By Susan Breen
Anne Boleyn had a talent for controversy. (Isn’t that what makes her so fascinating?) She was accused of many things over the course of her lifetime, but one of the accusations that comes up most frequently is that she was a poisoner.
Keep in mind that poisoning in the early 16th century was viewed differently than we view it today. In our time, poisoning is a criminal matter, a type of homicide. But in Anne’s day it was a murkier thing. Poisoning meant sorcery and witchcraft and evil spells. It was a crime associated with outsiders and foreigners and Infidels and witches. A woman such as Anne, who had spent so much time in foreign courts, who had foreign ways, who might have had features, such as moles, that set her apart physically, would be rumored to be a poisoner in almost any circumstances.
So how serious were the charges against Anne Boleyn?
Four specific incidents are at the heart of the controversy:
1. In 1531, Bishop John Fisher, an outspoken supporter of Catherine of Aragon, narrowly avoided being poisoned. He was supposed to sit down to dinner that day, but wasn’t hungry. Instead he invited his servants and guests to dine, and two of them died after eating the soup that had been prepared for him. Richard Roose, a cook, was arrested and confessed to putting a substance in the gruel, but said he hadn’t known it would cause harm. Roose was sentenced to the terrible death of being boiled alive, but there were those who felt that Roose did not act alone. When Sir Thomas More, then chancellor, told Henry that people blamed Anne or her family for the crime, Henry snapped that Anne was blamed for everything, even the weather. Of course Roose, at that point, was in no position to offer a defense.
2. In 1536, Catherine of Aragon died after a long illness. Some believed she worsened after drinking Welsh beer in 1535. In the embalmer’s report that followed her death, he noted her heart “was quite black and hideous to look at.” It is now thought that she died of complications from cancer, but at the time, Anne drew suspicion. She had never hidden her dislike of Catherine, and her reception of the news of her death seemed celebratory.
3. Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon, the Lady Mary, certainly believed her stepmother was trying to kill her. At one point Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote to King Charles of Spain that, “A Gentleman told me yesterday that the earl of Northumberland told him that he knew for certain that [Anne] had determined to poison the Princess.”
4. Seventeen-year-old Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, King Henry’s illegitimate son, also believed Anne was trying to poison him. On May 2, 1536, after Anne had been taken to the Tower, FitzRoy went to receive his father’s blessing. The King began to cry, saying that he and his sister [Lady Mary] were “greatly bound to God for having escaped the hands of that accursed whore, who had determined to poison them.” FitzRoy went to Anne’s execution and he and the Duke of Suffolk were among the few people there who didn’t fall to their knees in prayer as she awaited death. Sadly FitzRoy died the following month, of what Alison Weir describes as a “suppurating pulmonary infection.”
In each of these cases, Anne’s name came up because she had motive. But did she do it? Was she a poisoner?
It’s worth noting, that whether she poisoned anyone or not, there was a lot of poisoning going on at that time. In his fascinating book, The Crime of Poison in the Middle Ages, Franck Collard estimates that out of the 21 kings who reigned in France from 987 to 1497, three-quarters were thought to be exposed to poison. (Although his book technically cuts off at 1500, he cites examples going into Anne Boleyn’s era.) Among specific cases he mentions are English King Henry IV, who “died suddenly sitting up straight on his saddle, covered with poison.” (That was a fast-acting poison. By contrast, he says it took 23 years for poison to work on Charles V.) The fear of poisoning was so widespread that many wealthy people took precautions at their dinner table. There were knives that sweat in the presence of poison and metal languiers on which people hung snake tongues, believed to be another form of poison detector.
Part of why there was so much poisoning was that there was more of it around. Increasing international trade brought new types of poison into England, as well as new techniques for extracting toxic substances out of minerals. Apothecary shops sold arsenic over the counter. Poisonwas cheap. According to Collard, a small amount of toxic material could cost as little as 4 sous in 1501. He refers to this as the “democratization of poison.” Then there were also traveling sellers of theriaque, who sold special preparations that could be used for medicinal reasons, but, as has always been the case, the difference between medicine and poison is often the dose.
Much of the poison was plant-based, such as the herbs aconite and hellebore. There were also mineral-based poisons that required equipment and special manipulations and these became more popular in the 16th century. There were also poisons that came from animal materials, such as one horrifying recipe that called for a substance from the mouth of a red-haired man killed by a poisonous bite and hanged by his feet. The upshot is that anyone who wanted access to poison could probably have found it. So Anne had access and motive. Does that mean she did it?
As I think about it, I find myself drawn to an event that never happened, but which I find interesting nonetheless. (I’m a novelist and so naturally drawn to making up stories.) In 1533, which was a year after Anne went to Calais with Henry to meet with King Francis, the French King’s second son married Catherine de Medici. She was only 14 at the time and she was related to Pope Clement, also a de Medici. He was the Pope so instrumental in holding off the marriage between Henry and Anne. The de Medici family was infamous for its knowledge of poisons and Catherine went on to become known as “The Sinister Queen” (though her reputation may have owed a lot to the fact that she was a strong woman in a foreign country). Like Anne Boleyn, Catherine de Medici was a woman who did not always do what she was supposed to do, or fit in where she should. What might these two have talked about had Anne’s visit to Calais happened one year later? What advice might each have given the other?
But getting back to what actually happened, there’s still the question about Anne Boleyn.
So I went back to a book I like to use when writing mysteries, titled Criminal Poisoning. The author, forensic expert John Trestrail, makes the point that poisoners have a unique personality. They’re different than regular killers. For one thing, the very act of poisoning implies a unique relationship with the victim. The poisoner has to get close, which suggest that she lives near the victim or is in contact, or prepares meals. (This is why there’s a preconception that most poisoners are women, though Trestrail says that’s wrong.) There’s something stealthy and invisible about poisoning. It allows a killer to attack a physically or mentally stronger person by invading that person’s defense zone.
So, what sort of person becomes a poisoner?
This is what Trestrail has to say: “Poisoners are for the most part cunning, avaricious, cowardly (physically or mentally nonconfrontational), childlike in their fantasy, and somewhat artistic…” They tend to have a grandiose sense of self-importance, a belief that they are special and unique, a sense of entitlement, feelings of envy, a lack of empathy and a requirement for excessive admiration.
Something I think we could all agree on is that Anne Boleyn was neither cowardly nor nonconfrontational. She was unafraid to speak up. When she should have been silent, she was incapable of it. She was a woman who confronted her enemies head-on, and on the basis of that, I would vote no. Anne Boleyn was not a poisoner.
What do you think?
Bilyeau, Nancy, “The Death of the Bishop’s Poisoner,” English Historical Fiction Authors
Bordo, Susan, The Creation of Anne Boleyn
Collard, Franck, The Crime of Poison in the Middle Ages
Ridgway, Claire, “The Death of Catherine of Aragon,” theanneboleynfiles.com
Ridgway, Claire, The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown
Somervill, Barbara A., Catherine de Medici, The Power Behind the French Throne
Trestrail, John Harris III, Criminal Poisoning: Investigational Guide for Law Enforcement, Toxicologists, Forensic Scientists, and Attorneys
Weir, Alison, The Lady in the Tower
Susan Breen is the author of the novel, The Fiction Class, which was published by Plume/Penguin. Her stories and articles have appeared in places such as Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and www.composejournal.com. She teaches novel writing for Gotham Writers in NYC and lives in Irvington, NY with her husband and two cockapoos (dogs). She has three fabulous children who are all off in the world, doing remarkable things. She’s at work on a mystery in which Anne Boleyn is a character (although not a poisoner).
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