Another Way Devised

It is not at all clear why Henry VIII summoned a Parliament in December 1529. Such assemblies were not routine or regular events in those days. To the contrary, they were extraordinary: Parliaments met only when ordered by the Crown, and kings and their ministers rarely summoned them except when in urgent need of what only Parliament could grant—an emergency infusion of revenue. Under ordinary circumstances the Crown was expected to get by on the money generated by the king’s own lands, the courts, and the tariffs, and so there was nothing resembling an annual tax on income or wealth. The calling of a Parliament was invariably a signal that the king was about to do what kings preferred never having to do: ask his subjects for cooperation. Such requests always created the danger that Parliament might make itself disagreeable by asking for something in return. Kings generally regarded themselves as fortunate if they could go for years, even decades, without having to deal with Parliament. Members, for their part, could have been excused for responding to a summons with a sense of dread.

Henry was seriously in need of money at the end of 1529, but that had been his usual condition for years, and it soon became clear that he was not intending to ask for more. Instead he and his agents began bullying the Lords and Commons to forgive the loans that Cardinal Wolsey had extracted from them in 1522 and 1523 to cover the costs of Henry’s military adventures in France. All together these loans had totaled some £352,000; that was a crushing sum, and it had fallen most heavily on the merchants and landowning knights and gentry from among whom the membership of the House of Commons was mainly drawn. The members of that house were not happy, naturally, when they learned with certainty what many of them had long suspected, that Wolsey’s “loans” had not been loans at all but a confiscation; they were never going to see their money again. But the king’s lieutenants had taken care, as usual, to assure that Commons was dominated by pliant and cooperative men—Henry’s new lieutenant Thomas Cromwell probably conspicuous among them—and to exclude those who might prove resistant to the Crown’s demands. No doubt the members were relieved at not being asked to vote new taxes or loans. In due course Henry got what he wanted: the loans were written off the books.

None of this explains why Parliament had been called. The king didn’t really need a formal forgiveness of the debt he owed his subjects; he could more easily have simply continued to decline to repay. That he had something more in mind became apparent when other items of Crown business were brought to the members’ attention. In the six weeks that it remained in session, after much disputation and considerable difficulty in the House of Lords, Parliament was presented with and ultimately approved three statutes laying down new rules for the clergy. One put limits on the fees that could be charged for the probating of wills, a traditional responsibility of the church’s courts. Another specified how much could be charged for funerals. The third imposed restrictions on “pluralism” (the holding of multiple assignments or “livings” by a single churchman), on “nonresidence” (failure to be physically present at a living), and on the involvement of the clergy in trade and farming. Stern and unfamiliar penalties were imposed: a fine of £20 (a sum exceeding the annual income of many gentry families) for obtaining from Rome a license of the kind that traditionally had made nonresidence lawful, of £70 (plus the surrender of all income from the livings in question) for even requesting a dispensation to hold more livings than the new law permitted. These measures were entirely appropriate, being aimed at the correction of real abuses, but the bishops and abbots who made up a substantial minority of the Lords found them deeply objectionable. The problem was not that the hierarchy refused to acknowledge the need for change; many bishops and abbots were by this time imposing reforms of their own where they had the authority to do so, and the Canterbury Convocation was in the process of tightening the traditional rules. The problem, rather, was constitutional: the fact that the secular government—Parliament and the king acting through Parliament—was intruding itself into what had always been the business of the church.

In practical terms, the effect of the statutes would be limited, almost trivial. But the principle upon which they were based—that Parliament could set the rules by which the church operated—was potentially revolutionary. And because the kinds of dispensations that were being turned into crimes came from Rome (the reason for punishing those receiving the dispensations, rather than those who issued them, was that the recipients were within reach of English law), the ultimate target was the papacy. Though we do not know where the idea for this legislation originated—whether in a Commons venting its frustration with clerical practices, or with Henry and his advisers—it could not have been enacted without the king’s consent. Frustrated by the failure of his divorce suit, he had been threatening for months to retaliate against Rome. Now he was doing so, albeit in a distinctly limited way that involved almost no risk. As soon as the statutes were approved—certain controversial provisions had to be removed to get them through the Lords—he sent Parliament home. He did not end it, however—rather, he “prorogued” it, declaring an intermission but leaving himself the option of recalling it whenever he wished without having to arrange another election. This suggests that he expected to be needing it again before very long—that he had something more in mind. It suggests as well that he was satisfied with the current membership of the Commons, which had shown itself willing to do his bidding.

Statutes of such limited immediate effect cannot have been intended to precipitate a showdown with Rome. By touching on fundamental constitutional issues, however, they demonstrated that Henry’s threats were not empty. He was simultaneously asserting and testing his own strength, taking care not to overreach: when the possibility of closing some monasteries was raised in Parliament and drew a fiery response from Bishop John Fisher, the idea was quickly withdrawn. Meanwhile the king began applying pressure from other directions as well. He got a promise of support for his divorce case from Francis I of France, who had seen early on that it would be better for him if England’s royal house ceased to be connected by marriage to the Hapsburgs. Henry’s objective continued to be nothing more radical than the nullification of his marriage and the freedom to make Anne Boleyn his wife and with her produce children whom the world would accept as legitimate. When he learned that the emperor Charles and Pope Clement were together at Bologna—actually sharing the same palace, drawing together in the afterglow of the most recent expulsion of Francis’s armies from Italy—he dispatched envoys to join them and try to achieve an accord that would include the annulment of his marriage. The talent that he put into this delegation suggests either that his hopes were high or that he was determined to leave no stone unturned to bring the pope around. At its head was the Earl of Wiltshire, who in addition to being one of the king’s most experienced and trusted diplomats happened to be the father of Anne Boleyn (which explains why he had recently been promoted from viscount to earl). With him went the new bishop of London, chosen for that post because he had proved himself dependable on the divorce question, along with a clutch of legal scholars and lesser clergymen. One of the most obscure of these would soon emerge as a leading figure of the Tudor century.

This was Thomas Cranmer, an archdeacon and former Cambridge academic who just months before had been living quietly as a tutor and scholar. When Henry had made a visit to the abbey at Waltham and accommodations there were found to be limited, two court officers, the king’s secretary Stephen Gardiner and his almoner Edward Fox, were lodged in a nearby house. Gardiner and Fox were priests (we earlier encountered the former as leader of one of the king’s embassies to Rome), and at this point both were deeply involved in trying to help the king persuade the pope and the world that he was entitled to an annulment. When they fell into conversation with Cranmer, who happened to be living in the same house, he made clear his support of the king’s position and offered an idea that caught their fancy. He suggested that, to bolster his position, Henry should get statements of support from university theologians. When Gardiner and Fox mentioned this idea to the king, he ordered that Cranmer be brought to him at Greenwich. When he had heard Cranmer out—heard his proposal for a shift from the arena of law, where Henry was making no headway, to that of academic debate—the king declared that here was a man who had “the sow by the right ear.” At age forty Cranmer suddenly found himself vaulted from rural obscurity into royal service, assigned first to searching for texts supporting the king’s suit, then to the Earl of Wiltshire’s mission to Bologna. Thus was launched a career that would catapult Cranmer to the top of the hierarchy, change the character of the English church more profoundly than Henry himself could possibly have intended, and take many a strange turn before coming to its literally fiery end.

Thomas Boleyn and his retinue took with them to Bologna a rich array of offerings for the pope if he would see reason as King Henry saw it. From the start, however, things did not go well. Boleyn’s suitability for this mission had been questioned—as Anne’s father, he had a peculiarly intimate interest in the issues under discussion—but Henry had insisted that no other man could be so motivated to help him achieve his goal. Arriving at their destination, the Englishmen found pope and emperor ensconced together in friendship, Clement’s outrage of a few years earlier buried and apparently forgotten. The pope showed himself, as always, to be not only friendly toward the English but eager to offer his cooperation. The generally good-humored emperor, by contrast, was stiff-necked and unyielding. He appears to have been motivated, throughout the long conflict over the divorce, less by affection for his aunt Catherine or concern for the honor of his extended family than by a visceral dislike for Henry, who over the years had shown himself to be a tiresomely overbearing and patronizing uncle-in-law and (during the period when Charles was betrothed to Princess Mary) prospective father-in-law. It is scarcely plausible that Charles cared enough about Catherine in any personal way to put himself permanently at odds with England for her sake; aunt and nephew did not know each other well, he having paid her little attention during his youthful visits to the English court. Throughout his life the long-faced, lantern-jawed emperor showed little inclination to be sentimental about his relatives on either side. When another of his aunts was cast aside by her husband the King of Denmark, he did nothing for her and took little interest in her case. Nor for that matter would Charles show much interest in Henry’s continued bad treatment of Catherine after he divorced her and married Anne Boleyn. In fact, the vehemence and persistence of Charles’s objections to Henry’s divorce are somewhat mysterious. Pride may have been part of it: once he took a position, an emperor could not have wanted to be seen as backing down. The fact that during the years when the divorce was a live issue he had the upper hand over the nettlesome Francis of France, and so had no pressing need for the friendship of England, must also have been a factor. In later years, when his need was greater, Charles would actively curry favor with the English court. Henry for his part would respond positively to Charles’s overtures whenever doing so suited his own interests.

Whatever his reasons, when faced with the visitors from England Charles assumed the mask of cold and arrogant emperor. He was offended by the presence of the delegation’s leader, the father of the very woman—the “concubine,” as Charles’s ambassador to the English court called Anne in his reports—who was the cause of all the trouble. When Boleyn tried to speak, Charles brusquely cut him off. “Stop, sir,” he said in French. “Allow your colleagues to speak. You are a party to the cause.” Boleyn answered in the same language. He had come to Italy, he said, not as a father seeking favor for his daughter but as representative of the king of England, who hoped for the emperor’s support but would continue to seek justice whether he received that support or not. In return for his friendship, he told Charles, Henry was prepared to pay him 300,000 crowns—the sum that had come to England as Catherine’s dowry—and to support Catherine for the rest of her life in a fashion appropriate to her birth and her status as Dowager Princess of Wales. This proposal gave Charles a new excuse to take offense. He answered that he was not a tradesman and his aunt’s honor was not for sale; that the divorce case was now before the pope where it belonged; and that he intended to accept the pope’s judgment whatever it proved to be.

Things went more smoothly but no more productively with Pope Clement. Henry had authorized his envoys to offer Clement not only a substantial amount of money—at least as much as they had offered Charles, surely—but England’s participation in a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. This last was no small point. Just months before, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had carried his penetration of central Europe to the very gates of Vienna, where he had been turned back after encountering not only masses of troops commanded by Charles and his brother Ferdinand but—what may have been more decisive—outlandishly bad weather. It is essential to keep in mind, in tracing the endless intrigues of Charles and Francis and Henry, that they took place at a time when the Turks, having overrun first Constantinople and then the Balkans and finally Hungary, seemed entirely capable of breaking through into Germany, possibly of overrunning the whole of central Europe. Clement was not the first pope to attempt to create a confederacy with which to oppose the Turkish threat and he would not be the last, but it had been generations since such an idea had had the power to pull Europe’s leading powers together. In 1530 in Bologna it lacked the power to pull even the pope where he felt he must not go. Boleyn and his troupe returned to England with nothing more substantial than fresh assurances of the pope’s goodwill.

Henry meanwhile was pursuing Cranmer’s idea of showing learned opinion across Europe to be on his side. His agents, supplied with their master’s theological arguments and abundant supplies of cash, were dispatched to the universities of Italy, France, and Germany. What ensued reflected badly on everyone, not least on Henry himself. Even in England, where to his offers of money the king could add an unrivaled power to make good on promises and threats, getting a favorable opinion out of the theology faculties of the two universities proved an awkward business. Fights broke out in Cambridge, and the women of Oxford stoned three of Henry’s men. In Italy, where at Henry’s request Pope Clement had issued a “breve” urging anyone who was consulted to express himself freely, the search went no better. In the end Henry claimed to have received the support of the universities at Bologna, Ferrara, and Padua, but the process had been so stained with bribery, and the reality of the support was so dubious, that no impartial observer could possibly have taken any of it seriously. In Germany the response was if anything worse: not only the universities in Catholic southern Germany but even the leading radical reformers declared against the divorce. Martin Luther himself, while insisting that the marriage of Henry and Catherine was valid beyond question, suggested that Henry might follow the example of the patriarchs of the Bible and take a second wife. (Even the pope at one point floated such a proposal, later conceding that he lacked the authority to approve any such thing.) None of this was of the slightest use, or interest, to Henry.

The great academic battleground turned out to be France, which had fourteen universities and a king who could always be depended on to fish in troubled waters. Henry’s agents had spread out across the landscape, dispensing money as they went, while Henry himself sought ways to put Francis’s support to the fullest possible use. Francis professed his eagerness to help—what he really wanted, as always, was to keep Henry and Charles at each other’s throats—explaining however that he dared not act too boldly so long as his two sons, who had been Charles’s hostages since the French defeat at Pavia four years earlier, remained in custody in Spain. This was, in effect, an invitation to bribery. Charles wanted two million crowns in ransom. And, Francis having broken virtually every promise he had made in securing his own release, Charles demanded payment in cash. Two million crowns was more than the French treasury contained or could raise. Henry obliged by sending Francis 400,000 crowns (it was a loan, presumably) and allowing him to postpone indefinitely the repayment of a previous 500,000-crown debt. With this Francis got his sons back and, as good as his word for once, he joined Henry in seeking a favorable opinion from the theologians.

But even two kings applying pressure could accomplish little. In Paris months of struggle culminated in the issuance of a supposedly scholarly endorsement, but it was of highly questionable validity. Having been drawn up not by the theology faculty but at Francis’s instructions, it had little impact anywhere. Similarly ambiguous results were all that could be extracted from the universities at Orleans and Toulouse, and a final humiliation occurred when a decree favorable to Henry was issued under the name of the university at Angers but repudiated by that institution’s theologians. When it was all over, the king claimed to have a number of universities on his side. But the squalid means by which his support had been won were known to everyone, including the church authorities in Rome, who knew also that all the arguments in Henry’s favor began with the assumption—unproved, unprovable, and denied by the queen—that Catherine’s first marriage had been consummated. Nor were the other side’s hands clean: Charles had spent heavily to neutralize Henry’s bribes. The episode of the universities petered out in March 1530 when the pope, weary of the squabbling, ordered that nothing more was to be written about the English royal marriage. The scholarly judgments obtained at so much trouble and expense were so compromised that Henry never even sent them to Rome.

Blocked everywhere he turned, Henry by midyear was showing signs of deepening discouragement. According to one of his confidants, he complained of having been deceived into pursuing the divorce and said he would never have done so had he foreseen that it would bring him to this pass. Probably he was missing Wolsey at this juncture and finding himself badly in need of a strong new chief minister. Soon, however, he rallied—not only the Boleyns but the champions of radical church reform had good reason to fear the consequences if England and Rome were reconciled, and so they urged him on. By late summer he was again on the attack, possibly with Cromwell pointing the way. He somehow conceived or was given the idea, for which there was only the murkiest evidence, that a proper understanding of history revealed that no Englishman could rightly be made subject to a foreign court, even the papal court. In September he instructed his agents in Rome to inform the pope of this revelation and search the papal archives for supporting documentation. The ambassadors had never heard of any such principle and so were reluctant to present it to Clement. Their search for corroboration turned up nothing. Henry, meanwhile, the bit in his teeth now, issued on his own authority and without the involvement of Parliament a proclamation forbidding anyone in the kingdom, cleric or layman, to “pursue or attempt to purchase from the court of Rome or elsewhere, nor use, put into execution, divulge or publish anything … containing matter prejudicial to the high authority, jurisdiction and prerogative royal of this his [Henry’s] said realm.” Possibly this proclamation was intended to prevent anyone from protesting to Rome the statutes that Parliament had enacted late in 1529. Possibly it was intended to provide grounds for punishing those bishops, John Fisher most prominent among them, who had already sent such protests. Most certainly it was an act of defiance aimed at the pope, a gesture of a kind not seen before. Vague as it was in referring to “matter prejudicial” to the “prerogative royal,” its implication that the church in England was independent of the international church was unmistakable. Not coincidentally, just at this time Henry began to assert that England was and had from distant times been no mere kingdom but an empire. He wanted to be regarded as equivalent to those Christian emperors of Rome—Constantine the Great foremost among them—who were supposed to have exercised absolute dominion over state and church.

At the end of September Henry took an even more shocking step. He instructed his attorney general to charge fifteen notable members of the English clergy with having violated the praemunire statutes by dealing, in the discharge of their ecclesiastic duties, with Cardinal Wolsey. The concept of praemunire had always been somewhat vague, and in the century since their passage the statutes had almost never been applied. Therefore the accused must have had difficulty understanding precisely what crime they were charged with. The general idea, however, was clear enough and brutally simple: Wolsey had broken the law by serving as a legate accountable to the papal court in Rome—his literal guilt could hardly be questioned, he himself having admitted it as soon as he was accused—and therefore anyone who had done business with Wolsey as legate had to be equally guilty. By extension, anyone involved in the administration of England’s ecclesiastical courts was now subject to punishment in spite of the fact that those courts had been, for clergy and laymen alike, an integral part of life in England as far back as the records reached. In terms of simple justice the whole proceeding was even more ridiculous than the original praemunire charges against Wolsey. Even if there were reasons for eliminating the ecclesiastical courts (not even the king was suggesting any such thing—the courts performed essential functions and would continue to do so long after England’s separation from Rome), to retroactively criminalize their operations was contrary to common sense.

The shabbiness of the whole proceeding was further apparent in the fact that almost all of the accused men (eight bishops and three abbots among them) were conspicuous opponents of the divorce. John Fisher was one of them, at the center of the fray as always. Being charged in this way must have been frightening all the same. Praemunire was a weighty offense: lesser treason, punishable with loss of freedom and possessions. And the difficulties of presenting a defense, already overwhelming with the king driving the prosecution, were compounded by Wolsey’s decision, almost a year earlier, to throw himself on the king’s mercy and hope for the best. In fact, Wolsey was treated with something like leniency after he submitted. Though expelled from the government and deprived of his most richly remunerative offices, he remained archbishop of York, traveled to York for the first time since becoming the city’s primate a decade and a half before, and was making plans for a grossly belated but grandiose consecration ceremony there. But his acceptance of guilt created a presumption that his colleagues must also be guilty.

At least some of the accused—Fisher without question, probably others as well—would have defended themselves rather than follow Wolsey’s example. And their defense would have been substantial, even if not successful in terms of the final judgment produced. Perhaps for that reason the matter never came to trial. Cromwell, in corresponding with Wolsey, reported that a trial was not going to be necessary because “there is another way devised.” This is intriguing: another way had been devised for accomplishing what? The answer, almost certainly, is that by this point, October 1530, Henry had decided not to fight the church on the issues but instead to undermine its ability to resist. The way to do that—hit upon, in all likelihood, by the increasingly influential Cromwell—was to frighten the leaders of the church so badly that they became incapable of resistance. Convicting fifteen clergymen of lesser treason for doing nothing more criminal than carrying out their traditional duties would have been an impressive step in that direction. But before the fifteen could be brought to trial, someone—no one knows who with certainty, but again Cromwell is the best guess—came up with a more ambitious idea, one whose breathtaking scope would give it vastly greater impact. The kingdom’s entire clergy, the church itself in effect, would be accused of praemunire. The idea appears to have been settled on by October, but then set aside to be sprung on the churchmen in the new year. Meanwhile Henry was postponing and postponing again the reconvening of Parliament. It was obvious to all that he had something in mind but wasn’t yet ready to act. Fisher and his fellow defendants were let off with heavy fines.

Also in October, in a step providing further clues to his thinking, Henry called together a number of leading lawyers and clerics and presented a question for their consideration. The background to his question was a recent action of the pope’s. Clement, warned repeatedly that Henry was prepared to act autonomously unless Rome nullified his marriage and no doubt weary of being bullied, had issued an edict stating that no one was to do anything about the divorce or a possible royal remarriage until the papal court issued its decision. To the lawyers and clerics he had assembled, Henry now posed the following: in light of his recently improved understanding of history—the insights enabling him to see that popes had long ago usurped rights belonging to English emperors and that no Englishman should ever be accountable to any external authority—would it not be permissible to ignore the pope? Couldn’t the archbishop of Canterbury, primate in England for nearly ten centuries, proceed independently to set aside Henry’s false marriage and allow him to take a legitimate wife?

The assembly discussed the question, which it must have found unsettling. Then, evidently assuming that it was being consulted in good faith by a king seeking to do the right thing, it delivered its answer. No, it said, Henry could do no such thing, and neither could the archbishop. This response was inherently uncontroversial: it arose in straightforward fashion from what virtually every European had understood for centuries about how Christendom worked and was organized. When the laws and governance of the church were at issue, the last word belonged to Rome.

Again Henry was blocked. And this time he was blocked not just by a faraway pontiff whom he had never seen but by some of the most learned and respected men in England. His options were narrowing. He could accept a humiliating defeat and yield, abandoning the idea of taking a new wife. Or he could teach his subjects to take him more seriously. Again it came down to a question of fear. If he were to get his way, people had to be afraid to deny him. He had to give them reason to be afraid.

That has to be why he embraced the idea of charging the whole clergy with praemunire. It also has to be why, more than a year after Wolsey had been exiled to the north of England, he was suddenly arrested, charged with high treason (a crime punishable with death), and ordered to return to London and meet his fate.



ONE THING ABOVE ALL ELSE WAS ESSENTIAL TO ANYONE WHO wanted to make his mark in the England of Henry VIII: access. Access to the king himself. Intelligence, courage, ability, sound judgment—such gifts were no less important than they are today, but they could have only a limited effect unless displayed before and approved by the man who wore the crown. Access, in turn, was rarely possible unless one went where the king lived, which meant to court. This was true whether one wanted to rise in the government, in the church, or in military service. Without access to the court, nothing out of the ordinary was possible. Thus the desperate lengths to which men would go, the sacrifices they would make, to get positions at court for themselves or for their children.

The power of access is demonstrated by the improbable importance, in the second half of King Henry’s reign, of the office of groom of the stool. The core responsibilities of this position seem ridiculous to the modern eye: not only to assure that his majesty always had a “sweet and clear” place for his daily evacuations, not only to collect what he expelled and deliver it to the court physicians for examination, but to wipe the royal backside (using, for the purpose, small triangular pieces of paper). But performing such intimate services required a degree of access that not even the king’s senior ministers and private secretaries could equal. Grooms of the stool were so close to the king that they became some of the most influential and therefore envied people in the kingdom. They were made, in effect, general managers not only of the king’s toilet but of his private quarters and of everyone employed in those jealously guarded precincts: the knights and esquires of the body (also prized appointments) and the grooms of the chamber. They were entrusted with substantial amounts of Crown money and even, to a considerable extent, with the organization of the king’s private life. If they were ever scorned or ridiculed for the nature of the duties that gave their job its name, it is unrecorded.

Access mattered so much because the whole political system was powered by royal largesse. It was the king (along with those to whom he listened) who bestowed the highest offices, the gifts of land, financial favors ranging from annuities and monopolies to exemption from the payment of tariffs, wardships like the one that had brought Plantagenet blood into the Tudor family, and pardons for virtually any kind of offense. Such gifts were the means by which the king built a following and rewarded faithful service. To be eligible for them one had to be known to the king or his most trusted friends, and there was little chance of becoming known except at court.

Admission to the court as most broadly defined—to the crowds that gathered wherever the king was resident—was not difficult. It required little more than a reasonably respectable appearance (meaning the attire appropriate to a gentleman), a plausible claim to have business with the Crown (anything from wares for sale to a dispute in need of resolution), and a sufficient supply of ready cash (bribery being routine). Merely being at court, therefore, was of limited value. Men spent years, even decades, hanging around the court and angling for preferment, only to see little of the king and come away empty-handed in the end. The trick was to get lifted out of the herd; this could be accomplished through good connections, an ability to charm or to make oneself useful, simple good luck, or some combination of these things. The goal was to become one of the lucky few likely to come to the royal mind when lucrative offices needed to be filled or patronage was available to be disbursed. Getting there could take years.

It is estimated that, at the start of Henry VIII’s reign, there were at court some 120 positions that ambitious men of good birth could regard as worth having if only because they offered the possibility of visibility and advancement. By the end of the reign this number had increased by more than half. The bottom rungs on the ladder of upward mobility were entry-level positions for boys of good family—jobs as pages, for example—and though the ladder extended upward to the Royal Council (and yes, to the groom of the stool), relatively few of those who stood on it received a gentleman’s living wage. All the same, at every level vacancies were hungrily fought over, because they could lead to almost anything. Success at court—by no means always the same kind of success—propelled the careers of virtually every major figure of Henry VIII’s reign including Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and Thomas Cranmer. And of yet another successful Thomas, Anne Boleyn’s father. The story of the Boleyn family, in fact, illustrates just how fruitful access could be for people who knew how to use it. And how dangerous it could become when the political weather changed.

The Bullens or Boleyns were an old family, farmers in Norfolk for at least two hundred years, and by the early fifteenth century they were established in the capital and rising fast. Geoffrey Boleyn made a fortune in the cloth trade, married a baron’s daughter, served as lord mayor of London, and acquired the kinds of rural estates necessary to be upper gentry. In the next generation William Boleyn lived as a country gentleman and married the daughter of an Anglo-Irish earl. By virtue of his wealth or family connections or the two things together, he got his young son Thomas admitted to the court of Henry VII.

Thomas, born in 1477, clearly was intelligent and must have been ambitious as well; he is not known ever to have wasted an opportunity. While still in his early twenties, he took a long step up the social pyramid by marrying a daughter of Thomas Howard, survivor of Bosworth Field, Earl of Surrey, and future Duke of Norfolk. Howard had an abundance of marriageable daughters and is likely to have been pleased to place one of them with a family as prosperous and respectable as the Boleyns. His son-in-law soon began to leave his mark in the records of the court: in 1501, probably the year of Anne’s birth, he was present at the wedding of Arthur, Prince of Wales, to Catherine of Aragon, and two years later he was a member of the party that accompanied the young Princess Margaret Tudor northward for her marriage to King James IV of Scotland. As an esquire of the body—proof of excellent access, the body in question being the king’s own—he became part of the circle of well-bred young gallants that gave the court of the aging and widowed Henry VII what little luster it retained. When the king died, Boleyn was among the favorites selected for knighthood by his successor. His penetration of Henry VIII’s inner circle is not difficult to understand. He was skilled at things that Henry VIII admired—horsemanship, jousting, hawking, and the game of bowls—and by all accounts was a man of exceptional charm.

Sir Thomas, as he could now style himself, was fluent in both French and Latin. This was an essential credential in the world of diplomacy, and early in the new reign he was launched on the series of foreign missions that would punctuate his career. His widening horizons opened up opportunities, too, for his children, Mary, Anne, and George. When the king’s younger sister, Princess Mary, embarked for France and marriage to King Louis XII, young Mary Boleyn joined her as a lady-in-waiting. Anne, barely an adolescent, was sent to Brussels in the service of Margaret of Austria, Hapsburg regent of the Netherlands. This last was a particularly coveted posting, as Margaret was a daughter of the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian and her court was among the richest and most elegant in Europe. Both girls were thus positioned to get the kind of continental finish that, when combined with their father’s wealth and stature at court and the dash of royal blood that had come to them through their mother, could make them valuable commodities on the aristocracy’s marriage market.

Anne had her father’s ability to make use of whatever came her way, but her sister did not. The sketchy available information suggests that Mary Boleyn was not a model of chastity even when very young, and that while at the French court she acquired a reputation for easy availability. Whether for that or for some other reason, her sojourn abroad turned out to be short. When the decrepit Louis XII died just weeks after his wedding, his beautiful young widow impulsively married Charles Brandon, one of her brother Henry’s closest friends and son of the William Brandon who had died carrying her father’s standard at Bosworth Field. When the newlyweds prepared to return to England, it was decided that Mary would return with them and become a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine. Anne meanwhile had received high praise from Margaret of Austria, who had overseen the continuation of her education along with that of the four Hapsburg youngsters who were her wards at the time. At this point her father was able to arrange Anne’s transfer from Brussels to the French court, where she became close to Francis I’s Queen Claude. She remained in France for some six or seven years, until King Henry’s 1522 decision to go to war with France made it impossible for her to remain. She took back with her to England a degree of sophistication that gave her a confidence bordering on brashness, arriving at about the same time her sister became the king’s mistress. Anne was firmly established as the court’s principal adornment when, a few years later, Henry returned Mary to her husband with grants of land as a gesture of thanks. Mary had not exactly been seduced and abandoned, but her example would not have impressed Anne with the benefits of yielding when the king sought a lady’s favors.

Anne very nearly disappeared into Ireland. Her father had long been in a dispute with a noble Anglo-Irish family called the Butlers, with both sides claiming the Earldom of Ormond (which had belonged to Thomas’s maternal grandfather). King Henry and Wolsey, grasping at a possible solution to this tedious but troublesome squabble, offered Anne to Sir James Butler as a way of uniting the two families and making it possible for them to share the inheritance. The Butlers refused, evidently because they expected a dowry bigger than Anne would provide. And so she remained at court—an exceptionally dazzling lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, a model for anyone wanting to keep abreast of the latest fashions—passing through a flirtation with the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt and the indignity of being kept from marrying Henry Percy by the interference of Cardinal Wolsey.

Thomas Boleyn, the value of his diplomatic talents augmented by the king’s wish to make him a grateful rather than a resentful father, was ennobled as Viscount Rochford in 1525 and raised to the English and Irish earldoms of Wiltshire and Ormond in 1529. His son George had virtually grown up at court, taking part in the Christmas revels at age ten, becoming a page at twelve and the recipient of offices and even a manor while still barely grown; when Thomas became an earl, George, in his twenties by this time, already an esquire of the body and a junior diplomat, assumed the Rochford title. When the king entered into full pursuit of Anne, the Boleyns became for all practical purposes more the king’s family than Queen Catherine and Princess Mary. All the Boleyns were heaped with honors. That their success may have gone to their heads is suggested by their attempt, thwarted by Wolsey, to secure the appointment of a disreputable sister-in-law of Mary Boleyn’s as abbess of the convent of Wilton.

In the months just after Wolsey’s fall, a triumvirate made up of Thomas Boleyn and the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk stepped forward to fill the resulting power vacuum. Together the three became the king’s most influential advisers, but only briefly; none of them had the political skill or the force of character to hold such a lofty position for long. It mattered little to Boleyn, who by this point had bet everything on his daughter. He and his son could hardly have been less eager than Henry himself for Anne to become queen and produce a royal heir. That would make them the grandfather and only uncle of the next king—positions from which they might aspire to almost anything.

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