GUILTY! Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn: Who was the most responsible figure for Anne’s downfall?

3 iconic figures. 3 historians. A guide to the ending of one of the most dramatic marriages in British history – who was responsible?…

The controversial union of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in January 1536 led to the break with Rome, and the formation of the Church of England. Their marriage ended with Anne’s execution in May 1536. Historians have disagreed over who was responsible for her demise, and have noted that Anne herself, Henry and Thomas Cromwell were the most important figures in the events that occurred in 1536. When defining the word ‘responsible’ one most consider the people that it is being applied to. If Anne were responsible for her own fall, as Bernard argues, one must take from this that she was guilty of adultery, and therefore deserved to be executed. For Cromwell and Henry, the term ‘responsible’ explains their role in her downfall and subsequent death. David Starkey argues that Henry initiated her demise, making him responsible. As it was Cromwell who crafted the trial of Anne, ensuring that she would not survive the ordeal, he is the most responsible figure for her downfall, as argued by Tracy Borman, making her theories the most convincing.

Borman credibly argues that Thomas Cromwell, who she defines as Anne’s “greatest adversary,”[1] was the most responsible for her sudden demise. Both Anne and Cromwell were reformers, and the religious changes that Cromwell made to England enhanced his power, as First Minister, as well as Anne’s presence within the Church of England, as both could easily influence Henry. To understand Borman’s argument, one must look at the reasons as to why Cromwell may have wanted rid of Anne. Borman’s strong argument rests on the idea that Anne and Cromwell were caught in a bitter power struggle, peaking in early 1536. This idea can be given credence when examining the controversial sermon delivered by John Skip, Anne’s almoner on the 2nd April 1536.[2] Skip spoke of the “evil counsellor” Haman, the greedy enemy of Queen Esther in the New Testament, who persecuted Jews, and placed their riches into the royal treasury.[3] Through her almoner, Anne attempted to expose Cromwell’s avarice to the entire congregation, and paint herself as the heroic Queen Esther, who would save the clergy. The insinuation that Cromwell was the greedy counsellor provides evidence of the conflict between Anne and Cromwell, which had been escalating for several months, therefore making Borman’s ideas highly valuable. Both had previously argued over what the money extorted from the clergy should be used for, with Anne arguing that it should be put to “better use,”[4] meaning education. According to Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, Anne even threatened Cromwell saying that she would “like to see his head off his shoulders.”[5] This thought would have only crossed Anne’s mind if Cromwell and herself were caught in conflict with one another. By evidencing that there was a power struggle between the two figures, it is conceivable to think that Cromwell was indeed an enemy of Anne. This provides significant reasons as to why Cromwell was the most responsible for Anne’s downfall, therefore making the opinions of Borman highly valid and credible.

Borman has already established reasons explaining why Cromwell may have plotted Anne’s downfall, and to further support these assertions examines his involvement in the events that followed, cementing her valid theory that Cromwell was the most responsible for Anne’s fall, as he crafted and shaped the events that led to her death, beginning with an altercation he had with Henry. Cromwell proposed an alliance with the pope to Henry, but he refused. This displayed Henry’s loyalty to Anne, who had previously threatened to have him killed. Borman notes that Chapuys believed that Cromwell began plotting the fall of Anne because of his humiliation at the hands of Henry.[6] Cromwell retreated to his house in Stepney, searching for “incontrovertible proof that Anne was a traitor.”[7] This makes Cromwell appear to be the most responsible for Anne’s fall, as he is undertaking the task of planning it, cementing the valuable opinion of Borman. Cromwell writes to Chapuys, stating that he “set himself to devise and conspire the affair”[8] of Anne’s downfall, which, in the light of their political conflict, which is well justified, would benefit Cromwell greatly. This builds on Borman’s convincing assertion that Cromwell was solely responsible for Anne’s fall, due to the conflict between the two. Borman argues that this evidence makes Cromwell the most responsible for Anne’s fall, as he confessed that he planned it. This makes him directly responsible for the events of 1536, as Anne’s imprisonment, trial and execution were of his own design, therefore making Borman’s views highly valuable.

When finding evidence for Cromwell’s involvement in organising Anne’s fall, Borman cites the evidence provided by Mark Smeaton, after his arrest on the 30th April 1536.[9] It is believed that Smeaton, according to contemporary George Constantine, was racked in order to ensure a confession of guilt.[10] Borman uses this to support her credible argument, that Cromwell was the most responsible for Anne’s fall, as he only needed one guilty confession to condemn her, and as the punishment for adultery was death, kill her. The arrest of Will Brereton, on the 4th May 1536,[11] is used by Borman to further support her argument that Cromwell was the most responsible for the fall of Anne. Brereton managed churches in Cheshire and had previously blocked Cromwell’s reforms. Oddly he was not in Anne’s circle, making him an unlikely person to have committed adultery with her.[12] Removing Brereton would further Cromwell’s cause, in getting rid of his rival at court and pushing his religious reforms in the north. Borman uses this evidence to justly support the idea that Cromwell was the sole architect of Anne’s fall, and that he was in complete control, making him the most responsible for it. His control is explained through the forced confession of Smeaton, and his condemning of Will Brereton, who would allow him to tighten his religious grip on the north, if he were got rid of.

Cromwell’s involvement in Anne’s fall, and his wish to destroy her, is also conveyed by his choice of jurors, which sealed Anne’s fate. By placing her enemies, such as Suffolk and Norfolk on the jury, Cromwell ensured that Anne would not escape the trial alive, which suited his political needs.[13] The evidence above, validly argued by Borman asserts the notion that Cromwell was in a power struggle with Anne, and then planned her downfall, making him solely responsible for it. Therefore, Borman’s views can be seen as highly valuable when assessing who was the most responsible for Anne’s fall, as by claiming Cromwell’s guilt, and evidencing Skip’s sermon, one can clearly see why Cromwell would want to be rid of Anne, as they were caught in a power struggle. The letters of Chapuys, and the arrests of Smeaton and Brereton also support the idea that Cromwell was the most responsible for the fall of Anne, as he himself planned her arrest and trial, which he knew would lead to her execution, therefore making the views of Borman highly convincing.

David Starkey disagrees with the views of Borman, arguing that Henry was the most responsible figure for Anne’s fall, as he was responsible for the decisions that led to her investigation and arrest. Starkey writes Henry was the most responsible for Anne’s downfall as it was he who instructed Cromwell to investigate “certain causes of treason”[14] against Anne, and with this signal, Cromwell put together a case that would certainly see Anne fall. Starkey argues that without Henry’s agreement, Cromwell would not have acted, therefore making Henry the most responsible for the fall of Anne, as it was he who gave Cromwell the authority to investigate her. Anne was investigated in the “profoundest secrecy,”[15] and as Cromwell would not have acted without the permission of Henry, Starkey argues that this makes him the most responsible for the fall of his wife. Although this signing of the “commission”[16] can be recognised as Henry making his formal decision to move against Anne, Starkey argues that his decision was made the day before, and can be seen in his behaviour to her brother George. Although Starkey mentions that Henry “vacillated,”[17] he revealed his hostilities towards his wife by announcing that “Sir Nicholas Carew, the Queen’s Chief antagonist, had been elected a Knight of the Garter, in preference to her brother, George, Lord Rochford”[18] on the “23rd April 1536.”[19] From this act it can be inferred that the Boleyn’s were quickly losing favour and status within the Tudor court. Starkey uses this to provide evidence of Henry’s guilt, as the decisions concerning the fate of Anne’s family and herself came from Henry.  Starkey highlights the significance of this event, explaining that “to exclude Rochford was an acute public rebuff.”[20] By citing this action Starkey argues that this shows Anne’s decreasing favour, and Henry’s decision to allow others, like Cromwell, to plot the demise of his wife. As Henry acts as the puppet master, and Cromwell as the puppet in this scenario, Starkey argues that Henry is the most responsible for the demise of Anne, as it was ultimately his decision to launch the investigation against her. In order to understand this further, one must examine Henry’s motives and why he may have wanted rid of his current queen.

An event on the 29th of January could explain Henry’s growing dislike for his wife, giving him cause to authorise her downfall. On the day of Catherine of Aragon’s burial, Anne miscarried of a male child. Chapuys notes that she “miscarried of her saviour,” as this baby would’ve been the son and heir that Henry had craved so desperately for.[21] Historians believe this to be the catalyst of her downfall, and a source of tension between the couple, as Anne herself was blamed for her inability to provide a male heir. Retha M Warnicke notes the growing intensity of the situation upon Nicholas Sanders’[22] revelation that Anne gave birth to a “shapeless mass of flesh.”[23] During this time, such a child insinuated gross sexual adultery on Anne’s part, which harmed Henry’s honour. Henry is frequently portrayed as a patriarchal, dominant figure as he was obsessed with masculinity. Having a wife with a greater sexual appetite than him, as the deformed baby suggested, did not reflect well on him.[24] When discussing whether Henry was responsible for Anne’s fall, it can be argued that this incident would have motivated him to organise an investigation against her. This event put Henry’s reputation at stake, and also Anne’s. Therefore, due to the implications of such a child, one can understand why Henry would show growing dislike towards his wife and her family. This particular event explains why Henry might have been motivated to move against his wife as argued by Starkey.

Anne’s relationship with Henry, according to contemporaries like Chapuys, was a tumultuous one, as the pair were “changeable” and prone to “lovers quarrels,”[25] further explaining why Henry may have wanted rid of his second queen. Anne’s “abrasive”[26] attitude was becoming increasingly “intolerable to her husband,”[27] and provides another reason as to why Henry may have wanted rid of her, upon the entrance of Jane Seymour. Seymour’s character was the opposite to that of Anne’s, and appeared to be much more obedient. When sending Seymour a purse of money and a letter in April 1536, she returned it unopened, stating that there “was no treasure in the world that she valued as much as her honour,”[28] and that she would wait for some “advantageous marriage.”[29] This chaste action drew Henry to Jane Seymour further, and in the light of Anne’s miscarriage, and her overall attitude, one could speculate that Henry wanted rid of Anne so that he could marry Seymour. Anne was well aware of this flirtation, and it would have caused more arguments between herself and her husband. Anne once again used her almoner, John Skip to tell the story of Solomon, who lost “true nobility towards the end of his life by sensual and carnal appetites.”[30] This is read by historians, like Borman, as an attempt by Anne to steer Henry away from Seymour, action no doubt that would’ve caused further tension for the couple. With the increased strain placed on their marriage because of this, as well as Anne’s miscarriage four months previously, one can easily see why Henry would be motivated to plot the downfall of his wife. After a painful ulcer that Henry acquired in a jousting accident in early 1536, he became irascible and intolerant towards Anne’s behaviour, further supporting Starkey’s idea that he was the most responsible for her fall due to this reason.

As Henry was the King of England, one could argue that he was the most responsible for the downfall of his wife. Although it is well documented, by historians such as Starkey, that it was Henry’s decision to move against his wife, it was Cromwell who carried this action out and formed a case against her. He was responsible for the case built against Anne, and although Henry commissioned it, the blame must still lie with Cromwell, as it was he who crafted Anne’s demise ensuring that she would not make it out alive. This makes the view of Borman, that Cromwell was the most responsible for the fall of Anne, the most convincing, and it therefore discredits that of Starkey’s. Starkey notes that Henry favoured Cromwell’s plan, as “the great advantage of this method was that it killed Anne.”[31] This insinuated that the events of Anne’s downfall were not defined by Henry, but by Cromwell, making him directly responsible for her death, as it was he who planned her trial in such a way, ensuring that she would die. This can be seen in Cromwell’s choosing of the jurors. This ensured the fall of Anne, with the permission of the King. This shows that Borman’s theories are more convincing than that of Starkey’s. Although Henry’s role is of great importance, as well as the events leading up to May 1536, it is still the role of Cromwell, and the views of Borman that must be noted as the most important, making him the most responsible figure when looking at the fall of Anne, in comparison to Henry.

GW Bernard argues that Anne herself was the most responsible figure for her fall, a view that it somewhat rare. It must be noted that in Anne’s case, ‘responsible’ would mean that she was guilty as charged. If she were guilty of adultery, and plotting the death of the King, then she would be responsible for her own fall, as she gave the law the opportunity to condemn her, through the fault of her own actions. When discussing whether she was the most responsible for her downfall, one must ask whether she was guilty of adultery, as if she were, the law had just cause for judging and sentencing her to death. GW Bernard argues that Anne was guilty of adultery, making her the most responsible figure for her fall. When examining this theory, one must debate whether Anne was guilty of adultery, whether Smeaton’s confession was genuine and examine the words of Anne Boleyn herself.

Bernard states that Anne was the most responsible for her fall as she was adulterous. Rumours of Anne’s alleged adultery came from her lady in waiting, Lady Worcester. In a conversation with another courtier, about her own promiscuous conduct, Worcester argued that the queen was at “much higher fault”[32] and that she entertained men late at night within her chamber. GW Bernard cites this incident in his case against Anne, stating that as a lady in waiting, she “would have been aware of it, indeed might have been complicit”[33] with any adulterous acts. Bernard therefore gives credibility to the source, leading him to believe that this is enough proof of Anne’s infidelities, making her the most responsible for her fall, as she was guilty of adultery. This would make her absolutely responsible for her downfall, as she was judged fairly by the standards of the time. This accusation would have fitted well with the contemporary perception of Anne. Borman notes that the Treason Act of 1534 said that slandering the royal marriage was treason, implying that belief that Anne was promiscuous was common.[34]

Bernard also cites the confession of Mark Smeaton as sufficient evidence for Anne’s guilt and uses it to explain why Anne was the most responsible figure for her fall. Bernard notes that torture was rarely used in Henry’s England, and that Smeaton never withdrew his confession. Bernard therefore argues that we can only assume that this means Smeaton, and therefore Anne, were guilty of adultery. Bernard does not find enough evidence to exonerate Anne, stating that she probably was “guilty of at least some of the adulteries of which she was accused.”[35] Again, if all historians were to agree with Bernard, they would be condemning Anne in declaring that she was guilty with what she was charged with. On the scaffold at his execution, Smeaton conveniently proclaimed that he “deserved the death.”[36] When discussing why Anne may have been promiscuous, Bernard even goes so far to speculate that she did so in numerous attempts to become pregnant.[37] If one were to use this evidence against Anne, one would question why Smeaton never withdrew his confession. Bernard argues that, as torture was rarely used in Henry’s England, Smeaton confessed his guilt without force, meaning that there must be some truth in it, as well as the allegations made against Anne.

Anne’s own conduct was key to the turn of events, especially her conversation with Henry Norris in April 1536, which made her highly responsible for her own downfall. This conversation was used against her in court, and made her appear guilty of adultery and treason. Anne declared to Norris that he looked “for dead men’s shoes, for if aught came to the king but good, you would look to have me.”[38] Anne is telling Norris that if the King should die, he would look to marry her. Anne was now accused of imagining the death of the King. This accusation of treason also made Anne looked increasingly guilty of adultery, with Henry Norris. Although one cannot provide a definitive answer for Anne’s adultery, this conversation is well documented, and proves that Anne’s own conduct did not aid her case. The Treason Act of 1534 had declared that imagining the death of the King was treason,[39] and although Anne wasn’t planning to murder Henry, her allusion to his passing, was enough for the jury to condemn her, making her the most responsible figure for her downfall as stated by Bernard.

When evaluating Bernard, and proving the credibility of Borman’s theories about Cromwell, one must assess whether Anne was guilty of adultery or not. If she were, this would make her responsible for her own downfall, as she would have been treated fairly by the standards of Tudor England. As it would be her own conduct that led to her downfall, she would be the most responsible figure for it. If one can use Borman’s theories to exonerate her, this maintains that Anne herself was not the most responsible for her fall, but that Cromwell was. Borman’s views on Smeaton have already been explored, as she argues that Cromwell tortured him. In doing this he would procure a confession, as one was all that he needed to ensure Anne’s death, as this was the punishment for adultery. He would ensure her death by accusing her of adultery with Smeaton, and by placing her enemies, Suffolk and Norfolk, on the jury. Borman proves Anne was innocent of adultery by citing the evidence. She points out that Smeaton could not “have had sex with Anne at Greenwich on the 13th of May,”[40] as she was in “Richmond on that day.”[41] This, and other incidences like it prove that Anne was not guilty of adultery, and that she was therefore not responsible for her own fall. Borman convincingly notes, “on at least two of the four dates cited for Anne’s adulterous relations with Brereton, she had not been in the location claimed.”[42] This immediately discredits Bernard’s theories, and gives greater credence to Borman’s stronger theories that it was Cromwell who fabricated the trial that led to Anne Boleyn’s death. The lack of evidence supporting the adultery between Anne Boleyn and William Brereton strengthens Borman’s theory that Cromwell invented it, as Brereton was blocking Cromwell’s religious reforms in the north.

Chapuys also reported that, in her last confession, Anne swore on the “damnation of her soul, that she had never been unfaithful to the King.”[43] In a deeply religious age, it is difficult for one to believe that Anne would have lied right before she was about to die, and allegedly meet God. This leads historians, like Borman to believe that Anne was innocent of the charges. In order to discredit Bernard, his use of speculation must be criticised. There is no substantial evidence to suggest that Anne was guilty of adultery, or that her desperation for an heir would have pushed her to commit adultery. Within his theory, Bernard speculates the two, despite the compelling and convincing evidence that has been put forward by Borman, which affirms Anne’s innocence. This makes Bernard’s claims that she may have been guilty, are puzzling because of this, and appear to be founded in only in speculation. This makes Anne Boleyn the least responsible figure for her fall, unlike Thomas Cromwell who crafted, and accelerated, her downfall and subsequent death. This therefore makes the views of Borman highly valuable.

In conclusion, Thomas Cromwell must be seen as the most responsible figure for the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Although it was Henry who allowed the investigation to occur, it was Cromwell who orchestrated and organised the entire investigation, ensuring that the jury, despite the inconsistent evidence, would find her guilty. Borman has convincingly cited Cromwell’s own words to Chapuys to support this idea, and has also picked up finer details like the abnormal arrest of William Brereton, and the dubious circumstances under which Mark Smeaton’s confession was procured. Borman validly explains that Cromwell undertook this challenge due to the ensuing political conflict between himself and Anne, and in accelerating her downfall; one can see that Cromwell was prioritising his own security. Such a skilful investigation can only be attributed to Thomas Cromwell, and because of this the fall of Anne Boleyn can be seen as his greatest “triumph.”[44]

Thanks for reading!


[1] Borman, T. (2015) Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant, UK – 1st edn. Hodder and Stoughton (pg. 230)

[2] Ibid. (pg. 217)

[3] Ibid. (pg. 217)

[4] Starkey, D. (2004) Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, UK – 1st edn. Vintage (pg. 557)

[5] Borman, T. (2015) Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant, UK – 1st edn. Hodder and Stoughton (pg. 215)

[6] Ibid (pg. 222)

[7] Ibid (pg. 232)

[8] Lipscomb, S. Betteridge, T. (2013) Henry VIII and the Court: Art, Politics and Performance, UK – 1st edn. Routledge (pg. 289)

[9] Lipscomb, S. (2015), Why did Anne Boleyn have to die?

Available from: http://www.historyextra.com/feature/tudors/why-did-anne-boleyn-have-die

[10] Schofield, S. “Thomas Cromwell and the fall of Anne Boleyn” The History Press

Available from: http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/thomas-cromwell-and-the-fall-of-anne-boleyn/

[11] Borman, T. (2015) Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant, UK – 1st edn. Hodder and Stoughton (pg. 242)

[12] Ibid (pg. 241)

[13] Borman, T. (2015) Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant, UK – 1st edn. Hodder and Stoughton (pg. 237)

[14] Starkey, D. (2002) The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics, UK – New edn. Vintage (pg. 91)

[15] Ibid (pg. 91)

[16] Ibid (pg. 91)

[17] Ibid (pg. 90)

[18] Ibid (pg. 91)

[19] Ibid (pg. 90)

[20] Ibid (pg. 91)

[21] Borman, T. (2015) Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant, UK – 1st edn. Hodder and Stoughton (pg. 213)

[22] M Warnicke, R. (1991) The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, UK – 1st edn. Cambridge University Press (pg. 246)

[23] Lipscomb, S. (2015), Why did Anne Boleyn have to die?

Available from: http://www.historyextra.com/feature/tudors/why-did-anne-boleyn-have-die

Accessed 20/07/17

[24] ‘Henry and Anne: The Lover’s who changed history’ – Channel 5 – Last accessed – 22/07/17 ep2

[25] Lipscomb, S. (2015), Why did Anne Boleyn have to die?

Available from: http://www.historyextra.com/feature/tudors/why-did-anne-boleyn-have-die 

Accessed 20/07/17

[26] Lipscomb, S. (2015), Why did Anne Boleyn have to die?

Available from: http://www.historyextra.com/feature/tudors/why-did-anne-boleyn-have-die 

Accessed 20/07/17

[27] Lipscomb, S. (2015), Why did Anne Boleyn have to die?

Available from: http://www.historyextra.com/feature/tudors/why-did-anne-boleyn-have-die 

Accessed 20/07/17

[28] Borman, T. (2015) Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant, UK – 1st edn. Hodder and Stoughton (pg. 229)

[29] Ibid (pg. 229)

[30] Ibid (pg. 217)

[31] Starkey, D. (2002) The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics, UK – New edn. Vintage (pg. 90)

[32] Bernard, G. W.. “‘A Much Higher Fault’: The Countess of Worcester’s Charge Against Anne.” Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010. 154. Print.

[33] Bernard, G. W.. “‘A Much Higher Fault’: The Countess of Worcester’s Charge Against Anne.” Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010. 154. Print.

[34] Bernard, G.W (2011) Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, UK – 1st edn, Yale University Press (pg. 185)

[35] University of Southampton – Professor G.W. Bernard

Available from: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/history/about/staff/gwb.page

Accessed 20/07/17

[36] Borman, T. (2015) Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant, UK – 1st edn. Hodder and Stoughton (pg. 249)

[37] Ibid (pg. 188)

[38] ‘Henry and Anne: The Lover’s who changed history’ – Channel 5 – Last accessed – 21/07/17 ep2

[39] ‘Henry and Anne: The Lover’s who changed history’ – Channel 5 – Last accessed – 21/07/17 ep2

[40] Borman, T. (2015) Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant, UK – 1st edn. Hodder and Stoughton (pg. 244)

[41] Ibid (pg. 244)

[42] Ibid (pg. 244)

[43] ‘British History Online’ – ‘Henry VIII: May 1536, 16-20

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol10/pp371-391

Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10 – January-June 1536, 908.

[44] Borman, T. (2015) Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant, UK – 1st edn. Hodder and Stoughton (pg. 250)

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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