Thomas Cromwell and the Downfall of Anne Boleyn

Chapter 2 : Cromwell and Anne Boleyn

The best illustration of Cromwell’s ruthlessness lies in his treatment of Henry VIII”s notorious second queen, Anne Boleyn. Although he can be exonerated of many other crimes, this is one that I believe should still rest at his door.

And yet it had all begun so differently. Cromwell and Anne were, in a sense, the source of each other’s power at Henry’s court. Cromwell knew how desperately Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne, so he made it his business to make it happen. In so doing, he effectively paved Anne’s way to the throne. The wily Mistress Boleyn had recognised the potential of Cromwell, who at the time was a relative newcomer to court, and had made him her ‘right hand’. The fact that they were united not just by political ambition but the reformist faith made their alliance all the more natural.

But time would prove that theirs was an alliance of convenience more than ideology. Although they shared a passion for reform, Anne disapproved of the way that Cromwell was diverting the dissolved monasteries’ wealth to the crown: she thought it ought to go to charitable causes. Moreover, although quick to recognise his usefulness, she had never shown any great liking for the minister, or appreciation of his personal qualities. According to the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, Anne and Cromwell had some very public spats, during one of which she had told her former ally ‘in no uncertain terms that she would like to see his head off his shoulders.’ The ambassador warned Cromwell that Anne would secure his downfall, just as she had Wolsey’s.

For his part, Cromwell had only furthered Anne’s cause for as long as it was aligned with that of the king. He felt no personal loyalty or affection towards her and, like Henry, was no doubt tiring of her increasingly volatile behaviour. Cromwell was never one to back the wrong horse. Although Henry had been so obsessed with Anne that he had overturned the entire religious and political establishment to marry her, as his queen she had proved a grave disappointment. Not only had she so far failed to give him the son he craved, but she had acted in an ‘unqueenly’ manner, with her frequent outbursts and her refusal to put up with her husband’s affairs ‘as her betters had done.’

Although Cromwell assured Chapuys: ‘I trust so much on my master [Henry], that I fancy she [Anne] cannot do me any harm’, he knew how dangerous the Boleyns could be and was not going to take any chances. Therefore, when his former ally suffered a catastrophe at court, he was quick to capitalise upon it.

On 29 January 1536, on the same day that her old rival Catherine of Aragon was buried, Anne miscarried. The fourteen week old foetus had every appearance of a male child. Henry was devastated and furious in equal measure: his second marriage was clearly as contrary to God’s wishes as his first had been. Whether he instructed Cromwell to get him out of it is not clear, but his minister knew that this was his task.

On 1 April, Chapuys told Charles V that he had heard ‘that this King’s mistress and Secretary Cromwell were on bad terms just now’, and that there had even been talk of a new marriage for the King – which Cromwell, presumably, was busy arranging. Anne was almost at her most dangerous when under threat. The following day, Passion Sunday, she instructed her almoner, John Skip, to preach a sermon that was a thinly veiled attack on Cromwell. In a service attended by the king and his court, Skip ‘insisted on the need of a king being wise in himself and resisting evil counsellors who tempted him to ignoble actions. He also condemned the same ‘evil ‘counsellors’ who ‘suggested alteration in established customs’, and went on to tell the story of Haman, the avaricious enemy of Queen Esther in the Old Testament, who persecutes the Jews and tries to divert their riches to the royal treasury. This story ends with Haman facing death on the very scaffold that he had built for his rival, the Queen’s protector.