Henry Percy 6th Earl of NorthumberlandOn the same day that Queen Anne Boleyn’s household was being broken up, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, wrote to Thomas Cromwell.

Here is an extract from my book, The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, about his letter…

The subject of his letter was the alleged pre-contract which was said to have existed between himself and Anne Boleyn before she married Henry VIII. From his home in Newington Green, Henry Percy wrote:

“I perceive by Raynold Carnaby that there is supposed a pre-contract between the Queen and me; whereupon I was not only heretofore examined upon my oath before the archbishops of Canterbury and York, but also received the blessed sacrament upon the same before the duke of Norfolk and other the King’s highness’ council learned in the spiritual law, assuring you, Mr. Secretary, by the said oath and blessed body, which afore I received and hereafter intend to receive, that the same may be to my damnation if ever there were any contract or promise of marriage between her and me.”

Percy had already denied the existence of such a pre-contract when interrogated by the Duke of Norfolk and two archbishops in 1532. His wife, Mary Talbot, had sought an annulment from their very unhappy marriage by claiming that he had previously been contracted to marry Anne Boleyn who was, at that time, being courted by the King. Percy had denied this by swearing an oath on the Blessed Sacrament, in front of Norfolk, the archbishops and the King’s canon lawyers.

Thomas Cromwell decided to resurrect the issue in May 1536, in an effort to get Anne’s marriage to the King annulled. He sent Sir Reynold Carnaby to exert some pressure on Henry Percy and to try and make him confess that he and Anne had been pre-contracted to marry. Carnaby was a King’s officer in the north of England, and someone Percy knew well, but Percy refused to be bullied into confessing. His letter to Cromwell shows Percy affirming that in no uncertain terms.

Notes and Sources

  • Ridgway, Claire (2012) The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, p. 165-166.
  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10 – January-June 1536, 764.

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13 thoughts on “13 May 1536 – Henry Percy denies a pre-contract”
  1. Did Cromwell really think that Percy was going to go back on what he had said previously? He had already sworn before two Archbishops that he did not have a pre contract with Anne Boleyn. Even had Anne and Percy been romantically involved they had broken off that relationship and had moved on at the insistence of their parents and Cardinal Wolsey, in whose service Harry Percy was at the time. They clearly had not gone so far as to have sexual relations after a promise of marriage or drawn up any formal agreement to marry. They may have wanted to marry, but Thomas Boleyn, Elizabeth Howard and the Earl of Northumberland as well as the Cardinal, perhaps on the request of the King, had other ideas. Whatever their relationship, it had been broken off before plenty of people and had not been formalized. Henry Percy had made a sacred vow three years earlier that this contract did not exist, now he rather angrily made the same claim very clear. I am glad he stood up to Cromwell and to Cranmer and to Henry and to all of them. It is about time that he grew a backbone. He had allowed himself to be bullied years ago when he should have defied everyone and married Anne; now at least he spoke the truth. Cromwell must have been getting desperate to bring this up again.

    1. Yes it was sheer hypocrisy of Cromwell to try to get Percy to agree to the pre contract, you can’t expect people to say yea or nay every time just to suit other people, Percy was said by then to have hated Anne after seeing what she had become yet interestingly at her trial he collapsed and had to leave the courtroom, maybe old feelings surfaced combined with the pressure of the trial overwhelmed him but I think these two doomed lovers told a very sorry tale, they were forced to separate yet neither of them found true happiness, Percy had a most unhappy marriage and died childless not long after Anne and Anne although she made her mark in history, suffered insecurities in her marriage and died brutally after just a few years of plighting her troth to the King.

      1. Hi Christine and thank you for these details (of which I did not know).
        I agree : what use to wonder wether Cromwell and/or KH would really believe in this pre-contract; at any price, they would get rid of this woman.

        1. I know, you never said they believed this pre-contract ever existed.
          Cromwell was perv enough himself (and conscious of how frightful he was) to believe that OTHERS would lose their morals .
          It is a common thing about base and perv minds to guess that anyone shares their views.
          So they are always surprised by noble feelings.
          Even if, as you pointed it out, Percy could feel sometimes jealous of his past sweetheart fate (we’ll probably never know if these bouts of jealousy were made of spite or of an everlasting love for Anne, his won wife having in no way made him forget about her)

      2. Very true. Mary Talbot and Harry Percy certainly had a loveless and unhappy marriage, Anne must have been smouldering for some time afterwards, but when the King came along, even though she did not want to be his mistress, she had hopes of something better, if he could divorce Katherine. Unfortunately in the long run, this too was doomed. Sigh.

  2. I doubt that Cromwell really thought that Percy was likely to change; I think, instead, that Cromwell merely thought that even a small chance of a change was worth a try. Cromwell had to find grounds to annul the marriage to Anne so that Elizabeth could be bastardized. Failing to do this would guarantee a civil war and (likely) invasion by the Emperor on Mary’s behalf if Henry died without a son, but if both daughters were equally bastardized, people would prefer the elder, with no war. Given that Henry saw himself as a chivalrous knight, the annulment had to make Anne the party in the wrong … hiding a pre-contract with Percy would do that, but Henry’s affair with Mary only made him look bad. Also, Cromwell would not want his grounds for annulment to affect Henry’s supremacy … since Henry claimed supremacy to marry Anne, if the marriage was the result of witchcraft (i.e.. Satan), then the supremacy would be tainted. . Finally Percy was ill. People who thought that he might have lied in 1532 (because having been pre-contracted to Anne would really tick off Henry), would think he would change to establish the truth for the sake of his soul.

    1. Hi Esther Sorkin, u pondered over everything it seems !
      On Cromwell’s behalf, I guess he was above all anxious to get rid of his own rival – it was her or himself.
      Maybe KH’s grounds were more political indeed.
      The invasion by the Emperor is another thing.
      As you know Saint Empire by then was busy enough with France and its allies (Turkey for instance), I am not sure that Charles V (or his successors) would have indulged themselves in such an uneasy conquest against international opinion.
      It had been quite a matter when Catharine (as Prince Arthur’s young widow) was a prisoner in Henry VII’s hands; then, her father, aragonese king Ferdinando threatened her father-in-law (and gaoler) he would indeed try to invade England.
      Just a threat, nothing came from it – Henry VII Tudor died rather soon after and when his son was crowned he was not long to marry his sister-in-law.
      But certainly KH would have feared to leave a country weakened to his heir(ess) .
      Even if he probably did not think further when he wanted to break with his wife, and so with Rome, years before; so I think that one of his reasons was that sort of annuling his wedding to Anne and its followings (Elizabeth’s status) made him a mere widower, free to marry again (in order to make another queen happy : when it all began so well, no need to stop indeed)

    1. Could the fact that he died in London while settling his estate, which he willed to the King, had no money, as he was always in debt, have anything to do with his place of burial? After all his brother would not be paying for the body to come home as he was attained for treason after the Pilgrimage of Grace, the cost would be enormous to bring him home and if people did not make arrangements, they were often buried near the place that they died. Harry Percy also changed his will, which originally said that the King was to take over and pass the estates to his nephew after his brother, Thomas treason, leaving the estate to the crown without conditions. I am only guessing that either the crown could not be bothered to move his body or nobody stepped in to pay for the funeral and tomb at Alwick. I don’t know if he was repatriated later on, but the Church in Hackney no longer stands. I would guess that it was cheaper to bury him here, but how sad.

      1. Yes he was in debt so possibly that’s how he came to be buried in Hackney instead of the family seat.

  3. Poor Henry Percy and poor Anne. What a different story to be told–and one we would probably never known of– had they prevailed and married. I do believe that they were in love. He with her spicy, sparky personality and strong character and she with his mellow personality and unconditional love for her. And, considering the times and their positions in society, his title and property and wealth had to be quite enticing to the ambitious Anne. I’m not criticizing her because at that time ambition was expected.

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