Primary Sources: 1523: The romance between Anne Boleyn & Henry Percy

 

The account at right was written by George Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey's gentleman-usher.

portrait of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn was the second wife of King Henry VIII.  The year of her birth is unknown; it was possibly 1501 or 1507.  She spent her adolescence at the French court but returned home to England in 1522.  As the daughter of an ambitious courtier and niece of the duke of Norfolk, she was invited to serve at court as lady-in-waiting to Katharine of Aragon.  It was here that she caught the attention of King Henry.  Anne, however, had fallen in love with Lord Henry Percy, heir to the earl of Northumberland.  They were secretly engaged and planned to marry.  As Cavendish's account makes plain, Henry ordered Cardinal Wolsey to end the engagement.  The Cardinal did so, thus earning Anne's lasting enmity.

Henry's 'secret love' for Anne was highly controversial, and not merely because he was already married.  Kings did, after all, have mistresses.  But he had already had an open affair (and possibly a son) with her sister, Mary.  His relationship with Anne, however, was far more serious.  In love and desperate for a legitimate male heir, Henry planned to annul his marriage to Katharine of Aragon and marry Anne.  The pope's refusal to help eventually led Henry to break with the church of Rome and declare himself supreme head of a new English church.

It was all for naught.  Anne did not give Henry a surviving son and she was executed on 19 May 1536.

 

I will tell you as best I can how the king's love came about and what followed thereafter.  When this lady, Mistress Anne Boleyn, was very young she was sent to France to be a lady-in-waiting to the French queen.  When the queen died she was sent back to her father who arranged for her to become a lady-in-waiting to queen Catherine, wife of Henry.  Such was her success in this post, shown both by her exemplary behavior and excellent deportment that she quickly outshone all the others.  To such an extent, in fact, that the flames of desire began to burn secretly in the king's breast, unknown to all, least of all to Anne herself.

At this time Lord Percy, the son and heir of the earl of Northumberland, was aide and secretary to Wolsey, the lord cardinal, and whenever the lord cardinal happened to be at court Lord Percy would pass the time in the queen's quarters where he would dally with the ladies-in-waiting.  Of these, he was most familiar with mistress Anne Boleyn, to such an extent that a secret love grew up between them and they pledged that, in time, they intended to wed.  When knowledge of this reached the king's ears he was greatly distraught.  Realizing that he could no longer hide his secret love, he revealed all to the lord cardinal and discussed with him ways of sundering the couple's engagement to each other.

When the lord cardinal had left the court and returned to Westminster, he remembered Henry's request and summoned Lord Percy to his presence, saying in front of us, his servants: 'I am amazed at your foolishness in getting entangled, even engaged, to this silly girl at court - I mean Anne Boleyn.  Have you not considered your position?  After the death of your noble father you stand to inherit one of the greatest earldoms in the country.  It would thus have been more proper if you had sought the consent of your father in this affair and to have made his highness the king privy to it, requesting his royal blessing.  Had you done so, he was not only have welcomed your request but would, I can assure you, have promoted you to a position more suited to your noble estate.  And thence you might have gained the king's favor by your conduct and wise council and and thus risen further still in his estimation.

'But now look what you have done by your thoughtlessness.  You have not only offended your own father but also your sovereign and pledged yourself to someone whom neither would agree to be suitable.  And do not doubt that I shall send for your father and when he comes he will break off this engagement or disinherit you forever.  The king himself will make a complaint to your father and demand no less an action than I have suggested.  Indeed, I happen to know that the king has already promised this lady to someone else and that though she is not yet aware of it, the arrangements are already far advanced.  The king however, being a man of great prudence and diplomacy, is confident that, once she is aware of the situation, she will agree to the union gladly.'

'Sir,' said Lord Percy, weeping, 'I knew nothing of the king's involvement in all this, and I am sorry to have incurred his displeasure.  I considered myself to be of sufficient age and in a good enough situation to be able to take a wife of my own choosing and never doubted that my father would have accepted my decision.  And though she is just a simple maid and her father is only a knight, yet she is of very noble descent.  On her mother's side she has Norfolk blood and on her father's side she is a direct descendant of the earl of Ormond.  Why then, sir, should I query the suitability of the match when her pedigree is of equal worth to mine?  Thus I humbly beg your favor in this matter and ask you to beg the king to be benevolent concerning this issue of my engagement, which I cannot deny, still less break it off?'

'See, gentlemen,' said the lord cardinal to us, 'what nonsense there is in this willful boy's head!  I though that when you heard me explain the king's involvement in this business you would have relented in your suit and have submitted yourself to the king's will, allowing his highness to decide on the matter as he thinks fit.'

'Sir, and so I would,' said Lord Percy, 'but in this matter I have gone so far that I am no longer able to renounce my commitment in full conscience.'

'What?' said the cardinal, 'Do you think that the king and I do not know what to do in such a serious matter as this?  One thing's for sure, I can see no point in your making any further pleas in this case.'

'Very well,' said Lord Percy, 'if it please you, I will submit myself completely to the king's will in this matter and will release my conscience from the heavy burden of the engagement.'

'So be it, then,' said the cardinal, 'I will send for your father in the north, and he, the king and I will take whatever measure for the annulment of this hasty folly the king thinks necessary.  And in the meantime, I order you - and in the king's name command you - not to see her again if you intend to avoid the full wrath of his majesty.'  Having said this, he got up and went off to his study.

Then the earl of Northumberland was sent for, who, learning of the request being at the king's command, made great speed to court.  his first port of call after leaving the north was to lord cardinal, by whom he was briefed about the cause of his hasty summons and with whom he spent a considerable time in secret discussions.  After their long talk, the cardinal ordered some wine and after they had drunk together the meeting broke up and the earl left.

As he was leaving, he sat down on a bench that the servants used and called his son Lord Percy to him, saying, in our presence: 'Son, you have always been a proud, presumptuous, headstrong wastrel.  And you have so proved yourself once more.  What possible joy, comfort, pleasure or solace could I ever receive from you who have so misconducted yourself without discretion and in such secrecy.  With no regard for your own father, nor for your sovereign to whom all honest and loyal subjects give faithful and humble obedience, nor even for your own noble estate, you have ill-advisedly become engaged to this girl and thereby incurred the king's displeasure - an action intolerable in any of his subjects!

'If it wasn't for the wisdom of the king and his benevolence towards your empty-headedness and willful stupidity, his wrath would have been sufficient to cast me and all my family for generations to come into abject poverty and desolation.  But by the supreme goodness of his grace and the worthy lord cardinal, I have been excused your transgression - they have decided to pity your stupidity rather than blame it - and have presented me with a command concerning you and your future conduct.

'I pray to God that this may serve as sufficient warning to you to conduct yourself with more care hereafter, for I can assure you that, if you do not amend your ways, you will be the last earl of Northumberland if I have anything to do with it.  You do nothing but waste and consume everything that all your ancestors have built up and cherished with great honor.  But in the name of the good and gracious king, I intend - God willing - so to arrange my succession that you will benefit from it but little.  For I have no intention, I can assure you, of making you my heir.  I have, after all, praise be to God, a wide choice of sons who will, I am sure, prove themselves worthier than you and abler to conduct themselves as true nobles should.  And from these I will choose the best as my successor.

'Now gentlemen,' he said to us servants, 'it may so happen that when I am dead you will see these things that I have spoken of to my son prove to be the case.  Yet in the meantime, I would be grateful if you could be his friends and tell him when he strays from the path or is at fault.'  And with that he took his leave of us and said to his son: 'Go on your way and serve the lord cardinal, your master, and make sure you carry out your duty.'  And thus he departed and went down through the hall and out to his barge.

After much debate and consultation about lord Percy's case it was finally decided that his engagement to Anne Boleyn should be dissolved and that he should instead marry one of the earl of Shrewsbury's daughters, Mary Talbot, which he later did.

 

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