How could anyone believe that the crowned Queen of England was a witch? Of all the accusations made against Anne Boleyn (c. 1501-1536) this seems the strangest to the modern observer. But the Tudors were more than willing to accept the king’s second wife was guilty of a whole list of diabolical crimes. Let us examine why.
Although witches had been persecuted for over a hundred years on the European Continent, the first statute was not passed in England until 1542, when the Catholic clergy persuaded their congregations that Satan’s army was on the march. This was likely the direct result of the widespread distribution of the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) – the prominent and damaging witch-finder manual written by two German Inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. The Malleus was intended to halt pagan practices, but instead it triggered a wave of witch hunts that resulted in countless innocent deaths.
James Sharpe, in Instruments of Darkness, explains how the Reformation caused similar concerns among the early Protestants because “Idolatry included not only witchcraft but also the telling of the rosary, going to Mass, and saint worship” (27). But while Catholicism and sorcery were the twin evils in the early Lutheran mind, the Papists thought Protestants and witches were heretics too. And as Hester Chapman’s biography claims, it was not a huge leap for the Catholics to see Anne Boleyn as the temptress whose “advent had brought about disaster on the kingdom. She was the personification not only of evil, but of an assault on religion, crops, cattle, fair weather – every aspect of daily life” (106).
Unfortunately Mistress Boleyn was an easy target. An unconventional beauty, her enemies claimed she bore the mark of the devil from birth in an extra finger (or finger nail), and that she had numerous moles, which were widely associated with wicked women. But as Antonia Fraser reveals in The Wives of Henry VIII , as a mature lady she “exercised a kind of sexual fascination over most men who met her” (123). Anne was condemned for adultery with several others, but because the cuckolding of a king had no legal precedent, this alone was not a Capital offence. So Thomas Cromwell had to imply hundreds of liaisons between Boleyn and her lovers because the Malleus claimed “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust which is in women insatiable”(47). If she could be proven to be a lascivious witch – especially one who intended to use magic to harm or kill members of the Royal Family – then she could be sentenced to death. Not for witchcraft per se (because laws against this specific problem had yet to be passed in Henry’s reign) but rather for the ambiguous, treasonable act of betraying the sanctity of marriage and entertaining malice against the king.
Witch Crime #1: Anne Boleyn was a wicked seductress who intended to harm the royal Defender of the Faith and destroy his Christian kingdom.
Part Two tomorrow . . .
Sources Cited in Part One:
Chapman, Hester W. Anne Boleyn (London: Cape, 1974)
Fraser, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII (New York: Random, 1994)
Kramer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. The Malleus Malficarum (New York: Dover, 1971)
Sharpe, James. Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England, 1550-1750 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996)