Last week, I wrote about William Brereton who turned out to be a bit of a Tudor bad boy, although perhaps not as bad as the Jesuit assassin Brereton from “The Tudors”! Well, this week, I’m going to introduce you to all round Mr Nice Guy, Henry Norris, a man who was known as “Gentle Mr Norris” and a man who was framed by Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, and let down by his good friend the King.
Henry Norris’s Background
I must say a big thank you to Josephine Wilkinson for her book “The Early Loves of Anne Boleyn” because she has a great section on Henry Norris and his family background, information that is sadly missing in many books on the men who were executed in the coup against Anne Boleyn – thanks, Josephine! Alison Weir also gives a fair bit of information on him in “The Lady in the Tower”.
Henry Norris was born sometime in the late 1490s and was thought to be a few years younger than Henry VIII who was born in 1491.He was the second son of Sir Edward Norris and his wife Frideswide, the daughter of Francis, Viscount Lovell, a man who had been a close friend of Richard III. Norris’s family had a long history of serving the monarch – his great-grandfather, Sir John Norris, had been Keeper of the Great Wardrobe to Henry VI and his grandfather, Sir William Norris had been Knight of the Body to Edward IV. Sir William Norris had been attainted after being involved in the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III and had been forced to flee to Brittany, where he joined the forces of Henry Tudor and may even have fought at the Battle of Bosworth. What we do know is that Sir William had a command in June 1487 at Stoke and went on to become the Lieutenant of Windsor Castle.
Although Alison Weir writes of Sir Henry’s mother being the daughter of Viscount Lovel, a supporter of Richard III, Josephine Wilkinson adds that she was descended from the de Veres of Oxford who had actually been enemies of Richard III.
Sometime prior to 1526, Henry Norris married Mary Fiennes, daughter of Lord Dacre. The couple had three children: Mary who grew up to marry Sir George Carew, Captain of the Mary Rose which sank in 1545 along with its captain and many of its crew; Henry, who was born around 1525 and who was educated in a reformist manner alongside Mary Boleyn’s son Henry Carey; and Edward who did not survive infancy, dying sometime around 1529. Norris was left a widower in around 1530.
A Royal Career
Henry Norris received his first royal grant as a young man in 1515 and by 1517 we know that he was serving in the King’s Privy Chamber. By 1518, he had obviously proved himself enough to be handling money for the King and Wilkinson writes of how he was probably made a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber in September 1518. Just a few months later, in January 1519, there is record of Norris receiving a annuity of 50 marks which shows the high regard that the King must have had for him, he was definitely on the rise and was a royal favourite.
His popularity and his loyalty to the King meant that he survived as Gentleman of the Privy Chamber when Cardinal Wolsey “weeded out” some of Henry’s men in May 1519 and we know that he attended the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. Like the King, he was a sportsman, excelling at jousting, and Wilkinson writes of how he was always an active participant in court festivities and pageants and was attractive and popular.
Sometime before 1529, Norris became Groom of the Stool and by stool I mean toilet! The man who had this job had to “preside over the office of royal excretion” (defined by Bruce Boehrer,”The Privy and Its Double: Scatology and Satire in Shakespeare’s Theatre,” in Dutton, Richard; Jean Elizabeth Howard (2003). A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: Poems, problem) which, to put it simply, meant wiping the royal bottom! Although this sounds an appalling job, David Starkey says:
“The Groom of the Stool had (to our eyes) the most menial tasks; his standing, though, was the highest … Clearly then, the royal body service must have been seen as entirely honorable, without a trace of the demeaning or the humiliating.”
So, wiping the royal bottom was a good job in those days!
However awful this job sounds, it did make Norris and the King very intimate and they became firm friends.Weir writes about the importance of Norris’s position as Groom of the Stool, saying:
“Yet there was more to his role than that [being present when the King performed his basic natural functions], for any who wished to present a petition to the King had to lay their request before Norris, rather than Cromwell, something that Cromwell may rather have resented.”
Henry Norris was the King’s closest companion and he controlled access ot the King’s private chambers, and the King himself, was able to advise and influence the King and could exercise patronage by recommending people to the King. No wonder, Cromwell included Norris in his coup against Anne!
Josephine Wilkinson also writes of how Henry Norris held the position of Keeper of the Privy Purse which involved him looking after gifts that the King had been given, such as jewellery. Norris’s high favour was also shown by the fact that he was appointed keeper of the manor of Placentia (Greenwich) and also of East Greenwich Park and Tower. When Sir William Compton died in 1528, Sir Henry Norris took his place as royal favourite, a position that he deserved, being a popular and trustworthy man. The King obviously trusted Norris because he gave him very important, and rather “delicate” jobs. For example, it was Norris who carried the King’s secret letters and message to Wolsey after the Cardinal’s fall from Grace and the fact that Wolsey rewarded him with a precious cross containing a piece of the true cross of Christ, and a cross that Wolsey always wore next to his skin, shows that Norris must have treated the Cardinal with much respect, courtesy and kindness.
Other posts that Henry Norris held include Chamberlain of North Wales (appointed in 1531), Master of the Hart Hounds and of the Hawks, Black Rod in the Parliament House, Graver of the Tower of London, Weigher of the Goods at the port of Southampton, Collector of Subsidy in the City of London, High Steward of the University of Oxford and steward or keeper of various parks, manors and castles. These positions, offices and lands meant that Norris was able to boost his rather modest income of £33.6s.8d (about £11,650) by a staggering £400 (£139,700) – a huge amount!
Alison Weir describes Norris as a “discreet, level-headed man of proven integrity” and also writes of how ” he was not only the Chief Gentleman of H’s Privy Chamber, which was the King’s private household, but its most trusted member and ‘the best-beloved of the King'”. Do you get the picture that Norris was a nice guy?!
Henry Norris and the Boleyns
It is thought that Norris had been a member of the Boleyn faction since at least 1530, around the time that he was widowed. He had much in common with Anne Boleyn and her circle, being of a reformist persuasion, and Weir writes of how Norris’s man servant, George Constantine had been a “zealous Protestant and trafficker in forbidden books”, so much so that he had only escaped being burned as a heretic by Sir Thomas More in 1531 by fleeing abroad. it was Norris who brought Constantine back to court, under his protection, and helped him bring back a copy of Miles Coverdale’s English translation of the Bible for Anne Boleyn.
In 1533, Norris’s favour with both the King and Anne Boleyn led to him being one of the witnesses at their secret marriage and it was in the 1530s that Norris started courting Mistress Shelton*, the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn’s sister, Anne, and her husband Sir John Shelton. This courtship came to nothing and it was Anne’s teasing of Norris’s lack of commitment to Mistress Shelton and her words to Sir Francis Weston, who also seemed keen on Mistress Shelton, that were used against Anne in Cromwell’s plot to oust the Queen and her circle.
So, how did the King’s closest and most trusted companion come to be executed for treason on 17th May 1536? How could such a popular and “gentlemanly” chap come to such an ugly and brutal end? Find out in my next post…
- “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
* It is commonly thought that Norris was courting Margaret Shelton (Madge) but some historians argue that Madge and Mary have been mixed up because of “Marg” and “Mary” looking similar in Tudor handwriting.
Happy Thanksgiving to those who will be celebrating with family and friends on Thursday! Daniela and Tiffini will not be working on Thursday but I will be – boo hoo!