Saturday, 1 May 2010

May 1st, 1536: Mayday

Part of a series of posts beginning today on the downfall of Anne Boleyn

“For her, my lord,
I dare my life lay down and will do't, sir,
Please you to accept it, that the Queen is spotless
I' the eyes of heaven and to you; I mean,
In this which you accuse her.”

- William Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale, Act II, Scene I

On a warm Mayday afternoon in 1536, Henry VIII and his queen, Anne Boleyn, took their places in the royal box outside the red-brick banqueting house of Greenwich Palace, the king’s favourite river-side home.

Mayday – the first day of May – was one of the English Court’s annual social highlights. It marked the beginning of the summer “Season”, in contrast to the relative restraint imposed by Lent, which had ended a few weeks earlier. At Court, the day was traditionally celebrated with a series of afternoon jousts, in which the most athletic of the male courtiers would compete against one another in the tilt. Ordinarily, the sporty sovereign took great pride in being the centre of attention at such events, but this year – for the first time – Henry was not competing following a particularly dangerous fall from his horse back in January. The King’s injury meant that the most celebrated of the day’s jousters consisted of the Queen’s brother, Lord Rochford, the handsome playboy Sir Francis Weston, the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt and the King’s Master of the Horse, Sir Nicholas Carew – along with a host of other well-born competitors.

Sitting next to one another, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn still cut an attractive – even a magnificent – pair. Admittedly, the King was no longer the “perfect model of manly beauty” that he had been when he came to the throne twenty-seven years earlier, but neither had he degenerated into the monstrous, sweating man-mountain of his later years. In 1536, the muscles on the 6ft 2ins monarch were only just beginning to turn to fat; with the boyish good looks gone but the repulsive obesity still some way off, the 44 year-old King looked every inch the absolute monarch.

Next to him, Henry’s 28 year-old Queen was presumably dressed in the apple green that was customary for Mayday. With her long brunette tresses, famous dark eyes, long fingers and bird-like frame, Anne Boleyn still possessed enough of the good-looks which had prompted the King of France to nickname her “the Brunette Venus” in days gone by. Yet, around the eyes, she looked tired and she was thinner than usual. Still, both Henry and Anne knew how to dress the part and to play at the politics of magnificence. Attractive, charismatic and immaculately dressed, they gave no sign that anything was untoward as the jousting commenced – they smiled, nodded and applauded in all the right places. As performances went, it was Oscar-worthy.

Despite all the long, tortured and suppressed passion which had created it – and, in the process, the Church of England – Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s marriage was not a happy one. Over the last year, the Queen had grown tired of her husband’s constant infidelities, his psychological cruelty, his bullying, his hypocrisy and his unfailing ability to blame everyone but himself. On his part, Henry regarded Anne’s failure to provide him with a living son as a gross betrayal and he was incensed when she dared reproach him for his string of mistresses. Even worse, she clearly enjoyed her power as queen and, at times, she publicly held opinions different to those of her husband and his ministers. It did not seem to occur to Henry that prior to their marriage, he had allowed Anne Boleyn to become the most powerful person in his government, after himself. Now, he seemed to take umbrage at the power she had acquired. He was irritated by her role as the self-appointed protectress of evangelicals and by her strong opinions on the Church and foreign policy. A similar pattern had been played out with the King’s first marriage when, for the first four years, Henry had revelled in Katherine of Aragon’s role as Spain’s de facto ambassador to London, but then, after 1513 – perhaps upset at her success as Regent during his absence - he accused Katherine of duplicity and set about deliberately sidelining her from politics. Clearly, history was now repeating itself with Anne. In both cases, Henry had tricked himself into imagining that what he wanted was an intelligent wife who could be his partner, when what he really wanted was a doormat.

Henry and Anne’s relationship had, in fact, been a marriage in name-only for at least five months, following the Queen’s miscarriage. The child, born asleep, would have been the longed-for son and the miscarriage itself had been such a hideous affair that the Queen had been lucky to escape with her life. In the aftermath, she had been confined to her bed for weeks, during which time the King only visited her to upbraid her for losing the baby. He then moved the Court to a different palace, leaving Anne to follow when she was recovered. The government's propaganda machine gamely kept up the pretence that all was well - and their sterling effort in public relations was so convincing that it has even persuaded some modern historians - but the truth is that the final six months of Henry and Anne's marriage was every bit as miserable as romantic legend once suggested it was.

To make matters worse, by Mayday, it was not just the Queen's marriage that was now upsetting her but there were also concerns about the health of her mother, the Countess of Ormonde, who was “sore diseased with the cough.” At Easter - the same time as courtiers were commenting on the ill-health of the Queen's mother - Anne had quarrelled with the King’s chief adviser, Thomas Cromwell, previously an ally of hers, because she suspected Cromwell of corrupting the English Reformation with a too-Protestant agenda and of facilitating her husband’s relationship with his latest mistress, Jane Seymour. In both cases, she was right and she retaliated by having one of her favourite priests, Father John Skip, preach an inflammatory sermon on the subject of the virtuous biblical queen, Esther, and the corrupt, murderous politician, Haman. Everyone knew what point the Queen was trying to make – especially Cromwell. On Saint George’s Day, the Queen’s brother was supposed to have been inducted into the Order of the Garter, but instead the King publicly humiliated her by handing the honour to Sir Nicholas Carew, a friend of Jane Seymour’s. Then, a few days before Mayday, the Queen had been forced to reprimand a musician in her household for his undue familiarity towards her and her friends, before violently quarrelling with a close friend, Sir Henry Norris. The argument started as a pleasant, even a banterous conversation, but it somehow escalated into a fight in which the Queen accused him of being in love with her. Realising what the King would think if he heard of this, Norris furiously (but perhaps not entirely convincingly) denied the accusation. Norris and the Queen had been friends for years and by evening, their disagreement had been patched up, with a distraught Anne visiting one of her priests to swear that she had meant no harm in the accusation. All in all, the last five months – and the last two weeks in particular – had been trying ones for the Queen of England.

Half-way through the jousts, a messenger arrived from London for the King. He whispered the information into the King’s ear and, without speaking, Henry Tudor rose from his seat and left the box, gesturing over to the field for Sir Henry Norris, who had just finished riding. As one of the King’s closest gentlemen-in-waiting, it was Norris’s job to accompany the King wherever he went and so, hastily removing his armour and fetching another horse, he joined the royal party as they left the Queen to preside over the rest of the jousts.

Little did Anne know, but the musician whom she had upbraided for being too presumptuous in his conversation with her, had spent the last few days being tortured by Thomas Cromwell (not to be confused with his infamous great-nephew.) After several days, in which he had knots of rope tied around his head and tightened, before being placed on the rack, the musician – Mark Smeaton – confessed to being the Queen’s adulterous lover. He also conveniently pointed the finger at Sir Henry Norris, whom the Queen had accused of being in love with her earlier that weekend, and who was one of Cromwell’s main competitors for the King’s ear. Once a confession had been ripped from Smeaton the news was dispatched to Greenwich and the King left the joust, ordering Norris to come with him.

Armed with Smeaton’s confession, the King halted his ride half-way to London and asked Henry Norris out-right if he was Anne's lover. This was the second time in two days that Norris had been asked if he was in love with Anne Boleyn, only this time the accusation had progressed into having actually gone to bed with her. Furious and afraid, Norris denied ever having committed adultery with the Queen. Henry responded that they had proof that he had done; Norris again denied it.

Seeing that they could not frighten his friend into providing a second confession, the King turned to bribery. If Norris would just admit that he had been seduced by the Queen, then the King would pardon him. In response, and perhaps showing why he had acquired a reputation for being a man of honour and chivalry, Norris replied that if it came to a choice of living in a world where a man could only prosper by condemning an innocent woman to death on the word of a lie – then he preferred to die. The King had him imprisoned in the Tower of London.

With the joust over, the Queen returned to her apartments. Word came to her that the King had decided to spend the night in the city at the Palace of Whitehall. Given the couple’s relationship, she cannot have been unduly surprised by this and she spent the evening quietly with her ladies-in-waiting. Did she notice that Mark Smeaton was not there to sing for them? Or that Henry Norris did not call on her? Probably not – Smeaton was a servant and Norris was expected to be wherever the King was.

As the sun set over Greenwich, Anne Boleyn therefore had no reason to suspect anything was wrong because of the two men’s absence or that tomorrow afternoon, after lunch, she would become the first Queen of England to be publicly arrested.


  1. I always lament a little at this time of year for La Bolena's sake. Glad someone else is marking the days!

  2. She's one of my 3 favourite and most admired carachters in history, along with Marie Antoinette and Alianor of Aquitane... I can identify myself with her (al of them actuay) in some aspects, loving one speacialy... It's a sad sad story, I'm also glad someon's counting the days

  3. An excellent read!!!
    Thank you!

  4. Thank you! I hope you enjoy the rest of the posts - it's a fantastic story, but a tragic one.

  5. Fantastic depiction!

  6. Isn't it amazing that after over five hundred years people still remember her. including my self

  7. Gareth, do you believe any of Retha Warnicke's theories, in particular the theory of the deformed child in 1536?

  8. Conor, I obviously agree mroe with Professor Warnicke's take on Anne's youth and physical appearance than I do with the works of, say, Paget and Ives. In terms of her theory on Anne's downfall, I'm afraid that whilst I do agree with her that the miscarriage of January 1536 was a turning point and that the marriage was more or less doomed from that point on, I disagree with the main crux of that theory - namely that the foetus Anne miscarried that year was in some way deformed. Whilst it is by no means impossible that George Boleyn, Francis Weston or Mark Smeaton were either homosexual or bisexual, as we would now understand it, there is no evidence one way or the other to support that assertion and there's no evidence that witchcraft dominated the motivation in bringing Anne to the block. It's barely mentioned in the trial, compared to the incarceration of Joanna of Navarre, the Queen Dowager, under Henry V, and the Duchess of Bedford, under Henry VI, when both were quite explicitly accused of witchcraft. In terms of Anne's fall, I'm basically with J.J. Scarisbrick.

  9. Mr. Russell, I do SO hope you will complete a biography of Anne Boleyn, for exactly the reasons that you have outlined in other places in your immensely interesting and enjoyable blog. Thank you for all the many hours I have spent on your site, my research on various historical figures inevitably leading me back to you! Susan


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