The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir


  What Cromwell told Chapuys must, once and for all, lay to rest the oft-repeated myth that Henry VIII, tired of Anne, disappointed of a son, and eager to marry Jane Seymour, ordered Cromwell to find incriminating evidence that would send his queen to her death. For there is absolutely nothing to support the theory that Henry VIII “passed on to Cromwell the task of finding the quickest and most effective way of getting rid of her.”6 That is the traditional, and now discredited, view, exemplified by Strickland’s sweeping assertion that “Henry’s vindictive purpose against [Anne] was evident from the beginning.”

  More than a century ago, the eminent historian, James Anthony Froude, rightly asked if Henry VIII, his hands full with the crucial issue of European alliances that would impact in one way or another on England’s future, and determined to assert his independence in the face of the great Catholic powers, would have initiated a domestic scandal that would distract himself and his ministers from the tough and demanding negotiations with which they were heavily preoccupied.7 No, the King accepted a case that other men had constructed for him;8 he was “not seeking a way to dispose of a wife of whom he had tired.”9 He did not need to. He now had total command of the Church of England and could call upon the services of effective propagandists to push through and justify an annulment;10 getting rid of Anne by this means would not have been difficult, and indeed was not, as time would prove.11 And because Catholic Europe did not recognize the marriage, there would have been no diplomatic repercussions, as there had been with Katherine.12

  Paul Friedmann, Anne’s Victorian biographer, thought that an annulment was out of the question because it would have given the impression that the King, upon entering both his marriages, had been careless of any impediments, casting doubts on his scruples of conscience. It is a theory that gives the historian pause for thought, but the fact remains that Henry did ultimately have his marriage to Anne annulled on the grounds of an existing impediment of which he was aware at the time.

  It has also been argued, by several historians, that Henry did not go down the route to annulment because Anne would never have accepted his repudiation of their marriage or the bastardizing of her child. Yet incontrovertible grounds for a nullity suit did exist, as would shortly be proved, and Anne did in the event acquiesce without protest. It is true that she was in extremis at the time, and that she was probably offered significant inducements, but that strongly suggests that earlier on, being aware of the precariousness of her position, she would have been susceptible to persuasive or bullying tactics, rather than risk the further consequences of Henry’s displeasure.

  The King had to be aware that Anne was widely unpopular and that her removal would meet with public approval—after all, he had signed the act criminalizing her critics. There would be no political backlash, as with Katherine. Asserting that a displaced Anne might well have allied with her brother Rochford and “some devoted friends” to form an opposition party dedicated to restoring her13 fails to take into account the fact that Anne had few friends and many enemies, and that rejected royal wives were likely to be abandoned by those who wished to remain in the King’s favor, as the history of Katherine of Aragon had proved.

  If Henry had wanted to get rid of Anne, he could have done so without the assistance of her enemies. The fact remains that, having perhaps toyed with the idea of annulling their marriage, he took no evident steps to pursue it. Is it likely that, bent on ridding himself of her in the wake of her miscarriage, and desperate for a son in his middle age, he would have waited three months to take any action against her? Furthermore, if he had been working secretly to destroy her, why did he insist, almost up to the time of her arrest, on the Emperor acknowledging her as queen? In taking such a stand in secret expectation of her imminent fall, on charges of immorality, Henry would knowingly have been setting himself up for a monumental loss of face, as Catholic Europe metaphorically turned around to him and said, “We told you so!” Why go through such a pantomime when he could have acted on the “evidence” and proceeded against her without further delay? It was not as if Anne were a foreign princess with powerful relatives, as Katherine had been. There was no need for him to stand up for the rights of a woman who would soon be branded a “public strumpet,” for he would have known that the way would soon be clear for him to marry a wife whom the whole world could acknowledge.

  In recent years it has been recognized that what has been called “the most rapid and bloody political crisis of the century”14 originated with Cromwell, who had good cause to believe that Anne’s influence with the King posed a threat to his policies and to his very life.15 As David Starkey has pointed out, Anne was “a brutal and effective politician” who had already brought even the great Cardinal Wolsey to ruin.16 The threat was real: Cromwell had urgent cause for concern. Political rivalries at court could be deadly, as he was to find out four years hence, after arranging Henry’s fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, having persuaded the King that an alliance with the German princes would counterbalance his isolation after France and the Empire had united against him in the wake of his excommunication. But Henry took a violent dislike to his bride and the marriage was dissolved after six months, not without a lot of diplomatic shuffling and embarrassment. In the meantime, the threat of invasion had passed. As a result of this debacle, Cromwell’s enemies were able to pounce, and with the King willing to believe their calumnies, he was sent to the block on a trumped-up charge of heresy, the victim of his own policies.

  Cromwell himself had been instrumental in bringing about the political executions of Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, in 1535; he knew how easy it was for a great man to fall from favor, and he knew too that Anne had threatened to have him executed. Chapuys had taken her threat seriously, and Chapuys’s acknowledgment of the danger in which Cromwell stood must have been preying on the latter’s mind, alongside his own fears. Anne’s intention had been made plain enough to the whole court on April 2 in that sermon preached at her behest, and now there was Cranmer’s letter, which reached Cromwell around this time, and must have convinced Master Secretary that she was not going to yield an inch, but would continue to defy him. Above all it had just become alarmingly obvious that Anne still wielded considerable influence over the King, and might well gain ascendancy in what looked set to be a bitter power struggle with Cromwell. And Henry was suggestible, as Cromwell must already have known.

  In entertaining the Emperor’s uncompromising terms for an alliance, with all that they implied for Anne and her daughter, Cromwell had laid himself open to censure and worse, for it had now been made plain that the King was having second thoughts about a compact with Charles V; and who knew how Anne, already angry with Cromwell, might react were she to hear of his discussions with Chapuys? She and her faction in the Privy Chamber, which exercised influence and patronage independent of Master Secretary, would show no mercy, that much was certain.17 Against their power and malice, Cromwell knew himself alarmingly vulnerable.

  It has been said that Cromwell moved against Anne because her marriage was “an impediment to diplomatic progress.”18 But Charles V had made it clear that, if it came to it, he would recognize that marriage, while Anne herself was in favor of an Imperial alliance. It was Charles’s other conditions that were a barrier to the alliance. Anne was not the major issue in negotiations. Nevertheless, were Anne to be removed, the path to a rapprochement with the Emperor would obviously be far smoother.

  Crucially, Cromwell and Anne were pulling in different directions over religion. In defying him, and in reexerting her influence over the King, she showed herself to be an obstacle that needed to be removed.19 He knew now that he might wait forever for Henry to proceed with a nullity suit, and that if Anne was to be eliminated, other means must be found to force Henry to abandon her. Never mind that Cromwell had once supported her and smoothed the way for her marriage, for their interests had now dangerously diverged, and he’d come to the stark realization that she was his enemy
, and that she and her influential supporters at court were seeking to bring him down and even compass his death. That had to be preempted at all costs. So Cromwell, who had learned a bitter lesson during the past few days, was ready to take the initiative, as he had, to disastrous effect, over the Imperial alliance—only this time, with the stakes much higher, there must be no possibility of failure.

  It has been asserted that Cromwell discounted a second royal divorce because that would have left “the nucleus of a powerful party in Anne and Rochford, with their fortunes intact and a great body” of reformist friends,20 although as we have seen, that is highly unlikely. Moreover, he now evidently believed that the King had moved away from the idea of an annulment, and that Anne had reasserted her influence. He, by contrast, was now in some disgrace. The only option left to him was to discredit and ruin her once and for all. It was an almighty gamble, but Cromwell may have felt that in presenting her to the King as a monster of depravity hell-bent on his destruction, and in rescuing Henry from that danger, he himself would win his master’s undying gratitude and be restored to favor.

  According to what he told Chapuys, and his own account of events, written in a letter dated May 14, 1536, to the English ambassadors in France,21 Cromwell and other privy councillors had already become aware of salacious gossip about Anne. He told Chapuys that “one of the things that had aroused his suspicion and made him inquire into the matter was a prognostic [an indication or forecast] made in Flanders threatening the King with a conspiracy of those who were nearest his person.”22 This could just have been a mere prophecy inflated for Cromwell’s own purposes into something more sinister, and utilized accordingly. But Alexander Aless also claimed that some of the evidence against Anne came from abroad, stating that at the time when the English embassy was dispatched to Wittenberg the previous year, Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, had been ambassador to France (having arrived there in November 1535), and he had written to his friends at the English court “to the effect that certain reports were being circulated in the court of the King of France, and certain letters had been discovered, according to which the Queen was accused of adultery.”

  Certainly Anne had enjoyed close links with the court of France, had patronized French scholars and imported controversial religious tracts, so it is not beyond belief that she had committed to writing certain indiscretions, open to misconstruction, in letters sent across the Channel.

  It is possible that Aless, the friend of Cranmer and Cromwell, was not entirely in their confidence and had misconstrued what he’d learned, mistaking—with the benefit of hindsight—accusations of political interference and incompetence with accusations of adultery; and that the truth chimed more harmoniously than he knew with his theory that Anne’s fate was the direct consequence of that embassy to Wittenberg. While Gardiner was in Paris, Henry VIII wrote asking for his opinion on the German proposals for the formation of a Protestant league with England, a project that would have won Anne’s approval. But Gardiner lambasted the idea, writing to Cromwell that the King in his realm “was emperor and Head of the Church of England,” and if he bound himself to the German Lutherans, he “would be able to do nothing without their consent.”23 Henry sat up and took notice, which sounded the death knell to the negotiations, and also to the Queen’s hopes of influencing her husband in favor of the Protestants, and it laid her open to the machinations of her hard-line Catholic enemies. Aless says that Henry “was angry with the Queen” at the failure of this embassy that he had sent at her instigation, because “the princes would not enter into a league with him against the Emperor unless for the defense of the [Lutheran] doctrine. They demanded more money than he was willing to give, and the King was exceedingly indignant because the Princes of Germany doubted his faith.” It was all, clearly, Anne’s fault.

  Aless states that Gardiner’s letter from France was delivered by his steward, Thomas Wriothesley—who was soon to become one of the King’s four secretaries, and had already incurred the enmity of the Queen—and that it was he who showed it to Cromwell. But Cromwell apparently had other sources of information closer to home.

  The assertion that Cromwell’s report of “the judicious sequence of suspicion, investigation, evidence, and arrest” was a lie24 cannot be substantiated because we cannot be certain if Cromwell’s suspicions had already been aroused by the gossip and the warnings before he decided to make use of them and proceed against Anne, or whether he deliberately set about making a case against her after April 18. Telling Chapuys that he had “thought up and plotted” that case suggests that the whole plot was Cromwell’s idea from the first. Yet one might wonder what prompted the idea of accusing Anne of sexual crimes. Was Cromwell acting on testimony already laid, or snippets of gossip his spies had already brought him? Probably his spies picked up court gossip, which their master seized upon and “threaded together into an unseemly chronicle.”25

  Some of that gossip was perhaps based on things Anne herself had said; she had a habit of being indiscreet. Lancelot de Carles asserts that it was because the Queen “did not leave off her evil conversation” that she was “at length brought to shame.” As the historian A. F. Pollard later wrote, “Her conduct must have made the charges plausible.”

  There must have been many salacious allegations on which Cromwell could act, given the Queen’s unpopularity and the treasonable things that we know had been said about her; several people called her a whore or a harlot, which implied that people might not have had any trouble believing she was promiscuous. Certainly Cromwell would make good use of the one factor that the King, above all others, would understand: Anne’s appeal for men, and her ability to inspire passion and sexual desire. That could be employed to good advantage, to construct a case against her that was sufficiently convincing—and shocking—to persuade an appalled Henry that she had betrayed him in the basest manner and made a fool of him.

  It is possible therefore that Master Secretary was telling the truth, with perhaps a little embroidery and exaggeration, when he wrote to the English ambassadors on May 14, informing them that “the Queen’s abomination, both in inconvenient living and other offenses toward the King’s Highness, was so rank and common that her ladies of her privy chamber and her chamberers could not contain it within their breasts, but, detesting the same, had so often consultations and conferences of it, that at last it came so plainly to the ears of some of His Grace’s Council.”26

  If this is true, then being discovered gossiping about such dangerous matters must have been initially a terrifying experience for the ladies and servants concerned, because since 1534 it had been high treason to make any statement slandering the King’s marriage and his issue, and since this gossip clearly concerned the Queen’s morals, it might cast some doubt on the legitimacy of her daughter. And if such unsubstantiated slanders reached the ears of the Queen or the King’s councillors, the consequences could be dire.27

  But whereas Cromwell had until recently been zealous in punishing those who had offended against the statute of 1534, he was now prepared to overlook such subversions in the interests of bringing down the Queen, and no doubt to assure those who assisted in his inquiries of their immunity from prosecution.28 Possibly these ladies of the Queen’s household were sufficiently cozened or intimidated by Master Secretary to dredge up all the gossip they could think of and tell him what he wanted to hear, which was what would be described at Anne’s trial as “bawdy and lechery.”29

  We know very few details of the initial investigations, but one thing seems likely. John Husee, a gentleman of the King’s retinue in Calais and the attorney of Henry VIII’s uncle, Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle, Governor of Calais, was in London when, on May 23, he wrote to Lady Lisle of the recent sensational events that had rocked the court, and informed her that “the first accuser” of the Queen was “the Lady Worcester, and Nan Cobham, with one maid more; but the Lady Worcester was the first ground.” Two days later Husee reiterated to Lady Lisle, “As to the Queen
’s accusers, my Lady Worcester is said to be the principal.”30 In corroboration, Lancelot de Carles also describes her as the initial witness. This would appear to bear out what Cromwell told the ambassadors, that he and the Privy Council acted on evidence laid before them.

  Elizabeth, Countess of Worcester, the daughter of Sir Anthony Browne, was married to Henry, the second earl, the son of Charles Somerset, Earl of Worcester, an illegitimate descendant of the Beauforts and, through them, cousin to the King.31 The countess, whose tomb effigy survives in St. Mary’s Church, Chepstow,32 was one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting and evidently close to her, despite her half brother, Sir William FitzWilliam, treasurer of the King’s household, being (according to Chapuys) “a man of sense and a good servant” of Lady Mary.33 FitzWilliam, who had once been Cardinal Wolsey’s “treasure” and had no love for the woman who brought down his old master,34 was to be instrumental in bringing about Anne’s fall, while the countess’s brother, the younger Sir Anthony Browne, would openly rejoice at it. This might suggest that, aside from acting as was required of them on their allegiance to the King, they both felt they were justified in doing so.

  Lady Worcester had attended the Queen at her coronation banquet in 1533, and seems to have been in her confidence, as can be inferred from the fact that on March 8, 1537, ten months after Anne’s fall, the countess was to confide to Cromwell that she had borrowed £100 (£34,900) from her mistress without telling her husband. He responded by reassuring her that she need not trouble to pay it back, as it had been given out of the former Queen’s privy purse. “On that matter I most heartily thank you,” Lady Worcester replied, “for I am very loath it should come to my husband’s knowledge. I am in doubt how he will take it.”35 As will be seen, Anne was certainly under the impression that the countess was a good friend: Elizabeth Browne was pregnant in the spring of 1536, and Anne was to attribute the fact that the baby “did not stir in her womb” to the sorrow the countess suffered on account of her mistress’s misfortunes.36 But Anne may have been harboring a false impression.

 
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