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“For I had never better opinion of woman” – Archbishop Cranmer’s Letter to Henry VIII

Posted By on May 3, 2010

Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke

On this day in history, 3rd May 1536, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, wrote a letter to King Henry VIII showing his shock and amazement at the arrest of his patron Anne Boleyn:-

“Have come to Lambeth, according to Mr. Secretary’s letters, to know your Grace’s pleasure. Dare not, contrary to the said letters, presume to come to your presence, but of my bounden duty I beg you “somewhat to suppress the deep sorrows of your Grace’s heart,” and take adversity patiently. Cannot deny that you have great causes of heaviness, and that your honor is highly touched. God never sent you a like trial; but if He find you no less patient and thankful than when all things succeeded to your wish, I suppose you never did thing more acceptable to Him. You will give Him occasion to increase His benefits, as He did to Job.

If the reports of the Queen be true, they are only to her dishonor, not yours. I am clean amazed, for I had never better opinion of woman; but I think your Highness would not have gone so far if she had not been culpable. I was most bound to her of all creatures living, and therefore beg that I may, with your Grace’s favor, wish and pray that she may declare herself innocent. Yet if she be found guilty, I repute him not a faithful subject who would not wish her punished without mercy. “And as I loved her not a little for the love which I judged her to bear towards God and His Gospel, so if she be proved culpable there is not one that loveth God and His Gospel that ever will favor her, but must hate her above all other; and the more they favor the Gospel the more they will hate her, for then there was never creature in our time that so much slandered the Gospel; and God hath sent her this punishment for that she feignedly hath professed his Gospel in her mouth and not in heart and deed.” And though she have so offended, yet God has shown His goodness towards your Grace and never offended you. “But your Grace, I am sure, knowledgeth that you have offended Him.” I trust, therefore, you will bear no less zeal to the Gospel than you did before, as your favor to the Gospel was not led by affection to her. Lambeth, 3 May.

Since writing, my lords Chancellor, Oxford, Sussex, and my Lord Chamberlain of your Grace’s house, sent for me to come to the Star Chamber, and there declared to me such things as you wished to make me privy to. For this I am much bounden to your Grace. They will report our conference. I am sorry such faults can be proved against the Queen as they report.”1

From this letter we can see Cramner’s shock at the events unravelling around him but he is careful in his support of Anne. Whilst supporting her by saying that he “had never better opinion of woman”, that he was “most bound to her of all creatures living” and that he was praying that she would show herself to be innocent, he also tempers this support of her by showing his allegiance to the King above all else. Cranmer’s zeal for reform, and probably fear for his life, stop him from giving Anne Boleyn, the woman who helped to make him Archbishop of Canterbury, his full, unswerving support.

Anne Implicates Norris and Weston

In the same letter I quoted from yesterday, Kingston’s letter to Cromwell on the 3rd May 1536, Kingston reports Anne Boleyn’s ramblings in the Tower as she tried to figure out why Norris had been arrested and what could have led to her own arrest. The letter was damaged by a fire in 1731, hence the missing bits:-

“and thys mornyng dyd talke with Mestrys Co[fyn. And she said, Mr. Norr]es dyd say on Sunday last unto the Quenes am[ner [almoner] that he would s]vere for the Quene that she was a gud woman. [And then said Mrs.] Cofyn, Madam, Why shuld ther be hony seche maters [spoken of? Marry,] sayd she, I bad hym do so: for I asked hym why he [did not go through with] hys maryage, and he made ansure he wold tary [a time. Then I said, Y]ou loke for ded men’s showys, for yf owth ca[m to the King but good], you would loke to have me. And he sayd yf he [should have any such thought] he wold hys hed war of.”2

and later in the same letter:-

“Sir, syns the makynge of thys letter the Quene spake of Wes[ton, saying that she] had spoke to hym bycause he did love hyr kynswoman [Mrs. Skelton, and] sayd he loved not hys wyf, and he made ansere to hyr [again that h]e loved wone in hyr howse better then them bothe. And [the Queen said, Who is] that? It ys yourself. And then she defyed hym, as [she said to me]. Will’m Kyngston.”3

I know some of you find this old English hard to understand, particularly when bits are missing so here is a translation/paraphrase:-

“and this morning she talked with Mistress Coffin. And she said that Mr Norris had sworn an oath to the Queen’s almoner that she was a good woman. Then Mrs Coffin said, “Why should such matters be spoken of?” and she replied that she had ordered him to do so: ” because I asked him why he did not go through with his marriage and he replied that he would tarry a time. Then I said “you look for dead men’s shoes, for if aught come to the King but good, you would look to have me” and he said if he should have any such thought then he would his head were off (then his head would be cut off.”

“Sir, since the writing of this letter the Queen has spoken of Weston, saying that she had spoken to him because her lover her cousin Miss Shelton and did not love his wife. He answered that he loved one in her house better than both of them and the Queen said “Who is that?”, “It is yourself”, and then she defied him, as she said to me. William Kingston.”

Henry Norris was already imprisoned in the Tower but these words spoken by Anne may have been responsible for the arrest of Sir Francis Weston the next day.

Tower of London Plan 1597 – “g” shows the Queen’s Lodgings where Anne was held

Archbishop Cranmer and Anne Boleyn

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer owed Anne and her family a huge amount. Alison Weir writes of how he had been the Boleyn family chaplain4 and his appointment to Archbishop  owed much to Anne’s patronage and their shared beliefs.

Although the first part of his letter shows his shock at Anne Boleyn’s arrest, he is cautious in his support of her, and his postscript shows that he was easily convinced of her guilt in a meeting in the Star Chamber. It is easy for us to look at the words written by Archbishop Cranmer in defence of Anne Boleyn, and his subsequent actions and see him as a spineless man who let an innocent woman and five innocent men go to their deaths without supporting them one little bit. His subsequent actions did not support Anne – he helped the King find legal reasons for the marriage to be annulled while acting as Anne’s confessor, and he visited her on the 16th May to obtain from her an admission that there had been an impediment to her marriage to the King and her consent to the annulment of the marriage and “the disinheriting and bastardising of her child.”5. Alison Weir writes of how Cranmer was probably instructed to offer Anne some kind of deal in order to get her agreement – either a more merciful death by the sword or the hope of a pardon. Kingston’s report to Cromwell on the 16th reported “Yet this day at dinner the Queen said she would go to “anonre” (a nunnery), and is in hope of life.”6 This implies that Cranmer offered her some hope and that perhaps offered her the chance to escape death and enter a nunnery if she agreed to the annulment.

Spineless maybe, but we cannot judge him. He was a man running scared, he had been raised by Anne Boleyn, he had been friends with Anne and her family, he had close ties to the Boleyn faction and he must have had many sleepless nights wondering if he would be brought down too. He had to obey the King, or risk losing his head, and we can only imagine the emotional pain he felt at misleading the Queen, or perhaps he was misled too. So sad that it was Anne’s friend who had a hand in annulling her marriage and bastardising Elizabeth but how many of us could hand on heart say that we would be prepared to sacrifice ourselves for a friend?

Notes and Sources

1 – L&P x. 792 – 3rd May 1536, letter from Cranmer to the King, I have highlighted the bits that show his support of Anne.
2 – L&P x. 793 – 3rd May 1536, letter from Sir William Kingston to Cromwell
3 – Ibid.
4 – The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir, p147
5 – The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, Alison Weir, p234
6 – L&P x. 890 16th May 1536, letter from Sir William Kingston to Cromwell

12 thoughts on ““For I had never better opinion of woman” – Archbishop Cranmer’s Letter to Henry VIII”

  1. Louise says:

    Hello Claire,
    These are all great posts on the events leading up to the deaths of Anne and the five men.
    I agree with you that Cranmer wasn’t spineless. He was far more vocal in his support of Anne than anyone else, including her own father. It has been well established in other posts how Henry was not exactly compassionate towards anyone who defied him. Bernard seems to think that because they found Anne, George and the other men guilty, the Jury genuinely believed they were guilty. But when he found the four commoners guilty, did Thomas Boleyn genuinely believe his daughter had committed adultery with them? No, of course he didn’t. He was merely trying to save himself, his wealth and his career. The same is true for the rest of the Jury. In a similar situation would any of us have acted any differently? We all like to think so, but unless we were in that position how can we say what we would have done for certain?
    You are spot on when you said in the last post that Anne, George, Norris and Smeaton faced a certain death. As for Weston and Brereton, I don’t believe Smeaton implicated either of them, or else why were they not arrested on the same day as George and Norris? Yes, Anne’s babblings in the Tower implicated Weston, but not Brereton. I actually think their arrests, together with those of Wyatt and Page had far more to do with Edward Baynton’s letter to Cromwell when he told him that only Smeaton had confessed, and that if adultery could only be proved against Smeaton then this would ‘touch the King’s honour’. I think these men were chiefly arrested to ensure that the King’s ‘honour’ was saved. Nice!

  2. Claire says:

    The letter from Edward Baynton, mentioned by Louise, can be found in L&P x. 799 at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=75429 and it says:-

    “There is much communication that no man will confess anything against her, but only Marke of any actual thing. It would, in my foolish conceit, much touch the King’s honor if it should no further appear. I cannot believe but that the other two are as f[ully] culpable as he, but they keep each other’s counsel. I think much of the communication which took place on the last occasion between the Queen and Master Norres. Mr. Almoner [told] me that I might speak with Mr. S[ecretary] and you, and more plainly express my opinion in case they have confessed “like wret . . . . all things as they should do than my n . . . . at a point.” I have mused much at [the conduct] of Mrs. Margery, who hath used her[self] strangely toward me of late, being her friend as I have been. There has been great friendship of late between the Queen and her. I hear further that the Queen standeth stiffly in her opinion, that she wi[ll not be convicted], which I think is in the trust that she [hath in the o]ther two. I will gladly wait upon you. Greenwich, . . . . morning.”

    So, yes, you could conclude that they needed to arrest more men than just Mark and all five men were friends of Anne and could therefore be implicated.

    You’re right, Louise, Bernard does conclude that the jury must have believed that all six were guilty because they would not have wanted to be responsible for such a grave miscarriage of justice but surely they were pressurised into giving the expected verdict, the verdict that the King wanted.

  3. Carolyn says:

    Hmm, so does Bernard think Countess Salisbury was guilty, too? If he thinks there’s a difference in the honesty of a trial over attainting, does he think Parliament would just rubber-stamp an execution for the king’s convenience? Of course I’m being sarcastic and think both processes were highly flawed because both Parliament and jury were afraid of angering the king. Quite rightly, so, IMO.

    Bernard just seems an itsy bit… credulous to insist the jury must have believed in the guilt of those they convicted. But then again, he’s desperately trying to ‘prove’ Anne could have been guilty. I think it’s very weak.

  4. xena says:

    One thing I find strange in all this.Is the behaviour of Henry. This history seems to be written painting Henry as a man easliy lead.Anne was a very strong and wilfull woman as I gather from what has been wrote of her. And in my opinion her character would never fall for a man who acted like the historical Henry. No woman would. No matter the gain. And to say she,Anne was controlled by the males in her family. I think that is hogwash .She must of loved a different Henry,then we are aware of.For that I’m sure. Come on Girls can’t you see what i’m getting at! Something is missing here. Someone with infulence on the King.That history has failed to mention was lurking in the back ground. Who that was hold’s the real truth here.
    Not a bunch of men running around like little boys. Anne’s rambling in the tower is plain and simple and exsample of a woman scared out of her mind. Alone with nobody to hold on to.And her thoughts scattered.I would be pulling my hair out,and jumping at anything.Until I found my peace!
    What about you

  5. lisaannejane says:

    I think that Cramner did what he could for Anne without getting arrested and condemned with the others. I think you make a good point about the jury, Claire. I agree with you that they knew what the king wanted and to do otherwise may have ruined their own family. The trial was done to please the king – justice had nothing to do with it. Jane Seymour was waiting and even Bernard must see the possibility of the whole affair having nothing to do with guilt or innocence but the king’s desire for a new marriage.

  6. HannahL says:

    I don’t believe that Cramner was spineless either; in fact, he was braver than Anne’s other friends and supporters! There are very few people who could honestly say they would risk shame, imprisonment, and death (potentially a very ugly one) for a falling friend.

  7. sally says:

    Frankly, I don’t believe Anne was ever really in love with Henry. I think she had no choice and that every effort she took to avoid him, put a distance between them and gently reject his pursuit of her failed. Ultimately, no one was allowed to refuse the King! He was a spoiled child and never ever learned to handle rejection without a violent, negative reaction. Look at Katherine Parr. She didn’t want him either and certainly never encouraged him. She only gave in when refusal became impossible and she was able to mentally justify it to herself as seeing the role of Queen as a route to support her deeply felt faith. Even so, he almost killed her too. He was a selfish self-center monster who had no understanding or compassion for anyone’s feelings except his own.

  8. Claire,

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve linked this article from my blog’s countdown of Anne’s downfall.

    PS – I will get the script e-mailed to you very soon, I promise! 🙂

    Gareth

  9. Maureen says:

    One thing I have to state here — it is one thing to passively condone a judicial murder. It is quite another to aid, abet and justify the same. When Cramner declared Anne and Henry’s marriage null and void, all the charges of adultry were also null and void as well. If Ann (according to Cramner) was never married to H8, she did not commit adultry against him therefore neither did Mark (the only one who confessed), nor any of the others.

  10. Rose says:

    I think that you’re all right – Cranmer was not a ‘spinless’ fellow. He was but saying all he could for a woman that he had admired, trused and owed a lot to – after all, I doubt that anyone would out-rightly say to Henry the VIII of all people that he was being an idiot and that Anne was not guilty. I suppose that you could say he paid a last tribute to his friend, and then had to let go; watch her drown in the mayhem. That alone must have been hard for him.
    Personally, and regretably, I know that I would not be brave enough to risk my life for a friend. And although Cranmer did the same, I think that he respecivly reminded people of who she really was; one worthy of the complement that ‘he had no better oppionion of woman.’

  11. Renee Woolsey Smeaton-Burgess says:

    I would like to thank all of you for the efforts to find the truth. As a Smeaton it is strange that I have found Questions in my own mind that have not been solved. Thank you for trying to find the answers.
    Thank you again.
    Renee Woolsey Smeaton-Burgess USA

  12. John says:

    Cranmer was no idiot. He had seen what had recently happened to John Houghton, Richard Reynolds, John Haile, John Fisher, and Thomas More when they did not give the king what he wanted, or told him what he did not want to hear. His protest in his letter is quickly tempered by his submission. Smart man.

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