Anne Boleyn: A Forgotten Victim of ‘Fake News’?

Anne Boleyn is an enigma. Contemporaries and historians alike have painted this infamous ‘beheaded’ second wife of Henry VIII as a ‘noble lady,’ ‘a whore,’ ‘an innocent victim,’ ‘a scandal of Christendom,’ and whilst the list of juxtaposing descriptions about the woman with ‘a long neck,’ ‘middling stature’ and ‘black and beautiful’ eyes could go on, flipping back and forth between praise and criticism of the lady that ‘bewitched’ Henry VIII, I would like to add another interpretation of Anne Boleyn to the list, in light of the historical evidence and our own current political climate. 

Thanks in part to President Trump, the term ‘fake news’ has entered our political vocabulary. Over the past few days for example, we have been bombarded with media headlines that the New York Times claimed the President of the United States paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016-2017. This has of course been labelled as ‘fake news’ by Donald Trump. You are probably reading this article and wondering what on earth Donald Trump could possibly have to do with Anne Boleyn? This article proposes that ‘fake news’ culture should not be perceived merely as a Donald Trump tagline, but a much more dangerous reality for the court of Henry VIII back in 1536.

A painting of Anne Boleyn by an unknown artist, 1570. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

It is widely known that Anne Boleyn was beheaded on the 19th May 1536. However, it is has been commonly understood by the twenty first century masses that Anne Boleyn had been murdered by her ‘tyrannical’ husband merely because she failed to deliver in her promise to provide the King with a male heir, something which also caused the downfall of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Anne Boleyn was Catherine of Aragon’s former Lady-in-waiting who had by all accounts ‘bewitched’ the King and had him follow her to ‘Mass’ and ‘everywhere,’ according to the Venetian ambassador in 1532. Boleyn failed to live up to the expectations of a Tudor Queen after she was crowned, because of the birth of a daughter, Elizabeth on the 7th September 1533 (future Elizabeth I), a miscarriage in 1534, followed by another miscarriage that was reported by the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys of a deformed son of three and a half months on the 26th January 1536. The birth of Elizabeth, who was named after Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York and the miscarriage of what would have been Anne Boleyn’s ‘saviour of a son’ is not the entire story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall. This article suggests that Anne Boleyn’s execution was the result of ‘fake news’ and not merely her fertility, as many believe. 

The majority of Tudor historians are in agreement that Henry VIII confided in Thomas Cromwell in the year 1536. He sought an end to his marriage to Anne Boleyn because he had fallen in love/lust with Anne Boleyn’s own Lady-in-waiting the ‘naturally sweet natured’ Jane Seymour, after Anne Boleyn’s two miscarriages. This article proposes that this is where the need for a campaign of Tudor ‘fake news’ came into play at the court of Henry VIII. We cannot ever be completely sure that Henry VIII did not directly behest his chief minister Thomas Crowmwell to find an excuse to execute Anne Boleyn, however it seems unlikely that Henry VIII requested Anne Boleyn’s execution as a way to ensure that his marriage was dissolved. In light of historical evidence housed at The British Library, where an original letter written by Thomas Cromwell himself is preserved, it seems more likely that it was Thomas Cromwell and not Henry VIII who was the architect and political mastermind behind the murder of Anne Boleyn. This letter is the piece of ‘evidence’ that was presented to Henry VIII by Thomas Cromwell himself, accusing Anne Boleyn of lying with five men, including her own older brother. Fake news in the 21st century is typically defined as false stories that are spread across media platforms either because it is intended as a joke or because it seeks to influence political views. If we understand letters to be the Tudor equivalent of our BBC News, CNN and Fox News, Thomas Cromwell’s own letter laced with accusations of Anne Boleyn’s marital affairs could be read as fitting with our own definition of ‘fake news’ as Henry VIII’s infamous secretary potentially concocted these ‘abominable’ crimes in order to fulfil his King’s desire to detach himself from his ‘Most Happy Queen,’ whom he had a ‘sunshine and showers’ relationship with, according to Antonia Fraser. Indeed, it seems likely that Thomas Cromwell invented these affairs in order to influence political views of Anne Boleyn because the likes of Hilary Mantel claim that Thomas Cromwell supposedly sought to avenge the key role that Anne Boleyn played in the execution of Thomas Cromwell’s own mentor, Thomas Wolsey. It appears that Thomas Cromwell potentially wanted to remove Anne Boleyn permanently, which could not have been achieved through a mere annulment of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s marriage. Perhaps, Thomas Cromwell needed some ‘fake news’ in order to remove Anne Boleyn from a pedestal of power, an experience that Donald Trump would no doubt claim to identify with. 

Was Anne Boleyn guilty of having sexual intercourse with the five men presented in Thomas Cromwell’s letter? Or was Thomas Cromwell creating some ‘fake news’ to dispose of Anne Boleyn? Perhaps the truth is malleable, and as we see in the age of Trump, it is not what is done or said, but how it is presented that matters. Either way, the accusations made by Cromwell cost Anne Boleyn her life. She was beheaded on the 19th May 1536 by an executioner sent from France, who killed her ‘swiftly’ with a sword for crimes that were either ‘true’ or ‘false.’

Sophie Overton

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