First off, I’d like to explain that this is about my opinion and I am certainly not telling you what to think or who you should ‘blame’ for Anne Boleyn’s fall and execution. As Suzannah Lipscomb said in “The Last Days of Anne Boleyn” TV programme, “there’s just enough evidence to keep historians guessing but just enough gaps to make sure they can never finally get to the solution”, and she’s right. I cannot tell you exactly what happened, I can only offer my interpretation and please feel free to disagree with me, I’ve changed my mind since I started researching Anne Boleyn in early 2009.
Notice that in the heading of this post I have put the word “ultimately”, this is because I actually believe that Anne’s fall was down to a combination of factors and that a number of people had a hand in it. Pamela Kaputska, on The Anne Boleyn Files Facebook page, described how she felt that Cromwell, Henry VIII and the Seymour faction all came together to form the “perfect storm”, and I think you can add to that Anne’s behaviour and her miscarriage. So, if I believe that then why do I think that Henry VIII was ultimately responsible for Anne Boleyn’s downfall?
Here are my reasons:
Henry was the boss
I believe that the buck had to stop with Henry, he was the King and I don’t believe that Cromwell would have dared to move against the Queen unless he had the King’s blessing. I don’t believe that Cromwell was ‘innocent’ in the events of April/May 1536, but I believe that the King told him to do whatever was needed to get rid of Anne and he did it. Although historians argue that Chapuys reported to the Emperor that Cromwell had told him that he “had planned and brought about the whole affair”, earlier in that same letter Chapuys reported that Cromwell had also said 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”, so he’d done it at the King’s bidding.1
Also, in a letter to Stephen Gardiner and John Wallop, who were acting as ambassadors in France in May 1536, Cromwell referred to “the King’s proceeding”, and took no responsibility for what was going on.2
In 1541 Henry VIII was presented with the evidence gathered against his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, and Charles de Marillac, the French ambassador reported Henry’s reaction:
“this King has changed his love for the Queen into hatred, and taken such grief at being deceived that of late it was thought he had gone mad, for he called for a sword to slay her he had loved so much. Sitting in Council he suddenly called for horses without saving where he would go. Sometimes he said irrelevantly (hors de propoz) that that wicked woman had never such delight in her incontinency as she should have torture in her death. And finally he took to tears regretting his ill luck in meeting with such ill-conditioned wives, and blaming his Council for this last mischief. The ministers have done their best to make him forget his grief, and he is gone 25 miles from here with no company but musicians and ministers of pastime.” Chapuys reported “this king has wonderfully felt the case of the Queen, his wife, and that he has certainly shown greater sorrow and regret at her loss than at the faults, loss, or divorce of his preceding wives.”3
It appears that Henry was furious and griefstricken, and he even wept in front of his Privy Council. Compare and contrast that behaviour to his behaviour in 1536, when he spent his time gallivanting with ladies each night while his wife was in prison. His wife had allegedly betrayed him with one of his best friends (Sir Henry Norris, Groom of the Stool), two men he had supported financially (Weston and Smeaton) and her own brother, yet the only sign of any distress at all is when he broke down in tears in front of Henry Fitzroy, his illegitimate son, and claimed that Anne had planned to poison him and his half-sister Mary.
Chapuys certainly found the King’s behaviour odd, commenting Chapuys that “You never saw prince nor man who made greater show of his [cuckold’s] horns or bore them more pleasantly. I leave you to imagine the cause.”4
Now, it could be argued that Henry had fallen out of love with Anne Boleyn and in love with Jane Seymour, so he wasn’t that upset about it all, but surely he still would have been furious that he had been betrayed like that. Hmmm…
Henry’s relationship with Jane Seymour
Henry VIII became betrothed to Jane Seymour on 20th May, the day after Anne Boleyn’s execution, and married her on 30th May. This seems very quick for a man who had allegedly found out about his second wife’s betrayal at the end of April. Chapuys reported to Charles V, “I hear that, even before the arrest of the Concubine, the King, speaking with Mistress Jane Semel[Seymour] of their future marriage”,5 which may just have been court gossip but it shows that Anne was seen to be on her way out. On the morning of Anne’s trial, Henry told Jane that Anne would condemned by three o’clock that afternoon6, so he knew very well that the jury would find her guilty.
On 20th May 1536, the day of Henry VIII and Jane’s betrothal, Chapuys commented that “everybody begins already to murmur by suspicion, and several affirm that long before the death of the other there was some arrangement which sounds ill in the ears of the people”.7 One John Hill of Eynsham, Oxfordshire, got into trouble for saying “that the King caused Mr. Norrys, Mr. Weston, and such as were put of late unto execution, for to be put to death only of pleasure” and “that the King, for a frawde and a gille, caused Master Norrys, Mr. Weston, and the other Queen to be put to death because he was made sure unto the Queen’s grace that now is half a year before.”8 The gossip that was being spread was that the King had had his wife put to death so that he could marry another. Obviously, gossip is gossip, and cannot be take as fact, but the rumours held Henry responsible.
Henry VIII’s own words
Henry warned Jane against “meddling” in state affairs, reminding her of what had happened to the last queen who had done so.9 In 1546, when there was a plot against Archbishop Cranmer, Henry warned Cranmer that “false knaves” could be “procured” to stand as witnesses against him and to bring about his condemnation.10 Did Henry know this because he had ordered this to be done in Anne’s case? We cannot say for sure.
According to the Bishop of Carlisle, on one of the nights that the King had “supped” at his home “with several ladies”, while Anne was in the Tower, “the King had said to him, among other things, that he had long expected the issue of these affairs, and that thereupon he had before composed a tragedy, which he carried with him.”11 How had he “long expected” what was going on if he had only just been made aware of Anne’s betrayal?
The charges against Anne
Historian Derek Wilson writes of the illegal and “extremely cumbersome” means used in Anne’s fall, which included extending the treason law in a rather “unwarranted” manner by asserting that adultery with the Queen constituted high treason, which it wasn’t.12 Wilson concludes that “The only reason Cromwell would devise an unnecessarily complex scheme was that it was what Henry wanted. John Schofield, Thomas Cromwell’s biographer agrees, believing that Henry’s involvement is proven by the lack of logic in Anne being condemned for adultery even though Henry’s marriage to Anne was annulled.13 In my opinion, the blackening of Anne’s name, with the incest charge, and the complexity of the plot bear the stamp of a husband who wanted his wife dead. The plot was down to emotions such as jealousy, fear, resentment and hatred, not Cromwell’s rational and legal brain.
The speed of events
Gareth Russell makes the point that the plot against Anne lacked “any of Cromwell’s usual slow, brilliant, relentless tactics” and was instead “a swift, brutal mess”. Russell believes, and I agree, that this points to Henry being “the chief architect and the author of this tragedy.”14
I see the events of 1536 as being like a play or a movie. We have Henry VIII with the initial creative idea and the backing for the production; then we have Cromwell as the playwright/screenplay writer, the one who has to turn the idea into a production; and then we have the actors: the tragic heroine and other victims, the plotters and the other woman, plus all the extras. Everything combines to make a production that works, that pleases the backer and that entertains the public. Cromwell certainly orchestrated a plot that worked and the court accepted the events, but more importantly the backer got what he wanted, Henry was happy.
If you’re interested in reading about the other theories regarding Anne’s fall then read The Fall of Anne Boleyn – The Various Theories
Notes and Sources
- Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, note 61.
- LP x. 873
- Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 6 Part 1: 1538-1542, note 211
- LP x. 909
- Ibid., 908
- Ibid., 926
- Ibid., 1205
- LP xi. 860
- Narratives of the Days of the Reformation, Chiefly from the Manuscripts of John Foxe the Martyrologist; with Two Contemporary Biographies of Archbishop Cranmer, 255.
- LP x. 908
- Wilson, Derek. A Brief History of Henry VIII: Reformer and Tyrant.
- Schofield, John. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, 127.
- May 9th 1536 – The King Wills It, blog post by Gareth Russell on Confessions of a Ci-devant