I have a friend named Heather. She is known in our circle as a delightful source of wry humor. Always ready with a proverb or a pithy statement, she specializes in “quotable quotes.” When she sees injustice or feels that life has dealt an unfair hand, she quotes her father:
“No good deed goes unpunished.”
It is an ironic commentary on the tendency of life to reward good and loyal men with an undeserved twist of fate and sadly it sums up the life and death of Henry Norris.
Sir Henry Norris is variously described as a gentleman, kind, good-looking and well-liked. He was known to be a formidable opponent in the Joust, and a skilled sportsman who was actively involved in the social whirl of Court life. Little wonder that King Henry would single him out for favor and responsibility; he shared the King’s interests and passions. The single greatest favor and the position of greatest responsibility in the day-to-day life of the Court was “Groom of the Stole (or Stool). The Stole was the toilet and all that goes with it. Highly coveted, the position of the King’s Groom entitled Norris to unlimited access to the King. He probably saw more of King Henry than did even Queen Anne, as she had entirely separate apartments while he slept on a cot at the foot of the King’s bed.
The influence that came with being Groom of the Stole was priceless. The power he was able to wield over those who would curry favor with the King was absolute. But the nitty-gritty, day-to-day hard work of this particular job could cause one to pause, in saner moments and wonder if the honor was not too dubious a one. Being at the beck and call of Henry VIII would require a man of strength, stamina, and amazing organizational skills. A sort of washroom attendant / chief-of-staff. The administrative tasks alone would be a full time job even without having to stop what one was doing at any time of the day or night and accompany the King to the loo to perform a very, um, intimate duty. Necessarily, the Groom of the Stole required a delicate touch (no pun intended) and the patience of a saint.
Sir Henry presents himself to history as a man of integrity. How many of us would not yield to the temptation to flaunt our intimate knowledge of the king’s business, his thoughts, his personal habits? These were the currency of the day, the stuff of gossip and speculation. A courtier’s stature was, among other things, measured by his proximity to the king. A casual reference, a knowing glance, a secretive smile would speak volumes among those who longed to be in the intimate circle. After a night of gambling and drinking wine with friends how easy it would be for the tongue to slip, to trade information for money, prestige, or a night of pleasure with one of the Queen’s women. Therefore it stands to reason that a man who held the king’s most trustworthy position as well as his affection would be a person of integrity.
If discretion, tact and patience were the hallmarks of Norris’s reputation, then diplomacy, courtesy and humor were his most essential tools. He seems to have possessed an urbane quality that was at odds with the sometimes undignified nature of his position as Groom of the Stole. But he was a product of his time. He would have been raised to appreciate the paradox of such a life; being required to fill a need that would have been the job of a slave, in other places and other times and the irony of being honored to do so. It is inevitable that jealousy should accompany such privilege. Authority, respect, power, proximity to and intimacy with the king combined to create a potent brew of envy. And envy was dangerous in Henry’s court.
It is tempting to take such a man, who is involved in what amounts to a Renaissance version of a Greek Tragedy, and make him what we wish him to be. Contemporary accounts of him are few and far between; most written precisely because he was one of the characters at the center of the greatest scandal at the English court of the 16th century. Had the King not decided to rid himself of Anne Boleyn, Henry Norris would have been a name among many names in the obscure lists of those who served Henry VIII. Because he has been cast in the role of the lover of a queen who was “the scandal of Christendom,” the temptation to present him as dashing and gallant is almost irresistible, especially when the tale is embedded in a time of dying chivalry. Sir Henry is among the last of a dying breed of knights playing at the game of courtly love which had been de rigeur for the aspiring courtier since the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
To judge the character of a man dead 500 years is virtually impossible. It is the tendency of historians and writers to deify the decent man, romanticize the rogue, and vilify the villain. The growth of legend surrounding those long dead is proportionate to the distance removed in time and place from the actual persons and events. Exaggerations develop and evolve, often to the point where friends and family would not even recognize their own loved one. But, what if Sir Henry Norris was neither hero, nor rogue, nor villain? What if he was simply a man serving his Sovereign and enjoying the perquisites of the job?
In his younger years Henry Tudor had been a man to inspire goodwill and loyalty. He was beloved for his openness and his genuine interest in those around him. After the grim years of his father’s reign Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne was greeted with great hope and joy. He was an intelligent yet lighthearted young king, but he was too trusting; easy prey for ambitious and clever men. After 20 years of kingship he had collected about himself a coterie of men who gladly served him for love of their King as well as the more tangible benefits of nearness to the throne. To be sure there were those who circled the King for less noble reasons. They were the self-serving, those on the lookout for advancement, constantly jockeying for position; in-sincere men who claimed friendship but who in reality wanted pieces of his kingdom. Bitter experience with manipulation and betrayal had made the King jaded and suspicious and those whom he truly considered friends had become fewer with the passing of time.
If Henry Norris was in all aspects the ultimate insider, then Thomas Cromwell in many aspects was an outsider. Although he was 2nd only to King Henry in power and position, it appears that the King retained Cromwell more because of his ability to carry out his less-popular wishes than for any true affection or liking. Theirs was not a relationship of comfortable intimacy. He was not showered with gifts from the King. He was not popular, nor was he well-liked. The courtiers slighted him for his common background. They snubbed him for his course speech and manners. They also feared and mistrusted Cromwell because so little was actually known about the man and the functions he performed for the King. An air of un-savoriness clung to him; of dark deeds and secretiveness that made it impossible to form friendships, only alliances of convenience.
Obviously, these were reason enough for Cromwell to hate him, but the fact that Sir Henry could outmaneuver Cromwell any time he chose was unbearable. Thomas Cromwell, the highest man in the land, 2nd in authority only to the King, could be kept cooling his heels in the presence chamber, while Sir Henry Norris stood guard at the door, smiling. While Cromwell must wait to be summoned in order to approach the King, Sir Henry Norris dressed the King, stood by while he performed his bodily functions, and tucked him into bed; all the while whispering in his ear comments favorable to the Queen and her family. The Boleyns, once one of those alliances for convenience, were now a collective thorn in his side. Dour and disliked, Common Cromwell had a new agenda. Good natured and good-looking, Sir Henry Norris blocked the door to the King’s privy chamber. Smiling. Well, the King had given Cromwell this particular agenda and it was going to be a particular pleasure to fulfill it and at the same time wipe the smile from Sir Henry Norris’s face. To remove Norris from the door to the King’s chamber altogether.
What was it like that Spring day? Did King Henry call upon his boon companion for a friendly canter back to the palace with his usual bonhomie? Sir Henry probably suspected nothing, as his job as well as his friendship with the King made this an ordinary occurrence. Was his face glowing with the exertion of the morning’s tournament? He was said to have acquitted himself well. The only bad moment was when his horse became uncontrollable, but the King had bestowed the honor of offering his own mount for Norris’s use. Was he laughing in a group of friends and well-wishers, crowding about him, offering their congratulations for a good morning in the lists? Perhaps he was still in his armor, wiping his sweaty, smiling face with a kerchief when he received Henry’s summons. He bids his companions goodbye not realizing that it is the last time he will see some of them and if there is a next time it will be in a court of law and he will be defending his honor as well as his life.
As he strides off to join the King, his friend, was the early May weather fine or disappointingly cold and wet? English weather is always a bit dicey for this time of year. Did he notice the festive sights and smells surrounding him? The freshness of the new air mingled with the aroma of horses and sweat and food being prepared for the feast to follow. Perhaps there is an annoying ache in joints that are fast approaching the age when they will not allow him the pleasure of jousting. Already there are younger men who are rising at court to threaten his standing. How sad that years of training and disciplining the body to perform at a competitive level are coming to a close. Ah well, there are still the pleasures of music and poetry left to a fellow. There is wine and gaming and those lovely women who prefer an older, more experienced man to the callow, inexperienced youths who know nothing of how to treat a lady of the court.
If it was a nice May Day, most likely Norris was expecting a pleasant ride thru sun-dappled woods, where the shade would be welcome. It was damnably hot inside the dazzling, but now dirty armor, whether the sun shone or not. As had been their custom for years he and the King would exchange stories of past adventures they had shared. And in the time-honored tradition of men, each telling would grow in its exaggerations of near-misses and glorious triumphs. They would laugh and insult each other good-naturedly. King Henry was known as “Bluff King Hall” to his subjects and a fond arm about the shoulders or a friendly punch on the arm were to be expected. Since the King could no longer ride in the lists, Sir Henry would have to tread carefully around the King’s ego, humbly downplaying his triumph at today’s tournament. It would not be good sport to probe the King’s wounded vanity, nor would it be wise. Finding the proper balance between an exciting telling of his victory, and not offending the King was no easy thing, but he and King Henry had grown so close over the years that he was adept at it.
When he greets the King and his retinue, is there a feeling of tension in the air or does the King pretend that nothing is amiss until they are on their way? How does the King first approach the reason for his abrupt departure from the tournament and the subsequent summons? Is he sly? Is he encouraging? Does he attempt to reason and reassure? Or does he use the force of his notorious wrath to devastate? The reality was ugly and horrible and unbelievable. Accusations of adultery. With the Queen. Deception. Unfaithfulness. Treason. As Sir Henry began to realize that the King’s accusations were not a joke, what were his first coherent thoughts? Did he search his memory for possible unrealized offenses? Was there a spasm of fear for his family, his friends, his Queen? That embarrassing episode with Queen Anne the day before must have been in the forefront of his mind. “You look for a dead man’s shoes, Sir Henry!” According to Norris’s man-servant, the King battered his master with continued accusations, questions, threats. When those bore no fruit, he switched tactics and tempted Sir Henry with offers of freedom and the retention of his earthly goods if he would only confess to Adultery with the Queen. Norris continued to deny any wrong-doing, stating and restating his loyalty to his King. Perhaps he appealed to King Henry, reminding him of his years of loyal service and friendship. At last in desperation and indignation he offers to submit to trial by combat at any place of the King’s choosing. It is certainly a gallant act, but also somehow pathetic. Sir Henry, the King’s Knight, is trying to play by the rules of a bygone chivalry while His King has cast them aside.
After the King finished interrogating Sir Henry, he gave his old friend over to Cromwell, ordering Cromwell to proceed against him. Cromwell modestly conceals his satisfaction. He is wise enough not to gloat before the King, because he knows the sentimental nature of the man. Later, after all is done, there will certainly be a time when Henry Tudor will cast about for someone else to blame for the loss of his friends and Cromwell intends that it will not be him. As it is, he prefers to enjoy his triumph when it is a fait accompli and all of his enemies are vanquished. Dead.
More questions, more accusations from the Privy Council lasting all day and night, until finally at dawn Norris is removed, exhausted, to the Tower. He was provided a chaplain to whom he confessed only “I would rather die a thousand deaths than be guilty of such a falsehood.” Days pass. There is a trial and the pre-ordained verdict. Guilty. Finally, on the scaffold he watches his friend, George Boleyn die. When it is turn to speak his words are brief and respectful , admitting only to having not being grateful enough for the favor shown by his King. He speaks out in defense of the Queen, that in his own conscience he thought her innocent, but he would die a thousand deaths rather than ruin an innocent person. He prays. He dies well. He has served the Tudor to the end as a friend and a gentleman. Surprisingly to Cromwell the emotional man whom he though he knew never did grow sentimental over his old friend and faithful servant, Norris. In fact, he doesn’t appear to miss him at all.