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


  Possibly the marriage had foundered early on. Rochford’s possession of “Les Lamentations de Matheolus,” Lefèvre’s cynical satire on women and wedlock, perhaps mirrored his own views on his wife and their marriage; he acquired it, according to his own inscription, in 1526, within two years of their wedding. It is hardly likely that such a book was a wedding gift, as has been suggested,102 for the writer dates the beginning of his nuptial torments to the day he was wed.

  It may be that Rochford had subjected Jane to sexual practices that outraged her—cause enough for enmity. Another, less convincing, theory is that Jane sought revenge on her husband after discovering that he was involved in a homosexual liaison with Mark Smeaton.103 If that was true, why take it out on Anne, her sister-in-law?

  Primary evidence for Jane’s testimony appears in a dispatch of Chapuys and in the anonymous Portuguese account of June 10, 1536, which refers to “that person who, more out of envy and jealousy than out of love toward the King, did betray this accursed secret, and together with it the names of those who had joined in the evil doings of the unchaste Queen.”104 George Wyatt states that in “this principal matter [of incest] between the Queen and her brother, there was brought forth, indeed, witness, his wicked wife, accuser of her own husband, even to the seeking of his blood. What she did was more to be rid of him than of true ground against him.” There is no reason to dismiss this just because it is a later account, since much of Wyatt’s exhaustively researched information came from people like Anne Gainsford, who had been in Anne Boleyn’s household, or others who had known her.

  Bishop Burnet, writing 150 years later, and basing his work on extensive original sources, wrote that Lady Rochford “carried many stories to the King, or some about him, that there was a familiarity between the Queen and her brother beyond what so near a relationship could justify.” Peter Heylin, the seventeenth-century Oxford academic historian, also asserted that Jane was jealous of Rochford. That may be very near the truth: perhaps she was inordinately jealous of the close bond between her husband and her sister-in-law, or of Anne’s influence over Rochford, who must have spent far more time at court with his sister than at home with his wife during the months of Jane’s banishment. Possibly Jane was also bitterly resentful of Anne for involving her in the plot that led to her disgrace; she is even more likely to have been alienated by the latter’s perceived responsibility for Fisher’s death.

  Maybe Jane, realizing that the Boleyns were on a headlong course to disaster, pragmatically followed the example of the other ladies of the Queen’s household in laying evidence against their mistress. And she had more cause than they, for she would have needed to do something radical to distance herself from the crumbling Boleyn faction to which she was so closely attached, in order to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom of their destruction. Weighed against the prospect of future penury, with her husband convicted of treason and his life and goods declared forfeit, saving her own skin might have seemed the preferable option. This way, she might salvage something through the gratitude of the King and Cromwell.

  A third possibility, perhaps the most likely, was that Cromwell, knowing that Jane stood in a precipitous position, put pressure on her to lay evidence against the Boleyns, and that she had no choice but to cooperate in the hope of saving her own neck.

  A letter that Lady Rochford wrote to Cromwell later in 1536, in which, after referring to her late husband, she added, “whom God pardon,” has been seen as proof that Jane believed George was guilty of incest.105 Yet this was no more than a customary form used in those days when speaking of the departed, and alludes only to the general sinfulness of mankind and the hope of redemption.

  Whatever Lady Rochford’s involvement, the charge of incest—“undue familiarity”—was no doubt laid in the knowledge that it would irretrievably malign Anne’s reputation and create a scandal of epic proportions.

  CHAPTER 6

  Turning Trust to Treason

  On Sunday, April 30, Henry VIII was still urging his envoys abroad to press the Emperor to agree to an alliance without unpalatable conditions attached; even with the investigations into Anne’s conduct going on, he was determined that Charles should acknowledge the validity of his second marriage. He also signed a demand for Francis I to abandon his alliance with the Pope unless the latter agreed to revoke all actions against England, actions aimed against the divorce and the Boleyn marriage.1 He was bent on forcing the European powers and the Roman Church to admit that he had been right to put away his first wife and take a second. That Anne was under a cloud of suspicion was beside the point.

  Alexander Aless, who was “at this time in attendance upon Cromwell in the court, soliciting the payment of a stipend awarded to me,” says it was “not long after” the investigation began that “the persons returned who had been charged with the investigation of the rumors which had been circulated,” and indicates that it was on that same day, April 30, that Cromwell and his colleagues, “with everything having been arranged to their entire satisfaction,” laid before the King further evidence of the Queen’s immorality, alleging that she had seduced several members of the Privy Chamber, including her own brother and Mark Smeaton.2 Aless gives details not mentioned elsewhere, which he can only have gleaned from Cromwell—whom he was visiting at that time—or Cranmer, with whom he “was on intimate terms.” He says the investigators “assured the King that the affair was beyond doubt; that they had seen the Queen dancing with the gentlemen of the King’s Chamber, that they could produce witnesses who would vouch to the Queen having kissed her own brother, and that they had in their possession letters in which she informed him that she was pregnant.”

  All this appears to have been entirely innocent. Dancing was not evidence of adultery, nor was it a criminal act to kiss one’s brother or inform him of a pregnancy, unless of course the implication was that he was the father, which it obviously was in this case. Aless’s account certainly does not reflect the full force of the evidence laid before Henry VIII, which was sufficient to convince him that Anne had a case to answer. He does not mention the most serious accusation: that Anne was said to have plotted regicide, the ultimate crime, with the intention of marrying one of her lovers and ruling as regent for Elizabeth.

  This was all more than enough to arouse fury in any husband, let alone an egotistical monarch who was also Supreme Head of the Church of England, and Henry’s reaction was that of a man who believed what he was hearing, which convinced him that he had nourished a viper in his bosom, that Anne had betrayed and humiliated him, both as a husband and a king, and that, by her misconduct, she had put the royal succession in jeopardy. Worse still, it seemed she had wanted him dead. As Cavendish put it, Anne “turned trust to treason” and “changed [Henry’s] lust to hatred.”3 In the coming weeks his behavior would be that of a betrayed husband who was genuinely convinced of his wife’s guilt, and struggling to come to terms with it and save face. And indeed he had good reason to take at face value the evidence Cromwell laid before him. After all, Anne had deceived him about saving her virtue for marriage, and he must have been aware of her provocative banter and flirtations with admiring male courtiers. How could he have forgotten the effect she’d had on him during the protracted torture of their long courtship?

  Aless makes it clear that it was at, or just after, the meeting on April 30 that “it was decided and concluded that the Queen was an adulteress and deserved to be burnt alive.” That same day, an angry and outraged Henry sanctioned the arrest of Mark Smeaton and summoned the council4 urgently to debate the evidence against the Queen and her other alleged accomplices. After this, Anne’s accusers moved against her with such speed and ruthlessness as to suggest that they were unsure of their case, fearful of her influence over the King and the possibility of another reconciliation, and above all determined to bring her down.

  As a simmering Henry was closeted with Cromwell at Greenwich, “the Queen, meanwhile, took her pleasure unconscious of the discovery, watch
ing dogs and animals that day fight in [Greenwich] Park,”5 probably as Cromwell was laying before the council his evidence against Anne and her supposed lovers. According to the “Spanish Chronicle,” he had received a letter from Sir Thomas Percy, brother to the Earl of Northumberland. Percy, whom it would appear was watching Mark Smeaton with suspicion, had been involved in a violent altercation with him, and complained to someone in authority about his conduct. Queen Anne, hearing of this, sent for Percy and ordered him to make his peace with Smeaton. Begrudgingly he did so, but at the same time he wrote to Cromwell, telling him what had happened and confiding his misgivings. He wrote:

  It is hardly three months since Mark [Smeaton] came to court, and though he has only an hundred pounds [£34,900] a year from the King, and has received no more than a third, he has just bought three horses that have cost him five hundred ducats, as well as very rich arms and fine liveries for his servants for the May Day ridings, such as no gentleman at court has been able to buy, and many are wondering where he gets the money.

  The implication was that he had been given it by Anne in return for sexual services.

  According to the author of the “Spanish Chronicle,” Anne was guilty of adultery with all her supposed “minions,” having “ostentatiously tried to attract the best-looking men and the best dancers to be found;” above all, she was passionately in love with Smeaton, having fallen for him after hearing him play and finding him to be a good dancing partner. That is all at variance with her own testimony.

  Despite the fact that Smeaton had been at court since 1529, and not for just three months, the salary quoted sounds realistic, as a page of the Privy Chamber could be paid £100 “during pleasure.” It was substantial remuneration: mere musicians got about £6 (£2,100) a year; Lucas Horen-bout, the King’s painter, received £33 (£11,550) a year, while his successor, the great Hans Holbein, earned less. But even earning that kind of money, having received a third of his salary, and allowing for the fact that a gold ducat was then worth about 9s.4d (£150), Smeaton could hardly have afforded the £70 (£24,450) that those horses would have cost, or the rich liveries.

  Cromwell had responded by asking Percy secretly to keep an eye on Smeaton, which he did; and on April 29 he reported that, that very morning, he’d seen Smeaton emerging from the Queen’s apartment.6

  Whether this evidence was genuine or not, the Crown probably acted on information that apparently corroborated the testimony of Lady Worcester and others, and Smeaton was arrested on Sunday, April 30, and taken to Cromwell’s house in Stepney for questioning. Since Cromwell is known to have gone there too on that day, perhaps with Smeaton in his custody, it is likely that he himself conducted the interrogation.7

  “In the evening, there was a ball” at court, at which “the King treated [Anne] as normal.”8 However, she was probably preoccupied with her concerns about a conversation she’d had sometime that Sunday with Sir Henry Norris.

  As she was to reveal only three days later to one of Cromwell’s spies, she asked Norris “why he went not through with his marriage, and he made answer he would tarry a time.” It may be that Norris was employing delaying tactics because he was worried about allying himself with the Boleyn faction,9 but Anne interpreted his words to mean he was reluctant to marry Madge Shelton because he had feelings for her, the Queen—and possibly Norris had given her cause in the past to think this.

  “You look for dead men’s shoes,” she told him provocatively, “for if aught should come to the King but good, you would look to have me.” Norris was probably shocked, because the conventions of permissible courtly dalliance dictated that the lover importune the mistress, not the other way about, and he denied it, protesting that “if he should have any such thought, he would his head were off.” He was aware that this was a dangerous conversation—for to refer to the King’s demise, even in jest, was no light matter, since the Statute of Treasons of 1351 covered imagining and compassing the death of the sovereign, while it had more recently been enacted that even to talk of such a thing could also be treasonable—and his words must have brought home to both of them the serious implications of what they were discussing, for Anne pointedly told Norris that “she could undo him if she would, and therewith they fell out.”

  At some point they both realized that their remarks had been overheard and might be misconstrued—which was what in fact happened. The Queen of England had to be above suspicion in every respect, but on this occasion Anne’s rash words were open to a more serious and dangerous interpretation: people might (and indeed would) think that she had flirted outrageously, gone way beyond the accepted rules of courtly banter, been overfamiliar with Norris, at the very least, and was even actively plotting the King’s assassination. Indeed, her remarks gave rise to the worst possible scenario, for they would be used against her as damning evidence of treason—and actually appear to have been among the Crown’s most compelling pieces of evidence; moreover, they showed that she was ready to initiate a dangerous flirtation. It followed that, in her indictment, her accusers were able convincingly to portray her as a female seductress who at every opportunity incited her lovers to criminal acts. Anne, unwittingly, had given Cromwell evidence he needed to bring her down. Her exchange with Norris could not have been more timely.

  Anne was sufficiently concerned about what she and Norris had been heard to say that she bade him go to her almoner, John Skip, and “swear for the Queen that she was a good woman.” That would prove to be a fatal mistake, for Skip’s suspicions were immediately aroused, and he confided the matter to Anne’s chamberlain, Sir Edward Baynton, who also took a dim view of the exchange, possibly because this was not the first time Anne had said compromising things to Norris—she herself would shortly reveal that there had been another conversation between them on April 25, the details of which are not clear.10 The almoner and the chamberlain discussed the matter, and Skip urged Baynton to go to Cromwell and Sir William FitzWilliam, who would become heavily involved in the investigation against Anne, to “plainly express” his opinion, which he did.11

  Given the suspicions to which the conversation between Anne and Norris gave rise, even in John Skip, who hitherto had been a supporter of the Queen, we might conjecture whether Anne, fearing the consequences (for she was a prisoner in the Tower at the time), reported it in its entirety, and that what Norris said to Skip was more compromising. This is not to suggest that it was necessarily evidence of criminal intercourse, or even a serious flirtation, but that there was perhaps more sexual innuendo than Anne could bring herself to admit to, or, more likely, that the exchange about Norris looking for dead men’s shoes was more explicit and open to an even worse interpretation.

  The strange thing is that Anne was never charged with offenses involving Norris at this time, only with inveigling the men to treason in November 1535, and compassing the King’s death on January 8, 1536, and on various dates thereafter [author’s italics]. It is evident that her accusers were intent on alleging that this was a long-established—and therefore more dangerous—conspiracy, and that she was so wicked that she had not scrupled to plot regicide when she was carrying the King’s child. There is no record of the conversation with Norris being mentioned at Anne’s trial, or in the written testimony of witnesses (none of which survive), but the records and eyewitness accounts are incomplete. Nevertheless, it clearly was regarded as crucial evidence, and seems to have been the basis for some of the Crown’s allegations.

  Sometime that day, or the next morning, Aless witnessed the King and Queen arguing. He wrote an account of what he had seen in 1559 in a letter to Elizabeth I:

  Never shall I forget the sorrow I felt when I saw the most serene Queen, your most religious mother, carrying you, still a little baby, in her arms, and entreating the most serene King your father in Greenwich Palace, from the open window of which he was looking into the courtyard when she brought you to him. I did not perfectly understand what had been going on, but the faces and gestures of the speakers plai
nly showed the King was angry, although he could conceal his anger wonderfully well.

  The cause of the quarrel is not known, because Aless could not hear the words that passed between the royal couple. It is possible Anne was fearful that Henry would get to hear of her conversation with Norris, and sought to preempt his anger by trying to explain herself, taking Elizabeth with her for maximum emotional appeal;12 or that Henry had already heard about it, and that she was trying to defuse his wrath. It has recently been suggested that Anne was pleading with him for mercy,13 which is very likely, but it begs the question of what she had heard exactly. Was it divorce she feared? Or did her fears go deeper? Certainly they had been mounting over the past weeks. Whatever it was, we can assume that Henry refused to divulge what was going on—he was a man who preferred to keep his secrets to himself, and once said that if his cap knew what he was thinking he would throw it in the fire14—and that Anne’s appeal, for enlightenment or understanding, failed.

  The council sat until eleven o’clock that night. By then, conjecture had spread about the nature of the urgent business being debated, and a throng of people, Alexander Aless among them, had gathered at Greenwich to speculate as to what was going on. “From the protracted conference of the council (for whom the crowd was waiting until it was quite dark, expecting that they would return to London), it was most obvious to everyone that some deep and difficult question was being discussed. Nor was this opinion incorrect.”15 When the meeting broke up, an announcement was made that the planned trip to Calais would be postponed for a week.16 No reason for the sudden change of plan was given. “The King’s journey is prolonged,” Lord Lisle was informed by John Granfield, his man in London. “My brother Diggory will bring you the certainty of the King’s coming.”17

 
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