Myth-Buster #2: How Eustace Chapuys Shaped the Story of the Decline of Henry and Anne’s Marriage

Eustace Chapuys as portrayed by Irish actor Anthony Brophy on The Tudors

Most non-historians, before Showtimes’ The Tudors introduced him to popular audiences, had never heard of Eustace Chapuys.  Those who had certainly did not think of him as a prominent figure in Tudor history—not like Wolsey or Cromwell, for example. Yet, amazingly, especially in light of his undisguised hatred of Anne, Chapuys is the man who has most shaped our image of her.  He has done so not directly, but via the historians and novelists who have accepted his reports as “biased” but accurate, and hardened them, over time, into “history.”

Eustace Chapuys  was just 30 years old when, in 1529,  he was sent to replace Don Inigo de Mendoza as ambassador of Emperor Charles V  at the court of Henry VIII.  Mendoza was known to be “hot-tempered” and “indiscreet” (Mattingly, 178), and Chapuys, a legal scholar and humanist enthusiast, was thought to be a better choice for Henry’s court.  As ambassador, Chapuys was both representative of the Emperor to Henry, and the main source of information about Henry to the Emperor and other Spanish officials.  His lengthy, anecdote-filled letters home offer the single most continuous portrait of the sixteen crisis-ridden years in which he served in his position, and biographers have relied on him heavily in their attempts to create a coherent narrative about the divorce from Catherine, the role of Anne Boleyn, and her relationship with Henry.  It’s easy to see why.  Chapuys clearly loved to write, he did so often, and he had a taste for juicy detail.  But he also had a horse in the race, for the Emperor was Catherine’s nephew, and Chapuys was, despite his humanist training, fiercely pro-Catholic.  He also hated all things French, and later in his life would threaten to disinherit a niece who planned to marry a Frenchman. (Mattingly, 184).  It’s difficult to imagine someone who would be less disposed to the dissolution of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, and more opposed to the marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn, who was both sympathetic to reformist ideas and “more French than a Frenchwoman born.”

But Chapuys wasn’t just “opposed.”  He despised Anne with a passion that he didn’t even try to disguise, disgustedly referring to her in his official communications as “the concubine” and “that whore”—or, with polite disdain, “The Lady.” Accordingly, Elizabeth was “the little bastard.” He accused Anne of plotting to murder Catherine and Mary—without a shred of proof beyond a few reported outbursts of Anne’s—and was the first to advance the argument that she was responsible for Henry’s “corruption.” (“It is this Anne,” Chapuys wrote, “who has put Henry in this perverse and wicked temper.” P. 484, Starkey)  Chapuys also took every opportunity to contrast “the people’s” hatred of Anne with their great love of Catherine.  When Henry had Katherine removed from court,

“All the neighborhood assembled to see her and pay her honor; and it is incredible what affection has been shown to her along the whole route.  Notwithstanding that it has been forbidden on pain of death to call her Queen, they shouted it out at the top of their voices, wishing her joy, repose, and prosperity, and confusion to her enemies.  They begged her with hot tears to set them to work and employ them in her service, as they were ready to die for the love of her.” (July 30, 1533)

The contrast is almost Hollywood-ready: the sullen, disrespectful observers of Anne’s procession; the cheering throngs, ready to die for their true Queen as she was led away from her rightful throne.

How accurate were Chapuys’ reports?  It’s almost impossible to say in the (many) cases in which he is the sole reporter of events.

Katherine of Aragon

But what is clear is that his interests were served by painting the worst picture possible of Anne, and that he worked hard to construct it.  He had an informal network of “conservative” (i.e. pro-Roman, pro-Katherine, pro-Imperial) nobles who would meet with him secretly to convey the latest anti-Anne gossip, which he then relayed to the Emperor as “word from a trustworthy source.”  And although there is no evidence that he played a direct role in the plot to charge Anne with treason, he “carefully watched all courtly signs of rejection leading up to her fall and exerted small pushes of encouragement, particularly with Cromwell.” (Lundell, p. 77), and declared it “wonderful” when she was arrested. (to Charles, May 2, 1536)  Chapuys was even willing to foment war between England and Spain if that was the only way to get Anne out of the picture and (as he saw it), keep Catharine and Mary out of harm’s way and restore relations between Henry and Rome:

“Englishmen, high and low,” he wrote to Charles, “desire your majesty to send an army to destroy the venomous influence of the Lady and her adherents, and reform the realm…When this accursed Anne has her foot in the stirrup, she will do the Queen and the Princess all the harm she can.  She boasts that she will have the Princess in her own train; one day, perhaps, she will poison her, or will marry her to some varlet, while the realm itself will be made over to heresy. “ (April 10, 1533)

Chapuys “bias” against Anne (if that mild word can do it justice) is obvious in every communication, from the very start of his service.  Even more strikingly, until Chapuys’s arrival, the Collected Letters and Papers of Henry VIII contain no seriously negative personal reports about Anne (beyond a few swipes at her appearance by Sanuto.)  As soon as Chapuys arrived, however, “Madam Anne” became “the concubine,” and everything that the pro-Catherine forces saw as dishonorable in Henry’s behavior became the fault of Anne’s “perverse and malicious nature.” (30th July, 1533.) “It is she who now rules over, and governs the nation; the King dares not contradict her,” he wrote to Charles in November of 1535—an extraordinary (and unbelievable) statement which paints the formidable Henry as nothing more than a pussy-whipped hubby.

It is Chapuys, too, who is largely responsible for our ideas about the decline of Anne and Henry’s relationship. In a letter of Sept 3, 1533—just a few days before Elizabeth was born, he reports how Anne, “full of jealousy, and not without cause, used some words to the King at which he was displeased, and told her she must shut her eyes, and endure as well as more worthy persons, and that she ought to know that it was in his power to humble her again in a moment more than he had exalted her.”  This speech has made its way into virtually every later biography, historical fiction, and film, probably due to its foreboding nature in light of later events, and because it signals such a startling turnaround in Henry’s treatment of Anne.  But irresistibly drama-friendly as it is, there’s little corroboration for it.  Chapuys never explains the “not without cause” nor how he happened to be present at this argument (if indeed he was; many of his reports are attributed to un-named sources.)  His real purpose in “reporting” the incident (which even he admitted was a “lover’s quarrel”) is revealed at the end of the letter, when he adds that “many who know the King’s disposition consider [such quarrels] a very favorable commencement for the recall of the Queen [Katherine]” Chapuys was always working this angle with Charles and, when he could, orchestrating anti-Anne sentiment and activity around Henry’s court.

It’s true that it was not uncommon for Henry to graze when his Queens were pregnant.  No-one knows for sure how many of these flirtations were innocent, “courtly” play, and how many were actual physical involvements. We do know that he had sexual mistresses when he was married to Katherine, and now that any motive to remain chaste for Anne was gone—he’d won the prize, and it was no longer necessary to play the devoted swain, or to avoid possible pregnancies with other women—why should it be any different?  But whether Henry’s affairs were physical or not, what seems hugely unlikely is that he would chastise Anne so harshly when she was so far along in her pregnancy, especially this long-awaited pregnancy, which all the stars and seers had predicted would result in a boy.  Even during her final pregnancy, when hopes were not nearly so high, he seems to have been careful with Anne.  When she purportedly caught the King with Jane Seymour on his knee and “flew into a frenzy,” the King, “seeing his wife hysterical and fearing for their child, sent Jane out of the room and hastened to placate Anne. ‘Peace be, sweetheart, and all shall go well with thee,’ he soothed.”  Although the reporters of this incident, too, are not very trustworthy (Weir says they came by way of a chain of reports, one passed on to the next, by various ladies at the court), this behavior sounds more like Henry’s modus operandi (utter some soothing words, then do what you want) than a king who would risk upsetting a very pregnant wife.

Will the real Eustace Chapuys please stand up?

It is Chapuys, too, who claimed, in a letter to Charles, that the birth of a daughter was “to the great regret both of him and the lady,” and filled Anne and Henry with nothing but “great disappointment and sorrow.” He goes on to write that “it must be concluded that God has entirely abandoned the king, and left him prey to his own misfortune, and to his obstinate blindness, that he may be punished and completely ruined.” This reported reaction, although challenged by historians, has been firmly installed—and embellished—in the popular mythology about Elizabeth’s birth, particularly in the novels.  Paul Rival: “A girl! …She heard the whispers of her attendants and Henry’s protests and thought to herself: ‘If only I could die!’” Nora Lofts:  “It was a girl…She knew she had failed, and willed herself away, welcoming the enveloping darkness.”(279) Philippa Gregory has an angry Anne pushing the baby away: “A daughter? What use is a daughter to me?” Anne of the Thousand Days depicts Henry as furious, at Elizabeth’s birth; The Tudors portrays him as cold and grim. But historians, too, have played their part, often taking it as highly significant that prepared documents, announcing the birth of a prince, were hastily altered with an added “s.”  Antonia Fraser says this “attests to the surprise and displeasure” caused by the birth.

Surprise, yes.  And undoubtedly, disappointment.  But was the birth of Elizabeth really the “heavy blow” that David Starkey claims? Eric Ives, the most careful of scholars, writes that there is “no evidence of the crushing psychological blow that some have supposed.” (184)  Anne had had a hard pregnancy, and “Henry’s predominant emotion was relief.”  In those days, merely to give birth to a healthy, living child was, after all, quite an accomplishment. What “The Tudors” has Henry saying is true to the material realities of the time: “This time a girl. But we are young and healthy and by the grace of God boys will follow.” But JRM say it with such a pinched look on his face, we take it as forced. The fact is that Anne having given birth to a healthy infant the first time around portended very well for the future, especially after Katherine’s many miscarriages.

Here again, we have to consider the original source.  In the same letter in which Chapuys tells Charles of Elizabeth’s birth, he reports that “the people” were “glad” that the King and Anne had a daughter rather than a son (which seems highly unlikely) and that “the new child is to be “called Mary, like the Princess; which title, I hear in many quarters, will be taken from the true princess and given to her.”  This (completely false) rumor pleases Chapuys enormously, for “defrauding the said Princess of her title” will “augment” the “indignation of the people, both small and great, which grows every day.”  This, of course, was an “indignation” that Chapuys tried to inflame every chance he got, for he was well aware (as he tells Charles in the same letter) that “it may cool in time, so that it should be used in season.”  It was also in his interests to convince Charles (who was Katherine’s nephew as well as the head of the Holy Roman Empire) that, despite appearances, getting rid of Anne was still a real possibility.  After Katherine died, his efforts to keep Katherine’s cause alive shifted to the restoration of Princess Mary’s claim to the throne, and his case against Anne became focused on her “plots” to murder Mary.  He was also an active and eager reporter—and possibly a participant—of later match-making between the King and Jane Seymour, who Chapuys knew would support Mary’s claim.  He is about as far from a reliable source on the activities of the ruling administration as Rush Limbaugh was when the Clintons were in power.

We must do more analytical “work” with the original documents than simply reporting what is recorded.

It’s particularly important, when dealing with a sequence of events that is not very well chronicled in the original documents but highly interpreted and dramatized both by historians and in pop culture, that we do more analytical “work” with the original documents than simply reporting what is recorded. The many reports that Henry and Anne were in trouble from the beginning of the marriage, for example, invariably turned out to be rumors which, by virtue of their vacillating nature, show how untrustworthy the reports of those who were eager to see Anne out of the picture were. In December 1533, Chapuys reported that despite the disappointment of Elizabeth’s birth, the King is “enthralled” with Anne; that “she has so enchanted and bewitched him that he will not dare say or do anything against her will and commands.”  (Chapuys, of course, isn’t happy about this, which is the most compelling reason for believing him here.  He was usually quick to report any loss of the king’s favor for Anne.) In September of 1534, Count Cifuentes wrote Charles that another ambassador had “heard in France that Ana Boulans had in some way or other incurred the Royal displeasure, and was rather in disgrace with the King, who was paying court to another lady.” By October 3, Cifuentes had corrected himself, writing that the idea that Anne and the King were on bad terms was “a hoax.” However, his colleague, Alferez must not have been aware of this recantation, because on Oct 18, he reported that “…the King no longer loved her as before.  The King, moreover, was paying court to another lady, and several lords in the kingdom were helping him that they might separate him from Anne’s company.”

But whether or not Henry was involved, relatively early on, with someone else (“Who was this new flame?” Ives asks, skeptically), the quarrels don’t appear to amount to anything until Jane Seymour enters the picture. Anne had her outbursts, Henry had his, but they had many more “merry” times, reported throughout the collected papers, and both had to have been well aware that no royal relationship could ride on the twists and turns of passion.  If that had been the case, Henry would have sought to divorce Katherine long before he did, instead of waiting until he had become convinced that she was no longer capable of providing an heir.  And kings—not even narcissistic Henry—didn’t get rid of Queens just because they had the occasional jealous outburst. Katherine, too, despite her reputation as the all-accepting, patient Griselda, had had her own vocal quarrels with the King, when he first began to seek the sexual company of other women.  It was to be expected, for everyone knew that women were weak and ruled by their passions.  But ultimately, once the shouting and weeping were over, the Queen was required to accept and obey.

This was hard for Anne.  Whatever the nature of her romantic or sexual feelings for Henry, Anne was used to being the pursued darling for six years, and now was expected to behave like a wife.  That included accepting his occasional flirtations, innocent and not, something she apparently found difficult to do.  She admitted this herself, in her speech at her trial in 1536: “I confess,” she said, “ I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times.”  Whether her jealousy was because she was in love with Henry, or was fearful of being supplanted as Queen, or simply her pride rebelling, we don’t know.  But it led to a number of public quarrels, followed by amorous reconciliations  (“sunshine and storms” is how Ives describes the years between 1533-36,) both of which provided fodder for Anne’s enemies to paint a picture of her as shrewish, Henry as either hen-pecked or philandering depending on the weather, and the relationship tottering.

It was largely propaganda. If you put all the documentation of the “thousand days” that Henry and Anne were married in chronological order–—the letters, the gossip, the various ambassadors’ reports—it’s a script with a gaping hole if what you think you are reading is a love story in which declining passion and jealousy play the major role.  For there is no evidence that either of these, although they may have contributed, was the tipping point that turned Anne’s fate around.  What turned the cherished, hotly pursued consort into the lady in the tower, awaiting her execution, did not belong primarily to the realm of emotions, but to the gathering of a “perfect storm” of political, personal, and biological events, the absence of any one of which might have resulted in things turning out very differently for Anne.


Filed under Anne Boleyn Myth-Buster

15 responses to “Myth-Buster #2: How Eustace Chapuys Shaped the Story of the Decline of Henry and Anne’s Marriage

  1. Jan Abraham

    Chapuys was the source of all court gossip, and certainly made no secret of his hatred for Anne, and his love for Katherine. I think he was the cause of history’s jaundiced view of Anne for many years, and Henry’s destruction of all things “Anne” left us no tangible artifacts from which to reconstruct her life, or her personality.

  2. Karissa

    Wonderful article! I loved reading it and am so looking forward to your book! Keep up the good work and you will not disappoint!

  3. Excellent article. I always thought historians relied on Chapuys too much, he’s hardly going to be fair in his stories about Anne, is he? Alison Weir’s book, “The Lady in the Tower” is a good book for redressing the balance as much as it can.
    Looking forward to your book! Keep us updated.

  4. Henry had too many devils sitting on his shoulders. As Princess Diana once said, there were three in the marriage. In Henry and Anne’s case, the third party was all of her enemies. Perhaps their marriage would have thrived had there not have been so many to interfere.

  5. Anne Barnhill

    Wonderful! I agree that Henry’s destruction of all things “Anne” has not helped historians form a more fair idea of her. Chapuys really is important for giving us the negative press about Anne! Can’t wait to read the book:)

  6. Susan

    Thank you all! I’m glad that you all “got” the fact that my piece is not meant to “blame” Chapuys, but to question our use of his letters as “factual”, despite his obvious biases. I have been surprised at how many people have come to Chapuys’ “defense” when this article was linked to on other sites! Some express great “affection” for him (I suspect this is based on his portrayal in the Tudors), others defend him as a “fantastic” resource for researchers. I was, quite frankly amazed at this! Yes, he was a charming man, that was part of his job; and he was devoted to those he supported. And yes, he is a great resource, but as a player in the drama, not as a witness to the truth of what happened. We would never accept such a biased “witness” or so much hearsay in a court of law! It really surprised me to see these reactions!

  7. Thank you so much for this piece Susan!

  8. What a great article, Susan! In her book ‘Anne Boleyn: The Young Queen to be’ Josephine Wilkinson wrote that Chapuys was ‘clearly obsessed’ by Anne (p. 54). He slandered her but yet he never faced her (except that brief moment in April 1536). Was he afraid of her intelligence? Was he afraid that his vision of her as ‘the Concubine’ and ‘the Great Whore’ might actually scatter and he will discover that she is not a ‘one common stewed whore’ but actually a very intelligent woman? I think he was intimidated by her.

  9. Pingback: Sound the Trumpets! It’s the Annual Year in Review! | The Creation of Anne Boleyn

  10. As I am writing a biography of Eustace Chapuys, there are a few issues I feel I must resolve. Firstly, Chapuys was more than likely born in 1489 not 99, making him almost 40 when he arrived in England. He did not refer to Anne as the Concubine until 1535, a good six years after he began his ambassadorship, and this is supported by his original letters in the Viennese archives rather then the flowery and often mistranslated 19th century versions of his letters. He also rarely referred to Elizabeth as the little bastard, and more often than not called her ‘The King’s other daughter’. It is in fact an interesting point that he does not dispute Elizabeth’s heritage, which others were more than happy to do. There is no indication that he was afraid of Anne at all, when he did finally meet her, he called her gracious and affable. I agree that more work must be done, but with the original documents, not these 19th century translations. I hope my upcoming biography will rehabilitate Chapuys and his reputation.

    • I’m looking forward to reading your book, Lauren. The premise sounds very interesting and I would love to know, if you have translated some of Chapuys’s reports into English? Any new evidence concerning any of Henry VIII’s six wives?

      Since I have made my last comment here, my views on Chapus and Anne Boleyn had changed a lot. I agree that 19th century versions of his letters are mistranslated and I am still amazed that no fresh translations are available – historians today still use the old versions.

      Chapuys did comment on Elizabeth’s paternity, though. During Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace he said that “the archbishop of Canterbury declared and pronounced by way of sentence the lady’s daughter (Elizabeth) to be a bastard, and begotten by master Norris, not by the King” [Cal. S. P., Spain, V ii, note 54]. Later he clarified his information: “The statute by which the concubine’s daughter was constituted legitimate heiress to the Crown has been revoked, and she herself declared bastard, not indeed as the daughter of Master Norris, as might have been implied more honestly, but owing to her marriage with the King having been pronounced illegitimate on account of his having previously had connexion with her sister.” [Cal. S. P., Spain, V ii, note 72].

      • I spent time in the archives in Vienna and Brussels and have translated letters pertinent to my book. The point I made was that he didn’t necessarily believe the rumours, but he did report them. Smeaton was rumoured to have been her father too. There seems to be a lack of distinction at times between what he reported out of duty and his own opinion.

    • Patricia Wagner Montminy

      Good comments I look forward to you book on Señor Chapuys. II
      Just ordered a book on his correspondence and that of the French kings ambassador as well. This story above seems that of a prosecutor trying to get someone, rather than an historical unbiased approach . I believe there is plenty of facts supporting the treatment of Mary after. Elizabeth’s birth
      In which Anne was trying to eliminate Mary.

  11. I spent time in the archives in Vienna and Brussels and have translated letters pertinent to my book. The point I made was that he didn’t necessarily believe the rumours, but he did report them. Smeaton was rumoured to have been her father too. There seems to be a lack of distinction at times between what he reported out of duty and his own opinion.

  12. Great article, but Chapuys is often misquoted and misinterpreted. I have read Lauren Mackey now her book has been written and he is a valuable inside source, without whose inside information, biased or not we would miss a vital part of the inner world of the Tudor Court. Chapuys is our best and one of our most important sources, as well as most detailed. At times his accuracy can be questioned, he has some choice views about Anne Boleyn, but I feel he is honest. Much of what he believed about Anne comes from his genuine concern about Katherine of Aragon and Mary and reports he heard about them being in danger. Myths about Anne don’t just come from one source, but many authors, most of them later like Sanders and George Wyatt, who were both biased, one very much against Anne, the other promotional of Anne. There is much in Chapuys which is negative, but much which is accurate, insightful, positive and even sympathetic. Chapuys was a clever and intelligent diplomatic and his extensive and long years of experience at Henry’s court give us an insight into how that intriguing and political minefield worked. Chapuys was also one of those who refused to acknowledge the false charges against Anne, believing in her innocence and the evidence nonsense. Whatever we may think of his correspondence, without him we would have too many gaps and he has left us a valuable resource.

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