Anne Boleyn, witchcraft charges and missing trial papers

Was Anne Boleyn charged with witchcraft? Was she ever accused of dabbling into “dark arts”? Well, that’s a rather tricky question!

The Last Days of Anne Boleyn, BBC

The Last Days of Anne Boleyn, BBC

First, lets’ see what primary sources have to say about Anne Boleyn in relation to witchcraft:

1. When Anne was still pregnant in January 1536, Henry VIII said he was seduced by witchcraft/sortileges & charms. (LP, X, note 199)

2. In 1532 Charles V’s envoy “suggested that the King must have been charmed by potions, or otherwise” while discussing Anne Boleyn’s role in Henry VIII’s nullity suit. (LP, V, note 114.)

3. Anne herself believed in Merlin’s ancient prophecies (“the Queen shall be burnt”), which were closely connected to witchcraft. She was also a very superstitious lady. (Spanish Calendar, IV.i.,373)

4. In some cases it was believed that witches could inflict impotency on men; Anne Boleyn was accused of spreading the information that Henry VIII “had neither the skill nor the virility to satisfy a woman” or, in other words, that he was impotent. Historian Retha M. Warnicke argues that “the licentious charges against the queen, even if the rumours of her attempted poisonings and of her causing her husband’s impotence were never introduced into any of the trials, indicate that Henry believed that she was a witch.” (Warnicke, p. 231)

Now, Anne Boleyn’s trial is steeped in mystery since – as Victorian historian J.A. Froude correctly pointed out – “the records of the trial of Anne Boleyn survive only in a faint epitome and we know neither by whom nor why the evidence was made away with. (The Pilgrim, p. 9) Without the whole documentation of the trial, we cannot be sure of what exactly was Anne Boleyn accused of in addition to incest, adultery and plotting the King’s death.

To say that Anne Boleyn stood accused of witchcraft in May 1536 is too far-fetched a conclusion; to say that she was not accused of witchcraft is equally erroneous since the whole documentation of Anne’s trial is missing.

So was Anne Boleyn accused of witchcraft? We don’t know that, but based on contemporary sources that we do have, it is highly possible.

Note: I am not making the case that Anne Boleyn stood accused of witchcraft and that she was sentenced to death on that account. It might have been added to the list of Anne’s offences against the King especially if we take Henry VIII’s comment about being “seduced by witchcraft” into consideration. I am also not arguing that Anne was a witch since I do understand that politically motivated “witchcraft” charges were often inflicted upon innocent women in order to get rid of them. I do believe, however, that Anne Boleyn’s comments and actions might have given her detractors an incentive for destroying her. Just as accusations of adultery and incest were “not a result of what she did, but of what she said” (Walker, p.1) , comments of Anne’s contemporaries linking her directly to witchcraft might have stemmed from similar grounds.

1,814 Comments

  1. Lisa
    Sep 23, 2013

    You’re making a compelling case here Sylvia! I’d love to learn more about the witchcraft ‘charge’; people back then were superstitious and it was easy to accuse someone of witchcraft. Did Chapuys mention more than this?

    • Sylwia
      Sep 23, 2013

      Thanks Lisa! I’m planning to write more posts on witchcraft charge since it’s very interesting and I’ve developed a particular interest in “witch-craze” which swept over the Europe during the Early Modern period. There’s more to come so stay tuned!

  2. Nancy
    Sep 24, 2013

    I imagine Anne Boleyn was, like a lot of women of her time, doing a bit of herbalism, do you think this might have put her in trouble?

    • Lissa Bryan
      Sep 24, 2013

      Henry was the one who dabbled in herbs and medicine-making. He had his own little apothecary set-u, and loved to make unguents. His expense records note purchases of “unicorn horn,” pearl dust, and other ingredients to go into his concoctions.

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      We don’t know that. Henry VIII considered himself a herbalist (he was making potions, medicines, plasters etc.), so if Anne developed an interest in herbalism, she and Henry would have this thing in common.

  3. Stephanie
    Sep 24, 2013

    It was easy for Henry to say that Anne bewitched him. Sure, blame it all on her Henry! What do you mean when you say that Anne Boleyn was superstitious? Tudor period was a superstitious age, wasn’t it? Was Anne doing spells and stuff?

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      Anne wasn’t doing spells, but she did talk about poisonings and old prophecies of Merlin.

  4. Beth
    Sep 24, 2013

    Missing papers! I had no idea. I thought everything was there in the sources.

    • Lissa Bryan
      Sep 24, 2013

      It’s unknown if they were intentionally destroyed or if they were lost through neglect. We know we lost some of them in a fire at the Cottonian library in 1731. One of the documents we lost was a letter from Anne to Henry in which she angrily rejected a plea deal which would have required her to admit to adultery to save her life. (The “From the Lady in the Tower” letter is of questionable authenticity.)

      • Sylwia
        Sep 24, 2013

        Lisa, do you mean the letter written on 6 May 1536? The one found in Cromwell’s papers after his execution?

        • Lissa Bryan
          Sep 24, 2013

          Yes. It’s sort of a quandary. The notation at the top “From the Lady in the Tower” may be in Cromwell’s own handwriting, but even that is uncertain.

          There are a couple of issues. The letter is not in Anne’s handwriting (though she could have dictated it, or the letter we have could be a copy).

          Secondly, her name is spelled “Anne Bullen.” Anne consistently– which was sort of unusual for the time– spelled her family name “Boleyn” unless she was writing in French, when she would use “de Boulaine.” (Again, though, it could have been dictated, or a copy.) AFter she was crowned, she always signed herself “Anne the quene.” It’s debatable whether she would have signed it “Anne Boleyn (Bullen)” in the most important letter of her life, especially when she would have wanted to remind the king of her royal status– not only a queen consort, but crowned as a monarch in her own right.

          It’s not mentioned by any chronicler of the era until 1649. John Strype, who saw more records than survive today, doesn’t mention it, though he claimed to have seen a different letter from Anne to Henry in which she vowed to stand by her innocence, even if it meant she would lose her life. We can only assume it was destroyed in the 1731 fire.

          I decided to include this letter in the novel I wrote set during Anne’s reign, because even if she didn’t actually write these words to Henry, it’s what she SHOULD have said to him..

          • Sylwia
            Sep 25, 2013

            Yes, I assumed you have this letter in mind. I don’t believe it was written by Anne and it is now widely accepted that it was not written by her. It seems reasonable though that she had written a letter to Henry VIII.

            It’s interesting because Anne reached some kind of understanding with Archbishop Cranmer; on May 16, she was “in hope of life” and spoke about joining the nunnery. Common assumption is that she had agreed to Cranmer’s terms, whatever they were.

  5. andrea
    Sep 24, 2013

    she was innocent

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      No one questions that :-)

  6. Lissa Bryan
    Sep 24, 2013

    Henry’s exact words were that he had been “seduced and constrained by sortilèges.” The word “sortilèges” meant “divination.” Soothsayers, in other words.

    See the following link for confirmation:
    http://archive.org/stream/wordsandtheirwa08kittgoog/wordsandtheirwa08kittgoog_djvu.txt

    Henry was saying he had married Anne because soothsayers predicted she would bear him a son. Fortune-telling was a big industry in the day. (Queen Elizabeth even had her own personal astrologer on staff, John Dee.) Henry likely had Anne’s astrology charts done, and lo-and-behold, it was predicted she would be the one to bear him a son.

    We know for fact that Henry hired many soothsayers when Anne was pregnant. All of them, except for one, said she was carrying a boy. (This might possibly have had something to do with the fact he gave lavish tips to anyone who predicted the baby was his longed-for heir.)

    Henry’s statement was not an accusation against Anne. He was complaining he’d been “fooled” by all the soothsayers he hired and so it was totally unfair he’d married Anne– thus, he figured it was null and void because it was predicated on false predictions.

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      That’s right, Lisa. Before Elizabeth was born “physicians, astrologers, sorcerers, and sorceresses” predicted that Anne Boleyn will have a son.
      Eric Ives made a case for “sortilèges” as “divination”; Chapuys originally wrote “constrainct de sortileges”, and French “sortileges” has connection to witchcraft (we have to take the language differences into account).

      I believe that Henry VIII dropped a heavy hint that in the light of contemporary evidence appears to have been his first major attempt in getting rid of Anne Boleyn. The reasoning was simple. If Anne used witchcraft to force Henry VIII to marry her, their marriage could have been dissolved, and Henry VIII certainly did his research about this matter as witchcraft accusation was not new to him. If proven, allegations of witchcraft could result in the dissolution of a marriage as it was in case of Eleanor Cobham, wife of the Duke of Gloucester, Henry VI’s uncle and heir apparent. Eleanor was accused of using potions supplied by famous ‘Witch of Eye’ Margery Jourdemayne, to make Gloucester fall in love and marry her. Eleanor was also accused of casting the King’s horoscope to discover if her husband will succeed him – she obtained help from Margery Jourdemayne, Roger Bolingbroke and Thomas Southwell. Other charges against Eleanor Cobham were that she wanted to procure the King’s death with melting the wax image, but Eleanor claimed that the image represented the child she wanted to conceive. Eleanor’s case ended in her own life imprisonment, her helpers were condemned too – Margery was burned at the stake, Bolingbroke was hanged and Southwell died in prison. Eleanor’s marriage was dissolved because it was believed she had bewitched the Duke of Gloucester. Henry VIII’s comment, therefore, served the purpose of explaining to his contemporaries why he sacrificed so much for Anne Boleyn. Of course, he could not admit that he fell madly in love and made a mistake by marrying her. Therefore, he tried to justify his decision to marry Anne with simple explanation – Anne bewitched him and interfered with his freedom of choice just s Eleanor Cobham interfered with her husband’s freedom of choice.

  7. Claire Ridgway
    Sep 24, 2013

    But we have the Baga de Secretis and we have the indictments listing the charges against Anne Boleyn and the men. There is NO mention of witchcraft and none of the contemporary sources accuse Anne of dabbling in dark arts.
    Tudor times were superstitious times and superstition was not witchcraft and it ran side by side with religion. Prophecies, ancient or not, were taken seriously – Mouldwarp, Elizabeth Barton’s prophecies, Elizabeth Amadus etc. – and if Anne should be classed as a witch or being linked to the dark arts because she talked about prophecies then you’d have to same the same about Henry VIII and most of the population at the time. It is interesting when you research things like pregnancy and childbirth in those times, how strong the belief was in amulets, charms and also chants to ease the woman’s suffering and to protect the baby.
    As for Henry’s words regarding sortileges/charms etc., we don’t know the context and we don’t know whether he was referring to being “bewitched” by Anne, as in under her spell romantically. He also said that Anne had over 100 lovers, later that year, and we don’t put store in that.
    I think it’s important not to confuse superstition with witchcraft.

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      Baga de Secretis doesn’t mention things that Chapuys, for instance, wrote in his despatches. I still think witchcraft allegation was possible.

  8. Kimberly
    Sep 24, 2013

    I am intrigued to learn more! The witchcraft rumblings portrayed in movies and tv never seemed to hold much historical water to me; but I find it fascinating that the trial records are lost.

    • Sylwia
      Sep 24, 2013

      It is fascinating! Did you spot Anne’s portrait in Harry Potter? ;-)

  9. Jessica
    Sep 24, 2013

    I agree that she was not accused of witchcraftt only I think the main cause was the fact she was close to men in general and her brother particularly but also that she did not give the King a male heir so this event influences the witchcraft cause. But it’s really interesting and it would be great to know more about the link Anne had with superstitions and witchcraft! I believe in some kind of witchcraft so it interests me a lot!

  10. Areti
    Sep 25, 2013

    To be honest I cannot really tell if she was accused of witchcraft or not.Are we sure 100% that Henry said he was bewitched or is it another rumor?If he said so,perhaps he did not mean Anne was indeed witch,he was dissapointed so he could not understand how he fell for her.Also,if she was indeed accused of this crime,shouldn’t she die as a witch?By burning-Henry decided to have her beheaded-.?A silly question,I know,but just thinking :P

  11. BanditQueen
    Oct 23, 2013

    Much has been made in TV Drama and films about connecting Anne Boleyn to witchery and a whole lot of other things, but the trial inditments do not altough it is possible that Henry made some accusation at the time or in the months following her final miscarriage. He may have said that he felt his marriage was cursed or that he had been seduced into it by sorcery or beguilment; I am sure that many men in the 16th century felt they had been bewitched into marriage or falling into love with a woman. Belief in charms, love potions, good magic, harmful magic, prophecies, cunning, natural magic and so on was commnon place. Women were said to have all sorts of strange powers, especially during their periods. They could according to witch lore make a man impotent, make crops grow or fail, cause hail storms and so on. Charms could harm or heal and spells were used along with prayers and faith.

    It would not be out of place for a man who had fallen for the wrong woman to claim that he had been bewitched meaning that she had batted her eyelids at him and he had fallen for her personal charms. Henry had found Anne beguiling and fascinating and had a lot of desire and passion for her. He could have claimed that he had lost his reason and made that as an excuse for deciding to marry her. He would not now that she had fallen out of his favour speak the truth that he had really and truly fallen in love with Anne and respected her opinions, charm, honesty and intelligence and genuinely believed she was a suitable person for his wife and Queen. He was doing what all men do when things do not go their way; making a good excuse to blame the poor woman for everything.

    Anne believed in these prophecies that a queen of England would be burnt but that does not point to her being accused of witchcraft but treason. The death penalty in England for witchraft was hanging not burning. The death penalty for a female traitor was to be burnt. May-be it was this that Anne feared and may-be her fears got the better of her. Anne feared that something was not right in 1535 and started to act a bit odd, although by the Summer her crisis of fear appears to have been over and she went with Henry on an important tour of religious houses and royal progress. By the time she came back in the autumn she was with child. Sadly the child a boy was miscarried and Henry lost his temper and blamed the whole thing on Anne. Now he saw the same pattern as happened with Catherine and for some reason, even after just three years believed his second marriage was cursed. He eventrually stated that he wanted to end the marriage and his minions found a way to do this. But I am certain that Anne was not charged with witchcraft but with treason, as she was stated to have plotted the King’s death and adultery. The former was treason; the latter was not.

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