‘A World of Their Design’: The men who shaped Tudor diplomacy
In a time of shifting politics and world changing events, three men would emerge as masterful diplomats, ambassadors and advisors who possessed a shrewd political acumen. They each shared a complex and intriguing relationship with the other, while manipulating the powers around them in the game of diplomacy. Lauren Mackay explores the intersecting lives of Thomas Boleyn, Eustace Chapuys and Thomas Cromwell: the men behind the thrones.
Lauren Mackay is a historian whose research focuses on courtiers and diplomats of the 16th century. She completed her Master of History with University of New England, and is currently researching her PhD on Thomas and George Boleyn in the English Reformation, with the University of Newcastle in Australia.
Thank you all for coming, it’s a pleasure to be here and to speak about three men of the Tudor court who I believe were consummate diplomats, masterful ambassadors and perceptive advisors: Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Boleyn and the imperial ambassador Eustache Chapuys. They each shared a complex and intriguing relationship with the other, while successfully manipulating the powers around them in the game of diplomacy.
The court of King Henry VIII was a world of shifting politics and religious uncertainty. While Henry was a central player in Tudor historiography, as are some of his six wives, what about the men behind the throne? Those who quietly, and at times not so quietly, influenced Tudor political culture. It could be argued that these men, the ambassadors and diplomats, were the true movers and shakers.
Thomas Cromwell was the powerful advisor to Henry, who enjoyed considerable power as the King’s chief minister and who has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last years. Thomas Boleyn and Eustace Chapuys were more peripheral players in the Tudor court. Now Thomas Boleyn has been eclipsed, I would say, by his more famous daughter, Anne Boleyn. And Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, has been for the most part a name at the bottom of thousands of letters and dispatches.
But these dispatches are some of the most detailed and informative and evocative descriptions of Henry Tudor, his court, his matrimonial woes with his challenging and often troublesome six wives along with many other colourful personalities. Indeed while historians have provided us with sketches of these individuals, it is Chapuys, through his invaluable letters and diplomatic dispatches, who has given them their colour and their texture.
Now before I explore Chapuys’s diplomatic style and his embassy, which began in 1529, I would like to talk about Thomas Boleyn, a man who history has given very little consideration to, beyond the outdated stereotype of scheming father of an ambitious queen. Yet I believe that Thomas Boleyn was in fact one of Henry VIII’s finest and most skilled diplomats and ambassadors, long before Thomas Cromwell and Eustace Chapuys were on the court scene.
Thomas’s political career at court, like many others during the period of upheaval following the War of the Roses, began in Henry VII’s army. At the age of 20, Thomas and his father were part of the Kentish contingent against a rebel army of approximately 30,000 men. Henry VII’s army emerged victorious and Thomas experienced his first taste of battle, although he would follow a more peaceful path as diplomat.
Unfortunately history has given Thomas a rather weak and almost effeminate disposition: a man who preferred words and plots to physical confrontation and battle. A visage perhaps more in keeping with some historians’ opinions of his lesser status behind his powerful daughter, in their eyes, the true figurehead of the family.
We certainly see this in Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, where Cromwell described Thomas Boleyn stroking his beard. He believes, Cromwell tells us, it makes him look enigmatic. I can’t actually say the rest of the quote but it is quite hilarious.
I think this is yet another misconstruction of the man, so often to be found in Tudor historical fiction. There was much evidence in fact of Thomas’s physical attributes. We see this during the Field of Cloth of Gold in Calais in 1520. He participates in field sports such as jousting. He is also an entrant in the Tudor version of the Iron Man competition, a four-day tournament of scheduled nightly combat, wrestling being one of the main events.
But Thomas has political ambitions, and throughout Henry VIII’s early reign he demonstrates a knowledge of great monarchies of Europe, and the political affairs that raged around them. A new career gradually opens up for Thomas, and one that he assumes with gusto: foreign diplomat and special envoy.
Because it’s not in fact Henry VIII who first recognises Thomas Boleyn’s skills, it’s his chief advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey is a man of humble origins who rises to power on his own wit and becomes indispensable to the young king, a quasi-father figure if you will. Wolsey not only understood the nature of the European political game, he knew how to play it. He was a Renaissance man whose vision for his country would see England allied with France and the Holy Roman Empire. As the architect of the Treaty of London in 1512, Wolsey would see the only way to stop the continuous and costly warring was a non-aggressive treaty, however short-lived.
Thomas Boleyn would eventually become Thomas Wolsey’s right hand man, and it’s a relationship that’s often overlooked, because of Wolsey’s subsequent downfall and the role of the Boleyn faction in it. But Thomas excels at Wolsey’s side, so much so that he is involved in almost every embassy that England takes in foreign affairs. Thomas may have begun his career as a courtier but it is under Wolsey that he becomes a statesman and an ambassador.
Keeping France and the Holy Roman Empire on side was a delicate task. Thomas’s missions would include posts to the court of the Archduchess Margaret in the Netherlands, who was Charles V’s aunt. Thomas’s diplomatic style was curiously informal for an ambassador and we see in his first interactions with Margaret of Austria. He endears himself to Margaret who addresses him personally and above the rest of the embassy. She defers to him, she seeks his counsel and they even make a wager as to how long the treaty instructions from her father will take to arrive. Certainly Margaret’s encouragement of such a relationship indicates her positive reaction to his diplomatic style.
But for the most part of 1518 Thomas is still a courtier. He concentrates on domestic activities. By that September, a French embassy arrives in England to negotiate the return of the French city of Tournai, lost to the English in the war of 1513. The embassy of about 80 men was met by Lord High Admiral Surrey, who was attended also by 160 richly-apparelled men, one of whom was Thomas.
The successful negotiations resulted in not only the return of the city, for the modest sum of one millions crowns, but a treaty of universal peace, which was witnessed by Henry, Cardinal Wolsey, the Duke of Norfolk and Thomas Boleyn. This marks his accession to the Privy Council and the special envoy.
Thomas’s diplomatic style also wins over the French king Francis I, as well as two of the most influential women in Early Modern Europe: Francis’s sister Marguerite of Navarre, and his formidable mother, Louise of Savoy. Thomas Boleyn was present at the French court during some of the most important months, diplomatically speaking, leading up to this historical meeting that had been orchestrated by Wolsey, known as the Field of Cloth of Gold between Francis I and Henry VIII.
Now the Field of Cloth of Gold was so-named because of all the costly and extravagant fabrics and materials used for the tents and pavilions, which housed the thousands of members of the French and the English courts for three weeks from 7-24 June 1520. These men and women ate, drank, jousted and ostentatiously showcased each country’s wealth and power. Now Thomas Boleyn’s role in this event has always been overlooked, but as Wolsey’s trusted agent in France, he is tasked with keeping matters smooth on the French end. He is ensuring that matters run smoothly right up until the departure to Calais.
Thomas also dines with Francis, Louise of Savoy and Marguerite of Navarre privately leading up to this historic event. But on one occasion Louise, Francis’s mother, asks for a private audience with Thomas. In this private audience she informs him that the French ambassador in England reports that Henry VIII has shaved off his beard. Now this might sound trivial but both monarchs had promised, as a sign of loyalty and affection, to grow their beards and not shave them until they had met in person. Francis kept his beard but Henry jeopardised the entire meeting by shaving his.
Thomas had to rescue the situation. He claimed it was Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s wife, who had forced Henry to shave off his beard. Thomas then reassured Louise of Savoy of Henry’s loyalty and Louise finally conceded that, ‘they love us not in the beards but in the hearts’. Thomas had averted a potential crisis, but I think what is most telling here is that he acted without first asking Wolsey or Henry. He had to use his own initiative; he had to smooth things over himself.
That Louise accepts his explanation for what she sees as a serious breach of contract shows her esteem for Thomas. And on the larger stage this episode shows that Thomas is important in the context of Tudor diplomacy. He was a peace-maker, perhaps he wasn’t blessed. And Louise and the French court relied on Thomas to keep relations between the nations smooth.
So by the time Henry VIII falls in love, or at least in lust, with Thomas Boleyn’s daughter Anne, some time around 1527-1528, Thomas is clearly already a power player at court. He’s respected, he’s valued and he’s integral to Tudor political culture. He’s indispensable, and he’s ultimately given another delicate task in 1529, and perhaps a rather thankless task. He is to shadow the new Imperial Ambassador to England, Eustache Chapuys, whilst Henry VIII is in the midst of his divorce crisis, that is, his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.
For the two previous years, Catherine of Aragon had been represented by the Imperial Ambassador Íñigo de Mendoza, but after a disastrous embassy he was replaced. And when I say ‘disastrous’, I do mean, quite literally, disastrous. He was imprisoned for six months by the French on his way over to England. He is then imprisoned by Wolsey and interrogated, placed under house arrest, and he is accused of spying on the English. So it’s rather bad luck for Mendoza, and he leaves very quickly.
Catherine now needs more than an ambassador, she needs a lawyer. She needs someone to defend her cause to Henry and his counsellors. Into the fray steps the young Savoyard lawyer and ambassador from the independent duchy of Savoy, Eustache Chapuys.
Now Henry’s divorce drama and certainly modern perceptions of Anne Boleyn have clouded our view of Chapuys to some extent. He’s been accused of being an unreliable source, so biased against the Boleyns, and Anne in particular, that his information is misleading. That he went out of his way to avoid the family altogether.
It might come as a surprise, then, that one of the first people Chapuys meets in 1529 is in fact Thomas Boleyn. And Thomas would be one of the few men Chapuys admittedly admired. Their diplomatic styles vary, undoubtedly due to the regions in which they spent their formative political years, but also their standing in society. Thomas, we have to understand, was considered at this time to be upper middle class, a man of standing and wealth, and kin to one of the most powerful families in England, the Howards, thus ingratiating himself with nobility of royal courts.
Chapuys, however, was a man of the people, eldest son of a middle class family from the small town of Annecy in Savoy. Chapuys was drawn to, and cultivated relationships with, foreign merchants rather than nobility. These merchants provided a steady flow of loans as well as vital intelligence gleaned from government officials, who often discussed treaties and foreign commerce while dining. Thomas Boleyn would never have considered these avenues of intelligence. Such were the advantages of serving Charles V, emperor of such a vast empire spanning much of Europe, whereas England, I’m sorry to say, in the 16th century, was considered to be something of a political backwater.
Chapuys also spoke German, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and a little Greek, and French was his native tongue. This allowed him to navigate alliances with Lubeckian merchants from Germanic states, Spanish merchants, Italian bankers and so on. But Chapuys dined often as well with Thomas Boleyn and his son George, finding them affable, praising both their diplomatic skills. Whereas Chapuys was careful not to be seen too often with other members of nobility, namely Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas’s brother-in-law.
But Chapuys not only had a network of merchants and other ambassadors to feed him information, but the Queen of England herself. Catherine of Aragon knew intimate details of the court, the royal council, and most importantly the workings of Henry’s mind, as much as any woman could understand the workings of Henry’s mind. Chapuys thus found himself in the unique position of confidante to the besieged queen.
But Chapuys wrote more than just about Anne Boleyn and Henry’s latest dramas. He was able to relay to Charles V, not only vivid descriptions of domestic issues, such as the eventual comings and goings of Henry’s queens and mistresses, but more importantly, significant military secrets. For example, Chapuys reports the Privy Council estimates of England’s naval strength compared with that of France and the Holy Roman Empire, and the measures Henry’s taking to improve it. He discovers which English forts and castles are being strengthened and how. He also discovers what arms Henry VIII has purchased, and which troops will be using them. Chapuys is remarkably well-informed. He also knows of Henry’s plans to meet with Francis I in Calais in 1532, in which Anne Boleyn would accompany him as the newly ennobled Marquis of Pembrooke, before the plans were even discussed in the Privy Council.
Chapuys was also able to report on who was visiting Thomas Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell and other members of the court. It is therefore unsurprising that several foreign ambassadors developed an intense personal dislike or even jealousy of the ambassador.
But one might wonder: how did this stranger to the English court, who initially lacked any knowledge of the local language, manage to collect the vast amounts of intelligence that fill his dispatches? The complaint levelled at Chapuys by various historians, that he could not understand a word of English, and therefore his reports cannot be taken seriously, is unfounded.
Spanish did not come naturally to Chapuys, and yet, after four years in Spain he spoke it fluently, and he does with Catherine of Aragon and her entourage. He composes effortlessly grammatically correct Spanish letters to Phillip of Spain, Charles V’s son.
While his progress in English was apparently slower, it’s incorrect that he made none. It is true that after four years in England Chapuys claimed he could not entirely follow a rapid conversation in English, however he was a shrewd diplomat, and he made rather suspiciously a lot of fuss about having troubles with English at court. I would argue this is a tactic to lure those around him into holding unguarded conversations in his presence. And in fact, we do have evidence that Chapuys happily conversed in English with London merchants, who visited him regularly.
But he still kept Henry and the councillors in ignorance of his fluency. As correspondence with their masters usually contained sensitive information, ambassadors at court also wrote in cipher. Each imperial embassy had their own cipher, and Chapuys’ code book, which was entrusted to a secretary, contained all of the keys. Now historian Garrett Mattingly in the 1930s, one of Catherine of Aragon’s most important biographers, has analysed Chapuys’ particular ciphers, and found that it is a mixture of signs for each alphabet letter. We still have one cipher, his own personal invention, in the letters that he writes to his mother, they have not yet cracked.
Now from here it becomes a little bit more complicated. Chapuys’ cipher actually had two alternative symbols for each consonant, and three options for a vowel. Added to this were separate symbols for certain words, and these directly criticising Henry, Anne or certain members of the court, he launches unexpectedly into cipher. The cipher also has no rules, it can be up and down, it can be right to left, it can be left to right, it really is a sort-of ‘choose your own adventure’. It’s a particularly difficult cipher, but it was cracked, very easily it must be said, by one man: Thomas Cromwell.
Now Thomas Cromwell arrives on the Tudor scene in the early 1540s, and in his report to Charles V, Chapuys writes of Cromwell, ‘He is witty and well-versed in government affairs, and reasonable enough to judge correctly of them.’ Hilary Mantel portrays him thus: ‘Lock Thomas Cromwell in the tower overnight, and in the morning he will be sitting on plush cushions eating lark, and all the gaolers will owe him money’.
Cromwell seemingly comes out of nowhere for the historian. He’s a new negotiator on the scene by 1531. He had been in the service of Cardinal Wolsey, and presumably he knew Thomas Boleyn well. He had passed with relative ease from the fallen cardinal’s side to that of the King’s. From Chapuys’ letters, however, a clear picture of Cromwell emerges: ‘an astute man, who had a rather disarming nature, evident in the many occasions on which those who spoke with him were induced to speak of things that should have been kept hidden’ (in Chapuys’ words).
Cromwell was shrewd, distinguished, ambitious, highly intelligent and pragmatic, and he was good at thinking outside the box. Chapuys also often wrote about the sly glances and mischievous smiles that Cromwell gave when making a particularly witty or striking remark. Charles V even became intrigued by this new chief minister, and insisted on knowing everything about him. And so Chapuys wrote to Charles at length about Cromwell’s past, revealing his own interest in the chief minister.
Cromwell was of course allied with the Boleyns and their kin, the Howards, but he had more in common with Chapuys. There were few men at court whom the temperamental ambassador could tolerate, and even fewer that he genuinely liked. Yet Cromwell, a radically lateral thinker, connected strongly with the religiously conservative ambassador. Those around Chapuys who had the same religious and political interests, were not necessarily those he socialised with. For instance, Chapuys felt contempt for the old-fashioned Duke of Norfolk, a staunch Catholic with strong imperial ties, and he saw Norfolk as a man of limited courage and ability, who would do anything to remain in power. Chapuys simply found Henry VIII bewildering and eccentric.
For Chapuys, a man who had spent his formative years in some of the most exciting and forward-thinking places in Europe, again, England was a provincial backwater. Cromwell, however, was widely- and well- travelled, and this they had in common, which helped forge their rapport.
The two men were also neighbours for much of Chapuys’ embassy. Chapuys lived next to Cromwell in a large house with two stone towers, stables and a large garden leading down to the river, in which the ambassador often enjoyed walking. The houses were right near the Tower of London in what is now St Catherine’s docks. We have reports of the two households coming together weekly. The dined, they drank, they gambled and Chapuys and Cromwell sat up late at night discussing political issues beyond England.
But in 1533, a fire devastates the ambassador’s rather fine lodgings by the Tower. The blaze was so fierce that neither Chapuys nor his household had any time to save valuables. The shaken and utterly distraught ambassador had lost everything: his gold plate, his clothes, furniture from Italy which he had prized, and sentimental and personal effects. He was left with nothing.
The immediate assistance granted to him by the German and Spanish merchants is a testament to their close friendship, and the esteem in which they held Chapuys. The merchants provided him immediately with rather luxurious lodgings near the area, as well as silver plate which, according to Chapuys, could fill an entire room. New and permanent lodgings were found quickly, and we have to wonder if perhaps Cromwell did in fact have a hand in the matter, as the new house was rather conveniently, a stone’s throw from one of Cromwell’s own luxurious and favourite houses. The ambassador’s new residence was owned by Sir Giles Capell, Constable of Essex, who would generously loan the impressive house to Chapuys until 1539.
Now just to digress briefly, because I do think it’s interesting, the district provided the ambassador with an ideal political network and quick access to the Thames. Despite having little to spend on refurbishments, or so Chapuys tells us, he begins to collect pieces once more for his new residence. He entertains other ambassadors as well as Cromwell, courtiers and merchants in his new home, and he had become a master in acquiring prestige.
Stepney also offered other benefits. This district in the mid-16th century was not the slum and dark scene of crime and poverty of some three centuries later. On the contrary, Stepney was a bustling and prosperous area filled with courtiers, nobles and silk merchants and the centre of intellectual, religious and humanist learning. Here, Chapuys found himself surrounded by men of radical ideas. The glory of the Renaissance was encapsulated in just a few streets. It’s an interesting choice, I think, for a man history has often labelled as ‘rabidly Catholic’.
Interesting too that Cromwell and Chapuys were, despite the political and religious divide, congenial. And Chapuys found it easier to converse with Cromwell on the subject of politics than anyone else. When they did lay diplomatic issues aside, they found pleasure in each other’s company in Stepney as well. They’d often walk in various palace gardens discussing tapestries, art, scholarship and Italy, where they’d both spent time.
The fact that Cromwell had engineered the divorce from Catherine of Aragon tells us no more about his personal feelings, than it does about his engineering Anne’s downfall years later. He was able to separate his personal feelings from political necessity, and the obligation to satisfy Henry’s demands, an ability which Chapuys identified with. This wasn’t personal, after all, this was business.
The ambassador also knew well from Cromwell’s behaviour during Wolsey’s fall and Anne’s decline, how quickly and smoothly Cromwell could change horses. Regardless of Cromwell’s remonstrations to Chapuys regarding Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn faction, Chapuys suspected that Cromwell was only waiting for an opportunity to change his policy. His suspicions would, of course, prove correct, and it was because of this that Chapuys constantly attempts to persuade Cromwell to change allegiances from Anne to Catherine.
And in 1533 he believes he has an opportunity to do so. He had high hopes, he writes to Charles, of making him (Cromwell) ‘a good imperialist’. The ambassador adopted various approaches with Cromwell in an attempt to coax an alliance between the two powers.
Now by 1533, Anne Boleyn, of course, is at the pinnacle of her power, and Henry’s foreign policy favours France, which is also Anne’s preference. Chapuys warns Henry and Cromwell not to alienate the Emperor. Chapuys knows that Cromwell is the true power behind the throne, and thus he relies on Cromwell to help promote an English alliance with Charles. He says of Cromwell:
‘Cromwell has certainly shown great affection for your majesty’s subjects, as he generally does in every other thing that concerns them, which is a very good sign for the future since, after all, it is he who really governs and conducts all matters here.’
Cromwell had worked well with the Boleyn faction, but Chapuys is always on the lookout for evidence of a rift between the two. And from 1535 his letters are peppered with evidence, which he believed showed that Cromwell and Anne were political rivals rather than allies.
Now before I discuss Anne Boleyn’s last years, there are two incorrect assumptions about Chapuys’ reports regarding her that I think I need to dispel.
First, it is claimed throughout his embassy that Chapuys’ title of choice for Anne was ‘La Puttane’ or ‘The Concubine’, and Elizabeth her daughter, ‘The Little Bastard’. But having studied Chapuys’ original letters which are housed in Vienna, it seems that crossed wires and mistaken identity have polluted the truth over the centuries.
Pedro Ortiz, Catherine of Aragon’s proctor in Rome, was a fanatical and passionate defender of the Queen, and his reports both to Chapuys and Charles reveal, he was remarkably vitriolic about Henry’s second wife. An analysis of the original letters written by both Ortiz and Chapuys show a marked difference in attitude and language. Chapuys is undeniably the more moderate of the two.
Fictional accounts of Chapuys, especially at his most zealous, I would argue, are shaped by the fusion of these two characters, and the inaccurate attribution of their reports. History accuses Chapuys of exaggeration, of reporting incorrect information, of referring to Anne Boleyn only as ‘The Whore’, of being blinded by his hatred of the Boleyns. These aggressive sentiments belong right to Ortiz rather than Chapuys, but while Ortiz has been almost forgotten, these interpretations have been attached to the ambassador.
In almost all of Ortiz’s letters he refers to Anne as ‘The Concubine’. He does so as early as 1531. Even Charles V uses the term in a very candid manner. So too do most of the imperial embassies. His ambassadors are no doubt guided by his choice of words, except for Chapuys. With the exception of one heated letter in 1533, Chapuys only refers to Anne as ‘The Concubine’ as late as 1535. Prior to this, almost all of his letters refer to her as ‘The Lady’, ‘Lady Anne’, ‘The New Marchioness’ and so on.
But I think what is interesting about Chapuys’ letters is that he really gives us the real Anne. He tells us about Anne Boleyn’s increasing insecurities from his first months in England. He tells us about her frustration with Pope Clement’s refusal to give a verdict in Henry’s marriage. He tells us about Henry’s fear of finally banishing Catherine for good. He also correctly identifies Anne lashing out – at Henry, at Princess Mary, even [at] her friends – as the actions of an insecure woman. He grudgingly writes of her triumphs – her coronation, of course – and he is a vital source of her arrest and execution. But in the end, he is one of our vital sources for Anne’s relationships with men like Thomas Cromwell.
Now the details of Anne’s downfall are a talk in themselves, I think, and I think you’ll agree, but I also think it’s important to briefly discuss a particular event which happens a year prior in 1535, which I think also sheds light on Cromwell’s diplomatic approach.
On 1 June 1535 after various skirmishes and battles, Charles defeats the powerful Ottoman Emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent’s naval fleet. The victory has a ripple effect which reaches England and France, and it is, in my view, a small stepping stone towards Anne’s downfall. As Charles V had suspected years prior, the French were in fact colluding with the Ottoman Turks against the Holy Roman Empire. They had been supplying them with ammunition. The Fleur-de-lis on the hundreds of cannonballs in the Ottoman fleet were something of a giveaway.
But this puts France on the back foot as Charles strong-arms them into an alliance. It’s disastrous news for Henry and Cromwell; they both rely on a French alliance. Chapuys writes that Cromwell himself could scarcely breathe when he first heard of the victory, which is particularly enlightening. For Cromwell it is becoming clearer that France was weak, and England had no use for an alliance with a weak party.
Catherine of Aragon had at least brought the Holy Roman Empire to the table through her nephew Charles V. Anne Boleyn had tried to bring the French through her connections with Francis and his court, but with France on the back foot, they were beginning to show signs that they would fall into step with Charles. Cromwell, I think, began even at this stage, to reconsider Anne’s use. You don’t even realise you’re playing chess with Cromwell until he takes your queen. And he does, quite literally of course, bringing us to 1536.
Now 1536 presents several extraordinary and entirely unforeseen crises. It’s also the year of three queens: Catherine, Anne and Jane. In January of 1536 after years of exile, being kept from her daughter and fighting a battle she had long since lost, Catherine of Aragon dies. Anne could finally claim being queen. But Catherine, as it happens, was keeping Anne safe, and her death removed two obstacles for Henry: Catherine herself and Anne. Events now moved quickly. Anne miscarries in January, the day Catherine is buried, and Cromwell begins to hint to Chapuys that she is interfering with his personal diplomatic process. Anne, you see, wants to be Henry’s advisor, but that position is taken.
Chapuys seemed to suspect something is going to come to a head, but even he could not have imagined Anne’s arrest and execution or the charges against her. But it’s almost too easy to turn Anne’s famous sex appeal against her; her flirtatious and alluring nature. Cromwell makes a clean sweep of the Privy Chamber. He takes George Boleyn, of course, Anne’s brother. He takes Henry Norris. These are two of the most highly-placed gentlemen of the Privy Chamber.
Remarkably, Thomas Boleyn is not included in the round-up. Now we don’t give too much thought, I think, to his feelings during these weeks of May. His critics, the same who accuse him of having placed his daughters in the King’s bed, have questioned how he could have let Henry execute two of his children. But where is the sense in such a question? Thomas Boleyn had no power here. Henry is the law. There is no fighting it, there’s no getting in the way, there’s nothing he could possibly have done. I think we have to allow him in this moment some humanity. Thomas Boleyn almost disappears from the source material following the executions of his children. It’s a quiet end, really, to a remarkably successful diplomatic career.
But both Cromwell and Chapuys are pragmatists. Henry had fought an uphill battle to force Anne’s queenship to be recognised throughout Europe, to no avail. In the end, as far as Cromwell and Chapuys are concerned, she was a costly investment who yielded little in return.
But what role did Cromwell play in the downfall of the Boleyns? In an extraordinary conversation recorded in the letter here [shows image], with Chapuys regarding Anne’s downfall, Cromwell was eager to reveal who had been behind it. Cromwell confides that Henry had first authorised and commissioned him to prosecute Anne in 1536, to – I quote – ‘quickly have her taken care of’, which he added had taken considerable trouble to do.
Yet Cromwell also admitted that he had his own motivation. Chapuys writes, ‘It was he, Cromwell, who in consequence of the disappointment and anger he had felt on hearing the King’s answer to me [Chapuys] on the third day of Easter’ – he’s referring here to a disastrous peace treaty in which Henry throws both Chapuys and Cromwell out of the room – ‘had brought and planned the whole affair.’
Now none of Anne’s supposed affairs are mentioned in this letter. In fact, no mention is made at all of her licentiousness for which she is accused. Cromwell whitewashes it. He declares that what had truly raised his suspicions and caused him to begin to investigate Anne, was the rumour from Flanders of a conspiracy against the King’s life and people close to him. This is a complete fabrication and is made even more peculiar by Cromwell’s lavish praise. Chapuys writes that ‘Cromwell went on to extol beyond measure the sense, the wit and the courage of the deceased royal mistress, as well as her brother’.
Now what game was Cromwell playing, we may well ask. Chapuys found it quite bizarre. But I think it also throws doubt on Cromwell’s assertions that Henry had instructed him to investigate Anne, and he was only doing as he was bid. The praise of Anne and George certainly shows Cromwell’s desire to absolve himself, in the ambassador’s eyes, of any guilt of their execution.
Now Cromwell and Chapuys would continue to work together from 1536 to 1539. With Catherine and Anne gone, there were very few obstacles in the way of a treaty between Charles and Henry. But of course, matters are never smooth.
A period of tense negotiations and suspected double-dealings result in both France and Charles recalling their ambassadors from England in early 1539, which signified the fragmented relationships between all of the monarchs. For such a seasoned diplomat like Chapuys to be recalled after a decade of successful negotiations, matters must have been dire indeed. There was no time for farewells between the ambassador and Cromwell, and it’s an unsatisfying end to their friendship, because they would never come face-to-face again.
In May 1539 while Chapuys is in Brussels, the English parliament passed an Act of Six Articles, indicating Henry’s return to conservative theology after his brief journey into the realm of evangelicalism. Cromwell had engineered the treaty between Henry and William of Cleves as well, who was also Charles’ main rival for control of the Netherlands.
Now Chapuys had predicted that Cromwell’s downfall years before it occurred would come because of his desire to ally England with the German Lutherans. He said that it would be a politically short-sighted move and it would result in Cromwell’s ruin. He was absolutely right, not because of that particularly but more because Henry disliked the wife that he had chosen, Anne of Cleves, more than the alliance itself.
Cromwell, much like Anne Boleyn, and even Wolsey before her, had alienated both the nobles at court and foreign powers by this time. His death then, like Anne Boleyn’s only four years prior, would pave way for new alliances.
Now Chapuys’ previous tenure as ambassador had been steeped in the divorce crisis. He returns in 1540 his mission again is one of sweetness and friendship, and Charles was no doubt relieved that his most trusted ambassador was once more his eyes and ears at the Tudor court. So too are historians, I must say, who had had to endure months of scant reports and the Spanish calendar – the translations and summaries of the original correspondence.
Chapuys’ return swept the pages once more and his return is a welcome injection of life and colour. It’s a relief from the lifeless reports by his replacement. Chapuys would have recognised many faces who greeted him upon his return, but he would have felt the absence of the astute and intelligent Cromwell.
Chapuys returns to England only days before Cromwell’s execution. What he truly thinks about it all we shall never know. Of Cromwell’s downfall, Chapuys remains silent, after a decade of friendship and of a political alliance and rivalry is swept away in a moment.
Now Chapuys would remain at the Tudor court until 1545. He is one of the oldest and most experienced ambassadors in England by this time. Most of the men Chapuys met when he first came to court as a young man in 1529 were either dead or disgraced. His embassy lasted just under 20 years and in that time ministers had come and gone, wives had been wed, divorced and executed.
But beyond that, he had been part of a Tudor diplomatic culture along with Thomas Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. These men had gambled on the political chessboard. Only Chapuys had won, so to speak, the game of diplomacy, or in politics the game of thrones, if you will. For the other two it had cost them their reputations, and in Cromwell’s case, of course, his life. But they each contributed to and influenced Tudor diplomacy, and helped forge a world of their design.
Transcribed by Lucy Handscomb as part of a volunteer project, March 2015