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


  Yet that is not entirely true. Chapuys had a difficult role. He did not like England or the English, yet he was obliged to exercise his diplomatic talents in that kingdom during one of the most tumultuous periods of its history. It has been asserted that he rarely attended court functions, yet it is clear that he enjoyed frequent access to Henry VIII, and to his ministers, with whom he often dined; he also had numerous contacts and informants, many of them close to the King, and operated an efficient spy network in the royal household. He was not just an eyewitness to many of the events he describes, but a shrewd observer. Henry appears to have liked him, although Chapuys angered and irritated him at times; Henry even confided in the ambassador now and then, or deliberately fed him information. Theirs was a sparring relationship, given that the King was aware of the ambassador’s disapproval of many aspects of his policy, not least his marital adventures; but there was respect on both sides. The Boleyn faction, of course, hated Chapuys.

  Although at this stage there was no cohesive anti-Boleyn faction, Chapuys’s hatred of Anne Boleyn was shared by many, both at court and in the kingdom at large. Those who would become his natural allies in his continuing and relentless campaign to bring down Anne Boleyn and her faction were Sir Francis Bryan; Sir Nicholas Carew; the Seymours; members of the “White Rose” families who were descended from the Yorkist kings of England—most notably the Courtenays, led by the Marquess of Exeter, and the Poles, headed by Lord Montagu, whose brother Geoffrey would express the view that the King “had been caught in the snare of unlawful love with the Lady Anne”;19 the humanist courtier Sir Thomas Elyot, former ambassador to Charles V, friend to the late Sir Thomas More, and a secret sympathizer with Queen Katherine; Catholic right-wingers, who resented the reforming Anne and her supporters, and anyone else who cherished a secret sympathy for Katherine and for Mary, who was regarded by many as Henry’s rightful heir.20 And, of course, Mary herself.

  The influential courtier Sir Francis Bryan had no good opinion of Anne, and was perhaps one of the first people to view Jane as a means of toppling her from her throne. The one-eyed Bryan was nicknamed by Cromwell “the Vicar of Hell;” the subjective Sander says he was called this on account of “his notorious impiety,” yet it may be that he earned this name because of his plotting against Anne Boleyn.21 He was no rake—as the nickname might suggest—but a Renaissance scholar and close friend of the King, and had long been a gentleman of the Privy Chamber. His mother, Margaret Bowdrier, Lady Bryan, who was half sister to Anne Boleyn’s mother, had been governess in turn to Lady Mary and Princess Elizabeth. Bryan, ever the pragmatist, had been one of the earliest supporters of his “cousin” Anne, and later a leading member of her faction, but had since come to hate and resent her.

  Bryan was related to the Seymours and probably hoped to profit by his kinswoman’s affair with the King. He seems to have had a special affection for Jane Seymour. It was he who secured her a place at court as maid-of-honor to Katherine of Aragon, back in the 1520s, and he who later placed her with Anne Boleyn.22 Both his sympathies, and Jane’s, had secretly remained with Katherine and her daughter Mary. In 1534, in order to distance himself from the Boleyn faction, he deliberately picked a quarrel with Lord Rochford.23 Although Bryan was absent from court for much of the early part of 1536,24 he did his best to undermine Queen Anne’s power by putting forward her rival, Jane Seymour, notwithstanding the fact that his mother held a position of high honor as governess to Anne’s daughter.25

  The Courtenays, a noble family headed by Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, were descended from the House of York—Exeter’s mother and the King’s had been sisters—and had become somewhat marginalized at court, thanks largely to their closeness in blood to the throne, their support for Queen Katherine, and their religious conservatism, which naturally made them objects of suspicion. The marquess himself—a cousin of the King, a member of the Privy Council, and one of the two noblemen of the Privy Chamber (the other being Lord Rochford)—had told Chapuys that he “would not be among the laggards” to shed his blood for the fallen Queen and her daughter. His wife, Gertrude Blount, had long been active in using Chapuys as a channel for imparting news to those ladies, and she was a good source, given how well placed her husband was to obtain inside information about the King and his doings.26 Lady Exeter had been a supporter of Elizabeth Barton, the “Nun of Kent,” who was hanged in 1534 for her dire prophesies against the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

  The Poles, cousins of the Courtenays, were another White Rose family. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, a niece of Edward IV and Richard III, was a friend to Katherine and governess to Princess Mary, but had long since been dismissed from the court for her loyalty to them. She and Katherine had once cherished a plan to marry Mary to the countess’s son, Reginald Pole, who was even now in Italy, writing a virulent treatise against the divorce. These so-called White Rose families, who had long been under government surveillance, were the enemies of Anne Boleyn, and therefore willing to be allies of Chapuys.

  Chapuys referred, in April 1536, to the Countess of Kildare being among those who united against Anne Boleyn. She was Elizabeth Grey, the Dowager Countess, and first cousin to the King—they shared a common grandmother in Elizabeth Wydeville, queen of Edward IV.27 With her White Rose connections, it is unsurprising that the dowager was hostile to Anne Boleyn.

  Another unexpected ally and friend of Chapuys was Bryan’s brother-in-law, the hitherto pro-French Sir Nicholas Carew, the Master of the Horse and an accomplished diplomat, whose sympathy for Katherine and Mary had been covertly growing since 1529; he and his wife were for some time secretly in touch with Mary, assuring her of their support and keeping her informed of what was happening.28 Carew was friendly too with the Marquess of Exeter. His wife, Elizabeth Bryan, was the daughter of Margaret, Lady Bryan, who had been governess to Princess Mary and now looked after Princess Elizabeth in that capacity.

  A champion jouster and experienced diplomat, Carew was close to the King also, having been brought up with him from the age of six, and a powerful force in the Privy Chamber. He was at first one of Anne’s partisans—they were cousins—but by 1532 she had alienated and angered him not only by her overbearing ways and her abuse of her position, but also by her unjust treatment of his friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and his brother-in-law, Sir Henry Guildford. He privately disapproved not only of her marriage, but also—being a conservative in such matters—of the religious changes that had come in its wake, so he was now more than willing to be complicit in her downfall and advance the fortunes of her rival, Jane, and Lady Mary.

  Mary Tudor herself, now twenty, had more reason than most to loathe Anne Boleyn. Her happy childhood, spent basking in the love of both her adored parents, was brought to a brutal end by the rift between them. Katherine of Aragon had all along staunchly refused to agree that her marriage was incestuous and unlawful, and would never do anything to prejudice her daughter’s rights. As she grew older, Mary supported her in her brave stand, insisting that she would accept no one for queen except her mother, but in so doing, she had incurred the wrath of her father and the malice of Anne Boleyn.

  After her mother’s marriage was declared invalid in 1533, Mary was branded illegitimate. She lost her title, her status in the European marriage market and her place in the succession, and was supplanted by the infant Elizabeth as their father’s heiress. When Elizabeth was assigned her own household in December 1533, Anne vindictively insisted that Mary be made to wait on her, and a protesting Mary found herself treated little better than a servant. The household was in the charge of Sir John and Lady Shelton, the latter being another Anne Boleyn, the fifty-year-old sister of Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, the Queen’s father. The Sheltons, the parents of six children, had both sat for the painter Hans Holbein in 1528.29

  When Mary refused to acknowledge her half sister as the King’s heir, and openly—and vocally—set herself up as a focus of opposition to the new Queen, Anne ur
ged a reluctant Lady Shelton to make her do as the King required of her, and if she resisted, to give her “a good banging on the ears, like the cursed bastard she was.”

  It must be said in Lady Shelton’s favor that, initially, she tried to mitigate Mary’s lot, earning a reprimand from Lord Rochford and the Duke of Norfolk for treating the girl “with too much respect and kindness” instead of the abuse deserved by a bastard. Lady Shelton had stood up for herself, insisting that, whatever her status, the girl “deserved honor and good treatment for her goodness and virtues.”30 Mary, however, continued to demand her rights as a princess and as the King’s heir, and it was probably to protect the teenager from her outspoken self that Lady Shelton took to locking her in her room and nailing the windows shut whenever visitors came. From where Mary was standing, this must have looked like cruelty. By 1534, when the passing of a new Act of Succession made it a capital crime for Mary to continue refusing to recognize Anne Boleyn as queen and Elizabeth as Henry’s heir, Lady Shelton’s treatment of her had become harsher, partly because Mary was so hostile, and probably because the governess feared for her own neck, especially after the King sent to command her to tell his daughter that she was “his worst enemy.”

  Once when Mary defied the Privy Council, Lady Shelton angrily took her by the shoulders and shook her, and when Mary fell seriously ill in 1535, she told the miserable girl she hoped she would die. That summer, Lady Shelton brought in an apothecary whose pills made Mary very sick, which led both the princess and Chapuys—who already believed that Anne Boleyn was plotting to do away with Mary—to believe they had even more cause for suspicion and alarm,31 although it seems unlikely, in the face of the evidence, that Mary actually had been poisoned.

  Nevertheless, Lady Shelton was certainly remorseless and unrelenting. “If I were in the King’s place,” she told the defiant princess, “I would kick you out of the King’s house for your disobedience!” Only the day before, she continued brutally, the King had threatened to have Mary beheaded for disobeying the laws of the realm.32 And when the tragic news came of the passing of Katherine of Aragon, she “most unceremoniously and without the least preparation” bluntly told Mary that her beloved mother was dead.33 Yet, given her protective attitude toward Mary in the beginning, it is likely that the governess’s cruelty resulted chiefly from pressure being brought to bear on her by the King, the Queen, and the Boleyn faction. Moreover, being guardian to the truculent and difficult Mary was a horrendous responsibility, especially since the girl was acting in defiance of the law. As early as 1534, Lady Shelton had been reduced to tears just thinking of the possible consequences of any lack of vigilance on her part.34

  But now, with Katherine dead, and his latest hopes of an heir dashed, the King began treating Mary more kindly, ceasing to demand that she acknowledge Queen Anne and Princess Elizabeth, and sending her a substantial sum of money. When Anne tried belatedly to extend the hand of friendship to the bereaved Mary, inviting her to court and offering to be “like another mother” to her, Mary, ill with grief, snubbed her, saying that to agree to that would “conflict with her honor and conscience.”35 Chapuys noted that Lady Shelton “does not cease with hot tears to implore the princess to consider these matters,” but to no avail.36 An exasperated Anne then wrote to Lady Shelton and told her that what she’d done had been “more for charity than because the King or I care what course she takes.”37

  It may be that, in the wake of the Queen’s miscarriage, a perspicacious and worried Lady Shelton had taken stock of her position and begun to think of the future; for if her niece fell from favor, Mary might well be restored to it. It was at this time that the governess began taking bribes from Chapuys, in return for her allowing his servant to visit Mary—herself being present—in defiance of the King’s orders, something she had never permitted before. Despite his doubt as to its veracity, Chapuys also thought fit to inform Lady Shelton of the fourth-hand report he had received that the King was thinking of taking another wife, probably in the hope that this might spur Lady Shelton into treating her charge with even less severity. And indeed, from then on that lady ceased being so harsh toward Mary.38

  Deprived of her mother, her beloved governess Lady Salisbury, and her chance to make a good marriage; unkindly treated and suffering from numerous chronic and psychosomatic ailments; Mary was isolated and miserable. She clung to the staunch religious faith nurtured in her by her devout mother, and was deeply disapproving of Anne Boleyn’s reformist leanings and Anne’s influence over the King in this respect. Yet against all odds, she had conceived a strong affection for her half sister Elizabeth, and lavished on the child all her frustrated maternal instincts. It is to her credit that she never, in these difficult years, visited her enmity for Anne on Anne’s innocent daughter.

  If Chapuys is to be believed—and it was a constant theme in his dispatches—Anne “never ceased, day and night, plotting against” Mary, and relentlessly, but fruitlessly, urged Henry to have his daughter and her mother executed for their defiance under the provisions of the Act of Supremacy of 1534. The ambassador heard that she had repeatedly threatened that if the King were to go abroad and leave her as regent, she would have Mary starved to death, “even if she were burned alive for it after;” and by 1534, Chapuys, having heard of Lady Shelton warning Mary how Henry threatened to have her beheaded if she continued to defy him, came to believe even that the King “really desires his daughter’s death.”39 But Henry was probably bluffing, as the French ambassador noticed that when the King complained to him of his daughter’s obstinacy, he also praised her with tears in his eyes.40

  Henry was in a difficult position: he could not be seen allowing his own daughter to defy him, or the law of the land, and since she continued to do so, he could not see her. In the circumstances, he was remarkably lenient. But Anne was relentless; pregnant for the fourth time, she wrote menacingly of Mary to Lady Shelton: “If I have a son, as soon I look to have, I know what then will come to her.” We may read into Anne’s malice her fear of her own increasingly insecure position, and her desperate need to protect the rights of her daughter.41

  But Anne, Chapuys and others believed, went further than threats. After Katherine died, and the “boweling and cering”42 of a postmortem revealed that her heart was “black and hideous” both inside and out, with “some black round thing which clung closely to the outside”—which, according to modern medical opinion, was probably due to cancer (a secondary melanotic sarcoma)43 or a coronary thrombosis—the examining physician pronounced that he was afraid there could be no doubt as to the cause of her death, for “the thing was too evident.” Mary herself was told by this same doctor that a “slow and subtle poison” had been mixed with a draft of Welsh beer that had been given to her mother just prior to her final relapse.44 The doctor’s suspicions convinced Chapuys—and the wider world—that Katherine had been murdered through the malign efforts of “that she-devil of a Concubine” and her brother, Lord Rochford, and that Mary would follow her to the grave shortly; and so he formulated a plan to spirit the princess abroad to the safety of the Emperor’s dominions. Mary was all ready to go, but Charles V hesitated—if she went into voluntary exile, it might be seen as tantamount to relinquishing her rights—and the moment was lost.45

  Even though there is no evidence that Anne actively tried to poison Katherine, Mary had no cause to love her stepmother, and the animosity was entirely mutual. The princess had the sympathy and support of Chapuys, the White Rose families, the Seymours, the Bryans, Carew, the Emperor Charles V himself, and all who wanted to see her restored to the succession, and with her mother dead, she had automatically—and willingly—become the focus of opposition to Anne Boleyn.46 The King could easily restore her rights even without impugning his second marriage, for there could be little doubt that his first had been made in good faith and that consequently Mary could be regarded as legitimate. If Henry could be brought to acknowledge this, Mary would be able to take precedence over Elizabeth in
the succession,47 and Anne would find it difficult to contest that. With this firmly in mind, Chapuys set to work on Thomas Cromwell, aware that Cromwell had for some time been advocating a strengthening of diplomatic relations with Charles V, and that a new alliance could only benefit Mary’s cause, while discountenancing—and hopefully unseating—the Boleyns. With Katherine dead, the time was now ripe for action.

  Chapuys knew very well that Anne was deeply unpopular with the people of England. She and her faction were perceived to be responsible for the harsh and rigorously enforced laws that passed in recent years, for promoting heresy and radical religious change, for the deterioration of England’s relations with other European powers, and for the slump in her hitherto-lucrative trade with the Empire.48 Many of the King’s subjects, especially women, resented this “goggle-eyed whore” usurping the place of the much-loved Queen Katherine. In 1531 a lynch mob of seven thousand descended on the London house in which Anne was dining, and had she not made a rapid escape by barge, they would probably have lynched her.49

  Anne had been hissed at in several villages while accompanying the King on a progress, and was eventually obliged to turn back.50 By 1532 some MPs had taken to meeting at the Queen’s Head tavern, just off Fleet Street, to plot ways of opposing the King’s plans to marry her.51 When she first appeared as queen, going in state to chapel at Easter 1533, there was dismay and consternation at court and a torrent of public protests;52 one London congregation, when asked to pray for this woman who was “the scandal of Christendom,” walked out in disgust “with great murmuring and ill looks,” while a priest who preached in favor of the marriage in Salisbury “suffered much at the hands of women” for doing so. A parson in Lancashire indignantly asked, “Who the devil made Anne Bullen, that whore, queen?”53 People in general were “greatly agitated” at Anne’s elevation to queenship, and a priest, Ralph Wendon, who had been hauled before the justices in 1533 for calling her “a whore and a harlot,”54 was only voicing the opinions of many. Some people were even calling for the “common stewed whore” to be burned at Smithfield.55 At her coronation in June 1533, Anne passed in procession through largely silent, hostile crowds, while some sneered “Ha! Ha!” when they saw the entwined initials of Henry and Anne on the decorations.56 In 1534 the Act of Succession made it treason to impugn the King’s marriage to Anne and their issue.

 
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