Long before Anne Boleyn was relentlessly pursued by King Henry VIII, long before she could ever have dreamed that she would enter into a marriage that would change the course of English history and put her on the throne, Anne Boleyn had simpler ambitions. Anne hoped to become a countess, albeit by marrying into one of the most powerful families in the realm.
Henry Percy is a shadowy figure in Anne Boleyn’s life. After their romance ended, Percy fades into an unhappy arranged marriage, far from the glittering life Anne Boleyn was living at court. Yet he weaves in and out of the contemporary accounts of Anne Boleyn, right up until the day she was sentenced to death. It may be he truly loved Anne in the beginning, but many would turn on the Boleyns in time and perhaps he grew to loathe her. Yet in the end he refused to co-operate in her fall. When he was obliged to judge her guilty of treason and the verdict was read out, that Anne was to be burned or beheaded at the King’s pleasure, Percy was overwhelmed and had to be taken from court. He would die just a year after Anne was executed.
Today, on the 478th anniversary of her execution, Nerdalicious editor Olga Hughes interviews historian Elizabeth Norton about Anne Boleyn’s first suitor, Henry Percy, the sixth Earl of Northumberland.
…the Lord Percy would then resort for his pastime unto the queen’s chamber, and there would fall in dalliance among the queen’s maidens, being at the last more conversant with Mistress Anne Boleyn than with any other; so that there grew such a secret love between them that, at length, they were insured together, intending to marry…George Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey
[Olga Hughes:] Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey provides the first detailed evidence of Henry Percy and Anne Boleyn’s relationship, how reliable is Cavendish’s account?
[Elizabeth Norton:] George Cavendish was a contemporary of both Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy and knew them both. He served with Percy in Wolsey’s household and may well have been present at some of the events he describes (such as Percy’s dalliance amongst Catherine of Aragon’s maids). It is generally considered that his Life of Wolsey is, for the most part, accurate, although he perhaps did not always understand all of the political machinations he witnessed in Wolsey’s household.
I therefore think we can rely on Cavendish’s account of Anne and Percy’s relationship. Other evidence supports the fact that they had a relationship (for example, the attempt of Percy’s wife to obtain a divorce, Percy’s letter denying a precontract with Anne and Chapuys’ assertions that Henry ended his marriage to Anne on the claim of a precontract between her and Percy). It is therefore clear that Anne and Percy were romantically involved and there is no reason to doubt Cavendish’s account.
…for there were many witnesses ready to testify and to prove that more than nine years ago a marriage had been contracted and consummated between the said Anne Boleyn and the earl of Nortambellan (Northumberland) Eustace Chapuys 2nd May 1536
[Olga Hughes:] Historians are still divided over whether Henry Percy and Anne Boleyn were in fact married and consummated their union, what is your opinion on this?
[Elizabeth Norton:] I think that if Anne consummated a relationship with anyone other than Henry VIII then it was Henry Percy. Thomas Wyatt, who is her other early suitor, was married and, given her conduct in relation to Henry VIII, it seems unlikely that she would have agreed to become Wyatt’s mistress.
Consummated precontracts were as binding as a marriage in Tudor England under church law. As such, if Anne and Percy promised to marry then there was not really any reason not to consummate the marriage. In fact, they did not really need a religious ceremony to be validly married, although most people did.
The claim that Anne and Percy were precontracted kept coming up. First with Henry Percy’s wife and, later, at the time of Anne’s fall. Personally, I think the evidence suggests that they may have been precontracted and, as part of this, also slept together. Percy’s denial in 1536 should be treated with some caution, given the fact that he had witnessed the arrests of five men for alleged relationships with Anne. It was obviously a serious matter to conceal a relationship and to allow the king to unknowingly marry another man’s wife.
[Olga Hughes:] There is a popular notion that Anne never forgave Wolsey for breaking her marriage with Percy and got her revenge later by sending Percy to arrest Wolsey, is there much truth in this?
[Elizabeth Norton:] Cavendish certainly believed that Anne’s enmity towards Wolsey stemmed from the loss of her betrothal to Percy. I think there may be some truth in this. Politically, Anne and Wolsey were always likely to be in opposite factions, but she may also have borne something of a grudge. The use of Percy as the instrument of Wolsey’s arrest is perhaps telling – Cavendish certainly thought so. Also, we know that Anne was looking to arrange an advantageous marriage for herself. Percy was a brilliant match for her and his loss must have seriously rankled with her.
[Olga Hughes:] Is there much written evidence about Percy’s marriage?
[Elizabeth Norton:] Percy’s life after his relationship has not really been studied in detail. He and his wife were obviously unhappy and had only one child who died in infancy. They separated within only a few years of marriage and Percy’s wife later tried to annul her marriage on the basis of his supposed precontract with Anne. Given the fact that Anne was then engaged to the king, this was a very dangerous course of action to take and one highly unlikely to succeed – I think it suggests the desperation of Mary Talbot to end her marriage.
the Earl of Northumberland is no longer such a friend of this king and of his ministers as he used to be…The Earl went on charging the King’s mistress with arrogance and wickedness…Eustace Chapuys 1st January 1535
[Olga Hughes:] What is your opinion of Percy’s feelings towards Anne later in life?
[Elizabeth Norton:] Clearly, from these comments, it appears that Percy was no longer really on Anne’s ‘side’, something which suggests that he was not as grief-stricken at her death as often claimed (see below!). Chapuys is not, of course, always accurate. His information on Percy however apparently came from Percy’s physician. From the sources, I get the impression that Anne and Percy’s relationship was really long over before she attracted the attention of the king. He was (unhappily) married by then and their lives were following different courses. Anne also had something of a gift of alienating potential supporters at times (such as the Duke of Norfolk) and Percy’s presence at court may well have been uncomfortable to her, given the fact that their former relationship does appear to have been reasonably well known at court.
there is supposed a precontract between the queen and me…that the same may be to my damnation, if ever there were any contracte or promise of marriage between her and me… Henry Percy to Thomas Cromwell 1536
[Olga Hughes:] Percy, in my opinion, seems quite bitter towards Henry VIII by 1536. Do you think there was a hint of defiance in his letter when questioned about the precontract during her trial?
[Elizabeth Norton:] Percy’s letter was written on 13 May 1536, while Anne and her supposed lovers were in the Tower and the investigations were ongoing. In his letter, Percy makes it clear that he had already been examined under oath by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, as well as being forced to swear on the sacrament before the Duke of Norfolk and other members of the king’s council. This was still, however, not sufficient and he found himself still under suspicion, causing him to write his letter to Cromwell.
I think, given all this attention and its context (amidst the arrests of Anne’s ‘lovers’), Percy must have been deeply worried. He had had a relationship with Anne long before she had even come to the king’s attention and, all of sudden, it had the potential to bring him to the Tower and his death. To a certain extent, I think there is defiance in his letter. He had obviously defied all attempts to get him to confess to a precontract, something which would have invalidated the king’s marriage. He was also under considerable pressure. However, there is no hint that he was offered any award or immunity in the letter and, given the fact that he was asking to confess that he had effectively betrayed the king by his silence, it is perhaps not surprising that he refused to confess.
It is, of course, possible that Percy was eventually brought to confess a precontract. Anne’s marriage was, of course, ultimately annulled and it is unclear whether this was on the basis of her precontract with Percy or on Henry’s relationship with Mary Boleyn. Given the pressure on Percy, the precontract appears to have been Henry’s preferred route so, perhaps, in the end Percy gave way?
Judgment: To be taken to prison in the Tower, and then, at the King’s command, to the Green within the Tower, and there to be burned or beheaded as shall please the King.
The same day, lord Rocheford is brought before the High Steward in the custody of Sir Will. Kingston, and pleads not guilty. The peers are charged, with the exception of the earl of Northumberland, who was suddenly taken ill, and each of them severally saith that he is guilty. The Trials of Anne Boleyn and Lord Rochford, 15 May 1536
[Olga Hughes:] What do you think of the romantic notion that Percy’s early death was brought on by Anne’s execution?
[Elizabeth Norton:] I think that is probably fairly unlikely. He was taken ill at George’s trial, after sitting through Anne’s, something which suggests that his illness was not the result of being overcome by emotion. He sat in judgement on Anne after all. Percy seems to have led a fairly unfulfilled life, dominated by ill health, although it is probably something of a stretch – on the surviving evidence – to attribute this to Anne’s execution.
With thanks to Amberley Publishing.
All extracts from The Anne Boleyn Papers ©Elizabeth Norton and Amberley Publishing.
Elizabeth Norton is a British historian, specialising in the queens of England and the Tudor period. She was awarded a double first in her undergraduate degree at Cambridge and has a Masters degree from Oxford. She is currently working part time towards a PhD in history at King’s College, London. The rest of the time, she writes books and articles about the Tudors, including biographies of four of Henry VIII’s wives.
Find out more at www.elizabethnorton.co.uk
The Anne Boleyn Papers by Elizabeth Norton, published by Amberley Publishing 2013
Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, caused comment wherever she went. Through the chronicles, letters and dispatches written by both Anne and her contemporaries, it is possible to see her life and thoughts as she struggled to become queen of England, ultimately ending her life on the scaffold. Only through the original sources is it truly possible to evaluate the real Anne. George Wyatt’s Life of Queen Anne provided the first detailed account of the queen, based on the testimony of those that knew her. The poems of Anne’s supposed lover, Thomas Wyatt, as well as accounts such as Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey also give details of her life, as do the hostile dispatches of the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys and the later works of the slanderous Nicholas Slander and Nicholas Harpsfield. Henry VIII’s love letters and many of Anne’s own letters survive, providing an insight into the love affair that changed England forever. The reports on Anne’s conduct in the Tower of London show the queen’s shock and despair when she realised that she was to die. Collected together for the first time, these and other sources make it possible to view the real Anne Boleyn through her own words and those of her contemporaries.