There is huge historical debate on whether or not the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn was sourced in Thomas Cromwell or Henry VIII. Personally, I think Henry had become irrational and paranoid due to the onset of McLeod’s syndrome and Cromwell used the opportunity of Anne’s injudicious comment on “dead men’s shoes” to goad the king into believe she was an adulteress. My belief that Cromwell was the locus of Anne’s death is impossible to prove, but there is VERY damning evidence that he used her downfall as an excuse to murder at least one of his political enemies.
Of the five men beheaded on 17 May 1536 for their supposed adultery with Anne Boleyn, only two were needed to annihilate the queen. Mark Smeaton was a lowborn musician and the only man to “confess” to sleeping with Anne; he was also the only man whom Cromwell could torture so his confession holds no water. Henry Norris never confessed, but he had to go down with Anne because he was the epicenter of the dead-men’s-shoes scandal that Boleyn enemies were using to whip the king into a paranoid froth.
The other three men were selected to either further destroy the Boleyn support system or because Cromwell had a personal grudge against them.
Accusing Anne’s brother George, Viscount Rochford, of having carnal knowledge of the queen not only crushed the Boleyns, it also made Anne seem more of a ravenous monster and Henry less of a cuckolded dupe. Only a completely evil woman would sleep with her own brother, so her adultery was clearly the fault of her unchecked bas desires rather than any of Henry’s failing in bed.
Francis Weston wasn’t a real part of the Boleyn faction – his accusation seems to be simply because he had the misfortune of being an easy scapegoat. He was a witty player who flirted and dallied with several women and he was frequently in Anne’s company. He was also, as the king’s frequent gambling companion, no favorite of Cromwell. Weston was a little too interested in getting the king to spend freely than Cromwell could countenance.
The most obvious and difficult to refute argument that Cromwell was a murderer is the accusation and death of William Brereton. Brereton was neither much in the king’s company nor an ardent supporter of the Boleyns and/or reformation. What Brereton was, though, was indisputably a thorn in Cromwell’s side. As Eric Ives wrote in his magnificent biography The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn:
Brereton had secured ta virtual monopoly of royal appointments in Cheshire and North Wales. He exploited this authority … [and] was a nuisance to Cromwell’s local agent, Bishop Rowland Lee, and promised to be an obstacle to plans then in their infancy to settle the Welsh border. However, what really marked Brereton was a notorious judicial murder. His victim was a Flintshire gentleman, a John ap Gryffith Eyton, whom he blamed for the death of a Brereton retainer … Brereton had him arrested, possible with Anne Boleyn’s help, returned him to Wales and, after a rigged trial, saw un hanged – and all this in defiance of Crowell’s efforts to save [Eyton].
Many of the people who were convinced of Anne’s innocence — due to a lack of evidence and Henry’s canoodling with Jane Seymour – thought Brereton at least had it coming to him because he had unfairly killed Eyton. This assumes that Eyton really was innocent (who knows?) and also assumes that the fitting punishment for a judicial murder is to be judicially murdered for a crime you did not commit. Cromwell had to have known that Brereton was innocent, even if the Chancellor had convinced himself that Anne had made the beast with two backs in concert with George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Mark Smeaton, and Francis Weston. Cromwell took the opportunity of Anne’s trial to murder Brereton because he wanted Brereton out of his hair, plain and simple. Brereton was at least trying to avenge his retainer when he committed his vigilantism; Cromwell was just smoothing out the bumps on his path to power.
This tendency of Cromwell to use legal means for foul deeds, coupled with his willingness to murder people for his own convenience, is why I think Henry had less to do with Anne’s death than Cromwell did. Henry seems to have been genuinely convinced that Anne had managed to have sex with 100 men and was planning on poisoning her stepchildren. Even when Weston’s father tried to buy his son’s freedom, Henry would not be swayed from the path of what he saw as justice. Cromwell wanted Anne gone because she was trying to prevent the dissolution of every religious house, and turn some of that money from the king’s coffers to the paupers’ good. The fact Anne lost her head as well as her crown was a price Cromwell was willing to pay.