Historians cannot pinpoint the moment when Henry VIII decided to get rid of his second wife. To marry Anne Boleyn, he had overturned the religious and political order of Europe, breaking with Rome and setting himself up as head of the English church. But Anne, who he believed had promised him a son, had presented him with a daughter, Elizabeth; her next two pregnancies had not come to term. Henry’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell had his own quarrels with the queen. By spring 1536 her existence threatened his foreign policy aims. No state outside England recognized Henry’s second marriage, which was becoming an embarrassment and an encumbrance.
But how to be rid of her? The possibility of an annulment, and Anne’s quiet departure, seems to have been canvassed and rejected. She would, it was decided, have to be forced out, charged with treason, treason evidenced by multiple adulteries, including an incestuous affair with her brother George, Lord Rochford. The charges sound deeply unlikely, but were made to stick for a few days during May 1536. It seems possible that Cromwell did not know how he would stage the coup, till he found himself in the middle of it.
Tradition has seen Jane Rochford, George’s wife, as a chief agent in the downfall of the Boleyns. It would be pleasant to go against tradition, but difficult in this case. In Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall (2009), it is she, as a woman close to the queen, who sets ticking the mechanism of Anne Boleyn’s downfall. In the following passage she talks with Thomas Cromwell. Henry Norris and Francis Weston are prominent courtiers, and close to the king.
Henry Holt has just published Bring Up the Bodies.
Sunday: “I wish you had been here this morning,” Lady Rochford says with relish. “It was something to witness. The king and Anne in the great window together, so everybody in the courtyard below could see them. The king has heard about the quarrel she had with Norris yesterday. Well, the whole of England has heard of it. You could see the king was beside himself, his face was crimson. And she holding up the little princess to him, as if to say, ‘Husband, how can you doubt this is your daughter?’”
“You are supposing that was her question. You could not hear what was said.” His voice is cold; he hears it himself, its coldness surprises him.
“Not from where I stood. But I doubt it bodes any good to her.”
“Did you not go to her, to comfort her? She being your mistress?”
“No. I went looking for you.” She checks herself, her tone suddenly sobered. “We—her women—we want to speak out and save ourselves. We are afraid she is not…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.