The Sciences

Anne Boleyn’s Letter May Have Been Written 70 Years After Her Death

A historian’s analysis of the British queen’s landmark letter could contribute to ongoing debates about whether the letter was forged or not.

By Lily CareyJun 17, 2024 11:00 AM
Portrait of Anne Boleyn
(Credit: Photos.com/Getty Images)

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
 

British historian Amanda Glover says she loves a mystery.  

And according to a research article she published in February, she may be beginning to untangle one of the greatest historical mysteries of England's Tudor period, which lasted from 1485 to 1603.  

The mystery in question is that of Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated second wife of King Henry VIII who was accused of and executed for adultery by her own husband. While Anne was imprisoned in the Tower of London, awaiting execution, she wrote an impassioned letter to her husband in which she fiercely declared her innocence.  

But when analyzing the paper on which the letter was written, Glover discovered that the paper’s distinctive watermark was only used in the early 17th century — nearly 70 years after Anne Boleyn's execution — meaning that Anne could not have written the letter. 

Whether the letter contains the queen’s true words, or whether it’s a forgery, still remains unanswered.  

Who Was Anne Boleyn? 

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII,  assumed the English throne in 1533. But shortly thereafter, Henry accused her of adultery and incest, and was ultimately executed by her own husband in 1536 at the age of 35.  

Today, most historians agree that she was almost certainly not guilty of the charges against her, which included sleeping with five men other than Henry. The king was desperate for a male heir, and when Anne Boleyn gave birth to a daughter (who is known today as Queen Elizabeth I), it’s likely that he sought a way to get rid of her and find a wife who could birth a son. 

One of our only insights into Anne Boleyn's feelings during this time comes from her iconic letter from the Tower, titled "To the King from the Lady in the Tower." Allegedly penned on May 6, 1536 while she was imprisoned in the Tower of London, the letter addresses King Henry VIII and declares her innocence and faithfulness. 


Read More: Could Brain Injuries Explain King Henry VIII’s Tyrant Behavior?


Analyzing the Letter from the Tower 

For decades, researchers have tried to confirm the legitimacy of Anne Boleyn’s letters, using a range of methods, from matching handwriting to analyzing its linguistic style. 

But when Glover sought to investigate the letters, she took a different approach — analyzing the paper on which the letters were written. 

In Tudor England, paper was made using molds, each of which left a uniquely designed watermark on the finished paper. As Glover details in her article for the historical organization The Tudor Society, paper molds were never used for more than a year or two before they became worn out and needed to be replaced. This meant that analyzing the paper used in the letters could provide an extremely accurate date range of when it may have been used. 

After being granted access to the original letters and examining the paper’s watermark, Glover found her evidence: a watermark depicting a double-handled pot full of grapes. 

Glover then searched through the Memory of Paper website, which contains access to databases full of hundreds of thousands of watermarks, and finally discovered a match. The watermark on the letter, the database revealed, means the paper would have been produced between 1606 and 1609 — well after Anne Boleyn supposedly wrote or dictated the letter. 

“When I first discovered that this piece of paper didn't exist until at least 1600, my first thoughts were, it's a forgery, as I think most people would think,” Glover says of her shocking discovery. “But I haven't established it as a forgery. I've just established that it's certainly not the one that Anne dictated… It could be a much later copy.”  


Read More: 3 Historic Hoaxes That Duped The Masses, Scientists Or Media


The Last Words of Anne Boleyn  

Whether or not the letter contains Anne Boleyn’s original words, it has had an indisputable impact on British history. In 1824, English historian and author Henry Ellis described the letter as “one of the finest compositions in the English Language.” 

The letter details Anne’s reflections from her “doleful prison in the tower.” In it, she firmly argues that she is innocent of her alleged crimes. 

“Let not your grace ever imagine that your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault where never not so much as a thought thereof ever proceeded,” the letter reads. “And to speak a truth, never Prince had a wife more loyal in all duty and true affection than you have ever found in Anne [Boleyn].” 

Anne Boleyn goes on to implore Henry to allow her to have a fair trial, and to not let her “sworn enemies sit as [her] accusers and Judges.” She also asks Henry not to wrongfully punish the men with whom she was accused of committing adultery. 

Many historians who believe the letter is forged say the language used in it doesn’t match up with Anne’s typical writing style. It’s far bolder than her other writings that have been studied.  

Glover says she can’t imagine Anne Boleyn timidly “begging for her life”, though.  

“I can see her writing such a letter. She was feisty. That's what Henry liked about her,” Glover says. “She was opinionated. She would talk back. She would debate.” 

Still, there are many questions left unanswered given Glover’s discovery. If the letter that exists today is a copy of Anne Boleyn's original writing, how would it have made its way into Thomas Cromwell’s library, where it was kept for several hundred years before being moved to its current location at the Cotton Library? And if Anne didn’t write the letter herself, then who did?  

Piecing together the full story of the Letter from the Tower could be crucial to figuring out whether or not it was actually written by Anne Boleyn. Until then, Glover says herself and others are ready to keep digging for evidence. 

“There are hundreds of thousands of documents sitting in official archives and unofficial archives. There might even be an original letter somewhere,” she says. “But it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.” 


Read More: Cryptologists Decode Mary Queen of Scots' Letters


Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!

Subscribe

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Join
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

 
Subscribe
To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.