Wednesday, 5 May 2010

May 5th, 1536: The Final Arrests

“In satisfying her carnal appetite she fled not so much as the company of her own brother besides the company of three or four others of the gallantest gentlemen that were near about the king’s proper person.”
- Sir William Thomas, Clerk of the Privy Council (d. 1554)

Friday May 5th marked a difficult day for the Queen of England. Having finally understood the terrible truth that her brother, George, had been arrested on a charge of adulterous incest with her, she spent much of the morning crying and at one point nearly fainted, screaming, “My brother will die!” After lunch, she seemed to have reined in her hysteria and instead began to worry about the fates of the other men who were also sharing her prison – she feared that they might not be looked after properly and asked if anyone was making their beds for them. (Perhaps to find out if they even had beds or were being held in one of the Tower’s more horrible locations.) One of her ladies-in-waiting cattily responded that it was her interest in such obscene matters as what gentlemen's beds were like which had brought her to her current calamity.

It was apparently this latest act of wholly unnecessary bullying which marked a change in Anne Boleyn’s attitude the ladies around her. Having previously hoped that they might eventually feel sorry for her, she now realised that this was not going to happen. Far from sympathising, they were in fact taking great pleasure in adding to her misery at every available opportunity - taunting her with unwelcome information about her co-accused or moralising about the reasons for her destruction. The two worst offenders were Anne’s aunt-by-marriage, Lady Boleyn, and Mrs. Coffin – they refused to answer any of the Queen’s queries about where her father was (had he been arrested too?) and how had her mother taken the news of her arrest? Faced with this treatment, Anne decided that she was not going to give the two women an opportunity to do it again and she used the only weapon she had left in her arsenal – etiquette.

Custom forbade anyone to speak in the Queen’s presence unless she spoke first and from then on, when Lady Boleyn and Mrs. Coffin were in her presence, Anne “defied them” – that is, she sat in ostentatious silence. With the Queen now on permanent “non-speakers” around them, Lady Boleyn and Mrs. Coffin found no more opportunities to taunt her – which must rather have taken the fun out of the whole experience for them. It was a small victory, but at least the Queen now had some of her fighting spirit back.

But if the Queen's day was purgatorial, her brother's was positively hellish. 32 year-old brother, George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, had been imprisoned for the last three days, having been arrested on the same day as his sister. An impossibly handsome man – one palace servant compared him to Adonis – George Boleyn was a tall, muscular, multi-lingual Oxford graduate with a passion for poetry, power and Protestantism.

During his imprisonment, the two siblings did not get the chance to meet. Although it would have been some comfort, at least, for the Queen to know that her brother was being housed in considerable comfort in the Martin Tower, an addition to the fortress built in the reign of King Henry III. There were working fireplaces and several floors for the viscount to have his manservants and books brought to him and if it didn't appease his mental anguish, he certainly was not suffering physically.

Earlier in the day, George Boleyn received a message from his wife, Lady Rochford, promising to intercede for him before the King, but he was anxious to get before the Council himself to clear his name and protest his innocence – perhaps not fully trusting in his wife’s alleged good intentions. (For the debate over whether or not Jane Boleyn ever intended to help her husband, see Claire Ridgeway’s excellent article on The Anne Boleyn Files.) George Boleyn was a famously brilliant public speaker, with “a great wit,” and he wanted an opportunity to use his skills in his own defence – especially because the charge of incest was one far too hideous and unjust not to make any man want to defend his honour. (The Queen too was upset that the Council had not interrogated her about her alleged crimes; although, unlike her brother, she expected them to come to her, not vice-versa.)

May 5th also marked the arrests of the last of the Queen’s alleged lovers. It is often assumed that there were five men imprisoned on suspicion of being her partners in vice, but in fact, there were seven – two were never brought to trial. This meant eight arrests had been spread over a period of six days – beginning with the kidnapping and torture of Mark Smeaton on April 30th, the imprisonment of Sir Henry Norris on the evening of May Day, the arrest of the Queen and her brother on May 2nd (the Queen at Greenwich just after lunch; Lord Rochford at Whitehall six hours later), Sir Francis Weston on the evening of the following day (some sources suggest it was on the morning of the 4th that Weston was arrested, but I am inclined to agree with Dr. Starkey that it was the evening of the 3rd), Sir William Brereton at dawn on May 4th, and Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Richard Page on the morning of May 5th.

The arrests of Thomas Wyatt and Richard Page – the only two of the seven men to escape with their lives – bear special mention, for it was one of the more bizarre government tactics carried out during the three weeks of the Queen’s downfall.

The historian G.W. Bernard, in his book "Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions " and his article "The Fall of Anne Boleyn," concludes that the fact that Wyatt and Page were arrested and then released two weeks later proves the government genuinely investigated each claim against the Queen seriously and that, finding no evidence against Wyatt and Page, released them. The corollary of this argument, of course, is that there was sufficient evidence about Smeaton, Norris, Rochford, Weston and Brereton to make the cases against them convincing. However, this interpretation is not borne out by what we know of the details of Wyatt and Page’s arrests.

Sir Richard Page was a fairly innocuous courtier, who had somehow managed to sail through a career in Henry VIII’s viperous court without offending anyone. He had once been private secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, but after the Cardinal’s exile, he had transferred to the household of the King’s bastard son, the young Duke of Richmond. In time, he married the King’s cousin, Elizabeth Bourchier, and became captain of the royal guard. He was also a good friend of the Queen’s – he liked Anne both on a personal level and a political one. He found her charming and the two regularly exchanged presents with one another and invitations to dinner parties and country house weekends.

Hearing of her arrest, Page had hurried back to London from his house in the country, where he had been spending a long weekend. Upon arrival in Whitehall, he apparently made such a nuisance of himself that Cromwell decided to detain him in the Tower until the whole event was over. Given how infrequently he and Anne were in the same place, despite their friendship, constructing any form of a case alleging they were lovers was going to be impossible and so Richard Page’s detention in the Tower was purely a temporary measure to ensure his silence until the Queen was dead and beyond help.

Page's fellow prisoner, Sir Thomas Wyatt, was a 32 year-old poet, who had known the Queen since her arrival in England as a debutante fourteen years earlier. His sister, Lady Lee, was one of the Queen’s chief ladies-in-waiting and in the days before she had come to Henry VIII’s attention, Wyatt had apparently been in love with Anne Boleyn, “this new beauty.” By the accounts of all those who actually knew them, this love was unrequited and we have some haunting poetry from that time expressing Wyatt’s pain at the situation. Upon hearing of Anne’s betrothal to the King, he had returned to his rooms, packed his bags and gone to Italy for several years on a diplomatic mission to the Vatican. The kind of overblown and melodramatic gesture one might expect from a poet and an indication of why he made so many women go weak at the knees - all except Anne, of course, and his own wife, who openly despised him.

Since his return to England, Wyatt had become friends with Thomas Cromwell, the man who was now constructing the case to bring the Queen to the scaffold and who oversaw Wyatt’s arrest in London on the morning of May 5th, 1536. Cromwell cheerfully entered Wyatt’s room and said, “Well, Master Wyatt, you must go to the Tower, and I promise you that I shall be your good friend.” In effect, he was saying that despite the arrest, Wyatt had nothing to worry about. Cromwell would look after him.

Looking at all the evidence, it is clear that Page and Wyatt were arrested because of their past relationships with Anne Boleyn – one a successful friendship, one a failed romance. Thus, to the impartial observer, their arrests and then their subsequent release made it look as if the government was investigating all the accused fairly and without prejudice. If they were truly innocent, they could go free. In reality, the arrests of Sir Richard Page and Sir Thomas Wyatt were a farce, a gesture, a ploy – albeit brilliant ones on Cromwell’s part.

Upon arrival in the Tower, Wyatt and Page were housed near Francis Weston and William Brereton, who had been arrested on May 3rd and May 4th, respectively. Nearby, lying in the relative comfort of the Beauchamp Tower, built during the reign of King Edward I, was Sir Henry Norris, the courtier who had chosen imprisonment rather than perjure himself by incriminating the Queen. Of all the Queen’s co-accused, the one who fared the worst was the common-born musician, Mark Smeaton. After cracking under interrogation by Cromwell in Stepney, he had been moved to the Tower in the early hours of May 2nd, only a few hours before the Queen herself was incarcerated within the fortress. From there, as was so memorably dramatised in the novel Dissolution, Smeaton was clapped in irons, writhing with guilt, shame and fear.

The Queen, on the other hand, was preparing herself for the battle ahead. She seemed to be under no illusions that it would probably end in her death, but as Mary, Queen of Scots would remark half a century later, in such moments, it was not the immediate victory which mattered, but the victim’s performance before the theatre of history and the world. And in that arena, Anne Boleyn was determined to make the most sublime exit possible.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting - I had never read about the friendship between Anne and Page anymore; was he quite well known at the court? What led to his release from the Tower do you think?

    Not sure I'd deploy the terms 'dinner parties' and 'country house weekends' in relation to 16th century royalty, mind you.


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