Review: The Last Days of Anne Boleyn (BBC Two)

Daniel Flynn and Tara Breathnach in The Last Days of Anne Boleyn (BBC 2)

At the end of May BBC Two released an hour-long TV programme examining Anne Boleyn’s downfall and the conspiracies surrounding it. For avid Tudor/Boleyn fans, it was an eagerly awaited investigation into the events of 1536, in addition to being surprisingly detailed and carefully discussed for what was essentially ‘public’ history. The main coverage is an intense discussion between historians that specialise in Anne Boleyn’s fall including Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory and David Starkey. The miscarriage of January 1536, the King’s interest in Jane Seymour, tensions within power-politics, the involvement of Cromwell and Anne’s character and innocence are all carefully assessed in a great degree of depth. With minimal dramatisation and little dominance of narrative or chronology, it is both refreshing and pleasing to encounter an academic approach to Anne on television, focusing on certain issues and themes, rather than simple ‘story-telling’. Yet the dangers of this include the blurring of boundaries between academia and public history – for example, the audience may feel less inclined to seek further information on England’s most controversial queen because they believe in a one-hour TV show they have learnt the ‘ins and outs’ of Anne’s fall. Yet this unique educational approach for BBC shouldn’t discredit a fantastic achievement within popular history and the media. For the first time within this sector an honest, fair and objective assessment is made encompassing the period of January-May 1536, with the temptation to make resolute conclusions avoided.

A fine example of academic debate and objectivity within the show is the significance of Anne’s miscarriage in January 1536. Henry was desperate for an heir to secure the Tudor dynasty and so far had been provided with two daughters, one from his first marriage, Mary, and Elizabeth from his new wife. Yet this was seen as a failure for a king, and when Anne miscarried quite late into her pregnancy of which was clearly a boy after a series of previous miscarriages, Henry was devastated. Bernard does not agree that a miscarriage would incur Henry to end his marriage, yet Gregory provides evidence that he began to view his marriage in a different light: one that was brought about by supernatural and dark means. Was this out of short-term fury or was it an accusation that his wife was a witch? Even if he hadn’t gone that far with his thinking, what was certain is that Henry was doubting the validity of his marriage and perhaps considering divorcing his queen, particularly when the young and submissive Jane Seymour was being dangled in front of him. Most importantly the false rumour many believe that Anne miscarried a deformed foetus is gratefully retracted. Gregory highlights that 40 years later, the Catholic propagandist Nicolas Sandler writes that Anne passed a ‘shapeless mass of flesh’. At the time, there was no evidence for the baby to have had any deformities.

Thomas Cromwell, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532-1533

In addition, Cromwell’s suspect involvement in Anne’s downfall is also critically assessed within the power struggles and tensions of the Tudor court. After her death, Cromwell is to say that he ‘dreamt the whole thing up’, suggesting the entire downfall was a coup. Yet historians are beginning to wonder whether such a careful and master-minded affair could really have been plotted by one person. Mantel’s view is that Cromwell was excellent at applying pressure onto people by asking uncomfortable questions, and may have even been surprised himself at the outcome, whereas Weir believes that Cromwell planned every rumour, event and accusation surrounding the charges, without influence from Henry. Yet Cromwell’s confession needs to be examined in context as Lipscomb points out – the previous line in the letter where he admits he ‘dreamt the whole thing up’ describes the King ordering Cromwell to put an end to the whole affair. As such, Starkey’s view is that the conspiracies and orders came from Henry himself – his queen was arrogant, difficult to manage and had failed her duty to provide him with an heir; he was simply fed up and wanted her completely out of the picture with no more issues about legitimacy or validity which he would have had to deal with if he went through another divorce.

The building labelled ‘g’ is the Queen’s Royal Apartments where Anne was imprisoned at the Tower of London, not the ‘Queen’s House’ which were built years after her death.

There is, however, a lack of information regarding the details of Anne’s death. All that is mentioned of her final day on Earth was that she was ‘…taken from her lodgings to a scaffold near-by.’ Here they missed a great opportunity to correct historical errors that have become well-believed by the public over the years. Firstly is that instead of the ‘Queen’s House’ which are terraced-style cottages that encompass Tower Green, Anne was actually kept in the Queen’s Apartments in the old palace that once stood in the Tower  of London, but unfortunately these royal residences do not stand today. Anne was, then, kept in the same chamber in which she spent the night before her coronation three years earlier. The irony lies in the contrast between the night that promised power and prosperity as queen and, a short while later, her stay representative of her destruction. Many also believe that Anne’s scaffold site stood on the remembrance plaque that stands on Tower Green today, yet this is not historically accurate. Anne was actually led to an area slightly east of Tower Green – so today, that would be the area in-between the Waterloo Barracks and north of the White Tower.

The second flaw is that there is no mention of her execution as a ritual which was critically important when a subject was about to meet their end. The behaviour, speech and loyalty to the King were all crucial factors in determining their families future after their deaths and how they presented their own legacy. Anne was careful to stay true to Henry, perhaps for her daughter Elizabeth’s sake, yet subtly asked people to judge her case, if they did so, kindly. What impact she left on the people was that she was a bold, courageous, strong and honest woman who may have been the victim of a conspiracy. Word about her execution spread around Europe quickly, along with her last confession, and it is generally believed hereafter that a large majority of people across the globe felt a sense of suspicion regarding the charges against the queen. Anne was then blindfolded, which is not commonly known to the public due to television and film’s dramatised accounts where it is more effective for Anne’s eyes to be visible, and knelt not in front of a block but upon straw where she repeatedly looked around for the sword, a sword that was brought in specially from Calais. In what was the only mercy towards her, the executioner distracted Anne so she did not know when her end would be. She was killed instantly and buried in an arrow chest within the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula by her ladies in waiting. No formal arrangements were made for her burial. Although not as important as the conspiracies surrounding her death it would have been nice for the BBC to have set straight some misguided facts about her imprisonment, execution and the moments that followed.

It appears that historians will never quite agree on the events of 1536 and what their significance brings about – yet, whether Cromwell was entirely responsible for her downfall, or Henry VIII grew sick of his haughty wife, or Anne was indeed guilty – there is no doubting her immortal enigma in Tudor history. ‘The Last Days of Anne Boleyn’ is an atypical documentary that uses a professional instead of ‘dramatic’ approach towards analytical ideas and the conspiracies surrounding Anne’s death on 19 May 1536. Henry himself may not have even been aware of his own destruction of his queen: as Starkey put it well: ‘The best liars truly believe their own lies when it is convenient for them.’

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Last Days of Anne Boleyn (BBC Two)

  1. I haven’t seen the show Jess but this is a well written review. In my own personal opinion there is no rule that says it was Cromwell OR it was Henry that plotted Anne’s downfall. I think they both were involved.in the plot. Also, Anne was somewhat at fault for her own demise in my opinion with her shrewish and jealous behavior. She took an immense chance with her gamble to get the king to marry her and she was at the mercy of her family too. Alison Weir’s book “The Lady in the Tower” is a masterful explanation of the events leading up to Anne’s execution. She examines all angles.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Susan! I agree with your rule but then again, if it was Henry and Cromwell together then Henry certainly would have known what was going on and as such approve that – so even if Cromwell was involved too, the top orders had to come from the king… At least in my opinion! Alison Weir is a fantastic author, I own many of her books including “The Lady in the Tower”, it is a great piece of work.

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