Mark Bostridge

‘Struck with the dart of love’: portrait of a marriage

Such was the emotion Anne Boleyn inspired in Henry VIII. But before long that scalding love had turned to a brutalising hatred of his second wife, culminating in her bloody beheading

Portrait of Anne Boleyn. [Getty Images]

‘These bloody days have broken my heart.’ Thomas Wyatt’s words are an expression of his personal distress at the fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and the woman for whom the king had defied the pope and proclaimed himself supreme head of the English Church.

But they are also indicative of the shockwaves resonating around England in May 1536. Within just three weeks, Queen Anne, along with five men – among them her brother George, with whom she was accused of incest – were tried and convicted of treasonous adultery and beheaded in the Tower. Wyatt himself, narrowly escaping their fate, may have witnessed Anne’s execution from a slit in a window in the Bell Tower. She was swiftly dispatched by a swordsman from Calais. Her corpse and decapitated head were hurriedly consigned to an old arrow chest and buried in the chapel nearby.

The Henrician regime proved extraordinarily successful in erasing Anne from history after her death

Never before had an anointed English queen stood trial, let alone been judicially murdered. As John Guy and Julia Fox point out in Hunting the Falcon, their study of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s relationship (the falcon was Anne’s insignia), the only precedent lay in romantic fiction, in a work that was popular at Henry’s court: Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. There, in the story of Guinevere’s condemnation for her love for Lancelot, was the ‘conceptual basis’ for putting a queen on trial.

Subsequently the Henrician regime proved extraordinarily successful in its efforts to erase Anne from history through its wholesale destruction of physical evidence relating to her. Few writings by Anne remain. There is only one authenticated contemporary portrait, a 1534 medal – and that has its nose bashed in. Examine the organ screen in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, and look out for a rare survival of the romantically entwined initials ‘HA’ carved in its wood.

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