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From The Lady In The Tower: Anne’s “Last Letter”

April 2, 2014

Grief has a natural eloquence belonging to it, and breaks out in more moving sentiments than can be supplied by the finest imagination … It is for this reason that the short speeches or sentences which we often meet with in histories, make a deeper impression on the mind of the reader, than the most laboured strokes in a well written tragedy. Truth and matter of fact sets the person actually before us in the one, whom fiction places at a greater distance from us in the other. I do not remember to have seen any ancient or modern story more affecting than a letter of Ann of Bologne, wife to King Henry the eighth, and mother to Queen Elizabeth … Shakespear himself could not have made her talk in a strain so suitable to her condition and character.

— Joseph Addison, The Spectator, c.1712 (read the full essay here).

Depending on her preferred historians and novelists, a reader could have a respectable number of books under her belt before she encountered any extended treatment of the letter which Addison is discussing. This is a letter supposedly written by Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII on May 6th, 1536, which was later found among Cromwell’s papers (having presumably never reached its intended recipient) and which contained a note on the top margin saying that it was “from the lady in the tower.”

It opens with this paragraph:

Sir, your Grace’s displeasure, and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, as what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant; whereas you sent unto me (willing me to confess a truth, and so obtain your favour) by such a one, whom you know to be my ancient and professed enemy; I no sooner received the message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty perform your command.

In the body of the letter, the writer describes herself as having been raised unwillingly from her “lowly estate” by Henry’s desire, and tells him of her anger at now being falsely accused of adultery so that he can marry Jane Seymour instead (true to later literary tradition, Jane Seymour is never named directly, only alluded to as “that party … whose name I could some good while since have pointed unto”). She protests her innocence and demands a fair trial, signing off with:

My last and only request shall be, that my self may only bear the burthen of your Grace’s displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. If ever I have found favour in your sight; if ever the name of Anne Boleyn hath been pleasing to your ears, then let me obtain this request; and I will so leave to trouble your Grace any further, with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your Grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions.

Your most loyal and ever faithful wife, Anne Bulen.

From my doleful prison the Tower, this 6th of May.

As you’ve guessed by now — if you didn’t know already — the reason this letter has not been front and center in every book about Anne ever written is because its provenance is very suspect. Claire Ridgeway has a very good roundup here of the differing opinions of historians over the centuries (along with the full text of the letter itself). The first historian to bring the letter to light, Edward Herbert, didn’t have a great deal of faith in it but subsequent writers would find themselves convinced. Burnet, writing in the late 17th century, thought it authentic, and in the early eighteenth century it experienced minor literary celebrity after Addison’s endorsement. In fact, Anne’s supposed letter became a literary star before she did, and served as a model for poems by William Whitehead and Elizabeth Tollet, although Henry Fielding’s Anna Boleyn (1743) makes no mention of it.

Historical debate over the letter continued, and still does. Of the nineteenth-century popular histories which I’ve read (and I have by no means read all of them) consensus is divided: roughly half of the writers believe it to be authentic and the other half think it probably spurious, though it’s usually with some regret. James Gairdner and Paul Friedmann thought it was a fake, but J.A. Froude thought it real, Katharine Thomson (1826) and Selina Bunbury (1844) both endorsed it — although Thomson doesn’t mention it in her later novel Anne Boleyn: An Historical Romance (1842). Agnes Strickland, writing in 1843, reproduces the whole letter and plainly wants it very much to be real.

Strickland (1843) p. 137-8: The authenticity of this beautiful letter has been impugned for various reasons, but chiefly because the handwriting differs from the well known autograph of Anne Boleyn. But the fact that it was found among Cromwell’s papers four years after her death proves it to be a contemporary document …. The only real objection which occurs to us is, that the letter is signed “Ann Bullen” instead of “Anna the quene.” (From Lives Of The Queens Of England, vol. II, pp. 137-8)

Strickland goes on to say that Anne’s reversion to the “once beloved signature” of Anne Boleyn might have been a last-ditch effort to remind Henry of what he had once loved about her. But there were more objections to the letter than this. This isn’t the place for an extensive summary, but briefly put, they amounted to these:

— Anne’s handwriting in her other letters does not resemble the handwriting in this one. (Though it’s possible she dictated, or that the letter now extant is a copy)

— Anne’s signature of “Ann Bulen” is not only inconsistent with her insistence that she’s the king’s true and loyal wife (thus “Anne the Quene”) but with her family’s position. After her father became Earl of Wiltshire, she was no longer called Anne Boleyn but Lady Anne Rochford. After being made Marquess of Pembroke, she could have also have called herself Anne Pembroke. She had not been “Anne Boleyn” for upwards of a decade.

— Her insistence that she never wanted to be queen in the first place, and her open reproach of Henry on the subject of Jane Seymour, sit uneasily both with her behavior before she was queen and the fact that this letter is supposedly an attempt to persuade him to have mercy on her.

One that I’ve never seen anywhere else but which has always puzzled me is the fact that nowhere in it does she mention her brother specifically. Since Kingston’s letters attest to the fact that she was very concerned about him, it seems strange that he would be lumped in with the anonymous “gentlemen” in the last paragraph. But this is speculation, and someone writing under stress might easily make some strange omissions.

The letter experienced a severe drop in popularity with twentieth-century historians, though it still has its adherents (Jasper Ridley among them). But it’s fair to say that among historians these days, the letter is usually treated with extreme suspicion at best or ignored completely at worst. It’s done better with lighter, popular productions — there are several collections of the “Letters From Great Women” variety which include it, and it’s also turned up in, of all places, the libretto of a song cycle. So while it hasn’t received a lot of respect, it has at least gotten some attention.

In fiction, however, it’s done better. The letter is by no means ubiquitous, but it’s been a steady presence from the eighteenth century onwards. Although it was the starring attraction in the two long poems I linked to earlier, by the nineteenth century it had been pushed back into the ranks somewhat; the first appearance I’ve found from then is in Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826) in which the whole letter is versified and read aloud by Anne to Cranmer, who undertakes to deliver it. “God, that can make the marble heart like wax, / Make this his instrument of grace!” Cranmer prays, to which Anne gives a literal “Amen.” Cranmer is somewhat less heroic in Norris And Anne Boleyn (1844), and Anne only writes her letter after he’s scuttled off to get the annulment of her marriage underway. The only portion we see is when she asks for mercy for the “poor gentlemen” who are in prison. “It was disregarded” the narrator tells us, and that’s that.

The letter keeps a fairly low profile in the raft of nineteenth-century plays about Anne, but it peeks out at least once — in Anne Boleyn (1875), she gives the letter to an attendant, telling her:

…Let the king
Have what I have writ here — if Master Cromwell
Perchance should keep it from his hand; that prince
Never had wife more loyal in all duty
And true affection than he in Anne Boleyn —
With which name I could have been well content.

In The Favor Of Kings (1912) the letter is used to excellent dramatic effect. Anne writes it at night, while her hostile attendant ladies are asleep, and as she finishes she sees lighted barges on the river, and hears Henry singing a song he originally wrote for her — but now he’s off to see Jane. “She thought of the letter that she had penned to that oblivious reveler beneath her window and a desolation too deep for tears possessed her.”

Anne Boleyn (1932) shows an Anne who’s unrestrainedly furious and who can scarcely believe the things she’s actually writing down. “Yes — she would dare. She had dared more than that, and wrath boiled up in her heart and sped her pen.” The anomalous signature of “Anne Boleyn” is also explained.

She made no assertion of queenship, as Katharine had done. It had always been an unreality — it was nothing now. Who had believed in it? Not the people. Had Katharine been in the Tower they might have stormed it. None raised a voice or a finger for her. They rejoiced to see the witch go to her account.

When it was gone beyond recall to Cromwell’s bloody hand, she tortured herself with wishing it back, remembering the pleas and threats she might have used and had not, until it seemed the up or down stroke of a pen could weight the balance of life and death.

Francis Hackett didn’t use the letter in his bestselling Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) but ten years later, the combined efforts of Jean Plaidy and Margaret Campbell Barnes would bring it to the attention of innumerable readers. In Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) Anne writes the letter while sitting in the Tower governor’s garden, “under pretence of making a roundelay … while [Mistress] Cosyns, somnolent with so much eavesdropping, nodded in the afternoon warmth. Because she had no time to finesse with phrases, the words came straight and fearless from her heart.” After she’s finished, we’re told that “Whether the King received her letter or whether Cromwell hid it away among his other papers, Anne never knew.”

In Murder Most Royal (1949) Anne is allowed to write at her leisure but is bitterly aware that it’s unlikely the letter will ever find its way past Cromwell to the king. Nonetheless, she’s determined to make every word sting, especially when she hopes that God “will not call you to a straight account of your unprincely and cruel usage of me” — “If he ever read those words with their reference to the judgment of God he would tremble in his shoes, and no matter how he might present them to his conscience, they would disturb him to the end of his days.” Not surprisingly, the letter reappeared in Plaidy’s other Anne novel, The Lady In The Tower (1986).

I, Anne Boleyn (1978) uses the letter but, very unusually, ends up paraphrasing it, and shortening it considerably in the process. “If you would but search your own heart you will know that what I say is the truth,” she writes, but true to history, no reply comes and it seems unlikely that Henry ever saw it.

While The Secret Diary Of Anne Boleyn (1997) makes reference to writing “my letter”, we never actually see it quoted, but Dear Heart, How Like You This? (2002) quotes it in full, and uses it as essentially an extended epigraph, since the book is written from the point of view of Thomas Wyatt and it’s not clear how he would have seen it in the ordinary course of things. But in Le Temps Viendra, Vol. II (2014) the letter is treated with a different approach: it’s not an unsolicited appeal to Henry, but rather a reply to a letter of his, in which he urges her in true Henrician fashion “not to clog your conscience, and confess your sins to the bearer of this letter … If you shall do this, then you will know the mercy of your husband, King and Sovereign Lord, who will inflict not the most extreme of punishments worthy of one who has committed these most heinous of crimes.”

Anne is given to understand here that if she confesses, she’ll be able to retire to a convent and live her life out quietly. She’s strongly tempted, but is held back by the thought of Elizabeth — what would it do to her to learn later that her mother falsely confessed to adultery in order to save her own skin? So she writes her letter as a “much shorter path which would lead me to the scaffold.”

That’s the most recent appearance of the letter so far, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Although it doesn’t even appear in half of the fictional works about Anne — I’d say it appears in roughly a fifth to a quarter of them — it nonetheless has had a very steady presence. What’s really remarkable about the letter is just how versatile it is. If you look through the examples I mention above, they encompass a wildly different assortment of Annes, all of whom are supposed to be expressing their real selves in this letter. The insistence on her humility and unwillingness to become queen is perfect for the Anne of Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem and her eighteenth-century predecessors who were victimized angelic Protestants pursued to the death by the evil king. The outraged insistence on her innocence and denunciation of Henry’s attentions to Jane fits in well with the lively, straight-shooting Annes who began to appear after World War II. The fact that it’s so well-written even makes it work for the Anne of Anne Boleyn (1932) who’s a horrible, manipulative specimen who’s nonetheless smart enough to know what will make her look like an outraged innocent. (Which, even in this book, she technically is. She’s just a horrible human being otherwise, though). And as a direct, honest way of making it clear to Henry that his request for a confession is denied, it works for the highly-sexed, aggressive Anne of Le Temps Viendra — polite but very, very firm.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the letter evolves in the future. I have no idea who wrote it, and probably never will, but whoever it was did well.

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