Thomas Cromwell and the Downfall of Anne Boleyn

Chapter 3 : Backing a New Horse

This was no empty threat and Cromwell knew it. Anne had brought down his former patron, Cardinal Wolsey, who had seemed invincible. Now all of her ire was focused upon him. He had to act quickly in order to regain the initiative. His first step was to align himself more closely with the faction of conservative courtiers, led by Sir Nicholas Carew and with the Seymour brothers among their ranks. Carew and his followers had for some time had been plotting to oust the ‘usurper queen’ and replace her with Jane Seymour, whom they could more easily bend to their will.

It is an indication of how much Cromwell wanted to be rid of Anne, as well as of the extent of his pragmatism, that he was prepared to put his weight behind a body of men who were diametrically opposed to his own principles, and who until now had proved his most steadfast enemies at court.

According to Chapuys, what had made Cromwell resolve upon Anne’s destruction was not the open declaration of war that the Passion Sunday sermon had constituted, but a humiliating exchange with the King on 21 April. Henry had slapped Cromwell down for favouring an Imperial alliance, which the minister took as proof that Anne had worked her wiles on her husband, for she had always favoured an alliance with France. The fact that Anne clearly still had influence over Henry made her a deadly enemy to Cromwell.

Chapuys was very clear that it was Cromwell, not the King, who was responsible for everything that happened next. He told his master that the minister ‘had planned and brought about the whole affair.’ After the exchange with the King, Cromwell disappeared from court for a week, pleading time to recover from his ‘pure sorrow’. More likely is that he used this break from court for an altogether darker purpose: to plot the Queen’s downfall.

Cromwell knew that he had to construct a watertight case against her: the fact that she had failed to give Henry a son was insufficient basis for a divorce. Neither could he find some religious justification to prove her marriage to the King had been invalid. This had worked (just) for Catherine of Aragon, but it would make a mockery of those tortuous divorce negotiations if the King’s second marriage had been dissolved on similar grounds. Besides, an annulment was not enough. To be sure of his own survival, Cromwell had to totally destroy Anne and her faction. She had proved too many times in the past how skilful she was at wheedling her way back into the king’s favour. What Cromwell needed was incontrovertible proof that she was a traitor.

The Queen herself provided the perfect inspiration. Anne had always been known for her flirtatious manner, and she loved to surround herself with a coterie of male admirers. Principal among them was her own brother, George, Viscount Rochford, who enjoyed an unusually close relationship with his sister. He was often in her presence, and they held many private meetings and conversations. Among the Queen’s other favourites was Francis Weston, a gentleman of the King’s privy chamber; Mark Smeaton, a handsome young musician renowned for his beautiful singing voice, and Henry Norris, Groom of the Stool and a close favourite of the King.

Flirtatious and intimate though they were, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that the Queen’s relations with her coterie of male favourites ever strayed into the realms of infidelity. She had far too much to lose to risk adultery. Besides, her ability to keep Henry at bay for the seven years of their courtship had proved that she was not lacking in self-control. But Anne had always enjoyed the game of courtly love, and now that her husband’s passion for her had cooled, her need for admiration and flattery took on a desperate new edge. Cromwell knew it, and it gave him the perfect opportunity to oust the woman who had become his deadliest enemy at court.

Quite when he conceived the idea of framing the Queen for adultery is not clear. Indeed, he was careful to cover his tracks enough for some doubt to have been cast about his role in the controversy. But the evidence is compelling. Among all of Anne’s enemies at court, Cromwell had the greatest incentive to get rid of her. Neither is it any coincidence that almost all of the men who would be implicated in the scandal were troublesome opponents of the King’s chief minister.