On 1st May 1536, King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn attended the annual May Day joust at Greenwich Palace.

Although court musician Mark Smeaton had been apprehended the previous day and the king and queen’s forthcoming trip to Calais had been cancelled, everything seemed normal as the jousting began. 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. It looked set to be an entertaining day…

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4 thoughts on “1 May 1536 – May Day jousting at Greenwich”
  1. We have different accounts, the Spanish Chronicle which is not the most reliable source and the poem of Lancelot de Carles, but this is also under scrutiny. George Constantine is a source that gives some confirmation. The King was in a good mood, Anne and he appeared as this was the annual May Day celebrations and the young men were showing off, well not all that young as two were almost the same age as Henry. Henry of course couldn’t take part because of the injury earlier in the year from his fall in the tournament that led to Anne’s miscarriage. His leg ulcer had opened and it caused him pain and he was unable to joust. However, he seemed to be wishing his friends well, he gave Norris his own horse as his was lame and the tournament went well. I don’t believe Anne picked up a hanky and handed it to Henry Norris who wiped his sweaty brow, but if he did, so what? Ladies were courtly goddesses at the joust and the Queen worshipped as one, especially on May Day the festival of love, the festival of Beltane, so Anne was the Queen of the May and the joust. You also gave favours to a lady or your lady before the joust and she was given the favour in this case as the Queen. However, given what had just passed over the last 24_hours, if this was a real incident and not just fancy, you could see why a paranoid King or Cromwell may add two and two to come up with five and more may be read into an innocent act of flirtatious joy. You can understand partly why Henry may have suddenly reacted violently to news that Smeaton had confessed to adultery with the woman he had loved, turned the world upside down for, his wife sitting at his side. Without a word Henry walked out, to the Queen’s surprise, but his actions later on have everyone baffled.

    Henry according to four sources went off back to Westminster with Henry Norris at his side. Norris had performed well that day and was his friend and groom of the stool, so this was nothing less than a great sign of favour, possibly a normal thing, so Norris was probably pleased. Henry part of the way home began to question his friend asking him about the Queen and to confess they were lovers and if so he would pardon him. Can you imagine Norris’s face? He must have been flabbergasted. Why was Henry asking him these terrible questions? He of course denied and swore he was innocent and yet Henry pressed and he still refused pardons and swore his innocence. Henry was not convinced and his friend was arrested.

    Why didn’t he believe a man who was with him in his most intimate moments, had served him for years faithfully, who was his closest and oldest friend, who he knew very well and had shown such favour earlier that day? Did he truly believe Norris was guilty having heard rumours of his exchange with Anne the day before? Was Henry now totally paranoid and would believe everything he is told or is he believing what is convenient and doesn’t care anymore? We can theorize and guess till the cows come home, but we know very little about the King’s state of mind at this time and we don’t know how genuine his offer of pardon was? Norris wasn’t going to confess, although he was tricked into confession later on and then recanted it in court, but even if he was guilty, did he trust Henry’s offer? Henry had changed over the last few years especially over the last five months and would change again after Anne’s death and not for the better. He was unpredictable. Was he merely in shock and personally angry with Norris at the thought of such a betrayal? Did he even care who was guilty or innocent? Henry wanted to get rid of his wife and Cromwell had furnished him with a way to do it without looking like a laughing stock and a messy annulment. Karen Lindsey suggests that Henry loathed Anne and had stopped loving her even before they were married, if he ever really did. However, Lindsey sees Henry as a sexual predictor, not as a genuine lover and Anne as his means to an end, getting a son. Now there was fresh meat on the market and he wanted to taste it. Anne at times got on his wick, although his decisions were his own, which made it easier to treat her in such a disgraceful manner, but she didn’t deserve any of this. It’s possible that Henry gave credence to the allegations and his anger made him blind to all attempts to reason with him, but his behaviour over the next 19 days shows he actually didn’t care. He behaved as if Anne no longer existed and he was a bachelor. It was totally unreal and an utter disgrace.

    1. I personally am inclined to agree with Suzannah Lipscomb and Greg Walker that it was Anne’s behaviour and actions at the end of April 1536 that set in motion the events that led to her execution. This is not a victim blaming theory, because Henry was already seeking a way out of his marriage – whether by annulling it or otherwise – and ultimately he was the one who signed the death warrants, but I do think Lipscomb makes a very good point in suggesting that Anne’s alleged incriminating conversations with Lady Rochford about his impotence, as well as her supposed flirtatious exchanges with Norris and Smeaton, posed a threat to Henry’s masculinity.

      Amy Licence also makes the excellent point that Henry relished destroying anyone he had personally raised, once they had disappointed him. Not just Anne: More, Wolsey, Cromwell. Once out of favour, Henry forgot about them, erased them from his presence and erased them from his life, from his memory. Contemporary accounts seem to suggest that Henry delighted in what happened to Anne; Chapuys reported that, for a cuckold, he seemed very proud to wear the horns! He was also seen going up and down the river to visit Jane Seymour. It was a complete contrast to what happened with Katherine Howard, when the king was tearful, withdrawn, depressed and angry.

      I think Henry knew full well that Anne was not guilty, but her actions were threatening to him, they mocked him, they humiliated him, and Henry could not let anyone – including his wife – be seen to publicly mock and laugh at him. I think his anger reached breaking point and he wanted to destroy her and obliterate her memory entirely. With Anne, Henry’s passions were extreme: extreme hatred or extreme passion. He was described as being “merry” with her more times than any other wife. But that emotional and volatile climate at the end of April and early May enraged and humiliated the king so much that he was willing to destroy anyone who crossed his path, including his best friend Norris, his brother-in-law George Boleyn and a young musician, Mark Smeaton. Henry was a very dangerous man when he felt humiliated, ridiculed and made fun of. At the most, I think Anne was guilty of reckless behaviour – as Lipscomb says, she appeared to be guilty by her words and actions when in fact she was not guilty.

      1. I was actually thinking about this aspect this morning, that Anne may have contributed to her own downfall, with all these conversations, not that she deliberately did, but her talk lacked decorum. Henry wanted rid of Anne, Cromwell had ways of doing things, like leaving his ears everywhere, and any otherwise innocent conversation could be used to incriminate and fabricate evidence. No, I don’t believe it’s victim blaming, it puts the whole reaction of the King into context. Anne realized she had made a fatal error and asked Norris to swear she was a good woman to John Skip and he made the mistake of doing so, drawing attention to their public arguments. Henry took the accusations seriously and was so angry he no longer cared who fell with his wife. Yes, Anne wasn’t guilty but talk in a dangerous situation can be turned into a dangerous threat even if was nothing. I was also thinking about Anne’s state of mind in the Tower, hysterical tears giving way to swings of calm and wondering about what she had said to make Henry put her in there. She was watched and listened to and her talk in the Tower reported. She reported the conversation with Mark Smeaton, already under arrest, she also recalled talking to Weston some time ago and accidentally got him arrested. She must have been totally bewildered and terrified.

        Henry certainly did act violently and swiftly against those he was meant to love, with as intense a hatred as he had loved. Was he even capable of love? I think he was, but his capacity was limited by his own needs and desires and his long quest for a male heir. Henry according to Karen Lindsey was not content to merely allow Anne to be annulled or accused of one love affair, he had to completely destroy the poor woman’s name. He painted he as dark and as vile as he possibly could. He now hated her. Anne didn’t stand a chance. Henry no longer cared and he was acting callously as if she was already out of the picture with preparations to marry Jane and ordering the swordsman before her trial. He had feasts and went off to visit Jane who he moved closer to Greenwich. It was totally humiliating and very cruel.

  2. What we will never know is what Cromwell was saying behind the scenes. Henry was so egotistical but seeing everyone at the joust happy and full of life could then be manipulated by Cromwell . If he felt he was no longer really a part of it and that his former friends and wife found him a figure of fun or mocked him he would lash out like the child he was and want to kill them all. And make them as depraved as they could possibly be. Which is what he did. Hatred and jealousy
    fuelled their deaths

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