The Last Days Of Anne Boleyn: The evidence keeps us guessing

Historian

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The Last Days Of Anne Boleyn examines why Anne Boleyn had to die, a subject about which historians have wrangled for years.

This BBC Two programme wonderfully recreates that process of historical debate and features seven historians and historical novelists, of whom I was one, arguing the case.

In 1536 Anne Boleyn became the first Queen in Britain to be executed

For some reason, the story of Anne Boleyn's downfall inspires extraordinarily passionate, opinionated disagreement.

There's just the right amount of evidence to keep us guessing – enough to lead to great speculation and several almost-sustainable theories, but ultimately not enough to nail any one entirely.

Although we were all interviewed separately, the film has been brilliantly edited to make our debate seem live. If it had been in practice, I doubt you would have been able to make out anything over the ardent babble!

There's also another interesting natural tension in the programme. Historians and novelists use evidence differently.

Historians feel bound by the precise demonstrable facts of the documents. Novelists can weave empathetic visions into the silences between those facts. Both have their place. 

Hilary Mantel has written two novels which focus on Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell

Broadly, the theories about Anne's death boil down to four possible scenarios:

1) that Anne was guilty,
2) that Thomas Cromwell and, possibly, the Seymours conspired against her,
3) that Henry VIII wanted to get rid of Anne,
4) that dangerous talk cost lives and it was what Anne said – rather than what she did – that made her appear, in Henry's eyes, guilty.

Prof Greg Walker and I are exponents of the last view. Prof George Bernard, the lone voice arguing for the first, and the other commentators (Dr Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Alison Weir and Dr David Starkey) are split between the remaining two theories.

The saga of Anne Boleyn's downfall has entered into legend and lost none of its power to fascinate

One extraordinary thing to me – given the paucity of evidence from which ideas about a Cromwellian plot have been spun – is that the claims of the conspiracy theorists somehow seem to have become the orthodoxy.

I hope this programme will set the cat among the pigeons and, perhaps, even right this!

Above all, it will help people realise the degree of rigour and analysis that is needed to solve a true historical mystery like this.

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb is a contributor to The Last Days Of Anne Boleyn, and senior lecturer and convenor for history at New College of the Humanities.

The Last Days Of Anne Boleyn is on Thursday, 23 May at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC Two HD.

More on The Tudor Court
BBC Two: The Tudor Court Season: Explore life and death in Tudor Britain
BBC History: Tudors: Articles, features and quizzes about an era of change and triumph
BBC Arts & Culture: Paintings of the six wives of Henry VIII

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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