The Ambassador, the Minister and the King

In episode 5 of Wolf Hall, we saw Eustace Chapuys at Court, being tricked into bowing to Anne Boleyn before being yelled at by Henry VIII, after which Cromwell also found himself on the receiving end of Henry’s anger. So, what exactly was it all about?

To answer this, we need to delve into the international politics of the period….

Chapuys was the ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The empire was a complex of territories in central Europe. It was primarily Catholic, although there were a growing number of Protestant German principalities who had formed themselves into the Schmalkaldic League for defensive purposes. In addition Charles V was king of Spain, ruler of the Netherlands and Katherine of Aragon’s nephew. It is not surprising then that his representative in England had steadfastly refused to acknowledge Anne Boleyn as Queen.

The Holy Roman Empire was intermittently at odds with France, ruled at this time by Francois I, with the French wanting to seize territories such as the Duchy of Milan from the Empire. Despite being professing loyalty to the Pope, in 1535, Francois had been seeking to gain Henry VIII’s support for an invasion of Italy.

What was Henry VIII’s position in this?

Throughout his reign, Henry switched between supporting the Empire and France. In 1535, he had been favouring France, fearful that the Emperor or the Pope might attempt an invasion of England. With Katherine of Aragon’s death, the possibility of an agreement with Charles V opened up again and he encouraged his ambassadors to be more aloof in their dealings with the French. This suited Cromwell who favoured alliances with the Emperor and the Schmalkaldic League.

And so we come to April 1536.

Chapuys was offering peace but with the stipulation that Henry would have to return England to the Catholic Church and legitimize Mary again. Henry had been persuaded to welcome Chapuys to Court. The day began well – Chapuys had declined to kiss Anne’s hand but, when they met on the way to mass, polite bows were exchanged. But then Henry turned on the ambassador declaring that he was not a child and Charles V had no right to meddle in his affairs. Charles was to write and apologise for all his past wrong doings.

Why the change of mood?

Some historians have blamed Cromwell for overstepping the mark and pushing an alliance with the Emperor too hard. Others have attributed it to Anne, who supposedly favoured the French, seeing her hand in opposition to Cromwell and his policies. In all probability, Henry was playing the France and the Empire off against one another. He was also laying the grounds for ending his marriage to Anne. If he made peace with Charles V at the same time as divorcing Anne, it would look to outsiders like he was admitting guilt in having put aside Katherine of Aragon. By publicly humiliating Chapuys, he demonstrated his strength and rebuffed the Emperor. He could then seek to divorce Anne without it being seen as a defeat and a condition of a peace deal.

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