Aside from Henry, Boleyn did have the support of the powerful faction she had built around herself. Chief among them were her father, brother, and brother-in-law, William Carey, and Norfolk in the early years. Outside of her own family, she also counted Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Audley, who became Lord Chancellor in 1533, and Henry Norris as allies. Proof of her influence can be found in the rise of these gentlemen. By the time of her fall, her father was lord privy seal, the Archbishop of Canterbury was Thomas Cranmer, and Thomas Cromwell was the king’s principal secretary and minister. All of these positions prior to 1532 had belonged to those loyal to Catherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary.267 Factions were merely the creation of private calculation, but could express the permanences of family, friendship, locality or upbringing. Still, the system at its heart existed to promote objectives that were primarily personal, and calculations could and often did change.268 Boleyn’s abandonment in her hour of need would be a direct example of recalculations among some of the supporters within her faction.
The events of the spring of 1536 would determine the rest of Henry’s reign and shape the course of the remainder of Boleyn’s brief life. The new “year of three queens”269 began for the royal couple with grand triumph. At long last Catherine of Aragon died on 7 January making Boleyn “now... truly queen.” The next day the royal couple appeared at court “in joyful yellow from top to toe and Elizabeth was triumphantly paraded to church.”270 Here again was Boleyn’s lack of subtlety displayed. Her “choice of garb was no less than a calculated insult to the memory of the woman she had supplanted.”271 A “carnival-like celebration of Catherine’s death” was held the following day on 8 January by the king and queen.272 The cherry on top lay in Boleyn’s three-month pregnancy with what she was sure was a son and the world seemed ripe with possibility.
Disaster struck some weeks later when the king was thrown from his horse at the joust and lay unconscious for hours, once again putting terror into the heart of England which still had no male heir. Boleyn attributed the miscarriage of her son “with much peril of her life” on 29 January to the king’s near death.273 This was a huge disappointment to the king and intensified Henry’s fears that God’s hand could also be against this marriage. According to Chapuys, the royal couple’s relationship became strained following the loss of a second son. He cites an argument in which Henry claimed “clearly that God did not wish to give him male children” to which Anne allegedly replied that Henry had no one to blame but himself for he had broken her heart when she saw he loved others.274 Still, Henry stood by her and the couple had reconciled by late February. Though the marriage was tumultuous, as Weir suggests, “he could not afford to lose face after his long and controversial struggle to make her his wife, nor would he admit that he had been wrong in marrying her.”275 Crucially, as late as mid-April 1536 the king was still making every effort to have Charles V recognize Boleyn as queen.276
“Circa Renga Tonat, Thunder Rolls Around the Throne”
Undoubtedly “all discussion of the fall of Anne Boleyn ends in the ultimate unresolvable paradox of Tudor history: Henry VIII’s psychology.”277 The king’s psychological state in the spring of 1536 is essential to understanding his clinging to his honor so aggressively and the destruction of Anne Boleyn. Henry was not the only man of his age “intoxicated” with honor.278 The concept was of vital importance in sixteenth-century England as it was used to justify gender roles. For an honorable man this meant “masculinity, upholding patriarchy, controlling women and defending one’s good name,” were all vital parts of one’s image.279 The characteristics of one’s manhood were wrapped up in marriage, control of the household, the use of reason, sexual prowess, physical strength and courage. “In the noble and chivalric world in which Henry VIII operated, the paramount place for demonstrating physical strength and manly courage was the joust,”280 which Henry’s accident in January 1536 had ensured the king would never do again. The fall had opened an old wound on his thigh that would never fully heal and chronically ailed him for the remainder of his life. Until this point, the king prided himself, and staked much of his honor and authority as king, upon his athletic prowess. When this was taken from him, Henry’s very identity underwent a significant shift. Faced with disability as well as yet another frightening brush with death, he found himself staring middle age in the face, no small feat for a king who purported to be larger than life. The epitome of sixteenth century masculinity lay in the “rambunctious energy” displayed by “a man of excess” in his strength, courage, display and riotousness.281 Henry had always been such a man, although he seemed now a very subdued one who had been made to face his mortality. 1536 marked the end of the king’s active life and a major aspect of his honor.282 It also resulted in the loss of a major component of his identity as a man and authority as king.
These circumstances would surely leave anyone feeling vulnerable and in the midst of an identity crisis. For a king, and a man such as Henry, it could spell disaster. Presiding over a country in religious tumult at a crucial and defining period of his reign, Henry had taken a major blow to his royal image, and thus his authority, something he could not afford to have threatened. Once again, the king would be forced to reinvent himself. He would turn more heavily to display and allegory in his later reign to communicate his authority as king (and Head of the Church) to compensate for the loss of his military and sporting prowess. This certainly adds a layer of understanding to the scene in 1536, but still the questions remain: how and why could Henry allow the execution of an anointed queen?
There are many ways to tell a story and the fall of Anne Boleyn is one of the best examples of how facts can be interpreted to produce differing outcomes. Her spectacular downfall has been blamed on everything from “factional intrigue, diplomatic maneuvering, theological battles and supernatural paranoia.”283 There is much debate amongst historians about what Boleyn did to ensure her own downfall. Many theories place credence on her miscarriage in late January. If Chapuys’ third-hand report is to be believed, following the loss Henry confessed that he believed he had made the marriage seduced by witchcraft and therefore considered it null and void. The king then determined that he could take another wife.284 From this account also stems the suggestion that the fetus was deformed, which ultimately led to charges of witchcraft and Boleyn’s undoing, though there is no historical evidence to support such a theory.285 Still other accounts suggest that it was Boleyn’s activity as a reformer and political power that spelled her ruin due to court factionalism.286
What is certain is that the loss of a son was a severe blow to the royal couple. Rumors ran rampant that the queen was unable to conceive an heir and the king’s eye still wandered. Whatever his commitment to his marriage, Henry’s phase of monogamy was over. Still his actions in support of his marriage from February to April 1536 demonstrate his remaining loyalty to Boleyn. In fact, the king launched a rather aggressive campaign upon Charles V to recognize Boleyn as his wife and repent of the wrongs he had done to Henry during the years of the divorce. This months-long series of negotiations, much aided by Cromwell himself,287 reached their climax during Easter 1536. In a deliberately staged series of events to provoke formal recognition of Boleyn, Chapuys was invited to court on the pretense of speaking with the king. Instead he was greeted by Anne’s faction and invited to visit the queen and kiss her hand, which Chapuys politely declined to do. Instead he was accompanied to Mass where, as Henry and Boleyn descended the royal pew, the queen stopped and bowed to the ambassador. In a brilliant stroke of diplomatic maneuvering on Henry’s part, etiquette demanded that Chapuys do likewise, finally recognizing Boleyn as queen.288 In a later letter Chapuys noted that many were “somewhat jealous at the mutual reverences required by politeness which were done at the church.”289 Once again Henry had gone to great lengths to legitimize Boleyn as his wife and queen nearly a month to the day before she would be executed.
Many historians suggest that the final blow was her falling out with Cromwell and the subsequent sermon campaigns Boleyn launched with her chaplains to modify the royal policy on monastic funds. In a brilliant use of allegory on Boleyn’s part, her chaplain John Skip’s infamous Passion Sunday sermon comparing Cromwell to the evil Old Testament advisor Hamman whom Queen Esther triumphed over in the king’s affections, was preached on 2 April 1536.290 Though the king and Cromwell were furious at the slight,291 Henry’s telling overtures with Boleyn and Chapuys took place nearly three weeks later on 18 April indicating that the queen’s actions, while rash and unbecoming, did not seal her fate.292 While the sermon did not spell disaster in Henry’s eyes, it was catastrophically damaging to the queen’s relationship with her strongest ally, Thomas Cromwell. The deaths of both of Henry’s former favorites, Wolsey and More, were on Boleyn’s hands and no doubt present in Cromwell’s mind. The secretary had much reason to be fearful, and murderous too. As previously established, Anne made few friends. Cromwell was certainly the most powerful and independent of them. While he was partner and co-conspirator with the queen in many court policies, his power ultimately came directly from Henry. The system of patronage is crucial to this equation. Just as Boleyn’s only claim to power lay in the king’s affections, the power of those she surrounded herself with rested solely on that same influence she drew from the king. So when it was suddenly withdrawn in April 1536 with charges of treason, adultery and incest, there was no one around the queen to come to her aid, save Cromwell whom she had turned against her.
Boleyn’s fall when it came was rapid, incandescent, and accompanied by the finest display of smoke and mirrors, pyrotechnics and theatrics of Henry’s reign. Just as in all his other campaigns to make her, he quickly unmade her in masterful fashion. The king was heard around court saying he believed that “upwards of 100 gentlemen” knew Boleyn carnally. He praised God for delivering him and his children from “the hands of that accursed whore,” and composed a tragedy, which he carried about in a little book and offered for people to read. On Ascension Day he wore white for mourning. In June, his parliament would pass the Second Act of Succession, bastardizing Elizabeth and declaring his marriage to Boleyn illegitimate. Most notably, and to the scandal of contemporaries, Henry accelerated his budding relationship with Jane Seymour quite publicly and caroused with ladies of the court openly. In fact, he was betrothed to Jane Seymour on the day of Boleyn’s execution. Indeed, “you never saw a prince or husband show or wear his (cuckold’s) horns more patiently and lightly than this one does.”293 It is here that Lipscomb’s theory of a gender relations crisis as the impetus for Boleyn’s fall comes into consideration.
It is well established that Boleyn and her fellow-accused were innocent of the crimes they were charged, with even contemporaries questioning the lack luster evidence against them.294 The motive for the accusations is what remains unclear. Despite Chapuys’ reports, Boleyn was never formally charged with witchcraft and there is no evidence to support claims of a deformed fetus as the impetus for such accusations. Theories of Henry simply tiring of his wife are also unlikely. Mere weeks before her arrest the king was still fighting in Boleyn’s corner for legitimacy, not the actions of a man who shortly planned to dispose of her. While he was clearly no longer besotted with Boleyn as he had once been, he was still very much committed to his marriage in name at least, thereby negating the arguments that the miscarriage was the last straw or that he simply wanted her removed in favor of Jane Seymour. Had Henry wanted to get rid of Boleyn there were far “less humiliatingly intimate”295 ways to go about doing it. A man with such a keen sense of the crucial connection between honor and princely authority would not have willingly cuckolded himself simply to be rid of his wife. Henry may have been bored with Boleyn, disappointed that she had not delivered on her promises, and certainly frustrated with her rash behavior, and perhaps had even come to dislike her as some historians have suggested, but “none of these things was likely to bring about her destruction.”296 Instead, the king had made the mental adjustment from viewing and treating Boleyn as the love of his life to simply his honored queen and the mother of his children.297 This transition proved a difficult pill for his wife to swallow.
The more plausible, long-standing theory of court factionalism as the impetus for her death, while valid in many aspects, still leaves much to be desired in its version of a Henry who could “be bounce[d]...into decision” by those around him.298 As this thesis has demonstrated, Henry VIII was an intelligent, shrewd and skilled ruler with an awareness of and penchant for image building and manipulation. A king who so masterfully and directly wielded his power and authority up until this point does not fit with the naive ruler described in this theory. While damaged by the fall of January 1536, Henry was certainly not beaten, nor would he have simply let go of the reins of his court and kingdom at one of the most crucial periods of his reign. Conversely, he would have been more sensitive and determined than ever to cultivate and defend his image and honor, personally. This theory suggests that Cromwell and Boleyn’s political enemies, chiefly the Seymour family, conspired to undo the queen and skillfully tricked Henry into playing along. The main line of evidence used to suggest that Cromwell plotted against Boleyn is a letter by the ever-hopeful Chapuys that suggests Cromwell told him that he had “set himself to devise and conspire the said affair.”299 The problem with this lies in translation and context. Chapuys’ original letter was written in French. One translation suggests that Cromwell planned and carried out a premeditated plot against Boleyn. However, when taken within the context of the entire letter, the phrase reads as if Henry had given Cromwell the authority to discover and bring to an end Boleyn’s time in power.300 It appears that the “affair” which the secretary refers to was in fact the investigation, trial and execution, not the planning itself. In this context, the letter negates the argument of an easily manipulated king, and instead suggests the more plausible view that Henry was at the helm and charged Cromwell with pursuing it further once the king was informed of the rumors. This stands to suggest that the king was not the puppet of, but rather a beneficiary of, factionalism at court. Instead when he was informed of the allegations against the queen, he ordered an investigation and did not openly turn on his wife until confession and revelations of the queen’s inappropriate conversations with others were revealed and she was arrested. Cromwell certainly had motive, good reason to be concerned about the queen’s enmity, and perhaps intent to take the queen down, but cannot be singularly responsible for contriving a plot over political disagreements. This argument instead suggests that Cromwell was indeed growing increasingly desperate in the weeks prior to the queen’s arrest. Certainly after Easter the lines had been clearly drawn: either the queen or himself. But his rescue, when it did come, was rather more impeccably timed luck than pure maniacal ingenuity. Cromwell was the messenger of court gossip, not the author of a grand plot. Cromwell was certainly a formidable political animal, but as he and Boleyn would soon enough learn, Henry VIII surpassed them both, and one more frightening than anyone could have possibly imagined in 1536. Instead of factionalist tensions being the sole impetus of Boleyn’s fall, these events “predisposed the king to be more responsive to the accusations of adultery when they came.”301
With Cromwell as the eager facilitator, the question then remains what was the direct impetus for the investigations launched into the queen’s honor in April 1536? The answers lie in Boleyn’s very nature and the briar patch that was the system of courtly love at the Tudor court. Again, much historiographical focus is placed on her actions in 1536 rather than on what she said in those crucial weeks leading to her undoing.302 The queen’s conduct since her marriage in 1533 had been less than ideal from a gender and public relations standpoint. Anne Boleyn was inappropriate in almost every sense of the sixteenth-century definition for queen and wife. She was scandalous, and could be rash, vindictive and arrogant when pushed to it. Her aggressive role in politics and religion were tolerable so long as she enthralled the king, but it was her lack of discretion in the way of gender roles and queenship, and ultimately the irreparable damage done to Henry’s authoritarian image because of it, that led to her undoing.
The problem with royal mistresses, or newly-minted over mighty queens, lay in the power they drew from the kings they served. Boleyn is best known for her systematic seizure of this power, which she wielded most effectively in politics and religion. Throughout history, women and power have made for an uneasy combination. If, as French historian Joan Scott suggests, gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power, then the vitriol heaped on Boleyn by her contemporaries is certainly understandable.303 Sixteenth-century society saw female power as savage and immoral. “A woman promoted to sit in the seat of God, that is, to teach, to judge or to reign above man, is a monster in nature, contumely to God, and a thing most repugnant to his will and ordinance,” scoffed John Knox.304 His view of female power and influence reflected the opinions of patriarchal early modern society at large. Naturally, like those who had gone before her, Boleyn is often depicted as the biblical Jezebel, sexually corrupt, immoral and manipulative. Sexual corruption or dishonor was a concept and process, of which Boleyn is a prime example, with a power all its own; it was an invaluable social tool of conformity applied most powerfully to women in sixteenth-century Europe.305
It would be this tool of sexual dishonor that would end Boleyn’s time in power. As previously discussed, women had a certain role to play within the Tudor court. This concept was wrapped up in female honor. “The requirement of female chastity had a passive quality; the chaste woman was modest and non participative, submissive and docile.”306 In terms of modesty, Boleyn failed miserably as evidenced in 1532 on the eve of her triumphal visit to France when she ordered gowns made in the fashion of the “wanton creatures” of the French court that were “singularly unfit for the chaste.”307 The appointment of several bishops who were Boleyn’s allies between 1532 and 1536 shows she did not refrain from participation in the politics of the realm. Her interference was so great that Chapuys named her “the principal cause of the spread of Lutheranism in this country.” Her actions on Passion Sunday alone showed her to be anything but submissive and her constant “dancing and sporting” was certainly not docile. Against this backdrop were Boleyn’s more private shortcomings. Her household was lively, flirtatious and significantly less formal than Catherine’s had been. The atmosphere in her chambers was more spirited than most and there she often entertained many gentlemen of the court, who praised her beauty and professed their love for her above all others as courtly love dictated. “This was the way to secure patronage and reward, and, provided it was not pursued too ardently, to win the favour of the king” who delighted in possessing something many could not have.308 The pastimes of the queen’s chambers would soon be shown to be most ardent and indeed, out of hand.
Entertaining these gentlemen callers would prove to be an unwise pursuit, for this was where the rumors of the Boleyn’s adultery originated as “the queen’s incontinent living was so rank and common that the ladies of her privy chamber could no longer conceal it” and the king’s advisors were informed.309 One of these ladies was Elizabeth Browne, Lady Worcester. In an argument Lady Worcester’s brother, who was treasurer of the royal household, accused her of immoral conduct at court as the child she carried may not have been her husband’s. She then replied that if he was accusing her of sexual immorality, then her behavior was certainly not the worst and he should rather look to the queen, naming her relationships with several courtiers including her own brother and adding that “[Mark]Smeaton could tell more.”310 This theory is based on a 1,000-line poem written in 1535-6 and published in 1545 by Lancelot de Carles, bishop of Riez, who was visiting England at the time of the scandal.311 Courtier John Hussey lends more credence to de Carles’ claims as he also named Lady Worcester as the original source of the rumors in reports to those living outside of London.312 Boleyn herself commented while imprisoned that Worcester’s fragile pregnancy was in danger because of “the sorrow she took for me.”313 G.W. Bernard suggests that it was Lady Worcester’s brother, not Cromwell, who then took this information to the council, and furthermore that Henry ordered an investigation launched but that should the charges prove false, the accusers would be punished.314
While Worcester’s accusations were alarming, the conflict came to a head during May Day weekend (29-30 April) 1536. Boleyn was seen having at least two public conversations during this time that would prove to be her undoing. First a spat with Mark Smeaton on 29 April saw Boleyn and the court musician in an alcove. The queen herself reported their conversation while imprisoned: she asked him why he looked so melancholy and suggested that if he were sick with love for her, he was indeed beneath her. The musician hastily replied that “No, no, madam, a loke sufficed me” and walked away.315 This conversation lacked propriety in Smeaton’s familiarity with the queen. For a courtier to dismiss a queen’s question as “no matter” and to walk away without being dismissed suggests an air of informality not befitting a queen. Smeaton was arrested the next day, likely because he was already under suspicion with Worcester having named him as one of the queen’s lovers and also because his lowly station gave him less protection. He was the only of the accused to confess to carnal relations with the queen, being the impetus for the headhunt within Boleyn’s household. In fact, it was “absolutely key” to everything that followed, whipping the investigation into frenzy as “suddenly rumor became fact” and “everything was believable.”316 At this stage, the king was probably informed of the confession as Henry made two telling decisions indicating his growing suspicion of his wife’s guilt: first he cancelled Boleyn’s company on a 2 May trip to Calais and made arrangements to travel alone a week later, and secondly, determined to continue with the May Day jousts that weekend.317 This is further supported by the account of Scottish theologian Alexander Alesius, who witnessed on Sunday 30 April, a charged conversation between the king and queen which saw Boleyn holding Elizabeth in her arms, pleading with Henry as he looked out of an open window at Greenwich. Henry’s fury was evident and “it was most obvious to everyone that some deep and difficult question was being discussed.”318