Courtly love, Flirtation and the Fall of Anne Boleyn – Part Two

Posted By on March 3, 2010

"God Speed" by Edmund Blair Leighton, a Victorian view of chivalry and courtly love

This post is continued from “Courtly Love, Flirtation and the Fall of Anne Boleyn – Part One”.

Courtly Love and the Undoing of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn had learned the rules of courtly love from the “Queen of Courtly Love”, Margaret of Austria, and Anne was known for being strict with her ladies and keeping good control of her household, so where did it all go wrong?

It certainly was not a case similar to that of Lancelot and Guinevere, Anne did not fall in love with a courtier, well, in my opinion anyway!

Greg Walker, in his “Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn”, writes of three factors which made it easy for the courtly love convention to be used against Anne:-

  1. Mark Smeaton
  2. Anne’s reckless words to Sir Henry Norris
  3. Gossip and jokes

Mark Smeaton

It was the confession of Mark Smeaton to adultery with the Queen that prompted Anne’s arrest, the arrests of Norris, Brereton, Weston and Rochford, and their ultimate downfall. Mark Smeaton was a talented court musician who had become part of the Boleyn circle. When Anne spoke of Smeaton during her imprisonment in the Tower, she said “But he was never in my chamber but at Winchester”, when she sent for him to play on the virginals, and then she continued by saying: “For I never spake with him since, but upon Saturday before May Day, and then I found him standing in the round window in my chamber of presence, and I asked why he was so sad, and he answered and said it was no matter.” In response to that, Anne said that she told him “you may not look to have me speak to you as I should do to a noble man, because you be an inferior person”. Mark then replied by saying “No, no, madam, a look sufficed me; and thus fare you well”.

Walker writes of how Smeaton’s odd behaviour to the Queen goes beyond the usual conventions of courtly love and even beyond civil courtesy. Walker suggests that Smeaton’s behaviour could be due to a crush on Anne “or (at worst) a depressive obsession and that Anne’s response to Smeaton does not show a familiarity, which has been argued by G W Bernard, but actually a distance in their relationship, a denial of any relationship between them, rather than an acknowledgment of a relationship. Walker then wonders if Smeaton’s confession to adultery, just 24 hours after this exchange of words, could be down to a desire for revenge for Anne belittling him and dismissing him, or perhaps the “inability to distinguish between fact and fantasy that prompts individuals today to confess to crimes that they did not commit.”

In a previous article, “Mark Smeaton the Scrupulous”, I looked at whether Smeaton may have been a “scrupulous” person, a man who saw sin where there was none, a man who believed that his lust for the Queen meant that he had committed adultery with her even though it was only in his mind, after all, the Bible does say “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)

Whatever Mark’s reason for confessing – whether it was from revenge, misplaced guilt or the result of torture – I just can’t see that there was any basis to it, Anne Boleyn certainly would not have committed adultery and risked everything for a lowly court musician.

Henry Norris

Some believe that Anne may have committed adultery with Henry Norris or that they were in love and had promised to marry after the King’s death. G W Bernard writes, in “The Fall of Anne Boleyn”, of how Chapuys reported that Norris had actually fathered Elizabeth and that Anne’s words in the Tower, reported by Kingston, are evidence of some kind of relationship between her and Norris: “I can say no more but nay withyowt I shud oppen my body and ther with opynd her gown adding O Norres hast thow accused me , thow ar in the towre with me, and thou and I shall dy together”. Bernard also writes of how Sir Francis Weston said that Norris “came more unto her chamber for her than he did for Mage [Shelton]” and that Kingston reported that Anne teased Norris about how long he was taking to marry, saying: “You loke for ded mens showys, for yf owth came to the king but good you wold loke to have me; and he sayd yf he should have any such thought he wold hys hed war of, and then she sayd she could undo him if she would and ther wyth thay fell yowt both.”

Bernard concludes that such flirtation was damaging to Anne and that it even suggests that Norris and Anne were lovers, but Walker argues that it certainly does not provide any evidence that the two were lovers. We can’t tell from Anne’s words how they were actually spoken – whether she was flirting, teasing or angry – but, as Walker concludes “what is clear is that Anne had gone too far…In moving from the kind of abstracted conventional language that characterised the masquerade of courtly love to the pragmatics of “what if…?” – still more obviously when that “what if…?” involved speaking the unspeakable, “What if the king should die?” – Anne had transgressed the boundaries of both courtly etiquette and political safety. For even “imagining” the death of the king was high treason.”

Lancelot and Guinevere

Anne had forgotten the rules of courtly love, her teasing had got out of control, she had “put her foot in it” and gone too far, hence Norris’s horrified reaction in saying that if he had thought to replace the king then he deserved to lose his head.

Anne then set out to put things right, she went into “damage control” mode and ordered Norris to go to John Skyp, her almoner and chaplain, to take an oath that Anne “was a good woman”. This may well have been a mistake, perhaps she would have been better simply forgetting the reckless words and letting it all blow over, as it may be Norris’s oath that caused suspicion. Did this “row” with Norris or his oath to the almoner lead to a confrontation with her husband, the King? We don’t know, but Alexander Alesius provided Anne and Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, with a narrative about an encounter between her parents, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII on Sunday 30th April:-

“Never shall I forget the sorrow which I felt when I saw the most serene queen, your most religious mother, carrying you, still a little baby, in her arms and entreating the most serene king, your father, in Greenwich Palace, from the open window of which he was looking into the courtyard, when she brought you to him. I did not perfectly understand what had been going on, but the faces and gestures of the speakers plainly showed that the king was angry, although he could conceal his anger wonderfully well. Yet, from the protracted conference of the council (for whom the crowd was waiting until it was quite dark, expecting that they would return to London), it was most obvious to everyone that some deep and difficult question was being discussed.”

Was Anne trying to protest her innocence to a husband who had heard about her altercation with Norris, his trusted friend?

While her words to Norris certainly do not provide evidence for an affair with Norris or a plot to kill the King, Walker writes of how these words, combined with the amorous attention that the Queen was receiving from male courtiers and the fact that Madge Shelton, one of her ladies, was “the subject of sexual interest from more than one quarter”, may well have made an investigator looking into allegations of adultery think that “things in Anne’s household might seem smoky enough to suggest a good deal of fire”.

To me this episode was nothing more than Anne reprimanding or teasing Norris, she just used the wrong words to do it! Imagine if you can being married and having your friend live with you. You’re married and she’s in a relationship with a nice young man and they’ve been going out for a few years, but, although your friend wants to get engaged, the man is just not committing. You notice how he always seems to come around when you are at home, so one day you reprimand him for taking so long to pop the question to your friend and tease him that he fancies you:-

“Or is it me you fancy? I’m taken, you can’t have me!”

But, in saying this to Norris, Anne Boleyn made the fatal mistake of mentioning the death of the King: “You look for dead men’s shoes” or “you’re looking to replace the King”. She didn’t mean anything by it but I can imagine her horror when she realised what she had done, that she had committed treason by mentioning the King’s death. No wonder she quickly set out to out things right, but it was too late!

Gossip and Jokes

Greg Walker writes of how it was “unguarded speech and gossip”, rather than adultery or incest, that condemned Anne Boleyn, quoting the words of Anne’s aunt, Lady Boleyn: “such desire as you have ha[d to such tales] has brought you to this”.

Not only had Anne’s flirtation and teasing got out of control, it also seems that the Queen’s household was a hotbed of gossip and that Anne had joked about the King. Her jokes at the King’s expense were said to have been regarding his sexual inadequacies, his ballads and his dress. Chapuys had reported that Anne had told Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, that the King “nestoit habile en cas de soy copuler avec femme et qu’il navoit ne vertu ne puissance” – in other words, the King was incapable of sexual intercourse because he was impotent, he did not have the potency or vigour. Lord Rochford (George Boleyn) had even joked that Elizabeth was not the King’s child and it was this kind of joking and gossip that probably caused George and Anne to be accused of incest – payback!

Walker concludes his article by saying:-

“What are we to make, then, of the queen’s fall? We are left with a lot of smoke but precious little fire, and once the smoke has cleared the battleground seems rather less menacing than it once did…But they [the charges against Anne] were devastating, not because they were true, but because there was sufficient smoke around Anne’s household over the weekend of 29-30 April to give them credibility, credibility that was seemingly cemented by Mark Smeaton’s confession…Anne was convicted, not because of what she had done, but of what she had said: to her brother, as they laughed about the king’s sexual inadequacies and other foibles, to Mark Smeaton, when she snubbed him publicly less than twenty-four hours before he was arrested, and most obviously to Henry Norris when she foolishly joked about the sacrosanct subject of the king’s death.”

Anne’s words, the climate of courtly love in her household, her flaw of speaking without thinking and her love of joking were not the cause of her downfall, but they were used against her and provided convenient ammunition for those who sought to bring down the Queen and the Boleyn faction.

Some of you may think that the whole tradition of courtly love was just trouble waiting to happen, and perhaps it was, but it was a convention of that time, it was the fashion and it was expected for Anne to have that type of “climate” in her household – she was queen afterall and her husband thought he was King Arthur, the master of chivalry. It’s just sad that something innocent and traditional was twisted by Anne’s enemies.



Check out the Red Hood which Kris has just made to match our Anne Boleyn Pembroke Dress! You now have the choice of a crown (such as the Anne Boleyn Pearl Crown in ruby), a tiara (Anne Boleyn Pearl Tiara) or a traditional French Hood. I just wish that Tudor costume would come back into fashion!

22 thoughts on “Courtly love, Flirtation and the Fall of Anne Boleyn – Part Two”

  1. Anne says:

    I was thinking that one scene in Tudors had that dialoge betwen Anne and Henry Norris and in my opinion it gave a possible answer.Anne is distressed because of Jane Seymour and Henry and she’s drinking.Suddenly she sees Norris staring at her openly(earlier one of her ladies told her that Norris is coming for her and not Madge) and she snaps.She asks if he has intetions to marry Madge and when he implies that no,she gets angry and accuse him of looking to get into dead man’s shoes.When he answers that this is treason,she says that she can arrange for him to lose his head.So while we see her angry(and a little drunk),we forget that the ladies in the room had heard important things such as the king’s death,Anne implying marriage to Norris etc,something,which later was used against them.It was important whta has been said and no how it was said

  2. Eliza says:

    I really can understand Anne, because I, as well, tend to say things I don’t really mean sometimes and later realize their true importance. I like to tease people (not always!! 😉 ) and I don’t hold my tongue…

    I never realized that maybe Mark Smeaton confessed out of vengeance, because Anne didn’t reciprocate his feelings or because he could have been obsessed with her… Interesting theory!!

    Thanks for the lovely article, Claire!

  3. Marina says:

    Could Mark Smeaton’s confession to adultery with Anne just be the result of being tortured? Maybe I am getting mixed up with The Tudors and historical fact but what choice do you have when someone is inflicting pain on you?! Of course you are going to admit to what the torturer wants to hear!

  4. Claire says:

    Hi Marina,
    It is not known for certain whether Smeaton was tortured. George Constantine (servant to Norris) wrote of hearing that Smeaton was “grievously racked” and the Cronica del Rey Enrico (the Spanish Chronicles), which were often full of rumour and gossip, reported that Smeaton was forced to confess by Cromwell tightening a knotted rope around his head, just like in “The Tudors”. It is likely that Smeaton was forced in some way, be it physical or psychological, to confess.

  5. Claire says:

    Hi Anne,
    It is so easy to say things in the heat of the moment but it was foolish for Anne to say what she did and probably in front of quite an audience. How sad though that it wasn’t taken in the spirit of how it was said and was instead twisted into treason.

  6. Claire says:

    Hi Eliza,
    I don’t actually agree with the whole confessing out of vengeance idea, seems a bit far to go for revenge as Smeaton was giving up his own life, unless he had been promised a pardon. I think he was either forced to confess or that he felt that he had committed adultery by lusting over Anne.

    Yes, those of us with quick tempers and “foot in mouth” syndrome definitely understand how Anne got into trouble!

  7. Eliza says:

    You are right, Claire, this theory is definately far-fetched. If he was tortured I really feel for him, but if he truly believe that lusting after someone is adultery, well, he took so many lives with him for nothing.

  8. Sharon says:

    I feel I have to make clear my thoughts from my comments yesterday. I did not mean to imply that the story of Lancelot and Guenivere was the same as Anne’s. I don’t believe for a minute that Anne was in love with any of the men involved. I merely meant that Courtly Love was Guenivere’s demise as it became Anne’s in a totally different way.
    I understand that Courtly Love was a way of life at court in those days. I still think it was dangerous.
    I too have a quick temper and “foot -in-mouth” disease. I know my head would have been on the block had I lived back then. I get Anne completely.
    I really enjoyed this article Claire. A great read.

  9. Carolyn says:

    Anne and George may have been ‘snarking’ about the king because they were angry with him, but unable to do anything about it. Anne was upset over his affairs and her inability to carry a second pregnancy to term. I can see her words to her sister-in-law as perhaps a sharp answer to a question like “Why aren’t you pregnant again yet?”. Anne may have snapped something like, “It’s not my fault! I can barely get him to make love to me anymore, and when he tries, he’s frequently impotent!” And George, making a bad joke, chimes in “Yes, it’s amazing he managed to father Elizabeth!”

    George was losing out on favors that had been earmarked for him, but were now suddenly being given to friends and family of Jane. And so brother and sister snipe at Henry out of frustration, never dreaming that those words would be dredged up and repeated. I can imagine Anne exclaiming, “Oh, God he’s wearing that outfit I hate again!” or George snickering about his lack of poetry skills, “But everyone pretends it’s wonderful since he’s the king!”

    Unwise actions, certainly. But I’ve got a quick temper and quicker tongue some days, myself, and then need to apologize. I don’t think I deserve to die for snapping at or about someone when I’m having a bad day. Neither did they.

    1. margaret says:

      yes things can be taken out of context ,but anne should not have been talking like that about henry to anyone and we are talking 500 years ago and cannot compare with 21st century thinking and also she was a queen in a very delicate time when everyone had to watch what they said or be up for treason

  10. Sheena says:

    I don’t know how many times I have heard people oke around about there kids. Growing up, my one of my sisters didn’t resemble my father as much as me and my other sister did, so my mother would joke that she was “the milk man’s.” Could you imagine a joke like that being made in Tudor times? Every milk man for miles would be brought in and questioned! Goes to show just how much times have changed.

    As for Mark Smeaton- it was possible that he might have been mentally unstable, or obsessed with Anne. Remember that guy who confessed to killing Jon Benet Ramsey, only to have it turn out that he was a man who was obessed with her, and wanted to forever be linked with the little beauty queen? I am not saying that poor Mr. Smeaton was crazy, but there is a chance that he was in love or obsessed with her, and in the midst of getting tortured, fanstasy blurred with reality. We will never know.

    Once again great article!

  11. Louise says:

    Anne and George were accused of laughing at the King behind his back, and George was accused of questioning Elizabeth’s paternity. They were also accused of incest which no one here believes. Why should the more minor accusations be any more true than the serious ones? No one gave evidence in court that they had heard Anne and George saying these things. They were highly intelligent people. Would they have said such things in front of Boleyn enemies anyway?

    1. margaret says:

      with so many eyes wathching and ears listening it would have been a very dangerous time to make any sort of chance remark about anything ,however innocent ,anything could have taken for treasonous talk.

  12. Claire says:

    Hi Sharon,
    Don’t worry, I understood what you were saying and courtly love was definitely a dangerous game when not playing by the rules.

    Hi Louise, Carolyn and Sheena,
    Yes, I do wonder if Anne and George really did joke about the King. I can imagine them saying such things in private and perhaps Anne did confide in Jane Boleyn, but I can’t see them being so unwise as to repeat these things in public. As you say, Louise, they were more intelligent than that. However, Anne was unwise enough for one moment to say what she did to Norris and that was a big mistake and one she recognised immediately.

  13. Carolyn says:

    Absolutely, Claire. If they did make the remarks, they wouldn’t have done so in front of everyone. It seems the unfortunate remark to Norris was in front of witnesses and Anne immediately went into damage-control mode. That suggests to me she knew the dangers of saying anything publicly. Whether Lady Rochford was induced to repeat things said only amongst ‘family’, I don’t know.

  14. Anne says:

    I agree with you Claire,it was foolish of Anne to make such remarks that were so easy to twist.I believe that many of these quotes such as the kings impotency,virillity,Anne;s exchanges with those men etc have many explanations.Sometimes an angry remark,an innocent chat can take so many takes.For example the other day I got on a fight with my best friend over a joke.So I say that we people have the tendecy to hear what we want to hear.I’m quoting the article by saying that it didn’t actually matter if she was guilty of her crimes but that her words,innocent or not were translated for treason(I am sorry if there are any errors but english is not my native language)

  15. Anne Barnhill says:

    I do think Smeaton was put under some sort of pressure from Cromwell, whether it was actual torture or the threat of torture or the promise of release if he confessed. As for the others, yes, there were unwise words spoken but it was to Cromwell’s (and the King’s) advantage to do away with the whole Boleyn faction. To merely kill the Queen would have left strong, powerful, smart men to make trouble later. Courtly love was a custom we don’t really understand these days because we are free to choose our mates. But in those days, arranged marriages (sometimes to a man old enough to be your grandfather) must have resulted in a great deal of mooning over others, sometimes even having affairs. To give this urge respectability, the Courtly Love thing came about, a knight’s love for his chaste lady, serving her as need be. All very strange!

  16. margaret says:

    did katherine of aragon get involved in the courtly love thing ,i cant imagine her sitting there being wooed by young knights in shining armour whilst playing lutes ?

  17. What’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh. Anne Boleyn was no Catherine of Aragon; she had ‘commoner’ on a much closer limb of her family tree and once she felt secure in her hard-sought role as queen, her common roots led to her common comment to Norris. That sealed her fate; agree or disagree, she’d committed treason by then-law and was lucky in that H8 didn’t have her burnt at the stake.

    1. Claire says:

      She wasn’t a commoner, that is a myth, her mother was a member of the Howard family, one of the ancient noble families of England, and her father was the grandson of the Earl of Ormond and a family who had served the king as “botelers” for centuries.
      What do you mean by “common comment” and if it had sealed her fate then it would have been used as evidence against her and it wasn’t.

      1. Banditqueen says:

        Wasn’t Anne actually objecting to Henry Norris, firstly because he was paying court to one of her ladies but being unchivilarous by not yet asking for her hand in marriage, then because he was putting the Queens reputation at risk by mooning after her or paying attention to her rather than his lady and didn’t she rebuke him for paying her too much attention? Anne was jesting with Norris when she said he looked for dead mens shoes. Norris also protested he meant no harm and was outraged by her jest. Anne tried to make things right and there is no reference to this exchange in the charges. Whatever Anne said, it does not appear to have been taken as treason. It was Mark Smeaton who accused Norris. Anne’s fate was sealed because Henry or Cromwell conspired to get rid of her on false charges and the whole thing was a stitch up.

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