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Henry Norris: I Would My Head Were Off

April 18, 2013

Henry Norris, chief gentleman of the privy chamber and groom of the stool, was (literally) one of Henry VIII’s closest confidants — the groom of the stool was the man who helped the King do his business on the commode, as well as assisting him in any other way he might require and serving as gatekeeper for people who wanted access to him. Norris, who died at about the age of fifty or fifty-five, was thus a very powerful figure, and one who was well-compensated by the King — and doubtless quite a few petitioners — for his assistance. His personal life does not seem to have been unusually exciting; certainly it featured nothing like the Duke of Suffolk’s matrimonial shell games. His first marriage (the only one, as it turned out) ended with his wife’s death in 1531, and at some point in the years following Norris seems to have contracted an engagement, or at least some sort of understanding, with Madge Shelton. It was this engagement which precipitated his fatal conversation in April of 1536, during which a recklessly aggressive Anne Boleyn taxed him with not having made any move to actually get married.

Ives summarizes their conversation thus (p. 335):

It had begun by Anne asking Norris, till then a close ally, why he was postponing his proposed marriage to her cousin, Margaret Shelton, the king’s old flame. She obviously suspected that Norris was reluctant to complete the match in view of current pressure on the Boleyns, so the noncommittal reply he made [“I would tarry awhile”] provoked Anne into a shocking imprudence. Flinging away the safety of courtly convention, she said “You look for dead men’s shoes; for if aught came to the king but good you would look to have me.” Norris’ horrified response to this totally unfair and improper shift in the basis of their relationship was to stammer that if he had any such thought, “He would his head were off,” but the queen would not let him escape. She could, she said, undo him if she wanted to. A right royal quarrel about their relationship had then ensued.

The right royal quarrel had ended with Anne realizing both how far over the line she had gone and also that there were numerous fascinated witnesses to these proceedings; she then requested that Norris go to his almoner and “swear that she was a good woman,” which he did, but the damage was done. A few days later, Henry VIII left the May Day joust in response to a message — whose exact contents are still unknown, but which seem to have been a description of Mark Smeaton’s “confession” — and Norris accompanied him. As they traveled, Henry began asking Norris for confirmation of the stories. Possibly he even offered to forgive Norris any misdeeds with the queen if he would only confess (Cavendish thought so, but of course he wasn’t on the front line while this was happening). At any rate, Norris would not confess and would not confirm, so off he went to the Tower, where Anne’s earlier remark about “dead men’s shoes” saw to it that he would never marry Madge Shelton, then or ever. On the scaffold, he said only a few words before his death, possibly to protect his children from any repercussions.

He left a good reputation behind him, and seems to have been missed — by Thomas Wyatt, at least. As he wrote in his elegy:

Ah, Norris, Norris, my tears begin to run
To think what hap did thee so lead or guide
Whereby thou hast both thee and thine undone
That is bewailed in court of every side;
In place also where thou hast never been
Both man and child doth piteously thee moan.
They say, “Alas , thou art far overseen
By thine offences to be thus dead and gone.

Cavendish’s poetical take on Norris was both less fluid and less flattering, but of course Cavendish was treating the accusations as true. If we view them more skeptically, Norris’s described refusal to accuse Anne looks more heroic than anything.

His [Henry VIII’s] most nobyll hart / lamented so my chaunce.
That of his Clemencye / he graunted me my life.
In case I wold / Without dissimulaunce.
The trouthe declare / Of his onchast wyfe.
The spotted quene / causer of all this stryfe.
But I most obstynate with hart as hard as stone
Denyed his grace / good cause therfore to mone….

But for myn offences / sythe nedes that I must die /
Ffarewell my frendes / loo hedlesse here I lye.

Norris’s appearances in Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey are more complimentary; granted, he’s usually running the King’s errands, but he does them with courtesy (unlike Brereton, whom we see briefly but long enough to get the impression that he was a complete tool). It’s Norris whom Cavendish shows us bringing Wolsey the King’s ring as a sign of continued favour (and to whom Wolsey gave his piece of the True Cross by way of thanks) and earlier, it was “Gentle Norris” who saw to it that the displaced and out of favour Wolsey had a place to stay. As Cavendish tells it, Wolsey and Campeggio were travelling to Grafton so Campeggio could take his leave of the King “before whose coming there rose in the court divers opinions that the King would not speak with my Lord Cardinal, and thereupon were laid many great wagers” (95). Campeggio, the foreign guest, was given lodging at Grafton, but Wolsey, pointedly, was not.

And by way as he was going, it was told him that he had no lodging appointed for him in the court. And therewith astonied [amazed], Sir Harry Norris, groom of the stool with the King, came unto him (but whether it was by the King’s commandment I know not) and most humbly offered him his chamber for the time, until another might somewhere be provided for him. “For, sir, I assure you,” quod he, “here is very little room in this house, scantly sufficient for the King; therefore I beseech your grace to accept mine for the season.” Whom my lord thanked for his gentle offer, and went straight to his chamber ….

While it’s hard to believe that a man who climbed so high at court was always as kindly as that incident would suggest — few people attained incomes of over £1000 per annum and immense influence by being modest and retiring — it still speaks well of him.

Fiction has largely spoken well of him too, although often he tends to fade into the background somewhat and become interchangeable with Weston and Brereton. His status as groom of the stool is rarely elaborated on — in fact, it’s often muddied by having him described as “groom of the stole”, a confusion brought about both by the variable spelling of the 16th century and later royalty’s preference for a title which sounded more dignified; something that brought to mind a noble draping of ermine over the royal shoulders, not a firsthand view of the royal waste product. But at least he gets the description of “King’s good friend” — although he usually spends so much time hanging around Weston, Norris, Brereton and Smeaton while engaged in various artistic pursuits with Anne that one wonders just how long Henry VIII had to wait to use that stool.

Sometimes, however, we see Norris actually attending on the King — more commonly in the mid-century novels which feature omniscient narration, and in which Anne does not have to be present in every scene. Sow The Tempest (1962) gives us a straight-from-Cavendish scene in which Norris brings Henry’s ring to Wolsey and is rewarded both with a piece of the True Cross and Wolsey’s fool, whom Wolsey fears will soon need other employment. In Anne Boleyn (1957) we see Norris riding with Henry near Princess Mary’s household, and Norris is the first to notice Mary standing on the parapet, hoping that her father will see her. Norris is also a little in love with Anne, a fact he hides from all except the jealous Mark Smeaton — “he had seen Norreys looking at her when he thought it was safe to do so. Norreys wasn’t snubbed and put in his place, because he was a great noble …. Smeaton hated Norreys.” Also crushing a little on Anne is the Norris of The Concubine (1963) but we see him attending on Henry while he’s about it.

Harry Norris, except on his rare off-duty times, slept in the King’s chamber. It was a custom left over from the old troubled days when a king was not safe in his bed. At each day’s end Norris, with the remote, impersonal look of a priest at a ritual, pushed his sword twice under the bed, opened every press or closet in the room, said, “All is well, Your Grace, and I wish you a good night,” and then went to his own bed, which was placed between that of the King and the door.

This Norris first sees Anne when accompanying Henry to Hever, and is startled and pleased when it turns out that Henry doesn’t manage to seduce her by the end of the visit. “We shan’t, I think, be coming to Hever any more,” he thinks “And maybe that is just as well; I might, all too easily, fall in love with her myself.” When Norris is named by Smeaton during the latter’s confession, the King is distressed — “He’s slept in my chamber, been closer than a son,” but Cromwell, already annoyed at the risks he’s been running, sees no need to make things easier on Henry for that reason.

“Closer than a son” is, however, revealing of another aspect of Norris’s fictional incarnations: despite being as old, if not older than Henry VIII in real life, the fictional Norris is almost always a fairly young man, certainly not older than Henry himself, though older than the other men who died with him. His status as a widower gets an occasional fleeting mention — “Thou knowest I am a widower,” he tells Madge Shelton in Anne Boleyn: An Original Historical Play In Five Acts (1875) but even then he doesn’t mention any children. Norris’s son gets a glancing mention in The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), when Anne announces her intention to send Henry Carey to school with the sons of Norris, Brereton and Weston; Mary is horrified at the prospect of his going to school with the children of “those sodomites,” but Norris-as-homosexual is not elaborated on further.

But although unhistorically young, he still manages to find interests outside of Anne Boleyn and re-enacting scenes from Cavendish. In Anne Boleyn (1967) it’s astronomy: “It was well-known among his friends that he was something of a star-gazer seeking ever to probe the mystery of the heavenly bodies. This was all Sir Henry needed to launch him upon his favorite theory — that in fact there were worlds other than ours probably sustaining some sentient form of life, but beyond the power of the human eye to see …” In Anne, The Rose Of Hever (1969) Norris’s chief interest is in the Dianic Cult, of which he is secretly a member. Cromwell later uses this information to blackmail him into poisoning Catherine of Aragon with arsenic, although Norris is reluctant to do so. “And if I refused?” he asks, to which Cromwell replies “There might be questions asked, about the religious beliefs you hold. But you are a good Christian, are you not? You would have nothing to fear from such an investigation.” Norris takes the hint and duly arranges Catherine’s poisoning, only to be felled himself four months later by a Cromwell who wants to make absolutely sure that no remorseful blabbing will have a chance to occur. Norris also witnesses Anne and Henry’s secret marriage, as he also does in Blood Royal (1988).

Norris’s interests sometimes extend to masques and dancing, most notably in Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012) in which he is one of the participants in the masque held by Thomas Boleyn on the theme of “Cardinal Wolsey Goes To Hell.” Specifically, Norris is the left forepaw of the enormous cat which appears to swallow Wolsey at the end, and Thomas Cromwell, who knows how to hold a grudge, pays him back for it six years later. (Conveniently, this Norris really does have an unhealthy yen for Anne, as related by a distressed Mary Shelton). When Cromwell informs a jailed Norris of this fact, Norris is as incredulous as the reader — at least, the reader who knows full well that nobody of Norris’s status would have been caught dead acting that kind of part in a masque.

Now, Norris gapes at him: “And is that why? It was a play. It was an entertainment, as you said yourself. The cardinal was dead, he could not know. And while he was alive, was I not good to him in his trouble? Did I not, when he was exiled from court, ride after him, and come to him on Putney Heath with a token in the King’s own hand?”

[Cromwell] nods. “I concede that others behaved worse. But you see, none of you behaved like Christians. You behaved like savages instead, falling on his estates and possessions.”

…. Would Norris understand it if he spelled it out? He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.

This Norris may have charges of hostile masqueing unfairly laid at his door, but at least he’s a believable, three-dimensional human being. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the ghastly Norris who oils his way through At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012), and who is presented as a moronic, vicious lech whose sole aim in life is rape Madge Shelton. “All morning since they were paired together, Henry Norris had pawed, pinched, and otherwise tried his best to touch Madge in a variety of inappropriate places. Her patience was growing thin,” we are informed, but Henry VIII has an inexplicable fondness for Norris, and so allows “Sir Norris” to become engaged to Madge and follow her around, importuning her in his “slimy voice” (“When we are wed, I will have my way,” he tells her on a typical occasion when she tells him to get his hand off her knee) and being stopped from raping her only by the heroics of the imaginary Arthur Brandon. Norris doesn’t take it well. “Heads have rolled for less!” he shrieks as he flees before Arthur’s superior swordsmanship. To say that this novel represented a wasted opportunity is to put it mildly — since the novel centers around Madge Shelton, Norris turns up virtually every page, but damned if we ever learn anything more about him than that he’s in his thirties and appears to have read Cavendish’s poetic take on George Boleyn and become determined to do him one better. Naturally, neither his first wife nor his children get so much as a mention; they might have given him a second dimension.

This is Norris’ most recent notable appearance, and with luck he has nowhere to go now but up. For the sake of his memory (and also for the sake of the fictional Madge Sheltons to whom he gets engaged) let’s hope that happens soon.

From → Brief Lives

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