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

Thursday 23 May 2013, 10:50

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb Dr Suzannah Lipscomb 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.

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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 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.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn 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.

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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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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    As this was a history programme, it was somewhat disappointing that the narrator kept insisting that the events happened 600 years ago (or six centuries ago) rather than not quite 500 years ago!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Throughout this programme the narrator kept referring to the time since the events around Anne's death as being "600 years". May 1536 - May 2013 is in fact 477 years therefore 500 years might have been an acceptable round figure, but 600 years is absolutely incorrect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The historical accuracy of the entire programme is at risk by the constant inaccurate reference in the narrator's script to the 'events of 600 years ago' and 'six centuries of debate'.
    The producers of the programme and BBC editors perhaps need to take some remedial training in numeracy. The events referred to occurred in 1536, which is 477 years ago, approaching 500 years ago or nearly five centuries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    If the makers of this programme can't do basic maths, what credence should we put in their historical analyses? 2013-1534 is really not 'nearly 600 years'! Otherwise interesting but ultimately pointless - if the experts who have studied the evidence in depth have such wildly differing opinions on what happened then we might as well just say we don't know and leave it there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Also to comment on Dr Lipscomb's last point I didn't spot much rigour or analysis - rather guesswork, speculation and personal interpretation were much in evidence - good fun but not rigorous in the sense of scientific analysis which must give primacy to the uncertainty of any conclusion rather than pet theories.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I would like to ask a question. It has always puzzled me why Elizabeth (although classed as illegitimate after Anne's destruction as was her older sister Mary after her own mother was cast off) never had her parentage called into question by the King and was allowed to be named in the succession. Why was this the case when if the charges against her mother were true how could her paternity be certain. I know that the charges were all for alleged acts of adultery after her birth but surely by condemning Anne as an adulteress the doubt would have been there in Henry's mind had he known there to be any truth at all in the charges. For me this seems to imply that he was complicit in the falsity of the charges against her but I would be very interested to know if this is a valid viewpoint or if there is another explanation for Elizabeth's place in the succession based on the politics of the day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I hope, with the basic mathematical errors, that this doesn't find its way into classrooms. 0/10 Very Poor effort!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    May 1536 - May 2013 is in fact 477 years, nearly 500 years not 600 years!
    As staunch lifelong supporters of the BBC and all it stands for, my wife and I were absolutly amazed by the obvious and continual error in basic mathamatics, which blighted an otherwise excellent program. How many script writter and editors etc missed the error??
    Bang goes your chance of distributing this program around the world, not without major re-editing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    nobody will ever know for sure .but the programme never mentioned the fact that Henry had a fall while jousting ,that he was unconscious for quite a while .and his moods from then on became more black.In fact several books mention the fact that when the king fell from his horse its was Anne's own uncle Thomas duke of Norfolk who fetched her the news that the King was unconscious which caused her to miscarry .none of this was mentioned .the fact Norfolk had been upset by her months before when she had argued with him ,

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    As with others here, we watched this programme in astonishment when the narrator mentioned 4 times that these events happened nearly 600 years ago! I think lots of people today talk of the 21st century - forgetting that this means we're in the 2000s - and then look at the 1530s and so make it 600 rather 500 years. Although I don't think this explains why it was overlooked by so many people who would have viewed the programme before it went out. Nor why Robert Glenister, the narrator, would repeat this error so many times - maybe basic arithmetic wasn't their strong suit!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Just been watching 'The Last Days of Anne Boleyn' on BBC2. For a documentary from a corporation set up to educate, the writer(s) couldn't even get their sums right. On four different occasions, and in the blurb on the BBC website, they referred to the "events of 600 years ago", "6 centuries later" etc. Anne Boleyn was executed in 1536, 477 years ago. I spent much of the show shouting helplessly at the TV. I won't be watching the rest of this series.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Why could the Producers and even Mr Glenister himself not notice at any point that 1536 is nearly 500 years and NOT 600 as he said 5 or 6 times throughout the programme? What a shame that this basic error marred an otherwise enjoyable prog. It even says it on your website here Woeful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The problem for Historians is that History is written by Historians and no matter how much they argue over 'that, this and then', they cannot escape the fact that History (let's call it that) has Never amounted to the Truth, nor likely ever will. It might be better to describe the subject as Interpretation.
    My view is based purely on all we know about Henry. It is quite obvious from his behavior throughout his life that he would do almost anything to get what he wanted (certainly where women were concerned) and he misused his power to achieve this aim. We know how he stopped at nothing to get Anne. His ego trip echoes to this day. So why are we still asking if he was behind the 'fall' of Anne.? Of course he was. The fact he had four more wives after her is evidence that he held his own 'lusts and needs' to be greater than the Sanctity of Marriage. He was a man who, because he was King, determined to get what he wanted and used others in his circle to achieve it. Did Anne have affairs? Perhaps she did----it was common at the time--Henry had dozens of affairs during every marriage he went through so it is ridiculous to hold him up as 'betrayed'. I have no doubt Anne played a political game in the Court of Henry the Eighth (everyone did) but it is much more likely that once the honeymoon (six years) was over and there was no male heir, Henry wanted rid of Anne and saw to it. I think we all know the kind of man Henry was. How many wives did he have? Six did you say?
    How does anyone manage that in the 16th Century?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I also found the silly mistake by the narrator emphatically mentioning 600 years (when it is not even 500) irksome. Nevertheless, the analysis of the events by the several schools of thought on the matter creates an intriguing and powerful drama. What would be of even greater interest is the analysis and commentary on the documentary evidence of witnesses and the indictment as well as reports and accounts of the various courtiers, ambassadors and other observers. Overall it is a good presentation as an introduction to the subject and whets the appetite for further study; so it serves its purpose. I particularly enjoyed the tension between the accomplished historians - David Starkey on the one hand and Suzannah Lipscomb on the other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    As stated above: the BBC on their site and the narrator consistently referred to six centuries of debate and 600 years! It is not yet 500 years! Get it right BBC please!

    As for the rest, I enjoyed the range of debate, the range of sources, and the fact that you even looked at an alternative, if lone theory of Professor Bernard that Anne may have been guilty. Well, there is no smoke without fire!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    As mentioned in most of the comments above it is unacceptable of the BBC to make such a constant reference to 1536 being 600 years ago. This was a programme about history and as such someone should have spotted this big mistake before it was televised. The programme never mentioned the fact that Henry had a fall while jousting,that he was unconscious for quite a while .and his moods from then on became more black.In fact several books mention the fact that when the king fell from his horse its was Anne's own uncle Thomas Duke of Norfolk who fetched her the news that the King was unconscious which caused her to miscarry,none of this was mentioned, the fact that the Duke of Norfolk had been upset by her months before when she had argued with him.
    Having said the above, I did enjoy the programme BBC and look forward to more programmes like it. History and the analysis of it is very important, even in these modern times.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Typical of many non-fiction programmes nowadays - flitting between too many speakers who can only get in a few words at a time. I do like a story to "hang together".

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The 600 years thing drove me mad and The Telegraph's review of the programme said 650 years so that was even worse!

    The programme was excellent, although I would have loved the historians and authors to actually be interacting each other rather than being interviewed separately. I found it interesting that Philippa Gregory is still sticking to the incest and deformed foetus theories and I was annoyed that she spoke about the midwife's examination of the baby as if it was fact when there is no midwife's report at all.

    I missed the late Eric Ives. He and Bernard are brilliant when they debate and I did feel that he would have countered Bernard's claims perfectly. As for "Well, there is no smoke without fire!" well, the fire can always be arson.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I have three more ideas which I'd value people's opinions on.
    1) Maybe the Countess of Worcester waas actually referring to Anne's relationship with the King rather than to some unknown other lover. As the programme repeatedly points out, Henry turned the world upside down to have her. In 1536, this was still very new and unsettling. The Countess, despite being one of Anne's ladies, may well not have been really happy with Henry's discarding of Catherine of Aragon and viewed Anne's role as 'the other woman' with disapproval. If Anne, as you point out, viewed herself as being 'really' the Queen only after Catherine's death, then presumably others weren't convinced of her status.
    2) In 1536, Anne was probably 35ish, getting on a bit as regards procreating. Catherine's last pregnancy had been when she was 32. Although it would seem unlikely that Henry, having done so much to have her, would discard her lightly, he may well have felt that her biological clock was ticking a little too fast. What Henry categorically wanted more than ANYTHING else was a son.
    3) Henry reputedly told Anne's successor Jane Seymour, that 'the last Queen had died in consequence of meddling too much in state affairs (Antonia Fraser: The Six Wives of Henry VIII). This is NEVER mentioned when people discuss the fall of Anne Boleyn. He didn't tell Jane Anne had died for being unfaithful. Surely this is of massive significance?
    To my mind, Anne Boleyn comes over as flirtatious and tactless, but highly intelligent - way too intelligent to do something as stupid as be unfaithful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed this programme. Alison Weir and David Starkey's input were particularly insightful, however it would have been even more interesting if one of Anne Boleyn's arguably best biographers, Eric Ives, had been involved in the programme. As to theories for Anne's demise, I'm inclined to agree with David Starkey and Eric Ives' assessments that her destruction may have been due to a mixture of both Cromwell and Henry's plotting. That Cromwell was not heavily involved cannot be discounted surely, especially judging by his later brutal efficiency in disposing of his enemies, not to mention his astonishing capability to bend Henry's will to his own and a confession of sorts to Eustace Chapuys. The sermon of Passion Sunday which was discussed by the historians would surely have put Anne at risk of retaliation from Cromwell and hence, must have been directed at Henry's Secretary. During this time, many political statements and propaganda were issued through pageants and religious ideology. Had the sermon NOT have been directed at Cromwell, then Skip as Anne's Almoner would surely not have delivered it, knowing that the audience would easily have misconstrued it as being aimed at Cromwell. Had it not have been deliberate, it would have been judged too politically sensitive and it is known that Skip was reprimanded for it. My guess is that Anne went too far and Cromwell may have been able to bend his Master's will to dispose of her at an opportune time - those are just my views anyway. But a very enlightening and informative programme.


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