1 May 1536 – Henry VIII leaves the May Day joust suddenly

JoustingFollowing their argument the day before, King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn attended the traditional May Day joust at Greenwich Palace together. Anne would have been unaware of the apprehension of court musician Mark Smeaton the day before but she must have been aware that something was going on at court – Henry VIII had attended protracted council meetings and their trip to Calais had been cancelled. Something was wrong.

Despite what was going on in the background, the May Day joust went ahead as normal. The Queen’s brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, led the challengers and Sir Henry Norris, the King’s Groom of the Stool, led the defenders. The King appeared to be in a good mood. Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador, writes in his poem of how “The King was friendly to all,/ And gave them the touch of his hand,/ Concealing their coming ruin” and goes on to describe how Sir Henry Norris was armed and ready to joust when 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

All of a sudden, the King abandoned the joust. Chronicler Edward Hall writes “[…] and sodainly from the Justes the kyng departed hauing not aboue vi. persons with him, and came in the euenyng from Grenewyche in his place at Westminster. Of this sodain departyng many men mused, but moste chiefely the quene […]”.2 George Constantine, one of Sir Henry Norris’s servants describes how the King did not leave the joust alone, he took Norris with him:

“Apon May daye Mr. Noryce justed. And after justinge the Kynge rode sodenly to Westminster, and all the waye as I heard saye, had Mr. Noryce in examinacyon and promised hym his pardon in case he wolde utter the trewth. But what so ever cowld be sayed or done, Mr. Norice would confess no thinge to the Kynge, where vpon he was committed to the towre in the mornynge.”3

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.”4

It is not known why the King chose to interrogate Sir Henry Norris. It may have been that he’d heard of Anne Boleyn’s conversation with him, in which Anne had accused Norris of delaying his marriage to Madge Shelton because he was in love with her instead, or it may have been a result of Cromwell’s interrogation of Mark Smeaton, the court musician. The Spanish Chronicle, which is not the most accurate of sources and needs to be taken with a healthy dose of salt, says that Norris’s interrogation was due to Smeaton’s confession:

“The Secretary at once [after Smeaton had confessed] wrote to the King, and sent Mark’s confession to him by a nephew of his called Richard Cromwell, the letter being conceived as follows: ‘Your Majesty will understand that jealous of your honour, and seeing certain things passing in your palace, I determined to investigate and discover the truth. Your Majesty will recollect that Mark has hardly been in your service four months and only has £100 salary, and yet all the Court notices his splendour, and that he has spent a large sum for these jousts, all of which has aroused suspicions in the minds of certain gentleman, and I have examined Mark, who has made the confession which I enclose to your Majesty in this letter.'”5

The chronicler goes on to describe how “When the King read this confession his meal did not at all agree with him; but like a valiant prince he dissembled and presently ordered his boat to be got ready, and went to Westminster.” It goes on to say that Henry VIII ordered the jousts to go on but that he also ordered the secret arrests of Sir Henry Norris, William Brereton and Thomas Wyatt.

Nicholas Sanders, a source who was writing nearly fifty years after the event and who was was hostile to Anne Boleyn, tells of how the King “saw Anne Boleyn, who was at a window looking on, drop her handkerchief, that one of her lovers [assumed to be Norris] might wipe his face running with sweat” and goes on to describe how the King, seeing this, rose up and left in a hurry.6 However, no other contemporary source mentions this.

It is impossible to know what was really going on. Was the King play-acting? Did he know that Anne and the men were innocent but considered their falls to be collateral damage necessary for the greater good? Or had Cromwell preyed on the King’s paranoia to make him believe that his wife and friends were cuckolding him? I don’t think we’ll ever know.

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. Hall, Edward. Hall’s Chronicle, p819
  3. Constantine, George. Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Vol 23, p 64.
  4. Burnet, Gilbert (1865) The History of the Reformation of the Church of England, p206
  5. 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.
  6. Sander, Nicholas. Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, p133.

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3 thoughts on “1 May 1536 – Henry VIII leaves the May Day joust suddenly”
  1. In 1536/7, Hans Holbein painted his iconic portrait of Henry VIII; probably the most iconic portrait of a monarch of any age (see ‘The Tudor Dynasty, Palace of Whitehall). No-one could be in any doubt of this King’s potency …… no sword, no crown, no sceptre. He faces us directly. And it is all propaganda!
    Gloucester: – The trick of the voice I do remember well. Is’t not the king?
    Lear: – Ay, every inch a King!
    (King Lear, Act 4, ““`sc 6, pg 5. Wm Shakespeare)
    Surely a part of Anne’s fall lies in the stark, crucial reality of a king no longer that king in the portrait? That was Henry – past tense. He is no longer a king of sport, hunt, dance and love. He has become a man felled by accident and disease, who will hereafter struggle to produce a child, let alone an heir, we have George and Anne’s word on it and – in a backhand way – Holbein’s endorsement. Factor in therefore Henry’s devastating fall from reproductive grace – don’t you think it must play a rather vital role in those tragic events?

  2. It is the dropping of the hanky that is often used in hollywood and it was this scene that is used in Anne of the Thousand Days. Henry is meant to see this as a proof of her adultry as she gives it to Norris and then he hands it back, Yes, definately proof of adultery. A good tale I suspect with nothing to it. On the contrary Henry seems to be in a good mood and all is as it should be. Henry even gives his horse to his friend Norris and nothing is out of the ordinary. Then news comes, probably that Smeaton has confessed and names Norris. Henry changed and rode back to the palace. This is when he challenged Norris and gave him the bazarre news that Anne is with child and that he, Norris is the father. He challenged him as the Queens lover but Norris refused to give in and said it was not true, He would prove the fact on his own body in trial by combat but he would not get the chance. Henry asked him more than once and he still denied it. Just why did Henry ask this and why did he not accept the word of his friend?

    Henry may have heard of the conversation with Anne, but this charge of dead man’s shoes would not be made against either party. Henry may have merely been angry that he had been named by Smeaton and believed the worst in light of the conversation. But why give Norris the chance to confess? Of all of the men, Norris was his oldest and closest companion. They had known each other well for years, since Henry came to the throne and Norris knew Henry intimately as his Groom of the Stool, the most important post in the Privy Chamber. He wanted to give him the chance to tell him the truth; he offered Norris a free and full pardon if he confessed. But, suely knowing Norris as he did, given that he still would not confess and denied all even against this offer, would Henry have not realised that his friend was telling him the truth and accepted his word? There may have been something wrong with the Kings reasoning in that he did not do so.

    Henry had suffered a severe knock on the temple lobes in January in a jousting accident and his reasoning may not have been on the ball. Perhaps this is why he could not accept his friend and his wife were innocent. We cannot knowfor certain, but this decision to arrest Norris seems particularly unfair as Henry knew him the best and loved him as a friend; he treated him instead with cold disregard. Henry was fond of four of the men, but again they were treated with cold disregard and Henry turned his back on them, partly in shock, but in anger and disinterest of their fate or real guilt. Henry would distance himself from the events of the next 19 days, he just allowed Cromwell to do his worst.

  3. Norris must have realized the game was up with him. Confessing to adultery, or even knowledge of it would have been an unpardonable act of disloyalty, and no promise of the King could be expected to gain him reprieve. Norris knew Henry too well to believe any such promise. All he could do was maintain his innocence, and thus his dignity.

    Remember he had seen the end of the King’s associations with Wolsey and More. Henry disappointed was fatal. And Henry was surely disappointed in his friend.

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