Story type: Essay
A GLANCE AT THE REIGN OF HENRY VIII.
What two works are those for which at this moment our national intellect (or, more rigorously speaking, our popular intellect) is beginning clamorously to call? They are these: first, a Conversations-Lexicon, obeying (as regards plan and purpose) the general outline of the German work bearing that title; ministering to the same elementary necessities; implying, therefore, a somewhat corresponding stage of progress in our own populace and that of Germany; but otherwise (as regards the executive details in adapting such a work to the special service of an English public) moving under moral restraints sterner by much, and more faithfully upheld, than could rationally be looked for in any great literary enterprise resigned to purely German impulses. For over the atmosphere of thought and feeling in Germany there broods no public conscience. Such a Conversations-Lexicon is one of the two great works for which the popular mind of England is waiting and watching in silence. The other (and not less important) work is–a faithful History of England. We will offer, at some future time, a few words upon the first; but upon the second–here brought before us so advantageously in the earnest, thoughtful, and oftentimes eloquent volumes of Mr. Froude–we will venture to offer three or four pages of critical comment.
History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth. By James Anthony Froude, M.A., late Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. Vols. I. and II. London: Parker & Son, West Strand. 1856.]
Could the England of the sixteenth century have escaped that great convulsion which accompanied the dissolution of the monasteries? It is barely possible that a gentle system of periodic decimations, distributing this inevitable ruin over an entire century, might have blunted the edge of the fierce ploughshare: but there were difficulties in the way of such arrangements, that would too probably have thwarted the benign purpose.
Meantime, what was it that had stolen like a canker-worm into the machinery of these monastic bodies, and insensibly had corroded a principle originally of admitted purity? The malice of Protestantism has too readily assumed that Popery was answerable for this corrosion. But it would be hard to show that Popery in any one of its features, good or bad, manifested itself conspicuously and operatively: nay, to say the simple truth, it was through the very opposite agency that the monastic institutions came to ruin: it was because Popery, that supreme control to which these monasteries had been confided, shrank from its responsibilities–weakly, lazily, or even perfidiously, abandoned that supervisorship in default of which neither right of inspection, nor duty of inspection, nor power of inspection, was found to be lodged in any quarter–there it was, precisely in that dereliction of censorial authority, that all went to ruin. All corporations grow corrupt, unless habitually kept under the eye of public inspection, or else officially liable to searching visitations. Now, who were the regular and official visitors of the English monasteries? Not the local bishops; for in that case the public clamour, the very notoriety of the scandals (as we see them reported by Wicliffe and Chaucer), would have guided the general wrath to some effectual surgery for the wounds and ulcers of the institutions. Unhappily the official visitors were the heads of the monastic orders; these, and these only. A Franciscan body, for example, owed no obedience except to the representative of St. Francis; and this representative too uniformly resided somewhere on the Continent. And thus it was that effectually and virtually English monasteries were subject to no control. Nay, the very corrections of old abuses by English parliamentary statutes had greatly strengthened the evil. Formerly, the monastic funds were drawn upon to excess in defraying the costs of a transmarine visitation. But that evil, rising into enormous proportions, was at length radically extirpated by parliamentary statutes that cut down the costs; so that continental devotees, finding their visitations no longer profitable in a pecuniary sense, sometimes even costly to themselves, and costly upon a scale but dimly intelligible to any continental experience, rapidly cooled down in their pious enthusiasm against monastic delinquencies. Hatred, at any rate, and malignant anger the visitor had to face, not impossibly some risk of assassination, in prosecuting his inquiries into the secret crimes of monks that were often confederated in a common interest of resistance to all honest or searching inquiry. But, if to these evils were superadded others of a pecuniary class, it was easy to anticipate, under this failure of all regular inspectorship, a period of plenary indulgence to the excesses of these potent corporations. Such a period came: no man being charged with the duty of inspection, no man inspected; but never was the danger more surely at hand, than when it seemed by all ordinary signs to have absolutely died out. Already, in the days of Richard II., the doom of the monasteries might be heard muttering in the chambers of the upper air. In the angry denunciations of Wicliffe, in the popular merriment of Chaucer, might be read the same sentence of condemnation awarded against them. Fierce warnings were given to them at intervals. A petition against them was addressed by the House of Commons to Henry IV. The son of this prince, the man of Agincourt, though superstitious enough, if superstition could have availed them, had in his short reign (so occupied, one might have thought, with war and foreign affairs) found time to read them a dreadful warning: more than five scores of these offending bodies (Priories Alien) were suppressed by that single monarch, the laughing Hal of Jack Falstaff. One whole century slipped away between this penal suppression and the ministry of Wolsey. What effect can we ascribe to this admonitory chastisement upon the general temper and conduct of the monastic interest? It would be difficult beyond measure at this day to draw up any adequate report of the foul abuses prevailing in the majority of religious houses, for the three following reasons:–First, because the main record of such abuses, after it had been elaborately compiled under the commission of Henry VIII., was (at the instigation of his eldest daughter Mary) most industriously destroyed by Bishop Bonner; secondly, because too generally the original oath of religious fidelity and secrecy, in matters interesting to the founder and the foundation, was held to interfere with frank disclosures; thirdly, because, as to much of the most crying licentiousness, its full and satisfactory detection too often depended upon a surprise. Steal upon the delinquents suddenly, and ten to one they were caught flagrante delicto: but upon any notice transpiring of the hostile approach, all was arranged so as to evade for the moment–or in the end to baffle finally–search alike and suspicion.
The following report, which Mr. Froude views as the liveliest of all that Bishop Bonner’s zeal has spared, offers a picturesque sketch of such cases, according to the shape which they often assumed. In Chaucer’s tale, told with such unrivalled vis comica, of the Trompington Miller and the Two Cambridge Scholars, we have a most life-like picture of the miller with his ‘big bones,’ as a ‘dangerous’ man for the nonce. Just such a man, just as dangerous, and just as big-boned, we find in the person of an abbot–defending his abbey, not by any reputation for sanctity or learning, but solely by his dangerousness as the wielder of quarter-staff and cudgel. With no bull-dog or mastiff, and taken by surprise, such an abbot naturally lost the stakes for which he played. The letter is addressed to the Secretary of State:–‘Please it your goodness to understand, that on Friday the 22nd of October (1535), I rode back with speed to take an inventory of Folkstone; and thence I went to Langden. Whereat immediately descending from my horse, I sent Bartlett, your servant, with all my servants, to circumsept the abbey [i. e. to form a hedge round about], and surely to keep [guard] all back-doors and starting holes. I myself went alone to the abbot’s lodging–joining upon the fields and wood.’ [This position, the reporter goes on to insinuate, was no matter of chance: but, like a rabbit-warren, had been so placed with a view to the advantages for retreat and for cover in the adjacent woodlands.] ‘I was a good space knocking at the abbot’s door; neither did any sound or sensible manifestation of life betray itself, saving the abbot’s little dog, that within his door, fast locked, bayed and barked. I found a short pole-axe standing behind the door; and with it I dashed the abbot’s door in pieces ictu oculi [in the twinkling of an eye]; and set one of my men to keep that door; and about the house I go with that pole-axe in my hand–ne forte [“lest by any chance”–holding in suspense such words as “some violence should be offered”]–for the abbot is a dangerous, desperate knave, and a hardy. But, for a conclusion, his gentlewoman bestirred her stumps towards her starting holes; and then Bartlett, watching the pursuit, took the tender demoisel; and, after I had examined her, to Dover–to the mayor, to set her in some cage or prison for eight days. And I brought holy father abbot to Canterbury; and here, in Christ Church, I will leave him in prison.’
[Footnote 2: ‘Ne forte‘ is a case of what is learnedly called aposiopesis or reticentia; that is, where (for the sake of effect) some emphatic words are left to be guessed at: as Virgil’s Quos ego—-(Whom if I catch, I’ll—-) ]
This little interlude, offering its several figures in such life-like attitudes–its big-boned abbot prowling up and down the precincts of the abbey for the chance of a ‘shy’ at the intruding commissioner–the little faithful bow-wow doing its petit possible to warn big-bones of his danger, thus ending his faithful services by an act of farewell loyalty–and the unlucky demoisel scuttling away to her rabbit-warren, only to find all the spiracles and peeping-holes preoccupied or stopped, and her own ‘apparel’ unhappily locked up ‘in the abbot his coffer,’ so as to render hopeless all evasion or subsequent denial of the fact, that ten big-boned ‘indusia’ (or shirts) lay interleaved in one and the same ‘coffer,’ inter totidem niveas camisas (or chemises)–all this framed itself as a little amusing parenthesis, a sort of family picture amongst the dreadful reports of ecclesiastical commissioners.
‘Camisas:’ i. e. chemises; but at one time the word camisa was taken indifferently for shirt or chemise. And hence arose the term camisado for a night-attack, in which the assailants recognised each other in the dark by their white shirt-sleeves, sometimes further distinguished by a tight cincture of broad black riband. The last literal camisado, that I remember, was a nautical one–a cutting-out enterprise somewhere about 1807-8. ]
No suppression of the religious houses had originally been designed; nothing more than a searching visitation. And at this moment, yes, at this present midsummer of 1856, waiting and looking forward to the self-same joyful renewal of leases that then was looked for in England, but not improbably, alas! summoned to the same ineffable disappointment as fell more than three centuries back upon our own England–lies, waiting for her doom, a great kingdom in central Europe. She, and under the same causes, may chance to be disappointed. What was it that caused the tragic convulsion in England? Simply this: regular and healthy visitation having ceased, infinite abuses had arisen; and these abuses, it was found at last, could not be healed by any measure less searching than absolute suppression. Austria, as regards some of her provinces, stands in the same circumstances at this very moment. Imperfect visitations, that cleansed nothing, should naturally have left her religious establishments languishing for the one sole remedy that was found applicable to the England of 1540. And what was that? It was a remedy that carried along with it revolution. England was found able in those days to stand that fierce medicine: a more profound revolution has not often been witnessed than that of our mighty Reformation. Can Austria, considering the awful contagions amongst which her political relations have entangled her, hope for the same happy solution of her case? Perhaps a revolution, that once unlocks the fountains of blood in central Germany, will be the bloodiest of all revolutions: whereas, in our own chapters of revolution even the stormiest, those of the Marian Persecution and of the Parliamentary War, both alike moved under restraints of law and legislative policy. The very bloodiest promises of English history have replied but feebly to the clamour and expectations of cruel or fiery partisans. Different is the prospect for Austria. From her, and from the auguries of evil which becloud her else smiling atmosphere, let us turn back to our own history in this sixteenth century, and for a moment make a brief inquest into the blood that really was shed–whether justly or not justly. Bloodshed, as an instinct–bloodshed, as an appetite–raged like a monsoon in the French Revolution, and many centuries before in the Rome of Sylla and Marius–in the Rome of the Triumvirate, and generally in the period of Proscriptions. Too fearfully it is evident that these fits of acharnement were underlaid and fed by paroxysms of personal cruelty. In England, on the other hand, foul and hateful as was the Marian butchery, nevertheless it cannot be denied that this butchery rested entirely upon principle. Homage offered to anti-Lutheran principles, in a moment disarmed the Popish executioner. Or if (will be the objection of the reflecting reader)–if there are exceptions to this rule, these must be looked for amongst the king’s enemies. And the term ‘enemies’ will fail to represent adequately those who, not content with ranking themselves wilfully amongst persons courting objects irreconcilable to the king’s interests, sought to exasperate the displeasure of Henry by special insults, by peculiar mortifications, and by complex ingratitude. Foremost amongst such cases stands forward the separate treason of Anne Boleyn, mysterious to this hour in some of its features, rank with pollutions such as European prejudice would class with Italian enormities, and by these very pollutions–literally by and through the very excess of the guilt–claiming to be incredible. Neither less nor more than this which follows is the logic put into the mouth of the Lady Anne Boleyn:–From the mere enormity of the guilt imputed to me, from that very abysmal stye of incestuous adultery in which now I wallow, I challenge as of right the presumption that I am innocent; for the very reason that I am loaded in my impeachment with crimes that are inhuman, I claim to be no criminal at all. Because my indictment is revolting and monstrous, therefore is it incredible. The case, taken apart from the person, would not (unless through its mysteriousness and imperfect circumstantiation) have attracted the interest which has given it, and will in all time coming continue to give it, a root in history amongst insoluble or doubtfully soluble historical problems. The case, being painful and shocking, would by readers generally have long since been dismissed to darkness. But the person, too critically connected with a vast and immortal revolution, will for ever call back the case before the tribunals of earth. The mother of Queen Elizabeth, the mother of Protestantism in England, cannot be suffered–never will be suffered–to benefit by that shelter of merciful darkness which, upon any humbler person, or even upon this person in any humbler case, might be suffered to settle quietly as regards the memory of her acts. Mr. Froude, a pure-minded man, is the last man to call back into the glare of a judicial inquest deeds of horror, over which eternal silence should have brooded, had such an issue been possible. But three centuries of discussion have made that more and more impossible. And now, therefore, with a view to the improvement of the dispute, and, perhaps, in one or two instances, with a chance for the rectification of the ‘issues‘ (speaking juridically) into which the question has been allowed to lapse, Mr. Froude has in some degree re-opened the discussion. ‘The guilt,’ he says, ‘must rest where it is due. But under any hypothesis guilt there was–dark, mysterious, and most miserable.’
Tell this story how you may, and the evidence remains of guilt under any hypothesis–guilt such as in Grecian tragedy was seen thousands of years ago hanging in clouds of destiny over princely houses, and reading to them a doom of utter ruin, root and branch, in which, as in the anarchy of hurricanes, no form or feature was descried distinctly–nothing but some dim fluctuating phantom, pointing with recording finger to that one ancestral crime through which the desolation had been wrought.
Mr. Froude, through his natural sense of justice, and his deep study of the case, is unfavourably disposed towards the Lady Anne Boleyn: nevertheless he retains lingering doubts on her behalf, all of which, small and great, we have found reason to dismiss. We, for our parts, are thoroughly convinced of her guilt. Our faith is, that no shadow of any ground exists for suspending the verdict of the sentence; but at the same time for mitigating that sentence there arose this strong argument–namely, that amongst women not formally pronounced idiots, there never can have been one more pitiably imbecile.
There is a mystery hanging over her connection with the king which nobody has attempted to disperse. We will ourselves suggest a few considerations that may bring a little coherency amongst the scattered glimpses of her fugitive court life. The very first thought that presents itself, is a sentiment, that would be pathetic in the case of a person entitled to more respect, upon the brevity of her public career. Apparently she lost the king’s favour almost in the very opening of her married life. But in what way? Not, we are persuaded, through the king’s caprice. There was hardly time for caprice to have operated; and her declension in favour from that cause would have been gradual. Time there was none for her beauty to decay–neither had it decayed. We are disposed to think that in a very early stage of her intercourse with the king, she had irritated the king by one indication of mental imbecility rarely understood even amongst medical men–namely, the offensive habit of laughing profusely without the least sense of anything ludicrous or comic. Oxford, or at least one of those who shot at the Queen, was signally distinguished by this habit. Without reason or pretext, he would break out into causeless laughter, not connected with any impulse that he could explain. With this infirmity Anne Boleyn was plagued in excess. On the 2nd of May, 1536, the very first day on which she was made aware of the dreadful accusations hanging over her good name and her life, on being committed to the Tower, and taken by Sir William Kingston, the governor, to the very same chambers in which she had lain at the period of her coronation, she said, ‘It’ (meaning the suite of rooms) ‘is too good for me; Jesu, have mercy on me;’ next she kneeled down, ‘weeping a great space.’ Such are Sir William’s words; immediately after which he adds, ‘and in the same sorrow fell into a great laughing.’ A day or two later than this, she said, ‘Master Kingston, shall I die without justice?’–meaning, it seems, would she be put to death without any judicial examination of her case; upon which Sir William replied, ‘The poorest subject the king hath, had justice’–meaning, that previously to such an examination of his case, he could not by regular course of justice be put to death. Such was the question of the prisoner–such was the answer of the king’s representative. What occasion was here suggested for rational laughter? And yet laughter was her sole comment. ‘Therewith,’ says Sir William, ‘she laughed.’ On May 18th, being the day next before that of her execution, she said, ‘Master Kingston, I hear say I shall not die afore noon; and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time, and past my pain.’ Upon this Sir William assured her ‘it should be no pain, it was so subtle;’ meaning that the stroke of a sword by a powerful arm, applied to a slender neck, could not meet resistance enough to cause any serious pain. She replied, ‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck;’ after which she laughed heartily. Sir William so much misunderstood this laughter, which was doubtless of the same morbid and idiotic character as all the previous cases, that he supposes her to have had ‘much joy and pleasure in death,’ which is a mere misconstruction of the case. Even in the very act of dying she could not check her smiling, which assuredly was as morbid in its quality and origin as what of old was known as ‘risus sardonicus.’
Carrying along with us, therefore, a remembrance of this repulsive habit, which argues a silliness so constitutional, and noting also the obstinate (almost it might be called the brutal) folly with which, during the last seventeen days of her life, she persisted in criminating herself, volunteering a continued rehearsal of conversations the most profligate, under a mere instinct of gossiping, we shall begin to comprehend the levity which no doubt must have presided in her conversations with the king. Too evidently in a court but recently emerging from barbarism, there was a shocking defect of rules or fixed ceremonial for protecting the dignity of the queen and of her female attendants. The settlement of any such rules devolved upon the queen herself, in default of any traditional system; and unhappily here was a queen without sense, without prudence, without native and sexual dignity for suggesting or upholding such restraints, and whose own breeding and experience had been purely French. Strange it was that the king’s good sense, or even his jealousy, had not peremptorily enjoined, as a caution of mere decency, the constant presence of some elderly matrons, uniting rank and station with experience and good sense. But not the simplest guarantees for ordinary decorum were apparently established in the royal household. And the shocking spectacle was daily to be seen, of a young woman, singularly beautiful, atrociously silly, and without common self-respect, styling herself Queen of England, yet exacting no more respect or homage than a housemaid, suffering young men, the most licentious in all England, openly to speculate on the contingency of her husband’s death, to talk of it in language the coarsest, as ‘waiting for dead men’s shoes,’ and bandying to and fro the chances that this man or that man, according to the whim of the morning, should ‘have her,’ or should not‘have her’–that is, have the reversion of the queen’s person as a derelict of the king. All this, though most injurious to her prospects, was made known by Anne Boleyn herself to the female companions who were appointed to watch her revelations in prison. And certainly no chambermaid ever rehearsed her own colloquies with these vile profligates in a style of thinking more abject than did at this period the female majesty of England. Listening to no accuser, but simply to the unsolicited revelations of the queen herself, as she lay in bed amongst her female attendants in the Tower, every man of sense becomes aware, that if these presumptuous young libertines abstained from daily proposals to the queen of the most criminal nature, that could arise only from the reserve and suspicion incident to a state of rivalship, and not from any deference paid to the queen’s personal pretensions, or to her public character.
Three years, probably one-half of that term, had seen the beginning, the decay, and the utter extinction of the king’s affection for Anne. It is known now, and at the time it had furnished a theme for conjecture, that very soon after his marriage the king manifested uneasiness, and not long after angry suspicions, upon matters connected with the queen. We have no doubt that she herself, whilst seeking to amuse the king with fragments of her French experiences, had, through mere oversight and want of tact, unintentionally betrayed the risks to which her honour had been at times exposed. Without presence of mind, without inventive talent or rapidity of artifice, she would often compromise herself, and overshoot her momentary purposes of furnishing amusement to the king. He had heard too much. He believed no longer in her purity. And very soon, as a natural consequence, she ceased to interest him. The vague wish to get rid of her would for some time suggest no hopeful devices towards such a purpose. For some months, apparently, he simply neglected her. This neglect unhappily it was that threw her unprotected upon the vile society of young libertines. Two of these–Sir Henry Norris and Sir Francis Weston–had been privileged friends of the king. But no restraints of friendship or of duty had checked their designs upon the queen. Either special words, or special acts, had been noticed and reported to the king. Thenceforward a systematic watch had been maintained upon all parties. Discoveries more shocking than anybody looked for had been made. The guilty parties had been careless: blind themselves, they thought all others blind; but, during the April of 1536, the Privy Council had been actively engaged in digesting and arranging the information received.
On May-day, the most gladsome day in the whole year, according to the usages of that generation, the dreadful news transpired of the awful accusations and the impending trials. Smeton, a musician, was the only person not of gentlemanly rank amongst the accused. He was accused of adultery with the queen; and he confessed the offence; never retracting that part of his confession. In discussing the probabilities of the case, it is necessary to use special and extraordinary caution. The confession, for instance, of Anne herself has been treated as hollow and unmeaning; because, it is alleged, the king’s promise of indulgence and favour to her infant daughter was purchased under the condition of confession. It is clear that such a traffic would not have been available except in special and exceptional cases. As to Smeton, he did not at all meet the king’s expectations, except as to the one point of confessing the adultery. Consequently, as he was quite disinterested, had nothing at all to gain, and did gain nothing by his confession, him we are obliged to believe. On the other hand, the non-confession of some amongst the gentlemen, if any there were that steadfastly adhered to this non-confession, proves nothing at all; since they thought it perfidy to confess such a case against a woman. Meantime, Constantyne, a known friend of Sir H. Norris and of Sir W. Brereton, two of the four gentlemen accused, declares that, for himself, being a Protestant, and knowing the queen’s secret leaning to that party, he and all other ‘friends of the gospel’ could not bring themselves to believe that the queen had behaved so abominably. ‘As I may be saved before God,’ he says, ‘I could not believe it, afore I heard them speak at their death. But on the scaffold, in a manner all confessed, unless Norris; and as to him, what he said amounted to nothing.’ The truth is, there occurred in the cases of these gentlemen a dreadful struggle. The dilemma for them was perhaps the most trying upon record. Gallantry and manly tenderness forbade any man’s confessing, for a certain result of ruin to a woman, any treasonable instances of love which she had shown to him. Yet, on the other hand, to deny was to rush into the presence of God with a lie upon their lips. Hence the unintelligible character of their final declarations. Smeton, as no gentleman, was hanged. All the other four–Norris, Brereton, Weston, and Rochford–were beheaded. The four gentlemen and Smeton suffered all on the same day–namely, Wednesday, the 17th of May. Of all the five, Sir W. Brereton was the only one whose guilt was doubted. Yet he was the most emphatic in declaring his own guilt. If he could die a thousand deaths, he said, all would be deserved.
But the crime of all the rest seemed pale by the side of Rochford’s. He had been raised to the peerage by Henry, as an expression of his kindness to the Boleyn family. He was the brother of Anne; and whilst the others had offended by simple adultery with Anne, his crime was incestuous adultery; and his dying words appeared (to the auditors), ‘if not,’ says Mr. Froude, ‘a confession, yet something too nearly resembling it.’
From such dreadful offences, all readers are glad to hurry away; yet in one respect this awful impeachment has a reconciling effect. No reader after this wishes for further life to Anne. For her own sake it is plain that through death must lie the one sole peaceful solution of her unhappy and erring life. Some people have most falsely supposed that the case against the brother and sister, whatever might be pronounced upon the four other cases, laboured under antecedent improbabilities so great as to vitiate, or to load with suspicion, the entire case of the Privy Council. But, on the contrary, the shocking monstrosity of the charge strengthens the anti-Boleyn impeachment. As a means for getting rid of Anne, the Rochford case was not at all needed. If it could even in dreams be represented as false, the injury offered to the Boleyns, whilst quite superfluous for any purpose of Henry’s, would be too atrocious an outrage upon truth and natural justice for human nature to tolerate. The very stones would mutiny against such a calumny coming as a crown or crest to other injuries separately unendurable, if they could once be regarded as injuries at all. Under these circumstances, what should we think of a call upon Lord Berkshire, the very father of Anne Boleyn, to sit as one of the judges upon the cases. Not, indeed, upon the cases of his son and his daughter; from such Roman trials of fortitude he was excused; but on the other cases he was required to officiate as one of the judges. And, in fact, the array of rank and splendour, as exhibited in the persons of those who composed the court, surpassed anything previously known in England. On the part of the crown, it was too keenly felt that the deep personal interest of the king, in obtaining liberty to form a new marriage connection with Jane Seymour, would triumphantly outweigh all the justice that ever could be arrayed against the two Boleyns. Nothing could win a moment’s audience for the royal cause, except an unparalleled and matchless splendour in the composition of the court. This, therefore, was secured. Pretty nearly the whole peerage of that period was embattled upon the bench of judges.
Meantime, the tragedy, so far as the queen is concerned, took a turn which convicts all parties of a blunder; of a blunder the most needless and superfluous. This blunder was exposed by Bishop Burnet about a hundred and fifty years later, but most insufficiently exposed; and to this hour it has not been satisfactorily cleared up. Let us pursue the arrears of the case. The four gentlemen, together with Mark Smeton, were executed (as we have seen) on Wednesday, the 17th of May, 1536. Two days later Queen Anne Boleyn was brought out at noonday upon the verdant lawn within the Tower, and with very slight ceremonies she suffered decapitation. A single cannon-shot proclaimed to London and Westminster the final catastrophe of this unhappy romance. Anne had offered not one word of self-vindication on this memorable occasion; and, if her motive to so signal a forbearance were really consideration for the interests of her infant daughter, it must be granted that she exhibited, in the farewell act of her life, a grandeur of self-conquest which no man could have anticipated. For this act she has never received the homage which she deserved; whilst, on the other hand, praise most unmerited has been given for three centuries to the famous letter of self-defence which she is reputed to have addressed to the king at the opening of her trial. This letter, beyond all doubt a forgery, was first brought into effectual notice by the Spectator somewhere about 1710; and, whether authentic or not, is most injudiciously composed. It consists of five paragraphs, each one of which is pulling distractedly in contradictory directions.
Meantime, that or any other act of Anne Boleyn’s was superseded by a fatal discovery, which changed utterly the relations of all parties, which in effect acquitted Anne of treason, and which summarily rehabilitated as untainted subjects of the king those five men who had suffered death in the character of traitors. The marriage of Anne to the king, it was suddenly discovered, had from the beginning been void. It is true that we have long ceased to accredit those objections from precontracts, etc., which in the papal courts would be held to establish a nullity. But we are to proceed by the laws as then settled. Grounds of scruple, which would now raise at most a mere case of irregularity, at that time, unless met ab initio by a papal dispensation, did legally constitute a flaw such as even a friendly pope could not effectually cure; far less that angry priest, blazing up with wrath, and at intervals meditating an interdict, who at present occupied the chair of St. Peter. Here was a discovery to make, after so much irreparable injustice had been already perpetrated! If (which is too certain), under the marriage laws then valid, Anne Boleyn never had been the lawful wife of Henry, then, as Bishop Burnet suddenly objected when too late by one hundred and fifty years, what became of the adultery imputed to Anne, and the five young courtiers? Not being the king’s wife, both she was incapable in law of committing adultery as against the king, and by an inevitable consequence they were incapable of participating in a crime which she was incapable of committing.
When was this fatal blunder detected? Evidently before any of the victims had become cold in their graves. And the probability is–that, when the blunder was first perceived, the dreadful consequences of that blunder, and the legal relations of those consequences, were not immediately discerned. What convinces us of this is, that the first impulse of the king and his advisers, upon discovering through a secret communication made by Anne the existence of a precontract, and the consequent vitiation of her marriage with the king, had been, to charge upon Anne a new and scandalous offence. Not until they had taken time to review the case, did they become aware of the injustice that had been perpetrated by their own precipitance: and as this was past all reparation, probably it was agreed amongst the few who were parties to the fatal oversight, that the safest course was to lock up the secret in darkness. But it is singular to watch the fatality of error which pursued this ill-starred marriage. Every successive critic, in exposing the errors of his predecessor, has himself committed some fresh blunder. Bishop Burnet, for instance, first of all in a Protestant age indicated the bloody mistakes of papal lawyers in 1536; not meaning at all to describe these mistakes as undetected by those who were answerable for them. Though hushed up, they were evidently known to their unhappy authors. Next upon Burnet, down comes Mr. Froude. Burnet had shaped his criticism thus: ‘If,’ he says, ‘the queen was not married to the king, there was no adultery.’ Certainly not. But, says Mr. Froude, Burnet forgets that she was condemned for conspiracy and incest, as well as for adultery. Then thirdly come we, and reverting to this charge of forgetfulness upon Burnet, we say, Forgets! but how was he bound to remember? The conspiracy, the incest, the adultery, all alike vanish from the record exactly as the character of wife vanishes from Anne. With any or all of these crimes Henry had no right to intermeddle. They were the crimes of one who never had borne any legal relation to him; crimes, therefore, against her own conscience, but not against the king in any character that he was himself willing permanently to assume.
On this particular section of Henry’s reign, the unhappy episode of his second wife, Mr. Froude has erred by insufficient rigour of justice. Inclined to do more justice than is usually done to the king, and not blind to the dissolute character of Anne, he has yet been carried, by the pity inalienable from the situation, to concede more to the pretences of doubt and suspense than is warranted by the circumstances of the case. Anne Boleyn was too surely guilty up to the height of Messalina’s guilt, and far beyond that height in one atrocious instance.
Passing from that to the general pretensions of this very eloquent and philosophic book, we desire to say–that Mr. Froude is the first writer (first and sole) who has opened his eyes to comprehend the grandeur of this tremendous reign.