The Fall of Anne Boleyn: Examining the theory of Witchcraft

With the 19th May fast approaching, I felt it would be suiting to delve back into the mystery of Anne Boleyn. To do this I reread Joanna Denny’s: ‘A new life of England’s tragic Queen’. Not only did this reignite my interest in the topic, but reminded me that Anne Boleyn’s Downfall is still one of the biggest, unsolved events in English history.

In the year 1536, the Queen was the first to be executed in England. Three years before, she was preparing for her Coronation where she would be crowned alongside Henry VIII as Queen in her own right. But now in the Tower of London, Anne was preparing for her execution, as a traitor to England. But was it really her engagement in witchcraft that presaged the events resulting in her downfall?

You and I may say that this theory may seem a little far-fetched. Yet it has served as the foundation for our understanding around the events of 1536. But is it the most conclusive in deciphering what caused Queen’s calamitous downfall?

The miscarriage and Henry VIII’s seduction: The accusation of witchcraft

The idea that Anne Boleyn’s downfall was through the belief that she was a witch, for me is the most extravagant theory put forward regarding the downfall. Personally, I believe that Anne was not a witch but simply accused of witchcraft out of anger and frustration, with this having a bearing on her fate. This is visible through the remarks seen later by Henry VIII and Nicholas Sanders. However before we support or refute, an examination of Tudor mythologies and their link to the accusation of Queen Anne, is needed.

In sixteenth century society, certain moralists believed that witchcraft was a profound and credible problem. Witches were typically female, who could be known to reject Jesus and the Holy Sacraments, performing a ‘Witches Sabbath‘. In terms of how to distinguish a witch, folklore stated that the devil’s mark would appear on converted witches. Furthermore, it is stated that witches were lustful and used spells and sorcery to entice men into marriage. They supposedly committed unnatural sexual acts, gave birth to deformed children and engaged in incestuous acts. 

Now we have a brief understanding of the demonologies, let us take a look at how they weigh up against Anne Boleyn. In terms of attributing any of these ‘witch’ qualities to the Queen, historians have two popular sources of information that act to many as a revelation: Nicholas Sanders and Henry VIII.

Nicholas Sanders (b. 1542) was a prominent Catholic priest and Polemicist who passionately detested Anne Boleyn for her Protestant sympathies. During her reign, Anne actively encouraged Henry to support the reformist movement that was taking place across Europe. This is clearly visible when she actively worked with the King to join the Protestants of Wittenburg who had established the Schmalkald League. This opposed the threat from Charles V to stamp out ‘Lutheranism‘. In his book, the ‘Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism’, (De origine ac progressu schismatis Anglicani), published in 1585, Nicholas Sanders claims that Anne had given birth to a ‘shapeless mass of flesh’.

If we take the claims at face value, linking it to Tudor demonologies, then you and I would be correct to assume that Anne Boleyn was a witch. However, as will be proven, this is not the case. 

Retha Warnicke, Professor of History at Arizona State University, believed that Anne’s monstrous miscarriage was the cause of her fall. All of his actions, including the marriage to Jane Seymour on 30 May 1536, indicate that Henry [VIII] genuinely believed that Anne was guilty of the crimes for which she had died.” From this, in Warnicke’s view, the miscarriage reawakened the King’s fear of witchcraft and its associate- incest.

The Queen, according to the King’s Bench Documents, lists the indictment that Anne had engaged in sexual relations with her brother, Viscount George Rochford. It was alleged that she lured him with presents and jewels before they went on to sleep together, contrary to all human and moral laws. Therefore one must remember that, to the superstitious Tudor mind, a deformed foetus was the sign of a parent’s sexual sins. 

Relating to this is the remark made by Henry VIII who claimed that he had been seduced into marriage with Anne by witchcraft (‘seduit et constrainct de sortilleges.’) In terms of the cause of Anne Boleyn’s downfall, then the outburst by the King acts as the most crucial piece of evidence. If, like with Nicholas Sanders, we link Henry’s remark to the Tudor mythologies listed, it highlights that Anne conforms to our expectation of the typical witch. It is not entirely unreasonable, therefore,  to see why Henry may have made a connection between Anne and witchcraft. Like with Sanders however, there are underlying facts in relation to Henry’s remark that act to dispute the claims of both individuals. 

Disproving the theory of witchcraft

Unfortunately for Sanders, his depiction of Anne can be easily refuted simply on the grounds of inaccuracy. Firstly, you cannot ‘assume’ that Anne was a witch from the language used. Nicholas Sanders, in this account writes in a rather sycophantic manner with regards to the Queen. He emphasises greatly that the foetus was deformed in a slanderous attempt to denigrate the character of Anne Boleyn. Yet, he offers no supporting evidence of how he substantiated his argument. The reason for the inaccuracy is clear. The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism was published a whole forty-six years after the execution of Anne Boleyn. What’s more Nicholas Sanders did not personally know the Queen, being only six years of age at the time of her execution!

As a Catholic Priest and Polemicist, Sanders served as a professor of canon law during the reign of Mary I. He presents himself as profoundly anti-Protestantism. Anne was a known Protestant sympathiser and encouraged the reformist movement in Europe, something Sanders would have detested. The lack of evidence in relation to the polemicist’s claim is important. He makes no reference to how the miscarriage occurred, citing no demonologies in relation to his claim. 

Really, there is absolutely no concrete or substantiated evidence that supplements the idea that Anne Boleyn gave birth to a deformed foetus . There are numerous well documented events that refute the claims made by Sander. This can apply to the remarks of Estace Chapuys. This man was the Imperial Ambassador to Charles V, who, it is interesting to note, was the nephew of Catherine of Aragon, the former wife of Henry VIII. The ambassador noted that Anne had miscarried “a male child no more than three months old.” Again, this highlights the slanderous nature of Sanders claims. Chapuys, who was always on the look-out for rumours that would be seen to besmirch the ‘concubine’ made no reference to a deformed foetus. 

So, as has been proven, Nicholas Sanders’ statement with regards to Anne Boleyn are unfounded, with no other account in history to support his claim of a deformed child. What this highlights is that her agitator, who was not present or personally acquainted to Anne was simply trying to denigrate her character due to her religious and theological beliefs. Nicholas Sander resented the Protestant faith! The miscarriage was not the only hostile description of Anne, as is seen through his remark of her possessing “six fingers”. It is these hostile references that the historian, Sir Eric Ives makes reference to. “Some sixteenth-century moralists did associate witches with monstrous births, so fantasising about a ‘deformed foetus’ has led to historians speculating about a link between Anne’s fall and an accusation of witchcraft.”

Another key element in adducing whether Anne Boleyn was a witch is the remark made by Henry VIII after the miscarriage of January 1536. It is widely believed that he stated to one of his principal and most trusted members of the Privy Chamber that he ‘had been seduced into this marriage by witchcraft’. The idea that Henry actually made this remark seems highly credible, its accuracy, however- not so. We must go back in time to the time before Anne became Queen of England. 

It is important to remember that it was Henry who set his sights on Anne and made constant attempts to seduce her. What is explicitly significant here is that Anne resisted these attempts by excluding herself from Court, agreeing only to sleeping with Henry if he proposed a solemn vow of marriage. Therefore when the King stated in 1536 after the miscarriage “I was seduced into this marriage with witchcraft” , it defies the historical context relating before Anne became Queen. As a noble woman, Anne Boleyn had to tread very carefully after the controversy surrounding Mary Boleyn, her sister. As Joanna Denny stated “it was not an honour for a woman of noble birth to become the King’s mistress this is why Thomas Boleyn had reacted to strongly to the disgrace which Mary had brought on the family. This was why Anne had resisted all but marriage”. This completely contradicts the view that Henry was seduced into marriage by witchcraft, as it was Henry who was engaging in the act of seduction. 

Unfortunately for Henry VIII he was not seduced. It would seem that the maternal failure of Anne could easily have reminded him of Catherine of Aragon, who’s growing irritation cause Henry to put into motion her removal. He may have claimed to be seduced by witchcraft to make Anne’s removal less of a strain on his conscience. This would explain why he could remove and execute Anne without any remorse or guilt, she was a reminder of Henry’s bitter past with his first wife. With this in mind it is fair and just to assume that, recognising that Anne was not fulfilling her duty to provide a male heir, the King must have resolved to cast her aside and instead set his sights on marrying Jane Seymour, an emerging figure. 

Another piece of evidence that acts to dispute the claims that Henry had been seduced was Anne’s religious stance. Since the time of her education in France, she had a strong, loyal interest in the ‘New Learning’ and the religious reformation movement that was spreading across northern Europe. Her religious views were certainly evangelical, with many later saying ‘Lutheran’. On a daily basis, she would read the Bible and held a strong belief that the word of God should be available to everyone, in a language they could understand.

Anne Boleyn’s faith was highly personal and inward-looking with a relationship with God and the Holy Spirit. It was because of Anne’s religious and theological influence that Henry was inclining towards greater liberty, with a woodcut, attributable to Hans Holbein, portraying Henry holding the Bible to his lords and bishops from the throne. John Foxe, the author of ‘Acts and Monuments’ (formally known as John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) believed that Anne Boleyn was zealous reformist and some who died for her faith, as a martyr.

With this in mind, Anne Boleyn certainly does not conform nor possess the attributes of a witch, whereby they reject Jesus and the Holy Sacraments,  women with such conviction and belief as Anne had could never have engaged in the act of incest nor witchcraft that her detractors such as Sander claimed, which according to mythology would have caused her to miscarry the deformed child. In light of this it is therefore  not clear how much credence should be placed on Henry’s alleged references to witchcraft? What’s more “Along with all but the most radical reformers in the 1530’s Anne accepted the miracle of the altar, and the night before her execution she swore on the body of and blood of Christ that she was faithful to Henry”. This proves that this certain theory associated with witchcraft and Anne Boleyn is defunct, disproving the notion that she was a witch, as it is clear she did not reject Jesus.         

Information that further advances the claims that Anne Boleyn was simply accused of witchcraft was the fact that she was not explicitly charged with it during the trial, nor were any indictments raised during proceedings. It may be argued that Henry withheld this from the trial as if it became public knowledge that Henry believed had made a marriage of union whilst seduced by witchcraft, his strength and honour would undoubtedly be questioned and damaged if it became public knowledge that he had been seduced by Anne Boleyn.

On the surface it would appear that Henry believed that Anne was guilty of the crimes of which she had died for. According to Warnicke the miscarriage  was ‘no ordinary miscarriage’, but the still-birth of a ‘deformed foetus’- an event so monstrous and unsettling that it was ‘the sole reason for the king’s setting in motion the process that led to Anne’s execution.’ On the face of it, this would make sense to us if we relate it to the demonol0gies. Yet this is supposition and even if Henry did genuinely believe that Anne was guilty of the charges she died for, there is no conclusive evidence after analysis of the claims made by Nicholas Sander and Henry, that she was a witch, nor that the foetus was deformed. 

Scrutiny of Henry’s statement highlights that the King suffered great emotional pain due to the loss of his potential son and heir. As Eric Ives stated “Perhaps Henry thought back to the influx of auguries at the pregnancy of 1533″, as a potential contributing factor in igniting the King’s fears of witchcraft. However such a witch would have proved [as Dr George W Bernard has suggested] to be ineffective, a witch might more reasonably have been expected to use her craft to beget a healthy child, instead of simply miscarrying ‘a saviour’.

For me, the most likely explanation of the whole affair is that Henry, angered by Anne Boleyn’s failure to produce a male child, finding her pride and abrasive character increasing unbearable, claimed that he was seduced by witchcraft, as this would mean, in the eyes of ecclesiastical law, that he could legally be free to marry again. Henry had divorced his politically advantageous wife of twenty-three years Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne, resulting in excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, so the lack of a son, it is clear was the main grievance of the King’s. 

Henry resided to the fact to cast her aside and accordingly invented a set of charges against her, of which in terms of witchcraft he himself saw plausible so that he could then marry his latest mistress, Jane Seymour. Therefore the theory that Anne Boleyn was a witch and practised witchcraft for me is implausible, in terms of the evidence listed. However, one must not forget that the fall of Anne Boleyn could well have derived from Henry’s set of charges, which although not explicitly mentioned during the trial, sparked the chain of events that led to her downfall. 



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Oliver Murphy 24 Articles
Oliver is currently an A-Level Politics student. He is also a contributory writer, campaigner for MakeVotesMatter and Media Manager for DARROW. His work focuses on British politics, contemporary political events and European politics. Supplementing this is a passion for Literature and History.

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