The Fall of Anne Boleyn: Day -13

Posted By on May 6, 2020

On 6th May 1536, four days after her arrest, Queen Anne Boleyn had just thirteen more days to live.

The 6th May 1536 was the date on a curious letter that was said to have been found amongst Thomas Cromwell’s papers, and which had had the title “To the King from the Lady in the Tower” added to it. There is controversy over this letter, and whether it was really written by Queen Anne Boleyn during her imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Here’s a video I did on it last year:

You can read the full text of this letter and read about author Sandra Vasoli’s research on it and her views on its provenance in Sandi’s article from 2016 – click here – and Sandi also made this video for MadeGlobal Publishing:

You can find out even more about Sandi’s research in her book Anne Boleyn’s Letter from the Tower: A New Assessmentclick here.

There are lots and lots of Tudor history videos on my Anne Boleyn Files and Tudor Society YouTube channel, so please do consider subscribing – click here. I add new content on a daily basis. If you prefer audio, then my talks are also available as podcasts on Podbean or your usual podcast app.

And today’s normal “on this day” video is about a man who Sir Thomas More blamed for arranging the murder of the Princes in the Tower:

20 thoughts on “The Fall of Anne Boleyn: Day -13”

  1. Michael Wright says:

    I’m basing this on Sandra’s book not on the video.
    I completely agree with her assessment. Her research is spot on and she even has a very plausable timeline for it’s provenance. There’s no way Cromwell would show this to Henry because it would surely change the king’s mind as to how to dispose of Anne, so why would Thomas Cromwell keep the letter? I believe for plausible deniability. If at some point in the future the king asked if Anne had written anything before her death Cromwell could say to him “Yes sire, the lady did have a message written to you while she was in the Tower and I sent one of my messengers over to you to show you but you told him to be gone so I kept the lady’s message so you could read it at your leisure”. Granted, I made that up but it would make sense. If Cromwell never told Henry of the letter’s existence and destroyed it and then the king found out that there was one and it was gone that would have been very had for the chancellor. This way Anne is gone and if the need arose the king could be placated and no one was the wiser.

    1. Banditqueen says:

      Perfect assessment Michael and I completely agree. I have always accepted the letter as genuine and Sarah’s research is spot on.

      1. Esther says:

        I wish I could accept the letter as genuine, but I just can’t. First, if Henry didn’t believe the denials of Henry Norris– one of his closest, most trusted and most intimate servants and made to his face — why would Cromwell worry about the letter changing Henry’s mind about Anne? I don’t believe that Henry was still in love with Anne … if he was, surely he would have done some “follow-up” on Norris’s denials. . Second, why wouldn’t someone — the secretary who actually wrote it, for example, or one of his descendants — say something later — when Cromwell fell, or even, a descendant saying something during the reign of Elizabeth? Third, Anne knew none better that Henry had no qualms on making war on his own daughters when he thought it would be a way to “get back” against the mother — so I do not believe she would expose Elizabeth to Henry’s wrath. After all, Elizabeth didn’t have Mary’s influential foreign relatives to protect her.

        1. Michael Wright says:

          When it comes to Henry Norris I believe the king set him up. Cromwell couldn’t put pressure on Norris but Henry could and this way it could be claimed that Norris was properly questioned. You’re right, Henry did no longer love Anne but I’m sure Cromwell was afraid that Henry may commute what was sure to be a death sentence to something less and Cromwell couldn’t take that chance. Thomas Cromwell was using this opportunity to get rid of people he personally had grudges against and if Anne we’re found guilty of lessor charges or aquitted then the men against her would also have to be and Thomas Cromwell was not going to let that happen.
          As to the scribe or someone else not saying something? If sworn to secrecy by the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, I’m guessing if you’re smart you hold your tongue as he can arrange to have nasty things done to you and no one of a lower status is going to say a word about it until after March 1603 when the last Tudor is dead and buried. Also, perhaps silence was part of the job. If you haven’t read Sandra’s book I strongly urge you to do so. It’s only 61 pages and she really does a fantastic job of laying out the case for the letter’s authenticity.

      2. Michael Wright says:

        Thank you BQ. I’ve read the book 3 times just to digest all that’s in it.

        1. Esther says:

          I have read Sandra’s book. She does not provide answers to my questions — especially the chance she would take about Elizabeth. I don’t buy that Cromwell suddenly had a motive for killing Anne … she had threatened to have his head back in 1535, when she was in a much stronger position than in 1536, and still couldn’t budge him. Nor do I think he was clearing out people he had a grudge against … Norris was brought down by Anne’s comment on April 29 about “if aught came to the king but good”. Cromwell certainly could not arrange for nasty things to happen to anyone after 1540, when he was killed … and wouldn’t the case against him be strengthened if a letter from Anne had been found at that time? Certainly, if there was no motive to talk at the time of Cromwell’s execution, the statement “my grandfather told me of this letter he wrote for the late Queen Anne” would have been permissible at any time after 1558 (Elizabeth’s accession)

  2. Michael Wright says:

    I also don’t believe Cromwell suddenly wanted Anne dead. Henry instigated this whole process and Cromwell took advantage of the opportunity that was now open to him. You should look online and try to find perhaps a publisher’s email contact for Ms. Vasoli and if possible ask her your question directly. I’ll let BQ, Christine or Claire take over from here. They’re much more knowledgeable than I am.

    1. Banditqueen says:

      I don’t believe Cromwell had any reason to hide the letter, anything to fear about this or anything else Anne relayed from the Tower. We have no idea if it reached the King or not, that’s merely speculation. Anne was already complaining about being surrounded by enemies, Henry knew she was surrounded by enemies, he put them there for the purpose of spying and reporting on her, he also knew this was a set up so he wouldn’t be swayed by a complaint about that either. I don’t believe the letter was hidden. I would need to refer back but I don’t think Sandra said it was hidden, just found with Cromwell papers a long time later. It was there from what I remember because of the way his papers were organised in 1540. It wasn’t there for anything controversial, it just happened to be there, as did other papers, a number of which were from other odd things. His Archive is very rich and a gem. It’s the belief of McCullough that papers were also removed by well meaning friends and seriously over the years I don’t doubt things got mixed up. Cromwell may have had it sent on to the King who wasn’t interested in looking at it, a more reasonable explanation and it was returned and kept for the record. He was a lawyer, the Secretary, surely he would have kept copies of everything? Anne doesn’t say anything incriminating but she may have. I don’t doubt it is genuine but I don’t think we have to read sinister motives into everything that happened 500 years ago. Nobody knows if Henry saw it or not, just that it was kept or a copy was kept by Cromwell and because he was involved in all this and controversial and not well liked by most people, he has to have some devious motivation. No, it could simply be that is a letter for which we have many questions, which was found in his papers and a lot of speculation going on.

      I do believe the letter is genuine, I have for many years, the research most certainly adds to my belief but its important that people have their own opinion and to be honest, if there are questions that are not answered in the research, the experts are always ready to answer them. I would ask Sandra, I believe she is quite approachable. Anyone else would simply be offering an opinion.

    2. Christine says:

      I personally do not know what to make of this letter, my first thought was it’s a fake but then I have not read Sandras book so maybe if I did, I would change my mind, it is a very passionate imploring letter from a wronged woman held in the Tower under suspicion of the most heinous of charges, I have listened to Sandra’s video and find it interesting, the bit where she says a Franciscan friar overheard Henry V111’s remorse for executing his second queen is something that iv heard before, did Henry really feel remorse for not only killing his wife but the other five souls to? If he regretted as he grew older her death than it is only natural he would regret the men’s as well, he knew the evidence was very shaky and I do not believe Henry V111 monster though he could be, was without pity or remorse, getting back to this strange letter, one historian has proclaimed that the script is more 17tn c than 16th and of course, there is the odd title, From The Lady In The Tower, it sounds rather romantic like the title of a novel, Alison Weir notes that had Cromwell seen this then he would simply head it From Her Majesty The Queen, her argument she says is that had the letter been written or dictated to by Anne, then Cromwell would have destroyed it as he would not want the king to soften towards her, the way she signs her name does not make sense either, from plain Anne Bullen she always signed her name Boleyn, but as Claire points out there was no standard spelling in Tudor times, it could be that the person who wrote it for her signed her name thus, but then this raises the answer to another question, why did she not sign her name Anne The Quene, as that was how she signed her other correspondence, it is a mystery, I have always thought it was a forgery written by an admirer or a champion of hers who wished her innocence to be known one day, if it was indeed written by Anne we can read her despair and sense of desperation and urgent calls for justice in the eloquently written words, but is it genuine? I may purchase Sandra’s book as I do find this letter intriguing.

      1. Michael Wright says:

        I disagree with Alison Wier. It would would not have been a smart move by Thomas Cromwell to destroy the letter in case Henry’s found out about it’s existence. A better Idea would be to keep it in case Henry asked to see it. If Henry never inquired of it great, but if he did Cromwell was covered and as BQ said, as a lawyer he would have kept copies of most of his correspondence or legal dealings. I said earlier I’ve read Vasoli’s book three times and am convinced the letter is absolutely genuine. Not her her hand of course but absolutely her words. As to spelling I agree with Claire. When you read some things from the time in their original spellings the same word may be spelled two or three different ways in the same passage. I hope you get a chance to read Sandra Vasoli’s book. A lot of information in a small package.

  3. Banditqueen says:

    I believe the letter to be authentic because it rings true in so many ways to me personally, not scholarly I know, but it does. Yes, it is possible that the letter described by Lord Herbert Cherbury, may not have been the original and by the time it was actually discovered in the eighteenth century, the original may have actually vanished. A letter was most certainly written by Anne to her husband in the Tower, that for me goes without saying and there is no reason why she should not be able to write to him or even to a family member. Most others wrote begging for their lives, Cromwell wrote an entire saga on the orders of the Council regarding the matter of Anne of Cleves as well as his own plea for mercy, mercy, mercy, Thomas More was allowed to write farewell letters, after his trial and after he had lost his materials and books as a punishment, so really I don’t get why Anne would not be allowed to write. I believe if nothing else this letter contains the heart and the mood of that letter, I feel most of the original is there. The letters of William Kingston have bits missing, damaged from the fire, so some parts have been reconstructed, its the same possibly with this letter. It may be that parts survived and it was reconstructed, then copied, but essentially its kept the main sense of Anne’s letter. The language is familiar, as couples wrote for centuries, it contains phrases and sytax which are similar to other letters known to be by Anne, although it also contains some very odd parts which have given rise to questions about its authenticity. Anne’s signature for one thing. Why not Anne the Quene? Maybe because she was instructed not to sign herself thus? Anne was under extreme stress and her expressions should not be expected to be typical. Anne wrote of her fears, her emotions, her disbelief, who she holds responsible, makes a veiled reference to her husband’s affair with Jane Seymour, to her humble origins, that is she was a Knights daughter, not a born Princess, that Henry had raised her up, which he had, but she also refers to her life as Queen and there is so much internally which screams Anne Boleyn wrote this. I can understand the doubts by some historians and people here, but there is far more which says authentication than not.

    Sandra explained in her original article that only a portion of the original remains and two transcribed copies. The original was burned in a fire in the eighteenth century. The title was added to the copy not the original. The original was found in the five letters of William Kingston to Thomas Cromwell in his archive in 1540 but would have originated with Ralph Sadler who visited Anne and as he came into the picture under Cromwell and afterwards, the letter was most likely preserved by him as the link back to Anne and after his fall in 1540. A whole list of historians through the ages claimed to note the letter or to have seen it or part of it. It may not have been fully transcribed until after 1775,_but it came into the public collections after the fire. Although for me the letter very much rings true and the research is correct, there are still a number of unanswered questions and I believe more research is warranted.

    1. Michael Wright says:

      I don’t know if you heard Sandra Vasoli’s interview on the Talking Tudors podcast but she says she really wants to do research into finding out who the ‘feathery scribe’ was. If that person can be identified I think that would go a long way towards authenticating for the world the letter.

      1. Banditqueen says:

        I haven’t heard the podcast, Michael, but that’s excellent news. Very difficult research ahead but I wish her very good fortune on her quest.

        I think we have to be careful when saying Cromwell simply went for people he had grudges against. I know a few historians like that motive but its not true in every case. He might have gone for a group of obvious targets, but only one could be said to be a grudge arrest. Cromwell certainly had political reasons for getting rid of Brereton and this was an opportunity. He also had a number of rising problems with Anne remaining as Queen, real or imagined. Anne had fallen out with him and threatened him on two occasions but he was still very entrenched in Henry’s favour. They did have differences on how to use the proceeds from the religious houses and I have been to the remains of one religious house Cromwell actually had a personal interest in preserving. There isn’t much there to be honest and the greater house not far away, Hailes, is much more impressive and was the more important at the time. Exactly why Cromwell was interested in Wickenham three miles away isn’t actually clear but some form of financial deal was done with the Abbott before it’s surrender. Cromwell like many officials at the time took bribes, it was ignored and he did services in return. He wasn’t overly corrupt, certainly no more than anyone else and he was also exceptionally generous. He had a social conscience as did Queen Anne but that doesn’t mean they didn’t disagree on some political issues. Her criticism should have been aimed at the King, not his ministers, as it was partly Henry’s policy as well. Cromwell was more concerned about how Anne might react to his foreign policy than his domestic one, which involved an approach to the Emperor and helping Princess Mary. I doubt he suddenly turned on Anne either, but a number of things mounted up to push a rift between them and as he wasn’t really her ally as such he saw an opportunity to advance his own cause with her fall. Cromwell was aligned with the Seymour faction that supported Princess Mary and who were pushing Jane forward as a new Queen. I believe there is enough evidence to suggest Cromwell became very concerned after the disastrous Easter Weekend in mid April 1536,_especially after Henry dressed him down abruptly and he saw Anne as a potential threat, her influence was stronger than he believed. I believe he panicked. It was a fact that Henry was already looking for a way out of his marriage, via an annulment as Cromwell met with several canon law experts, but that changed after this weekend. I suggest that Cromwell told Henry that there were rumours about Anne and suggested Henry might find a more permanent resolution to his problems. With the Kings permission and instigation he took himself off and prepared the grounds for a case against Anne. Again with lawful authority Lord Chancellor Audley set up the legal mechanisms and Cromwell waited for an opportunity to begin. Norris and Anne’s conversation was the trigger for the investigation and with full royal powers Cromwell arrested Mark Smeaton as an easy target to subdue. Norris could have been a target as well, but it was the dead man’s shoes conversation which put the focus on to him. It wasn’t actually used in the indictments but it was convenient to make a case against Norris because he was often in Anne’s rooms and he was mentioned in other gossip and his name came out of Smeaton’s confession. Anne herself framed Francis Weston, albeit innocently and by accident. George was the most convenient target, for misprison of treason, concealing the Queen’s guilt but he was also accused of the worst possible crime, incest, to scandalize everyone and to show Anne was capable of anything. The real reason was simply to bring as much shame on the Boleyn family and their supporters as possible. Any three or four countries who had regularly visited Anne as Queen or who were close to both her and Henry would have done, but it was more convincing if you could target a group whose lives were closely interwoven and maybe had a bit of a dodgy reputation for some reason. Some historians do think Cromwell had good reason to fear both Norris and George Boleyn but I am not that convinced. He had a good reason to get rid of William Bererton who opposed him in Wales and Anthony Browne may have played a role in his downfall as well. Numerous scholars have studied Cromwell, all have a different opinion of him and they are divided on how much he was behind the downfall of Anne Boleyn.

        John Schofield, one of the most renowned experts on Cromwell argued against any suggestion that Anne and the First Minister had a rift which led to him leading a conspiracy against her because of their shared interest in social and religious reforms and both had personally promoted works to help the poor. Cromwell had introduced a Bill in Parliament which Henry had watered down. He doesn’t see the events of that April as being enough to push Cromwell into a conspiracy to have Anne executed.

        Alison Weir, however, sees Cromwell as the arch enemy who conspired and planned the entire thing and was determined she had to go, no matter what. McCullough to my surprise was of a similar mind and even used the phrase that Cromwell was definitely out to get Anne Boleyn. I wouldn’t put it quite as strongly as that.

        Susanna Lipscomb thinks the whole thing was unfortunate, that Henry was deeply shocked by the news that his beloved Anne had betrayed him and believed the charges against her. Anne’s behaviour had more to do with her fall, she more or less looked guilty. Greg Walker published a paper on this alternative theory.

        George Bernard thinks she was guilty of some of the charges and her ladies knew what was going on and gave evidence against her. He more or less stands alone today in that assessment, unless people count Philippa Gregory as a historian, and then Anne got pregnant by her brother as Henry wasn’t up to the job, which of course is ridiculous. The indictments have long been shown as nonsense.

        Claire mainly holds Henry responsible because he was the boss and sees him as the main instigator and the main plotter behind the entire thing. However, this really puts Cromwell in a more passive position and he was still almost in two minds until the case broke. Its really difficult to see how involved Henry was, because he was hiding so much, but ultimately he was the man who gave the orders, even with Cromwell as the main protagonist. Motivation is very difficult to find as well but certainly once the ball was set rolling Henry was determined Anne had to go and Cromwell was very willing to take full advantage and in at least one case to remove a nuisance or two while he was at it.

        I agree he couldn’t influence any political execution after June 1540 because he himself had fallen, but Henry by then didn’t need much persuasion. He was much too paranoid and easily persuaded. He was also easily persuaded to get rid of Cromwell. In fact Henry probably didn’t need much persuasion here, either, although there is some indications that he was hesitating at least until he heard that Smeaton had confessed. Maybe that hesitation cost the lives of more people than originally planned because the case was weak and Cromwell, left to organise the details, could only make it appear stronger with more suspects. He definitely made up the actual list of charges, times, dates and places, most of which make no sense and which we know are nonsense. What motivation lay behind the men whom were targeted is really speculative but they were conveniently chosen as the ones who would best make the crowns case.

        1. Michael Wright says:

          I do not believe at all that Henry was shocked or hurt by the charges against Anne. Look at his reaction when he really was betrayed by Catherine Howard! In that instance he showed real grief and pain. With Anne I think he should have at least tried to show some sadness but he was too busy galavanting with Jane to keep up any kind of pretense. Henry may not have known exactly what Cromwell was going to do but he set this in motion by at least informing his Lord Chancellor that he wanted to be rid of Anne. Even if the other accused weren’t grudges they were collateral damage to make the accusations against Anne work. If they were only collateral damage sadly that gives their deaths even less meaning.

        2. Esther says:

          FWIW, McCullough’s recent biography of Cromwell makes it clear that Henry wanted Anne gone … and that Cromwell was just obeying orders. However, in a TV special on Cromwell, he seems to lay more blame on Cromwell.

  4. Michael Wright says:

    Except for the proceedings themselves and the eventual outcome so much of this has to be speculation. The only thing we can know is that Cromwell would not have started any of this without the king’s consent. What we can’t know is how much of what actually happened was Henry and how much was Cromwell. Henry wanted Anne gone and history shows that was accomplished.

    1. Banditqueen says:

      Henry more likely made it clear he wanted Anne gone, didn’t care how it was done and told Cromwell to get on with it. You’re both right though it’s all speculation and interpretation of the same small bits of information. The actual indictments and procedures are the only things we can really be sure off, although Cromwell does come out worse in most bios today. The reality is much more complicated and the truth usually lies something in the middle, is a combination of conspiracy and pre planning, accident and authority, misadventure and complete set up. The only other thing we can be certain of is that everything in the process was loaded in some way and I don’t mean the normal loading in favour of the crown, but the jury and judges, the invention of times, dates and places in the indictments and a lack of any scrutiny.

      O.K maybe it wasn’t the biggest miscarriage of justice in history, there are plenty of worse ones, but it was one of the worst in English history. Henry wasn’t the first King to set up a group of innocent people or to comply with a conspiracy for personal gain and he wouldn’t be the last, but he must be one of the few to do so in order to remarry. Even Chapuys was practically speechless at the lack of testimony or anything proved against those on trial and didn’t believe the charges. That says an awful lot. He had no like of Anne, nor any reason to like her, she was the opponent of the two women he felt responsible for, the now late Katherine of Aragon and Princess Mary, the woman who he believed had taken their place and refused to acknowledge as Queen, a woman he had even imagined as wanting to poison both women, yet, he didn’t believe her guilty of these charges. Even he said it was all based on supposition and gossip. If he didn’t believe it, then with our hindsight we must be a thousand times loud in our disbelief and outrage. No matter who was responsible, historians who today claim Anne and the others were in any way guilty need to take a good look at themselves. That some are still of that opinion in the light of the real evidence and work of Ives et al for me proves they put making a name and even a quick buck over proper research and contemporary evidence and real analysis. It was a shame six people had to die because one man in history had a similar ego: King Henry Viii.

      1. Michael Wright says:

        Hi BQ. I’d like your opinion: Back in Henry’s time people didn’t criticize the monarch. Criticisms and complaints were directed at a counselor or counselors. Do you think the fact that Cromwell is seen predominantly as the ‘bad guy’ in this mess today is a carryover from that or do you think it’s independent of that based on what’s known of the case and Thomas Cromwell?

        1. Banditqueen says:

          McCullough conveys the events in an interesting way, through the writing of Alexander Aleius who put the blame on Cromwell, but he does in fact point out that Cromwell was the primary mover and Cromwell his servant, yet it was Cromwell who wrote to Chapuys afterwards that he had gone home to put the entire thing together, or as he put it, he made and thought the whole thing up. This is the curious thing and its this rather thin piece of evidence that historians have pounced. McCullough is stating his own opinion that Cromwell was going to destroy Anne, his words, not mine, but he is conveying the intentions of Cromwell as contained in those few words. However, there is more, because the line before this stated that he did so on Henry’s instigation. Taken together the two lines have caused a huge debate on the entire conspiracy as to who brought Anne down and why. Esther is correct, Henry wanted Anne gone, out of the way, most opinions agree with that, but the debate is how and whether Cromwell was the brains behind everything or whether Henry was heavily involved and Cromwell a mere yes man. It has emerged as a theory which states that Cromwell began the whole process because of a series of disputes with Anne that had put him in danger and in order to get rid of a perceived threat and historians have ran with variations on that theme. The question is did Henry or Cromwell instigate the fall of Anne Boleyn? The question itself is too simple, as is the theory. It was a more complicated set of events that led to Anne’s fall. No one theory or conspiracy fits everything which we know of what happened and as McCullough says much is hidden from us as it was from Anne and the courtiers. Cromwell had joined a wider faction supporting both Mary and a future Queen and the potential shift in domestic and foreign policies. Historians have interpreted the fallout around Anne as her being in the way of all that and therefore she had to go because she was a liability. Others have interpreted her fall in a more straightforward way, Henry was fed up, Anne had to go and Cromwell found the way out. There are many others, but really life isn’t like that and a combination of the King and Secretary working together, the rumours about the Queen and the nonsense the investigation revealed, the determination to be rid of Anne permanently and the fact that the crown found a basic case to build on after Smeaton confessed, all of these were factors. Cromwell may well have taken advantage of the opportunities and he was rewarded well for his reward, he may well have had good reasons to turn the case into a horrendous treason conspiracy, he may well have convinced Henry to go down a judicial path, because there is enough uncertainty around which way things would pan out after 18th April to suggest an annulment was still being considered, by Cromwell at least. I don’t know when that changed but within the next two weeks it had and everything was in place for judicial procedures to be pursued against the Queen, although no evidence had as yet been found. It was a stroke of luck that gave Cromwell the break he needed and Henry ordered him to investigate further. That fatal conversation between Henry Norris and Anne was the pretext for the first arrest, the confession for the next and so on. Henry was in charge, he wanted his wife out of the way, but at first its not entirely clear what his intentions were and that was left up to Cromwell. Why the fatal conspiracy? It was cleaner, quicker, more convenient. Who instigated it has been the subject of much of the debate on how Anne fell ever since, but as you can see, much of the actual evidence is only bits and pieces.

          I am getting to your question but thought I would restate the arguments around the role Cromwell played. Cromwell was blamed for a number of things by various factions because he was the chief minister if you like, the man who did the work, who put the details of legislation together and carried out a number of high-profile and unpopular changes to political and religious policies. He was one of the people blamed in the Catholic strongholds in the Midlands, that is Lincolnshire and the Northern counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire for the closure of the Monasteries and their destruction and yes he was partly to blame as he put the details together, alongside Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, but it was Henry’s policy because the process would make him wealthy. Cromwell is blamed in some quarters for the reforms, the treason laws, the legislation which supported Henry and Anne’s marriage, but he was only one of a number of legal experts and administration involved and these all went through Parliament. Not only that, the Supremacy was Henry’s baby and he wanted the new laws to prevent any more opposition to his marriage. It is unfair to blame Cromwell for these changes but he was one of a number of Counsellors attacked at the time and criticism was contemporary. So the answer is yes, yes, part of what is projected onto Cromwell, who at the end of the day, no matter what his motivation was, followed the King’s orders or acted with his full knowledge and consent and was doing his job well, is because his reputation is of the bad guy who manipulated Henry Viii into all kinds of horrible decisions and caused many unnecessary deaths. In some cases that criticism may well be deserved, but the new heresy laws continued to be enforced even more strongly after his death, the heads on spikes continued to be put up there, treason trials continued and three women, Kathryn Howard, Jane Boleyn and the elderly Margaret Pole were executed on someone else’s watch. It is possible that had Cromwell not found himself serving King Henry after Cardinal Wolsey died that listening to a different way of doing things, Henry may not have passed such harsh draconian laws. However, Henry didn’t particularly like Cromwell when he first came to his attention, he was sceptical about how he could be of service. It was the realisation that here was a man with the ability and the courage to take on the unpleasant tasks ahead, to pass those laws, to take on those who opposed them and who had the ideas which would achieve what Henry wanted, which led to his appointment. Cromwell could handle the nobles, the older families, the clergy and he was effectively efficient. Cromwell was the right man for the job. I am not saying he and Henry were exactly of one mind, but Cromwell wasn’t afraid to carry out the King’s dirty work or to suggest ways in which his power and prestige could be increased. For that Cromwell has been seen in a negative light. Ignoring his many positive achievements and talents, his character has been reflected in the popular imagination as being such a person who would bring down two Queens and he has been blamed for much of Henry’s tyrannical decisions of his latter years. In the same way it’s easier to project blame for the downfall and execution of Anne and her co accused and to absolve Henry from any blame, because his personal reputation makes it believable. I can’t but think with something of a shiver about the words of Alison Weir on the Last Days of Henry and Anne Boleyn when she described the so called conspiracy of Thomas Cromwell v Anne as a audacious plot.

          From what we actually know of the case, which is surprisingly little, one would be more likely to say Henry was concerned about the rumours he had learned about, was getting itchy feet and needed to end his marriage without too much fuss. The man to organise that was Cromwell. Without caring about how that was achieved Henry allowed Cromwell a free hand in the investigation and full powers to act appropriately. Cromwell and others conducted an investigation which eventually led to arrests, a dubious confession and Cromwell made up the details of the indictments because the crown had a weak case. Cromwell may or may not have had personal and political reasons for the sake of self preservation to either persuade Henry that there was more to the gossip around the Court and to seek permission for a legal investigation to be prepared against Anne or he may or may not have persuaded Henry that an annulment wasn’t the way to go and that he had concerns about the Queen which may involve criminal charges. In other words Cromwell could have told Henry certain lies and Henry ordered the investigation. We don’t know for certain, but some of the bits and pieces we find point to this possibility. What we definitely know is that the legislation and legal mechanisms were set up in advance and that Cromwell would not have acted without the King’s orders and consent. What we also know more or less is that a number of fatal conversations took place between Anne and some of the courtiers, accusations were brought to Cromwell by Sir Anthony Browne and a series of arguments ensued. We also know that Cromwell interrogated Mark Smeaton, most likely on the King’s authority and Smeaton confessed. We also know that Cromwell and others were left to arrange the case and gather evidence and testimony and Henry let them get on with it. Into the bits and pieces of what we do know a number of different motivations have been woven, making Cromwell chief protagonist and mastermind of the entire tragic and terrible affair. Cromwell has the kind of reputation and character which to the general public makes him the ideal candidate for conspiracy to bring down Anne and other innocent people. Some even see Henry as a victim of the duplicity of Cromwell, who is duped into believing his wife has betrayed him with his friends. I think we can agree that that interpretation isn’t possible. To people who have really studied Thomas Cromwell, his role isn’t that straightforward or is that of a man who is doing what his master needs and freeing him from an unwanted wife. They see another side to Cromwell, the great statesman, the fine administrator, the founder of the modern state, the capable minister, the fixer, the interceder, the man who helped people and who got things done, the reformer and the self made man. They would show a man who was efficient, who cared about unemployment, who cared about social problems, who helped widows get what was legally theirs by right, to whom people could turn and who had a number of excellent talents. They would also admit that he could see which way the wind was blowing and turn his coat accordingly for survival. They would tell you he was ruthless and he knew how to apply terror when required, but he did so in the service of an ever more paranoid master. They would tell you he was more than capable of cooking up this case against Anne, but would express doubts of him being at the head of a great conspiracy to deliberately have her tried and executed and put out of the way. Some would agree, however, that yes, if Henry wanted Anne put away quickly that Cromwell was ruthless enough to find the means to do it, coldly and permanently. Others might argue he had no choice in the matter, but that doesn’t stop him from acting without mercy. It might also be argued that as his own power was increased alongside that of Henry Viii that Cromwell would stop at nothing to further Henry’s will. Cromwell has galvanised opinion for many years and continues to do so, just as Anne herself has and indeed King Henry.

          Pick up any book on him and you get everything. You get the Machiavelli statesman, which isn’t an insult, it’s more to do with his ruthless efficiencies. You get the Cromwell with the terrifying personality and reputation, Cromwell the religious reformer and modern statesman, Cromwell the persecutor, those who present a fair and balanced evaluation and those who clearly dislike him as a historic figure. For example Robert Hutchinson presented a totally different Cromwell to the more sympathetic and potentially better understood Cromwell by John Schofield and Tracy Borman has uncovered a sympathetic and diverse man who came from humble beginnings but worked hard to get into the positions of trust he occupied on merit. We meet a more colourful and human Cromwell here and understand his family background and childhood through her research.

          I am sorry to ramble but your question for me raised a number of complex issues with analytical study of a man and his motivation through the role he played in a famous and terrible piece of human history, the execution of a woman and Queen and five innocent men. I believe we see his role through both lenses, his reputation and the day to day actions during what we know or think we know of this important case.

  5. Michael Wright says:

    Wonderful answer BQ. Thank you very much. You didn’t ramble. You put everything in context.
    I would have to agree that Chapuy’s report of Cromwell saying ‘make it up’ is very flimsy in placing blame. I don’t see that as any different than a lawyer or detective using the phrase ‘peice together’ when describing a case. It just means to assemble into a coherent form, not create out of whole cloth. If Cromwell had said ‘piece together’ that could also be misconstrued in the same way so in my opinion his comment doesn’t mean much without the rest of the conversation.
    You point out something that is very frustrating in this case. We know things happened: interrogations took place, machinery put in place, judgements made etc. What we don’t know is what was said at the interrogations, especially that of Mark Smeaton. There’s no verbatim transcript. We know what the state wants us to know was said. When things were put in place for oyer and terminer what were the exact orders given?, not what’s in the record. When the judgments we’re handed down on the accused how were they arrived at? Pressure from on high would not be in the official record. For 99.999% of historical events this kind of information is not necessary. The official accounts would suffice and would tell an acceptable and mostly accurate account of what happened but these proceedings were so unusual and biased and devious that we can’t trust the official account because if the reality of what actually took place at the time were ‘on paper’ the game would have been up long ago. The fact that a terrible crime took place against six innocent people did not stay hidden but the details of the actions taken to perpetrate that crime are yet to be discovered.

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