1 May 1536 – Henry VIII Abandons Anne Boleyn at the May Day Joust

Posted By on May 1, 2014

JoustingQueen Anne Boleyn attended the traditional May Day joust at Greenwich Palace on 1st May 1536 with her husband Henry VIII. She did not know that court musician Mark Smeaton had been apprehended and interrogated over night, but she may have had an inkling that all was not well following an argument she’d had with her husband the previous day.

In his poem De la royne d’Angleterre, Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador, writes of the May Day joust, describing how “The King was friendly to all,/ And gave them the touch of his hand,/ Concealing their coming ruin.” He also describes how Sir Henry Norris was armed and ready to joust, but his horse refused to run. The King stepped in and offered Norris his own horse – an act of kindness and chivalry, although de Carles points out that the King knew that Norris “could not keep it long”.1 The Queen’s brother, George Boleyn, was also involved in the joust. He led the challengers and Norris led the defenders.

Suddenly, the happy spell of this May Day was broken. The King suddenly got up, abandoning his wife, and ordering Norris, his Groom of the Stool, to ride with him to Westminster. According to George Constantine, one of Norris’s servants, the King interrogated Norris the whole way and offered him a pardon “in case he wolde utter the trewth”.2 Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, corroborated this offer of a pardon, writing that Norris said “that in his conscience he thought her innocent of these things laid to her charge; but whether she was or not, he would not accuse her of anything; and he would die a thousand times, rather than ruin an innocent person.”3 Norris’s pleas of innocence fell on deaf ears; he was arrested and taken to the Tower of London the following morning.

Had Mark Smeaton implicated Norris or was it all down to Anne Boleyn’s altercation with him over “dead men’s shoes”? It’s impossible to know, but the The Spanish Chronicle, which is to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, tells of how Cromwell sent a copy of Smeaton’s confession to the King and it was this letter which made the King leave the joust so abruptly with Norris.4

Notes and Sources

  1. Ascoli, Georges (1927) La Grande-Bretagne Devant L’opinion Française Depuis La Guerre De Cent Ans Jusqu’à La Fin Du XVIe Siècle. Paris, vv. 495–512. English translation from Anne Boleyn, Lancelot de Carle, and the uses of documentary evidence, Schmid, Susan Walters, Ph.D., ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, 2009, p135
  2. George Constantine, Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Vol 23, p 64.
  3. Burnet, Gilbert (1865) The History of the Reformation of the Church of England, p206
  4. Hume, Martin Andrew Sharp (1889) Chronicle of King Henry VIII. of England: Being a Contemporary Record of Some of the Principal Events of the Reigns of Henry VIII. and Edward VI. Written in Spanish by an Unknown Hand, p62–63.

25 thoughts on “1 May 1536 – Henry VIII Abandons Anne Boleyn at the May Day Joust”

  1. Karie P. Schneider says:

    He left her at the joust and they never saw each other again.

  2. Susan says:

    Must have been so traumatic for them all . Such bloody times a head I always wonder if there was any remorse on Henry and cromwells part I suppose we will never know still karma played a big part in both there lives !!!

  3. Angela Allen-Blount says:

    To whom it may concern, as you will see my last name is my family name, not my married name, I would be very grateful for any information you have on Bessie Blount, mother of the Duke of Richmond, and the Mountjoy family, as I am a descendant of the Sodington side of the family.

    1. Claire says:

      If you’re interested in the Blounts I would recommend Elizabeth Norton’s biography of Bessie Blount.

  4. I’ve always felt that too much was made of Anne being manipulative and a hussy, but considering the 17 wonderful letters Henry wrote her (in the Vatican) telling her just how much he loved her, and the private notes in Kings Ms 9 ffs 66v & 231v in the British Library, which I’m sure we were never meant to see, this must have been a genuine love match.

    Henry must have been devastated with the ‘evidence’ of her unfaithfulness. But her miscarriage of a male foetus would have played on his superstitious mind, and all his paranoia would have then kicked in about whether that baby was his, or not. Anne’s fate was sealed. How sad!

    Claire, I’ve just read your guest post on queenanneboleyn.com and have to say that it’s great. I can’t wait for my copy of your (& Claire Cherry’s) paperback to arrive.

  5. Rosemary Gregory says:

    I’ve read this story so many times, and I always marvel at the mystery of who knew what and when. With reading Henry seems to be conniving and duplicitous. I wonder now if he didn’t deliberately set Anne up with an argument on the previous day. He surely knew how to push her buttons, and he probably had this whole thing planned out. Poor Anne, George, et all.

  6. Cindy says:

    I just wonder how Cromwell felt later on knowing that he sent an innocent woman and 5 innocent men to their deaths? From everything I’ve read it looked like a set up to me. But whether she really was innocent or not we’ll never know. But Henry was a rat bastard to order her death just because he wanted a new wife. Why not just divorce her and be done with it? He didn’t have to have her killed. It almost makes one wonder if he had something to do with it. I honestly believe he did.

  7. Bob says:

    I understand that any petition going before the King had to go through Norris first. It would seem to me that the ambitious Cromwell didn’t take kindly to that fact and took advantage of the rumor that Norris may have been in love with the Queen and acted to eliminate Norris in order to gain a closer relationship and trust with the King. I may be wrong but it seems that those who were drawn to the court or held office were constantly on guard of any possible threat and were willing to go to extremes to protect themselves while gaining status with the King. Knowing that Cromwell was liquidating the estates of Norris while still being interrogated explains the type of person he was.

  8. Mary Ann Cade says:

    It amazes me that the start of the time line of events with the beginnings of the hearings to the executions is not quite one month.

  9. Alan says:

    I think Henry had a very “convenient” moral compass. Just as he turned against Katherine and used all the means at his disposal to invalidate that marriage, and in doing so deny his daughter Mary, so he did with Anne. Once he decided to get rid of her, he didn’t care who he took down along with her. His friends and companions counted for naught all were expendable to get what he wanted. Everyone is aware of the two wives he murdered, but what is often ignored is all the other people he had “executed” ( a convenient way to describe murder ) to get what he wanted.

    1. JudithRex says:

      Or, Henry thought his friends had sided with Anne against him…and were mocking him.
      He was enraged, felt betrayed by all of them, and had them all swept away. After 1540 he never had anyone like an anne, wolsey or cromwell again. He trusted only Cranmer, who never had real power.

      That is not the description of a man who knew it was a lie; that is the description of a man who beleived it was true. In my opinion, of course.

      1. Alan says:

        I can see what you mean. But I feel that Henry allowed himself to “believe” whatever his self indulgence allowed. The thought that in those days, one would be accused and defend oneself without the benefit of counsel and legal support is appalling. If you were accused it would appear that the word “condemned” would be also appropriate. To be honest, the more I think about him the more I detest Henry.

        1. JudithRex says:

          Here’s he irony; Anne brought Henry a book that said the King was the sole head of religion and morality in his kingdom and his thoughts came from God. She did this so she could get married and be Queen. What she didn’t bank on was Henry would then believe that ANY thought he had came from God and if a thought Anne lied to him, that his wife was a threat and had betrayed him, and failed in her job as Queen, then ANYthing he decided would be done was also the will of God.

          So yeah, he could delude himself into believing anything because his country SAID he could, including Anne.

          Katherine had better set of friends – they stood up to Henry when he said this was nonsense and they died for it. Not so Cranmer who bootlicked to the end – OR thought Anne was guilty.

          if you make a man the unquestioned holder of absolute power you get what naturally follows. In the end, you could say Anne created her own monster and her comment that “t is no better than I deserve” had to do with her knowing she had sold her soul for nothing.

          Just a thought.

      2. BanditQueen says:

        I doubt he even trusted Cranmer at this time as he did not give him any power and after the fall of Cromwell Henry did not have a first minster again; he took control of the Government himself and did a good job. The council was reformed to meet on a daily basis and to take on more and more the daily running of the Kingdom. Henry did not show much trust in Cranmer over the religion of the Kingdom as he knew he was a secret reformer; and the Six Articles were not put together by Cranmer. Henry did also protect Cranmer from his enemies when the question of his heretical beliefs came up, but he showed that he could not trust anyone after the fall of Cromwell. Henry began to lose trust in those around him from 1536 onwards. The decline started earlier though with the arrest and execution of Thomas More, a principle advisor to Henry, who disagreed with his religious reforms and his claim to be supreme head of the Church. The accident of January 1536 is now pointed to as the prime mover in the change in Henry, after which he became less rational and more paranoid, but that decline I feel was slower than is claimed. I think after the shock allegations against Anne and these men, some of whom were powerful and had real intimate contact wth the King; he knew that there were few people he could trust.

        Henry may have been the prime mover in her fall; Cromwell may have been the prime mover in her fall, the council may have been the prime mover in her fall; but the range of the false charges against Anne were still shocking. I think that Henry entered a state of denial during the next 18 days and tried to distance himself from the entire thing. Henry may have wanted to abandon and leave Anne, but did he really want to kill her? That has aroused much speculation and the evidence is very sparse on either side of the argument. Susanna Lipscombe believes that Henry and Anne even at this point still loved each other, that the pressure to produce a son was far too much for them; that Anne’s failure was terrible and that Henry was devastated as well as Anne at the loss of her unborn son. She also felt in the examination of Anne’s case in her docuementary on Bloody Tales of the Tower of London that Henry was so devastated by the alleged betrayal of his beloved Anne that he could not bring himself to fully connect with anyone in such a way ever again. But the truth is we cannot really get inside the mind of a man who lived 500 years ago; we cannot really know what Henry was thinking; his behaviour was not that of a man who had just been informed his wife had sex with five other men and was planning to kill him. It is the behaviour of a man in shock and denial. He acted with disbelief and to a greater extent as if he was detatched by events. At times his actions could appear callous: at times he seems a broken man and at others a man who cannot wait to get rid of her and move on to Jane Seymour. But what was going on in his mind is not possible to determine.

        It is Anne’s state of mind that we get a clearer picture off or rather her change of moods that we are aware of as she is detailed as being one moment laughing with hysteria; other times is boasting her innocence; others she is in wild turmoil; others she is trying to deny the situation herself; others she is calm and detatched. We know she was at times in shock, terror and despair; in others she is trying to work out what has happened, who it was who framed her. We have great detail of Anne in the Tower due to the fact that we have the spies; we do not have detail of how Henry’s mind was working; just that he went hunting or was with Jane or was busy or shut away. He was also very impatient as the time drew close, but also very careful of every detail of the preparations. It also seems that there is some indication that Anne was doomed in advance as the French executioner was ordered before her trial, I am not sure; I have lost track slightly, but he may have been sent for before her arrest? This may indicate that Henry was himself behind her fall; the plot against her and that he did not care if she was guilty or not; he wanted her out of the way and was using this to his full advantage to rid himself of a woman who had failed in her primary duty, although not her fault, and whom he now saw as an inconvenience. Or it could simply mean that he had decided to show her kindness if she was found guilty, while still being shocled and horrified by the charges against her.

  10. Henry’s emotional and very physical abandonment of Anne was so cruel and sudden. It must have made her head swim with everything that was coming down so rapidly. And it seems as though everything just ratcheted up to a newer , more extreme level throughout her final month. What a very cruel man (men) were Henry & Cromwell. I guess being a King & being the main man who stands beside him makes for no regrets or remorse. Although I imagine that is possibly not fair to say, either. Lord knows Cromwell paid his price. The only price I think Henry paid, though, was being disgusting in his looks and manner as he got older. I guess I just cannot wrap my mind around being so uncaring about so many people whos lives literally WERE on the line. And making up such wildly absurd and damaging stories about the men that died with Anne, for their families to have to live with for the rest of their lives. And then the ultimate betrayal of their executions.. Unfortunate times, indeed!!!!

  11. BanditQueen says:

    Henry must have expected word to come that something had been found out as he was also described as being distracted and angry by the chronicles. Now I know the Spanish Chronicle is to be taken with a pinch of salt but I think it does capture the mood of the King. Henry seemed to be enjoying the jousts and no doubt at first he was and Anne was at his side, but then he received a note and left abruptly. There are also the more famous tales that are often dismissed that Anne flirted with Norris, giving him her handkerchief and he moped his sweat from his brow with it. This was then said to enrage the King and he left as a result. He had advance warning that something was up according to the film Anne of 1000 Days and he became so enraged that he gave the orders for the arrests and then rode off never to see Anne again. Now this is all something that is most likely nonsense, but it does paint a vivid picture that drama and media love. It is more likely that Anne had made some innocent gesture and together with the accusations and the row the day before and with Norris that for Henry it all fell into place and he saw into things guilt that was not there.

    Whatever the truth of what happened at the May Day Joust; at some point Henry received word that changed his mood; possibly confirmation that Smeaton had confessed and implicated Norris and the others and Henry could stand no more to be near his adulterous wife. May-be he was so angry that he feared his own temper and what he would do to her with his own hands given that he had just been told that there was now evidence that she was cockholding him. Henry could be unpredicatable at the best of times; since the accident in January his courtiers noted that he acted more contrary to his previous nature and was not rational. This incident seems to be another one of those times: he could not think clearly; he was too angry, What would anyone do if they were just presented with confirmation that their wife or husband and lover for several years had cheated on them with four or five other people; oh and not only that intended to kill them or wish them dead?

    We know Anne was innocent and the men with her: Cromwell had produced something to convince Henry otherwise and he believed the charges that were being brought against her. Anne must have suddenly wondered what was up and been afraid as she already knew everything was not right. Had she heard of the arrest of Smeaton? Could she read the anger and accusation in her husband’s face? Did she remain alone and put a good face on proceedings? Henry asked Norris to come with him and then asked him if he was the Queens lover; hoping no doubt that his friend would confess and ask for mercy. But Norris was again outraged and shocked by such a suggestion and denied it, not once, but several times. He plead not guilty at his trial and the next 24 hours was like a whirlwind for all of them.

    I doubt that Henry had any regrets over the trials and executions as he believed the accused to be guilty and that his was a righteous act of a King whose wife and five members of his inner circle, court and chambers had betrayed. He saw them as traitors and cheats; guilty of terrible and high crimes against him and agaisnt the state. He could show no favour here and he had to act as a strong King would; with the full weight of the law behind him. He may have been upset by the fact that the men had been close to him and that Anne was his wife; he may have felt that she had hurt him deeply and even wondered why and if she really was guilty from time to time; but no I do not believe he had any regrets over these executions. Why would he if he felt that he was in the right? Why would he if he felt betrayed? Why would Henry VIII or any other King who believed they answered only to God have regrets over the deaths of convicted traitors?

    Henry could not look back through the lense of history and examine the list of charges and the dates given and reason that Anne could not have committed adultery on such and such a date as she was pregnant or the men were not present at the time. He probably just heard the list of meaningless dates and details and it went over his head. He was too upset and withdrawn to give the question of Anne’s innocence due to errors in the evidence much thought. Anne had also appeared to be guilty and some of her ravings in the Tower were also used as evidence against her. It was only afterwards that questions began to be asked about her guilt; few thought her so at the time.

    What Anne must have thought that moment and her actions for the rest of that day and night for she was arrested the next day we can only speculate at. Fear, distraction, questioning, shock, questions in her mind over and over about what it all meant; may-be she realised that something was about to happen and prepared for her arrest. Did she remain in quiet; in prayer, in turmoil, in hope that her inner fears would not be realised; was she totally in the dark or did she begin to ask questions to express fears that someone had betrayed her and accused her of something false? There is not much information on what Anne did after the joust or during her last night of freedom, but no doubt she made some attempt to get information; she made some arrangements for her daughter; she prayed, she tried hard to write off the days events and to concentrate on the conversations with her ladies. She was treated no less as a Queen that evening but in the morning her world fell apart. Poor Anne; she was utterly abandoned and she could trust no-one as her own ladies were amongst those taken for questioning. Which one had given information about her that had condemned her? That too would have been on her mind.

  12. I am 12th Great Granddaughter of Queen Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII. Being in the Military, I have had the opportunity to travel and learn about my Ancestry. My ancestry has amazed me. I am very glad to know my history and I very proud, even though I am glad I never lived back then. Being a strong woman, I really don’t think the men back in those days would have liked my independence. My family is the Butler clan, owning Kilkenny Castle for over 500 years. But, if anyone has any info on the Butler’s, Queen Elizabeth I, William the Conqueror, please email me.

    1. You have some interesting ancestors there, although I didn’t think anyone could claim direct descent from Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
      I have compiled a book of ‘British Royal family Trees – from William the Conqueror to the House of Windsor’ (see http://www.queens-haven.co.uk) but have never found any descendant of the couple other than Queen Elizabeth I.

    2. Claire says:

      Anne and Henry only had one child, Elizabeth I, and she died childless so I’m not sure how you can descend from them. Do you mean that you descend from Mary Boleyn?

      I go into detail on Anne’s ancestry and the Butlers in my book The Anne Boleyn Collection II, but you can find some information in these articles:

    3. BanditQueen says:

      How can you be the 12th great-grandaughter of Anne and Henry? Elizabeth did not have any children and neither did his children by his other two wives. Do you mean grand-neice? Could you be related to the Careys, the descendents of her sister Mary perhaps or a cousin of the Boleyn family? Unless Elizabeth had a child that we do not know about of course; but then you never know with the Tudors? Hope you can trace youf family tree; it is a rewarding experience.

      1. margaret says:

        Jessica could have butler ancestry very easily and would have a connection to anne Boleyn through anne irish grandmother Margaret butler of Kilkenny castle but there would be no connection to henry.

        1. Banditqueen says:

          Anyone related to Anne would be via her sister or another family member. Nobody can possibly be a direct descendent unless Elizabeth had a secret child. The Bulter connection was via another relative of her father, not a direct descendent to Anne Boleyn.

          Don’t people understand anything about genetics? You can’t be the x great granddaughter of someone who had no children or grandchildren.

    4. Christine says:

      The only child to survive of Ann Boleyn and Henry V111 was Elizabeth 1st and she had no offspring, therefore you have been misinformed.

  13. MMSands says:

    As for why Henry or Anne behaved the way they did: it is only in hindsight that the big picture is even evident, let alone clear. We all muddle through as best we can, doing what we think we must, based on the little information we have available to us within the moment.

  14. wh says:

    Well she finally new What Koa went through yrs ago being abandoned not even a descent good bye after 20 something yrs of marriage and theirs only 3 yrs after marriage after broke with Rome ,gave her a coronation , put aside his wife and daughter , married her ,legitimized her daughter ,told he loved her. Then put her a side what when she was no longer young , in love with her, couldn’t produce a son at 35 yrs or hold a pregency, believed every bad thing about her ,cheated , there a lesson to learn hear be careful what you wish for


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