Monday, 27 May 2013

Henry VIII's "Enforcer": Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell has never been so famous. With the BBC's program on Cromwell given by Dr Diarmaid MacCulloch of Oxford University, this intense interest in Henry VIII's 'enforcer' has continued to develop, enhanced particularly by Hilary Mantel's sensationally successful trilogy, with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies achieving international acclaim. Yet Thomas Cromwell, while certainly formidably intelligent, cunning, and shrewd, is somewhat of an enigma. But, as MacCulloch forcefully argues, it is he who the English people must thank for setting in place the initial processes which have led to the modern state of Britain as we know it today.

Before the phenomenal success of Hilary Mantel's novels, it's fair to say that Cromwell only inspired interest among Tudor academics within universities, or amongst historical novelists and dramatists dedicated to portraying the story of Anne Boleyn in their respective mediums (Cromwell, of course, playing a central role in both Anne's rise and fall). But many see, and continue to see (probably especially due to Mantel's characterisation), Cromwell as being 'a scheming, rapacious vulture'. Yet MacCulloch, in both his BBC program and in an article published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine, challenges this view.

Thomas Cromwell's rapid rise was nothing short of incredible. As MacCulloch puts it:

'Cromwell emerged from the back alleys of rural Putney (his father really was a thug) to become Earl of Essex, one of the oldest noble titles in the realm - yet in the moment of this greatest triumph, he was destroyed'.

Cromwell's birth date is unknown but it is likely to have been around 1485. He was born in Putney as the son of Walter Cromwell, a blacksmith, fuller and cloth merchant. Cromwell's notoriously low birth provided useful ammunition for his many enemies, instigating jealousy and hatred amongst the nobles who resented this low-born servant who had become the king's closest adviser. Cromwell's early life is very unknown, although he later informed his contemporary Archbishop Thomas Cranmer that he was a 'ruffian... in his young days'.

Cromwell's father was violent and an alcoholic, being fined by the local manor court on 48 occasions in the period 1475-1501. He was also later convicted of assault. Thomas left his family to travel in Europe and likely first joined the French army before fighting at the battle of Garigliano in 1503. He later joined the household of the merchant banker Francesco Frescobaldi, already establishing useful connections with international personages. In her books Mantel contends that Cromwell became fluent in several languages, which due to his extensive travels in Europe seems likely. Cromwell probably travelled next to the Netherlands where he may have worked as a cloth merchant.

Cromwell later, at an unknown date, returned to England where he married Elizabeth Williams, with whom he had his only surviving son Gregory (who would later marry the sister of Queen Jane Seymour). She died in 1527. At this time, according to Howard Leithead, 'Cromwell was... becoming established as a business agent', leading him into law. Consequently, 'by 1520 Cromwell was firmly established in London mercantile and legal circles'. During the next few years Cromwell acquired frequent contact with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king. In 1523 Cromwell entered the House of Commons, and a year or two later was made a member of Gray's Inn following his appointment as a subsidy commissioner in Middlesex; demonstrating his great success in law. By 1524 Cromwell had joined Wolsey's service due to his closeness with Thomas Heneage, another who served the cardinal.

In the early years of his service to the cardinal, Cromwell was involved in the suppression of religious houses which is surely ironic considering his later central role in leading the dissolution of the English monasteries. However, the suppression of religious houses in the 1520s occurred due to Wolsey's personal building projects (Cardinal College of the University of Oxford, and the founding of a grammar school in his hometown of Ipswich). Cromwell became very close to Wolsey through his personal skills, being appointed to the cardinal's council after 1526. Thus Cromwell 'increasingly supervised Wolsey's legal affairs and exercised considerable ecclesiastical patronage'.

At this momentous time, the King, disillusioned with his first marriage due to his queen's failure to bear a son, had fallen in love with a lady of the court, Anne Boleyn. However, Wolsey's failure to provide an annulment of the marriage to Katherine effected his downfall in 1529. According to George Cavendish, Wolsey's personal servant, Cromwell was distraught, fearing his own downfall as a result of his closeness to Wolsey. Yet this was not to be. Cromwell became greatly involved in the Reformation Parliament and may have taken a leading role in the Commons' campaign against the English clergy, leading to the Supplication of the Ordinaries in 1532.

According to Leithead:

'Cromwell's entry into the king's service is shrouded in myth. He has been credited with whispering into the king's ear a blueprint for all the revolutionary developments of the 1530s, whereupon he was immediately offered the task of putting his grand scheme into action. In reality his progress into the royal service was somewhat more prosaic'.

Leithead clearly disagrees with the famous theories propagated by Geoffrey Elton in 1953, who argued that Cromwell was essentially the author of modern, bureaucratic government which replaced the household nature of medieval government; in effect bringing about a 'Tudor Revolution in Government'. Reforms were introduced into the administration in the period 1532-40 which delineated the king's household from the state; while Cromwell drastically altered the role of Parliament. Yet Elton's theories have been intensely debated and criticised.

At the end of 1530 Cromwell became a member of the Council. He acted as Receiver-General and Supervisor of the acquired college lands from early 1531 and was officially appointed to these roles in 1532. He also supervised building works and was involved in law enforcement. Cromwell was extensively involved in drafting legislation related to the King's 'Great Matter' (his attempts to achieve an annulment of his first marriage). Soon 'Cromwell had taken control of the supervision of the king's legal and parliamentary affairs', working intimately with Thomas Audley (later Lord Chancellor of England). Around this time, Cromwell probably became closely involved with Anne Boleyn and her supporters due to their mutual evangelicalism, desiring to assert the Royal Supremacy over the English Church as a means of attaining the annulment. Yet, as Retha Warnicke stresses, any notion of an 'alliance' between Anne and Cromwell must not be taken too far.

Left: Anne Boleyn. Initially Cromwell's 'ally'; he played a central role in Anne's downfall in 1536.
Right: Anne of Cleves, the bride favoured by Cromwell as a means of strengthening England's alliance with a Protestant nation. Yet the king was personally repulsed; this failed marriage led to Cromwell's execution.

Cromwell played a critical role in bringing about the annulment. A fervent evangelical reformer with close contacts with reformers such as Miles Coverdale and Stephen Vaughan, Cromwell encouraged the king to favour religious reform. Cromwell became increasingly wealthy and influential from 1532, particularly due to Thomas More's resignation from the Council in May. He became Master of the Jewels in April of that year and became Chancellor of the Exchequer in April 1533. With Cranmer's appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, it can be argued that 'they were... a team'. (MacCulloch) They exerted considerable influence on Henry VIII, and, together with the evangelical Anne Boleyn, a definite atmosphere of religious reform developed in the English court.

In 1533 Henry VIII finally married Anne and her daughter Elizabeth was born that year. Cromwell was heavily involved in introducing a new bill curtailing the right to make appeals to Rome. The Act in Restraint of Appeals was passed in April 1533, ensuring further drastic reform of the Church. Cromwell also played a major role in making sure that the Pope was viciously attacked in official propaganda; and was involved in further measures such as the Act of Succession (which he strongly enforced throughout the country), the Dispensations Act, the Act for the Submission of the Clergy and the Act in Restraint of Annates.

Cromwell's power and influence increased dramatically when he was appointed principal secretary and chief minister in April 1534. Less well known perhaps, but which MacCulloch emphasises, was Cromwell's powerful involvement in social reform during these years, intending reforms in education, agriculture, trade, industry, poor relief and the common law (or 'common weal'.) Cromwell took action against enclosures, a particular agricultural method which aroused widespread resentment and opposition. The poor relief legislation of 1536 was notable, making parishes responsible for measures to combat local poverty. Cromwell is perhaps best known, however, for his ruthless enforcement of the Acts of Succession and Supremacy, punishing harshly those who refused to swear the oath. 'He was prepared to crush anyone who was perceived to be a significant threat', and in November 1534 Cromwell guided through the Treason Act which made it a crime to speak rebellious words against the royal family, insult the king, or deny their titles. Most incidents which came to his attention involved ordinary people's insults levelled at Queen Anne.

Cromwell's power within the Church also escalated, becoming royal vicegerent or vicar-general in January 1535. This saw him becoming actively involved in religious reform, leading to monastic visitations. Visitations of religious houses took place and from the spring of 1536 religious houses with an income of less than £2000 per annum were to be dissolved. Yet this caused a fall-out with Queen Anne, who resented the fact that the proceeds of the dissolved religious houses were to be paid into the coffers of the king and not instead be used on education or for charitable purposes. Anne's almoner at Easter denounced Cromwell publicly as her enemy and as an evil councillor. Historians fiercely dispute whether Cromwell 'masterminded' Anne's downfall in order to save himself, as she was a very real enemy due her opposition in religious affairs and matters of foreign policy (this view propagated by Ives and Weir). Others, such as Warnicke and Bernard, disagree for various reasons. It was probably Henry VIII's increasing disillusionment with his wife and love for Jane Seymour which led him to consider marrying again. Whatever the case, Cromwell promised his support to the so-called 'Aragonese' faction supporting Jane, and was involved in interrogating the Queen's supposed lovers and developing a case based on this. On 19 May the Queen was executed, along with the five men accused with her, and 11 days later the King married Jane.

Cromwell's position became even stronger; he was made Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon in July 1536 and Lord Privy Seal. However, this also meant that he acquired more enemies at court who resented his unprecedented influence and power. Cromwell was involved in further radical religious measures including the Ten Articles and the Injunctions, which sought to enforce these Articles throughout the kingdom. However, a series of northern rebellions erupted that autumn in response to these religious measures, demonstrating hostility to the radical nature of the English Church. Cromwell was blamed, along with others, for being an 'evil counsellor'. One can only wonder how the King responded to such sentiments.

During this time, and during the next few years, the dissolution of the monasteries proceeded apace. Yet the emergence of the Privy Council in around 1537, around the time of Queen Jane's death in childbirth, may have weakened Cromwell's religious position and strengthened that of nobles such as Norfolk and Suffolk. This made him even more reliant on the personal favour of the King as a means of ensuring his position remained secure. Yet, in the summer of that year, Cromwell's influence increased through being promoted to the Order of the Garter, a very selective and prestigious appointment shared by only 23 others.

The death of the queen saw Cromwell promoting a marriage alliance with the Protestant German princes, in particular with the relative of the Duke of Cleves, the Duchess Anne. This occurred in context of increasing hostility from the French and Spanish to the English - due to what they perceived as the 'heretical' religious situation there - leading England to require an ally urgently. As MacCulloch writes:

'...He became a busy and effective promoter of the new religion and its enthusiasts... in his latter years, he became a discreet organiser of contacts with the most radical European mainstream Reformations, in Zurich and northern Switzerland - far beyond anything the king could have approved, and highly dangerous for him'. 

In view of this, it is not surprising that Cromwell favoured an alliance with the 'Lutheran' Germans against the Catholic superpowers who threatened England's security. The situation in England was certainly dangerous since there is evidence that Henry VIII was beginning to become uneasy and unhappy about the development of religious reforms - at heart a religious conservative, these measures were disturbingly radical, even heretical, in his eyes. In 1538-9, according to Leithead 'the conservative faction was becoming a stronger and more cohesive force' which threatened Cromwell's security, leading him to mastermind the deaths of conservatives Edward Neville, Nicholas Carew, and the marquess of Exeter.

In 1539 Henry agreed to marry Anne of Cleves and she arrived in England in December of that year. However, the King found her personally repulsive and lashed out at Cromwell, blaming him for this travesty. The King reluctantly married Anne but refused to consummate the marriage. Possibly, conservatives at court noticed this and began to plot Cromwell's downfall. He was reported to be 'tottering' in April 1540. Yet, despite this, Cromwell was made Earl of Essex at that time.

The King's infatuation with the young Katherine Howard, occurring in context of his failed marriage to the Queen, provided the conditions for Cromwell's downfall. But it was the charges of heresy which led to Cromwell's death. As has been noted, the reforms instigated had been too radical for the King, and Cromwell's known communication with radical Protestants on the Continent was eagerly utilised by his enemies as evidence of treason. It did not help that Cromwell had personally angered the Duke of Norfolk - who, coincidentally, was Katherine's uncle - through dissolving Thetford Priory, which was the family burial place of the Norfolk dukes. As MacCulloch convincingly states:

'He [Cromwell] also died because members of the English nobility were affronted that this talented upstart usurped what they regarded as their natural place in government'.

In a court in which social status, wealth and closeness to the throne were pivotal, Cromwell's low birth, his richness, and his powerful influence with Henry VIII aroused deep resentment and hostility, particularly among established nobles such as Norfolk. The King's love for Norfolk's niece led Norfolk to espy an opportunity to bring down the hated Cromwell. In June, Cromwell was arrested at a Council meeting for treason and heresy, with Norfolk personally ripping the Garter badge of St George from Cromwell's clothing. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and executed on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540 - coincidentally, the same day that his master married Katherine.

MacCulloch characterises Cromwell as 'a cool, self-contained idealist who wanted to shape the kingdom of England in the name of  new religion - the remaker of this realm'. 

Did Cromwell really enact a 'Tudor revolution in government'? Did he play a pivotal role in the eventual triumph of the modern nation-state, and a secular society in Britain?

Perhaps Leithead is most accurate in suggesting:

'...Thomas Cromwell remains strangely elusive... it was through a life of service that he was able to become one of the richest and most powerful men in England... both the life and legacy of Thomas Cromwell have aroused enormous controversy. While opinions of him vary his effectiveness and creativity as a royal minister cannot be denied.'

It is surely significant that, just months after Cromwell's execution, Henry VIII lamented that:

'under pretext of some slight offences which he [Cromwell] had committed, they [the nobles] had brought several accusations against him, on the strength of which he had put to death the most faithful servant he ever had'.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Execution of Queen Anne Boleyn

On this day in history, 19 May 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife and queen consort of Henry VIII of England, was beheaded within the Tower of London for alleged sexual crimes encompassing adultery and incest, and treason against the King in supposedly plotting his death. It was the first public execution of a Queen of England – but by no means the last – and, undoubtedly, encompassed the brutal end of England’s most captivating, controversial, and ultimately celebrated queen consort in history. explored the various theories as to why Anne so shockingly, and quickly, fell from power in the early summer of 1536. It is disturbing that, being in an extremely secure position in January 1536 following Katherine of Aragon’s death and the announcement of Anne’s third pregnancy, just four months later, Henry’s second wife would be brutally decapitated for heinous crimes. As Retha Warnicke tellingly notes:

‘In January 1536... Anne could be optimistic about her future. She was pregnant again... Catherine was at long last dead... When her disgrace and downfall occurred, it was to catch Chapuys, that inveterate gossipmonger, with as much surprise and astonishment as it did the rest of Christendom’.[1]

Eric Ives seems to disagree, writing that:
‘The story of the events which led to the disgrace and death of Anne Boleyn need to begin almost a year before the tragedy itself’, referring to the royal couple’s visit at Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymour family, in the autumn of 1535.[2]

Whatever did lead to Anne Boleyn’s rapid downfall in the early summer of 1536 – whether it was factional conspiracy led by Thomas Cromwell (Ives), the miscarriage of a deformed son (Warnicke), the discovery of the queen’s actual adulteries (G. W. Bernard), a religious plot against the ‘Protestant’ Queen (Joanna Denny) or, simply, the result of Henry VIII’s long-standing ‘hatred’ towards his wife (Scarisbrick, Wilson), the events of May 1536 moved very quickly against the six involved, leading to six brutal deaths and a horrific tragedy.

As has been noted, the Queen and the seven men (two, Sir Thomas Wyatt, celebrated Tudor poet, and Sir Richard Page, were eventually freed) had been arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London in late April and early May 1536 on scandalous charges of treason, adultery, plotting the king’s death, and, in Anne and her brother George Boleyn’s case, committing incest. All six experienced shock, horror and dread – particularly the Queen, whose moods fluctuated from hysteria to grief to joy, and the lowly Mark Smeaton, who underwent psychological – if not physical – torture to extract a confession of adultery. The four commoners accused of committing adultery with Queen Anne – Smeaton, Henry Norris, William Brereton, and Francis Weston, all of whom had served the queen and been close to her – were tried in Westminster Hall on May 12, 1536, and found guilty of treason through committing adultery with the queen. They were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered as traitors, although ‘mercifully’, the king decided to commute the sentences to beheading. Particularly for Smeaton, this was merciful, since a man of such lowly birth could not often expect such a quick and efficient method of execution.

Queen Anne and her brother George were tried later, on Monday 15 May. It was believed that Anne’s ladies, including the Countess of Worcester, Lady Wingfield, and her own sister-in-law Jane Lady Rochford (who would later be executed with Queen Katherine Howard), had supplied the crucial evidence against her. The Queen and her brother had been tried in the King’s Hall in the Tower of London, with their own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, presiding in his capacity as Lord Steward. The Queen was brought in first, according to Antonia Fraser: ‘she arrived in a calm frame of mind’.[3] The contemporary chronicler Charles Wriothesley opined that she gave ‘wise and discreet answers to her accusers’ when questioned ‘as though she was not actually guilty’.[4] Ives goes further, movingly claiming that ‘her sparing and effective answers quietly dominated the court’.[5] Certainly, those who were actually there – including Anne’s arch-enemy, the Imperial ambassador, who admitted that she had given plausible and convincing replies to the questions posed – support this claim. She denied committing adultery with any of the men, or incest with her brother; she had not hoped and plotted for her husband the King’s death; she had not poisoned the former Queen Katherine of Aragon or her daughter Princess Mary; but it made no difference. She was found guilty on all counts, despite, as Warnicke notes, being ‘unrattled by these lurid details’.[6] 

Her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, with tears in his eyes, sentenced her to burning or beheading – but as Alison Weir notes, the method of execution – decapitation by the sword – had been agreed long in advance, and the executioner had already been sent for. Meanwhile, Henry VIII told his new love, Jane Seymour, that Anne would be condemned by 3 o’clock that afternoon. How can anyone not feel immense pity for the Queen, when discovering this brutal detail? It is little wonder that many view Jane Seymour as a sly, cold-hearted plotter who, as the Victorian historian Agnes Strickland wrote in outrage, literally stepped over her former mistress’ dead body to become Queen.

Yet the Queen was noted for her bravery, as even her enemy Cromwell – who many think plotted the whole conspiracy – admitted following her death, praising her courage. All Anne admitted to was: ‘I do not say that I have always borne towards the king the humility which I owed him... I admit, too, that often I have taken it into my head to be jealous of him... But may God be my witness if I have done him any other wrong’. When one considers that Anne swore before eternal damnation that she had never committed the crimes alleged against her, one is convinced of her innocence. As Weir concludes in her study: ‘the historian cannot but conclude that Anne Boleyn was the victim of a dreadful miscarriage of justice’. Following Anne’s trial, her brother George was tried after her, and despite his bravery – something which clearly ran in the Boleyn family – was also sentenced to death.

Two days later, the five men condemned for committing high treason through adultery with the Queen and plotting the King’s death were beheaded on Tower Hill, outside the Tower of London. George Boleyn, as the highest in rank went first, stating that: ‘I was born under the law, I am judged under the law and I must die under the law, for the law has condemned me’. The other men admitted their sins and the fact that they deserved to die; but this does not necessarily mean that they were admitting that they were guilty of the crimes alleged against them. In the Tudor period, everyone was believed to be universally sinful – these men were alluding to their own sins. Smeaton, the last to be executed since he was the lowliest in rank, continued to maintain his guilt, causing the Queen notable distress when she heard.

That day, Anne’s marriage to the King was annulled and her daughter, Elizabeth, bastardised. It was likely on the grounds of Henry’s previous sexual relationship with Anne’s sister – thus creating affinity between them – although Warnicke suspects it was annulled because Anne, believed to be a witch, had bewitched Henry into marrying her. Anne’s own execution, in her mind, was believed to take place the next day, but the day came and went with no summons for the scaffold, leading to Anne’s increasing concern. The Constable of the Tower, William Kingston, eventually told her that it was postponed to the following day, Friday 19 May 1536.

The execution was held within the grounds of the Tower, before a small audience, at nine o’clock in the morning. The Queen emerged from the Tower accompanied by four ladies, and probably would not have been pleased to see her enemies Thomas Audley, the lord chancellor, Charles Brandon duke of Suffolk, Henry Fitzroy, the bastard son of Henry VIII, and Thomas Cromwell himself prominent among the spectators. Anne was dressed in a mantle of ermine (emphasising her queenly rank) over a grey damask gown lined with fur with a crimson petticoat, accompanied with an English gable hood (somewhat surprisingly for her, as she usually preferred the considerably more fashionable French hood). Those who were present remarked that ‘The Queen had never looked so beautiful’, while a Spanish commentator wrote that she looked ‘as gay as if she was not going to die’.[7] Anne’s speech was given by Edward Hall, Henry VIII’s court chronicler, as follows:

‘Good Christian people, I have not come here to preach a sermon; I have come here to die. For according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak of that whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never, and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me’.[8]

This is probably very close to Anne’s real speech, and in no way shows Anne admitting any guilt. Whether she did truly love Henry VIII, as she suggests, is impossible to know. Natalie Dormer, in the Showtime TV series The Tudors (despite its inaccuracies), gives a very moving portrayal of Anne’s execution, in which this speech is replicated:

Numerous versions of Anne’s scaffold speech were given by different writers present on that day. According to Wriothesley, Anne stated:

‘Masters, I here humbly submit me to the law as the law hath judged me, and as for mine offences, I here accuse no man. God knoweth them; I remit them to God, beseeching Him to have mercy on my soul. I ask Jesus Christ to save my sovereign and master the King, the most godly, noble and gentle Prince that is, and long to reign over you’.[9]

Despite their glaring inaccuracies (in The Other Boleyn Girl, it is implied that Anne might be given a reprieve before falling into hysterical tears, two things which never occurred; and in The Six Wives of Henry VIII, where Anne is executed indoors before a block, two huge inaccuracies) this is the speech given by Natalie Portman and Dorothy Tutin.

The Queen’s head was removed with a single stroke – mercifully – and she was buried that day in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula near Tower Green; where she would be joined less than six years later by her cousin and fellow queen, Katherine Howard, and her own sister-in-law, Jane Rochford, who may have supplied evidence against her. It was the end of the incredible career of Anne Boleyn. Her exact age is unknown but she was probably 34 or 35. She had been Queen for just under 3 years, but she had captivated the King and held his love for closer to 10 years, before being brutally eliminated in a murderous conspiracy – probably masterminded by her own husband – which also saw the deaths of 5 people close to her, including her own brother. One can only pity the Boleyn family, who saw two of their relatives bloodily removed in the space of a few short weeks.

The Independent on Sunday, in reviewing Eric Ives’ monumental – and to date, the best – biography of the Queen, termed Anne Boleyn ‘the most controversial woman ever to have been queen consort of England’. While this is undoubtedly true – just witness the numerous books, films, plays, and stories produced about her monthly – she was, as Ives rightly notes, the most important queen consort in English history. It is almost certain that Anne Boleyn was innocent of the crimes alleged against her. She was outspoken, highly intelligent, shrewd, calculating, at times vindictive, arrogant, and even spiteful; but at the same time she was deeply religious, kind, loyal to family and friends, charismatic, intelligent, attractive, highly talented, energetic, opinionated and bold. These qualities had commended her to a King because they so emphatically showed that she was not the typical sixteenth-century submissive ideal of a woman which Jane Seymour embodied.

Thomas Wyatt, Anne’s close friend – who had been imprisoned in the Tower as one of her accomplices – movingly wrote following these six deaths: ‘These bloody days have broken my heart’. While the Queen was by no means universally mourned – Catholic Europe openly rejoiced at her death and congratulated Henry VIII, while many English people, who hated Anne, saw it as divine retribution – a growing sense of pity emerged for Anne and the men killed with her; while others began to become increasingly suspicious towards the King. Jane Seymour was by no means universally popular, as scurrilous ballads circulated about her affair with the King. As one contemporary wrote:

‘It was thought strange by some, that in the same month which saw the Queen flourishing, accused, condemned and executed, another was assumed into her place’.

As Agnes Strickland, a Victorian historian writing in an era of high moral values, openly vilified the new Queen:

‘Jane saw murderous accusations got up against the queen, which finally brought her to the scaffold, yet she gave her hand to the regal ruffian before his wife’s corpse was cold. Yes; four-and-twenty hours had not elapsed since the sword was reddened with the blood of her mistress, when Jane Seymour became the bride of Henry VIII... The picture is repulsive enough, but it becomes tenfold more abhorrent when the woman who caused the whole tragedy is loaded with panegyric’.

Anne remains romanticised in today’s society, largely because of her brutal fate, an innocent Queen. She was far from perfect, but she deserved better than how she has been treated in recent fiction and film – whether that is Helena Bonham Carter’s shrewish and middle-aged Queen; Natalie Portman’s scheming and hysterical homewrecker; or the calculating and vindictive Anne of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. To conclude, the last words should belong to Anne’s chief biographer, as they are very moving and aptly epitomise this blogger’s position:

‘She had been a remarkable woman... There were few others who rose from such beginnings to a crown, and none contributed to a revolution as far-reaching as the English Reformation... What Anne really was, as distinct from what Anne did, comes over very much less clearly. To us she appears inconsistent – religious yet aggressive, calculating yet emotional, with the light touch of the courtier yet the strong grip of the politician... Yet what does come across to us across the centuries is the impression of a person who is strangely appealing to the early twenty-first century. A woman in her own right – taken on her own terms in a man’s world; a woman who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex... taking a court and a king by storm.’ She was vindicated, 22 years later, when her daughter Elizabeth acceded to the throne.[10]

I agree. Anne Boleyn, an unbelievably complex person, was an incredible woman. In my research into English queens, there is none to compare with her. Her story continues to fascinate, entrance and captivate people across the world to an extent which few other historical personages are able to do. Innocent of the crimes she died for, Anne Boleyn was England’s most important queen consort – and perhaps the greatest.

[1]  Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 189-90.
[2] Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2004), p. 291.
[3] Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Phoenix, 1992), p. 308.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ives, Anne, p. 340.
[6] Warnicke, Rise and fall, p. 228.
[7] Fraser, Six Wives, p. 315.
[8] Ives, Anne, pp. 357-8.
[9] Fraser, Six Wives, pp. 315-16.
[10] Ives, Anne, p. 359.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

That Yearning Feeling

This is something of a move away from my usual historical topics discussed on this blog (by the way, keep your eyes peeled for May 19th, when I'll be documenting the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn). Sometimes it can be interesting and, in some ways perhaps, refreshing to consider more personal issues which affect people's lives which don't necessarily have to be historical. Having said that, the topic of this particular blog post is love which, of course, features heavily in history.

A satisfying relationship, of course, does in no way need to revolve around a destructive, even violent, passion (consider the ill-fated and infamous examples of Antony & Cleopatra, Catherine Earnshaw & Heathcliff, Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn, to name but a few). Some of the most enjoyable couplings in fact are more gentle, earnest, and above all easy (although no relationship, of course, is 'easy').

University is interesting in how it can create relationships. Many students (myself included) experience terrible loneliness, even isolation, while studying at uni; it seems strange to write this bearing in mind that my usual blog posts are actual historical issues which leave me in a somewhat detached position - despite my actual opinions regarding these issues. But this of course is something much more personal and, in a sense, it may help to write about it.

Why is it that we feel the need to have a relationship? Of course, it's true, many people don't, and they revel in the freedom which being single means. Furthermore, it seems fair to say that a relationship is generally more important when you're older, as opposed to being still a university student. But for people who are insecure, alone, and quite emotional (like myself), it really can seem like the be-all and end-all just to have someone who really cares about you in your life. As mentioned, no relationship is easy, and brings its own set of problems. Yet it also brings hope, happiness and of course love, which can surely compensate for other complex issues.

While still a teenager, or a young person, there shouldn't be any rush, particularly with all the pressures which university life brings anyway. And it's important to try and find the right person, someone who fits well with your interests, your sense of humour and your personality, rather than just aiming to make do with anyone. For myself, this is quite an important time; with the university year coming to an end, the beginning of summer, my continuing research on Queen Katherine (and her own very ill-fated 'love affairs', if you can even call them that!), and the fact that, as anyone obsessed with Tudor history will know, this period witnesses the tragic downfall, arrest, imprisonment, conviction, and execution of a Queen and five men, all of whom were almost certainly innocent. In that case, a toxic mix of love, jealousy, adultery, conspiracy and hatred worked together to create a poisonous and, ultimately, murderous situation when as Sir Thomas Wyatt poignantly wrote, 'these bloody days have broken my heart'.

This year has been important for me, in allowing me to understand my personality better, how to manage emotions and, probably most fundamentally, learning about people and issues of trust. Of course there have been many disappointments, which probably explains why I'm writing this article in the first place. If I could have anything in the world right now, it would be to have someone committed to me, interested in my research, happy with my company, and loving me for who I am.

But having become much more of a realist this year, and having a feel now for being away from home, I can understand that this isn't perhaps that likely to happen - probably not soon, at any rate. What I have learned is that it's not something worth obsessing over. There are other, and perhaps far more important, things which should be concentrated on. If I'm lucky, this will all happen in its own time, and since it's natural, it won't have to be forced. But as anyone who knows me will understand, being an intense and above all emotional person means that living with such insecurities can be difficult: particularly when you know that it only takes one person and a committed relationship which can change all that.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Downfall of Anne Boleyn

On this day, 2nd May 1536, Anne Boleyn, second queen of King Henry VIII of England, was arrested for sexual crimes (adultery with five men) and plotting to conspire the death of her husband, an act of high treason. The previous day, the Queen had attended the traditional May Day jousts with her husband at Greenwich Palace, where 'although Anne and Henry sat in their usual places, they had probably arrived separately at the tournament where two of her alleged lovers, Rochford and Norris, were to compete with each other, a public enactment of the charge that she had caused dissension and jealousy among them'. (Warnicke, p225) The Queen, most likely dressed in apple-green, was still an elegant and attractive woman of about thirty-four, even if the previous months had wearied, exhausted and depressed her. She cannot have failed to have been aware of the dark rumours swirling at court, the late-night meetings, the diplomatic difficulties, the mysterious behaviour of her husband, and her rapidly diminishing support, which must have inspired fear and apprehension in her. A quarrel with Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, over religious and political matters, and a very public row with her friend Henry Norris during the weekend did not help matters. But this was put to rest - briefly - by attending the jousts, where we are informed that the Queen smiled pleasingly and encouragingly at the jousters.

Much later, the hostile Nicholas Sander, writing in Elizabeth I's reign (asserting, amongst other things, that Anne was monstrously deformed, gave birth to a shapeless child, and was in fact the daughter of Henry VIII), wrote that the Queen deliberately dropped a handkerchief at the joust as a public demonstration of her love for one of the jousters. But this story was later exposed as malicious fiction designed to blacken Anne's name. Yet the joust came to an abrupt end when, in the middle of it, the King received a message, causing him to rise and leave the tournament, taking Henry Norris with him. Edward Hall, the court chronicler, reported that many individuals present 'mused but most chiefely the quene', who had been so humiliatingly deserted. She must have guessed that it related to something about herself (perhaps the sensational argument she had had with Norris two days earlier, in which she accused him of waiting for the king to die in order to marry her), but probably could not have foreseen that she would never see her husband again.

During their journey, the King accused Norris of committing adultery with his wife, Queen Anne. Norris, shocked and dumbfounded, protested that it was not true, but the King offered him a pardon, if he 'wolde utter the trewth' (George Constantine, who was present). Norris retorted, bravely and admirably, that 'he would not accuse her of anything; and he would die a thousand times, rather than ruin an innocent person'. The King, obviously, was extremely dissatisfied with this answer, and Norris was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where another of Anne's supposed lovers, the lowborn musician Mark Smeaton, had been incarcerated the previous day.

The next day, May 2, the Queen arose early and spent the morning at Mass, before journeying to watch a tennis match. Anne reportedly was in the midst of regretting she had not placed a bet on her favourite, as he was winning, when a messenger arrived from the King, ordering his wife to present herself before the Privy Council at once. The signs were ominous. According to Warnicke, her uncle the Duke of Norfolk, Sir William Paulet, and William Fitzwilliam (who had long detested her, being a supporter of the late queen Katherine of Aragon) accused her in front of her ladies-in-waiting of enjoying carnal relations with three men; only two of whom, Norris and Mark, were mentioned by name. Anne, plainly, was shocked, but later remarked that 'to be a Quene, and cruely handled was never sene'. She believed that the king was doing it 'to prove' her.

That day, the Queen's younger brother, George lord Rochford, was also taken to the Tower, accused of committing incest with his sister. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the Queen was publicly taken to the Tower of London, where crowds gathered on the sides of the river to jeer publicly at her (Anne Boleyn was never popular with the common people). Entering the Tower by the Court Gate, the Queen was met by Edward Walsingham, the Lieutenant of the Tower. She was then met by Sir William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower, where she dramatically questioned him as to whether she would be imprisoned in a dungeon. His reply was 'No, Madam. You shall go into the lodging you lay in at your coronation'. Kingston reported that Anne then fell to her knees, laughing but at the same time weeping, crying out that 'it is too good for me... Jesu have mercy on me'. When Kingston informed her of the arrests, the Queen showed understandable distress about the health of her mother, who 'wilt die with sorrow', and later laughed when Kingston assured her that every subject of the King would have justice.

According to Antonia Fraser, the Queen 'began screaming' during her imprisonment, but this is unlikely, as noted by Alison Weir, although clearly she was in a very delicate state. She later complained of her uncle Norfolk's sanctimonious 'tutting' during the journey to the Tower. Charles Wriothesley, another Tudor chronicler, wrote that: 'Anne Bolleine was brought to the Towre of London... entring in, she fell downe on her knees before the said lordes, beseeching God to helpe her as she was not giltie of her a accusement...' Later that day, Henry VIII met with his illegitimate son by Bessie Blount, Henry Fitzroy, and embraced him intimately, breaking down in tears and warning him that both he and Princess Mary Tudor were lucky to have escaped the hands of Queen Anne, who had planned their deaths by poison, due to her 'wicked intentions'. 

So what led to the sensational downfall of Queen Anne in the early summer of 1536? Historians have debated it intensely and powerfully during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb explored the various theories as to why Anne was arrested, accused of adultery, incest, and plotting the King's death, and later beheaded, dragging down 5 men with her. So what is the likely explanation? As someone who has read prominent works by Eric Ives, G. W. Bernard, Retha M. Warnicke, Joanna Denny, Antonia Fraser, Alison Weir, Karen Lindsey, and other noted historians, I believe that I have a clear perspective to offer in relation to this.

Contrary to traditional belief, Anne Boleyn had not been in a weak position over the last few months, when many believe that she had been living on 'borrowed time', which was only worsened by the King's developing love for Jane Seymour in the early winter of 1536. Most traditionalists believe that the King's once intense passion for Anne had quickly turned to hatred, which was significantly exacerbated by her second miscarriage in January 1536. J.J. Scarisbrick adheres to this traditional interpretation, as does Derek Wilson, who stress that the King's role in ordering Anne's downfall has been too often ignored or marginalised. They believe, essentially, that it was the sexual dynamics of the marriage which caused the downfall - having once been entranced and captivated by the radiant Anne, Henry became increasingly and, fatally, disillusioned with her sharp tongue, fiery temper and intelligent mind; coupled with her unsuccessful pregnancies and so ordered her arrest and execution in 1536 when evidence was presented to him by his Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell, on the basis of 'proof' brought by Anne's ladies-in-waiting, that the Queen had committed adultery and was planning Henry's death.

Is it perhaps as simple as that? Other historians believe no. Certainly, Anne Boleyn's last miscarriage (as I explored in my earlier article) considerably weakened her and may have destroyed Henry VIII's love and affection for her. George Wyatt offers a sinister interpretation of this event, writing how the King's last words to his grieving wife were that 'he would have no more boys by her', a cruel remark given that Anne had just lost her child and may have suffered a seriously traumatic pregnancy. According to later rumours at court, the King informed a courtier that he had been bewitched by Anne, by means of 'sortileges and charms', thus denying his paternity of her lost children and blaming his marriage on witchcraft. The Queen was reported to have an 'an utter inability to bear male children', which means that we can perhaps infer that her earlier miscarriage or stillbirth was also of a male child.

Yet, according to Retha M. Warnicke, traditional historians have not attached due importance to this miscarriage as they should perhaps have done. Drawing links with rumours of witchcraft made following the pregnancy, Warnicke asserts that the 'sole reason' for Anne's sudden and traumatic downfall was the fact that she miscarried a deformed male child in January, convincing Henry that this was 'an evil omen... he [thus] had her accused of engaging in illicit sexual acts with five men and fostered rumors that she had afflicted him with impotence... all of these are activities his contemporaries associated with witchcraft'. According to Warnicke, contemporaries believed that God delivered deformed children upon parents guilty of sexual deviance, thus meaning that Henry believed that, since the child could not have been his, his wife had engaged in adultery; and in Warnicke's opinion, these men (including her brother) were very probably sodomites. Warnicke suggests that further evidence is provided that the miscarriage was extraordinary because it was not kept secret, in comparison with other royal miscarriages. So the 5 men accused of sleeping with the Queen were 'chosen' because they were believed, basically, to engage in forbidden sexual encounters. Thus linking deformity, witchcraft, sorcery, adultery and social beliefs into an outrageous theory, Warnicke concludes that 'the real story is... more mundane: [Anne] was a victim of her society's mores and of human ignorance about conception and pregnancy'.

But Warnicke's theory for Anne's downfall has fallen apart, when subjected to critical scrutiny by fellow historians. For one thing, there is no evidence that the child was deformed in the first place - it was reported by contemporaries to be 'beautiful', while Anne's earnest enemy, the Spanish ambassador, made no mention of deformity, when he surely would have. This emphasis on witchcraft is also misplaced, since Anne was never accused of witchcraft; she was accused of sexual crimes. Anne died because she was believed to be a whore, not a witch. Thus Warnicke's version for Anne's downfall can be discarded.

Another traditional - and for many, convincing - theory for Anne Boleyn's rapid downfall and death in May 1536 has been put forward by Eric Ives and, later, Alison Weir. This suggests that it was not Henry VIII (who was still supporting his wife publicly a month before her death), but Master Secretary Cromwell, who engineered Anne's death, in a factional conspiracy designed to replace her with Jane Seymour. Joanna Denny and Antonia Fraser agree, Fraser writing how 'Cromwell took the lead in what became open season for the destruction of Anne Boleyn' and, drawing on Ives' argument, mentions how Cromwell actually told the Spanish ambassador how he 'thought up and plotted' Anne's downfall. This version of Anne's downfall is the most popular one: 'Cromwell... set out in cold blood to eliminate five of his political enemies in the privy chamber' (Warnicke, criticising it). But why did Cromwell turn against Anne? Had they not supported one another in Anne's rise to power? Well, according to Ives and Weir, Cromwell and the Queen had a vicious argument about the dissolution of the monasteries about to commence in England; while Cromwell was eager to seize the profits for the King, the Queen furiously reprimanded him, believing that the goal of the dissolution should be to provide education and reform. Further conflict occurred between the two due to foreign policy; Anne was believed to favour the Protestant German beliefs, while Cromwell was desperate for an alliance with the Spanish Habsburgs. Believing, in a sense, that it was either her or him, Cromwell suddenly concocted a plot, with the aid of Anne's enemies, to remove her, in order to save his own skin. Starkey believes that Cromwell had a very real fear of Queen Anne, as she was 'a brutal and effective politician' who could quite easily destroy him, if she chose. Ives concludes that it was politics, not sexuality, which destroyed Anne Boleyn.

The argument is fairly convincing. But others have strongly - and perhaps rightfully - criticised it. Some believe it is 'too neat'. Warnicke questions the choice of men executed; believing that, if a Boleyn 'faction' really existed, then surely male individuals more closely associated with the Queen would have been eliminated. This is a fair point, since one of the accused, William Brereton, for instance, had little connections with her. Warnicke believes Ives is relying far too heavily on the dispatches of the Spanish ambassador, who was Anne's enemy and deliberately misled by Cromwell. Others ask why Cromwell would have needed to have the Queen killed over matters as 'trivial' as the dissolution of the monasteries and foreign policy. Still others reckon that this marginalises the King excessively, and makes him look like a puppet in the hands of powerful men when it was he who was in control the whole time. The biggest drawback to this argument is the fact that the people Cromwell supposedly worked with to bring down Anne were, in fact, his own enemies. If they came to power, through Anne's death, then Cromwell would also face his own downfall. So why would he have plotted with them?

This theory has remained popular however, particularly in Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. Many respectable historians, including Ives, Starkey, and Fraser, believe that it is the closest we will ever get to understanding why Anne was executed, with 5 men. But others have disagreed. Most radically of all, G. W. Bernard, in his controversial book Fatal Attractions, suggests that the real answer is simple: Anne was guilty of the crimes alleged. He depicts her as a highly sexual woman who enjoyed flirtations and, perhaps terrified that the King would not be able to father a son, began sleeping around - though not with her own brother - in order to become pregnant and pass off a male heir as his. Yet is this true? Few historians agree with it. They criticise Bernard's reliance on one source for this argument - the work of Lancelot de Carles to the French government. They assert that there is no evidence that Anne was stupid enough to take lovers behind the King's back - in fact, she was extremely intelligent, even calculating. They also note that she would have needed the assistance of her ladies to help her - yet no woman was ever arrested. Furthermore, Anne swore on her soul before her death that she was innocent. Only one of the men admitted to the charges - Mark Smeaton - and many believe that this was because he was tortured and thus coerced into doing so. Yet Lacey Baldwin Smith, an American professor, in his recent book on Anne agrees, suggesting that she may have been guilty of adultery.

Others believe that it was the King's love for Jane Seymour which led to Anne's death; but why, then, would he have needed to have her arrested, convicted and beheaded? Could the marriage not just have been annulled and Anne sent to a nunnery, which Katherine of Aragon was threatened with? But on the other hand, Greg Walker, in an article published in 2002, suggested that theories for Anne's downfall have been way too complex. He believes that: 'Anne fell... not as a result of what she did, but of what she said during the May Day weekend of 1536, in a series of incautious conversations with the men who were to be tried and executed with her'. On the face of it, this is a rational argument - as noted earlier, Anne had had a public row with Henry Norris three days before her arrest, in which she accused him of waiting for the King to die so that he could marry her, and a day later, warned Mark Smeaton that he should not expect Anne to talk to him, because he was an 'inferior person'. Suzannah Lipscomb seems to agree with this version of events, terming it the 'cock-up theory': it was Anne's own amazingly indiscreet and rash comments to other gentlemen, surely a result of her fear and confusion at court, which convinced the King that she was truly guilty of the crimes presented by Master Cromwell. Walker also emphasises 'Henry's own intense emotional investment in the matter', disagreeing with Ives who marginalised the King's role. Walker concludes: 'it was this personal sense of injury and dishonour that drove Henry to root out the whole story and pursue the offenders to the death'. Anne was convicted because of her own indiscreet and careless remarks: 'to her brother, as they laughed about the king's sexual inadequacies... to Mark Smeaton, when she snubbed him publicly less than twenty-four hours before he was arrested, and most obviously to Henry Norris when she foolishly joked about the sacrosanct subject of the king's death'. 

Perhaps Walker comes the closest. But even this theory does not take into account other things: why, then, were Sir Francis Weston and Sir William Brereton executed, when according to surviving sources Anne never had indiscreet conversations with them, as she supposedly had with the other men? Why were Thomas Wyatt and Richard Page arrested? Why, during her trial, did Anne voice the suspicion that she was being executed for other reasons than those mentioned in the official charges? If it was only a result of Anne's behaviour during 29-30 April, then why have other scholars attributed Anne's downfall as early as February or March 1536?

Both Walker, Bernard, Scarisbrick and Wilson are correct in emphasising the central role played by the King. It seems nonsensical to believe that Cromwell could 'dupe' the King into playing the part he wanted him to in his own factional conspiracy to get rid of the king's wife - it was too high-risk and dangerous. The evidence does not support Warnicke's deformed-foetus story, so that can be dismissed. Weir, Ives and Starkey are all arguably guilty of relying too heavily on the flawed and biased dispatches of a man who was Anne's bitter enemy, Eustace Chapuys, and their version of Anne's downfall is, perhaps, too 'neat'.

A combination of factors probably explain Anne's downfall. Still in a strong position in January 1536, improved by the death of Katherine of Aragon, Anne suffered a bitter blow when she gave birth to a dead son some weeks later, but this was not the 'sole reason' that she later died, as Warnicke believes. The King, bitterly disappointed, began a flirtation with Jane Seymour, which gathered increasing momentum during the spring. Anne's enemies gathered together and plotted, but what this was related to cannot fully be adduced. Anne began to experience increasing fear and uncertainty about her future, but her husband publicly continued to support her, as late as four weeks before her death. A public quarrel with Cromwell worsened her position, and her own insecurity can be grasped with a furious argument with Henry Norris and irritation at Mark Smeaton's behaviour.

Walker's thesis can be coupled together with that of Scarisbrick and Wilson, with some of Ives' ideas. Disillusioned, perhaps even beginning to loathe, his queen, the King was informed of Anne's incredibly indiscreet behaviour at the end of April, in which she mentioned his death and marrying another man, and probably ordered Cromwell to get to the bottom of the matter. Cromwell, who was already hostile to Anne because of their religious and political disagreements, interrogated Anne's ladies and servants - probably hinting that they should provide him with evidence to bring about Anne's arrest - and discovered 'evidence' that she had been committing adultery and plotting the King's death. Reporting back to the King, the King, already angered, upset and full of hatred towards his wife, ordered her arrest, and she was later executed. This theory brings Henry into the centre - it was him who discovered Anne's indiscreet behaviour, became suspicious, and ordered an investigation. Cromwell did not plot Anne's downfall - he assisted the processes willingly and eagerly, because of his own hostility towards the Queen. So he was a willing servant of the King. The reason the Spanish ambassador heard that it was Cromwell, not the King, who brought about Anne's downfall, is because it could not be admitted that the King himself wanted his wife arrested and, presumably, killed. A scapegoat was needed, and Cromwell would look more powerful than he really was, thus bolstering his own position. In a sense, then, Anne was killed because of her own indiscreet behaviour, coupled with the King's hatred towards her and strong belief that she was guilty.

This is my personal interpretation, brought about through reading all the major works on Anne and the primary evidence. It also supports my version of Katherine Howard's downfall some 5 years later - there, too, the role of the King has been much played down, with historians telling us that a Protestant party at court plotted the Queen's downfall when rumours of her childhood past were dug up. But it was the King who created a new law to ensure her death and who ordered her execution, without even granting her a trial. It seems clear, in conclusion, that he too was the central player in Queen Anne Boleyn's downfall.


Bernard, G. W. Fatal Attractions (Yale, 2010).

Denny, Joanna, Anne Boleyn: a New History of England's Tragic Queen (Piatkus, 2004).

Fraser, Antonia, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Phoenix, 1992).

Ives, E. W., The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (Oxford, 2005).

Starkey, David, Six Queens: The Wives of Henry VIII (Vintage, 2004).

Walker, Greg, 'Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn', The Historical Journal 45 (2002), 1-29.

Warnicke, Retha M. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (Cambridge, 1989).

Weir, Alison, The Lady in the Tower: the Fall of Anne Boleyn (Jonathan Cape, 2009).