The Fateful, Fatal Month of April 1536: An Overview

Excerpt from The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. DO NOT QUOTE, CITE, COPY OR DISTRIBUTE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION.

The Arrest of Anne Boleyn (an 1872 print)

There are a number of theories as to what allowed the unthinkable—the state-ordered execution of a Queen—to happen.  One theory, first advanced by Retha Warnicke and adopted by a number of novels and media depictions, is that the miscarried fetus was grossly deformed, which led to suspicions of witchcraft.  If Henry truly believed that Anne was guilty of witch-craft—which of course was a possibility in those times—he would have virtually no choice but to destroy her, as with anyone in league with Satan.  But although Henry complained, at one point, that he had been bewitched by Anne, that was a notion that, as in our own time, was freely bandied about in very loose, metaphorical manner.  It could mean simply “overcome beyond rationality by her charms” (as Chapuys himself means it when early in Anne and Henry’s relationship, when he complained that the “accursed Lady has so enchanted and bewitched him that he will not dare to do anything against her will.”[1]) Moreover, none of the charges later leveled against Anne involved witchcraft, and there is no evidence that the fetus was deformed.

Another theory, which Alison Weir puts forward in The Six Wives of Henry VIII but revises in The Lady in the Tower, is that Henry, fed up with Anne, newly enamored of Jane, and eager “to rid himself” of his second wife but not knowing how, eagerly embraced Cromwell’s suggestion, in April, that he had information that Anne had engaged in adultery, and asked Cromwell to find evidence to support the charges.[2] But even if we accept the idea that Henry would cynically encourage a plot designed to lead to Anne’s execution, and despite his flirtation with Jane and disappointment over the miscarriage, Henry did not behave before Cromwell put the allegations before him like someone looking to end his marriage.  Whatever he was feeling about Anne, recognition of his supremacy was still entwined with her, and even after the miscarriage, he was still working for imperial recognition of his marriage to “his beloved wife” Anne.  With Katherine gone, it seemed a real possibility.  And in fact, in March, the emperor offered, in return for the legitimation of Mary, imperial support for “‘the continuance of this last matrimony or otherwise,’ as Henry wished.”[3]  The deal didn’t work out, due to Henry’s refusal to acknowledge that anything about his first marriage—including Mary—was legitimate.  He was utterly committed to maintaining his own absolute right to the organization of his domestic affairs, and that meant both recognition of Anne as lawful wife and Mary as bastard.

Most scholars nowadays (with a couple of exceptions whom I’ll discuss later) believe, following Eric Ives, that the plot against Anne was orchestrated by Thomas Cromwell, without Henry’s instigation or encouragement.  Things had been brewing dangerously between him and Anne for some time, and by April, she probably knew that he had become friends with the Seymours and had also been sidling up to Chapuys.  On April 2, Anne had dared to make public declaration of her opposition to his policies by approving of a potently coded sermon written by her almoner, John Skip, in which he (implicitly) compared Cromwell to Haman, the evil, Old Testament councilor (which would make Anne Esther to Henry’s Xerxes.) The specific spur for the sermon was proposed legislation to confiscate the wealth of smaller monasteries, which was awaiting Henry’s consent and against which Anne was trying to generate public sentiment.  But by then, the enmity between Anne and Cromwell had become more global than one piece of legislation.  Still, as he told Chapuys, Cromwell felt more or less secure in Henry’s favor until a crucial meeting between the Ambassador and the King on April 18th, in which Henry, who had seemed to be in favor of the reconciliation with Rome which Cromwell had been negotiating with Chapuys, now revealed his true hand, and refused any negotiation that included recognition of his first marriage and Mary’s inclusion in the line of succession.  Cromwell was aghast at Henry’s stubbornness, as he had been working hard toward the rapprochement with the emperor, burned his bridges with France, and (because of his relationship with Chapuys) with Anne and her faction as well. Earlier in the day, it had seemed that some kind of warming between Chapuys and Anne was being orchestrated. Chapuys had been invited to visit Anne and kiss her hand—which he declined to do—then, was obliged to bow to her when she was thrust in his path during church services.  Later, at dinner, Anne loudly made remarks critical of France, which were carried back to Chapuys. But when after dinner, Henry took Chapuys to a window enclosure in his own room for a private discussion, he made it clear that he wouldn’t give.

“Far from the issue of April 1536 being ‘When will Anne go and how?’” Ives writes, “Henry was exploiting his second marriage to force Europe to accept that he had been right all along.”[4] Cromwell was furious, humiliated, and fearful that he had unexpectedly found himself on the wrong side of Henry’s plans. In a letter to Charles, Chapuys wrote about the April 18 meeting, and what he wrote suggests that what was already on high heat between Cromwell and Anne was about to boil over.  Chapuys reports that one reason why he would not “kiss or speak to the Concubine” and “refused to visit her until I had spoken to the King,” was because he had been told by Cromwell that the “she devil” (Chapuys’ appellation, not Cromwell’s) “was not in favor with the King” and that “I should do well to wait till I had spoken to the King.”[5]

With the king still pushing for her recognition, Anne must have felt deceptively safe. On April 25, Henry writes a letter to Richard Pate, his ambassador in Rome, and to Gardiner and Wallop, his envoys in France, referring to “the likelihood and appearance that God will send us heirs male [by] our most dear and most entirely beloved wife, the Queen.”[6] But something has already begun to seem wrong to Anne, who seeks out her chaplain, Matthew Parker on the 26th, and asks him to take care of Elizabeth, should anything happen to her. And in the days that follow, Chapuys is clearly (and gleefully) aware that plots are being hatched against Anne. He writes to Charles that there is much covert discussion, at court, “as to whether or not the King could or could not abandon the said concubine,” and that Nicholas Carew is “daily conspiring” against Anne, “trying to convince Miss Seymour and her friends to accomplish her ruin. Indeed, only four days ago the said Carew and certain gentlemen of the King’s chamber sent word to the Princess to take courage, for very shortly her rival would be dismissed.”[7] When the bishop of London, John Stokesley, expressed skepticism, “knowing well the King’s fickleness” and fearful that should Anne be restored to favor, he would be in danger, Chapuys reassures him that the King “could certainly desert his concubine.”[8]

In fact, after the April 18th meeting, Cromwell, claiming illness, had gone underground to begin an intense “investigation” into Anne’s conduct.  On April 23, he emerged, and had an audience with Henry. We have no record of what was said.  But many scholars believe that the illness was a ruse, that during his retreat he carefully plotted Anne’s downfall, and that what he told the king on April 23 were the deadly rumors about Anne that eventually led to her arrest and trial. The king, however—perhaps dissembling for public consumption, or perhaps unconvinced by what Cromwell has told him—was still planning to take Anne with him to Calais on May 4th, after the May Day jousts, and was still pressing Charles to acknowledge the validity of his marriage to Anne.   Then, on April 30th, Cromwell and his colleagues lay all the charges before Henry, and court musician Mark Smeaton is arrested.

Anne had no idea that Cromwell and Henry, that day, were meeting to discuss the “evidence” that Anne had engaged in multiple adulteries and acts of treason. That evening, while Smeaton was being interrogated (and probably tortured), there was even a ball at court at which “the King treated [Anne] as normal.”[9] He may have been awaiting Smeaton’s confession, which didn’t come for 24 hours, to feel fully justified in abandoning the show of dutiful husband.  Although we don’t know for sure what message was given to Henry during the May Day tournaments, it was probably word of Smeaton’s confession, for he immediately got up and left. Anne, who had been sitting at his side, would never see him again; the very next day, as her dinner was being served to her, she was arrested and conducted to the Tower.


[1] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: December 1533, 16-25,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 2: 1531-1533, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87796&strquery=”so enchanted and bewitched him”

[2] (Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII 1991, 309)

[3] (Ives 2005, 312)

[4] (Ibid., 315)

[5] James Gairdner (editor), “Henry VIII: April 1536, 21-25,” Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10: January-June 1536, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=75427&strquery=”kiss or speak”

[6] Weir, Lady in the Tower, p. 95.

[7] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: May 1536, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87960&strquery=”could not abandon the said concubine”

[8] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), “Spain: May 1536, 1-15,” Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=87960&strquery=”desert his concubine”

[9] (Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn 2010, 123)

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