13 May 1536 – A pre-contract denied and a household broken up

On this day in history, 13th May 1536, we have two significant events in the fall of Anne Boleyn.

Firstly, we have the breaking up of the queen’s household. Queen Anne Boleyn had not even been tried yet, but four men had been found guilty of high treason for having sexual relations with her and plotting to kill the king with her, so there wasn’t much chance of the queen being found innocent. So on 13th May 1536, Sir William Fitzwilliam, Treasurer of the King’s Household, and Sir William Paulet, Comptroller of the Household, broke up Anne’s royal household and discharged her staff.

Some of Anne’s staff would only be out of a position for a few weeks. William Coffin, Anne’s former master of the horse and the husband of one of her attendants in the Tower; Sir Edward Baynton, Anne’s former vice-chamberlain; John Smith, her surveyor; Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, her sister-in-law; Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche; Bess Holland, mistress of the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle, and Margery Horsman all went on to serve Jane Seymour following her marriage to King Henry VIII on 30th May 1536.

Our second significant event of this day in 1536 is the writing of a letter. Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, wrote a letter on 13th May 1536, from his home in Newington Green, to Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s principal secretary. In this letter, he 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.”

This alleged pre-contract with Anne Boleyn was something that Percy had had to deny before, as he states in this letter. In 1532, before Anne’s marriage to the king, Percy had been interrogated by the Duke of Norfolk and the Archbishops of York and Canterbury after his wife, Mary Talbot, had claimed that her husband had previously been pre-contracted to Anne Boleyn so there marriage was not valid and could be annulled. Anne denied this and Percy swore on the Blessed Sacrament in front of the duke, the archbishop and the king’s canon lawyers that there had never been a pre-contract between himself and Anne. Percy must have been exasperated and worried that this matter was being brought up once again.

Sir Reynold Carnaby, an officer of the king in the north of England and someone Percy knew well, had been sent to the earl to try and convince him to confess to a pre-contract. Why? Well, it would have served as grounds for an annulment of King Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn as it would have invalidated their marriage. Percy wasn’t playing ball though.

Notes and Sources

  • Wriothesley, Charles (1875) A chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, Volume 1, p. 37. The notes in Wriothesley’s chronicle name Sir Edward Poynings as Comptroller, which is why I have always stated that, but after further research, I found that Poynings served in this position until 1519 and died in 1521.
  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 10 – January-June 1536, 764.

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10 thoughts on “13 May 1536 – A pre-contract denied and a household broken up”
  1. We have said it many times before , but how quickly and how sad the way all these events took place

  2. Percy also swore on the Blessed Sacrament therefore his peers had no choice but to believe him, I can guess at this stage he was thinking what a hypocrite the King was, although according to sources he had fallen out of love with Anne years before they had wished to marry and had been cruelly seperated, he was engaged to Mary Shrewsbury and had had a most miserable marriage with her, at one time she had even left him and went back to her father complaining he did not treat her right, he had told her they were not even married due to a pre contract with Anne, however over the years he had got over her and Anne had got over him but they both remembered the misery they had gone through because of Wolsley and the King, and must have been reeling at the unfairness of it all, now they had been in a way thrown together by the Kings desire to get rid of her, you could see evidence of the many excuses Cromwell was coming up with to annul Henrys marriage, Anne must have been going through sheer hell at this time, they were trying to bastardise her daughter and she could do nothing about it, maybe now she realised what Katherine had gone through and how she had tried her very best to defend her daughters rights, now Anne was exactly in the same position at the complete mercy of a selfish King, deserted by her husband and having to endure the fact that her marriage had disintegrated, at least her predecessor had not been inprisoned on false charges, but the situation was the same, her marriage was going to be annulled as she knew Henry would find a way and Elizabeth once hailed as the high and mighty princess of England, would become just the plain lady Elizabeth, and yet by having their marriage invalidated how could they in theory bring in a charge of adultery, if their marriage had never been legal than Anne could sleep with all the court and not called to account for it, but as she had thought she was his wife, then she had a duty not to impugn the succession, Henry won on all counts and during these days she must have felt so desolate, there is a tale that she called Lady Kingston to her and fell on her knees, and asked her if she would go to the lady Mary and do likewise and beg her to forgive her for the wrongs she had done her, whether this is true or not is debatable but traumatic experiences can bring out a change of character, in this the darkest moment of her life Anne must have realised how much both Katherine and Mary had suffered because of her desire to be queen, basking in Henrys love years before she perceived them both as her enemy, a threat to her happiness, but now she could see them both as real people who also had gone through the same agonies of mind, the dissolving of her household was yet another step taken to ensure everyone that this queen was queen no more but a traitor to both the crown and her husband, her ladies must have been in a flutter of apprehension and unsure what was going to happen to them, Bess Holland had only got her position due to her relationship with her uncle, Jane her sister in law did not know it but she would go on to serve another fallen queen, it was Lady Worcester who had inferred to her brother about the goings on in the queens household but then we hear no more about her, Eric Ives writes that Margery Horseman could have been one of the ladies questioned by Cromwell on the queens activities, there is no source that says she was but its highly likely that most of her women were questioned, what could they say, yes Anne had chatted to most of the men, there was dancing in her apartments, there was courtly love banter which was acceptable but Cromwell no doubt twisted her ladies words so innocent talk could be construed as treason, I should imagine Cromwell when intent on going his duty could be quite terrifying to all but the boldest of hearts, Anne did not fear him but the allegations against the queen and the arrests of the men caused hysteria throughout the court, it was said the courtiers were so afraid who would be the next to be arrested, in his portrait by Holbein he looks amiable enough, a rather large man with a steady gaze and dark eyes, I can imagine Annes women shaking in their shoes when they were brought before Cromwell, they did not want to say anything against their mistress but it’s possible like Smeaton, they were bullied into saying things they did not wish to, Cromwell himself did not know it but he would one day be deserted by the very master he had tried so hard to serve.

  3. There was no chance that anyone here was being found innocent. Anne now stands guilty by virtue of the men, so no chance, so it’s no shock her household is dismissed.

    Good to see Harry Percy standing his ground. Henry had already been down this road due to a claim by the Countess of Northumberland, Mary Talbot that there was precontract with Anne Boleyn, her husband’s former lover. She wanted out of her own marriage and loudly declared this. Henry Viii was shortly to marry Anne and he needed this out of the way. As the letter states in 1532 the Earl declared before the two Primates of England, York and Canterbury that he had not been promised to Anne, so why revisit this now? Did he seriously think Northumberland would say he lied on his oath before the Blessed Sacrament? Perhaps Henry is confusing the truth with wishful thinking. Having sworn to the contrary the Earl refused to budge. Henry was stuck for now.

    Henry Viii wanted his cake and to eat it. He was going to annul his marriage to a woman he intended to kill. Why? To declare his second daughter a bastard. Anne’s execution would still leave Elizabeth legitimate ironically so he had to find an impediment for the marriage. Harry Percy wouldn’t agree so Henry used incest…he had slept with her sister, instead. Great. I’m sure Mary wanted that dragged up again. We can assume she agreed although we don’t have any information and Anne agreed to the annulment. Anne had the forlorn hope she would live in a nunnery. However, this was what Henry had in mind. The King wanted no more complications. We don’t know all of the details of Cranmer’s visit, save Anne hoped for life as he put it. Did he lie and promise her penance rather than execution or prison or banishment? There are indications that something made Anne believe she would be spared, but it may also have been the desperate wishes of a condemned and abandoned woman.

    1. That should read “This is not what Henry had in mind” not “This is what Henry had in mind”. Thanks.

    2. Yes it’s generally assumed that Anne was promised a pardon if she agreed she had never been married to the King, if that was so it was cruel and unjust, but there was nothing just about this, it was such ironic that Henry to get rid of Katherine used the fact that she had been married to Arthur and therefore their union was illegal and incestous before God, then he uses his affair with Annes sister as a excuse to get out of his marriage with Anne, saying that was proof of incest, she was also accused of incest with her own brother, incest incest always incest! Henry appeared to be obsessed with the very word, whatever Mary Boleyn thought of this is unclear but she was happily married to her second husband and they must have thought it awful to have that dredged up, earlier I meant Mary Talbot Percy’s wife, her father was the Earl Of Shrewsbury I couldn’t think of her maiden name, yes the way Henry twisted everything around to suit him was really sickening, the way he played with people’s lives like they were just puppets to do his bidding, not real flesh and blood people, I find it very sad that Percy did not live long after Annes death, he had a lingering disease that killed him within a year of her execution, he left no heir so his earldom went to a close relative, here were two young lovers who had wanted to marry and could have been very happy together possibly having children, I doubt if he ever slept with his wife at all as she complained he did not treat her like a wife should be treated, they argued and she appeared to have hated him as much as he did her, it is interesting to consider what age Anne would have lived to had she been allowed to live out her full life span, she had survived a bout of the serious sweating sickness in her youth and there are no reports that say she was subject to any illnesse’s, she must have been quite robust as she was energetic in that she rode in the hunt with Henry for hours and loved to dance and sing, her mother possibly had TB and died relatively young, Mary also died young but she could have died in childbirth, her tragic brother also died when he was around thirty years of age and there are no reports he was ever of a frail constitution, he also survived the sweat which killed hundreds of people young and old, rich and poor, then both he and his sister were tragically put to death, it’s very very ironic when you know they survived that most dangerous illness only to die much later by the will of a ruthless King.

      1. Yes, definitely. I think Anne would have lived another 20 or 30 years, good for the age, but when you are cut off in your prime, then you really don’t have a chance. Thomas Boleyn was a good age. I think he wzs born in the 1460s, although I am not certain, or early 70s, so he must have been in his 60s at least by now, dying in 1539. He lost his wife a year or two before of a long illness, but who knows these terrible events could have hastened their ends. Had Anne married Harry Percy and had children, the joy of a loving husband if he was capable of this and children would have enriched their lives and they may have both lived longer. A happy attitude and loving support can help to survive and even recover from long term illness. Percy probably didn’t treat Mary Talbot well but he didn’t want to marry her. Her family had money and land so it’s no surprise she was a good choice for his parents but oh boy these aristocrats didn’t care about their kids feelings, just the family name and fortune. I’m glad Percy grew some backbone when it came to refusing to have anything to do with this farce. It was terrible that he had to sit on the judging panel and declare Anne guilty. Her may not have loved her now, but he obviously had some compassion for her. As you say Christine, he was very ill and collapsed as he gave the verdict. His estates were divided between a brother and the King in 1537 until the next generation succeeded and got them back from the crown. Henry had definitively flipped his lid on this one.

        1. Yes I’m glad Percy refused to be bullied on this one, he must have been outraged, years before he had been young without the boldness to stand up against his father and Wolsley yet now he was determined not be such a pushover this time, why should he make it easy for the King, in a sense he had ruined his life, even if he and Anne had got fed up with each other and decided to divorce at least that would have been their choice, he was not a timid little boy this time but a grown man with experience of life, I’m wondering what illness he had that eventually killed him, I bet Henry made him sit on Annes trial out of malice and he was overcome with the stress of it all which was why he collapsed, he said once she was a bad woman according to one source, certainly she had been relentless in her quest to be Henrys wife without showing any regard for Katherine and Mary, yet he may have harboured feelings for her still which the pressure of the trial brought out, he had known her as a carefree young woman and it must have been awful to have to condemn her to death, if young lovers are seperated the brain develops poignant feelings of what might have been and it’s perfectly natural to think ‘what if’ and ‘if only’, people harbour fantasys of their old love and cherish them, grief as you say could well have hastened his death, it would be great if we had a proper portrait of Percy the profile of him doesn’t show his features, he looks stern faced and taciturn, I always imagine him to be a gentle looking soul, it was said when he was berated by Wolsley as a young lad he burst into tears, it’s quite sad what happened to them.

  4. Percy had no choice. His life might have been miserable, but if he wanted to keep his head, he had to stick to his story. Having sworn in 1532 that there was no precontract, to go back now would open him to charges of treason, for allowing the king to make an unlawful marriage by perjuring himself. Cromwell must have thought Percy a fool or though he had some leverage.

    Poor Percy-he must have spent years wishing he had never laid eyes on Anne!

    Also not sure how any valid pre-contract was possible, since his betrothal to Mary Talbot preceeded his meeting with Anne.

    Cromwell was trying to stack up evidence-he wanted fallbacks, and an insurrmountable pile of crap to fling at her. It was his life if he failed, and he knew it.

    1. Henry not only wanted to wipe Anne from his life, he wanted to wipe their marriage from his life as well. The only things that had any validity were the king’s wishes. Nothing else mattered and everyone knew it. If you wanted to keep your head then you had to go along with whatever henry wanted, no matter how trumped up and unjust.

    2. There was also a financial consideration-The Percys were strapped for cash, Henrys father led an extravagant lifestyle and was regularly in debt. Mary Talbot would have brought with her a substantial dowry and if the marriage was annulled due to a precontract with Anne ,presumably the Percys would be obliged to return it. Little wonder Henry’s father opposed the union with Anne Boleyn-for ” the daughter of a mere knight” read ” not a big enough dowry”!

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