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

Posted By on May 1, 2015

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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