The destination for history

Thomas Cromwell and the fall of Anne Boleyn


Truth is stranger than fiction, as the saying goes. But telling the two apart is not always easy, especially in a subject as fraught as the fall of Anne Boleyn.

According to most biographies or other supposedly ‘factual’ accounts, with notable exceptions like George Bernard’s, Anne was falsely accused and destroyed by a conspiracy orchestrated by Thomas Cromwell. She and Cromwell are said to be at loggerheads for some reason – maybe a quarrel over the monasteries. And it is taken for granted that witnesses were tortured, or threatened with torture, to extract confessions.

Cromwell is thus the arch villain of the Tudor court, a man whose perfidy and cruelty know no bounds; so surely the worthy, engaging hero of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies must be a fictional character. Well, maybe not, because when the Tudor archival records are examined, a somewhat different picture slowly emerges.

Ambassador Chapuys does indeed say in one of his letters that Cromwell brought about the whole affair, but in the same letter – the same sentence in fact – he makes it clear that Cromwell was acting under orders given by Henry on or about 18 April 1536. Apart from a clumsy mistranslation (Chapuys wrote in French), there is no hint of anything conspiratorial.

The row over the monasteries comes from an account of Anne’s life written twenty-five years later by a man called Alexander Alesius for Queen Elizabeth. For reasons not entirely clear, Alesius has a gripe against Cromwell, and he also makes silly mistakes in his narrative. By contrast, all evidence around 1535–6 has Cromwell reforming the monasteries and the Church along evangelical lines, with Anne supporting him. Relations between them were not always entirely harmonious – she once said she’d like to see his head off – but they were broadly on the same side in the Reformation.

As for the torture, there is a story that Mark Smeaton, a court musician and alleged lover of the queen, had a knotted rope tied round his neck and tightened to make him confess. This work, commonly known as the Spanish Chronicle, is an account of Henry’s reign, also written in Elizabeth’s time (we think), and in parts it is comically inaccurate: one of its howlers is Cromwell, who died in 1540, investigating adultery charges against Catherine Howard, which did not come to light until the following year.

More reliable is a contemporary, George Constantine, who heard that Smeaton had been racked, but admitted that ‘I could never know [this] of a truth’. So it was only a rumour, a point not always stressed in modern books.

Too many ‘factual accounts, therefore, rely heavily on dodgy evidence at best. Hilary Mantel has left all this out and concentrated on the real facts: Henry is disenchanted with Anne and in love with Jane; Henry has resolved to make Jane his queen, and has directed Cromwell to arrange it, using Anne’s pre-contract with Henry Percy as the legal justification. This gives Cromwell little choice, and he has even less choice when ladies of the court start saying things about Anne’s liaisons with her gentlemen friends.

So Bring up the Bodies, though officially classified as ‘fictional’, gives a more historically sound account than most ‘factual works. The imagination of the novelist is used not to invent facts, but to illumine them and breathe new life into them, especially when the details are uncertain, such as Smeaton’s examination. The result is a riveting story that has gripped and delighted thousands of readers. Which only proves that truth is not just stranger than fiction, but it is also far more enthralling.

By John Schofield

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