Myths surrounding Anne Boleyn : a witch?

Myths surrounding Anne Boleyn : a witch?

Modern interpretation of Anne Boleyn by Alexandre Jubran

Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery, incest, treason and plotting to kill a king. But among charges against her, also witchcraft was brought up. Why was Anne accused of witchcraft? Did she had something in common with ‘dark powers’?

In her book ‘The Lady in the Tower : the Fall of Anne Boleyn’ , Alison Weir states that ;

‘At that time witchcraft was not an indictable offence; it was not until 1542 that an act was passed under Henry Viiii making it a secular crime, and it did not become a capital offence until 1563, under Elizabeth I. Prior to that, the penalty for witchcraft had been determined according to evidence of actual criminality, which proof of evil deed being necessary to obtain a conviction; in the cases of persons of high rank, there was often a suspicion of treason against the Crown’.[1]

In England, Scotland and Ireland, between 1542 and 1735 a series of Witchcraft Acts enshrined into law the punishment (often with death, sometimes with incarceration) of individuals practising, or claiming to practice witchcraft and magic. [2] Witchcraft was the alleged use of magical or supernatural powers to harm people or their property. It was also widely believed that witches were in league with Devil. During the times when people did not know how to explain unexplained, they tend to believe in dark powers.

Effigies of Joan of Navarre and Henry IV

But Anne Boleyn was not the first great lady ever accused of witchcraft. First was Joan of Navarre. She was Duchess consort of Brittany and Queen consort of England. She was not very popular among English people, mainly because she was a foreigner. In 1419 Joan of Navarre was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of sorcery. She was released in 1422. In ‘She Wolves: The Notorious Queen of England’ Elizabeth Norton states ;

‘During the reign of her stepson, Henry V, her reputation took a dramatic turn for the worse when she was accused of plotting to murder the king through sorcery and spent several years in prison. Little evidence was ever presented to explain Joan’s arrest and, as the example of Joan’s stepdaughter-in-law Eleanor Cobham shows, an accusation of witchcraft was a covenient way of attacking a royal woman in the fiteenth century. Joan was certainly no witch but, as a foreigner in a troubled period, she was an easy target, just as her predecessors, such as Eleanor of Provence and Isabella of France had found’.

The penance of Eleanor Cobham : she had to walk barefoot and barheaded and carrzing a candle weighing two pounds

Another example was Eleanor Cobham, wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Henry V’s youngest brother and Henry VI’s uncle and heir apparent. She was arrested in 1441 and accused of using potions supplied by famous ‘Witch of Eye’ Margery Jourdemayne, to make Gloucester fall in love with and marry her. Eleanor also asked the atrologers, Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke, if her husband would suceed the king. In his book ‘Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of Prnces in the Tower’, David Baldwin states that ;

‘The three magicians had apparently made a wax image which the prosecution alleged was of the King and design to procure his death (by melting it)m but which Eleanor said represented a baby and was intended only to help her bear a child.’[4]

In the end Eleanor’s marriage was dissolved ‘on the premise that , by using witchcraft, she had interfered with Duke Humphrey’s freedom of choice.’[5] Margarey Jourdemayne was sentenced to death by burning at Smithfield, Thomas Southwell died in prison, and Roger Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered. What about Eleanor Cobham? She had to do a public penance in London, and was condemned to life inprisonment on the Isle of Man.

Depiction of first meeting between Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV

Edward IV’s Queen consort, beautiful Elizabeth Woodville, was also accused of witchcraft. She was the first commoner (the second one was Anne Boleyn) to become Queen consort of England. Elizabeth was considered beautiful so it is no wonder that king Edward IV fell in love with her. The tradition says that Elizabeth heard that the king was hunting in Whittelwood Forest ans she waited under the Oak tree with her two sons from first marriage. After her husband’s death Elizabeth found herself in a difficult financial position so her goal was to ask king for help. And when he rode by she threw herself at his feet and Edward fell in love with her.

In the beggining Edward IV did not plan to marry Elizabeth Woodville. He wanted her simply as his mistress. But she did not agreed and the king married her in a great secret.

‘To many of her contemporaries it was unthinkable that the king would have freely chosen to marry a woman so far beneath him and there were rumours of witchcraft and seduction which marred Elizabeth’s reputation both during her lifetime and afterwards. Elizabeth’s detractors were simply unable to believe that the couple could have been motivated only by love and this critisism of Elizabeth was something that her greatest enemy, Richard III, was happy to publicise during his reign’.[6]

Also Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, was accused of using sorcery to help her daughter. Certainly neither Elizabeth nor her mother were guilty of witchcraft ; such an accusation was a powerful tool in hands of their political enemies.

And what about Anne Boleyn? Henry VIII claimed that he was ‘bewitched’ by her and this is the reason why they married. We can easily assume, that people did not had an explanation why did Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn ; today we know that he fell in love with her, but in times when kings always married for political reasons, they would find in witchcraft an explanation of why Henry had turned his back from Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn.

The only ‘proof’ of Anne Boleyn’s witchcraft might be a story about deformed foetus. In January 1536, Anne Boleyn miscarried a child, imperial ambassador Chapuys wrote that it was ‘ a male about three months and a half old’. [7] Eric Ives statest that ;

‘Some sixteenth-century moralists did associate witches with monstrous births, so fantasizing about a ‘deformed foetus’ has led to historians speculating about a link between Anne’s fall and an accusation of witchcraft.’[8]

It was Nicolas Sander, author of theories about Anne’s six fingers, moles and projecting tooth, who wrote that in January 1536  she miscarried a ‘shapeless mass of flesh’ but yet we have no eveidence from Anne’s contemporaries who knew much about queen’s miscarriage.

Anne Boleyn, Hever Castle

‘No deformed foetus was mentioned  at the time or later in Henry’s reign, despite Anne’s disgrace. In Mary’s reign, when there was every motive and opportunity to blacken Anne, the substantial anti-Boleyn material which appeared in England said nothing. Nor was any such report known to the more raffish European Catholic sources nor to William Thomas, a Protestant writer hostile to Anne. Lacking all corroboration, the appearance of the story forty years after the event must be dismissed as a Sander promotion designed to support his description of Anne as a misshapen monster. It is as little worthy of credence as his assertion that Henry VIII was Anne’s father.’[9]

What exactly did Henry VIII meant when he said that he was ‘bewitched’ by Anne? Eric Ives argues that he perhaps meant that he was ‘deceived’  by her. Eric Ives wrote very important thing ;

‘In any case, alleging witchcraft was a commonplace excuse for foolish male behaviour.’[10]

Henry VIII could not admit that he was wrong about woman he so passionately fought for almost 7 years. The easiest way was to blame her and and tell everyone that she ‘bewitched’ him although Henry might not think about being ‘bewitched’ in a magical sense. Chapuys wrote in 1533 that ‘this accursed lady has so enchanted and bewitched him that he will not dare to do anything against her will’ [11] and he meant that Henry was so madly in love with Anne rather than accusing Anne of being a witch. The most probable explanation is that Henry wanted to blame Anne and that is why he though he was ‘bewitched’ but, as professor Ives points out, he might meant that he was ‘deceived’ by Anne.

Anne’s alleged sexual offences were also connected with accusations of witchcraft. It was a common believe that witches used spells and charms to entice men into marriage, that they had a power to cause impotence (and Anne was said to speak to Lady Rochford about Henry’s sexual problems) and that they were lustful. But Anne Boleyn was certainly not a witch – the accusations against her were false, and her fall was very much about the fall of the whole Boleyn faction.

Women that I have described in this article have few things in common – they were misunderstood and slandered in their times, because with their beauty and inteligence they were noticed by powerful men. The example of Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Boleyn proves that a man in love risk everything just to get woman he wanted. In times when kings were married for politics, Edward IV and Henry VIII married for love, putting their country in chaos. And then the rumours started – but not rumours about king’s behaviour, but against a woman who ‘enchanted’ him. The accusations of witchcraft were very convenient way of accusing a royal lady – how else could they explain that the king married a simple woman with no political agenda, forgetting about consequences and common sense?

Why do you think women are blamed for men’s foolishness? It looks like in history it was a common practice.


[1] Alison Weir, ‘The Lady in the Tower : the Fall of Anne Boleyn’, p. 29

[3] Elizabeth Norton, ‘She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England’, p. 151

[4] David Baldwin, ‘Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower’, p. 151

[5] IBID

[6] Elizabeth Norton, ‘She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England’, p. 173

[7] Eric Ives, ‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn’, p. 296

[8] IBID

[9] IBID

[10] IBID

[11] IBID

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One Response
  1. Areti says:

    They had to use some ‘rubbish’ explanation …!How can a woman be so powerful..? Intelligence and woman for them were two things opposite!

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