Mark Rylance and Claire Foy as Cromwell and Anne in Wolf Hall.
Mark Rylance and Claire Foy as Cromwell and Anne in Wolf Hall.

A big thank you to Olga Hughes, editor of Nerdalicious and regular contributor to Tudor Life magazine, for writing this wonderful article on Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn.

There is something distinctly discomfiting about Henry VIII’s judicial murder of his wife, Queen Anne Boleyn. It is not only the terrible tragedy that befell her at the hands of her own husband. It is almost too difficult to accept that Henry VIII murdered his wife and got away with it easily. But who could believe that Henry’s passionate and absolute devotion to Anne, having remained faithful for seven long years before he was able to marry her, could be extinguished so easily? Henry’s swift and total destruction of the woman he almost destroyed his kingdom to posses has baffled historians for centuries. And theories that attempt to place Anne Boleyn’s murder in the hands of others are probably not without some sentimentality.

When Anne’s daughter Elizabeth ascended to the throne, more than 20 years had passed since her mother’s execution. Elizabeth only made one real public statement about her mother. An image of her parents King Henry VIII and his consort Queen Anne Boleyn, depicted in wedded harmony, was boldly displayed at her coronation. Otherwise Elizabeth kept her own counsel on her mother’s controversial fall. There would hardly have been any appropriate time to broach the subject with the queen. Who would want to post the question to their monarch – was her mother an adulteress, or her father a murderer? It would be far more convenient, and prudent, to place the blame on someone else.
Thus, in Elizabeth I’s reign two scapegoats were created. One was Thomas Cromwell, accused of cold-bloodedly destroying Anne Boleyn and her supporters. The other, Elizabeth’s aunt, Jane Rochford, accused of giving the testimony that allowed Cromwell to accomplish his coup; taking down not only the Queen of England, but her brother and another four innocent men.

How Thomas Cromwell figures into the controversy is fairly straightforward. Thomas Cromwell quarrelled with Anne Boleyn, their relationship became difficult, and so Cromwell decided he must be rid of her. But is it believable that Thomas Cromwell awoke one day and decided he could not only dupe Henry VIII, he could destroy the Queen of England as well? Some have placed Cromwell’s fingerprints on the sword itself. Various modern examinations emphasise Cromwell’s “victory” – Cromwell’s triumph was complete… Cromwell emerged completely triumphant… savouring his triumph at her downfall… – and depict Anne and Cromwell locked in a deadly struggle for power.

Were Anne really responsible for ‘making’ Cromwell, had they worked closely together for the common cause only to fall out over Cromwell’s alleged greed, perhaps we could reconcile Cromwell with the villain that has been created over the centuries. However much of this is a misconception. Cromwell’s career had been advanced by Henry, not Anne Boleyn. Cromwell still seemingly admired Catherine of Aragon, and had intervened with Henry on Catherine’s behalf. Cromwell was also a Lutheran, and the Germans continued to support Catherine in Henry’s ‘Great Matter’. Cromwell’s relationship with Anne may always have been uneasy. There is certainly no evidence they were close. And Cromwell’s loyalty was to Henry, first and foremost.

Cromwell,Thomas HolbeinThere is no doubt that Cromwell was the engineer of Anne Boleyn’s fall. Whether he was the instigator is a different matter. Most readers will be familiar with the following incidents that are often used to incriminate Cromwell. Cromwell and Anne quarrelled. Anne had her chaplain preach a sermon which is usually construed as an attack on Cromwell’s character. And Cromwell would later take responsibility for Anne’s fall.

Anne and Cromwell did argue, in 1535. Chapuys reported on June 5th that “she and he had had words together, the Lady telling him, among other things, that she would like to see his head off his shoulders.” But Cromwell was unconcerned, telling Chapuys that “I trust so much on my master, that I fancy she cannot do me any harm.” Chapuys wrote that he could not tell “whether this is an invention of Cromwell in order to enhance his merchandise.1 We neither know if it happened at all, or if Cromwell exaggerated the affair. After all, Chapuys and Anne did not get along, and Cromwell may have thought being on the outs with Anne would win him more favour with Chapuys.

Scottish theologian Alexander Alesius would write to Elizabeth I more than twenty years later, with his own version of events.

As Crumwell attended at the Court daily, along with Wrotisley, the affair thus became known to the King himself. He was furious, but, dissembling his wrath, he summoned Crumwell, Wrotisley, and certain others, who, as report says, hated the Queen, because she had sharply rebuked them and threatened to inform the King that under the guise of the Gospel and religion they were advancing their own interests… To them he [Henry] intrusted the investigation of the whole business.

These spies, (because they greatly feared the Queen) watch her private apartments [cubiculum] night and day. They tempt her porter and serving man with bribes; there is nothing which they do not promise the ladies of her bedchamber…. Not long after this the persons returned who had been charged with the investigation of the rumours which had been circulated, everything having been arranged according to their entire satisfaction. They assure the King that the affair is beyond doubt; that they had seen the Queen dancing with the gentlemen of the King’s chamber, that they can produce witnesses who will vouch to the Queen having kissed her own brother, and that they have in their possession letters in which she informs him that she is pregnant.

Thereupon it was decided and concluded that the Queen was an adulteress, and deserved to be burnt alive.2

AnneBoleynNPGHistorian JohnSchofield called Alesius’s account “syrupy, sentimental nonsense”.3 While Alesius would have had the best of intentions when he wrote this emotional account of Anne Boleyn for her daughter, we do need to consider the account carefully. Alesius was keen to present Anne as a Protestant martyr, claiming that “True religion [Protestantism] in England had its commencement and its end with your mother4 which we know is not the case. But along with many other Protestants, Alesius would have been concerned with what direction Elizabeth would take in regards to religious tolerance.

We also know that no one but the men who were accused alongside Anne openly tried to defend her, but Alesius claimed that “those persons who previously had rejoiced at her misfortune out of their hatred to the doctrine of the religion which she had introduced into England, testified and proclaimed her innocence and chastity“. And it is unlikely that Cromwell would later blame his own fall on being punished by God for not “obey[ing Anne’s] directions in promoting the doctrine of the Gospel.5 However, it is Alesius’s account which ties in to the theory that the Passion Sunday sermon set the scene for a war between Cromwell and Anne.

The famous Passion Sunday sermon preached by John Skip, with Anne’s approval, may have been a verbal attack on the dissolution of the monasteries, among other things. Part of Skip’s sermon described the story of King Ahasuerus being tricked by his evil minster, Haman, into killing the Jews. But his good wife Esther stepped in and saved the Jews. This is usually interpreted as King Ahasuerus being an allegory for Henry, who is being tricked by his evil minister Cromwell, depicted as Haman. And of course Anne is Esther, who saves Henry from being led astray. But we cannot say that this sermon was only directed at Cromwell. This is just one interpretation. John Schofield points out Skip complained about Henry’s evil councillors, in the plural. In fact Schofield described other parts of the sermon, including Skip preaching about Solomon’s moral decline after taking many wives. Schofield points out this could be seen as an attack on Henry’s new affection for Jane Seymour.6 When Skip was later interrogated over the sermon the reference to Haman was not mentioned.

Cromwell taking responsibility for Anne’s fall is rather more curious. Writing to Charles V, Chapuys would relate a conversation with Cromwell. Cromwell apparently told Chapuys that:

“He, himself had been authorised and commissioned by the King to prosecute and bring to an end the mistress’s trial, to do which he had taken considerable trouble. It was he who, in consequence of the disappointment and anger he had felt on hearing the King’s answer to me on the third day of Easter, had planned and brought about the whole affair.”7

However, John Schofield was unsatisfied with this translation, believing a word had been mistranslated. He offered an alternative translation:

“On (or just after) the third day of Easter, the day when Cromwell was so disappointed and angry on hearing the king’s answer to me, Henry authorised and commissioned him to prosecute and bring to an end the mistress’s trial. Since then he was the one who planned and brought about the whole affair, which had taken him considerable trouble.”8

This alternative puts Cromwell’s apparent admission in a different context. Cromwell did work against Anne Boleyn, but only after he was ordered to and given the authority by his king. Both translations of the letter still note that Cromwell was authorised and commissioned to prosecute Anne. And as John Schofield wrote “Thomas Cromwell was the king’s servant, indebted to Henry and to nobody else. Should Henry’s love for Anne ever fade, Cromwell was duty bound to serve and support the king”.9

The two commissions of Oyer and Terminer issued on April 24th, for unspecified treasons, are also considered by some as proof of Cromwell’s guilt. Eric Ives speculated that because Henry’s signature was not on the patent that it may have been commissioned without his knowledge. But this seems unlikely. No queen consort had been arrested since Eleanor of Aquitane was arrested for treason in the twelfth century. It was not a common occurrence. How could Cromwell and Thomas Audley think they would have the power to have the Queen arrested without Henry’s involvement? It may be that Henry, Cromwell and Audley were using the Oyer and Terminer as insurance should they need it against Anne. But even this is speculation.

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn in the RSC production of Wolf Hall.
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn in the RSC production of Wolf Hall.

It is true that Thomas Cromwell did not attempt to intervene with Henry on Anne’s behalf, as he had done with Catherine. It is true he performed the task of bringing down Anne Boleyn with brutal efficiency. Cromwell easily implicated several innocent men along with the queen. This was a practicality. Anne committing adultery with a single man would have threatened Henry’s masculinity. This may sound strange, you may think that the sheer volume of Anne’s alleged lovers would humiliate Henry more. But the charges were designed to show Anne as an insatiable, lustful monster, and Henry as the victim. It worked, in its own way. Henry didn’t need people to believe his word. Only to accept it.

Of course it is not difficult to see why people continue to try and unravel the mystery behind Anne Boleyn’s fall. It is not difficult to understand why some people may believe Henry was somewhat duped, considering how quickly and absolutely his feelings changed for Anne. But to imagine that Thomas Cromwell was able to destroy Anne Boleyn without the king’s consent is stretching believability.

Cromwell was, above all, a practical man and an astute politician. Sadly for Anne she was no longer useful. She was bad for foreign relations. She had not provided Henry with a son. And Henry was rapidly losing interest in her. Henry wanted a new wife. And Cromwell had no reason to stick his neck out to save Anne. As far as Cromwell was concerned it was his duty to follow his king’s orders.

For some this may not make good fiction. Perhaps that is why recent fictional accounts of Cromwell have sought to find a different motive other than mere duty. But these don’t put Cromwell in a good light. They make him petty and vengeful, and vilify him as much as his alleged enemies. What I wonder is why no one ever tries to explore how Cromwell may have felt when he realised that his prosecution was not merely leading Queen Anne Boleyn to estrangement, but to the scaffold.

Notes and Sources

  1. Calendar of State Papers Spain June 1535 no. 170.
  2. Calendar of State Papers Foreign, Elizabeth, Volume 1, 1558-1559 no. 1303.
  3. Schofield, John The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, The History Press, 2011, p. 161.
  4. Calendar of State Papers Foreign, Elizabeth, Volume 1, 1558-1559 no. 1303.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Schofield, John The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, The History Press, 2011, p. 177.
  7. Calendar of State Papers Spain June 1536 no. 61.
  8. Schofield, p. 169.
  9. Ibid., p. 140.

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