In my second year at university, I wrote a paper on the fall of Anne Boleyn. I was fascinated by this topic and continue to be so. There is something which is so finite and yet ambiguous about the topic: we have information and sources from the period and yet they are so contested that they can be interpreted in many ways. Historians continue to argue and debate various theories from whether she was actually guilty (pushed by George Bernard) to court faction (favoured by Eric Ives and David Starkey). However in my second year essay, one school of thought really caught my eye, and not because of its convincing nature. Anne’s miscarriage in January 1536 has been focused in on by historians such as Retha Warnicke as a possibility as to a reason behind her fall. What is really intriguing about this theory is the apparent possibility of a ‘deformed baby’ as a result of this miscarriage. In this blog post, I wanted to look closer at Warnicke’s argument and expand my second year position.
Warnicke’s argument evolves around Anne’s January miscarriage being the trigger of events that ended in her death. She argues that the child born was deformed and it was consequently as a result of this that Henry denied the parentage of the child and was convinced of Anne’s adultery. The evidence that she gives for this is as follows.
Firstly, she talks about a cover up that was put into place by the crown to ‘suppress’ the deformity of the child by blackening Anne’s name through sexual rumours. This cover was seen through the leaking of false information to ambassadors such as Chapuys, ambassador to the Holy Roman Empire. Apparently, the miscarriage occurred on the 29th January however Chapuys failed to mention this in his dispatches on the 3rd February. When he does mention them several days later, Warnicke interprets this delay as a result of the crown approving and putting out a story which removed Henry from blame.
To explain why no action was taken against Anne until at least April, Warnicke highlights how the issues of churching and the legal profession leaving Westminster meant a delay in any action that could be taken.
With regards to the deformed foetus itself, she argues that a birth of a deformed child would insinuate sinful behaviour and be viewed as a divine judgement upon Henry and Anne’s marriage. This had far reaching implications which could see the kingdom, royal supremacy and the English church thrown ‘into great disrepute’.
Warnicke’s arguments unpacked
By looking at Warnicke’s argument and evidence that she has to support it, on face value, it seems that she has evidence for her case. However, as soon as you start to question and research this period, one finds that the majority, if not all, of her arguments can be debunked and thus hold no credibility.
This begins with her central and core argument that she pushes in her work: that of Anne Boleyn giving birth to a deformed child in January 1536. While Anne did indeed have a miscarriage, there is no contemporary evidence at all to suggest that the foetus was deformed in any way. In fact the first source we have stating this is from 1585 by Nicholas Sander in which he describes Anne giving birth ‘to ‘a shapeless mass of flesh’. This thus raises many questions with regards to the credibility of Warnicke’s theory. Firstly, this account was written 52 years after the event by a catholic in exile. Seeing as Anne replaced the catholic Catherine of Aragon as wife and queen to Henry VIII and the virtual chaos that was caused from just Henry pursing Anne, breaking from Rome and putting in motion an English reformation causing turbulence for decades after, it is no surprise that Catholics resented Anne. Thus Sander’s account was always going to be unfavourable to a woman whom many saw as the cause of the reformation and the eradication of Catholicism in England.
Moreover, with 52 years of silence, if there had been a deformed child, it is very surprising that nothing is recorded in this interim stating as such. William Thomas, ‘a protestant writer hostile to Anne’ made no mention of it within his writings. In the reign of Mary I (1553 – 1558), when the ruling monarch had been so affected and brow beaten by the events of the divorce and thus when ‘motive and opportunity’ was at its highest, there remain a silence in the anti-Anne material that was produced with regards to this deformed child. These are just two examples of people and regimes who would have and did blacken Anne’s name and a story of a deformed foetus, with its links to witchcraft and sexual deviancy, would have been gold material for publishers.
A point that many historians have not considered when critiquing the Sander source is the time it was written in. In 1585, Mary Queen of Scots was still an ongoing problem for the English government and was the subject of many plots in order to free her and put her on the English throne. The Throckmorton plot had occurred just two years before Sander wrote his piece. With people in the north especially, rising up to support Mary and Catholicism, Sander’s piece is not out of step with what some may have been feeling within England at the time. It was felt by many Catholics that Elizabeth was not the rightful Queen of England and that that title fell to Mary Queen of Scots. By giving birth to a deformed foetus and thereby linking Anne with sin, sexual deviancy and witchcraft, it is not a far leap to think that there was also an indirect attempt by Sander to cast doubt on Elizabeth’s legitimacy and hence aid Mary to the throne. Thus, we have to question the aims of Sander and how much was he influenced by the events he was writing in.
The final dismissal of Sander’s source relates to some points already mentioned: how could Sander know what happened in an all-female area and how could he know something which was apparently covered up so well by the crown as Warnicke herself argues. This is a consistent issue with Warnicke’s writing and argument. There are many contradiction and stunted arguments. Warnicke herself accepts that Sander had no evidence for his story but she accepted what he said because with her research, she reckoned that Sander had ‘stumbled unknowingly on the real reason for her execution’. While some may accept this and think that her opinion has been informed by her research and evidence, personally, it can only be viewed as poor methodology. She has not critiqued the source itself and could have perhaps been subconsciously influenced by what she has read. As a historian, Warnicke has retraced her position on topics such as factions, used examples to back up her argument which are not contemporary to the events and fails to satisfactorily explain and further her arguments. These problems and holes in her writing rear again when talking about Sander as if there was such a cover up by the crown (and seeing how she presents her writing as the first to tell the truth of the matter), then how could Sander know anything about what happened in 1536? Thus she has undermined the only 16th century source that alludes to a deformed birth and her only direct evidence.
The evidence that she puts forward for various other points such as there being a delay in Chapuys noting the birth etc. is also problematic and very circumstantial. This is because the contemporary evidence she does draw upon, I believe, has been manipulated to fit this theory that she has of a crown cover up. The very idea of this sounds so incredulous and something out of a TV drama.
She mentions Chapuys a lot in her writing, portraying him as only reporting rumour and being misled on the events. As previously stated she highlights his lateness in mentioning the birth in his dispatches. Nevertheless, Ives has convincingly shown how Warnicke has misdated these letters and that Chapuys did in fact comment about the birth, of a boy, in the first possible dispatch after the event. Thus there was no silence from Chapuys and thus no time in which the crown could construct this story to cover up a deformed child.
Secondly, Warnicke fails to persuasively demonstrate why no action was taken against Anne until April. She does give evidence which could be plausible, but she has failed to take into account other events that occurred around this time that point to Anne remaining very much in the favour of the king. Firstly, Catherine of Aragon died on the same day as Anne’s miscarriage but after, both Henry and Anne celebrated her death and Henry was seen to hold Elizabeth up ‘in triumph’. Just because the two were in public together does not mean automatically that they were on good terms. It is the scene with Elizabeth that is of particular interest. By holding Elizabeth up like this, it suggests that Henry was promoting her as his heir, thereby she and his marriage to Anne must be legitimate. It seems out of place that if Anne had fallen from his favour, he should so publically proclaim her daughter and indirectly their marriage as legitimate.
The idea of legitimacy and the delay in action is also seen in the Easter period when an awkward encounter led to Chapuys acknowledging Anne. This is significant as ambassadors were representatives of their monarch and so actions they performed were seen to be their Master’s or Mistress’ wishes. This is shown by a letter dated 26th March 1536, to be the case. Charles V, the holy roman emperor and Chapyus’ master, wanted to negotiate an English alliance and did not want these negotiations to be stalled because of objections he may have had over Anne. What is interesting within these negotiations is that Henry wanted Charles V to accept he was mistaken over England’s break with Rome. I do not completely agree with Bernard that this was to only defend his marriage to Anne as Henry gained a lot of monarchical power and finance from his break with Rome. He often justified his grounds for separation by referring back to history and claiming ‘kings of England in times past have never had any superior but god alone’- highlighting his belief that there should be no one more powerful than the monarch bar god. However by Chapuys relenting to pressure from Henry and recognizing Anne, this symbolised the Holy Roman Emperor acknowledging Anne and thus acknowledging that she was no short term mistress but Queen. Therefore, this event highlights how by mid-April, there is no diplomatic evidence to suggest that Anne’s fall was imminent, and because of the intervention somewhat of Henry, does not show that he was thinking of ‘discarding her’.
Something which I touched upon in my second year essay but did not have chance to expand upon was the idea of medical knowledge at this time. Because of the lack of modern medical knowledge on the development of babies in the womb, if the child had been born early, it may have not have been fully developed and so people of the time may not have understood this, mistaking it for being disfigured. However, this is supposing that there was a deformed child and once again, there is no evidence bar Sander, to suggest this. Even contemporary reports such as Chapuys and latter poems like the de Carles poem, describe the child as a ‘fine boy’. Thus once again, even in a hypothetical world, Warnicke’s argument fails to stand up.
Lastly, if there had been a deformed child and if this was to be viewed as something sinful which reflected badly upon Henry, as Warnicke argues, surely he would have acted immediately. I agree with Warnicke that he may have wanted to deny the parentage of such a child, but as Bernard says, this could easily be taken as a symbol of Anne’s infidelity. Although she was accused of adultery in the end, it makes no sense that there should have been this gap when Henry had perfect evidence he could have manipulated in January to show that she had been unfaithful. There is nothing convincing that explains why Henry delayed action as if the king had wanted to begin proceedings, then he would have done if the lawyers were back from recess or not.
By looking at Warnicke’s argument, it is difficult to see any credibility in what she puts forward. Not only can most of it be disproven, but the sources she uses are very unreliable, her methods are questionable and the way she had put together her work seems like most of her evidence is circumstantial and used because it can easily be moulded around her point. This is a shame as she does well in analysing other historians’ arguments. There are many other factors which could have been addressed such as the introduction of Jane Seymour into the equation, court politics, the idea of courtly love at that time, but I really wanted to focus this blog post on Warnicke and her theory. Despite not addressing some more factors, in the few that I have addressed, we find this idea of a deformed baby without evidence and highly unlikely. The fact that I cannot separate Warnicke’s argument and telling of these events from TV shows like Game of Thrones, suggests an inherent problem within her work and an air of disbelief around work signifies that the evidence is not there to support it.
N.B. This essay has been developed from a second year essay submitted to the University of Kent in 2014.
- Bernard, G. W., ‘The Fall of Anne Boleyn’, The English Historical Review, 106:420, (1991), pp. 584 – 610
- Daynton, Charlotte, Second Year Assignment for HI5065: Essay 1, University of Kent, p. 2
- de Carles, Lancelot, Discours Anonymes et Poèmes sur Anne de Boleyn, (a letter containing the criminal charges laid against Queen Anne Boleyn of England), in Susan Walters Schmid, ‘Anne Boleyn, Lancelot de Carle, And the uses of documentary evidence’, (Ph.D diss., Arizona State University, 2009)
- Ives, E. W., ‘Stress, Faction and Ideology in Early-Tudor England Politics and Literature in the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII by Alistair Fox; The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn by Retha M. Warnicke; London and the Reformation by Susan Brigden’, The Historical journal 34:1, (1991), pp. 651 – 664
- Krista Kesselring, ‘Participants in the Northern rising’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,<http://www.oxforddnb.com/public/themes/95/95586.html> [accessed 13/12/2016]
- MacCulloch, Diarmaid, ‘Henry VIII and the reform of the church’ in the reign of Henry VIII. Ed. MacCulloch (1995), pp 159 – 80
- Sowerby, Dr. Tracy, ‘The Role of the Ambassador and the use of ciphers’, State Papers Online, <http://gale.cengage.co.uk/state-papers-online-15091714/essays.aspx> [accessed 11/12/2016]
- Warnicke, Retha M., ‘The Fall of Anne Boleyn’, The English Historical Review 108, (July 1993), p. 654.
- Warnicke, Retha M., The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989),
- Warnicke, Retha, ‘The fall of Anne Boleyn Revisited’, The English Historical Review, 108:428, (1993), p. 659
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Elizabeth I, < https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elizabeth-I> [accessed 13/12/2016]
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Anne Boleyn, <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anne-Boleyn> [accessed 10/12/2016]
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Francis Throckmorton, < https://www.britannica.com/biography/Francis-Throckmorton#ref96254> [accessed 13/12/2016]
 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Anne Boleyn, <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anne-Boleyn> [accessed 10/12/2016].
 Retha M. Warnicke, ‘The Fall of Anne Boleyn’, The English Historical Review 108, (July 1993), p. 654.
 Ibid. p. 662; Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 204.
 E. W. Ives, ‘Stress, Faction and Ideology in Early-Tudor England Politics and Literature in the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII by Alistair Fox; The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn by Retha M. Warnicke; London and the Reformation by Susan Brigden’, The Historical journal 34:1, (1991), p. 198.
 Retha Warnicke, ‘The fall of Anne Boleyn Revisited’, The English Historical Review, 108:428, (1993), p. 659
 Warnicke, ‘The fall’, p. 662.
 G. W. Bernard, ‘The Fall of Anne Boleyn’, The English Historical Review, 106:420, (1991), p. 586.
 Ives, ‘Stress and Faction’, pp. 199 – 200.
 Ibid. p. 199.
 Warnicke talks a lot about witchcraft in her work e.g. Warnicke, ‘The Fall’, p. 663.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Francis Throckmorton, < https://www.britannica.com/biography/Francis-Throckmorton#ref96254> [accessed 13/12/2016].
 Krista Kesselring, ‘Participants in the Northern rising’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, < http://www.oxforddnb.com/public/themes/95/95586.html> [accessed 13/12/2016].
 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Elizabeth I, < https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elizabeth-I> [accessed 13/12/2016]
 Ives, ‘Stress, Faction’, p. 198.
 Ibid. p. 200.
 Ibid. pp. 195 – 196; Warnicke, ‘The Fall’, pp. 662 – 663; Bernard, ‘The Fall’, p. 588.
 Warnicke, ‘The Fall’, p. 653.
 Ives, ‘Stress, Faction’, p. 198.
 Bernard, ‘The Fall’, p. 588.
 Dr. Tracy Sowerby, ‘The Role of the Ambassador and the use of ciphers’, State Papers Online, <http://gale.cengage.co.uk/state-papers-online-15091714/essays.aspx> [accessed 11/12/2016].
 Bernard, ‘The Fall’, p. 589.
 Ibid. pp. 589 – 590.
 Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Henry VIII and the reform of the church’ in the reign of Henry VIII. Ed. MacCulloch (1995), p. 165.
 Bernard, ‘The Fall’, p. 590.
 Charlotte Daynton, Second Year Assignment for HI5065: Essay 1, University of Kent, p. 2.
 Lancelot de Carles, Discours Anonymes et Poèmes sur Anne de Boleyn, (a letter containing the criminal charges laid against Queen Anne Boleyn of England), in Susan Walters Schmid, ‘Anne Boleyn, Lancelot de Carle, And the uses of documentary evidence’, (Ph.D diss., Arizona State University, 2009), p. 126; Bernard, ‘The Fall’, p. 586.
 Ibid. p. 587.