Nicholas was born in 1496. Through his great-grandparents, he was related to both the king and Anne Boleyn. His great-grandmother was half-sister to Margaret Beaufort, and his great-grandfather was Lord Hoo, from whom Anne Boleyn was descended.
Nicholas began his career at court as a child of six, essentially being raised alongside Henry VIII. They were educated together - which might explain Nicholas's conservative religious fervor, because Henry's parents intended him for the church and his education was framed with that intent. The two young men shared a passion for jousting and sport.
In 1514, Nicholas married Elizabeth Bryan, sister of Sir Francis Bryan. Elizabeth was second cousin to Anne Boleyn, and co-heir of her father's estates along with her brother. It was rumored at one point that Elizabeth was Henry's mistress, and he is known to have given her presents of jewelry. But if there was an affair, it was very short lived and there's no evidence to prove it happened. The king gave the couple a wedding gift of lands that had an annual income of forty marks.
Nicholas was knighted sometime before 1517, He served in various court position, such as Henry's cupbearer, master of the horse, and chief esquire of the body. But Wolsey and the council apparently thought Nicholas was a bad influence on Henry and overly familiar with the king. In 1519, several young men of Henry's chamber were summoned before the council.
[T]he King and his council one day at Greenwich sent for them, and said "how the bruit was that they after their appetite governed the King;" that they should no more come to the court, but Weston and the deputy of Calais, Kingston and Jerningham, were put in their place.
But within six months Nicholas was back. He was at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 and in 1521, sat on the jury that convicted the Duke of Buckingham. Afterward, he was appointed steward of Buckingham's manor.
In late 1525 or early 1526, Henry VIII fell in love with Nicholas's cousin, Anne Boleyn. Henry frequently stayed at Carew's family home of Beddington while he was courting Anne because it was a convenient sixteen miles from Hever. However, Nicholas was close friends with Katharine and Princess Mary. He must have walked a fine line with the king to keep his favor, though he disapproved of the king's relationship with Anne.
In 1532, Nicholas was sent to France to work on preparations for the king's visit to introduce Anne as his consort. According to Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, Nicholas went unwillingly and hinted he would rather hinder the project than support it, but he did as commanded. King Francis liked Nicholas so much, he asked Henry to grant him the Order of the Garter when the next vacancy occurred.
As queen, Anne Boleyn used her influence to get Nicholas a stable position at court as a member of the Privy Chamber. It as an example of Anne doing her duty to advance her family, not personal preference. But Nicholas did not reciprocate the support. Instead, he actively worked against Anne.
What happened to make Nicholas decide to conspire against Anne? Alison Weir says it was because Nicholas was outraged at the way Anne had treated Charles Brandon, who despised her, and Henry Guildford, who had retired from office in protest when Anne became queen. Their religious differences may have also contributed to the animosity. Nicholas was horrified at the changes to the church, and Anne worked hard to have Reformist bishops installed in important positions.
In July 1535, Chapuys relates a strange incident:
[King Henry] the other day nearly murdered his own fool, a simple and innocent [mentally handicapped] man, because he happened to speak well in his presence of the Queen and Princess, and called the concubine "ribaude" [ribald] and her daughter "bastard." He has now been banished from Court, and has gone to the Grand Esquire, who has sheltered and hidden him.
Various historians have said the fool in question was either Patch or Will Somers, whom the records often confuse. (I believe it was Patch, Sexton, or another one of Henry's "natural" fools.) As Carew took the fool in to his own household shield him from the king's anger, some have suggested that Carew was the one who coached the fool to make the statements in the first place.
It was part of the plan, to keep reminding the king his marriage to Anne was not seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people.
Sometime in early 1536, Jane Seymour appeared on the scene. The beginning of the relationship was so quiet and subtle that it escaped notice at first. She's first mentioned in February as being the recipient of may presents from the king. In April, Chapuys grows increasingly hopeful because he reported a dramatic scene in which the king sent Jane some money and she virtuously declined. The king was charmed and said that to prove the "honesty" of his intentions toward her, he would only court her in the presence of her relatives. Those honorable intentions could only mean marriage.
From what Chapuys writes, Jane was not a passive object in this plot.
But I hear that the young lady has been well tutored and warned by those among this King's courtiers who hate the concubine, telling her not in any wise to give in to the King's fancy unless he makes her his Queen, upon which the damsel is quite resolved.
She has likewise been advised to tell the King frankly, and without reserve, how much his subjects abominate the marriage contracted with the concubine, and that not one considers it legitimate, and that this declaration ought to be made in the presence of witnesses of the titled nobility of this kingdom, who are to attest the truth of her statements should the King request them on their oath and fealty to do so.
Gertrude Blount Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter was Nicholas Carew's partner in coaching Jane. Gertrude was a relative of Bessie Blount, who had once been the king's mistress, and Gertrude's father was Katharine of Aragon's chamberlain. She was a close personal friend of both the queen and Princess Mary.
Gertrude had been made one of Princess Elizabeth's godmothers at her christening, which Eric Ives regards as nasty jab on Anne's part. Gertrude was open about not wanting the honor, but was forced to fork over a suitably hefty gift for the occasion. But perhaps Anne was simply trying to pick wealthy and powerful people who could support her infant daughter.
Gertrude had gotten herself in a bit of a pickle by supporting Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, and had to beg for the king's pardon after the nun was attained for treason. But that situation doesn't seem to have curtailed Gertrude's taste for intrigue. She met with and corresponded with Chapuys, conspiring ways to support Princess Mary and Katharine of Aragon. Chapuys says she was even willing to help raise a rebellion to make Mary queen. In November, 1535 she visited Chapuys in disguise and said the king planned to kill both Katharine and Mary, and begged him to get the Emperor to take action. Chapuys seems not to have believed her, but used it as an example to show all of England was talking about Anne Boleyn's evil, and that it was well-known she intended to kill Katharine and Mary.
When Jane Seymour entered the picture, Gertrude quickly surmised it might be a way to pry Anne Boleyn from her position and supplant her with someone who might be more favorable to her friends' interest.
Henry had the habit of showering his love interests with favor and punishing their enemies. Their friends shared in this bounty, which is why people seem to have flocked to support Jane Seymour as soon as it was common knowledge the king was courting her.
Chapuys writes at the end of April that Nicholas was given the Order of the Garter instead of the queen's brother, who had expected the honor would go to him. The reason given might have been that Henry was fulfilling his promise to King Francis, but the real reason was that Nicholas was Jane Seymour's chief supporter, and Anne's influence with the king had hit rock bottom.
The Grand Esquire, Master Caro (Carew), was on St. George's Day invested with the Order of the Garter, in the room of Mr. De Bourgain, who died some time ago. This has been a source of great disappointment and sorrow for lord Rochefort[George Boleyn], who wanted it for himself, and still more for the concubine, who has not had sufficient credit to get her own brother knighted.
In fact, it will not be Carew's fault if the aforesaid concubine, though a cousin of his, is not overthrown (desarçonee) one of these days, for I hear that he is daily conspiring against her, and trying to persuade Miss Seymour and her friends to accomplish her ruin. Indeed, only four days ago the said Carew and certain gentlemen of the Kings chamber sent word to the Princess to take courage, for very shortly her rival would be dismissed, the King being so tired of the said concubine that he could not bear her any longer.
Anne's fall was swift and brutal. She was arrested and tried for adultery with four men - all were sentenced to death. Did it give Nicholas any qualms that Anne and four innocent men would have to die in order to put Jane on the throne? Jane Seymour was lodged in Nicholas's house while Anne Boleyn was in the Tower, ostensibly for reasons of discretion, but every night, Henry's barge rowed down the river to visit her, torches blazing and musicians playing. Even Chapuys thought it was in poor taste.
Anne and the men charged with her were duly executed and Henry married Jane Seymour. The new queen and her supporters worked to have Princess Mary raised back to her position as heir, and to restore the dissolved monasteries. But Jane was never to have the same political influence as her predecessor. Henry shot her down fast, warning her to take heed of what had happened to the last woman who meddled in his affairs.
In 1537, Nicholas was given a grant of lands from the dissolved monasteries. Nothing is recorded of his reaction to that - did he feel any guilt at benefiting from the dissolution of the church he supported? In any case, he wasn't troubled enough to refuse the grant, it seems.
Jane Seymour gave the king his longed-for prince. Nicholas held a position of honor at Prince Edward's christening, standing by the silver font with a towel. Gertrude carried the baby.
Only a few weeks later, Nicholas's wife was one of the attendants at Jane's funeral when Jane was felled by childbed fever.
Nicholas retained the king's favor after Jane's death. He hosted Henry at Beddington in 1538. But in the latter part of the year, something happened that still confuses historians today. According to family tradition, Nicholas fell out of favor because the king was grossly insulted by something Nicholas said.
Tradition in this family reporteth, how king Henry, then at bowls, gave this knight opprobrious language, betwixt jest and earnest; to which the other returned an answer rather true than discreet, as more consulting therein his own animosity than allegiance.
The king, who in this kind would give and not take, being no good fellow in tart repartees, was so highly offended thereat, that Sir Nicholas fell from the top of his favour to the bottom of his displeasure, and was bruised 'to death thereby. This was the true cause of his execution, though in our chronicles all is scored on his complying in a plot with Henry marquis of Exeter, and Henry lord Montague.
Whether or not there's any truth to the legend that Henry's wrath was induced initially by an ill-judged remark, Nicholas soon found himself in serious trouble.
The Marquis of Exeter, Gertrude’s husband, was charged with treason. He was accused of trying to get himself named heir apparent to the throne and being in contact with Cardinal Reginald Pole, one of the king’s avowed enemies. A witness claimed that Nicholas had been among the ring of correspondents. Gertrude, who definitely had been guilty of treason, if Chapuys is to be believed, was the only one of the lot to escape.
The king explained it as such:
Exeter conspired to destroy the King and Prince and the ladies Mary and Elizabeth, and usurp the whole rule, which the said Exeter had meditated these ten years, all which things have been disclosed by Sir Geoffrey Pole, Montague's own brother, and openly proved before their faces. Moreover, after their execution it was found, by their letters, that Sir Nich. Carew was one of the chief of that faction.
Nicholas was indicted on February 14, 1539. (Edited for readability.)
Sir Nic. Carewe of Bedyngton knowing the said Marquis to be a traitor, did falsely abet the said Marquis and had conversations with him about the change of the world, and also with his own hand wrote him divers letters, and the said Marquis sent divers traitorous letters to the said Carewe which the said Carewe traitorously received, which letters they afterwards, to conceal their treason, traitorously burnt, and afterwards, knowing that the said Marquis was indicted as aforesaid, the said Carewe traitorously said these words in English, "I marvel greatly that the indictment against the lord Marquis was so secretly handled and for what purpose, for the like was never seen" contrary to his allegiance.
The evidence was flimsy at best, but that was certainly no barrier to being found guilty. And found guilty he duly was.
He was executed on the third of March on Tower Hill. A letter from John Butler claims that Nicholas exhorted the crowd to read evangelical works and said that he had been brought to this point because of hating the Gospel. Hall's Chronicle elaborates, implying that Nicholas had converted to the Reformed faith while he was in the Tower:
[H]e made a goodly confession, both of his folly and superstitious faith, giving God most hearty thanks that ever he came in the prison of the Tower, where he first savoured the life and sweetness of God’s most holy word, meaning the Bible in English, which there he read by the means of one Thomas Phelips then keeper.
Nothing more is noted about his execution, so it must have been swift and mercifully unremarkable. Some sources say that his head and body were buried in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, where Anne Boleyn's remains lay. Others state that he's buried in his family tomb in St. Botolph. Whether he was exhumed and moved there later, or was put in St. Botolph immediately, I cannot say. It could also be that he does lie in the Tower chapel and the stone in St. Botolph is a cenotaph. I have found no mention of his family vault being opened by the curious Victorians to see who rests inside.
John Strype's Survey described the tomb in 1598:
There is a fair Vault under Ground, purposely made (as appeareth) for the whole Family: Over which Vault (being in the East End of the Chancel, but leaning somewhat to the North) is a fair ancient Tomb of Alabaster ingeniously wrought, being the Figure of a Man in white Marble lying along, as in a Sleep, with a white Sheet lapt about him; only the Face, Breast and Arms naked: Having these Lines thereon,
Here lyeth Thomas Lord Darcy of the North, and some time of the Order of the Garter. Sir Nicholas Carew Knt. sometime of the Garter. Lady Elizabeth Carew, Daughter to Sir Francis Brian, Knt. And Sir Arthur Darcy Knt. younger Son to the abovenamed Lord Darcy. And Lady Mary his dear Wife, Daughter to Sir Nicholas Carew Knt. who had ten Sons and five Daughters. Here lye Charles, William and Philip, Mary and Ursula, Sons and Daughters to the said Sir Arthur, and Mary his Wife; whose Souls God take to his infinite Mercy. Amen.
Nicholas's widow, Elizabeth, was cast into poverty because of his treason attainder, which made all of his property forfeit. She wrote a pleading letter to Cromwell a week after her husband's execution.
In the most humblest wise I beseech your lordship to be good lord to me and my poor children, to be a mediator unto the king's grace for me, for my living and my children's; and that your lordship would speak to his grace, that I may enjoy that which his grace gave me, which is Bletchingly and Wallington, trusting that his grace will not give it from me. And I humbly desire your good lordship to speak a good word to his grace for me, that I may enjoy it according to his grace's grant.
And, to advertise your lordship, I have but twenty pounds more of my husband's lands, which is a small jointure; and if he had not offended the king's grace and his laws, I should have had an honest living, which should have been the third part of his lands; but now I cannot claim that, by reason that he is attainted. I trust his grace will be good to me and my poor children, to reward me with some part of it.
Also, I humbly pray your good lordship to speak to his grace to give me the lands in Sussex, which is in value six score pound and ten, to that that I have by his grace and my husband, altogether amounteth a little above three hundred marks, the which I ensure your lordship I cannot live honestly under.
All that I have had in my life hath been of his grace, and I trust that his grace will not see me lack; but whatsoever his grace or your lordship shall appoint me, I both must and will be content. I pray your lordship not to be miscontent with me for this my bold writing, to put your lordship to so great trouble and pains. And for your lordship's aid, help, and furtherance in this my suit, you bind me and my children to pray for your lordship, and to have our poor hearts and services during our lives. And thus the Holy Ghost have you in his keeping, and send you long prosperous life.
Written at Wallington, the 11th day of March, By your poor beadwoman,
The king did grant her some land, but there was no house on the property for her and the children to live in.
The three hundred marks Elizabeth says she could not live “honestly” under is worth about £62,000 today. Of course, “poverty” for a noblewoman was something quite different than ordinary people might experience, and her mother noted that in her letter when she wrote to Cromwell herself. Lady Bryan explained her daughter wasn’t used to “straight [budget] living,” and worried she might flat-out die of it.
My lord, I most humbly thank your good lordship for the great goodness you shew upon my poor daughter Carew, which bindeth me to owe you my true heart and faithful service while I live. She sendeth me word that it is the king's pleasure she shall have lands in Sussex, which is to the value of six score pounds, and somewhat above, which I heartily thank his grace and your lordship for; but, good my lord, there is never a house on it that she can lie in.
Wherefore, an it would please the king's grace, of his most gracious and charitable goodness, to let her have that his grace hath appointed now, and Blechingly, which his grace gave her without desiring of her part, which grieveth her sore to forego it. And if it will please his grace to let her have those two, to her and to her heirs males, she shall be the most bound to his grace that ever was woman; for then I trust she shall be able to live and pray for the prosperous life of his grace and all his, and you, my good lord, and somewhat to comfort her poor children withal, which hath no succour but of the king's grace and you, my good lord, most tenderly beseeching your good lordship of your goodness now to comfort two troubled hearts; for, my lord, unfeignedly you have, and shall have our true prayers and hearty service during our lives.
Alas! my lord, nothing have I to comfort her withal, as your lordship knoweth what case I am in, but only to sue to your lordship for her and hers, which I, being her mother, and she being so kind a child to me as she hath been, I cannot for pity do no less. My lord, next the king's grace, in your lordship is all our trust, or else I durst not be so bold to trouble you with these matters; beseeching you, my good lord, take no displeasure with me that I so do.
I assure your lordship she liveth not (that) can worse help herself, than she can; she hath not been used to strait living; and if (she) should now begin, I shall soon be rid of her, which would sore grieve me now in my old days; for she hath been a kind child to me in all my troubles, and glad I would be to comfort her, if it lie in my power. Beseeching Jesu, that all my trust is in, to put it in the king's grace's mind to pity her and her poor children; trusting to Jesu, through the help of your good lordship, his grace will grant her this desire.
My lord, I fear me the king's grace will think that she hath no mind to sue to his grace, nor I neither. My lord, I would fain write to his grace for her, but I will do nothing without your advice, and that I may know is your pleasure and advice, that will I do unfeignedly. I assure you, my lord, her only trust is that the king's grace will be good lord to her; beseeching you, my lord, to have my pitiful desire in your hearty remembrance; praying Jesu send your lordship as much hearty joy and comfort as your noble heart can desire.
From Hunsdon, with the ill hand of
Your true beadwoman and faithful servant,
After this, Elizabeth fades from the records. She died in 1546 and was buried with her husband in the family monument. Her son, Francis Bryan, was restored in property by Queen Mary.
As with many of the tombs of the sixteenth century, the family monument fell into disrepair and its sad state of neglect was described in 1792:
Sir Nicholas Carew was buried in the church of St. Botolph, Aldersgate, in the same tomb with Thomas lord Darcy, and others of his family. A small monument to their memory, supported by Corinthian columns, was preserved when the church was rebuilt, and is placed against the west wall of the porch. The inscription merely enumerates the persons interred there, amongst whom are Sir Nicholas Carew, K. G. his wife Elizabeth, his daughter Mary, and her husband Sir Arthur Darcy. The arms and quarterings of the Darcys and Carews are almost obliterated with white paint, which has disfigured the whole monument.
In 1889, the vicar of the church issued a circular that made its way into antiquarian magazines of the day, An Appeal to the Descendants of Lord Darcy of the North and Sir Nicholas Carew to help restore the monument and put it in a more suitable location than the church's porch.
It appears the appeals were successful, for the marble monument is now mounted in the church, stripped of any layers of offending paint, though this restoration appears to have removed all traces of the painted quarterings, as well.