A Cromwell Adventure – Part 1: The King’s “Great Matter”

Just 80 days from now, my latest novel – Frailty of Human Affairs – book one of the Queenmaker series, shall be released worldwide. So here is the start of my new blog series, detailing the huge myriad of characters and issues dealt with in the book.

Frailty of Human Affairs (FOHA) starts in London, 1529.

King Henry VIII has been on the throne for twenty years. He is married but has the most notorious mistress of all time – Anne Boleyn. Henry is ready to take on the Pope to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, has to take on his King and his God in order to remain in power in England.

Ask anyone about Henry VIII, and they will know about the six wives. They know about the obesity. Many know of his jousting injury and subsequent mental instability. Ask about his queens and everyone can name Anne Boleyn. Thanks to many movies and television shows, they can probably name a few wives. Then there are history lovers who know all the wives and histories, including the grand queen of them all – Katherine of Aragon. What many people don’t know much about (at least until Wolf hall was released, anyway) is how Henry ended up able to have six wives, and how the Catholic nation of England ended up Protestant due to Henry and his daughter, Elizabeth I.

While I have been researching and studying history for 12 years, the last three have been dedicated full-time to Tudor history (though Tudor stories have been with me for as long as I can remember). FOHA is the start of putting all that together in novel form, through the eyes of my favourite Tudor character, Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell, as played by James Frain in the series ‘The Tudors’

My beloved Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell was nothing until the mid-20th century when he was researched and brought to light as the bad guy of Tudor England. The 21st century has seen Cromwell re-cast as a hero of sorts, thanks to Hilary Mantel. I write my Thomas Cromwell as both and neither of these.

FOHA is not the story of history; this is a fictional version of a man, working for the most powerful man in England – Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the true power behind the throne. Cromwell has a secret weapon of sorts, a companion, whom all call ‘The Waif’ , who holds more power and control than anyone has realised, control over Cromwell, Henry VIII and even Pope Clement. FOHA is the start of the tale when Cromwell meets ‘The Waif’, when a legatine court is set up to decide whether Henry and Queen Katherine were ever truly married – the King’s “Great Matter”.

So what is the “Great Matter”?

For the sake of ease, I shall write this first post so that even the newest person can get into the drama, though you Tudor aficionados will be well acquainted already. King Henry VIII married in 1509, right after taking the throne. He married Princess Katherine of Aragon, a beautiful and educated Spanish princess who had also married Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur. Arthur died aged 15, just 20 weeks into his marriage, leaving Katherine in poverty in London for years (long story involving dowry money). Henry married Katherine, and together they were crowned and reigned over the nation, both led armies in battle, but also suffered the loss of five children; three sons, two daughters, but managed to have the healthy Princess Mary in 1516.

But Henry need a son, an heir to the Tudor throne, he being only the second Tudor to rule England. There was no faith that Princess Mary could rule, and claimants to the throne would spark war. Henry had several mistresses and bastard children, but when his eyes set on Anne Boleyn in 1525 (though she had been at court serving Queen Katherine for several years at this point), everything changed. Smart, pretty, educated and witty Anne Boleyn, after living in the famed courts of Europe, was a jewel many men wanted. Anne was no whore and would be no mistress. If Henry wanted Anne, he had to marry her.

By 1527, Henry, not the fat grumpy man people imagine, but an athletic, highly educated and religious man, had studied long enough to wonder – could he be annulled from Katherine on the grounds their marriage was not lawful? He had married his brother’s wife, something strictly forbidden in God’s eyes. Their dead children were proof of God’s laws, so Henry argued. Sure, the Pope of the time had issued a dispensation for Henry to have Katherine, and Katherine never slept with Prince Arthur… so she claimed.

Behind Henry was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, England’s richest and powerful man, who had run England on Henry’s behalf for years. Hated by the nobles for being born common, hated by commoners for taxing them to death, Wolsey was a king behind the King. But the Pope in Rome resisted Wolsey’s pleas for an annulment. Pope Clement VII, formerly Cardinal Giulio Medici of Florence (yes, those Medicis), was dealing with the sacking of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor’s army. Eventually, it was decided that Wolsey and an Italian cardinal, Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, would hold a legatine court, an ecclesiastical court, in London and decide on Henry’s marriage in the Pope’s, and in God’s, place.

The court sat in 1529, with both the King and Queen requiring to give evidence, along with many others; scholars, noblemen and clergy members. When the court failed to deliver a verdict, thanks to a plot by the Italians, Henry was furious. He, Queen Katherine and Anne Boleyn all lived at the court palaces together and life was getting too hard for a man who needed a son (and to get laid). Plus, sweating sickness had recently had killed countless thousands in England, and the King’s exchequer was short on funds. Patience had worn thin.

Queen Katherine was banished from Henry’s sight, moved to an ever-reduced lifestyle while Henry and Anne lived publicly, if not privately, as husband and wife. Wolsey was stripped of power, but up stepped Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s lawyer, a banker, a money-lender, a merchant, an advisor; a brilliant charismatic commoner with an astute mind. While being Wolsey’s closest friend, Cromwell wanted the King’s favour, his own power and to help Wolsey keep his head attached to his neck. But Cromwell believed he could get Henry married to Anne Boleyn. And, step-by-step, through legal means, Thomas Cromwell destroyed the Catholic Church in England until the King could have everything he wanted, all by changing laws, calling in favours, issuing the odd threat and creating a network of spies. Not only that, Cromwell was also able to push Henry into starting the Protestant reformation of England. FOHA will show the private life and sacrifices Cromwell made to make that happen, all in the company of ‘The Waif.’

Frailty of Human Affairs is book one of the Queenmaker series, set in 1529 – 1533. Book two shall be set in 1533 – 1537 and book three will be 1537 – 1540.

While my new book is fiction, the times, places, dates are all totally real, in keeping with what happened between Henry, Katherine, Anne and Wolsey during the Tudor period. The book features real people and their lives, along with the fictional character ‘The Waif’. Over the next 80 days, I shall post about all these people, from Cromwell, the royals, the Boleyns, Cromwell family, the clergy, and even ‘The Waif’, to introduce you better to the English court of the 1530’s, a story well-known and yet with more secrets to share.

Up next: Around the Book in 80 Days – Part 2: The Life of Thomas Cromwell

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