"Declare I Dare Not" Henry's First Public Declaration of Love for Anne Boleyn

An earlier joust in which Henry wore
embroidered Ks to honor Katharine
February 7, 1526

Shrovetide was a holiday that was somewhat like Mardi Gras today. The Tudors celebrated before the beginning of Lent with sports competitions, masques, and feasts. The custom probably began with the practical intention of finishing up the last of the foods that would be forbidden to them during Lent, and from there evolved into a time of one last celebration before the proscribed period of self-denial. They would confess and be shriven of their sins on Shrove Tuesday, and then enter the season of fasting and penitence.

The court celebrated Shrovetide 1526 with a joust, one of Henry's favorite sports. Upon assuming the throne, one of his first orders of business was to install tilt yards at his favorite palaces. He rode in the jousts himself, despite the obvious danger. Kings had been killed in jousts before, and two years prior, Henry himself had once almost been blinded or killed when he forgot to put down his visor and a lance shattered against his temple, sending splinters inside into his unprotected eyes. But Henry wasn't the kind of fellow to let the prospect of civil war from leaving England without an heir spoil his fun.

This joust was held at the lists at Greenwich, and the king decided to use the occasion to make a statement about his feelings for Anne Boleyn. He rode out onto the field with an embroidered tabard bearing an image of a burning heart with the slogan Declare Je Nos, "Declare I Dare Not." It was a calculated move which said exactly the opposite.

It wasn't the first time Henry had used the joust to announce his feelings for a woman. In 1522, he had ridden at the Shrovetide joust bearing the slogan, Elle Mon Coeur a Navera, "She has wounded my heart," which some researchers believe referred to Mary Boleyn, but there's no proof of it - the affair seems to have ended by 1520 when Mary Boleyn married.

Interestingly, the masque after the 1522 Shrovetide season gives us the first documentary evidence of Anne Boleyn's presence at court, when she played Perseverance in the Chateau Vert masque. However, there's nothing to suggest Henry had any interest in Anne at that point.

And so, four years later, he rode out with another romantic slogan of intent emblazoned on his costume, and every head turned to whisper in another courtier's ear. At this point, everyone would have assumed it was another mistress Henry was seeking. It would have been interesting, and people would have already been planning to seek this woman's favor for their own benefit, but it wouldn't have been particularly noteworthy. Henry had approached several women for liaisons. His interest would drift elsewhere if the woman didn't seem to return his affections. Such dalliances rarely were recorded in dispatches to foreign courts.

This is why there is such scant evidence of Henry's interest in Anne Boleyn until 1527, when he began trying to make her his queen. If the Vatican had not stolen Henry's love letters and saved them in their archives, there wouldn't be much at all to document the early stages of Henry and Anne's relationship.

The king knew his every word fell on a thousand eagerly listening ears, and his every movement was watched avidly by the court. He had to have ordered the tabard embroidered with his message in advance, with the express intent of making a statement with it. He wanted to make his interest in Anne public.

Why did he decide to do this? Anne had refused to become his mistress, and Henry did not yet have the intent to make her his queen. Usually, Henry quickly lost interest if a woman indicated she wouldn't welcome further advances. But this case was different. Did he hope that the court's fawning attention and the pressure to keep his favor that came with it would convince Anne to acquiesce to his desires?

Whatever the king hoped to accomplish with this public declaration of his pursuit of her, Anne made it clear she would only surrender her virginity to her husband. Her duty was to make an advantageous marriage, and while the king was interested in her, no noble would risk his anger in asking for her hand. Flattered Anne might be at the attention, but this made finding a husband much more difficult. At this stage, she probably hoped Henry would lose interest soon, but she had to be very fearful of offending him and harming her family's prospects at court.

It was a delicate balance the court had to walk, especially those who had captured the king's eye.

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