Off with his head

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Matchmaking is a risky business, especially if the person whose match you are trying to make is called Henry VIII. By 1537 Henry's personal life was in a mess. He had divorced himself from wife number one and beheaded number two. Jane Seymour, number three, fared no better. Her predecessors had been removed for failing to produce an heir and she also died as a result of doing so. Her husband was upset, but he still wanted his dynasty. Sickly baby Edward was not enough. It was not going to be easy finding another woman prepared to marry this fat, ageing and temperamental monarch, but one man thought he could do it.

Thomas Cromwell, son of a London brewer and blacksmith, had risen to become the King's top adviser and one of the most powerful men in the country. He had helped get rid of unwanted wives and monasteries and installed Henry as head of the English Church. Cromwell had strong views on who should be the next Queen. Though Henry remained a Catholic, Cromwell wanted to avoid a Papist mate as his own power was connected with the rise of Protestantism. He was also keen to avoid the English aristocracy. The nobles disliked this low-born lawyer, so boosting their authority diluted his own. Eventually, after a two-year search, he picked on Anne of Cleves, the Protestant daughter of a German duke. The artist Holbein was sent to paint her, and the King seemed happy with the results. In December 1539 Anne crossed the Channel. Then disaster struck. Henry was profoundly disappointed by his German fiancee. He found her so unattractive that the marriage was never consummated - her feelings may well have been similar.

As the King wriggled and squirmed to get out of the marriage (quickly annulled by an obliging Parliament) he looked for someone to blame. Clearly Thomas Cromwell was guilty, especially as rumours were circulating that he had stopped ambassadors telling Henry the truth about Anne's appearance. In June 1540 Cromwell was arrested. A month later the man who thought he could matchmake for a king had his head chopped off.

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