In the four-hundred and seventy eight years since the death of Anne Boleyn historians are
still unable to achieve unanimity over certain aspects of her life. From her controversial love affair with the King of England to her contentious involvement in the fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Anne’s role in the early stages of Henry VIII’s Great Matter still generates heated debate. In a period where the king cradled doubts over the validity of his marriage, Anne is often depicted in two contrasting ways: she is described as either a devious temptress that seduced the king or a meek, obedient victim of factional politics. Thomas Wolsey’s dramatic fall from grace during the period of Anne’s rise in Henry VIII’s esteem is particularly interesting. It serves as an example that Anne’s role within the Henrican court during this time was not so clear cut.
Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Thomas Wolsey was extremely pragmatic: how their relationship changed depended on how well the Cardinal advanced with the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine. As Papal legate, it was Wolsey’s responsibility to oversee the proceedings and, due to his close relationship with Henry, ensure a favourable outcome for the king that would allow him to marry again. Therefore Anne and Wolsey’s relationship was tied wholly to the development of the Great Matter until his death in November 1530. Leading up to 1527, Anne and Wolsey did not have a terribly intimate relationship as the Cardinal believed Henry would cast her off before the Great Matter was concluded. Henry was known for his promiscuity and in the sixteenth century it was the norm for monarch to marry the children of other royal houses so it was not considered a genuine possibility that Anne would replace Katherine as Queen. Even her father, Thomas Boleyn’s, fervent support of the annulment did not create suspicion about Anne and Henry’s true intentions as he had always been a French pensioner and hostile toward the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
David Loades pinpoints the year 1527 as the year that the Boleyn faction emerged as it was the year Anne’s status was revealed to court and it became apparent that there was tension in Henry and Wolsey’s relationship due to the lack of advancement in Henry’s case. There is evidence that suggests Anne was the leader of this faction and was determined to destroy the Cardinal’s influence. Both Eustace Chapuys and George Cavendish reported Anne’s staunch hostility toward Wolsey and both champion the theory that Anne had a sincere goal to remove Wolsey from Henry’s trust and court. George Cavendish was Wolsey’s gentleman-usher and had a great love for the Cardinal which is evident throughout his writing so his work must be read with a wary eye. The Cardinal appears to do very little wrong and is depicted as a victim of Anne Boleyn’s grudge that was sparked when Wolsey intervened in her supposed affair with Henry Percy. Cavendish pinpoints this grudge as the beginning of a process that Anne undertook that ended with the ‘utter undoing of the Cardinal’. This theory depicts Anne as having a deep hatred of Wolsey and having a calculating aim to destroy him. Chapuys however, depicts Anne’s unhappiness with Wolsey brewing from the lack of advancement in the annulment proceedings and is the main source of evidence for the theory that a Boleyn faction plotted the Cardinal’s downfall.
Anne’s letters to Wolsey offer an insight into a much more intimate and rather amicable relationship between the two where Anne appears to be in debt to Wolsey for his work on the annulment proceedings. This is clear from regular receiving and offering of gifts that is evident in certain letters. Most importantly, her correspondence with the Cardinal shows her deep interest and concern with the progression of the Great Matter and how she understands Wolsey’s important role within its development. The tone of Anne’s writing to Wolsey was very cordial and flattering and made it very clear that she longed to hear ‘very good’ news from him about the development and that she was sure he ‘desire[d] it as much as [she], and more’. This shows that she had a significant role within the Great Matter proceedings through her relationship with Wolsey. This is clear in the letter as she appears impatient at the lack of news on the advancement and her assurance that she believed him to desire the same outcome as she could be interpreted as a subtle threat to remind the Cardinal whose side he should be backing. Furthermore, it proves that she was not adverse to writing to the Cardinal herself rather than sitting idly by waiting for the males to make decisions that affected her future. This shows she was an active participant in her relationship with Wolsey and it is through this correspondence that she was involved in the Great Matter. Another interesting point about this letter is that there is a postscript written by Henry in which he stated that Anne ‘would not cease, till she had caused [himself] likewise to set [his] hand’. This again can easily be interpreted as another reminder to Wolsey who was really in control of her and Henry’s romance. Her influence over the king had grown as she had learnt his character better and therefore how to work him to her advantage. Henry discussed in his postscript how the lack of news of Campeggio’s arrival in France has caused the pair to muse. This implies, and would have also been another significant hint to Wolsey, that his actions were being discussed and debated by both Henry and Anne. However, Henry ended by stating that he trusted that with Wolsey’s ‘diligence and vigilancy (with the assistance of Almighty God), shortly to be eased out of that trouble’. This shows that the king still trusted the Cardinal to secure the divorce. The letter serves to highlight Anne’s individual role in Wolsey and Henry’s relationship through the developments of the Great Matter. It demonstrates that she discussed the event regularly with Henry and that he clearly listened to her views. It does not however, offer a hint of any factional strategies to remove Wolsey from Henry’s high esteem or even that Anne was poisoning Henry’s mind against the Cardinal. Mostly, the postscript is significant in showing the growth of Anne’s influence over the king.
It is clear that Anne was desperate for news on the Great Matter for had she known the latest developments she would have had no need to write to Wolsey although Henry’s postscript does suggest that it was Campeggio’s late arrival in France that sparked this interest. Her keen letter to the Cardinal provides evidence that contrasts sharply with G W Bernard’s view that it is ‘abundantly clear… that Anne did not play a leading role’ in the divorce proceedings and that she in fact played the ‘conventional role of the woman who waited’. To a certain extent this could be true; without an official political position within court Anne would have unable to advance the proceedings personally. However, it is clear from her letters that she continued to desire news on the subject throughout Wolsey’s role in them. These are not the actions of a woman who sat meekly at the king’s side waiting to see what her future would hold. A message from Thomas Hennege to the Cardinal offers an interesting insight on Anne’s dominant nature over Wolsey towards the end of his prominence. In a letter dated 3 March 1528, Hennege writes that ‘Mistress Anne spake to me, and said she was afeared your Grace had forgotten her’. This is interesting as there is another underlying threat to Wolsey that he needed to be clearer in his affection toward Anne as she had noticed that he had not been doting on her in the same way as she had become accustomed. It was another reminder as to who he should be keeping happy.
Furthermore, Bernard appears to disregard Anne’s fiery temper and tendency to reproach Henry on how the Great Matter was progressing. Chapuys details one such occurrence when Anne demonstrated her clear frustration and annoyance at the slow pace of the Great Matter in December 1529:
‘I see that some fine morning you will succumb to her [Katherine’s] reasoning, and that you will cast me off. I have been waiting long, and might in the meanwhile have contracted some advantageous marriage, out of which I might have had issue, which is the greatest consolation in this world; but alas! Farewell to my time and youth spent to no purpose at all’.
This is further evidence of Anne’s involvement in the Great Matter and how she did not play the role of a subordinate woman who simply waited for the men to secure her future. This shows that she aired her views readily to Henry and also that their love was so great that she was able to say such things to the powerful King of England. Furthermore, Chapuys wrote just under a year later that Anne
‘ha[d] wept and wailed, regretting her lost time and honour, and threatening the King that she would go away and leave him, so much so that the King had enough to do to quiet her… nothing would satisfy the Lady short of the Cardinal’s arrest’.
This is more telling as it shows that her reproachful and fiery nature was consistent and that she was not afraid to emotionally manipulate the king on numerous occasions through her tempestuous outbursts. This also shows her prominent role in the fall of Cardinal Wolsey as it indicates how Anne was able to use her feisty character almost to force the king’s hand in detaining the Cardinal. Considering this behaviour appears to have been regular, it is unconvincing to link it directly to a larger factional plot to remove Wolsey. Anne had become so close to Henry that her power increased week upon week and she was able to successfully turn Henry against his once beloved and most trusted Cardinal, and make him suspicious of Wolsey’s true intentions. However, it is important to note that Anne’s change in attitude toward Wolsey became evident as it became clearer that Wolsey was failing to gain the support Henry had expected of him.
This agrees more with Eric Ive’s view that Anne was ‘an active and effective politician, the destroyer of Thomas Wolsey’. Powered with the knowledge of Henry’s character, his strengths and weaknesses, Anne no longer needed the Cardinal on her side, especially as it became clearer that he was failing in his task to secure the annulment. However, in the years 1527 to 1529 Anne’s pragmatism is clear. She understood that her own advancement depended on Wolsey and his power over Papal proceedings, and so it would not be in her interest to sabotage the Cardinal. It therefore follows that it would not be in Thomas Boleyn’s interest either as his promotion was also dependent on Henry’s love for Anne. If Wolsey was removed too early, before he had even properly attempted to attain the divorce for Henry, all would be lost: for both Anne and her family. However, by the end of 1529 and with Wolsey’s fall from grace it becomes evident what the Boleyn faction had to gain.
In his despatch to Charles V in 1530, Eustace Chapuys described that
‘…since the fall of the Cardinal, the French have carried on all their intrigues through the Lady and through her father and uncle, whom, as they wish to keep on friendly terms with this King, they would not dare affront.’
This clearly shows how directly this growing faction benefitted from the removal of Cardinal Wolsey from court politics; the Boleyn family who were naturally inclined to favour the French now directly corresponded with them politically. Furthermore, the language used is very expressive. The latter half of the sentence highlights just how important the Boleyns were by 1530 as it implies that if the French were to offend the family it would have dire consequences on their relationship with Henry. Chapuys also names Anne as one of the persons the French dealt with which further suggests that Anne was taking a leading role in politics alongside her father and uncle. However, this does not mean that she was orchestrating the fall of the Cardinal, it is already clear she took a keen interest in the development of the Great Matter and she obviously had strong links to France from her Continental upbringing. She had been born into a family that had a long history of being royal servants with important court connections. It is clear that family influence was mutually beneficial for the Boleyns during this period of court favourites and advancement. Her father, Thomas Boleyn was an extremely ambitious courtier whose natural talent for diplomacy had not gone unnoticed. Boleyn was clearly exceptionally determined and was not averse to using whatever means necessary in order to gain favour, and thus more power, in Henry’s court. He had grown accustomed to a greater position within Henry’s court when his daughter Mary had married Henry’s Groom of the Stool, William Carey in 1520. This suggests that he would not have rejected any plan that placed his younger daughter in a position of power with the intention of then taking advantage of her influence once she gained the throne.
Wolsey’s gentleman usher George Cavendish offers an alternative view on Anne’s involvement in the fall of the Cardinal. His account merges the two schools of thought together by depicting Anne as the ‘chief mistress’ of the emerging Boleyn faction. What is particularly interesting is that Cavendish suggests that it was only after Anne had gained the king’s love and affection that the faction developed rather than beforehand. This suggests that not only was Anne the instigator of the campaign to remove Wolsey from power but she appeared to be the only person that would be successful in doing so. This in turn attracted other courtiers who saw her as an instrument to deliver their darkest desires into fruition. Wolsey clearly had made numerous enemies through the extravagance of his lifestyle and power over Henry. His failure to gain the king’s annulment along with his slow decline in Henry’s esteem created an ideal opportunity for them to strike. This series of events seems more convincing as it fits with evidence that a Boleyn faction came into prominence after 1529, when the Cardinal’s fate appeared to be inevitable. However, it would be unfair to agree with Cavendish’s view that Anne had plotted to remove Wolsey from the very beginning of her courtship with Henry. In the early stages Anne would have been unaware how far the king’s passion would raise her in court politics and it is clear that she would have depended on Wolsey to secure the annulment in order for her to succeed Katherine as Queen. This means that Anne would also have not been part, let alone the leader, of a faction intent on the removal of the Cardinal prior to 1529.
To argue that Anne was a victim of an ambitious Boleyn faction that viewed her as a pawn in their carefully orchestrated plan to remove Wolsey’s influence and gain more political power in court seems somewhat inaccurate. Anne had unique access to the king and as he ‘shew[ed] greater favour [to her] every day’ her influence over him grew exponentially. This was achieved by Anne’s charm and charisma alone. She was able to take advantage of the changing events of the Great Matter and, as Starkey highlights, had the ‘necessary political skill…[and] strength of character to impose herself as the leader… of Wolsey’s opponents’when it became clear that he was failing. Wolsey had had many enemies prior to Anne’s rise in court and it was only when it became clear that she would replace Katherine as Queen of England once the Great Matter was resolved and that the king’s faith in Wolsey was faltering did a faction emerge with the intent of pushing Henry’s favour away from the Cardinal. Due to the nature of the Henrican court, it was natural for Anne’s family to receive certain benefits because of her prominence. After commenting on how Henry’s love for Anne had never been more apparent in 1529 Chapuys stated that ‘certain relatives of the Lady were created earls, for it was considered essential that before her being raised to the rank of Queen her own family should be somewhat exalted’. Retha Warnicke agrees that it is clear that Thomas Boleyn in particular was dependant on his daughter’s influence as ‘after her disgrace in 1536’ the title of Earl of Ormond was returned to Sir Piers in Ireland. Therefore, although her family did gain greater power and those who sought the removal of Wolsey got their wish through supporting Anne’s position, it was Anne herself who was left in a position of unchallenged influence.
- There is a fantastic collections of primary sources available at British History Online.
- David Loades’ The Boleyns can be bought here.
- David Starkey’s Six Wives is available here.
- Retha Warnicke’s The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn is here.
- Eric Ive’s biography of Anne Boleyn can be bought here.