Did Gertrude Courtenay Accuse Anne Boleyn of Witchcraft? by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

Guest article by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

During the years of Anne Boleyn’s rise to power, Gertrude and her husband remained loyal to Queen Katharine of Aragon. In 1527, Henry VIII decided that, at forty-two, Queen Katharine was too old to bear children, and so he sought an annulment. What he initially believed would take about a year to accomplish actually took six long years. During this time, Katharine’s popularity grew while Anne became a figure of scandal.

Perceived as a home-wrecker, especially by women, Anne was often accused of seducing the King. Chronicler Edward Hall wrote that the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting and other household servants spoke unfavourably about Anne “and said that she so enticed the King, and brought him in such amours, that only for her sake and occasion he would be divorced from his Queen”.[1]

“Unlawful love”

Gertrude and her husband, together with their close friends the Pole family (that included Margaret, Countess of Salisbury) privately sneered at Anne Boleyn’s rapid elevation. They believed the King had decided to divorce their “good Queen Katharine” because he was was “[ca]tched yn the snare off unlawfull love with the lady Ane”[2], implying that Anne used love magic. The comment about “unlawful love” carried witchcraft connotations. Provoking someone to “unlawful love” was among the tricks imputed to women using witchcraft to “snare” their lovers and fell under the category of love magic. It was not punishable during Anne’s lifetime, but it would become a felony under the 1542 Witchcraft Act.[3]

Although Anne was never charged with witchcraft, an air of scandal surrounded her relationship with the King, and some commentators suggested that Henry VIII was “charmed by potions or otherwise”, so Gertrude and her faction were not alone in spreading gossip linking Anne with witchcraft.[4]

Apart from insinuating that she used witchcraft, in their view Anne was also “a harlot and a heretic”, and her eventual marriage to the King was “unlawful”.[5] Anne was disparaged as a “harlot” because she was romantically involved with a married man and a “heretic” because her religious views were leaning towards the newly developing evangelical movement.

“Seduced by sortileges and charms”

In 1536, shortly after Anne Boleyn miscarried a son, Gertrude informed the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys that she and her husband:

“[…] had heard from the lips of one of the principal courtiers that this King had said to one of them in great secrecy, and as if in confession, that he had been seduced and forced into this second marriage by means of sortileges and charms, and that, owing to that, he held it as null. God (he said) had well shown his displeasure at it by denying him male children. He, therefore, considered that he could take a third wife, which he said he wished much to do.”[6]

There are two versions of Chapuys’s despatch, one in the Letters and Papers and another one in the Spanish Calendar of State Papers. The version in the Calendar of State Papers is the one cited above, whereas the Letters and Papers translation uses the word “witchcraft” instead of “sortileges and charms”.[7]

If proven, allegations of witchcraft could result in the dissolution of a marriage. The most recent example in living memory was the accusation of witchcraft with special emphasis on love magic levelled against Henry VIII’s grandmother Elizabeth Grey, née Woodville. The clandestine nature of Edward IV’s marriage led Richard III’s Parliament to claim in 1483 that the wedding had been procured “by sorcery and witchcraft, committed by the said Elizabeth and her mother, Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford”.[8] According to the act, witchcraft committed by Elizabeth and Jacquetta was “the common opinion of the people and the public voice, and the fame is through all this land”.[9] In the end, it was not witchcraft that invalidated Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to Edward IV: it was the King’s alleged pre-contract with another woman. Henry VIII had clearly looked into what legal basis had been used in 1483 to annul Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville; his comment about being seduced with witchcraft clearly implies so, as well as the fact that he tried to use Anne’s earlier pre-contract with Henry Percy.

Whether Henry VIII truly said that he believed Anne Boleyn seduced him by witchcraft is impossible to prove. It is likely that Gertrude spread the rumour to tarnish Anne’s reputation. In any case, even if Henry VIII wanted to accuse Anne of witchcraft, it was not an offence punishable by death until 1542, when a statute was passed making it a felony “to practise, or cause to be practised, conjuration, witchcraft, enchantment or sorcery […] to provoke any person to unlawful love”.[10] The King would come up with something much more malicious to get rid of his wife.


[1] Edward Hall, Hall’s Chronicle, p. 759.

[2] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 13 Part 2, n. 800.

[3] Sir William Searle Holdsworth, A History of English Law, p. 510-511.

[4] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 5, n. 1114.

[5] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 13 Part 2, n. 800.

[6] Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2, n. 13.

[7] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10, n. 199.

[8] Titulus Regius http://www.richard111.com/titulus_regius.htm

[9] Ibid.

[10] Danby Pickering (ed.), The Statutes at Large, From the Thirty-Second Year of King Henry VIIII, to the Seventh Year of King Edward VI, p. 79.

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