Right up until the very end, Anne Boleyn professed her innocence. A few days before she was beheaded for plotting to kill her husband, King Henry VIII of England, the fallen queen stood before her accusers and essentially accused them of railroading her. She was executed nonetheless, on May 19, 1536 — and 11 days later the king married Jane Seymour, the third of his six wives.
It was in part the inexorability of that judgment that made historian Alison Weir want to take a closer look at Anne Boleyn's story. A history book written with all the intrigue and tension of a novel, Weir's just-published The Lady in the Tower is what the author calls "a forensic investigation" of the queen's last four months
And what the investigation turned up surprised Weir.
"I was quite astonished," she tells NPR's Guy Raz. "All these revelations came toward the end of my research, and it was one excitement after another, basically — as far as an historian is concerned."
"She wasn't executed where people think she was, she wasn't imprisoned where people think she was, she's not buried where people think she was," Weir says. "The executioner, I now know ... was sent for before her trial, thus preempting the verdict. And I've come to a pretty definite conclusion as to whether or not she was innocent or guilty."
Oh, and one more conclusion:
"I think I've made a better case than ever before for Thomas Cromwell — Henry VIII's principal secretary — being the prime mover in the case against Anne Boleyn," Weir says.
At times, The Lady in the Tower reads almost like it was written by a private investigator or a lawyer trying to build a case on Boleyn's behalf. But Weir says she was emphatically not trying to clear her subject.
"You have to clear your mind, when you do something like this, of all previous conceptions about it," she says. "Look at the evidence anew — and in this case I was able to study sources that other people had ignored, incredibly — and then at the end you can make your conclusions from that."
The Anne Who Might Have Been
Boleyn was queen of England for a mere three years — "Anne of the Thousand Days," some called her — but her story is dramatic enough that she has fascinated historians for centuries. Weir says Boleyn was such a strong personality, though, that she'd have left a mark on Western society even if her fate had been a happier one.
"I think we would have seen her in a very different light," Weir says. "Had she lived, and had Elizabeth in due course succeeded, I think she would have gained a reputation as the matriarch of the English Reformation. Because I think in time Anne would probably have turned Protestant. Her brother read Protestant texts; she and her father were described by the Spanish ambassador as 'more Lutheran than Luther himself.' She was a great evangelical, and given the growth of the Protestant movement in the 1540s, I think, yes, she would have turned Protestant eventually — and she would have supported the establishment of the Anglican Church by Elizabeth I."
But Boleyn's history is what it was, and she's known instead as a more romantic figure. "She's the Other Woman in an eternal triangle," Weir muses, "and Katherine of Aragon is the Good Wife whom Henry dumps for her. She's a bit of a termagant, and she's not a suitable queen in many ways.
"And yet it's hard to get beyond this brave and tragic figure on the scaffold to this woman who's the scandal of Christendom and the catalyst for the English Reformation," Weir says. "She's a fascinating character."