The king has assembled the principal judges and many prelates and nobles, who have been employed three days, from morning to night, to consult on the crimes and superstitions of the nun and her adherents; and at the end of this long consultation, which the world imagines is for a more important matter, the chancellor, at a public audience, where were people from almost all the counties of this kingdom, made an oration how that all the people of this kingdom were greatly obliged to God, who by His divine goodness had brought to light the damnable abuses and great wickedness of the said nun and of her accomplices, whom for the most part he would not name, who had wickedly conspired against God and religion, and indirectly against the king." (30)
A temporary platform and public seating was erected at St. Paul's Cross and on 23rd November, 1533, Elizabeth Barton made a full confession in front of a crowd of over 2,000 people. "I, Dame Elizabeth Barton, do confess that I, most miserable and wretched person, have been the original of all this mischief, and by my falsehood have grievously deceived all these persons here and many more, whereby I have most grievously offended Almighty God and my most noble sovereign, the King's Grace. Wherefore I humbly, and with heart most sorrowful, desire you to pray to Almighty God for my miserable sins and, ye that may do me good, to make supplication to my most noble sovereign for me for his gracious mercy and pardon." (31)
Over the next few weeks Elizabeth Barton repeated the confession in all the major towns in England. It was reported that Henry VIII did this because he feared that Barton's visions had the potential to cause the public to rebel against his rule: "She... will be taken through all the towns in the kingdom to make a similar representation, in order to efface the general impression of the nun's sanctity, because this people is peculiarly credulous and is easily moved to insurrection by prophecies, and in its present disposition is glad to hear any to the king's disadvantage." (32)
Parliament opened on 15th January 1534. A bill of attainder charging Elizabeth Barton, Edward Bocking, Henry Risby (warden of Greyfriars, Canterbury), Hugh Rich (warden of Richmond Priory), Henry Gold (parson of St Mary Aldermary) and two laymen, Edward Thwaites and Thomas Gold, with high treason, was introduced into the House of Lords on 21st February. It was passed and then passed by the House of Commons on 17th March. (33) They were all found guilty and sentenced to be executed on 20th April, 1534. They were "dragged through the streets from the Tower to Tyburn". (34)
On the scaffold Elizabeth Barton told the assembled crowd: "I have not been the cause of my own death, which most justly I have deserved, but also I am the cause of the death of all these persons which at this time here suffer. And yet, to say the truth, I am not so much to be blamed considering it was well known unto these learned men that I was a poor wench without learning - and therefore they might have easily perceived that the things that were done by me could not proceed in no such sort, but their capacities and learning could right well judge from whence they proceeded... But because the things which I feigned was profitable unto them, therefore they much praised me... and that it was the Holy Ghost and not I that did them. And then I, being puffed up with their praises, feel into a certain pride and foolish fantasy with myself." (35)
John Husee witnessed their deaths: "This day the Nun of Kent, with two Friars Observants, two monks, and one secular priest, were drawn from the Tower to Tyburn, and there hanged and headed. God, if it be his pleasure, have mercy on their souls. Also this day the most part of this City are sworn to the King and his legitimate issue by the Queen's Grace now had and hereafter to come, and so shall all the realm over be sworn in like manner." (36) The executions were clearly intended as a warning to those who opposed the king's policies and reforms. Elizabeth Barton's head was impaled on London Bridge, while the heads of her associates were placed on the gates of the city. (37)
In an attempt to gain support for his new queen, Henry VIII insisted on Parliament passing the 1534 Treason Act. The Act specified that all those were guilty of high treason who: “do maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king's most royal person, the queen's or the heirs apparent, or to deprive them of any of their dignity, title or name of their royal estates, or slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words, that the king should be heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown." (38)
Margery Cowpland of Henley-on-Thames was arrested in June, 1535, for describing King Henry as an "extortioner and knave" and Queen Anne as a "strong harlot" and a "strong whore". Richard Heath, warned her that he was the king's servant, to which she had replied, "The king's servant" was "the devil's turd". Cowpland was interviewed by Sir Walter Stoner who later reported to Thomas Cromwell that she was a "drunken woman, and as I perceive her she is somewhat straight out of her wits and her husband is out of his mind and hath been this twelve months and more."
Cowpland was sent to the jail at Wallingford. It is not known what happened to her but it is possible that she was released and not charged with treason. In the postscript in the letter to Cromwell his agent said: "I beseech you that I may know your pleasure for the said Margery Cowpland, for she is very aged and lacking wit, and also there is nobody to tend to her husband, which is mad as all her answers hath testified with her." (39)
In 1536 a proclamation was issued in support of the Treason Act. It attacked "devilish and slanderous persons" who were spreading "slanderous, false, and detestable rumours, tales, and lies". It called on all loyal subjects to "apprehend all and every such person and persons that they can prove to have bruited or set forth any forged false rumours, tales, and lies". The proclamation made it clear that punishment for those found guilty of the offence would be severe: "They shall not only bring upon themselves the vengeance and indignation of God, to the peril and damnation of their souls, but also give us just cause to proceed against such rebels with our most royal power and force, to the utter destruction of them, their wives, and children." (40)
Edward Hall has argued that women were especially responsible for these "slanderous, false, and detestable rumours, tales, and lies". According to Hall it was "the common people" who were "ignorant of the truth". He recorded that it was mainly women who favoured Catherine of Aragon and "spoke largely" against the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn. (41) Eustace Chapuys, reported to King Charles V in January, 1536, that Gertrude Courtenay, Countess of Devon, told him that Anne Boleyn had used witchcraft to "ensnare" the king. (42)
In August 1536 the mayor of York called on the "king's justices of peace" to investigate "diverse misdemeanors lately committed" in the city at night. These people had broken the 1534 Treason Act as they had posted a series of "bills" that encouraged "debate, dissension and variance". These posters criticized the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn. Eventually a woman named Elizabeth Abney was arrested. Her husband, Thomas Abney, confessed that he had been involved in this venture but his wife's "malicious mind devised the several slanders contained in the bills".
Elizabeth and Thomas Abney were both found guilty of publishing material "whereof murder, variance, strife, and debate was very likely to ensue among all the commonalty of the said city". They were treated much more leniently than most people found guilty of this offence. Elizabeth and Thomas were sentenced to sitting backward on a horse, with a paper set on her head and another in her hands that read, "For setting up of slanderous bills and willful perjury, thus to be punished deserved have I." They would be led from the prison and paraded throughout the city and then banished. (43)
A group of people based in Norfolk were convicted on 25th May, 1537, of treason and sentenced to be hanging, drawing, beheading, and quartering. It was claimed that they were active in and around Walsingham. Their crimes included spreading rumours about Anne Boleyn. Over the next few days Nigel Mileham, the sub-prior of Walsingham Priory, John Semble, a mason, Ralph Rogerson, a farmer, William Guisborough, a merchant, George Guisborough, a yeoman peasant, Thomas Howse, a husbandman, Thomas Manne, a carpenter, Andrew Pax, a parish clerk, John Pecock, a friar, John Sellers, a tailor and Richard Henley, a plumber, were executed. (44) Richard Southwell reported to Thomas Cromwell that all the men confessed to the crime. "So lying on the hurdles, both by the way and at the place of execution, they exhorted the people, who by reason of Trinity Fair that day, were very numerous to take example by them." (45)
Southwell continued with his investigation and on 28th May he was given evidence that a woman named Elizabeth Wood of Aylsham, was involved in this conspiracy. John Bettes and Thomas Oakes claimed that "Elizabeth Wood, the wife of Robert Wood of Aylsham" had said "certain traitorous words". They told Southwell that Wood had visited a shop owned by John Dix and had expressed support for the men found guilty of treason in Walsingham. She was, they said, "resting upon the shop windows of John Dix" when she spoke about these matters. Apparently she said "it was a pity that these Walsingham men were discovered, for we shall have never good world till" Henry VIII is removed "for we had never good world since this king reigned". Wood was found guilty of treason on 26th July and executed soon afterwards. (46)
Surely the most of the lay people of England, which knew not the law of God, sore murmured at the matter (Henry's proposed divorce) and much the more, because there was a gentlewoman in the court called Anne Boleyn.
And thus the world began to be full of wonderful rumours not heard of before in this realm... Then began other matters to brew and take place that occupied all men's heads with diverse imaginations, whose stomachs were therewith full filled without any perfect digestion. the long hid and secret love between the king and Mistress Anne Boleyn began to break out into every man's ears.
It is said that more than seven weeks ago a mob of from seven to eight thousand women of London went out of the town to seize Boleyn's daughter, the sweetheart of the king of England, who was supping at a villaon a river, the king not being with her; and having received notice of this, she escaped by crossing the river in a boat. The women had intended to kill her; and amongst the mob were many men, disguised as women. Nor has any great demonstration been made about this, because it was a thing done by women.
The king was on his way to the northern counties where he intended to hunt ... when he suddenly changed his purpose and came back to town. The causes of his return are variously explained. Some say that for the last three or four days after he started on his journey, wherever he went accompanied by the lady, the people on the road so earnestly requested him to recall the queen, his wife, and the women especially so insulted the royal mistress, hooting and hissing on her passage, that he was actually obliged to retrace his steps.
The 23rd day of August were two women beaten... naked from the waist upwards with rods and their ears nailed to the standard for because they said Queen Catherine was the true queen of England and not Queen Anne. And one of the women was big with child. And when these two women had thus been punished, they fortified their saying still, to die in the quarrel for Queen Catherine's sake.
Then was there nothing so common and frequent and so tossed in every man's mouth, in all talks and at all tables, in all taverns, alehouses, and barbers' shops, yea, and in pulpits too, as was this matter, some well liking and allowing the divorce, some others highly detesting the same.
Although Anne had been crowned queen of England, many of the king's subjects continued to describe her as an adulteress. Numerous individuals, especially women, who felt personally threatened by her marriage to Henry because it was perceived as an assault on traditional family values, denounced the liaison of the royal couple. After they were wed, in fact, the protests seemed to have increased in number, for as long as the ex-queen was still living at least a part of the populace was more willing to accept Anne as the king's mistress than as his consort.
In early sixteenth-century England women did not exercise formal political power. They did not sit in Parliament, hold office, act as justices, or head armies. Yet the sixteenth century was a period when women increasingly came to participate in political comment and protest throughout western Europe, and a number of recent works have begun to examine the significance of their activities. Historians have begun to reassess the ways in which women such as Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine Parr participated in Tudor political and religious change, while, more recently, feminist historians have begun to assess the range of political activity by women of the nobility... Even women like Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn did not have authority, but even women like Margaret Cheyney and Elizabeth Barton could have power.