Sunday 9 May 2010

May 9th, 1536: The King Wills It

“Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.”

- W.H. Auden (1907 – 1973), Epitaph on a Tyrant

On Tuesday, May 9th, 1536 Henry VIII strode into one of the vast audience chambers at Hampton Court Palace and took his seat before 22 bowing aristocrats and 27 bowing gentlemen-in-waiting. Near his throne, like a dutiful raven, stood Secretary of State Thomas Cromwell, waiting to assist his royal master in the formal notification to the aristocracy that the Queen of England had been arrested and would stand trial within the week for multiple counts of sexual perversion and intended treason. Earlier that day, the cumbersome legal proceedings against the Queen had been commenced as the Grand Jury of Middlesex prepared to meet in Westminster to organise the mundane details required for a treason trial, now that the main ground-work of evidence gathering had been completed by Cromwell. The foreman of the jury, Giles Alington, a stepson of the late Sir Thomas More, remarked that as far as he was concerned there was no need for there to be a trial at all - the Queen should be put to death at the first available opportunity.

In his slightly high-pitched voice, the King proceeded to outline the Queen’s heinous crimes which were “such great and weighty matters as whereupon doth consist the surety of our person, the preservation of our honour, and the tranquillity and quietness of you and all other our loving and faithful subjects”. He pointed out that although Norris, Brereton, Weston and Smeaton would stand trial in London on Friday, the Queen and Lord Rochford, as members of the Royal Family and aristocracy, were legally entitled to have a trial before their peers – that is to say, more or less everyone now clustered into the King’s presence. The King's presence reminded them that every man was expected to their duty for “the preservation of our honour”; there was not to be another unfortunate and unexpected acquittal of an accused traitor, as had happened with Henry Norris’s father-in-law, Lord Dacre, two years earlier.

With fulsome protestations of loyalty and yet further bowing, the lords and gentlemen assured the King of their repugnance at the Queen’s “abominable and detestable” actions. Retiring, they left the King alone with Cromwell, who promised his Sovereign that the rest of the nobility – some of whom had retired to their estates at the far extremities of the King’s domains – would be ordered back to London in time for the Queen’s trial for a much-needed show of unity.

This call for singularity of purpose amongst the elite was the first time the King had been seen in public – or rather, officially – since he had left the May Day jousts at Greenwich eight days earlier. He had, of course, been seen by the more eagle-eyed of his subjects, sailing downriver at night to take his fiancée Jane Seymour out for night-time supper parties on the Thames. With the music floating from the barge and Jane Seymour perched at his side, dressed with a conservatism that bordered on the theatrical. The sight did not sit well with the Londoners watching from the shore and Cromwell had spent the last few days trying to hunt down the authors of various pamphlets ridiculing the King and his wife-to-be. The Spanish ambassador had stared on in grim amazement at how cheerfully the King wore his cuckold horns, whilst the Bishop of Carlisle nearly fainted with mortification when the King presented him with a play he had written - before his wife's arrest - dramatising Anne's alleged evil.

With the news that the pro-Boleyn pamphleteers were being hunted down by Cromwell’s men and the reassuring sight of the greatest men in the kingdom promising to serve the government’s purpose, Henry Tudor retired once again to his privy apartments, where he dispatched a short letter to Surrey, where Jane Seymour was staying in with the Carew family and her younger sisters, Lady Elizabeth Ughtred and Mistress Dorothy Seymour. He told her that there was some literature circulating in the capital mocking them, but that she was not to be unduly upset by it or worried if anyone brought it up in conversation.

The King’s appearance at Hampton Court on May 9th raises the question of how deeply he was complicit in the judicial murder of his wife. Despite the King's garishly inappropriate nocturnal river parties and the fact that the audience on May 9th clearly shows he was not above using the charisma and terror his person inspired to remind the nobility of what he expected them to do, Jasper Ridley, G.W. Bernard, E.W. Ives, R.M. Warnicke and Alison Weir have all argued – if for very different reasons – that Henry believed Anne was guilty. In her excellent The Lady in the Tower, Weir goes so far as to say that: “In weighing up the evidence for and against her, the historian cannot but conclude that Anne Boleyn was the victim of a dreadful miscarriage of justice: and not only Anne and the men accused with her, but also the King himself, the Boleyn faction and – saddest of all – Elizabeth, who was to bear the scars of it all her life.” The general presumption, particularly by Ives and Weir, is that the mastermind behind the Queen’s downfall was his chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell (not to be confused with his infamous great-great-nephew, Oliver), who manipulated the King into believing his wife’s death was essential.

Now is not the time to go into the enormously complicated theories behind what exactly caused Anne Boleyn’s downfall in the months preceding her death. After years of research and of reading both the primary and secondary sources, to me two facts remain clear: firstly that she was innocent, secondly that it happened quickly. In this, I concur with more or less every major historian and writer working in the field at the moment.

For me personally, however, the missing third of this tragedy is not Thomas Cromwell, but Henry VIII. It was, after all, Henry who signed the death warrants and whilst it may have been Cromwell who organised the interrogations, arrests and trials, it frankly beggars belief that Henry could have been so easily duped into believing in his wife’s guilty. As far as I’m concerned, Henry was neither a participant nor a victim in what happened in 1536 – rather, he was the chief architect and the author of the tragedy. Cromwell certainly organised the details and oversaw the execution of the plot, but under no circumstances could he have dared act so audaciously – and so manically (the entire thing was a swift, brutal mess, without any of Cromwell’s usual slow, brilliant, relentless tactics) – without having been told to do so, in so many words, by Henry and to do so quickly.

For me, the best explanation condensed explanation comes from the historian Derek Wilson in his book A Brief History of Henry VIII: Reformer and Tyrant (2009): -

The details of this notorious travesty of justice – the interrogations, the suborning of witnesses, the dubious interpretation of the statute under which Anne was condemned – have frequently been explored ... If we look for a pointer to the truth, we should consider the means – the extremely cumbersome and illegal means – used to bring Anne down. This was a quite unwarranted extension of the existing treason law. Cromwell and his legal experts asserted that adultery by or with a queen was high treason. It was not. Once Anne’s enemies decided to go down this route, they had to find men they could fit up as the queen’s lecherous partners. So, the net had to be spread wider and confessions forced out of Anne’s supposed paramours. All this was complicated and messy. Simple annulment would have been enough to end the marriage. If it was necessary to blacken Anne’s name it would have been possible to fabricate an attempt by her on the king’s life (something which was initially considered, but then dropped). The only reason Cromwell would devise an unnecessarily complex scheme was that it was what Henry wanted. At the heart of the murder of Anne Boleyn lies sex – sex and jealous and the fear that only sex can provide.... Resentments, fears, jealousies and suspicions now multiplied in Henry’s fevered brain. He saw Anne at the centre of the group of admiring males, singing, laughing, dancing, sharing jokes – perhaps at his expense. And this was the woman who had the gall to lecture him about the attentions he was paying to Mistress Seymour. He also saw the pious queen who set her preachers up to humiliate him, who thought she knew more about Christ’s religion than God’s appointed head of the English church.

Or, in a nutshell – obsessive love turned into obsessive hatred and Anne was as powerless to escape the latter in 1536 as she had been to escape the former ten years earlier. And so Cromwell authored the details of the tragedy, whilst Henry commanded the original subject matter.


  1. Oh my gosh, what an amazing post! I love your theory of Henry VIII wanting Cromwell to engineer the plan--you are absolutely right, from what research I've done and what I've read, Cromwell did not influence the King so much as do what he wanted, without complaining--that's why he was so invaluable before his fall and execution.

    It also makes sense that Henry's love turned to hate--his love was passionate, so it makes sense that when it ended, like any affair of its kind, it would end messily. Unfortunately for Anne, he was not just some average guy ...

    Btw, good luck with your novel coming out! I will be sure to look for it; I really enjoy fiction as well. :)

  2. Absolutely spot on. After raising her up, he could bring her down. Being in the Lion's Court was dangerous, especially now that the Lion enjoyed using his power so well.

  3. What do you think of Jane Seymour and her role in this whole business? She seems quite an enigmatic figure to me.


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