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

  At some point in the spring of 1536, according to Lancelot de Carles, a “lord of the Privy Council, seeing clear evidence that his sister loved certain persons with a dishonorable love, admonished her fraternally. She acknowledged her offense but said it was little in her case in comparison with that of the Queen, who did more than she did, and was accustomed to admit some of her court to come into her chamber at improper hours.” She then declared that “as he might ascertain from Mark Smeaton,” a court musician and member of the King’s Privy Chamber, Anne was “guilty of incest with her own brother,” and added “that Smeaton could tell much more.”

  This passage appears to refer to Lady Worcester. There is another version of this tale in the Lansdowne manuscripts in the British Library, in which the brother’s name is given as “Antoine Brun,” but since the countess’s half brother, FitzWilliam, was a member of the Privy Council, and her brother, Sir Anthony Browne, a member of the Privy Chamber, was not, it is more likely that she confided in FitzWilliam. It has been claimed that there is no evidence for her being promiscuous37 but, equally, there is none that she was not, although the theory that she was pregnant by Cromwell does not bear serious scrutiny.38

  Since most sources agree that the only evidence for incest would rest upon the testimony of Jane Parker, Lady Rochford, it appears that Lancelot de Carles got some of his facts mixed up, and that Lady Worcester revealed to her kinsman only that the Queen was promiscuous and that Mark Smeaton could testify to that.

  Nan Cobham has never been conclusively identified,39 but she was clearly one of the Queen’s maids, and was perhaps the “Mrs. Cobham” who had been the recipient of a royal gift at New Year 1534,40 and/or the Anne Cobham who in May 1540 was granted the advowson of Warminghurst, Sussex, with remainder to Edward Shelley, who died in 1554 and was buried in the church there.41 She may perhaps credibly be identified with Anne Braye, the wife of George Brooke, Lord Cobham, who was among the peers who would sit in judgment on Anne Boleyn. It is highly unlikely that she had acted as midwife during Anne’s last confinement, as has been suggested,42 for she was probably a lady of rank, although she may have been present.

  The “one maid more” who was the third of the first three accusers mentioned by Husee has been identified as Mistress Margery Horsman,43 who was quite an important mover and shaker in the Queen’s privy chamber. Mrs. Horsman, who had arranged for a kirtle to be delivered from Anne’s wardrobe as a royal gift to a grateful Lady Lisle in March, was highly influential and would end up serving every one of Henry VIII’s six wives.44 However, on May 3, Anne’s chamberlain, Sir Edward Baynton, would reveal in a letter that he had not managed to extract any information from Mrs. Horsman, who was behaving “strangely” toward him, probably (he thought) because she was a friend of Anne’s;45 and furthermore, she was clearly too important to be a mere maid-of-honor, so it is unlikely on both counts that she had been one of the first witnesses.

  Although we do not know what it was, one of the most damning pieces of evidence against Anne came from someone who claimed to have spoken to Bridget Wiltshire, Lady Wingfield, before that lady’s death in 1533.46 The daughter and heiress of Sir John Wiltshire of Stone Castle, Kent, Bridget had married the courtier, diplomat and substantial Huntingdonshire landowner, Sir Richard Wingfield of Kimbolton Castle, around 1513, and borne him ten children before his death in 1525. Thereafter she was married twice more, to Sir Nicholas Harvey of Ickworth, who died in 1532, and by whom she had four sons, and to Sir Robert Tyrwhitt of Kettleby who long outlived her. She had last received a New Year’s gift from the King in January 1533,47 and probably died later that year.48

  It has been suggested that Lady Wingfield’s revelations, which were possibly made on her deathbed, were conveyed to Cromwell by her stepson, Sir Thomas Harvey,49 the son of Sir Nicholas by his first wife, Elizabeth, who was a sister of William FitzWilliam. This theory rests on the grounds that Harvey, who had been born before 1512 and acted as FitzWilliam’s executor upon the latter’s death in 1542, apparently fled abroad on the accession of Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth in 1558, and remained there until his death in 1577. But Harvey was a lifelong Catholic, and had served Mary I as Knight Marshal; his going into voluntary exile could equally have been to ensure that he could practice his religion unmolested. However, the FitzWilliam connection could be significant.

  Lady Wingfield’s hearsay testimony was mentioned by Sir John Spelman, a justice of the King’s Bench and a member of the jury that would try the Queen and her alleged lovers. He recorded in his Commonplace Book: “Note that this matter was disclosed by a woman called the Lady Wingfield, who had been a servant to the Queen and shared the same tendencies; and suddenly the said Wingfield became ill, and a little time before her death she showed the matter to one of those etc.”50 Whatever Lady Wingfield had confided, if she in fact said anything at all, could only have related to the period prior to her death in 1533-34,51 and whoever repeated her words had kept these revelations to him-or herself for at least two years. That is perhaps understandable, for during that period the law had come down heavily on anyone who spoke ill of the Queen. But once word got out that her conduct was the basis for an investigation, that person—who might have been Thomas Harvey, Lady Worcester, Nan Cobham, or the “one maid more” referred to by Husee—may have felt obliged to speak out.

  Some historians have wondered if Lady Wingfield should be identified with the privy councillor’s sister of dubious morals referred to by Lancelot de Carles, yet there is no record of a brother with the surname Wiltshire among the lords of the Privy Council, so the reference in the poem must have been to FitzWilliam or, less probably, Anthony Browne.

  Various writers have also speculated that Lady Wingfield was in possession of sensitive information about Anne Boleyn, and even that she had once tried to blackmail her. At least four years earlier (between December 1529—when Anne’s father had become Earl of Wiltshire and she began using his subsidiary title of Viscount Rochford as a surname—and September 1532, when she was created Lady Marquess of Pembroke,52 Anne had written to Lady Wingfield, who still lived at Stone Castle, twenty miles north of the Boleyns’ castle at Hever:

  Madam, I pray you, as you love me, to give your credence to my servant, this bearer, touching your removing, and anything else that he shall tell you of my behalf, for I much desire you to do nothing but that shall be for your wealth. And Madam, though at all times I have not shown the love that I bear you as much as it was in deed, yet now I trust that you shall well prove that I loved you a great deal more than I made fair for. And assuredly, next mine own mother, I know no woman alive that I love better; and at length, by God’s grace, you shall prove that it is unfeigned. And I trust you do know that I will write nothing to comfort you in your trouble but I would abide by it as long as I live. And therefore, I pray you, leave your trouble, both for displeasing of God, and also for displeasing of me, that doth love you so entirely. And trusting that you will thus do, I make an end, with the ill hand of your assured friend during my life.

  Anne Rochford.53

  We might infer from this that Anne’s relations with Lady Wingfield, whom she had evidently known for many years and was fond of, had not always been congenial. There is no clue as to what Lady Wingfield’s “trouble” was; she might have been mourning the death of her second husband, Sir Nicholas Harvey, in August 1532,54 or the loss of one of her children, yet Anne would hardly have thought to comfort someone newly bereaved by urging her to “leave your trouble” because it was displeasing to God and herself. In saying effectively that she would stand by any advice she gave her and exhorting Lady Wingfield to pull herself together, she was perhaps telling her that she was worrying unnecessarily about something.

  Excessive courtesy was common in Tudor letters, so it would be unwise to read too much into Anne’s fulsome protestations of affection. It is hard to infer from this letter that Anne was being blackmailed, which is one recent theory.55 In October 1532, after it was written, He
nry VIII and Anne Boleyn stayed the night with Lady Wingfield at Stone, en route for Calais,56 and the following January that lady was the recipient of royal New Year’s gifts, as she had been the year before57—all of which suggests that relations were congenial. The fact that the letter ended up among Cromwell’s papers may only prove that he asked to see any correspondence his informants could produce, and could have no more significance than that.

  Yet there is a hint of compulsion in this letter, almost a threat that, if Lady Wingfield does not take Anne’s advice, she will get no sympathy from her, or the friendship might be tested to the limit, but this suggests that it was Anne who had the upper hand in the relationship. The first sentence implies that she is constraining Lady Wingfield to do something which that lady is reluctant to do. To sweeten the pill, Anne is laying on the flattery, and perhaps trying to comfort her friend in her trouble by reassuring her of her own affection, of which she might not always have been aware.

  The letter is therefore probably a “red herring,” of which too much has been made. However, Lady Wingfield may have had good reason to speak out later against Anne. Her third husband, Sir Robert Tyrwhitt, was a staunch supporter of Lady Mary, while she herself was related to both the Duke of Suffolk and Sir William FitzWilliam, who were no friends to the Queen. Even if she’d been friendly with Anne earlier, she might have been persuaded that it was not in her interests to continue it, and she may thereupon have divulged what she knew—if, of course, she divulged anything at all.

  It seems that the initial testimony of these ladies led Cromwell to construct the criminal process against Anne.

  Anne had failed to give the King a son. She had proved unstable and unfit in many people’s eyes to be a queen, with her strident tantrums and her immoderate behavior. She had not been a meek and submissive wife. Despite her conscious efforts to portray herself as virtuous, and her genuine devotion to the reformist cause, she was known to be pleasure-loving and flirtatious, and to enjoy the admiration of the men in her circle. Prior to her marriage, her reputation had been notorious, which in sixteenth-century eyes was irrevocably damning: she had encouraged the advances of a married man, and there were frequent allegations that she had lived with the King out of wedlock; indeed, from the autumn of 1532, these were justified, for her daughter Elizabeth was born only seven months and thirteen days after her parents’ secret marriage. It would not be difficult for people to credit that a woman who had indulged in premarital intercourse could also indulge in extramarital affairs. Earlier still, Anne had spent years at the French court, which was a byword for promiscuity; after marrying her, Henry discovered that she had been corrupted there and become quickly disillusioned. Cromwell probably realized that charges of immorality would stick because people would believe them.

  Later commentators, writing in the reign of Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I, evolved their own spin on Anne’s reputation. William Latymer, who had been one of Anne’s chaplains during the last months of her life, wrote a eulogistic chronicle of her that was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, and in it asserted that, after she became queen, she endeavored to set a high moral standard for her household, instructing her officers to set a godly “spectacle” to others, to attend mass daily, and to display “a virtuous demeanor.” If any person employed by the Queen was caught brawling, swearing, or frequenting brothels, they risked instant dismissal and “utter shame.” That these rules were enforced is suggested by the testimony given by Jane Wilkinson, Anne’s former silkwoman, to John Foxe, the Protestant author of the famous Book of Martyrs, also published in Elizabeth’s reign: Jane claimed that she had never seen “better order amongst the ladies and gentlewomen of the court than in Anne Boleyn’s day.” George Wyatt mentions the Queen’s lavish charitable donations, and asserts that her ladies were required to be pious and above reproach, and had to devote hours of their time to sewing garments for the poor, yet it is clear from contemporary accounts that these strictures did not preclude them from having illicit affairs.

  Latymer, Foxe, and Wyatt were all eager to rehabilitate the memory of the mother of the Virgin Queen, and to stress her reformist virtues, so their accounts are naturally biased in Anne’s favor, and they are somewhat at odds with what we know of social relations within her court. According to the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry’s courtiers worshipped “Venus and Bacchus all their life long.” There is ample testimony to the merry “pastime” that went on in the Queen’s chamber: in 1533, Anne’s own vice chamberlain, Sir Edward Baynton, wrote that “if any man had gone away leaving at court a lady who might mourn at parting, I can no whit perceive the same by their dancing and pastime they use here.”58 Anne’s was a court primarily bent on pleasure; there was nothing but “sporting and dancing,” as Sir Thomas More’s daughter Margaret was to report in 1535.59 To that she might have added gambling.

  Given that there were probably fewer than a hundred women among the court’s population of between eight and fifteen hundred persons (depending on the season), it is hardly surprising that a hothouse atmosphere prevailed when it came to interaction between the sexes. George Wyatt refers to “those that pleased the King in recounting the adventures of love happening in court.” The gentlemen of the King’s Privy Chamber would flock to the Queen’s apartments knowing that she appreciated witty, stimulating conversation, and that there would be opportunities aplenty for flirting with her ladies. Nor was Anne above joining in the repartee, as her own accounts of her banter and familiarity with the gentlemen of the King’s Privy Chamber vividly show.60 Thanks to her upbringing at the French court, she was familiar and free-and-easy in her manner and her social relationships.

  Her flirtations were probably innocent; they were an accepted aspect of the game of courtly love that had been a tradition in European courts since the twelfth century. A knight might pay his ardent addresses with all seemliness to a mistress who was above him in rank and might even be married; he could wear her colors at a tournament, write songs and poems for her, sigh and languish for one sign of favor, or even pursue her with greater intent. The theory was that she was unattainable, and that this behavior was acceptable so long as it did not go beyond the bounds of propriety and lead to seduction or the breaking of marriage vows.

  Of course, such courtly relationships were often an excuse for sexual dalliance or adultery, and there is much evidence to show that this was commonplace at Henry VIII’s court. But Caesar’s wife had to be above reproach, and by indulging in the flirtatious games and lighthearted innuendo of courtly love, the Queen of England ran the risk that her behavior might be misconstrued—as may have been the case with Lady Worcester and other people who testified against her—while actual adultery was another matter entirely, for any gentleman who thus ventured to compromise her honor would have been guilty of high treason. The Statute of Treasons of 1351 provided for the prosecution of any man who “violated the king’s companion”—the word “violated” being used in its widest sense—and the punishment was hanging, drawing, and quartering. For it was not honor alone that was compromised, but the succession itself: as William Thomas, Henry’s apologist, was to point out in 1546, “adultery in a king’s wife weigheth no less than the wrong reign of a bastard prince.”61

  The Statute of Treasons, however, did not provide for a queen to be accused of high treason for adultery, only the man who had violated her. It was not until 1542, in the wake of the fall of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, that the definition of treason was extended specifically to embrace adultery on the part of a queen.62 But in 1534, Parliament, seeking to protect Queen Anne from her enemies, had passed an act widening the definition of treason to all who “do maliciously wish, will or desire, by words or writing, or by craft imagine” the King’s death or harm, and to anyone who impugned the King’s marriage to Anne or his issue.63 Perversely, this same statute was to prove Anne’s downfall, for committing adulterous acts was construed as treason on the count of impugning the King’s issue, and thus justified a c
apital charge. But an even worse accusation was to be leveled against her, of a crime that was treason by any legal definition. According to Cromwell, who had mentioned those reports from abroad, “there brake out a certain conspiracy of the King’s death,” and that, he said, left him and his colleagues quaking in their shoes.64

  Cromwell stayed away from court, perfecting his case against the Queen, until April 23. By then his plans were well advanced; various councillors had been taken into his confidence, and the support of Chapuys, the Seymours, Bryan, Carew, Exeter, and other partisans of Lady Mary enlisted. This may have been put in place before Cromwell even left court to feign sickness.

  This unlikely—and, indeed, temporary—alliance between the conservatives at court and the reforming Cromwell would previously have been unthinkable, but both sides now shared a common aim in working for elimination of the Queen and her faction, while Cromwell—despite his ongoing support of Lord Lisle in a property dispute with Sir Edward Seymour65—had realized that supporting Jane Seymour, and exploiting the Imperialist network of support that had formed around her, offered him his best chance of political survival.

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