Hampton Court, March 1536
“I will see him now,” Anne barked at the guards who stood outside of Cromwell’s chamber doors. The looks on their faces told her they were unsure about her demand, but they knew they could not deny a sovereign queen of England. They worse strange livery, she realised. It would seem the Master Secretary had grown very high, indeed. From soldier of fortune, to a great Lord with his own devices and livery. Things were turning out very well for the up trumped secretary from some little piece of nowhere.
Anne stormed past the two young guards, and through the heavy oak door of Cromwell’s personal chambers at Hampton court. They were fine rooms, she quickly noticed. Bedecked with all the trappings and opulent decorations that befitted a man of his newly found rank. Anne thought of the humility this man had once shown, the deference and love for Christ he had once pretended to. No matter, she saw the man behind the mask now.
Anne’s black eyes spied him quickly, sitting behind a desk filled with stacks of heavy linen and vellum documents. His head was down, and a young secretary stood beside him, a heavy portable writing desk slung around his neck. Cromwell was dictating something in French, as he read aloud from a lengthy document he held in his hand. Neither man looked up at her as she entered, a whirlwind of rage and displeasure about her.
“Cromwell,” Anne snapped, forgetting all sense of decorum. “I would speak to you. Now.” Cromwell’s eyes flashed up from the paper, his face turning suddenly red. He shot up from the fine wooden chair and looked at Anne, quickly dipping himself into a reverent bow. The look on his face told her that he had not expected her. Not like this. The young boy’s face was a look of fear and confusion. Her reputation proceeded her, then.
Cromwell came out from behind the desk and approached her slowly, cautiously, as one might approach a cornered beast. He looked to the young secretary and bid him to leave in all haste. He turned back to Anne.
“Your Grace, I had not expected you. I do apologise for my rude greeting, I was most consumed by the affairs of the King, which you know keep me much —“ His face was a look of pure and servile honesty. It made her blood boil.
“Enough,” Anne cut him off. “Enough, Cromwell. You will put to rights this business with the monasteries, and you will do it now.” The rage inside her was overwhelming. She felt that massive black monster rearing its ugly head inside her belly again. This man had betrayed her. This man was putting everything she had worked for in jeopardy. Anne wanted to scratch his eyes out.
Cromwell’s face changed when she had finished her words. The careful courtier’s face he had worn when she had entered his chamber was now that of a stable boy who has just been caught with his hands in the lord’s coffers. There was no need for Anne to elaborate. They both knew what was passing between them now. The battle was commenced.
He looked down to the ground before composing himself and meeting her eyes. Only a moment of silence passed between them as he carefully plotted his next words.
“Everything that has been done has been done in the name of the King and your own most honorable person.”
“If you speak another lie to me, I will have your head struck from your body.” Anne snapped. Her voice was full of rage and vehemence. She wanted him dead. What he had done, what he continued to do, was a disgrace to their cause. He was destroying the houses of God, and with them he was destroying any chance Anne had of being the beloved queen of her people.
Anne had thought of Cromwell as a friend of the new learning. When she had met him those many years ago on her return to England, she had quickly found him to be a supporter of the Protestant values of equality and freedom. In him, Anne had thought she had found a true helpmeet who saw the abuses of the papacy, and sought to cleanse England of its vicious rule. When Anne had come into her own, they had worked closely together to devise a plan that would cleanse England of these disgusting abuses, and would free the people of the realm to study the path of Christ truly, in their own tongue, as God intended.
They had spent long hours together discussing the future of England, and the world they could build. They talked, at length, of the riches that were hoarded by theses “houses of God”, and what good works those monies could be used to institute across the country. Anne had thought Cromwell in agreement with her, talking to him of the colleges and universities they would build, of the people they would see educated. Anne had dreamed of a world where every home held books and every man, woman and child in England had the fundamental right and ability to read the scriptures of Christ in their own tongue.
But Anne had been deceived, she knew now.
Just that morning, a group of ragged and travel stained priests had come to her, begging for mercy. They told her about the sacking of their monasteries and the desecration of their holy relics and valuables. They told her how the churches were being razed to the ground, innocent monks and novices slaughtered in the rich libraries as they sat about their work, their blood staining the pristine white pages covered in colored icons. This was not the reform of a corrupt papacy, this was the sacking of religious and charitable houses of England.
Anne now knew that the intentions that Cromwell had set before her were nothing more than a sham, a ruse to gain her support and patronage. While Anne dreamed of a world where even the poorest of souls in England could read and write, Cromwell dreamed of a world in which he could buy the finest clothes, the most opulent houses. He was no better than Wolsey before him. If anything, he was worse. Anne now knew that the monies from the many monasteries and nunneries that had been dispelled by this new legislation was not going into the pockets of the people, as she demanded and the scripture demanded, but into the already bulging pockets of the king and the new Master Secretary.
Anne glared at Cromwell, her breathing coming rapidly and her eyes alight with fury. She wanted him dead in that moment. She wanted him gone and dead. Buried somewhere beneath the pavement of some broken and forgotten church he had destroyed. They could melt down all his gold and fill his coffin with it, him still alive inside as the molten gold poured over him. It was the only death befitting his treachery.
“Let me explain,” he began again, the terror now palpable in his voice. Anne was Queen of England. She was not some helpless lord or vainglorious little girl. She could have him killed, and Cromwell knew it. Her position was not at a high, but even now she enjoyed powers of Henry and the court that Cromwell could only dream of.
“Explain it to me,” she barked at him. “Explain it now, and explain it true. I swear before Christ, Cromwell. If you lie to me once more, I will destroy your house root and stem. Every son, every daughter, every ward. I will destroy them all and think it well done.” Anne’s arms felt as if they were on fire. Every inch of her screamed to reach out and strike him, to claw out those treacherous, piggy eyes of his.
“All that has been done has been done for the benefit of the King and has been done with his express, written consent.” Cromwell offered hesitantly.
“The benefit of the King?” Anne’s fury was stoked again. “And what of the benefit of the people? What of the men and women who depend on these houses for sustenance, for shelter? What about the men that depend on these houses of worship for their education, their chance to thrive, rise above their station? What of their benefit, Master Secretary?” Anne spit the last word out as if it was poison on her tongue.
“I assure you, my lady, that all provisions have been made to protect those houses who truly follow the word and the doings of the scripture.” His voice trembled, but he dare not look away from her. He knew Anne too well. She was a wild animal in these moments of rage. If his eyes left her for a second, he would look back up to find the shadow of the headsmen standing over him.
“So you would deny that your agents roam from county to county, pulling down each house of worship in succession. Raiding it for its gold and valuables, like some whoring Norsemen falling upon a helpless village?” She wanted to hear him say it. She wanted to hear him admit the truth of his deceit.
“No, your Grace. That is not true. My men are under strict orders, and adhere to strict protocol when deciding which houses are most in need of…reform. They take their orders directly from myself and the king. No houses of true worship are touched.” The lies spilled off his tongue like honey. A lesser woman would have been fooled.
“And by ‘true worship’, you mean those houses that pay you and Henry off with a handsome sum of coin.” He was caught out. Cromwell’s face changed from the supplicant servant seeking mercy to the face of a cornered beast. The fight was well and truly on.
“I don’t know where your Grace has heard such rumors.”
“You know well where I heard them, Thomas. Let us drop the ruse. You know, better than anyone, the comings and goings of this court. You have jeopardized everything, Thomas. Everything. You have sinned, not only in the failure of your duty to me, but in the failure of your duty to Christ.”
He looked at her blankly. Anne realised the truth of his silence. He had seen Anne as every other man did. She was nothing more than a woman: a woman who had been a means to an end for the ambitious Thomas Cromwell. Anne was spirited, yes, but she was a woman nonetheless. Sure, she had ensnared a king with her brazen demeanor and her razor-like wit, but she was married now. She had won the prize. They all expected Anne to become the quiet and obedient brood mare, like Katherine had been. How wrong they were to be.
Anne took a deep breath, and set her face into a stony countenance. “You will reverse this. Now.” Cromwell didn’t even pause. “Your Grace, I cannot.” She walked towards him slowly and deliberately, every movement of her body a silent threat.
“You will tell me all, and you will tell me truly. Or I swear to God above, Cromwell, I will rip your tongue out where you stand and feed it to your children while you watch.”
“My lady, you know better than anyone the corruption of the papist houses of worship. You know exactly what mean dealings they trafficked in, and the abuses that they laid upon the people of this realm. I have done only what we always wanted. We are snuffing out these places of corruption, and instituting the new and true learning in their place. What I do is only what we always wanted. What your family has always wanted.”
“To destroy the houses of charity that provide for the needs of the poor and defenseless?” She rounded on him. “Did you think truly that this could be anything that I wanted. We are supposed to protect these people, Cromwell. Provide for them. These houses are not the feeding trough for our further gain. These are lives, Cromwell. These are lives of the innocent and the defenseless. It is our god-sworn duty to protect them!” Her voice was a screech now, and she walked slowly toward him with every line of her impassioned speech. He was backing slowly away from her, as if he might be burned by the fury that was emitting from her like fire.
“My lady, I assure you, I have only assaulted those houses which assault the word of god and the peoples of their parishes.”
Anne was sick of the lies, sick of the deceits. She would get no truth from him now, she knew that. She shook her head and looked away from him for the first time since her entrance. She placed her hands on her hips as a wave of disgust replaced the raw fury in her belly. He was no different than the others. His lowly birth had made him no more honorable or trustworthy than the self-righteous scum that filled the ranks of the nobility. This court was a cesspool.
“I had thought you would be different, Thomas. Truly, I did.” She could not look at him as she spoke. He disgusted her now as a bug on the skin might. The fury went from Anne’s voice and was now dripping with nothing more than heavy disappointment. “I had thought your birth might give you some sense of perspective. I said to myself ‘perhaps this man will be different. Perhaps this man, who has had to work and fight for everything in his life will see the light of this opportunity, and the plight of the people.’ I see now how wrong I was.” She sighed audibly and turned her back to him, wondering towards one of the shelves that was lined with expensive, leather-bound books. Her hands remained on her hips as she studied the works of Chaucer, Tyndale and the others that lined his shelves. Cromwell remained silent behind her.
“How much of this was the king’s doing,” she asked suddenly after the silence had a chance to sit heavy between them. “How much of this has been orchestrated by him and how much by you? Tell me and tell it true.”
Cromwell was silent for a moment before answering. “Your Grace, everything that I do is done with the express and written consent of the king. Every house that is reformed is reformed only by his own signature.”
“And how much is that worth when we both know how he goes about his business?” Anne asked. It was no secret that Henry hated the administrative duties of his kingship. The entire world knew that this was a king who would hastily sign anything set before him as long as he could soon rush out for a hunt. Henry was a man the preferred archery and lechery to the austere duties of kingship. He had no interest in the dealings with the common people, or how they carried on in their mean little lives. Anne had no doubt that Henry knew little and more of what was being done in his name across the kingdom. But she also knew that he would bed no complaints as long as his coffers stayed full for wenching, banqueting, drinking and the purchase of fine clothing.
Cromwell would not give up the extent of his diabolical works, Anne realised. He was loyal to his wealth in a way he would never be loyal to her or the king or the people; even God. She must glimmer what information she could from him before what surely came next. Cromwell continued to study her, wary of the next outburst or trap. The fear was gone from him. Anne filled her voice with as much sadness and humility as she could muster.
“Do you know what you have done, Thomas? Do you know what you have done to me? To my cause?” His face told her that he did indeed know, and that he had little care for it. She said his name with as much honey as she could muster. She was not the woman she was one, no, but even an aging woman held a certain power in the weakness of her sex.
They both knew she was not much loved by the people or the court — she never had been. Ever since Henry had first made his intentions clear by releasing a plea to the pope for the ability to take her as a wife, the slanderous tongues about her had not stopped wagging. They blamed her for the fall of Katherine, for Henry’s mean abandonment of her. They had not seen what happened in between, how things truly were between them. And now, their religion was being violently desecrated around them. The churches and the places of religious import they had known all their lives were being raped by this horde of grasping, reaching cheats, and she was taking all the blame. The king had broken with Rome for her, he had cast his soul into oblivion at her behest. It was she too that was at fault for the destruction of their God and everything they had ever known to be a consolation in this life.
But this had never been Anne’s plan, as Cromwell knew well. She had envisioned an England of the people, with fine places of study and worship abound. Had she not grown up at the most cultured, most fashionable courts in all of Europe? Did Henry himself not proclaim how he sought, above everything, to match and surpass these great courts with the amount of learned men and fine artists and philosophers that gathered around them. How did he think to achieve that, Anne wondered silently. How did Henry think to make a new Camelot without the use of fine and accessible places of learning and religion? Her mind raced.
It was Cromwell who broke this silence. “Your Grace, I can assure you, the people love you. They are beginning to come to terms with the great work that we do in your name and the name of the king, and they are beginning to see the error of their ways.”
“Lies, Cromwell. Lies on lies on lies.” Anne could hardly bring herself to look at him as she turned to face him. “Do you think to full me with these lies? Me? Do you forget to whom you speak?” It was Cromwell’s turn to get angry now. He threw away all pretense of the cautious, sometimes humble servant, and drew himself up to his full height. Thomas Cromwell was not a small man. His wide shoulders and growing weight dwarfed Anne, though she stood tall and proud. A flash of rage crossed his face, and for one moment, the image of him with his huge, meaty hands wrapped around her throat crossed Anne’s mind. Still, she held her ground.
“I think your Majesty has forgotten herself, and the people who toiled hard to put her in her great estate.” Anne was incredulous at his words. It was as if she had suddenly been smacked across the face with the blacksmith’s hammer. It was as if the world was spinning around her and, suddenly, down was up.
“What did you say to me?” Anne stepped closer to him, her rage to a boil. Everything in her body screamed at him to do it, to hit her, strike her, strangle her. She wanted him to lay his hands upon her. At least then she knew what would befall him. No matter what enemies she had, or how far Henry might have fallen from her, if this upstart secretary from nowhere laid a hand on one of the anointed blood, he would be dead before nightfall. “Are you threatening me, Master Cromwell?”
Anne’s eyes took on a malicious glow. She was only inches away from him now. She could smell the fresh soap and rosewater on him, the faint scent of fresh ink and parchment. Their were beginning a new dance now; a deadly one.
“I think your Grace knows I would never presume to threaten her. But I think my Lady forgets the duty that we have each been called to by God and the King.”
Anne heard it there plainly, the mock. Cromwell was making it clear what her role was within this court. Anne was not to be an ambassador, a policy maker, or a theologian within this court. Anne was simply to warm the bed of the king, as it pleased him, and bring him sons. Cromwell was telling her, once and for all, that her place was no longer one that enjoyed the pastime of law-making. She was to enjoy nothing more than the pretty dresses and bloody bed linens of her new estate. Anne made her decision then.
“Well, Master Cromwell. I think we are much decided then,” she smiled a truly diabolical smile, and presumed that jaunty, haughty air that she had learned so well at the French court. Her hands were back on her hips, and she spoke with a delicate sway, her head cocked to one side and her eyes gleaming with a bright malice.
“When you go home tonight, Master Secretary,” Anne began, “I want you to kiss that precious little daughter of yours goodnight. I want you to sit on the bed, and watch her as she sleeps. Stroke her curls, look into those big blue eyes. Look at her, really look at her. Absorb all that love, Master Secretary. Lock that image in your heart and treasure it.” He was looking at her blankly, though she knew her words were unsettling him. Her voice was barely a whisper now. She moved closer to him, close enough to feel his sticky breath on her face. She placed a single finger in the square of his wide-set chest.
“I want you to really take it all in tonight, Thomas. Lap it up as a dog to water. Talk with your sons and with your whores. Hug that sister-n-law of yours or whatever she is. Look around your home, and walk among your treasured things. Because tomorrow, I will destroy everything that you hold dear.”
With that, Anne turned sharply on her feet and walked slowly and deliberately from the room, giving Cromwell no chance to respond.
Anne struck against Cromwell with all the vicious and underhanded ferocity she could manage. Before he was even aware of what was happening, Anne had received the lists of monasteries and abbeys that were to be examined by Cromwell’s thugs, and begun buying them up one by one.
Using her she personal wealth, Anne began saving the well-managed religious houses from being scavenged and razed by Cromwell and his band of thieves. When she saved them, she demanded moderate religious reform which all parties agreed, at least in word, to institute, and they sent their relics into hiding, all while paying her a very large sum in return. Anne would demand that they open spaces each year for the education and refinement of local children, to which they also agreed, and in one fell swoop she stemmed Cromwell’s desperate and reaching grasp. Therefore, committing for the welfare of the people and the reforms that were badly needed within the parish churches.
When Cromwell discovered what Anne was doing, nearly two weeks later, he retired from court immediately, and made no attempt to confront her.
A few days later, the disgraced secretary found himself with some sudden illness which he seemed afraid to pass on. Henry had dismissed him from service, and Cromwell fled far from the royal presence to one of his homes in the countryside. He was there, even now, hiding in fear from Anne’s mutinous plays.
Anne swelled with a haughty pride. There was no one who could touch her. She was invincible.