Anne Boleyn

On this day in history, the 14th May 1536, Thomas Cromwell, Master Secretary wrote to ambassadors Stephen Gardiner and John Wallop in France to inform them of recent events.

In the letter he refers to Anne Boleyn’s “incontinent” living which was so “rank and common” that it was impossible for her ladies to hide it any longer. Not content with that, Cromwell then goes on to accuse Anne and the men of plotting the King’s death. He then explains that Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton have all been condemned to death and he is sure that Anne and George will “go the same way”. Cromwell is in no doubt that they too will be found guilty and it is true that the trial of the four men undoubtedly prejudiced the trial of Anne, how could she be found innocent of adultery if the men had already been convicted of having affairs with her?

Here is Cromwell’s letter in full and notice how he promises at the end that both Gardiner and Wallop will benefit from Anne’s fall:-

“The King has deferred answering their letters sent by Salisbury till the arrival of the bailly of Troyes. Has to inform them, however, of a most detestable scheme, happily discovered and notoriously known to all men. They may have heard the rumour of it. Will express to them, however, some part of the coming out, and of the King’s proceeding. The Queen’s incontinent living was so rank and common that the ladies of her privy chamber could not conceal it. It came to the ears of some of the Council, who told his Majesty, although with great fear, as the case enforced. Certain persons of the privy chamber and others of her side were examined, and the matter appeared so evident that, besides that crime, “there brake out a certain conspiracy of the King’s death, which extended so far that all we that had the examination of it quaked at the danger his Grace was in, and on our knees gave him (God ?) laud and praise that he had preserved him so long from it.” Certain men were committed to the Tower, viz., Marks and Norris and the Queen’s brother; then she herself was apprehended and committed to the same place; after her Sir Fras. Weston and Wm. Brereton. Norris, Weston, Brereton, and Marks are already condemned to death, having been arraigned at Westminster on Friday last. The Queen and her brother are to be arraigned tomorrow, and will undoubtedly go the same way. “I write no particularities; the things be so abominable that I think the like was never heard. Gardiner will receive 200l. of the 300l. “that were out amongst these men, notwithstanding great suit hath been made for the whole; which though the King’s highness might give in this case, yet his Majesty doth not forget your service; and the third 100l. is bestowed of the vicar of Hell [Sir Fras. Brian], upon [whom] though it be some charge unto you, his Highness trusteth ye will think it well bestowed.” From the Rolls in haste, 14 May.
P.S.—Wallop will not be forgotten, though Cromwell cannot tell at present how much he is to have. The King is highly pleased with the services of both.”1

I hate to call you a hypocrite, Master Secretary, but it strikes me that there is something rather “rank” in conspiring to get six innocent people executed and then sharing out the proceeds with your best buddies!


  1. L&P x.873, Letter from Cromwell to Gardiner and Wallop, 14th May 1536

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22 thoughts on “The Queen’s Incontinent Living”
  1. I love Cromwell’s defensiveness when Wallop later asks him for particulars of the evidence found against the Queen. His defensiveness and his failure to give a proper answer speak volumes. If there had been any actual evidence of wrongdoing it would have been made comon knowledge so as to show the validity of the accusations. The fact it wasn’t shows that the ‘evidence’ didn’t amount to evidence of guilt at all, and Cromwell’s defensiveness was an obvious attempt to hide the truth of the matter . No wonder there were already rumours among those in the know that the trials were a sham.

  2. Hi Claire,
    This is a very interesting letter as it so clearly illustrates one way in which Cromwell ‘enticed’ people to work with him in bringing Anne down- plain old bribery!
    He plotted Anne’s downfall to perfection and he cared not for the innocent lives he was destroying with his malicious plan. All he cared about was his own preservation and he did not think twice about who needed to be sacrificed in order to achieve this. He took down men that held important positions within the King’s privy chamber, essentially eliminating all persons that might have taken up the Queen’s case with the King. He wanted to be absolutely sure that there’d be no one left who was close to the king and sympathetic to Anne’s cause. And he succeeded! In one foul swoop he dismembered the Boleyn faction!

  3. Yes, it was a very neat piece of manoeuvring. Well done, Master Cromwell. It’s a shame he did not show in death the dignity that Anne did. He turned into a weeping, wailing jelly of a man, who could not come to terms with death the way Anne did.

  4. “Incontinent” today means you can’t control your bowels or bladder. It wasn’t that specific back then. It just meant a lack of self-control, or behaving inappropriately because you apparently can’t control yourself. It was accusing her of character flaws to show she wasn’t a “Godly” woman, or she WOULD have self-control. Whatever, it was just more smear tactics.

  5. Hello All,
    I agree Cromwell’s devices worked well to bring down the entire faction. But again, the King had to be behind it all as Cromwell did nothing without the King’s blessing. Henry could never deal with the real consequences of his actions, not with Anne, not with Catherine of Aragon, not with Catherine Howard. He was at heart a coward.

  6. Karma is a wonderful thing!
    I have 2 questions first was it Cramer or Cromwell who was bestowed the title “vicar of hell’? I know there was a lawyer by the name of Steven Gardiner, but wasn’t there also a Bishop Gardner when Mary became Queen? Is this the same man or am I confusioning this Gardiner with someone else? I had thought the title was bestowed to Cramer or Cromwell by one of the Gardiner/Gardner. I love the series “The Tudors” but sometimes it leaves me confused…. I don’t think it was Wosley.
    Secondly, does anyone know where I could buy a reproduction of the picture Claire posted of Anne Boleyn on the top of this article? I have never seen this before and it’s beautiful.

  7. Nancy, the Wyatt that was executed was not the Wyatt in love with Anne.He was either his son, or a cousin.

  8. I am reading an interesting book about Anne Boleyn which has a different take to any others I had read. I always believed she had an affair with Wyatt and wasn’t a virgin when she married King Henry. Apparently none of this is true. She was very pious and upright and did make Henry wait 7 years to consummate. Also it paints a poor picture of Catherine of Aragon, not the innocent paragon she tried to portray herself. According to this version Henry had reason to be paranoid about her underhanded dealings to bring him and the English crown down. Wyatt may have loved Anne but he never got the chance to have an affair with her. Anne also tried to put Henry off and made herself scarce but he stalked and hunted her till she just gave in. She thought if she kept her distance by staying at her home, Hever Castle, he would give up. But it only made him hotter for her!

  9. Tracy,

    It was Sir Francis Bryan who was nicknamed ‘The Vicar of Hell’. Per Wikipedia, “Bryan was a second cousin of both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. He remained a friend of the King, with Henry even ending his pursuit of a lady when he heard that Bryan was seriously interested in her. ‘The Vicar of Hell’, as Francis was known, was also a close ally of Nicholas Carew, the husband of Francis’ sister, Elizabeth Carew. There are rumors that Elizabeth became Henry’s mistress in 1514, when she would have been only around thirteen.

    However, by 1536 Bryan was working with Thomas Cromwell to bring about his cousin’s downfall as queen. It was at this time that Cromwell coined Sir Francis’ unfortunate sobriquet in a letter to the Bishop of Winchester, referring to his abandonment of Anne. After Boleyn’s death, Bryan became chief Gentleman of the Privy chamber, but was removed from this post in 1539 when Cromwell turned against his former allies. Sir Francis returned to favor following Cromwell’s demise, becoming vice-admiral of the fleet, and then Lord Chief Justice of Ireland during the reign of Edward VI. He died suddenly at Clonmel, Ireland in 1550.”

    As to your other question, it’s the same Stephen Gardiner. He was originally Wolsey’s secretary, and rose to the King’s notice while trying to obtain for Henry a way out of his marriage to Katharine of Aragon, but he was opposed to The Reformation. Henry named him Bishop of Winchester in 1531 (the post had been vacant since Wolsey’s death), but he was often abroad during the 1530s serving in embassies in France and Germany. He returned to prominence after Cromwell’s downfall, and tried to bring charges of heresy against both Archbishop Cranmer and Queen Katherine Parr. He failed in both attempts due to the King personally intervening. He spent most of Edward VI’s reign in the Tower for opposing religious change promoted by Archbishop Cranmer. He survived to crown Mary I, but didn’t survive long enough to see Cranmer burned at the stake by Mary.

  10. There were occasions when Anne supposedly had trysts with the men when she was “lying in”, a time when women were sequestered away from men & as there was no privacy in court it would have been scandalous if she had broken that tradition, not to mention that during that period she was recovering. Puts every shred of “evidence” against her into question.

    1. Yes, the dates used in the indictments just do not make sense as for the majority of them Anne was somewhere else or with the King or in confinement. In my opinion Anne was definitely framed.

  11. Hi Claire, what I could never understand is the accusation of plotting against the king’s life….while I understand it was Cromwell’s cobweb of ensuring her name was blackened in every possible way, who on earth would have believed that?? What would Anne have gained in Henry’s death, surely Mary would have been the one most likely to come to the throne if Henry had died at this point, and I just shudder to think what she would have done to Anne Boleyn had she come to power….I just don’t get it!!!

    1. Hi Michelle,
      It was because adultery in itself was not a capital crime, whereas plotting the King’s death was high treason punishable by death. Anne had to be made to look as if she was plotting the King’s death so that she could be free to marry Norris. Elizabeth was the next in succession at this point so Anne would have perhaps been regent, so it was made to look like Anne wanted that power. Horrible.

      1. Thanks for your reply, Claire. I do understand that plotting against the king’s life was obviously high treason, and Cromwell was covering all the bases to ensure AB’s death – but surely courtiers and many others would have found this very hard to believe?

        Also – and maybe I’m getting too technical here – isn’t it highly unlikely that people would have acknowledged her as regent and waited over 15 years for Elizabeth to come of age and reign…in the eyes of the majority, surely, Catherine had been regarded as the true queen so the majority would have supported Mary’s claim to the throne – she was also of a far more suitable age to reign.

        I’m also amazed that a lawyer like Cromwell would pick such odd dates to accuse Anne of having committed adultery – do you think it was just plain sloppy of him and in his haste he didn’t stop to consider, or do you believe that it was part of his smearing campaign – along the lines of “she was so base that she would have sexual intercourse even straight after giving birth” and “because she was a witch it didn’t matter if she and her alleged lover were in two different palaces, she could use her witchcraft to get to him”?Or perhaps he knew that no-one was going to challenge these dates anyway, so who cares if the dates make no sense?

        I’m surprised Anne Boleyn wouldn’t have brought some of these facts up, are there no records that she tried to dispute the specific dates by stating that she had been recovering from childbirth, had been in a different palace to her co-accused on the said date etc.? Is it possible that she did refute them, and we don’t have those records anymore?

        Thanks so much again for your website,and for all your hard work, it’s soooo nice to be able to read such a wealth of material on Anne Boleyn and have these thought-provoking discussions!!

        1. She had to be accused of something that was treason, i.e. plotting the King’s death, because she had to be executed. Adultery and incest would have blackened her name but they weren’t capital crimes so they wouldn’t have been able to get rid of her for good.

          Henry passed laws to make Mary illegitimate so Elizabeth was the legal heir to the throne at this point and therefore would have become Queen whatever the people thought of it. I suspect that Anne would have been made Regent with a regency council to help her rule. It would have been a bit like Edward Seymour being Lord Protector while Edward VI was young.

          Regarding the dates, Cromwell added the catch-all phrases “divers days before and since” and “several times before and after” so he really didn’t need to be careful in his dating of the offences. As for whether Anne disputed them, we don’t have transcripts of what was said at her trial but Charles Wriothesley, the chronicler and Windsor Herald, wrote that “made so wise and discreet answers to all things laid against her, excusing herself with her words so clearly, as though she had never been guilty of the same”, so she may well have argued against the dates. We also know that George defended himself so well that most people thought he was going to be found innocent.

          I hope that helps you.

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