Harry Lloyd as Henry Percy in "Wolf Hall".
Harry Lloyd as Henry Percy in “Wolf Hall”.

On this day in history, 13th May 1536, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, the man Anne Boleyn had hoped to marry in around 1523, wrote to Thomas Cromwell:

“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.”1

It is clear from his letter that Percy has been approached in the hope that he would admit to there being a pre-contract between himself and Anne Boleyn, thus providing grounds for an annulment of the King’s marriage to Anne. Thomas Cromwell had sent Sir Reynold Carnaby to exert some pressure on Henry Percy. Carnaby was a King’s officer in the north of England, and someone Percy knew well, but Percy refused to be bullied into confessing. He was not going to play ball and admit to something that was not true.

Percy had already denied the existence of such a pre-contract in the past, as he states in this letter. According to a letter from Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, to Charles V in July 1532, Henry Percy had to deny, in front of the King’s council, a pre-contract between himself and Anne Boleyn after his wife, Mary Talbot, had reported that he had told her in a quarrel that he was not really her husband because he had previously been betrothed, or legally contracted, to Anne. Mary Talbot had written of the quarrel and alleged pre-contract in a letter to her father, the Earl of Shrewsbury, asking him to tell the King, but, instead, the Duke of Norfolk was informed of the matter and he told his niece, Anne Boleyn. Anne boldly decided that it was best to confront Henry VIII with the matter and ask him to investigate it. Percy had been interrogated and had denied the pre-contract by swearing an oath on the Blessed Sacrament, in front of Norfolk, the archbishops and the King’s canon lawyers.2

There is no reason to doubt Percy. He put his soul in mortal peril by swearing on the sacrament in 1532 and says in this letter “that the same may be to my damnation if ever there were any contract or promise of marriage between her and me.” Cromwell was going to have to find another way of annulling the marriage.

Notes and Sources

  1. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume X. 873.
  2. Friedmann, Paul. Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English History 1527-1536, Volume I, p160-61. Friedmann cites Chapuys’ letter 1532 from Vienna Archives. Eric Ives, in his notes for p166 of his book The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn gives the reference for Chapuys’ letter as Vienna, Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, England Korrespondenz Karton 5, Konvolut 1532, ff. 81-2.

Related Post

30 thoughts on “13 May 1536 – Henry Percy won’t play ball”
  1. “It is clear from his letter that Percy has been approached in the hope that he would admit to there being a pre-contract between himself and Anne Boleyn, thus providing grounds for an annulment of the King’s marriage to Anne.”

    If Henry had wanted to kill her all along, as some say, why even bother with this exercise? Because he didn’t, of course. He was looking t=for a way out that didn’t touch on his “honour”.

    This episode re Anne and Percy always looks fishy if you see that this version directly conflicts with George Cavendish’s memoir. If Percy had the serious drinking problem he is reputed to have it may have affected his cognitive state quick seriously. Who knows what was going on there. But Henry didn’t need this to annul the marriage as we all know.

    1. IMO, Henry would only accept an annulment on grounds that would (a) not affect the supremacy and (b) make Anne the bad one while he played the injured innocent. A pre-contract with Percy would qualify (would not affect the supremacy, but Anne would be the bad one for hiding it/lying about it), but the other available grounds were not (Henry’s affair with Mary — known to both before the marriage — would make Henry look ridiculous, entering into a second marriage with a known impediment; witchcraft may affect the supremacy). So, criminal charges were created.

      Percy may well have been ill with the disease that would kill him only a few months after Anne’s death; I think he may have been more concerned with his own soul than the impact his denial would have on Anne.

      1. I completely agree, Esther.

        I’ve just been reading J. Patrick Coby’s book on Cromwell, which I have mixed views on, but he makes some interesting points regarding why Henry couldn’t have just annulled the marriage and let Anne live. He writes of how she would have kept her title as Marquess of Pembroke and a power base at court and it would also have implied the validity of his first marriage and the invalidity of the supremacy which ended it. Henry needed to keep the supremacy intact. Cromwell found a way to rid the king of Anne once and for all, keep the supremacy intact, blacken the names of the Boleyns and therefore weaken their supporters, implicate the Privy Chamber and thereby weaken its power (a bit like Wolsey’s purge), and all without it impacting the king negatively. Anne was the baddie, Henry was an innocent victim who could keep his supremacy and marry again. Very clever.

      2. To Esther

        But Henry had got from the Pope a dispensation to marry a women with whose relative he had had an affair.

        It was only on 1534 when Henry made Parliament decide than the Pope had no right to make such dispensations.

        1. If the Pope had no right to dispense with Catherine’s marriage to Arthur, the Pope also had no right to allow a marriage to Anne by dispensing with Henry’s affair with Mary Boleyn. After all, the same book (Leviticus) that prohibits marriage to a brother’s widow also prohibits marriage to a woman after having had her sister. However, Deuteronomy mandates that a man marry a brother’s widow where (as with Catherine and Arthur) the brother has no children, but there are absolutely no exceptions, exemptions or other loopholes around the prohibitions involving sisters.

        2. I don’t know whether any of you managed to watch Diarmaid MacCulloch’s recent series “Sex and the Church” but in episode 2 he looked at the Church’s involvement in marriage. He talked about the case of Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, and his wife Maude in the 11th century. At the time, Church law was that no-one could marry within seven degrees of consanguinity. This made it difficult for the Norman in England because it meant that everyone they knew was out of bounds. Robert and Maude were Normans and were distant cousins affected by this law so they got a dispensation for their marriage. The marriage turned sour within two years due to Robert rebelling against the king and being branded a traitor. Maude wanted out of the marriage and so appealed to the Pope for a dispensation, alleging that as they were cousins that their marriage was against Church law and so should be annulled. She was granted an annulment and then went on to apply for another dispensation to marry another of her cousins, Nigel d’Aubigny. Maude was unable to provide Nigel with an heir so he promptly argued for an annulment so that he could remarry.

          It really reminded me of Henry VIII who obviously had a dispensation to marry Catherine of Aragon but then argued that the marriage was against Church law and so should be annulled, then he got a dispensation to enable him to marry Anne Boleyn, a marriage which was affected by the impediment of “affinity arising from illicit intercourse in whatever degree, even the first” because he had slept with her sister. Then that marriage was annulled ““in consequence of certain just and lawful impediments which, it was said, were unknown at the time of the union, but had lately been confessed to the Archbishop by the lady herself.” It was just like the Normans in the 11th century, dispensations and marriages were valid when they wanted them to be and then when they wanted out of the marriage then the dispensations were viewed as being against Church law. Strange but true.

    2. Judith, where did you read of Percy having a drinking problem? I’ve never heard of that. I know he had bouts of ill-health so I thought he suffered bouts of malaria or something like that. Also, what do you mean when you say “This episode re Anne and Percy always looks fishy if you see that this version directly conflicts with George Cavendish’s memoir”, which part of the story are you referring to?

      1. The Queen Of Subtleties is a fiction book about Anne Boleyn and Lucy Cornwallis, Henry V111s pastry maker, by Susanna Dunn, Anne and Lucy both tell their own versions of their story it’s a hugely enjoyable book and written in a modern style, in it Anne mentions Percy had a drink problem so that’s probably where Judith got the idea from but I doubt there’s any foundation to the story as iv never heard of him having a drink problem.

      2. How odd, Claire, I don’t see my reply to your question of where did I see reference to the drinking of Percy. I did answer you right away so that is very strange!

        It was in a couple of actual history books, not a novel as Wolf Hall is the only novel I have read re the Tudors. I also saw myself a reference to someone who wrote a letter after seeing Percy on his deathbed. he described what we know today be very possibly liver toxicity if he got the symptoms correct. Here is a clip of something online, though it was not my initial source:

        “By this time his mind was fast failing. He removed to Newington Green, where Richard Layton visited him on 29 June 1537. He says that he found him ‘languens in extremis, sight and speech failed, his stomach swollen so great as I never see none, and his whole body as yellow as saffron.”

        If we can peg Henry VIII diseases today, we can also make reading of Percy’s. Esp if you have ever seen someone with liver disease from alcohol, which sadly my friend’s young boyfriend almost died from.

        1. It wasn’t on this post, you left it on the article at https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/12-may-1536-norris-brereton-smeaton-and-weston-tried-at-westminster-hall/ and I replied to you there.

          Alcoholism can cause liver disease but so can a whole host of other illnesses. Our poor dog is suffering from liver problems at the moment and has never had alchohol. I’ve seen various mentions of him having symptoms of liver failure but I’d never seen anyone link that to alcoholism.

    3. Henry had to dissolve the marriage in order to declare Elizabeth a bastard. Killing Anne would not do this. Henry would be a widow but Elizabeth still his heir under the last Act of Succession. Henry was being doubly clever here. He is using the rule of the church through canon law that is supreme in this case, all such cases on marriage normally would be brought to a church court or convocation or commission, then if need be the decisions backed by the secular authorities. In this case, the Archbishop was asked to find grounds and then asked Anne to agree. She had no choice. Henry had the consent of the church, now he would have Parliament confirm the decision and pass a new law excluding Elizabeth from the succession and declare her illegitimate. He was free to make a fresh start, no further cases of two queens being alive, and no doubts about the legitimacy of his children with Jane or the succession.

  2. i believe he really cared for Anne. the were probably in love at one time and he did not want to hurt her.

  3. I think I’ve said this before, but “pre-contract” means, at the minimum, complied with the Church’s definition of “married.” — either

    1)promised each other “I DO marry you”

    1. [Continued – accidentally submitted too soon]

      2) promised each other “I WILL marry you” and then had sex.

      No clergyman and no witnesses are necessary.

      The medieval rules are still almost all in place until after Catherine Howard’s death (she seems to have been confused as to how committed she was to anyone before Henry).

      “Pre-contract” means “previously married” and NOT “let’s think about going together,” which is how it tends to be understood these days.

      1. Yes, definitely.

        From my understanding of it, a pre-contract was a promise of marriage which if then was consummated became a legally binding marriage so it was like a betrothal. Henry VIII was able to have his marriage to Anne of Cleves annulled on the grounds that she’d previously been pre-contracted to the Duke of Lorraine. It didn’t mean that they had slept together, it meant that there was a legal contract which had not been properly broken and so therefore they were promised in marriage.

        1. To Claire

          Was it so that almost all nobles were pre-contracted, sometimes many times, and that did not prevent them marry another, but it only became a problem when one party wanted to to rid of the marriage?

          In the same way, marrying a relative that was forbidden to marry was common. Often the dispensation was asked only later, sometimes one simply did not bother for as long as both parties wanted to stay married, there was no problem.

        2. Yes, I think it only became a problem when it was deemed to have been consummated or it the contract had not been broken properly.

  4. As Henry Percy, of course, had no idea that Anne would be executed, I wonder if Henry Percy had his moments of regret for denying the ‘pre-contract”? After all, if the marriage had been annulled by reason of a pre-contract between Henry Percy and Anne, there wouldn’t have been a need to condemn Anne, her brother and the other gentlemen to death.

  5. Antonia Fraser says in Six wives when dealing Anne and Percy that people were not at all sure what their behavior years ago meant in canon law.

  6. Claire wrote that there is no cause to doubt Percy as he put his soul on mortal peril.

    I disagree. Let us look all the facts:

    When confronted earlier by Wolsey, Percy defended his commitment with Anne by saying that it was done “before so many worthy witnesses that I know not how to avoid myself nor to discharge my conscience”. So there was some kind of commitment between them that there were even several witnesses for it.

    Also, when Henry asked from the Pope a dispensation because of his affair with Anne’s sister Mary, he also asked a dispensation for his bride for earlier commitments of marry another she may have made which clearly point out to Butler and Percy.

    Further, why did Percy’s wife took the matter up? Simply because of gossip? More probable is that Percy had blurted out something like “I wish we were never married and in fact we really were for Anne and I were pledged and Wolsey broke it unjustly” and on the basis of that she believed that he would admit it publicly – but forgot or did not understand that it concerned also Anne’s marriage with Henry.

    And finally, It is interesting that Percy put his words “If ever there were”, not “there never was”. He also chose other words carefully: “contract” and “promise”, but not f.ex. “pledge”.

    All in all, it may be that Mantel was right in this matter: Percy was pressured to make this vow by threatening his position. Many people would have thought even then that one must first make sure of earthly success, and one could deal with the heavenly matters later.

    If Wolsey could break the canon law by forcig Percy to abandon Anne, why would not Percy do the wrong vow? We do not know whether he was religious or not.

  7. I have a lot of sympathy and admiration for Harry Percy who was not hunted down in the local pub as in Wolf Hall, but put under pressure by Cromwell and others to again say he has been serious with Anne Boleyn. I used to think of Percy as a coward for not standing up to Cardinal Wolsey and his father, but I was 15 at the time. Looking deeper into the affair and years of study of Anne Boleyn, enables you to understand the world from which she came as well as the people who knew her. This is as much about respect for authority as well as the regulated dynamics between hierarchical people and those directly under their authority and control as it is about the desires and dreams of two young people in love. While it was not impossible that a properly negotiated marriage alliance between the noble house of Northumberland and the knightly, related to nobleman, Boleyns, but the fact was, Henry Percys father was having none of it. The King seems to have been interested in Anne and clearly once the most important man in the Kingdom was asked to intervene, Wolsey acted both as the King’s servant and the young mans master. Cavendish gives us a detailed description of his dressing down, the poor young man, was told in no uncertain terms that he was disobedient, disrespectful, had acted in a manner that was not acceptable to his king and family, he had no choice but to do what he was told, accept that it was over with Anne and he was being packed of to Northumberland to marry someone his father deemed more suitable. He had to obey his father, he was his heir, he would have been disinherited otherwise, he had to obey the King and Cardinal, Anne for all of her foot stamping had no choice but to obey her father, mother and powerful uncle, the Cardinal and ultimately the King. Her relationship with Percy was off, that was final.

    Anne of course would never forget, she partly blamed him for this, but having bagged a bigger fish in the King, there was certainly far more to the Cardinals fall in 1529, than Annes alleged hatred. Life having come full circle, Harry Percy was now Earl of Northumberland and more confident of his own position. When his wife denounced his earlier relationship with Anne, he swore as above the relationship was not consummated and no agreement to live as husband and wife existed. He withstood bullying again in 1536, putting his life, immortal soul and reputation on the line. His health was not good, he did not have a happy marriage, and would soon be a broken man, having collapsed while reluctantly passing a guilty verdict on Anne Boleyn. I believe that he had grown a backbone but also he was free from the restraint of his father, his own man, and many years were passed. He was probably the only member of the jury who would try and condemn Anne who had some sympathy for her.

    1. To BanditQueen

      I do not agree.

      I believe that Percy was bullied in 1532 to lie that there was no pre-contract or pledge between him and Anne, and in 1536 he was too proud to admit that he had lied.

      Even if he had told the truth in 1532, he should have lied in 1536. If he had ever loved Anne, he should have done anything to save her – especially as he was so sick that he probably knew he was going to die.

      1. As Eric Ives points out, we can’t read too much into the wording of the dispensation. It was vague and was more of a “cover all”. It could have referred to Percy but it could also have referred to James Butler. Anne had come back to England because of negotiations for her to marry him.

        Swearing on the sacrament like that was a huge thing because he would have believed that he was putting his soul in mortal peril if he lied and he was, of course, an ill man in 1536.

        Wolsey hadn’t seen there being a problem with Percy marrying Mary Talbot and if there had been a marriage between Percy and Anne, i.e. A consummated promise, then, as Ives points out, the King, Wolsey and Percy’s family would have had to put up with it.

        We’ll never know the truth unfortunately. Such a pain sometimes!

      2. Hi Hannele, I like your suggestion that Percy should have lied in 1536, but unfortunately it would not have helped Anne. Henry was setting up an excuse to end his marriage in order to bastarize Elizabeth. He was not looking for an alternative to killing Anne. He had tried to get a dispensation to marry Anne, having slept with her sister, which was probably not granted as the Pope did not agree with the divorce from Katherine. When Percy refused, Henry conveniently had his marriage to Anne annulled on the grounds of a sexual relationship with his sister in law. He claimed to have married within forbidden degrees yet again. Remember David Starkey said that Henry did and believed what was convenient.

        Harry Percy most probably did not lie in this case, because in 1532 when his wife caused trouble he had an opportunity to get out of a marriage he detested. Instead he swore Anne and he did not have a formal agreement to marry. Whether Anne and Percy had sex or not we will never know. Did they then enter into an agreement to live as husband and wife, a pledge binding under canon law? It’s possible and that it was undone by renouncing the contract. The information we have seems to indicate things had not gone this far. They could not have been parted so easily if they were contracted. Anne and Percy may have been in love, but it appears that they were not lovers. I believe that he told the truth, he was putting his soul and life at risk by not confessing under pressure at the time of Anne’s pending death in May 1536. I also believe that he was sympathetic to Anne, but no longer in love with her.

  8. In Norah Lofts fictionalised account of Anne Boleyn called The Concubine, when Anne is heard of this annulment due to the pre contract she bursts into laughter and says, now they give him back to me, I wonder if she thought it must be ironic that years before when they both wanted to marry, the King told Wolsley to break it up and mentioned his contract to the Earl Of Shrewsburys daughter, them when Henry seeks a way to end his marriage he brings up Anne’s old engagement and says their marriage was no marriage as she was engaged to Percy, she must have been furious and god knows what Percy thought, I believe had they been allowed to marry they’d have been very happy and had children, she at least would have lived her normal life span, but then we wouldn’t have had ‘Gloriana’ and English history would have been very different.

  9. Neither Elizabeth nor Mary were actually bastards if both parents believed themselves to be legally married at the time of birth. If Henry and Anne knew they could not actually have been married due to his prior sexual relationship with Mary Boleyn (leaving aside that he was still married to Katherine until her death), then Elizabeth was always a bastard and Mary never was.

    1. To JudithRex

      Who was a bastard or not was decided by the Catholic Church, but after Henry became Supreme Head of Church, it was decided by Parliament, or actually by Henry himself.

  10. Had Anne had married Percy instead things could and would of been a lot different. Notice how they were both called Henry. Coincidence. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *