A depiction of a betrothal from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry

On the 13th May 1536, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland wrote to Thomas Cromwell regarding 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.”1

Percy had already denied the existence of such a pre-contract when interrogated by Norfolk and two archbishops in 1532 when 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. Percy had denied this by swearing an oath on the Blessed Sacrament, in front of Norfolk, the archbishops and the King’s canon lawyers.

Cromwell decided to resurrect this issue in May 1536, in an effort to get Anne’s marriage to the King annulled, and sent Sir Reynold Carnaby to exert some pressure on 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 and his letter to Cromwell is him affirming it in no uncertain terms. Alison Weir calls it an exasperated letter and you can clearly see Percy’s exasperation showing through as he swears yet again that a pre-contract never existed. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Master Secretary, as my mother would say!

Cranmer’s Light Bulb Moment

As Percy wouldn’t play ball, Cromwell had to give up on the idea of getting the marriage between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII annulled on the grounds of a pre-contract as there was just no evidence to prove that a precontract had existed. Cromwell was not ready to give up yet though, so he asked Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to find another way round it. Cranmer must have been so torn, after all he knew the Boleyns well and his rise had been due to Anne’s patronage and support, however, he knew that he had to do his job and give Cromwell what he wanted and needed. It was not enough for Cromwell and the King to just get rid of Anne by execution, they needed her marriage to the King to be erased, to be annulled and declared invalid. Complete annihilation was what was required. Fortunately for Cranmer, he had a brainwave, and used the King’s past relationship with Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, as an impediment of consanguinity to the marriage – the marriage could be seen as incestuous because Henry had already slept with Mary. Clever!

Would this work? Could Cranmer get the King what he wanted? Of course he could – more on this another day.

Notes and Sources

1 – L&P x. 764, Letter from the Earl of Northumberland to Cromwell, 13th May 1536
The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives
The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, AlisonWeir

Related Post