Considering the ambassador’s many reports, which have been instrumental in shaping modern interpretations of Henry VIII and his wives, historian Lauren Mackay reevaluates what we think we know about one of the most controversial figures at the Tudor court.
Mackay reveals how, rather than celebrating Anne Boleyn’s downfall, as is often believed, Chapuys in fact publicly declared in 1536 that she was innocent of the charges brought against her. Here, writing for History Extra, Mackay considers why Chapuys’ presence in Anne Boleyn’s life has been given a more sinister aspect than it deserves…
“Full of vexation come I, with complaint”. So declares Hermia’s father in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is the cry of the historian too when certain historical figures are, in our view, consistently misrepresented. Our passions are ignited and we make ready to defend. History has certainly judged the players in Henry VIII’s court, particularly its queens, which it enjoyed to excess. Like a good piece of theatre, every character engages our interest, and like any masterly drama, there are victims and villains.
Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, may claim both titles as she continues to provoke debate as to her role in the compelling drama that witnessed her glorious rise and her calamitous fall. So too does Eustace Chapuys, whose chronicles over 15 years as Charles V’s imperial ambassador give us much of the colour and detail of the period.
Anne Boleyn was the woman Henry just had to have. His determination would wreak discord in his kingdom and for her he would forsake a wife and a daughter, resulting in much heartache and, for some, death. In the royal courts of Europe Anne was branded a concubine or whore, and was “the scandal of Christendom,” according to Catherine of Aragon. But the supremely confident and obsessed Henry would wed Anne and make her his queen – all she had to do was to fulfill her end of the bargain: bear Henry a son.
Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII, who branded Anne Boleyn “the scandal of Christendom,” c1509. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Anne ultimately failed, and within three years of marriage Henry would sign her death warrant. Almost 500 years later we are still trying to untangle events and understand who engineered her fall.
Historians keenly debate the political machinations and the many conspiracy theories pointing to who would most benefit from Anne’s downfall. Certainly Henry was the greatest beneficiary. The swaggering, supremely brash monarch, who had spent so many years hotly pursuing his new love interest, is therefore a prime suspect. But in his defence, some historians plead temporary insanity – after all, Henry had been unconscious for more than two hours as a result of a head injury he sustained during a jousting accident in January 1536. Based on today’s scientific evidence of concussion, this may have contributed to a swing in his character from devoted husband to a jealous, suspicious and dangerously erratic monarch.
Or perhaps the answer was much more mundane. His love and forbearance for his second wife (and her tantrums) had waned over the seven years Anne had been his mistress and queen and Henry wanted out. If Henry was ‘over’ Anne, then perhaps it was his chief schemer and chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who could turn Anne’s vulnerable position to his and Henry’s advantage.
A man obsessed
Cromwell’s involvement in Anne’s downfall became an obsession for one man, imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, but not for the reasons we might expect. Chapuys only actually met Anne once [in April 1535], but Anne fascinated the ambassador, whose reports have given us some of the most enduring and emotional scenes of her remarkable yet short reign. But Chapuys’ presence in Anne’s life has been given a more sinister aspect than it deserves. If we are to believe popular 18th-century historians, Chapuys was a gossip who loathed Anne and worked tirelessly to destroy her and even celebrated her death. If you believe such gossip, then this play would have its villain. But this wasn’t the case.
Countless letters and reports flew around and across Europe between ambassadors and monarchs, detailing Anne’s very public affair with Henry. Chapuys was perhaps the most prolific of these writers. He reported to his employer, Charles V, as well as his confidantes, Mary of Hungary, governess of the Lowlands, and other diplomatic colleagues, sometimes two or three times a day. It may be surprising to learn, however, that some of the most vitriolic reports about Anne’s appearance and scandalous behaviour were not written by Chapuys, but by French, Venetian and Spanish embassies. Judging from these reports, Anne was a favourite target of rumour-mongering and was generally most harshly judged by the English people and throughout Europe.
But perhaps it is an anonymous, unsigned report found among imperial documents and erroneously attributed to Chapuys (who always signed his letters) that has done the most damage. Referring to Anne’s coronation in 1533, the writer said: “The crown became her very ill, and a wart disfigured her very much. She wore a violet velvet mantle, with a high ruff (goulgiel) of gold thread and pearls, which concealed a swelling she has, resembling gotre (sic)”. It is a harsh report to be sure, but they were not Chapuys’ words.
Portrait of Charles V of Spain, 1605. Found in the collection of Museo del Prado, Madrid. Artist Pantoja de la Cruz, Juán. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Other historians keen to devalue Chapuys’ reports claim that he was so displeased by Anne’s coronation that he sulked in his lodgings, refusing to be a witness to the events. On the contrary, Chapuys’ reports are brimming with details of such an historic event, clearly placing him in the middle of the four days of festivities. His only criticisms of the coronation were his observation that Londoners took little joy in the event, but he seems to have revelled in the fabulous spectacle on the Thames that teemed with a pageant of colourfully decorated vessels, as he was lavishly entertained at a banquet held on the German ambassador’s barge at the very heart of celebrations.
One of the most prevalent fictions, and certainly one that has most tarnished Chapuys’ reputation, concerns his references to Anne in his despatches. It has become an accepted fact that throughout his embassy, Chapuys’ titles of choice for Anne were “la Putain” and “the Concubine”. Another term, “the Lady”, has also been interpreted as disparaging, although Chapuys regularly uses this for other women at court also. All this adds to the drama, but it is much overstated.
Chapuys arrived at court in 1529, but he first refers to Anne as “the concubine” in one heated letter in 1533, and then not again until 1535, through to her execution. Most of his letters refer to her as “the Lady” or “Lady Anne”, “the new Marchioness” and so on. He certainly never called her queen. It is true that Chapuys did occasionally refer to Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, as “the little bastard”, but more often it was simply “the king’s daughter”, or “other daughter”. Why, then, is the view that Chapuys only used pejorative terms for Anne and Elizabeth so entrenched? The answer is likely a case of mistaken identity.
While Chapuys abstained from insults (for the most part), Pedro Ortiz, Catherine of Aragon’s proctor in Rome and one of her passionate defenders, wrote quite vitriolic reports about Anne to Chapuys and Charles. In most of his letters Ortiz referred to Anne as “the concubine”, and did so as early as 1531 [Catherine and Henry divorced in 1533 and Henry married Anne that same year]. The pejorative descriptions of Anne belong more to Ortiz but have become attached to Chapuys; in my view the two characters have become confused. Charles V (nephew to Queen Catherine) also referred to Anne in a disparaging manner, and many of his imperial ambassadors were guided by his choice of words.
The fiction that Chapuys was blinded by his hatred of Anne has allowed historians to dismiss him as gossipy and overly dramatic. Yet by reporting every detail, however immaterial, Chapuys was simply doing his duty. Far from believing all information passed to him, especially when it related to a perceived rift between Henry and Anne, Chapuys often cautioned that the intelligence might be questionable.
It is important to remember that although Chapuys only actually met Anne once, he more than anyone managed to capture in his writing Anne’s character: her moods, insecurities and increasing impatience, but also her moments of triumph. And by Easter 1536, Anne no doubt felt triumphant. Her rival, Catherine of Aragon, had died in January, signifying that Anne Boleyn was at last the undisputed queen.
The irony was that she was now more vulnerable than ever: Henry’s affection had waned and he was hotly pursuing Anne’s lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Politically Anne was a liability. Catherine had at least brought the Holy Roman Empire to the table, through her nephew Charles V. Anne had sought a French alliance through her connection with Francis I and his court, but France was an unreliable ally. By 1535/36 Thomas Cromwell may have begun to reconsider Anne’s use. Such vulnerability would lead to an unprecedented event on 18 April 1535, just after Easter, when Anne and Eustace Chapuys came face-to-face for the first time. The event was certainly significant, but it has been long been misunderstood. So what really occurred between queen and ambassador?
Jane Seymour, who by 1536 was being pursued by Henry VIII. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
An unrecognised queen
Charles had not yet acknowledged Anne, and thus Chapuys, Charles’s representative at the Tudor court, could not acknowledge her either. Yet according to his Easter report Chapuys seems to have been anticipating a meeting. He seemed resigned to the fact that with the prospect of peace in the air he would at some point have to acknowledge Anne as Henry’s wife and queen. But there was more to it than that. Anne had also refused to officially acknowledge Charles or his ambassador, but was now aware of the necessity of an imperial alliance. She would have to acknowledge Charles, and that meant acknowledging Chapuys.
Peace was at the forefront of Chapuys’ mind when he approached Henry after Easter with letters from Charles to Henry. Both Chapuys and Thomas Cromwell had been working together for several months to engineer a rapprochement between both monarchs in a bid to heal the rift caused by Henry’s divorce. With Catherine of Aragon gone, Charles was willing to acknowledge Anne, accept the marriage at long last and work towards peace.
But nothing was set in stone.
Before mass, Cromwell privately asked if Chapuys would consider meeting Anne, but Chapuys could make no such move before any treaty had been signed. He reported that “Before the King went out to mass Cromwell came to me on his part to ask if I would not go and visit and kiss the Concubine. I thought… such a visit would not be advisable, and I begged Cromwell to excuse it, and dissuade the said visit.”
Throughout his embassy Chapuys remained on good terms with the Boleyn men. Several of his reports to Charles mention private dinners with Thomas and George, Anne’s father and brother, and he thought nothing of meeting with George on this particular morning before Mass. He did, however, note that George seemed overly enthusiastic, making a show of speaking with the ambassador for the benefit of the court. This rather ostentatious display of friendship put Chapuys on his guard as George accompanied him to Mass. He reported that “I was conducted to the Chapel by Lord Rochefort, the concubine’s brother, and when the offering came a great many people flocked round the King, out of curiosity, and wishing no doubt to know what sort of a mien the concubine and I should put on.” The entire court seems to have been eagerly waiting.
What occurred is considered to be one of the most dramatic and significant events of Anne’s last months. If we believe that Chapuys is the villain of the piece, this event can be construed as Anne’s last triumph over Charles, making Chapuys look foolish. This would certainly make for a good story. But what Chapuys actually recounts to Charles differs significantly from the more popular version, namely that Chapuys was manipulated and “tricked” into acknowledging Anne.
In his original report, Chapuys makes it quite clear that George stood beside him and he, Chapuys, did not object to being moved to where the royal couple would pass. Henry and Anne descended from the royal chapel and made their way to the altar. Chapuys wrote: “I must say that she was affable enough on the occasion for on my being placed behind the door by which she entered the chapel, she turned round to return the reverence which I made her when she passed.”
Popular history tells us that Anne stopped in front of Chapuys, who was then forced to bow, to the delight of both Henry and Anne. But we must bear in mind that Chapuys says he was already bowing as the royal couple passed; it was Anne who turned and acknowledged Chapuys’ show of respect. Chapuys was demonstrating that he was willing to make this small accession, and Anne was formally acknowledging and paying respect to Charles V, through his ambassador.
This was momentous for both sides. We tend to focus on the significance of the event for Anne, but we must acknowledge that this was equally significant for Charles. It has been suggested that the king and Cromwell had engineered the event to send a signal to Charles that Henry could not be manipulated into a rapprochement, yet this is highly unlikely, as Charles was already willing to accept Anne as part of an alliance.
Anne was in a weak position and it was a shrewd political move to acknowledge Charles through the ambassador. Her actions after mass are even more intriguing. Chapuys dined with George and Thomas Boleyn, along with other councilors, but Anne also expressed a desire to dine with Chapuys. Anne then attempted to ingratiate herself further with Charles by publicly abusing the French ambassador (which Chapuys himself often did in private), who was sure to report the incident. Anne had switched tactics, but it would not save her.
Chapuys’ final description of Anne is testimony to the sort of woman she was. Beyond the divorce drama, the jealous squabbles and the treatment of Catherine and Henry’s daughter Mary, Anne was, in Chapuys’ eyes, innocent of the charges brought against her. His words are heartfelt in their admiration: “No one ever shewed more courage or greater readiness to meet death than she did, having, as the report goes, begged and solicited those under whose keeping she was to hasten the execution. When orders came from the King to have it [the execution] delayed until to-day, she seemed sorry, and begged and entreated the governor of the Tower for God’s sake, to go to the King, and beg of him that, since she was well disposed and prepared for death, she should be despatched immediately”.
Engraving depicting the execution of Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London on 19 May 1536. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Since her execution almost 500 years ago, Anne’s story continues to resonate with us, as it did with Chapuys. Whatever he felt about Anne’s position he nevertheless admired her intelligence and political acumen. Anne’s allies abandoned her during her trial, and the court, which had once admired and served the queen, stayed silent. But Chapuys could not. In fact, he was one of the very few who publicly declared that she was innocent and a victim of a political coup.
Anne’s execution haunted the ambassador. As he wrote to Charles: “The executioner’s sword and her own death were virtually to separate and divorce man and wife. However, if such was their intention it strikes me that it would have been a far more decent and honest excuse to allege that she had been married to another man still alive”. Chapuys also wrote, “May God permit that this may be his [Henry’s] last folly.”
We know it would not be.
Regardless of Chapuys’ personal feelings towards Anne, his admiration and respect for one of the most alluring women of Henry’s court, when all others voiced their condemnation, is a fascinating element of the ambassador’s life. His relationship with her, gleaned from his countless reports, gives the impression of two individuals who endured a complex relationship, despite having only ever once come face-to-face.
Chapuys’ reports and despatches have often been twisted to suit some dramatic purpose. Those who questioned the ambassador’s character and integrity as a source might be influenced by Anne’s idolisation as the aggrieved queen. We continue to focus on potential culprits behind Anne’s downfall but, centuries later, the truth remains tantalisingly out of reach.
Lauren Mackay is the author of Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the eyes of the Spanish Ambassador, which is out now in paperback. To find out more about Lauren, visit www.laurenmackay.co.uk