This two-part article discusses the two true loves of Anne Boleyn’s life; Henry Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland, and Thomas Wyatt, a courtier and poet. Interestingly, neither were put on trial along with Anne during her downfall, despite Wyatt’s brief arrest and Percy being grilled over a pre-contract of marriage. This would most likely have been due to their status and connections to the king, and on top of other evidence suggests that the accusations against Anne and five other courtiers were fabricated.
Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy were born around the same time. He was born in 1502, and although her date of birth is disputed, it is believed to be 1501. They met when Anne joined the court as a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon in 1522. According to George Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey’s gentleman-usher in 1523, Henry Percy was:
‘…most familiar with Mistress Anne Boleyn, to such an extent that a secret love grew between them and they pledged that, in time, they intended to wed…’
It is rarely disputed among historians that Anne and Henry Percy fell in love. The marriage would have been advantageous for Anne as the Percy bloodline was among the most noble in Britain. The pair fell in love as their families were arranging their respective marriages; Henry Percy to Mary Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughter, and Anne to her distant relative, James Butler, in order to solve a dispute over the Earldom of Ormond. Anne’s marriage negotiations were important, meaning that her relationship with Percy could have easily caused unrest in Ireland. Instead, though, it was the king that ordered Cardinal Wolsey to end Anne and Henry Percy’s relationship, as it appears he had already set his sights on Anne who was either unaware or uninterested in becoming his mistress. The young couple were separated despite both their protestations, with Percy’s exasperated attempts in front of Wolsey coming to no avail:
‘…in this matter I have gone so far that I am no longer able to renounce my commitment in full conscience.’
Most historians doubt that they ever had sexual relations, but considering their relationship became fairly well known among gossiping courtiers and that in the sixteenth century the intention to wed was tantamount to marriage itself, there would have been little reason for the pair to refrain from consummating their engagement. This, coupled with their personalities, makes the possibility a convincing one; Anne was beguiling and full of wit, and had spent a lot of time in France where sexual promiscuity was rife, while Percy had been described by his father as, ‘proud, presumptuous and an unthrift waster…’
Percy was forced to curb his rebellious ways and progress in his marriage to Mary Talbot, and in time, went on to take his place as the 6th Earl of Northumberland. It appears that he would regret accepting this fate for the rest of his short, miserable life. It is a common belief among historians that Anne reciprocated Percy’s love, partially due to the fact that from this moment on, Wolsey had her lasting enmity. It appears that Anne and Wolsey rarely saw eye to eye right up until the Cardinal’s demise, which befell him on his journey to London facing charges of treason. We shall see that the alleged betrothal would come back to haunt Anne and Percy – twice.
It’s difficult to know if the pair had any contact after this until Anne’s trial and on what terms they had parted. What we do know is that Henry Percy had a woefully unhappy marriage to Mary, full of accusations including spying and stillborn children. The marriage was so disastrous that Mary fled back to her family home to live with her father and despised her estranged husband for the rest of his short life. During this time, she confided that Percy had admitted entering into a pre-contract with Anne Boleyn. In response, Anne had to launch an inquiry to shut the matter down, as by this time, she was dangerously close to the king. Both Anne and Henry Percy had to swear their denial of a pre-contract on oath, which if it were true, would have invalidated all other marriages and landed the pair on the receiving end of the king’s wrath. Although this catastrophe was avoided, Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII from 1533-1536 was short lived, plagued by miscarriages and stillbirths, except for one daughter, Elizabeth (later to be Elizabeth I).
It is painstakingly difficult to find snippets of information about Henry Percy’s life between the mid 1520s and 1536. He spent his time up in the north protecting the borders while court was living its lavish life in London. It is therefore difficult to discern whether he remained heartbroken over Anne, as his surviving letters only detail his unhappy marriage.
In 1536, Anne was accused of seducing five men, including her brother, along with other acts of treason such as mocking the king’s wardrobe. Henry Percy was once again grilled over any whiff of a pre-contract, which he denied. He was then required to sit in on her trial in the Kings Hall at the Tower of London as part of the jury, mainly due to his nobility. It is often assumed that he must have displayed lasting animosity to Anne to be chosen for this duty, as the court was comprised of those who were rivals to the Boleyns or extremely loyal to the king. Percy may well have openly displayed those feelings, but it is doubtful felt this way, and chances are, wished he had been able to marry Anne after having been torn away into such a wretched marriage.
This is where the drama and tragedy really began to unfold and is where the pair collide in witness accounts once more. It is thought that Anne, not Percy, admitted to a pre-contract around this time in order to grant the king his annulment as a last ditch attempt to save her life. Eustace Chapuys, though it should be noted was biased, remarked in May 1536:
‘…for there were many witnesses ready to testify and to prove that more than nine years ago a marriage had been contracted and consummated between the said Anne Boleyn and the earl of Nortambellan (Northumberland)…’
Percy had yet again denied this claim just days earlier, no doubt in concern that he was under suspicion. The outcome of Anne’s trial was set in stone before it had begun, and we know this because the executioner had already been sent for. The king had dissolved Anne’s household and told his wife-to-be, Jane Seymour, that Anne would be condemned. If Percy wanted to remain in favour with the king and prove his loyalty, he had to vote unanimously with the other jury members. After sitting through the accusations and Anne’s speech, as the guilty verdict was declared, he collapsed. Some accounts escalate the drama to create a wild vision of him being carried out of the court room. Either way, he had played his part in Anne’s downfall, and while his health was likely declining at this time, it is fair to say emotional distress would have provoked the incident. This moment, captured among the most pivotal in Anne Boleyn’s life, seems to sparkle in its tragedy of young love that might’ve still lingered after being separated for over a decade, even if only on Percy’s part. It begs the question as to whether there were any other moments they shared after their engagement that never had a witness or a scribe, either tender or bitter.
After Anne’s execution, Henry Percy lasted no more than one miserable year before he died in 1537, alone, without an heir and destitute. The evidence shows he was morbidly depressed, with lawyer William Stapleton commenting:
‘…he fell in weeping, forever wishing himself out of the world…’
Records date that on the same day he died, 29th June 1537, his friend Richard Layton found him with:
‘…languens in extremis, sight and speech failed, his stomach swollen so great as I never have seen none, and his whole body yellow as saffron…’
Percy was living in Brooke House, Hackney, at the time of his death. He had also lived just down the road at Newington Green, which ironically has a road leading off of it called ‘Boleyn Road’, formerly known as ‘Ann Boleyn’s Walk’ (spelling was not standardised). He was buried at Hackney Parish Church where his grave can no longer be found as the church was pulled down in 1978 and replaced by St John-at-Hackney, but according to one source, it read the inscription:
‘Here lieth interred, Henry lord Percy, earl of Northumberland, knight of the most honourable order of the Garter, who died in this town the last of June 1537, the 29th of HEN VIII’
Their story is one that graces every account of Anne’s life as a fleeting tragedy and a moment of forbidden love. Henry Percy makes his way into every account of her life, but rarely reappears in fictional accounts after their initial romance in the early 1520s. The evidence suggests that they were betrothed, may have consummated their engagement, and that emotion lingered throughout their lifetimes, one way or another. Had they not been separated by interference from the king and their families, could their lives have resulted in a prosperous and content marriage? This fantasy is lost to a parallel universe, and perhaps just as well, for history class would not have been the same without Henry’s six wives, Anne’s tragic end and the long reign of Elizabeth I…
Photos courtesy of:
Henry Percy: http://geneall.net/
Coat of Arms: http://www.percyfamilyhistory.com/
Brooke House: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/
With credit to: