Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Question from Elizabeth M - Reversal of Anne's attainder

I am not sure if this has been answered before. Has there ever been any talk about legally reversing the attainder on Anne Boleyn? True, a lot of the evidence used at her trial is long gone, there is still the evidence that her supposed trysts on certain dates and places were completely fabricated, as she was not at those places on the times given. In today's legal system, she would be acquitted on that fact alone, due to reasonable doubt. Based on just that, could she have her attainder and conviction reversed legally, and has there ever been a thought to doing so? Would it go through Parliament, or would the Queen have a say?


Kathy said...

I think it would be an extremely dangerous precedent. If Parliament started debating matters such as that, I would insist that pass a bill saying Richard III usurped the throne from his nephew as no modern court would accept the flimsy evidence he gave that his brother's marriage was illegal. And the list could go on from there.

All this would end up being would be an attempt to rewrite history through the eyes of modern laws and modern sensibilities. And, anyway, so long after the fact, does it really matter? I don't think so.

PhD Historian said...

Has anyone ever thought of having Anne Boleyn's attainder reversed? Probably, but no one has ever pursued the matter ... not even Anne's only child, Elizabeth I. If her own daughter saw fit to leave the verdict in place, I cannot see why anyone today would want to go to the time, effort, and expense of getting it reversed.

Attainders can be reversed only by action of Parliament, followed by the consent of the monarch to the bill.

And what would a reversal really change? In real and practical terms, it would accomplish nothing. No one would really benefit from it, other than some romantic modern sense of "justice" might be satisfied.

And as a historian, I am compelled to point out that history cannot be undone. Declaring Anne Boleyn innocent today would not change the historical fact that she was found guilty 500 years ago, was believed by many of the those in power to have been guilty in fact, and that history ran a certain subsequent course as a result of that verdict. Changing the verdict today would not change the historical reality.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Kathy, also they do that shouldn't they also clear Catherine of Aragon of the alligations of sleeping with Henry's brother then lying about it?

Marilyn R said...

It’s an interesting question, but as Kathy and PhD say, where would it end, and what would be the point? The Mother of Parliaments has better things to do with its time – at least we hope so – but you never can tell these days.

The greedy banks have brought us to our knees; our MP’s have cheated us out of millions in fiddled expenses, our hospitals are running out of money, there have been racial attacks in Northern Ireland this week and our young men are being blown up in Afghanistan and Iraq. Anne Boleyn’s attainder, while of interest to we Tudor enthusiasts, is totally irrelevant to modern Britain at large.

Sorry Anne, love, we have more pressing worries just now and you’re going to be stuck with your attainder for the time being, I’m afraid. I would have a word with my MP on your behalf - only he’s just been sacked for being dishonest.

Gareth Russell said...

It was Anne herself who interestingly said the 'law has judged me.' The law of the 16th century was the force that mattered, although I would disagree with PhD Historian in saying that many of those in power at the time of the trial believed her to have been guilty, in fact.

I do not agree with re-writing history and PhD Historian is right to state that it would change nothing. It is not the same, for instance, as the attempts in Russia to have the last Imperial Family formally rehabilitated, because their deaths and the process regarding it is still a very raw part of Russian national culture. What happened to Anne Boleyn, although appalling to all but the most virulent modern-day Aragonese or dessicated of scholars, is not something that "matters" in that her guilt/innocence if established today would not radically alter how we view Britain in the immediate future.

However, despite my own views, there was a process started in 2005 in England to have the late Queen pardoned. The Home Office was petitioned to formally revoke the sentence passed against Anne on May 15th 1536. The campaign's leader was an 85-year-old decorated British war hero, Wing Commander Charles Melville-Jackson, who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and with distinction in the Battle of Britain. Wg Cdr Melville-Jackson, who recently passed away had admitted to having 'fallen in love' with the legend of Anne Boleyn when a school boy back in 1925. (Proof positive, if any were needed, of Anne's curious ability to arouse irrational emotional reactions in people, even at a distance of four centuries.) There was considerable media interest in the Commander's request and in one of the interviews, conducted in 2006, he said: - "Ideally, I would like her to be posthumously declared not guilty of the crimes she was convicted of because a pardon only means that you are being excused the crimes you have committed. But I got a barrister's opinion and it seems that we would not be able to go to court to get a judicial review because, after nearly 500 years, there was not much of a chance of being able to come up with new evidence. So a pardon is the next best thing. I have always felt that Anne Boleyn suffered a great injustice but I don't know why, this late in life, I have decided to do something about it. I just woke up one morning and thought, 'Damn it, I'm going to give it a go'. I know there are lots of other cases of injustice in this world but Anne Boleyn was such a wonderful and gifted woman. She did great things for this nation. Really, she started us off as a nation. Yet she was so unjustly treated and she's lying in a criminal's grave. She deserves better than that. I know I am probably butting my head against a brick wall but I will go on doing so until I die."

He petitioned Lady Antonia Fraser and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and although, as he said, the case for the pardon/exoneration had to be dropped in the end, he did continue campaigning for it until his death earlier this year. Anne's last troubadour, one might say, if we were inclined to be sentimental.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gareth Russell, do you know if Wing Commander Charles Melville-Jackson,also tried for a pardon for the men that were executed alongside with Anne or what it just for her?

Also has anyone done the same for Catherine Howard? I feel that she was as much a frame up, as Anne was,I know that she was a silly but feel someone wanted her out. Those politicians were just as corrupt then as now and as we know we can only speculate what really went on but its good to throw ideas around.

Lady Hobby

PhD Historian said...

Interesting story about the wing commander, Gareth. With all the overly sentimental Anne-fans out there, I rather assumed at least one person had thought of the idea. But when I said "no one had pursued" the matter, I should have been clearer and said that to my knowledge, no person in a position to actually accomplish anything, such as introducing the necessary bill for a first reading in the House of Commons, had done so. I assume the wing commander is not alone in having written letters and contacted a few power-brokers, but I still assume that no power-brokers have taken the bait.

I respect your disagreement with my statement that many of those in power at the time believed Anne was guilty. But I do wish you would support your disagreement with some substantive evidence. Yes, a handful of people, especially foreign diplomats, speculated at the time on the validity of the charges. But I am not myself aware of anything more than a mere handful, and none of them were persons of significant power within the English political power structure. I would be very intrigued if you could provide a few examples so that I could learn of them myself.

Oh, and you will have to register me among the "dessicated scholars" since I do not consider that what happened to Anne Boleyn was all that "appalling." Judged by the standards of the day, it was a common enough event and one that could very nearly have been predicted ... and certainly she herself sensed well beforehand that she was in mortal danger. Others who offended Henry VIII died in similarly "appalling" circumstances, including but not limited to Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Others died for little more than the accident of being born of royal or semi-royal blood and for having thereby been perceived by Henry as a threat to the dynasty. The difference with Anne, in my opinion, is that she was female and thus perceived by some as more of a "helpless victim" than her male counterparts. Gender bias causes us to elevate Anne to a special status, above that of men who could presumably defend themselves more readily.

Marilyn R said...

Gareth - didn't the Wing Commander first petition his MP, Charles Clarke, who refused to get involved? I think he then wrote to the Queen, who sent his letter to the Home Office, where the same Charles Clarke had just been appointed as the new Home Secretary.

Gareth Russell said...

Anonymous, to the best of my knowledge, Wing Commander Melville-Jackson was not actively pursuing a pardon for her five co-accused, although if she was innocent, they must be too. Respectfully, however, I cannot agree with your point about Queen Catherine Howard. I think it is fairly clear that Anne was innocent, but I do not think that of Catherine. Any pardon or a rehabilitation could only ever be based upon sentiment - that now we feel bad that a young woman was executed for seemingly venial sins.

PhD Historian, you are right, I should have qualified my statement that I disagreed with you on the nature of who believed/disbelieved Queen Anne's "guilt." I should say before the academic sparring begins that it is always a pleasure to engage with someone involved in the field and well-informed.

In any case, I do not think it was simply diplomats who speculated on Anne's guilt. We should read into Archbishop Cranmer's alleged comments to Alexander Ales on the day of Anne's execution, then Thomas Cromwell's conversation with Chapuys which reads much more like a confession that he had orchestrated the entire affair, the Lord Mayor of London's remark that the whole thing seemed to have been concocted with the sole intention of providing a reason to oust the queen, Maria of Hungary's letter several weeks later that she had heard that the woman 'although worthless' had been "framed," the personal loyalty to Anne's memory of Matthew Parker and, even beyond that, there are far more letters riddled with caveats, like those of viscount Lisle or William Thomas, who said 'seems,' 'if,' suggesting a degree of reasonable doubt. The doubters, coupled with those who said (as much as they were able to), suggest that within the world of the elite, far more disbelieved or were sceptical about the queen's alleged guilt than those who believed in it.

I should have clarified what I meant by Anne's fate being "appalling." In the first place, I am not entirely convinced by the argument that sentiment should be removed from history, since history is in essence the story of humanity and sentiment is part of humanity. Naturally, a saturation of sentiment is unhelpful and often unpalatable, but that is not to say it should be missing entirely. On that basis, I would say that it seems curious to suggest that Anne's eventual fate was any-the-less appalling simply because she herself had feared it for some months (and I do agree with you on that - she had feared it since January, rather than the end of April, as Ives's timeline suggests.) Nor do I think that the fate of the other men who died in the Tudor period was somehow less because of their gender.

Gareth Russell said...

However, Anne's fate does merit the label I originally endowed it with, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, gender bias in this case, is appropriate within reason. Anne was not condemned to death simply for treason (which carried with it the death penalty), but also gross acts of sexual perversion and multiple adultery (which, it should be stated, was not a treasonable offence in a queen at the time of the trial in 1536.) The inclusion of the sexual details in her trial were designed to pander to fears of women and served no real purpose save character-assassination, because with the exception of incest, her alleged actions with Norris, Smeaton, Brereton and Weston did not merit death. Such tactics were not deployed in the trials of men. Anne was demonised by a process of pornographic misogyny. And I do not mean that to sound like feminist hyperbole. Men did not have their characters and reputations destroyed by the politics of sexuality - Anne did. This is one of the reasons why many of the men who died under Henry's regime still enjoy a large amount of respect in the modern-day (think of the ridiculous over-sentimentalisation of Sir Thomas More), whereas Anne is a far more divisive figure.

Secondly, Anne Boleyn's fate was appalling on a reflective level because of the light it shines on the much-debated personality of Henry VIII. Whilst it is true that More and Cromwell were close to him, leaving aside William Roper's rather cosy and thoroughly unbelievable accounts of cosy tete-a-tetes and evenings of astronomy between monarch and More, it is not true that they were married to him. And the eventual fate of Anne Boleyn who had been Henry's wife, coupled with the fate of close friends like Norris, is appalling in that it should show a deranged tendency within the king's personality, which several historians seem reluctant to engage with. It is insufficient to state that Henry's personality and actions were the product of a violent age, as Froude or Pollard once did. Even by the standards of his own time, what happened in 1536 raised more than a few eyebrows - as the comments of Maria of Hungary, Marie de Guise and Christina of Milan would show. Annulment or exile were valid options, as the cases of Louis XII's wife had shown in the recent past or the more removed examples of several married or widowed queens in the English past, who had been temporarily banished or detained at the king's convenience - such as Joanna of Navarre or Eleanor of Aquitaine.

I agree that there is a severe problem with the study of Anne Boleyn's life - that there has been an unfortunate tendency to demonise or sentimentalise her, with the many romantic additions to her story being almost impossible to dislodge in the minds of either "haters" or "fans." However, whilst serious study of her life and personality are to be lauded, I do worry that they have often headed in the direction of trying to trivialise or even numb the impact of that story and it is only by understanding that politics at the time were organic, meaning human and thus, often, driven by emotions, can we fully understand a very important part of this country's history.

Marilyn R, yes, as I understand it, that was the process the late Wing Commander went through and Her Majesty passed it along to the Home Secretary.