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

  Up to a point, Anne and Cromwell had shared similar religious convictions, but Anne now made it plain that she was fiercely opposed to the wealth of the doomed monasteries being sold off wholesale to individual men of influence in return for their support for the royal supremacy. Instead, she—along with other reformists, including her almoner, John Skip—was determined that the confiscated riches should be used for educational and charitable purposes that would benefit everyone,37 and she was bent upon persuading Henry to agree with her.

  According to Chapuys, Anne was still “the person who manages, orders, and governs everything, whom the King does not dare to oppose.” Cromwell, on the other hand, was not yet as powerful as he would one day become, and he would have foreseen her policy spelling disaster for the revolutionary legislation that was being pushed through Parliament, for not only did the King need the wealth of the monasteries to replenish his empty treasury, but without popular support—which could be bought by bribes or sales of monastic property—there was the alarming possibility that the dissolution might provoke reactionary anger or worse, and put the Reformation and the royal supremacy itself at risk—and that could well rebound on Master Secretary.38

  It seems too that the Queen had openly confronted Cromwell. If Alexander Aless is to be believed, she had effectively accused him, along with the up-and-coming Thomas Wriothesley, the coroner and attorney of the King’s Bench, of corruption. Both “hated the Queen because she had sharply rebuked them and threatened to inform the King that, under the guise of the Gospel and religion, they were advancing their own interests, that they had put everything up for sale and had received bribes to confer ecclesiastical benefices upon unworthy persons, the enemies of the true doctrine.” Whether they were guilty or not is another matter, but Anne appears to have been convinced of it.

  Chapuys learned of the animosity between Anne and Master Secretary late in March, when he hosted a dinner for the Marquess and Marchioness of Exeter, Lord Montagu, Sir Thomas Elyot, and the Dowager Countess of Kildare—none of them friends to the Queen. The fact that Anne’s enemies were gathered around the table on this occasion supports the theory that they had for some time been intriguing with Chapuys to bring her down.

  It was Montagu who told Chapuys “that the Concubine and Cromwell were on bad terms, and that some new marriage for the King was spoken of.” Chapuys himself had recently received a report from France that the King “was soliciting in marriage the daughter of France,” and that seemed to bear out what Montagu had said,39 but Montagu may just have been reiterating the rumors that were circulating for some weeks. Chapuys had also just been made aware of Henry’s newly honorable intentions toward Jane Seymour.

  Cromwell spoke of the enmity between him and the Queen to Chapuys when they met a day or so later, after dinner on March 31, and conversed in a window embrasure.40 Chapuys confided to him “that I had for some time forborne to visit him, that he might not incur suspicion of his mistress, well remembering that he had previously told me she would like to see his head off his shoulders. This I could not forget for the love I bore him, and I could not but wish him a more gracious mistress than she was, and one more grateful for the immense services he had rendered the King.” He stressed that Cromwell “must beware of enraging her,” and mischievously expressed the hope that his “dexterity and prudence” would save him from the fate of Cardinal Wolsey, who, having incurred the King’s displeasure for failing to procure an annulment, had narrowly escaped the axe by dying in his bed in 1530.

  This was all part of a clever diplomatic game intended to topple the hated Concubine. Chapuys was strongly hinting that she should be replaced. His fulsome solicitude for Cromwell’s future safety was a ploy to secure his cooperation.

  With masterful understatement, Chapuys took care to point out that if what he’d heard was true, “the King was treating for a new marriage, it would be the way to avoid much evil” and the best way of “preserving [Cromwell] from many inconveniences.” Such a marriage could only be “of much advantage to his master, who had hitherto been disappointed of male issue, and who knows quite well, whatever they may say or preach, that this marriage would never be held as lawful.” Despite this, Chapuys himself would welcome the birth of a son to succeed the King, even though it would affect Lady Mary’s prospects. He added—startlingly—that he bore no hatred for Anne Boleyn.

  Such words, uttered by an English subject, might well have been construed as treason, but “Cromwell appeared to take all this in good part, and said it was only now that he had become aware of the frailty of human affairs, especially of those of the court, of which he had before his eyes several examples that might be called domestic.”

  It has been argued that these words suggest Cromwell had already begun plotting Anne Boleyn’s fall, and that his later admission to Chapuys that he himself thought up the plot on April 18 was just a smoke screen to hide its true origins—namely, that the King had ordered him to make a case against her,41 but they are far more likely to reflect his own fears as to the extent and consequences of Anne’s enmity toward him, of which he had only recently been made aware. Is it likely that Cromwell—a clever and devious strategist—would even have hinted at such sensitive proceedings to a foreign ambassador, who might spread gossip that would forewarn the Queen? His use of the word “domestic” suggests the personal animosity between Anne and himself; this was, after all, the subject under discussion.

  Cromwell added piously that “if fate fell upon him as upon his predecessors, he would arm himself with patience and leave the rest to God.” But “then [he] began to defend himself, saying he had never been the cause of this marriage, although, seeing the King determined upon it, he had smoothed the way; and notwithstanding that the King was still inclined to pay attention to ladies, yet he believed he would henceforth live honestly and chastely, continuing in his marriage.” Master Secretary’s cool tone, and the fact that he was leaning back against the window and cupping his hand over his mouth to conceal a smile, led Chapuys “to suspect the contrary.” His suspicions seemed to be confirmed when Cromwell, contradicting himself, went on to say that “the French might be assured of one thing, that if the King his master were to take another wife, he would not seek her among them.”42 This was what the Emperor and the Imperialist faction at court had feared, and a relieved Chapuys seems to have taken it to indicate that Henry was indeed planning to marry Jane Seymour.

  Chapuys, whom Cromwell begged on parting to accept the gift of a fine horse, came away from their interview feeling he had achieved much. Cromwell had implied there were moves afoot to remove the hated Concubine, and also that he would not support her if that happened, and the ambassador was gratified that he had at last been able to do something constructive on Mary’s behalf. He wrote telling the Emperor that he would “inform her of what is going on, and with her advice, will act in such a manner that, if we cannot gain, at least we shall lose nothing.”43

  He also informed Charles how Jane had rejected the King’s overtures, revealing that she had been “well-tutored and warned” of how easily he might discard her were she to surrender to his advances. His next comment to his master shows him to have had no great opinion of Jane’s virtue or of her chances of surviving as queen: “You may imagine whether, being an Englishwoman, and having been long at court, she would not hold it a sin to be still a maid,” he opined cynically to the Emperor, anticipating that this might be to the King’s advantage in the future. “He may marry her on condition she is a maid, and when he wants a divorce, there will be plenty of witnesses ready to testify that she was not.”

  From now on Chapuys would use all his powers of diplomacy to bring to fruition the mooted alliance. Over the course of the next few days, he would meet again with Master Secretary and with the Imperialists at court.44 The latter welcomed the intimation that the King intended to set Anne aside and remarry. They happily—and naively, as it turned out—anticipated that the dissolution of his marriage would mean the ac
knowledgment of the validity of his union with Katherine of Aragon and the restoration of Lady Mary to the succession, with priority over Elizabeth. It was fortuitous that the negotiations in Wittenberg were now flagging; on March 30, Melanchthon had written, “Everybody thinks that the English ambassadors are stopping here too long.” He supposed they would leave after Easter, for no agreement had been reached on the divorce question or crucial articles of doctrine; and they did, departing for home in April.45

  Chapuys was striving to unite all Anne’s enemies in a cohesive anti-Boleyn faction. Jane now found herself the focus of Imperialist ambitions, flattered and courted by Anne’s enemies. It was probably in April—when he was briefly at court46—that Sir Francis Bryan sent word to Sir John and Lady Seymour that soon “they should see his niece well-bestowed in marriage.”47 His sending such a message at this time shows that Bryan’s support for Jane was no new thing, and that he was confident of Anne’s ruin.

  Cromwell’s fears that Anne hated him and wanted him executed appeared to be borne out on April 2, Passion Sunday, when she had John Skip, her almoner, preach a disapproving sermon in the King’s chapel on the text, “Which among you accuses me of sin?” (John 8:46). In the presence of the King and Queen, Skip mounted his pulpit and “explained and defended the ancient ceremonies of the Church.” He made clear the Queen’s views on the dissolution of the monasteries by stoutly “defending the clergy from their defamers and from the immoderate zeal of men in holding up to public reprobation the faults of any single clergyman as if it were the fault of all.” He “insisted on the need of a king being wise in himself and resisting evil counselors who tempted him to ignoble actions,” and spoke against “evil counselors, who suggested alteration in established customs.” He insisted upon the example of the biblical Persian King Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes), who was moved by a wicked minister to destroy the Jews. He urged that a King’s counselor “ought to take good heed what advice he gave in altering ancient things” and “lamented the decay of the universities and insisted on the necessity of learning.”48

  His words left his congregation in no doubt that his references to evil counselors were aimed at Cromwell, and that there was a comparison to be drawn between Master Secretary and Haman, the “wicked minister” of King Ahasuerus. An educated court audience would have known that Haman had also tried to bring down Ahasuerus’s queen, Esther, and that, after Esther exposed his plot and thus saved the Jews from persecution, Haman found himself facing death on the seventy-five-foot-high scaffold he had had built for his rival, the Queen’s protector, Mordecai; there were at least four sets of tapestries depicting the story hanging in the royal palaces.49 There could be no mistaking the fact that Anne was represented in the almoner’s sermon by Esther, “a good woman, which this gentle King Ahasuerus loved very well, and put his trust in, because he knew she was ever his friend.”50

  Skip even went so far as to embellish the story and assert that Haman had assured Ahasuerus that eliminating the Jews would result in 10,000 talents being appropriated for the royal treasury, and for the King’s personal gain.51 The subtext to the sermon was clear: that the Crown, misled by evil counsel, wanted the Church’s property. Anne was throwing down the gauntlet, publicly setting herself up as a leader of opposition to Cromwell’s policies. Possibly she believed she had much to fear from him, and suspected him of plotting her overthrow with the Imperialists, which would fatally undermine the cause of reform she had so avidly espoused. But it is clear also that she was determined to outwit him. The swords were unsheathed; there could be but one victor in this deadly battle.

  That this sermon was seen as controversial at the time is suggested by the fact that there are several written copies of it. It would seem that Anne, who almost certainly heard talk of the King taking another wife, had a message for her husband also, for Skip “cited the example of Solomon to show that he lost his true nobility toward the end of his life by sensual and carnal appetite in the taking of many wives and concubines.”52 Henry VIII had been compared to Solomon before; just two years past, his painter, Hans Holbein, had personified him as that king in a miniature, and the comparison was so well established that, four years hence, Henry would again appear as Solomon in a stained-glass window in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. So there could have been little doubt in anyone’s mind that the Queen’s chaplain was making, at Anne’s bold behest, a thinly veiled reference to the King. Clearly she was determined to go down fighting.

  The King and Cromwell were greatly angered by the sermon, and Skip was interrogated and censured for “preaching seditious doctrines and slandering the King’s Highness, his counselors, his lords and nobles and his whole Parliament.”53 We may imagine that Henry was furious with his wife also. Effectively she had publicly upbraided him for seeking to replace her.

  Undaunted, Anne stuck to her principles. At her instigation, the reformist Hugh Latimer preached his next sermon before Henry VIII on the parable of the tenants who refused to pay rent to the owner of a vineyard. Latimer’s subtext was that once the tenants had been evicted, the vineyard would pass to more worthy persons.54 The allusion to the dissolution of the monasteries was blatant, and its purpose was to persuade the King to “convert them to some better use.”55 Anne also seems to have enlisted the support of Archbishop Cranmer in her mission to thwart Cromwell’s plans: he wrote to Master Secretary in support of her views on April 22.56

  Given that Parliament had granted the King the right to reprieve some religious houses from closure, Anne had some leeway for further opposing Cromwell’s plans for wholesale dissolution. She had already intervened on behalf of Catesby Priory, and had since been asked to save the convent of Nun Monkton in Yorkshire. William Latymer states that, after the Dissolution Act was passed, a delegation of abbots and priors came to her, asking for protection.57 Clearly she was, and was perceived to be, an adversary to be reckoned with—but only for as long as her influence with the King lasted. If her enemies could subvert that, she was doomed. Later, Henry VIII would warn Jane Seymour—after she in her turn spoke up for the religious houses—that she should “attend to other things, [for] the last queen had died in consequence of meddling too much in state affairs.”58 No fool, Henry knew exactly what had brought about Anne’s downfall.

  Anne, who performed her customary queenly function of distributing money to beggars and washing their feet on Maundy Thursday, April 13,59 must surely have heard the continuing rumors about her husband’s affair with Jane Seymour and possibly whispers of his intention of marrying her. She must have wondered, with mounting dread, if Henry did mean to set her aside, and if so, what would happen to her and Elizabeth. Her inner turmoil, and her fears, may easily be imagined.

  On April 14, Parliament was dissolved. It has often been suggested that a plot against Anne was hatched before then, in the knowledge that, with Parliament no longer sitting, she would effectively be prevented from appealing to it as the supreme court in the land. However, this would only later be regarded as an advantageous circumstance, for—as Cromwell would confide to Chapuys in June60—it was not until April 18 that he resolved that the Queen must be eliminated by a more effective and permanent means than the annulment of her marriage, which was, so the surviving evidence suggests, all that the King was at present contemplating.

  In fact, the dissolution of the Reformation Parliament, which had sat for seven tumultuous years as the compliant instrument of the King’s will, can be viewed as virtually conclusive proof that Henry himself was not contemplating getting rid of Anne at this time, for her title and the rights of her issue were enshrined in the 1534 Act of Succession, and Henry would have needed Parliament to reverse that.61

  On April 15, Chapuys received the Emperor’s instructions of March 28, in which a hopeful Charles V had urged him to press for four things: the reconciliation of England to Rome; the restoration of Lady Mary to the succession, with precedence before Princess Elizabeth; English aid in Charles’s war against the Turk
s; and a declaration of hostilities toward the French. Chapuys was also to seek out Anne Boleyn’s views, for matters would proceed far more smoothly with her consent. It is evident that he had acquainted his master with Anne’s precarious situation, for Charles had written:

  It is quite clear that the King can have no issue from the Concubine that can hereafter dispute the right of the Princess [Mary] to the succession, [but] should the Concubine not be satisfied with the proposal that Mary should be legitimated—a proposal which, after all, she and all her adherents ought to welcome as a means of escape from the fear and danger in which they now continually are—and should she claim more for her daughter, or for the children she may still have, the negotiation must not for that be broken off. If you find her demands too exorbitant, you may use Cromwell’s help. And if perchance the King of England should wish to marry anew, you are not to dissuade it.62

  The English alliance was now so important to the Emperor that he was prepared to recognize the young Elizabeth’s claims too, although Mary’s must take precedence. And now that his aunt was dead, he was ready to be even more conciliatory and pragmatic, to the extent of stating that he was, in the last resort, willing to accept “the continuation of this last matrimony or otherwise;” for with Henry safely married to Anne, he could not seek a marriage alliance with France. However, Charles’s recognition of Anne was conditional upon Lady Mary being declared legitimate and recognized as Henry’s true heir. To this end, the Emperor ordered Chapuys to make cautious overtures to the Boleyn faction, in the hope of bringing about a rapport between England and Rome and restoring Mary’s rights. Charles V’s demands in regard to Mary were communicated to Henry himself, in a letter sent on April 14 from Richard Pate, his ambassador at the Imperial court.63

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