Henry Percy: Anne Boleyn's First Love?

If things had transpired just a little differently, Anne Boleyn might have gotten married in 1522 and lived out her life quietly as the Countess of Northumberland.

Henry Percy was born in 1502, the eldest son of the Earl of Northumberland. As a young boy, he was sent to the household of Cardinal Wolsey. He rose in the ranks until he was one of Wolsey's secretaries. When the cardinal went to court, wrote Wolsey's biographer, George Cavendish, Percy would linger with the ladies in the queen's chamber. That's where he met Anne Boleyn.

We know Anne was at court by February 1522, because she is recorded as playing the part of Perseverance in a court masque. It's believed Anne had been recalled from the French court because her father was negotiating her marriage with James Butler, Earl of Ormond. Anne's father and Ormond had an ongoing inheritance dispute that the marriage was intended to solve.

Anne Boleyn's grandmother was Lady Margaret Butler, daughter of the 7th Earl of Ormond. When he died, he had no sons, and so the daughters split the inheritance. Thomas Boleyn felt he should have inherited the Ormond title through his mother, but a cousin actually living on the lands, Piers Butler, more-or-less claimed the title for his own, and there wasn't much Thomas Boleyn could do about it, considering Piers Butler had the backing of the Irish lords.

Wolsey had the idea of marrying Anne to Piers Butler's son, James, was a way of settling the dispute. It's uncertain of whether Anne knew about these negotiations at the time. Cavendish says she didn't, and from what we know of Anne's moral standards, she wouldn't have begun a relationship with Percy if she knew she was about to be married to another man.

Just how far this relationship went is a matter of speculation. Cavendish writes that a secret love grew between them, and they agreed to marry.

In the Tudor era, a betrothal was legally binding. It could be as simple as saying in front of witnesses that the couple intended to marry, or for the upper classes, drawing up contracts which detailed the financial obligations involved. Subsequent marriages were invalid if it was determined that either party had been pre-contracted to another person without it being invalidated by a papal dispensation. While a betrothal could be broken, leaving the couple free to marry another, a betrothal with a consummation afterwards was much more difficult to dispense with, which is why Henry VIII had a proxy consummation after the proxy betrothal of his sister, Mary Tudor Brandon.

Did Anne and Percy ever say the "magic words?" Both later swore that there had never been a legally binding betrothal between them. Both of them were trained courtiers who knew how to communicate without technically ever saying dangerous words. It's entirely possible they had an understanding without ever crossing that line.

Cavendish claims it was the king who discovered the relationship and ordered Wolsey to break it off because he wanted Anne for himself. But all evidence points to the king becoming interested in Anne around 1526, years after this incident occurs.

In reality, it was likely Anne's father and the cardinal who put a stop to the match. The cardinal would likely have been concerned at seeing the solution to the irksome Boleyn-Butler inheritance issue being dismantled, and Thomas Boleyn likely wouldn't have wanted to see his daughter entangled with a man of high title, but low financial prospects. Percy's family also had a match in mind for him, and were likely displeased he was putting that at risk.

Cavendish records that Wolsey summoned Percy and chastised him in front of a hall full of servants, and disparaged Anne - something he was unlikely to do if the king was actually driving the situation because of his own interest in Anne.

I marvel not a little of thy peevish folly, that thou wouldest tangle and ensure thyself with a foolish girl yonder in the court, I mean Anne Boleyn. Dost thou not consider the estate that God hath called thee unto in this world? For after the death of thy noble father, thou art most like to inherit and possess one of the most worthiest earldoms of this realm. [...] Ye have not only offended your natural father, but also your most gracious sovereign lord, and matched yourself with one, such as neither the king, nor yet your father will be agreeable with the matter.
And hereof I put you out of doubt, that I will send for your father, and at his coming, he shall either break this unadvised contract, or else disinherit thee for ever. The king's majesty himself will complain to thy father on thee, and require no less at his hands than I have said; whose Highness intended to have preferred [betrothed] her unto another person, with whom the king hath travailed already, and being almost at a point with the same person, although she knoweth it not, yet hath the king, most like a politic and prudent prince, conveyed the matter in such sort, that she, upon the king's motion, will be, I doubt not, right glad and agreeable to the same.

According to Cavendish, Percy wept and protested:

... in this matter I have gone so far, before many so worthy witnesses, that I know not how to avoid myself nor to discharge my conscience.

Wolsey then responded that he and the king knew what to do in such circumstances, and ordered Percy never to speak to Anne again or face the wrath of the king.

Anne was sent home to Hever for about a year, and Percy was married to Mary Talbot after a long period of negotiation.

Percy's marriage to Mary Talbot was not a happy one. Their families had been planning the marriage since 1516, but it wasn't concluded until after the Anne Boleyn incident. We're unsure of the date - it occurred sometime between 1523 and 1526. Gerald Brenan, author of The House of Percy says that there was a mutual dislike between the couple from the start.

Percy submitted to the union, and was "sick in mind and body." It sounds like he was depressed over his situation. His earldom was broke, in deep debt to the crown. Percy surrendered the responsibility for managing his estates and finances to Wolsey. The cardinal received the income from it to pay the debts and gave the couple a pitifully meager allowance to live on. The financial pressures could not have helped the situation between Percy and his wife.

According to Brenan, the locals resented Percy for his perceived lack of generosity toward them, and so he and his wife were unpopular with their people. Wolsey employed the servants - and possibly even Percy's new wife - as spies to keep a close eye on Percy's activities. Brenan writes that they lied to the cardinal about Percy's spendthrift ways, and so Percy was constantly harangued with chastising letters.

Worse, Percy was faced with insurgents and outlaws on the borders of his lands that he was expected to combat and bring to heel. Organizing force against them was one thing, but when he had to execute them, it was quite another. One young boy stirred his pity, but he feared his own influence wasn't enough to obtain mercy. He entreated friends to approach the king on his behalf. They were successful and the boy's life was spared, but this got Percy in further difficulty with Wolsey.

You should not use so cantellous and colourable dealing with one that thus tenderly hath brought you up and set you forward...

Like his health, Percy's relationship with his wife, Mary Talbot, never improved. In 1529, she became pregnant and fled back to her father's home. Her child was stillborn, and Mary herself almost died. Wolsey persuaded her to return to her husband after she recovered, but Mary became convinced that Percy was going to have her poisoned.

Wolsey never had a chance to sort out that one because the king decided the cardinal wasn't working in his best interest to get him the annulment he wanted so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Percy was the one sent to arrest the cardinal, the man who had managed his affairs and treated him like a child all of these years. By all accounts, Percy treated Wolsey kindly as he escorted the cardinal toward what would probably have been his doom. But Wolsey died before he could face the king's "justice."

Soon afterward, Mary Talbot sought an annulment of her own, having gone back to her father's house again. Apparently, during one of her quarrels with her husband, Percy had mentioned he had once wanted to marry Anne Boleyn. Mary took that as an admission of a pre-contract between himself and Anne, and if she could force the issue, it might be a way out of her detested marriage.

Anne Boleyn decided to confront the matter head on, and asked the king to launch an investigation into it. Percy was summoned before the council. There, before the Archbishop of Canterbury, he solemnly denied there had been a betrothal between himself and Anne Boleyn.

Was he telling the truth? Some writers have posited that Percy gallantly denied his betrothal to Anne so she could marry the king, even though it meant condemning himself to continue a hellacious marriage with his hated wife. But the real answer is likely more mundane. Anne and Percy probably had an understanding, but didn't go so far as to technically commit themselves. Percy swore it on the sacrament, which wasn't a thing undertaken lightly in those days. It's highly unlikely he would have lied on the host and risked the damnation of his soul.

Only a scant three years after Anne's marriage, she was charged with adultery and treason. As a peer, Percy was summoned to be a juror in her trial. Percy had to know she was doomed, just like the cardinal he had escorted a few years before, and there was nothing he could do to save her. What emotional cost this may have had to him, we will never know, but it is recorded that after he said the required word, "guilty," he collapsed and had to be carried from the court.
His ordeal was not over. After the jury dutifully found Anne guilty, the king decided he wanted an annulment. His marriage would be ended by a blade in only a few short days, but Henry was determined to erase the marriage completely and bastardize his daughter, Elizabeth, too. (Ironically, if Anne was never married to Henry, she couldn't have committed adultery, but no one stopped to question that little technicality.) Percy was dragged out again and asked whether or not there was a pre-contract.

This time, there was likely a good deal of pressure on Percy to "admit" there was. Percy held firm. He wrote a statement, addressed to Cromwell:

I perceave by Sir Reginald Carneby that ther is a supposed Pre-contract between the Queen and me. Wherfor I was not only examined upon my othe before the Archbishoppes of Canterburie and York, but also reccaved the blessed Sacrament upon the sayme, before the Duke of Norfolk, and others of the Kynges hignes Council learned in spiritual law; assuring you, Mr. Secretary, by the said othe and bessed bodye, which affore I receaved, and herafter entend to receave, that the same may be to my damnation if there were any contract or promise of marriage betweane her and me.
At Newingtone Grene, the XII daye of May, in the 28th year of the reigne of our Soveraigne Lord, King Henry the VIII. Your assured NORTHUMBERLAND.
It ultimately didn't matter. What the king wanted, he would get. Cranmer was sent to the Tower to speak to Anne and emerged with the "evidence" he needed to annul the king's marriage. What it was is unknown. The document merely states that she admitted to an impediment that was "unknown" to the king at the time of their marriage. 

Anne died stripped of her title of queen, stripped of her title as wife. She was, once again, Anne Boleyn, as she had been in those heady days of 1522, when Percy had fallen in love with the girl who had beautiful black eyes.

Percy returned home, ill and perhaps heartsore. Taking stock of his own life, he realized it was highly unlikely he'd have children of his own. He had intended to leave his earldom to the children of his brother, but when their father took part in the Pilgrimage of Grace, they could no longer inherit. The estate would revert to the crown when he died. 

Percy tried the only thing he could to help his nephews. Instead of waiting for his death, he gave the estate to the king outright. In this way, he bypassed the inheritance rules that barred the boys from getting the estate, and prayed the king or the next monarch might be kind enough to confer the estate on them if they earned favor. Percy also hoped that by gifting the king his vast holdings, the king might be generous enough to pay off his debts, or perhaps allow him the income from one of his earldom's offices, so he didn't have to live in such miserable poverty. But the king refused. 

A rector that visited him shortly afterward found Percy in very sad circumstances. He was penniless, with only two servants to attend him, and severely ill. The rector wrote he expected Percy to be dead by the time the letter arrived, and indeed, his prophetic words were correct. The "Unhappy Earl" as he is called, died on June 29, 1537. Money had to be persuaded from the king to bury the poor man properly. Today, no trace remains of his tomb.

Mary Talbot spent years trying to get her dower funds from Percy's estate. She never remarried. Little is known of the rest of her life except that she was once accused of being a sympathizer of Mary Queen of Scots. She died in 1572.

Percy would have been glad, at least that his nephew did, eventually, earn back the earldom.


  1. An interesting article and good research tool.

  2. Am just reading 'Wolf Hall' and feel sad for both these unfortunate people caught up in politics and religion!