Posted By Claire on December 1, 2009
As I said at the end of last week’s post on Henry Norris, although we don’t know exactly when his wife died we do know that by around 1530 Norris was a widower and was courting one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies, Mistress Shelton. This courtship, along with his close friendship with the King and his reformist views, led to him being a prominent member of the Boleyn faction and it was his membership of this “clique” which led to his downfall.
On Sunday 30th April 1536, Anne Boleyn, or rather Queen Anne, was teasing Norris about his long courtship and asked him, according to Anne’s own words said to one of Cromwell’s spies in the Tower, “why he went not through with his marriage, and he made answer that he would tarry a time.” Anne took this to mean that Norris was reluctant to marry Madge Shelton because he actually had feelings for her, so she reprimanded him with the now infamous words:
“You look for dead men’s shoes, for if aught should come to the King but good, you would look to have me.”
Henry Norris was quite rightly shocked by these words because they went far further than the normal rituals of courtly love and replied in emphatic denial that “if he should have any such thought, he would his head were off”.
Alison Weir writes, in “The Lady in the Tower”, of how the usual rituals of courtly love called for a lover to importune a mistress, for a courtier to make love sighs and compliments to a queen, not for a queen to importune a courtier, which is what Anne could be said to be doing here. Norris knew that Anne’s words could be misinterpreted and that the 1351 Statute of Treason covered imagining and compassing the death of the sovereign, and he was right to be nervous and worried. Anne then said that “she could undo him if she would, and therewith they fell out”.
Weir says of this episode that:
“people might (and indeed would) think that she had flirted outrageously, gone way beyond the accepted rules of courtly banter, been overfamiliar with Norris, at the very least, or was even actively plotting the King’s assassination”
and Josephine Wilkinson writes:
“it was Anne who had acted and spoken inappropriately. No longer was the convention, in which the gentleman made love-sighs at his lady being followed. Now it was the lady, Anne, who had reversed the role, spoken out of turn and had inadvertently placed herself and Norris in grave danger.”
It wasn’t just Norris who realised the seriousness of this banter gone too far, Anne also realised that she had gone too far and so she begged Norris to go to John Skip, her almoner, to “swear for the Queen that she was a good woman” but it turns out that all this did was to make Skip suspicious and so he went to Sir Edward Baynton, Anne’s chamberlain, with the story and Baynton went straight to Cromwell and Sir William Fitzwilliam. I can just imagine Cromwell rubbing his hands with glee at this bit of news and how easy it must have been to elaborate on this story and use it as inspiration in making up other stories of adultery. Anne’s words could be twisted to suit his purpose and could be used to accuse Anne and Norris of treason. Anne had unwittingly given Cromwell the perfect ammunition to use against her. Cromwell must have realised how an alleged relationship between Anne and one of the King’s best friends would have shocked the King, perhaps blinding him to the truth, and be seen as the ultimate act of betrayal.
May Day 1536
It was just one day after Anne’s conversation with Henry Norris that Cromwell’s plans fell into place and things started moving. It is not clear how much the King knew of Cromwell’s plans and the accusations against Anne and the five men, but Henry Norris was one of the main defenders in the May Day jousts and when his horse became uncontrollable and “refused the lists and turned away as if conscious of the impending calamity to his master”, it was the King himself who gave Norris his own horse to carry on jousting. Was this a last act of kindness? Was it to lull Norris into a false sense of security or was the King unaware of events at this time? It’s hard to say.
Nicholas Sanders, a man whose words we should take with a pinch of salt, tells of how “the Queen dropping her handkerchief, one of her gallants [assumed to be Norris] took it up and wiped his face with it” and goes on to describe how the King stormed off in jealousy and anger at this proof of intimacy. Charles Wriothesley (a contemporary chronicler), however, does not mention this incident and neither do other contemporary sources so I suspect that it is a figment of Sanders’s imagination and part of his effort to blacken Anne Boleyn’s name.
According to Alexander Aless, sometime on Sunday 30th April or early on 1st May, before the May Day jousts, Anne and Henry argued. In a letter to Elizabeth in 1559, Aless wrote his eye-witnes account of this argument, saying:
“Never shall I forget the sorrow 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 the King was angry, although he could conceal his anger wonderfully well.”
Alison Weir wonders Anne had approached Henry to try and explain herself after realising how her conversation with Norris could be misconstrued. Was she begging the King for mercy? We just don’t know. “The Tudors” series showed Anne approaching Henry with little Elizabeth in her arms and begging for him to listen to her, beseeching him to be merciful and Henry striding off in anger leaving Anne to fall to her knees. This scene is very poignant and may well have happened.
Arrest and Questioning
There is evidence that towards the end of the jousts Henry VIII received a message and left abruptly, leaving his puzzled wife to watch the action and worry over her husband’s behaviour. We do not know the content of this message but we can speculate that it told the King that Mark Smeaton had confessed. Henry Norris and William Brereton were both informed that the King needed to speak to them urgently and while Brereton was detained for questioning it seems that the King rode back with Norris, interrogating him on the way. George Constantine, Norris’s man servant reported that the king “rode suddenly to Westminster, and all the way, as I heard say, had Norris in examination” and Lancelot de Carles wrote of how “Before [Norris] went to prison, the King desired to speak to him”. According to Constantine the King “promised him [Norris] his pardon [if] he would utter the truth”.
But what was Norris actually being accused of at this time?
Eric Ives is of the opinion that the initial accusation against Norris was of concealing Mark Smeaton’s adultery with the Queen and that it was only when he denied knowldege of this that it was assumed that Norris himself was involved and the conversation with Anne was used against him. Ives writes:
“Of itself, the pretence that Norris loved his sovereign’s wife was the common currency of courtly dalliance. What made the Norris episode so dangerous was the current tension at court and the fact that the queen was the aggressor. The rules said that the courtier should proposition the great lady, but Anne had reversed the roles. At once that put Norris’s reply on a different level. Anne was attempting to force a commitment far beyond convention. Even worse, “if ought came to the king but good you would look to have me” could be interpreted as Anne having a personal interest in Norris, hence the oath offered to her almoner”.
There were, according to Carles, witnesses to Anne’s rash words to Norris, but Norris knew that he was guilty of nothing but conversing with the queen and although Carles states that the King offered “to spare [Norris’s] life and goods, although he was guilty, if he would tell him the truth”, Constantine reports that “Mr Norris would confess nothing to the King”. Carles even suggests that Norris offered to submit to trial by combat – ” Being told the accusation, [he]offered to maintain the contrary with his body in any place”. Either Norris did not trust Henry’s word or he was innocent.
After interrogating Norris, the King order Cromwell to proceed against him and when Norris arrived at York Place he was taken away bySir William Fitzwilliam who, with other members of the Privy Council, questioned him. Norris had gone from being the King’s most trusted friend to being treated like a criminal, how far he had fallen.
Norris’s manservant, George Constantine, was informed by Norris’s chaplain that Norris did actually confess to something during this interrogation and we also have the words that Chapuys wrote to Dr Ortiz, the Imperial ambassador in Rome, when he said that “two of the five confessed their guilt”. Cromwell also wrote of a second confession when he wrote to Stephen Gardiner saying that the Queen’s lovers had disclosed things in questioning that were “so abominable that a great part of them were never given in evidence but clearly kept secret”.
So, did Norris confess to adultery with the Queen?
I highly doubt it. When he was taken under guard to the Tower of London at dawn on the 2nd of May he told his chaplain “I would rather die a thousand deaths than be guilty of such a falsehood” and Norris later said that Fitzwilliam had tricked him into confessing. Alison Weir states that this is the second independent account of Fitzwilliam coercing the men into incriminating themselves. I wonder how he did it? Although Cromwell and his team may have tortured Mark Smeaton, who was seen as expendable, I doubt that they would have dared to rack such an important person as Norris.
Why Pick on Norris?
As I said last week, Henry Norris was a popular, kindly gentleman who was a close friend of the King’s, so why on earth did Cromwell want to get rid of him, after all, it was a big risk to move against such a prominent and influential person and one who had the King’s favour?
Well, some people like Wolsey’s servant George Cavendish believed that Norris was actually guilty. Cavendish was of the opinion that Norris’s ambition had blinded him and caused him to sin against the King:-
“My chance was such I had all thing at will,
And in my wealth I was to him unkind,
That thus to me did all my mind fulfil,
All his benevolence was clean out of mind:
Oh, alas, alas, in my heart how could I find
Against my sovereign so secretly conspire,
That so gently gave me all that I desire?”
(Cavendish ” Metrical Visions”)
Another reason is, as Weir suggests, that “Norris, Brereton and Weston were long-standing intimates of the King, so to betray him with them rendered Anne’s infidelity all the more heinous.” How awful to be cuckolded by your wife but how much worse it is for the other man to be your best friend!
But, there were also political reasons for getting rid of Sir Henry Norris. Norris was in a position of power and influence and Cromwell knew that if he moved against Anne then Norris would surely defend her and perhaps persuade the King to get rid of Cromwell. Cromwell knew that a move against Anne needed to be a move against all of her supporters too. Cromwell also wanted to replace Norris with his own man “in order to extend his influence into the inner sanctum of power” (Weir), so that he could influence the King. In his mind, Anne and her supporters had far too much influence on Henry VIII.
But where was the King in all of this?
Alison Weir defends Henry and paints him as an innocent victim of Cromwell’s coup against Anne and her faction, saying that “It is hard to believe that Henry would have been party to sacrificing the faithful Norris, knowing him to be innocent, merely as a means of ridding himself of Anne” and that Henry must have been both distraught and outraged by the betrayal of his friend. BUT, Henry VIII had sacrificed friends before, just look at the example of Sir Thomas More! I don’t think the “sacrifice” of Norris clears Henry and although I believe that Cromwell was the instigator of the coup against Anne, and that it was, as Ives says, a “faction battle”, I do wonder if Cromwell could have done everything he did without the King knowing.
Cavendish, who was convinced of Norris’s guilt, imagined Norris looking back on his interrogation by the King with regrets:-
“His [Henry’s] most noble heart lamented so my chance,
That of his clemency he granted me my life,
In case I would, without dissimulance,
The truth declare of his unchaste wife,
The spotted Queen, causer of all his strife;
But I most obstinate, with heart as hard as stone,
Denied his grace – good cause therefore to moan”
(Cavendish “Metrical Visions”)
The End of Days
After being interrogated by both the King and a group of Privy Councillors, Norris was taken to the Tower and imprisoned there while he awaited trial. Anne Boleyn was also arrested and taken to the Tower and when she heard that Norris was also a prisoner there she said to Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower:
“Oh, Norris, hast thou accused me? Thou art in the Tower with me, and thou and I shall die together.”
Cromwell surrounded Anne with ladies who would report back to him, spies in fact. These ladies would attend the Queen in the Tower but they would also ask her questions and report back things that Anne said to Kingston, who would then write them down and send them to Cromwell. Lady Shelton, Madge’s mother and Anne’s aunt, was one of the ladies chosen to spy on the Queen and Alison Weir wonders if she was willing to spy on her niece because she felt that Anne was responsible for sullying her daughter’s reputation, by encouraging her to have an affair with the King, and that she also wanted to bring down Norris and Weston who had treated her daughter badly, in her eyes.
A Mrs Coffin was also one of Anne’s ladies and she was ordered to ask Anne about Sir Henry Norris and why Norris went to Anne’s almoner to swear for the Queen and Mrs Coffin reported Anne’s answer as being “Marry, I bade him do so”. Kingston’s report to Cromwell of what was said next is damaged but it appears that Anne said that Norris “came more to her chamber for her than for Madge”.
Kingston also reported back to Cromwell about a conversation that Norris had in his Tower prison with “a knave to his priest that waited upon him” but this report is also badly damaged but Alison Weir concludes that it was about a conversation regarding Norris’s alleged confession to Fitzwilliam and that Norris said “[If any man wishes to make?] any thing of my confession he is worthy to have [his opinion?…But if he believes/accepts?] hyt [it] I defy him.”
As soon as Henry Norris was in the Tower, the vultures descended. As soon as the 2nd May, Richard Staverton of Warfield, Berkshire, wrote a letter to Cromwell asking for Norris’s properties near Windsor. On 3rd May, just two days after Norris was detained, an inventory of his wardrobe was drawn up and then on 5th May the Bishop of Lincoln, John Longland, wrote to Cromwell offering to transfer Norris’s stewardship of Oxford University to Cromwell if Cromwell was willing to pay a small fee. Then, on the 11th May, the Abbot of Cirencester wrote to Cromwell to say that he had promised Norris’s stewardship of the abbey to Sir William Kingston. It looks like Norris’s fate was sealed days before his trial.
As you know, Henry Norris was charged with treason, through committing adultery with the Queen and compassing the King’s death, but here are the specific charges from the Middlesex and Kent indictments that pertain to Norris
“On Oct 6th, 25 Henry VIII  at Westminster, and divers days before and after, she [Anne Boleyn] procured by sweet words, kisses, touches and otherwise, Hen. Norris, of Westminster, gentleman of the Privy Chamber, to violate her, by reason whereof he did so at Westminster on the 12th Oct, 25 Henry VIII , and they had illicit intercourse, both before and after, sometimes by his procurement and sometimes by that of the Queen.”
“Furthermore that the Queen and other of the said traitors, jointly and severally, 31 Oct. 27 Henry VIII , at Westminster, and at various times before and after, compassed and imagined the King’s death; and that the Queen had frequently promised to marry some one of the traitors whenever the King should depart this life, affirming she would never love the King in her heart”
The Indictment of the Grand Jury of Kent
This indictment accused Anne, Rochford, Norris, Weston and Brereton of compassing the King’s death on 9th January at Greenwich.
Have you noticed what I noticed? The date of the 30th April, when we KNOW that Anne said the words that could be seen as treason, is not mentioned. Why? I cannot understand why this conversation was not used, when there were witnesses, and why Cromwell had to make up other instances. Bizarre. In fact, the dates just do not make sense at all. Eric Ives points out that in 12 of the occasions cited in the indictment Anne was not at the place named or the man in question was not at the place, and Ives says that Cromwell was very careless in picking the 6th October and 12th October for Anne’s solicitation of Norris and adultery with him at Westminster because there is evidence that Anne was actually in Greenwich “in purdah”, recovering from childbirth and unchurched. Would a woman who was recovering from childbirth and who was probably still bleeding really be in the mood for seduction and sex? I think not. Also to have sexual intercourse without being churched just wasn’t the done thing. A couple would wait until there had been a public ceremony of blessing and thanksgiving for the woman’s health and recovery before resuming their sex life.
Norris, Weston, Brereton and Smeaton, as commoners, were tried by a special sessions of oyer and terminer and although the official records of proceedings are missing, we do have some eye witness reports. Norris declared “When his own confession was laid afore him, that he was deceived”, into confessing by Fitzwilliam and then retracted the confession saying that if anyone used it against him “he is worthy to have my place here; and if he stand to it, I defy him”. Alison Weir makes the point that “the Crown was implying that Anne’s relationship with Norris was far more serious than the casual affairs she had supposedly had with the other accused”, which is far from how things began with Norris being accused of knowing about Anne and Smeaton’s relationship, rather than being involved with the Queen himself.
All four men were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, a sentence that was commuted by the King to death by beheading.
On Wednesday the 17th May, the men, along with Rochford who had also been found guilty, were led out of the Tower to a scaffold that had been erected on Tower Hill. Norris’s servant, George Constantine, witnessed the executions and writes of how Rochford was executed first, because of his rank, and Norris was second. Although some sources have Weston as going second, Constantine’s report makes more sense as Norris was higher in rank than Weston. According to Constantine, “the others confessed, all but Mr Norris, who said almost nothing at all”, but Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, reported that Norris said:
” I do not think that any gentleman of the court owes more to [the King] than I do, and hath been more ungrateful and regardless of it than I have”
and then Burnet writes of how Norris spoke out in defence of the Queen:
“loyally averred that in his conscience, he thought the Queen innocent of these things laid to her charge; but whether she was or not, he would not accuse her of any thing, and he would die a thousand times rather than ruin an innocent person.”
The Spanish Chronicle report on the executions of the four men states that Norris “made a great long prayer” and said that he deserved death because he had been ungrateful to the King. Crispin de Milherve wrote that all five men “suffered a death which they had no way deserved” and that even their executioner “shed tears, but the bloody corpses were allowed to lie on the scaffold for hours, half-dressed”.
Henry Norris’s body was buried in the same grave as that of Sir Francis Weston in the graveyard of St Peter ad Vincula but it is said that Norris’s family managed to claim his head and bury it in the private chapel of their family home, Ockwell Manor, near Maidenhead in Berkshire. A sad end to a life of loyalty and kindness.
Norris’s offices were given to new people, with the Duke of Richmond, Henry VIII’s illegitimate son being appointed Chancellor and Chamberlain of North Wales, Cromwell’s man, Thomas Heneage, being made Groom of the Stool and the office of park keeper at Windsor going to Norris’s brother, who was a gentleman usher of the King’s chamber. We also know that Jane Seymour’s brother Edward was given Norris’s house at Kew, a nice gift for the brother of the new Queen.
Anne and Norris
Was there any truth in the allegations made against Anne and Norris? I don’t believe so, although historians like G W Bernard may argue that Anne was guilty of some of the charges. I cannot see that Anne Or Norris were willing to risk their lives for an illicit affair, they were both intelligent people and knew what happened to those who crossed the King. But, Alison Weir wonders whether Anne loved Norris, even if she did not act on these feelings. Anne apparently said to one of her ladies in the Tower “that she had never offended with her body against the King”, so does this suggest that although she may not have offended the King with her body she may have done so with her heart? Did she secretly love someone else, someone like Norris? I don’t think so, but it is an interesting question to ponder.
Thomas Wyatt, in his poem, “In Mourning Wise Since Daily I Increase”, about the men’s executions, writes of Norris:
“Ah! Norris, Norris, my tears begin to run,
To think what hap did thee so lead or guide,
Whereby thou hast both these and thine undone,
That is bewailed in court on every side,
In place also where thou hast never been,
Both man and child doth piteously thee moan;
They say, “Alas, thou art for ever seen
By their offences to be both dead and gone.”
From his words, it appears that Wyatt thought Norris was guilty and he wasn’t the only one. Although it is evident that Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, felt that Anne was innocent, because Cromwell had admitted to him that he had “thought up and plotted” Anne’s fall, he reported that “the Archbishop of Canterbury declared by sentence that the Concubine’s daughter was the bastard of Mr Norris, and not the King’s daughter”. This report seems to have been based on the gossip that was doing the rounds at court that summer and this was never declared and the King accepted Elizabeth as his daughter.
So, what do you think of Henry Norris and his fate? Also what do you think of the idea that Anne may actually have loved Norris, even if she did not act on it? Is this just reading too much into Anne’s words? Let me know your thoughts.
- “The Lady in the Tower” by Alison Weir
- “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn” by Eric Ives
- “The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn” by Retha Warnicke
- Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII
- “The Early Loves of Anne Boleyn” by Josephine Wilkinson
P.S. Don’t forget to check out yesterday’s post on the latest addition to our shop – The Anne Boleyn French Hood.