Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther by Rembrandt
Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther by Rembrandt

The following is an excerpt from my book The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown

On the 2nd April 1536, Anne Boleyn’s almoner, John Skip, preached an incredibly controversial sermon on the Old Testament story of Queen Esther. This sermon did not help Anne’s already troubled relationship with Cromwell.

As well as serving as a clarification of Anne Boleyn’s reformist religious stance, the sermon acted as “Anne’s call to courtiers and counsellors alike to change the advice they were giving the king and to reject the lure of personal gain.”1 In this sermon, as Eric Ives points out, Henry VIII was characterized as King Ahasuerus.2 The latter was deceived by his adviser, Haman (Cromwell) into ordering the killing of the Jews (the English clergy in this case). The Jews were saved when the King’s mind was changed by his wife, the good Queen Esther (Anne Boleyn).

As Anne’s almoner, John Skip must have had Anne’s permission and blessing to preach this sermon, and it is likely that it was actually her idea. Anne had just quarrelled with Thomas Cromwell over the dissolution of the monasteries. It was not that she disagreed with this reform; she simply felt that the proceeds should be used on education and on charitable causes rather than to make the King richer.3 There was no mistaking that this was a public attack on Thomas Cromwell, the King’s main adviser.

John Skip did get into trouble for his words. Letters and Papers has records of his sermon and the following record:

“A paper of singular moderation and ability, entitled “Interrogatories and articles to be administered to the preacher who preached the sermon in the Court on Passion Sunday,” on these words: Quis ex vobis arguet me de peccato? [which of you will convince me of sin?] for preaching seditious doctrines on these words, and slandering “the King’s highness, his counsellors, his lords and nobles, and his whole Parliament.”
Inc.: “First, whether this was his theme, Quis ex vobis arguet me de peccato?
Ends: “Item, finally, be it required of the preacher to bring forth and show his sermon in writing; and if he refuse so to do, or say he hath it not in writing, then be it inquired whether he did never write it, or never showed it to any man in writing before or since it was preached.”4

Primary Source Reports on Skip’s Sermon

“A sermon preached by Mr. Skyppe, in the King’s chapel, upon Passion Sunday, in the year of Our Lord 1536, on the text Quis ex vobis arguet me de peccato? 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 upon the example of Ahasuerus, who was moved by a wicked minister to destroy the Jews. He urged that a King’s councillor ought to take good heed what advice he gave in altering ancient things, and that no people wished to take away the ceremonies of the Church, such as holy water, holy bread, &c. That alterations ought not to be made except in cases of necessity. That in the present Parliament there were men of the greatest learning and ability, and perfect freedom and moderation in discussion. He described the character of the debates in Parliament, lamented the decay of the universities, and insisted on the necessity of learning.”5

“The preacher insisted on the strict following of God’s Word:—that Christ chose ignorant followers, to teach men that nobility standeth not in worth but grace; and he cited the example of Solomon to show that he lost his true nobility towards the end of his life, by taking new wives and concubines. He insisted on the need of a King being wise in himself, and resisting evil counsellors who tempted him to ignoble actions, by the history of Rehoboam; observing that if a stranger visited this realm, and saw those who were called noble, he would conceive that all true nobility was banished from England. He warned them against rebuking the clergy, even if they were sinful, as rebukers were often rebuked, like Nebuchadnezzar, who was God’s instrument to punish the Jews, “and yet was damned for his labour.” Against evil councillors, who suggested alteration in established customs, he instanced the history of Haman and Ahasuerus. He then explained and defended the ancient ceremonies of the Church (as above). He concluded with a complaint on the moderation of the High Court of Parliament.”6

The full text of John Skip’s sermon can be read in The National Archives, reference SP6/1 “Folio 8 Sermon preached by John Skip in the King’s Chapel on Passion Sunday 1536”, although the handwriting is rather challenging!

(From The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown by Claire Ridgway)

Notes and Sources

  1. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p309
  2. LP x. 308
  3. Ives, p309
  4. LP x. 615.5
  5. Ibid., 615
  6. Ibid., 615.4

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13 thoughts on “2nd April 1536 – John Skip’s Controversial Sermon”
  1. Claire, I’m sorry but you’ve got this wrong. Mantel’s plays tell us that Cromwell and Anne fell out over the Princess Mary. Anne hated Cromwell for trying to protect Mary from Anne’s brutal treatment of her and her plots to kill the Princess.
    Surely Anne was too evil to argue that monies from the dissolution should be used for charitable purposes?
    For anyone who isn’t sure, this is sarcasm by the way!

    1. Mantel is a novelist, so doesn’t “tell”,
      rather she suggests an interpretation.
      and actually both could be true, I think.
      Mary was legitimate and mature, Elizabeth was
      A baby and not, and there was a need to re-connect
      with Spain.

      But if Anne really was behind this sermon, it
      was as dumb as Diana going on TV and saying
      Charles was too messed up to be king. No
      Monarch is going to tolerate a public dressing
      down like that…so to me this would go down under
      the heading of “arrogant”. OR very brave to the
      point of foolhardy.

      1. Suggesting Anne and Cromwell fell out over the Princess Mary isn’t an interpretation; it’s fabrication, i.e. an unpleasant fictional device.
        I think Anne bravely stood up for her belief that the monies from the dissolution should go to charity. Mantel turned that into something else, and I find that shameful.

  2. FWIW, according to John Schofeld’s biography of Thomas Cromwell, this sermon was not anything close to a declaration of Boleyn-Cromwell war. The Haman reference was a small part of the sermon; the bulk attacked the nobility, and mentioned how Solomon was led astray by concubines (Henry’s partiality for Jane Seymour). It was the bulk that attracted questioning, not the Haman reference. Furthermore, according to Schofeld, Cromwell did nothing in response to this sermon (it wasn’t until later in the month, when Henry blew up at him over making approaches to Emperor Charles that there was any alleged “plot” against Anne.

    1. I would like to see some discussion of the arguments in that biography. It also disagrees with the view that Cromwell told Chapuys that he was behind the move against Anne, argues that there were genuine grounds for suspicion behind the charges against Anne, and argues against the arguments for Anne’s innocence.

      Anyway, it’s not only Ives who thinks Haman was meant to be Cromwell. In his biography of Cranmer, Diarmaid MacCulloch reached a similar conclusion and notes that he had done so before he had read Ives’s paper ‘Anne Boleyn and the early Reformation’. (So it was an independent conclusion). MacCulloch then says “This was a declaration of war”. (p 155)

      On that point and others, Ives’s interpretation of Skip’s sermon is on sounder foundations that it tends to sound in the writings of those, such as Schofield and G. W. Bernard, who disagree. See the above mentioned ‘Anne Boleyn and the early Reformation’, here:


      1. I agree with Schofield on various points, for example, I believe that Henry VIII was ultimately responsible for Anne’s fall, but I do agree with Ives and MacCulloch on Skip’s sermon. As Rowan points out, Ives discusses the sermon in more detail in his article “Anne Boleyn and the Early Reformation in England: The Contemporary Evidence” (1994). The direct attack on Cromwell was a small part of the sermon, it was very much connected with the impending legislation to confiscate the wealth of the “lesser” monasteries and how education should be funded. As Ives points out, Skip even changed the Bible story of Haman “to emphasise the identification with Henry VIII’s secretary. Thus where Cromwell had boasted that he would make Henry VIII the richest prince in Christendom, Skip has Haman promising the king a huge capital gain from the elimination of the Jews: ‘I shall bryng into your coffers tenne thowissande talenttes’. This is entirely contrary to the text of the Vulgate…” He also made other changes.

        MacCulloch mentions that Skip also talked about Rehoboam, who ignored his older and wiser councillors and depended on his newer and younger councillors, before moving on to Ahasuerus. MaCulloch writes, “This story was a launch-pad for an attack on councillors who attempted ‘the renovation or alteration of any old or ancient customs or ceremonies’ in religion, but also of ‘renovations or alterations in civil matters’. One could hardly hope for a better portrait of Sir Geoffrey Elton’s Thomas Cromwell.” In his notes, MacCulloch references Cavendish, Wolsey’s gentleman usher, who, in his Metrical Visions, wrote of Cromwell, “To Aman [Haman] the Agagite I may be compared, That invented lawes God’s people to confound…”, so Skip was definitely seen as referring to Cromwell.

        As I mention in The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, John Skip was not the only chaplain Anne called on to preach about her views on the dissolution of the monasteries. She also asked Hugh Latimer to preach in front of the King. Latimer preached on Luke 20 verses 9-16, the parable of the vineyard, a fitting text when you consider the first fruits and taxes that the monasteries had to pay.

        I’ve got a copy of Skip’s Sermon but it is very hard to read due to the handwriting, Ives and MacCulloch deserve a medal for wading through it.

      2. Thank you for the link. I’m still not sure how much the sermon would have affected the Boleyn-Cromwell relationship because I don’t think Cromwell would have objected if the king wanted the money to go to good causes. Based on what I’ve read, Cromwell fed a good many poor — and in 1535, tried to get through Parliament a bill providing public works projects that would provide an income for the unemployed — the modern “work fare”. IMO, it was Henry and the nobility who wanted to divert the Church wealth into their own pockets.

        As to the biography … it is very detailed, and I strongly recommend it, but it is not perfect. Schofeld thinks that Henry wanted to get rid of Anne, and, that Cromwell was working on an annulment due to her alleged “pre-contract’ with Percy when information from the Countess of Worcester triggered an investigation — he ignores Percy’s oath in 1532 that there was no pre-contract, and, doesn’t explain why Henry’s relationship with Mary Boleyn couldn’t have been used initially, if an annulment was wanted. Schofeld doesn’t argue that Anne was guilty, but instead argues that some of her actions (notably, her conversation with Norris) was open to misinterpretation.


        1. I think Schofield’s biography illustrates the difficulty of having a positive view of both Cromwell and Anne Boleyn. Perhaps Eric Ives illustrates the same problem in the other direction. In any case, Schofiled is on Cromwell’s side in a way that involves being very negative about Anne. At one point, he describes her as “a woman who had schemed her way to the throne, contrived Wolsey’s ruin en route, rowed with most of the Council, and, unless Chapuys was dreaming, had harboured ideas about poisoning Catherine and Mary.” (p 159 – 60)

          He doesn’t buy the idea that Cromwell brought about Anne’s downfall because they disagreed about how the money from the dissolution of the lesser monasteries should be used. (Even if they did disagree, “it would not amount to very much. …” It “might prompt an exchange of words or letters, but it is nothing like enough to incite a murderous power struggle between the Vicegerent and the Queen.” p 161) But he also goes further and argues that “Those who seek to set Anne at enmity with Cromwell succeed only in delivering a devastating indictment of her own evangelical credentials.” (p 178)

          On Anne’s fall, he doesn’t go as far as saying he thinks Anne was guilty, but apart from that, his position is not all that different from G. W. Barnard’s; and he says “it must be as plain as plain can be that something peculiar had been going on in Anne Boleyn’s circle, and it was not normal, harmless ‘courtly love’ of the kind that Tudor Queens and titled ladies were wont to engage in.” (p 197-198)

          (Page references are from The History Press paperback, published in 2011.)

  3. I admire Anne for voicing her opinion, even if it was through Skip’s sermon. This was a bold move on her behalf, to think that she could convince Henry to put the money anywhere else but in his own pocket.

  4. I am afraid that I do not see Anne as a Queen Esther as this great Persian Queen was saving her people (Hebrews) who had been placed under a decree that could not be changed and condemned to death on the advice of the chief of the advirors Hamen. King Ahesuerus (xerxes) had been tricked by the evil Hamen to make the decree which basically allowed for the extermination of all the Jewish people still within the Persian Empire (and despite the repatriation of thousands of them under Cyrus and Darius there were numeous more who elected to stay as life under the Persians was good) and the order given under zeal could not be altered. The death sentence was to be undertaken some days later, on a given time and date in every province: meaning hundreds of thousands of people would be killed. Queen Esther, whose Uncle had saved the Great King’s life, and to whom he owed a debt of honour intervened with her people. She took a great risk as she had not been summoned into the royal presence and could have been put to death herself, according to the Bible for her intervention. But her husband placed her under his protection by extending his great staff to her and she was allowed to speak. Esther intervened and later at a special banquet to which she invited the PM and King she revealled that Hamen had been behind the plot to kill him and the plot to exterminate her people. The decree was altered and the Jewish people were warned off the attacks and allowed to prepare and defend themselves. There is a ring of truth in doing things this way as the Persian Empire was spread over more than half the world and to make a new decree would have taken too long; organising resistance on the other hand seems to spread like hot cakes.

    The comparrison with Hamen and Esther does however now have something in that Esther was pointing out to the King that he had poor advisers who were telling him to do the wrong thing. Whether a King is being told to sell all the lands from monastic takeovers or to end the ancient rites and rights of the Church or to slay a people that they depended upon it is still evil counsel. Anne wanted the monastic buildings to be used as schools, which many of them already did provide this, for help for the poor, which many of them also did, and other institutions; which many of them did, such as welfare and alms houses and helping the ill and lame and lephers. But the land was being taken from the monasteries and sold off to private courtiers who build grand manors on it, and the lead was also sold off for profit and so on and many of the services were being ended. Anne and others, even reformers were afraid of the consequences of all of this and wanted Henry to act more wisely. In this case he was we assume getting poor advice by Cromwell and in Anne’s case she is like Esther bringing this to the Kings attention. However, for some reason Anne could not do this in person, as Esther found a way to do.

    Anne did quarrel with Cromwell on more than one occassion over public policy, one of those was we can assume over the use of land from the monastic houses; I find it hard to believe she would quarrel with him over Princess Mary; he would surely move behind the scenes about Mary or go to Henry directly. Anne was not sympathetic to Mary and she was not happy with Mary being moved back to her own establishment out of that of caring for Elizabeth, but I think she quarrelled more with Cromwell over the above rather than her issue with Mary. She may have been obsessed with Mary but she was more concerned about the abuse of public money and policy and wanted what benefited people and not private profit. Anne may not be saving her people, but she was showing some concern for them. As I say, no Queen Esther, but both Kings were taking poor counsel and both Queens revealling or trying to reveal the dishonesty and corruption of a public servant. Both Queens hoped the King would do the right thing and punish the dishonest and evil advisor but the King in Anne’s case, turned against her instead.

    And the moral of our story? Esther in many interpretations is seen as a parable; Anne was dealing with flesh and blood; Esther is unmasking a mass murderer with a real desire to cause trouble for the King and to threaten his life; Cromwell is trying to make the King rich. It is a matter of perspective. Had Cromwell been attempting what Hamen did and also plotted against Henry that would have been different and Anne would be a heroine. But he was doing nothing more than most greedy corrupt political officers; he was making his master rich and himself as well in a way that benefitted the treasury and the Kings nobles and friends, plus himself. The reforms and attacks on the monasteries were about profit, Cromwell did not care about using the buildings for charitable purposes; the King did not care to ask too many questions as long as the money flowed into his pockets. The Persians depened on harmony within the many peoples that they ruled, depended on Jewish officials for their honesty and could not afford a massacre as proposed by Hamen. Nor did they value dishonest officials; Esther had more success, because the Kings had better values than those of Tudor England.

    John Skip took a great risk as well with this sermon as it was a direct criticism of Henry’s policy, but being a religious leader with royal patronage he had some degree of protection. But for Henry and Cromwell the point had been made and they were not going to let it go; at least Cromwell would not.

  5. I like the cut of John Skip’s jib!! My favorite Tudor preacher was Peto, though. He compared Henry to Ahab. That took some big, brass…..well, you know!

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