Amid the gently bowing branches, amid the bonny kin of flowers of the abandoned priory of Thetford, stood Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Here, in this place, he felt his beloved ancestors most strongly. The blessings of those passed on, of the angels who now protect and guide, lingered amongst the serenity of this pious place.
But, today the duke could feel his forbearers were not at peace. He could sense their accusatory glances following him everywhere. For he had miserably failed to stop the dissolution of the priory. The resting place of his forefathers would be demolished by the Crown soon.
Howard was given time till February 1540, to shift his family tombs and after that, the priory would be simply shut down, like all other monasteries following the reformation of the Church. To add to the insult his multiple pleas to the monarch, to refound the priory as a college of priests, singing masses for his family’s souls were brutally rejected. And he knew the main culprit behind this conspiracy was none other than the scheming, rapacious vulture, the chief minister of the King, Thomas Cromwell.
“You will pay a hefty price for this affront, lowlife scum. Merry your little joy, but, the scaffold awaits your head. Today you might feel invincible. But, morrow I shall own it against you, heretic Cromwell.”
The opportunity and the right partner arrived in no time. It wasn’t long before he was joined by the Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester – and together they devised a perfect idea to get rid of this lowborn upstart for good.
Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, was busy hatching up a plan to secure his future. The second most powerful man of the country was way past the zenith of his career. Fortune was abhorring him the last few months. Opposition to the religious reforms that he had orchestrated broke out into open rebellion with the Pilgrimage of Grace. It was a large-scale revolt that quickly spread across the Midlands and northern counties. Fanatic chants of, “Down with that heretic Cromwell” reverberated across the land. Though King Henry successfully curbed down the insurrection, Cromwell’s reputation was tarnished. And cracks had begun to appear in the relationship with his royal master.
He had but, one way to claw back the favour. The recently widowed King was now ready to take his fourth wife. And if he could engineer the best match he would soon be back in good books. He had spread his envoys across the country and beyond to search for the ideal Queen. And ultimately, he had zeroed down the perfect candidate. Anne of Cleves, from the duchy of German. The only obstacle remaining was to convince the King.
“Your majesty the German princess would bring England a powerful new alliance. The House of Cleves would be a worthy Protestant ally. The coalition would keep the combined threat of two major Catholic powers, France and the Holy Roman Empire, at bay. Otherwise, they could join together to attack us anytime.”
“I choose my wife, Cromwell. I see her for myself…” The monarch didn’t explain much.
The unspoken words were more than enough for the intelligent minister to deduce. He knew that the almost quinquagenarian had an eye for beautiful lasses. The majesty worshipped beauty. Again the new queen must be fertile enough to bear him sons. The state was in dire need of a ‘spare’ to the heir, Prince Edward. In a desperate measure to persuade his royal master, Cromwell went overboard to add on basis of heresay,
“Every man praiseth the beauty of the same lady as well for the face as for the whole body. She excelleth as far the duchess of Milan as the golden sun excelleth the silver moon.”
“And what proof you haveth? I believe none other than my own two eyes.”
“But, no royal family would send their daughters to the court of another country before the wedding is fixed.”
“That’s right. So what do you suggest minister?”
Cromwell knew he had to think of a way soon, else this opportunity might never materialise. After a brief pondering, he tried to offer a solution.
“Why don’t we send the photographer Hans Holbein to take a photograph of the princess? His photography skill is exemplary. I have used his service and recommend him highly. If the Princess can’t come, her picture can always travel. And after all, photographs don’t lie.
Moreover, he is a German and can be used for the negotiation.”
The King was happy with this arrangement and commissioned for the early departure of Holbein.
Cromwell also left the palace in a jovial mood. A marriage alliance with a noble family of Germany meant, there was a halt in the intrusion of another English toff. The toffs have never taken it in their stride that a common man from Putney would rise so high, the ranks that should be rightfully owned only by the blue blood. The conflict between Cromwell and the nobles of England troubled the able man in more ways than one.
“My stars have aligned at last. Now, nothing could go wrong.”
He gleamed. Oh, how wrong he was.
That night at another corner of the city, Holbein, had one surprise visitor. He could not recognise his face, but the visitor showed him a letter with the signature and seal of his patron, Cromwell, as proof of the identity.
“Sir Holbein, the royal family needs your service.
My master thus sends you this letter. He is well aware of your great photography and photo editing skills. Tomorrow you will receive the royal summon to visit Germany on the King’s behalf and shoot an image of his prospective wife.
My master wants you to make sure, madam Anne of Cleves is presented in a way to please the eye of the beholder, especially the King.
This alliance is an absolute necessity for the safety of our great country. And we are counting on your expertise to triumph in this cause.”
“But, wouldn’t it be a deceit to tamper the truth?” Holbein tried to interfere in a meek voice.
“Sir, this photograph will go down in the pages of history as one of the important landmarks of royal chronicles. And the monarchy does not want the future queen to be presented in any bad light. The Earl has thus himself suggested your name. Give us an image that is both flattering and realistic. We are pinning our hope on your talent to do justice. ”
“If the royalty needs the service of this insignificant common man, how can he say no? Please inform the reverence that I am ready to take up the task,” Holbein added. Pride reflected from his last words.
“We knew you would agree. Please find your commission for this noble job. On successful completion of the project, the master will himself reward you the rest.”
With those words, the messenger handed him over a bag of gold and disappeared into the darkness of the alley.
Miles away in Wolf Hall, nobody noticed a figure silently entered the study of the Earl of Essex and returned his seal inside the desk. Unknown to the owner, the official seal was missing since the evening.
Weeks passed. Holbein had returned from his successful venture in Germany. With Cleve’s court officials looking over his shoulder, he was able to capture two beautiful pictures of the duchess. And then as instructed, he added the magic of his editing and presented his creation to the King.
King Henry was elated to see the pleasant, docile looking Anne and cheered the choice of his chief counsel. Holbein was bestowed with a handsome price in gold and the marriage proposal was sent forth.
The wedding date was finalised on January 1540 and the duchess set her foot on the soil of England on a cold evening of the St. John’s Day of 1539. And all mayhem broke loose.
It was the day after New Year’s day. Yesterday the King met his betrothed, Anne of Cleves for the first time and everything has not been well since then.
“I like her not.”
King Henry started blasting Cromwell for beguiling him as soon as he entered his chamber. His fury shook up the experienced advisor.
Several mishaps had doomed the New year’s day for the Tudor King. Always the romantic, Henry had decided to surprise Anne by disguising himself in the great chivalric tradition and intercepting her on her way to London. According to this tradition, the would-be bride would see through the disguise, fall in love at first sight. Unfortunately, hailing from another country, Anne was unaware of this tradition, and nobody forewarned her. She was surprised by a group of masked men, led by a tall, burly middle-aged man who tried to kiss her. Unused of such behaviour – she pushed him away. This resulted in an embarrassing situation that soured the relationship from the start. When the mask was drawn and others revered the King, she understood her mistake, but, the King was not pleased with what he saw. He felt the photograph cheated him.
“She looks nothing like her photograph. I swore they changed the model and the Germans sent me a Flanders mare, instead. Nix the wedding immediately. Or be ready to face dire consequences.”
Cromwell had never faced such a dilemma in life. The royal wedding was to be staged in two days. All arrangements were finalised and now the King refuses to marry the Princess who arrived from another land for the purpose. The move, intended to bring Henry the political support and power that he craved in Europe, its cancellation might render in a more sorry state for the land. Duke William, brother of Anne of Cleves would never lightly take this insult and could join hands with France and Spain to attack the Crown.
The next three days passed like a nightmare for Cromwell. He tried to scrap the wedding deal, but the time was too short. On 6th January 1940, the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves was solemnized.
“Are you sure of the charges you are bringing up on my most able servant?”
When Duke of Norfolk and Bishop of Winchester wanted a meeting in privy with the King, he was much surprised. But, the news they brought was terrible.
“We thoroughly investigated your Majesty. We even interrogated the court photographer Holbein and recovered the bag of gold that was given to him as a bribe. The poor artiste believed it was a royal instruction.”
“And what made him so sure of that?”
“A letter from Cromwell himself. The letter had his official seal.”
The two handed over the letter with clear instruction to morph the image of the princess and bore the seal of his chief minister.
“He is rumoured to be raising a secret army against you, Your Majesty. And was trying to curb your reputation through humiliating, a failed marriage scene and an unloved Queen.”
“Preposterous! Such sullied conspiracy. I order him to be taken to the gaol immediately.”
It was the 10th of June, 1540. Heedless of the ruse plotted against him, Cromwell turned up for a routine meeting of the Privy Council. He was astonished to find a bunch of English nobles waiting there. As soon as he entered the chamber, there was a cry of “traitor” and he was seized by the king’s guards. Duke of Norfolk, personally tore the Garter badge of St George from Cromwell’s clothing, with much relish. Before even realising the situation, the once invincible Earl of Essex found himself locked up in the Tower of London.
The once indispensable advisor of the King never saw his master again. The Tudor king was easily influenced to bring a bill of attainder before Parliament, which condemned Cromwell to die. The able lawyer tried to persuade his once-beloved master by writing a series of impassioned letters from the Tower, the last of which ended with a desperate postscript: “Most gracious prince, I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy.”
But, nothing could be done. The Bishop helped the King to annul his reluctant marriage with Anne of Cleves, in turn making themselves more reliable and poisoning against the erstwhile chief minister. Finally, Cromwell was executed on 28 July – the very same day that Henry married his fifth wife. And all for an edited photograph.
Glossary – The story is based on the (in)famous Portrait of Anne of Cleves, third wife of the Tudor King Henry Viii, by legendary painter Hans Holbein