The 1st May was and is May Day, a day to celebrate the beginning of summer. At the royal court, it was celebrated with a special May Day joust and in 1536 this took place at Greenwich Palace.

Henry VIII and his second wife, Queen Anne Boleyn, attended the joust just as they had in previous years, but this one ended with the king abandoning his queen unexpectedly. If Anne hadn’t figured out that something was going on before this point, she surely must have been suspicious at the king’s sudden departure.

We know that court musician Mark Smeaton had been arrested the previous day and that within 24 hours he’d confessed to sleeping with the queen. However, Anne was in the dark. Bad things were happening around her, but she did not know what was going on.

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7 thoughts on “The 1536 May Day Joust”
  1. First off I don’t put much stock in the rantings of Nicholas Sanders. Second, Henry doesn’t seem to me to have been the kind of person to control his temper. If he really believed Henry Norris were guilty of anything I don’t think he would have shown him the kindness of offering his own horse. I am more apt to think in Henry’s mind if he could get Norris to confess to ANYTHING it would make the charges against Anne seem more

  2. Anne Boleyn was dancing on the edge of the precipice on 1 May; she was unaware and there’s such poignancy in her going about her regular business while she suspected, but could not know, the catastrophic events about to unfold.

  3. I can just see that fateful scene played out as it must have been nearly five hundred years ago, the pennets fluttering in the breeze the gaily dressed crowds, the beautiful horses stamping about nostrils flaring and their riders eager to start the joust, a scene that is very old and quintessentially English, the King a giant of a man with a golden red beard and sparkling with jewels, his queen beside him, slender and elegant in the Royal seats, as she dressed that morning for the May Day celebrations perhaps she felt that the argument she had had with her husband the previous day had passed and today coinciding with the warm may sunshine her troubles had passed, if she did she was deceiving herself and somehow I don’t think she was that optimistic, a good row can clear the cobwebs and they had always had rows before followed by passionate making up, but this time it was different, she knew Henrys feelings had changed towards her and her own sometimes vicious tongue had not helped the situation, although with the heightened sixth sense of a person who foretell disaster closing in on them, she could never have dreamed in what form it would take, gazing at the jousting she must have tried to enjoy the event and maybe she was passing light conversation with Henry before some one came to whisper something to him, and according to all accounts he got up and strode abruptly away, without saying a word to the queen and leaving curious glances in his direction, Anne felt the first tremors of alarm as she gazed after her husband, he had not said one word to her simply left so she must have tried to ignore the whispers and furtive looks, she must have been used to them by now and carried on presiding over the games, she did not know it but she was never to look on her husband’s face again, she would never hear his voice and look into his eyes, she was never going to preside over another May Day celebration, or in fact any other from that moment her life as queen of England was effectively over.

  4. This is the joust from hell. Anne must have suspected something was afoot and had quarelled with Henry the previous day and her musician was missing. Her visit to France was also cancelled. Now she had to go out and smile and wave and be the Queen of Beauty and so on. Seeing Henry, apparently in a good mood, generously lending Norris his horse and enjoying the feats of George Boleyn and others, may have reassured her, put her mind temporarily at rest. I don’t believe Henry expected Norris to be named. His mood changed on the receipt of a note, most probably news that Smeaton had confessed and had blamed Norris as well and now the snake struck his victims. Henry turned, left the tournament and took Norris with him.

    Nobody else was given a chance to either explain or confess their alleged crimes to the King and offered a pardon, which shows how close Henry Norris had been to his King and how trusted he was. He knew him well enough to remain truthful, even defend the Queen’s honour, but Henry didn’t trust his friend enough to believe his word. For whatever reason, Henry, who should have been more discerning when it came to one as close to him as Norris, chose to believe his friend a liar, adulterer and a traitor. Maybe he didn’t care anymore. Whatever Henry now believed or didn’t believe, he had started this whole thing with Thomas Cromwell and ordered an investigation and case be made to rid him of Anne Boleyn. He couldn’t back out now, just because he was uncomfortable about were the later evidence came from or to whom it pointed. He had to go with it.

    I doubt that Anne was flirting in the way described by later sources and her dropping a handkerchief and angering the King is rather far fetched. Yes, it is possible she handed her favour to Norris and he mopped his brow, but so what, giving a favour on a hot day to a knight was quite normal. It hardly signals a hot love affair. Most of these stories are invented and might look good in Anne of 1000 Days, but their origins are not very credible. Anne clearly normally would have enjoyed this event, but given the tensions of the day and how ill at ease she was, it is highly unlikely that she would behave in any way that would draw attention to herself. Anne was aware that eyes were on her and made sure she was discreet.

    Things moved very quickly over the next few days, with Norris and Smeaton quickly in the Tower and George Boleyn to follow, then Anne the next day and the others, one after the other, seven in total. More evidence that much of this was planned in advance is that the Seord of Calais was summoned before the trial. Parts of the Grand Jury indictment and considerations reflect the later charges. It was all in place very quickly and it was all over in just 19 days. This was the first day of one of the biggest miscarriage of justice in history.

    1. I think Cromwell said to Henry that in order to remove the queen from her position certain people would have to be sacrificed, both of them obviously did not expect Norris’s name to come up, the King was fond of his old friend and faithful retainer and didn’t want to have him killed so he tried to get him to confess his reward was that his life would be spared, but Henry underestimated Norris, as years before he had underestimated Katherine when she fought him over the divorce, he knew Norris as a loyal servant with high values, did he really think he had deceived him with his wife and he just had to hear his betrayal from his own lips or did he know it just was not possible knowing Norris as he did, and his outburst was just to cover a web of blatant hypocrisy, his reply did not satisfy the King, and like a true knight of old defended his and the queens honour, saying he would rather die a thousand deaths than condemn she who is innocent, his words fell on deaf ears and he was then escorted to the Tower where he must have been tormented by the same thoughts Anne was having, how had it come to this? From sunshine to sorrow in the course of a day, Norris also like Anne was destined never to leave his grim prison, we can imagine the thoughts of his young fiancée Madge Shelton Annes own cousin, she would have been distraught at the news that her lover was in the Tower, by now news of both his and Smeatons arrest must have broken out and people were looking nervously over their shoulders, soon it was to be Annes turn.

      1. That evening must have been terrible. Anne was still treated as Queen but it must have been very strained, knowing that people had been arrested and interrogated. Rumours were swirling around and people were on edge. Henry was probably either in contact with Cromwell or with his own self, but we don’t actually have idea what he did that night. There had been late night Council meetings, so you do wonder if anything was discussed in secret at that time. Anne would be worried and afraid and it was a very tense night, stressful and full of fears.

        I agree with you about Henry Norris, I don’t believe he was at first meant to be part of all this, but his fate was sealed after Anne’s careless remarks and although that was not mentioned at the Trial, he was targeted by Thomas Cromwell after he was named by Smeaton. That accusation alone gave grounds for his arrest and he fell under direct suspicion. I don’t think Henry actually believed Norris was guilty, but he didn’t interfere with justice, because it was the only way to ensure Anne’s own guilt by condemning her for loving a friend. It was the only one charge that actually made the prosecution’s case, because it was the only one with verification as in he was named by another accused. Of course it was absolutely nonsense and I personally believe Henry was shocked and had confronted Anne. He may not have quite believed it, which is why Norris was given a moment’s grace. Henry had carried on as if everything was normal until he was given the note by Cromwell at the joust which probably said ” Mark Smeaton has confessed and he has accused Henry Norris also of sleeping with the Queen. How does Your Majesty wish to proceed? ”

        Henry was furious and I don’t believe it was put on. Henry would have expected a confession, perhaps by any means, although it is not clear if Smeaton was tortured or not, (a warrant was needed for this, but none has been found) but he didn’t expect Norris to be named. I suspect his anger was directed at Norris because he was a close friend and an intimate, in more ways than one, someone Henry had genuine long term affection for and this was a shock. Henry chose to believe Norris was guilty because it was convenient, but in his heart, deep down, I suspect he knew Norris had not and would not have slept with his wife.

        The almost ridiculous exchange between Henry and Norris I find a complete farce because Henry chose not to believe a man he should have had more faith in, which shows lack of regard for any of those men now sacrificed. Henry gave his friend the chance of life if he confessed, three times asking him if he loved and slept with the Queen, but Norris swore it was false and defended her honour. Had trial by combat still been legal, I would not have put it past Norris to demand to prove his and Anne’s innocence in such a manner. He swore he would rather die than demean the Queen’s honour, anyhow, so I am convinced of his Knightly intentions. I just find the way Henry turned his back on his friend and threw him to the wolves to be cold and callous, especially if he hadn’t intended him to be involved.

        1. Yes I believe it was farcicial and not worthy of a King either, and I think Henry should have believed him but this was the dilemma he was in, how could he believe him when Smeaton had already confessed, because that is saying he believed Smeaton was lying, and if he had lied about Norris then he could be lying about the queen?
          And if Norris had confessed how could he pardon him and not her musician or the others, and indeed the queen herself, Kings had favourites but it would have made a mockery of his honour had he pardoned one and not the others, especially his wife who should have been person closest to him in the realm, but Kings had the power over life and death and he could of saved him if he wanted to, regardless of how it would have looked, if their friendship meant anything to him he could have, but he turned his back on More also, and he had known him since boyhood, of course the circumstances were different but in matters such as those he considered important, the King overtook the man and no doubt he told himself it was for the good of England and her need for a prince.

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