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Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland: The Same May Be To My Damnation

September 5, 2012

Henry Percy was not yet Earl of Northumberland when he met Anne Boleyn, but serving in the household of Cardinal Wolsey. If it had not been for a fellow household member, George Cavendish, Percy himself would likely have been swallowed up by time as far as novelists are concerned, but thanks to Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey, Henry Percy has been forever enshrined in fiction as Anne Boleyn’s first love — often, her only love. (You can read a modernized excerpt of the story here, on the off chance that you don’t already know it). While parts of Cavendish’s account may not be completely on target, there’s no reason to suspect that the bulk of the story is not. (Timing suggests that Wolsey’s breaking off of the match had less to do with Henry’s proclivities than with furthering various political alliances, though it’s easy to see how Cavendish, writing thirty years after the event, might have telescoped events in the light of what happened afterward).

Had Percy gone on to have a reasonably happy and productive life after Anne left his, as James Butler did, it may be that his portrayals would be as abbreviated and varied as Butler’s. But Percy, unfortunate man, seems to have lived a life which was both desperately unhappy and given a few ironic twists by Fate, to the benefit of future novelists and the misery of himself.

Percy’s storyline, if we might call it that, would coincide with Anne’s three times more; once when she was nearing the height of her powers in 1530, when he was the one sent to arrest Cardinal Wolsey, and a second time in 1532, when Percy’s estranged wife petitioned for an annulment on the grounds that he had been precontracted to Anne, and Percy denied it on oath and took the Sacrament. The last time when he was summoned to be a judge at Anne’s trial. Already very ill, he collapsed either before or after the vote — accounts differ — but certainly he did not vote for acquittal. A few days before, he had been questioned again as to a possible precontract with Anne: Cromwell was looking for a way to annul her marriage to Henry, but Percy stuck to his denial. As quoted in A History of the House of Percy, it ran in part:

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.

A year after Anne’s execution, Percy, beset by financial troubles and rebellion, and in the words of William Stapleton, “ever wishing himself out of the world” died childless at the age of about thirty-five and left his property to the Crown, which eventually revived the earldom in favour of his nephew.

There’s very little here that could be improved upon by a novelist, and to their credit most of them don’t try — the naked facts are dramatic (and well-timed) enough. It’s not hard to see what made Percy appealing as a tragic stage hero, both in Vertue Betray’d (1682) and Anna Bolena (1830), in both of which he dies on the same day as Anne, as he and she are each other’s true loves and neither could survive without the other.

Drama has its own rules, and can make changes no novelist could get away with — no book that I know of goes to the length of sending Percy to the scaffold. However, Cavendish is vague enough about the circumstances of their falling in love that there’s a lot of scope for the novelist, and picturesque scenes result: Anne and Percy getting into a snowball fight (Doomed Queen Anne, 2002) dancing at a masked ball at Cardinal Wolsey’s palace (Murder Most Royal, 1949) skiving off from watching the King play tennis (Brief Gaudy Hour, 1949) and once even meeting a few years early at the Field of Cloth of Gold, where Percy is a soloist with a choir of Wolsey’s pages with “the face of an angel” and “a voice to match” who sings a solo verse of “Greensleeves”. (Mademoiselle Boleyn, 2007). In The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) Anne helps Percy write poetry by way of flirtation, teasing him by telling him he’s wasting her time — “but Henry Percy laughed and claimed that she was too stern a teacher and that talent, great talent, would out, whatever she might say.” (Afterward Mary Boleyn asks Anne if Percy is really that bad, to which Anne replies simply that “He’s no Wyatt.”)

Percy is usually painted as lively and appealing, though he sometimes tends towards extreme awkwardness — in The Boleyn Wife (2007) he’s a terrible dancer who is laughed at by everyone but Anne, who takes him under her wing and scolds the others for their cruelty, and in The Uncommon Marriage (1960) Percy confronting Wolsey is “a weakling wolfcub about to encounter a fully grown leopard” at which he “turned ashen white and capitulated with scarcely a protest.” The Percy of To Die For (2012) is also fairly lily-livered — Anne, who fell in love with him over their mutual pursuit of banned religious literature, scorns him as “a weak man” when she hears the account of his confrontation with Wolsey. It’s really interesting how the whole Percy/Wolsey confrontation can be spun — either Percy is giving way after a few token protests, or he’s battling for his life but finally surrendering after realizing that his father and Wolsey between them have the power to ruin him. The latter Percy is in evidence in Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) and The Lady In The Tower (1986) — both of these men are tough, plainspoken northerners who despise the flatteries and fripperies of court life and want to marry Anne and take her off to the wild but wholesome north of England as soon as possible.

And a few of these Lord Percys do marry her. The big open-ended question facing the fiction writer in regards to Henry Percy is the precontract: bearing in mind that a valid marriage could technically be contracted by vows and consummation, no witnesses necessary, could there really have been one? True, Percy denied it every time he was asked, and if Anne did confess to one it was during the last days of her life when an invalidated royal marriage might have been her best chance of survival. But the trouble is that all of these statements were made under extremely stressful circumstances. Percy made his first denial during the inquiry of 1532, after his wife Mary Talbot (who had long since gone home to her parents) tried to have their marriage annulled on the grounds of a precontract. Saying that there had been a precontract would have gotten Percy out of a minor disaster (his marriage) and right into a major one: Anne Boleyn was on the verge of becoming Queen, and whatever Henry VIII’s reaction might have been to a claim that she was already married, it’s highly unlikely that Percy wanted to find out. His last denial was made under very different circumstances — Cromwell, and by extension Henry VIII, would have welcomed news of a precontract in May 1536. However, Percy would not give it to them even then. Does that prove that there really was nothing between himself and Anne? Very likely, but there’s still room for doubt: Percy at this point was extremely unhappy, in very poor health, and out of sorts with the world, so to speak. He may simply have resented being dragged out once more and expected to contradict a solemn oath just because the king demanded it, he may still have been afraid of what the repercussions might be. (It’s worth remembering that Thomas Wyatt was still in the Tower, ultimate fate uncertain, when Percy wrote that letter).

The two books I’ve noted in which there are actual ceremonies or declarations of some sort are Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) and The Other Boleyn Girl. Both involve spousals followed by intercourse, and in each case Anne is convinced that now Percy’s father and Wolsey will have to give way, they’re indissolubly married! And of course, in both cases she’s wrong, and it’s her own family that forestalls her. (In the former book, she’s about to tell them they’ve slept together when she receives news that King wants to make her his mistress, and she realizes that insisting on it now would result in nothing good. In the latter, she actually tells them at one of the “family councils” which are always occurring in that book, and is shut down promptly by her father and uncle: it simply can’t happen if Wolsey and Northumberland oppose it, and if Anne presses the point she’ll be “sent to a nunnery. A closed order.” Mary Boleyn is forced to write a letter for Anne, releasing Percy from his promises.)

The thread that binds all of these different versions of Henry Percy — rabbity weakling to strong and silent northerner, singer to sonneteer to religious reformer, is that every Anne is genuinely in love with every one of them, even the Annes who are otherwise not over-endowed with generosity of feeling. Even the Anne of The Other Boleyn Girl, one of the most vicious fictional Boleyns ever to come down the pike, admits her feelings: “I am a fool to own it, but I am in a fever for his touch.” And pervading throughout every one of these books is a strong feeling that, as Anne reflects during her last days in The Concubine (1963) “None of it would have happened if they had only let her marry Henry Percy.”

Perhaps it would not have. Or perhaps Percy, short-tempered, perpetually ill, perpetually hard up for money, would have had a hard life no matter whom he married. Anne, brought up in French and Flemish courts, might not have found life in the north appealing, may in fact have had feelings for Percy other than outright love (he was, after all, heir to a considerable estate and Wolsey certainly considered him out of her league). But the possible outcome of any marriage between them could never be put to the test, and so we’re left instead with a number of different versions of Anne Boleyn, all of whom had their characters set, and sometimes hardened, by a blighted love affair with Henry Percy.

From → Brief Lives

  1. Susan Higginbotham permalink

    Thanks, I enjoyed reading about Percy in all of his different incarnations. Poor man!

    • sonetka permalink

      I know — he was one of those people who just seems snakebit by life. For all that Mary Talbot is usually portrayed as a vicious shrew, it doesn’t seem like she had a lot to work with. A novel about her could be pretty interesting, if depressing.

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