On May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded for crimes of treason, adultery and incest by a special sword-wielding executioner who was sent for before her guilt was determined in a court of law. Her brief reign as Queen of England was over, but she had tremendous impact on events in her lifetime (and beyond, since she was Elizabeth I’s mother). Just as her guilt or innocence of the charges that brought her to the scaffold is a contentious issue, so also her role in the English Reformation is hotly debated. I am not convinced that she was guilty; nor am I convinced by some arguments that she was a great leader of the English Reformation.
She played one crucial role in the English Reformation: she was a catalyst (although she certainly did not escape change). Anne caught Henry’s eye and refused to be his mistress as her sister Mary had been; she demanded marriage and coronation. Because Anne held out, and because Henry was desperate for a legitimate male heir, and because Pope Clement VII would not grant Henry the annulment he sought of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry took his drastic step—take over the power and authority of the Church for himself. Thomas Cranmer, his new Archbishop of Canterbury declared that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was null and void so that Henry and Anne could marry.
It is commonly thought that Anne also gave Henry the pretext on which to take that drastic step, introducing him to William Tyndale’s book The Obedience of a Christian Man. Tyndale argued that the monarch should have control of the Church in his land—and Henry liked Tyndale’s argument, adopted it, and proceeded, through Convocation and Parliament to gain that control.
If Anne Boleyn was committed to the reform outlined by Luther and his followers like Tyndale on the Continent, she most certainly failed to influence Henry in that regard. He never adopted the crucial doctrines of the Continental Reformation—sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia. Although he suppressed use of the word purgatory, Henry still wanted prayers and Masses said for his own benefit after death. Henry always upheld the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and condemned men to death for denying it just as he did men who denied his supremacy in the Church. He was never comfortable with common people interpreting the Holy Bible, with married clergy, or with other changes. Religious practices in England veered from Cromwell and Cranmer's incremental reforms in liturgy to Henry's more conservative and traditional views. When Tyndale was executed in Vilvoorde, Belgium he prayed that God would open the eyes of the King of England.
In her study of Anne Boleyn’s fall and execution, The Lady in the Tower, Alison Weir offers detail that indicates Anne and Henry agreed on some of these matters: before her execution, Anne availed herself of Catholic Sacraments: Confession and the Holy Eucharist. She asked for the Holy Eucharist to be brought to her apartments in the Tower of London soon after being imprisoned there; she asked Thomas Cranmer to hear her last confession, and she received Holy Communion.
This seems to demonstrate conventional Catholic beliefs in the Real Presence and of the efficacy of the Sacraments, unless Anne was cynically manipulating both Cranmer and Kingston, her jailer in the Tower, to prove her innocence. She made it clear that she did not confess as sins the crimes she was accused of and then pointed to her reception of Holy Communion as proving she had not committed those crimes. Receiving Holy Communion without confessing Mortal Sins (adultery and incest) would surely be condemning oneself to Hell! Anne seems to be a very conventional Catholic in these regards.
As Alison Weir notes in The Lady in the Tower, it was a fellow reformer who instigated the conspiracy leading to her arrest, trial, and execution: Thomas Cromwell. Anne and he clashed over the process of suppressing the monasteries as she thought any funds gained from their closing should benefit the poor. She was also more apt to argue for keeping some of the monasteries open in view of their service to the poor—at one point during her imprisonment in early May 1536, she hoped for refuge in a convent. Whatever role Anne had taken in the religious policies of Henry’s reign, evidently Cromwell was confident he could continue the process without her influence. (We should also remember that Cromwell seemed to regret some of his innovations as vice regent and vicar general; before his execution on July 28, 1540, he professed to die in the traditional religion.)
Of course, his king had to be convinced of his queen’s guilt if she was to be destroyed. Henry must have been unhappy with her since the only surviving baby was a girl; she had not fulfilled her main purpose. Anne was not prepared to be a queen and had been raised quite high by Henry. Her jealousy at his roving eye offended him and he told her so—mentioning her predecessor’s good behavior in that regard. Whatever her influence on him had been, it had clearly waned and another had caught his eye—one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. If Henry was dedicated to reformation of the Church in England, he certainly believed he could do it without her.
Anne was also abandoned by another ally: Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was at first not convinced of her guilt, but learning that Henry VIII believed her guilty, and reading the accusations and evidence against her, Cranmer regretfully stifled any concerns he might have and commiserated with Henry about her betrayal of him. In obedience to Henry, he declared that Henry’s marriage to Anne was null and void before her execution, creating a logical problem: if Henry and Anne were never married, how could she have committed adultery? Her guilt was a foregone conclusion, as far as Henry, Cromwell, and the court that tried her were determined. If Henry wanted her found guilty and executed, issues like her influence on the continuing reformation of religion in England must be put aside. Henry had executed other influential Catholic reformers like Cardinal Fisher and Thomas More: if true reformation of the Church in England was really the goal, they would have kept their heads. If Cranmer really thought her indispensable in reformation matters, he should have stood up for her more steadfastly—especially if he knew her innocent after her confession in the Tower.
The betrayal by Cromwell, the rejection by Henry, and the defection by Cranmer persuade me that Anne Boleyn did not have such great influence over religious matters in England as some authors, like Paul Zahl (Five Women of the English Reformation) or Joanna Denny (Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England’s Tragic Queen) indicate.It is hard to argue that she died a martyr to the Protestant or even reformer cause, as some have, based on John Foxe's Acts and Monuments.The rejection by Henry is certainly most crucial, but Cranmer’s defection is most telling. Anne Boleyn was executed, as so many had been and would be, because Henry VIII wanted her to be executed!
These issues of her guilt, her innocence, her religious faith, her influence, her rise, her fall, her life, her death—they certainly demonstrate why Anne Boleyn is a constant figure of fascination in fiction, biography, historical study, movies, TV shows, websites, and blogs! For all the different ways that The Tudors series failed in historical accuracy, the dramatic presentation of Anne Boleyn's execution was very effective.