Spring, 1536: The Conspiracy to Destroy a Queen

By spring of 1536, Henry VIII's passion for Anne Boleyn had soured into hatred. The son he had expected had turned out to be another worthless daughter, and Anne had miscarried of a son in January. The quick mind and spirited personality that had attracted him to Anne in the first place were now starting to irritate him. He was experiencing problems in the bedroom, which - knowing Henry's personality - he likely blamed on Anne. He wanted a placid, submissive wife now, and he had his eye on a woman who seemed to embody those very qualities: Jane Seymour.

But it had taken Henry seven long years to rid himself of his first wife, Katharine of Aragon. Anne was just as stalwart as Katharine, and well-versed in Scripture. She also had powerful and wealthy supporters in the religious reformist movement. Like Katharine, Anne deeply loved her daughter and would fight to her last breath to preserve Elizabeth's rights to the throne. Henry was in no mood for a protracted legal battle and another inconvenient ex-wife causing him grief.

But invalidating his second marriage might tacitly confirm the pope had been right to say it wasn't legal, and Henry couldn't have that. Chapuys noted Henry's predicament:

[T]he King would have declared himself earlier, but that some one of his Council gave him to understand that he could not separate from the Concubine without tacitly confirming, not only the first marriage, but also, what he most fears, the authority of the Pope.

Divorce also left his future marriage to Jane questionable. There were people who never accepted his marriage to Anne while Katharine still lived. Princess Elizabeth was considered a bastard by conservative Catholics, born of a bigamous relationship. Henry didn't want anyone to question the legitimacy of the heir he was certain he would father with Jane.

There was only one conclusion ...

Anne must die.

Thomas Cromwell later admitted he was the main architect of the plot against Anne. He had to have started working on it in April, 1536 - possibly earlier, but likely around then, because they needed to move fast in order to catch Anne and her supporters unaware.

Cromwell was a religious reformist himself, but he was the king's man first. His primary duty was to get Henry whatever he wanted - to find a "legal" way to obtain his desired end, that is. And Cromwell was extraordinarily good at his job.

Anne and Cromwell had worked together in the past, but lately, tensions between them had increased. On the 1st of April, Cromwell told the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, that Anne would like to see Cromwell beheaded. Whether he was speaking with hyperbole to try to curry favor with Chapuys, or whether relations between Cromwell and Anne had really gotten so strained, is unknown.

One of the main sticking points between them was that Anne wanted the funds from the dissolved monasteries to go toward founding schools. Cromwell and the king wanted it to go to the royal treasury. Guess who won that particular dispute? Anne also favored an alliance with the French, and German religious reformers; Cromwell was courting the Emperor and a renewed friendship with the Spanish.

Some scholars have put the entire conspiracy on Cromwell's shoulders, making Henry an innocent dupe of the false accusations against the queen, but I doubt that highly. Henry's own behavior illustrates plainly that he was in on the plot. (Contrast his behavior during Anne's fall with how he reacted to the fall of Katheryn Howard for ample proof.) Henry said he wanted rid of his queen, and Cromwell supplied a way to make it happen.

Anne likely knew something was stirring. In January, Chapuys had written that the king had said he felt his marriage was invalid because he had been tricked into it by the promises of soothsayers ("sortileges") that Anne Boleyn would bear him a son. In late April, Chapuys reported that the Bishop of London had been asked whether the king's marriage to Anne might be found invalid. (The Bishop wisely responded he would only give his answer to the king himself, and only if he knew in advance what answer was wanted.) Henry was testing the waters.

Jane Seymour's supporters also knew the queen's days were numbered. Henry had already been speaking to her of their future marriage, even before Anne's arrest. Chapuys writes at the end of April that Nicholas Carew was daily conspiring with Jane toward the queen's ruin.

The Grand Esquire, Master Caro (Carew), was on St. George's Day invested with the Order of the Garter, in the room of Mr. De Bourgain, who died some time ago. This has been a source of great disappointment and sorrow for lord Rochefort [George Boleyn], who wanted it for himself, and still more for the concubine, who has not had sufficient credit to get her own brother knighted. In fact, it will not be Carew's fault if the aforesaid concubine, though a cousin of his, is not overthrown (desarçonee) one of these days, for I hear that he is daily conspiring against her, and trying to persuade Miss Seymour and her friends to accomplish her ruin. Indeed, only four days ago the said Carew and certain gentlemen of the Kings chamber sent word to the Princess to take courage, for very shortly her rival would be dismissed, the King being so tired of the said concubine that he could not bear her any longer.

Cromwell seems to have operated under the concept of "Go big, or go home." The plot against Anne had to destroy her reputation utterly, and leave the king's honor spotless. As a result, Anne could not be charged with mere adultery, because then people might laugh at the king for having a wife who prefered another man's caresses to his own. No, she had to be a depraved monster of lust, whose carnal appetites were so all-consuming that she would seduce her own brother to satisfy them. That's why so many men were accused with her, along with Mark Smeaton, whose inclusion was meant to show how truly depraved she was. She would even sleep with commoners!

Cromwell also seems to have used the case against the queen to solve some pesky problems he had on his desk. William Brereton, for example, was involved in a dispute over some land with one of the lords of the privy council. He was killing  all of his inconvenient birds with one stone.

Henry was kept aware of the progress of the plot. Chapuys reports that all-day council meetings ran late into the evening. Anne was also getting very nervous. On the 26th of April, she met with her chaplain, Matthew Parker, and made a special request of him. She asked him to watch over her daughter, Princess Elizabeth, if anything were to happen to her.

But Anne couldn't have known what was in store for her. Likely, she suspected Henry was trying to get his ducks in a row for an annulment suit, or put her under a state of perpetual house arrest, as had been done with Eleanor of Aquitaine. She would never have suspected what Henry actually had in mind. No queen of England had ever been executed.

On May 2nd, Anne Boleyn was arrested and charged with adultery and treason.

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