Letters From History: Anne Boleyn to Henry, 6th May 1536

Thirteen days before her execution, Anne Boleyn is believed to have written this letter to her husband, King Henry VIII of England. While the authenticity of this letter is still up for debate, the passion and personality of the writing certainly suggests it could have been written by Anne. Contemporaries noted with awe (and perhaps a little horror) how she was not afraid to stand up to the King. While this undoubtedly originally drew Henry to her, it was also something he soon grew tired of when she was unable to provide him with a male heir. It’s no wonder, really, that Henry’s next wife was the meek and mild Jane Seymore, as far removed from the feisty Anne as you could possibly get.

Sir,

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 indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty, perform your duty. But let not your grace ever imagine that your poor wife will be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought ever proceeded. And to speak a truth, never a prince had wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn – with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself, if God and your grace’s pleasure had been so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation or received queenship, but that 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 low estate to be your queen and companion, far beyond my 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 towards 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 shame. Then you shall see either my innocence cleared, your suspicions and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that, whatever God and you may determine of, your grace may be freed from an open censure; and my offense being so lawfully proved, 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 while since have pointed unto – your grace being not ignorant of my suspicion therein.

But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander must bring your 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 judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear; and in whose just judgment, I doubt not (whatsoever the world may think of me), mine innocence shall be openly known and sufficiently cleared. 

My last and only request shall be, that my self 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 Boleyn have been pleasing in your ears – then let me obtain this request; and so I will leave to trouble your grace any further, with mine earnest prayer 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 May.

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Anne’s letter is calculated, but it is also heartfelt: she defends herself to the end, while also plainly stating that she has done nothing that requires defending, there has been no wife more loyal than she. Anne also begs Henry to consider the fate of their infant daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. In a final act of selflessness, she requests that Henry pardon the men arrested on her account. While some will disagree, I don’t believe that Anne committed adultery; yes, she was a pawn in a political game but she was also a smart woman in her own right, knowing just how to seduce the King and win herself the title of Queen. Knowing how precarious her situation was growing in regard to their lack of a son, it seems very unlikely that she would have exacerbated things further.

For me, then, this letter is an attempt by Anne to redeem her tarnished reputation, not just in the eyes of Henry but also in the eyes of the people.In a time when the deck was stacked against powerful women like Anne, she played the game well but still ultimately lost. Knowing that not only her life but also her memory was at stake, she handled her fate with grace, dignity and faith. This is evident not only in her letter but also in what she is believed to have said right before she died:

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.

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