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The Collation

Two versions of Thomas Cromwell's very urgent letter conveying Henry VIII's impatience over his impending marriage to Anne of Cleves

Last week’s Folger Mystery shared two letters signed by Thomas Cromwell that contain the same text. I wondered: why do two versions survive? We only had two nibbles, one suggesting that an unruly cat might have forced the rewrite, another pointing out the lack of the word “loving” in one of the subscriptions. Let’s take a deeper dive and consider the possibilities.

Two letters written in 1539 by Thomas Cromwell
Can you spot the differences between Folger MS X.c.149 (1) (left) and Folger MS X.c.149 (3) (right)?

Both of these letters were written by the same secretary and subscribed and signed by Thomas Cromwell, in London, on November 8, 1539. They are both to Dr. Nicholas Wotton, Henry VIII’s ambassador in Cleves. Aside from a few very minor differences in spelling, lineation, wording, and layout, the letters are the same. They are written on the same paper stock (with a hand/glove watermark surmounted by a star or flower, the number 3 or letter Z in the palm, and a fleur-de-lis in the wrist, somewhat similar to Gravell HND.047.1 and Briquet 11370) and have similar packet-making fold lines. Presumably the paper loss to each one happened at a later date.

image of hand and star watermark
Watermarks visible through transmitted light, possibly twins. Folger MS X.c.149 (3), left and MS X.c.149 (1), right.
image of watermark

In the letter(s), Cromwell communicates Henry VIII’s frustration with the delays in ratifying the king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife (the king’s third wife, Jane Seymour, had died in 1537 shortly after the birth of a son, Edward). The marriage treaty had been signed by October 4, 1539 in London but required final approval by Anne’s brother, the Duke of Cleves. The king wanted to have another son to secure the Tudor line, while also building a political alliance with another leader who shared similar skepticism about the Pope’s authority. Cromwell was the matchmaker for this union, and in this letter he firmly instructs Wotton to get an answer from the Duke of Cleves ASAP. Henry VIII was anxious to meet his new queen, as he had only seen Hans Holbein the younger’s commissioned portrait of her (her recently restored portrait, and Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell, can be seen below). The rest is history: Anne arrived in England in late December 1539 and they married in January 1540, despite Henry VIII’s strong misgivings. In July 1540, their marriage was annulled, the king married Catherine Howard, and Thomas Cromwell was executed. The letter records a tense moment in the negotiations, when the king was unhappy about the delay and Cromwell had everything to gain or lose.

Here’s a transcription of X.c.149 (1), cribbing from X.c.149 (3) to add a few words missing due to damage (the transcription is also available via Folger Digital Collections):

Mr Wotton Aftre my right harty commendations
These shalbe to aduertise you that the kinges hieghnes
and the Lordes of his Maiesties counsail doo not
a lytle muse and marvayl / that his hieghnes sithens
the departure of the Orators of Cleves and Saxe
hath neither from you nor fromm the Duke of Cleves
ne from any of the said Oratours receyved any
maner of Lettres or aduertisement / specially considering
the greate charge sithens that tyme gevin vnto you
to wryte at the least howe they toke there the
conclusion of the Mariage though you shuld
haue no maner other occurrantes to signifye / And
nowe the tyme of the ratification approcheth
and also certain other thinges of I[m]portaunce
daylly occurring hath moved his hieghnes the
more to marvayl at this your long protracted
silence / ffor his satisfaction wherin his grace
hath dispeched vnto you this berer his seruant
whom his pleasur ys you shall present to the
said Duke whither you shall haue written
before his arryval or no to thintent in either
cace making his Maiesties most hertye commendations
to the forsaid Duke he maye to the same
intymate the cause of his cummyng and soo k[nowe]
what aunswere or seruice he woll commaun[de]
him and soo with all possible diligence reto[rne to]
his Maiestie accordingly / In the rest touching
the Kinges Maiesties good and prosperous health
and all other newes here you shall geve firme
credyt to this said berer who canne at lenght
explaine and Declare the same This fare you
hertely well ffrom London the viii of Nouembre
Your louyng assuryd ffreend
Thomas Crumwell

Holbein painting of Thomas Cromwell
Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex. Painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Original painting is part of the Frick Collection.
Holbein portrait of Anne of Cleves
Portrait of Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, INV 1348. Louvre CGU.

One of the letters, Folger MS X.c.149 (1-2), has a detached and heavily repaired address leaf with a superscription and an endorsement of receipt by Wotton or his secretary (the letter took about a week and half to arrive). The other one, Folger MS X.c.149 (3), arrived at the Folger with a detached address leaf for a letter written 30 years later, in 1569 (Folger MS X.c.149 (4)). More on that later. So at least one of the letters, possibly both, made it to Wotton.

Address leaf
Superscription: "To myn assuered loving ffreende Maister Wotton". Endorsement by recipient: "Rxpi. 19. Nouembr". The letter is Folger MS X.c.149 (1) and this address leaf is Folger MS X.c.149 (2).

It was not unusual for someone to draft a letter and then make a final copy of it for sending. The draft letter would then be saved as the “file copy” retained by the sender. You can usually identify a draft because it is not signed by the sender, it has interlineal corrections, and has not been folded or addressed for sending. This file copy stays in the archive of the sender, whereas the sent letter ends up in the archive of the recipient. For an example of a draft letter that became the file copy, see this letter from Nathaniel Bacon to Lord Ellesmere. Or a correspondent might make copies of outgoing letters in a letterbook, along with copies of the incoming replies, such as Sir Henry Unton’s letterbook. Neither of those seem to be happening here.

The folding lines are the same on both letters, suggesting that both were once folded into the typical simple tuck and seal packet-shape with the outer blank “address” leaf protecting the inner text leaf during transit. The second version of the letter no longer has its original address leaf, but the folds suggest it was sent as a packet like the first one was.

I think Cromwell’s secretary made at least two final copies of the letter, had Cromwell sign them, and sent them by different bearers on different routes from London to Cleves (in Germany), to ensure that at least one of them arrived in a timely manner. Because of their similar provenance (see the postscript, below), I think both letters reached Wotton and were kept by him. The journey was about 300 miles and involved a Channel crossing. The letter itself includes a passage, “his grace hath dispeched vnto you this berer his seruant,” without naming the bearer as Cromwell sometimes does in other letters. Was this because he was not sure which bearer would arrive first, so left them unnamed?

Sending multiple copies of a letter by different routes was a known practice because of the risk of miscarrying or undue delay in the era. But I have never seen an example of it. Does anyone know of other examples from the sixteenth century?

Long postscript

The acquisition of these two 1539 letters (X.c.149 (1-2) and X.c.149 (3)) and the 1569 address leaf (X.c.149 (4)) was the result of another mystery which I shall attempt to explain because it reveals (to me, at least) the importance of not breaking up letters that have managed to stick together for nearly 500 years.

We acquired the first letter and its detached address leaf (Folger MS X.c.149 (1-2)) at a Bonhams auction on June 12, 2012 (lot 55). I wrote a Crocodile/Folger Mystery post and answer about an unusual repair to that address leaf shortly after it arrived at the Folger.

A few months later, at their November 13, 2012 sale, Bonhams advertised another Cromwell to Wotton letter, dated October 26, 1539 (lot 41). If you click on the link and enlarge the image, you’ll see that the manuscript is not dated October 26, and the description does not match what appears in the text of the letter. Although the letter is damaged, the day of the month is clearly “the viiith day of…” (the 8th day of). The lot was withdrawn before the sale.

Then the image from the November 13, 2012 sale showed up again in the Bonhams sale on March 19, 2013, as lot 22. This time, the description matched the description of the Cromwell letter we bought at the June 12, 2012 sale. I confusedly emailed Bonhams to suggest that lot 22 was a mistake because it was sitting on my desk. When they assured me that it was sitting on their desk, I asked for a digital image. The letters were not the same exact letter, which is obvious when you look at them side by side, but the contents and date were the same. Mutual confusion ensued, as we tried to untangle the existence of two letters dated November 8, 1539 and one letter dated October 26, 1539.

Luckily, all three Bonhams descriptions left a breadcrumb: at one point they were part of vol. 31 of the Towneley manuscripts. The Towneley manuscripts were transcribed or collected by the antiquary Christopher Towneley (1604-1674), of Towneley Hall, Lancashire, and are described in The Fourth Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, Appendix (1874). The Cromwell letters are listed as item 9 in volume 31, “a collection of MSS., relating chiefly to the County of Kent” (Wotton was from Kent) (pp 412-13): “Two letters, original, from Secry. Lord T. Cromwell to Dr. Wotton.”

The report includes transcriptions of the two original letters. The first one is dated October 26, 1539 and the second one, which according to the report actually appeared before the first one in the volume, is our letter(s), dated November 8, 1539. The transcription’s headnote confirms that the November 8, 1539 letter survives “in duplicate,” so mystery mostly solved.

The mystery of the stray address leaf from 1569 that arrived with Folger MS X.c.149 (3) was also solved. Item 10 in volume 31, according to The Fourth Report, was a letter from Privy Council to the Sheriff and Justices of the Peace of Kent, September 26, 1569. As the volume was broken up, the address leaf to this letter was mistakenly thought to be the address leaf to the second copy of the November 8, 1539 letter from Cromwell to Wotton (Folger MS X.c.149 (3)). Bonhams sold the September 26, 1569 letter, without the address leaf, in the November 13, 2012 auction (lot 62), the same auction that contained the withdrawn Cromwell letter from either October 26, 1539 (according to the description) or November 8 (according to the image of the letter). To the person or institution that acquired lot 62: we have your address leaf, let’s talk!

detail from 1874 HMC vol. describing contents of manuscript
The sixteen items in Towneley vol. 31 include number 9, "Two letters, original, from Secry. Lord. T. Cromwell to Dr Wotton," and number 10, "A letter, original, bearing the signatures of the Duke of Bedford, Lord Burleigh, and others, to the Sheriffs and Justices of Kent."
image of p. 413 of HMC 4th series appendix
The Fourth Report includes transcriptions of the two Cromwell letters (one in duplicate) and the 1569 letter: "The second letter, according to date, though it stands first in the MS., is in duplicate," Fourth Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, Appendix, p. 413.

The Towneley manuscripts were dispersed in a series of sales at Sothebys in 1883, but vol. 31, items 9 and 10 (the two versions of the November 8, 1539 letter from Cromwell, the October 26, 1539 letter to Cromwell, and the 1569 letter to the sheriff of Kent) seem to have stuck together until 2012, despite being removed from the volume by at least 2005.

In 1895, the two versions of the November 8, 1539 letter are described as two “copies, one addressed, which is end[orse]d by Wotton: Recepi 19 Novembr,” in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the reign of Henry VIII, Vol. 24, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1895, edited by James Gairdner and R. H. Brodie, p. 172 (no. 480), citing the HMC report. In 1902, Roger Bigelow Merriman included the October and November 1539 letters in his Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell, vol. 2 (1902),pp. 238-9, but didn’t mention that that the November one survived in duplicate.

At a July 12, 2005 Sotheby’s auction, the October 26, 1539 letter was listed as lot 2 and the two copies of the November 8, 1539 letter were sold together as lot 3. The Sotheby’s description for lot 3 includes the multiple courier theory.

When they appeared on the market again in 2012 and 2013, via Bonhams, they were offered as three separate, and very confusing, lots, on three different dates, instead of two successive lots on one date, as at Sotheby’s in 2005. We were able to acquire the “duplicate” November 8, 1539 letter, now Folger MS 149 (3), (the one pictured in the November 2012 sale attached to the description for the October 26, 1539 letter and pictured and described in the March 2013 sale, with an addendum added about its “duplicate” status) after it was withdrawn from the sale due to the confusion over its relationship with the letters as described in the June and November 2012 auctions.

The October 26, 1539 letter, withdrawn from the November 2012 sale, got away from us. It turned up at a June 17, 2020 auction at Lyon and Turnbull as lot 123, selling for £25,000.

Phew, that was confusing to write, and most likely confusing to read, but I felt the need to share it because it is such a good example of what happens when a volume of miscellaneous manuscripts is disbound and the items separately sold. (Bonhams is not responsible for breaking up the volume, which happened before the 2005 Sotheby’s auction). In this case, the duplicate nature of two letters was forgotten, an address leaf was sold with the wrong letter, a letter was sold without its address leaf, the connection between the October 26 and November 8 letters emanating from Wotton’s, and then Towneley’s archive, became tenuous, and one confused curator spent hours and hours trying to untangle her confusion. With each successive sale, the ability to connect related items to a shared origin or provenance becomes increasingly difficult, and we lose important information about the circumstances of their creation and receipt.

Finally, if you are interested in Thomas Cromwell letters, I wrote a Collation post about the re-dating of a Cromwell letter we acquired in 2011. And while I was searching for the October 26, 1539 letter online, I came across an October 27, 1539 letter, also from Cromwell to Wotton, and also about the impending marriage of Henry and Anne of Cleves, now at the Morgan Library (MA 8651), and not recorded in Merriman’s Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell.



Richard Waugaman — May 31, 2024


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