Tuesday 4 May 2010

May 4th, 1536: The Public Reaction

“A cruel story runs on wheels, and every hand oils the wheels as they run.”
– Marie-Louise de la Ramée (1839 – 1908)

In the early afternoon of May 4th, two days after the Queen’s arrest, Sir William Brereton was arrested as the fifth of Anne Boleyn's alleged lovers and conducted to the Tower.

Of all Anne’s lovers, it was Brereton who seemed the least plausible candidate - with the obvious exception of her brother. Mark Smeaton had been noticeably attracted to the Queen physically, Henry Norris had constantly been in her company and Francis Weston was a known womaniser; Brereton, on the other hand, was neither close to the Queen personally, nor particularly attractive. Writing several years later, a palace servant spoke for many when he said, “If any of them was innocent, it was he.”

Sir William Brereton was a wealthy but ruthless middle-aged politician with links to Wales and Cheshire, who had been a supporter of the Howards and the Boleyns for almost a decade at the time of his arrest. Despite his political allegiances, he was certainly not the kind of man usually invited into the société particulière de la reine. Foul-tempered, financially corrupt but politically dependable, Brereton exerted enormous influence in Cheshire and north Wales, where he acted as the deputy for the King’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond. For the last two years, he had been influential in successfully blocking every administrative reform proposed for Wales by Thomas Cromwell, who was becoming increasingly frustrated both by Brereton’s truculence and the patronage he enjoyed at the hands of the Boleyns. As far as we can tell, the decision to arrest Sir William Brereton and try him for treasonous adultery with the Queen was therefore nothing more than an inspired piece of political improvisation on Cromwell's part - the ultimate example of killing two birds with one stone. If Brereton was executed, then his wealth would be carved up amongst those who had supported the King at this difficult time and Cromwell would, finally, be able to impose his own agenda upon north Wales and Cheshire.

By May 4th, the news that the Queen had been arrested and was imprisoned in the Tower was spreading rapidly throughout London and its surrounding areas. It was known that several men had joined her in captivity, although there was some degree of confusion about who they were and if they were all charged with the same thing. Some assumed that the Queen was accused of treason, not adultery, and that she had been caught attempting to plot the assassination of her husband. In a letter to his brother in Wales, the London lawyer, Roland Buckley, incorrectly asserted that the Queen had been imprisoned on a charge of High Treason, along with her father, the Earl of Ormonde, her brother, Lord Rochford, her friend Sir Henry Norris and several of her favourite ladies-in-waiting.

By and large, Londoners were enjoying the news of the Queen’s imprisonment, for the time being at least. Most people found it funny and, then as now, they seemed to leave common sense at the door when it came to sex scandals. There were rumours that Anne had enjoyed over a hundred lovers in her time as queen and that she and her brother had been sexual partners for so long that he was the true biological father of the Princess Elizabeth. 

London’s fledgling Protestant community, however, was less delighted and the Scottish evangelical, Alexander Aless, who had been visiting London from his exile in Germany, recalled in his memoirs twenty years later, “Those who were present well know how deep was the grief of all the godly, how loud the joy of the hypocrites, the enemies of the Gospel, when the report spread in the morning that the Queen had been thrown in the Tower.” Aless was so devastated to hear of Anne’s arrest that he became physically ill and took to his bed for the next two weeks, suffering horrendously vivid nightmares of the Queen’s mutilated corpse spitting blood in front of him.

Whilst the general reaction was one of scandalous excitement – or revulsion – at the Queen’s alleged crimes, there was also a fear within the government that eventually public attention would turn to the King and his role in all this. Anne was by no means as universally unpopular as some modern historians have suggested and neither was Henry’s popularity unassailable. On May 4th, the Spanish ambassador reported that the King’s fiancée, Jane Seymour, had been moved seven miles out of London to the country house of Sir Nicholas Carew, the King’s Master of the Horse. By removing Jane from the city, the ambassador theorised that the King was trying to “cover the affection which he has,” which might make the case against Anne Boleyn seem a good deal less convincing.

Inside the palace, the Queen’s enemies were working with feverish exultation to ensure the case against her and her “lovers” did not lose momentum, whilst confusion and fear seemed to grip everybody else. Sir Henry Norris’s valet was roaming the palace corridors desperately trying to gather information on the case against his employer were and the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting sat in the apartments suddenly robbed of their mistress, with nothing left to do but wait and worry. Other courtiers with a better knack for self-preservation almost fell over themselves in their eagerness to turn King’s evidence and Anne’s chamberlain, Sir Edward Baynton, went to visit Sir William Fitzwilliam to provide him with a list of names of those ladies-in-waiting and maids whom the Queen had been close to – perhaps if they were questioned, it might lead to more information for the government’s case?

Within the political class, some of the Queen’s former allies and relatives washed their hands of her with conspicuous speed. Her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, had already facilitated her arrest and had gone so far as to publicly taunt her about her downfall in the presence of witnesses; her 18 year-old stepson, the Duke of Richmond, with whom she had apparently enjoyed a friendly relationship prior to this, rushed through London to visit his father the King to congratulate him on escaping the clutches of so evil a woman and the Queen’s cousin, Sir Francis Bryan, dashed back to Court to renounce his kinship with “La Bolena” and to publicly declare his support for Jane Seymour.

Hearing of the Queen’s arrest and her possible replacement with Jane Seymour, the English clergy were thrown into a panic and not all of them could bring themselves to abandon Anne with the same speed as the politicians. Anne Boleyn had long been the champion of the liberal, non-papal Catholicism and even if she had never actually converted to Protestantism, she was sympathetic enough to their cause that she had never demanded the life of a heretic, as well as being genuinely interested in some of their arguments. Most of the reformist bishops in the Church of England owed their promotion to Anne’s influence or her family's - chief amongst them was Thomas Cranmer, the mild-manned Archbishop of Canterbury, who three years earlier had secured his position as the highest ranking cleric in England almost entirely because of the faith the Boleyns had in him. Cranmer, whose mild exterior masked a fervent devotion to the emerging Protestant faith, heard of his patroness' incarceration on May 3rd and immediately sat down to write a panicked letter to the King.

Throughout his life, Archbishop Cranmer was not known for causing difficulties for his superiors. This letter on Anne’s behalf – whilst a good deal less gutsy than we might like – was only one of two occasions in his entire life when he dared question the monarchy. “My mind is clean amazed,” he wrote to Henry, “for I never had a better opinion of a woman ... Next unto Your Grace, I was most bound to her of all creatures living, which her kindness bindeth me unto, and therefore beg that I may with Your Grace’s favour wish and pray for her, that she may declare herself inculpable and innocent... I loved her not a little for the love which I judged her to bear towards God and the Gospel”. However, even now, the Archbishop could not quite bring himself to criticise the King for what had happened to Anne – firstly, he was too afraid of him to do so and secondly, Cranmer’s belief in absolute monarchy was so complete that he could not conceive of Henry carrying out this terrible act against his wife unless she was actually guilty. After all, this was the man who, thanks in no small part to Cranmer’s efforts, was not just a political leader but a spiritual one as well, and it seemed repugnant and impossible that such a man could be accused of pre-meditated uxoricide. And whilst Cranmer wrote, “I think Your Highness would not have gone so far if she had not been culpable,” His Grace the Lord Archbishop could not know that within two weeks he was to discover just how far Henry had been prepared to go when Anne deliberately selected Cranmer to hear her Last Confession, perhaps to drive home the point of what kind of man it was that she had married and Cranmer served.

For a full account of the Archbishop's letter, Claire at The Anne Boleyn Files, once again offers a fantastic set of interpretations.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Gareth,

    Thanks for linking to the AB Files, I've linked to you too in my Jane Boleyn post and also on our facebook page. It's great that we're both doing this series with our own take on events!
    Speak soon and thanks for all the support.


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