1 May 1536 – The Fateful May Day Joust

JoustingThe May Day joust of 1st May 1536 should have been like every other May Day joust. It should have been a day of celebration, of fun and joy. Instead, it was to be the first outward sign that something was wrong in Tudor Paradise.

Anne Boleyn sat watching the May Day jousting at Greenwich with her husband, King Henry VIII, who was sitting it out for the first time due to his accident in the January. Anne was blissfully unaware of the interrogation of Mark Smeaton the day before, although she may have had an inkling that something was going on. She may well have been pre-occupied about a conversation she had had with Sir Henry Norris, her husband’s Groom of the Stool; a conversation which could be misconstrued and used against her by her enemies. Anne may also have been concerned about her husband’s interest in a certain Jane Seymour, one of her ladies, but she had no clue about the events which were shortly to unfold.

In his poem “De la royne d’Angleterre”,1 Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador, wrote of how there was no sign of anything being wrong between the King and Norris during the joust. He describes how 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. The Queen’s brother, George Boleyn, was also involved in the joust. He led the challengers and Norris led the defenders.2

Everything changed at the end of the joust when the King suddenly got up, abandoning his wife, and riding instead to Westminster with Norris. 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.”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 A courageous answer.

The Spanish Chronicle explains 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 Spanish Chronicle then has the King leaving by boat for Westminster, whereas Constantine has them riding. Norris would not confess to anything and protested his innocence, but he was taken to the Tower of London the next morning.

Taken from The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown by Claire Ridgway.

Also on this day in history

The Evil May Day Riot of 1517 – A mob of young apprentices and labourers gathered at St Paul’s and then went on a rampage through the streets of London, causing damage to property and hurting those who stood in their way. The rioters of this Evil May Day Riot focused particularly on damaging and looting the shops and houses which belonged to foreign traders, such as the shoe shops around Leadenhall and the house of French merchant John Meautys.

Arrests were made by the Duke of Norfolk and his men. On 4th May, thirteen people were executed, and on 7th May John Lincoln was executed. Others were saved by the intercession of Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters, Margaret and Mary, who pleaded with him to spare them, although, as Noble points out, this was probably a PR exercise thought up by Henry or Wolsey.
(Extract taken from On This Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway.

Notes and Sources

  1. Ascoli,George (1927) La Grande-Bretagne Devant L’opinion Française Depuis La Guerre De Cent Ans Jusqu’à La Fin Du XVIe Siècle, vv. 495–508
  2. Wriothesley, Charles (1875) A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, 35.
  3. Constantine, George (1831) Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, 23:64.
  4. Burnet, Gilbert (1865) The History of the Reformation of the Church of England, 206.
  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, 62–63.

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33 thoughts on “1 May 1536 – The Fateful May Day Joust”
  1. Just goes to show how inaccurate the Spanish Chronicles are. it was the King himself who was generous to Mark, so the letter it quotes makes no sense.

        1. Claire,To think that Q’Anne was at the May Day Joust, a day away from her arrest.I wonder if she felt something was about too go down,maybe the way Henry was acting around her ,and the Seymours,even Norris when the King offerd him his horse ,Henry new,he had too of known!! what was about to happen.While the Joust went on,he had Cromwell collecting evidence against the Queen and Norris too threw Mark Smeaton.It just sounds so crazy, how the King could just play around at ‘The May Day Joust,like nothing was happening?? It really makes you wonder how well do we really no, other people close to us?? Kind Regards Baroness x

  2. The fact that Henry offered Norris a pardon speaks volumes. He obviously didn’t believe Norris was guilty because if so the pardon would never have been offered in the first place.
    I think Henry merely wanted Norris to help him out by admitting something that he knew wasn’t true. When Norris refused to be the patsy Henry sent him to his death. I can’t help thinking that Henry had Norris killed out of pure childish spite because his friend wouldn’t agree to admit to a lie.

    1. Louise,I think Henry would have still had Norris beheaded pardon or not,he was a lier and never kept his word,also it would have been too dangerous too keep him alive,andd if he did offer Norris a plea deal, why did’nt Norris take it?? Baroness

      1. Though he did allow Thomas Wyatt to live even though he was arrested with the others and there was probably more circumstantial evidence against him.

  3. Is this the actual letter written by Cromwell? If so, it is easy to see where the theory that Anne’s downfall is all down to Cromwell and his use of factions within the court , comes from.

  4. I have here a poem that Elizabeth, her daughter wrote as Queen, and I think it sums up all the mixed emotions and desolation Anne would have felt in these her last days, how the love they shared, was now only one-sided.

    I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
    I love and yet I am forced to seem to hate,
    I do, yet dare not say, I ever meant:
    I seem stark mute, yet inwardly do prate,
    I am and am not, I freeze and yet am burn’d,
    Since from myself my other self I turn’d.

    My care is like my shadow in the sun;
    Follows one flying, flies when I persue it,
    Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done,
    His too familiar care doth make me rue it,
    No means I find to rid him from my breast,
    Till by the end of things it be supprest.

    Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
    For I am soft and made of melting snow,
    Or be more cruel Love, and be so kind,
    Let me or float or sink, be high or low.
    Or let me live with some sweet content, Or die and so forget what love ere meant.

    1. Dawn1st,This is a lovely poem , but sad poem,it sounds like she writes of her love for Robert Dudley ,or her Robin,and how hollow she felt and alone in her life. Regards B

      1. Apparently it is meant to be about her passion for the Earl of Essex, it is sad, and moving.

        1. Dawn1st,I really do not no too much about the Eral of Essex and Q’Elizabeths relationship??I always thought her heart was with Dudley. Thx Baroness x

        2. He was Dudley’s stepson, she was over 30 years older than him. He was a bit of a ‘wild one’, and got away with much because of Elizabeth’s favour. In the end he went too far even for Elizabeth to excuse, he tried to raise the people of London to revolt against parliament, and he was executed in 1601. I think I’ve got that right, anyway it’s said that Elizabeth kind of lost her mojo after he died and died herself 2 years later, whether that’s a romantic tale, I’m not sure, but I’m sure there are many who do, and could put you right.

        3. THX Dawn1st,For the info Elizabeth1 ,seemed too leen twords men that were now we call them ‘bad boys,but back then maybe just a bit to hard to handel??Like Dudley when messing with her ladies and getting married,and Elizabeth 1,pretty much the last too no.It’s no wonder she married her, State England and her people.But what a lonely life it must have been for her.I think she felt it was her duty to serve England first and her people.Put the love life aside ,one can olny wonder what she felt,as they say’ it’s lonely at the top.’ THX Baroness x

        4. But one cannot help who they attract or attract to can they?! Knowingly or unknowingly!

  5. im getting confused here ,I read ,possibly wrong ,that mark smeaton had bought horses ,livery and all sorts of fine items,clothing and such like ,where did he get the money for these things ,if the cost of these equalled what henry knew he had paid him and was documented ,why were they,(other court members)suspicious of where the money came from if it had come from henry,

    1. Here is an excerpt from my book about Smeaton and the King:

      “The Privy Purse Expenses of November 1529 to December 1532 show frequent mentions of “marke”. In the introduction, the editor explains that it is clear that Smeaton was “wholly supported and clothed” by Henry VIII. There are many mentions of payments for “shert”s and “hosen”. His rise in favour is evident from the increase in his rewards during the period, from “xx s”i (20 shillings) in December 1530 to “iii li. vi s. viii d.”ii(£3 6 shillings and 8 pence) in October 1532. The increase in payments for clothing would also indicate this rise in favour.” The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, p83

      We don’t have a copy of the letter that Cromwell sent to the King so there’s no way of knowing if there was any gossip or speculation about Mark’s alleged wealth anyway. The Chronicle is wrong about so many things and there is nothing to back up this information, no corroborating evidence from other sources. What we do have is hard evidence, in the Privy Purse Expenses, of Henry supporting Smeaton and rewarding him regularly.

      1. That’s another thing. This supposed letter says that Mark had only been in the King’s service for 4 months, but it had been years. Cromwell would have known that.
        Grrr, it’s getting to that time of the year again!!

      2. I have the Privy Purse Expenses as well, and “Marke” definitely appears a lot. Off-topic, but I find it interesting that he received about three pairs of “hosen” every few months if not more often; he and Weston (whose name is joined up with his frequently) must have gone through them like they were nylons.

        1. Claire,Have a Q’s was it not ,one of the most inpotant of jobs too the King ‘Privy of the Stool ,as Henry Noriss was??Also to sleep with the King when ask too? as Noriss did often? It sounds like a revolting Job ,but was it not ,one of the most inportant of titles to the King?? Regards Baroness x

  6. What I find so sad about this tragedy about to unfold, is that she never knew how great her only daughter became. If only she knew what was to happen in the future….. Poor soul.

    1. I know. I wish that scene in Anne of the Thousand Days really happened, the one where Anne tells Henry that Elizabeth will be Queen and that her blood will have been well spent. So moving.

      I do think that Anne did all she could to give Elizabeth the best start and the tools she needed to be a great woman. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Anne put her daughter’s spiritual care into the hands of Parker, a man who was linked to a Cambridge set of men who all helped Elizabeth in her upbringing and later when she became Queen – Cheke, Grindal, Cecil, Cooke, Dee etc. Cecil, for example, was prominent in Elizabeth’s life during Mary’s reign, advising her and helping her.

      1. Claire,Maybe Q’Anne did comment something to that affect to ,Henry about her Elizabeth shall be Queen and my blood will have been well spent,what a gripping scene!!!I loved it when she gave HENRY a piece of her mind,she really knew how to do that I think!!! Kind Regards Baroness x

        1. Claire,I really think that Q’Anne and Henry ,both had a temper to match each others,that was one of the down falls of Q’Annes. ThX B

    1. TudorRose,Hello AB Friend,Thats perhapes one of the best comments, short but fatel to ,Q’Anne and all others!! Great reply TudorRose. Very Kind Regards Baroness x

  7. My stomach clenches, knowing what we know now, and what Anne did not fully know yet, although she certainly must have intuited to some degree.

    1. Mary the Quen,It makes me kringe at the thought,that in a matter of a Day,she woulbe arrested!I’d would of had a stroke,had I been the Queen! Regards B x

  8. This site is so interesting thank you Claire for the work you put into it. I have always been interested in the Tudor period especially Anne and her daughter Elizabeth. Two great women.

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