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


  Hitherto, the Imperialists had naively envisaged that an annulment of the King’s marriage to Anne would be sufficient to get rid of her. Cromwell had disabused them of that idea—had the King not just insisted upon Chapuys and Charles V acknowledging her as Queen?—and rapidly secured their backing for his more radical solution.66 It was Chapuys who obtained Lady Mary’s qualified approval of the plot to remove Anne.67 He was happy to work with anyone who “could help in its execution,” believing they did “a meritorious work, since it would prove a remedy for the heretical doctrines and practices of the Concubine, the principal cause of the spread of Lutheranism in this country.”68

  Of course, what the court conservatives did not know was that there was no intention for the removal of Anne to lead to reconciliation with Rome and the reinstatement of the Lady Mary,69 which they fondly expected would happen. But Cromwell, who would immediately distance himself from them once his goal was achieved, was not about to disillusion them. Not yet.

  Anne’s every move was probably being observed by Cromwell’s spies and informants. Speed was of the essence: the King—who had fallen out with Anne many times, yet remained in thrall to her—must not be allowed time for skepticism, sentimental feeling, or the residue of passion to overtake the shock of hearing that his wife had not only been unfaithful with several men, but had planned to kill him. That would surely be sufficient to alienate the insecure and suspicious Henry, and preclude another reconciliation.

  The ruthlessness with which the Queen was brought down was indicative of the extent to which Cromwell and others feared her.70 What they were afraid of was not so much her ability to command support from an affinity of adherents—which was unlikely, as she was so unpopular—as the power she undoubtedly wielded over the King, which had just been demonstrated so alarmingly.

  Events now moved forward swiftly. We have Cromwell’s own account of what happened next, in his letter of May 14. He saw Henry VIII on his return to court on April 23, and although there is no record of what passed on that occasion, it was probably then that he and other privy councillors—“with great fear, as the case enforced, declared what they had heard” of the Queen’s conduct—told the King that “we that had the examination of it quaked at the danger His Grace was in” and realized that, “with their duty to His Majesty, they could not conceal it from him.” On their knees, they “gave [God] laud and praise that He had preserved him so long from it.”71

  Alexander Aless makes it clear in his account of the period leading up to Anne’s arrest that Henry VIII was made aware of the suspicions of Cromwell and others before ordering further investigations, and only after these had been carried out did they report back to him (probably on April 30). Thus it is likely that Cromwell approached the King as soon as he returned to court. Many historians have remarked upon the speed with which the investigation progressed, but it would only have needed a few days to arrange and conduct the interrogation of members of the Queen’s household.

  Lancelot de Carles states that, prior to this audience, the privy councillor—almost certainly FitzWilliam—to whom the Countess of Worcester had confided her suspicions of the Queen, “did not know what to do, and took counsel with two friends of the King, with whom he went to the King himself, and one reported it in the name of all three. The King was astonished, and his color changed at the revelation, but he thanked the gentlemen.”

  Although, according to Carles, this evidence was supposed to have been revealed to the King at the end of April, on the same day the decision was made to proceed against the Queen, the Lisle letters make it clear that the first evidence had been laid by Lady Worcester, probably sometime before April 18, so it almost certainly formed the basis of the councillors’ revelations to Henry, which internal evidence suggests were disclosed to him before April 24. It is obvious that very few people were aware of what was really going on behind the scenes, and that Carles was relying on gossip and hearsay. Yet some of it perhaps was based on fact, and his poem may reflect what actually happened when Henry VIII was first informed of his councillors’ suspicions, with FitzWilliam consulting with Sir Anthony Browne, his kinsman, and Cromwell, and acting as spokesman for them all,72 bearing in mind that Cromwell was still, to all intents and purposes, out of favor.

  Aless, who was in a position to be a reliable source, says that Thomas Wriothesley went with Cromwell to confront the King, so maybe he, rather than Anthony Browne, was the other “friend of the King” to whom Lancelot de Carles refers. Aless adds that the King “was furious” when informed of the Queen’s misconduct, but quickly “dissembled his wrath” and ordered Cromwell and the other privy councillors to make further enquiries, “trusting them with the investigation of the whole business.” It would appear from this that Henry’s displeasure with Cromwell had rapidly dissipated in the face of this far more serious crisis, as Cromwell had no doubt hoped it would.73

  Did Henry think to question the evidence? Contemporary sources suggest that, until recently, the King had been toying purely with the idea of an annulment. It has been asserted that Henry’s “egotism and credulity” brought about Anne’s fall;74 egotism almost certainly played a part, but the King was an intelligent man and well able to exercise his own judgment. The evidence laid before him must have looked damning on the face of it, and had serious implications for the succession. Yet he did not immediately swallow it whole, nor act impulsively, gleeful that someone had provided him with a pretext for ridding himself of his unsatisfactory queen. Having recently been trounced by Anne for infidelity—and not for the first time—he could have used these accusations of immorality against her to regain the high moral ground and salvage his pride. But at this stage he did not.

  Instead, he prudently resolved to wait and see what further investigation would uncover. We might today look askance at Cromwell’s extravagant claim (made to Chapuys in 1533) that Henry was “an honorable, virtuous and wise prince, incapable of doing anything that was not founded on justice and reason,” yet there is no evidence that the King “personally exerted himself to pervert the course of justice,” as the chronicler Charles Wriothesley’s Victorian editor put it, while charging Anne with infidelity was almost certainly not his idea. He was an egotistic male who was perhaps touchy about his virility. “Am I not a man like other men? Am I not? Am I not?” he had angrily rounded on Chapuys in 1533, when Chapuys dared to suggest that he could not be sure of having any more children. “I need not give proofs to the contrary; you do not know all my secrets,” Henry had snapped.

  Is it then likely that the King would have suggested, or approved in advance, charges that would see him publicly branded a cuckold, with hints about him being impotent to boot? Even though, four years and two wives later, he was loudly to proclaim himself impotent with Anne of Cleves in the hope of freeing himself from their marriage, he would instruct his doctors to make sure it was publicly known that, although incapable with her, he was able to perform the sex act with any other woman.

  Cromwell would surely never have dared, acting on his own initiative, to instigate an inquiry into the Queen’s conduct without first ensuring that he could marshal credible and convincing evidence against her. He would have been aware that such accusations would proclaim his formidable master a cuckold, and irrevocably insult the Queen of England—for there was always the risk that Henry would take Anne’s part. Cromwell knew he had to make the most convincing case against Anne and present it to Henry as a fait accompli—the King, it has been said, was “bounced” into a decision75—but he would have known also that, in doing so, he was risking all. This was one of the rare occasions on which Cromwell, backed by the conservatives, forced Henry’s hand.76 Certainly Henry could not have ignored the things that people were alleging against Anne without compromising his own honor, and he could never have risked ignoring a plot to assassinate him.77

  Henry’s suspicious nature probably led him to jump to conclusions about his wife,78 but the things he had been told may retrospective
ly have struck a chord. He would have been aware of the shifting factions within his court, and that Cromwell had good reason to fear Anne. But he also knew he had married a woman who many believed had a sullied reputation; he himself evidently became disillusioned about her for various reasons; and her last miscarriage had been a warning that God did not smile on their union. Now he was being confronted by evidence from members of his wife’s household that she had played him false. It is hardly surprising that he wanted this investigated further.

  We will never know Henry’s true role in Anne’s fall.79 Traditionally, it has often been assumed that, enamored of Jane Seymour, he was desperate to get rid of Anne and seized the opportunity of doing so. This is the facile explanation that has been accepted by so many over the years, and the answer may be as simple as that. The assertion that the King, shocked at the birth of a malformed fetus and unable to accept that it could be his, “had his Master Secretary search for men, especially those with lecherous reputations, who could be charged with having committed sexual crimes with his consort,”80 falls on the simple fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that the child Anne miscarried was deformed, and can therefore be dismissed.

  There is, of course, the possibility, which cannot lightly be dismissed,81 that Anne was guilty as charged, and that Cromwell had no trouble in finding evidence against her, and had indeed acted on genuine information laid before him. Had she been driven by her desperation for a son, and her fear that Henry would abandon her, to seek solace and the quickening of her womb in the arms of other men? How foolhardy that would have been, for there was every chance that either Henry, who was inordinately suspicious by nature, or one of her enemies, might have guessed what was going on. And logistically it would have been difficult for Anne to have illicit affairs. A queen was rarely alone and enjoyed little privacy. Had she indulged in a succession of amorous intrigues, there would surely have been witnesses. The lives of royalty were played out in public; kings and queens nearly always had attendants about them, even when they were in bed or on the closestool; their doors were guarded, and servants slept on pallets inside and outside their bedchambers. The only time they were alone was when they were making love, and even conjugal visits were conducted with due ceremony, with the King going in a torchlit procession to his wife’s bedchamber, the getting of royal heirs being a matter of state business. So it is hard to see how the Queen of England could have managed to keep any extramarital affairs a secret.

  It is also barely credible that Anne would have taken such risks. She was keenly aware that she was being watched—in February 1535, at a court banquet, looking strained and nervous, she had begged a French envoy to persuade the reluctant French King to consent to the marriage of his son to her daughter Elizabeth, “so that she may not be ruined and lost, for she sees herself very near to that, and in more grief and trouble than before her marriage.” Looking anxiously at the King, she whispered that “she could not speak so amply to me as she would, for fear of where she was and of the eyes that were watching her countenance, not only of her husband, but of the lords with him. She told me she did not dare express her fears in writing, that she could not see me, and could no longer talk with me. I assure you that the lady is not at her ease.” This was made manifest when she abruptly ceased speaking and walked away.82 Furthermore, Anne knew she was unpopular and that all that stood between her and her enemies was the powerful presence of the King. It is hard to believe that she would have undermined her own security by cuckolding Henry, or risked her crown and even her life for the sake of casual sex with a string of lovers. One false step and she would be ruined.

  But desperate people do desperate things. The charges against Anne were so grossly overstated and in parts so manifestly invented, as to suggest that she was framed, but who is to say that they were not based on a modicum of truth? Or that Henry VIII, an intelligent and shrewd man, was not duped by the lies of Cromwell and others into abandoning and destroying his wife, but was devastated by what appeared to be highly compelling evidence against her?

  The King “dissembled his wrath,” wrote Aless, but there were warning signs. On April 23, the day of Cromwell’s return to court and his interview with Henry, there took place at Greenwich the annual chapter meeting of the Order of the Garter, which was attended by the King and many lords, including the Duke of Norfolk; the Earl of Wiltshire, Anne’s father; Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, whom she had once hoped to marry; and Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, Henry VIII’s bastard son. A vacancy had arisen for a new Garter knight, and Anne had asked that her brother Rochford be preferred, but to the latter’s “great disappointment,” Henry chose instead Sir Nicholas Carew, Anne’s known enemy and the man who had been mentoring Jane Seymour. According to Chapuys, “the Concubine has not had sufficient influence to get it for her brother.” The ambassador interpreted this as a sign that the Boleyns were falling from favor, even though the King’s bastard son, the Duke of Richmond, had voted for Rochford,83 and it was only five days later that Henry, Lord Stafford, was thanking the Earl of Westmorland “for furthering my suit with the Queen,”84 which suggests that Anne’s influence was still perceived to be considerable. Furthermore, Henry had earlier promised Francis I that he would “remember” Carew when a Garter vacancy arose, so he perhaps felt bound to honor that.85 Nevertheless, Carew’s appointment amounted to—and was seen as—a public snub to Anne.

  The very next day, April 24, at Westminster, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, a man who was very much under the influence of Cromwell,86 appointed two special commissions of oyer and terminer, a legal procedure for hearing and judging pleas of the Crown, in use since the thirteenth century. Each set of commissioners and jurors constituted a grand jury, and in this case were required to set up courts to make diligent inquiry into all “betrayals, concealment of betrayals, rebellions, felonies, murders, homicides, riots, unlawful assemblies, insurrections, extortions, oppressions, offenses, misprisions (of treason), falsehoods, deceptions, confederacies, conspiracies, and misdemeanors” committed in the counties of Middlesex and Kent, and to hear and determine the same according to law.87 In other words, their function was to determine if there was a case and whether it should proceed. Such commissions were rare and only instituted in serious cases, of which there were only seventeen in Henry VIII’s reign.88 That in itself, together with the specifying of the counties in which the Queen’s alleged offenses were said to have been committed, shows that this commission was specifically appointed to examine the evidence against her.

  In most cases of oyer and terminer, a commission was only issued after the accused had been arrested. In this case, however, it was issued beforehand, probably to avoid the usual delay of about eleven days, which suggests that Cromwell, fearing (with good reason, given Henry and Anne’s past history) that the King might succumb again to his “great folly” over Anne and dispute the evidence, was aware of the need to secure a speedy conviction.89

  It was the duty of the sheriff of the county to select the jurors, but the list of those chosen on this occasion suggests that Cromwell had brought some pressure to bear on officialdom.90 These commissions were “virtually a death warrant for Anne.”91

  The names of the worthies who served on these grand juries are preserved in the National Archives in the Baga de Secretis (Bag of Secrets, the collection of records of the King’s Bench and of state trial). These jurors were men of standing, sworn to uphold justice, who were no doubt resolved to do what was expected of them. To avoid bias, instructions were issued that no juror should be related to the defendants.92 The inquiry was not made public, nor were the persons most nearly concerned—the suspected traitors—made aware of it. All was to be kept secret until sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution had been gathered.93

  The Middlesex commission was addressed to Lord Chancellor Audley and others, the Kent one to the Duke of Norfolk and others. Audley’s name appears only on the former, but both commissions consisted of Cromwell hims
elf; Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk; the Duke of Suffolk; Anne’s own father, Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire; John de Vere, Earl of Oxford; Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland; Robert Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex; William, Lord Sandys; Sir William FitzWilliam; Sir William Paulet; Sir John FitzJames; Sir John Baldwin; Sir Richard Lister; Sir John Port; Sir John Spelman; Sir Walter Luke; Sir Anthony FitzHerbert; Sir Thomas Englefield; and Sir William Shelley, who may have been associated with Nan Cobham. The jurors of Middlesex comprised eight esquires entitled to bear arms, and forty gentlemen, while those of Kent were three soldiers, six esquires, and sixteen gentlemen. All were described as “discreet and sufficient persons.”94 Several had been with the King at the Garter chapter the previous day.95

  Given the choice of jurors, how likely was it that this investigation would be impartial? The Lord Chancellor was a staunch King’s man from first to last. Anne had long since alienated Norfolk by her arrogance, and Norfolk may have had ambitions of his own; his daughter, Mary Howard, was married to the King’s bastard son, the Duke of Richmond, and there had been serious moves in the past to have Richmond legitimated and declared Henry’s heir. If Anne were to be put away and Elizabeth bastardized, then Norfolk’s daughter might yet be made a queen.96

  Suffolk was the King’s brother-in-law and close friend, and Anne’s enemy. Oxford was also a friend of the King, as was FitzWilliam, who was much of an age with Henry, had been brought up with him, and had served him faithfully ever since; as we have seen, FitzWilliam would be instrumental in orchestrating Anne’s fall, and was related to several people who were most nearly concerned. In 1537 he would be created Earl of Southampton and made Lord High Admiral in recognition of his services to the King.

 
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